Invisible problems – what I learned from sweeping

For months I wondered why the floor was always dusty every time I left the windows open, and really quickly too. Could leave the windows open, go down for a quick meal, and come back up only to have my feet return to a sandy desert.

I suspected it was a combination of a couple of construction sites nearby, as well as the windy conditions.

The wind, I surmised, must have blown the dust in.

One day, I did my usual quick sweep of the floor – the dust had gotten a little unbearable, and I was having visitors in a bit.

On a whim, I decided to do a little inspection of the dust. Funnily enough, it didn’t look like “construction dust” (whatever that looks like): mostly just hair and dust balls, which even with a pretty wild imagination I found it hard to accept were byproducts of construction work.

Something was amiss. My hypothesis, it seemed, had been disproven: my dusty floors were highly unlikely to have been caused by the nearby construction.

But I had visitors now, and I parked my dusty thoughts aside.

Fast forward about a week.

Windows were open, and there was a large gust of wind.

Whoosh! and out comes from under the side table a thumb-sized dust ball, and then another, smaller in size but no less grinding on the cleanliness-obsessed part of my mind.

I armed myself with a broom, lifted the side table and found dust ball 1 and 2’s extended family and their hairy friends, and swept them clean out of my house.

Intrigued, I decided to look for other similar hidden dusty enclaves, and made quick work of them.

For the next week or so, despite open windows and robust winds, I noticed far less dust than before.

Putting one and one together, I realised something: keeping the obvious (i.e. non-hidden) parts of the house clean wasn’t enough. The hidden parts were the weakest link – a small gust of wind could render the cleanest living room floor unclean if the wind catches onto our dusty friends hidden under that side table.

I don’t know about you, but when I realised this I found it as a great metaphor for life and work. There are many things we do that are obvious and great, but we sometimes underappreciate the the value of doing the hidden little things.

  • Like properly commenting your code – because when the wind blows in two months’ time you’re going to forget what the function really does, and you’ll spend days trying to fix it.
  • Like sending that mail (which you keep putting off because it’s easier to be silent) to keep important stakeholders informed and expectations in check – because when the wind blows and one person starts to panic and sends a not-very-nice mail, the rest follow suit and it escalates way beyond what it should have.
  • Like reading up on how to do pivot tables – because when the wind blows and those analysts you keep depending on to do the same analysis you require every single month is unavailable, you’ll start to panic and stress out and undergo far more grief than necessary.

Little things. But when the wind blows, you’ll be glad you did.

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