Projects with Half-Lives

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Let's say that you're converting your barn to a workshop (as indeed I am as I write this), and you decide that it really needs sweeping-out. So one fine day you go out and proceed to sweep the barn. It's a big project, as this barn has been accumulating dirt, organic waste (cows, raccoons), and old bits of hay for about eighty years. But you make good progress, and at the end of the day you've swept out half of the dirt in the barn.

The next day you return to the task, and once again make good progress and sweep out half the dirt in the barn. Something seems a bit wrong with this, but no matter.

A few days later you return to the task again, and, again, sweep out half the dirt in the barn. Slowly the realization of what is happening comes to you.

It really does work this way, you know.

What we have here is a project which has a "half life," in the sense that physicists speak of the radioactive decay of elements. Each session, no matter how hard you work, half of what needs to be done remains undone. Forever.

You're never, ever, going to get that last speck of dirt out of the barn.

It turns out that quite a lot of projects have half-lives - not just the sweeping out of old barns. This is comforting to realize. You're not lazy. You merely have perfectly reasonable goals which are in principle impossible to accomplish. It's not you - it's the way the universe is structured.

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