Developing technique for everyday activity

Pick up a book, any book, preferably one with dense text. Open to a random page and read for five minutes. Don’t worry about comprehension, just read until your time is up and count the number words read. Now repeat the test with a slight modification – use the index finger of your dominant hand to underline the text as you read. You should notice a measurable increase in the number of words read when using your index finger as a tracer. A simple technique greatly increased your effectiveness.

Think back to when you learned a new skill, say swimming. You started by learning to float, moved on to simple drills: learn to kick, maneuver your arms, breathe underwater and then days, maybe weeks, later progressed to complete your first uninterrupted lap. You spent most of your time, in the beginning, learning the fundamentals. But when confronted with your first serious reading assignment, did it ever occur that you should learn how to read?

Proper technique is vital to any activity. When we learn complex and unfamiliar tasks, to drive or play the guitar, for example, we always start with fundamental technique. With everyday activities, however, the ones we learned organically, without conscious analysis or knowledge of the underlying methods – to walk, to use a knife – we rarely, if ever, learn technique. Organic learning is sufficient to achieve practical goals, but to be effective we have to study the nature of what we learned as kids. The difference between a runner and someone who knows how to run is study and training.

So, what is technique? In brief, instructions or procedures to safely and effectively perform a given task. Technique deals purely with the mechanics of the activity and, by itself, contributes nothing to the meaning of the produced output. For example, technique will inform you of the optimal way to generate a brush stroke with a drawing application but not when to use to the stroke to elicit emotion from the viewer. Learning to type will not make you a better writer, but it will help you type faster, with more control, and less effort preserving mental energy for the writing task. With some skills, technique plays a more critical role: to prevent and avoid injury. The humble kitchen knife is a simple, intuitive tool but not knowing how to use one can result in injuries that are easily avoidable.

Improper, inadequate technique can affect you in subtle and unimaginable ways. I’ve wanted to organize my thoughts on a blog for a long time. I jotted down ideas dutifully, organized them thematically, and sketched out the arcs for many posts but struggled to create a cohesive piece that could be published. After some analysis, I discovered the major stumbling block. After a few minutes using a keyboard my hands tired. I was able to think and write in my mind but struggled to type it out!

Sometimes, even if we identify a skill that could be improved, we overestimate the time to learn and underestimate the benefits we would derive. If this happens to you, remind yourself that you’re only trying to increase your efficacy, not to become a world champion in the given activity. I spent ten minutes a day for two consecutive weeks with an online typing tutor and nearly tripled my typing speed. This is a skill I use every day; the time I spent has been paid back with dividends. And my purse continues to fatten.

In the frenzy of our everyday lives, investing time to learn technique, especially for “ancillary” tasks, seems a waste of time. This, and the fact that we don’t realize that our methods could be faulty.  But, take a step back now and analyze the things you do every day – walk, run, type, read, write, use a kitchen knife, tie your shoelaces(!) – and you’ll be surprised by how much they can be improved.

Ready to develop some technique?