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(#3) Experiments in Graceful Non-Linear Living
broadening scope, trying things out
I got a pretty sweet deal on an airbnb near my apartment this week. It was next to a construction site and the internet was terrible and no one had booked it yet, so I got the place on one day’s notice for one week, about a hundred bucks. It was part of the experiment I’ve talked about in my previous posts, where I’m trying to gracefully fuel my creative output with exploration, curiosity, and openness to my full experience.
Specifically, this week I was toying around with the conditions I seem to work best under. I tend to get good work done when I’m able to wander around a space, talk to myself, sing, play catch with myself bouncing balls against the walls, stretch out on the floor and chant, write on big whiteboards and sketchpads, and generally pace around muttering like a psycho.
I’m very much not alone in this, from what I can tell.
this experiment was most proximally sparked by a Forte Labs article that talked about how Richard Feynman’s thinking process was astoundingly physical and imaginative, and how his written notes weren’t a “record of his thinking,” but was the thinking itself
I ran a twitter poll asking if others sensed they worked best in a similar way, and 80% of the 250 people who replied said yes
we have a cultural stereotype around this for a reason—the image of the ranting genius, pacing around his study, writing on the walls, muttering and gesturing widely while onlookers stare confused from the doorway; this is an image we have because it’s real. The best thinking often looks like this.
So I found a place where I could rant and pace, I brought over the biggest sketchpad available and a couple lacrosse balls for bouncing off the walls, and I spent 5-8 hours there every day, working on whatever there was to work on (which is kind of a lot at the moment).
It went… weird.
Day one hit with the force of revelation: the work felt so fucking good.
Ideas were sparking, I was bouncing all around the apartment, gesturing with a spoon while eating cereal, dousing myself in cold showers when ideas started drifting into ungrounded territory, chant-singing my way through knotty problems. Around 5pm, my energy dropped like a stone. I was exhausted. I’d been moving and ideating all day and everything in me was done. I took a few deep breaths, dropped into meditation, and let the work-day close itself out.
Day two, I woke up, drank my tea, and slowly realized: I had nothing to show for yesterday’s work.
A lot of good metabolizing had gone on, ideas and information had been reworked and shifted—but I hadn’t actually gotten anything down on paper or computer.
Every time I’d tried to sit down and act on an idea, the computer had felt so… small. So constrained. The movement from “pacing and jumping and gesturing around the rooms” to “sitting in a chair, putting my hands right next to each other, and working on a 13-inch screen” felt impossible. Too fine-grained—such a small experience couldn’t capture the expansiveness that I was flowing in.
So for day two, I decided I’d bring my big sketchpad, the one with pages 2 feet high and over a foot across. Maybe writing by hand on a larger surface could serve as an in-between, a bridge between the embodied expansiveness of pacing and the dissociative narrowness of the laptop.
It worked pretty well. Honestly, kudos to me for noticing this and effectively remedying it by day two. You don’t have to give me a standing ovation at home or anything, but like ,,you could tho. If you want.
Day three blended into day four blended into day five. I hit a rhythm with the work, and got a feel for what this mode of working could be like.
Graceful Working, Curious Weaving
A few things stood out.
This seems to go best when I allow the work that wants to be done to get done. I can’t make a schedule for the week and decide what tasks make progress and which ones sit on the sidelines.
This has been a larger pattern in my work for quite awhile, but this experiment made it clearer. Over and over again, I’ll feel like I want to pick a specific project and work it til it’s done—keep pushing the progress bar until it’s at 100%, and then move along to the next one and push that to 100%.
Nothing even close to that seems workable for me. What does seem to happen is that, under good conditions, my attention moves from one task to the next to the next, usually picking 3 or 4 at any given time to move between. These 3 or 4 projects will each slowly nudge forward, bit by bit (and occasionally loop backwards, as I throw out sections or entire drafts), one of them pushing towards maybe 70% done, then 73, 77… and then interest completely dissipates from that project. It sits there, hanging out at 3/4 done for what seems like forever, while I feel guilty about not finishing it.
And then, suddenly, almost miraculously—a seemingly unrelated project will spark a sudden realization: “Oh! that’s the missing element of that other project!”
Or I’ll be wiping down the counters and listening to my partner sing something from the couch, and the moment will crystallize: “I’ve got it! That’s how I connect drive and eros back into the project!”
Within the next few days, this project that had been languishing mostly-finished for a month or two is suddenly wrapped up.
Stuff like this happens often enough and reliably enough that I’m going to work on simply trusting the process. On trusting that when a project stops wanting to be worked on, it’s waiting for something—and that I’ll find what it’s waiting for by going about the rest of my life with curiosity and openness.
This does however, raise the issue of deadlines.
I’m naturally bad at deadlines, and this style of work actively mocks them. This is true.
I work better and with more drive when I have a deadline to meet. This is also true.
My main task this week was sorting out the talk I’m giving at The Stoa on Friday—my only task with a hard deadline. It was pretty hard to ignore how this sense of a deadline drove the work, guided the curiosity and openness in more directed ways than my other projects do.
