First, See the Circle

I really enjoyed the first season of HBO’s Westworld. I’m a fan of the robots-who-might-be-conscious-vs-exploitative-humans trope in all its many incarnations, but I felt this show did a particularly good job.

The reason I liked it most was the constant uncanny valley between spontaneous and scripted behavior. Without spoiling anything, the show does a masterful job of continually tricking you into believing something is improvised before showing that it was a script all along.

While the point of these tricks are supposed to keep you uncertain about the consciousness and free will of the robot protagonists, I think the insight equally applies to how ordinary human beings are following scripts. What feels like a genuine improvisation may be a stale pattern you’ve already played out before without realizing it.

What are Your Scripts?

I often get emails about someone enthusiastic about a new goal. They write paragraphs of text on their ideas, inspirations and motivations. But, somewhere near the end, they sneak in that, actually, they’ve had a hard time following through on similar goals in the past.

But what makes this time any different?

Idea, enthusiasm, a few bursts of momentum, frustration and then quitting. A circular script they run time and time again.

Not all circles are bad. Circles underlie much of how we function. Work too hard and you’ll need a break. Break for too long and you’re itching to do something. Wake, sleep. Relax, focus. All circles.

What strikes me about the circles isn’t so much whether they’re good or bad but that we rarely see their shape. Like the Westworld androids, we can’t see our scripts even when they should be obvious. Something in our self concept obscures or censors the circularity of our actions.

I’m not sure why this appears to be so. It might be that circles persist best when unseen, so naturally the ones in our blind spots tend to last longer. It may be that our ego protects the idea of our autonomy by focusing on the idiosyncratic reasons for each cycle’s existence and ignoring their persistent shape.

A New Year, A New Circle

If you’re reading this when I wrote it (January 2017) you might be planning a New Year’s Resolution. This circle, and the ruins of continually broken resolutions, should be particularly obvious because it’s tied to an even more obvious circle of the annual calendar.

Seeing that resolutions often fail can lead to a cynical perspective. If everything fails, why try? The only people who invest in personal improvement are morons who can’t see the futility of their actions. The smart money, therefore, is on not even trying to better yourself to avoid the embarrassment.

I understand this desire, but it goes too far. Just because change is hard, and often fails, doesn’t mean it is never worthwhile. And, despite the many struggles, we do genuinely make improvements in our lives some of the time.

A better approach is not to abandon trying, but to first try to see the circle. Instead of following it, or pretending it doesn’t exist, try to see its shape. What is the pattern you follow and why? What cascade of behavior leads to a result you dislike and how can you try it again a little differently?

Seeing the circle doesn’t always free you of it. But ignoring the circle never does.

Some of My Circles

I’m not immune to circles and I frequently get caught in their swirl.

One I occasionally fall into is believing that I’ll exercise from home. I’ll be in a new location for awhile, and not have an easy option to go to the gym. So, I’ll tell myself that I’ll work out from home—push ups, sit ups, maybe go jogging.

Except I never keep it up. I exercise once or twice from home. Often for only ten minutes before I realize I hate doing this, give up early and then find excuses for every other subsequent time.

This realization isn’t a big one—it just means I need to get a gym pass somewhere convenient or I’m unlikely to exercise. But, I fall into it time and again of thinking “this time it will be different.” I convince myself that, unlike in the past, I’ll take it seriously and really work out from home, even though that was what I said the previous times too.

Some circles are more stubborn. When I was in my late teens, and I would hit it off with a girl I liked, I tended to get overly interested, scare her off, feel depressed about it and then repeat a few months later. I recognized the circle a few years before I was able to mature enough to overcome it, and it wasn’t easy.

See Your Circles

My advice for this new year is to look for your circles. Not to ignore your big goals or dreams, but just to take a step back and see the circles that ran your 2016, 2015 and before. If you see yourself starting the circle again and you don’t like where it leads, ask yourself what you could do differently that you haven’t tried before.

If you normally hesitate until the opportunity is lost—try starting small immediately. If you get consumed by big visions and burn out on the little details—try starting with getting a little brick in place before building the entire structure. If you juggle too many goals and fail to follow-through, try pursuing only one.

Your circles in life might have a quick escape, or they may take years of trial-and-error until you can break the pattern. Some circles might be so ingrained that they must be accepted instead of overcame.

But the first step is to see that they exist.

Don’t Be Busy

The most useful and counterintuitive productivity advice I was ever given was don’t be busy. Do less things. Commit to fewer responsibilities. Don’t try to fill your schedule up.

