Fiddling gets a bad rap. It's been associated with wasting time and procrastinating. It doesn't fit nicely into many "productivity" system. If your boss asks what you've been working on, the correct answer is rarely "fiddling." That's too bad because I think the process of fiddling is a righteous endeavor.1
I am the sum of my fiddling. As a child, I fiddled in school. I did science experiments with pencils and erasers while my teacher talked about the plight of the blue whale. That fiddling paved the path for a couple degrees in science. When I was a scientist I fiddled with programming and computer hardware. Five years later I left the lab to work with programming and computer hardware.
Fiddling is my dowsing rod. It leads me towards my joy. It also helps me become better in ways I can't plan or schedule.
I make many scripts during a week. Some are tiny piles propping up my life. Others are worse than garbage. None have been a waste of time. Each script I write does two things.
- Makes me better at scripting in several languages.
- Forces me to examine my workflows at a microscopic level.
For example, my blogging system is built on top of Python and Hazel. The project started as a bit of tinkering and fiddling. It started when I realized I was spending way too much time uploading images for Macdrifter, so I built an automated FTP and S3 uploader. Then I realized the next big time sync was dealing with writing and then transferring to WordPress. Many days of fiddling resulted in me learning a lot about the WordPress API, Python, S3, and my own distaste for WordPress.
I am now moving off of WordPress by fiddling with Python, Regular Expressions and my inherent laziness.
I brew beer occasionally.2 Brewing is not fiddling. It's a time consuming process that requires scheduling and planning. But brewing provides many opportunities for fiddling. I can always improve my homemade mash tun. I can make my own reverse wort chiller. I can tinker with remote temperature sensors.
In many respects, brewing is an excuse for my fiddling and one of the reasons I love it.
My excursions make me better because it's the only time I stop to really examine my process. Building rules for Mail.app is not a mindless process. To make a good mail rule I have to critically think about what I want out of my email. I have to honestly consider my own frailties and human defects.
Some people might see the process of making macros as a waste of time. I may spend two hours making a macro that saves me 30 minutes. I don't see it that way. I see it as two hours spent thinking about how I work. Making a macro to create markdown lists forced me to think more about how I abuse lists.
Fiddling is a way for me to free my mind. It's almost always when I am at my most creative.
I keep schedules. I achieve deadlines. I have a calendar I obey. I have a task list that lights my path. I'm an adult with responsibilities, but fiddling will always be a priority. I don't think it's a coincidence that many of my favorite things all started with fiddling.
Not nearly as much as I like but as much as I should. ↩