Too Big, Too Small, and Too Late: Why We Don’t Do Things

September 6, 2007

Every person has had the experience of a project that just seems to overwhelming. For the student, we have the lab report, the paper, or the big exam. All these activities loom in the distance, but slowly that looming takes on more of a vertical than a horizontal flavor. And then panic mode kicks in and the choice between task and not-task dissolves: you do the task or you get a failing grade.

This is an obvious failure of categorization. You don’t do a lab report. You can write each individual letter of a lab report. You can write up the separate sections of a lab report. But you can never, in reality, complete an entire lab report as one activity. By breaking up the task into it’s requisite pieces, you realize that job to be done isn’t nearly as big and looming as it once seemed. Rather, you have a great number of small tasks that need doing, and each may take ten to thirty minutes. Talk about manageable.

But I was thinking about the opposite end of this delusion: when you have a small activity that doesn’t seem big enough. When you want to cross the canyon in one giant leap, but instead you have to walk around the edge, one step at a time. Then the task seems overwhelming because you have to focus on the small picture.

I’ve decided that I want to compile and edit a collection of my writings [from this blog, from my journals, and from academic papers] into a paperback book that I could then have professionally printed. But the fact of the matter is, to complete this task, which sounds really exciting, I would have to spend thirty or so minutes every day scanning through my writing, picking out the pieces I like, arranging them, and editing them for content, style, etc. Having a book of my own writings sounds awesome. That excites me. Going through the process of putting the book together, on the other hand, seems like a giant bore. Unfortunately, one leads to the other. I have to take the small steps in order to reach the other side of the canyon.

In this case, the solution to the problem is to realize the small steps lead to the final leap. Take an infinite number of displacement vectors, sum them, and you have the final, big arrow. At that point, you can hardly recognize all the small steps that got you there. But that doesn’t mean you can get away with skipping those steps. The unsexy, unromantic, uninspiring activities lead to the inspiring result.

And it’s between those two barriers that human achievement degrades. The task either seems to big or too small, too grand or too mundane. Rarely will you find something in the sweet spot between the two. When you do, it will be too late. And if you do, it is probably a quick fix, a fast buck, or a short-lived success.

The mastery of life involves realizing these deceptions for what they are and working past them.

In short, don’t procrastinate.

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One Response to “Too Big, Too Small, and Too Late: Why We Don’t Do Things”

  1. dave in the back said

    lol, the book of dave darmon’s thoughts. hopefully you’ll actually do it and not just sit there and think about how cool it would be.

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