Design or default?

We can make our choices by design or by default.

To eat by design is to be mindful of what goes into the mouth. To eat by default is to eat what everybody else is eating.

To live by design is to have hobbies. To live by default is to seek entertainment.

Designers create new patterns and look at the world in new ways. Defaulters simply ease into existing patterns.

To design is to choose the inconvenient but meaningful. To default is to do the convenient without paying heed to meaning.

To design is to choose your life. To default is to let somebody else choose for you.

So what is it going to be?

Taste as you go

The luxury of instant feedback is one of the biggest gifts of cooking.

From large changes such as onions caramelizing to the subtle effect of an additional minute of boiling on the texture of spirali, we are sensitive to a wide spectrum of tastes.

And yet, most people do not utilize this opportunity. They would rather finish cooking the entire dish before dipping in with their spoon.

This points to a broader tendency of our minds. We are eager to get things done once we start them. We are less eager to pause along the way and ponder.

If you follow a recipe from start to finish every time, you end up with the same dish. If you stopped and changed things along the way, infinite possibilities open up.

Trust brings efficiency

What type of scrutiny does your public transport system have?

One type makes the assumption that passengers are crooks and need to be prevented from cheating at all costs. Security gates for entry and exit are the norm. And then there is additional security to ensure that these gates aren’t circumvented or vandalized. When trust is low, every customer has to be checked, surveillance is costly and the system is inefficient.

Another type of system trusts people to behave themselves. Passengers walk into trains and trams without any scrutiny. However, a handful of people perform random checks, and once a person is caught travelling without a ticket the fine is quite hefty. This system is efficient – a handful of people keep the entire system functioning by dissuading the detractors.

Needless to say, the lightweight system of random checks requires a certain amount of trust in the system. If travelling without a ticket were the norm, it would quickly cease to function.

Self-monitoring is efficient. Besides, the freedom it gives us inspires us to be better people.

Maximization is costly

From a bunch of 100 sticks, how would you pick the longest stick? How would that approach be different from picking one that is long enough?

To pick the longest stick, you would have to consider the length of every single stick before you find your choice. With the long enough approach, the moment you find a suitable stick, you can stop looking.

Add two other parameters and your search turns way more complicated. Consider picking a stick based on length, width, material and cost. Imagine optimizing all those parameters with a 100 sticks. No wonder we emerge tired and exasperated every time we go shopping for clothes.

To maximize any decision requires a large amount of your time and cognitive resources. To maximize every decision is to end up fatigued and disappointed. Stick to good enough with most matters so that you can maximize the handful that matter the most.

To multitask is to fail to prioritize

I once saw a manager attend a phone call even as she met and spoke to us in-person. I was impressed by her ability to seamlessly juggle between the two conversations. But later it occurred to me that by doing both these things together, neither of them was important enough to deserve her full attention.

The problem with multitasking is that you are always busy. When one activity has a lull for a few seconds, you switch to the other one. Your mind is always occupied. On the other hand, by doing just one thing, you are bored if it does not engage you. This boredom indicates how relevant that task is for you. If a meeting bores you to the bone, you have good reason to turn down a similar invite in the future.

Multitasking seems impressive on the surface. But beneath the surface, it indicates an inability to prioritize.

Put context ahead of content

Where have your come across some of the most remarkable facts in recent times?

The answer is invariably some place on the internet – on Youtube or Whatsapp perhaps. 20 years ago, the answer to this question would have likely been a book, a newspaper or the television.

I don’t really need to point out how most books and newspapers are more reliable sources of information than the internet mediums that have replaced them. Nevertheless, the internet has prevailed over them for several reasons.

This phenomenon points to a broader principle behind how our minds work. We pay more attention to content (the piece of information itself) rather than context (where it came from). This has resulted in the flood of less reliable but more sensational information that we find ourselves drowning in.

Information is like food. Once you have consumed it, your mind has already assimilated it and it is an integral part of you. And just as you are careful about what you eat, be mindful of where you get your information from.


Embrace impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome is ubiquitous. In certain situations where we doubt ourselves, we all end up feeling like a fraud who doesn’t deserve to

The typical response to impostor syndrome is to fight it – to perceive it to be negative, brush it under the carpet and go on to make the change that we seek to make. But is it really something that ought to be shunned?

Any change that pushes us and the world past our comfort zone is likely to make us feel like an impostor. When we challenge the status-quo, we run into the way things have always been done. The impostor syndrome is a warning that things can go wrong in the process. It is an indication that we wish to effect a change that is good. Sociopaths experience little impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome indicates that we are challenging tradition. Further, it serves as a guardrail against doing harm. When we feel like impostors, we ought to thank that feeling and lean in further to learn why we feel that way.

Inpsiration: Seth Godin 

Delay response and dodge regret

How often do you regret accepting invitations to events? Why does this happen so often?

A well established tactic to guard your time (and your pangs of regret) from invitations is to delay your response. The next time you receive an invitation, even a casual one, try waiting a day before you text back your instant acceptance.

