Friction (4): mental overhead and nameless dread

Mental Overhead

Another type of friction we experience is from the ongoing mental overhead of having too many balls in the air. Unfinished projects, unanswered emails, half-read books, unresolved decisions – all take a sliver of attention and emotional energy. This constant mental overhead acts a drag on our attention. reducing our ability to concentrate and – especially when we’re tired – making us feel overwhelmed and unable to decide.

Nameless dread

Nameless dread is the emotional friction that comes with excessive mental overhead. it’s the lurking fear that we’re failing, letting people down, about to drown in jobs undone. It’s often a product of excessive mental overhead, or at least of the same root cause: too much on our plates, falling behind, living in fear that we’re about to be found out.

Things that help with managing mental overhead and nameless dread

  • Keepy uppies and little jobs can help you with feeling on the ball.
  • Some kind of amazing to-do list system might capture everything, but I’m still waiting for something that works consistently for me… look out for a post from Sharky on the latest in workflow management.
  • Talking about things really helps with nameless dread – either with teammates (who might even work some kind of miracle to help you out) or friends who’ll hopefully help by giving you some perspective.
  • Hire someone to do some of the routine stuff – at work or at home.
  • A bit physical danger helps to put most of our fears in perspective: ‘worst possible outcome’ of the things that we dread rarely involve injury, death or dismemberment. Try contact, motor or extreme sports.
  • See Tim Ferriss on Fear Setting
  • Good old fashioned getting things done – finishing things off, tying up loose ends, drawing lines under things (writing things off if necessary) helps a lot too.
  • Try this breakfast recipe.
  • When in doubt, exercise more and avoid eating crap.
  • Work out what you think you can do – and commit to doing 20% less. Allow slack in your system.
  • Pause and seek peace. Pray.

Little jobs

There’s a lot to be said for batching – saving up similar jobs and then working through them efficiently in one go.

But doing little jobs in free moments – in checking-the-news moments, social media moments, junky youtube moments – has its benefits too:

  1. Doing little jobs can act like a form of mental keepy-uppy, keeping your head in the game and saving time when you come back to the larger job that the small job is part of;
  2. Ticking off small jobs makes you feel good – which helps you do better work;
  3. It may be less efficient than batching, but it reduces the cognitive and emotional friction that comes from carrying around a list of undone jobs – so the job might take a bit longer, but you’re faster once its done;
  4. If you’re a bottleneck for other peoples’ work, your little job can unlock a lot of productivity;
  5. Doing a job in the space between other stuff can create space for doing them in a new way, or for new connections between unrelated things – one of the benefits of having a little slack in the system.

You might even get a blog post out of it.

Seth Godin on slack in systems

If you ask most people who run a factory, or an organisation or a sports team, what they’re looking for is a taut, firm connection between and among everybody: everybody busy all the time. The reason that a bucket brigade is so much more efficient than people running back and forth and back and forth to the source of water is that it’s easier for people to efficiently pass the bucket from one to another than it is for them to run back and forth. You will put the fire out faster.

If you’ve ever seen an efficient juggling troupe or bucket brigade or a hockey line-up that’s passing, passing as it works its way down to the goal, it’s a thing of beauty. And so what we seek to achieve is that idea of synchronisation. But I’m here to tell you that you cannot maximise system efficiency by eliminating slack from the system. It feels like you should, but you can’t. And the reason you can’t is because of variability. Variability says that someone might be five minutes late for their appointment. Variability says there might be a custom order coming through that’s worth it for the organisation to take on. Variability says that some customers need to be treated differently from others. And when a system like that exists, when you have removed all of the slack, then when switching costs kick in, the whole system falls apart.

What’s the alternative? The alternative is a fire department with firemen who eat chili for three hours, waiting for the alarm to ring. If you were trying to get rid of slack what you’d do is say, “Let’s have exactly the right number of firemen so that when the average number of fires are happening, all of the fires are being addressed.” Which works great – except when the above number of fires show up. And when the above average number of fires show up, you don’t have enough firemen to go around.

And so what we have the opportunity to do as we organise our lives, as we dance with these systems, is to intentionally build slack into our systems. A buffer. A cushion. To avoid the emergency. Because in that buffer, we can work on the long term stuff. The firemen aren’t really eating chili… they’re using their downtime in a slightly productive way. But mostly what they’re doing is standing in reserve, waiting for when the emergency shows up so that they don’t have to say, “Oh, sorry your house burnt down.”

Seth Godin – Akimbo Season 4 Episode 20: Systems Thinking

Seeds (3): becoming Beatrix Potter


Helen Beatrix Potter born in London.


