Worshippers in the Cult Of Busy
How do we go from being “always busy” to “sustainably productive”?
Clickbait Won’t Save You
If I knew the foolproof way to go from “always busy” to “sustainably productive”, I’d have done it already.
But since you’re here, let’s talk about the Cult Of Busy, and how we’ve designed our way into a corner.
It’s Your Fault, Right?
There are an infinite number of articles about how it’s all your fault — if you would just knuckle down and apply ourselves, we wouldn’t be so distracted, we’d find success in business and in love, we’d stop being depressed, we’d solve world hunger and climate change, and everyone would just hug it out in an endless cycle of positivity.
And since that’s not happening, it’s your fault. You, specifically. You are a failure.
(The punchline to all of these negging attacks is, of course, “go buy more things”. See also Douglas Adams’ Shoe Event Horizon.)
In grad school, I had an epiphany that a lot of us had. It happened while reading Don Norman’s “The Design Of Everyday Things” (except my copy was old enough it was titled “The Psychology Of Everyday Things”), hereafter DOET.
DOET has become something of a bible for designers and user researchers, because it was one of the first books to clearly articulate the value of design. Poorly designed things are simply harder to use, and people struggle to master them. The book details impossible objects, like the teapot shown above (where you must pour hot tea on your hand to use it, or figure out some way to work around it), and talks about why some things are easier than others to learn and use.
In the case of the eponymous doors, with a big grab handle that affords pulling and says “Push”, we struggle to operate them at all in the face of conflicting messages. This sort of crap happens all over in our world, and we put signs and documentation and rules and laws to make up for bad design.
It’s the meat-and-potatoes of UX these days, to find these disfluent moments and figure out how to improve them.
But this article isn’t about all that.
For me, the “aha!” moment wasn’t about design. Still young and arrogant, I found myself incredibly impatient with this man Don Normand and his entitled behavior — that the world should somehow change itself so he would find it easier to use! When all he had to do was learn, like I had, that that door opened outward, and keep part of his brain storing that information for all time. What could be simpler? (Side note: I still remember how precisely to open the various poorly-designed doors I encountered as an undergrad. Kick that one on the left; push that one on the right but not left as it’s a reflex door; that one doesn’t latch at all, so just shove.)
It was a core part of myself that I was one of the smart people, the ones who could figure things out no matter what, who knew stuff. So I saw my own disfluency at using it as a personal failing: I simply had to put in more effort to git gud at it.
There’s another awesome cover from The Practical Developer. This one is on git, the source control tool for kernel…
It took a few days of mental rearrangement to see his view: that by designing the world better, we could eliminate the need for dozens or hundreds or thousands of people to use a spot in their brain for That Door, avoid hundreds or thousands of frustration incidents. All by making a simple design choice that could be easily repeated.
And more, that it was OKAY to want better-designed things.
Ten years ago this was still a bold statement. As a new UXer back then, I bemoaned the fact that good design was largely unnoticed, and found my views ratified in podcasts like 99% Invisible — the idea that we only notice bad design, and even then, we blame ourselves for failing
But now we, the electronic cognoscenti, are hep to this design thing, and people laud good design. We demand it. We buy gadgets based on their utility, yes, and price, but also based on how easy they are to learn and use. When something’s hard to use, we blame the gadget, not ourselves.
So why don’t we do this in our own lives?
Designing For A Better Life — For Everyone
Back to how it’s your fault. You, specifically.
If you’re employed, you know how to look busy. You send that email at 7am to make it look like you answer email at all hours. You show up 3 minutes before your boss and litter your desk with used coffee cups, and pretend to have fallen asleep working hard. You learn your boss’s school fight song (ish) and sing along with him when he starts paying attention to what you’re actually doing. That sort of thing.
(Side note: I stole all these examples from the musical “How To Succeed In Business (Without Really Trying)”, written as a book in 1952 and musical in 1961. None of this is new.)
The modern equivalents are slightly more pernicious. Filling your Outlook calendar with meetings that you don’t really need to be at, or where your presence is needed for 6 of the 60 minutes. Being double– and triple–booked and then apologizing for being a no-show at the thing you deem less important (or less interesting). Showing up ten minutes late to every meeting to communicate just how busy you are. Checking in your code in ten pieces so your github commit count looks awesome. Being ever-present on Slack to explain how busy you are and that you haven’t had time to catch up on the thread, but good job everyone!
