How-To versus How-I

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Over the years I have written hundreds of posts that might loosely fall into the category of “how-to” posts. Ten years ago I wrote a Going Paperless series which ended up with something like 150 episodes. Currently I am writing a Practically Paperless series. In between I’ve written posts on blogging, on writing, on coding, all of which might be considered “how-to” posts.

But I don’t think of them as “how-to” posts. I think of them as “how-I” posts.

From as far back as I can remember (going back to the days of Usenet newsgroups in the 1990s) I’ve been bothered by “how-to” posts that contain a judgement that there is one way–and only one way–to do something, and this this is the right way. Any time I saw posts like that, I thought, “Sure, for you.” Other people might work differently. This is not to say there are some tasks that have a generally agreed upon set of steps, but the posts I’m talking about are not as rigid as this. There is always more than one way to do something.

Early on, I took the approach with my posts that this was how I did something; it was what worked well for me. I think this has served me well over the years. I also think it is part of the reason that my posts on writing, or subjects like going paperless rarely (if ever) stirred any controversey. I tried to make it clear in each post that what I was writing about worked well for me, but that everyone worked differently. If it works for you, great. If not, there are always other ways to do things.

The “how I” approach reminds me of a lab book approach. I experiment, and I document my experimentation in public–on the blog. Sometimes things work well. Sometimes they work well for a while, and then stop working. Sometimes, they don’t work at all. This also helps to explain why I occasionally change my mind about things. I’ve started to lose count, for instance, on how many times I’ve decided to keep my journal on paper, and then switch to digital, only to switch back to paper. It is all part of experimentation to figure out what works best for me.

Online, I’ve found a wide spectrum of reaction to “how-to” posts. On the one end, there is the “how-I” approach that I try to take. On the other is the more dogmatic approach that often results in long, angry comment threads, which I avoid. I write as a way of relieving stress, and as a way of working out my own thoughts. I don’t need an angry comment thread or controvertial post, especially if its only purpose is to generate more clicks.

I realize that I can sometimes be repetitive in saying things like “this works well for me.” But it is true. I don’t assume that because something works well for me it will work well for everyone else. It might, but that would be a huge (almost alarming) coincidence. That repetitiveness is just part of the way I work, the way I experiment with things.

How I do something today isn’t necessarily how I did it yesterday, and it may not be how I do it tomorrow. More than anything, I try to learn along the way and make adjustment. Anyone who has followed this blog for a long time can see an example of this, for instance, in how I’ve managed to-do lists has changed frequently over the years. That’s me, experimenting again and gain to find the best solution that works for me. This sometimes leads to confusion.

I think of the “how-I” approach as an evolving one. While finding a perfect solution to a problem would be nice, I don’t think it is possible. I expect things to change over time as I learn new things, evaluate what works for me and what doesn’t and adjust along the way. Ten years ago I was an avid Evernote users. Today, I’m enamoured by Obsidian. The path between those two events is not a sudden and direct one. Instead, there are innumerable steps in between, small successes and failures as I reevaluate my requirements and figure out better ways to do things. This involves some amount of churn, and while it would be nice to avoid that churn, I wouldn’t trade the stability for the incremental improvements I try to make over time.

Written on January 24, 2022.

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