Have you done the triangular ironing yet?

You can have it fast, good, or cheap. Pick two.

Oliver Burkeman’s latest This Column Will Change Your Life piece for the Guardian Weekend magazine is about this formula, or “the iron triangle” as it is sometimes called. Oliver Burkeman in Guardian Weekend: Constraints Can Be Liberating. It encapsulates neatly the problem with imagining you can have it all, in business or in personal life.

The iron triangle, as seen by  Minnesota Fats
The iron triangle, as seen by Minnesota Fats

Often cited in the world of IT, Burkeman points out that variations on the iron triangle can be applied in many other walks of life. My favourite is entrepreneur Ben Casnocha’s iron triangle of relationships, that goes: a romantic partner can be hot, smart and/or emotionally stable – pick two.

Burkeman’s triangle of work/life balance is telling too: 

… it’s tempting to imagine that, somehow, both spouses in a household could find a way to work full time, with each spending many hours with the kids and getting all the housework done. But in reality, if you can’t pay someone else to do the cleaning, maybe you’ll have to settle for living in a less-than-spotless house.

You can have a baby in one arm, a full bowl of cereal or a laptop. Choose two. Then lose the tie.
You can have a baby in one arm, a full bowl of cereal or a laptop. Choose two. Then lose the tie and the orange juice.

As someone who prioritises kids and work above household chores, I would agree with Burkeman here, but the fact we’re both men may not be a coincidence. I suspect my other half would argue this is a false choice – you actually should be able to keep a house running while working and being a half-decent parent. So the triangles you set up can also say a lot about which aspects of life you want to duck. (Shuffles uncomfortably in chair).

But Burkeman’s point is a good one: in trying to dodge inevitable downsides, one only fools oneself. The “fast/good/cheap” triangle resonates with me: I’ve come across it so much in research briefs over the years. Increasingly, clients want things fast and cheap. And I think sometimes they take the quality side as a given. And as a supplier, you live by the quality of what you deliver, so clients aren’t mistaken in assuming it will be there.  But when research clients ask for super-quick turnaround, which is increasingly common, they sometimes also expect this can be done in a high quality way for your normal price (or even on the cheap, as a “loss leader”). This isn’t workable.

On the rare occasions that the three sides of the triangle do sometimes get joined up – on a one-off project basis – it is not a sustainable way of working. But it gives the illusion to some clients that it can be done, that somehow the usual laws of business physics do not apply. This is by no means all clients and nor is this limited to research buyers, but it has a big enough effect on the industry that it can seriously damage the quality of working life at many research agencies. They find their people working longer and more intensely, under higher expectations and for, relatively speaking, less money per hour. Cue demotivation, fatigue, loss of team members for greener pastures or other careers.

You can do a few things well, or lots of things not so well. Burkeman urges us to just be straight with ourselves about what is most important to us and go for it
You can do a few things well, or lots of things not so well. Burkeman urges us to be straight with ourselves about what is most important

Burkeman’s piece isn’t a counsel of despair though. His point is that by getting real and  recognising the need to make choices, we can be happier and more effective in our lives. Running around in self-defeating circles (or triangles) seeking to “have it all” – or its flipside, inaction borne of indecision over “impossible” trade-offs – only happen when we don’t bite the bullet and make clear choices. Accepting you’ll have to let some of your wants go, because you value other things more, is actually positive and liberating. It is deciding what you want in life and giving yourself a decent chance of attaining it. Burkeman quotes Sheldon Kopp’s If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him! to sum up the liberating power of acknowledging your constraints:

You are free to do whatever you like. You need only face the consequences.

Conan O'Brien has a vision
Conan O’Brien has a vision

A footnote: Oliver Burkeman wrote one of my favourite books of recent years, The Antidote (subtitled “Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”). A lot of wisdom and insight crammed into a very readable adventure through Stoicism, Buddhist retreats and wizard-like gurus who live in Watford. The main thrust is that an ability to embrace negative thinking may actually be a key to developing a robustly positive outlook, counter-intuitive as this may sound to some. As someone who always found listening to supposedly “miserable” bands like The Smiths uplifting – and who finds nothing more depressing than organised fun – Burkeman’s insight is spot on for me.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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