Randomization and Willpower


When I can’t sleep, I listen to audiobooks read slowly. I tried this with Borges, but it didn’t work because his stories are too interesting. (My other insomnia bro, Victor Hugo, tends to go on hours-long descriptions of the sewers of Paris, so is a better choice for this purpose.) A line from The Zahir wormed it’s way into my brain the other night: “a coin symbolizes our free will.”

Fitting, since a coin represents a fiction—money isn’t real—and free will is equally false (though like with Pascal's wager, you should believe in it anyway). When you flip a coin or use some other random process to determine an action and committing to the random outcome, you are exercising your willpower in a way that you couldn’t if left to your own devices.

I’ve recently introduced randomness into my life, and it has improved things everywhere I've applied it. It started, as so many things do, with ADHD. I’m on the umpteenth editing pass of my novel about a girl surviving her last few months before turning eighteen in the care of her abusive father who befriends a killer sea monster. The process is getting to the point where I can’t stand the thought of going through the text one more time. I began to use a random number generator to choose which chapter to edit, and aim to do one per day. It was a refreshing experience in several ways, one of which is that I gained newfound appreciation for the editing process. My early chapters, which have gone through much more revision (and more energized revision) than the latter chapters, are in much better shape which I could really only see when I edited Chapter 24 followed the next day by Chapter 2. It also allowed me to see unintentional echoes or repetitions in the text that I would have missed with linear editing.

I was so pleased with the results of incorporating randomness into my writing process that I wanted to try it elsewhere. Last year, I was radicalized by YouTube. It started with a quest for something new to do with an old eyeshadow palette, which led to other videos about eyeshadow looks. So I buy something new at Sephora. Then I learn about Pat McGrath. Then I learn about indie makeup brands. In a matter of weeks, I’m scouring the internet for rare single-pan multichrome shades that cost $25 a pan and come in unmarked packages from Canada.

How to make sure that these beauties don’t go to waste? Every morning, I use a random spinner + RNG to select a specific shade of makeup that I use in the day’s look. This sometimes forces me to get creative in figuring out how to use a shade I wouldn’t normally be drawn to. I’ve tried more new things in a week of incorporating randomness than I have during my entire radicalization journey.

My husband and I hate deciding what to have for dinner. At five o’clock, every day we don’t have a meal kit waiting for assembly, we sigh and try to muster enough give-a-shit to make a decision. The kids are no help with their constant cries for Chipotle. I set up a random spinner for cuisine types. The inevitable outcome is that something, say Italian, is selected. But none of our usual suspects in that genre sound appealing. So we skip our usual restaurants and try something new. I had the best gnocchi of my life in a cream gorgonzola sauce that I never would have experienced without randomness.

These are small nuggets of joy in every day life, minuscule, really, but have injected surprising charm into my pandemic-weary existence. I encourage you to give it a try—exercise your willpower by lashing yourself to randomness like Odysseus to the mast.

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