In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, Emily P. Freeman and I talk about the technique of “pointing and calling.” The idea comes from the Japanese rail system: as train workers perform their duties, they constantly point at objects (signal lights, speedometers, clocks, etc) and state obvious things about them. “Light is green.” “Speed is 80.” “Time is 4:13.” As Emily says, she might have also learned this method from her mother, who always toured the kitchen before she left the house, touching every knob on the stove saying “Off. Off. Off. Off.” In the Japanese rail system, pointing and calling reduced train mishaps by 85%. And, as far as I know, Emily P. Freeman’s mother avoided burning her house down.

Pointing and calling is a discipline of noticing. According Emily P. Freeman, it “takes something that is typically subconscious and makes it conscious.” And noticing is the first job of the writer—or, indeed, anyone who hopes to make sense of the life she finds herself in. Also—and this is a key point—pointing and calling is not about diagnosing, only noticing.

In discernment and decision-making, as in writing, there is usually a temptation to skip too quickly to what things mean rather than simply observing what things are. What are the facts on the ground? If you don’t know the facts, you can’t very well know what they mean. Indeed, deciding too soon what things mean makes it impossible to observe what they are.

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