Flat or fiction

Why the movement towards flatter interfaces is important.

Last week I deleted my old currency app and replaced it with Currency. Where the older one tried to look like a calculator, Currency seems to be native to the screen: not trying to be anything else than what it truly is. It has the layout of what could be interpreted as a calculator, but there’s no analogy.

It made me wonder why I had a preference for apps that used real-world artifacts in the past, and why I prefer ‘flat’ apps now. Currency seems to be a good example of what’s happening with interfaces today.

Fictional interfaces

Back in the 80s, when the graphical user interface was introduced, operating systems started to represent imaginary worlds of their own. Metaphors such as folders and windows gave a clue of a third dimension on our screens.

Resolutions became higher, details became more realistic, interfaces became more ‘fictional’.

There’s a reason why I call it fictional: operating systems started to seem like places where you physically could be, and wanted to be. But they were never meant to integrate with the rest of our lives. Just like a movie, its purpose was to bring you into another world, ignoring real life.

We needed this illusion: not only did it make computers more understandable, people developed an emotional bond with it.

It made sense back then, but we don’t have to live in a fictional world anymore.

Today our devices have a closer connection to reality. Checking in with Foursquare, getting directions from Google Maps, sharing experiences on Vine: smartphones and tablets are destined to be an intrinsic part of life.

Technology is so engrained in our daily lives that the virtual and physical worlds have a lot more overlap. As a result, many people simply accept the virtual world as part of reality, rather than something that’s separate from it. —Techopedia

As apps and websites are becoming part of our physical space, the notion of a separate digital space is becoming less relevant.

Going flatter

This shift has a big impact on how we design interfaces. Instead of seeing an interface as a separate world with seemingly physical objects (navigation bars and embossed buttons), we now see the interface — or rather the whole device — as a single object.

As a result, interface designers are becoming more aware of the medium: a screen. Just like plastic and wood, screens have their own characteristics. We don’t like it when a piece of plastic looks like wood and we don’t like it when our screen looks like a calculator (at least not anymore).

Again and again, design history shows that when we try to trick a viewer into believing a material is something it’s not, the value and the timelessness of the design decrease. —Kevin Goldman

In this new context a flat interface isn’t cold and empty. We don’t need real-world artifacts anymore to understand technology or to be engaged on an emotional level. We have started to appreciate digital design just because of its color, shape or typography.

Interfaces aren’t black holes anymore, sucking up our attention. They have become part of our devices, and our devices are part of their surroundings. This is why we like flat design: interfaces should be augmenting our physical world, instead of creating worlds of their own.


Next Story — Today’s Vagenda
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Today’s Vagenda

Ready for the day.

6:00 am. Arise. Wrap your cardigan-sheathed hands around a mug of hot cardamom lemon water; squint into the distance from your craftsman veranda. Breathe authentically. Pick off a passing man with your bespoke porch rifle.

6:30 am. Laundry. The heather-gray linen kitchen towels from last night’s festivities need washing. Delicate cycle; honeysuckle gentle wash detergent. Head back upstairs. Roll up your husband’s body inside the flokati rug upon which it rests. Dust surrounding area with small-batch microfiber.

7:30 am. Morning e-mails. Remind the others about this weekend’s dick-burning.

8:15 am. Breakfast: coconut-ginger scones with raw wolf meat. Using the giraffe filter on Snapchat, falsely accuse a man of rape.

9:00 am. Nap.

9:18 am. Yoga while watching latest Real Housewives of New Jersey; question Jacqueline’s motives. Move the rug-swaddled corpse to a dumpster behind Whole Foods. Buy chia seeds in bulk.

11:30 am. Back home. Shower; wash face with homemade semen-cucumber scrub. Triple steam vulva. Check internet. Mob formed yet?

1:30 pm. Doctor’s appointment — ask about ‘pleasure abortions.’ Do they do group packages? Alison’s birthday is coming up.

2:55 pm. Retail therapy; there’s a sale at Michael’s. Purchase 37 mason jars. Text Jenny for her scrotum-infused kombucha recipe. Commit vehicular manocide in the parking lot. Text while driving; tell the internet mob they can stop — you’ve just killed the man you falsely accused of rape.

