Make Time For Hope

Pandora hastened to replace the lid! but, alas! the whole contents of the jar had escaped, one thing only excepted, which lay at the bottom, and that was HOPE. So we see at this day, whatever evils are abroad, hope never entirely leaves us; and while we have THAT, no amount of other ills can make us completely wretched.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks, and it seems likely to continue to be so for quite some time. There are many real and terrible consequences of the mistake that America made in November, and ignoring them will not make them go away. We’ll all need to find a way to do our part.

It’s not just you — it’s legit hard to focus on work right now. This is especially true if, as many people in my community are, you are trying to motivate yourself to work on extracurricular, after-work projects that you used to find exciting, and instead find it hard to get out of bed in the morning.

I have no particular position of authority to advise you what to do about this situation, but I need to give a little pep talk to myself to get out of bed in the morning these days, so I figure I’d share my strategy with you. This is as much in the hope that I’ll follow it more closely myself as it is that it will be of use to you.

With that, here are some ideas.

It’s not over.

The feeling that nothing else is important any more, that everything must now be a life-or-death political struggle, is exhausting. Again, I don’t want to minimize the very real problems that are coming or the need to do something about them, but, life will go on. Remind yourself of that. If you were doing something important before, it’s still important. The rest of the world isn’t going away.

Make as much time for self-care as you need.

You’re not going to be of much use to anyone if you’re just a sobbing wreck all the time. Do whatever you can do to take care of yourself and don’t feel guilty about it. We’ll all do what we can, when we can.1

You need to put on your own oxygen mask first.

Make time, every day, for hope.

“You can stand anything for 10 seconds. Then you just start on a new 10 seconds.”

Every day, set aside some time — maybe 10 minutes, maybe an hour, maybe half the day, however much you can manage — where you’re going to just pretend everything is going to be OK.2

Once you’ve managed to securely fasten this self-deception in place, take the time to do the things you think are important. Of course, for my audience, “work on your cool open source code” is a safe bet for something you might want to do, but don’t make the mistake of always grimly setting your jaw and nose to the extracurricular grindstone; that would just be trading one set of world-weariness for another.

After convincing yourself that everything’s fine, spend time with your friends and family, make art, or heck, just enjoy a good movie. Don’t let the flavor of life turn to ash on your tongue.

Good night and good luck.

Thanks for reading. It’s going to be a long four years3; I wish you the best of luck living your life in the meanwhile.


  1. I should note that self-care includes just doing your work to financially support yourself. If you have a job that you don’t feel is meaningful but you need the wages to survive, that’s meaningful. It’s OK. Let yourself do it. Do a good job. Don’t get fired. 

  2. I know that there are people who are in desperate situations who can’t do this; if you’re an immigrant in illegal ICE or CBP detention, I’m (hopefully obviously) not talking to you. But, luckily, this is not yet the majority of the population. Most of us can, at least some of the time, afford to ignore the ongoing disaster. 

  3. Realistically, probably more like 20 months, once the Rs in congress realize that he’s completely destroyed their party’s credibility and get around to impeaching him for one of his numerous crimes. 

Letters To The Editor: Re: Email

Seriously, do the Inbox Zero thing. You’ll feel better.

Since I removed comments from this blog, I’ve been asking y’all to email me when you have feedback, with the promise that I’d publish the good bits. Today I’m making good on that for the first time, with this lovely missive from Adam Doherty:


I just wanted to say thank you. As someone who is never able to say no, your article on email struck a chord with me. I have had Gmail since the beginning, since the days of hoping for an invitation. And the day I received my invitation was the the last day my inbox was ever empty.

Prior to reading your article I had over 40,000 unread messages. It used to be a sort of running joke; I never delete anything. Realistically though was I ever going to do anything with them?

With 40,000 unread messages in your inbox, you start to miss messages that are actually important. Messages that must become tasks, tasks that must be completed.

Last night I took your advice; and that is saying something - most of the things I read via HN are just noise. This however spoke to me directly.

I archived everything older than two weeks, was down to 477 messages and kept pruning. So much of the email we get on a daily basis is also noise. Those messages took me half a second to hit archive and move on.

I went to bed with zero messages in my inbox, woke up with 21, archived 19, actioned 2 and then archived those.

Seriously, thank you so very much. I am unburdened.


First, I’d like to thank Adam for writing in. I really do appreciate the feedback.

Second, I wanted to post this here not in service of showcasing my awesomeness1, but rather to demonstrate that getting to the bottom of your email can have a profound effect on your state of mind. Even if it’s a running joke, even if you don’t think it’s stressing you out, there’s a good chance that, somewhere in the back of your mind, it is. After all, if you really don’t care, what’s stopping you from hitting select all / archive right now?

At the very least, if you did that, your mail app would load faster.


  1. although, let there be no doubt, I am awesome 

Email Isn’t The Thing You’re Bad At

You and me, we’re bad at a lot of things. But email isn’t one of those things, no matter how much it seems like it.

