On Bullshit

If you’ve been reading for a while, you may have noticed that I almost never swear. I tend to think that there’s a more accurate way than swearing to express anything, but today I couldn’t think of a more fitting word.

What is bullshit? Well, it’s watching TV. It’s browsing the internet mindlessly. It’s partying. It’s doing busy work. It’s hanging out with people not so much because you like them, but because you don’t want to be alone. It’s eating for the sake of filling time.

Now, none of these things are pure evil. That’s what makes this tricky. You can watch TV and learn something interesting, or enjoy the relaxation it brings. You can stumble upon cool sites that you wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for mindless browsing. You can meet new people while partying. Busy work leads to a paycheck sometimes. Occasionally those random low-key hangouts whose primary purpose is to avoid loneliness elevate into great conversations. And hey, you’ve got to eat sometime– why not now?

These silver linings are blessings and curses. They embed some merit into otherwise bullshit activities, but at the same time that merit gets over-inflated and allows us to engage in these sorts of things without the mental repercussions that may come from something like, say, smoking crack. Even now, I imagine that your brain is objecting by saying, “Well, I met ____ when I was partying, so he’s wrong about that one. And the other day on Reddit I learned about ______, so that sort of browsing is fine.”

It’s important to consider the opportunity costs of these activities. What are we giving up in exchange for a remote chance of stumbling across some sort of interesting article?

In the past six to twelve months, I’ve made a really hard push towards eliminating this sort of bullshit from my life, and wow– what a difference it has made. For the first time ever, I feel like I’m way ahead on the productivity curve, shipping tons of work, and holding way more in reserve. I write seven blog posts per week, which takes half an hour a day. You don’t have to eliminate much bullshit from your day before you have a free half hour. I listen to a Chinese lesson, which takes twenty minutes. I was never much of a TV watcher, but in the span of time someone might watch a single hour-long show, I’ve written a post and learned some Chinese. Then I spend the rest of the day working on SETT. The types of features that I would have previously taken a week to do get done in a day and a half. The irony is that I’m not even an excellent programmer– I just don’t engage in bullshit.

As a little side project, I’m working on writing a novel. Once every couple weeks I take most of a day off from SETT and I sit down and write 7000-8000 words. On the surface that sounds like a lot, but when you eliminate things like flicking over to Reddit and taking two hour long breaks for dinner, you have time to put that many words down. Whereas in time past it was a serious effort to get down 1000 words per day, now it’s par for the course to do seven times that.

I also read around one hundred books a year now. Sounds like a lot, but to replicate this, all you have to do is cut out ninety minutes of bullshit from your day. Rather than browse the web at night like I used to do, I turn off the computer at midnight and read for an hour and a half. On average it takes me about 45 seconds to read a page, which translates into one hundred and twenty pages per night. Probably more like 90-100 if it’s a non-fiction book and I’m highlighting as I go. Let’s say 110 average. That’s 40,000 words per year, and the average book is about three hundred and fifty pages.

Reading and writing are two measurable things that benefit from the elimination of bullshit, but there are more difficult to define good uses of time, too. Habitually hanging out at a bar to avoid feeling lonely is bullshit, but spending time with your friends is probably a good use of time. So is actively going out and meeting new interesting people. So is watching a great movie or documentary once in a while. So is cooking a meal with your wife. I don’t mean to say that all non-productive activities are bullshit, because that’s clearly not the case.

I’m also not trying to suggest that everyone should eliminate bullshit from their lives. I’m an ambitious guy in his early thirties who has a lot of big goals, so I don’t have the luxury of engaging in bullshit. I can’t imagine that the point will ever come in my life where I believe that bullshit is a good way to spend my time, but I also wouldn’t criticize someone else for doing it. We all have our own life situations and goals. If someone burnt themselves out working and raising a family, and now wants to kick back and watch a bunch of TV, well, I’m not sure I’m in a position to judge that.

On the other hand, if you have a lot you want to accomplish and you don’t feel like you’re totally on top of those goals, take a look at how you’re spending your time. My guess is that a lot of it is going towards bullshit, and it’s up to you to decide whether that’s a good use of your time or not.

Heading to Boston/NY for Christmas/New Years! It’s going to be cold…

The picture is technically a water buffalo, but I thought a guy (Didimo the Panamanian Cowboy) triumphing over it was perfect.

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