The Invisible Bugs Stopping You from Getting Work Done

Sah Kilic

How to minimize the frictions in your life Ethan Hoover/Unsplash

The other day, I posted some positive changes to my lifestyle on a productivity-related forum. They were four simple points, and it was all about designing your environment to work for you.

And anyone mildly interested in productivity has heard these before.

  • My phone is on airplane mode for the first 2 hours of my day.
  • I lock my computer with all of my work-related tabs and programs open.
  • My desk is clear from random trash.
  • I set up my bag, clothes, and food the night/day before.

All of these are relevant because they cultivate an environment where it is easier for you to do your work.

No brain overload in the morning, no distractions when you turn on your computer, nothing between you and the front door before work — it makes sense.

But what was interesting was the discussion that followed in the thread, a small discovery or reminder that there are invisible forces, or bugs, between every task you do.

You might call it administrative overhead — something you get from switching tasks.

You might call it a multi-tasking — something nobody can do effectively.

But that’s not it. This is different, and everyone has a version of this scattered throughout their day.

Here’s an example someone used in the thread.

I used to keep a daily medicine that I had to take, in a closet in my bedroom. Every time I had to walk between the bedroom and my kitchen to get a drink of water etc. and it used to feel like a chore.
I simply moved the medicine to near the fridge. It’s, of course, an obvious solution, but there are many such things which go unnoticed because they are so small, and unbeknownst to us they create mild underlying anxieties — user.

These small things between you and the stuff you need to get done are called micro frictions, and as they go unnoticed, they add up.

Micro Frictions & Effort Points

Everyone in the world has 1000 effort points a day.

You can achieve a lot when you’re deliberate with using them, but if you let your guard down, the micro friction bugs get them.

My clothes scattered in the dryer, drawer, and on the couch means I have to deal with finding it all in the morning. -10 Effort Points

My tabs open from the previous night’s wind down, making me close them and drift into finishing a YouTube video. -15 Effort Points

Going to the grocery store without a list thinking of what foods I want to make, and inefficiently browsing longer than I have to. -20 Effort Points

These things might seem like a part of life, not that big, not that scary, but I can think of at least a dozen more in what I thought was my optimized workday. Alas, not so optimized after all.

The name of the game is to swat these bugs; we need to eliminate unnecessary friction and save as many effort points during the day so we can spend them on what matters — our work, business, study, or relationships.

It’s a two-step process.

  1. Find the bugs.
  2. Swat them.

Finding The Bugs

Each little micro friction throughout the day leads to an end-of-day thought where I’m wondering how I did so much today but got so little done.

When we know what anchored us that day, the fixes are obvious.

Ready your clothes the night before, close your tabs, and keep a clean desktop before you shut down, make a list for your groceries — it’s simple.

But the real issue is being aware of where the micro frictions are in your life and only then figuring out if it’s an environment-related issue.

  1. Trying to write an article while also emailing someone — that’s a failure to multi-task.
  2. Stopping to reply to messages while in the middle of doing deep work — that’s task switching and administrative overhead.

These are both behavioral problems for productivity, they’re potentially solved by changing your environment, virtual or real, but ultimately rely on you changing your behavior.

They’re not micro frictions; they’re just frictions — they’re obvious.

We realize we can’t effectively do two things at once; we can only do two things poorly.

We realize the only reason we’re stopping to reply to messages is that our phone is next to us.

Even on mute, the screen flashes; even with airplane mode, we habitually pick it up.

Where these become micro frictions is when our environment actively encourages the behavior or adds a layer of resistance — this resistance is the bug.

To deal with the resistance, we need to ask ourselves some questions.

  • How am I making this more difficult for myself?
  • What would this look like if it were easy?
  • Am I doing ‘busywork?’
  • Can I do 5 minutes of ‘prep’ that’ll make everything else easier?
  • Can I change my environment to fix my problem?

When I ask myself these questions, I start to come up with solutions to problems I didn’t think I had, i.e., I find the bugs.

Environment Design

Is my phone distracting me? My old response was, “oh, this is distracting me, let me put this in my pocket.” And of course, it wasn’t good enough.

Putting it in a different room, on the other hand. It’s like I’m using the micro friction bugs to help me instead.

I can’t be bothered to walk all the way to the living room to check my phone, and I really don’t need to check it, I’d rather just keep typing away.

And just like that, I’ve reduced one of the top distractions I have while working, and yes, it seems trivial, but the results have been great.

Now, that was my literal environment, but when I’m talking about environment design, it’s not just about your work station — it’s about the preparation.

My favorite question in the last section is: Can I do 5 minutes of ‘prep’ that’ll make everything else easier?

Environment design is like being a mastermind in the present and directing your future monkey self in the right direction.

The monkey gets distracted by all the buzzing micro friction bugs, and your job is to swat as many as possible now, so monkey you can get things done later.

This could be anything, and technically not an environment change.

  • Meal prep on a Sunday — easy week ahead.
  • The timer on a coffee machine — waking up to go-go bean juice.
  • Making a physical Top 3 list of things you need to do beforehand — not spending 30 minutes during the day figuring out priorities.

A lot of ‘productivity hacks’ are just minimization of friction.

If you can find the problems by asking yourself honest questions, do the prep, and alter the environment to work for you, you’ll direct yourself to a more happy and successful day, week, month, or year.

Tally, these extra effort points over your life and boom; you’ve got a pretty sweet thing going there.

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