Link text
Dave's Mostly Tinkering, Occasionally Reporting

Our Brains (Mostly) Suck At Decision-Making

February 6, 2014 · 3 minutes read

My earlier post on the paradox of choice sparked interesting conversations with several people. I got inspired by these conversations to write this follow-up post.

Breaking Down Decision-Making

When we struggle to make a decision (i.e., selecting between different options) we are struggling to find the superior choice among alternatives.  In other words, we are choosing between similarly good options with no clear winner (“good” in different ways, but “good” nonetheless). Were one option clearly superior, there would be no struggle.

Then, if options are “similarly good”, why is it so difficult to take a step in any direction? Why is decision-making paralyzing? What is the cause of this inertia?

Well, for one, we are not rational robots. Our minds inevitably factor in many variables rooted in our emotions: we tend to focus on the missed opportunities and undesirable outcomes inherent to decision-making. Said differently, these are the upsides of forgone options and the downsides of the selected option—driven by fear and regret, respectively.

If that felt like a mouthful, let me explain myself.

The Upsides Of Forgone Options, a.k.a Fear Of Missing Out

Decision-MakingLoss aversion—a well studied psychological concept— states that people have a stronger preference for avoiding losses over acquiring gains (some studies even suggest that this preference can be quantified as 2x). Decision making, by definition, involves selecting a single option and letting go of one or multiple others. It involves closing doors, eliminating possibilities. In other words, you are “losing” the future benefits of many options and “gaining” those of a single option.

Hence, our loss aversion tendencies will shift our focus towards these missed opportunities, and away from the benefits of the selected option. It is frustratingly easy to imagine all the benefits we are letting go of when making a decision, and to ask ourselves that dreadful question: “what if?”. The Fear Of Missing Out creeps in. It paralyses us. And for a while, our brain will mistake this lack of action (or decision-making) with a lack of losses. While delaying decision-making may seem comforting in the short-term, it will often lead to a rushed—hence, less effective—decision down the line.

The Fear Of Missing Out thus leads to inertia—an unwillingness to take a step in any direction to avoid letting go of possible future benefits.

The Downside of Selected Options, a.k.a Ancitipation Of Regret

In his book “Thinking Fast And Slow“, psychologist and behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman defines Regret as what you experience when you can most easily imagine yourself doing something other than what you did. It is one of the counterfactual emotions that are triggered by the availability of alternatives to reality. Alternatives we must, by default, consider when making decisions.

Decision-making

Our mind is a powerful imagination tool. It will easily wander into the future playing out multiple scenarios of possible futures, including, in most cases, what can go wrong. The anticipation of regret thus plays an important role in decision-making. Take the example Dan illustrates in his book.

Paul owns shares in company A. During the past year he considered switching to stock in company B, but decided against it. He now learns that he would have been better off by $1,200 if he had switched to the stock of company B.

George owns shares in company B. During the past year he switched to stock in company A. He now learns that he would have been better off by $1,200 if he had kept his stock in company B.

Who feels greater regret? The results of an experiment are clear: 8% of respondents say Paul, 92% say George. However, objectively the two situations are similar: both own stock A and would have been better off by $1,200 had they owned stock B. The difference is in how each individual got to where he is: George got there by taking action, whereas Paul got there by NOT doing so.

The point here is that people tend to have stronger emotional reactions to outcomes produced by an action, rather than those produced by inaction. And since decision-making is akin to taking action, it leads to similar emotional reactions—specifically, regret.

It is the anticipation of regret, brought on by our wandering minds, that leads to inertia—an unwillingness to take a step in any direction to avoid a feeling of regret down the line.

Fear, Regret, and Awareness?

There aren’t any quick fixes for these psychological pitfalls. Our gut reaction will often be to delay decision-making. The best I have done so far is arm myself with awareness.  An awareness and an understanding of these cognitive mistakes that helps uncover undesirable behaviours (like stalling) as they arise, and helps control emotional impulses (a.k.a. Fear and Regret). 

The mind remains a funny thing.

Event Recap: Amman Tech Tuesdays, Bitcoin Edition

February 6, 2014 · 1 minute read

On February 4th, I gave an introductory talk on Bitcoin applications at an event held jointly by Amman Tech Tuesdays–Amman’s leading monthly event for techies–and the Amman Bitcoin Meetup Group.

