Cognitive biases

If our goal is to help people make better choices, it helps to first create better feelings.

~ Seth Godin from, https://seths.blog/2021/07/narrative-and-feelings/

Godin often makes insightful points like this one. But I often wish he’d use his enormous reach to also talk about the other part—

If our goal is to help people make better choices, it helps even more to show them how they can use their rationality. It’s an inbuilt feature of being human—sometimes I’ve argued it is the defining characteristic of being human. It is, in fact, our planetaryily-unique super power. (We have other super-powers, like compassion, which I think may not be unique to humans.)

Yes, as Godin points out, we should create better feelings for others. But how great would each of our lives be if we weren’t governed by our feelings. The goal isn’t to eliminate feelings nor emotions—that’s a dumb idea. The goal is for all the parts of who we each are, to get the appropriate due.

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Forward. Backward. Preferred. Dis-preferred.

Like any good algebraist, he is made to think sometimes in a forward fashion and sometimes in reverse; and so he learns when to concentrate mostly on what he wants to happen and also when to concentrate mostly on avoiding what he does not want to happen.

~ Charlie Munger from, https://fs.blog/2016/04/crashing-planes-mungers-system/

That item from a list of six elements, originally from the best pilot education program in existence, made me realize there’s this thing that I do. For me it’s such an intuitive, automatic thing, but it occurs to me to share it to make it explicit.

Let’s begin by thinking about planning and learning. (I’m done. You are now thinking about planning and learning. :) Next, we’ll trot out three magnificently useful, relative adverbs: how, when and why. Six sublime questions instantly appear:

How do I plan?
When do I plan?
Why do I plan?
How do I learn?
When do I learn?
Why do I learn?

I’ve certainly spent a lot of time thinking about those questions. For example, I’ve a bunch of blog posts about knowledge systems that came from thinking about, “how do I learn?” I could spend all my time thinking about those six questions. Exploring those questions, understanding myself, and learning in general, are fine projects to spend time on. But it’s tough to get started. Each of those questions is a deep, Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole.

What I want to share is how to use a different framework to flip the entire process over. I want to share my way of making progress on those fine projects without intentionally working on them. Things happen. Thoughts arise. (Your experience may be similar to mine?) The following framework will take anything—happenings or thoughts—and guide it into being deep work on those six questions.

Simply ask:

Forward or backward in time: Is the event in the future or past? Am I thinking about the future or past?

And…

Prefer or dis-prefer: Do I prefer or dis-prefer the event? Do I prefer or dis-prefer what I’m thinking?

For me, the act of examining something—an event, a thought—in the light of those questions, (forward/backward? preferred/dis-preferred?,) leads me to learning about one, and sometimes several, of those six, big questions.

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You had me at ‘bacon’

One of the central conceits of the “man’s natural state” argument is that if we go back to some point in time, we’ll find it. We’ll finally come across the state of being where man lived totally in harmony with each other and with nature; eating the perfect diet for health, worshipping the correct gods, having sex in the natural and acceptable way. And besides studying religious texts, the tool that’s most frequently employed is the study of ancient, “pre-historic” man and woman. We hope that, by going back far enough, we’ll hit some arbitrary Point of Naturalness. That’s partially the approach used, for example, by the Paleo movement which has become such a popular force in nutrition. We evolved to eat bacon, right?

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2016/03/the-false-allure-of-a-natural-state-of-man/

I have avoided—I’ve no idea how—the rabbit hole of, “what is natural [for a human being’s flourishing]?” I have limited time, (I suggest doublechecking, as yours may also be limited,) and I’m really only interested in, “what is best for this human being’s flourishing?” I don’t care if we evolved to eat bacon. I do care how I feel after I eat bacon. …after I eat different types of bacon. …after I consider the monetary cost of buying bacon. …after I assess the environmental cost/footprint of eating bacon. …after I assess the societal aspects of bacon.

