The API of You

In December, 100 brave souls joined Uncommon in Common as Founding Members. The experience began with a package delivered to members in nine countries, a rather uncommon start for an online community. Inside was an 8x10 screen print, three postcards to return, a button and sticker, and two original essays: "A Preface for a Community" by Jack Cheng and "The API of You" by Kathy Sierra.

In 1999, Professor Baba Shiv (currently at Stanford) and his co-author Alex Fedorikhin did a simple experiment on 165 grad students.They asked half to memorize a seven-digit number and the other half to memorize a two-digit number. After completing the memorization task, participants were told the experiment was over, and then offered a snack choice of either chocolate cake or a fruit bowl.

The participants who memorized the seven-digit number were 50% more likely than the other group to choose cake over fruit.

What researchers have finally, reluctantly proven is both counter-intuitive and profound: Willpower and cognitive processing are coming from the same pool of resources. Spend hours at work on a tricky design problem? You’re more likely to stop at Burger King on the drive home. Hold back from saying what you really think during one of those long-ass, painful meetings? You’ll struggle with the code you write afterwards.

Since willpower/self-control and cognitive tasks are fueled from the same tank, deplete it over here, pay the price over there. One pool. One finite pool. A single pool of scarce, precious, easily-depleted resources. If you spend the day exercising self-control on angry customer calls, by the time you get home your cognitive resource tank is flashing E. Snapping at the kids or dog over tiny things is, sadly, a statistically-likely reaction. The tank‘s empty. And even if you loved solving tough puzzles at work, the drain on your self-control still happens. One pool. Whether the drain was from something you love or hate doesn’t matter. Cognitive resource tank don’t care.

And this all-one-easily-depleted-pool isn’t just a human thing. An experiment asked one group of dogs to sit, just sit, nothing else, for a few minutes before being released to play with their favorite treat “puzzle” toy (the ones where the dog has to work at getting the treats out of it). The other group of dogs were allowed to just hang out in their crates before getting the treat puzzle.

You know where this goes: the dogs that had to sit — exercising self-control — gave up on the puzzle far earlier than the dogs that were just chilling in their crates.The dogs that weren’t burning cognitive resources being obedient had more determination and mental/ emotional energy for solving the puzzle.Think about that next time you ask Sparky to be patient, stay, or not jump. His cognitive resources are easily-depleted too.

Now think about the implications in your work...

If you’re a developer, for example, and your UI is packed with choices — even simple ones — you’re drawing down my resources. Resources better spent using your app for what I really want to do. If your app is confusing, or I can’t figure out what to put in the HELP search box, or I struggle to finally get the tech support email, you’re drawing down my scarce, precious, cognitive resources. And when I back away from the screen and walk to the kitchen...

Your app makes me fat.

If our work drains a user’s cognitive resources, what does he lose? What else could he have done with those scarce, precious, easily-depleted resources? Maybe he’s trying to stick with that diet. Or play guitar. Or focus on a loved one. Or study that foreign language he’s wanted to learn forever (but was too mentally fried during off hours). If our work consumes someone’s cognitive resources, they can’t use those resources for other things that truly, deeply matter.

This doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad for our work to burn a user’s cognitive resources. Our app might well be the place he wants to spend them. But a user’s engagement with our work always comes at a precious cost. Before introducing a new feature or social media campaign, we can ask “is this a Fruit-choice feature or a Cake-choice feature?” We can reduce the features that drive our users to choose cake over fruit.

But the crucial cognitive resources to protect are our own. As the flight attendants say,“Put on your own oxygen mask first.” If our resource tank is drained, we’ve little chance of helping others conserve theirs.

Which brings us to Uncommon.

Take a deep breath, look around, and look for the cognitive leaks in your day. What choices are you asked to make? What’s consuming your attention, focus, self-control? Remember, too, that marketers understand this research better than anyone. They helped fund it. The typical job of marketing is to engage us, because every moment of engagement is draining our pool, weakening both our willpower and our ability to make rational choices.

Every website, app, brand, and ad is fighting for our attention. And they’ll do just about anything to get and keep it. In a world where “he who drains the cognitive resources of others wins”, we must defend our scarce cognitive resources. And we must help teach those we care about how to defend theirs. So far, the science suggests that to defend your resources really means avoid drains. Limit exposure. They know that you cannot grit your teeth and steel yourself against temptations; brains don’t work that way. And it’s happening at a level of the brain you can’t access.The world is out there making calls to the API of you, and you lack the Admin rights to block those calls. But you can choose to reduce exposure.

Of course what gets drained can be replenished.; the two best tank-fillers are great sleep and slow carbs. (Fast carbs work, but at a steep price. ) But even the best refill strategy won’t help without relentless focus on reducing and closing leaks.

Ask yourself what might change if you view your world through a cognitive- resource perspective? If you practiced cognitive-resource-driven design in both your work and your own life? That you are reading this at all means you already are. Something drew you to Uncommon, and for me, it is that Uncommon hints at a life where we have a greater say in how we spend our cognitive resources. And as I work to have a greater voice in how my own scarce, precious resources are used, thanks to Uncommon I know that I won’t be alone on this journey.

Kathy Sierra