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Last active Apr 1, 2016

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BLOGPOST Just Say "No" to "Just

Recently I've been trying to modify the way that I use the word "just" when I'm at work. Merriam Webster offers a few definitions of the word; the one I'm interested in is the one that means "only", "simply", and to a lesser extent "exactly". I've been working on a new project that involves integrating a number of systems, and as I began rolling pieces out I received a lot a questions in the form of "Couldn't you just ...?" These annoyed me at first, but as I thought about it I realized I often asked questions in the same way, so I began to examine the word and the way I use it.

Minimizing My Work

My team prides itself on being able to quickly solve problems. This is great, and I think we do a good job of balancing future needs with immediate needs. But I sometimes fall into the trap of trying to present work estimates that gloss over problems. Starting a sentence with, "I'll just ..." is an indication that I'm doing this. It usually means that I haven't thought hard enough about the problem. I need to take time to understand the proposed change. A similar situation occurs when someone asks about ongoing work and I start my response with, "I just need to ..." Again, this is an indication that I ought to spend more time thinking about the problem. The solution in both cases, for me, has been to stop myself and say, "Here is the current situation, here is the solution I'm going to pursue, and here are a few possible consequences. But there are still unknowns that I need to research, and probably even some issues that I'm not even aware of yet."

Once I've finished a task, I don't have an objection to using "just" to describe the solution. The solution is usually interesting enough that I want to talk about it in detail to anybody who will listen. If I'm using "just" to describe what I've done then there's a chance that I'm getting bored.

Minimizing The Work Of Others

Sometimes a teammate will ask a question about a system that I'm familiar with, and my first response will be to say, "You just need to ..."

Firstly, this kind of answer implies that the solution is simple to understand. I work with smart people, and if the solution was simple then I'm assuming they would have figured it out and wouldn't be asking me about it. For example, some problems can be solved by modifying a string constant, but there's a pretty good chance that I've built up a wealth of information about this domain that allows me to know that this particular problem can be solved by changing that particular constant. There's nothing simple about getting to that point. If they're asking the question, the best thing to do is walk them down the path to understanding the solution.

Secondly, as I mentioned before, the word "just" is a sign that I may not have thought through all of the implications of the answer. Modifying a method, changing an interface, or removing a behavior can have consequences that extend farther than I might initially imagine. Again, this is a good opportunity to stop and think.

Finally, using "just" in this context indicates that I think, on some level, that the person asking the question should have been able to figure this out themselves. And as I said earlier, I work with smart people, so I have to assume that they've made a good faith effort to solve the problem themselves and have reached an impasse. I'd rather encourage people to ask questions at this point than make them believe that they should spend all day toiling alone on the wrong path.

Implying That I Understand The Situation Without Committing

This brings me back to the form of question that started this whole thing: "Couldn't you just ..." As I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that I ask this type of question when I believe that I know a better solution to a problem, but I'm not confident enough to propose it as an improvement. It's fence sitting, plain and simple. If I know that I have a better way of doing things, I should say, "You can do X instead of what you're doing," but I'd better be damned sure that I'm right, and I'd better phrase it in a way that is constructive rather than accusatory. If I'm unsure about my proposed solution, I should present it by asking something like, "Would X be another way of solving this problem?"

In most cases, if I'm talking to someone who has solved a problem, they know more about the domain than I do. Asking a question that implies the opposite is insulting. This is not to say that there's anything wrong with asking a question, or discussing other possible solutions. However, it needs to be done in a way that respectfully acknowledges that the current solution is based on knowledge and experience that I lack.

Starting With Me

Thinking about this in terms of my own behavior has made me more patient when other people use the word "just", because I do it too, and I understand that it isn't being done to intentionally diminish my work. But it also made me realize that it's important to change my own behavior. I believe that the use of language influences the way we see the world, and using "just" in the ways I've described contributes to a perspective that isn't helpful to me or the team I work with. So I've started intentionally correcting myself when I say "just". I stop, point out the error, and then rephrase what I said without using "just". It helps me to become more aware of what I am saying, and hopefully it doesn't annoy my teammates too much.

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