Mingwei Gu

writings on business, meditation, technology, markets, sci-fi, organizations

18 Nov 2020

4 Self Limiting Questions

For far too long, I’ve had trouble getting through creative work without interruption. Specifically, in the middle of work I’m doing, I’d think about the appropriate level of quality. About whether it’ll be successful. About what it means for my identity. And to my future.

My mind goes wandering. And I want to do anything but do the actual task at hand. I’d go on social media or check my email. And there goes the next half hour.

Maybe that’s why whenever I do get to do the task without thinking of those questions, I feel free and get to revel in getting the thing done.

What I’m going for is flow. What I’d love is, at the heart of it, flow states throughout the day and the week.

I do want my work to be of good quality and to be “successful” (however that’s defined) and to connect with my identity and future. But thinking of all that while doing the work is self-defeating.

Here are the questions that keep coming up for me.

Is This Any Good?

Especially for a new skill, where I don’t have a good sense of what is high quality, I’ll be asking myself this question all the time.

In this case, it’s writing. But when I first started programming or managing, I was asking myself this all the time. And a lot of times, the asking of this question while actually doing the tasks gets in the way of doing the tasks.

It’ll have to do with, will other people appreciate what I’m doing? Will they engage with it?

I think it’s appropriate to revisit the quality of your work on a periodic basis, and to come up with concrete steps for improvement. For example, while editing or reviewing code. But to constantly be asking this while doing the task is unproductive.

Will it be successful?

This is regarding the results of what I produce. Wells Baum wrote on his blog to be “impatient with action, patient with results”.

In a flow state, you have to be indifferent. Just getting the work out from your mind is more important. You can always adjust later on and iterate.

What is it for?

If I’m the one assigning myself a task, it means I haven’t done a good job of explaining what the task is and why it’s important.

But this is a job for before the task is started. So the thing to do is before I start something, I’ll write out what I’m doing and briefly why it’s important. Hopefully it’ll be enough to power me through the task without asking this question.

If it comes up during a task, I’ll convince myself the task is for itself.

Now, this presupposes tasks are small enough. So I’d say if it keeps coming up after a day or two, then to revisit whether the task makes sense for what I’m trying to accomplish.

Am I meant to be a _______? Am I a real ____?

I grapple with this a ton. It’s related to the question of “Is This Any Good?”. But this question goes deeper. Because it goes to how you define yourself.

Identities are useful. They give you a lot of shortcuts to think about things. And they give you emotional context.

However, it’s helpful for me to not think of these identities while working. Occasionally, I’ll ask myself one of these questions, and it’ll make me want to quit and do something else. E.g. I’m no good at this. I wasn’t meant to do this. I quit. Or I’m bored with this. I’m not meant to do this anymore. I quit.

These might be valid observations on a periodic basis. (And I’m not against quitting things) But in the moment they are unhelpful and will only get in the way.

Noticing Helps

When these questions come up again while working, now you have a name for them and will be more likely to notice. And that hopefully will help you produce more and get those reps in.