I am building Timothy – a robot – to help me be a happier person. It sounds like an awful science fiction cliché – that I need a robot to feel happier, to feel more human – but in Timothy’s defense, he wasn’t always a robot.
Once upon a time, Timothy was just a single index card.
Timothy is being built on a hunch – that if I actually do what I dream of doing, that I’ll be a happier person.
Why happier? Because isn’t that the point? If you’re happy, be happier. If you’re unhappy, be happier. When viewed in this context, happiness becomes a velocity – a speed and a direction – rather than a destination.
So Timothy takes what I think will make me happy – my big goal, the afore mentioned dream – and makes sure I am constantly moving in the right direction.
Or, looking at it another way, Timothy is a bot that makes sure I’m not standing still. To do that, Timothy uses three pretty basic principles that I’ve picked up over the past decade or so I’ve spent building incredibly complex digital things. You know, the kind where if one thing goes wrong, everything is ruined? Well, actually he uses four principles, if you count sarcasm, but I think we all safely assumed that last one was there.
Compared to single tasking, multitasking produces dramatically worse results in most people – and I am no exception that rule. Each task we attempt competes with every other task, robbing attention and making any success less likely with each additional task added on. The same thing happens when making goals. The more goals that compete, the less likely you are to achieve any single goal, let alone all of them.
That’s why New Years Resolutions fail – because most people make several.
So, Timothy asks me to focus on one goal. After I achieve that goal, I can pick a new one. But Timothy wants me to handle one thing at a time – moving a thousand feet in one direction instead of one foot in a thousand directions.
If you’re like me, focusing on one goal is likely to lead to a goal that is huge. And since you’re like me and I’m a serial rapid planner, I’m guessing that you take that goal and start breaking it down into milestones – things that need to be accomplished in order to achieve that end goal. Those milestones turn into a roadmap and when goal congruence occurs, all of those milestones come together, like Voltron, to form your dream.
However, for most people – myself very much included – plotting out all of those milestones can lead to paralysis. If you’re lucky, you dispel the fear of the unknown by creating this roadmap. But if you’re normal one of two things happen – something happens to alter the plan or your roadmap becomes this massive To Do list that’s just way too much energy to deal with.
Or, to quote one Michael Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” And life loves mouth punches.
Timothy won’t let you do that. Timothy is anti-roadmap. He’s only interested in two things – what’s your big goal and what can you do today to help get you there. Not tomorrow, not next week, not eighteen carefully crafted milestones from now.
Timothy is focusing on today.
In fact, it’s usually not even today. It’s usually just tonight. That’s because like most of us, I have a day job. So, I have to pursue the dreams during my evenings. So, it’s Timothy’s job to ensure that today’s task is something I can both start and finish, in one evening.
Timothy applies a distinctly agile approach to managing my happiness – we call it “The Gut Check.”
When I tell Timothy the task I am going to accomplish for the day, he will often ask if that task is pushing me closer to my goal. And occasionally he’ll prompt me for a gut check – presenting two tasks and asking which one helped me make more progress. This is the robot helping me stay on track, making sure my tasks aren’t cheats designed to just get things done.
Mentally, I liken this to night land nav from back in the infantry. In the pitch dark, we’d have a compass, a direction, and a distance. Our task was use to compass to find the direction and count our steps to know the distance and then find the sign at at the other end. Walking a straight line without reference points, across a pitch black Georgian field, is a hell of a task. Success depended on regularly stopping, checking the compass and calculation your steps to make sure you were going in the right direction.
That’s what Timothy does. He forces those compass checks. He does so on both the macro (making sure your tasks are aligned with your goal) and the micro (making sure you’re getting your tasks done each day) level.
And yes, sometimes he can be a bit of a jerk about it. But I find I need that. And he’s my robot.
It might seem circular, but I am building Timothy by using Timothy. If I’ve ever invited you into my house, you might have noticed that there’s a large bulletin board hanging directly over my desk that’s completely bare except for two things – my dress CIB and a stack of index cards.
The CIB is just there to serve as a constant reminder. But that stack of index cards is Timothy v0.1.
You see, if turned out that if I could just get my butt in my desk chair, having a handwritten task looming before me was a fairly effective motivator. And piling each new task onto the previously completed task was a nice visual metaphor. I wasn’t crossing things off a To Do list, I was stacking accomplishments.
Of course, me being me, I knew my analog model was something that wouldn’t scale. And I needed even more nagging. I needed something that would get me off my couch, or out of my lounge chair, and into my desk.
And that meant I needed to learn how to program. So, over the past few months, I shifted my goal from Writing to Timothy. The tasks contents have turned from word counts, discovery, to learning. And now they’re slowly starting to shift towards building.
Right now, Timothy is a weird hybrid. He’s a completely written out flowchart. He’s a stack of accomplishments tacked to my bulletin board. He’s an instruction book for Golang. A small program. A few NLP systems. A boatload of future index cards.
Over the next month or so, with Timothy’s help, I’m planning to turn him from an analog system into something I can toss onto a server and maybe share with others. Until then, I’ve certainly got my work cut out for myself.