My experiments with doing things daily
In 2017, I started running experiments to see what happens if I do specific things on a daily basis, and over hundreds of days. All of this started with an experiment in making music for 365 days in a row.
The reason I started doing these experiments is because I noticed a pattern where if a client or employer asked me to see through a difficult project, I would be able to do it, and I would even go beyond their expectations. But, when I tried to see through my own independent projects, I could never do it. I would start, work on the idea for a bit, then something else would become more important, and I would never finish the project.
Why was this happening? I needed to understand. I believed that if I didn’t figure this out, I would waste my life by never bringing my own ideas to fruition.
My experiment with making music every day
On July 15th, 2017, I decided to see what would happen if I tried to create music for 365 consecutive days. I had never made music before this experiment. There was no ulterior motive. No intention to make money. This was an experiment in trying to finish something that I found both interesting and difficult, and to see what I would learn about myself and about the world if I could complete it.
The way it went down is, at some point in the day, the morning, the afternoon or very late at night, I would try to make a song at any level of quality before I went to bed. It was a chaotic, emotional, and overwhelming time for me. My son, and only child, was born 2 months before I started the experiment. And my wife’s father had passed away suddenly a few days before our son was born. The act of sitting down to make one of these mediocre songs became an anchor for me at a time where it felt like many things were crumbling.
When I started this experiment with music, it was confusing for people around me. They would say things like, “I don’t get it. You’re making music now?”, “What’s the point?” I would always reply the same way, “I’m doing this to see what happens.” Some thought my experiment was interesting, but most thought it was a waste of time. They felt the answer to my question, “what happens if I make some kind of music for 365 consecutive days?”, was obvious. “You will just get better” they said. But I felt strongly that there was more to this experiment than just that. I felt that if I kept going, I might learn more about who I am, how I work, how I get in my own way, and how I want to live. I felt I might learn more about how creativity works. I believed that if I could finish this experiment, I would understand why I was struggling to see through my own independent ideas.
On July 15th, 2018, I finished my experiment in making music for 365 consecutive days. The project totalled 20 hours, 28 minutes, and 47 seconds of continuous music. Most of the music was created using GarageBand (both on the iPhone and Mac) and Logic Pro. Many of the songs used existing samples and loops that I modulated and combined in ways that I thought were cool. Some of the music was ambient, some was hip hop, some was house, and some were other forms of electronic music. I used many audio excerpts from media I found inspiring like films, interviews, and lectures. I would weave them into songs to enhance the feelings and sense of narrative within the music. I would also integrate environmental sounds like the chatter of patrons in a restaurant, or the sounds of birds chirping in a forest. All of this felt right to me. I was trying to make something I liked, with whatever time and skills I had.
This experiment fundamentally changed how I think about what’s possible for myself. But the main thing it made me realize was that, if I want to see through my own independent ideas, I need to become the kind of person that can sustain effort for hundreds or thousands of days, and that’s something that requires practice. It’s something I have to work my way up to. No matter how many ideas I have, or how much I care about them, if I can’t sustain effort for long enough, none of those ideas will ever become real.
Making music every day, demystified how I could learn new things, and how I could see through long term independent projects. The process is not complex. I just need to work on my projects every day. Doing something every day is a guaranteed way to get better at that thing. It sounds obvious, but most people don’t do this. They look for courses, books or inspiration instead, even though this guaranteed method exists. There’s a lot of things in life I can’t control, but making something every day is something I can control.
When I try to do something daily, I hit all of the internal and external barriers in my life. The things that stop me from pursuing my own transformation and dreams. As I tried to make some kind of music every day, I was limited by my personal habits and life situation. In the past I had found this overwhelming and deflating, I would blame others, but as I kept making a song every day, I learned how to adjust my life around this daily creation. My family and friends started to adjust too. This daily creative act became a catalyst for personal transformation.
Once I had been making music for hundreds of days in a row, at times I would sit down to make a song and it’s like my brain would switch into a flow state instantly. I found this very surprising. I would sit down, put on headphones, and completely lose track of time. My fingers would swipe through the track pad on my MacBook Pro controlling Logic Pro’s interface very, very quickly and with ease. This was software I knew nothing about months earlier. I learned later that when you repeat actions over and over again, your brain reinforces the connection points between those actions by wrapping them with more of something called “Myelin”. The increased Myelin allows for more data to be transferred between the connection points of repeated actions, and it also allows for that data to be transferred at faster speeds. To me, all of this felt like instant creative flow.
Through this experiment with music, I realized that when starting something new, my focus has to be on producing a large quantity of output. If I instead aim for quality, my skill level won’t be able to achieve my vision of quality and I become discouraged and confused. I have to accept that making mediocre things is part of the process.
