Write down the obvious

I am somewhat fond of the concept of mantras, which are just short sentences you say to yourself, in order to behave in a way that seems to work better than what you normally would do.

One such mantra is "sooner is better than later" and helps to avoid procrastinating on maintenance work, backups and similar annoyances. Another helpful one is "trust the process", because we often tend to fiddle around with things we should not fiddle around with, just because those faulty lumps of fat in our heads always want something to do.

It is like a little meta habit, which helps you to behave in a certain way in a multitude of situations. Most people seem to be very weak at the meta game of life, so having short sentences like these, which are easily memorizable and do not need any further conceptualization, are very helpful. I suspect this is also why we have a multitude of adages, namely because they are helpful and provide a benefit. Usually they also rhyme, such as one of my favorite adages "Gewaltig is des Schlosser's Kraft, wenn er mit Verlängrung schafft", which roughly translates to "Tremendous is the metal worker's force, when he uses an elongation", making them easier to remember and more likely to get into your mind in the right situation.

I first encountered it in Tom Limoncelli's "Time management for system administrators", where he calls such things mantras, which is also why I stay with this terminology, until I have found a better one or reasons to do otherwise. And in some sense, it is the only place where I have ever read about it. Of course, we often find new mantras or adages, but I have not seen it operationalized in this explicit way anywhere else.

Even though this seems to be a rather obvious concept. But despite it being obvious and people benefitting from it all the time, few people make active use of it.

To stay with the terminology, this leads to mantra I've found very useful:

Write down the obvious.

Just because something is obvious to you, does not mean it will be obvious to others. In fact, as any programmer or mathematician will attest, just because it was obvious to you, does not mean it is obvious to you now. And sometimes things are obvious, but you would have forgotten them. It is a classical bonding experience for mathematicians to stare at a blackboard for hours, until at some point you both decide that it is obvious.

This does not only hold true for science and engineering, but life in general.

Many of the best practices seem totally obvious:

  • don't wash dishes under running water
  • use git and a good open source ticket system
  • track your spending
  • keep a training journal
  • do some cardio and some weight training
  • brush and floss your teeth
  • don't drink sugary drinks (I guess unless you're underweight)
  • document processes and installations

Not only does this greatly improve our personal lifes, but it also especially in our professional lifes, which define our value as proper human being, writing down the obvious is a key skill.

Every system administrator I know failed countless times to document something, because it appeared obvious, just to bite their table a few months later. And almost any larger company or instituition has a back-breaking heritage of outdated things that are being done the way they have always been done. Often there was a good reason, but the reason got lost. Because it was just all too obvious to the people who instantiated this process, and now it is possibly outdated, but nobody dares to touch this piece of people-code.

Not only does writing down obvious things serve as some sort of operational maintenance work and gives opportunity to incremental improvements, but it also frees yourself from being a too picky writer. Because it is obvious you are less likely to attach your ego to the idea and try to write a masterpiece, but you try to keep it short and useful.

Yet, we seldom do write down the obvious. There seems to be a resistance. If it is obvious, we do not want to put it into writing, because we feel like other people might perceive us as dumb or something. Or wasting time on obvious things (duh). It becomes easier with time, as you pile on positive feedback for good documentation, nice recipes or what have you, but at first it might require overcoming and a bit boldness.

So, be bold, and write down the obvious.