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This was mercifully shorter than the Cal Newport book. That's about all I can say for it.

Ivan Sutherland had the secret, and it only took one paragraph to share it:

'I used to hate washing dishes. I would delay as long as possible. Eyeing the daunting pile of dishes, I would say to myself, “I'll be here forever at this dumb task.” The enormity of the task deterred me from starting. I still dislike washing dishes, but I now get the dishes done promptly because I learned a simple procedure for doing the job from my wife's uncle. The procedure starts out “Wash first dish...” I have a similar procedure for starting travel vouchers, it goes “Record first expense...”'

edit: his rationale was equally short and sweet:

'Each of my little procedures embodies two different aids to getting started. By invoking a familiar procedure I reduce my need for courage. By breaking the task into smaller tasks through emphasizing that only the first dish need be washed or the first expense need be recorded, I reduce my estimate of risk. Both mechanisms work. These sources of courage are sometimes called “discipline,” especially when being taught to the young. Discipline relies on a practiced use of routine subgoals to avoid defeat by fear. Its highest form comes when the Lieutenant, charging up a heavily defended hill, says, “Follow me men!”—and they do.'

In college a friend of mine gave me a book on Zen Buddhism once as a joke more or less. I read it cover to cover, what you describe is very zen ( well it is as much as it isn't I suppose ;) ).

When i was reading that book i was in college and I remember dreading and dreading studying for a particular boring class. I was miserable thinking about it and then it just sort of dawned on me, i got up and went to the library and studied.

It's hard to put in words but you only dread these dreary tasks when you're dreading them.

The GTD book gets into this very directly. It talks a lot about the principal borrowed from martial arts of having a "mind like water." When a pebble disturbs the water, the water responds instantly with exactly the right amount of force and then returns to stillness. GTD is big on the idea of responding to emails, ideas, projects, new work items, etc, with exactly the right amount of response and then letting the problem slip out of your mind once you're confident that the thing to be done is filed and therefore will get done.

The trick to making the whole thing work is that you need to have confidence that, once something is on the list, it will get done. That's what allows you to stop fretting about the stuff on the list. But to get that confidence, you need to regularly do the stuff on the list.

"you only dread these dreary tasks when you're dreading them"

That is remarkably insightful and memorable. Thanks!

Do you remember the name of the book?

Not the OP but The Wisdom Of Insecurity by Alan Watts is a total life changer in my experience.

Yes, Alan Watts comes to mind in the context of Zen and dish washing :)


I looked and looked but couldn't find it online. it was just called Zen Buddhism but the author had a very western name. The book had a pretty big impact on me but not in a religious or hooky "one with the cosmos" sort of way. More like it just sort of clicked with me, which is as good a description of the concept as any really. I may still have the book somewhere, if I find I'll post it here.

Just seconding my interest in the book, if you manage to find it. Perhaps you could ask your friend if he remembers?

There is a second step to this: 'You can stop if you want to.'

Just washing one plate does not mean I have to wash all of them. Stopping after only half of them is acceptable and preferable to not starting. So I can pick up and wash one without worrying about the full task.

A similar trick works for avoiding sugary treats: don't strongly oppose this desire - instead say to yourself you can eat it at a later time and move your mind to something else.

(When you finally eat whatever it was you so much desired, you didn't really fail, because you are only consuming 1 unit for those 3/5/whatever days, instead of one every day...)

The cafe where I buy my lunchtime salad also sells a range of excellent cakes, which are very tempting. I've learned to tell myself that I only need to exercise self-control (and not buy a cake) while I'm in the queue to be served. It sounds obvious, but consciously reminding myself that the situation I'm trying to avoid is time-limited is a great help.

Hah, until you cave and get back in the queue ;)

Sorry, projecting a bit. I have absolutely zero discipline when it comes to cake.

I use this trick when I want to buy something online which I don't absolutely need. I'll add it to a wish list on Amazon (or even put it in my cart) and then leave the site. When I come back a few days or weeks later, I often find myself asking why I ever wanted that thing in the first place and remove it.

The same approach works for unimportant tasks/ideas as well. Put them on a list, and if after a few days you don't care about them anymore, just delete them and be happy that you didn't waste your time on that.

This is actually my entire approach to spending. It got started when I was a kid or teen. When you want that stupid frivolous pair of $150 sunglasses but can't afford them, you can't help but put it off. If, at some point in the future, you have the money (or close to it) and you've been thinking about the same stupid thing for a year or two, maybe it's not so stupid! Or at least maybe it's worth splurging to make yourself happy. It would seem that postponing a purchase accomplishes nothing, but actually, sometimes you end up not making the purchase at all. And if you do, you're more satisfied by it, and have gone a longer time between satisfying those spending urges, and you spend less per year. The times when I say "ah, I'm just gonna have to buy all this stuff eventually, might as well just do it all at once" are sure to be the most wasteful.

