Whether we are looking at a baseline or a habit, the first question we need to ask is “why?”
“Why” gives us a sense of the intended purpose. “Why” tells us more than just what the process is supposed to produce. The “why’s” of baselines and habits overlap, or at least they are supposed to.
When we talk about baselines, we’re usually talking about systems. When we talk about habits, we’re usually talking about people. When Word AutoSaves my file, that’s a baseline/system -thing. When I neurotically click ctrl+s, that’s part a habit/people -thing.
Truth (with a capital T): Systems are supposed to support people, and not the other way around.
People crave purpose, so the systems that people either design or select should carry that meaning forward. The frustration of losing an un-saved Word document is saved by an otherwise manual habit turned into a thoughtless-yet-thoughtful system.
“Why” addresses the purpose of the person behind the system’s design or selection.
Too often we’re asked to just “check this box” or “complete this task” without a connection to “why.” Too often “someone” is putting the system before a person. Too often someone is telling us to carry a boat across a river instead of realizing that we should use the boat to cross the river. Welcome to the real world.
Arthur Brooks explained to Sonal Chokshi (on the a16z podcast episode, “On Morals and Meaning in Products, Business, and Life”) that we should all channel our inner moral theologian when we create something. All systems should be designed to produce a moral benefit. We may still have to do tasks that feel morally bankrupt (DMV line, I see you), but the system itself (licensing drivers) does have a “why.” Even the DMV might have some moral ground beneath it.
When we question systems and baselines, we are actually trying to shed light on the habits and one-off tasks that ultimately impact people’s lives. Making these distinctions first can help us target our efforts.