Making nothing out of a big deal

I recently asked my boyfriend how he heats water, given that he apparently doesn’t use a kettle. He said you can in fact heat water in a pot on the stove. Heating water in a pot sounds arduous to me, which is a bit strange because it’s not obviously more complicated than heating water in a kettle (assuming there is a clean pot, which is maybe a strong assumption). I wondered if maybe the issue is that once you have a pot on the stove, you are cooking. And cooking is a big deal. I’m not going to make a cup of tea if it involves cooking!

I have actually learned to cook a bit recently, and I think perhaps an important thing going on in ‘learning to cook’ for me is internalizing that you can achieve the same outcome as you might by cooking—which is perhaps too big a deal to carry out just to get some food— by merely doing some physically easy actions that are not a big deal, like picking up objects and putting them on other objects and turning knobs. Sometimes when I turn a knob and fire appears or something it seems like I might be doing something that is a big deal, but overall its going ok.

I remember hearing the advice that if you have an ‘ugh field’, around filling out a certain form at the faculty office say, it can be pretty helpful to do it just once. Then you have ‘an affordance’ and can do it more times easily. An affordance means roughly that it is an action you see as feasible. Taken literally, this might seem strange—surely you thought it was feasible to fill out the form previously. If someone had offered to bet with you about what would happen if you tried to fill out the form, I claim you would have  bet confidently on your success conditional on trying.

I speculate that what ‘an affordance’ often means is seeing something that was a big deal as a set of actions that aren’t. And that in general, when people see actions as abstract ‘big deals’ they expect the actions to be harder and take longer than when they see them as constellations of non-big-deal component actions.

So, you get an affordance for starting a company if you feel like it involves writing some things in boxes and sending some emails rather than somehow moving things at the abstract level of ‘companies’. You get an affordance for punching people in the face when punching someone in the face becomes a known physical action to you instead of an abstract sin. You get an affordance for Tweeting when you feel like it involves typing something into the address bar in your browser, and then typing something else into a box and pressing enter, rather than somehow coming to exist and exert forces in the abstract world of social media communications you have heard about.

I haven’t said what a ‘big deal’ is on this picture really, or how abstractness bears on any of this, and whether it isn’t just the whole thing going on. But I’m not going to elaborate at the moment, because I started to think it through and it seemed involved, and I want to know first whether this kind of thing rings true to other people at all.

13 responses to “Making nothing out of a big deal

  1. Sometimes I get the opposite problem: I mentally decompose a task into a zillion tiny steps, go “OMG I have to do ALL those steps, that’s a lot” and turn a trivial task into something intimidating.

    • Two cases:
      1. With expertise the small actions drop below awareness – “just writing an email” from “hunting for all of those letter keys and remembering how to spell all of those words”
      2. With the right frame one can sometimes willingly hide the details – “I’ll just go to the gym and do what my trainer tells me to do, one step at a time”

  2. mogensvanleeuwen

    This rings true!

    And I think you’ve already done a fine job of pointing at what a Big Deal is. A task feels big if you can’t conceive of a way to complete it. Sometimes this is because the ways that you see to complete the task aren’t personally actionable, like if you’re lacking a material resource. Even more demotivating is the case where you don’t see any way to achieve the task, even given hypothetical material resources. This can be because the behavior is something that you feel you can’t figure out on your own, like needing a keycode to open a locked door, or, even worse, you can fail to see any way to achieve a task because you’ve got a hangup of functional fixedness where the part of your mind that takes candidate-plans seriously can’t conceive of any actions that would count as progress toward performing the task. Partly this is not conceiving of the task in concrete terms, and partly it’s not conceiving of the abstract effects of the actions in your repertoire, like your ability to manipulate the applicability of social categories through speech acts.

  3. It seems to me that the heart of this is dissolving The abstract and maybe sinful thing with physical things. Personally, I don’t know if I would conflate the form and tweeting with the other examples. If you don’t relate to the forces of social media, or bureaucracy, you won’t produce the effect that you are looking for.

  4. Then there’s the secret technique of boiling water using a microwave.

    • Using a microwave to boil water is actually an exception here – the water you get from an electric kettle and a stovetop kettle is about the same (except the electric kettle will boil faster and be more energy-efficient), but the water you get from a microwave does not taste the same when you make tea with it. I used to make tea by boiling in a microwave, and it always tasted slightly different from whenever I made using an electric or stovetop kettle, and many other tea-drinkers say the same thing. The theory that goes around is that it alters oxygen levels in the water but I dunno.

      • Interesting. So far I haven’t noticed, but I’ll run some experiments (asking my housemates to prepare two cups for me, and not telling me which is which) this week to see what happens.

  5. Definitely rings true.

    There’s a saying in math that “every proof is either a tautology or a computation.” This is an exaggeration but there’s something to it. A proof seems like a big deal, but most of the actual lines of it are usually setting up definitions and notation so you can make precise what you’re referring to. The core, the new thing you’re doing, is often very small. This seems analogous.

  6. Yes! I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently.

    I find that the difference between times when I can “execute by default” Vs the times I cannot seems to consist entirely of how easily I can break the task down into its non-magical, un-scary, un-failable component tasks. As a result, I’ve tried to become better at consciously breaking down tasks into tiny bits, especially around chronic Ugh Fields… I’ve got some pretty bad ones :/

  7. “Heating water in a pot sounds arduous to me, which is a bit strange because it’s not obviously more complicated than heating water in a kettle”

    I have done both often, and heating water in a pot is in fact more complicated than using a kettle, at least an automated one. With the kettle you just fill it and turn it on. It finishes and goes off automatically. With the pot, you have to turn on a stove, which has a more complicated switch than the kettle, you have to turn it off again, and usually you want to clean the pot, because you are more worried about buildup in a pot than in the kettle, since you don’t normally look inside the kettle. It is also more difficult to pour accurately from a pot than from a kettle.

    If anything, I favor the opposite strategy from the one suggested in the post. Rather than noticing that using pots isn’t much more complicated than using kettles, I prefer to notice when I can use a kettle instead of a pot — when there is some fairly complex set of actions that I am habitually performing, but there is a way that I have been overlooking where I can change that into a smaller set of simpler actions.

    • There may be a transatlantic translation issue here. Electric kettles are rare in north america (possibly because the 120V electrical system makes it hard to get enough power out of a normal wall outlet to boil a large mass of water quickly?), so many people when they hear the word ‘kettle’, or ‘tea kettle’, think of an unpowered kettle designed to sit on the stove. These are only an improvement over a pot because they whistle when they’re boiling, so you know when to manually turn off the heat. Whereas ‘kettle’ in the UK basically always means electric kettle, as every kitchen in the UK has one, and the whistling kind is very rare.
      Perhaps Katja could clarify what kind of kettle she’s talking about?

  8. I understood she meant the easy kind of kettle.


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