This Is Probably The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned In The Last Two Years


Sunday, 9.39pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Exercise everything every day — your body, your brain, your tear ducts. – John Carlton

Actually… it’s not exercise.

Although that’s an important point too. I might come back to that.

There’s a thing called “chunking” that goes back to a guy called Miller who wrote a paper in 1956 about how we could remember seven things, plus or minus two.

If you look into it, however, the applications of this insight seem to mostly be on training yourself to remember longer and longer sequences of numbers.

I read somewhere that’s because it’s easy to measure how your ability to remember numbers improves over time.

Which of course, should remind you of the famous story of the drunk looking for his keys under a street lamp.

A policeman stops to help and they search for a while. Then, the policeman asks if the drunk is sure he lost them here.

No, the drunk replies. I lost them in the bush across the road. So the policeman asks why are you searching here? Because that’s where the light is.

You probably use chunking all the time but just don’t call it that. And, when you find things hard it’s because you haven’t sorted the chunking out yet.

But, let me give you some examples of what this means when you go beyond the obvious ways of looking at this.

First, going back to 1983 is the Unix Documenter’s Workbench that has these lines about typing a document:

“First, when you do the purely mechanical operation of typing, type so that later editing will be easy. Start each sentence on a new line. Make lines short, and break lines at natural places, such as after commas and semicolons, rather than randomly. Since most people change documents by rewriting phrases and adding, deleting, and rearranging sentences, these precautions simplify any editing needed later.”

These lines and a variant of them find their way into many of the later guides on using the Unix platform and appear to be almost universally ignored.

Apart from around three people including Brandon Rhodes who wrote an article about Semantic Linefeeds.

He says that when you write in this way something magical happens. When you break lines at natural points your ability to rearrange thoughts and ideas suddenly becomes much better.

Okay… so what does this semantic linefeed stuff look like then?

Well, the paragraph in the Workbench that I typed out looks like this in my text:


What’s happening here, really, is that we’re chunking each line. Just naturally, each one has around seven words, plus or minus two. It’s much easier to see what’s going on – once you start to get used to it. It takes a while to break free from the way we’ve done it all our lives, after all.

A natural next step from this example is to look at programming where breaking a problem into chunks is often the only way you can possibly tackle it.

A big problem is usually too big to hold in your mind so you need to break it down.

You need to build a solution using smaller building blocks or chunks – which you make first.

When you start thinking of things in this way it’s clear that you can apply this approach to almost anything.

Want to create a new business process? Start thinking in terms of chunks.

Chunks are things you can build and test quickly. If you make them so they are mostly self contained you can discard them without breaking everything else.

Want to learn a language? Forget grammar at the start.

Begin by identifying chunks of language that say something useful. With enough chunks you’ll get a feel for how the language works and your capability will build. Inexorably.

This simple concept of chunking seems to me to be one of the most useful and least promoted ways of approaching life.

With chunks it doesn’t matter if your goals are clear as day or hazy and uncertain. As long as you work in chunks you’ll make progress day after day.

And, as so many times before, thinking about these subjects brings me back to Robert Pirsig and Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance where Pirsig writes about a set of instructions that he says would improve technical writing no end. They start “Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind.”

The thing is that anything that you do that grows bigger and bigger eventually gets so big that you can’t keep hold of all of it in your mind anymore.

And then, you spend your time panicking that you are no longer in control.

With chunks, however, you know that you can always change something without breaking everything and that way you suddenly have the ability to create big and complex things without losing yourself.

Because, actually, you only work on small and simple chunks that make sense.

Anything big emerges naturally from what you do.

So… then all you have to do if you want to build a body of work, live a long time, be a good parent and live a good life is exercise everything every day. In chunks.


Karthik Suresh

3 Replies to “This Is Probably The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned In The Last Two Years”

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