What Do You Gain or Lose with Shortcuts, Rules, and Laws?

I love shortcuts—especially if I’m not supposed to use them. Why can’t I avoid right-angle paths and use the hypotenuse instead? That saves me some time. Can I make my exercise easier? I can—and I too often lose the value of the exercise.

So shortcuts aren’t always good or always bad. The context matters.

Shortcuts are a way to reduce friction. Sometimes, friction is good, as in my physical exercise. The more good friction I have, the more my exercise challenges me, and the more benefit I gain. I trade off the short-term ease for long-term gain.

How do we assess the value of the short- or long-term friction? What do we gain or lose with that shortcut to avoid friction?

Here are some possible questions about shortcuts. Do they:

  • Make other people’s actions easier or more difficult?
  • Change my progress to my goals?

My shortcuts don’t just affect me. Often, they affect the people around us, too. That means we need to assess the value of each shortcut we might want to use.

Assess the Value of the Shortcut

When I park on the streets in my little suburb, I try to park in a handicapped spot. Inevitably, that spot is down the block from the traffic lights, as well as over and across from where I want to be. I need to cross the street at a light and make a right-angle to continue.

Most crosswalks and their lights assume everyone walks at an “average” speed. That would be enough time if I didn’t have to:

  • Walk slowly down the ramp cut into the sidewalk because there’s a bump at the bottom. (The bump at the bottom is either from snow or the way they added the sidewalk cuts for the ramps originally. If I walk at normal speed, I’m too likely to fall over and split my head open. Just normal risk management here.)
  • Once I get past the ramp, then, I can increase my speed to cross just one street.
  • Make that right turn and cross the other street—
  • Except I run out of time after that right turn. I can either stay stuck at that corner, waiting for the light to change again, or walk anyway and run the risk of drivers who want to go with the light.

Instead, I jay-walk, where I use the light to avoid any right angles, and cross at a 90-degree angle. IMNHO, everyone gains: I cross the street in time. I don’t have to worry about drivers wanting to start—and they don’t have to worry about a slow pedestrian. (This is Massachusetts. I’m not sure any driver worries about anyone else, but that’s a different conversation.)

I have a general guideline for me: Don’t allow my shortcut to create friction for other people. That’s the point of the question about making other people’s actions easier or more difficult. I try to stay congruent with my shortcuts.

Friction, Shortcuts, and Congruence

My jaywalking is a case where I think about my abilities first. How risky is this situation? That leads me to think about the context. Then, I can think about others.

In the case of crossing the street on a hypotenuse, I can reduce my walking friction (self), stay safe (context) and reduce any driver’s friction for thinking about the woman with the rollator (other). So, unless there’s a good reason, I’m going to continue jay-walking.

However, I need to verify the context every time I decide to use the hypotenuse and not the two right angles. That context is the intersection, the speed of the lights changing, and what the traffic intends to do.

We do the same in society and at work.

In society, rules and laws are supposed to help us get along—to create acceptable behaviors. At work, we have rules and constraints that ask us for acceptable behaviors, too. Those behaviors are part of the context.

In software (my field), shortcuts often create much less sustainable work—because we don’t reinforce the eventual, long-term needs that we have. Short-term actions change the actual progress we can make to achieve our goals. Too many shortcuts allow us to avoid decisions, making future work more difficult and take more time.

Instead, we can look for shortcuts that make it easy to do the right thing.

How Well Do Your Shortcuts Help You Do the Right Thing?

I can easily assess how well my personal shortcuts help me—especially if I consider the context, so I can be congruent with others.

What about at work? Do your shortcuts help you do the right thing? When I write or work with teams, I stress the need to leave the work clean. A little technical excellence today makes a huge difference in my achievement tomorrow. It’s the same for teams (at all levels).

How well do your rules and constraints make it easy to define and deliver great work? You might review how all your rules increase or decrease the various kinds of friction.

What about our laws in society? Do they make it easy for us to do the right thing? Do we create friction for the wrong behaviors and reduce friction for the right behaviors? That depends on your context. I’ve already discussed my perspective a little in the Overton Window post.

Here’s my guideline: In general, don’t blame people for being human. Instead, make it easy for people to get along and to live in a congruent and respectful way. Don’t make shortcuts easy for behavior we don’t want—and make shortcuts easy for behaviors we do want.

That’s the question this week: What do you gain or lose with shortcuts?

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