Writing DoorDash-inspired Peg Word Stories

In January of this year I joined the Gig Economy, doing deliveries for DoorDash. You can find a more lengthy discussion of my thoughts on DoorDash specifically and the general idea of the gig economy in this post but in short I like the work ok and it affords plenty of opportunity to work on various aspects of personal development that I am exploring.

When you first start delivering, there is a bit of a learning curve to it. Figuring out how the app works and what the process is for receiving orders, accepting or rejecting them (fuck you, non-tippers), and picking up and delivering the food. That takes about one shift of 3-4 hours to get comfortable with. Next you have to get a feel for which restaurants are good to work with (orders ready quickly, pickup inside vs. drive-through) and the fact that some restaurants actually go by two names, e.g. – “Chili’s” is also “It’s Just Wings”, Old Chicago is also “Twisted Tenders” and “Dennys” is also “The Burger Den”. (I’m sure there is a reason restaurants do this but I haven’t yet figured it out yet.) Ok, that might take a week, two maybe if you’re not that bright. After that you’re pretty much on auto-pilot each shift. If they can figure out how to train monkeys or dogs to get in and out of a self-driving car and pick up food I’ll be out of a job. (mental note – business idea! Look into it…)

So the obvious places for a productivity and self-improvement junkie to start with getting a little mental simulation instead of just checking out for hours at a time is listening to podcasts and audio books while driving in the car, and reading snippets of books on the Kindle app while waiting for orders in the restaurants. This is great, don’t get me wrong, I’ve clocked up a lot of hours on Audible and the Apple Podcasts app driving the last few months and have really enjoyed it.

Two problems I ran into with just listening and reading however:

  1. I am a note-maker. I like to make lots of notes when I read or listen to later transfer into my Obsidian-based second brain, and that isn’t exactly the safest thing to do while driving. This leads to me trying to remember important points long enough to quickly scribble them down at red lights (yes, I see it’s green now, thank you for honking!) or when I stop at a restaurant or house to pick up/drop off food. This also leads to a lot of re-listening later at home to make notes on the things that I missed because they fell out of my short-term memory store, which seems about on par with that of your average squirrel.
  2. I can only listen to so much talking that requires focus and thought engagement before my brain gets tired and needs a break/something new. Once my concentration starts to slip it’s time to put on the music and let the hamster off the wheel for a bit.

I found myself wanting something else productive to do that would engage my brain in a different way. I had recently started trying to work on some memory techniques like mnemonics, the memory palace and the peg system to help better remember things I read, and it practicing these seemed like a good use of the time. The peg system especially seemed like a great fit as I could use it for addresses.

If you don’t know, the peg system is a memory tool which is very useful for remembering sequences of numbers. You associate consonant sounds with the digits 0-9, then combine those sounds with vowels to create words which you then use to create a mental picture that is easy to remember. Human brains like pretty pictures and are much better at remembering them, especially if they are emotional or exaggerated. Clear as mud on how the peg system works?

Ok, simple example time: in the “major” peg system, the one I was learning, the number 7 is represented by the K, C, Q, or hard-G sound. The number 1 is represented by the T or D sound. Remembering that vowels have no value and are just fillers, we can use the word CaT to represent the number 71.

Now normally you are trying to just remember the numbers to do amazing feats like remember the order of a deck of cards, so you usually have just one peg word for each number to make it simple and reliable. 71 is ALWAYS represented by the word CaT. But of course the sounds that represent 7 and 1 can be combined to create a lot of other different words as well. I could use KaTe, or CaD, or KiT… the consonant sounds for each place are all the same general sound.

Ok, I just realized that this wasn’t probably the greatest example, I guess I just had CaT on my brain when I was typing this up. Both of the numbers that I used in my example can be represented by more than one letter because those letters make approximately the same sound: K sounds like hard-C sounds like hard-G… there are several single-letter numbers as well: 2 is represented only by n, 3 is represented only by m, 4 is represented only by r, and l is represented only by 5… so the number 52 only has the possibility of 2 consonant letters, l and n.. but by using different vowels I can still create the words LaNe, LiNe, LoaN, LioN, LieN, etc., any of which could be used to represent the number 52. (Interestingly, DoG (15) would have caused the same type of bad example… 1 is either T or D and as we’ve seen 5 is either K, C, G or Q – CaT and DoG lovers, unite in my bad examples!)

(For a more detailed explanation of this, please see the section labeled “Major System” under the wikipedia page or check out Harry Lorayne’s book “The Complete Guide to Memory Mastery”, which I highly recommend.)

So, I was working on learning this peg system (I made Anki cards for it and everything!), driving for DoorDash where there are lots of addresses to find, and I was also trying to develop a regular writing routine.

I like to write, I enjoy it, especially once I get going. I do a pretty extensive daily review each day, a topic-led journal that requires a lot of writing. I’m working on a couple of books (one fiction, one non-fiction, both going very slowly), and I make a lot of notes on books I read and re-write them in my own words when I enter them into my second-brain system. (I hadn’t started this BLOG yet, kind of ironic that the second post is a long one and it’s about writing more.)

The problem was, other than my daily review which I write faithfully every night, I didn’t have a regular writing practice. I only wrote when I was “inspired” or had an idea to get down for one of my books. I did a horrible job of following the advice of Steven Pressfield and Stephen King and Julia Cameron and countless others who admonish us to just show up and do the work every day. The formula is there: schedule your time to write and sit down and do it every day. I was even following it for my daily review, but I couldn’t get myself to do it for my other writing projects.

