Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Convenient Or Just Familiar?

So, I had a thought the other day.

It occurred to me that many of the things we do because we think they are "convenient" really aren't convenient at all, they're simply the ways we're used to doing things.

Take driving a car, for example. There was a time in my life when I was pretty much like the average American in terms of driving. Well, I never had one of those crazy commutes that so many people deal with, but I certainly used my car as my default mode of transportation. I thought, like most people do, that driving was the easiest and most convenient way to get around.

But the further removed I become from "car culture" the more inconvenient my automobile starts to feel.

I mean when you really stop to think about it, there's a HUGE list of prerequisites that are required in order to be able to just jump in the car for a "convenient" little trip.

First of all, you have to have a car - which means you had to either save up a pile of money or make monthly payments on a car loan. Then, you have to have insurance, and (in Denver, at least) a valid emissions test. You have to make sure the thing has gas, and oil, and a charged battery, and tires with decent tread, and is in generally good condition. You have to have a driver's license, and a valid registration. And we haven't even set foot in the car yet!

Once you get in the thing, you have to deal with traffic, and parking, and figuring out where you're going and how to get there. You have to know which lane to be in, you have to deal with distracted drivers and road construction. The list goes on...

I realize this sounds sorta crazy, but I've been sooo happy that the weather and streets have cleared up to the point that I can ride my bike to the store again, because frankly... it's just so much more convenient!! I don't have to worry about gas, or parking, or having my license with me... I just have to hop on my bike and go! Of course, I've already invested the time, energy and money into setting up a nice errand bike, and figuring out appropriate clothing, and maintenance - yadda, yadda, yadda.

I'm reminded of a post over on Done By Forty about "Sunk Costs." The idea is that a "sunk cost" is money, time, and/or energy that you've already spent, so it doesn't figure into your current decision making.

It's like we're all so programmed to think that having a car (and all the time, energy & money that goes along with it) is "a given" so we don't consider it when we think about what's "convenient" and what isn't.

Of course, this whole equation works both ways. For example, CatMan is what I would call an "uber geek."

Seriously, the man built his first computer in the 1970's by wiring together a television, an electric typewriter keyboard, some chips he ordered for about $25, and a circuit board that he burned by hand using a drawing he found in a magazine as a guide. (Not exaggerating.)

So whenever there's some sort of informational task that needs to take place, his first instinct is to write a computer program to automate the job.

Me, on the other hand... even though I've done my fair share of programming, it always feels like "work" to me. So I've been known to spend hour upon hour upon hour doing something "by hand" rather than invest a little bit of time coming up with a system that will deal with it for me.

My inbox situation comes to mind. It always seemed "more convenient" to just leave all my emails in the inbox and perform a search when I needed to find something. But now that I actually took the time to set up a system to deal with most of it for me, everything feels much, MUCH easier. Hmmm... perhaps my old system was not so convenient after all.

I'm not sure what conclusions to draw from all of this. I'm certainly not suggesting that everyone should ditch their cars, since I'm still not ready to get rid of mine. But this whole thing has got me wondering, what other parts of my life do I coast through, thinking I'm doing what's convenient, when all I'm really doing is what's familiar?

Waddya think? Is this all just semantics or am I actually onto something? Do you ever find yourself doing what's familiar when there's really an easier way that just involves getting out of your comfort zone a bit?


  1. As you have pointed out with conflicting examples, I think convenience/comfortable has more to do with your perspective. Some things we're willing to spend the time and or money on and some things we're not. And that differs for everyone.

    Also, there's nothing wrong with doing something because it's comfortable which is different than doing something because it's a habit. It's a good idea to take a look at how we're doing things then and again to make sure we're doing things the way that is best for us. For example, the way I use my car.

    I drive my car to work. Although biking is possible, there are no bike lanes and the whole thing scares me. I could take the bus, and I do that occasionally, but it adds a couple hours to my short commute because of a limited schedule. That would get old every day.

