Minute-Wise, Hour-Foolish

(Photo: Dave Stokes)

In my kitchen cabinet, with the richest aroma, live baggies of ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, curry powder, cinnamon, and cloves. Four feet away are their labeled spice jars. The jars are easier to use but sit mostly empty. Whenever I cook, I need the spice now, before the main food ingredient releases its water and stops the spice from browning.

So I don’t dig out the funnel to transfer the spice into its jars. Nor do I cut up scrap paper and fold it into a funnel. I just fish out each spice from its baggie, and fumble around to reseal the plastic zipper. Each choice is rational, in the short run. In the long run, by not transferring the spices to their jars, I waste time and stress out my cooking.

Having noticed this reasoning anti-pattern, I see it all around. For example, in order of increasing cost:

  1. My cell phone notifies me when I miss a call or get a text message or a voicemail. Until I acknowledge the notification, the phone keeps reminding me, every 10 minutes. The phone’s user interface is awful, and I have not found the magic clicks to turn off this reminder. Thus, I acknowledge each notification because, at that moment, it’s the quickest way to shut the phone up.

  2. My bank’s online system uses a random 12-digit number as the login, and requires a fairly random password. And my browser (Firefox) doesn’t remember the login or password, so I have to look them up and type them in each time I use the system. I could save a lot of time by figuring out why Firefox refuses to remember only this site’s login and password; but that investigation could take who knows how much time and might even require looking through the millions of lines of source code. Or I could write a small script to log me in. That option requires choosing the scripting language, probably looking up some language syntax, and testing and debugging the result. Each time I log in, it’s much faster to just look up and enter the random letters and digits by hand.

  3. Many science and engineering students write their technical reports in Microsoft Word, which besides these problems, is an awful system for scientific typesetting. But it takes time to learn TeX or its cousins LaTeX or ConTeXt, all far superior technical typesetting systems (I typeset my textbooks in ConTeXt). The time will be repaid many times during the many reports a student will write (and by the joy in finding that an old document, such as my PhD thesis (PDF, 1MB), still typesets exactly as it did 15 years ago). However, for the report due tomorrow morning, there’s no time for a proper job.

This anti-pattern could be called minute-wise, hour-foolish. Do you also see it in your own life? In the wider society?


However, it's not worth the time you would "save" if the process of optimizing efficiency takes longer than the cumulative savings. The webcomic xkcd has a couple of comics that deal with this topic:

Is It Worth the Time? http://xkcd.com/1205/
The General Problem http://xkcd.com/974/


for #2, use LastPass. It is way safer than using Firefox or some hand-built script, and won't take you nearly as long to setup/debug.

Julien Couvreur

For TeX, I've had some success with a wysiwyg editor called LyX. That was many years back, I'd assume it got better or that there are even better alternatives by now.


I have to disagree slightly about LaTeX: for me, it's far faster to do anything in LaTeX than in OpenOffice (or LibreOffice, or whatever they're calling it this month), so that on the occasions when someone sends me a Word document (or spreadsheet, etc), I have to fumble around trying to figure out how to bring up OO. And heaven help me if I have to try to edit the document...

Re the spice jars, why the heck are they all the same size? I might use a teaspoon or two of say anise in a year, yet go through a pound or two of cinnamon (among other things, I like to sprinkle it on the bananas I put on my cereal in the winter).

Enter your name...

The point, though, is that it's faster for the students to *use* the already-known Office than to *learn* LaTeX for the first time.

I believe that the solution for the problem that it takes time to learn LaTeX for students would be to offer a class on LaTeX to students in the STEM fields, perhaps just one credit and even with a reputation as an "easy" class that will boost their overall grade point average (the "assignments" could amount to "use LaTeX to format papers you'd have to write anyway"). Then most of the students will learn LaTeX and use it and get the benefits of knowing it for the rest of their lives.


It sounds like there's two separate issues:
1) Taking more time on small tasks because you don't know how long it will take to learn to do it the short way.

2) Taking more time on small tasks because you know how long it takes to implement a shorter way of doing the task, but never find time for the general solution.

It's completely fair to skip spending time on pursuing a general solution when you don't know how long it will take. I don't think that qualifies as minute-wise hour-foolish.


I wanted to recommend a tool for passwords that has the added benefit of vastly increasing your security in addition to eliminating the time sink you describe.

I found the open source password vault KeePass about 10 years ago (I'm not affiliated with them in any way) and it has really made a difference. In addition to storing all my passwords for everything conceivable in one place (including lock combinations, SSNs, etc.) it also has built-in support to automatically type in your IDs and passwords with substantial obfuscation to defeat keyloggers and other malware. It generates passwords with considerable complexity, easily, and even lets you make random user IDs. Making sure (as all security experts recommend) that every password on every site you access is different, is very easy.

The underlying file is heavily encrypted. My wife and I keep ours in DropBox, we have the mobile version on our phones, and these are the real bonuses. She and I can both access online banking, etc., securely and easily, anywhere, and any password changes or additions are immediately available to the other spouse. I gave a USB dongle to my father-in-law with the file, and I keep the master password in a safe deposit box. If we die, tidying up all our online accounts will be a snap.

I highly recommend you go with something like this for #2.



I’ve always called this the Arkansas Traveler Problem. You can’t fix the roof when it’s raining, but there’s no urgency to fix it when it’s not raining.