I was impressed with the turnout–around 300 people. 50% of the room had already heard about the crypto-currency, and there were even a few that had bought/mined Bitcoins. Also in attendance, were a small number of individuals from the Jordanian Central Bank (2-5?)–They, however, explicitly mentioned attending as civilians.

Other than an incident that occurred towards the end (more on this below), I believe the event was well received. Attendees seemed pleased with the content, some even extremely enthusiastic and eager for follow-ups. The four speakers, Ola Doudin, Mohammed Saled, Zaid Amireh, and yours truly covered an introduction to Bitcoin, an overview of the technology, a discussion of wallets and security, and a review of existing applications, respectively.

On stage, after the Q&A, I offered to sell Bitcoins for cash to anyone that was interested. Unfortunately, and to my disappointment, no one took the offer. I was hoping the excitement around the topic would push some to “put their money where their mouth is” and get some Bitcoins.

As for the incident, some of the topics covered unfortunately led to a heated debate with individuals from the Jordanian Central Bank. A few of our speakers included political and ideological comments in their talk–A move I don’t agree with. I strongly believe these events should be an avenue to discuss the technology behind crypto-currencies, its benefits, and its practical applications (and, of course, shortcomings). Instead, a good part of the Q&A turned into the equivalent of a political debate and a clash of opinions rather than facts.

Here are the video and slides from my talk on Bitcoin applications, covering six existing practical uses. (Skip to 16:05 for my part, it lasts just under 8 minutes.)

(This talk was inspired by multiple sources, including Andreas M. Antonopoulos, Marc Andreessen, Gavin Andresen, and more. I don’t claim any original content)

2013 In Snippets

January 11, 2014 · 1 minute read

The best moment in 2013 was switching to working for myself. Although, I have yet to make a sustainable income.

The biggest letdown in 2013 was 47 Ronin. Keanu, I still have hope.

The best non-fiction book I read in 2013 was “The Antidote” by Oliver Burkeman. It discusses what I believe to be several essential philosophies in a very approachable way. (stoicism, buddhism, etc.)

The best fiction book I read in 2013 was “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card. I just love the a-ha moment.

The biggest tech trend in 2013 was the rise of Bitcoin and distributed applications (or decentralized technologies). More on this soon.

Another big tech trend in 2013 was the Internet of Things and the numerous companies innovating in this space ( NestSmartThingsMotherLockitron, etc.)

The best personal change in 2013 was getting rid of 90% of my belongings and limiting everything I own to fit into a carry-on and a backpack. Now, every time I travel, I literally take ALL my belongings with me.

The best new follows in 2013 were Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, for his provocative and refreshing short blog posts, and Ze Frank for his humour, absurdity, and creative projects.

My favorite podcast of 2013 was Radiolab. A combination of fascinating content, captivating narration, and great production and editing.

The most exciting moment in 2013 was giving my first public talks at both the Quantified Self Global Conference and the Silicon Valley meetup.

Your turn.

Thanks to David Lee for the format used above, borrowed from his post “My 2013 Listicle”.

My QSSV Meetup Talk on Lifelogging

December 8, 2013 · 0 minutes Less than a minute read

This is the second talk I give on the topic of my lifelog (you can find the earlier version here). This time it was at the QS Silicon Valley meetup held at the Evernote offices.

It’s a slightly updated version with some new material. The talk is approximately 8 minutes long followed by 8 minutes of Q&A. In the first half, I explain my Lifelog experiment and the setup. In the second half, I talk about some of the insights gained.

The slides are embedded below, and make it easier to follow.

Let me know what you think, and how I could improve!


Check out the Life Log page for the latest updates and posts on this experiment.

My Quantified Self Conference Talk on Lifelogging

December 8, 2013 · 0 minutes Less than a minute read

This is the talk I gave at the 2013 Quantified Self Global Conference on October 10th.

It’s 7.5 minutes long followed by a short Q&A period. There was a small tech glitch midway that led to a couple slides disappearing. I’ve embedded the slides below which make it easier to follow.

I’ve since given an updated version of this talk here.


This talk was originally posted on the Quantified Self main website.

