Yesterday I finally joined the mainstream. According to the National Eye Institute, about 75% of all Americans use some form of vision correction — eyeglasses or contact lenses — and now I am one of them. My wife, who has worn glasses since she was a child, is clearly amused by my naive fascination with how my new reading glasses work. But I think it is entirely justifiable, not just because of the novelty of the new equipment, but also because of the surprising strength of their effects.
When I first put them on to use them — to read and edit a student’s cover letter — I was shocked by the new clarity. I had visited the optometrist because I had realized that I was having difficulty reading small text on paper and on my iPhone, and I think I had been anticipating only a fix of that specific problem. I did not recognize any other problems with my vision.
The new spectacles, though, did not selectively adjust only the small print. Everything on the page was suddenly sharp and well-defined. Not only that, but both of my eyes now saw the same clear image, where before the vision in my right eye was markedly fuzzier than the vision in my left. And the muscles around my eyes quickly felt an unaccustomed ease and weightlessness as I grew used to the fact that I no longer had to squint to help myself focus.
The real surprise was not the return to optimal vision, but the realization of how far I had drifted away from it without noticing. I was aware of a problem, but not of its magnitude, and, underestimating its significance, I put off finding a solution.
How often does this happen in our jobs and our daily lives? How often do we put up with inefficient equipment (a computer, say, or a car) because at least it gets the job done? How often do we complain about the inconveniences of our weekly schedules, but do nothing to change them because at least we are treading water and not drowning?
These kinds of situations are predictable, perhaps even natural, because they arise from two ordinary phenomena. One is sometimes called “l’effet Tetris”. This translates in English to “the Tetris effect”, but that English phrase usually refers to the tendency of habitual players of the classic video game to visualize falling colored blocks even in the real world when they are not playing. L’effet Tetris refers to a different aspect of the fast-paced, geometrically puzzling game: the reality that if you take too much time always trying to determine the best placement of the falling blocks, you will lose more quickly than if you simply pick one “good-enough” placement that works, then move rapidly on to the next block. In real life, it means that we often don’t have the time to find the best solution to any particular problem, and then it is better to pick one that works okay for the moment.
Of course, something that merely works okay for the moment is bound to have flaws in the longer run. This is where the second phenomenon — “habituation” — plays a part. Habituation is simply the natural tendency to block out a stimulus that we receive repeatedly, like a background noise.
You can imagine how l’effet Tetris and habituation can work together to cause us to drift into situations we would never have chosen to leap directly into. A crisis or a new challenge arises, and we find a solution that works for the moment, then get used to its inconvenient side effects. When the next challenge comes up, we work out a solution that accepts the previous inconveniences as the status quo, and adds new inconveniences that, by themselves, are better than reaching no solution at all. In the same way that I dealt stepwise with my deteriorating vision — first looking only through my stronger left eye, then squinting, then holding documents out at greater distances — so that I wasn’t conscious of the growing magnitude of my presbyopia, so too can we take steps at work to reach short-term solutions that may blind us to real extent of the underlying problem.
So the next time you encounter some inconvenience or inefficiency in the office, instead of merely considering it in isolation, ask yourself whether you can view it as part of a larger constellation of similar negatives, and whether you can envision a more encompassing solution. After all, there is no rule that says that only hindsight can be 20/20.