Why is it hard to choose what to do?
This is a free issue of Overthinking Everything. Recent paid issues have been a bit free form and about whatever is on my mind at the time. e.g. Caffeine withdrawal and paid workshops (unrelated subjects), and the necessary connection between play and self-improvement.
Today I’d like to talk about a split I notice a lot, which is the difference between reactive and proactive modes of behaviour. In a reactive mode, you are generally responding to events as they come up, while in a proactive mode you are actively going out and generating new things to do.
Most work one ends up doing is reactive I think, and that’s fine, but it’s very easy (at least it is for me, and it seems to be for others) to fall into a purely reactive mode, and this doesn’t seem helpful. I thought it would be worth exploring why this happens and what to do about it.
Also please note that in this post I will be talking about what is, ultimately, a nice problem to have, in that a lot of my experiences I’ll be talking about in this post are rooted in having a lot of free time. I’m aware this is a significant privilege, but it’s one that seems to come with a lot of actual problems, and I think those are still important to understand and talk about, and you don’t need to tell me that I’m super privileged for having them. I’m aware, thanks.
Reactive modes and mental health
One reason why I’m interested in this split is that I’ve found that how proactive I’m able to be is a pretty reliable predictor of my mental health. On a bad day, the ability to be proactive goes long before the ability to be competently reactive.
For example, I often find myself having days where if you dropped me in a coaching call I would be perfectly alert and useful and able to do a decent job, and between calls I get nothing done1 - I check Twitter, or I watch YouTube, play a game, or maybe (probably not) I go for a walk or do some cleaning or the like.
The way this feels internally is that I’m perfectly able to do things, but what I’m unable to do is generate things to do. This is unfortunate, as in theory I have lots of free time and the ability to do quite interesting things, but often they don’t get done anyway.
Too busy fighting fires
Another (mostly) completely different place that I see this distinction in is at work. Small start-ups I’ve worked at in particular often end up with their software development team being very reactive. There may be quarterly goals and long term planning, but if there are then it’s probably still being changed every month, and the dev team are often constantly in fire fighting mode, where they’re solely responding to external requests and things going wrong and aren’t able to plan anything in advance.
This is rarely very effective. In particular, the lack of proactive work results in the problem I usually describe as “too busy fighting fires to invest in fire fighting”. The heavy focus on the short term reactive approach results in getting less work done even if everyone is working to full capacity in reactive mode (which they’re probably not, because constant fire fighting is very draining).
A certain amount of proactive work allows you to get ahead of the problems. It lets you say “We expect more of these incidents in future, therefore right now we will invest in the capacity to deal with those before we have to”, saving you effort in the long run.
Reactive is easier
I think part of what underlies me going into a reactive mode on bad days, and ends up driving people into reactive mode in general, is that reactive mode is so much easier than proactive mode.
I think part of what’s happening in the mental health case is that having a concrete situation to react to ends up taking a lot of the higher level decision making out of my hands, and that’s the bit that’s hard. It allows me to focus concretely on what is in front of me, narrowing the world of possibilities until it’s manageable, and often on bad days this narrower world is within my capabilities even when the whole space of possibilities is not.
This is true in general. When you are trying to generate actions proactively, you are forced to contend with an almost infinite space of things you could do. This can be overwhelming.
Proactive modes require value judgements
I think one of the big advantages over reactive mode is that reacting to events as they come at you is very easily justified, to yourself and others. If I’ve got a coaching call scheduled, doing coaching is the right thing to do (unless I’m too ill to do do it or something). If the production website is down, fixing that is clearly the top priority. When you are reacting to something, there is a clear and obvious justification for why you are doing the thing you are doing right now.
In contrast, in order to do proactive work, you need to actually decide what is important for you to be working on. This is where the difficulty in decision making comes from: You don’t just have to decide what to do, you have to decide what is actually important.
This, I think, neatly explains why being proactive is so much harder on bad days, and also why companies tend to so easily fall into reactive mode: In both cases it is much harder to come up with any sort of consistent value judgement on what’s worth doing.
When one is depressed or otherwise having a bad day, it’s very hard to access a lot of positive emotions, and as a result often very little feels worth doing for its own sake. Group decision making has value conflicts between different people - e.g. management doesn’t care as much about code quality as development does - and often you will have to justify your actions to others, making actions that are harder to justify harder to treat as worth doing.
Proactivity as a function of slack
I’m a big believer in the importance of slack2 - if you commit 100% of your working time, you will have no ability to absorb variability, and you will fail to do a lot of things that are in the important/not-urgent quadrant.
In particular, slack time is where you create space for proactive modes. If you allocate 80% of your work to reactive work, the remaining 20% is for proactive work when you’re not using it to absorb variability in your workload.
But the reality I have to admit is that I have a lot of slack at the moment, and over the last few years, and I have not used it very well, and I don’t fully understand why.
It’s possible the answer is just that there is an optimal amount of slack and most people are too far on one side and I’m too far on the other, but this answer doesn’t feel right to me as a primary explanation - even if it’s true, it doesn’t really explain the mechanism. Regardless of whether I have too much slack, what is the reason that I’m not using it well?
