Following Instructions

Have you ever thought you were following instructions exactly as described, and then found out that you weren’t.

I just discovered that I’ve been incorrectly mixing the milk powder formula for my 1 year old daughter.

I’ve been putting in 3 scoops, when it was meant to be 33% stronger at 4 scoops. I had been adamant I had read the instructions and was doing it correctly. I wasn’t.

Incredibly this is now my third child. Even though all three children were breastfed, I have still gone through probably more than a hundred of these milk formula cans, which means I’ve prepared many times that number of bottles over the years.

I even know I have revisited that particular set of instructions many times.

I still had it wrong.

And it’s not a one off experience for me.

As an example, about 5 years ago I was recommended to try a new shampoo.

It had instructions on it amounting to 2 sentences of a total of about 20 words.

In the first week of use I re-read those 20 words every day. I changed what I was doing on at least 4 occasions before I was happy I had it right. It was a very humbling experience.

However I suspect I’m not alone.

In my counseling work I get to give other people instructions too, and I’ve noticed what they do with them.

However by setting up this blog I found an even more obvious area for me to observe people’s ability to follow instructions.

With this blog I have an Intern Program where I teach people hands-on how to run an internet business.

Would you believe that the commonest problem people have had in following the Intern Program is not following instructions?

Even when I have let people know that they did not follow the instructions, they still repeated the same errors.

Then they got frustrated, and all but one stopped.

Really, really interesting.

Others have performed the procedures successfully. I re-read the instructions myself, and on only one occasion was the instruction itself unclear.

On all the other occasions the issue was that the instructions had not been precisely followed. In fact part of the Intern Program’s design is to test how well people can follow instructions because it is a crucial skill for success in business and in life.

How often have you tried something and then given up when it didn’t work?

On a rough survey of myself, my interns, and my patients over many years, I would suspect that one of the commonest problems will have been that you did not precisely follow the instructions.

“Oh, no, not me”, you say. “The problems I run into are one due to inadequate instructions in the first place, not because I don’t follow them.”

Well, gently I ask you to consider this…

IF, in the bizarrely unlikely event that you didn’t follow an instruction precisely as described, how would you discover your error?

Without feedback from someone who knows what it should be instead, you wouldn’t ever know!

This is the whole problem.

You may NEVER know of this error when it happens, and you can spend all your time identifying a thousand other reasons which have nothing to do with the crucial issue.

So there are only two possible solutions.

1. Self Help: Repeatedly start over, as if for the first time, and recheck whether you are following the instructions.

2. Other Help: Find someone who has already done what you want to do and who is willing to give you honest feedback on your efforts as you go. You can call them a counselor, adviser, friend, or even enemy, because sometimes that might be what it feels like, but in the end they are an extremely valuable mentor.

Even professional sports people are continually getting instruction on how to refine what they do to be closer and closer to what is ideal.

Of course you may get to the level where you decide to do things your own way. But first it’s a good idea to have done things the standard way, so you have a basis for comparing your personalized version.

So go ahead.

Pick something you have tried in your life that didn’t work out.

Consider if it might be at all possible that you didn’t follow the instructions 100% as described.

-Dr Martin Russell

6 thoughts on “Following Instructions”

  1. Who me, not get it right?! 🙂 I was exploring your site last night and found your link to another site about cards (can’t find it now), but I really liked the lower frame with the audio instructions. What a great idea! People are so technophobic. But I didn’t even sign up, because I think I know how to run a successful business, but I don’t really want to be a “success”. I love my life and my husband makes good money; I’m just not motivated by making money.

    BTW, I learned the internet through trial and error and continue to do so (my blog links to my business site – I think).

  2. Wolf Halton says:

    This is an ongoing issue, at least for me. My most common mistake seems to be reading all of the instructions before I begin. This can lead to very interesting results.
    This week I have decided to practice intensionally reading all instructions twice before beginning the process. So far, where I remembered to do this, my results came FASTER than (I think) they would have done otherwise.

  3. Jan Dodds says:

    Martin, you continue to come up with interesting quirks of human behaviour to discuss! I like to think I am one who follows instructions (to the letter!), the exception being, if I think I already know how to do something, I won’t bother reading the instructions. Sometimes that is my undoing, and I need to resort to ‘looking at the book!”

  4. I know that watching a video tape of myself teaching, giving a short speech and hurdling (many years ago) were incredibly revealing.

    Avoiding eye contact, fidgeting, moving from side to side – all things I had studied and understood in the lecture class. But when I was up there and doing it, all these faults were very obviously visible!

    Of course, with practice and time, my skill levels improved but ultimately plateaued. ( Further tweaks are possible I believe – but maybe not straight line improvement).

    Mindful practice – maybe that’s what the Intern Progs are missing?!

  5. Feedback is vital – self or other, and video is excellent.

    The Intern Program here has feedback as part of it. You can ask questions as you go along. As far as I am aware it is the only one offering this feedback.

    As this takes my personal time I doubt I will be able to continue this for very long, but as a Self Help site I too thought it was important. It turns out Interns only ask questions about half the time; some never, some every time. At least for the moment, they have the choice.

  6. Last October 2007 we do have a little orientation about a certain matter and to start we do have a little game or an exercise to be considered. They gave us a test just like an IQ test; what I did was I read the question per number and answered it till the last question. I’m so surprised to found out that on the bottom part of the paper, there’s an indication that the paper should remain clean and the answer must be voiced out. What a shame! Since then, I do read the whole thing before I answer something.

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