The pleasure of single-tasking

_Over Christmas, I spent six and a half hours driving from York to
Pembrokeshire, to stay with Clare’s parents. What should have been a
hellish drive was significantly more pleasant than expected. I’m going
to talk about why, and make a wider point about life hacks._

Long-distance driving, especially somewhere you’ve never been before,
can often be nasty. You have to juggle several things at once —
planning the route, controlling the car, talking to your passengers,
etc — and you have time pressure, too. For me, this means stress.

Two things, I think, made the journey much more pleasant;

1. I drove an automatic,
2. I used GPS to navigate.

This offloaded several tasks from my brain; I no longer had to plan a
route; everything was handed to me in simple-to-follow
left/right/straight on choices, and if I made a mistake (which I did a
couple of times) the GPS just routed round it, giving me a new route
which got me there.

The automatic gearbox also made things easier. That part of my brain
that would normally be making sure I was in the right gear was no
longer occupied.

Life was simpler, so life was sweeter.

Joel, of the [‘Joel on Software’][jos] site, uses the analogy of
automatic transmissions when he talks about some [benefits for
programmers][bfp] (scroll to ‘Automatic Transmission Wins
the Day’). The wider point really is that freeing up your mind from
one type of detail is like juggling with one fewer ball; it’s much,
much easier.

[jos]: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/
[bfp]: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/APIWar.html

So this is my wider point; anything fully automatic (I mean really and
truly don’t-make-me-think automatic) makes your life less stressful.

The flipside, of course, is control. You always sacrifice a little
control to the system. You lose precise throttle control in an
automatic car. You lose control of exactly what stocks you own if you
buy an index-tracker ISA.

I think this scares people, but really shouldn’t — this level of
detail will probably tire you, stress you, and give very little
benefit over the automatic method.

I’ll finish with a fantastic quote from [Alfred North Whitehead][anw],
co- author of the [Principia Mathematica][pm];

[anw]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_North_Whitehead
[pm]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principia_Mathematica

> It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy books and
> by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should
> cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise
> opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of
> important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.
> Operations of thought are like calvary charges in a battle–they are
> strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only
> be made at decisive moments.

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