Let me know what you think, and how I could improve!


Check out the Life Log page for the latest updates and posts on this experiment.

From Suits & Ties to Shorts & Flip-Flops (part 2)

How 2 Years in Consulting Both Helped and Hindered My Startup Adventure

November 26, 2013 · 4 minutes read

In response to a request from my good friend Khaled Kteily over at the Management Consultants Network, I am writing about the impact my consulting background has had on my startup endeavours. This is the second post in a two-part write-up. Here, I focus on the disadvantages of moving from consulting to startups.

 

Now that I’ve mentioned the benefits of moving from consulting to startups, it’s time to talk about the flip side, how consulting made things more difficult.

How Consulting Hindered My Startup Progress

A Large Company Once Said: Just do it!

consulting to startupsA common criticism of consulting is that it’s all strategy and no implementation. Consultants come in, analyze from 10,000 feet above, hand over slides with recommendations, and move on. This isn’t entirely true, but when I compare the work of a consultant to that of an entrepreneur, this exaggeration helps highlight how different the roles of each are.

My experience in consulting has taught me to be very meticulous and thorough when evaluating decisions—sometimes to a fault. On several occasions, I catch myself over-analyzing to the point of paralysis. This can prove to be a dangerous habit in the startup world.

The cost of an error in early stage companies is low. The underlying reason is that small size and nimbleness allows for quick detection of errors and rapid course-correction where needed. Hence, in a startup, I am better off quickly executing on decisions rather than cautiously over analyzing and vetting them. The insights I gain from evaluating actual outcomes are significantly greater than those gained from evaluating hypothetical scenarios. Often times, the best and only way forward is to just get your hands dirty.

Today, I make a special effort to overcome the urge to overthink my decisions, and try to cultivate a bias for action.

The Apples and Oranges of CEO Concerns

consulting to startups
Here’s a shocking revelation: the concerns of a Fortune 500 CEO have little in common with those of a two-person startup. Where the former will worry about how to improve the bottom line by a couple of percentage points, the latter will struggle to get a single customer in the door.

The intuition I developed about what is top of mind for a consulting client is simply not very useful to me as the founder of a startup. A lot of the challenges I had to solve in my previous job aren’t even considered in this one. For example, consulting required a lot of planning, continuous vetting of the content by various stakeholders, almost artful navigation of established bureaucracy, etc.

Startups, in contrast, are astonishingly simple. The only stakeholders I need to worry about are the handful of people I can proudly call customers—if any. I find that thought liberating. My mind is significantly less cluttered, and I now have more time and attention to dedicate to core challenges.

Becoming Averse to Risk Aversion

consulting to startups
Progress is slow in large corporations. Proposed changes have to go through several levels of approval, and even then the roll-out is cautious and tepid. A large corporation can’t afford to take big risks often. That culture in turn defines the consultant’s work.

Expectations were clear: deliverables had to be polished with little room for error. This unfortunately leads to a lot of internal iterations prior to presentation. And sometimes—frustratingly—a week’s worth of work would be thrown out because the client simply wasn’t interested, and we—the consulting team—didn’t bother to vet the work before polishing it.

As mentioned earlier, the cost of a mistake in a startup is much lower. The better course of action then is to try, fail, repeat, until you hit the right stride. It’s a numbers game after all. The more potential solutions you try, the higher the likelihood you are of finding a suitable one.

“The master has failed more times than the beginner has tried.”
— Stephen McCranie

As an aside, I don’t believe startups are inherently riskier than more established companies. Rather, they are better equipped—almost by design—at coping with small failures. Large corporations, however, put millions of dollars at stake every time they make small changes in their business as usual. Marcelo Calbucci puts it nicely:

“Great entrepreneurs are not risk-seekers. They are risk-mitigators.”

Managing your brand

Management consulting branding is a double-edged sword. In general, most professions will recognize that consulting “graduates” are reliable and high performing individuals. It’s not so much the case in the startup world. Consulting occasionally has a negative perception among entrepreneurs, especially in the eyes of the more technical crowd. They will get stuck on some of the negative points mentioned above as well as many of the consultant stereotypes (e.g., only concerned with high-level strategy, have poor execution skills, are too corporate, conventional, and risk averse.)