Even with that extra drive though, there are downsides: often when I hit a deadline, the thing I’ve created isn’t the finished product I want. It’s an excellent starting point for further tinkering and alteration, but it’s rarely something I’m really happy with putting out into the world.
So I’m going to experiment with different types of deadlines. A couple current ideas I’m batting around:
Electional Astrology: have amateur astrologers find auspicious deadlines for me, based on the qualities of the project and the range of dates I’d like to have it done by. These deadlines feel fun and playful for me, like goals I’d really like to hit—but there are also no real repercussions to missing them.
Prototyping Accountability: I’m making a course in mythosomatic dreamwork, and rather than trying to make the whole thing alone in my office, I’m pulling together a cohort to show prototyped versions to. This adds a social element and a feedback element, and gives me weekly dates by which I must send out a version of the necessary section, regardless what state it’s in. This also seems light and fun and pretty likely to drive me towards finishing things more quickly.
(Possible downside to keep an eye on: ossification. If I run through this cohort, make good-enough versions week by week as a starting point, there’s a danger of the overall structure feeling “sticky,” resulting in me keeping a sub-optimal course structure just because I already made material for it. Look out for that, future-me.)
Those are the big deadline things for now. We’ll see how they go.
The exhaustion at the end of the first day was really nice, and it happened on one or two other days as well. It’s been rare, in my adult life, to end a workday feeling fruitfully exhausted rather than boredom-exhausted or drained-exhausted. My rest that night felt well-earned. That’s a feeling I’d like to gravitate towards.
More than once, I did get a sense of “this is nice, but I’m also still inside wandering around a room.” It felt a little cloistered, a little locked-away. I’d like to experiment more with working outside, and with doing some bits of work in more open locations. There have gotta be some workable cafe balconies around here, when the weather gets warmer.
The blur between “productivity” and “everything else” reached basically 100% this week. You may notice I changed the last word of this series from “productivity” to “living.” It’s increasingly clear there’s no way to separate it. More than once, I stepped away from writing and organizing ideas to go and clean dishes, letting my mind go clear while I focused on cleaning, scrubbing, drying, organizing,,, and that process felt inseparable from something my mind was doing, letting the ideas get scrubbed and dried and fall into place as I left them aside for ten minutes. That’s just one minor example of a pattern that’s been getting stronger for awhile now: there’s no way to separate my Vocation from my living.
One takeaway is the deadlines thing above; I’m looking forward to playing around with that more.
Another is that I’ll be consciously attempting to enjoy the process of non-linear working patterns, rather than feeling back about projects that don’t finish as quick as I’d like them to, or that want to be set aside for seemingly interminable lengths of time just as they’re on the edge of being finishable. The process tends to work as long as I maintain drive and curiosity about it, so I’ll be putting my energy towards that rather than towards the usual frustration
Which leaves the final Big Takeaway: I need office space. I’m definitely more productive and more creative when I have my own space to explore maniac working patterns. My partner and I both work from home usually, so we stay sensitive to each others’ working hours and spaces and so on—and it would be a party foul for me to start jumping in circles in the living room, chanting “MYTHO-MYTHO-MYTHOPOETIC COGNI-COGNI-COGNI-COGNITION IS THE ENGINE ENGINE ENGINE OF MIND” over and over again before dropping to the ground and loudly discussing the next section of my presentation with the ceiling.
This takeaway is a tough one.
An upside is: I’m now 90% sure that my work would go faster and be of higher quality if I had a more consistent space to do the type of work I was doing this week.
Another upside is: space would be fairly inexpensive where I live, relative to most other places in the world, I gather. I found a couple workable spaces for about $500/month.
The downside is: even that amount is a pretty big swing for me. I’d need to find the budget for it somewhere, which might put more constraints on my work than I’d really like to have at the moment. (eg- I’d have to focus on the kinds of work that are most likely to pay, and to pay quickly to continue affording the rent.)
A bit of a catch-22: I need the space to do more fluid work, but affording the space could keep me from doing more fluid work.
I could attempt to drum up more Patreon support for office space (even you, dear reader, could contribute to my experiments)
I could go for more paid Substack subscribers (the button’s down there if you want it)
I could feel out interest in a “Graceful Non-Linear Living” membership group—this is clearly going to continue being an active area of inquiry for me, and if it’s of interest to others, it would be great to have us all sharing and talking in one space.
I could… find an investor? Is that a thing I can do? Is that allowed? Anyone feel like investing in greater quality and swiftness in my work?
I could rent the place on my own, throw a hail mary, and hope to the gods that they reward my experimental boldness.
I could keep hunting out airbnb deals as they come. Much less efficient, and more hassle if I’m not able to settle into a place—but it’s more adjustable, doesn’t lock me in to spending $500/month for the next year. Still worth poking around at.
That’s about it for Experiments in Graceful Non-Linear Living this week; I’ll probably be talking about something other than productivity next time, since that original focus now accounts for only maybe 50% of my day-to-day experimentation.
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