For my own example: I have a lot of fancy cameras, imaging equipment, image manipulation software, measurement software running on an ancient computer. This slows me down quite a bit. I have a shiny new computer waiting to be put to use which would run everything much faster, but it would take an entire day to load all the software, transfer files, get all the cameras and drivers working correctly, etc. I don’t have time for that when someone needs images or measurements NOW NOW NOW! But It’s hard to justify taking the time to do all that when I don’t have any pressing need to use it.

The solution, it seems (I’m speculating, as I’ve never actually done it) is to keep a list of all these efficiency enhancing tasks, and every month or so, take a day or two to devote to these tasks, even to the point of putting off seemingly more important tasks.


Jesal Mehta

I often find myself doing the reverse anti-pattern (if such a thing exists). I honestly believe that any problem I need to solve, I should solve on a long-term/non-brute-force basis so that it is done and taken care of and will not bug me again. While very beneficial, I often find myself spending inordinate amounts of time on working out a solution that I require to use only once, in which case just brute-forcing it would have been the faster option.
Consider examples. I worked out a mask to rename files based on text in a file, and spent a couple of hours trying to create a filter that would catch special characters, etc, when finally I gave up and just did a find-replace in the text itself.
Or in real life, frequently, I spend several hours on a repair or a DIY which is pointless or eventually not so useful as to be worth the time I spend on it, or just easier to get done professionally or replace.
Do I learn a new thing or two which is possibly useful at a later date ? Yes. Do I spend my time efficiently ? Nope.

PS: ObliviousScout's links to XKCD perfectly describe my problem !
Is It Worth the Time? http://xkcd.com/1205/
The General Problem http://xkcd.com/974/



Otne thing people do which always made me a little confused, is that in the kitchen, they like to have absolutely all their appliances accessible at all times. Even the ones they don't use often. This doesn't make sense, because everytime you clean the kitchen you have to pick these objects up, clean around them, etc. They also take up space that could be used for preparation, which instead you create everyday by either moving somewhere else or by moving the appliance. But people have somehow convinced themselves that having all the appliances accessible saves time. Just put the damn things away! Or better yet...get rid of them. If you're only going to use the mixer once a year, then just get a manual wisk.


The always amazing (and often too smart for me) comic-demi-god XKCD did a breakdown of the trade-off in time in looking for short-cuts to often-performed tasks. Here's the link




On enabling password saving in Firefox: http://www.howtogeek.com/62980/how-to-force-your-browser-to-remember-passwords/

Len jaffe

It's a budgetary thing. I can spend X in the short term for the next 20 terms and have paid 20X. but If I were to pay 3x in the short term, I'd only pay 0.5X in each subsequent term, and will have paid 12.5X over the long term, for a net savings of 7.5X. but If I only ever can budget X units for the task in the short term, I can never spend the 3X to reap the long term benefit.

Minute-wise, hour-foolish only applies if you have the necessary resources to invest for the long term without negatively affecting your short term.


The poor encounter the same problems when attempting to do things like invest or save for retirement. It sounds like this is essentially due to being "time poor".

Will Holland

This pattern can be seen in end of grade testing for k-12 education. The short run choice is to prepare kids for the test which looks good on paper, but problem solving ability is often lost in the process. We turn the students into producers of answers instead of producers of creative solutions.

Enter your name...

Unless, of course, the test is assessing problem-solving skills. A lot of US teachers got tripped up a few years ago when they drilled simple arithmetic and skipped "story problems", and then discovered that the tests were filled with word problems. Standardized tests for doctors and lawyers have tested for problem-solving skills and analysis for decades. There's nothing about giving all students the same test under the same conditions, and grading it the same way, that prevents you from testing for problem-solving skills.


I live in Tokyo. My new microwave oven talks, telling me the food is ready. Fortunately, talking is an option and we quickly disabled that function and turned on the beeps. However, after the first food-is-finished beeps, it beeps again every :30-seconds, to remind us there is food in there. This can't be turned off. The machine thinks the users are idiots and can't remember we cooked something.

The new vacuum cleaner has a rotating brush in the "head" – the part that glides over the floor. The brush is "smart." When the head is not perfectly level on the floor, or when you pick up the head, the brush stops spinning. When you are vacuuming, the entire time the sound of the machine varies between brush-is-spinning sound and brush-doesn't-seem-to-be-working sound. It is irritating and confusing. But, on high-speed, the brush always stays on. So I use high speed all the time. Oh, and the "On" switch label has changed now. The switches used to say "On/Off" (in Japanese). Now switches, such as on my vacuum, are labeled "Eco", in English.

These and other idiotic functions of "technology" have me muttering to myself. "Are Japanese homemakers really sending in requests to the manufacturers for a microwave that talks and won't shut up after the food is done?

But Japanese technology is good for a laugh. Have you noticed that on American TV shows, it's always Japanese products that are ridiculed? (e.g. Japanese toilets.)



Oddly, I was just thinking about this kind of thing earlier today. My work laptop will not print to my home printer. I have no idea why. So when I have to print a work document, which isn't terribly often, I email it to my personal email account and use my personal laptop to print (for sensitive data, I use a jump drive). It takes an extra 15 seconds or so, and I'm irritated every time I have to do this, but I'd rather do that than figure out why in the world I can't print.

Eric M. Jones

There are at least two kinds of annoyances:

1) Little things that are a bit annoying all the time.
2) Things that are terribly annoying every once in a while.

We tend to ignore 1 and get motivated to fix 2, but I'd recommend fixing little annoyances first.