Lenses

Squinting harder never cured my ADHD.

I suffer from ADHD.

photo of a man with his head in his hands Photo by Taylor Young on Unsplash

Update 2021-08-22: Almost exactly a year after this post was written, I sought and received a clinical neuropsychiatric diagnosis of ADHD (predominantly inattentive, sluggish cognitive tempo), so I’m no longer self-diagnosed.

I want to be clear: when I say I suffer from this disorder, I am making a self-diagnosis. I’ve obliquely referred to suffering from ADHD in previous posts, but rarely at any length. The main reason for my avoidance of the topic is that it still makes me super uncomfortable to write publicly about a “self-diagnosis”, since there’s a tremendous amount of Internet quackery thanks to amateur diagnosticians.

This despite the fact that I’ve known for the past 15 years that I have ADHD.

I am absolutely not trying to set myself up as a maverick unlicensed freelance psychiatrist here. If you think you might have ADHD, or any other ailment, whether mental or physical, call your primary care physician. Don’t email me.

At the same time, for me, this diagnosis is not really ambiguous or in a gray area. This is me looking down and noticing I’ve only got one arm, and diagnosing myself as a one-armed person. I’ve taken numerous ADHD screening questionnaires and reliably scored well into the range of “there is no ambiguity whatsoever, you absolutely have ADHD”, so I feel confident to describe myself as having it.

Terminology aside, this post is about a set of cognitive and metacognitive issues that I have, and some tools that I found useful to remedy them. I think others might find those same tools useful in similar situations. So if you’re also uncomfortable with the inherently unreliable nature of self-diagnosis, or the clinical specificity of the term “ADHD” — and I absolutely don’t blame you if you are — I invite you to read “ADHD” as a shorthand for some character traits that I informally believe fit that label, and not a robust clinical analysis of myself or anyone else.

With that extended disclaimer out of the way, I’ll get started on the post itself; and where better to do that than at the start of my own challenges.

The ‘Laziness’ model

photo of a cat relaxing on a couch Photo by Zosia Korcz on Unsplash

Throughout my childhood, I was labeled an “underachiever”. I performed well on tests and didn’t do homework. I was frequently told by adults — especially my teachers — that I was “brilliant” but “lazy”.

Was I lazy? Is there even such a thing as “laziness”? Here’s a spoiler for you — “no”1 — but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that I couldn’t seem to do certain things — boring things: homework, long division, and cleaning up my room, for a few examples. I couldn’t seem to do the things that my peers found routine and trivial.

This is a common enough experience that it shows up clearly even in systematic reviews and meta-analyses of adult sufferers of ADHD. Everybody tells you you’re lazy, and so you believe it. It sure looks like laziness from the outside!

In retrospect, that’s the interesting problem with this false diagnosis: “from the outside”. Assuming for the moment that laziness does in fact exist and is a salient character flaw, what would the experience of the interiority of such laziness actually feel like?

It seems unlikely that it would feel like I what I actually felt at the time:

  1. Frequently, suddenly remembering, in contexts where it wouldn’t help — walking to school, in an unrelated class, while walking to work — that I had to Do The Thing.

  2. Anxiously, yearningly, often desperately wishing I could Do The Thing.

  3. Trying to Do The Thing at the responsible time, finding that my mind would wander and I would lose several hours of time... sitting for hours, literally bored to tears, while I attempted and failed to Do The Thing.

  4. At long last, finally managing to start. Once I was truly exhausted and starting to panic, I’d drink a gallon of heavily-caffeinated and very sugary soda at 2 in the morning and finally finally find that I suddenly had the ability to Do The Thing, and white-knuckle my way through an all-nighter to finish The Thing. (This step was more common after I got to my late teens; before that, The Thing just wouldn’t get Done.)

Sitting up night after night destroying my mental and physical health, depriving myself of sleep, focusing with every ounce of my will on tasks that I absolutely hated doing but was forcing myself to complete at all costs: it doesn’t seem to line up with the popular conception of what “laziness” might be like! Yet, I absolutely believed that I was lazy. If I were not lazy, surely Doing The Thing wouldn’t be so difficult!