    So driving appeals to me while it does not to you. I understand not using a car because that's the way I grew up. I lived in town and we walked everywhere including my parents to work. The car only went out when we went to next town to visit my grandparents. But that's not my situation now so I use a car.

    You've posed an interesting question and I will be thinking about it as I go about my daily routine for the next couple of days.

    1. I wonder... if I had been in to biking back when I was still working, would I have ridden my bike to work? I doubt it. It's not like I couldn't get there by bike, but it probably would have taken my at least 40 minutes, while it took 8 to get there by car (and yes, I had it timed.) Since I was ALWAYS running late, I doubt I would have even considered it. Plus, I didn't get off work until after 10pm, so that would have meant riding home in the dark, and that's something I'm still not comfortable with!

      But spending a few hours recently waiting in line for an emissions test for a car that I drive so little sure felt pretty darned inconvenient!

  2. I think you're onto something. This is a bit like something I've noticed with locations: People perceive distance according to familiarity. I remember once when I worked in Oxford and lived in Bicester, 15 miles away, overhearing a woman on the bus talking about her trip to Oxford as if it were a major excursion. I laughed to myself a little smugly at her small-town mentality (I was young and arrogant in those days), but now I am that woman. Now I live 12 miles from the nearest town but have no need to go there very often, so each trip is quite a big deal. Town just doesn't feel that close because I don't go there every day.

    As for things I do the hard way just because they're familiar, all I can think of is finding my way around. I have a terrible sense of direction and real trouble learning my way around new towns, so I tend to take very long routes to get from one place to another for quite a long time. I guess if I put in a bit of study with a map, I could could learn the shortcuts much more quickly (and save myself wandering round for half an hour or so looking for Market Street, as I did recently. It's nowhere near the market, as it turned out. If I hadn't bumped into a friend I probably never would have found it).

    On the subject of automation... xkcd.

    1. Ha! The distances thing is SOOOO true! And what's even funnier for me, is that there are places I visit regularly on my bike but have never been in my car. In fact, I wouldn't have any idea how to get there in a car - it's like I have 2 completely different views of the city, one via the trails system and one via the roads - and I have a very hard time melding the two in my brain. If you were to ask me if XYZ place was far away... well, I wouldn't think so if the context was a bike ride, but if I had to navigate it by car I'd think it was a huge burden!

      And I totally suck at directions too. Living here in Denver, there's absolutely no excuse, because the mountains are always to the west - but I still get turned around with remarkable ease. CatMan says I have "tunnel vision" in this respect. I sorta see my route as a series of landmarks & turns, but it's like it's all in a tunnel of sorts, while he sees himself moving through a mental map of sorts. Guess it's that old spatial ability thing! :-)

    2. And I totally love the automation cartoon! That's sure how it seems to work in my case. :-)

  3. In terms of driving, there are a lot of factors to consider--climate, age, health, whether or not you have children, for example. I've seen a few people biking in town but here in the snowbelt, it's not really a safe mode of transportation in the winter. We do have a bus system but I don't live near it (I would LOVE it if the USA had a train system more like Europe's). I'm in reasonably good health but elderly people wouldn't be able to manage biking where I live ... and trying to bring along children while grocery shopping on a bike? No thank you. If I lived in a different locale where biking made more sense (or walking to a market), I would do it, but for me, a car is by far the most practical way to go.

    That being said ... a few years ago, I really took a look at the "convenience" of eating out. The cost notwithstanding, by the time I drive to and from a restaurant, order, and wait for my bill, I could have cooked, cleaned, and moved on to something else. I enjoy eating out, but in terms of time management, it isn't the most efficient way for me to use my time. Same thing with belonging to a gym. It would take me 10 minutes to get there ... 10 minutes home ... I can work out at home incorporating "commute" time into my workout and come out ahead, time-wise and money-wise.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking comments.

    1. Wouldn't it be fabulous if we had a train system like Europe? I totally agree that our society is pretty much set up to require the use of cars - personally I think that's part of our problem. I'm really lucky to live only half a mile from 2 separate grocery stores, and to have the luxury of time to enjoy things like a trip to the store as a leisurely outing. When I'm king, everyone will enjoy similar, if not better, privileges!

