Minor Progress Through Explicit Application of Reason
I’m in a phase where everything I do must have a reason.
That may sound obvious—of course everything should have a reason, right? But there are many little questions in life where we generally feel that the exact solution chosen doesn’t make enough difference to even consider choosing one approach over any of the others. In many cases this may be the proper approach, but in other cases the minor activity is performed thousands of times in a lifespan, and the small losses incurred by a poor approach eventually add up to something meaningful. In any case, realistic gains are not my focus of this writing.
Since we tackle little problems using an ad hoc approach, our solution may differ from day to day, despite the fact that one particular solution may actually be slightly better than any other. I’m slowly eliminating these “nondeterministic” (in the sense that the approach is chosen seemingly randomly), actions from my life.
The problems I am discussing are minuscule: in what order should I perform washing operations in the shower? How should I indent my source code? In what order should I perform the operations involved in making a sandwich? These are things that don’t matter to most people, yet I’ve have had a rigid sandwich-making algorithm since high school.
I don’t spend a lot of time addressing these problems. My justifications don’t have to be perfect—they serve the role of hypothesis more than theory. Once I have a reason (perfect or not) I apply it consistently. Since my approach and reasoning are explicitly defined, if I devise a new (possibly superior) hypothesis, it is (usually) trivial to compare the merits of the alternatives and to choose the better solution.
How should a reason be chosen? Any reason will do. It’s like a rapid-prototyping software development model. Get something workable together as soon as possible, then work up. Furthermore, reasons don’t need to be objective. “Because it makes me happy”; is a perfectly sound justification (though not a very well-specified one) if you are justifying a personal action with no external responsibilities.
To apply the principle back on itself: what is the reason for requiring reasons? For me it is a part of my personal aesthetic. I imagine it is rather unlikely that a person could make him or herself care about this issue—it’s either built into you or not. If this isn’t something that strikes your fancy, feel free to instantly disregard it (it probably wont grow on you). Alternately, if you find yourself obsessing about why you do things, give it a shot.
When I helped my mother clean up the kitchen as a kid, she’d tell me where to put dishes in the dishwasher. If I asked why item X went in location Y, she’d tell me, “that’s just how we do it,” or, “that’s how I learned to do it.” These answers always irritated me. If we don’t know why we are doing something, how do we know that we are doing it right? Or, more precisely put, if we don’t know why we are doing something, how will we know if we can do it better? Some people may not care, but I want to know that I am getting closer to the right solution.