It’s strange advice because busyness is one of the things we most associate with productive people. Think of the CEO who works 100 hour workweeks or the academic who grinds non-stop to produce journal-worthy papers. Hardly lives free from busyness.

But the more I’ve tried this approach, the more I feel it is true (and that many, many of our notions about what it means to be productive are hopelessly entangled with *appearing* productive and are therefore screwed up).

Avoid Being Busy

Working hard isn’t the same as being busy. When I was working 60+ hours per week on the MIT Challenge, I was working hard, but I was never busy. I was never busy because, despite the workload, my calendar was almost always empty. If I had made lists of tasks during that time, most days would have just had one item on it—“study”.

Working hard can be exhausting, but it drains you in a different way than being busy. Being busy is draining because of mental overhead. You’re mentally juggling different goals, people, schedules, tasks. You’re squeezing in a fifteen minute lunch between two different commitments to work on two different projects.

Being busy has two major downsides:

  1. You end up sliding away from hard work which matters, and into easy work that doesn’t. Having a call with someone is easy. Penning and essay, writing code, finishing a design or learning something new is hard.
  2. Busyness breeds more busyness. A lot of busyness happens because you implicitly accepted responsibility for something. Busy people tend to accumulate responsibilities, often which have little to do with their goals.

Busyness can’t be completely controlled. Some professions and lifestyles require you to be busy. But you can almost always make changes at the margin—opting to be less busy, rather than more.

How to Not Be Busy

Busyness creeps up into your life the way messyness does into your house. Not all at once, but gradually, if you don’t attend to it.

Here’s some strategies to stop being busy:

  1. Be irresponsible. I’ve heard this strategy being employed by many successful scientists and academics (such as Richard Feynman or Amos Tversky). They feign being irresponsible and unreliable, so that people learn not to ask them to be busy.
  2. Only be busy once per week. I strive, whenever possible, to schedule all my calls, appointments and other time-fragmenting tasks on Fridays. That allows me to get everything done with and save the rest of the week relatively unscathed. It’s often unachievable, but even by trying to push things onto one day, I end up saving large chunks of my week from busyness.
  3. Be disconnected. When someone asks you for your time, it’s very hard to say no. That’s why one of the best strategies for not being busy is being difficult to reach. For some people that means not having an email address, but requiring anyone interested in communicating to mail a physical letter. For others, that can mean opting out of social media or severely curtailing it.
  4. Have fewer projects, ideally only one. Most now know the dangers of multitasking. But I believe multiprojecting can be just as bad. Having only one or two big projects on the go is a surer recipe for accomplishment than juggling dozens of conflicting priorities.
  5. Be wary of any commitment that doesn’t end. Any commitment that requires ongoing effort, however small, will quickly consume a lot of your time. Sometimes this is unavoidable (exercise, sleep, etc.), but often it is. I switched from writing 10x per week to once per week with zero impact on my traffic, subscribers or sales. Sometimes doing less really is more.
  6. Tell people you’re busy, even when you’re not. I feel this is one of those socially acceptable lies you should practice saying more often. “Sorry, I’m too busy,” is much easier to say and swallow than the truer, but less polite, “What you’re offering me isn’t important enough to merit my time.”
  7. Strive for days you’re not sure how to fill, rather than having tasks you’re not sure where to fit. You’ll know you’re successful in eliminating busyness if you look at your schedule and see large, blank swaths of time on your calendar you’re unsure what to fill with rather than dozens of tasks you’re not sure where you’ll be able to fit in.

Virtues of an Unbusy Life

My life is usually not busy. I look at my calendar and it is either blank or with one appointment on most days. That means I can sleep in if I want, take a long lunch, call a friend to chat in the middle of the day, read a book or learn something new I find interesting.

The outcome of this superficial laziness, however, has been very positive. Having large chunks of empty time necessitates filling them with something. The less busy I am, the more likely that’s going to be big, hard, important projects.

This philosophy certainly hasn’t hurt me professionally—in the last year my business grew revenue by six times, released two new courses and added new full-time employees. I was even able to squeeze in a public ultralearning project as well. I’m not sure I could have done as much if I had been busier.

Unfortunately, despite fairly unambiguous success from this strategy, the social pressure to be busy is enormous. Even I feel it, and I’ve managed to escape working in an office where seeming busy is often seen as a substitute for doing good work.

The biggest downside of the unbusy philosophy, in my experience, is that you must constantly wrestle with the socially conditioned feelings that you really should be working more, filling up every spare moment of your calendar and busying yourself with things—just like everyone else. However, if you can avoid the temptation, I think there’s great things waiting to be done by ambitious, hardworking people that choose to be less busy.