      I LOVE your eating out example. It seems so much easier than cooking at home, but when you really analyze it - it might not be. Of course, if you hate cooking...

      And the gym example is great too. I would NEVER work out if I had to go to a gym to do it. It would just be an insurmountable obstacle for me. In fact, along our greenway bike paths there are numerous parks, and we often see people loading or unloading their bikes from cars at one of these places. If I had to do that in order to ride, I would just never do it. As it is, I'm only about a mile from the greenway so it's pretty easy for me to just hop on board and be plugged into the whole trail system.

  4. It is always a good idea to re-examine things from time to time. I noticed some manufacturers are now putting a single strip across the shoulders of hard-to-stay-on-hangar garments rather than the loop at each shoulder. Likely saving them a good bit, but nobody thought to rethink the existing solution for an awfully long time.

    I think there's probably a lot of man-thought things in the world that women should rethink. Like the heights of kitchen cabinets. And, I want a counter-weighted bra to hold my boobs up without breaking my back. A couple years ago, I rethought my (very time consuming) watering task for my gardens and came up with an inexpensive system that automatically waters everything for me.

    Cars are an interesting thing not enough people think about. I try to go without rentals on most vacations and public transportation and my two feet really do go a long way. I think the self-driving cars they say will be ready for mass use in 5 years will revolutionize this country. If someone is smart enough to buy up huge fleets of cars so you can call and have car at your door in minutes, only the elite will own cars. Think of the things we will be able to do with the parking lots no longer needed, converting our garage space in our homes into living or storage space (a workshop for me), the poor who will be able to get jobs in ANY neighborhood and go shopping in ANY neighborhood. I think it will be a huge change for the better. (Downside: Grandma will be able to go wherever she wants long after she should be let out on her own...I'm telling the offspring the karma from his teen adventures will come back to bite him in the butt)

    1. OOOO.... I want to live in your fantasy future world! Just call up a car whenever you need one and it drives itself to your door, picks you up and takes you where you need to go!

      Denver's in the process of re-urbanizing itself - meaning it's rezoning a lot of areas for higher density, building more apartments & condos downtown, and putting a new emphasis on mass transit & bike/pedestrian infrastructure. The translation is that many downtown parking lots are going away and being replaced with living space. I think the change is wonderful, but there's still a LOOOONG way to go. But your self-driving car thing takes it to a whole new level!

  5. I agree! I definitely would prefer to never have to drive again! It's just not something I enjoy (plus it's a waste of time in my eyes) and the fact that I have to pay to do it only makes it worse. But hubby and I both have stable jobs that we enjoy - that are 45 miles apart. So for now we just keep driving and easing the pain with audiobooks. And to think I took my 1/2 mile walking commute for granted when I was in college!

    1. Wouldn't it be nice if our society could construct itself in such a way that everyone didn't actually require a 2-ton machine in order to function? Someday...

  6. This is great. That drum meme MADE MY DAY.

    I do think it's as much habit as anything else. The car habit is so mainstream and life is designed to reward car-dependency. It's a total values and life shift to move away from the assumption that the car is the convenient option!

    I struggle with it so much.

    1. I struggle too. I'm currently sitting here trying to decide if I should drive or take the bus to jury duty next week. Frankly, both options sound equally horrific! I'm leaning toward the bus, but it will involve a few miles of walking, and I'm having problems with arthritis in my hip that really acts up when I do any significant walking. If I didn't have to be there at an ungodly hour of the morning, and if there was secure bike parking I'd consider riding! But since I don't really have a good commuter bike and since it would probably get stolen anyhow, probably a bad choice. Sigh.

