Automated Processes

This is apropos of my recent post on cooking vs. driving. It seemed easier to make a new post than to respond individually to the multiple people who made related points. 🙂

When I talked about the “attention” either task requires, what I’m really referring to is the extent to which certain processes are automated or not. If you think back to when you first started driving, changing lanes involved something like the following steps:

  1. Look for a suitable gap
  2. Put on turn signal
  3. Check blind spot
  4. Move into gap
  5. End turn signal

(Or some variant thereof.)

Once you’ve been driving for a while, though, the process of changing lanes looks something more like this:

  1. Change lanes

All the smaller steps that go into the act are sufficiently automated that you don’t have to think about them, not to the degree that you did before.

So it is with me and cooking — or rather, when it comes to cooking, I’m still a novice driver. If I’m making a dish that calls for chicken sautéed in garlic and olive oil, then to me, the process looks like this:

  1. Put olive oil in pan
  2. Peel garlic cloves
  3. Smash up garlic cloves
  4. Put garlic in oil
  5. Get cutting board
  6. Get chicken out of package, onto board
  7. Throw away packaging
  8. Cut up chicken
  9. Heat up burner
  10. Put chicken in oil
  11. Cook until — hmm, is that long enough? — not sure — okay, we’ll call that done.

Whereas for those of you who cook a lot, I’m betting the process looks more like:

  1. Sauté chicken in garlic and olive oil

Because the steps along the way are sufficiently automated that you don’t really have to think about them to any high degree. “Peel garlic cloves” isn’t a process in its own right; it’s part of a larger process.

And this means you have more processing cycles available for other things. When I’m driving, I can think about writing or sing along with the music or have a conversation. When the experienced cooks among you are cooking, you can listen to an audiobook or watch a TV show or — and this is what several of you reported — think about cooking. But my impression is that what you’re thinking about is stuff like “hmmm, could use a bit more rosemary” or “this should have a salad to go with it” or “if I want to make this again, we’ll need to buy more nutmeg.” In other words, you can contemplate the bigger picture, whereas I am busy struggling with the fact that I still don’t know how to cut up a chicken breast very efficiently. I can’t spare the cycles to think about anything other than that task right there.

Of course, automation hath its dangers. Drivers often overestimate their ability to multitask, which is why laws against texting while driving are increasingly common. And probably most of us who drive a lot have had the experience where you set out for the doctor’s office or wherever, but then autopilot takes over and you drive to the gym instead. (Not just a hazard of driving; it can also happen on foot/bike/etc!) In the kitchen, inattention can result in a cut finger or a burned pan. But the fact remains that competence consists partly of being able to do the minor stuff without having to think about it in a directed, conscious fashion.

I am a competent driver. I am not a competent cook. I would probably enjoy cooking more if I were competent, because then I could think about other stuff . . . but that would require me to cook more frequently first. 😛

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