Tuesday, September 24, 2013
[T]he computer science department deliberately used a different programming language in nearly every course. The idea was that programming language syntax is unimportant, and constantly changing syntax would cause students to focus on concepts. This had the opposite of the desired effect. Since students were always changing languages, they were always focused on syntax. It would have made more sense to say that since we don't believe programming language syntax is important, we're going to teach all our lower division courses using the same language. That way the syntax can become second nature and students will focus on the concepts.What this department did is an excellent example of how not to deal with something unimportant, but life abounds with mundane examples. I am astounded by people who, for example, don't seem to keep track of keys very well, and so regularly waste time and energy looking for them that could be put to much better use. As a parent, I have a heightened appreciation for the scraps of time that exist, say, when I'm cooking for the week. (I now either cook two "big things" in parallel or work on some task that lends itself to incremental progress, like folding laundry.) Of course, I wouldn't have even seen the time gaps had I not approached recipes the way I do, which is to spell out every step and do things the same way every time. Mundane details should be thought about periodically and dealt with procedurally and habitually so that they don't cause one to waste time and effort.
It is also interesting what paying some attention to mundane details can buy in terms of evaluating advice. I have often gotten friendly advice on how to save time cooking, only to see immediately that it would actually cost me time, money, or both, compared to what I usually do. Here's an example I'd hoped would work, but which didn't: There are some really good things out there, like frozen pulled pork, that can make good meals quickly -- but they make just one meal, and even the minimal preparation (starting with defrosting) alone takes far longer than just microwaving the complete meals I make. (I also have some quick meals in my repertoire that take about the same amount of time to prepare -- and yield leftovers). I'd had the pulled pork and liked it, so I tried it anyway. It was tasty, but I was right about it not saving any time.
The basic idea is to not waste focus on the unimportant. That is not the same thing as never focusing, however. Learning, say, a computer language or a recipe well saves time for doing more creative or interesting or urgent work. But unless one is open to changing one's routine, one might miss out on further opportunities to save time as they become apparent. Just yesterday, for example, I switched a couple of steps in my laundry routine because of an unusual time constraint, and then realized that I should always think about which order to use because the reverse order will usually save me time.
I dwelt here on nailing down the unimportant things, but this ties directly in with the earlier Cook post on expertise. Experts have the small things nailed down to the point that it's second nature. They both spend less time fixing errors caused by small things and have more time to spend on truly important matters.