Nathan Laundry's Blog

It's the Comforts That Make us Feel Numb.

Time Management My Life Philosophy

I heard once, “It’s the comforts that make us feel numb” - Hozier

And you know what? I think he’s right.

I think the ways in which we save time, the little eases and comforts, the ergonomics of our lives numb us and erode our sense of meaning. Now, does that mean I churn my own butter and sew my own clothes? Of course not, but it does make me think about the little moments that make up my life and how they make up my sense of meaning.

The conclusion I’ve come to is this:

  1. There are many faster, less effortful ways to do day to day tasks — Time-Savers.
  2. The concept of a Time-Saver and our motivation to use them is based on Bullshit and it costs us our connection to Quality — ie. Time-Savers are lower Quality actions. We may think a Time-Saver saves us time while we achieve the same goal, but ultimately, any time we try to save-time, we lose out on Quality.
  3. Doing High-Quality things and being in contact with Quality is core to having a sense of value and meaning in our lives.

Conclusion: Time-Savers should be avoided at all points where they are not necessary.

To lay down this argument, I want to make use of some definitions from some of my favourite books and articles.

Quality: Pirsig intentionally does not define Quality, but loosely we can say it is pointed to by our intuitive sense of what is Good. For example, people have an intuitive sense of music, art, food, etc. that is Good, vs that which is Bad. Note, this does not mean taste, but more so art that is highly skillful and expressive or music that is played well, recorded well, etc. There is a sense of Quality beyond a sense of taste. Moreover, Pirsig extends this into our day to day actions. Actions that put us in touch with reality, a belief that is not manufactured from self-deceit, etc. Actions that Pirsig points to as High-Quality tend to be rigourous and, done with attention, care, and effort.

Bullshit as per Frankfurt : a form of communication that is characterized not by lies but by a complete disregard for truth. I use Bullshit similarly but more to mean a kind of self-deceit that empowers one to accept lower Quality actions, beliefs, etc. that afford the Bullshitter some level of comfort whether that be to believe something comforting that is untrue, or to take an action that is lower Quality without acknowledging the sacrifice of Quality. For an example see my article on the Digital Brain and Knowledge Dumping vs Learning

Time-Saver: Some action that is an alternative to another more effortful or time-consuming action. eg. listening to an audio summary of a book instead of reading the book.

The Human Intuition for Quality

Let’s start by laying out a few examples of effortful actions and some effort-less Time-Saver alternatives:

  1. Calling or Visitng a loved one VS. Texting a loved one
  2. Taking notes by hand in class VS. recording the lecture and having AI transcribe it for you
  3. Cooking VS. ordering in
  4. Reading VS. listening to an audio summary
  5. Reading the manual VS. Diving straight into trying to build your Ikea furniture

First we have the effortful action, and second we have the Time-Saver. Regardless of culture, country, and gender, I would happily bet almost everyone would identify from the list of pairs above that while those actions would tick off the same checklist box, one of them is better. People have an intuitive sense of which is Good.

This pattern is everywhere. Many of us aspire to cook more of our own meals instead of eating out (I think this would be the case even if we disregard the health and financial factors), or spend more time reading, pay closer attention during lectures or meetings. We aspire to do the effortful thing.

But why do we aspire to do the more effortful thing when the Time-Saver, satisfies the same goal on the todo-list more quickly and easily - isn’t that just more productive? What, is driving our intuition that one is better than the other?

Pirsig argues it’s our intuition for Quality that is nagging at us and I think he’s right. Deep down we know that taking notes in class by hand will result in better learning than delegating note-taking to AI - and science has demonstrated this repeatedly. There’s an attention, care, and effort that hand-writing notes takes. It’s what makes us skip the task when we’re tired and it’s what let’s us know that the action is High-Quality.

In the same way, we can feel when music, art, food, exercise, learning is High-Quality. When an artefact (painting, song, software, experience, etc.) is produced with effort, care, and attention, for the most part, we can tell and we think of it as better.

All this to say, we have an intuition for Quality and a foundational Human motivation to be in touch with it.

So why don’t we always do the High-Quality thing?

Energy Preservation and Bullshit

I think there are two mutually reinforcing factors that prevent us from doing the High-Quality thing:

  1. Humans are organisms.
  2. Bullshit - We lie most easily and most convincingly to ourselves.

Humans are Organisms

What I mean by this is that humans have the same base needs as any other animal - to eat, to sleep, to reproduce, to get exercise, etc. As animals, however, we did not evolve with the abundance we have now, particularly in the global North.

You’ll have heard this argument before, so I’ll make it brief. Organisms have to operate on a scarcity mindset. There is no such thing as food security or safety in the animal kingdom. So, a very useful and widespread heuristic among organisms is to save energy whenever possible because you may need it later and not have access to the food, time to sleep, etc. required to replenish it.

