Artificial progress

Thoughts on doing ‘things about the thing’ instead of the thing itself

Stef’s post, ‘The Little, Big Idea’ really resonated with me. A core theme is: If you have a big idea and you desire to turn that idea into a thing people want, then you need to just get started. Stef says to ‘Do the first, tiny thing.’ — too often people waste their time ‘doing things about the thing. Not the thing itself.’

He’s right. One of the most uncomfortable feelings when you’re working towards a goal is to feel a lack of progress. To avoid this feeling, we often put actions on our to-do list that have certain, objective, and tangible outcomes. We know when these actions are complete, and we can be reasonably confident about their probable outcomes. We’ll be able to cross these items off our list — we can make progress. For many people, this list devolves into their list of ‘things about the thing.’ And doing things about the thing is often just artificial progress.

Doing things about the thing manifests in your behaviors regardless of your role. If you’re an Engineer like me, then maybe it’s building the user authentication system into your prototype as the first step. Every product needs a login screen right? It’s a known thing with a tangible outcome. Put it on the list. Do it. Check it off. Artificial progress. If you’re a Marketer, then maybe it’s creating a Twitter account for your new product. Every product needs a Twitter account right? Put it on the list. Set up the account. Tweet. Artificial progress.

So why do we do this? Why do we create an environment for ourselves where it’s so easy to make artificial progress? I think it’s because uncertainty is uncomfortable — so we find ways to avoid the uncertainty.

Here’s a thought. What if our initial to-do list for our idea looked like this. Just one item:

1. Make sure enough people want my idea such that it makes sense for me to build and support it as a product.

Sounds a bit scary right? It’s uncertain (What if they don’t want it?), it’s not that tangible (What is ‘enough people’? What actions can I take to see if they want it?), and it’s subjective (Regardless of what idea you have, some people will think it’s terrible and some people will love it). It has exact opposite characteristics of the ‘things about the thing’ on our to-do list (certain, objective, and tangible). — it’s hard to even know where to get started on this task.

Being scared or apprehensive about this is natural. It’s your defense mechanism kicking in. No one wants to be told that their idea is bad or unwanted, so the easy strategy to avoid being told your idea is bad or unwanted is to be silent — or just do the certain, objective, and tangible ‘things about the thing’ instead.

Eventually, the rubber needs to meet the road. The truest way to sustain your idea as a product is to have customers that pay for it. That’s your biggest risk — not the login screen, not the Twitter account, not the things about the thing. As you make artificial progress on your to-do list, you defer mitigating this core risk.

A compounding problem is that, as you finish more ‘things about the thing’, your set of beliefs and assumptions about your idea become less malleable — you may become unwilling to seek critical feedback about your idea, and instead seek reaffirmation of the idea. Negative feedback becomes more painful and you may resist it instead of learn from it, since you’ve put in all of this work already and it cannot go to waste! (See: Sunk cost fallacy). It’s a path towards building a product no one wants except for you.

So what should you do? The key thing in my mind is to acknowledge to yourself that this happens — and call it out for what it is. We all seek progress because it feels good, even if it’s artificial. We all avoid conflict because it’s uncomfortable, even if it’s useful. This is not going to change — but the negative effects of these traits are manageable with a conscious, persistent effort.

So look at the items on your to-do list, and more importantly, your actions — are they helping you to make the thing or are they just things about the thing?

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