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Birthlines, Part 4: If You Want to Succeed, Start Off On The Wrong Foot

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Birthlines

“It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little — do what you can.” ~ Sydney Smith

“I make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes.” ~ Sara Teasdale

“Do not wait; the time will never be “just right.” Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.” ~ Napoleon Hill

Sidenote: according to The Pedia, Sara Teasdale committed suicide by ODing on sleeping pills, so…someone clearly forgot to read their own writing that morning.

Which reminds me of a funny story from Napoleon Hill. In one of his taped seminars, Hill describes how at one point when he was feeling really down, facing a major problem, he actually went and read one of his own books and (lo and behold) found a solution to his problem. Pretty sweet.

Inspired by Hill, I’ve actually started doing that myself — I read AJATT, my own writing, for advice…a lot of the advice I don’t agree with, but there are some gems in there! If you can get past the self-absorbed, unfunny writing. Haha. No, really. How do do you guys read this and stay sane? Wait, don’t answer that.

The Symptoms


Taxes. Kanji. Massive reading assignments. The Big Uns. Big, important, things…tasks…stuff.

We put these off. Because they’re big and important and scary and need to be done right. Need to be done perfectly. Need to be done right. Can’t screw around. This is major stuff, right? No room for error.

“I’ll get round to it”, you say.

“I’ll put it off till the last minute — the time pressure helps me”, you say. [That’s true and false…what it is is that last-minute work forces ad hoc timeboxing. It forces us to deal with real time (hours, minutes) instead of “days”. “Days” are a meaningless work unit. Unless “day” means 24 actual working hours — 1440 actual working minutes —  no one has “days” to do anything].

“I’ll do it when I have time…yeah…this weekend…I have the whole weekend…48 hours, I can do this!”

Weekend comes. Weekend goes. Sunday night.

“I’ll start Monday! I needed the weekend to rest. New day, new week, new beginning!”

Monday morning.

“Lemme just check some email and Facebook here. Life is about friendship and networking!…”

Almost lunchtime.

Slashdot! I need to learn! I need to broaden my technical and intellectual horizons. A couple of minutes of Slashdot never killed anyone! Micro-managing is unhealthy. Besides, I don’t know how to start.”


“Well, I have meetings and stuff. I’ll do it when I do it. I still have like a month…two weeks at least…I’m totally fine. I have all the time in the world. No need to get riled up”.


“Well, it’s past midweek, and these things are best done at the beginning of the week. I’ll get round to it!”

Day before duedate.

“$&$”! Where’s the “‘#'”#? $'”#$! How do you fill this in? Who’s this supposed to go to? CRAP! I need an extension!”

Gets extension. Promises to start again on Monday. Monday comes.

“Slashdot! I need to learn! I need to broaden my technical and intellectual horizons. A couple of minutes of Slashdot never killed anyone! I got an extension so I still have loads of time. I’ll get right on it tomorrow”.

Next day.

“OK time to really hunker down! Time to get serious! No more games! But first — Hulu! I deserve a break! I’ve been so stressed out!”

Next day.

“OK time to start. I’ve got this extension, so I need to get serious about this. Keep it real. But first…this room is a mess. Let me tidy it up a bit. An orderly environment will lead to an orderly mind.”

…Day before extended duedate….

“MOTHER OF PICARD! Oh my…animal reproduction in the feces of mother-fondling moldy bread and other fungal interventions…”

I’m not saying I know any of this from experience 8) . And I’m not saying you do either. But other people pull this kind of insanity all the time, right? Yeah…other people are idiots.

The Cause: Too Much Reverence for the Important

Why does this story happen? Because the procrastinator isn’t serious? Can’t this idiot see the enormity, the importance of the task at hand? We’re talking about [insert important thing here]! You can’t just not do [insert important thing]! It has to be done, otherwise the world will end! You’ll be dead meat! Fear! Pressure!

That’s just the problem. The procrastinator is all too well aware of the importance of the task.  And I literally mean “too” aware. Excessively aware. How do I know? Just scroll back up and look at all the parts highlighted in red — those are all the fallacious ideas that the procrastinator has. You’ll notice that they’re vague and very all-or-nothing — a bad combination: extremism based on faulty information.

Our procrastinator is avoiding the important task because it’s important. He doesn’t know when to start. He doesn’t know how to start. It has to be right. There’s a lot of time to do it — all the time in the world, in fact — so it has to be done right. And when he starts, there’ll be no time for play, so he’d better rest now before really hunkering down and going to town on this thing, for, you know…hours…days…as long as it takes. This is all stuff that Neil Fiore talks about.