All of this is subscribing to the Cult Of Busy. You may not even realize it, because feeling busy is a great ego boost. You’re in demand! People want your stuff! You’re triple-booked! And yet you don’t seem to be getting anything done. Good thing you seem to be busy, or they’d fire you!
It’s all your fault. Or is it?
Coevolution is when a species adapts to its environment at the same time as the environment adapts to the species. Think about ants evolving stronger and stronger jaws as plants evolve stronger and stronger leaves; or the arms race between cheetahs and antelopes, with the latter evolving to be fast enough to occasionally survive (and reproduce), and the former evolving to be fast enough to occasionally eat (and therefore reproduce).
The metaphor is a useful one .I’m going to use it colloquially; the ‘evolution’ I’m talking about is closer to mutation or social learning, as no one is passing on genes to descendants (except in the case, perhaps, of legacy code).
Coevolution is everywhere in our society; especially in business. The environment of business has adapted to support our work practices, at the same time as we adapt our practices and expectations to the environment. But we tend only to investigate one of these directions. Technological shifts lead to changes in work practice; there are a thousand articles about how email and IRC — excuse me, Slack — allow for different-time coordination and distributed teams.
But how much do our work practices evolve, perhaps unintentionally, based on our technology? Can you imagine what a “busy” day would look like without having your calendar in your pocket or on your wrist? How would you know that the 11am meeting has been moved, and the 1pm is cancelled so you can go to that other 1pm meeting? You’d have to do it the slow way.
In old days of boardrooms and overhead projectors, how would fifty people bikeshed the new logo for the RESTful API to exchange crypto keys with the blockchain using machine learning at scale? They’d have to have an actual meeting, and with fifty people in the room, it’d become pretty damn clear that 47 of them didn’t really need to have an opinion. But by email, you can
cc all-hands with a just few keystrokes and suddenly suck hours of life away from all those people. Even if they pipe up to complain about the wide distribution, that, too, can suck time and lead to its own side thread.
But despite all this the hapless recipients will think it’s their fault. Or your fault. Rarely do we question whether it might be the fault of the system. Because they want to be busy. And we think it’s okay, because those 47 people can “just delete the email if they don’t care”.
Worst: usually we manage to stay reasonably profitable and employed despite this outright theft of our time, so we don’t get any negative feedback loops. Instead we coevolve toward this FOMO-based way of doing business, where if someone didn’t see the logo design, and later had An Opinion, that would be A Very Bad Thing and there would have to be all sorts of inquiries about why they were left out of the loop. So we cc everyone we can get away with, and smile, and wade through our pools of semi-not-really-important cruft; and our tools evolve to help us do this more and more and more.
Doing Better Through Mindfulness
I was happy when Outlook introduced the “hey did you know this will go to 137 people?!” pre-send notification. It’s a useful addition, and a step toward the sort of solutions I’d like to see more of. And it no doubt took a clear-eyed look at what sorts of behavior were enabled — nay, encouraged — by the current technology stack. And that took some mindfulness.
Mindfulness is one of those incredibly useful concepts that got eaten by pop culture and shat out as meaningless pablum that pretends it comes back to “you suck, and it’s your fault”.
The mantra goes “Be more mindful!” As if deciding to be so makes it so, without instruction, without practice, without support from community and environment. Mindfulness is a process whereby we discard our usual routine ways of thinking about what we do, and try to figure out what we like and dislike about them. It’s challenging work. For the programmers, it’s refactoring, applied to process and mindset.
And as with refactoring, it means making sure you don’t lose the good stuff, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the old folks say. It also requires humility, because it requires admitting that we are part of the environment for someone else, and part of the situation for ourselves.
We have to coevolve toward mindful engagement, toward productive, lower-stress use of our time; and we have to push our environment around to do so. We need to shape work practices and tools that fit what we want to happen, not just backfilling what we have today, or doing things because they’re now technologically possible.
This doesn’t mean blank-slate introspection exercises or meaningless self-abasement. It’s not a personal responsibility; it’s a joint one. We all created this monster; we have to defeat it together. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the enemy, and it is us. Not you: us.
Or maybe I should go with that other great philosopher, Red Green: Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.