I started practicing the peg system while driving to memorize the house address for my next delivery. It was a fun exercise and good memory practice, and it allowed me to keep my head up and actively looking for the correct house instead of constantly glancing down at Apple Maps to see if I was at the right house yet. It kept my mind engaged but creatively and didn’t over-tax or fatigue my brain. Read the address, create a quick word-pair that I could create a vivid mental picture for, and drive. Simple and relatively easy to do, I could find pretty good word-pairs in under 30 seconds usually.

At this point I had just memorized the consonant sounds and their associated numbers, but had not committed specific words for specific numbers yet (e.g. – CaT for 71, DoG for 15, etc.) Therefore I was figuring out new word combinations for each house. Most houses in this area use 3 or 4 digits, so I would try and come up with a two-word phrase that would give me a clear mental picture. 5838 was “LoVe MoVe”, 825 was “FuN Lay”, 6021 was “SheS NuDe”…whoa, I’m sensing a pattern here… crap, I think I need to get laid…

Ok, so I might represent 5838 as “LoVe MoVe” one night, but the next night I might have an address of 5834 and I would use “LiVe MoRe”… LiVe instead of LoVe for 58. I wasn’t being consistent, but I was having a lot of fun with it, and figured I would work on memorizing specific word-number combinations next.

But then I realized if I did that it would be a pretty mechanical process…sure, I might get quicker at memorizing the addresses, but it wouldn’t be as much FUN. I was enjoying the process of seeing how crazy I could make the combinations and creating the mental pictures that went along with them. In the immortal words of Goose from Top Gun (R.I.P.), “Geez, I crack myself up.”

At this point, my twisted little brain stumbled upon the idea of recording these little word combinations for every delivery each shift, and then combining those into a short little creative story. These wouldn’t mean anything, would probably be no more than a few paragraphs each, but would be a perfect daily writing prompt precisely because there was no intrinsic value attached to them. I would just use them as pure creative writing practice prompts. It would take the pressure off of WHAT to write about and also not feeling like I had to make progress of X number of words in one of my books each time I sat down to write. I had actually already started linking the different address word combinations together in my head, it was just a matter of writing them down. (If I was a real memory pro I would just link these together in my head all night to create the story, but I’m not there…yet…)

My DoorDash log sheets with peg words

Initially I had very strict rules about how I had to write the stories: 1) I had to use every word combination, 2) exactly as written, 3) in exactly the order they were written, with 4) no additional words or breaks in between word combinations. And then I got the word combination “CHaiN DucK” (6217 Nowhere St., apparently) and I stared at the screen for ten minutes trying to do something with it.

Ok, a new approach was called for: 1) I can change the word combinations to something that works in the story a bit better, provided I honor the original peg word consonant sounds. 71 has to be 71, but CaT can become GoD if it makes it easier to write the story. Low friction = better habit! 2) If I absolutely have to I can add a word or two between a word combination, again in order to make the story easier to write. Yay for flexibility! “Chain Duck” became “Chain of Ducks” and all was right with the world. I still make myself use every word combination (it’s not that hard), and so far I’ve used them all in the order that I’ve recorded them. I suppose if I have a need to bend or break these rules in the future I will, but I’m a big fan of constraints for developing creativity and I think these two are fairly easy to follow.

Flexibility, as taught by Captain Barbossa

So, I have my subject matter, how and when do I commit to doing the actual storywriting? I already knew I wouldn’t be up for it after the shift, so sometime the next day seemed a more reasonable timeframe. As it happens, I had recently listened to a Tim Ferris podcast where he mentioned an article he had written a couple of years ago titled “Make Before You Manage“. In it he talked about the importance of creating something each morning before doing all the other to-do’s and daily management-type stuff required of us by this thing called life. Having recently implemented a regular morning routine, I was able to adjust and slot in two Pomodoros worth of time (about an hour) immediately after tasks like “get out of bed, wash face, brush teeth and get dressed”. (I have to have those done and a cup of coffee poured and at the ready before I do anything creative or productive.) This gets me at the computer and writing about 15 minutes after my alarm wakes me up.

I had tried writing morning pages and gratitude journaling and several other creative morning activities in past fits of productivity and life improvement, but nothing had ever stuck long-term. Most writing efforts resulted in me staring at a blank page or screen, maybe after writing a paragraph or two, and thinking “uh…now what”. I admit my perfectionism got the best of me during these efforts and I spent a lot of time editing and re-writing even the simplest of sentences, unable to bring myself to heed the advice to “just get it out of your head” and do stream-of-consciousness writing.

Thankfully recent events in my life have led me to make immense progress in overcoming this perfectionism, and I am much happier for it. Perhaps with this new outlook I might be successful with morning pages or something else more structured now, but for the time being my little DoorDash-address, peg-word inspired short stories are establishing a fun and consistent writing habit. My plan is either to incorporate additional Pomodoros after my Dash story-writing for some “real” writing, like working on my books or writing entertaining and informative BLOG posts like this one, or possibly do a bait-and-switch once the habit is firmly established and try doing that type of writing in place of the Dash stories.

For now I am enjoying writing about Billy looking at the dead fish sitting in the rare mug while walking down the pier to work and the lion and it’s mate drinking the shit soup river water as the sun sets on the African plains and all the other animals enjoy some “mom time” between parent and young. Complete nonsense, probably lots of writing mistakes, but a lot of fun and good practice.

I initially started writing these in Scrivener, my writing tool of choice, but decided today that I should start “Showing My Work” thanks to watching way too many of the Ali Abdaal Youtube channel videos and subscribing the the Austin Kleon e-mail newsletter.

So, writing about writing…how meta.