You know the sequencing problem. You want to bake cookies, but you don’t have any eggs, so first you have to go to the store, but you don’t have any cash, so first you have to the ATM, but you don’t have enough money in that account, so first you have to transfer money from another account.

So, there’s the solution to this sequencing problem: Transfer the money, go to the ATM and get cash, go to the store and buy eggs, bring them home and bake cookies.

I mention the sequencing problem for two reasons.

First, I’ve learned of late that, when I’m stressed, I begin to have difficulty solving the sequencing problem. After Jackie broke her wrist, for example, there was a bunch of extra work I had to do. That would have kept me busy enough, but it was made worse by an abrupt decline in my ability to solve the sequencing problem.

I’d be hungry, so I’d need to fix dinner, but we wouldn’t have any ingredients, so I’d need to go to the store first, but also the kitchen was a mess so I had to do dishes first. And then I’d be paralyzed:  two things that needed to be done “first,” with no way to parallelize them, and no clear way to decide how to sequence them.

Now, anyone with any sense would realize that it doesn’t matter whether you do the dishes first or the shopping first. (Or even decide to just go out to eat, and do the shopping and dishes when you’re not so hungry.) But, as I say, when I’m over-stressed I seem to develop deficiencies in my ability to solve the sequencing problem.

The second reason I mention it, though, is that this disability in solving the sequencing problem manifests itself in a perverse desire to go beyond solving a specific sequencing problem. I find myself wanted to produce a general solution to the sequencing problem.

This is insane. There is no general solution to the sequencing problem. It’s not just computationally infeasible: it’s a meaningless concept. A general solution to the sequencing problem would amount to an ordered list of everything I’ll ever need to do. There is no such thing.

I need to keep this in mind. All that’s possible are specific solutions to the sequencing problem. Fortunately, this is all we need.

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3 thoughts on “A general solution to the sequencing problem

  1. Can’t make a decision? Don’t know what to do? Then you have what it takes to be … a MANAGER!!!! :-)

  2. Actually, I think there are things like this– there’s some sort of system of index cards that you keep on the counter and go through daily/weekly/monthly to remind yourself of routine chores, and Getting Things Done, and Flylady. If things like the dishes and buying groceries were automated, it would reduce the number of sequencing problems you would have in the first place.

  3. Good point! A lot of what is called “time management” is actually hints and tips for simplifying sequencing problems, to make it more amenable to solution!

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