Jamie on Software

The trade-offs are worth it

I’m very prone to greener-grass thinking.

Sometimes it’s important to acknowledge that the grass is greener, because, well it is. Sometimes you’re not in the best possible timeline, and bringing it to your own attention is the first step toward changing it.

But it’s often unhelpful, too, and can trap you into a cycle of distraction and dissatisfaction. You change something, because the grass over there is greener, and you reinforce the preferences you have for novelty. The less you develop the ability to stick with something, focus, persevere, the more difficult it becomes the next time you must.

The more vulnerable you become to your own whims.

The more often you throw away something valuable, because you’re suffering under some sort of novelty bias and what appears to be objectively better is simply fresher.

So it can be useful to reframe how you view your current situation. When I regret some decision because the alternative looks easier, or if I suspect I have made a mistake, I can find solace in the knowledge that:

  1. It can be easy to forget you’re making trade-offs explicitly and knowingly;
  2. and, the tradeoffs are generally worth it.

The beginning of anything requires a first step. A new job, a new purchase, a new skill or hobby, a new relationship. If you’re a thoughtful and goal-oriented person, you will consider whether this the right step for you. Something that might appear to be obvious at the time might be a mistake later, and you know this, so you take your time, weigh up your options. Consider the pros and cons and decide to act.

The next day, you’re in the honeymoon phase. The cons are irrelevant. The pros are even better than you expected. You enjoy the present. You look forward to the future with anticipation, with giddiness, with glee.

Some days later, the pros and cons look evenly balanced. You’re less interested than you once were, but stasis is a powerful force, so you do nothing about it.

Some days further, the cons are now what is salient. What began as small pet peeves or niggling doubts have blossomed. The cons are so overwhelming, so frustrating, that you cannot imagine why you could ever have thought the pros might outweigh them (or, hell, even counterbalance them!)

What seemed like a good idea now looks like a set of inappropriate, naïve preferences borne from the brain of somebody who knew less than what you do now.

But here’s the thing. You made those tradeoffs. You considered the pros, you considered the cons.

You might have missed some of the cons initially; not everybody gets it right first time. But this also applies to the pros. Are there not things about your role, your club, your partner, your commitment, whatever it is, that are unexpectedly pleasant, as well as unexpectedly not-so?

If it appears not, then consider this: even if you were able to predict everything a priori, do you think you’d be weighing the cons and pros appropriately after the cons have become so aggravating that you felt the need to reweigh them in the first place?

People only really reflect on whether their decisions were correct when they have reason to suspect that they weren’t.

People don’t look to upend the boat when they’re enjoying the journey.

So your re-evaluation may be happening from a place of more intimate knowledge, but it’s also happening from a place of discomfort.

There are definitely times when you should re-evaluate. When you are being harmed. When you have good reason to suspect you misjudged it all initially. Or when your preferences have changed significantly since then.

But there are lots of times when you shouldn’t. When, were you to reflect in a pro-dominant phase, you’d conclude quite differently.

The grass is always greener, Jamie.

The tradeoffs are usually worth it.

4:34pm. January 1, 2022.

Book Hour

A while ago, J and I noticed we’d lie in bed, fiddling with our phones for 30, 40, 45 minutes, an hour, many, most mornings, every morning. Sometimes our fiddling was productive, clearing emails, writing lists, researching some topic or other – but most of the time, it wasn’t.

And it’s easy to justify it to yourself if it’s AngelList, or LinkedIn: you’re keeping up with career options. Hacker News is obviously of great professional concern to a software engineer. Twitter keeps you wired into the zeitgeist. And, as for Facebook, what could be more important than friends and family?

The point, of course, is that I’m fickle and distractible and the only thing that can salvage my mornings, whittle and form them out of the chaos, is to leave the matter out of my hands entirely. Leave motivation and bandwidth in the hands of a /system/, and make delivery an inevitability – or at least a reliable expectation – rather than something subject to whimsy and caprice.

So we built a system, and we call it “book hour”. Every morning, we read, at least, a few pages of a dead-trees paper book. Before touching our phone.

A glimpse of analog before our days become digital.

You can turn off your alarm. If somebody calls you, you’re allowed to answer. And it’s flexible: if you both agree on an exemption – early start, late start, got to catch a flight, etc. – then it’s allowed.

But it turns out that we rarely need an exemption, because beginning your day with a few pages of a book is actually a really nice thing to do.

So, incentives:

Carrot: you end up reading more, and, in a relaxed and controlled manner, gradually phase into your day.

Stick: If you touch your phone before reading a few pages, £10 goes in a savings pot in our joint bank account. When the pot reaches some amount, we take ourselves out for dinner.

This is good because it serves the psychological function of an incentive without any great real-terms material loss (we’d probably spend the money on eating out anyway.) It hurts without hurting.

It’s effective, and I urge you to try it out if you too are looking for an easy and fun way to cut down on screen-time.

It’s also, I think, illustrative of a more general approach to productivity, good work, and human happiness:

Build systems that minimise friction, and, where appropriate, align your incentives with your interests.

Research is chaotic, but it’s okay, because we can build routines which encourage regular, structured work and limit the possibility of procrastination.

Memory is chaotic, but it’s okay, because we can use spaced-repetition to minimise friction and make long-term memory a choice. (As for incentives: how about an Anki hour?)

The shape and structure of data is chaotic, but it’s okay, because we can work with statically typed languages and write unit tests, both of which have all kinds of good upstream effects.

The world is chaotic, but it’s okay, because systems help tame it.