I decided to start jotting down thoughts this evening, sort of like a diary, and bullet points seemed like the way to do it. Honestly, figuring out how to carry a thought across multiple paragraphs seemed like a chore, since I’m tired and sick, and I was mostly trying to put off sleep. A weird thing happened.
I’ve been grappling with an issue at work– I think I care about the ability to communicate effectively more than other people, and yet I feel like I struggle more with it than they do. I think the obvious explanation is probably correct: that I suffer from a form of “performance anxiety”, i.e. I want to do it really well, which means that I want to put off starting, which means it ultimately gets done rushed. This is, of course, a typical pattern for procrastinators, who occupy themselves with minor distractions because the prospect of working on something important is stressful and aversive. This is also been the case for me when preparing job applications– I know that they are important, and I fear that an error will reveal that I don’t know what I’m doing. This is stressful, and it prevents me from getting useful experience putting out job applications.
The solution, of course, is well known: I ought to give yourself permission to make a shoddy initial attempt which I then can build upon. Some sources recommend, half-seriously, that you use self deception to accomplish this: invent a second, even more urgent, more high-stakes, more anxiety producing task, so working on the first task feels like a welcome distraction. With mental Aikido, the urge to procrastinate has been suplexed into productivity!
(As an aside the short essay, How to get Things Done, by Robert Benchley, treats this idea with the humor it deserves)
Rationally, this makes no sense. Rationally, when I approach something like job applications, I want to think critically about what I know and what I don’t know, identify the unanswered questions that are causing me anxiety, and then develop a strategy for answering them, which might include trial and error, but could also include other strategies. But I suspect, in actuality, it is a mistake to start a strategy with anything other than trial and error. If left to think abstractly, the mind has a way of conjuring paper tigers. They say that no plan survives contact with the enemy, so put yourself face-to-face with the enemy– or the work–, then start developing plans.
As an aside, writing these bullet points was exciting– I felt a rush of energy, enough to carry me through the last 45 minutes polishing and organizing the ideas. Perhaps they make for a good outline for a blog post. Does this style of bullet-point writing make it easier to start the sorts of writing projects that are easy to share?
Of course (not to get too meta) writing essays has the same problem as work projects and job applications. I write about ideas all the time, but the second I consider the possibility of posting about, it becomes IMPORTANT, and therefore stressful, and therefore I don’t want to work on it. Part of me wants to devote my considerable mental strength to thinking about the purpose of my writing (i.e. what sort of writing project is useful to share?) and figure out whether I’ve been able to successfully talk about worth sharing. Is it sufficiently thoughtful, original, and well sourced? But I feel like this is my mind conjuring a paper tiger. Understanding the purpose of writing comes after I start sharing it, not before.
The way to understand the impact is to share and then to gauge reactions from the people with the patience to read it and talk about it with me, and iterate accordingly. The text above has undergone some amount of editing, mostly for flow and concision and transforming bullets into paragraphs, but it has been build upon the unstructured thoughts I had at 1:00AM. I decided to share it (which, I suppose from your perspective, is something of a foregone conclusion), but I nevertheless appreciate your having read it. Consider it an experiment.
For the next experiment, I hope to discover whether this approach to writing can produce something less meta. I do want this blog to occasionally be about something other than blogging.
But for now, I have put off sleep long enough.