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Finding presence by setting up the future
How thinking about our future work can trick us into flow and make us more present in our current work.
Hello everyone, welcome to another edition of the Stuff They Never Told You. Today, I’d like to share a lesson that I discovered while writing about something else that was bolstered by an autobiographical story from a very old man. Let’s get into it!
From the Ages
“It doesn’t matter what the external thing is, the value we place on it subjugates us to another . . . where our heart is set, there our impediment lies.”
— Epictetus, Discourses 4.4.1–2; 1
“On most days when I’m at work on a novel, story, or essay, I think not that I’m working on the novel, story, or essay itself, but rather that I’m working on a transition—on words, paragraphs, and/or pages that will get me from what I wrote the day before to what I hope to write—what I might write—on the next day. I’m rarely able to recall the actual act of writing, and when I reread a passage of mine that’s been published I’m often pleasantly surprised, as in: Did I really write that? And if so, when?”
Source: "Shipping Out" by Jay Neurgeboren
I do most of my writing in the early morning, the only block of time that I can reliably bank on having. In the final few minutes before I need to get ready for work, I shift from writing to outlining. I've usually built up a flow of ideas and have a rough structure of what I'd like to say in my head. I use my last remaining minutes to bullet my next thoughts. I don't want to lose the ordering that (at least at the time) feels perfect. I like to give my future self a nice starting point.
As I shift from composition to outlining, I almost always get flashes of insight — words, metaphors, phrasing, or connections between ideas that had not yet come to me — that end up becoming the strongest elements of the eventually finished piece. I used to think that it was my looming deadline, my brain and fingers switching to hyper-efficiency mode to make the most of the last few minutes before I have to swap my sweatpants and slippers for real pants and shoes. Inspiration in the form of necessity or as Duke Ellington said, "I don't need time, I need a deadline."
But as I read the story quoted above from Jay Neurgeboren, I realized what I was actually doing. In those few minutes of outlining, creating bullets that themselves often come to resemble short paragraphs of three or four full sentences, I'm setting up the next session rather than focusing on producing something valuable at the moment. The constraints of proper formatting and syntax are removed and I can just dump thoughts out willy-nilly. My expectations to "produce" are also gone, leaving me free to focus only on the ideas rather than how I handle them. I stop trying to be “writerly” and just have a casual conversation with future Justin.
When I drop my expectations for the moment and believe instead that what I'm doing now needs only be valuable as a transition or setup, I actually end up expressing my ideas in the best form possible. Once I saw this pattern in my writing, I began to see it everywhere. When learning a new skateboard trick, I often attempt it at the end of a line of several other tricks that are difficult for me but that I can do with relative consistency. I thought that this habit of repeating the same sequence of tricks emerged as my way of getting into a flow state before attempting something new. This might be true, but in the setup and transition toward my goal trick, I end up doing some of my most smooth and clean skateboarding of the session and usually remember the fun of the line as much or more than any new trick that it might have helped me to learn. In the gym, we often hit several little PRs in other movements throughout a more focused program on some other lift. We attempt new skills or PRs in accessory lifts with a spirit of fun and exploration, the opposite mindset of our attempts to measure the lift that we are supposedly optimizing for.
Of course, this is all about simply dropping our expectations and pressure in the moment. There are many ways to do this and it gets more natural with practice. But at least for me and my writing, when I focus on transitioning from one session to the next, setting up my future self for eventual success, I accidentally do my best work.
Thank you for reading this week and remember, life is too short to be normal.
PS. I highly recommend the whole story above by Jay Neurgeboren. It's a long read and an uneventful yet somehow captivating reminiscence of an old man telling about his time in the merchant marines. Shipping Out: The things that happen when you stare at the sea