Deliberate Practice and Grocery Shopping

A funny thing keeps happening to me lately. I’ll go grocery shopping, help bag my own groceries, and the cashier will make a point of thanking me. I always try to speed things along by bagging my own groceries, so I don’t know why- suddenly- the cashiers are so grateful.

I usually make my way through the store and load my cart so that it will be easy to bag the groceries later. I know I will unload the cart so that the heavy things go first (like bottles of Topo Chico), then packaged items (like trail mix), then fragile items (fresh mint in a plastic bag). I’ve done this for as long as I can remember, and I think it has to do with Therbligs. I wrote about Therbligs and the effect that the book Cheaper by the Dozen has had on me in a previous post.

Cheaper by the Dozen is about an efficiency expert who has a dozen kids and the systems their family had in place to keep things running smoothly.

A Therblig is a unit of motion or thought. Suppose a man goes into the bathroom to shave. We’ll assume that his face is all lathered and he is ready to pick up his razor. He knows where the razor is, but first he must locate it with his eye. That is “search,” the first Therblig. His eye finds it and comes to rest — that’s “find,” the second Therblig…

When Dad made a motion study, he broke down each operation into a Therblig, and then tried to reduce the time taken to perform each Therblig. Perhaps certain parts to be assembled could be painted red and others green, so as to reduce the time required for “search” and “find.” Perhaps the parts could be moved closer to the object being assembled, so as to reduce the time required for “transport loaded.”

Cheaper by the Dozen, Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr and Ernestine Gilbreth Cary

After two and half years of living in Boston, where I would have to carry my groceries all the way home, I have gotten very particular about how my grocery bags are loaded. I have a distinct memory of walking several blocks with a pasta box digging into my side. Now my goal is to carry all my groceries up two flights of stairs in one trip, so that means using as few bags as possible and distributing heavy items evenly into different bags.

I apply this kind of analysis to almost everything I do– I’ve done it for so long I’m not always aware of it! When I worked at Starbucks, my manager once said I was, “Always thinking…” because I made some comment about moving items closer to where they were needed. The best thing about working at Starbucks was that they had lots of these kind of systems in place and it was a good environment for someone like me to try to improve them.

Part of the analysis is the constant motivation to get better and more efficient at each task. I now know this mentality is called deliberate practice. I still find it strange that a book I loved as a child could have programmed me so thoroughly. Because I loved Cheaper by the Dozen, my behavior for everything I do has been shaped to find efficiency, even grocery shopping.

Drinking Tea

Reading The Hobbit makes me want to drink tea.  So does Jane Austen.  And Tolstoy.  I suppose it’s just the power of suggestion, but I wonder how much deeper this influence goes.

One book that had a great impact on me was Cheaper by the Dozen.  I must have been in middle school when I first read it.  The father, Frank Gilbreth, was an efficiency engineer, and I have been obsessed with efficiency most of my life.  He invented a concept called Therbligs (Gilbreth spelled backwards, almost.)  I wish I could quote the exact passage, but my copy is still in a box in my living room, but here’s what I remember:

A therblig is a unit of action.  So, if you are combing your hair, the first therblig is to locate the comb, the second is to move your hand to the comb, the third is to grasp the comb, the fourth is to lift the comb, etc.  Obsessing over the distance between tools and color-coding items helped me a lot when I worked at Starbucks.  I think I’ve mellowed a bit, because I no longer get so frustrated when things aren’t organized efficiently, or traffic doesn’t behave the way it should.  Still, having read Cheaper by the Dozen when I was young had a strong influence over my behavior well into my 20s.

This worries me because I wonder how other books have influenced me in ways I haven’t noticed.  I read Jane Eyre recently, and it struck me how awkward Mr. Rochester is.  I wasn’t able to judge his awkwardness when I was young, so did that set me up to respond to awkwardness as normal and normal social cues as odd?  I’ll probably never know.

Back to my tea.