Fix it Forever

8 minute read

The pursuit of “lifehacks,” or solutions to small annoyances, seems to have recently caught a lot of flak. And there is good reason for some of the dislike; the claim that finding a better way to peel garlic or attach a toilet paper roll will somehow markedly improve anyone’s life is somewhere between overhyped and absurd. However, I believe there are two types of fixes to small annoyances. One is the type described above; while dreaming up and executing these types of fixes can make a fun hobby, it’s probably not going to save much if any time or trouble overall, and we can happily take them or leave them. The other, however, allows for fixing some annoyance and/or eliminating a possible mistake forever, and as a result these fixes are substantially more useful and worth pursuing.

Annoyance Points

Imagine for a moment that each person has an associated figure called “Total Annoyance Points” – much like your net worth, only having more annoyance points is worse, not better. Annoyance points make you frustrated, cause mistakes, and waste your time.

Our annoyance-point balances naturally fluctuate over time. If you’re working on a particularly frustrating project, or you take up a new hobby you’re not good at yet, or you’re dealing with a personal issue that takes all your patience, it will go up; if you finish the project or get more experienced, it will start to decline again. Further, we can take specific intentional actions to change our annoyance points. For instance, we can stop using things that don’t work, pay someone else to handle the things that annoy us, avoid doing things that are annoying and not valuable, and so on.

The contributors to our annoyance points are of different sizes. Some are large and accordingly somewhere between challenging and impossible to fix (commute is too long, bad housing because real estate is too expensive, eight hours of sleep required to feel refreshed). But many are small enough to be manageable, and some of those are near-trivial to fix, if you only think about them the right way. Because they’re near-trivial to fix, they make an enticing target – provided that you can fix them forever, permanently reducing your annoyance points. These are the focus of this article.

There’s an old saying (attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but likely apocryphally): “I may be a slow walker, but I never walk back.” That’s why forever-fixes work. The improvements are each minor, but they build on each other much faster than you’d expect because there’s no backsliding.

Example forever-fixes

Here are some forever-fixes I’ve recently implemented:

  • This blog’s software has an annoying design flaw where the date of every post has to be specified twice – once in the title of the post, and once in an extra metadata field called “date.” I kept forgetting to update the second field, and consequently my posts were sometimes appearing with the wrong dates, quietly enough that I didn’t notice until I spotted one mistake and went back and checked and found there were around ten. I’ve now added a little code snippet to my Git pre-commit hook which checks for this issue. The effect is that it’s impossible to publish a post if the dates don’t match, meaning I can’t ever make the mistake again.
  • In three years, I’ve twice run down my car’s battery to the point where the car wouldn’t start by leaving the overhead light on. This always happens when I park late at night and need the light to gather my stuff before I get out of the car. Anytime I switch the overhead light on, I now place the keys on the passenger seat, so I can’t get into my apartment without being reminded to turn it off.
  • I spent three hours debugging an issue at work last week that turned out to be caused by a single missing angle bracket (<) in a configuration file. I consequently added a step to the process that reads the configuration that checks for invalid syntax in the file and refuses to publish the file at all if it’s broken.
  • Here’s a “lifehack” that’s also a forever-fix. I have several charger cables that kept falling behind my desk, requiring me to crawl underneath and dig that connector out of a pile of dust and tangles. Installing binder clips on the edge of the desk prevents the cables from ever falling down again.

The key to the success of these fixes is that they completely eliminate (or very nearly eliminate) a possible cause of error or annoyance, permanently. There is an entire task that you no longer have to do at all – not a task that you still have to do just the same, but maybe it’s a little easier. You can’t make a mistake – the right thing is guaranteed. Further, since these fixes are small, they’re quick and easy to find and implement. In the case of my blog, for instance, I was able to just grab the script I used to find the issues I already had and paste it into the pre-commit hook so it would complain if the script ever started returning results again. Five minutes, no wrong dates ever again – and no time spent looking for wrong dates ever again.

Note: For those who like to be contrary (because I do myself), I’ll acknowledge these fixes are neither truly permanent nor indefeasible. I can forget to put my keys on the seat, or I can use the -n option to git commit to intentionally bypass the pre-commit hook, or I can rip my binder clips off the desk (or move and forget to reinstall them). That said, once you’ve set up the binder clips once, they’re easy to attach again if need be, and I’ve now put my keys on the seat enough times that the chance of unintentionally forgetting to is quite low.

Finding forever-fixes

The previous paragraph brings up an important point about no longer needing to spend time looking for wrong dates: the time saved by fixing small annoyances snowballs. If you fix enough small annoyances, you start spending noticeably less time dealing with them, and you can put some of that time towards fixing more of them. This also gains you a great deal of additional flexibility, because when your car battery dies, you have to deal with it right then, whereas you can hack together little improvements anytime it’s convenient. That means it may even be worth fixing things when you come out behind in terms of raw time spent, purely because the loss when you prevent something is predictable and the direct loss to the annoyance is not. (In Less-Quantifiable Benefits of Automation and Process Improvement, I give the example of installing a fire extinguisher in a chemistry lab: it’s much faster overall to run down the hall for the next extinguisher in the relatively unlikely event that a fire breaks out, but given that having the extinguisher right there may mean the difference between a few scorch marks and a missing lab if something does catch on fire, it’s still a smart idea.) In other words, annoyance points are a time debt, but forever-fixes are a time asset.

How do you start fixing small annoyances? Reading lifehack blogs can be useful once in a while, but in my experience most of the tips are junk of the first order, and even those that aren’t may not apply to you. It’s more effective to take responsibility for finding them yourself instead of waiting for someone else to tell you about them. First, start practicing some basic mindfulness in your work. You don’t need a Zen level of focus, but it’s easy to do routine tasks without noticing what you’re doing at all, and when you’re not noticing what you’re doing, you’re unlikely to even notice that things are annoying.

Then, when you do encounter annoyances in your work or daily life, commit to spending a few minutes thinking about the problem. Not tomorrow, right away – because in practice “tomorrow” usually means “never.” If something’s literally on fire or someone needs to go to the hospital, then by all means forget about it, and if it’s important it will come up again. Otherwise, a delay of a few minutes isn’t going to hurt anything. See what you can come up with. Search Google to see if someone else has solved the same problem before you. You won’t find an elegant fix for every small annoyance, but once you get used to thinking about it the right way, you’ll find one often enough that it’s totally worth it.