147 - Shepard tone - how to run multiple projects in parallel


personal development

I’m working on a longer piece and that’s keeping me occupied far longer than what I had accounted for. I think there’s enough potential juice in that squeeze so I aim to keep going. Meanwhile, here’s a thought that’s ready for you.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been balancing a full-time job with a steady weekly load of reading and writing. To that, in the last year, I’ve added coaching and digital products. Because I’m interested in learning things from the ground up I end up going slow at the beginning of a new pursuit. It used to be a problem earlier and I have left undertakings (learning no-code tools, systems thinking, blockchain) before I have reached an acceptable level of sophistication, but now having juggled/balanced/integrated multiple pursuits for a while, I believe I may have something to share on, well, how to juggle/balance/integrate in a way that’s sustainable.

Here are a couple of things right off the bat.

One, you don’t have to do it. In fact, most don’t. It is enough to manage a job with a family (I’m assuming here), to steer you away from adding anything to that stack.

And two, you shouldn’t do it because someone else—no matter how much you admire or how often you see—does it. I’m tempted to label this desire to model yourself on another more accomplished person, envy. Envy eats you up. Your time is precious. Don’t borrow someone else’s passions to fill it. For all you know, that someone else may have borrowed it from someone else. That’s how, as Rene Girard suggests, girls of a certain age across the world end up appearing to have coordinated a simultaneous decision to bare their navels—otherwise known as a trend. Mimesis runs on envy. Beware. And no one is safe from its gravity. Not even Scarlett Johansson.

Assuming you _want _to do things and it is a thick—not thin—desire of yours, what can you do?

In any pursuit, I believe, we’re in one of two modes: divergent and convergent. When we’re exploring, we’re collecting knowledge, we’re accruing data points, we’re in divergent mode. It is tempting to cut this phase short, especially if you’re the type to recalculate your return on investment every other hour, because the scope of your attention will seem to constantly expand. You cannot stay in the divergent zone forever because you’ll get bored of it. You’ll get bored because you’ll have nothing tangible to show for it, and starved of any gratifications, your mind will wander off, leaving you to wonder how the heck did you lose interest in something you clocked a dozen hours a week until recently. But, but, but—this is not the only phase.

On the other side is the convergent zone. In this phase, you can expect yourself to focus, sharpen, narrow your attention down to a few specific things. Think of the lead-up to a test, a presentation, a pitch, a match. As much as you like widening your area of search, it is unhelpful for you to be in exploratory mode a week before a big session you’re delivering for an audience. You’re most likely offering something specific and defined to the audience in the limited time you have their attention for and you cannot squander that by going outside the lines. You have to hone only those skills that you need for the occasion. Anything else you do in that crucial lead-up phase could be you trying to avoid putting yourself on the line.

That’s not the only reason, though. The process of distilling down what you have learned into a bounded unit teaches you selection: what is salient, what is not. It teaches you mastery. Which handful of things from your repertoire can you pick to practice and perform so well as to knock the socks off your audience or your competitors?

If you did just one thing in life and you never had to do anything new, a few cycles of divergence and convergence and you don’t need much prep before a big day. You’re also likely to go flat soon because to your trained mind it will no longer be a challenge. I’m thinking of agents selling insurance.

But we’re talking about pursuing multiple hard things simultaneously. This is where I’m going to introduce a concept that I hope will stick inside your head. It is called Shepard tone.

I didn’t know of it until a few months ago but once I heard it, it seemed to fit my abstraction of my experiences like a glove. And I heard it while researching Christopher Nolan’s methods. Nolan employs a musical structure called a Shepard tone in the background score for his movies that seems to feel to the listener like a series of continuously rising notes. In Dunkirk, for example, he has used Shepard’s tone to convey a feeling of foreboding, a perpetually cresting wave of tension.

A way to think about it is to think of a corkscrew or a screw of any kind. Notice the way the threads on the screw seem to continuously go up and up as you rotate the screw?

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Like Nolan’s movies have multiple storylines, you may have multiple projects running. “As one storyline is peaking, another one is building, and a third one is just starting out,” explains Nolan. In music and moviemaking, the effect of a Shepard tone is disconcerting. It is supposed to drive tension. For us, the idea behind employing the device is to keep up the level of energy across our domains of work. At no point is there a slump because the waves of energy are continuously cresting. You’re not left for an entire day doing the boring job of maintaining a consolidated list of all your followers across platforms or formatting your digital handbook or some such thing. You get to pair it with something more exciting that you look forward to.

Still—when I tried to work on simultaneous projects in this manner, my plans ran aground. Here’s how I described it to a friend a couple of months ago, retrieved from my notes:

I play several roles at the same time, often in the same day: job, newsletter writer, coaching engagements, reader/learner, marketer of my products/services. Often I find it hard to switch between roles. It takes me time to get back in the groove and I lose a few hours in the process and I end up completing much less than what I had thought I would. I'm keen to explore a sustainable way to switch roles without wasting time or feeling fatigued, and one that helps me stay close to what I plan.

One of the ideas that emerged from the conversation that ensued around my challenge was to chunk my days. Since I’ve been breaking my days into six-hour chunks. And I try and stick to one or more predefined vocations in that time. These windows of time are big enough for me to not worry about switching contexts. There’s a natural ebb that happens within that window that allows me to switch to something else without feeling like I’m disrupting flow. The six-hour duration is arbitrary. You can pick four or even two, as long as it fits the purpose of your life and what you’re trying to achieve. What is more important is that you be intentional in deciding your approach.

The source of Scarlett Johansson’s anxiety

What are thin and thick desires?

Shepard tone

My digital products

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