The Guilty Maker
5 min read

The Guilty Maker

How I'm choosing to spend my time between projects.

Since switching from a manager’s schedule to a maker’s schedule, I’ve noticed something strange: I feel guilty for wasting time.

In this case, wasting time means reading, hacking on small programs with no immediate purpose, thinking, and writing. Working on these things is rewarding, but they lack a sense of urgency. It turns out that feeling busy was a large factor in my satisfaction with a day’s work.

I’ve spent the past few weeks reminding myself that busy is not better.

Although I understand this rationally, I still find it difficult to focus for more than a few hours at a time. I have an urge to switch tasks every thirty minutes and segment my day into neat little chunks. This habit is not easily broken.

It’s not just me. Children and teenagers grow up dependent on schedules imposed by other people. My high school ran from eight to three, with no exceptions. Sports practice started promptly at three-thirty. (my Varsity football coach was fond of saying, “If you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; and if you’re late, you’re in trouble. This has stuck with me.)

After high school, I went to college — a freewheeling experience except for the blocks of classes intended to establish some order in a student’s otherwise unstructured life. College is the closest thing that I’ve experienced to my current maker’s schedule, albeit with more social and academic obligations. Unfortunately, this period is an interlude for most unless you decide to attend graduate school (a conversation for another time).

Those who enter the corporate workforce quickly realize that attendance is actively and competitively measured. I remember being startled to learn that my coworkers were installing mouse-wiggle.exe, a program that prevented their computers from sleeping, thereby giving the illusion of being always online. I quickly overcame my astonishment and wrote a small script of my own. It would have been professionally stupid not to, considering how much appearances matter. In hindsight, this was an emergent behavior from having an entire organization on the Manager’s Schedule.

Now, for the first time that I can remember, I’m free to define my own schedule. And it’s a much larger adjustment than I expected.

In this new unstructured mode, my guilt stems from a longer feedback loop between starting and finishing a task. When I’m in Manager mode, my day is split into thirty-minute chunks. It’s easy to look at a full calendar and convince myself that I’ve accomplished something.

In Maker mode, this cycle is longer. Sometimes my day ends with less output, either through editing or refactoring code. Since my activities have a less defined goal, the satisfaction from a job well done is diminished.

To help with this adjustment, I’m working on a few projects simultaneously, each with different feedback loops.

  • Publishing this newsletter. I’ve maintained a commitment to publish once per week since I started writing in April 2019, and it’s one of the few things that has remained constant in my schedule. Knowing that I need to publish something helps when I catch myself mindlessly browsing. Having a deadline forces me to filter my consumption time through the lens of “is this something that I will write about.” If the answer is no, I stop.

  • Gathering interest for a small digital conference called Actions Towards Progress. It’s still very early, so it mostly involves conducting cold-reach outs and communicating with my co-organizers. Actions Towards Progress is my contribution to the Progress Studies community, a group of people interested in accelerating technological progress and economic growth. You can click here to learn more.

  • Building a computer for machine learning called “The Beast.” I love hardware projects because they allow me to get my hands dirty (literally, this thing is filled with dust). This computer is a converted cryptocurrency miner with eight AMD 570 graphics cards, a 1200W power supply, and many, many fans. Eventually, I want to run The Beast off a 100% renewable energy source and contribute the computational power to a project like Folding@Home.

  • Refreshing my physics fundamentals. I found a great used copy of Schaum’s Outline of College Physics and worked through the examples. I love taking meticulous paper notes and solving problems. When I need a quick dopamine boost, I’ll sit down to complete a few practice problems. I want to continue this habit and build up a small notebook collection with a summary of other fields like biology, chemistry, and math.

I’m thinking about this period as a “gap month” — it’s a chance to reset and build healthy habits. I’m grateful for the opportunity and excited for what’s next. For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite poets, Fernando Pessoa. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do:

One day, I don’t know which, I found myself in this world, having lived unfeelingly from the time I was evidently born until then. When I asked where I was, everyone misled me, and they contradicted each other. When I asked them to tell me what I should do, they all spoke falsely, and each one said something different. When in bewilderment I stopped on the road, everyone was shocked that I didn’t keep going to no one knew where, or else turn back – I, who’d woken up at the crossroads and didn’t know where I’d come from.

I saw that I was on stage and didn’t know the part that everyone else recited straight off, also without knowing it. I saw that I was dressed as a page, but they didn’t give me a queen, and blamed me for not having her. I saw that I had a message in my hand to deliver, and when I told them that the sheet of paper was blank, they laughed at me. And I still don’t know if they laughed because all sheets are blank, or because all messages are to be guessed. Finally I sat down on the rock at the crossroads as before the fireplace I never had. And I began, all by myself, to make paper boats with the lie they’d given me. No one would believe in me, not even as a liar, and there was no pond where I could try out my truth.