Goals, Addiction, and Environment: A Reflection

A well-known author told me that they write the way Ernest Hemingway did, which is to only write 500 words a day per writing project. Some days this might seem like a lot, other days it might not be enough, but you must maintain that 500 word limit.
The reason is simple: breaking down goals into clear, achievable steps. Its much more daunting to sit down with the goal of writing an entire novel at some point in the future compared to writing 500 words, then 500 more, and so on, until the book is done. The math works out to about 30 pages of prose per month, which is a decent rate if you aren’t Stephen King.
Its a refreshing idea. Its also applicable to anything else in life not due literally tomorrow.
I’m a fantastic procrastinator. My favorite method of procrastination is probably reading up on how to stop procrastinating, which is how I found the well-known blog Wait But Why, written by Tim Urban and read by an obnoxious amount of people (including Elon Musk, apparently). His writing on procrastination is a subjective, non-scientific look at things, but reaches a similar endpoint to the author I mentioned. Small, well-defined goals are a big part of the secret sauce.
But Tim and I agree on one point that the author did not share: the upper limit. Tim describes a “flow” state in work that can happen if all the variables line up just right. I think this state is associated with creative work: art, writing, music. As a CS guy, I will add that nearly every good programmer I’ve met will also have a flow they slip into when solving a code problem, and Mathematicians will say similar things about particularly complex proofs.
The point is, a lot of us seem to avoid doing something that may result in finding a locked-in state where we are functioning at a high level for an extended period of time. It can be exhausting, but is also so exhilarating.
How can we wire our brains to chase this particular dragon, as opposed to sex, drugs, or other destructive vices that many people, myself included, lock into?
Not in the workaholic sense. Most “workaholics” are really just warm bodies in chairs addicted to getting the paycheck or the freedom away from a toxic home life. The “addiction” I seek is an addiction to producing good work in large quantities.
There are ways to achieve it. Cal Newport, another writer from a CS background, made an interesting book on grooming the mind for Deep Work. Still, this doesn’t answer the first question: why does falling into this habit require buying books and maintaining discipline? Maybe its because I’m looking at the idea of addiction incorrectly. Maybe, most of us are.
The pop science fans will know of the “rat park” experiments. This experiment found a connection between a rat’s use of a freely available drug was strongly correlated with the type of environment. I find this explanation the most agreeable, simply from my personal experience. I relied heavily on pornography and video games, to the point where most of my middle and high-school life was class, then home to play games, and repeat.
It wasn’t the video games that trapped me in through some nefarious action. Porn might be partially a chemical addiction, but I used it specifically as a mental crutch to cushion or block bad experiences.
This fall, I was finally diagnosed with depression and started treatment with SSRIs. Two months ago, I sold my gaming rig. Porn will never simply be a thing of the past for me; no addict is ever free of the scars. Yet these scars hold lessons.
The lasting changes didn’t happen because I powered out of the addiction, it happened because I first fixed issues in my environment and my self.
Therefore, and here is the punchline: I believe we can fall into “positive” addictions primarily through working on our environments. Rather than a student willpowering themselves to study, they (and their parents) should spend time and energy creating an environment that lends itself to easy and positive learning. A worker should do similar things for work.
This month I met with half a dozen successful writers, illustrators, and other creative professionals. They all shared the common experience of crafting positive environments that their crafts fell into.
Just ask yourself: what is in my surroundings that causes me to stumble?

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