The Enemy >> Finish All The Things You Never Found Time For (By Almost Metaphorically Dying)

Illustration by Mohnish Soundararajan  (that’s me) . Painting:  Vive L'Empereur!  by Édouard Detaille.

Illustration by Mohnish Soundararajan (that’s me). Painting: Vive L'Empereur! by Édouard Detaille.

[I]n nooks all over the earth sit men who are waiting, scarcely knowing in what way they are waiting, much less that they are waiting in vain.
— Friedrich Nietzche

Imagine this: your back is against a thick wall, and you have no options. There’s nowhere to run. An army comes from across the hill, riding on horseback. 

And that’s when you realize: they are not here to hand you a free Arby’s gift card. They are here to stab you and set your face on fire. 

So naturally, this is precisely the moment it starts: you start having an existential breakdown. A panic. A fear. And it’s happening—all at once. 

But that’s when you notice. Encased within the emotional signature of your panic, there’s something else. And that something else is a resolve. A force. A need that points in one direction: to fight until your blood stops pumping and your eyes stop blinking.

I’ll start off with this: in stark relief to the past, we live in a paradise. And this paradise includes a noticeable lack of people on horseback that enjoy stabbing and face arson. In many ways, this is fantastic. 

But deep down, we live in a completely different universe than that of the warrior—the one who fights ferociously in light of what they want. We are slow at getting our side projects done, which is code for not getting them done at all. We don’t call grandma. In fact, we are not 100% sure if grandma is still alive. 

And there’s this reality. We all have personal objectives. They vary in degree and shape and color and complexity. And yet, it doesn’t really matter who you are, where you are, or what planet you’re from. There is always so much left undone.

To top it all off, we live in a culture of comfort. We have water, food, and air conditioning. Some of us are so comfortable that we even freeze tortillas so that we can have tortillas to use for later—which is the most convincing measure of human progress I have ever encountered.

The side-projects we put off, the phone calls we fail to make, and the time we waste—they’re all lost to the vast field of comfort we’ve created for ourselves: television shows and cell phones and websites and movies and apps that steal our time like bank robbers who pretend they are not actually bank robbers, but are helping us live more enjoyable lives. Which, to be fair, is half-true.

Yet the nature of how we don’t get everything done reliably baffles us. Some days we’re hot (we finished everything on our plate with military efficiency) and some days we’re cold (we just took a ninety-minute shower for no reason whatsoever) and their seems to be no pattern we can pick out of the madness. You do things you know you shouldn’t do—watching television when you have a mountain of work, or checking your phone when a friend visits—because no matter how much logic you throw at the case, you know that there’s something inside your brain that is overriding even your best logic at mission control. It’s almost—almost—like we’re not in control.

And this is especially the case if you’re an independent worker who enjoys working from coffee shops and crouching on all fours to plug something into an outlet that also happens to be placed inside the event horizon of a black hole.

Sometimes, when you work for yourself, it’s like floating untethered in a stretch of deep space. Nobody is forcing you to do absolutely anything. And more often than not, it’s problematic. 

On top of this, being alive within reality means being alive to the chaos of it all. And chaos is life’s dominant flavor profile. Judy wants to hang out at that bar I pretend to like with her husband that I also pretend to like. I haven’t done laundry in two weeks. I didn’t go grocery shopping on Sunday, so now I have to do it today. I have a client call that will take a few hours, so now I have to call my wife and tell her that she is never going to see me again. And on and on.

Choas sneaks it’s way in. It’s fast. It’s furious. It’s urgent. And at the end of the week, we realize that all the things we wrote down (please tell me you wrote them down) didn’t happen. We get the sense that we’re bad predictors of our time or we don’t know how long things take because the brain inside our head has a recurring mechanical failure. Either that, or we get the sense that there are things on our list that’ll never get done. 

That ‘side-project-that-means-a-lot-to-me-as-a-human-being-and-will-actually-fill-me-with-regret-if-I-don’t-get-it-done-and-if-I-don’t-get-it-done-everybody-will-remember-it-at-my-funeral’ keeps getting pushed and pushed, each and every week.

In warfare, they have this lovely term—friction. And friction causes the space between what we strategize to do and what actually happens. It causes the gap. As Carl von Clausewitz puts it, friction is the “myriad of small, but collectively numerous things that happen that cannot be foreseen or planned for…”. 