I took pains at the start of this post to point out that mental health diagnosis is usually best left to professionals. I think that at this point in the story I should emphasize that “I’m lazy” is also itself a self-diagnosis, and — at least in every case where I’ve ever heard it used — a much worse one than “I have ADHD”.

If you are not a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist, any time you decide with certainty that someone (even yourself!) has an intrinsic, persistent character flaw, you’re effectively diagnosing them. If you decide that they’re inherently lazy, or selfish, or arrogant, you’re effectively diagnosing them with a sort of personality disorder of your own invention.

So, although I didn’t see it at the time, laziness didn’t seem to describe me terribly well. What description fits better?

The ‘Attention Deficit’ model

photo of a squirrel in a grass field Photo by Tom Bradley on Unsplash

In my late 20s, my Uncle Joel gave me a gift that changed my life: the book “Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder”2 by Edward M. Hallowell. The life-changing aspect of this book was not so much that it showed that there were other people “like me”, or that my problem had a name, but that it gave me a different, and more accurately predictive, model to understand my own behavior.

In other words, it allowed me to see — for the first time — that the scarcest resource limiting my efficacy wasn’t the will to do the work, but rather the ability to focus. With this enhanced understanding, I could select a more effective strategy for dealing with the problem.

I did select such a strategy! It worked very well — albeit with some caveats. I’ll get to those in a moment.

Although my limiting factor was the ability to pay attention, the problem that prevented me from recognizing this was one of metacognition — the way I was thinking about how I think.

My early model of my own mind was that I was a lazy person who just needed to do what I had assumed everyone else must be doing: forcing myself to do the tasks that I was having trouble completing. If I really wanted to get them done, then what possible other reason could there be for me to not do them?

The ‘laziness’ model didn’t generate particularly good predictions. For any given project at school, it would predict that I would not try very hard to do it, since the very dictionary definition of ‘lazy’ is “unwilling to work or use energy”. The observed behavior, by contrast, was constant, panicked, intense (albeit failed, or at least highly inefficient) uses of significant amounts of energy.

The main reason to have a model of a thing is to make predictions about that thing. If the predictions that a model gives you are consistently wrong, then the model isn’t directly useful. At that point, it’s time to discard it and find a better one. At the very least, it’s time to revise the model in question until it starts giving you more accurate, actionable information.

The ‘laziness’ model is wrong, but worse than that, it’s harmful. What it routinely predicts, regardless of context, is that I need more negative self-talk, more ‘motivation’ in the form of vicious self-criticism, more forcing myself to “just do it”. All of these things, particularly when performed habitually, cause real, significant harm.

If I gave myself the most negative self-talk I could muster, the most vicious criticism, and really put Maximum Effort into forcing myself to do the thing I wanted done... if it didn’t work, of course that just meant that I needed to engage in even more self-abuse! I could always try harder!

This is the worst way that a model can be inaccurate: an unfalsifiable, self-reinforcing prediction. I could never demonstrate to myself that I’d really been as unkind to myself as was possible; there was always room for escalation. Psychologically, it’s also the worst kind of behavioral advice, which is the kind that generates a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop.


Once I started putting my newfound knowledge into practice, the difference between interventions predicated on an understanding of the problem as “lack of usable attention span” and those based on “lack of willpower” was night and day. I stopped trying to white-knuckle my way through all of my challenges and developed non-judgmental ways to remind myself to do things.

I knew that I, personally, was never going to spontaneously remember to do things at the right time, so I developed ways of letting computers remind me. I knew that I’d never be able to stick with routine, repetitive tasks, so I made a unified list of all the tedious administrative tasks I need to perform. I can’t keep important dates and times in mind, so I rely completely upon my calendar.

Even given these successes, “it worked!” is a colossal oversimplification. Today, it’s about 15 years later, and I’m still sifting through the psychological rubble wrought by the destructive, maladaptive coping mechanisms that I just described, and still trying to find better ways to remain effective when I’m feeling distracted... which is most of the time.