I’ve been using the Internet for a good 25 years now, and I’ve been lucky enough to have some perspective dating back farther than that. The common refrain for my entire tenure here:

We all get too much email.

A New, New, New, New Hope

Luckily, something is always on the cusp of replacing email. AOL instant messenger will totally replace it. Then it was blogging. RSS. MySpace. Then it was FriendFeed. Then Twitter. Then Facebook.

Today, it’s in vogue to talk about how Slack is going to replace email. As someone who has seen this play out a dozen times now, let me give you a little spoiler:

Slack is not going to replace email.

But Slack isn’t the problem here, either. It’s just another communication tool.

The problem of email overload is both ancient and persistent. If the problem were really with “email”, then, presumably, one of the nine million email apps that dot the app-stores like mushrooms sprouting from a globe-spanning mycelium would have just solved it by now, and we could all move on with our lives. Instead, it is permanently in vogue1 to talk about how overloaded we all are.

If not email, then what?

If you have twenty-four thousand unread emails in your Inbox, like some kind of goddamn animal, what you’re bad at is not email, it’s transactional interactions.

Different communication media have different characteristics, but the defining characteristic of email is that it is the primary mode of communication that we use, both professionally and personally, when we are asking someone else to perform a task.

Of course you might use any form of communication to communicate tasks to another person. But other forms - especially the currently popular real-time methods - appear as a bi-directional communication, and are largely immutable. Email’s distinguishing characteristic is that it is discrete; each message is its own entity with its own ID. Emails may also be annotated, whether with flags, replied-to markers, labels, placement in folders, archiving, or deleting. Contrast this with a group chat in IRC, iMessage, or Slack, where the log is mostly2 unchangeable, and the only available annotation is “did your scrollbar ever move down past this point”; each individual message has only one bit of associated information. Unless you have catlike reflexes and an unbelievably obsessive-compulsive personality, it is highly unlikely that you will carefully set the “read” flag on each and every message in an extended conversation.

All this makes email much more suitable for communicating a task, because the recipient can file it according to their system for tracking tasks, come back to it later, and generally treat the message itself as an artifact. By contrast if I were to just walk up to you on the street and say “hey can you do this for me”, you will almost certainly just forget.

The word “task” might seem heavy-weight for some of the things that email is used for, but tasks come in all sizes. One task might be “click this link to confirm your sign-up on this website”. Another might be “choose a time to get together for coffee”. Or “please pass along my resume to your hiring department”. Yet another might be “send me the final draft of the Henderson report”.

Email is also used for conveying information: here are the minutes from that meeting we were just in. Here is transcription of the whiteboard from that design session. Here are some photos from our family vacation. But even in these cases, a task is implied: read these minutes and see if they’re accurate; inspect this diagram and use it to inform your design; look at these photos and just enjoy them.

So here’s the thing that you’re bad at, which is why none of the fifty different email apps you’ve bought for your phone have fixed the problem: when you get these messages, you aren’t making a conscious decision about:

  1. how important the message is to you
  2. whether you want to act on them at all
  3. when you want to act on them
  4. what exact action you want to take
  5. what the consequences of taking or not taking that action will be

This means that when someone asks you to do a thing, you probably aren’t going to do it. You’re going to pretend to commit to it, and then you’re going to flake out when push comes to shove. You’re going to keep context-switching until all the deadlines have passed.

In other words:

The thing you are bad at is saying ‘no’ to people.

Sometimes it’s not obvious that what you’re doing is saying ‘no’. For many of us — and I certainly fall into this category — a lot of the messages we get are vaguely informational. They’re from random project mailing lists, perhaps they’re discussions between other people, and it’s unclear what we should do about them (or if we should do anything at all). We hang on to them (piling up in our Inboxes) because they might be relevant in the future. I am not advocating that you have to reply to every dumb mailing list email with a 5-part action plan and a Scrum meeting invite: that would be a disaster. You don’t have time for that. You really shouldn’t have time for that.

The trick about getting to Inbox Zero3 is not in somehow becoming an email-reading machine, but in realizing that most email is worthless, and that’s OK. If you’re not going to do anything with it, just archive it and forget about it. If you’re subscribed to a mailing list where only 1 out of 1000 messages actually represents something you should do about it, archive all the rest after only answering the question “is this the one I should do something about?”. You can answer that question after just glancing at the subject; there are times when checking my email I will be hitting “archive” with a 1-second frequency. If you are on a list where zero messages are ever interesting enough to read in their entirety or do anything about, then of course you should unsubscribe.

Once you’ve dug yourself into a hole with thousands of “I don’t know what I should do with this” messages, it’s time to declare email bankruptcy. If you have 24,000 messages in your Inbox, let me be real with you: you are never, ever going to answer all those messages. You do not need a smartwatch to tell you exactly how many messages you are never going to reply to.

