Everything Is Cyclic

20th February 2016

Wash - Rinse - Repeat

So says the instructions on the shampoo bottle, or was that Lather, Rinse, Repeat? Either way the idea that sequences are part of our lives is pervasive in ways we often don’t recognise cognitively. The sun rises, it sets, the seasons change and repeat each year and so on.

Yet when it comes to personal desires we seem to not recognise this cyclic nature in ourselves. Though in humans it seems to be more driven in some people by the urge to refine, to iterate and to improve. A perfect example from my own life is commuting to and from work. A common problem set at the foot of many people in the world.

Your options: Drive or take public transport.

For a few years I drove to work whenever I could, which was never exclusively, but when a project had a downtown car park that I was able to utilise every day for a few months I took that option. I had been on a combination of buses and trains for the preceding 2 years and grew tired of the scheduling problems, late trains, breakdowns and so on.

All of that was replaced by traffic jams and being stuck on a freeway unable to get off. Large accidents setting me back 3 hours on one occasion from getting home.

Back on the train again for another 2 years, drive for 6 months, back on the train for 2 more years and so the cycle goes on.

The more I think about it the more it’s about forgetting the frustrations that drove us away from the previous pattern to explore a different pattern, or to tweak a previous pattern in the hope of finding an improvement. Hopefully there’s progress towards the ultimate goal of optimisation but I fear in some cases the cyclic nature drives itself with no end.

I’ve seen it time and again in management circles: We need to centralise to reduce bottlenecks, followed by a decentralisation to improve efficiencies of each department, only to become centralised once again years later.

The same cyclic nature seems to be pervasive in technology circles as well. I started with a MacBook Pro 15" and tried that for 3 years, then I switched to a Mac Pro and used a 1st Gen iPad for mobile work, then switched to a MacBook Air 13" for a few years then back to the MacBook Pro 15" again. The rough sequence of events was:

  • Old MBP wasn’t getting used as a laptop (always connected) so let’s switch to a desktop instead
  • Desktop/iPad combination wasn’t flexible/powerful enough for my needs to let’s use a light laptop
  • Light laptop not powerful enough for audio/video editing so let’s switch to a MBP
  • MBP is to heavy too lug around with me so let’s try an iPad Pro instead
  • and so on…

Of course my usage requirements changed at some points along that journey and that drove some of those changes but ultimately no single requirement ever wins out and we romanticise the good elements of our previous cycle which drives the idea that we should try something different.

Is this attempt to refine our life-flows actually beneficial? I begin to wonder how much money and time is spent worrying about little niggling details we try to optimise and lose sight of the bigger picture.

"Oh you’re never happy," my wife sometimes tells me in my endless pursuit of a refinement or a tweak that to her seems trivial. As I sit here I think she’s right.

If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, so I’ve been told. And mis-remembering past experiences doesn’t mean present experiences are broken at all. And if the problem is just our memory, then we need to carefully examine the truth about our past cycles, and make a pragmatic choice, not an emotive, selective-memory driven decision. Much as it would disappoint the many thousands of companies that want you to upgrade or try their new widget that will "make you more efficient" maybe you just shouldn’t.

Maybe everthing isn’t cyclic after all. It doesn’t need to be. In many cases that choice is up to you.