Linguistics class was where I first learned about top-down versus bottom-up processing. When we hear unclear speech, we can use top-down processing to figure out what someone probably said based on context. We sometimes use bottom-up processing instead, transferring sounds into words that sound close. The result is the basis of the game “Telephone.” It’s also responsible for the phenomenon of misheard song lyrics, like Jimi Hendrix’s “’Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy” and the CCR classic “There’s a Bathroom on the Right.” My family calls it “creative hearing.”
It just hit me that there are lots of areas where we resort to bottom-up processing, for lack of a better idea. Then we learn about a new approach that changes our perspective. An example would be watching The Dog Whisperer and suddenly seeing patterns in canine behavior that we never saw before. Another would be the day we watched a video about a better way to cut open a pomegranate. It’s the great Aha!
Clutter. We keep trying to GET ORGANIZED and it never seems to work. That’s partly because all those magazine articles keep showing us ways to shift all the stuff around in different stylish arrangements. Ever price some of the gorgeous organizing gear they show? $200 for a sliding pot rack? I ask of you! They never seem to show rooms that could have come from any of the cruddy little apartments I’ve lived in. The bottom-up approach is to try to figure out what to do with all the stuff in the house. We can make room for it under the bed! Extra shelves! Furniture and staircases with hidden storage! Tack strings into the ceiling and tie stuff up there! The top-down approach is to ask: What do we truly need, where is the best place to put it, what’s it costing to keep it, and can it be cleaned?
Money. “I can’t be overdrawn; I still have checks left!” It’s so easy to get behind financially. It seems like whenever anything extra shows up, an unanticipated expense comes right behind it, like a guy walking a goat on a leash, and the goat eats dollars and poops bills, and the guy is just there to, like, break your water heater or something. The problem with that analogy is that when the goat showed up, it didn’t bring any bonuses with it. That’s because that’s what life is like. It’s just this goat making your tires go bald and wearing out your kids’ shoes, endlessly. So anyway. The bottom-up method is to constantly run up debt, because it’s always one dang goat after another. The top-down method is to work out a budget that includes saving for that stuff, and trying to be at least a month ahead instead of a month behind.
Food. I’ll just speak for myself, here. I used to be chronically ill. I’m not anymore, but it took years to stumble across behavior changes that worked. From the perspective of a fit, healthy person, I was doing a lot of ineffective things that could have been resolved quickly and easily through minor changes. One of those changes was to consider what I ate on a daily and weekly basis, collectively, rather than item by item. While I would read food labels to avoid certain ingredients, I had no real idea what the calorie counts meant. I didn’t realize that a portion doesn’t always mean EAT THE WHOLE PACKAGE. There was no overall context in my mind. Now, I set out to meet my micronutrient targets over the course of each day. I choose whether to “treat myself” based on what I’ve eaten that week, rather than that afternoon. I have a top-down plan rather than an endless stream of individual, bottom-up factors.
What I’ve learned is that everything in life is easier with a system. I’ve also learned that other people have usually already done the work involved in coming up with such systems. All I have to do is experiment with them and keep the winners. Even a few minutes of top-down planning can change everything. I’ve followed a system to stay free of consumer debt, to train for a marathon, to lose weight and keep it off, to keep my house clean, to get at least 8 hours of sleep a night, to train my parrot, to travel with just one bag, to stop having night terrors… When I list it off like that, I remember how chaotic and exhausting it used to be, trying to juggle what felt like a million little details. Like you walk into your kitchen and it’s full of goats and they keep trying to chew on your pants, and every time you push one away another one stretches its neck out and takes a bite. Which explains all the distressed denim I’m seeing these days. The next time, you just take away their key and tell them they’ve lost Internet privileges. A top-down plan is in place.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.