For 21st century life—and for life before it—friction is the name of the game.

But there is some good news. More specifically, there’s a clue.

Because if you think about it, there are some things you get done. For example, you are still alive. And this tells me something important: you have most likely successfully purchased your own groceries. Or, if you pay for your meals, you have successfully eaten that meal—most likely at the completely arbitrary frequency of three times a day. Or, in any job, you’ve completed at least a single task. Or, if you’re a showstopper, you might’ve been able to keep a dog or a baby alive for a sustained period of time.

Here’s the thing: you’ll notice that doing these things actually feel qualitatively different than working on the screenplay you’ve been meaning to get to. And with each of those things—feeding your baby or taking a shower because you have to—there’s a psychological energy behind each action you finish, if you look closely enough.

In history (and history is life, just yesterday) things don’t happen just because it ‘should’ happen or we idealize it to be so, or because someone wrote it down in a color-coded calendar (though that helps). Movement doesn’t occur because you and your grandmother had a very intense debate over Thanksgiving dinner and now it’s vaguely awkward when she visits. Instead, people act because the things they do have a psychological gravity to them that other things don’t.

And that psychological gravity is critical, because it means that something has a kind of mental weight. It’s heavy. You know it’s heavy. And like a weight, it presses on the mind. For example: feeding your baby most likely has the psychological weight of 3,000 pounds. Checking the internet less often has, realistically, the weight of 13 pounds. Feeding your baby is very psychologically heavy—you have to feed your baby, or CPS will crash in through your windows (at least, this is how I imagine in my head they do it.)

But here’s the key.

What’s different about feeding your baby and checking the internet less often is that—in actuality—you don’t have to check the internet less often. Really, you don’t. And you don’t have to call your mother. Because if you don’t call her, your mother isn’t going to kidnap you, unless your mother has crafted a very specific and unique parenting style.

You don’t have to finish the ‘very-important-to-who-you-are-as-a-human-being’ side project, because if it’s not done, no one will care, at all, in any way. Which is to say, you don’t have to do all of these things because there are no immediate consequences. There are no costs. Nothing is at stake.

Sure, there’s the imaginary “future-you” who’s crushed by the emotional weight of all the things you didn’t do and didn’t accomplish and all the relationships you never revived and all the emails you didn’t send. But the wants and needs of “future-you” feel more abstract, in the same way that—to steal Paul Graham’s analogy—the suffering of people from third-world countries feels abstract. It’s not psychologically immediate, urgent, or pressing in the same way it would be if you saw that person suffering, right in front of your doorstep.

Which is to say, there’s so many things we want to do that have no psychological gravity. There’s no force. It’s just hot air that you blow right at your own face.

“I would like to check my phone less often”. *whoosh*

That might seem like horrifying news. And it is. But there’s a flip side—and this flip side is where the magic is.

Because if you don’t feed your baby, there is a clear set of consequences—and that clear set creates a mental necessity. It coagulates into a thought: “I have to feed my baby”.

(Side note: you might add that it’s your evolutionary hardwiring—the one that uses your body as a container to house and pass on genes—that really makes you want to feed your baby. And for the people that actually claim that this is the case—you are completely correct. We have a human nature—forces inside us (from aggression to envy to compulsive behavior) that have their own psychological weight inside of us, and they push us in a million different directions.)

What this means is that—with a clear set of consequences—you can actually play with psychological gravity.  Robert Greene quotes Sun-Tzu in his masterwork, The 33 Strategies of War: “When warriors are in great danger, then they have no fear. When there is nowhere to go, they are firm, when they are deeply involved, they stick to it. If they have no choice, they will fight back.”

And whether you have a lot of choices or very little is actually an essential consideration. The inverse makes this clear. When you feel like you have a lot of options—as Robert Greene puts it in his chapter on ‘death-ground’—you don’t really commit. And even when you do (whether it’s one project, or one relationship), you don’t put all your effort into it. 

And when you put in less effort, you don’t do what you’re trying to do very well—or even finish it. 

If you have the option of doing it next week, or getting to it the next day, or moving it around to next month (and you can repeat pushing it off as much as you want), your life will eventually succeed in permanently pushing out your unfinished screenplay. 

