Postcard from the manual world


One gear. One brake. Manual.
One gear. One brake. Manual.

We live in an automatic world. ATMs are last-gen: now I can deposit checks with photos, buy lunch at a food truck, and create automatic recurring bill payments all from my phone. Forms on web pages automatically complete when I’m signed in to my browser. Typos automatically get corrected in my documents and my elevator at work takes me to the right floor when I scan my badge at the door.

But recently I have deliberately chosen to do a few things manually, and the lessons from those experiences resonate into the remaining automatic portions of my life. I’ve chosen bike or feet over car, bus or train. Reel mower over gas or electric. Axe over chain saw. As a guy whose day job is making organizations more efficient, this is truly a departure from my instincts, and I have the scrapes and bruises to show I’m learning from the experience!

While I’m not abandoning my modern lifestyle  – I stand behind the message of the Rational Optimist – or promoting an extremist environmental platform, I have recognized four points I’ll take with me back into the automatic world.

  1. Planning is not optional: Manual tasks take more time to complete, and have greater consequences for stopping halfway. This means thinking through the sequence of tasks and the materials/tools required, checking the weather forecast, etc., before getting started. In the automatic world you can push the button and ignore these factors, or pause & resume later, but poor planning has unavoidable consequences.
  2. If you don’t know your limits, you will discover them quickly: In the automatic world, the strength of the machine or software becomes our own. In the manual world, we can’t hide behind these force multipliers and our limits stand out starkly. The work stops when you stop. These limits are important inputs into the plan you’ll develop after reading #1 above.
  3. Mono-tasking is immersive: Research is showing that multi-tasking yields false efficiency (my wife asserts this is an exclusively male shortcoming). Without the distractions of email alerts, pop-up ads, and auxiliary equipment, the full sensory experience of the one task in front of us is amplified. It sounds cliche, but I actually stopped to smell a rose while cutting the lawn on Saturday. Without a rattling 2 stroke engine spitting oily exhaust into the air, it was a much more intense experience. Try some mono-tasking at the office and see if you have richer conversations, more concrete ideas, and more fun.
  4. Both the “doing” and the “being done” have merit: As an extension of #3 above, when we focus on what we’re doing (even more importantly, why and how, as Sharon Salzburg reminds us), we give the act of completing the task as much value as having it completed. In the automatic world we focus on getting things done just to allow us to move on to the next thing.

Have you spent time in the manual world recently, either deliberately or because the automatic option broke? What did you notice? What can you take back with you to the automatic world?

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1 thought on “Postcard from the manual world”

  1. One advantage the manual way over the automatic way is an increase in perceived ownership.
    When you try something the automatic way, you share ownership of the success with the machine/system. However, when you do something the manual way, you’d be sharing ownership with at most a tool (and sharing ownership with a tool isn’t a significant loss of ownership).
    This leads to the phenomenon that a win accomplished the manual way feels like more of a win than one accomplished the automatic way.

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