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Blog // Productivity
September 17, 2020

How Friction Can Help

From meetings to music to managing social media, adding a little friction to the process can have surprisingly beneficial results.

“Maybe we could jam soon.”

“Sure. Send me some charts and a tape of your music and we’ll work something out.”

“Ummm, OK.”

We often think the path to greater productivity involves removing barriers and obstacles. We aim for a frictionless life. But perhaps some friction is a good thing?

Friction Can Add Clarity

Ryder Carroll, creator of the Bullet Journal Method, was recently on the Focussed podcast discussing productivity. He described being in a new job where everyone was calling a lot of meetings. Many of the meetings felt like a waste of time. People were talking so they could figure out what they thought. A lot of the meetings ended with no clear set of actions.

So he instigated a plan. Before calling a meeting, co-workers had to write out its objectives and some guidelines for the decisions that had to be made.

The result was: people asked for fewer meetings.

This wasn’t Carroll’s goal, of course. He wanted better meetings. What happened was fewer meetings, and workers finding other ways to solve problems or figure out how they wanted to work.

A little friction made a huge difference.

Learning To Add Friction

Back when I was playing a lot of live music I’d often get asked to “jam”. This is musician-speak for turning up at a rehearsal space with no real plan, just to “see what happens.”

Jam sessions can be magical. But all too often they’re just like the kind of workplace meetings Ryder Carroll was trying to avoid. For every transcendent experience of improvised bliss there were scores of frustrating moments as people faced their creative and musical limitations.

Back then I barely had enough time as it was to play the gigs, teach the students I had, learn new material, and improve my own skills. This only got worse when I had a day job.

So I came up with a simple hack. Whenever someone got talking about their idea for a band, or a music project, and then asked me to jam, I would say “Sure” but also invite them to just send some charts and a recording of their music. I always promised to make time after that.

One of two things then happened. Most people never got back in touch. But the people who did had amazing ideas, and were fun to work with.

A little friction did a lot to lift the best opportunities out of the pile of requests.

Adding Friction To Maximise Efficiency

It’s tempting to focus always on the fastest and most convenient ways of doing things. But convenience and speed don’t always maximise efficiency.

Part of the reason why paper-based planning is so popular right now is the way it naturally slows you down. The methodical nature of writing down your notes and plans, the friction of pen on paper, helps focus the mind.

Planning on paper makes it evident when you are over-committing. You can feel the resistance as your to-do list grows too long. Using a Kanban to visualise your work has a similar effect.

Friction invites reflection. Slowing down creates the space for your productivity habits to become more mindful.

Adding Friction To Improve Social Media

Recently I’ve been using the Toikimeki app to go through the accounts I follow on Twitter. It’s a play on the Marie Kondo approach. The page shows you one account at a time and asks you if that person’s timeline still “sparks joy.”

It’s a slow process. Thankfully the app lets you stop and start and pick up later where you left off. It’s also deeply rewarding. You are reminded of cool people you’d forgotten about, either because the algorithm wasn’t sharing their thoughts with you or just because you weren’t online at the same times. And of course, it’s satisfying to unfollow accounts that are now sharing ideas you don’t want to amplify.

Friction Clarifies Purpose

Friction invites questions. Why this? Why now? Why me? When the answers are clear, the motivation rises to meet us. But if the answers are not clear the friction makes it easier to say no.

Adding a little friction to your processes does two things. It clarifies what effort must be put into doing something; how well prepared we and others are for the task. And it helps us decide whether to commit to doing it or not.

In a way, everything revolves around being good at knowing when to say yes and when to say no. Friction can be surprisingly helpful at making us better at doing just that.

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