These perceptions are not entirely unfounded, but like all stereotypes they are applied sweepingly. Unfortunately, it’s a branding problem that is almost inevitable. And ex-consultant entrepreneurs will have to work hard to dispel it.

This wraps up my early thoughts on consulting and startups. I have only been at this for 6 months and expect to continue doing so for a while. I’ll make sure to revisit this topic once I get deeper into it. In return, I’d love to hear your thoughts whether you are considering consulting, have already done so, or never intend to.

 

This is the second post in a two-part write-up. In the first post, I looked at the flipside, how consulting has benefited me in my current entrepreneurial adventure.

From Suits & Ties to Shorts & Flip-Flops

How 2 Years in Consulting Both Helped and Hindered My Startup Adventure

November 13, 2013 · 4 minutes read

In response to a request from my good friend Khaled Kteily over at the Management Consultants Network, I am writing about the impact my consulting background has had on my startup endeavours. This is the first post in a two part write-up. Here, I focus on the benefits of moving from consulting to startups.

 

After two years spent as a management consultant at McKinsey, serving mega-companies, on mega-company issues, interacting with conservative executives, and otherwise leading a corporate life, I decided to take a 180 degree turn and join the startup world.

I’ll take this opportunity to share early insights and thoughts on the impact my consulting background has had on my current endeavours, and how it has shaped my thinking. In this first post, I will highlight how consulting prepared me to start a business. In the next post, I’ll look at how it made things more difficult, and I will wrap up with some thoughts on managing the transition.

How Consulting Helped me Start a Company

Three years ago, I accepted an offer to join McKinsey as a Business Analyst. Of course, I was thrilled and grateful for this opportunity. But I would only be saying half the truth if I didn’t mention that a part of me was worried; worried that I would brand myself solely as a business/strategy guy. I knew early on that I ultimately wanted to follow an entrepreneurial path. The engineer in me always wanted to keep tinkering and building stuff. I took the job, worked hard for two years, learned a ton, grew professionally, and came out the other end even more determined.

This is my account of how those years spent in consulting helps me today.

Taming The Unknown

consulting to startups
A typical consulting engagement consisted of spending 3 to 6 months at a client’s, in an industry in which I had little-to-no prior experience, and I was expected to deliver high-impact high-value work. The bar was high; the deadlines short; the client occasionally hostile. In short, the working conditions were difficult.

The only certainty is that I never had all the information I wanted to make the best decision. Whether due to time-constraints, non-collaborative clients, or poor-quality / nonexistent data. So I learned early on – almost by necessity – to become comfortable with the unknown, to make do with what’s available, move forward fast, and deal with consequences later.

The most important element of dealing with the unknown is harnessing the power of the mythical ‘structure’ – a concept that is drilled into your head before you even begin your first consulting engagement. It’s one of those essential ingredients that permeate the consulting life. Structure allows you to take a cascade of incoherent information and break it down into digestible chunks, prioritize it, then discard the superfluous. In other words, it allows you to create order from chaos.

Unsurprisingly, structuring the unknown is a skill that has returned dividends in the startup world. Every day, I’m faced with multiple, often complex and novel challenges. Instead of research teams that can help provide highly-relevant data, I have the Internet: a massive dump of information, most of which isn’t useful. It’s easy to get overwhelmed – and sometimes I still do. That said, retaining a strong structure amidst this sprawling mess of data helps me move forward and make the best decisions I can today.

Navigating The Human Element

consulting to startups
Consulting is not just about data; there is inevitably a powerful human element that can make or break an engagement, a relationship, or even a career. Learning to manage the ‘human element’ is a key skill that consulting firms help you develop – and it’s important that you do, because dealing with difficult people can lead to some of the most stressful situations in your career.

Compare that to facing a technical problem: in these situations, I can sit in front of my computer and labor away indefinitely. It’s just me, my computer, and time. I can undo errors, skip a few hours of sleep to gain more time, run my work by coworkers, etc. None of this is available when I face another individual in a negotiation for example.

