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Do things fast

Why you should practice moving quickly

Reminder to self: do things fast.

Starting a new task requires a high level of activation energy. It can feel easier to just not do it. My lazy, animal brain will complain about the effort, even if the task something I’ve done dozens of times before.

I’ve been writing this blog for more than five years. At this point, I have a long list of writing topics that are in my backlog, so writer’s block itself is not the problem. And I know I will be satisfied after structuring my thoughts into a cohesive, written narrative. It doesn’t even matter if anyone ever reads the writing! I still am happy to have going through the process of writing.

And still, every time I sit down on a weekend afternoon, there is mental resistance to getting started.

The only thing that has reliably got me to keep up a writing habit is by doing it quickly. As James Somers writes,

Slowness seems to make a special contribution to this picture in our heads. Time is especially valuable. So as we learn that a task is slow, an especial cost accrues to it. Whenever we think of doing the task again, we see how expensive it is, and bail.

That’s why speed matters.

And as you practice doing things quickly, it becomes the default mode. The mental resistance, which never fully goes away, shrinks until it stops overpowering the pull towards the reward and satisfaction of doing the task. Eventually being fast and good at something becomes inherently fun:

That doesn’t mean be sloppy. But it does mean, push yourself to go faster than you think is healthy. That’s because the task will come to cost less in your mind; it’ll have a lower activation energy. So you’ll do it more. And as you do it more (as long as you’re doing it deliberately), you’ll get better. Eventually you’ll be both fast and good.

Being fast is fun.

A few days ago, I was helping another engineer debug his code. He had been stuck for more than hour trying to figure out the issue before finally asking for help. I started going through my fast debugging process and together we figured it out in 15 minutes. It was a tricky bug caused by a browser issue with scroll animation methods colliding with user-initiated scroll behaviors. Years of fast debugging (particularly animation bugs) made it an easy and satisfying problem-solving experience for me.

It can be difficult to push yourself to practice moving fast if you don’t know the speed that things can be accomplished. Patrick Collison has a list of infrastructure and software projects that were done very quickly. The timeline of a particular project was very surprising to me:

Apollo 8. On August 9 1968, NASA decided that Apollo 8 should go to the moon. It launched on December 21 1968, 134 days later. _Source: Apollo Spacecraft Chronology.

This is a stunning timeline for a project of this scope and complexity, even more so for one run by a government agency. I have worked on software rewrite projects that have taken more time than the first crewed spaceflight to the moon!

It’s also possible to learn from others repeatable ways of moving faster. Jamie Brandon wrote a multi-part series reflecting on their last decade in tech. One part focuses specifically on moving faster, with the takeaways applying to more than just programming:

  • Actually care about being faster
  • Make decisions based on goals
  • Focused blocks of coding for 2-3 hours
  • Batching larger projects into subtasks
  • Make small changes
  • Shorten feedback loops
  • Writing stuff down
  • Reduce frequent mistakes
  • Make low-level skills automatic
  • Reflect on processes that could be faster

One way that I reflect on my writing speed is by tracking how long it actually takes to write each post. At the end of each blog post, I include the word count and hours spent writing/editing in the footnote. You can see the numbers for this post in the footnote below.

Graphing these numbers shows that my diligent efforts to write faster have had some effect. Even though there’s frequent backsliding, the trend line moves in the right direction:

words-per-minute-graph How many words per minute it took to write each blog post over the years.

So if being faster at something is more fun, this graph is concrete proof that I am having more fun, right?

This article was last updated on 9/10/2023. v1 is 731 words and took 2 hours to write and edit.