Constants and Variables

They’re a million million worlds. All different and all similar. Constants and variables. -Elizabeth, Bioshock Infinite

A lesson I learned early in my career as a programmer was to be wary of accidental creativity. If you’re the type of person who really cares about getting the details right, it’s critical to first decide which details truly matter. Not doing so is a recipe for endless frustration, as one will inevitably be distracted and defeated each day — sweating more arbitrary decisions than meaningful ones.

There is a bunch of prior art on this point, from studies on the paradox of choice to cognitive depletion and even Steve Jobs turtleneck lore. It’s pretty intuitive, after all, that eliminating routine decisions should free up energy for our brains to do other (presumably more valuable) things. However, we tend not to see many interesting examples of the types of constants people set for themselves. And even more importantly, there is rarely discussion on the aspects of our lives that people might intentionally keep variable.

I guess I’ll go first.


Constants

Here are a bunch of examples of things in my life that I’ve decided to keep uninteresting:

  • When reading a restaurant menu, I’ll tend to choose the more unusual of any two offerings. Any place that sells pizza is obligated to offer pepperoni, regardless of whether theirs is any good. Meanwhile, it’d only make sense that they’d offer a potato crisp and taleggio cheese pizza if it was somehow great
  • I own about twenty of the same $5.95 basic H&M shirt, thirty identical pairs of white socks, the same type of New Balance sneakers I’ve worn for 15 years, and a few pairs of jeans; I’ve also given up any hope of styling my receding hair. I spend approximately thirty seconds per day thinking about my appearance.
  • When I can afford it, I always keep one of each category of the latest Apple devices. The convenience of ecosystem lock-in eliminates a lot of useless friction, plus their hardware retains its resell value so well that I usually only spend 15% to upgrade to the latest device. Frequent upgrades also help guard against overly-customized configurations.
  • My parents blessed me with a set of genes that will see me constantly gain weight unless I pay close attention to it. To counteract my nature, I force myself to run exactly 20 minutes at 8 miles per hour on a treadmill every day (with only one or two exceptions per year). I also don’t eat until the sun sets each day, meaning I skip breakfast, lunch, and daytime snacking. (Ask me anything.)
  • When choosing between visiting any two points of interest, I’ll default to the one I haven’t tried yet or the one I’ve been to least recently.
  • Whenever I buy a videogame, I give myself express permission to declare bankruptcy on the backlog of hundreds of unfinished games I’ve bought previously. Life’s stressful enough without spending my free time being mired in guilt over sunk entertainment costs.
  • When packing for a trip, if I’m not sure whether I’ll need something, I simply don’t bring it. I’d rather be mildly inconvenienced by not having something than find myself lugging around things I don’t need. Besides, in most countries, I can buy whatever it is I’d be missing when I get there.
  • Speaking of travel, I always use the same bag (a 46L Osprey Porter), no matter how many days or weeks I’ll be away. I always carry it on, too; checking a bag wastes time and risks loss on both ends, and I never want to possess more than I can comfortably carry.
  • When comparing two similar places to stay or live, I always pick the newer building. Old buildings are generally annoyance factories, while new ones are typically more convenient. Besides, I’ll have moved on before the shoddiness of modern construction causes the building to crumble around me.
  • As much as I’d rather be at home watching Netflix or playing video games, when someone asks me to travel somewhere to speak to an audience, I default to saying yes. Todd and I try to verify it’ll be worth my and the company’s time, but it’s hard not to see that innumerable good outcomes in my life have been the direct result of becoming comfortable with the discomfort of travelling.

Variables

The rigidity of the above constants buys me some extra mental energy every day. So, how do I spend it? And what aspects of my life are at risk of incidental constancy, when I’d be better off if I were to ensure they remain variable?

These are things I’m happy to let float freely in my life, only taking action to unstick myself in the event that they don’t change often enough:

  • What kind of software I write
  • Which friends I surround myself with
  • What kind of entertainment I seek out
  • What kind of industries I work in
  • Where I live
  • What time I wake up, where I get my work done, when I am productive
  • Whether I eat healthily — I take too much joy in novel food choices to eat only what my grandmother would recognize as food
  • What proportion of my time each day I spend creating versus talking versus thinking versus relaxing

The aspects of our lives we keep variable should be the things that really matter to us, because it’s novelty that drives creativity and uncertainty which evokes meaning. If you spend any time reflecting on this post, start by asking which variables you keep. My fear is too many of my friends are stuck with these priorities in reverse: their life’s work reduced to a grind of constancy and their life’s variability consumed by inane details they’ll care little about later.

On my good days, my main motivation is to leave behind some kind of useful message to others that will last for a time, even after I’ve gone. My hope is that everyone feels that way and we each find our own means to accomplish it. Good luck! 😁