But the thing I found most interesting was that, the pressure to create a song every day forced me to select tools and methods that allowed me to work the fastest. This situation exposed me to any technology that was making it easier to make music. I assumed that to make music, I would need to know how to play the keyboard and other instruments. I assumed I would need to understand how to use advanced software like Ableton or Fruity Loops. I was surprised to learn that it’s possible to make interesting music pretty easily with just Garage Band on my iPhone. I’m not Steve Lacy or anything, but it opened my eyes to how current technology is transforming how things are made, and transforming what’s possible to make in a single day. I realized I will always have a dated view on how long it should take to make something because technology is evolving so quickly. I won’t truly know what’s possible, and at what speed, until I dive in and start making things myself and playing with the latest tools.
I found this experiment to be very valuable, but by the end of it, it felt like I was just scratching the surface of what I could learn by doing things daily like this. I needed to know more. I wanted to run more experiments.
My experiment with writing code every day
I thought I could learn something interesting by using the same concept of daily creation from my experiment with music, but applying it towards writing code for 365 consecutive days instead. Just like with music, I had not written any code prior to this experiment.
In many ways the experience of writing code for 365 days was similar to the experience of making music for 365 days. Specifically, the way in which it altered my perception of the world around me. When I was making music every day, it was as if I would perceive the world more musically. If I saw a blinking traffic light, I would wonder about its BPM. Sometimes it could trigger me to hear a sound, like a drum, each time the light would blink. I would then layer melodies on top of the drums, all in my head. I started to notice how everything had a kind of rhythm. Sometimes I could see a visual or an object that felt like it was on-beat, and other times I could see objects that felt like they were off-beat. It felt as though my mind was in the habit of making music, and this habit was being triggered very often.
While writing code for hundreds of days, something similar happened. I started to become more sensitive to the patterns of logic around me. I noticed how every whole object or idea could be separated into large components just like a computer program. These large components could be broken down into smaller components, and those smaller components could be broken down even further into tiny components. Everything around me started to look like a system of interrelated pieces of logic. I started to believe that everything I saw around me could be deconstructed, and anything I imagined could be built, but to do so, I had to be willing to form an understanding of each of its logical components.
What makes software different than other mediums like music or filmmaking (the latter is one I've spent a lot of time with) is that, software enables me to create tools for myself and for others, whereas in music or films, I am creating experiences. The difference between an experience and a tool is that, an experience is something that you can project yourself into or escape into, but a tool is something you can use to create your own things, or to do something faster, or do something with less effort, or do something you could never do without the tool.
The other thing that was different about my experiment in writing code every day was that, when I started, I began getting messages from people who had seen my experiment with music and wanted to do their own experiments with making something for 365 days.
I thought this was interesting because while I was trying to make music every day, the experience was very isolating. I started to wonder how much more enjoyable it would have been if others were also doing their own projects along side me for 365 days. So I created a group chat called “Futureland” and invited all of the people who were interested in trying their own projects. Some people would draw something every day. Some made music. Some worked on a game. Some did yoga. There was a wide range of disciplines being explored.
As I kept writing code through the year, I started developing tools for myself and for these individuals who were doing their own daily projects for 365 days. One of those tools was a chat bot named “Otis”. Users could send Otis any media that documented what they created each day and Otis would store that media, along with any notes, in a journal that allows users to reflect on their progression over time.
As the year went on I kept building more tools for these users and at one point, the project, which was now officially known as “Futureland”, was on the first page of the popular website, HackerNews.
I had a lot of ideas on how to improve Futureland, but it was still just a chat bot with a website attached to it, and there were basic functions that I needed to add. I was limited in what I could do with just my skills. I had only been writing code for a few months.
I really liked the idea of making tools that helped people learn things and improve their lives by doing something daily, but I felt super restricted in how I could explore this problem alone. I started to wonder if something like Futureland could become a startup.
Futureland as a startup
I met Lucas, now my co-founder, via direct messages on Twitter at the end of 2019. Two years after I started my experiment with making music. He was an independent software developer who was born in Germany and was living in Indonesia. Lucas was curious about the tools and community that were forming around Futureland and he wondered if he could help out.
I was reluctant to take any help after a few years of ups and downs from working with other people. I needed a break from all of that and I wanted to work alone. I wanted to understand the extent of what I could do with just a computer and an Internet connection. At the same time, it felt like there was something interesting happening with Futureland and this idea of “doing things daily”. I felt like I would never understand what that interesting thing was if I did not get help from others. I recognized that I would never be able to take Futureland where I wanted to on my own, with just my skills as a beginner developer.