Simply having a better model at the coarsest level is just the first step. Instantiating that model in a working, fleshed out technological system is a ton of work in its own right.3 But it’s work that starts having little successes, which is a lot easier to build on and maintain momentum with than the same failure repeated day after day.

Given that I was starting — nearly from scratch — at 25, and had a lifetime worth of bad habits to unlearn, constructing a workable system that addressed my personal organizational needs still took the better part of a decade.

So as I move into the next, slightly more prescriptive section here, I don’t want to give anybody the idea that I think this is easy.

Don’t give up!

Listen up, Simon. Don’t believe in yourself. Believe in me! Believe in the Kamina who believes in you!

Kamina, Episode 1,
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

At the start of this post, I specifically mentioned that I hadn’t wanted to write at length about ADHD due to my discomfort with self-diagnosis. So, you might be wondering: what was it that overcame this resistance and prompted me to finally write about my own experiences with ADHD?

The original inspiration was a pattern of complaints about suffering from ADHD I see periodically — mainly on Twitter — that look roughly like this:

  • “ADHD means never being on time for a meeting and having no excuse, forever.”
  • “It’s great to have ADHD and never be able to complete a routine task. Sigh.”
  • “I can’t take out the trash and my roommates just can’t understand that this is just part of who I am and I will never get better.”
  • “Why can’t neurotypicals understand that I’m just never going to “get stuff done” like they can. It’s exhausting.”

These are paraphrased and anonymized on purpose; I really don’t want to direct any negative attention towards someone specific, particularly someone just venting about struggles.

Of course, no blog post in mid-2020 would be complete without some reference to the ... situation. The original inspiration for this post predates the dawn of the new hell-world we all now inhabit, but, to say the least, COVID-194 has presented some new challenges to the coping mechanisms I’m writing about here. (Still, I know that I’m considerably better off than the average American in this mess.)

The message I’m trying to get across here is hopeful — others suffering with executive-function deficits similar to mine might be able to do what I did and fix a lot of their problems with this one weird trick! — and the constant drumbeat of despair all around us right now makes that sort of message feel more urgent.

Posts like the ones I described above seem to represent a recurring pattern of despair, and they make me sad. Not because I can’t identify with them; I have absolutely had these feelings. Not even because they’re wrong, exactly: it really is harder for folks with ADHD to handle some of these situations, and the struggle really is lifelong.

They make me sad because they’re expressing a fatalistic perspective; a fixed mindset5 that precludes any hope of future improvement. The through line that I have seen from all of these posts is a familiar, specific kind of despair; a thought I’ve had myself multiple times:

When somebody that I care about asks me, ‘Can you do the dishes later?’, I want to say ‘yes’ and have them believe me. I want to be able to believe myself, and I don’t think I will ever be able to.

Unlike myself when I was younger, the authors of these posts already have a name for their problem: ADHD. Sometimes they’ve even tried some amount of therapy or even medication.

Even so, they’re still buying in to the maladaptive strategy of “just try harder”. Since they already know that ADHD is, at least in part, a structural brain difference, they despair of ever being able to actually do that though, which leaves “giving up” as the only viable strategy.

Don’t give up! I believe in you!

Different problems, different tools

I have had another lifelong problem since when I was young: I am severely nearsighted. Yet, I never developed any psychological hangups around that; nobody ever told me that I needed to buckle down and just squint harder. This problem was socially quite well understood, so… I got glasses. Then I could see, as long as I consistently used those glasses.

Nobody ever expected me to be able to see without glasses.

photo of a pair of eyeglasses resting on a book Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Calendars, to-do lists, and systems like Getting Things Done are the corrective lenses for the ADHD brain.6.

If a to-do list is a corrective lens for ADHD, one of the major issues around understanding how to use it is that the mass-market literature around to-do lists assumes a certain level of neurotypicality. Assistive devices may frequently be useful to non-disabled people, but their relationship to and use of such affordances is very different.

Through the Looking-Glass ...

Let’s stretch this lens metaphor into absurdity.

