Theresa O’Connor

Responsibility, Accomplishment, and Happiness (or, A Moratorium on Commitments)

Soundtrack: “As If Your Life Depended On It,” Juliana Hatfield (on Please Do Not Disturb).

I often have this seemingly contradictory experience: on the one hand, I find myself constantly busy, always working on one thing or another, but on the other hand, it seems like I never get anything done. Since there are a lot of things that I work on but don’t finish, I get the impression that I haven’t accomplished much. And yet, at the same time, I can look back and see that, in fact, I did get a lot of cool things done, so this impression is somehow flawed.

There’s no way I could possibly justify going to Denny’s. How can I resist?

— Curtis

One trait of mine that definitely plays a part in this is that I have a huge amount of trouble resisting doing stuff that sounds worth doing. Now, why should this be a problem? Doing stuff that’s worth doing is a good thing, ne? Well, yes, all other things being equal, doing cool stuff is a good thing. But you only have a certain amount of time in which to do all of the stuff you want to do. Each task demands a chunk of your time, if it is to be done well.

So part of the problem is that I end up committing myself to several more tasks than I can reasonably fit into the time I have available. So when push comes to shove, and I need to finish n hours of work in m hours (where m is significantly less than n), one of two things typically happens:

One key problem of the first one is that I reach this part of the pattern way past the point where dropping the project is acceptable. So, more often than not, I go with the second one. The major result of this is that I am continually dissatisfied with my work.

So the next tantalizing project comes along, and I think “I’ll do an extra-good job on this one and it’ll be all good.” And so the cycle begins anew.

The classic recent example of the bad that comes from this process is the paper that I recently wrote for Enlightenment’s upcoming online conference. This is a bad paper that ended up being really, really late (it should have been done on 15 October 2000, but it ended up being done for New Year’s).

I committed myself to write the paper over the summer, and rightly figured that I had plenty of time in which to do a good job on it. I did a lot of thinking about it then, but didn’t do any writing. I returned to school and spent the month of September re-acclimating myself to life here. Now, September was the optimum time for me to work on this paper, as the ideas were fresh and September comes before October on the calendar, but I was too busy doing all sorts of other things, figuring that I still had plenty of time.

1 October came, and I realized that I now had two weeks in which to write the paper. Of course, I had squandered the relatively-light month of September, and was left with the much-more-academically-intensive two-week period before Fall break. I had all sorts of issues working on the paper in what time I could scrounge up for it, and as you already know, it didn’t get done by the due date.

Carolyn gave everyone writing for the conference an unofficial extension, an extension for which I was very grateful. Unfortunately, I was now in the stretch in-between Fall break and the end of Fall term, and school was really bearing down. During this time, I restarted the paper from scratch several times, but each time I had a really hard time writing it. Combine this with my more demanding academic load and all the other stuff going on. It wasn’t pretty.

This story basically continues until I adopted Carolyn’s note-card system for writing, which rescued this paper from vapor-ware to terrible, but existing. I don’t consider this to be an indictment of her paper-writing strategy; indeed, if it weren’t for the note-cards, I would never have been able to come up with as much organization as I did.

I think the only way I’ll be able to break this cycle is by strictly limiting the number of things that I’m juggling at a time. This will enable me to actually finish what I’ve started, and to do so with much more time left over.

So, as of right now, I am instituting a moratorium on new projects. As my current ones are completed, demands on my time will decrease. This moratorium will continue until the end of Winter term. By that point, I am hoping that I will have a fairly minimal set of existing commitments.

From there, my major commitment is to successfully complete Spring term and to graduate. Spring term carries with it the host of sub-commitments that academic terms always seem to possess, but that’s OK, because I’ll have more than enough time to tackle them with, assuming all goes as planned.

There are two key components to following this strategy: commitment minimization and commitment return. It’s not enough to minimize outstanding commitments, so as to more effectively complete them. Each project that I commit myself to must be that much cooler or more rewarding than the other projects available to me. So I’m trying to model commitment decision-making as a 0-1 knapsack problem, with added constraints that take into account limited time availability.

When I look back on my recent history, I immediately think of a good example of me almost pulling this off: this past summer. I had a fairly minimal set of commitments (work at Bomis, get to know the San Diego crew better, and that’s about it), was able to meet them to great satisfaction (had all sorts of fun at Bomis, met and got to know several really fantastic people, etc.), and was even able to complete some long-standing goals (learning to ride a bike, integrating a nonzero amount of exercise into my daily routine, reading Design Patterns, etc.).

I think this is a major part in why I found this summer to be so satisfying and invigorating.

Let’s see if I can pull this off.

Behold the turtle. He only makes progress when he sticks his neck out.

— James Conant