Experiment 4: Recurring Irritants

I recently interviewed one of my heroes on my podcast How I Work - Dan Heath. I have read all his books, of which Decisive and The Power of Moments would easily make it to my list of top 10 business books of all time.

Dan recently released a new book, Upstream, which looks at how to solve problems before they actually happen. In the book, Dan tells a story about how he likes working from cafes, an activity that requires his laptop power cord. He describes how he used to spend precious time untangling it and packing it into a bag from its place in his home office, plugging it in at the cafe, and then packing it up and having to re-plug it in when he arrived back home. During the process of writing a book about solving problems before they happen, it occurred to him that this minor but regular source of frustration could be solved through purchasing a second power cord. Genius. Which he did.

I loved this little anecdote because I could relate: I am the proud owner of four power cords (one for my city office, one for my home office, one for my podcast studio, and one for travel) to solve this exact same problem. But I could also relate because in my life, I have many daily or weekly “recurring irritants” that I do nothing about.

Which begs the question: why?

In Upstream, Dan talks about the work of two researchers, Princeton University psychology professor Eldar Shafir and Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan. Shafir and Mullainathan coined a term called tunneling. They describe how our brain adopts tunnel vision and misses the opportunity to identify and solve problems because as humans, we have limited cognitive resources (i.e. brain power). And when we are dealing with one or two big issues in our lives, our brain power diminishes further so we don’t have the mental capacity to deal with other things. 

In the context of problem solving, when we have a few really big problems to solve, we simply don’t have the resources or ability to solve all our problems (especially the little ones). 

We adopt tunnel vision, and as a result, engage in short-term, reactive thinking. Indeed, research has shown that our IQ actually drops by 10 points when we have a big problem overriding our thinking, compared to when we don’t have this big problem present.

How do you escape tunneling? You need to give yourself “slack”, in the form of time or resources. And that’s what we are going to do in this next experiment.

The Recurring Irritants experiment will be broken up into two parts. In Week 1, the focus will simply be on identifying these irritants. Then in Week 2, we will solve them and implement the solutions.

While I’m not going to ask everyone to do an IQ test, my hypothesis is that by reducing recurring irritants in our life, we are going to increase wellbeing and productivity. So that’s what we shall measure for Experiment 4.

Here are your instructions for Week 1:

1. Complete the pre-experiment survey here.

2. Document all recurring irritants. These are tasks that you do regularly that frustrate you, annoy you, or you simply find boring. Ideally, these are tasks you do regularly - once a week or even daily. For example, a task I used to do weekly is upload my podcast episodes to the platform where How I Work is hosted. I used to find this an annoying, tedious task that took me about 15 minutes per week. Over the Christmas period when things were a bit quieter, I recognised this. So I wrote up instructions on how to execute this task and trained Elaine (Inventium’s wonderful virtual assistant) to do the task for me.

3. Sometimes, it can be hard to recognise these recurring irritants because we do them on auto-pilot or we have come to accept them as part of our lives. As such, it can be helpful to ask a co-worker or family member: what do you observe me doing that I shouldn’t be doing? What is a poor use of my time? What gets me frustrated? For me, I used to spend a couple of hours every Sunday cutting up vegetables for the week ahead for my family. I was complaining to my (now ex) husband about how annoying I found this task. He suggested putting an ad on AirTasker for someone to do it for me. I did that, and for the last year, the best $50 I spend all week that brings me the most joy is paying the amazing Elif to come over and cut up all my vegetables on Sunday morning.

4. If you’re up for it, I’d love you to post your recurring irritants in the comments section - changes are, if something irritates you, it probably irritates other people and this might help bring things to their attention that would have otherwise been missed.

I’ll be in touch in a week with the Week 2 instructions. But for now, complete the pre-experiment survey and get cracking on finding recurring irritants!