4:30 pm. Kill a football team.

4:45 pm. Nap.

6:30 pm. Order artisanal pizza. Abduct the delivery guy upon his arrival; make him dance for you while you work on screenplay for an all-female Saving Private Ryan.

7:30 pm. Google cyanide. Ethically harvested version available?

7:45 pm. Nag a man to death at the local bar.

9:25 pm. Deactivate bitch shield.

9:30 pm. Apply lavender oil to temples, crawl into bed. Snuggle under your hemp percale sheets; set your noise machine to “crickets+men crying.” Fall asleep censoring male speech online.

Next Story — where should we start?
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where should we start?

Let’s start at the beginning.

It’s 8:29 a.m. and I’m peeking my head around the corner of the HR director’s door for our meeting, which starts in one minute. Immediately, I know she kn0ws. My boss said he didn’t tell anyone except for his boss, so I don’t know if he’s lying or if his boss told her or what, but she knows. You can always tell when people know. They look at you differently, even if they don’t mean to.

“What’s going on?” she asks. We make eye contact and she smiles, a kind smile but a knowing smile, because she knows I know the question is rhetorical, and I sit but only briefly because I’m flustered and I think the other chair might actually make more sense logistically so I stand and move my things, I’m going to sit in the chair furthest from the door so I don’t look like I’m trying to escape and isn’t another person coming to this meeting, I will sit in this other chair with the plush emoji sunglasses pillow already taking up half of the seat, okay here I go, I am sitting on the emoji’s face, this is fine.

“You know,” she says, oh no, here she goes, she wants to Talk About It, “This is no different than having a broken leg. People don’t talk about it, but it’s just as serious.” My eyes start to well up with tears as I chug some water to avoid making eye contact, keep drinking the water, I’m not thirsty but if I stop drinking I’ll start crying and that’s an unsurvivable scenario, “I can see in your eyes that you’re hurting. We need you to get better. Fix your leg.”

The door opens just as I run out of water.

“Aisha! Please come in, this is Amy. She wants to talk about taking a medical leave of absence.”

Let’s start at the beginning, which is right this very second. I am 27 years old. I am successfully raising a dog and six houseplants. My family is proud of me. My boyfriend wants to marry me. I get paid well for work that I enjoy; I have no debt.

The beginning is now, right here, in my bed. It’s a Tuesday morning, it’s 9 a.m. and I should be at work but I can’t get up.

Let’s start at the beginning.

It’s July 2015, in the beginning, and I am drunk in a hotel room. People always say Work travel seems so glamorous! and I don’t know how to tell them that I spend a lot of it crying or vomiting in secret, so I smile and nod. My eyes sink further into black-rimmed holes in my face, their fall accelerated by 4 a.m. wake-ups and fine just one more drink at dinners. I see silhouettes of skylines as I leave cities that I’ve technically visited, I guess. I’ve been to Miami, but have I been to Miami?

It’s July 2015 and I am in love with a man who does not have the desire nor the emotional capacity to love me back. We’re not dating. We’re not really anything. We sleep together sometimes and I don’t understand why he doesn’t want me, but I’m drunk in a hotel room and he’s telling me he can’t come over and he doesn’t want to sleep together anymore. We weren’t anything before, but we’re Officially Nothing now.

So I text him.

you are garbage and you’re going to die alone. I hope to god you find yourself where I am someday (accidentally in love with a sociopath, hanging halfway off a 15th floor balcony & wondering what it feels like to crack your head open on the sidewalk).

Morning comes. So, too, do the headache, the nausea, and the remorse. I email him once a day, every day, until he finally responds.

I hope you get better. I want you to get better. But that’s not something that I can help with.

Let’s start at the beginning. It’s 2000.

Do you remember 2000? It’s an awkward year. In 2000, I browse for clothes at Hot Topic and then replicate my own poser pop-punk persona that I’ve cobbled together from Goodwill finds and shoplifted eyeliner from the Meijer in the next town over. I have acne and a crush on all the boys, one of whom calls me Pizza Face and creates an AIM account to taunt me for not knowing enough about Green Day. A girl named Krissie tapes a sign that says “freak” to my locker.