Suddenly, there is such a thing as making an error I can’t undo; I only have this hour to get to an agreement; I can’t interrupt the meeting to phone-a-friend; etc. Simply reading about how to prepare for such situations is not tremendously helpful. I needed real world experience to improve. Luckily, consulting gave me more than enough occasions to do so. I’ve had the opportunity to sit across the table from C-level executives more than twice my age, and interview them one-on-one. This is important, because when a VC is grilling me on my startup for example, I feel infinitely more capable because I’ve dealt with similar situations before.

Re-Calibrating Priorities

consulting to startups
In consulting, stress is a daily companion as I’ve highlighted above. From tight deadlines to difficult clients. Long work hours lead to less sleep, which in turn make me less able of handling stress. And that stress inevitably leaches into my personal life. You can see how this can lead to a dangerous downward spiral.

I’ve been in and out of that spiral several times. My greatest takeaway has been recognizing the importance of investing in myself first. At its core, this means taking care of my body and mind. As work became more hectic, and without noticing it, I started neglecting both: sleeping less, eating poorly, and not being active. That left me functioning below my potential, to say the least. And it affected the quality of my personal, professional, and social life.

I realized then, that I had to be selfish before I could be selfless. I had to prioritize taking care of myself. And that in turn would return dividends in all other aspects of my life.  You can’t help others before you help yourself.

Today, I recognize when throwing more work hours at a problem may seem like the right choice at the moment, but is counter-productive in the long term. I continue to be faced with similar challenges but am now armed with a very different attitude thanks to my trials in consulting.

 

This is the first post in a two-part write-up. In the next post, I will look at the flipside, how consulting made things more difficult, and I will wrap up with some thoughts on managing the transition.

Upgrade to the Latest brainOS: Manufactured Awareness 2.0

October 23, 2013 · 4 minutes read

I recently gave a talk at the Quantified Self Global Conference about my life logging experiment. It sparked several interesting discussions. One of the insights that stood out is the sense of manufactured awareness I briefly highlighted in a previous post. So I’ve decided to elaborate on this point adding to it from these discussions as well as from the additional months experimenting.

Manufactured Awareness is…

First, let me expand on my definition of manufactured awareness. It manifests itself in two separate ways, externally and internally.

Manufactured Awareness
Externally, I now have a calendar that is an indisputable reflection of my life; a black and white picture of what I have done at any given moment, and more importantly what I haven’t done. It’s an extension of my brain that gives me instant access to cold hard data about my behaviour. Now I know. I can’t pretend. I can’t fool myself into thinking I’m being productive (or any other attribute I may be concerned about). I have found this to be tremendously helpful in “keeping me in check”. It also helps me answer the question I was curious/worried about 6 months ago: “what the hell did I do today? or yesterday? or this whole week?”.

… A Great New Brain App…

The second, more interesting change, is the internal one. I like to think of it as a new cognitive process – a simple analogy: think of downloading a brand new app on your smartphone that adds new functionality not previously available (like Instagram’s fancy photo filters). This neat new “feature” of mine comes from the act of logging my time and the anticipation of logging. I am now acutely aware of what I’m doing, when I’m doing it. This adds a lot of weight to every decision I make:

“Is this really what I should be doing right now?”
“Is there a better way I could be spending this time?”

It’s as if I am now two selves: the doing-self or Worker, performing activities, and the criticizing-self or Manager, overseeing my work to make sure I’m inline with my goals, values, etc.

Manufactured Awareness

Over time, this led to a gradual change in my behaviour. I’m able to quickly pick-up on my “knee-jerk” reactions to satisfy technological urges e.g., a reflex to switch to a Facebook tab and browse mindlessly, or the impulse to fill my time with “busy work” – activities of little or no value that create the illusion of making progress while keeping me busy. They also provide the satisfaction of thinking I’m being productive (e.g., that good feeling when crossing a task off my to-do list). Think of the times you’ve spent reorganizing your desk or computer folders just because you didn’t feel like starting that difficult task. More often than before, I am able to catch these impulses before they arise and redirect my attention where appropriate. Something I used to mostly realize after the fact.

… That Drains My Battery…

This comes at a price. The extra cycles my brain spends on playing the role of the manager on top of that of the worker are taxing. I’m reminded of Roy Baumeister’s work (author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength) on the concept of ego depletion (or willpower fatigue) – which I believe is at play here. He compares willpower to a muscle that gets exhausted from repeated use. The more you use it (to resist temptations, persist at difficult tasks, etc.) the less you’re left with for future activities. And decision making is one of the activities that contributes to this ego depletion.

