Dear Little Brother
Know Less to Do More
A counterintuitive approach to getting started
Dear Older Brother:
I’m terrible at starting projects.
I excite myself about all the possibilities and envision the finished product, but once I actually sit down, the fear sets in.
Oh, ok, I’m actually doing this, I guess. This is real.
Once this happens, I consume piles upon piles of information to get an idea and feel smart enough on the particular topic. The problem — there’s always more information that can be consumed. One more angle, one more “reputable source.”
This path leads me to realize how much I don’t know about a topic, and the cycle of consuming more information continues. I study different from those reputable sources, head back to Wikipedia, more reputable sources, random website here, a personal blogger’s opinion there, until I don’t know which way is up.
By this point, I’ve compiled so much information I’m paralyzed by it all, and then often never start. Or I give a half-hearted attempt and then abandon the project.
What’s your strategy for combating this?
Dear Little Brother,
Know less to get started.
Counterintuitive? Perhaps on the surface, but bear with me.
You know enough early on in the research process to get started. You started this project because you have some base knowledge on the topic, and you have an interest in it.
Use that base knowledge to get started and begin your research as you continue to move forward.
However, it’s common to conveniently forget your knowledge once you need to apply it, hence your feverish researching.
I used to do the same thing — consume vast amounts of information to achieve the feeling of having “enough” information to start. Historically, I worked this way because impostor syndrome set in early on in the process.
Know this — you can always obtain more information. But you never know what you need until you start.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you begin:
Research IS starting.
You say that “before you start,” you research.
Man, you’ve already started! Research is starting.
You live with and in the information now. It consumes your mind. Your brain is making connections and formulating ideas.
Don’t dismiss the research as a secondary piece of the process. Research is vital to your project, and if you didn’t have that information, you couldn’t begin at all.
Adopt the mindset that research is progress, and you will feel more optimistic and that you’re moving along on a consistent pace.
Caught in the Information Overload Trap
The point arrives where you need to just begin experimenting.
“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” — Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn Co-Founder and Venture Capitalist
You will learn along the way. You need to simply get things down.
With anything in life, if you wait too long, if you try to be perfect, then you won’t accomplish much at all.
There is no perfect time.
And there certainly is no perfect first iteration.
You want the final copy when it’s only your first draft. And so you hesitate until you find that “correct” entry point.
You’ve consumed so much information you can’t seem to find that perfect entry.
This overindulgence of information paralyzes your ability to get going.
When I over-consume information or have too many options, I never decide where to start.
There are so many good starting points!
So instead of starting, I hop on Reddit for a couple of hours.
This is a phenomenon known as the Paradox of Choice, and it prevents your ability to be productive.
Let’s say you only have a few pieces of research, and decide that you’re ready to start. But instead of starting, you research a little bit longer, and suddenly you have two avenues by which you could begin.
Eventually, you hit a point where you inhibit yourself from moving forward because you have all these avenues on where you could begin.
The Wrong Direction? There is No Wrong Direction.
I hate going in the wrong direction.
I have hit points in the past where I felt like I was getting close to done, then suddenly, I needed to practically restart and come at the project from a different angle.
This brutal realization can deflate even the most seasoned professionals.
This is another reason I struggle to start. I don’t want to begin by going in the wrong direction.
I don’t want to get going, and then all of a sudden I realize I’m traveling south instead of north, or the information I gathered showed just the opposite of what I had been intending.
I used to believe that I needed to have the direction strictly down. I expected the path that I was on to be the path I should be on. There was an arrogance about it.
I attempted to control how my work would turn out in terms of the conclusions.
I subconsciously demanded that my conclusions, the ones I had believed would be the right ones, were where I needed to go. When the process took me elsewhere down a different (but potentially more fruitful path), I stopped entirely.
This unproductive process wasted energy wondering where to start, when that energy could best be used to start in one direction, see where that direction takes you with the information you have, then pivot to another direction. Flexibility on how to get to the end, which is where you want to go, is vital.
In my experience, even if you need to backtrack, you learn.
So the portion of the project that you no longer need, the work you originally started with? That was part of the process and not a mistake.
As Tobi Lucke, the CEO of Shopify, said:
such actions are the “successful discovery that something did not work.”
Start where you want to start
I’ve never met someone who has started on a project and finished it in a linear fashion.
People jump around. Their minds guide them to different pieces of the process. That wandering helps to fill in the pieces at all stages.
Even if those pieces no longer fit, they taught you something valuable.
Or, as mentioned above, you can repackage them into something new. Either way, they progressed the project. They served their purpose.
A puzzle isn’t built linearly. Nor should you believe you can finish your project in one coherent fashion. Jump around. If you feel energized about one particular spot, utilize that energy there. Then perhaps you feel like you want to do more research, so do that. There is no set way on how to do things.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote his stories on notecards:
“I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose. These bits I write on index cards until the novel is done. My schedule is flexible, but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.”
IT’S ALL PROGRESS UNLESS YOU STOP
The goal, at each moment, is to make progress.
Sometimes the work requires research, sometimes the work requires trying something out and seeing if it works. If it doesn’t, you modify and keep moving forward.
As long as you have the mindset that there is no “going back to the start,” then you can continue moving forward with what you have.
As my mentor once told me: leap, and the net will appear.
Know less and learn along the way. Just start.