School gets out at 2:28. My house is empty until 5:30. I spend my free time carving deep straight lines into my arm with a razor blade that I stole from my grandmother’s medicine cabinet and writing poetry about suicide on a simple blog (plain black background with white Times New Roman font) that my mom inevitably finds. She takes me to therapy. They give me a prescription for Prozac. I am 11.

Let’s start at the beginning. It’s 1919. On Long Island, a pair of Polish immigrants are having their first baby. That baby will grow up a little and raise her two younger siblings after her mother has a nervous breakdown, and will eventually get married and have four children of her own. One of those four children will also have a nervous breakdown, marry an alcoholic, and give birth to her only child — me.

Let’s start at the beginning. It’s spring 2008 and I’m a freshman in college. I didn’t think I needed antidepressants anymore when I left home last fall but it’s April now and I’m coming unhinged, the top of my head is disconnecting from the bottom of my head, do you ever feel that way? I go to the campus psychiatrist and he writes me a prescription for Wellbutrin.

It works and it works and then one day, all of a sudden, it doesn’t work anymore. Depression is like that. You think you’re cured and then one day out of nowhere you’re hyperventilating outside the Olentangy River Road Big Lots.

So I go back to a psychiatrist for the first time in 8 years, which sounds easier than it is. Do you know what mental health care is like in this country? Half of the doctors don’t take your insurance. The doctors who do take your insurance have a two-month wait for new patients. If it’s more urgent than that, they tell you to go to the emergency room, as though the average American can afford an emergency room visit.

So I wait two months for an appointment. But before I even do that, I have to admit I need to see a doctor. And that’s hard. Realistically, I‘ve needed to see a doctor for a year. Maybe two years. Maybe the Wellbutrin never really worked. Sometimes I wonder.

After two months, I walk into an office park in the suburbs and tell a pleasant-looking total stranger that I’m losing my mind. It takes an hour and I tell her everything, literally everything because I’ve gone over it all in my head for eight weeks, even the number of people I slept with in the last year in case that indicates a tendency toward bipolar disorder.

“I think you have major depression,” she says, reiterating the diagnosis I’ve lived with since 2000. “Probably generalized anxiety disorder, too.”

We start by doubling my Wellbutrin dose. It helps with my depression, but it makes my anxiety worse. I start pooping, on average, once every five days. “Wouldn’t you rather be constipated and not want to kill yourself?” you might be asking, and the answer is no: that’s no way to live (Shit Free Or Die). I report back to my doctor, who reminds me that this is all correlation and does not imply causation. But what else do we possibly have to go on to decide what to try next?

All we have to go on is what didn’t work: Prozac. Zoloft. Lexapro. Whatever I took between Lexapro and Effexor. Effexor, which worked but with extreme side effects. Wellbutrin, which used to work but doesn’t anymore.

So then we try Pristiq, which is essentially just different enough from Effexor to let the drug company renew their patent (I’ve been doing a lot of reading). I have too much energy in the morning, but it subsides by 2 pm and leaves me unable to do much other than sit on the couch. Weed seems to be the only thing that helps with the side effects and I start smoking it a lot. It causes tension in my relationship.

I tell the doctor about all of this — except the weed— and she decides to split the dose in half: two 25mg tablets, twice daily instead of one 50mg tablet per day. The side effects change: I am less intensely tired when I am tired, which is more of the time.

One day, about two weeks into the transition to twice-daily pills, I wake up at my boyfriend’s house and hurry home to get ready for work. I stop at Starbucks (venti soy unsweetened iced coffee), I feed the dog (Blue Buffalo Wilderness), I don’t take a shower but I do get dressed (dress, sweater, sandals, all black), and then I sit back down on the bed.

“Help,” I text my boyfriend.

I take my shoes off. I climb under the covers and the dog comes with me and I am sobbing, suddenly my body is heaving and I am so sad but I couldn’t tell you why. I can’t move, I can’t breathe. “Maybe,” I think, “Maybe I’d like to die.”

Depression is good for a handful of things. Growing out your eyebrows, for one. Finishing all 12 seasons of Criminal Minds on Netflix. Creating Pinterest boards full of elaborate desserts while eating takeout. Letting your dog’s stray hairs settle into little black fluff balls that float across your hardwood floors like tumbleweeds.

