I’ve been struggling over the last two months with this year of month-long challenges. Call part of it burnout, part of it laziness, but it felt like every month I got further and further behind. Like this year, I was super ready to chase that cheese wheel and then…
Some of it is probably from the ‘not-so-normal’ year we are having, either consciously or subconsciously, but when it came to August, I figured I should make a change. The last few months had felt like a juggler trying to add another ball even though two just dropped. So I decided that this month I would catch up and finished some of the challenges that I started but hadn’t yet completed (along with other challenges that I finished but had not yet written blog posts for).
This last weekend: I had no plans, the apartment to myself, and figured it would be the perfect time to catch up on everything. I woke up, made myself some coffee, journaled about how I would focus on my priorities, and committed to at least finishing writing the sequel to my USB lamp creation. And then…hours went by.
I cleaned the litter box.
I watered the plants.
I did laundry.
I surfed the internet.
I did everything but work on those primary tasks. I gave up and gave full reins to the Procrastination Monkey. Eventually, I stumbled upon this video from Wheezy Waiter:
In it, he talks about how he recently learned how to solve a Rubik’s cube (along with, but independently from John Green) thanks to this video tutorial from Wired:
I’ve always been fascinated by Rubik’s cubes and those who can solve them rapidly. I’ve even owned at least two, one which I bought from a Walmart in Longmont, CO a year and half ago, swearing that 2019 would be ‘my year to learn how to solve one’. (It has been sitting on my desk ever since. I also bought an absolutely stellar Christmas-and-cat-themed onesie with embedded Christmas lights that has had significantly more wear.)
Now professional ‘speed cubing’ can be an intimidating world. Sure robots can solve them in under a four tenths of a second:
But people can also solve them them in under four seconds or even juggle three while simultaneously solving them all in under six minutes:
But those people are ridiculously devoted to this, right? Like watching the Olympics and expecting that you could just jump on the balance beam and think you could compete with Simone Biles. Learning curves have numerous shapes, but often time there is a bit of lag in the beginning:
You take a couple of lessons in a language before you are comfortable ordering at a restaurant. It may take you weeks at a gym before you see a doubling in how much you can lift (probably more in how fast you can run). But what about something where you could go from ‘That is completely impossible’ to ‘I did it!…in over an hour’ to solving in under two minutes…over a weekend?
The Procrastination Challenge
Learning how to solve a Rubik’s cube from scratch and getting much faster in a short span of time is hardly unprecedented. The creator of the Wired video that I will mention various times in this post got himself from never solving to under 3 minutes after a few days to under a minute after a few weeks. But speed was honestly not my motivation, as much as solving for a first time…and procrastination. So I watched the video, paused, rewound (somehow the past tense still sounds weird in a digital medium), and rewatched:
The first way through took a little over an hour, probably. I took a break, came back, and flipped through the video over about 30 minutes, solving and taking notes. Then I figured I’d try my first timed sessions:
The exponential rate of decline is kind of staggering. Imagine that you were trying to do a pull-up and couldn’t. Then someone said “try it like this” and after a few hours everything clicked and you could all of a sudden do 10 pull-ups. Sure, you are nowhere near the pull-up record, but that is astronomically higher than where you were one feature film ago.
That night I played around some more while catching up on Suits on Netflix, and the next day I tried a few more timed attempts:
Sure my average is still in the mid 2s, but I did at least one solve in UNDER TWO MINUTES! This was literally less than 24 hours before I had no idea how to solve a Rubik’s cube and it would have taken me YEARS! (without the Internet or our communal brain to help)
What I Learned
So what did I learn?
1. I like to feel smart
I’ve written about before that while I view myself mostly as a Ravenclaw, I find myself having a strong drive towards Recognition. Objective criteria are easier to measure, so things that improving ‘Cube Times’ fulfill that criteria.
2. Break things into parts
Now that I have that out of the way, maybe some more practical advice. The whole methodology around solving a ‘cube’ isn’t haphazardly trying to get colors to touch each other. It is in deciding a series of milestones to get to one’s goal and then determining what algorithms are required to get there. So often in life we have projects that crop up — finishing the basement, going Marie Kondo on our home, getting caught up on our ridiculous self-imposed project to do twelve one-month insane challenges in one year that later devolved into a global pandemic, murder hornets, and god-knows-what-else– that begin to seem so intimidating as to feel inapproachable. But solving a Rubik’s cube has a defined beginning and end. And if you follow the tutorial, you will see that there are eight steps to get you from the beginning to the end. And each of those steps can be broken into other separate sub-stages for certain cases, but in the end you probably only need to ‘memorize’ five ‘moves’ in order to be able to solve the cube without a guide. Sometimes when we lack solidarity and normalcy in our lives and work, that can be comforting.
3. Follow your plan, not your mood
We will get a little more meta in this section, but I recently read this blog post by Eric Barker about ‘Behavioral Activation Therarpy’, or BAT. The idea is that rather than following the guidelines of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), where one seeks out the emotions one is feeling and finds a thought source to those emotions, in BAT one takes a sort of ‘fake it till you make it’ approach and acts one’s way into feeling better. I’m not a trained psycho/analyst/logist/therapist, but the general premise is that if you reflect back, in a time of peaceful solitude, on the things that you did that brought you the most joy, you should plan to do more of those things and, this is key, do those things when they are scheduled whether you ‘feel like it’ at the time or not. Now this is one hell of a confetti-piñata-grenade to unpack, but for the sake of this blog post, I’ll leave it at this: sometimes it is better to follow through with the short-term plans we make while in a sound state of mind than to deviate mid-stream. This can apply to laboratory experiments, cooking in the kitchen, or…Rubik’s cube moves.
Because once you start to get the bottom and middle levels solved, you will need to mess them up over and over and over again. But if you trust in the algorithms, even after the many times that you mess up their executions, that they will get you to the point you wanted, you will finally get to six sides of monochromatic bliss.
While this isn’t where I had planned to journey over the weekend, I’m glad of where it has taken me. Additionally, I do not have dreams of being a ‘speed cuber’, but it would be cool to regularly solve a Rubik’s cube in under a minute. For that I’ll probably need some more practice and maybe some extra skills, but I’m in no rush. Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. I hope to get posts out about my other adventures by the end of the month. In the meantime, let me know if you pick up a cube yourself or have any tips on how I can improve.