The fallacy of ‘manual work’ being faster

Like many people, due to recent events, I’ve had more time to reflect on myself and on some of my mistakes. I’ve always been a fan of sharing knowledge, that includes failures and the things you learn from them. So here is one of those failure from which upon self reflecting I’ve learned to change that behavior.

Sometimes you already knew something was true, but you just kept lying to yourself. This is even worse when you have recommended other people to do what you still refuse to do yourself, because you keep lying to yourself. The recommendation is good, the part where you don’t follow your own recommendation, that’s where it all goes down the drain. If you are wondering what I’m talking about, I’m talking about:

Doing all kinds of tasks manually, because in that precise moment it was the ‘quick’ option

The above is what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years, mainly because during my day job my work is less technical. This is the wrong approach, even if I told myself otherwise. The interesting part is that during this time I coached and advised people around me to:

  • stick to (further) learning programming languages
  • Learn devops
  • Take the time to automate and learn how to automate
  • Don’t worry about being slow now, it will pay off

So why then, did I not follow my own advise? Because besides the reason of it being quicker to do manually, I also told myself that by doing it manually it would be easier to retain technical knowledge.

Now this blog has turned up two fallacies:

  • Thinking that doing it manually is quicker
  • Thinking that by doing it manually you retain knowledge

Both of them are incorrect, that much is obvious, but why?

The first one is incorrect because the moments that warrant that ‘quickness’ in that precise moment are not as many as you’ve been telling yourself. My experience is that in a lot of cases it was perfectly fine to grab a couple of hours or a day or two to automate it. I actually experienced this, since other people with the exact same problem took the advise and automated it. They could later indeed benefit from their work and the more often that they automated tasks, the faster they could do it.

The second one is incorrect, because in a sense you are training yourself to:

Re-learn the same knowledge over and over again

Instead of learning something, documenting it and being able to go back to it. You are learning something, doing it by hand and then forgetting it. Yes you might retain some of it, but eventually it will fade. So if you need to do it again, you need to re-learn it again instead of referencing it and building upon your previous knowledge. I knew this all along, since I often went back to older scripts and code I wrote. I just never took the time to keep doing that when my day job diminished the amount of time I spent on technical problems. Somehow the reward of doing something fast in that precise moment, was bigger than automating it and reaping the benefits. The illusions and tricks the mind plays on you are truly magical.

To get myself going again, I decided to automate a thing I’ve been doing manually for the last couple of years, which is configuring a newly installed Ubuntu VM. The ansible setup is not perfect, but at least I’ve begun to automate it:

I hope that other people in similar situations benefit from this self reflection and that they don’t fall for the same fallacy.

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