The Impulse To Act

After reading one of my articles, someone told me this:

For me the key statement is "If I can think of this in a few seconds, ... then I ...; and if not, then I don't." Feeling good about not doing anything (yet), if I don't know what to do really is hard for me.

I might understand this discomfort with not knowing what to do and not doing anything (yet). I remember feeling this way. I often felt like I had to do something, even if I didn't feel confident about what to do nor whether it would help. I think most people feel this way at some point. I've noticed a few things:

  • This relates to my overall feeling of security or insecurity. The more insecure I feel about myself and how people perceive me, the more I feel like I need to do something--really I need to be seen doing something.
  • This relates to the general belief that one must "be busy" or "productive". This is the centerpiece of the book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and The Myth of Total Efficiency. Reading this book along with learning about the Theory of Constraints really changed my point of view. When I saw how wasteful doing things can be, I became more comfortable with not doing something yet, even though I didn't yet feel completely comfortable being seen doing nothing. (Refer to the first point.)
  • This relates to how much I trust my systems and habits. The more I trust my systems, the more I trust that I will figure out what I need to do "in enough time". This takes less pressure off me to figure it out right now. When I feel more pressure to finish something right now, then I feel more pressure to do something, even though I know that doing something unhelpful can add costs and delays. This still gets me into trouble quite often, and I have to remind myself of the value of not deciding yet and gathering evidence.
  • This relates to my belief that mistakes cost more than waiting. This comes from reading and experience. It lies at the centerpiece of how test-first programming in general and test-driven development in particular can help the programmer: by reducing the length of time between making a mistake and discovering it, thereby reducing the cost of mistakes. In this case, my insecurity often helps me, because costly mistakes are more public and memorable than deferring action. Thanks to these forces, I often feel more comfortable not deciding yet than doing something that I don't feel confident about. In this case, I try to gather evidence instead.

So those are just a few thoughts of mine on the subject. I'd like to know your thoughts, how you feel, and how you interpret your feelings in that moment where you're not sure what to do, but you feel like you ought to do something.