New information is scary (but it doesn’t have to be)

One of the most common first-responses I hear when I explain the value of RescueTime to people is:

“That sounds terrifying, I don’t even want to think about how much time I waste!”

I hear it from all types of people. Many of them I’ve worked with in the past and can totally vouch for them not being big slackers. So why all the anxiety? It reminds me of  an often mis-interpreted observation made by computer scientist Calvin Mooers in 1959 that states:

“An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it.”

Mooers’ Law (not to be confused with Moore’s law), tends to get taken out of context quite a bit and used as a general usability axiom. “Software should be as easy to use as possible”. Not a bad point, but that’s not at all what he actually meant by it. His point was that sometimes acquiring new information means that you will have to do something with it. Or the more scary version, you’ll learn something about yourself and won’t know what to do about it. Many times the most comfortable thing is to not have the information in the first place.

It’s a pretty human reaction. I know I’ve fallen into that pattern a LOT throughout my life. It’s the same thing that makes us dread yearly performance reviews at work, or makes us nervous about going to the dentist for a check-up. In most cases, if something is wrong in those situations, things you did (or didn’t do) had something to do with it. And that can be a pretty unpleasant thing to think about. Especially if the consequences are severe.

That said, I think in the vast majority of cases, having information ends up leading to a better outcome than not having it, so that’s a pretty big motivator for me. But I also think that the systems giving you the information should be able to take some of the potential sting out of they knowledge you’re gaining with them by making it easier to respond to new information. That’s one area I think is really exciting for behavioral self-tracking applications and devices. They should not only increase your self-awareness, they should also give you tools to change when you end up getting results that you aren’t happy with.