In our metaphorical world, ADHD is myopia, and so most — or at least many — folks are “sight-typical”. Productivity systems are our “lenses”.

If nearsightedness were as poorly understood as ADHD, and you were nearsighted, you wouldn’t be able to pop on down to Lenscrafters and pick up a pair of spectacles. You might realize that the problem was with your eyes, and think, “lenses might help me see farther”. Many kinds of lenses might be commercially available in such a world! Lenses for telescopes, cameras, microscopes...

The way that someone with 20/20 vision might use a lens to see farther is to use a telescope to see something really far away. But you, my hypothetically-nearsighted friend, don’t need a powerful zoom lens to take surveillance photographs from a helicopter. Even if you could make such lenses work to correct your vision, you wouldn’t want to carry a pair of 2-kilogram DSLR zoom lenses everywhere you go. You want eyeglasses, which are something different.

photo of a picture of a giraffe with DSLR lenses over its eyes Photo by James Bold on Unsplash

The lenses in eyeglasses are — while operating on fundamentally the same principles of optics as the lenses in a telescope or a microscope — constructed and packaged in a completely different way. But most importantly, the way you use them is to wear them every day, not to deploy them on special occasions in the rare event where you need to do something extreme, but all the time, every day, in the same way.

... and What I Found There

photo of a to-do list written in a notebook Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

A person with nominal executive function might use the occasional free-floating to-do list to track a big, complex project with a lot of small interrelated tasks. Most folks in the modern information-driven economy routinely need to do projects that are too complex to easily memorize all the required steps. Even doing your own personal taxes has enough steps to require at least a little bit of tracking.

Such a person could make a to-do list for that one project — their telescope, if you will — put it in a place where they’d remember to look at it when they’re working on that project, and then remember to check things off when they’re done.

They could have one to-do list on the fridge for groceries, a note on their phone for stuff to get for their spouse, and a wiki page outlining some tasks at work. They would probably have enough free-floating executive function to remember which list maps to which project and when each project is relevant, and remember to check each one at the appropriate time.

I spent a lot of time trying to make disconnected to-do lists like this work for me. They never have. Even when I’m feeling particularly productive there is a cycle of list-generation, that goes like this:

  1. When I want to work on the project in question, I can’t remember where the to-do list is, but I need to figure out what I need to do again.

  2. So I go and write a new to-do list, spend a bunch of time rewriting the one I’d already written but can’t quickly find. Then I do some work on the project, check off a few things, and put the list away.

  3. Later, I’ll find both lists, both half checked off, and now I waste a bunch of time trying to figure out which one is the right one.

  4. Repeat this process a few times, and now I have a dozen lists. The lists themselves start generating more work than the actual project, because now I am constantly re-making and finding lists, trying to figure out which one is the most up to date.

This is the simplest case, but the real problem happens at a higher level: one of the biggest problems caused by any executive function deficit like ADHD is the difficulty of task initiation.

The more irrelevant distractions I can see while I’m trying to work out what to do next, the harder that decision becomes. And there’s nothing quite so distracting as the detritus of a thousand half-finished to-do lists.

One List To Rule Them All

What I’ve found works for me is a single, primary to-do list that I can obsessively check in with every minute of every day, which subsumes every other list related to every other project in my life.

I’m hardly the only person to have this insight — if you start engaging with the “productivity” noosphere, reading all the books, listening to the podcasts, this is a recurring theme. You don’t just have an ‘app’ or a ‘list’, you have to have a System. It has to be reliable; you have to know you’re going to keep checking it, or it’s worthless for storing your commitments. But unfortunately this is frequently buried under a lot of other technical complexity about the fiddly details of how to set up one system or the other. It’s very easy to miss the forest for the trees.

Having ADHD means that I routinely forget what I’ve decided to do over the course of only a minute or two after I’ve decided to do it. Just this week, I had to remind myself no fewer than three times to write down “buy more olive oil” because I kept remembering that we were running low when I was in the kitchen and by the time I finished washing my hands to put it into my phone I’d already forgotten why I did that and went back to making dinner.

