Five Pickets a Day

tl;dr Get things done, one step at a time.

We live in a world of prolific information. That information includes wisdom and good advice. All we have to do is filter out the bad, but most of the time, even when we get to the good and relevant, we’re just not ready to hear it. We hear things selectively or we hear and then forget, not making the change or taking the action that would improve our situations. Yet, sometimes the weirdest things stick with us.

Last summer, we extended our backyard fence around the side of the house in order to enclose more space for a garden. My dad helped (and by helped, I mean designed the project and did most of the work). After nailing in the pickets with Shad, it was up to me to paint it. We could have left it unpainted, but the rest of the fence was already painted a poopy brown color that I wanted to be rid of and the new section was an obvious mismatch.

I thought it would take a few days of work and I would be done with it. A friend actually lent me his paint gun, so I could really get between the pickets and get the job done faster.

But it didn’t go as I anticipated. The paint gun outsmarted me. It kept getting clogged up and I felt like I was wasting paint. I tried a roller and quickly realized that painting highly variable angled, irregular, and cheap wood with a roller was a pointless endeavor. I went back to the brush, carefully (and often sloppily) covering each picket, one at a time, jamming the brush tip in between pickets to cover the edges, often pushing paint out the other side, sometimes running over to the other side to sop up the drips. Oftentimes, letting them be.

It’s what I did after work everyday. It was taking forever.

When my dad, who in all honesty, had done the all heavy lifting up that point, asked how things were going, I whined that it sucked and that I was spending my whole summer, nay, my whole existence, painting this goddamn fence.

His response, in line with the patience that I’ve known my whole life was, why the rush? Paint five pickets a day. You will finish eventually.

Obviously, this sentiment of patience wasn’t a revolutionary concept for me, but for some unknown reason, it made so much sense in this context. It was a relief to be free of an arbitrary deadline and accept that ‘slow and steady’ was okay.

I accepted the advice and when I got home the next day, I filled up a small paint tray, used up the paint and was done for the day. I actually painted more than five pickets, but I was done in about 30 minutes. It was a finite commitment and I had the rest of the evening to do as I pleased. I repeated this for several days. Then, I skipped several days. Then I repeated it again. I eventually got it done and in the process, I stopped being angry about how long it was taking.

Without being totally conscious of it, I started applying the ‘five pickets a day’ philosophy to other parts of my life, namely learning and programming, which is a constant point of stress (for many developers). I took my ever growing list of concepts that I don’t yet, and feel like I should already, understand, and I started looking up one concept a day. I didn’t learn the depths of any new programming paradigm in a day, but by reading an introduction or grokking smaller concept within a larger one, I got one step closer.

This works for technical books that are hard to get through. Read one chapter a day. Online courses – watch x videos or get through x sections per day. Personal projects – finish one user story or add one feature per day.

Another application is exercise. At minimum, I’m trying to get to the FitBit recommended step goal of 10,000 steps every day. FitBit is good about reminding you to get up every hour. I take advantage of the triggers and I apply the same philosophy. Five pickets a day turns into 500-1000 steps/hour (depending on the day) and before I know it, I’ve reached my goal.

All the while, I’m thinking the words, ‘five pickets a day…’ like this is a widely accepted motivational saying.

Another way of saying this is, How do you eat an elephant? … To that, I say, You don’t eat elephants. That’s mean. Besides, because painting that damn fence was apparently such a formative experience for me, I’m just going to stick with what works and continue moving forward in life with five pickets a day.

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