On The Unreasonable Effectiveness Of Messaging Apps In Getting Me To Do Things

On The Unreasonable Effectiveness Of Messaging Apps In Getting Me To Do Things
Illustration for Atoms vs. Bits by Helen Leon

One of my recent discoveries is that messaging apps can help me work better on various tasks that have nothing innately to do with messaging. For example, I’ve started using Whatsapp as my to-do list app, with more success than when I was using actual to-do list software that (in other senses) was much better designed for that goal.

I won’t insult your intelligence by googling and then citing various basically irrelevant neuroscience studies, but I’m happy to insult your patience by speculating that the reason this messaging technique works is by somehow hacking your “social brain” -- in different ways, various kinds of decision-making and information-retention seem to work better when I’m communicating with another human rather than just putting words on a digital page.

Here are some examples of Messaging For Everything:

ToDo Lists

I recently signed up for the amusingly titled bossasaservice.life/. Every evening, I text my “boss” (I’m not sure this is the right understanding of the psychology here, but it’s what they’re calling it) about the things I’m planning to do tomorrow, and then throughout the day I reply in the thread as I work my way through my tasks. (It goes without saying that this blogpost is being boss-ed in just this way).

WhatsApp’s to-do list functionality is very janky, in that it doesn’t exist, and sending messages to someone saying “I will do X, Y and Z today” and then replying to those messages yourself saying “I have now done X today” is a weird and inefficient way to keep track of your activities. However, I’m finding it works much better than using actual to-do list software ever has, and the reason seems to be entirely that I’m communicating with another human about what I’m trying to do.

I think BaaS is especially interesting because the person I’m communicating with is a total stranger who (frankly) has no power over me -- they don’t even really have the power to guilt or shame or embarrass me, frankly, let alone fire me.

BaaS insists that if I fail to complete a promised action they “will take [me] to task” for it, and “not stop bugging [me] till it's resolved.” I have not yet had this experience with them, and frankly I’m not sure I understand how it would work. But it also seems unnecessary, to me -- I think the mere act of communicating my intentions to another human, and knowing that another human will know if I miss my targets, has some kind of magical effect on my follow-through.

Drafting And Note-Taking

Recently, instead of writing my ideas for blogposts as notes-to-self, I’ve started messaging them into a two-person WhatsApp group I made with a friend. (We made a separate group from our regular conversations to avoid these messages getting mixed up and lost among the other dumb ideas in our regular WhatsApp correspondence).

While my friend sometimes responds to the ideas, mostly the “group” just functions as a series of notes-to-self…. but notes-to-self which I know another human being will see and read.

My best guess for why this works is that it forces me to write my notes-to-self in a form that’s at least vaguely legible enough for another human to comprehend. I can’t just write “messaging blogpost”, I have to write “blogpost about using messaging apps to do various non-messaging tasks”. And since me-later is also effectively another human who doesn’t remember what me-now wanted to say, the outcome is a much improved ability to follow-through on planned posts.

A friend warns about the possible downsides of this technique, namely:

  • If you get the idea out of your head, there's no more urgent need to express it
  • If you express a weak version of your idea, and people respond accordingly, you might get discouraged by the weak response
  • If you don’t take the time to sit down and develop the idea further, or mull it over on walks, or start writing a draft and see what flows out of it, you won’t really write
  • If you get a bunch of feedback too quickly it might complicate things (even though it might help you kill a bad idea)
  • If you get the social reward of having a good idea from a small group of friends, without taking the time to share it publicly, you won’t get the full rewards of writing publicly

These all strike me as very valid risks to watch out for, but more applicable to jotting your ideas in some kind of group-chat where they might get skipped over (or, equally, over-applauded), versus a dedicated Whatsapp thread devoted entirely to jotting down ideas for later.


This leads me to another hypothetical use of messaging apps, which I at present have no use for myself, but which feels like it could be very effective: instead of studying by taking notes to yourself, you could potentially study by messaging someone everything you’re learning and explaining the thing to them.

It really does seem true that sometimes the best way to know if you understood something is to explain it to another person. Finding yourself unable to explain something forces you to go away and read up on it more; at the same time, explaining a concept repeatedly to other people itself engenders a very rich and layered understanding.

Like the Boss as a Service service, I feel that someone should set up a service where students can text a willing recipient and explain the thing they’re learning.

Interestingly, this might be easier to implement to the student’s satisfaction than a tutoring service -- here all the “tutor” has to do is listen and receive information. It might still be helpful for the text-recipient to understand the topic in general, and therefore ask interesting questions in response to the material, but they wouldn’t have to know any part of the topic in especially much detail.

Rubber Duck Debugging

I’ll just let Wikipedia explain it:

Many programmers have had the experience of explaining a problem to someone else, possibly even to someone who knows nothing about programming, and then hitting upon the solution in the process of explaining the problem. In describing what the code is supposed to do and observing what it actually does, any incongruity between these two becomes apparent. By using an inanimate object, the programmer can try to accomplish this without having to interrupt anyone else.

I obviously applaud the desire not to interrupt other people, but I’m not sure a rubber duck is quite as good as an actual human for this. Luckily the hypothetical study-things-by-explaining-them service described above can easily expand itself to offer rubber ducking as well.

In conclusion

You could say that all of the above is kind of sad, that it’s a desperate response to social atomisation. Sure! It also works, though.

If you’ve tried (ab)using messaging apps for other non-messaging functions I’d be happy to hear about it.

With thanks but no blame to Applied Divinity and Stephen Malina

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