06/10/2011 01:42 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2011

Balanced Life -- Frustrated by Devices? Read the Manual.


Handsome, well-made tools are a joy to use; confusing devices are a drain. So often, I find, things once easy to operate -- TVs, irons, dishwashers, alarm clocks, washing machines -- are now humiliatingly challenging.

Cognitive-science professor Donald Norman points out that when we expect a device -- like a toaster or video camera -- will be fairly simple to operate, and it's not, we assume we're at fault, instead of holding the object responsible. One Sunday afternoon, when I was frantically trying to synchronize the data on my laptop with my desktop, I kept getting strange error messages. In desperation, I asked my husband to take a look. "Oh. Our internet service isn't working," he announced after fifteen seconds on the computer. I'd assumed I was doing something wrong.

Somehow, I'd become surrounded by several common household appliances that I hadn't quite mastered. I was pretty slow with the DVR. I didn't know how to use the "mute" function on our landline phone. I struggled to upload photos from our camera. I felt powerless in a confrontation with my laptop's temperamental wireless mouse.

As I thought about these household frustrations, I realized that I'd been contributing to my own confusion: I almost never bothered to read the instruction manual. I resolved to "Read the manual"; when I acquired a new gizmo, or had trouble with an old gizmo, I'd push myself to learn to operate it.

I considered the video camera that my husband had bought. When he brought it home, I'd ripped it out of the box, threw away the packaging, flipped through the manual, and started pushing buttons. Now I'd try a different way. I waited until I had some time and patience to spare, then pulled out the manual and sat down with the camera in my hand. I read the instructions carefully and calmly. I looked at the labeled diagrams and at the camera. I experimented to make sure I knew how to use it. Suddenly, the video camera seemed much less confusing. (However, I still resent the fact that I had to read a manual several times to learn to use a toaster.)

"Read the manual" has been helpful on a metaphorical level, as well, to remind me to make necessary preparations and not to expect instant mastery. Did I have the tools I needed, and did I know how to use them? Was I actually looking for the pull-tab or the "tear here" mark that would allow me easily to open a package instead of struggling needlessly? Was I giving myself time to study and learn? Too often I skimped on preparation time, whether planning the online invitations for my daughter's birthday party or learning a new word-processing trick. "Read the manual" reminded me to take time to prepare.

Little things, very little -- nevertheless, they made a real difference to my comfort with my possessions. As Benjamin Franklin pointed out, "Human Felicity is produc'd not so much by great Pieces of good Fortune that seldom happen, as by little Advantages that occur every Day."

How about you? Have you ever found yourself struggling with a device because you didn't bother to read the manual?

I'm working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone's project will look different, but it's the rare person who can't benefit. Join in -- no need to catch up, just jump in right now.

* One of my favorite resolutions is to Read more, and I was very happy to be included in this post by Camille Noe Pagan about how different writers make time to read.

* Want to launch a group for people doing Happiness Projects together? Email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com for the starter kit. Want to see if a group exists in your area? Look here. Want to talk to people about starting a new group? Start a discussion here.