I'm a big fan of litmus tests, heuristics, rules of thumb (here's my wiki with hundreds of rules), and anything else that can help me make a quick decision when there's too little time or too much indecisiveness.
Colin Marshall posted 10 "easily memorable and implementable life problem-solving strategies" that are really stellar. I've excerpted all the heuristics below. Read each one.
- "Would I respect me?" I supposedly ask myself this about either my life in general, as a tool for broader self-assessment, or about a specific action I'm contemplating taking. Pro: straight to the point. Con: too much wiggle room — where's the line between what's respectable and what isn't?
- "What benefits my future self?" I've found no better way to battle the bad habit of foisting tasks and undesirabilities onto the Colin of a few days from now than to identify what I could do next and automatically choose whatever benefits my future self most — or harms him the least, anyway. Pro: eases the dealing-with of future unforeseen developments, both positive and negative. Con: what if present Colin gets hit by a bus, leaving nobody to collect my future-self benefits?
- "Find the thin end of the wedge." This is stuff of folk aphorisms about thousand-mile journeys begun by single steps, camel noses poking inside tents and what have you. Meaning: daunting tasks are made more doable than they seem by isolation of the small ones that precede or collectively constitute them. Werner Herzog, discussing the task of assembling an entire cast of little people for Even Dwarfs Started Small, put it eloquently: "One dwarf would tend to know another." Pro: makes hardish stuff not so hard, at least perceptually, which is half the battle anyway. Con: could potentially get me under more onerous obligations than I can foresee.
- "Barf it out, then clean it up." A friend quoted her journalism teacher as saying this, and I've since adopted it as a pithy reflection of the broader phenomenon that the sole path to non-suckage winds through the treacherous woods of suckage. I must therefore make peace with producing something sucky and then iterate that initial product until it achieves decency. The trick is avoiding discouragement by that first piece of suckiness. As a writing principle, everyone knows this — you pound out the rough draft, then do the real writing, which is rewriting — but I submit that it's applicable across all pursuits. Pro: it's the only way to create good things, I suspect. Con: risks incentivizing producing crappier than I have to, at least to start. A worse initial effort might make fruitful iteration tougher.
- "Can I fail at this?" It's like Raymond Chandler said: there is no success without the possibility of failure. Therefore, something I can't fail at is also something I can't succeed at. I can fail at conducting an interview, writing an essay or making a video. I can't fail at meandering around the internet in search of "neat stuff to read." In a recent tweet, I defined procrastination "the temporary displacement of tasks at which it is possible to fail with tasks at which it is not possible to fail." I suspect I'm less far off the mark than ever, especially regarding why procrastination is not a productive tendency.
- "Always produce." Hat tip, of course, to Paul Graham. Operating under the mandate of always producing something, no matter if it sucks, isn't fully formed or doesn't match my vision, drives away the seductive demons of fantasization whose mission is to keep me thinking about doing stuff but never actually doing it. Thinking about doing something doesn't help, and in fact probably un-helps. You might have noticed Nike's successful employment of their own version of this heuristic. Pro: easy motivator, addresses a hugely common issue. Con: could lead to a life-threatening miscalculation or two.
- "What's the deadline?" Even when solidly in the actually-doing-stuff phase, I find my stuff rarely reaches actual doneness in the absence of a hard end date. Because how do I identify "doneness," anyway? I can always keep noodling away on a project, telling myself it's incomplete, if I never need to hand it in. This has the ancillary effect of preserving the precious mythologies of B.S. one builds about one's own brilliance. ("Oh, but it would've been awesome if I'd had more time!") Hence the importance I've come to grant the skill of adhering to self-imposed, sharp-edged rules. I have set a deadline of 11:30am on this post, for example, because I otherwise risk spending all day on squirrely retoolings. It's happened before. Pro: prevents life from being overtaken by unending boondoggles. Con: how to know exactly where to set the deadline?
- "What are the rules?" Though this is perhaps my interest in conceptualism talking, it seems to me that nothing interesting ever gets done or made without rules, whether imposed by the creator or by the creator's circumstances. I find "drive across country without using a freeway" more interesting than "drive across country," "write a novel without using the letter e" more interesting that "write a novel," "make a movie for ten grand" more interesting than "make a movie." Crude examples, but you get my meaning. This has all been said before, but more in terms of creativity being truly sparked by limitations, necessity being the mother of invention, things opened up by way of closing them off, etc. I like to think of it as arbitrarily setting down the first element and taking it as given, using it as a structure on which to build the rest of the work. (Then, if you like, remove the structure.) Pro: makes the first steps easier. Con: encourages stunts, though stunts aren't necessarily worthless.
- "What am I doing now?" I often fall victim to the delusion that circumstances will be somehow be more advantageous in the future, so that's when I'll really bear down on my work. Of course, conditions are never so much more suitable when the time actually comes, or at least they're not as perfect as I'd perhaps assumed they'd be. So if I want do something or be a certain way, I try to cut off any line of thought that terminates in my having convinced myself that I'll act on my intentions in the future. If I'm serious about it, it'll be reflected in what's going on right now, at the present moment. There's no such thing as ideal conditions. Pro: prevents excessive pipe-dreaming. Con: sounds superficially like a mindset some flake on Oprah would peddle.
- "What's the hardest thing I can do?" Again, my hat tips to Paul Graham: "This is a good plan for life in general. If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you're trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you're even considering the other is laziness. You know in the back of your mind what's the right thing to do, and this trick merely forces you to acknowledge it." What more could I add? Pro: helpful when choosing between defined options. Con: the usual problems about the very act of option definition, plus, how do you define "hardest"? Also, it might lead into pointless exercises in frustration.