The underlying mechanism in the brain here is the focusing illusion. Daniel Kahneman summarized called it his fortune cookie maxim – ‘Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.’ Things always seem more important when we are thinking about them than they really are. This is why emails and notifications hijack our productivity. The moment we see that email, it seems like the most important thing in the world. So we drop everything else and respond to it.

The same cycle plays out when we are sent an invite to an event. The moment we see the invite, the event seems all important and we gratefully accept. But as the event draws closer, the feelings of regret set in. More so if this event requires travel to a faraway location.

Waiting a while before giving our response mitigates the effect of the focusing illusion. The invitations that survive despite the wait are the ones really worth accepting.

The quick way and the easy way

In a few cases, the quick way is the easy way – like ripping off a band-aid. In most cases, the quick and the easy involve a trade-off.

The quick way is to start programming as soon as some requirements are presented. The easy way is to figure out the algorithm and its structure first.

The quick way is to drive to work – it requires no planning. The easy way is to take the train. Somebody else does the driving.

The quick way is to throw everything we’ve got at a problem. The easy way is to avoid problems.

The quick way is dirty (“quick and dirty”). The easy way is clean.

Our brain can think quick or think easy. When it thinks quick, it holds only one piece of information at a time. When it thinks easy, it works slower, but it compares several choices to pick the best alternative.

As it should be clear by now, “quick” isn’t always the same as “fast”.

The surprising power behind dominoes

What can one measly domino do?

A Dutch physicist gave this question some serious thought. He concluded that a domino, when correctly placed, can topple another domino that is 1.5 times its height. Now this may not seem like much. A domino measuring 5 cm can, after all, topple another that is 7.5 cm tall. But this is where we underestimate the power of compounding.

Standing on his peer’s shoulder, another physicist went further and found that if the first domino weighed about 5 g, by the time we reach the 12th domino, we would be dealing with one that weighs more than 3200 Kg – as much as an average Asiatic elephant. Yes – that is merely the 12th domino in a series that started at 5 measly grams.

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Every falling domino has tremendous potential depending on where it is placed. The biggest challenge is to line them up, one after the other, with patience and discipline.

Inspiration: The ONE Thing

A trick for proofreading

It is difficult to proofread. Our brains are wired to make us overlook our own mistakes.

Here is a neat little trick for better proofreading – read your sentences backwards, word-by-word.

By reading backwards, we make it harder for our brains to read a piece of text. The counter-intuitive truth is that whatever makes the task of reading harder makes it easier for us to spot errors. You are less likely to be tricked by a riddle when it is written out in smaller font with the letters barely legible. When we are cognitively strained, our brains are more alert for errors.

When we perform a hard task, we are prone to making mistakes. Interestingly, straining to check for errors has the opposite effect – the mistakes pop right out of the page.

When exceptions become the norm

Can following the news leave you less informed about the world around you?

Let us explore this question with a thought experiment. Imagine that you wished to show an alien the rich diversity of animals that our planet has. You take the visitor to zoos and circuses around the world to show them dolphins that can juggle balls, bears that can ride cycles and cockatoos that can recite multiplication tables. Having witnessed these feats, how accurate would their idea be about the behaviours of these animals?

As we know, performing animals aren’t the norm in their species. They are the glaring exceptions. And guess what else is filled with glaring exceptions? The news.

By definition, anything that is news-worthy is exceptional. News channels report aircraft crashes from around the world because they are rare events. And yet, each time we fly, these scenes flash in the backs of our mind. About 25% of people in the US are nervous about flying, with 6.5% of the population suffering from aviophobia. Terrorism, accidents and disasters are anomalies in an otherwise peaceful, progressive and boring world. By covering these exceptions alone, the news distorts our world-view.

Ignorance can result in two ways – by not being aware of the world’s norms or by following the world’s exceptions on a minute-by-minute basis.

Productivity is experiential

Do you feel productive today?

The only way to really answer that question is to sit down and try to get work done. Real work. Only after an hour of doing that, are we able to provide an honest answer.

How often have you felt unproductive on a Monday morning, and yet gotten loads done by the end of the day. But sure enough, you are likely to feel unproductive when another Monday comes around.

Productivity can’t be felt. It has to be experienced.

The problem with going all in

Imagine you are given a generous slot machine and 25$ to bet with it. The machine is built so that your bet is doubled 60% of the time and for the remaining 40% you receive nothing. You have 30 minutes, and are allowed to play multiple times. How would you divide up your bets to maximise your winnings?

Participants in a study who faced this decision showed a large tendency to stake all their money in one large bet. As many as 28% of these students ended up losing all their money even with the odds clearly in their favour.

Most of life’s decisions are bets where we have limited control over the outcome. During such moments, we are prone to stake more than we ought to for a shot at glory. But that decision can just as easily wipe us out.

Avoid ruin at all cost.

Suggested reading: The Kelly criterion provides a simple formula to calculate the optimal amount to bet when you have positive odds.

Inspiration: Naval Ravikant

20 years since

It’s 2020. Let us examine a few ways in which the world has changed in the last 20 years.