Sorry. All this talk of bacon. I lost my train of thought. Oh, right—

For a short span of several decades, I have complete control over my thoughts. At no time do I have absolute control over anything beyond my thoughts. (I have pretty reliable control over many things—movement of my hands for example. But even that control is not absolute. See: Disease, accidents, etc. At any moment, my preferences related to all the things beyond my thoughts, can easily be frustrated.) So the only thing that makes sense is to discover, reflect and then exercise what efficacy I have at any give moment: What do I know? How do I know it? What decision should I make now/today, given what I know? How would I find where my unknown unknowns are?

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Selection

In the most general sense, productivity is about navigating from a large constellation of possible things you could be doing to the actual execution of a much smaller number of things each day.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/04/20/the-productivity-funnel/

A decade ago, I was swamped by the sheer number things I could possibly do each day. In one sense, that’s a good problem to have. But good or bad problem, “swamped” and “drowning” are adjacent. I’d committed myself to far too many things. Large swaths of those “possible things” every day came with emotional baggage, and often with the self-imposed weight of “should.” And so I worked on that and eliminated all the negative things.

Unfortunately, selecting what to tackle each day remains just as challenging. I’ve a habit of creating a “page for today” that I scribble on early in the morning. As the day progresses, I cross things off, jot down notes, scribble things which I need to add to my other systems, etc.. Over the years, I’ve used various bits of random paper; for a time, I was using the back-side of all the printer paper from the recycle bin. I’ve used spiral notebooks, tablets, and even a custom spreadsheet, (which I printed on 8.5×11 paper and cut in half to make my own table of half-sheet daily schedule/grid.)

Recently, I realized that the size of the paper I was using was getting progressively smaller. I’m currently using a 3×5-size of Rhodia notebook. (These, if you’re interested. Durable, great paper, and, critically, every page is micro-perforated so I can tear out each day to start fresh the next day.) The sublime recipe of page size, line space, handwriting style and hours in the day goes a long way to keep my selection of what to do tending towards the possible. Whether the sheet for today feels cramped or airy is a good indication of what I’m setting myself up for.

And to be clear, I don’t plan every day into this little book early each morning. On the days when I’ve something big planned—a day trip to the beach, a long weekend away—I throw all structure to the wind. But most days I do.

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Starting

The tendency to put off difficult tasks that we don’t want to face is almost universal.

And it turns out, the moment of starting a task is often so much harder than actually doing the task.

~ Leo Babauta from, https://zenhabits.net/starting-task/

Tom Petty’s lyrics not withstanding, I agree with Leo. Starting is definitely the hardest part. Unfortunately, I don’t understand why it is so difficult for me.

Take this blog post. It’s 9pm. I go to sleep at 9:30. (Why, is an entirely different story, see, Sleep.) I’ve a long drive tomorrow, and I’ve a few things left to stuff in my overnight bag. I’ve waited all day to do this small task. Writing these blog posts is straightforward; I have a well-oiled process for dropping into the right mindset and dipping into a fertile sea of cached ideas to find one to inspire. Invariably, a few minutes into the process, I’ve found an interesting thread to pull on. This is so much fun, I could—quite literally—do this all day. So why then do I wait until 9pm?

Because you see, it’s not just writing this blog post. I feel all the things on my to-do lists—both literal and in my head—are like writing this blog post: Straightforward, self-chosen, in line with my priorities and goals, inherently interesting, generally worth doing, immediately rewarding in most cases. And yet, the proverbial 9pm rolls around before I feel enough pressure to start.

The only thing I can think of is that some part of my mind just knows that the list will never be done. No matter how many times the “let’s get stuff done” part of my brain were to rise to the occasion, there’s some other part of my brain that will roll Sisyphus’s rock back to the bottom. Maybe this is all there is to it? Is the problem, not the “doer” side, but the “setter upper of things to do” side? Is the problem that I don’t know how to simply be?

Have I, perhaps, only learned instead how to be a human doing?

