Not quitting

I started this year thinking about beginnings. More recently I’ve been thinking about endings. And in particular, about quitting. How to quit and when. What are the signs, the premonitions? Is it possible to quit with dignity?

This is all Potatowire’s fault.

Potatowire, an alumni of the Technical Difficulties podcast, started a wonderful blog this February. Every day he posted a short, insightful piece about productivity or his pet peeves or other small, but important human subjects — a bit like Dr Drang without the scripts.1

“With the Grain”, as the blog was called, quickly became one of my “must read” feeds. Potatowire was doing what I had hoped to do with my own blog: publicly explore ideas that are at once personal, but which can be usefully communicated to others.

Here’s one my favourite lines, from his post on reacting:

Listen completely before offering advice. Maybe only listen.

All of a sudden — at least it was sudden to his readers — Potatowire wondered out loud about quitting. I tweeted my support to him, as did others. The internet — a quirky, thoughtful internet — rallied to him. He kept posting, but a few short days later he called it quits for good.

I said “all of a sudden” but of course it was nothing of the sort. As Potatowire wrote,

I worry about this site. I spend an average of two hours a night writing, and I’m not sure why. I am more introspective now, for sure, and I think my writing is improving, but this two-hour block represents all of my available free time. I have some other projects I would like to begin, but I don’t know how to fit them into my schedule.

I’m sympathetic to this challenge. Time is precious, and writing laborious.

I envy my friends who blog regularly. Maha Bali blogs more in a single week (including the one during which she was hosting a large academic event) than I have all year. And I’m pretty sure her offline life is much busier than mine.

I even managed to burn out writing this blog last spring. I grudgingly conceded that I would keep writing, but without any pretence about posting regularly. I did pledge I’d publish thirty thousand words by the end of this year — a figure which now looks ludicrously ambitious. But I won’t be particularly embarrassed if I miss that target.

My aim was to write a lot, which I do. Let me drill into the data.

I use an app called Word Counter which tries to count words you type in selected applications. It doesn’t do a perfect job, as it counts keyboard shortcuts (like Cmd+C) as a word.

According to Word Counter, on a typical workday, I write between four and seven thousand words. On a lazy weekend day, that numbers drops to a couple thousand. These figures include pretty much every word I type on my computer, including everything in my browser, email client, various text messaging apps, text editor (which I use for both code and prose), terminal and task manager. I could probably cast a smaller net and get a more precise figure, but I was interested in seeing the fluctuations in overall volume and so I was happy to set up Word Counter in this manner.

Admittedly, a lot of this writing is not very interesting, though I’ve come to see that there’s a lot of craft — even artistry — in seemingly humble writing. I work from home and apart from a web meeting or two per week, most of my professional communication takes place over text, primarily email and messaging.

This textual life has taught me to value precise, careful writing — both the writing that I produce and the writing that I consume2.

I maintain a daily journal. Though I occasionally abandon it, I always get back in the habit after a while. As Greg McKeown points out, the trick is to write less than you feel like. I also keep notes on personal and professional projects, books I’ve read and the like. It helps me to think out my thoughts in writing.

I’m also working on a novel. Two novels, actually. I’m trying to figure out which one seems to be moving forward more. One seems more fun to write, but it’s a recent project and I haven’t generated enough ideas to flesh out the story. I have more ideas for the plot of the other — as I’ve had the idea for about a decade — but it always seemed less fun to write. After I tried writing out a scene, I changed my mind. I began outlining both stories.

As I was working on them, I got a third idea that seems interesting. It’s in a genre I’m not familiar with — horror — but its setting is a claustrophobic Greek island where the locals have a dark secret. And, as I happen to be on a Greek island for a yoga retreat, that story has emerged as the topmost in my thoughts.

So that’s the current state of my writing and the reason why this blog has been more active recently. But I haven’t quit, not quite. Not yet. Which brings me back to Potatowire’s blog.

I understand why Potatowire couldn’t maintain posting every day — it was a crazy schedule. What I don’t get is why, since he seemed to find blogging meaningful, did he not simply publish less frequently? Maybe three times a week, or twice a month — or, as I do, even less? It’s nice having a place on the internet where you can park some measured words when the fancy strikes you. Why give it up?

In The dip Seth Godin discusses quitting in largely positive terms. Quitting is what successful people do most of the time. Because you can’t be good at everything, to be truly great at something you must dump everything else3. I suspect Godin is right. That is why many highly successful people are so thoroughly dull. Those who doggedly go after success are likely to spend their days in diligent practice rather than in the chaotic dithering about that makes for interesting party conversation. But, I have to admit, party conversations are mostly unimportant.

Godin would approve of Potatowire’s decisive quitting. After all, to quit does mean to fail. It is a way to free up resources so you can use them in other ways. Godin would not approve of my irresolute persistence in this blogging racket.

But success is not the best measure to apply to a hobby, even a dear one. We do plenty of things because we derive meaning or pleasure from them rather the intent to excel. I’m not particularly good at cooking even simple meals or bellowing along to my guitar, but I enjoy doing both of these.

But though I haven’t been writing as much creative stuff as I’d like, it’s not the blog I’m worried about. Having shifted my focus back into fiction, it’s likely I’ll continue to neglect this blog in the near future.

The only habit that sticks is a regular one. Schedule whatever it is you want to do and day by day you’ll inch forward. My personal priorities, in terms of personal growth, include meditation (for the health of my mind), yoga (for the health of my body), work (for whatever it is we work for), and creative writing. I’ve managed to build a regular practice for all of these but the writing. That’s the next challenge. I’ve tried some things, though nothing has stuck.

But I’m not quitting.

I owe this intransigence, at least partly, to Potatowire.

  1. My favourite Dr Drang post concerns the meticulous microwaving of tea↩︎

  2. I remain a careless typist and a messy speller. Mercifully, Slack allows you to edit messages. No such luck with Facebook’s Messenger. I’ve also configured my keyboard so that the Caps Lock functions as backspace, which makes it easy to fix my numerous errors. ↩︎

  3. Seth Godin, The dip: A little book that teaches you when to quit (and when to stick) (2007).

    This summary is from memory and, as it’s been awhile since I’ve read it, I might have mangled the book. ↩︎

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