We’re In This Together, Me Especially

A lot of guidance about what to do with your email addresses email overload as a personal problem. Over the years of developing my tips and tricks for dealing with it, I certainly saw it that way. But lately, I’m starting to see that it has pernicious social effects.

If you have 24,000 messages in your Inbox, that means you aren’t keeping track or setting priorities on which tasks you want to complete. But just because you’re not setting those priorities, that doesn’t mean nobody is. It means you are letting availability heuristic - whatever is “latest and loudest” - govern access to your attention, and therefore your time. By doing this, you are rewarding people (or #brands) who contact you repeatedly, over inappropriate channels, and generally try to flood your attention with their priorities instead of your own. This, in turn, creates a culture where it is considered reasonable and appropriate to assume that you need to do that in order to get someone’s attention.

Since we live in the era of subtext and implication, I should explicitly say that I’m not describing any specific work environment or community. I used to have an email startup, and so I thought about this stuff very heavily for almost a decade. I have seen email habits at dozens of companies, and I help people in the open source community with their email on a regular basis. So I’m not throwing shade: almost everybody is terrible at this.

And that is the one way that email, in the sense of the tools and programs we use to process it, is at fault: technology has made it easier and easier to ask people to do more and more things, without giving us better tools or training to deal with the increasingly huge array of demands on our time. It’s easier than ever to say “hey could you do this for me” and harder than ever to just say “no, too busy”.

Mostly, though, I want you to know that this isn’t just about you any more. It’s about someone much more important than you: me. I’m tired of sending reply after reply to people asking to “just circle back” or asking if I’ve seen their email. Yes, I’ve seen your email. I have a long backlog of tasks, and, like anyone, I have trouble managing them and getting them all done4, and I frequently have to decide that certain things are just not important enough to do. Sometimes it takes me a couple of weeks to get to a message. Sometimes I never do. But, it’s impossible to be mad at somebody for “just checking in” for the fourth time when this is probably the only possible way they ever manage to get anyone else to do anything.

I don’t want to end on a downer here, though. And I don’t have a book to sell you which will solve all your productivity problems. I know that if I lay out some incredibly elaborate system all at once, it’ll seem overwhelming. I know that if I point you at some amazing gadget that helps you keep track of what you want to do, you’ll either balk at the price or get lost fiddling with all its knobs and buttons and not getting a lot of benefit out of it. So if I’m describing a problem that you have here, here’s what I want you to do.

Step zero is setting aside some time. This will probably take you a few hours, but trust me; they will be well-spent.

Email Bankruptcy

First, you need to declare email bankruptcy. Select every message in your Inbox older than 2 weeks. Archive them all, right now. In the past, you might have to worry about deleting those messages, but modern email systems pretty much universally have more storage than you’ll ever need. So rest assured that if you actually need to do anything with these messages, they’ll all be in your archive. But anything in your Inbox right now older than a couple of weeks is just never going to get dealt with, and it’s time to accept that fact. Again, this part of the process is not about making a decision yet, it’s just about accepting a reality.

Mailbox Three

One extra tweak I would suggest here is to get rid of all of your email folders and filters. It seems like many folks with big email problems have tried to address this by ever-finer-grained classification of messages, ever more byzantine email rules. At least, it’s common for me, when looking over someone’s shoulder to see 24,000 messages, it’s common to also see 50 folders. Probably these aren’t helping you very much.

In older email systems, it was necessary to construct elaborate header-based filtering systems so that you can later identify those messages in certain specific ways, like “message X went to this mailing list”. However, this was an incomplete hack, a workaround for a missing feature. Almost all modern email clients (and if yours doesn’t do this, switch) allow you to locate messages like this via search.

Your mail system ought to have 3 folders:

  1. Inbox, which you process to discover tasks,
  2. Drafts, which you use to save progress on replies, and
  3. Archive, the folder which you access only by searching for information you need when performing a task.

Getting rid of unnecessary folders and queries and filter rules will remove things that you can fiddle with.

Moving individual units of trash between different heaps of trash is not being productive, and by removing all the different folders you can shuffle your messages into before actually acting upon them you will make better use of your time spent looking at your email client.

There’s one exception to this rule, which is filters that do nothing but cause a message to skip your Inbox and go straight to the archive. The reason that this type of filter is different is that there are certain sources or patterns of message which are not actionable, but rather, a useful source of reference material that is only available as a stream of emails. Messages like that should, indeed, not show up in your Inbox. But, there’s no reason to file them into a specific folder or set of folders; you can always find them with a search.

Make A Place For Tasks

Next, you need to get a task list. Your email is not a task list; tasks are things that you decided you’re going to do, not things that other people have asked you to do5. Critically, you are going to need to parse e-mails into tasks. To explain why, let’s have a little arithmetic aside.