But when your back is against a wall, you create necessity. You have to fight precisely because there is no other option. The need to fight goes from 16 pounds to 3,000 pounds (baby-feeding-levels) because you are trying not to die.

And instead of forces pushing you in, you can channel those forces so they work with you rather than against you. Greene provides the best distillation of the entire dynamic in his book, The 33 Strategies of War, but the idea prescribes precisely what comfortable humans don’t want to do. And it’s this: put themselves in the scary position. To do as Sun-Tzu counseled. To put yourself in a place with a thick wall and nowhere to run. Either this, or die. At least metaphorically.

If you can—for just a few moments—think of yourself as a warrior. If you can install a metaphorical wall into your own life, one that presses up against you, and you conjure up a metaphorical enemy, one that gives you a taste of fear, you can consciously finish what you want to finish and do it with an energy and a discipline that surprises even you. 

When you set your personal objectives—no matter what shape or complexity they come in—and then you finish them by the end of the week, and you finish them when you want to finish them, and you fit in everything you want to fit in, you will feel like a chicken that has just discovered quantum physics.

The truth—all of this is possible. Whether it’s external (knives against your throat—don’t recommend) or internal (a craving in the mind—can’t control), psychological gravity can come from anywhere. That said, what’s the best way to do it?

Well, if you think about it, what makes an enemy an enemy is precisely the fact that they can take something away from you. Whether it’s losing face or—if it’s a Hollywood movie—losing the fate of humanity, an enemy means the possibility of a loss.

So reproducing that loss is the secret. You can be creative, and you should think for yourself, but the options are endless: losing money (a small or large amount every week), reputational costs (having to tell your friends you didn’t do what you said you’d do this week), losing a prized possession (throwing away a cherished object), a commitment you keep to a best friend (someone who you don’t want to let down), or any situation in which you lose something you care about—a mini-death.

In practice, it’s simple: if I don’t do X by Y time, I have to lose Z. 

Maybe you’ve heard this before. Or maybe you haven’t. But to all the souls who want to make it out alive, I have a fair warning: there is a layer of complexity here that kills everybody.

First off, the Y variable is critical. We all have brains that are both remarkably similar and shockingly different from everyone else. It’s this mixture of similarities and differences that add up to what is your individual psychology. And different psychologies react to different things in different ways. Sally doesn’t care if she loses a hundred dollars. But John does. And Benne doesn’t really care if you set all of her books on fire. But I do. 

The point: all of us react to different consequences in different ways. The key lies in figuring out which consequence fires you up in the right way and to the right degree. Because if you find the wrong consequence (maybe you tried losing $30, and you still don’t finish your project), you’ll abandon the whole approach. And when you do that, you’ll potentially be missing out on something that, at worst, is useful, and at best, is life-altering. 

The same applies to the degree. Too cold (losing too little money, or losing something you don’t care about, like a paperclip) and you won’t feel compelled to move. Too hot (losing too much money, or losing something you really care about, like your refrigerator) and you will actually start to panic and jump out of a window. 

Here, you should follow the “Treat Yourself Like a Piece of Toast” Rule: feel the heat, but don’t get burned. Objectives should stretch you. When you’re finishing a project, you should feel like your ass is very close to getting burned, and you should be getting a little uncomfortable. But again—a burned ass is going to make everyone very unhappy. So pick the right degree.

Another thing that kills everybody: making sure you don’t destroy the quality of your life.

Let’s say you have your job, you have to spend time with your boyfriend, you have chores, you have to hangout with friends, and you have this special camping trip coming up—all of it smacked up like peanut butter right inside your week. If you set up a goal to finish an entire novel within a week—an unrealistic goal for most people—you will fail. And not only that—you told yourself that if you fail, you have to throw away your refrigerator. So now you’re royally screwed. Because you will spend multiple nights—well into 2:00 AM—which leave you tired and angry at everyone. You end up skipping the time you want to spend with friends, make the time you spend with your boyfriend half-hearted at best, and your camping trip will be a complete and total disaster because you wanted to bring your laptop. Poorly chosen objectives—as well as poorly chosen deadlines—that aren’t grounded in the reality of your life and the reality of who you are (how fast you work, what you can take on, etc.) will not only fail you, but will ruin you. Also, it’ll be a terrible novel. 

