Lost in Space: My Brain, Doing

Do this exercise every day.
On Mondays & Thursdays, do these exercises.
On Tuesdays & Fridays, do these exercises.
On Wednesdays & Saturdays, do these exercises.

Doesn’t seem too complicated, does it?  Yet how impossible it proved to mentally add the “every day” exercise to the applicable daily list from the trainer.  I’d stagger down to the basement, peer enthusiastically at the day’s delights, and launch.  That exercise sitting quietly at the top of the page, unattached to any list, never got done.

I understood how to do the exercise; I even understood the rationale for doing it every day.  In the immortal words of Alfred P. Doolittle, I was willing to do it, I was wanting to do it, I was waiting to do it.  Yet day after day, I failed to do it.  

After a few weeks of hoping my brain would store this daily exercise in the same spot as flossing, I gave up and asked the trainer for a soft copy of her instructions. A few minutes later, each day’s list now included that exercise and, lo, it got done.  Day after day.

Fast forward a few months: I am knitting a new and complex-for-me project.  Reading the pattern write-up, I note that one of the stitches requires a non-standard execution.  It’s not otherwise marked in the pattern as being different: As I work my way through 10 pages of row-by-row instructions, I just have to remember to make that change to one stitch on 1/3 of the rows of one of the two parts.

I understand how to do the stitch; I even understand the rationale for doing it.  Yet row after row where it’s required, I fail to do it. After a few days of hoping my brain will find a spot useful for timely and reliable retrieval, I give up and rewrite the pattern instructions to highlight that pesky stitch.  And, lo, it gets done.  Row after required row.

As an editor, I understand how to lay out complex information for quick uptake by a reader:

  • Pulling out overarching principles or activities to highlight them, as with that daily exercise
  • Flagging non-standard executions of activities to explain them, as with that one stitch

When the objective is “understanding,” these tactics keep the detail from swamping the structure. Indeed, they can be essential for clarifying the structure.

But as a user of instructions, I require a different communication approach.  Having read the overview, the explanation, I understand just fine; what I need now is step-by-step instructions that don’t require me to refer to something else or to remember an occasional exception.  If that need interferes with an elegant, minimalist layout of the content, tough.  I mean, that’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

And this reminds me of something from the days of my youth, about there often being two forms of a mathematical formula:

  • One that’s good for showing the underlying logic, the actual mathematical concept — you know, for understanding — but that’s really really really hard to calculate from
  • One that’s good for calculating the desired number — you know, for doing — but that is completely obscure as to why it works

How much easier it would be if I always knew what I was looking for — conceptual understanding or foolproof step-by-step guidance — and if the supplier of the information knew that, too.




  1. Tom Watson

    I’m currently reading a book entitled “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

    There’s a cycle: Cue – Routine – Reward.

    So which do you have to change to get the result you want? The routine, I guess.

  2. And then there are instructions for Harper’s Magazine PUZZLES:

    This month…

    The pattern of heavy bars in this puzzle has four-way symmetry — that is, it remains the same no matter which side is up. Therefore, the clues have been grouped into foursomes, in which each group comprises the four entries sharing symmetrical placement. But within each foursome, the clues are listed in random order; the solver must place them correctly in the diagram. Answers include four proper nouns and one foreign word. The entry at 13D is uncommon. As always, mental repunctuations of a clue is the key to its solution. AAAARRG!!!!!!

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