It’s no wonder then that this recent change has been draining for a while. Being constantly worried about my current state and having to make repeated decisions to resist temptations isn’t trivial. As I write this post, I got even more curious about this phenomenon: If I did in fact have a limited daily source of willpower, then I should expect to fail at restraining myself more often later in the day as I depleted that source. So I dug into my data. And a clear pattern does emerge. I almost never procrastinate before noon (I wake up around 8am on average). 90% of my procrastination happens after lunch time (2pm), and a whopping 50% after 6pm.

Procrastination Distribution: Average Hourly Procrastination by Time of Day
Manufactured Awareness

This graph shows that my procrastination steadily increases until dinner time (7-8pm) and then decreases for the rest of day – reasonable given that I generally work much less on evenings. The two interesting anomalies are 2pm, likely because of the post lunch slump, and 8pm, the time at which I take a lengthy break from work to have dinner.

… But Can Now Run In The Background.

However, over time, I have seen an improvement in my ability to manage these distractions. I’ve started to incorporate, almost subconsciously, a set of rules or guidelines that automate the manager’s role. Rules like “no procrastination if less than 1 hour has passed since the start of the current work session”. Then every time the urge to stray surfaces, and as the manufactured awareness kicks in, I almost subconsciously defer any decision making to the now ingrained rules. I’ll ask myself “has it been an hour yet?” and the appropriate behaviour automatically follows.

There’s more to this than meets the eye, but I’ll leave that for another post.

“What if I Don’t Have OCD Like You?”

Manufactured AwarenessPeople are skeptical when I tell them all of this tracking is quick and seamless. Some even think I’m crazy when I recommend it (at least their facial expressions suggest so). So, I won’t outright recommend logging every minute of your life, but I’m convinced a sprinkle of added awareness as we march through our days is tremendously helpful.

A simple way of testing this out is with the help of a very primitive but effective tool: the notebook. It takes a couple seconds to write down tasks as they are completed (important, trivial, as well as useless ones), but the insights come at the end of the hour, day, or week when you take a step back and see the patterns start emerging. I’m almost convinced you’ll be surprised by what you see. But don’t take my word for it…


Check out the Life Log page for the latest updates and posts on this experiment.

Shout out to my friend Halim Madi for providing input on this post.

A Life Logged: Surprises And Insights

July 3, 2013 · 8 minutes read

This is a follow-up post on the life log experiment I started on May 19. If you haven’t done so already, I recommend you read this introductory post on the topic.

For the past 42 days, I’ve logged 923 activities over 998 hours or 59,865 minutes, at an average of 22 events per day. I am back, after more than a month of big-brother tracking, to share some results from my life logging experiment.

It’s been a  surprisingly painless process. At no point have I found it intrusive to track my activities. And, as you have of course noticed stalking me on here, I’m happy to report not having a single gap in six weeks of tracking.

For starters, here is a peek at how my time is spent across each context and activity group below.

Contexts, average daily hours
*Mouse over or click for details
Activity Groups, average daily hours
*Mouse over or click for details

What Have I Learned So Far?

As I sifted through all this data, I came across some facts that initially stroke me as odd or surprising. Enter the power of data over intuition. I may feel as if I behave a certain way. Data will prove whether or not I do so.

For example, I spend more than half my day on survival – activities that are basic necessities to life (sleep, food, etc.). In a hyper-productive society, this would be viewed as wasteful and inefficient. “Life overhead” activities that need to be cut down to a bare minimum to maximize productivity. Of course, I don’t subscribe to such line of thinking, so we can ignore that… except, except on those dreaded existential-doubt days. You know what I’m talking about.

Luckily, today is not an existential-doubt day.

Top 10 Activities, average daily hours
*Mouse over or click for details

On that note, I present to you the top 4 insights:

1. Manufactured Awareness

We are often driven to act by our circumstances rather than by our intentions. For example, I may get excited by an email I receive, carried away in my response I surf the web for some information, leading me to a useful video, that I’ll want to share on Facebook, and then initiate a conversation with a friend. While each activity on its own may be worthwhile (online research, learning new concepts, reconnecting with friends), the chain of events is driven by reactive a behavior rather than deliberate and thoughtful decisions to allocate time.

