Published on 12 Feb 2023.
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I’ve always been a person who has a ton of ‘extracurriculars,’ i.e. projects and hobbies outside of work. In the second half of 2022 alone I started blocking out (another) book; I pitched a UI design course to LinkedIn Learning; I designed a bunch of tshirts and put them up for sale on Everpress; I drafted a Kickstarter campaign to screenprint 100s of recycled tote bags; I planned out a podcast on complex interface design; I spent time sketching out a narrative videogame for the Playdate; and I spent a long time daydreaming about building a hydroponic veg garden for our balcony.

And doing lots of different things used to be my main guiding principle in life. In my head, this was encapsulated in the motto: specialisation is for insects.

Keyring that says specialisation is for insects

But when it came to getting things done, I was a bit of a headless chicken. My tactic was to find some form of external accountability, which allowed me to procrastinate for as long as feasibly possible before finishing the thing off. For example, in 2021, I found myself becoming really interested in art history and where art gets its meaning from; instead of finishing reading the many books I’d bought on it, I signed up to a post-graduate diploma course. This gave me deadlines for doing the reading and writing essays — but I, of course, still left them all to the night before. And earlier, in 2020, when I wrote VANISH, I crowdfunded it before writing any of it, allowing me to have the powerful motivator of people who’d paid money and were waiting on me to deliver.

I still believe it’s valuable to have a huge breadth of diverse hobbies and interests; it allows ideas to cross-pollinate (and gives life some variety!) But I now realise this scattergun approach to getting creative projects done, and then stressing out a ton when rushing to finish in time, is unsustainable.

So — what’s my new approach?

First, let me tell you about my two main goals for 2023. The first one is: I want to keep up my habit of going to the gym (at least) twice a week. The second one is: I want to make 52 videos for my YouTube channel.

I like to think that both these goals are specific, measurable and achievable. I also think that they’re both ambitious — not because any individual instance is hard, but keeping up with the consistency is challenging.

My partner works at a mental health charity, and a few months ago said something to me which I haven’t been able to get out of my head:

We overestimate our short-term ability, but underestimate our long-term ability.

This is a fact about human nature that I’m sure I always knew, but hearing it put like this really made me dwell on it.

We overestimate our short-term ability. We think we’re capable of doing far more in a short space of time. But the reality is, life is busy! We have so many commitments, and it’s inevitable that creative deadlines will get missed or scrapped entirely.

But we underestimate our long-term ability. This is something I’ve really seen in just the last 6 weeks. Working out is something you can’t do a ton of all at once without severe physical repercussions — you have to pace yourself. But the effects quickly builds, and the changes are really noticeable.

It’s the same with filming videos for YouTube: while I suppose I could churn out a ton of videos all in one weekend, by doing one a week, I’m learning new things and slowly adjusting my workflow. Already my scripting process and my mic/camera/screen recording setup are so much better. (In week one, it took me nearly two hours of recording loads of takes with different screen recording software and webcam software, til I worked out what works for me.)

Ali Abdaal points out that these improvements will compound: even if you only get 1% better with each video, you’ll soon start seeing really big improvements, rather than by trying to bulk these all out at the same time.

So: we overestimate our short-term ability, but underestimate our long-term ability. A bit of a wordy life motto (especially compared to “specialisation is for insects”). Hence, I like to call it OSTA/ULTA.

With this in mind, it’s important to recognise the value of quantity over quality. This is best illustrated by an anecdote that I first heard from Kevin Cannon at PUSH Conference: a potter who spends time making 100 vases will end up with one that’s better quality than if they spent the same amount of time trying to just make 1 perfect vase. So, while quality is obviously important, focussing on quantity at the start of a creative journey is the way to get there.

This also explains one of my other favourite sayings: done is better than perfect. When you’re churning out 100 vases (or YouTube videos), you have to, at some point, call each one done. Even if there’s parts of it that you’re not happy with, moving it over to the done column allows you to crack on with the next one. (Kamila, if you’re reading this, hello!)

So, in summary, my new list of life mottos, in handy acronym form:

  1. SIFI: Specialisation is for insects.
  2. OSTA / ULTA: We overestimate our short-term ability, but underestimate our long-term ability.
  3. DIBTP: Done is better than perfect.

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