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A Little Bit of Difficulty is a Good Thing

In a recent issue of the Economist, I read an article¬†that captured some very powerful ideas, ideas that I hadn’t realized I supported and incorporated into my work. The article is called “The uses of difficulty” by Ian Leslie, and it postulates that small obstacles may boost the creativity of the brain. He cites several studies and anedotes, and my favorite one is a neuroscience study that found that handwriting activates more areas of the brain than typing. Ian suggests that the act of trying to make your hand do what you want it to creates a tension that produces a denser expression, as opposed to using a keyboard where letters can flow out easily.

This leads me to speculate that one reason that architects cling to hand drafting – and the reason I still do it – is because it’s the most effective way for me to get my initial thoughts out of my brain. Though once I’ve worked those thoughts out, I switch over to the computer, because I can do so much more through those tools. But even using the computer doesn’t necessarily mean that the process is easier.

Ian recounts the situation of the Beatles, who weren’t able to come to America to record, where the equipment was more advanced, because of their contract with EMI. So they had to find ways to make the older equipment at Abbey Road work in the ways that they wanted the songs to sound. And it required considerable ingenuity and effort to make that happen. Also, he notes that Jack White purposely uses cheap instruments that don’t hold a tune because he finds that when it becomes too easy to make the music, it becomes harder to make it good.

I’m reminded of those nights trying to finish projects for studio, when pens run out and supplies dwindle, and you are forced to find alternative solutions that will still allow the idea to come though. And those skills that we develop, those improvisational tools that we find, they go into our bag of tricks for later in our careers. So that we know that we could finish drafting something with a ballpoint if we had too. Not that we’d want to.

How Do We Get Things Done?

Last week at the Market I got an interesting question. Interesting because it really had nothing to do with architecture, but it is something that I have been spending a lot of my brain energy on.

A couple asked how to get things done. Specifically, the wife asked how to get her husband to get things done. That’s an answer fraught with danger. But the more general question of how to complete those small tasks that linger on is one that many people struggle with. A quick glance around my house will show you dozens of projects in intermediate stages. I’ve read that procrastination is really just a delayed decision, and I get that. You can’t put something away if its place isn’t ready yet, or you don’t know where that place is. So you put it in the “Box of Waiting” and tell yourself you’ll get back to it soon.

I’ve had some success with the Getting Things Done methodology, but find that making time to do the reviews is my issue. I record tasks in my weekly planner and that’s pretty effective for me, but those are really things that need to be done this week. I had tried a system where tasks had points, and before I could break for the day I had to complete a certain number of points. But I cheated on that too often.

The one I’m trying this week is to categorize each task with its effort and result, and then divide effort by result to get a ranked list of tasks that will give you maximum effect for minimum effort. And while this doesn’t handle those things that must be done now because of whatever reason, I like the idea of quantifying my list.

As for the happy couple at my booth, I suggested a method that works for me at times: dedicate one hour to those half-done tasks, and go at them. And at the end of the hour, give yourself a reward.

How about you? What works for you and why? Please let me know in the comments.