Depression is bad for everything else.

Let’s start at the beginning, which is actually two beginnings that have twisted and warped their way into the same memory in my mind.

I’m between the ages of 3 and 9, which I know because we still live in the small two bedroom apartment in Englewood with the bright red patterned carpet in the kitchen and my mom drives a teal Ford Taurus station wagon. She’s raising me herself, which I won’t fully appreciate for almost two more decades.

We’re in the car and she’s yelling at me. She yells a lot in these memories, which in the present causes her to think she’s the reason I have depression in the first place. I’ve grown to understand that it’s likely a lot more complex than that. I also know that she loves me and did her best, and if anyone understands how hard it is to ask for help, it’s me.

We’re in the car and she’s yelling at me. We’re also in the kitchen and she’s chopping carrots. I’m young; I don’t have a word for depression yet. I haven’t been exposed to the concepts of suicide or self-harm. But I want to throw myself out of the moving car. I look at the knife she’s using to chop carrots and wonder what it would feel like — would it kill me?

So, how long have I been depressed? I think a better question is: have I ever not been depressed?

Let’s start at the beginning, rewind the tape, back before my parents were married. They’re not my parents yet, either. They’re just a couple, in love, on a camping trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I don’t know exactly what year it is, but it’s the 1980s and my father is sober.

He’s sober and he’s having a terrible time, which my mom doesn’t know until he tells her, “If I’m gonna feel this way all the time, I might as well just drink.”

Let’s start at the beginning: it’s August 25, a Thursday. It’s been a rough day already for the dog and me, though it’s still early. Just after midnight, severe thunderstorms roll through and I have to coax him out from his favorite spot under the bed; he is barking and barking and will not stop, and is so scared that he snarls at me when I peek down to check on him. The only thing that seems to calm him when he does emerge is the world’s tightest hug — like a Thundershirt, except it’s my body — so we stay like this for two hours in the middle of the night.

I wake up again when my alarm sounds at 6, and we greet each other as we usually do: him with a yawn and a stretch, me with a Good morning, my love and a quick head scratch. Except something feels different when I lock eyes with my neurotic, 20 pound dog this morning. He’s begging for belly rubs, sure, but something else too.

And it dawns on me: I got him through the storm. This ball of fluff needs me. I spring into action, collecting things from where they lay around the house. From my bedside table, I grab what’s left of the weed, the bowl, and two empty beers. I empty the fridge of 11 more beers and two bottles of wine, its only contents. I rifle through my medicine cabinet for my secret stash of muscle relaxers. I got them after a car accident and I save them for special occasions, taking one every so often when I really can’t sleep but monitoring the supply to ensure I still have enough that it’d kill me if I swallowed the whole bottle.

Everything goes in the trash.

I come back to bed, feeling strange. My dog looks like he has questions, though his English isn’t great so I’m not sure what they are. I scratch him in that spot behind his ear that he likes and tell him he’s a good boy. I give him the world’s tightest hug again — not for him this time, but for me.

And then I get up and turn on the shower. I am ready.

Next Story — Hey U of Chicago: I’m an academic & survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.
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Hey, University of Chicago: I am an academic. I am a survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.

From a getting-to-know-you worksheet I give to my students on the first day of class.

TW: sexual assault, stalking

Today, news broke that the University of Chicago had issued a letter to all incoming Freshmen warning that the school is not a “safe space” and that students should expect to be “challenged”. Most notably, UofC came out against the use of “trigger warnings”, brief content advisories that sometimes are placed on syllabi or lecture slides to alert students to potentially upsetting material.


Many came out in vociferous support of UofC’s stance seeing it as crucial blow for intellectual freedom, levied against an increasingly coddled, demanding Millenial student body. Education should be provocative, decriers of trigger warnings say. College professors should make you uncomfortable. If you ask for, demand, or expect to be warned about objectionable content, you are missing out on an invaluable learning opportunity, or so the logic goes. More than one political cartoon has already depicted pro-TW Millenials as whining, entitled infants in cribs of their own making.

There’s like dozens of these.

