Buffet problem

Buffet, or not buffet, that is the question.

I'm not talking about the food line this time (though it does remind me of this old thing: Enough).

Every day, every week, every month, I do a little bit of planning ahead, thinking about goals, assigning the things I think I want to do to abstract pieces of future time. It never really works out. It's usually good enough—some of the important things get done—but, honestly, few things are as consistent as the too-long list of disparate things I wanted to accomplish in a day getting yanked out to sea by the furious riptide of Real Life.

For example, here's how I break down goals into "curricula":

  • Chinese curriculum: learning how to speak Chinese
  • Business curriculum: learning how work works—mostly reading books, papers, articles
  • Technical curriculum: keeping technical skills sharp—mostly studying things that can be written into software
  • Physical curriculum: running and strength training
  • Home curriculum: I added this to my list because if I didn't I'd get caught up in my own self and the things I wanted to do and crowd out the obviously more important facets of being better at home
  • Communication curriculum: writing and keeping in touch with people
  • Projects: the other things like professional societies, the Illinois alumni club, etc.—sort of a catchall for things that require time and planning but don't fit in other classifications

Every day, every week, every month, I think about these things, what the goals are, how to break them down, how I want to structure my time to to account for them. Et cetera. Even I know it's a little out of control. It's statistically unlikely to have a week that lines up well enough to do it all. It leads to weird behavior. Contorting to stuff plans into a fixed period of time. Overplanning and overthinking how to find the One True Way to organize a day or week. Feeling ashamed at not getting things done. And even if you do it all, it feels a little robotic and constrained, and there's another funny feeling that doesn't have a name, something like "if I could actually hit the target, was the target maybe a little too easy?"

Standing in the buffet line of possibilities, with your plate that can hold πt2, grabbing promises by the fistful... What can you do about that, really? Want less? Grab less? Be more time-efficient? Sleep less? Plan better? Execute more? Hire people to do things for you? Not all of those things at once, that's just a different flavor of the same thing—a meta-buffet problem.

I admire the people who focus on a single theme, hunker down, and execute. I think that's really the only way. No clever planning tricks. Why are you putting that thing on your plate? Do you really want to eat that? Why?


Here's an interesting take: Chris Brogan, Your Buffet Problem (You Have to Stop), LinkedIn Pulse (2015-05-22)


Follow-up posts:

  1. A very quiet moment as a solution to the buffet problem (2018-12-04)
  2. Buffett as a solution to the buffet problem (2018-12-07)

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