Your Wastebasket Isn't Full Enough

Avoid letting planning turn into procrastination…

Your Wastebasket Isn't Full Enough

Avoid letting planning turn into procrastination.

Working Through ‘The Suck’

The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough was a legendary biographer who wrote nearly every day.

Whenever a page wasn’t well-written, he’d crumple up the paper and throw it in the trash. At the end of the work day, a full wastebasket didn't represent wasted time to him – it simply meant he’d been productive that day.

He had gotten all of the bad ideas out of his system. In the process, he had both learned and eliminated what didn’t work.

Just like he did, we have to work our way through a lot of ideas that suck before we get to the good ones.

To do that, we have to experiment and make progress through iteration.

Iterative Experimentation With Filaments

In the late 1800’s, the electric light bulb was not yet a commercially viable product.

The filaments would only burn for a few hours before dying out. (The finest ones at the time lasted about a dozen hours).

In their efforts to invent a longer-lasting light bulb, Thomas Edison and his 40+ man team tested thousands of different substances as filaments. They experimented for over two years, and during that period, Edison’s workers were sent all over the world to search for better materials.

They discovered that carbonised Japanese bamboo increased the lifespan of the light bulb to a groundbreaking 1,200+ hours. After thousands of failed attempts, they had successfully made a commercially viable light bulb.

They put in the work, iteration after iteration, and found that failures are a critical part of the process on the way to success.

To iterate successfully you have to fail fast, fail cheap, fail often, and fail forward. And the interesting thing about playing the numbers game is how quality tends to emerge over time.

Quality Trails Behind Quantity

In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear wrote a story about the famous American photographer Jerry Uelsmann.

When Uelsmann was a professor at the University of Florida, he divided the students of his photography class into two groups. Everyone on the left side of the classroom would be in the “quantity” group, and everyone on the right side would be in the “quality” group.

The first group would be graded solely based on the amount of work they produced. At the end of the semester, Uelsmann would tally up the number of photos submitted by each student. To get an A, they would have to submit 100 photos. To get a B, they would need 90 photos. For a C, 80 photos. And so on.

The second group would instead be graded purely on the quality of their work. They would only need to produce a single photograph during the entire semester. To get an A, it would have to be a nearly perfect image, with excellent composition, lighting, balance, and so forth.

When the end of the term came around, Uelsmann was surprised to find that all the best photos had not been produced by the quality group, but rather by the quantity group.

The quantity group had been hard at work the entire semester. They took hundreds of photographs, experimenting with lighting and composition, visiting various locations, and testing different methods in the darkroom. In the process, they learned from their mistakes and got incrementally better and better with each photograph.

The quality group, however, had been sitting around the whole semester speculating about the perfect image, developing theories, and researching different photography methods and techniques.

But ultimately, they didn’t have much to show for their efforts other than unverified, grandiose theories and one mediocre photograph.

The results of Uelsmann’s experiment show that we shouldn’t be so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action.

You have to do the work, learn from your mistakes, and make incremental improvements. You don’t become great by sitting around – you have to get started, continue moving forward, and put in enough reps to excel in your area.

Nike Might Be On To Something

Nike’s slogan encapsulates all of these lessons in possibly the simplest way: Just Do It.

It’s not about perfection, or even success at first. Avoid setting your quality bar too high. Just get out there and start doing. Whether it’s compositing, writing, creating something, working out, making friends, or learning a new skill – setting cripplingly high expectations just leads to a fear of failure and imperfection.

Aiming for quantity has the benefit of stopping this fear from paralysing us. We accept that we’re going to suck at first, and that’s okay. Luckily, one of humanity’s greatest gifts is  the ability to learn and grow from failure.

Just remember that it will take work before you start to see returns. It took for example nine full months working on before the first person thought it was worthy to sign up as a paid subscriber. You won’t see six-pack abs right away, either. Or a beautiful singing voice. Or rock star compositing skills. It takes work, practice, and action.

And depending on what you’re trying to do, it may very well be difficult. It may even be awkward, embarrassing, or painful. But that’s the price of admission. It’s the barrier that filters the great from the ordinary.

If you feel you're not quite there, your wastebasket just isn't full enough yet. Work through the suck. Experiment, iterate, and accept failures as part of the process. Don’t get stuck theorising, and simply start doing.

I hope you found this article useful. For more productivity tips, see Productivity.