Robert Heaton

Software Engineer /
One-track lover / Down a two-way lane

Nothing new under the sun

15 Feb 2013

There are very few new ideas in the productivity and personal development space, and I would argue that there are very few ideas of any consequence full stop. If you read David Allen, Stephen R. Covey and probably one other guy who they stole most of their ideas from then you will have read 90% of the concepts that 90% of blog posts are based on. A study that I just invented found that there have been 135,198 articles written on how working regular hours will keep you on peak form, and 278,747 on how taking breaks every X minutes, where 30 < X < 90, will turn you into a superhuman. And this proliferation of near-identical rehashing is an excellent thing.

Our hipster-Tony-Robbens group consciousness knows many simple, easy to summarise concepts to be true. We know that:

  • you should work sensible hours
  • you should take regular breaks
  • you should cultivate habits
  • you shouldn’t answer emails first thing in the morning
  • you should mediate for exactly 5 minutes and 12 seconds every morning
  • you should turn off desktop notifications
  • you should embrace failure
  • you should batch emailing and other menial tasks
  • you should make public commitments to pressure yourself into completing tasks
  • you should focus on what matters

These took 16 seconds to write out off the top of my head, and no doubt every startup/hacker type could compile a similar list in a similar length of time.

But we also know that “you should start with small habits”. Everyone knows this. I know this. 290,812 blog posts know this. But I still regularly commit to and immediately fail at grand endeavours, like writing an entire post every day before going into the office. I wrote half a terrible post on Monday and then decided I hated writing anyway on Tuesday. Game over.

Nonetheless, I have waxed hypocritical to scores of people about how they need to adopt small habits that they nourish and grow into the larger goal they want to achieve. I have given sage examples and justification and dished out condescending admonishment for any straying from the path. I might even write a blog post about it one day. But I can’t remember the last time I actually consciously chose a small habit or scaled down a big one myself. Maybe I’ve never done it. Regardless, because I am wired into the global group-brain of Hacker News-reading hotdeskers, I know that it is A Good Thing. We know that small habits work.

But I still have my own brain too, and running, as it is, a 24 year old operating system, it hasn’t got round to truly processing this aphorism yet. I’m aware of and passively bathing in the theory, but I don’t yet intuitively connect small habits with an improvement in my life whilst in the heat of battle.

Enter the 378,299 posts that have been helpfully written about why small habits work. Each of these is an extra chance to take the first step to proper internal realisation that adopting small habits will actually make your life better. It is an extra rephrasing to see things through, and an extra set of sentences to spark something that actually causes you to change. And given that it takes, on average, 9.7 posts on exactly the same topic for a person to properly absorb and start acting on it (figure invented), we need these.

We get cautious about writing about things that aren’t particularly original, but the reason that they aren’t original is that these things have run the Darwinian gauntlet and have turned out to be the things that actually move the dial and make you happier. This is obviously not universally true, but any new personal development concept that you come up with without going through any prolonged and deliberate period of study is therefore simply likely to be either derivative, specific and personal to you, or useless.

So whilst you are unlikely to win any Pulitzers for writing 600 words on why you should turn off desktop notifications, you might finally manage to tear the CEO and only employee of a mobile-geo-social-first company away from furiously Tweeting at his 72 followers about the importance of prioritising, and force him to finally think about whether dog food really is broken. For all involved with, this can only be a good thing.

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