by Leon Rosenshein

Shallow Hurry

I ran across the term shallow hurry the other day and it resonated deeply (no pun intended) with me. Shallow hurry means doing just what you’ve been doing, only doing it faster. The expectation is that you’ll get done sooner. And that might even be true. In the short term.

Typing faster will get your code written a little bit sooner, but there’s a natural limit on that. While there may be times when we’re actually limited by typing speed, that’s not usually the case. Not refactoring the code when you see an need/opportunity or not writing/running tests, on the other hand, will often get your code into production sooner. The first time. Sometimes the seocnd time. And occasionally the third time. After that, not so much. You find you’re fighting the code. You’re spending a lot of time dealing with edge cases and wierd constraints. You’re working harder, typing more and faster, and moving slower.

That’s an example of shallow hurry. It makes you faster in the moment, but long term, you’re slower. After the initial speedup, you spend more time avoiding problems than you do making forward progress. All the problems you pushed off until tomorrow are still there, and the shortcuts you took have added to that burden and made the problems interact in new, exciting, and damaging ways. So to make progress you need to keep finding corners to push the problems into. Or you bury them in another layer of abstraction, leaving the problem hidden under the covers to bite some unsuspecting maintainer in a few weeks/months.

There are lots of reasons why this might happen. Some are even existential. Back in the days of selling games in boxes on shelves in brick and mortar stores, 80%+ of sales happened between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If your box wasn’t on the shelves, you didn’t make the sale. If you missed too many sales you ran out of money, and that was the end. So, in that case, you take the chance, do the shallow hurry, and hope you get the chance to fix it.

On the other hand, most of the reasons aren’t nearly that existential. Instead, the drive for Shallow Hurry often comes from internal biases and misaligned incentives. Biases like sunk cost, anchoring and overconfidence. You’ve made a choice and put some effort into it. You don’t want to admit you might have made a mistake. Other’s around you fixate on the proposed solution, and of course, you know you’ve got to solve one more small problem or write one simple function, and you’ll reach the goal. Just move a little faster because you’re almost there.

Add to that a typical incentive system. Heros are rewarded for putting in extra effort, for executing on the plan and rescuing the project. At the same time, questioning the plan is seen as not being a team player, and discouraged. Include a deadline coming up that you’ve promised to meet, and you find folks doubling down on what they’re already do. Do it more. Do it faster. Get to the end and get the prize. Just before disaster strikes.

Because what often happens is that you’ve pushed a mountain of problems out in front of you. You’ve managed to reach the goal, but as is often the case, what you’ve reached is an intermediate goal. So you look to take the next step, and find there isn’t one. You’ve backed yourself into a corner, and before you can move forward, you need to figure out a path forward. You might even need to change your goal, just like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.

Luckily, as easy as it is to slip into shallow hurry, it’s just as easy to recognize. When you find yourself avoiding even looking at options, you might be dealing with shallow hurry. When you start thinking about ways to spend a few more hours just trying random things to see how it works, you might be dealing with shallow hurry. And when you’re spending more and more time working on the same things, but the results aren’t changing, you’re probably dealing with shallow hurry.

And that’s the time to take a step back, look at what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and ask yourself my favorite question. “What are you really trying to do here?”