So, when given the option to take the Higher-Quality action which is more effortful, involves more care, and attention, it’s no surprise that often we choose the Time-Saver instead. Notice also how we choose the Time-Saver even more readily when we’re tired, hungry, stressed ie. low on resources.

The Time-Saver preserves what we perceive as limited resources.

But … we’re better than that, aren’t we? We’re a sentient and rational species. Can’t we acknowledge our abundance and act effortfully knowing that there will be more food, more sleep, and more resources for later?

If only it were so easy.

The Self-Destructive Appeal of Bullshit

There is always that little voice in the back of your brain reminding you that your resources may run low and you should preserve them. Sometimes, we can overpower that voice. Sometimes we can see the value in what we’re doing and decide that it is worth the energy. Sometimes, at our best, we can even run low on those resources and perservere knowing that once we’re done, we can replenish them or that the goal itself is worth the risk.

But, this requires a level of sobriety and self-awareness. One must acknowledge their abundance to stave off the scarcity mindset, and have a goal that they deem worthy of pursuing at the cost of their resources. We must feel something of Quality to convince ourselves to pursue it with High-Quality action.

What if we could satisfy both though? What if we could achieve the High-Quality thing without sacrificing our precious resources? Who wouldn’t want that - to no longer be in conflict with oneself?

That is where Bullshit comes in. We have two competing underlying desires - to preserve resources, and to be in touch with Quality. If we could convince ourselves, however, that the Low-Quality equivalent of a High-Quality action were actually of the same Quality then we could have - our resources and Quality. And that’s exactly what we do with Time-Savers.

The comfort that is afforded by the belief that Time-Savers (low effort, low care, low attention) actions are equivalent to truly High-Quality actions is that we get to preserve our resources while believing that we are still doing the High-Quality thing.

The Cost of Bullshit

The cost of Bullshit is not immediately obvious. This makes it even harder to unroot.

For a while, we may live comfortably in the lie. We preserve our energy by recording meeting notes instead of taking them by hand, by eating out instead of cooking, by texting our loved ones instead of calling or seeing them face-to-face. Eventually, however, the lie erodes our connection to Quality and we feel our sense of meaning fall out from under us.

Of course, it’s not always as dramatic as that. But, I do believe the little things catch up to us. For example:

  • We let AI take our notes -> we understand the material less and perform worse in class.
  • We order food instead of cooking -> we feel sluggish because of the unhealthy food we eat and our finances suffer (I also have some thoughts on how cooking/making our own food is a fundamental human experience and losing touch with it is bad for meaning but that’s another article waiting to happen.)
  • We text our loved ones instead of call or meet -> we feel a subtle sense of disconnectedness. We feel lonely yet can’t put our finger on way because we “talk daily with our friends.”

These things build up and worse, build on top of one another. We eat shitty food and feel tired, then our tiredness reinforces our desire to preserve energy. With our reinforced desire to preserve energy, we don’t leave the house to see our friends (an experience that is recharging), but that’s okay because we can just text them. We text our friends instead of call and we start to feel lonely and disconnected. We feel lonely and disconnected which creates a sense of meaninglessness. Things feel meaningless so we don’t try as hard at school or work. We see our lack of effort reflected in the Quality of our work and our sense of mastery and agency whittles away. And so on and so forth. Down the cycle we go.

Breaking out of this cycle once it’s begun is much harder as all the components reinforce one another.

Time-Savers are insidious. They erode our connection to Quality and our sense of meaning.

The Cost of Meaning and Being Human

So, let’s assume we don’t want to feel meaningless or that we value our connectedness to Quality - what can we do?

The cost of meaning and humanity is simple and difficult:

  1. Do the Highest-Quality thing you can as often as you can.
  2. Do not lie to yourself about what is High-Quality and what you did in that moment.

Let me be clear, it’s okay to be tired. It’s okay to take the Time-Saver route some times. Nobody is born capable of always making the “right” choice. Our ability to choose the Highest-Quality thing possible and be honest with ourselves is something we must cultivate over a life time.

The key is simply this, do the Highest-Quality thing in your capacity at any given moment. The Time-Saver is not that. If you don’t do the Highest-Quality thing you could’ve done, that’s okay, just don’t lie about it - it erodes your own sense of meaning and connectedness to Quality.

One Last Note

Okay, so that was the proper end of the article but I would like to weigh-in on one more thing I see a lot of people and I myself have done many times.

There is one more lie we tell ourselves that reinforces our desire to Bullshit ourselves; If one chooses the Lower-Quality thing, then they too are Lower-Quality.

In believing this, we bolster our desire to Bullshit ourselves. If we hold this belief, then by Bullshitting ourselves, not only do we eliminate the self-conflict between doing the High-Quality thing and preserving energy, we also preserve our ego - that we are the kind of person that does High-Quality things, that we are not Low-Quality. The drive to protect the ego is strong.

I try not to believe in the concept of low or high Quality people. There’s only the Quality of an action - which is its affordance to connect us to Quality. We get to choose that but it does not become us.

Nathan Laundry