I need to write everything down. I’m not going to remember five or six, or even two or three places to check for what to do next. I need to have one place to check what comes next, and then build the habit of constantly going back to it, both to add new things and to see what needs to be done.

Technology can help. Technology might even be necessary — it is for me.

But if you’re considering trying this out for the first time, be mindful that piles of to-do apps can be just as distracting as piles of paper. The important thing is to clearly, singularly decide on the one place which is the ‘root’ of your task tracking system.

You can even do this with a pen and paper. Carry the same, single notebook with you everywhere, and make it absolutely clear that it is your primary list, which is where you have to put any references to other lists. Some people have a lot more success with something tactile, to engage all the senses.

For me personally, the high-tech portion of this strategy is indispensable. I use a combination of OmniFocus for things that have to be done and Apple’s built-in calendar application for places I have to be at a particular time.7

OmniFocus8 defines the core gameplay loop of my life. Rather than having to cultivate and retain an elaborate series of interlocking habits and rituals to remain functional, I have a single root habit which triggers every other habit.

That habit? Consulting the unified “what should I do next” perspective in OmniFocus. Every time I am even marginally distracted, I check that view again.

Any time I have trouble initiating a task, I start breaking down the top task in that list into smaller and smaller “next physical action”. I don’t even rely on myself to do this; since I know I’ll forget to break things down, I frequently make tasks that look like this:

  • thing I want to do
  • plan the thing I want to do
    • break down the planning task into tiny actions and write them down here
    • break down the task itself into tiny actions and write them down here

To reduce distraction, I routinely close down any windows that are not necessary for whatever I’m currently working on. Particularly, I routinely sweep to get rid of browser tabs, asking (as I would with an email) “does this window represent a task I should do?”. If yes, it goes in the task system, if no, I close it so it won’t distract me further.

To facilitate this clean-up, on every computer that I use, I have a global hot-key set up to turn the thing that I’m looking at — some selected text, an image, an email message, a browser tab, a chat message at work — into a task that I can look at later.

Everything I have to do on a regular basis is in this system as a recurring task; for example:

  • taking out the trash
  • doing the dishes
  • logging in to Jira at work to look for assigned tasks
  • checking my email
  • brushing my teeth

Yes, even basic personal hygiene is in here. Not because I’ll necessarily forget, or that it takes a lot of energy, but I don’t want to waste one iota of brainpower I could be devoting to my current task to worrying about whether I might need to do something else later. If I don’t see ‘brush teeth’ in my “what should I do next” view, then I know, with certainty, that I don’t need to be thinking about tooth-brushing right now.

The “what should I do next” view is available on all of my computers, on my tablet, on my phone, and it even dominates my watch-face; I check it more often than I check the time:

screenshot of an apple watch face displaying a to-do item saying “write ADHD blog post”

No single feature is a hard requirement of my system; I could get along without any one of them in a pinch. However, the way that they combine to constantly reinforce what the next thing I need to do is in any given context, at any given time, means that I need to expend less energy trying to consciously hang on to all the context.

Limitations and Risks

I don’t want to give an overly rosy view of this strategy. Getting a single unified to-do system that works for you is not the same as getting a brain that can remember to do stuff. So here are some caveats:

  1. Implementing and maintaining such a system is never easy. It just takes tasks like ‘making sure I renew my passport before I need to travel’, ‘show up on time for the meeting’ and ‘buy a gift at least a week before the wedding’ from totally impossible to possible to do at least somewhat reliably with a sustainable level of effort. The main thing that I believe is possible for everyone is being able to commit to simple future tasks.
  2. Building enough data about one’s own habits and procrastination triggers also takes time, and to make such a system effective, one needs to do that work as well. (A passive time-tracking tool like Screen Time on your phone or RescueTime on your workstation can be quite illuminating — and surprising.)
  3. The initial wave of relief I felt when I started tracking tasks masked a gradual increase in my general anxiety over time. Checking and re-checking the ‘what to do next’ list can become a bit of an anxious compulsion, a safety behavior that doesn’t always help me plan my day. As one builds the habit of routinely checking the list, it’s important to avoid developing constant anxiety about the list as the only motivation to do so.
  4. Similarly, it is important to learn to under-commit. Not only does one need to avoid putting an unrealistic amount of stuff into the system, everybody (but especially everybody with ADHD!) needs non-trivial chunks of unstructured, unplanned time, where the system will clearly say ‘nothing to do now, just relax’. The “poor self-observation” and “time blindness” symptoms of ADHD ensure that properly estimating things before committing is a constant challenge that never really goes away either.
  5. This strategy definitely won’t be sufficient for some folks. ADHD is a spectrum and there’s no precise mechanism to calibrate where you are on it. Some folks will respond really well to this strategy, some folks will need medication before it helps to a useful degree.

