Steve Madgwick ponders why it takes half an hour to work out how to use the light switches in most hotel rooms.

I wish my university had offered ‘Decoding Hotel Light Switches 101′ as an elective.

It certainly would have been more practically useful than most of the subjects that I studied. The complexity of the subject certainly means that it requires a tertiary education too.

Hotel Light Switches 101 would have saved me at least 15 minutes of precious by-the-pool time at just about every hotel I have ever checked into. It also would have contributed to countless more hours delicious sleep in these same rooms – usually because I couldn’t work out how to turn off a militant light that was shining directly into my eyes, usually from some bizarre place such as the closet.

Hotel light switch puzzles transcend tariff or star rating, in fact, the fancier the hotel the more Rubik’s cube-esque the system of switches may be – modern minimalist design favours aesthetic over function almost every time.

Recently, I stayed in a quality hotel room where the little panel of four light switches within swiping distance of the bed operated the hall light, the bathroom light, but not the light on the wall directly next to the bed. Handy if you’re trying to play practical jokes on someone in the other room, but not if you’re lazily trying to nod off from the safety of your doona.

And, of course, the other one among the four was the ‘mystery’ switch. There’s always one, one that seems to operate nothing at all. I always stare at it for long periods in contemplation, wondering if it ever worked, or whether it’s connected to the next room – or if someone in a hotel in Kyrgyzstan has just fallen down the stairs because their hallway lamp suddenly blacked out.

My theory is that the mystery switch is an in-joke for hotel light-switch technicians. Maybe when you switch it off it emits an ultra-low frequency punch line only audible to those in the trade – triggering maniacal cackling from the hunch-backed technician in their nearby basement lair – “Another fool, another foooool.” Maybe not…

Then there are the double circuits: light switches that work perfectly well, unless you press another related button on an opposing wall. Then you must decode the pattern (“hmmm, this one down, those two up…”) before you regain control of your favourite bank of switches.

Light switch functionality is an area where quality hotels can learn a thing or two from caravan parks, where every switch has an orange label helpfully dynomoed above or below it: “TOILET MAIN”.

Strangely this is unlikely to catch on at your average swanky hotel (except perhaps in an ironic, arty kind of way), but luckily I have devised another solution, a light-bulb moment, as such.

As part of your check-in routine, hotel staff should perform a pre-sleep light switch familiarisation, exactly like a pre-flight safety demonstration on a plane.

“The lights to the loo are over there, and there, and there [picture gently waving arms and robotic smile].”

“In case of emergency, if you are unable to extinguish the light, place your hands on the nearest heavy object and propel at said light.”

Problem solved.