In Defence of Half-Arsing
After overthinking overthinking last week I thought this week I’d talk about something that seems like (but isn’t) its opposite: half-arsing (half-assing if you speak US English).
Half-arsing is when you put in less effort than would be needed to get a good result, and the result you get out of it is correspondingly worse. It’s the kludge, the cutting of corners, anything where where the reason you didn’t do better is not that you couldn’t, just that you couldn’t be bothered.
Like overthinking, half-arsing is good, actually, and gets an unfairly bad rep, and you should probably be doing more of it than you are.
Why should you half-arse things? Generally because it’s harder to do it properly than the task warrants.
Most things that need doing don’t need doing very well. They especially often don’t need doing well if the alternative is not doing them at all. Often we have only so much time and effort we can spend on a thing, and doing the thing is better than not doing the thing.
In general, you should aim to put effort into any given thing proportionate to outcome. Something that is hidden away can be done with an ugly kludge. Something that does not meaningfully contribute to the success of the project can be skimped on.
This comes up particularly when there are many things to do and a finite amount of effort to spend. In these case a refusal to half-arse is not actually a refusal to half-arse, it’s abdicating responsibility over which bits to half-arse. Parkinson’s law of triviality, illustrated with the example that a committee for a nuclear power plant spends a disproportionate amount of time deciding on the colour of its bike shed, is essentially an example of this. You should probably just half-arse that decision, it’s basically fine.
Sometimes it’s even impossible to solve the problem within the means available to you. You might be prohibited, or having to work in the constraints set by other people (cf. Distributing Blame), or you might to pick a completely hypothetical example have left writing your newsletter too late and want to head over to the barbecue on your partners’ island to meet your new neighbours (no more than six of us though, I promise, UK government 🤞). In many of these cases, it’s still worth doing something that improves the situation even if it’s not the ideal scenario.
So that’s why half-arsing is good, but why do people not do enough of it?
Well, personally I blame school (I try not to explain too many things this way, but I think this one really makes sense). We spend too much of our formative years in an environment where there is an external arbiter who will punish us for not doing the thing “properly”, and does not allow us to use our judgement as to what counts as good enough.
Too often this causes us to acquire an inappropriate degree of perfectionism, where our only options for half-arsery are to either convince ourselves that the thing is unimportant, or we procrastinate until we have no choice but to half-arse in order to get things done in time.
We may also end up “solving” this problem by never doing the thing at all because we never make time to do it properly because we know full well it’s not worth doing properly. I find people do this with reading a lot (I especially blame school for this one). I read a book yesterday, start to finish, in about an hour. By which I mean I read the start, I read the finish, and I read some of the pages in between but probably fewer than 10% of the total content, by skipping over all of the bits that were boring or annoying.
Why? Well because it wasn’t a very good book, and it wasn’t worth more than that, but it had enough interesting content in it and I valued the sense of the book enough that it was definitely worth an hour, but it probably wasn’t worth two, and I couldn’t have read it “properly” in less than about four. If I’d insisted on a proper reading of it, I’d never have read the book at all, and I’d have been the worse for it.
Most people are not willing to read this way, because they have an invisible teacher sitting on their shoulder judging them if they read improperly (cf. Jiminy Cricket Must Die). As well as preventing them from reading improperly this also prevents them from reading “properly”, because if you cannot half-arse a book then starting reading it dooms you to either probably spending too much time on it for what it’s worth, or to feeling bad about your “failure” to read it.
Ultimately, mastering the skill of half-arsery will probably net improve the quality of your work in this way, because it allows you to prioritise effectively, and to judge what level of quality a project actually deserved. By fixing our inappropriate levels of perfectionism, we can invest the appropriate amount of effort into the problems that actually matter, and not get caught up on the pointless bits that don’t.