Beatrix Potter has already been doing a lot of drawing and painting. This watercolour is from 1876, a couple of months before her tenth birthday:

Beatrix Potter Early Drawing of anthropomorphic rabbits


Aged 17, she writes “I can’t settle to anything but my painting. I lost my patience over everything else.”


Beatrix Potter sells her first pieces of artwork, illustrations for a set of Christmas cards. She’s 24 years old.

Beatrix Potter Christmas card image 1890


Potter sends an illustrated letter to Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, which contains what will become the opening line of The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

Beatrix Potter Noel Moore Peter Rabbit early letter


Beatrix Potter turns the picture letter into a story. After a couple of false starts (including an alternative version of the story in verse written by another author), the book takes off. 28,000 copies – six printings – are sold by December 1902.


Potter is intimately involved in the design and publication of her books, and the development of spin-off projects and merchandising. She becomes a landowner and conservationist, “credited with preserving much of the land that now constitutes the Lake District National Park.”**


The Tale of Peter Rabbit has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

So what, Sharky?

So this is a beautiful example of an overnight success that was decades in the making. It took thirty-six years – and probably thousands of sketches and paintings – for Beatrix Potter to become Beatrix Potter. She spent thirty-six years as the seed.

For more on Beatrix Potter see Sarah Gristwood‘s The Story of Beatrix Potter, and this site from the V&A.


Where do you want to go?

And do you trust that the people you’re following can get you there?

Have they been there before?

Has anyone been there before?

For interesting work, there probably isn’t a map of the route, so you’ll looking for:

  • People who have been to similar places
  • People who have been part of the way
  • A cohort of fellow travellers
  • Compasses, not maps

Seeds (2): bikes, planes and automobiles

Many of the seeds of the automobile industry came from bicycle manufacturers (I touched on this in Use, Copy, Repair, Make), and on a visit to the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu I learnt some more of the story.

Karl Benz, widely credited as the maker of the first practical automobile, started in mechanical engineering and ironwork and started experimenting with petrol engines to power industrial machines. In 1883 he joined forces with Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger who owned – you guessed it – a bicycle repair shop. Benz & Companie Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik made petrol engines for industry, which allowed Benz to develop his expertise and finish his first Patent Motorwagen in 1885.

Other companies that grew out of bicycle manufacturers include Rover, Peugeot, Opel, Skoda, Humber and Hilman, Sunbeam, and Calcott.

There’s a parallel trend with weapons manufactures: Royal Enfield and B.S.A. (British Small Arms) turned their expertise in machining from guns to motorbikes and cars.

And it doesn’t stop at cars: the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics turned manufacturers who turned their hand to aviation instead.

We needed bike companies to innovate and start making cars, becoming cross-breed or hybrid companies before second generation ‘pure’ car companies picked up the torch and made further innovations as specialists.

So what, Sharky?

Right now, somewhere, in something that already exists, the seed of the Next Big Thing is taking root and getting ready to grow.

  • If you have an idea of what the future looks like, what might the seeds look like? Can you shape your project with the Next Big Thing in mind?
  • Looking at things from the other way round, what might your organisation be the seed of? What’s The Future for your field?
  • Is there a hybrid step (engines and bicycles, bicycle engineering and wings) that you could take to open up possibilities for your organisation?

Sprinkler system

Using a garden sprinkler system is a type of outsourcing – to technology, instead of people.

The time saved is almost certainly worth the money spent.

Whether it’s abdication/dumbing down/opting out/wanton destruction of a perfectly good job or creates the opportunity to improve the garden with new and better work (finding better grass, planting new roses, adding a home-made sundial) isn’t about the sprinkler.

Friction (3): when friction helps

Friction in the wrong places slows us down and drains our energy, but it has its uses:

  • Friction in processes or emotional friction it’s often a sign that we have work to do
  • Friction is our friend when we need to be slowed down – it makes us pause, think, look before we leap and check that things are right. Getting people to agree to things, formal sign offs and purchasing processes all have their place.
  • Friction can be a filter – making something more difficult can encourage people to drop out, help them (or you) to realise it’s not for them, saving everyone time.

So what? Some questions.

  • Where are the most painful points of friction in your workflow? What slows you down – or slows others down as they work with or for you? Are there barriers you can remove to make things easier? Which relationships do you need to invest in – or end?
  • Where do things happen faster than you’d like? Add a step – a form to be completed, a permission, an audition – to slow things down.
  • Use friction to discourage people who aren’t serious. Make it meaningful and relevant (like giving you information that you always need to ask for or candidates demonstrating a skill in a real piece of work). Fewer people coming through a process allows you to do better work with those that do.