I think this proactive/reactive split is probably a good explanation for it, and in particular I think what’s going on is that above a certain amount of slack there is a fundamental shift in how you have to do proactivity.
If you’re in reactive mode 80% of the time, you’ve got 20% of your capacity for proactive work, and also you’ve got an obvious anchoring goal: Your goal for proactive work is generally going to be to make the reactive work better, plus maybe some direction setting. You still have to make decisions about what’s important, but they’re bounded in scope - it’s more like a question of prioritisation within a reasonably well defined goal than a true values question.
If, on the other hand, you’re at 90% slack (which is more accurate for me right now - my typical paid working week is in the region of 5-10 hours at the moment, and the rest is in theory mine to do with as I will), this relationship fundamentally shifts. The reactive work can no longer be the primary determiner of value, because if it were then the first action would be to increase the amount of reactive work. I can proactively do things to improve my coaching business, in theory, but improving my coaching business isn’t really the main thing I want to do right now as I’m pretty happy with its current level.
Which puts me solidly in the region of the true values question: In order to be proactive, I have to decide what is actually worth doing.
Proactivity isn’t actually hard
I said that that reactivity is easier than proactivity because it’s hard to choose what to work on, but this isn’t really true. It’s very easy to choose what to work on. You take any of the many things that are clearly worth doing and pick arbitrarily (cf. How to make decisions). This doesn’t cause you to work on the best thing, it’s very much a satisficing strategy, but it reliably results in a more useful thing to be doing than just losing the day to Twitter or the like.
It also, to me at least, feels very hard to do. The very idea feels like a fnord. I think about it and my mind slides off it and suddenly it’s three hours later and I have no idea where the time went but it probably wasn’t anywhere very useful.
I’ve got to be honest, I don’t know why this should be, particularly given that the procrastination activities are such obviously useless avoidance.
The best theory I’ve got (which feels mostly right) is that it’s something to do with justification. The problem with picking arbitrarily is that it opens you up to criticism, from yourself and others, that you’re not working on the right thing. Which is true. You’re working on a right thing, but why aren’t you working on this other thing?
This need for justification has, I think, a strong inhibitory effect. Many things that are worth doing are not worth the cost of arguing that they’re worth doing, and even the anticipation of that argument is often quite inhibiting. Even when nobody is actually going to argue with you, it will often feel like they will and you have to be ready to justify your actions (see Your emotions are valid but probably wrong).
One way this shows up particularly strongly is when there’s something you know you should be working on and really don’t want to be. Now if you’re going to be doing anything useful, you have to justify in some way why you’re not doing that other thing you’re supposed to be doing.
This is, I think, a way that reactive modes tend to overshadow proactive modes. In most people’s lives and jobs there’s always a great deal of stuff you could be doing. Why are you writing when you haven’t done the dishes? Why are you refactoring your code when you could be implementing my feature request? etc. Proactivity requires justification for not being reactive.
I’m not quite sure why this happens so aggressively in the high slack situation I find myself in, but it doesn’t seem to be specific to me. I’ve heard the same from several other friends in the same boat.
I think, perhaps, the problem there is not necessarily that there is something competing with the proactive choices as that the bar you have to clear is higher. Having high slack is a fairly significant privilege, and it’s one you get by going off the social script. This leads to a “You have all the time in the world and this is what you choose to spend your time on?” sort of second guessing.
In contrast, procrastinating on filler activities avoids this problem by not being substitutable for work. You’re “taking a break” or “having a bad day”, so it’s time that you couldn’t be working instead, right?
Unfortunately, for any day where you can do something reactive but not proactive, this is probably a lie. It’s probably an emotional block against deciding what work to do rather than an inability to do work.
This doesn’t mean the problem isn’t real, mind, it just means that the solution (if solution there be) is different.
Proactivity requires trust
I think the thing that enables proactive modes is the ability to trust that you can just do things that seem reasonable and it will be fine and you don’t have to justify it and nothing bad will happen.
Most environments are not like this. Often you will be criticised for wasting time, or doing the wrong thing. For some of us, even the mere lack of positive feedback will feel bad.
The trust part is important. This needs to both be true and feel true to the point where you don’t even question it (see my previous post about trust), otherwise doing your own things will feel like you’re constantly fighting against your instincts.
Without this, it’s very hard to make your own decisions about what to do, because you will constantly be second guessing yourself, probably putting in more effort than is warranted (or correctly intuiting that it’s too much effort to be worth doing), and having low grade anxiety throughout working on something you’re doing off your own authority. This isn’t a recipe for effectiveness.
Building proactive modes
So if all this is right, what do we do?
I think the starting point is to do things that probably don’t matter and don’t feel worth it, and have that be fine.
If that turns out not to be fine, well that’s your problem right there, you’ve got an unsafe environment for proactivity. Maybe fix that?
If things are fine but don’t feel fine, that’s interesting, right? Try paying attention to those feelings and see what’s up with that.
Does this work? I’ll, uh, get back to you about that.
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This doesn’t just happen on days that I’m coaching, but the fact that I am able to coach despite otherwise being like this makes the contrast very obvious.
Not the messaging software, I’m more of a discord kind of guy, though I grudgingly acknowledge that something like Slack is also important.