Are you still living by the finger?

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living by figer

As I watched my 6-year old daughter update her blog this morning (yes, she has a blog, no, you can’t see it, it’s passworded for family only), I noticed her doing something pretty unusual.

Between each word, she’d hit the space bar four or five times.

I’d seen her doing this before and told her she only needed a single hit of the key between each letter, but, for some reason, it wasn’t sinking in.  Until I finally realized what what happening.

She couldn’t get past the finger rule.

Turns out, in learning to write sentences this year, she’d been given a very specific guidelines to figure out how much space should come between each word. Just put your finger between each word and the spacing will always be right.

So, it was ony natural that, when it came time to type on the computer, she applied that same rule, hitting the space bar until it approximated the width of a finger. At first, I thought it was pretty cute, but then it made me wonder…

How many rules do we follow that have outlasted their original intent?

They’re all around us. How many people work 9 to 5 (7 to 7 in NYC), when they know their most productive, creative hours are 4 to midnight? How many people pour the coffee first, then add milk and sugar second, when pouring the coffee last avoids the need to stir? How many scrub the dishes before putting them in a dishwasher that’s been good enough to clean them for decades? How many top off the gas tank to avoid waiting for change, even when paying by credit card?

Question is, I get why we do these things as kids, but why do we keep doing them as grown-ups?

Is it just habit? Is it a need to fit in? Is it about working around other peoples’ rules who have power over us?

If the circumstances that gave rise to these have changed, why do so many of us still live by the finger?

Let’s discuss…

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29 responses

29 responses to “Are you still living by the finger?”

  1. Lucy says:

    Yes! I’ve just hit the spacebar twice, as I do after every full stop, because I learnt to type on a typewriter. No – I don’t hit return at the end of every line, but the two-spaces thing has stuck.

    Nothing to do with any external rules. I suppose I could retrain myself …

  2. James Hipkin says:

    It’s about engagement. Are you engaged in what you are doing / what’s happening around and to you? I have been thinking about this a lot as I watch my teenagers grown up. Unless it’s vital to them they don’t engage / think about what it means.

    Dad hands map to teenage daughter and 30 seconds later asks her what the name of the upcoming street is. “How should I know,” she responds.

  3. Laurie says:

    It brings to mind traditions. Where traditions are important,how many times have we not explored past the tradition to something better? How many fights have new married couples had at the holidays trying to mesh two family traditions together without losing what is important to the individual partner?

    With faith and religion, how many of the ceremonial traditions do the participants take part in and don’t really know why? When they are blindly participating the meaning behind the tradition is lost. Then why do it? Learn about what you are doing. It will cause you to grow in your faith and either participate in the tradition with meaning or to opt out of the tradition and develop a tradition of your own.

  4. A lot of the things you mention are just ingrained into our heads at an early age, and we either feel like it’s the only/best way, or we’re just too stubborn to change. I still rinse dishes off before putting them in the dishwasher because I got an earful from my mother every time I didn’t. I top off my gas tank because I saw my parents do it, and an even number just looks better.

    Here’s one for you: I read an article in the Washington Post the other day about people hitting their credit card pay-at-the-pump limits of $75 before they’ve finished filling up. They’re having to fill up in two transactions. A guy that was interviewed has a Dodge Ram pickup and spent $95 to fill up his tank. Begs the question: why doesn’t he get a smaller, more fuel-efficient car? He was a computer tech, so did he really need a big pickup truck? Why do people with Hummers continue to drive them and pay $120 for a tank of gas?

  5. Sarah says:

    I think about a lot of this in terms of Chomsky’s Universal grammar. We’re born with the ability to make all sounds and understand the common linguistical rules of language rules but as we learn the restrictive rules of our native language those abilities/understandings fade away. So when we learn a new language we try initially to transfer the grammatical rules that we innately understand.
    I find that most of us initiate by applying what we know when we are learning something new.

  6. LOL, I thought everyone hit the spacebar twice between sentences!

  7. Sandie Law says:

    My son did exactly the same thing!

    Questioning why we do things, our assumptions, and our habits is always enlightening…

  8. Scott says:

    I must admit that I’m guilty of typing two spaces after every sentence — but isn’t that what we’re supposed to do, anyway? It bugged the heck out of me when I first started blogging with WordPress, because multiple spaces were always reduced to one.

    Back on topic… To really take notice of our unquestioned rules and assumptions, we have to first be aware that they exist. Our minds are (for better or for worse) programmed to find a predictable system and stick to it. It takes a lot of effort to change that structure and realize the benefits of thinking more fluidly. I think most people either aren’t willing to put forth that kind of effort, or simply don’t realize what their minds can actually do.

  9. Other commenters are on target about social and religious and relationship rule “hangovers”. But the type that intrigues me the most are the outdated job “rules” you mention.

