Why You May Never Finish Anything Ever Again

“Ceaseless change is the fate for everything we make. We are moving away from the world of fixed nouns and toward a world full of fluid verbs.”Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable

The best part of writing a weekly blog is that every Monday, I know I will publish a new essay. It starts with an idea, moves through a couple drafts, and then becomes a finished piece. A small victory that brings me joy. A loop I get to close every single week.

The process is serene. It feels good to complete something — similar to the feeling of finishing a book, a podcast, or a project at work. It feels good to cross something off my mental (or actual) checklist. Even the act of crossing something off a to-do list inspires that same feeling of completion.

But to-do lists are not closed loops. They often go uncompleted, and the uncompleted items carry over to the next day where new items are appended. To-do lists are an “open loop”.

Ironically, the to-do list, meant to inspire that sense of control and completion, ends up becoming its own source of stress and unease. It’s constantly growing and evolving. It has the potential to be never-ending.

To-do lists are not unique in this regard. We are increasingly living in a world of open rather than closed loops. The news — which used to come every morning on a finite amount of paper — is now a never-ending stream of updates on Twitter, Google News alerts, and 24/7 cable coverage. Mail is no different, now delivered electronically, all day long, instead of once a day by your friendly postal worker. A phone call or coffee date used to be enough to catch up with friends — now we’re subjected to an endless feed of activity. We live in fear that we’ll miss out. Ironically, blogging — which feels closed from the perspective of individual blog posts — is itself an open loop when you take a step back. I could potentially blog every week until I die.

This metaphor of open and closed loops reminds me of the concept of “stocks and flows” (from Robin Sloan and then Austin Kleon).

“Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that reminds people you exist.”

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.”

A book is stock — a finished product. A Twitter feed is a flow — constantly updating; never ending. Stocks are finite and can be finished. Flows are inherently stressful because keeping up requires constant vigilance. You can’t reach the end of Twitter (or the beginning…? I guess it depends which way you’re looking at it).

My fear is that the digital era threatens to turn all stock into flow. Even once-immalleable stock like books or albums can be immediately updated and rereleased.

I think this is why we’re seeing a revival of physical objects. It’s why ebooks didn’t completely cannibalize paperbacks and why hipsters still buy vinyl. There’s something beautiful about a finished object. There’s peace in crossing an item off a to-do list. Open loops continuously provide new stimulus, new updates, and new content — but holy cow, closed loops mean I can go make a sandwich and do something else with my life.

Absent global nuclear winter and the destruction of the Internet, we will march ceaselessly towards the world of open loops, of flows, of verbs, of becoming rather than being. But that also means we’re entering a world that is constantly threatening to outpace us. We’ll have to sprint simply to stay in place.

There are benefits in becoming, but there is beauty in being.

Each week, I write a new article helping busy people find meaning and fulfillment through sustainable creative habits. If you enjoyed this week’s letter, you can sign up to get them delivered to your inbox each week by digital carrier pigeon.