Friday, March 12, 2010

Changing habits: How do I know what I don't know?

Cognitive error: defining the possible. Accepting the rules. Failing to question. how many things in my life are like my shoelaces? How can I uncover them?

It is costly to change habits. It requires cognitive work, the transition time has an efficiency cost, and there's a risk the final result will be a regression. In the past I changed technology habits too quickly, and suffered through abandoned solutions.

On the other hand, there's my shoelace tying. For forty years I unwittingly tied granny knots. Then I read a NYT essay on shoelace tying, rear view mirrors, and habits. It wasn't hard to change my shoe lace tying, I had only to reverse the sequence of the first knot to produce reliable square knots. From the same article I've changed how I set my rear view mirrors (I think I had changed back in the 90s however, and then forgot and went back to old habits!).

Similarly I've changed how I tie up cords and cables, looping them into a figure-eight on my fingers. That took a while to learn, but now it's very fast and it's made my life much neater.

I used to open bananas from the top. An article suggested that the bottom worked better (allegedly chimps do it that way). I agree.

In each case it never occurred that there was a better way to do things. That's not true in the computing world. There's a geek fetish for finding ways to work more effectively on a computer - and I frequently find and communicate lessons learned there. My Voice post is a recent example. In theory sites like Lifehacker and 42 folders should be a source of these kinds of ideas, but they have too much noise to be useful (no noise, no traffic - tyranny of the market).

So how can I know what I don't know? How can I identify my longstanding assumptions that are flat out wrong -- like the assumption that all shoe laces came loose? How do I test my reasoning and look for unquestioned habits and assumptions?

What else am I missing?

Update: I asked Google: "How do I spot my own blind spots?" and got:
I also did restore my LifeHacker feed, even though the noise level is too high.


Paul said...

Of course you don’t know what you don’t know. The mark of intelligence is to realise that there is an optimal way of doing everything and to constantly strive to achieve that.
It is palpable that one can tie one’s shoelaces in different ways. If there were only two ways of doing this we could perhaps justify one method being better than another. But when you examine the detail there are so many variables to consider – does the wearer lace their shoes in a standard manner; is the lace leather or fabric; does the wearer have two functioning hands and arms; are the aglets in good condition; how long are the laces; etc. Pretty soon you have so many variables that no two incidences of lacing will ever be the same. And so we should approach each and every task, every action, with the desire to do it as best we can.
I read once that whenever one particular company had a complicated task to accomplish they would give the task to the laziest person in the company as they would find the easiest and most efficient way to achieve the task. [Whether that is the best approach or not is, I accept, a separate debate.]
And, of course, don’t believe everything you’re told. I drive a lot of cars and so was thrilled when I was told that if you look at the fuel pump symbol on the dashboard the side of the pump with the fuel line on it represented which side of the car had the fuel filler cap on it. Because unless you drive a big Jaguar which has fillers on both sides you (well, me) always managed to park the car on the wrong side of the island for the filler cap. What a great idea! And how simple to give the driver a really useful piece of information. But it’s not true – my Toyota has the diagram on the right hand side and the filler cap on the left. It works for my other cars though...
Anyway, I wear slip-ons and use a knife to open a banana.

JGF said...

Thanks Paul!