Bill Thurston [writes]:  > Mathematics is a process of stari...

Bill Thurston writes:

Mathematics is a process of staring hard enough with enough perseverance at the fog of muddle and confusion to eventually break through to improved clarity.

This description resonates more with my experience of design research than anything Getting Things Done has to say, valuable though it was in my past life. To make progress in my present work, I need to “stare hard enough and with enough perseverance at the fog of muddle and confusion.” But if I’d read that last sentence five years ago, I don’t think I’d have really understood what it meant. I wouldn’t have grasped how difficult it is to stare this way, or how impossible progress is without this state of mind. Here’s what I might tell my past self:

“Why is this so hard? Because you’re utterly habituated to steady progress—to completing things, to producing, to solving. When progress is subtle or slow, when there’s no clear way to proceed, you flinch away. You redirect your attention to something safer, to something you can do. You jump to implementation prematurely; you feel a compulsion to do more background reading; you obsess over tractable but peripheral details. These are all displacement behaviors, ways of not sitting with the problem. Though each instance seems insignificant, the cumulative effect is that your stare rarely rests on the fog long enough to penetrate it. Weeks pass, with apparent motion, yet you’re just spinning in place. You return to the surface with each glance away. You must learn to remain in the depths.”