Let’s say it only takes you 45 seconds to go from reading a message to deciding what it really means you should do; so, it only takes 20 seconds to go from looking at the message to remembering what you need to do about it. This means that by the time you get to 180 un-processed messages that you need to do something about in your Inbox, you’ll be spending an hour a day doing nothing but remembering what those messages mean, before you do anything related to actually living your life, even including checking for new messages.

What should you use for the task list? On some level, this doesn’t really matter. It only needs one really important property: you need to trust that if you put something onto it, you’ll see it at the appropriate time. How exactly that works depends heavily on your own personal relationship with your computers and devices; it might just be a physical piece of paper. But for most of us living in a multi-device world, something that synchronizes to some kind of cloud service is important, so Wunderlist or Remember the Milk are good places to start, with free accounts.

Turn Messages Into Tasks

The next step - and this is really the first day of the rest of your life - start at the oldest message in your Inbox, and work forward in time. Look at only one message at a time. Decide whether this message is a meaningful task that you should accomplish.

If you decide a message represents a task, then make a new task on your task list. Decide what the task actually is, and describe it in words; don’t create tasks like “answer this message”. Why do you need to answer it? Do you need to gather any information first?

If you need to access information from the message in order to accomplish the task, then be sure to note in your task how to get back to the email. Depending on what your mail client is, it may be easier or harder to do this6, but in the worst case, following the guidelines above about eliminating unnecessary folders and filing in your email client, just put a hint into your task list about how to search for the message in question unambiguously.

Once you’ve done that:

Archive the message immediately.

The record that you need to do something about the message now lives in your task list, not your email client. You’ve processed it, and so it should no longer remain in your inbox.

If you decide a message doesn’t represent a task, then:

Archive the message immediately.

Do not move on to the next message until you have archived this message. Do not look ahead7. The presence of a message in your Inbox means you need to make a decision about it. Follow the touch-move rule with your email. If you skip over messages habitually and decide you’ll “just get back to it in a minute”, that minute will turn into 4 months and you’ll be right back where you were before.

Circling back to the subject of this post; once again, this isn’t really specific to email. You should follow roughly the same workflow when someone asks you to do a task in a meeting, or in Slack, or on your Discourse board, or wherever, if you think that the task is actually important enough to do. Note the slack timestamp and a snippet of the message so you can search for it again, if there is a relevant attachment. The thing that makes email different is really just the presence of an email box.

Banish The Blue Dot

Almost all email clients have a way of tracking “unread” messages; they cheerfully display counters of them. Ignore this information; it is useless. Messages have two states: in your inbox (unprocessed) and in your archive (processed). “Read” vs. “Unread” can be, at best, of minimal utility when resuming an interrupted scanning session. But, you are always only ever looking at the oldest message first, right? So none of the messages below it should be unread anyway...

Be Ruthless

As you try to start translating your flood of inbound communications into an actionable set of tasks you can actually accomplish, you are going to notice that your task list is going to grow and grow just as your Inbox was before. This is the hardest step:

Decide you are not going to do those tasks, and simply delete them. Sometimes, a task’s entire life-cycle is to be created from an email, exist for ten minutes, and then have you come back to look at it and then delete it. This might feel pointless, but in going through that process, you are learning something extremely valuable: you are learning what sorts of things are not actually important enough to do you do.

If every single message you get from some automated system provokes this kind of reaction, that will give you a clue that said system is wasting your time, and just making you feel anxious about work you’re never really going to get to, which can then lead to you un-subscribing or filtering messages from that system.

Tasks Before Messages

To thine own self, not thy Inbox, be true.

Try to start your day by looking at the things you’ve consciously decided to do. Don’t look at your email, don’t look at Slack; look at your calendar, and look at your task list.

One of those tasks, probably, is a daily reminder to “check your email”, but that reminder is there more to remind you to only do it once than to prevent you from forgetting.

I say “try” because this part is always going to be a challenge; while I mentioned earlier that you don’t want to unthinkingly give in to availability heuristic, you also have to acknowledge that the reason it’s called a “cognitive bias” is because it’s part of human cognition. There will always be a constant anxious temptation to just check for new stuff; for those of us who have a predisposition towards excessive scanning behavior have it more than others.

Why Email?

We all need to make commitments in our daily lives. We need to do things for other people. And when we make a commitment, we want to be telling the truth. I want you to try to do all these things so you can be better at that. It’s impossible to truthfully make a commitment to spend some time to perform some task in the future if, realistically, you know that all your time in the future will be consumed by whatever the top 3 highest-priority angry voicemails you have on that day are.

Email is a challenging social problem, but I am tired of email, especially the user interface of email applications, getting the blame for what is, at its heart, a problem of interpersonal relations. It’s like noticing that you get a lot of bills through the mail, and then blaming the state of your finances on the colors of the paint in your apartment building’s mail room. Of course, the UI of an email app can encourage good or bad habits, but Gmail gave us a prominent “Archive” button a decade ago, and we still have all the same terrible habits that were plaguing Outlook users in the 90s.