    2. Do whatever you need to do so you won't be late. They frown on that for jury duty.

    3. It's a tossup... if I take the bus I'll have to walk about half a mile to get to the bus stop, but it will drop me off right in front of the courthouse. If I drive I'll have to gamble with finding parking - which is not a sure thing downtown - and I could end up having to walk much further. Either way, I think I'll be loading up on NSAIDS! :-)

    4. Is there bike parking anywhere near the bus stop? Can a walking stick of some kind help you save your hip while walking?

    5. Good thoughts... Interestingly enough, now that the fever has broken, my hip is feeling better than it has in weeks. I don't know what that means. And my jury duty has actually been postponed a week. I emailed to ask what I was supposed to do if I was still sick on Monday and apparently that was too nuanced of a question, because they simply re-assigned me for the following week.

      Anyhow, I think I'll probably take the bus and just leave early enough so that I can walk slowly to the bus stop. Usually when I walk to the store I'm going at a pretty good clip and hauling 20-30 pounds of groceries home, so that may also be part of what makes it hurt. But I suppose I have an extra week to figure it all out now.

  7. I walk to work- about a mile and a half each way. Technically, the car would be quicker..except that by the time I'd driven in, maybe sat in traffic, parked, and then walked from the car park to work I might as well have walked the whole way! Plus it saves the cost of fuel/wear and tear on the car and paying to park.
    I still use a car on my days off, though, as the yard where I go horse riding and the forest where I go running with my dog (and lots of other people with their dogs!) is not accessible in any other way (too far for cycling and walking and not on any public transport routes...or at least not at the times I need!)
    I don't mind driving, though- perhaps because I live in a small town where there is only traffic at the start and end of the work day, and most of my driving is through the countryside/villages etc.

    Anyway, I think it's great to reassess habits/how you do things from time to time, as well as possessions and organisation of possessions...now trying to think if there are any things that I do which seem convenient but aren't...

    1. Congrats on walking to work! I'm sure it's much less stressful than driving would be!

      I don't think driving per se is a horrible thing. The problem is that so many people are forced into so much of it on a regular basis. And when the cars move along at a crawl because of traffic, it starts to seem pointless!

    2. One day this winter the traffic was really bad because of an accident. I passed one particular car near the start of my walk to work- it was sitting in a queue of traffic. I saw that same car drive into town at the same time that I arrived on foot.
      I was quite smug :)

      The other benefit of walking is that I am fitter and lighter than I was when I drove to work!

    3. Ha! There's a section where the bike trail runs right along the interstate highway for about 100 yards. Sometimes CatMan and I hit it right at rush hour, and I always get a perverse sort of glee riding along faster than the cars are going.

  8. Cat, using your example of the car, I think for myself I took it as a given that a car was easier. When I was in high school I had to take the bus any where that was too far for me to walk, and while I could walk a mile or two any more than that was pushing it. I had to know the bus schedule and time my life around that. I was often standing on corners that were less than desirable (read slightly dangerous) in order to make it home. So for me the car meant freedom from a schedule.

    But once I gave up my car I remembered the fun side of living without a car. Sure I needed to know the schedules, but to go to the beach I would take one bus downtown where I would catch the ferry then hike to the beach up a lovely path. Once I had a car the trips to the beach involved a lot of waiting at lights and took just as long to arrive at my destination as the bus and ferry did. Plus the ferry was a lovely trip, being out on the water away from traffic was a joy.

    Where my generation took for granted that turning 16 meant the opportunity to get our driver's license I am thrilled to see so many today not bother to ever get their license because they question that sunk cost of having it. In Pennsylvania, if you don't own a car you are supposed to forfeit your license which makes no sense to me. While my boys wanted their license when they turned 16, their wives never wanted to drive. Both later did because with children they felt they needed to have a way to take the children to doctor appointments while hubby was working, but they still would rather not drive.

    1. I totally agree. Getting around without a car is just sooo much more pleasant and less stressful. And it makes me very happy that the younger generation is really not swallowing the automobile kool-aid to the same degree that we did.

      And that law sounds totally crazy! Because... if you don't own a car you somehow lose your ability to drive?!? What about zipcar and other services like that? Me no likey!


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