So one night, before I went to bed, I mocked up some sketches for some new Futureland interfaces that we needed and sent them over to this stranger named Lucas. I shut off my computer and went to bed.
When I woke up in the morning, the sketches I sent him were fully functioning interfaces. While I was sleeping, he finished them as fast he could and sent them back to me. In that moment, while I was looking at these completed interfaces, Futureland felt more alive to me than ever. I was nervous, but I took a leap of faith and asked Lucas to come live and work with me in Toronto for a month so we could see what it might be like working together. He agreed and arrived in Toronto in January 2020. We rented a house on the west end of the city, which we started calling “House 1”. We called it this because we believed if we were actually going to see through Futureland to its end, there would be many times we needed to live and work together like this, and this house represented the first time we did it.
House 1 was fun. We would sketch interfaces and write code while friends would come by to test what we were making or just hang out. In the evenings, a bunch of us would often go to a theatre in Toronto called TIFF Lightbox which often plays unique and independent films. It was an inspiring mix of activities. Talking to friends, making software, watching movies.
We were also following a new virus called COVID-19 which was being discussed and tracked on HackerNews. Each day we would look at the number of reported cases of the virus climbing in Wuhan, China. At the time, the whole thing was scary, but it seemed liked a very distant problem. No one around us in real life was talking about it. I would have never imagined that I would not see Lucas again for almost 3 years, but that’s what happened. He left Toronto. Everything locked down. And we’ve been working together remotely ever since.
Transitioning into making software for everything we do daily
At first, Futureland was entirely focused on helping users get better at a skill by making something for 365 days in a row. This works because deliberate practice every day leads to increased skill. But could this same insight be applied to every aspect of a person’s day and every aspect of one’s life?
Can Futureland be used to help users drink more water each day? Can it be used to help users floss or eat an apple each day? Can Futureland help users maintain a clean space by encouraging them to clear their desk and put things away each day? Can it help improve a relationship by encouraging you to do something for your partner each day?
We started to incrementally adjust Futureland to support a wider range of daily use cases, and when we did, we noticed that users were using Futureland a lot more. As we made these adjustments, users found Futureland to be more valuable, and also more irreplaceable.
Unlike other habit tracking software, Futureland is a tool that you can use for your small daily habits as well as for larger projects. Each day we keep building on the core underlying insight that started with my first experiments. The insight that, we can improve any area of our lives by taking control of our daily behaviours.
For example, when we found some users were having difficulties sticking with their daily activities because of poor sleep, we integrated our own sleep tracker into Futureland. It encourages users to sleep in the same time window each night, and tracks how many days in a row you can do that. This is another example of how we are trying to build a cohesive well integrated tool for everything our users want to do daily.
Futureland is a challenging project with many ups and downs, but we work on it daily because we believe there's a lot of potential in creating fun to use tools that help individuals take control of their daily behaviours.
In a world where each of us has access to unlimited information and powerful new technology, we believe these kinds of tools are necessary because our only remaining limits are our daily behaviours. I can have access to millions of tutorials on how to lift weights, but I cannot get stronger if I do not lift weights for hundreds of days. I can have access to millions of tutorials on how to code, but I can never become a computer programmer if I don't write code almost every day.
When I started experimenting with doing specific things daily in 2017, I wanted to understand why it was difficult for me to see through my own independent ideas, but it was easier for me to see through the complex projects of an employer or a client.
The answer I found for myself was that, I was unable to see through my own independent ideas because I had minimal personal infrastructure to help me complete those projects, whereas when I was asked to complete something by an employer or a client there was lots of infrastructure to help me complete their projects. I was using their deadlines, the incentives that come from being paid, their follow ups, their meetings, their expectations, and the accountability that comes from making a promise to someone else. I was using all of this to help me complete their projects.
On my own projects, I had minimal infrastructure to help me complete them. What I mean is, I did not have the ability to sustain effort for long enough to bring my ideas to fruition. This is something that I never practiced or even knew I could practice. I was not using the daily routine, the habits, or the tools that I needed to in order to sustain effort for the hundreds or thousands of days required to finish my independent projects. I had not practiced being OK with making something mediocre on the way to making something good. I had not internalized that bringing my ideas to life could be as simple as making some time to work on them every day. I was assuming I knew how things worked instead of diving in and making lots of things at any level of quality to find the truth for myself.
But mostly, I was overly focused on the “idea” and not aware that, for me, all of the joy comes from the side effects of pursuing an idea and not the idea itself. The side effects are the memorable surprises, the personal transformations, the creative tangents, the new friends, and the adventures that come from committing to something new and seeing it through to the end.