Prasanna Natarajan

Don't be a Donkey or a Monkey

I want to do so many things with my life. Here are some from off the top of my list.

  • read all the books I have in my “books to read” list, and all the other great books ever written (no time though)
  • learn to create mobile apps and ship apps that are all just lying in idea stage so far (no time though)
  • learn physics and maths, at least till what I can understand. I’ve always loved these 2 topics in school, but never took a deeper interest (no time though)
  • write and publish at least 1 tech and 1 non-tech book (no time though)
  • write all the software for the tools that I use (eg: my own contact management, file/photo storage app, note taking app, habit tracking app, twitter scheduler app etc) (no time though)
  • travel to cool places and live there for at least 2 months (no money and no time)
  • read open source code more than I read books or blogs

Well, you get the idea (the list is endless).

I’m afraid I’ll die without doing all of them, and I want to do all of them!

And every single time I try to make take a first step on any one of them, I always end up taking the first step on more than one of them. For a while, they all progress very slowly, and then the efforts die because of lack of enough momentum at the start in terms of time spent on them.

And then, as usual, the 2 philosophers I love most seem to have the solution.

Derek Sivers says “don’t be a donkey”.

Buridan’s donkey is standing halfway between a pile of hay and a bucket of water. It keeps looking left and right, trying to decide between hay and water. Unable to decide, it eventually dies of hunger and thirst.

A donkey can’t think of the future. If he could, he’d clearly realize that he could first drink the water, then go eat the hay.

Don’t be a donkey. You can do everything you want to do. You just need foresight and patience.

And then Naval says something similar.

Pick one big desire in your life at any given time to give yourself purpose and motivation.

Why not two?

You’ll be distracted. Even one is hard enough. A lot of being peaceful comes from having your mind clear of thoughts. And a lot of that comes from being in the present moment. It’s very hard to be in the present moment if you’re thinking, ‘I need to do this. I want that. This has got to change.’

You can follow one desire at a time, and have all of your desires met.

Ok then, it’s time to articulate my one desire now: To read open source code. Start with small ruby gems and small js libraries. And then I’ve also forked the “” rails repo. What’s the finishing point here? There’s no end-goal here except for the fact that I want to cultivate a habit of reading code just as I already have a habit of reading books. The main challenge I see is the difficulty with starting up the task. But the solution is to have some codebase opened already and every time I’m distracted, I can ‘remember’ to read the code instead.

And I think there should be some definition of done. Either your weight became your desired weight or you exercised for 90 days. Without a clear endpoint, the “one desire” might get foggy. So, in my case, I can update it to: “I’ll read open source code for the next 90 days”. And then based on how things change, I’ll move on to the next desire.

I’m now thinking.. isn’t the “one desire” contextual? On weekends I may have a different “one desire” and on work days it will be different. Right?

PS: Don’t be a monkey either. The default nature of our mind is to be like monkey. Swinging from one thought to another non-stop. Being monkey-minded doesn’t help with the plan of having a single desire. Practice mindfulness and focus on the “one desire”.