20 years ago, access to education was limited. You had to be fortunate enough to be admitted in the handful of the excellent universities that the world. Today, the best courses in the world are online – free of charge.

20 years ago, access to the means of manufacturing was limited. You had to buy heavy machinery or rent it on expensive leases. Today, anybody can outsource, rent or manufacture goods in small batches with the click of a few buttons.

20 years ago, you had to rent a physical store to to start your own retail business. Today, you could setup shop on the corner of the internet for a fraction of the price.

20 years ago, media was centralized and carefully guarded by gatekeepers. To appear on television, print or radio was nearly impossible for the average person. Today, anybody can start their video channel, own websites and blogs or start a podcast.

In 20 years, we have moved from an era of access scarcity to an overwhelming abundance of access. Now that we realize this, what are we going to do about it?

Learning from contradiction

The word, contradict, comes from the Latin terms ‘contra’ and ‘dict’. It literally translates as ‘speak against’. History is chequered with several famous contradictions:

Socrates spoke against the social conventions of his time, and was forced to end his life by consuming hemlock.

Nearly 2000 years later, the Catholic church condemned Galileo Galilei when he spoke out against what the Catholic Church ordained to be true about the solar system.

Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian doctor who pioneered antiseptic surgery blamed doctors for the death of mothers and new-born babies due to their poor hygiene. He was hounded by his peers for the rest of his life.

Albert Einstein’s thought experiments led him to imagine scenarios where the laws of classical physics would break down. He was a Swiss clerk who dreamed of moving at the speed of light even as his tram ambled along the streets of Bern.

Daniel Kahneman, the most influential psychologist alive today, uncovered secrets about the human mind by studying systematic errors in judgement. He has taught us much about the human mind by observing where it slipped up.

Learning happens at the boundaries between the known and the unknown. It takes perception to observe where this boundary lies, curiosity to venture outside it and courage to speak out against what the world holds to be true.

What is in a resolution?

I always thought that New Year’s resolutions were pointless.

The new year is an arbitrary measure – a line that we draw in the sand after we have taken a certain number of steps. It simply happens to fall in the end of December. Unlike the equinoxes or the solstices, it isn’t even a day of (minor) astronomical significance.

When you wish to improve something about your life, why wait for a particular day of the year? Besides, most New Year’s resolutions are broken.

2019 has been a year where I have dug deeper into the fascinating field of behaviour science. This tryst has helped me better appreciate several quirks in human behaviour, including New Year’s resolutions.

A New Year’s resolution is a social norm. We are surrounded by social norms. We choose restaurants to visit (Yelp), sights to see in a new city (TripAdvisor), books to read (Goodreads) and movies to watch (IMDB) based on what other people are doing. We are creatures that lean into popularity.

New Year’s is a time when it is popular to try and become a better version of one’s self. That intent in itself is meaningful enough. Even if most of these resolutions fail, the ones that succeed make us a happier species and the world a better place. A New Year’s resolution has unlimited upside and limited downside.

Here’s wishing you a kick-ass 2020 and much success with your resolutions!

All creators iterate

Innovation happens in iterations.

The psychologist Anders Eriksson calls this deliberate practice – the fastest means to learn a new task is to make mistakes and correct them through cognitive effort. And all innovation is learning.

Creators everywhere embrace this principle.

Writers always iterate upon their drafts. What you read in their books is invariably not what first came out of their minds.

Good coders always refactor the code that they first commit to the screens, to structure it better and make it more legible.

Film directors use multiple takes of a shot. They observe what works, change what doesn’t and shoot again.

Sculptors work in iterations of their whole work, carving out the rough outlines on the first pass and adding a layer of detail in each pass.

Musicians record, listen to what they have got and record again to find the perfect sound in each song.

TED speakers often try out their speeches in front of several trial audiences, retaining whatever worked while cutting out what did not.

The best startups are those that have tight release cycles – a new version every other week to try new features and iron out bugs.

Retain the good. Throw out the bad. Repeat.

Shades of procrastination

Procrastination comes in three shades. Let’s explore them with the example of an author who wishes to write the first draft of an article.

Defer: This is the most conventional definition of procrastination. The thought of drafting the article is painful and causes the author to put it off indefinitely. Instead, they check their phone or reach for a snack. Chances are that they would never come back to that article for several hours. Or days.

Delay: When they sit down, they notice how messy their table is. Once they have spent half an hour on cleaning and organizing their table, they do the same with the files on their computer’s desktop. They notice how their internet connection isn’t fast enough and call the company’s hotline. This form of procrastination has an interesting term – yak shaving.

Dilute: The most insidious form of procrastination. The author starts working on the article, but deviates from the main task of writing the first draft. Instead, they skip between their sentences and paragraphs, editing each word until it is perfect. Or they hop off on a journey through the internet to read related articles. Busy work falls into this domain. The author is fooled into thinking that they are making progress, but actually run around in circles without getting anywhere.

Stephen Covey once said, ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’. When you sit down to work, be mindful of procrastination in ALL its forms.