Fortunately, this experiment has equipped me with improved awareness, a manufactured awareness. It has forced me to evaluate the decisions I make, to detach myself from the rush of mindlessly switching between activities, and to occasionally take a step back and make sure I spend time the way I intend to spend it.

life log - awareness

An example of an improvement that came about from this awareness is batching email. After only a week of logging, I noticed I was spending excessive time on email. I would check my mailbox multiple times a day, answer on the go, and get back to what I was doing. I very quickly realized the inefficiency of doing so as well as a the cost of interrupted important work. I have since decided to batch these events into 2 or 3 blocks a day.  My time on email has since dropped by half, from an average of 12 hours to 6 hours a week.

A simple change with significant results uncovered by data. Pretty cool, I believe.

2. The Illusion Of Busyness

Surprisingly – or rather worryingly – I’ve only logged an average of 32 hours of productive work per week. Disappointing at first glance. I was now being lazier than the French with their 35 hour work week! As I explained in my introductory post, the aim of this experiment was to mitigate the risk an unstructured and unconstrained schedule would have on effective time allocation. All this fancy wording to say, I was afraid I would start wasting my time. Remember, I came from a job where I put in roughly 50-60 hours a week, occasionally more. Seeing that number drop by almost 50% made me question whether I was really able to lead an unstructured life effectively.

However, after a bit more digging, I was able to build a more complete picture. These 32 hours of heads down productive work do not include any overhead (e.g., commuting, eating, procrastinating, and socializing at work) nor any personal activities performed at work (personal email, reading, procrastinating, etc.), both of which represent a sizeable chunk in most workplaces. A question naturally pops to mind:

“Do any of us really know how much productive work we complete in a given week?”

Life Log - busyness

Probably not. We tend to overestimate our actual work and underestimate the above two categories without any data. So after all, I suspect 32 hours of heads down productive work is significantly better than I had initially thought. I will evaluate this again in a few months to see if my argument holds.

3. How Focused Is My Focus?

My next insight is one that I’m excited to finally get data on, however slightly disappointed by what I’ve uncovered.

Deep work, flow state, hacker focus, etc. all refer to a state where one becomes completely absorbed in an activity; fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, involvement, and enjoyment. It’s in this state that we generally produce our best work. Is it often referenced in athletics (e.g., when a sprinter is in the zone). I know I experience it when I rock climb. It is equally effective in the context of work, although possibly less frequently because of the multiple distractions we are subjected to.

Life Log - Flow

Unfortunately, we can’t will ourselves into this state. It needs an adequate environment, and time. Take the example of writing. Whenever I sit down to write, for the first while, I will often struggle to form coherent sentences as I warm up. It feels awkward, and I have to force myself to keep at it. But, assuming I don’t succumb to distractions, I will at some point get in the zone. And when that happens, I start writing effortlessly, almost mindlessly – some still say incoherently – and “wake up” some time later to 1,000+ words.

Since one of the main ingredients to achieving flow is giving myself enough time to warm up, what does my data have to say about this? It turns out, nothing to be proud of. My average uninterrupted work session lasts 45 minutes (even excluding miscellaneous work and email which tend to be shorter). I should stress on the word uninterrupted, I could be working on the same topic for a whole day, but if I interrupt my session with breaks every 45 minutes it’s not the same (lunch, restroom, chats, etc.). To put it differently, of all activities that are not social events, Coding is the only one that has an average uninterrupted session duration greater than 1 hour (1h20min to be specific). In my opinion, this is clearly insufficient and will need more work.

What’s your experience with flow and long uninterrupted working sessions?

4. Urgency, A Mirage

Awareness has also helped me shed light on a behavior I believe is a common symptom of living in hyperdrive. I often mistake the perceived urgent with the important. And I suspect you may find this familiar.

As I check my email or wrap up a phone call that gets me excited or anxious for whatever reason, this emotion can lead me down a path of “fire fighting” i.e., responding to said events out of excitement and perceived urgency rather than focusing on the important, often less urgent work such as writing this post.

