The gap

28 July 2015
28 Jul 2015
West Lafayette, IN
7 mins

As I’ve talked about countless times before, I live and die by my to-do list. And to nobody’s surprise, my to-do lists each day are populated with items and sub-items, scheduled tasks and task that are prioritized by colors and tags, mostly focusing on the “maker” part of my life.

You see, for the past year or so, I’ve been on a sprint down an alley, if I may envoke a metaphor here, without ever looking back or looking around. And I’m okay with that lifestyle – happy, even. I’ve been spending my days thinking up new ideas and executing them. I’ve learned to code relatively well – enough to make myself a few websites and apps for personal use. I’ve learned some useful skills in video production and graphic design, a necessity for designing logos and having a presence on YouTube. In the last three hundred and some days, I’ve shared websites, sold custom-designed shirts, written songs, made video blogs, journaled daily, built and broken computers, and a thousand other new things I’d never imagined myself doing just several years before. But what do you know? Nobody can predict the future, and that’s what made it exciting.

But for those last few months, my days were spent almost exclusively creating, in the world of making new things. I’d have more projects on my calendar than I could count on both my hands and feet, get another idea in the shower, and write it down, to begin a few days later. I’d been piling up ideas and things to do without really getting rid of any, because I was coming up with a lot more stuff to do than I was finishing or quitting. Needless to say, my to-do’s got bloated pretty quickly, and that had its own share of side effects.

Don’t get me wrong. Making new things and being able to work on strange, probably-not-going-to-work ideas is great. And the satisfaction when you do see that the idea works well is worth all the time and effort. And honestly, I probably could have gone for a bit longer. But a few things made me realize there were some changes that needed to take place.

First, as I got involved in more and more personal projects, it became downright impossible to focus fully on any one of them, always hopping between one and the other every few hours and multitasking constantly to push all of them forward. Ultimately, by trying to focus on a growing number of exciting things, I lost focus on all of them, and the excitement wore off too quickly for my multitasking, hyperactive mind to catch up.

Around the beginning of junior high, I was obsessed with mathematical physics. I’m still interested, but to a far lesser degree, not to mention having too many time constraints to work on physics too much. But back then, having more time and less to be devoted to, I frequently spent entire days and nights tied to a single problem or question, reading books all day or scribbling out equations for hours on end. Because I had a single focus, I could be fully dedicated to it with all the focus that I needed, not distracted or pulled aside by a busy schedule and a thousand other projects hanging on by my side. And while having a variety of projects to work on is exciting, I also missed when I was able to be devoted so much to a single problem, a single project, for hours and days without worrying about the things I was missing out on.

As the number of projects and involvements grew, small projects that I’d anticipated to be complete in a few days got postponed and spread out over time until they were taking weeks and months just to see progress, and with limited time and a still-growing number of projects, that trend had to end.

But when you don’t see progress or completion of projects, it’s not just the productivity that wears off – the novelty’s gone, too, quickly replaced by a sense of obligation. No thanks.

The problem here, in the status quo, wasn’t that I was doing something I didn’t enjoy or that I was forced to do something by someone else – these projects and to-do’s were self-imposed, created because I loved making websites, editing video, and coming up with original ideas. I still do. But I planned based on the false assumption that my time was infinitely scalable and my excitement and the projects’ novelties were undepletable resources.

I was wrong.

I had piled projects on top of commitments without really looking back, and as cliche as it may sound, when I finally took a look back, it felt like I’d piled those obligations on top of my back, into a mountain I couldn’t escape. And instead of making me feel excited to work on new website ideas and video projects, they were taking away my time. Ideas that felt exciting at the time no longer did, and I felt stressed by the things I’d devoted myself to for some lighthearted fun and enjoyment.

It wasn’t the most pleasant decision I’ve made, and you can be sure I did it with regret and a heavy sigh, but I cut the number of projects I work on to at least a third of the original number, if not even less. My to-do list went from having close to 50 projects to having less than 20, and ultimately, that dramatically cut the number of tasks I had to complete each day. Refreshing.

When you work on anything for so long, you grow attached to what you’ve done. Not out of any sense of narcissistic self-admiration or anything like that; I just didn’t enjoy putting away and “retiring” the hundreds of lines of code I’d written for unfinished apps, the hours of work I’d put into logo and asset designs for different apps and projects. Some of them I would still willingly work on – if I didn’t have other things to do with that time.

The projects and work I put away today aren’t really gone, at least not in a permanent way. They’re still safely stored in a folder on my desktop called “retired”, and I can still open them up and peek at the logos and lines of HTML that would seldom again be loaded into a web browser or grace the pixels of a user’s display. For the last year, these projects were a huge part of my life. They were my identity, my source of confidence, my hobby, my stress relief, and even what I might want to pursue in the future more seriously. But I became to tied to these projects that I couldn’t really choose anymore what I wanted to do, and that made me uncomfortable. So the decision is made. I turned the last page on that chapter of my life, I won’t be coming back to those projects for a long time.

Leaving the odd code-nostalgia behind, though, there’s an odd sense of freedom. I imagine it’s the feeling of throwing all your textbooks out your dorm room window after the last semester final exam of college, or the sense of freedom of leaving your employer on the last day of your job for a long, extended vacation. I don’t feel as pressured or stressed by the things I’ve set out to do anymore. I’m back in control. And I can let go of any of them if I feel the need to do so. And as sad as it is to metaphorically throw hours of work down the drain, man, it feels good.

Leaving behind a whole lot of baggage makes quite a bit of room for some extra activities.

It’s the feeling of moving into a new apartment – my calendar looks downright empty compared to what it was yesterday, and what’s left of the mess that it was are the things that I’ve decided I really do enjoy – the blog, a few websites, some last-minute projects I can finish up in a few days, and so on. But after that mess was cleared out, there’s a lot of that new apartment space to fill. I have no doubt they’ll be full pretty soon, especially with school coming up, but in the meantime, I want to take a different direction, not unlike a gap year of sorts, away from my busy schedule. Spend some more time reading books, writing, and just enjoying that intermediate void of having nothing to do, and thus an infinite number of futures to consider.

The filter of authenticity

Once upon a time

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