Monday, October 5, 2009

Not done is nothing

I have a problem. I'll start personal projects, get to the point where I am satisfied that I could finish it, then don't. Sometimes it takes quite a bit of work to get there. For instance consider this explanation of the Kelly criterion for optimal betting patterns. I did quite a bit of work on it, created a calculator that could be useful. In addition I began a library to let me do basic differential calculus and linear algebra in JavaScript, and worked out exactly how to build numerical approximations of optimal betting patterns. Then I got distracted.

I began this blog. Then I got distracted. OK, it is the nature of blogs to never be done, and I certainly couldn't keep up the pace I started with, but I still could have done more.

The side project I now spend time thinking about is a design for a web development platform that I think would be really powerful. It could be a revolutionary way to work..if it ever gets completed.

I have no shortage of excuses. I have very little time for any side project once you subtract working full time, helping my ex-employer on the side, and taking care of my young children. I am interested in a large variety of things, and so have no shortage of distractions. Furthermore I really do constantly learn new stuff.

None of this is to say that I can't finish things. I am great at finishing things when I have an external reason to. I finish things for my employer all the time. I put a lot of work into my Effective A/B Testing tutorial, and a lot of people have been happy with the result.

However when I am doing something out of personal interest, I lose interest once I've completely learned how to do it. And as a result nobody else benefits from my efforts.

In short, I'm pretty much the opposite of being a member of The Cult of Done. :-(


zby said...

I am curious did you post somewhere an initial draft for that web development platform?

Ben Tilly said...

I have not posted an initial design draft anywhere. I did discuss it with some friends I respect and got positive responses. My current design addresses the weaknesses that they found.

Currently I have a complete design in my head, and I've begun coding it. Albeit slowly because I don't have much time to spend on it. At my current rate I should have something to show in a couple of months.

If I abandon this I'll be sure to create a design document and put it up somewhere in case anyone else wants to finish it. However in this case I'd have to produce something useful to other people before I get to the point where I begin implementing the things I want to do that I don't know how to, so there is a good chance that I'll actually produce something.

zby said...

OK - then just tell us - will it be in Perl? :)

Nils von Barth said...

“Not done is inevitable”

This post resonates with me – once I see how something can be done, and prove to myself that I can do it, I too may often abandon it.

I’ve a few thoughts, beyond the obvious “focus and finish”: enjoy your doodling, abandon earlier, and share on wikis. In detail:

Firstly, I would consider this more kindly – a “proof-of-concept” execution is like an artist’s sketch, and while it may be a start of a finished work, it may also be a carefully worked doodle: there is certainly fun, and some value, in working something out even if nothing comes of it, as you note. So give yourself a break!

Secondly, one issue is that your time is limited and that these half-finished projects are a serious drain. To reduce the time drain, abandon projects earlier! Simply, be satisfied or distracted earlier, without spending such time filling in details that will never be completed to your satisfaction. Cut your losses!

Thirdly, may I encourage you to contribute more to wikis? Your (very nice) explanation of the Kelly criterion would make a wonderful (section of) a Wikibook (right here, say), and one of the reasons wikis work so well is because they combine different spurts of effort – some-one else can pick up and build from your abandoned work. Help us build together!

More fundamentally, you’re noting a conflict between what you find emotionally fulfilling (your id: learning, figuring things out), and what you find rationally fulfilling (your superego: accomplishing, benefiting others). This emotional conflict, not poor task-management, is the root issue, and might be reconciled or managed.

Lastly, might I counsel some Japanese philosophy, specifically the aesthetic of wabi-sabi? All that exists is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, and this shouldn’t be a source of sadness – rather one may feel a warm melancholy at the inevitable flaws and loose ends of one’s works.

Thanks again for your thoughtful and provocative post.