As a social psychologist and a professional academic in Chicago working for multiple universities on an at-will basis, academic and intellectual freedom is a value I am inclined to strongly support. I do believe that professors should feel free to express extreme viewpoints and present challenging material to their students in hopes of expanding their thinking and drawing out critical reflection. And as an instructor with my own classes, I often present material or ideas that some students may disagree with or vehemently dislike. Like many academics, I am dismayed when my colleagues are denied intellectual freedom, and are fired or otherwise punished for wearing political insignia, presenting challenging material, or espousing views some students object to. And as a researcher who studies and publishes articles on the psychology of open-mindedness and political tolerance, I am generally opposed to censorship.

Seriously, I believe in open-mindedness and intellectual freedom. Look at this paper I spent years on.

Trigger warnings are none of those things.

What are trigger warnings? Trigger warnings are small advisories placed before the presentation of material that people may find acutely upsetting. Sometimes they are placed in course syllabi, prior to weeks where distressing content is discussed, or on lecture slides, before the presentation of graphic or unpleasant or otherwise triggering material. The term “trigger” is a reference to trauma triggering, an experience common to people with post-traumatic stress disorder, whereby encountering a word, person, or object that is reminiscent of trauma causes a person to experience flashbacks, physical/emotional distress, or panic.

For example, if I was sexually assaulted or raped in a 2002 Kia Sportage (I wasn’t), I might feel uneasy or panicked sitting in the back of a 2002 Kia Sportage (I don’t). If I was forced to have sex that I did not want to have (I was), I might feel incredibly unhappy, shaky, and even slightly out of touch with reality when someone near me makes a joke about rape (I do). Triggers range from the graphic (rape & murder imagery, vivid gore, etc) to the banal (I have an acquaintance who is triggered by apples, because of an abuse experience involving apples), and from the common to the exceptional. For a good example of a banal and uncommon trigger, see the infamous “Trigger Warning: Breakfast” comic published anonymously to The Nib.

Triggers are not a PTSD-exclusive problem. Other mental illness symptoms can also be activated by triggers. For example, if a person is recovering from bulimia, they might feel an urge to purge after witnessing a scene from a movie in which a character throws up. A person who experiences extreme depression and suicide ideation might be incredibly distressed to read a book narrated by a suicidal character, and so on. A person’s experience of being triggered can be visible and physical, or internal and very subtle. Triggers are many and varied, and their effects are unique to each individual.

It is impossible for a professor or teacher to anticipate every student’s triggers, and frankly, I’ve never met a student who was demanding or entitled about having their specific triggers tagged in advance. What I have encountered, numerous times, are students who have a trauma history or a mental illness that involves triggers, who are only willing to gently and quietly request trigger warnings after I have made my pro-TW stance abundantly clear. These requests have always been polite and reasonable, and have never involved scrubbing my syllabus clean of challenging material.

One student asked me to warn them if I ever discussed cutting or self-harm in class, since they were a former self-harmer working on sobriety from cutting. Another student asked me to give them advanced notice if lectures in my class would touch on weight loss or calories, as they were battling an eating disorder. A student who was a recent rape survivor asked if they could sit quietly in my office with me for a moment, because they’d just been forced to confront their abuser and they were feeling shaky. Another student had anemia and asked me to warn her if I presented any gory images to the class, because she would involuntarily faint.

I have honored every request for a trigger or content warning that a student has ever given me, and I go out of my way to tag any potentially upsetting material with trigger warnings. I don’t do this because I am a beaten-down, scared shitless academic with no intellectual freedom. My students have not backed me into a corner and demanded that I keep thought-provoking content at bay. Students who disagree with me politically or philosophically (of which there are many) do not try to silence me under a deluge of TW requests. My universities have not twisted my arms, pinned me down, and affixed black TW duct tape across my mouth. That’s not how TW’s work.

I wrote this essay because a handful of tweets weren’t enough.

In the vast majority of cases, trigger warnings are adopted on an individual basis by faculty who opt into using them. A national survey by the National Coalition Against Censorship indicated that fewer than 1% of universities in this country have formal trigger warning policies. In cases where students desire trigger warnings, this desire is usually expressed in the form of a personal request from student to professor. In addition, trigger warning requests span a variety of ideological positions — they are not the sole purview of liberal Millenials. Over half of the educators surveyed by the NCAC reported providing informal warnings regarding course content of their own accord. In other words, a near majority of academics provide trigger warnings on their own anyway.