Of course, there’s a lot more to “productivity” than just making a list of the things you’re going to do. Some tools can really help you manage that list a lot better. But all they can help you to do is to stop working on the wrong things, and start working on the right ones. Actually being more productive, in the sense of getting more units of work out of a day, is something you get from keeping yourself healthy, happy, and well-rested, not from an email filing system.

You can’t violate causality to put more hours into the day, and as a frail and finite human being, there’s only so much work you can reasonably squeeze in before you die.

The reason I care a lot about salvaging email specifically is that it remains the best medium for communication that allows you to be in control of your own time, and by extension, the best medium for allowing people to do creative work.

Asking someone to do something via SMS doesn’t scale; if you have hundreds of unread texts there’s no way to put them in order, no way to classify them as “finished” and “not finished”, so you need to keep it to the number of things you can fit in short term memory. Not to mention the fact that text messaging is almost by definition an interruption - by default, it causes a device in someone’s pocket to buzz. Asking someone to do something in group chat, such as IRC or Slack, is similarly time-dependent; if they are around, it becomes an interruption, and if they’re not around, you have to keep asking and asking over and over again, which makes it really inefficient for the asker (or the asker can use a @highlight, and assume that Slack will send the recipient, guess what, an email).

Social media often comes up as another possible replacement for email, but its sort order is even worse than “only the most recent and most frequently repeated”. Messages are instead sorted by value to advertisers or likeliness to increase ‘engagement’”, i.e. most likely to keep you looking at this social media site rather than doing any real work.

For those of us who require long stretches of uninterrupted time to produce something good – “creatives”, or whatever today’s awkward buzzword for intersection of writers, programmers, graphic designers, illustrators, and so on, is – we need an inbound task queue that we can have some level of control over. Something that we can check at a time of our choosing, something that we can apply filtering to in order to protect access to our attention, something that maintains the chain of request/reply for reference when we have to pick up a thread we’ve had to let go of for a while. Some way to be in touch with our customers, our users, and our fans, without being constantly interrupted. Because if we don’t give those who need to communicate with such a tool, they’ll just blast @everyone messages into our slack channels and @mentions onto Twitter and texting us Hey, got a minute? until we have to quit everything to try and get some work done.

Questions about this post?

Go ahead and send me an email.


Acknowledgements

As always, any errors or bad ideas are certainly my own.

First of all, Merlin Mann, whose writing and podcasting were the inspiration, direct or indirect, for many of my thoughts on this subject; and who set a good example because he wouldn’t have answered your email even back when his job was thinking about email.

Thanks also to David Reid for introducing me to Merlin's work, as well as Alex Gaynor, Tristan Seligmann, Donald Stufft, Cory Benfield, Piët Delport, Amber Brown, and Ashwini Oruganti for feedback on drafts.


  1. Email is so culturally pervasive that it is literally in Vogue, although in fairness this is not a reference to the overflowing-Inbox problem that I’m discussing here. 

  2. I find the “edit” function in Slack maddening; although I appreciate why it was added, it’s easy to retroactively completely change the meaning of an entire conversation in ways that make it very confusing for those reading later. You don’t even have to do this intentionally; sometimes you make a legitimate mistake, like forgetting the word “not”, and the next 5 or 6 messages are about resolving that confusion; then, you go back and edit, and it looks like your colleagues correcting you are a pedantic version of Mr. Magoo, unable to see that you were correct the first time. 

  3. There, I said it. Are you happy now? 

  4. Just to clarify: nothing in this post should be construed as me berating you for not getting more work done, or for ever failing to meet any commitment no matter how casual. Quite the opposite: what I’m saying you need to do is acknowledge that you’re going to screw up and rather than hold a thousand emails in your inbox in the vain hope that you won’t, just send a quick apology and move on. 

  5. Maybe you decided to do the thing because your boss asked you to do it and failing to do it would cost you your job, but nevertheless, that is a conscious decision that you are making; not everybody gets to have “boss” priority, and unless your job is a true Orwellian nightmare, not everything your boss says in email is an instant career-ending catastrophe. 

  6. In Gmail, you can usually just copy a link to the message itself. If you’re using OS X’s Mail.app, you can use this Python script to generate links that, when clicked, will open the Mail app:

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    from __future__ import (print_function, unicode_literals,
                            absolute_import, division)
    
    from ScriptingBridge import SBApplication
    import urllib
    
    mail = SBApplication.applicationWithBundleIdentifier_("com.apple.mail")
    
    for viewer in mail.messageViewers():
        for message in viewer.selectedMessages():
            for header in message.headers():
                name = header.name()
                if name.lower() == "message-id":
                    content = header.content()
                    print("message:" + urllib.quote(content))
    

    You can then paste these links into just about any task tracker; if they don’t become clickable, you can paste them into Safari’s URL bar or pass them to the open command-line tool. 

  7. The one exception here is that you can look ahead in the same thread to see if someone has already replied. 

Stop Working So Hard

In response to a thoughtful reply from John Carmack, I share some thoughts on why we all need to stop working so damn hard.