    Big companies offer less security than ever but restrict one’s lifestyle in so many ways to accomodate their 20th century production paradigms. Ugh.

    The wired and mobile nature of communications today is leading to much more flexible career options for anyone who is paying attention. Telecommuting, virtual teams, and Internet entrepreneurship rule.

  10. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ My double spacebar friends – I feel your pain. I keep going between writing for print and writing for the web and have pretty much given up on getting it right.

    @ James – I agree that part of it is about engagement/awareness, but there’s more. Often times a practice has been around for so long, people have forgotten it’s original intent and don’t have a fundamental understanding of what the practice was created for. So, when the circumstances make a practice obsolete, nobody knows what to evolve or retreat to.

    @ Laurie – Great points about the line between faith and blind faith.

    @ Kari – we are definitely an autopilot nation, question is…to what end?

    @ Sarah – interesting point about Chomsky, something I’ll have to chew on (couldn’t resist)!

    @ Hayden – I think I need to send you a t-shirt that says “Double Spacebar & Lovin’ It!” 😉

    @ Sandie – that’s funny, I guess it’s taught in a lot of schools and kids take a while to transfer the underlying reason to screen type.

    @ Scott – I am so with you on the silliness of following the generations-old constructs of how, when and where employees should be working. Interestingly enough, I think the driver for change in this area is coming to economics for the corporations, they’re finally realizing how much less they have to spend and how much more effective a distributed, flex-time workforce can be.

  11. I love this post. I challenge rules all the time, but I am sure there are things I do just because I learned them that way. It’s going to be fun to “deconstruct ” a few and see what shakes out.

  12. Robyn says:

    Two spaces between sentences is such a prevalent habit that macros have been developed to strip out extra spaces in documents. LOL. I once read an article on traditions where a family always cut their turkey in half before roasting it for Thanksgiving. Turns out the grandmother when young, didn’t have an oven big enough, and the kids and then grandkids never questioned the tradition when they took over the cooking! Great reminder to occasionally ask yourself why you do things a particular way.

  13. Great post! It’s funny when we realize these things. I was at my friend’s house the other day and was making tea but I couldn’t figure out how to do it because I could not find her tea kettle. I gave up looking and asked her where it was and she said she boils water for tea in the microwave. Obviously I know that you can do this but it didn’t occur to me because every day I boil my water in a tea kettle.

    On a more relevant anecdote, I had to retrain myself on a LOT of things when I went from working a “regular” job to being self-employed. I was somewhat shocked to discover I had gotten in the habit of being incredibly inefficient in order to make tasks take longer since I had to be “busy” all day. I definitely find myself doing some of the old time wasters (like spending hours searching for stock photos) and I have to remember that I’m now rewarded for using my time well, not punished like I was before.

  14. Why do we keep doing things that have outgrown their original intent? All of the reasons given are true.

    I think that most times it’s habit that we don’t even realize we’re doing until someone else points it out. What we do once we realize it’s outmoded is the more interesting question.

    Then there are things we do to keep from rocking the boat even if it doesn’t make sense to us. Some people are afraid to challenge the system so they just keep doing what they are told.

    At my last teaching job we were asked to submit a report telling how we spent time that was to be devoted to taking in-service classes or preparation for classes. In my early days I dutifully completed the paperwork and submitted it on time.

    One year I completely forgot, missed the deadline, and my Dean never noticed. Then I learned from her secretary that she never read them, but just tucked them in a drawer never to be seen again. Aha! I never wrote another of those reports for my remaining 10 years.

    Had I ever been busted I would have taken responsibility and suffered the consequences. What could they be–getting 20 lashes with a wet noodle?

    This outmoded administrative activity had nothing to do with my main work nor with my pay. In fact, I participated in many in-service activities and spent many hours in preparation. Why did I need to report that?

    Following rules that are outdated or just plain stupid makes no sense at all. But you do have to be ready to face off your boss if it gets to that.

  15. Stephanie says:

    This post truly stirred me up (in a good way) for three reasons:

    1. In layman’s terms, it demonstrates that solutions are not always transferable. One size does NOT fit all. For individuals this means that the Subway diet that worked for Jared may not work for you. For managers this means that hosting weekly happy hours may not be the best motivator for your current team. (That’s craziness I say, but unfortunately true!)

    2. It also reminded me of the importance of living in the gray. While it is healthy to have awareness, I am opposed to the notion of questioning everything. I think there’s a balance between challenging nothing and challenging everything. When someone challenges me to change a process they better have a good reason and a better solution.

    3. Finally, I like that while observing the behavior you identified the true source of the problem. So often we get stuck on the problem and end up missing the forest for the trees.

    Awesome Jonathan!

