I was at the opera, and the main character pretended she was a man for most of the evening. She began the show by dressing so we could see that she was a woman pretending to be a man and I was struck by how she put on her shoes: first one sock, then the shoe, then the other sock, and the other shoe. That’s how I put on my socks and shoes.

The next day, I was at the acupuncture clinic, and I noticed someone putting on his shoes: both socks first, then both shoes, starting on the right both times.

I asked a few people, and everyone seemed to have really strong opinions about the correct order of such things. Several people explained that they put on both socks first "in case there was a fire." (Wouldn’t you rather have one shoe than no shoes in a fire? What if you needed to stomp the fire out?) People were very committed to the "correct" order of things.

It got me thinking about what other things we do in a certain order by rote: brushing teeth, brushing hair, starting the car and putting on a seat belt. I walk every day and always take the same route or some version of the same route. I told myself it was because I loved the walk so much. So I decided to prove it. I walked the route in the opposite direction.

A walk that normally takes an hour and a half took two and a quarter hours! I had trouble getting across a major intersection—normally I crossed there an hour later when the traffic had died down. People I routinely nodded and smiled at and said good morning to didn’t recognize me (nor I them until I realized that I wasn’t paying attention). I noticed houses and shops that I’d never seen before, I got a whole different view of some massive construction, and I began to tire right where I usually got to my happy place.

I know that I’m a creature of many habits, so I decided that it was clearly time to shake things up. I sat to my work in a different place, listened to different music, practiced my music at a different time of day, watched different things on television, wore different clothes than usual, did my shopping and laundry on different days, went to bed at a different time—even brushed my teeth in a different order. Some of the changes felt refreshing, some were annoying or felt like interference, and some, like the walk reversal, were interesting and informative.

The most useful thing was what I found energizing—working in a different place, starting at the other end of the To Do List, changing the music I listen to when I’m working.

It seems logical that shaking up the usual order of things would be useful in a larger project with more staff, too. Not change for the sake of change if it’s disruptive, but maybe the alphabet could start in the middle for a change.

Back in the day, when we used to edit on printed-out copies, I learned a neat trick for catching things like repeated words or extra spaces—things that are hard to catch under normal circumstances. Turn the page upside-down. As it happens, I have some peculiarity in my brain that lets me read and write upside-down with great facility (I can’t write in cursive upside-down, only printing, which makes me wonder if I learned this trick before I learned cursive), but even so, I found more errors like that than I did when editing right-side up.

Another trick is for when I get stuck while writing. Write it out of order! You don’t have to start at the beginning of the article/chapter/book/paper/story when you’re writing any more than you have to start at the beginning when you’re reading. Write the bits that interest you most or that are easiest to write, and then go back and introduce them. Or, if you’re really stuck, write each heading/chapter title/topic on three-by-five cards and toss them in the air. Start by writing the cards that land right-side-up. Or the upside-down ones. Boom! Responsibility for writing in order is over. Writing this way guarantees that you’ll go back and read from end-to end to make sure it all gels. (Believe me, your editor knows that you didn’t reread your article a single time because of all the stupid typos, but also, things written in haste read like things written in haste.)

Software development projects are commonly done out of order. Sometimes you need to test the viability of a project by tacking the most difficult bits first. Sometimes you start with the output of a project: reports and user interfaces come to mind. Sometimes it’s just how you delegate responsibilities for features. Assigning people to doing the various tasks in a large project gives you the opportunity for different views about how to proceed. Even the act of delegating tasks gives you different perspectives on timing, tooling, and approaches.

There are many ways to shake up your process, and I plan to be more interested in them, and to take note when I’ve fallen into a habit. Even so, it’s just wrong to put on both socks and then both shoes. That’s just crazy talk.