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The only way out is through

If it’s easy, you’re not growing.

It’s like lifting weights: if you can do it without trying, you’re not going to get any stronger.

The whole point—of life, of working out, of work—is to push yourself, and to grow as a result of pushing against and through that resistance.

~ Ryan Holiday from, https://ryanholiday.net/seek-challenge/

Nine years ago I was smack in the middle of my HVAC-installer apprenticeship. I lovingly refer to the roughly two-week period as, “that time I got really into attic-yoga.” The contractor installing our central HVAC had a young fellow working with him, and that guy hurt his knee. I spent days learning how to make and insulate hard duct work, HVAC line sets (the wiring and refrigerant piping), electrical, removed the ancient mouse-pee infused blown-in insulation and eventually put in new fiberglass insulation through the attic. It was hell. Hot. Sweaty. Ichy. Low roof. Things to climb in, over, around, through and under. Mostly while carefully stepping, squatting, leaning, and crawling on the long thing ceiling joists. And it was not something I was planning on doing. One day I was all like, “Benjamin is installing the HVAC!” [that’s a money reference] and the next day I was studying attic-yoga.

I bring this up because it’s too easy to think “I’m doing the hard work!” when you are simply going to the gym (or for the morning run, whatever.) Sure, you’re working hard, you’re sweating, and building muscle; you are literally doing hard work.

But that’s nothing compared to choosing to do the hard work, on the spot. Do I whinge and call AAA (road-side assistance club) or do I climb under the van to figure out how to get the spare tire out at Midnight after a long day? Do I take the time to split the portion of the firewood that would be a pain 8 months from now, or do I just stack it and hate my today-self in the dead of winter? Do I take the time to carefully explain something even though it’s not my responsibility or do I just “walk past” that person who needs a hand? Right now, on the spot, do you choose the hard path?

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Two roles in a conversation

I assist in an online podcasting workshop where a student recently asked:

Could knowing all these [interviewing] techniques be making us more aware of the style, and […] getting us further away from the natural, inherent style we all have […] ?

I’ve mentioned before that I distinguish between “interview” and “conversation” in what I’m currently recording for podcast publication, (for Movers Mindset and other shows.) Today, I’m just going to gloss over that distinction and riff off this student’s excellent observation. Whether we label it “interview” or “conversation,” there’s a key milestone people go through when they realize that practicing something intentionally, is going to—at least partially—paper over their own innate style. This is a normal step in any journey involving mastery practice. After sufficient practice, you will find you still have an innate style; It’s simply different than the one you started with.

I believe that my role as a conversation partner, (being who my guest needs me to be for us to have a great conversation,) and my role in serving my listeners, (being who the listeners need me to be for them to enjoy and/or learn from a great conversation,) are antagonistic. The better I perform at one of those roles, the worse I perform at the other. That’s the balance I’m trying to work out each time I press record. Techniques which serve well for one role, can be detrimental to the other role.

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Fear of missing out

The constant interruptions and distractions of our society are, to me, the opposite of philosophy. Getting caught up in minutiae. Getting caught up in things that don’t matter. Getting caught up in things that are designed to exploit and antagonize us and our emotions.

~ Ryan Holiday from, https://ryanholiday.net/stop-watching-the-news/

The way out from the chaos is to first convince yourself that you are in chaos, and to then decide you don’t like the current situation.

It will not work for you to try taking a hiatus from all the distractions. If you try, (just some “for examples” here,) to put your phone down during dinner, or to have a no-internet weekend with your partner, or no internet-surfing in the bedroom, etc., these small diversions from your normal existence will be uncomfortable. So of course you won’t want that small discomfort to grow larger! And there you go; that’s the exact opposite of how you would expand the tranquility in your life. If—somehow—you deeply wanted more tranquility, then you would automatically do all those things I mentioned and many, many more.