As humans, we are hardwired to respond to attention grabbing … ehm. sorry. just a sec. let me respond to this text message … yes, attention grabbing things that demand an immediate response. Do I really need to reply to that text or email now? Do I need to return that call now? Likely not, and as such I am better off batching these events until a later more appropriate time – if at all.

Life Log - DistractionNotice that second one from the left. Don’t you have something more productive to do now?

As for my data, looking only at Desktop activities within the context of Work (includes: Email, Code, Research, Organize, Write, Todo, Misc), I can roughly divide my time into two buckets: primary work (Code, Research, Write, Todo) and support work (Organize, Email, Misc). My time is in fact split 60/40 (primary/support). This, coupled with the previous insight on frequent context switches, is an indication that I may be spending too much time on collateral attention-grabbing activities and not enough on the meaty work. Another area for improvement.

Partially Structured Is The New Unstructured

That’s a lot to take in in one session. My productivity ego didn’t see this one coming! But of course, that’s what I signed up for.

So what now?

Taking all of this into account, I’ve decided I will focus the next while on improving working session effectiveness by tackling two related problems: decreasing the fire-fighting and increasing the amount of deep work. To achieve this, I will start introducing a bit more structure into my days. As explained above, without the right incentives and daily structure I am more likely to fill my days with unimportant or meaningless work.

Specifically, I will spend a bit of time every Sunday planning out and scheduling the upcoming week. I will “book” longer deep work sessions, occasional email slots, workouts, and will leave the rest open, including weekends. I want to make sure I give myself enough free space. The point is to strike the right balance between deliberate work and serendipitous tinkering. I don’t expect to get this right the first time around, but I anticipate seeing some benefits fairly quickly and will improve this exercise as I go.

I just hope I don’t turn out this way.

Life Log - Structure

Do you see yourself making similar mistakes during your day? What other insights would you like to see extracted from the data? Let me know what you think in the comments below.


Check out the Life Log page for the latest updates and posts on this experiment.

The Paradox Of Choice

June 19, 2013 · 2 minutes read

A Brief About Quora

Recently, I’ve been spending a bit of time scouring Quora.com, a Wikipedia-like Q&A website edited and organized by its community of users. It is a repository of user generated questions and answers to almost any topic imaginable. Amateurs (such as myself) and experts or celebrities (such as Jimmy Wales or Ashton Kutcher) contribute to codifying and spreading knowledge. A random selection of topics and example questions include:

It’s a fast and easy way to get introduced to a variety of new topics – a more efficient wiki surfing of sorts.

The Paradox Of Choice

I wanted to share on here an answer I recently wrote to the following question: What is the most awesome psychological fact(s) you know of?

The paradox of choice – which I believe is both the blessing and the bane of our generation (Gen Y). To put it simply, the paradox of choice states that the more choices one is given when making a decision, the less happy they tend to be about the decision they make (even if the selection is objectively better). This is driven by many factors, namely:

  • Additional effort and psychological stress associated with evaluating multiple options
  • Increased opportunity cost  a.k.a “the grass is greener on the side” syndrome (the way in which we value things depends on what we compare them to. It’s thus easier to imagine the attractive features of rejected options, the features we did NOT choose)
  • Greater “buyer’s remorse” (with so many alternatives, it’s easier to imagine how another choice would have been better)
  • Increased expectations from options (“with 87 options I have to find the perfect option for me”)
  • Finally, we are more likely to blame ourselves when our choices don’t meet our expectations (“I had all these options, it’s obviously my fault, I should have picked better” vs. “I was only presented with 2 options, not enough to make the right decision”)

Increasingly these days, youth (among other age groups) is presented with an overwhelming selection of options whether for small less significant decisions (e.g., 87 types of toothpastes) or for more significant decisions (e.g., university degrees, career paths). I believe the paradox of choice is one of the underlying reasons why so many of us (including myself) are increasingly indecisive and anxious about these so called “life decisions”. But that’s a different topic…

Whether or not we understand the paradox of choice and its impact, come decision time, we often intuitively remain convinced that more options must be better. Why would I want to limit my options to a small subset, when I can look at every option and then make the best decision? An objectively better option does not necessarily lead to improved satisfaction and contentment.

The mind is a funny thing.