October 6, 2022

Async Maximalism

Yesterday an acquaintance asked me to get on a call with them. You see, we are working on the same project, albeit in different capacities.

I politely declined.

He then called me an "async maximalist".

I laughed.

We have a shared sense of humor and often sling it back and forth throughout the project. It's all good fun, and everyone knows it.

This got me thinking... I suppose I am an async maximalist.

For those not familiar, the label comes from the bitcoin space where hardcore bitcoin proponents are labeled as "bitcoin maximalists".

"async" refers to the term asynchronous - doings something out of synchronization - basically meaning not at the same time. Think people who work different time zones, at different times from everyone else.

The thing is, I wasn't always an async maximalist - far from it. Prior to shifting my focus to design, I offered consulting services which often had me on the phone every day. I have no problems speaking to people on the phone.

But, there is something I have a problem with. And that's people wasting my time.

As I aged, I slowly became aware of the massive amounts of time people waste in their life.

Time wasted on...

  • Worrying about how you look
  • Worrying about what people think of you
  • Going to places you don't want to go
  • Seeing people you don't want to see
  • Commuting
  • Having meetings for the sake of feeling like progress is being made
  • "Managers" "managing".
  • and of course.. phone calls.

People causally ask others to do something for them - asking for their time.

Yet, time is the most valuable thing that exists. Well, that's up for debate if time is real, but let's suppose it is because we experience it.

It's as if people come up to you and ask for the most valuable resource in your life without thinking twice about what it actually costs.

I find this to be borderline rude. I get that people are not thinking about time as the most valuable resource, but I am. To ask for my time is to ask for life itself. I only have so much of it.

I guard my time carefully. Perhaps not carefully enough since I'm typing this right now.

When you call someone rich or wealthy, for most people the immediate thought is that of their monetary value - their assets.

When I hear wealthy, I wonder how much time this person has on their hands. What have they done in their life to free up their most precious resource? Did they generate an income stream that keeps on giving? Did they outsource labor that they would otherwise have to perform on their own? Did they figure out a way to live a worry-free life?

To me, time is the ultimate measure of success. More precisely, time you can spend to do things you truly love.

Everything we do in life amounts to taking more time from us. Some people see the monetary wealthy as their idols, not realizing that the wealth often comes at a great cost of time.

So, when people ask me for my time, I don't make a light decision to agree. I consider what else I can do with my time. More often than not there is something else worth more to me than the thing being asked.

This brings me back to async work.

Knowledge workers already have all the tools available to them to work async:

  • Always-on chat platforms with conversation history.
  • async, shared design, development and other tools.
  • Good internet connections
  • Ability to work from just about anywhere in the world
  • Cultures that increasingly valuing a "work-life balance"

There is hardly a need for any face-to-face communication other than perhaps to establish rapport with your peers.

Yet, people who are not practiced at using time wisely can be hellbent on wasting yours.

I have very little respect for such people. For they are taking my life without permission.

Not being able to do work async is a sign of personal and / or professional failure. An inability to learn, adapt, thrive under async conditions.

When someone says "can we just jump on a call, it would be so much easier to explain" - all I hear is "I don't know how to communicate effectively via other available means such as async video or chat".

When I've brought this up on Twitter, people get enraged. This is because many people still waste their time doing things that make them feel as though they are valuable, or give sense of making progress. They will come up with all sorts of excuses and scenarios where async doesn't work.

The excuses are lies. Lies to themselves. Lies to others. They are a reflection of personal shortcomings. I'm not saying you absolutely have to embrace async work - you do you, but don't discount it on the premise of "it's easier to do it the other way".

Async, like anything, takes practices. Here are some tips that have helped me make the best of async work:

  • Have low time preferences. Don't expect things to get done fast, or right away , just in time for some deadline. Chances are your deadline is not real in the first place.
  • Always assume people are spending their precious time with family, and don't expect an immediate response. I know this is not true because nobody is always busy with family (unless you have 6 kids or something). But, it does help imagine why someone is not responding to your immediate message. People are busy living their lives and the work you and they perform is not their top priority (unless they make it so).
  • Use the available tools for async communication - leave comments in documents. Record async video recaps.
  • Use tools like Loom to recap your message so that others can respond to particular parts of your video in the comments. This way it's easier to know what they are referencing instead of seeing the comments at the end of the video.
  • Over-communicate. In the world of async work, it is best to over-communicate than to leave gaps - making people wonder what you really meant to say.
  • Organize ahead of time and communicate only after you've organized your thoughts. This helps cut down time spent on rambling (Video, audio or chat). Imagine listening to a 20 minute video that could actually just be a 3 min recap if the person recording it took some time to organize their thoughts.
  • Place your asks first. Don't write out huge messages or record 20 min videos only to ask something at the end. State your questions or requests at the beginning of all communication.
  • Practice writing. Writing enables clear communication. Only when you write often can you actually say less.
  • Use quotes to respond to specific things. Don't just write a wall of text expecting people to find an answer to their questions.
  • Be meticulous in responding to all questions being asked. If the message contains 3 questions, respond to all 3.
  • Pay close attention to tone. The written word carries much meaning. How something is said can say more about their current state than what is being said.
  • Be aware of people's time zones. If you write a bunch of messages and see that the person is not responding, you might get a frustrated, not realizing it's the middle of the night for them. Slack helps with time zones.
  • Be honest and straightforward. Beating around the bush only results in more wasted time. Be direct in your meaning and communicate your most honest assessment - just do so in a respectful, nonjudgmental manner that considers that person's feelings. It helps if you know that person's boundaries in terms of how well they manage critique.
  • Use emojis to lighten the mood. Some direct styles of communication can seem aggressive, even if the person is not really being aggressive. Emojis help lighten the mood and put a human touch on things.
  • Use gifs. Oh, you're an adult? So what? Use gifs to make for a more human communication. It's a work environment? Oh well. People are people no matter what mode they pretend to be in.
  • Use appropriate humor when it works. Don't overdo it. Some people are terrible at humor and should avoid it. Only joke around if it's appropriate to do so, you're confident it won't backfire, and you have a history of making people laugh. Even then, don't overdo it.
  • I don't have experience with this personally, but I hear having occasional get-together is great for team-building and general bonding. Humans after all are drawn to other humans so it's natural to want to get to know people you work with. Having in-person meetings from time to time (for people in the vicinity) is a great way to build relationships. Casual video chats are another - without discussing any work topics. Just be aware that not everyone can make those calls and don't expect them to, or feel offended if they don't.

That's really all I can think of for now.

There are times when people do not wish to work async, and that's ok. Try to honor their wishes and make yourself available (within reason).

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