My main goal as a writer is to write pieces that will spark a permanent positive change for someone. I assume that most posts won't do that for anyone, but if I write enough and have enough people read my posts, it will happen from time to time. I read a lot of blog posts and it rarely happens to me, but when it does, the effect is powerful and makes it worth reading all the posts that have no effect.
Around five years ago I read an excellent piece by Sebastian Marshall about Consolidation (http://www.sebastianmarshall.com/on-brilliance-and-consolidation) that had such an effect on me. Before reading it, any consolidation I did was random. Sometimes it happened, other times it didn't.
Consolidation, at least as I think about it, is taking time after progress to both cement the process and reset so that you're ready for the next piece of work. Some examples:
1. I built CruiseSheet to be a great cruise search engine, but it required a lot of my own intervention to keep it running. Things would break and I'd have to go fix them. So I spent a bunch of time automating maintenance, building failsafes, and building alerts to to let me know when stuff stopped working. This didn't increase revenue and certainly wasn't exciting, but it allowed me to keep the gains I'd made and free up my time and focus for the next project.
2. Over the past few weeks I've been making very small improvements to my condo. I fixed some of the home automation stuff that wasn't quite right, got wire molding to hide wires that go to speakers, put wireless chargers in my nightstands, created a cool "nothing on my desk" docking station situation, etc. The point is to tie up the loose ends from 95% finished projects and to create a stress-free work environment. I also went through closets and shelves and gave away or threw away extra stuff and trash and organized stuff I was keeping into bins.
3. Every credit card I get, besides offering a credit card bonus, also gives me a certain amount of cash or points back on each purchase. I realized that I didn't know which was which. I even accidentally used a card that had foreign exchange fees to build my cabin, which cost me hundreds of dollars. So I made a little spreadsheet to figure out which card I should use with each category and then printed out little labels to put on each card.
I don't necessarily love doing consolidation work. I love charging ahead full steam, breaking things as I go, taking risks, and getting work out there. That's why I neglected consolidation for most of my life. On the other hand, I absolutely love how it feels to have completed consolidation work. In fact, I find that feeling addictive. It's the "ahhhhh" feeling of having a totally clean desk with nothing but a keyboard on it, or the feeling of seeing your stale tasks on your todo list get erased.
I'd say that my balance is probably 85/15 in favor of expansionary work versus consolidation work. I don't know if there's a right number for everyone, but that feels about right for me. I charge forward for a few months and then I get that creeping feeling that I need to consolidate, and so I do. As soon as I finish, I find that my motivation to work goes way up.
It's always a little bit difficult for me to explain to people why I love living in Las Vegas so much. I have my standard reasons like low cost of living, good airport, etc., but I realize that a lot of why I like it is because it's the perfect place for me to consolidate. In fact, I start to feel that relief every time I land here.
Over time I've built my place to be a real sanctuary for myself. I have everything I need to make great tea, a perfect work setup, and I have routines that free up my focus from mundane daily details. Everything is automated, from vacuuming to bills to lighting and blinds. The low cost of living makes me feel like life goes on pause here. If I take a month off from life to consolidate here, I end up saving a bunch of money.
The calm feeling I get from being here is the direct product of consolidation, so it encourages me to do more of it.
Think about the projects you've done over the past year. What loose ends did they leave? What small things bother you that keep saying you'll get to later? What gains have you experienced recently that may erode if you don't do something to cement them? What habits are in limbo and at risk of being lost? These are all great candidates for consolidation.
As an experiment, take this weekend and dedicate it entirely to consolidation. Make a list ahead of time and then just churn through everything this weekend. My guess is that on Monday you'll feel like it was the amongst the best spent weekends of your life and you'll become addicted to consolidation too.
(By the way, some people do too much consolidation and not enough expansion. It should be a minority of your time)
Photo is a sea turtle at the Boston Aquarium.
I think of consolidation as being kind to my future self. She gets an easier and more productive life because of clean up and organizing that I do that. That makes me smile and more motivated to do this stuff.
Reminds me of Raptitude's post about Diving Deeper (maybe even taking a year to do this). Not quite the same, but similar effects, and both worth thinking about.
Very useful post, Tynan — makes me think of how the good programming teams at the startups where I have worked would sometimes allot a big chunk of a sprint or two to clearing technical debt instead of introducing new features. As you say, that stuff shouldn't be *most* of your time, but in the right balance it's a high-leverage way to free up time/space/bandwidth/energy for the next wave of building.
When I bought a house ten years ago, I also bought place settings for six and silverware for twelve. Then I developed a minor fascination with bone China and bought settings for eight. I probably had four dozen glasses. About once a month or so, all of these dishes would be piled up in and around my sink, begging to be cleaned. I didn't have a lot of dinner parties-- I just hated doing dishes so much that I'd procrastinate until washing became a full day event. Those days were some of my least favorite.
A few days ago, I was doing the dishes for the six of us that ate dinner. There were pots, pans, plates, serving utensils, and glasses. The works. For the first time ever, I found myself enjoying doing the dishes. I could appreciate the warm water on my hands and the shine in the pot when it was clean. When I washed everything that wasn't dishwasher safe, I started handwashing the things that could have just gone in the dishwasher. It wasn't fun exactly, but it was so enjoyable that I actually found myself looking forward to washing the dishes the next day.
Work has become the same way. I don't love all aspects of it equally, but when I wake up and know I have a tough day ahead of me, I feel great. Pant of it is that I know the day will end with a nice chunk of progress made, but most of it is the actual act of working. I love it. I can't wait to face off with a bug that's been bothering me for weeks, trace it through all of our code, and fix it. It's relaxing, like an internal Swedish massage.
My friend Constance wrote me an email today. She was talking about me with her sister and some friends, describing my hyperfocus on work, learning, and other productive things. An excerpt from her email:
I love building. I love expansion. I love making new things, doing new things.
But that's only one side of the coin. Expansion is fantastic, but you need to consolidate your gains.
Most of the time, you can consolidate a little bit each day. Clean things up, put things away.
But when's the last time you devoted an entire day to consolidation?
I try to do it at least 3 times a month. It's fantastic.