So if I, like most of my peers in academia, have not been forced by immature Millenials to wrap my course content in a comforting diaper of trigger warning bubble wrap, why do I choose to use the damn things? If you’ve read this far, you probably have some idea. So here’s your trigger warning that below I am going to briefly discuss rape and domestic violence!

— — — —

I was violently sexually assaulted while I was in graduate school, and later, I was stalked and harassed by an ex-partner. These experiences were harrowing, and left emotional and psychological wounds, as well as triggers. I am well aware of them, and know how to avoid them when I need to avoid them. However, I often challenge myself to face them head-on. Trigger warnings help me to emotionally prepare for discussions of rape, stalking, and assault, and allow me to filter out or avoid disturbing content when I’m having a particularly rough day and am not up for it. The language of triggers and trigger warnings gives me a straightforward social script I can use to communicate my trauma reactions to others.

Because I am a rape survivor with trauma triggers, I know firsthand that the experience of using trigger warnings completely contradicts the anti-TW stereotype. I am not a soft-willed, petulant baby. I am a battle-tested, iron-willed survivor who has faced far more personal horror than any anti-TW demagogue could. I do not use TW’s to “protect myself” from writing that challenges me intellectually. I read writing by people I disagree with on a daily basis, for both academic and personal enrichment; my use of trigger warnings to sometimes avoid rape- and stalking-related content is utterly irrelevant to that. And the use of trigger warnings does not make me weak. Trigger warnings empower me by allowing me to customize my reading-about-rape experience. I get to choose when and how I present myself with upsetting or triggering content. This makes it easier for me to do so regularly. And for the record, when I am faced with triggering material, I am not a trembling, weeping wreck, fuck you very much.

Of course, sharing my personal trauma experience only the scratches the surface of why I support trigger warnings. My life on earth as an academic, and as a person perceived as a woman, has left me with manifold reasons to use and celebrate TW’s. Like the (dude) professor who admitted to me that he showed the rape scene of Boy’s Don’t Cry to his sociology class, causing a student to run out of the room having a panic attack (she had recently been raped). Or the student who froze up or left the room whenever a topic relevant to their trauma came up, who stopped skipping classes once I knew their triggers and could warn them accordingly. Or the theology professor I knew, who presented his class with graphic, bloody images of what a real-life crucifixion would look like, and had a student vomit in the front of the classroom. Or the writer I know who faints at the sight of needles entering flesh, who had to take a bio 101 course where that very image was projected on a massive screen at the front of the room. Or the domestic violence victim I’m close friends with, who cannot drive through certain areas of her home city because they remind her of her assault. Or the untold scores of students in my classes who are victims of trauma or sufferers of mental illness, who will never feel safe admitting their triggers to me (because trigger warnings are so relentlessly mocked), who will be forced to suffer in silence or miss out on valuable learning opportunities (and grade points) if I lack the empathy to anticipate their needs.

How can someone call themselves an educator and not be sensitive to these incredibly common needs? How can someone be a proponent of intellectual freedom and not want to make their classroom a space where everyone feels free from emotional harm and psychological violence? How does warning a student that a lecture might touch on murder or rape make the university a less open environment? Aren’t we supposed to make our classrooms accessible to students with disabilities? Why does the University of Chicago think that discouraging students from advocating for their own mental health is a blow to the quality of their education? Do they not want mentally ill or traumatized students at all? Why are so many academics so hellbent on providing traumatizing content to students? Why are these established, comfortable Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers so threatened and scandalized by being asked to give a two-word heads-up? Do they not realize Millenials are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for an increasingly devalued education, and that of course they want to have a little bit of influence on the quality of what they’re buying?

I am a college professor, a psychologist, a rape survivor, and a proud user of trigger warnings, and I can’t figure out the answers to those questions. I’ve read all the fuming anti-TW screeds; I’ve bashed my head against the rants and the wringing of hands and I’ve “challenged” myself to understand their outrage, but I just can’t. Most of them don’t seem to understand what trigger warnings and safe spaces even are. I want my students to feel emotionally safe so that they can take on cognitive challenges from a position of strength. That’s all. And I hope that makes the anti-TW babies cry, cry, cry.

