Going on autopilot

Everybody has at least a few habits and routines. Some of them are so minor we don’t even think of them as a routine. For instance, at the end of most work days I fill in my timesheet, check in all my documents and code, shut down the computer, make one last run to the kitchen (rinse coffee mug, throw out trash), put away my headphones, put away my badge, pack things up in my backpack, and leave.

Simple and logical and no problem, right?

Some of those steps have a bunch of sub-steps. My time sheet, for instance: we don’t clock in and out, but rather I have to assign my work time to various projects and codes that I’m authorized for. So I log into this interface that looks sort of like a spreadsheet and enter numbers in various columns. I may put an hour to general maintenance, a half hour to marketing support, three and a half hours to Project A, and so on. Plus some of the codes require me to put in a short description of precisely what tasks I worked on that day. Then I click total, click save, and sign out.

For the headphones, I unplug the wired noise-canceling headphones I use for listening to music and podcasts at work, fold them up, and wrap their cord around the folded phones and put them in a drawer. Frequently the next thing I do after that is take the badge lanyard that hangs around my neck all day off, wrap the lanyard around my badge and bus pass, then slide them into my pocket. I need the badge to unlock doors to get out of the building (yes, really), and if it’s a day I walk only halfway home then catch the bus, I’ll need my bus pass. And, of course, in the morning I’ll need the bus pass and badge to get back.

So last Thursday I’m locking down and putting things away, and when I get to the badge I roll the lanyard around the badge and start to stick in in the drawer, right next to the headphones.


And that could have been really bad, because while I can get into the stairwell out of the building without the key, when I get down to the first floor, I can’t get back out of the stairwell without it. I can go all the way down to the bottom of the stairs and exit in the lowest level of the parking garage, and take the fire-exit route out onto the street behind the building instead of my usual spot, so it wouldn’t be a complete disaster, but I would have had to pay cash for the bus the next day, and then had to get the security guard in the lobby or a coworker to let me up the elevator to our floor (you need badges to use the elevator, too), and it just would have been inconvenient and a hassle and at least a little bit embarrassing.

The scary thing was that I didn’t notice that the headphones were already in the drawer right away. And obviously I was being totally oblivious to the fact that the badge and bus pass in their vinyl holders neither look nor feel at all like the headphones. The only similarity is that both have a cord-like part that I wrap around them before putting them away.

It makes those news stories about people going into the wrong house and going to sleep in someone else’s bed seem a little more understandable, no?

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