Added benefit: sometimes when you leave a site with something still in your cart, the site will later email you to tell you that the item is on sale.

An AFK analogue that I’m fond of is taking a photo of the box with the price visible. Unfailingly I see the photo days later and have the same puzzled thought.

But can you leave your friends behind cause they don't stop and if they don't stop they're no friends of mine?

The beauty of telling yourself "I can stop" comes in when you're really just lying to yourself to reduce the barrier of the first dish. "Oh, I'll just do a couple and then stop. Well I only have a few left..."

I am not quite sure but are you talking about something other than dishes? :)

The first paragraph is a reference to this gem from the 80's called "Safety Dance"


You can dish if you want to

Works great for exercise too: "just run for five minutes, then see how you feel", "just do the warm-up sets". Even if you stop, it's better than vegging on the couch.

Tell that to my wife/boss/whomever is depending on me getting the whole job done.

Personally I used the same approach to start running: “just lace the shoes”. After you finish this, you are almost running.

This works very well for me. The trick is put the gym clothes without thinking about your feelings and thoughts. Then proceed to walk out the door with the same attitude, supressing the internal chatter..

Would you say one should just do it?

This is exactly how I've done every insane, amazing, stupid, disgusting, crazy, dangerous, phenomenal thing in my entire life. From eating balut to asking my wife out to maneuvering under fire.

Please describe the balut, and if you'd recommend the experience.

I ate it right out of the shell deep in the Filipino jungle. I knew for years what it was and had preconceived notions. Besides the texture of certain parts I could identify while chewing (e.g. feet, beak), it really just honestly tasted like a kind of hard-boiled egg. If I didn't know what I was eating, I wouldn't have second-guessed it at all. I do recommend it, for the adventure. The Filipino guys that gave it to me said it gives you a big burst of energy, and I thought they were full of it, but indeed, it gave me a kind of heady feeling. I think that just might have been getting a ton of calories all at once?

I absolutely recommend it if you get the chance. The age of the egg is important. A day or 2 either way can make all the difference so make sure you try it with someone who knows who they are doing. The richer hard boiled egg description is pretty spot on.

A richer hard boiled egg with some texture. I liked it a lot. Ate it with a spoon and some sort of sauce. It was definitely different. Would probably do again.

That's way too hard, it doesn't work. The trick is to just start doing it.

No, that is far too active and directed,

just live the natural and inevitable path

toward a future where it has happened.

like water flowing to the sea

Haha! that´s genius. Could technically be applied to lots of unpleasant tasks. I sometimes have difficulties with getting out of bed in the morning. Might a "just stand up" help with that problem? I will test that tomorrow.

I'm an expert at getting out of bed, walking across the room to snooze the alarm, walking back, and getting back in bed. Sometimes for hours!

That said, I sort of rely on this process where each time I wake up I'm slightly less likely to fall back asleep. Sometimes I grab my phone and figure I'll just look at a few things while I lounge in bed, and within a minute or two my brain is awake and I realize I'm past the hump and may as well just get up. Whereas when I'm less alert, falling back asleep seems FAR easier than just getting up.

I find there's something you can do even before standing up that helps get you closer to your goal of getting out of bed. If you stretch a bit while still in bed it gets your blood running and gives you the 'kick' you need. Feels good and requires no effort.

I eventually improved that by reframing the problem. I found I really don't have difficulty getting out of bed, unless I went to sleep far too late. Got somewhat better at that (but not much).

I might test that today!

Somebody [else] has a hacker news first thing in the morning habit...

For me it’s “just take off the covers”.

That works for you? Haha! I think I´d just keep sleeping after that. Although it does get colder once the sheets are gone.

I also use the thought: "I have to have a shower anyway, so why not go for a run first".

I searched for the quote and did find it in "Technology and Courage", by Ivan Sutherland (https://www.seas.harvard.edu/profdev/spring09/TechnologyCour...). It's a very interesting reading, sometimes quite illuminating things are hidden among other, more common, things.. Thanks for the quotation!

I think you meant David Allen, rather than Cal Newport.

Cal Newport seems to think GTD is flawed because it doesn't help you prioritize meaningful work: http://calnewport.com/blog/2012/12/21/getting-unremarkable-t...

Nope. I meant Cal Newport. After reading "Deep Work," I gained a new insight into why hametz is forbidden on Passover.

As much as I respect Mr Newport, a lot of books like his could be one long form blog post (or paragraph!) instead of a 200~ page book.

This is true, however he is trying to explain the idea to multiple people, so he's explaining his ideas in multiple ways.

So no, it could not be a long form blog post.