Next Story — This 100-Year-Old To-Do List Hack Still Works Like A Charm
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This 100-Year-Old To-Do List Hack Still Works Like A Charm

The “Ivy Lee Method” is stupidly simple — and that’s partly why it’s so effective.

[Photo: Flickr user Billy Millard]

By James Clear, who writes about self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research at JamesClear.com, where this article first appeared. It is adapted with permission.

By 1918, Charles M. Schwab was one of the richest men in the world.

Schwab (oddly enough, no relation to Charles R. Schwab, founder of the Charles Schwab Corporation) was the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second-largest steel producer in the U.S. at the time. The famous inventor Thomas Edison once referred to Schwab as the “master hustler.” He was constantly seeking an edge over the competition.

Accounts differ as to the date, but according to historian Scott M. Cutlip, it was one day in 1918 that Schwab — in his quest to increase the efficiency of his team and discover better ways to get things done — arranged a meeting with a highly respected productivity consultant named Ivy Lee.

Lee was a successful businessman in his own right and is widely remembered as a pioneer in the field of public relations. As the story goes, Schwab brought Lee into his office and said, “Show me a way to get more things done.”

“Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives,” Lee replied.

“How much will it cost me?” Schwab asked.

“Nothing,” Lee said. “Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you.”


During his 15 minutes with each executive, Lee explained his simple method for achieving peak productivity:

  1. At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
  2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
  3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
  4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
  5. Repeat this process every working day.

The strategy sounded simple, but Schwab and his executive team at Bethlehem Steel gave it a try. After three months, Schwab was so delighted with the progress his company had made that he called Lee into his office and wrote him a check for $25,000.

A $25,000 check written in 1918 is the equivalent of a $400,000 check in 2015.

The Ivy Lee Method of prioritizing your to-do list seems stupidly simple. How could something this simple be worth so much?

What makes it so effective?


Ivy Lee’s productivity method utilizes many of the concepts I have written about previously.

Here’s what makes it so effective:

It’s simple enough to actually work. The primary critique of methods like this one is that they are too basic. They don’t account for all of the complexities and nuances of life. What happens if an emergency pops up? What about using the latest technology to our fullest advantage? In my experience, complexity is often a weakness because it makes it harder to get back on track. Yes, emergencies and unexpected distractions will arise. Ignore them as much as possible, deal with them when you must, and get back to your prioritized to-do list as soon as possible. Use simple rules to guide complex behavior.

It forces you to make tough decisions. I don’t believe there is anything magical about Lee’s number of six important tasks per day. It could just as easily be five tasks per day. However, I do think there is something magical about imposing limits upon yourself. I find that the single best thing to do when you have too many ideas (or when you’re overwhelmed by everything you need to get done) is to prune your ideas and trim away everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Constraints can make you better. Lee’s method is similar to Warren Buffet’s 25–5 Rule, which requires you to focus on just five critical tasks and ignore everything else. Basically,if you commit to nothing, you’ll be distracted by everything.

It removes the friction of starting. The biggest hurdle to finishing most tasks is starting them. (Getting off the couch can be tough, but once you actually start running, it is much easier to finish your workout.) Lee’s method forces you to decide on your first task the night before you go to work. This strategy has been incredibly useful for me: As a writer, I can waste three or four hours debating what I should write about on a given day. If I decide the night before, however, I can wake up and start writing immediately. It’s simple, but it works. In the beginning, getting started is just as important as succeeding at all.

It requires you to single-task. Modern society loves multitasking. The myth of multitasking is that being busy is synonymous with being better. The exact opposite is true. Having fewer priorities leads to better work. Study world-class experts in nearly any field — athletes, artists, scientists, teachers, CEOs — and you’ll discover one characteristic that runs through all of them: focus. The reason is simple. You can’t be great at one task if you’re constantly dividing your time 10 different ways. Mastery requires focus and consistency.

The bottom line? Do the most important thing first each day. It’s the only productivity trick you need.

Read this story at Fast Company.

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