  16. Richard Howes says:

    My previous occupation was as a workflow consultant in the banking industry (mainly). As such I spent most of the late 90’s in New York, London, Geneva and Johannesburg (I am a South African).

    What does a workflow consultant do? Well, we design improved business processes and then automate those processes.

    One thing always fascinated me, and particularly because it was universal the world over. People get very set in ‘the way we do it’. Asking the question, “OK, but why do you do it that way?” would be a fascinating study in human nature.

    They would tell me how long they had been doing it for, that they had always done it that way, that it was in the procedures manual, that their boss wanted it done that way, etc. etc. What they hardly ever told me was the *reason* for doing it. They usually didn’t know.

    Which in turn led to some interesting processes or steps in a process. The most common problem was producing all sorts of reports that either nobody looked at, or were irrelevant. But they would *insist* they were absolutely critical without being able to articulate why.

    I was once told not to study the existing processes in a government department as they wanted a new, better process. They felt me seeing the existing process would compromise that. They then proceeded over many weeks to “design”, with my facilitation, exactly the inefficient process they already had. This despite my attempts to get them to question each and every step of the process and really see if it was necessary, or could be improved.

    Creatures of habit we certainly are. And there is a lot of comfort in what we know.

    By the way, I am really enjoying this blogging idea! Now I just need to get into doing one for myself.

  17. Naomi Niles says:

    Oh yeah, it took me for ever to get rid of the habit hitting the space bar twice after learning to type on the typewriter too.

  18. […] Go to the author’s original blog: Are you still living by the finger? […]

  19. Chad says:

    I still won’t sit too close to the TV cause I think it will make me blind, and my wife still thinks that she can catch a cold if she doesn’t wear a sweater on a cold day…

    Funny the things that we believe as truths for life.

    Nice post as always Jonathan!

  20. Okay, how long before any one goes swimming after eating ?

    Doesn’t cross their eyes because they will get stuck like that?

    Or avoids stepping on a crack in the sidewalk?

    And all those things that would go on “our permanent record” in school? How many of those don’t cross the lines dictates are valid and how many were stiflers of creativity?

    (BTW Jonathan on the BBC America News last night was a report of a school in LA that was also getting budget cuts because the parents were taking up the slack. 400,000,000 in total cuts either district or statewide. And I thought Hollywood was doing well. )

  21. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Everyone – love all the funny rules we seem to be living by, both in the workplace and at home. It really makes you wonder how much energy we expend on any given day on tasks or actions that have either been obsoleted or, worse, actually make things not easier, but harder.

    What if you could bundle all that effort and expend it in more efficient, effective and productive ways? How much more could we do? How much enjoyable could life be?

  22. vimoh says:

    Late as always.

    My uncle used to practice his math lessons on the floor when he was a kid. He got into a habot of frequently blowing at his hands to get rid of the chalk dust.

    To this day, even when he is online, I see him blowing on his hands.


  23. Hmm says:

    Sorry, but I think the reasons we do them as adults are the same as the reasons we do them as kids. Out of habit, like you said. Actually seems kind of obvious.

  24. Justin says:

    I think a lot of the obsolete things we do are not that important; if we changed them, we wouldn’t notice a real change in our lives (i.e. the coffee). Good analogy though.

  25. Such a unique and simplistic way of highlighting a huge problem in the world today. We are really stuck in the old ways of doing things in so many aspects of life. It just goes to show that we have start teaching our young to think outside of the circle very early in life to help them avoid getting stuck in habits that foster procrastination and a reactive nature versus a proactive one.

  26. […] Jonathan Fields brings it up in a business context: How many rules do we follow that have outlasted their original intent? […]

  27. Kids are so very precious 🙂 I just love the way that they take something so obvious to the rest of us and give it their own special spin. It’s like getting a peek into the way brand-new minds work without the baggage of years of physical experience 🙂

    Like my son saying “you have really good earsight mommy” 🙂 Or wondering if I put a blanket on the ground for him to sit on so he wouldn’t get the grass dirty. lol. Or how he used to say pretty please and pretty thank you. 🙂

    Write down that special quirk of hers so you can remember it when she is 18 and sophisticated! And when she is 30 and wise! 🙂

  28. Chele says:

    The improper use of the word “sure.” I often times receive this response to a text message. “Sure” is a a not a specific response such as their ancient counterparts, “yes” or “no.”

    This word is used often times to give a response to a question that is favorable to the person that asked the question.

    Let’s stop letting the recipient fill in the blank & give a straight answer.

  29. Matt says:

    I think just about everyone over the age of 35 in my family has some crap that they could never shake. My grandma used hand signals to drive instead of blinkers until the day she died, most of them still havent gotten into the habit of wearing seatbelts since they werent required when they were kids