Is the idea that complicated? Can it not clearly and concisely be explained in a way that makes sense to a large audience? We see more complex ideas explained more concisely all the time.

It's not just Cal Newport, it's self-help and productivity authors in general. They have an idea, and then they repeat it over and over again until they have a book.

Maybe the repetition benefits the reader. Maybe it's easier to internalize an idea when it is hammered into your skull. Or maybe books are just more profitable than blog posts.

I find this even in well-respected and oft-recommended but relatively light non-fic outside the self help genre. Sagan's A Demon Haunted World and Cialdini's Influence both struck me as being twice as long as they had any reason to be, but they're nigh-classics in certain circles. It makes me reluctant to read non-fic, which tends either to be very specialized and ultra-dense (i.e. beyond my reach with a reasonable time investment) or fluffy trash.

However, better small-scale (paragraph to paragraph) structure of the text and somewhat higher info-density, or simply being more entertainingly-written, can go a long way. See Graeber's Debt for the former and Fussell's Class for the latter.

It's not just exposition, it's rhetoric. Self-help books take a lot of words because they're exhorting you to an ideology, not just explaining things.

You just reminded me of a song from one of my favorite childhood shows... "Put One Foot in Front of the Other" from a stop-motion film titled "Santa Claus is comin' to Town".

Put one foot in front of the other

And soon you'll be walking 'cross the floor.

You put one foot in front of the other

And soon you'll be walking out the door.

This was a mantra both my brothers used while going through Marine Corps bootcamp. You don't have to get to the end of the 50-mile-hike. Just take one more step. I always remember this when facing my own seemingly impossible tasks. Mental or physical.

I do something similar when running. When I feel like stopping and walking the rest of the route I'll pick a landmark up ahead, like a telephone pole or a mailbox, and say to myself, "I'll just run to that." Once I get to the landmark though, I feel I can still go on a bit so I pick another landmark up ahead that I'll run to. And so on.

You can also follow a structured procrastination approach to dishes:

Identify the dish you dread washing; the dirty pot with baked on grime.

Wash the all other dishes in an effort to avoid the disgusting pot.

Throw out the pot.

a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (c) Laozi

Ha! Love it!

Thanks for sharing - this is a wonderfully succinct way to say something I've been trying to model my "to-do" process around for years now. I have spend more time than it's worth switching between to-do apps and processes; I've used calendars, notepads, all sorts of things. Finally, and recently, I've come to the conclusion that at the end of the day, you've got to just do the thing that is bothering you the most, and keep a record of the things that are also bothering you. Beyond that, it doesn't really matter how you keep track of what needs be done, just so long as you take the first step on something.

> Its highest form comes when the Lieutenant, charging up a heavily defended hill, says, “Follow me men!”—and they do.

That doesn't really endear me to the concept...

Had the same feeling on that part.

I give Sutherland the benefit of the doubt on that one though. He's closer to the WWII generation than the kill-brown-people for "reasons" generations that came before and after.

I used this numerous times. It works often but not always.

That´s interesting. In which case hasn´t it helped you? I mean, breaking up tasks into smaller pieces does make the "big task" way more manageable.

I was mostly commenting on the start slow and simple and get going.

Sometimes having a low entry barrier and then have some inertia in the activity does create a good rhythm/regular schedule. But sometimes I just give up.

Other times what I need is some god damn good old drive to start rolling up my sleeve and get done with that pile of whatever.

So yes in theory, breaking things down is good, but it's not always the determining factor. I hope it's a bit clearer.

Yeah, true! I see your point now! I guess the determining factor is a mix of motivation and drive combined with "getting started". Breaking tasks up into smaller tasks doesn´t really do anything if you have no motivation and don´t get started.

Sometimes I think we should have resistance training. Just to get used to slightly unpleasant things, done a dozen times.

There's a book called "The War of Art" that addresses exactly that: "resistance"

oh what a surprise, thanks

It's great. I highly recommend it.

Would definitely benefit the motivational factor a lot. In fact, people nowadays would describe most tasks as "unpleasant". "Necessary" or "has to be done" are often categorized as unpleasant.

Yeah, sometimes a task is so boring or unpleasant to me or I'm so unmotivated that I'll do the first step and then just give up.

Other times, I don't even have to break the project down into steps. I just dive into it and crank it out, thoroughly enjoying the productivity I'm experiencing.

Cal Newport wrote the book "Deep Work". David Allen wrote "Getting Things Done". Do you mean David Allen instead of Cal Newport?

See reply to danial

Just read reply. I'm confused then because both books are about different things. I guess we could also say it was "mercifully shorter than Leo Tolstoy's book".

In specifics, different. In general, the same. Both are ultimately productivity books.

The difficulty lies in identifying that first dish or in having to keep too many plates spinning because their tasks depends on someone else.

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