So know, weeks are never going to be straightforward. It’s like getting hit by the same car every Sunday for a year. “My God,” we collectively say, “I can’t believe Bob hit me again in the same spot on the same day in the same parking spot and now I’m in the hospital again.” Now, more than ever, is the time to stop being surprised when we get hit by the same ideological car. That ideological car is friction, and friction always sneaks in through the back door. 

But there’s a catch: friction comes in different car models. While our side projects are important, we also know that every now and then, a big opportunity (a flashy Rolls-Royce) rolls around and everything else—for a small unit of space-time—doesn’t matter. We know that every now and then, a friend from out of town visits (a friendly Toyota Camry). 

The reality is that priorities are never actually constant like we think they are. Priorities are more like water particles, both fluid and static. They fluctuate depending on you and the moment. At 3:00am, sleeping is your actual highest priority at that given time, even if—throughout most of the week and in your own head—your highest priority is actually your novel.

So—question—how do we navigate the shifting sea of strategic indecision? 

Well, lawyers bring us a critical ingredient: contracts. And contracts are beautiful precisely because a contract can handle not just the best case scenario, but multiple permutations of that scenario. For us, what that means is simple: a small, written, informal agreement with yourself (or, if you can’t be trusted—someone else) where you can map out your edge cases in advance. If I don’t finish X, I lose Y—unless Z happens. 

And Z can be a lot of things. It can be if your spouse gets sick. If you get sick. If a friend has an emergency. If you have an emergency. Really, it’s up to you. 

But let’s say you have to wake up at 8:15 for 7 days in a row or you lose $65 dollars. Then one day your phone dies and you don’t wake up. Or let’s say you stayed up late last night talking to a friend after a breakup, and now, waking up at 8:15 is theoretically impossible. You didn’t write it down, and now you don’t know what to do. This kind of thing happens all the time.

So here’s a little trick: give yourself exceptions. Exceptions are basically just a predetermined set of times you can mess up without dying (which means losing $65). These work especially if you have multiple objectives you’re trying to hit—from the simple to the complex. If you give yourself two exceptions during a week, and—twice—you don’t wake up on time, then it’s simple: you don’t metaphorically die. You get to keep the $65, and you’re very happy.

Because, we know this: there’s an “all-or-nothing” mindset people that kills people before they get the chance to even start. It’s the kind that, when you slip up just once, causes a cacophony of negative emotions to start playing in the opera house of your mind. 

Then all of a sudden you’re not getting anything done, you’re upset with yourself, and everybody’s miserable. So when you put exceptions in your contract, you’re not just giving yourself a break. You’re respecting an important truth about being a person in a world you fundamentally do not control: you can’t be perfect. 

So—aim for ‘perfect-most-of-the-time’ instead, and let exceptions ease the pressure from natural, everyday friction. And whoever you are, whatever you’re trying to get done, tailor the specifics of your contract to your context. You know who you are. You have to create a thick wall that works with (and not against) all of your wonderful idiosyncrasies. Let that wall help you channel the ethos of a warrior, run onto the battlefield, and still get home in time to make yourself a ham sandwich like an adult.

And I promise: if you’re smart, it’s all possible. The right force applied to the right thing in the right degree can change you. In cognitive psychology, they call it loss aversion. In economics, they call it incentives. And in history, they call it necessity. 

But as a fellow human, you’ve known this for awhile: sometimes, the moment we’re fighting for something is precisely the moment we’re at our best.

If you’re interested in going on an adventure, I have a ship (which is actually an email list) that’s focused on getting you to leave shore and discover exotic, strange, and beautiful ideas through books. If you want to explore, go here. If you’re interested in design that’ll elevate your book (or project) and make you feel like royalty, go here. And if you’re looking for something else (tortillas, hardware supplies, etc.), this is definitely the wrong place.

Influences, Research, and Great Books You Should Absolutely Read

The works of Robert Greene—here, The 50th Law, The Laws of Human Nature, and especially The 33 Strategies of War 

Big thanks to Justine Brumm and Vysali Soundararajan for feedback.

Mohnish Soundararajan