Steve Messer

The Niksen

Weeknotes S06E05

As mentioned in my previous weeknotes, we’re still in the pre-election period which means I can’t talk about work we’ve been doing. These are meditations on user-centred design practice and other fluff, not my usual weeknotes.

Is there anything better than a perfectly timed holiday? Two weeks away in Cuba really sorted me out, giving me time and space to switch off fully. I’ve come back to work feeling energised and with renewed perspective, enthused to tackle the challenges we’re taking on. Which is a marked difference to how depleted I felt in November.

Since I was in Cuba, I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which he wrote there, and one line resounded with that feeling of depletion: “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”

Switching off

Cuba is a simple country. You take more pleasure in the availability of things rather than their variety. There’s plenty of food, for example, but the menu is always the same. Better to have food than not, for sure. There’s limited access to the Internet too. To get online we had to buy cards with codes on, which gave us access for an hour at a time. It meant there was plenty of incentive to switch off.

That’s quite different from our always-connected nature in the UK. Having little to do meant a better appreciation for each waking moment, and I realised how many of those we fill with crap.

It’s weird. It’s weird that we spend so much time distracting ourselves, mostly with our phones. Oliver Sacks touched on it in a piece for the New Yorker:

These gadgets, already ominous in 2007, have now immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanizing. I am confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to phones or other devices—jabbering, texting, playing games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort.

So I didn’t do that. When I wasn’t chatting to my partner or playing cards or drinking rum or reading, I was just sitting there, doing nothing. It was nice. I just unplugged. And it turns out that being completely idle is good for you, good for your creativity.

Ms. Mann’s research has found that daydreaming — an inevitable effect of idleness — “literally makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas.” For that to happen, though, total idleness is required.

That’s from a New York Times article about doing nothing. The Dutch call it niksen and it’s all about purposefully becoming bored. Forcing yourself to do nothing. I suppose niksen is a bit like mindfulness, only it’s harder to make a subscription-based product for boredom.

So with the festive break coming up, I’m looking forward to spending time doing fuck all again.

There’s a great podcast on Cuba’s digital revolution from the BBC, worth checking out.

Theory of Change

In attempting to frame a vision for change within a system, Leighton suggested to Will that we might try the Theory of Change. It looks a bit like a Lean canvas but for social impact, which I think is applicable to some civic technology projects.

It spurs you to think about measurable outcomes against your intended impact too – which is fab. So I described it as a cross between a Lean canvas and OKRs, although it won’t help you think about cost or revenue like product frameworks might.

Like a Lean Canvas and OKRs, it doesn’t take well to high-level, generalised systems. It really needs some specificity and to focus on a domain. Writing ‘This is for everyone’ in the target audience column is a bad idea; better to have several theories of change for different problem spaces to highlight the shared problems. That means your measurable outcomes will be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely too.


Some bits and pieces I read over the past few weeks.