Far from being lazy, our procrastinator has too much reverence for the important. He values it above even himself. But what he’s finding is that overvaluing important things actually causes them to be neglected.

The (Well, A) Cure

Care less. Give less of a…one of those.

Know less. Do more.

But don’t do it well. Don’t do a good job.

Do not hunker down.

Do not wait until you have all your ducks in row.

Do not get serious.


Because [a crappy job on something important] > [a good job on something unimportant].

[a crappy job on something important] > [a good job on something unimportant]

A gram of gold is worth more than a gram of sand. An imperfect, dirty, uncut, soil-covered diamond the size of a Tic-Tac is worth more than…I dunno…a perfectly polished leather shoe.

Put another way: a trivial amount of work in a nontrivial direction always has nontrivial significance.

Not knowing how to file your taxes, not having your documents, and just taking yourself to the tax office — early in the year — to get help is worth way more than (pretending to) prepare for a perfect surgical strike.

Starting your visa application — incompletely, imperfectly, without all your documents in place — is worth more than almost all the perfectly washed (dried and stacked) dishes in the world.

Go to your SRS. Get it wrong. Miss a few. Miss many. 90% knowledge of 5000 kanji is worth infinitely more than 100% knowledge of 100 kanji.

The bigger and more “important” the thing is, the less seriously you need to take it if you want it to actually get done.

If someone tells you to read 1 page, you can do a nice, perfect read right before class or whatever.
If someone tells you to read 1000 pages…you skim and start and stop and start and stop and start and start and start again in little bursts.

The bigger and more “important” the thing is, the more it will benefit from being done even crappily and partially.

The bigger and more “important” the thing is, the more just starting on it, just nibbling on it will be worth it.

The bigger and more important it is, the less perfectly it need be done.

If it’s big and important, then don’t finish it. Don’t finish. Start. Just start on it. Then go play. Then come back and start again.

Don’t have a deadline. Have birthlines. Decide when to start. Decide when you’re going to touch it for just 1 minute even. And then leave it alone for a while. And then come back. Treat it like Farmville. You don’t hunker down to do Farmville. You just do it. And somehow, Farmville gets down. Oh, Farmville gets done all right. Novels don’t get written; grandmas don’t get kisses. But Farmville? Farmville gets doooone, esé.

Things that aren’t important always get done. So if you want stuff to get done, don’t give it importance. Just give it a minute. 1 minute? You can do one minute of SRS, right? Do 1 minute of SRS and spend the next 20 minutes…drinking chocolate milk, playing WoW, whatever who cares. Just be sure to come back after 20 minutes — but only for 1 minute. Then go back to hookers, blow and WoW.

If you want it to get done, make it fun.  If you want to make it fun, make it easy. If you want to make it easy, do it in smaller chunks — timeboxing — and give yourself a small reward for each chunk. Your reward could be a break. I’d go as far as to say make your breaks longer than the chunks if you can.

That’s the basic idea…I don’t have time to go into operant conditioning and rewards and random reinforcement schedules today. We’ll save that for another post! I don’t know that this will instantly make everything perfect for you. I hope it at least helps a bit.

Take it easy (literally). But do take it. Take a nibble. Do something. Anything. If the direction is important enough it’ll be worth it. Something is better than nothing.

Don’t score. Dribble. Don’t knock out. Jab. Don’t hit the target. Just shoot lots of bullets.

This article sucks. This website sucks. But at least the ball is rolling. And that is the point.

[a crappy job on something important] > [a good job on something unimportant]

Now go do a crappy job on something important.

Series Navigation<< Birthlines, Part 3: If You Want To Win, Stop Trying To Finish

  17 comments for “Birthlines, Part 4: If You Want to Succeed, Start Off On The Wrong Foot

  1. Koneko
    October 10, 2010 at 02:40

    “No really. How do do you guys read this and stay sane?”
    Sane? SANE? What gave you /that/ idea?

    Also… Part 4? May I ask what happened to parts 2 and 3?

    Anyways, great article as usual~

  2. Maya
    October 10, 2010 at 03:43

    @Koneko: I think he mis-labelled it as “part 4” on purpose, as a joke. The article talks about getting stuff done, even if it means doing a half-a$$ed job, right? Think about it.

  3. October 10, 2010 at 05:43

    I like this. I’ve never used the term birthlines, but I’ve been a fan of just sucking less every day for a while. Even at work, where other people impose deadlines, I just put in time (hopefully proportional to how important each task is) and somehow it always works out, or at least I’ll have done enough to make a good case for why the original deadline was all a bunch of hand waving and made up numbers in the first place.