Recently, I saw this tweet where John Carmack posted to a thread on Hacker News about working hours. As this post propagated a good many bad ideas about working hours, particularly in the software industry, I of course had to reply. After some further back-and-forth on Twitter, Carmack followed up.

First off, thanks to Mr. Carmack for writing such a thorough reply in good faith. I suppose internet arguments have made me a bit cynical in that I didn’t expect that. I still definitely don’t agree, but I think there’s a legitimate analysis of the available evidence there now, at least.

When trying to post this reply to HN, I was told that the comment was too long, and I suppose it is a bit long for a comment. So, without further ado, here are my further thoughts on working hours.

... if only the workers in Greece would ease up a bit, they would get the productivity of Germany. Would you make that statement?

Not as such, no. This is a hugely complex situation mixing together finance, culture, management, international politics, monetary policy, and a bunch of other things. That study, and most of the others I linked to, is interesting in that it confirms the general model of ability-to-work (i.e. “concentration” or “willpower”) as a finite resource that you exhaust throughout the day; not in that “reduction in working hours” is a panacea solution. Average productivity-per-hour-worked would definitely go up.

However, I do believe (and now we are firmly off into interpretation-of-results territory, I have nothing empirical to offer you here) that if the average Greek worker were less stressed to the degree of the average German one, combining issues like both overwork and the presence of a constant catastrophic financial crisis in the news, yes; they’d achieve equivalent productivity.

Total net productivity per worker, discounting for any increases in errors and negative side effects, continues increasing well past 40 hours per week. ... Only when you are so broken down that even when you come back the following day your productivity per hour is significantly impaired, do you open up the possibility of actually reducing your net output.

The trouble here is that you really cannot discount for errors and negative side effects, especially in the long term.

First of all, the effects of overwork (and attendant problems, like sleep deprivation) are cumulative. While productivity on a given day increases past 40 hours per week, if you continue to work more, you productivity will continue to degrade. So, the case where “you come back the following day ... impaired” is pretty common... eventually.

Since none of this epidemiological work tracks individual performance longitudinally there are few conclusive demonstrations of this fact, but lots of compelling indications; in the past, I’ve collected quantitative data on myself (and my reports, back when I used to be a manager) that strongly corroborates this hypothesis. So encouraging someone to work one sixty-hour week might be a completely reasonable trade-off to address a deadline; but building a culture where asking someone to work nights and weekends as a matter of course is inherently destructive. Once you get into the area where people are losing sleep (and for people with other responsibilities, it’s not hard to get to that point) overwork starts impacting stuff like the ability to form long-term memories, which means that not only do you do less work, you also consistently improve less.

Furthermore, errors and negative side effects can have a disproportionate impact.

Let me narrow the field here to two professions I know a bit about and are germane to this discussion; one, health care, which the original article here starts off by referencing, and two, software development, with which we are both familiar (since you already raised the Mythical Man Month).

In medicine, you can do a lot of valuable life-saving work in a continuous 100-hour shift. And in fact residents are often required to do so as a sort of professional hazing ritual. However, you can also make catastrophic mistakes that would cost a person their life; this happens routinely. Study after study confirms this, and minor reforms happen, but residents are still routinely abused and made to work in inhumane conditions that have catastrophic outcomes for their patients.

In software, defects can be extremely expensive to fix. Not only are they hard to fix, they can also be hard to detect. The phenomenon of the Net Negative Producing Programmer also indicates that not only can productivity drop to zero, it can drop below zero. On the anecdotal side, anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of cleaning up after a burnt-out co-worker can attest to this.

There are a great many tasks where inefficiency grows significantly with additional workers involved; the Mythical Man Month problem is real. In cases like these, you are better off with a smaller team of harder working people, even if their productivity-per-hour is somewhat lower.

The specific observation from the Mythical Man Month was that the number of communication links on a fully connected graph of employees increases geometrically whereas additional productivity (in the form of additional workers) increases linearly. If you have a well-designed organization, you can add people without requiring that your communication graph be fully connected.

But of course, you can’t always do that. And specifically you can’t do that when a project is already late: you already figured out how the work is going to be divided. Brooks’ Law is formulated as: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” This is indubitable. But one of the other famous quotes from this book is “The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned.”

The bearing of a child also takes nine months no matter how many hours a day the woman is assigned to work on it. So “in cases like these” my contention is that you are not “better off with ... harder working people”: you’re just screwed. Some projects are impossible and you are better off acknowledging the fact that you made unrealistic estimates and you are going to fail.

You called my post “so wrong, and so potentially destructive”, which leads me to believe that you hold an ideological position that the world would be better if people didn’t work as long. I don’t actually have a particularly strong position there; my point is purely about the effective output of an individual.

I do, in fact, hold such an ideological position, but I’d like to think that said position is strongly justified by the data available to me.

