Psychological Debt

Psychological Debt
Illustration for Atoms vs. Bits by Helen Leon

In coding there's this idea called "technical debt": when you do something the quick and dirty way, you solve your immediate problem but pay more (in terms of time, effort, maintenance) in the long run.

Like money-debt, it's not always wrong to take on technical debt -- taking on debt can enable you to do things you just couldn't have done at all otherwise, and sometimes that makes it worth the cost.[^1] But debt piles up, and many people take on more debt (whether technical or monetary) than is good for them. It's easy to kick things down the road and let your future selves deal with it, at a cost to your overall outcomes.

There isn't a name for it yet but I think an equivalent kind of psychological debt is a really big deal in a lot of lives, including mine. Often you have a choice between, say, "actually sitting down and organising your finances for the long term" vs "just hacking things together so you can get by this month," and the second one is always less-aversive on any given month, even though in the long run it's probably much worse for you.

Or a choice between "tidy my stuff up properly so I can find stuff in general" and "just find my passport that I need for the flight tomorrow in this mess of papers in my drawer."

Or -- what's worse -- a choice between "actually spend time working on the psychological traumas that cause me to avoid stuff I don't want to do even though I'll pay for it in the long run" vs just dealing with, well, pretty much any specific activity or relationship-problem or whatever else it might be in a short-term way, in the moment.

Like monetary debt, sometimes your psychological debt feels sustainable until you get a sudden shock to the system: a new big expense, psychological or monetary, that is impossible to deal with because of your expenditures on existing debt. In those moments, I always promise myself that as soon as I get through this one crisis I'll be sure to pay off all my previous debts, so that in future I have savings instead of debt when I run into future rainy days. But of course, as soon as the immediate danger is over, I tend to fall back into my slowly-struggling-with-debt ways.

I'm often not sure what to say when people ask what I'm up to these days but a pretty good answer is probably "I'm spending most of my time right now trying to pay down my psychological debts." It's crazy how much time I could spend on that without getting to the end of it. And yet it's still so easy to take on more....

[^1]: With both psychological and technical debt, you don't always know which structures you'll actually need in the future, so sometimes it makes sense to do the things the quick/hacky way on the first attempt, because you might end up needing to re-build your software/mind/soul later anyway. Investing in building it "right" the first time can sometimes be premature optimisation.

It's kind of interesting to think how this compares to money. The invest/explore tradeoff is definitely there with money as well – it can totally make sense to buy a cheap/hacky version of some product at first instead of investing in an expensive one, and then buy the expensive one only once you're more-sure about your long term plans. And it might make sense to borrow money in order to pay for that cheap/hacky version, as much as it does to borrow money for the investment version.

I think this gestures vaguely at why "debt" isn't quite the perfect metaphor for either the technical or psychological phenomenon here. What's really doing the work isn't that you borrowed something from the past into the future, it's the way that building hacky/shoddy foundations for something can cause increasingly larger problems down the road when what you're working on is a network/platform. I feel like there's an important insight lurking in the mists here, but I'm not quite able to see or articulate it.

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