  4. The Real CZ
    October 10, 2010 at 05:46

    I needed to read this. I have a rough draft of a paper due on Tuesday. I actually read all of my sources and did an outline, but I’ve been putting off starting typing the actual paper. Off to do a crappy job on something important!

  5. Einar
    October 10, 2010 at 06:31

    you saved my day 🙂 Made me realise that tinkering my physics report ahead is actually kinda fun 😀

    If anything is worth doing it is worth doing it is worth doing is suckishly.(Is that a word? Oh well now it is)
    Anything that is worth doing suckishly is worth having fun with.

  6. Theo
    October 10, 2010 at 07:16

    Ktz sama, hehehe. You have the skills of the greatest masters, retell the same thing in a crappy way that all this crappy readers can get it! thnks! GB

  7. sisio
    October 10, 2010 at 07:35


  8. Cush
    October 10, 2010 at 11:34

    Damnnn… Khatz just described my life to a tee!

  9. Maya
    October 10, 2010 at 15:38

    Oh yeah, khatz, I have a question related to timeboxing (it kinda relates to something you mentioned in this post):

    When you sit down to do something and you timebox (eg. “I’m only giving myself 30 mins to do this”), how do you enforce that time limit? Assuming you have a bit of extra time after those 30 mins (eg. you’re not obliged to leave the house right after), isn’t it almost too easy to tell yourself that you can just continue for another 10-20 mins? I find myself doing this a lot, and I feel like it’s defeating the point of timeboxing in the first place.

  10. Cush
    October 10, 2010 at 19:19

    I don’t know… Little and often is all well and good, but I think that you’re going to have to ‘hunker down and get serious’ every now and then. it’s like how you cant just sleep for 1 minute then be awake for 20 then sleep for 1 minute and so on. It’s better to get a solid 8 hours than to space it out. Or like how in another article Khatz talks about boiling water. Well you know what boils water? Constant heat! Not having the heat on for one minute, turning it off for 20 then turning it on for 1. So what i’m saying is hunker down’ i.e. turn on your flame till the water boils then you can turn the flame down(i.e.timebox) to keep the water hot.

  11. Emese
    October 10, 2010 at 19:52

    Oh well. I’m doing this right now for my physiology SRS. Just ten pages, then I can go back to Facebook. Or Or anything, just for half an hour. My original goal was 3 chapters for this weekend, but I’m already done with five, whoa. I think AJATT just sets me right.

  12. October 11, 2010 at 01:30

    @maya timeboxing really only works for really small chunks of time and *really* crazy people (including khatz 😉 ) if you’re doing 30 minute chunks, you may want to try out time-slotting (I just made that term up, but it’s what I do), which is designate certain portions of your day to doing the task you wish to do (be it taking a bath, eating lunch, reading a manga, or just doing SRS for 30-60 minutes).

    Yeah, it looks like a schedule, I know. But the schedule can vary from day to day. You can stick that 30 minute time-slot of SRS in the morning, afternoon, or evening, or even on Tuesdays and Fridays, and *then* go crazy with it and make an excel sheet of timeslots for your entire week… like I did.

    So… whatever crazy way fits you better, as long as you’re doing something, it works 🙂

  13. Kevin
    October 11, 2010 at 23:02

    I think one of the points of timeboxing is just as a means to get yourself started on the task and working on the task with some consistency. So, if, after 30 mins, you are into the task and want to keep going, by all means go for it. I’ve read a good portion of this blog, and I think Khatz would probably say, if you are still having fun after 30 mins, continue.

  14. simon
    October 12, 2010 at 03:22

    all sorts of tricks are needed for ppl in our generation… ‘Generation No Discipline’
    I’ve used all these techniques before, but i eventually just realized i am an inherently lazy spoiled x-computer boy and ppl in the real world with real jobs (like my wife) work 4hours +30min break +4 hours and don’t complain about it- even after 10 years of doing the same thing.
    Work ethic isn’t a word you hear being thrown around anymore….Awhile back i was doing some reading on Norman Rockwell…. that dude was a discipline machine.

    Anyway, now i just try to buck up and face the music, taking the ‘gawd i deserve facebook time, but i’m working’ along with the ‘wow, work is so inspiring right now, i’m glad i’m working’. At the end of the day i feel really good.

  15. Irrevenoid
    December 1, 2010 at 16:54

    “Decide when you’re going to touch it for just 1 minute even. And then come back. Treat it like Farmville. […]”

    *blinks* That’s genius! Never thought of it that way!

    And of course, if you START, you’re a lot likelier to get sucked in and CONTINUE (just like Farmville) and that’s just fine too…

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