But, I suppose calling it “so potentially destructive” might have seemed glib, if you are really just looking at the microcosm of what one individual might do on one given week at work, and not at the broader cultural implications of this commentary. After all, as this discussion shows, if you are really restricting your commentary to a single person on a single work-week, the case is substantially more ambiguous. So let me explain why I believe it’s harmful, as opposed to merely being incorrect.

First of all, the problem is that you can’t actually ignore the broader cultural implications. This is Hacker News, and you are John Carmack; you are practically a cultural institution yourself, and by using this site you are posting directly into the broader cultural implications of the software industry.

Software development culture, especially in the USA, suffers from a long-standing culture of chronic overwork. Startup developers in their metaphorical (and sometimes literal) garages are lionized and then eventually mythologized for spending so many hours on their programs. Anywhere that it is celebrated, this mythology rapidly metastasizes into a severe problem; the Death March

Note that although the term “death march” is technically general to any project management, it applies “originally and especially in software development”, because this problem is worse in the software industry (although it has been improving in recent years) than almost anywhere else.

So when John Carmack says on Hacker News that “the effective output of an individual” will tend to increase with hours worked, that sends a message to many young and impressionable software developers. This is the exact same phenomenon that makes pop-sci writing terrible: your statement may be, in some limited context, and under some tight constraints, empirically correct, but it doesn’t matter because when you expand the parameters to the full spectrum of these people’s careers, it’s both totally false and also a reinforcement of an existing cognitive bias and cultural trope.

I can’t remember the name of this cognitive bias (and my Google-fu is failing me), but I know it exists. Let me call it the “I’m fine” bias. I know it exists because I have a friend who had the opportunity to go on a flight with NASA (on the Vomit Comet), and one of the more memorable parts of this experience that he related to me was the hypoxia test. The test involved basic math and spatial reasoning skills, but that test wasn’t the point: the real test was that they had to notice and indicate when the oxygen levels were dropping and indicate that to the proctor. Concentrating on the test, many people failed the first few times, because the “I’m fine” bias makes it very hard to notice that you are impaired.

This is true of people who are drunk, or people who are sleep deprived, too. Their abilities are quantifiably impaired, but they have to reach a pretty severe level of impairment before they notice.

So people who are overworked might feel generally bad but they don’t notice their productivity dropping until they’re way over the red line.

Combine this with the fact that most people, especially those already employed as developers, are actually quite hard-working and earnest (laziness is much more common as a rhetorical device than as an actual personality flaw) and you end up in a scenario where a good software development manager is responsible much more for telling people to slow down, to take breaks, and to be more realistic in their estimates, than to speed up, work harder, and put in more hours.

The trouble is this goes against the manager’s instincts as well. When you’re a manager you tend to think of things in terms of resources: hours worked, money to hire people, and so on. So there’s a constant nagging sensation for a manager to encourage people to work more hours in a day, so you can get more output (hours worked) out of your input (hiring budget). The problem here is that while all hours are equal, some hours are more equal than others. Managers have to fight against their own sense that a few more worked hours will be fine, and their employees’ tendency to overwork because they’re not noticing their own burnout, and upper management’s tendency to demand more.

It is into this roiling stew of the relentless impulse to “work, work, work” that we are throwing our commentary about whether it’s a good idea or not to work more hours in the week. The scales are weighted very heavily on one side already - which happens to be the wrong side in the first place - and while we’ve come back from the unethical and illegal brink we were at as an industry in the days of ea_spouse, software developers still generally work far too much.

If we were fighting an existential threat, say an asteroid that would hit the earth in a year, would you really tell everyone involved in the project that they should go home after 35 hours a week, because they are harming the project if they work longer?

Going back to my earlier explanation in this post about the cumulative impact of stress and sleep deprivation - if we were really fighting an existential threat, the equation changes somewhat. Specifically, the part of the equation where people can have meaningful downtime.

In such a situation, I would still want to make sure that people are as well-rested and as reasonably able to focus as they possibly can be. As you’ve already acknowledged, there are “increases in errors” when people are working too much, and we REALLY don’t want the asteroid-targeting program that is going to blow apart the asteroid that will wipe out all life on earth to have “increased errors”.

But there’s also the problem that, faced with such an existential crisis, nobody is really going to be able to go home and enjoy a fine craft beer and spend some time playing with their kids and come back refreshed at 100% the next morning. They’re going to be freaking out constantly about the comet, they’re going to be losing sleep over that whether they’re working or not. So, in such a situation, people should have the option to go home and relax if they’re psychologically capable of doing so, but if the option for spending their time that makes them feel the most sane is working constantly and sleeping under their desk, well, that’s the best one can do in that situation.

