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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?