Finishing up (about finishing up)

If you’re suffering from ADHD and despairing that you will never finish a task or be on time to an appointment: you can. It’s possible to do it at least pretty reliably. I believe if you commit to one and only one task tracking system, and consistently use it every single day, all the time, you can commit to tasks and get them done.

If you do it consistently enough, it will eventually become muscle memory, and not something you need to consciously remember to do every day.

It’s still never going to be easy to Do The Thing, even if your digital brain can perfectly remember what The Thing is right now.

At the very least, it was possible for me to learn to trust myself when I say that I will do something in the future, by designing a system around my own limited attention, and if I can do it, I think you can too.


Acknowledgments

This was a big one! I’d like to particularly thank my Uncle Joel, without whom this post (and many of my other achievements) would not be possible for the reasons described above, as well as Moshe Zadka, Amber Brown, Tom Most, and Eevee for extensive feedback on previous drafts of this post.

Additionally, I’d like to thank David Reid for introducing me to many of the tools and techniques that I still use every day, and Cory Benfield, Jonathan Lange, and Hynek Schlawack for many illuminating conversations over the years about the specifics and detailed mechanics of the tools whose use I describe in this post.

Any errors, of course, remain my own.


  1. The broader topic of the nature of “character”, fundamental attribution error and the extent to which the entire concept of a “character flaw” is a cognitive illusion that arises from the expedient but cruel habit of ignoring the context in which someone is making decisions is more than enough fodder for another post, but here are some good articles covering a newly-emerging psychological consensus that laziness as we understand it doesn’t really exist, and that there are always mitigating factors

  2. Paid link. See disclosures

  3. It was 54 years from Einstein figuring out the photoelectric effect in 1905 to the first MOSFET in 1959; and another 45 before we got MicroSD cards out of the theory of quantum mechanics. 

  4. Hello, future archaeologists! If you’re reading this in the far-flung future, as of this writing, shit is just incredibly fucked up right now. Just incredibly, horrifically fucked up. 

  5. Growth Mindset is a useful concept, but it definitely has a lot of problems, and has been a particularly pointed casualty of the replication crisis. This is a pretty good post outlining its remaining utility, even in the face of its relatively small remaining effect size. 

  6. This is to say nothing of medication, which is also quite useful. More or less necessary, in fact, for some of those suffering from ADHD. One thing I want to be very careful to point out is that in this post I’m talking about my own experiences with ADHD here; without a proper diagnosis, I haven’t had the opportunity to try a pharmacological solution, so I can’t comment on its efficacy for me. However, there’s a school of thought that since some people can resolve some of their ADHD problems with non-medicative interventions, therefore all people should refrain from medication. I want to be as clear as possible that I do not endorse this point of view. 

  7. I’m not going to get into what I use for email here, since I’ve written about that before, and you can just go read that. 

  8. Since I know many of my readers are not in the Apple ecosystem, and might be motivated by this post to put some of these ideas into action, there are plenty of cross-platform apps with similar capabilities. You might check out Taskwarrior, Todoist, or Remember The Milk. There’s definitely something out there that can work for you! 

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.

Bulfinch’s Mythology

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 could possibly have been read yet 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 for you to 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. Finally, thanks to reader Rob for pointing out some minor errors in the originally published version.


  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.