Guy Browning: How to ... use instructions

If you really wanted to hide the meaning of life, the best place would be in an instruction manual, tucked away under "Read this before you start". This would guarantee it would remain undiscovered for centuries.

The law is a set of instructions for living in our society. Lawyers are living proof that these instructions are seldom clear and rarely followed. The government continually issues instructions for everything on the basis that we are too stupid to work things out for ourselves. As we voted for them in the first place, they may be on to something.

People leave instructions in their wills. For many, this is the only time anybody will take any notice of their instructions on anything, and by then it's too late. Of course, you have to leave a certain sum of money for your instructions to be taken seriously.

Giving instructions is one of the most futile of all human endeavours. Telling someone, "Here's what you have to do" releases a chemical in their brain that automatically shuts down their capacity to hear, understand or remember anything you say afterwards. When you ask if they've understood your instructions, the answer "Yes" simply acknowledges you've stopped talking and they're ready to try it their own way.

Instructions are tiny pieces of cultural DNA. If you had to leave instructions for somebody else to lead your life instead of you, it would be interesting to see how few points you would need. Before trying, remember that feeding the cat is a six-part instruction.

Work emails are often instructions. Research shows that the likelihood of something happening as instructed recedes with every line of an email. People rarely read beyond 10 lines in an email and adding a PS is the communication equivalent of telling the west wind.

You learn driving from a driving instructor, not a driving teacher and certainly not a driving counsellor. Really important things are commanded, important things are instructed, quite important things are taught and inconsequential things are shared in an involving relevant dialogue. It would be really useful if there were a set of further instructions for each of the Ten Commandments, say, to show you how to follow them. Then again, no one would read them.

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