Existential Friday Newsletter

v56: Sometimes optionality is limiting

Maple Pods

Occasionally I surprise myself and notice a desire to simplify. It always feels a little scary. Simplicity is scary because it feels limiting. Choosing to focus on one thing, especially a creative project, means you don’t spent time on the others. My natural tendency is to veer off course and think of how 20 other things are related and how I could do those too.

If you want to get more specific, I’ve done a little math. By my calculations, I have 30-60 minutes on weekdays where I can make focused progress on creative projects. The weekends are wide open, but I probably max out at 2-4 hours of concentrated progress. We can simplify the math and say that on weekdays I have roughly 4 hours and the weekends give me another 4 for a total of 8. That number, 8 hours, is effectively my creative time budget.

Given some creative time budget, you make decisions. Time you spend painting is time you can’t spend woodworking and that’s also time you can’t make generative art. (Yes, these issues are very specific to my situation.) If you try to make progress in all areas given a limited budget, you don’t tend to make a lot of progress. Unfortunately, my natural tendency is trying to make progress on ALL projects simultaneously rather than choosing one. I like to rationalize that they’re all related somehow.

In the past few weeks, I noticed that I make more progress when I focus on one project. I know it sounds like common sense, but focusing on one thing is surprisingly hard.

Progress decreases as a function of the number of projects I work on. Additionally, attempting to focus on more than one project leads to less focus and less progress in general. My guess is that most people would notice a similar pattern.

At the same time, I don’t want to choose one thing. As soon as we make a decision to do something, and especially one thing, it feels like everything else is off the table. Maximizing optionality in life feels better. The problem with optionality is that it can lead to scattered results and limited progress. In other words, trying to focus on many things tends to minimize, rather than maximize, optionality.

Fortunately, I recently found a way to avoid the limiting feelings that come with making a decision. I make a deal with myself to focus on two activities for a set period of time. I know, I know, it’s more than one. Look, two ideas is still progress.

I was able to find focus when I came across the idea that all art should be produced as a series. A series can be 9-12 pieces of art and art can be whatever you want it to be. The deal I make with myself is to choose a series (or two) at a time and focus on that. I also write down all of the many, many other ideas so I can revisit them later. Writing down other ideas frees my head to focus on the series I’m working on.

For some reason, committing to one series for a period of time doesn’t feel as limiting. It opens up the possibility to pursue other projects later while still making progress in one direction today.


These aerial surfing pictures from Drew Doggett are beautiful.

I’m Romanian and it’s interesting to see industrial decline outside of the US.

I recommend checking out this TED Talk from Magus Walker on following your gut feeling.

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