You Can't Do Everything

I have a bad habit of taking on too many things, and then letting them languish. This is my reminder to myself not to do that

In 2012 I unexpectedly lost my job1. Since I suddenly had a lot of free time, I decided that I should use some of that free time into learning another language. I decided that since I had a bunch of video games that were in Japanese, and there were a lot more that looked interesting, but never got translated to English, or that came untranslated in the various platform stores, I should start trying to learn to read and understand what's going on. Increasing my horizons is great2, and, hey, if I know another language, that makes me more employable, right?

So, I found an online learning site, set up a subscription, paid the monthly fee, got the companion books, started watching the video courses, doing the exercises in the workbook, and so on. I also went a little bit overboard and I ended up buying almost every Japanese language book I could find on Amazon. I thumbed through most of them, and I did really well for a while.

But learning a language can be difficult, and it defnitely takes a long time expending significant effort. That's okay! I knew that going in, and was prepared to do it... Until I realized that I wasn't updating my blog. And I was ignoring my gopher hole. And I wasn't playing as many video games as I wanted. And I was falling behind on my recreational reading. And I wasn't keeping up on advancements in my field very well3. And...

And I realized that I had fallen victim to something that I thought I outgrew. I was like a kid that decides that they're going to be an astronaut one day, then a firefighter the next, then a baseball player the next, then a professional chef, and on and on and on. I'd see something new, get really excited about it, try to take it on, then see something else new and exciting, try to take it on, too, and repeat forever until nothing gets done.

Because, as it happens, there's a finite amount of time in a day. Time can be managed, time can be massaged, tasks can be more efficiently done, and so on, but putting more time in a day just doesn't work4.

So, once I got to the point where I had so many things that I wanted to do, and I was doing so many bits and pieces in so many projects that, but I couldn't seem to make any progress in any of them, I knew that it was time to start really looking at what I was doing.

I've had this problem before. When I got my first internet domain, I set up a blog and went to town keeping it updated with all kinds of random nonsense that was typical of the Web in 2002. Then I had an idea for another blog, so I registered a new domain and started another one. Repeat until I couldn't concentrate on one blog long enough to update more than a couple of times a month while the other ones languished. I eventually had to dial my output way back to what's currently two sites: this one, and a gopher site.

What I didn't consider then, and what I kind of lost site of, was that everything has an opportunity cost. That is, devoting time to one thing means that Ican't devote that time to another thing. It makes sense on the surface: I can't eat while I'm sleeping, for example. But my brain sees some things differently, apparently. If I see some project that I think I can take on, it doesn't consider the opportunity cost. It just thinks that, "Yeah! I can do that! No problem!" and then lays the groundwork to do the thing. Repeat until I have more projects cooking at once than I could ever get done in five lifetimes, and not making progress on any of them.

So, this is my reminder to myself that I can't do it all. I can't pursue every idea that comes into my head to fruition. I have to step back. I have to let some projects go. It's like when I cut down on the number of websites I managed from way too many to two, I have to look at the things I'm doing and drop some of them so I can spend meaningful time developing the others.

That means that there are going to be some projects and some skills that I would have loved to have been able to develop more fully get pushed aside, and, hopefully, the ones that I really concentrate on flourish.

But that doesn't mean that I should never try new things! I can try new things all the time, and I can even take on more projects all the time. I just need to stop every once in a while and take a look at what I'm doing, and to not be afraid of scaling back. Of re-evaluating what I really want to do and adjusting accordingly.

But, the deal I'm making with myself is that I can't use this as an excuse to not do anything. I refuse to let my brain stagnate. I've seen what happens when people my age (and older) let that happen, and I will avoid that happening to me.


  1. The details are not important
  2. [citation needed]
  3. Yeah, knowing more languages is great, but so is being knowledgeable about the things your potential employer wants you do to, as it turns out
  4. Unless you live somewhere that observes daylight saving time, then you do get a 25 hour day in exchange for a 23 hour day once a year, so it averages out to the same thing

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