The other day I drove to my favorite gym only to discover they were closed that day. It happens that this was announced on Facebook. (I’m not on Facebook.) This experience was not the least bit annoying to me. I drove 20 minutes each way. The ride was pleasant; Just like every other time I drive in a car because I long ago resolved the issues with myself which caused driving and riding in cars to be annoying. I did not begrudge that 40 minutes as “wasted,” and I simply went on to the next thing I wanted to do.

I’m not railing against Facebook. I’m pointing out that if you fix your life, Facebook no longer has an attraction for you.

You are not obligated to be constantly reachable.

You are not obligated to have an opinion on every topic someone might raise in conversation.

You are not obligated to help every other person you physically or virtually encounter.

What obligations do you have?

What do you truly desire?

What is the meaning of life?

Actually… are those even the right questions to ask oneself?

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Anything noteworthy since

One of my recent acquisitions is this door-stop of a volume, Forty Thousand Quotations Prose and Poetical, published in 1940. Several thoughts spring to mind at this point:

Obviously, this book is 80 years old. Wait, no, that was not obvious to me. I was thinking, “1940… Wow, that’s like 60 years ago,” followed not as quickly as it should have been by, “…no wait, that’s 80 years ago.” So the first thought I’ll share here is that the years pile on like onion-skin pages. Year after year after year after year and before you realize it: Door stop. (Both you have a door stop, and you are a door stop.)

Upon arrival I immediately flipped through it to see what I’d gotten for my $14-plus-shipping. The book says, “prose and poetical,” but I don’t know diddly-squat about this Douglas fellow. There could be forty thousand stinkers better left forgotten. My verdict: The density is low. Perhaps 1 in 4 strike me as even worthy of inclusion in the book. Still, ten thousand quotations prose and poetical are worth 2/10 of one cent each, (in my book.)

It’s said—I’ve heard it said, I’ve said it myself now many times—that our favorite quotations say more about ourselves than of those we’ve quoted.

Is this book a snapshot of 1930’s America? Let this sink in: There’s not a single quote from anyone related in any way to World War II. There isn’t a single modern tech genius in here either. But wait! It was printed in 1940, yes. However the copyrights are 1904, 1914 and 1917. This book is a time machine come to me across more than a century.

I generally give books the page 88 test. That’s laughably near the front of a book which has— (Wait, wat?! This book has exactly 2,000 numbered pages! That’s another tangent I’m not following. Ahem.) Page 88 is laughably near the front of a 2,000 page book. As I carefully flipped towards 88, I was briefly anxious when I thought the entries under “anxiety” might run to page 88, but fortunately, no. The two columns of page 88 cover the tail end of, Apothegm (“a short, pithy and instructive saying or formulation,” honestly, I had to look that up,) then Apparel, and then Apparitions runs onward to page 89.

The first full entry on page 88 is:

A few words worthy to be remembered suffice to give an idea of a great mind. There are single thoughts that contain the essence of a whole volume, single sentences that have the beauties of a large work, a simplicity so finished and so perfect that it equals in merit and in excellence a large and glorious composition.

~ Joubert

slip:4a616.

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The joy of being wrong

Now more than ever, opinions divide us. Meanwhile, our ability to effectively communicate has degraded, fueled by social media algorithms and self-selected information silos that confirm our biases, calcify our world views, and consequently drive us even further apart. As a result we suffer—individually and as a collective.

~ Rich Roll from, https://www.richroll.com/podcast/adam-grant-580/

I’ve been cherry-picking episodes of the Rich Roll Podcast, and this is another superlative one. Roll’s discussion—about a half hour in if memory serves—of trying to be a “lighthouse” makes clear an important point about modeling behavior: Be the change you want to see in the world.

Grant and Roll talk a lot about Grant’s new book; That’s a model for a podcast episode which I usually do not like. And they talk almost as much about competitive swimming and diving, which are two more things I’m generally disinterested in. But to my delight, I enjoyed through (contrast with the more usual ‘sat through’) the first half, and currently have the second half awaiting my ears.

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