Edouard Harris


How to be a rocket ship

I’m a physicist who works at a startup, and I learned in school that most of the forces we feel come from collisions between atoms. You might have learned that in school, too.

Each collision is tiny. But trillions of them add up to an unstoppable force of nature. They can even be strong enough to move a rocket ship.

That’s true in physics, but it also applies to any other form of effort. It definitely applies to startups.

Suppose you’ve been working all day at your startup, and someone gives you one tiny choice: for the next five minutes you can either (1) keep working, or (2) goof off on Netflix or Hacker News. Which one do you choose?

If you’re self-righteous (or dishonest) you’ll say you chose to work. And maybe I’ll believe you. But what about the next five minutes? The longer you work, the harder it gets to avoid distractions.

Goofing off for 5 minutes might not seem like a big deal. But big, successful projects are built on millions of tiny increments of work added together. Like atomic collisions, lots of small efforts in one direction add up to one big effort.

Choosing to work instead of goofing off for 5 minutes every day adds up to 3 more full days of work per year. That’s a big deal. So if you work at a startup, where your goal is to outpace your competitors on minimal resources, it’s worth finding ways to make consistent, marginal increases to your productive time. [1]

One way that often works is to give yourself rewards for completing tiny tasks. The rewards don’t have to be big: I take a sip of coffee every time I save a code change, while my app is hot-reloading. They don’t even have to be physical: I tap a checkmark on a Trello card every time I send a sales email.

Both those things make me feel good. The effect is like feeding a sugar pellet to a hamster: the hamster will do what it needs to do to get its next pellet. By hacking your own brain chemistry, you can leave a trail of dopamine breadcrumbs for your hamster brain to follow as you work. Some people call this “flow”, I believe. [2]

Another good technique is to switch modes right before you get bored. These days half of my workday is spent doing sales, and the other half is spent writing software. I do six sales follow ups, then submit one pull request, and then six more sales follow ups, and so on. I’ve tried doing seven follow ups per pull request, and I’ve tried doing five, but neither of those work. They both feel like long sprints: eventually I burn myself out, either on sales or on software. But six to one feels good, like I’m running a marathon: I could do it all day, and usually do. (Your individual mileage may vary.)

So the next time your mouse hovers over HackerNoon or Medium, stop yourself, and remember that it all adds up. [3] Use techniques like the ones in this post to hack your hamster brain and trick it into working harder. You want your startup to feel like a marathon, not a sprint.

Before long those gains will add up, and you’ll find you’re unstoppable. A force of nature. Maybe even a rocket ship.

[1] You also want to avoid situations where you work so long that your net efficiency goes down instead of up. But that’s another post.

[2] When you’re in flow, you’re supposed to be able to focus for a long time and screen out distractions. While I’ve found flow is real, it’s not usually an option in occupations that involve dealing with constant crises. For example, CEOs of post-launch startups rarely get to experience flow unless they clear their schedules way in advance.

[3] To the extent that this post has helped you to do that, you shouldn’t stop yourself or feel guilty for reading it.

Thanks to Russell Pollari, Fariya Mostafa, and Jeremie Harris for reading drafts of this.

Topics of interest

More Related Stories