When I was in my twenties, I moved a lot. I went to several colleges and moved to a few different cities. I dreaded it every time. In my mind, the idea of moving was a huge, overwhelming task that would paralyze me for days beforehand. This is common and probably fairly reasonable. But a friend of mine talked me out of it. Here’s what he said (I’m paraphrasing):

“We’re going to start a clock right when we park the moving van. I bet it’ll be under four hours until this truck is empty and everything is in the new place.”

We had already packed everything in boxes, and the timer didn’t include any unpacking. This wasn’t a complete picture. However, four hours of something really doesn’t sound that bad. And if you can be done by lunch, you can pick up the pace a little bit, knowing that you’ll get to rest soon.

We finished in three hours and fifty-eight minutes. And we weren’t going particularly fast either.

Now that I work an office job, days feel different. I often get to lunch, and if you asked me what I got done, the answer is ‘not much.’ But whenever that happens, I can’t help but think, ‘I could have moved into a new apartment in that amount of time. How did I not get anything substantial done?’

Direction matters a lot. When we give all our effort in a specific direction, it’s much easier to make giant leaps in what we are doing. If you want to get in shape, you’ll make a massive dent in it by training for an hour a day, four days per week, for about three months. The total effort is 48 hours. That’s what’s between most people and feeling good. The most significant barrier to that is figuring out exactly how to do it. Where to go? What kind of training? With whom?

Even ‘big’ projects have requirements that sound… kind of reasonable. Want to write a novel? A typical length novel is about 50,000 words. If you write 500 words per session, and a session is two hours, you’ll need about 200 hours. Twice a week, and you’ll be done in about a year. How about a marathon? If you have any running experience, you can expect to train about five times a week for 20 weeks. Some of these are long runs, so closer to 150 hours of training. Stanford’s CS 101 course lists a requirement of 4-6 hours each week for 6 weeks. That’s only 36 hours. What if you’re slow, and it takes twice as long? Still, only 72 hours to get a grasp of CS fundamentals.

None of these are easy. But what they aren’t is time-consuming. It only requires picking a direction and refusing to stop when it gets hard.