This metaphor is itself also misleading and out of place, though. There is also a strong cultural trend in software, especially in the startup ecosystem, to over-inflate the importance of what the company is doing - it is not “changing the world” to create a website for people to order room-service for their dogs - and thereby to catastrophize any threat to that goal. The vast majority of the time, it is inappropriate to either to sacrifice -- or to ask someone else to sacrifice -- health and well-being for short-term gains. Remember, given the cumulative effects of overwork, that’s all you even can get: short-term gains. This sacrifice often has a huge opportunity cost in other areas, as you can’t focus on more important things that might come along later.

In other words, while the overtime situation is complex and delicate in the case of an impending asteroid impact, there’s also the question of whether, at the beginning of Project Blow Up The Asteroid, I want everyone to be burnt out and overworked from their pet-hotel startup website. And in that case, I can say, unequivocally, no. I want them bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for what is sure to be a grueling project, no matter what the overtime policy is, that absolutely needs to happen. I want to make sure they didn’t waste their youth and health on somebody else’s stock valuation.

Sorry I Unfollowed You

I unfollowed everyone else, too.

Since Alex Gaynor wrote his seminal thinkpiece on the subject, “I Hope Twitter Goes Away”, I’ve been wrestling to define my relationship to this often problematic product.

On the one hand, Twitter has provided me with delightful interactions with human beings who I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to meet or interact with. If you are the sort of person who likes following people, four suggestions I’d make on that front are Melissa 🔔, Gary Bernhardt, Eevee and Matt Blaze, all of whom have blogs but none of whom I would have discovered without Twitter.

Twitter has also allowed me to reach a larger audience with my writing than I otherwise would have been able to. Lots of people click on links to this blog from Twitter either from following me directly or from a retweet. (Thank you, retweeters, one and all.)

On the other hand, the effect of using Twitter on my productivity is like having a constant, low-grade headache. While Twitter has never been a particularly bad distraction as measured by hours spent on it (I keep metrics on that, and it’s rarely even in the top 10), I feel like consulting Twitter is something I do when I am stuck, or having to think about something hard. “I’ll just check Twitter” is an easy way to “take a break” right at the moment that I ought to be thinking harder, eliminating distractions, mustering my will to focus.

This has been particularly stark for me as I’ve been trying to get some real writing done over the last couple of weeks and have been consistently drawing a blank. Given that I have a deadline coming up on Wednesday and another next Monday, something had to give.

Or, as Joss Whedon put it, when he quit Twitter:

If I’m going to start writing again, I have to go to the quiet place, and this is the least quiet place I’ve ever been in my life.

I’m an introvert, and using Twitter is more like being at a gigantic, awkward party all the time than any other online space I’ve ever been in.

There’s an irony here. Mostly what people like that I put on Twitter (and yes, I’ve checked) are announcements that link to other things, accomplishments in other areas, like a blog post, or a feature in Twisted, but using Twitter itself is inimical to completing those things.

I’m loath to abandon the positive aspects of Twitter. Some people also use Twitter as a replacement for RSS, and I don’t want to break the way they choose to pay attention to the stuff that I do. And a few of my friends communicate exclusively through direct messages.

The really “good” thing about Twitter is discovery. It enables you to discover people, content, and, eugh, “brands” that appeal to you. I have discovered things that I enjoy many times. The fundamental problem I am facing, which is a little bit hard to admit to oneself, is that I have discovered enough. I have enough games to play, enough books and articles to read, enough podcasts to listen to, enough movies to watch, enough code to write, enough open source libraries to investigate, that I will be busy for years based on what I already know.

For me, using Twitter’s timeline at this point to “discover” more things is like being at a delicious buffet, being so full I’m nauseous, and stuffing my pockets with shrimp “just in case” I’m hungry “when I get home” - and then, of course, not going home.

Even disregarding my desire to produce useful content, if I just want to enjoy consuming content more deeply, I have to take the time to engage with it properly.

So here’s what I’m doing:

  1. I am turning on the “anyone can direct message me” feature. We’ll see how that goes; I may have to turn it off again later. As always, I’d prefer you send email (or text me, if it’s time-critical).
  2. I am unfollowing literally everyone, and will not follow people in the future. Checking my timeline was the main information junk-food I want to avoid.
  3. Since my timeline, rather than mentions and replies, was my main source of distraction, I’ll continue paying attention to mentions and replies (at least for now; I’ll have to see if that becomes a problem in the absence of a timeline).
  4. In order to avoid producing such information junk-food myself, I’m going to try to directly tweet less, and put more things into brief blog posts so I have enough room to express them. I won’t say “not at all”, but most of the things that I put on Twitter would really be better as longer, more thoughtful articles.

Please note that there’s nothing prescriptive here. I’m outlining what I’m doing in the hopes that others might recognize similar problems with themselves - if everyone used Twitter this way, there would hardly be a point to the site.

Also, if I’ve unfollowed you, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what you have to say. I already have a way of keeping in touch with people’s more fully-formed ideas: I use Blogtrottr to deliver relevant blog articles to my email. If I previously followed you and you think I might not be reading your blog already (in most cases I believe I already am), please feel free to drop me a line with an RSS link.