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Education Productivity

Analyzing & Improving Systems

“If you are unhappy, your system is broken.”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Rental Property Investing)

In my last post, I talked about Gall’s Law and the different components of systems. In this post, I’m going to discuss ideas surrounding analyzing and improving systems. There are going to be some terms I reference from my last post, so I highly recommend checking that out first.

Josh Kaufman beautifully and simply explains how to do this in his book, The Personal MBA, and I also highly recommend checking that out too. The ideas in this post are mostly from that book as well as my own personal insights.

How to Analyze Systems

When analyzing a system is difficult to know what to look for, especially when dealing with complex systems. It’s also crucial to keep in mind that we all have a bias which could get in the way of analyzing systems. Whenever possible, we need to take steps to mitigate our bias.

Here are some other things to look out for when analyzing systems:

Deconstruction

This is an excellent first move when it comes to analyzing systems. As discussed in Gall’s Law, all complex systems arise from simpler systems, therefore every complex system is capable of being deconstructed into simpler systems. Deconstruction is simply breaking up complex systems into their interdependent parts and understanding how each of those parts works. It’s also helpful to try to identify triggers (what kicks off another system) and endpoints (what makes a system stop). Diagrams and flowcharts are also lifesavers when it comes to deconstructing systems. Recognizing if-then and when-then relationships are also invaluable.

After breaking the complex system up into it’s smaller parts, we can then break down those simple systems even further into their components. Identify inflows and outflows, stocks, interdependencies, and so on. I talk about what those components are in my last post.

Deconstruction makes understanding systems possible. Without deconstruction, we are sure to experience confusion.

Measurement

How does the system collect data? What kind of data is it collecting? Measurement describes the process of data collection in a system. If we can understand the information related to the system, then we get an insight into the system itself.

Paying attention to the measurement is fantastic for dealing with absence blindness — the idea that we have a hard time seeing things that aren’t there.

Let me give an example, measuring someone’s blood glucose levels tells us if someone has too little or too much blood sugar. This number gives us tremendous insight into what is going on inside the body even though we wouldn’t be able to visibly see changes in someone’s blood sugar.

Measuring something is the first step in improvement. I wrote a post, Tracking vs. Loss Aversion, that talks about the importance of measuring ourselves and our progress.

Don’t sleep on measurements. Trust me.

KPI (Key Performance Indicator)

I know I just emphasized how important it is to measure things, but there is such a thing as too much data. If we measure too many things, we end up having a bunch of junk data that weighs us down and doesn’t show us anything. In order to prevent this, we try to keep our measurements to only KPIs or Key Performance Indicators.

KPIs are measurements of the essential parts of a system.

Identifying KPIs can be tricky, but try to limit them to only 3-5 KPIs per system otherwise, we risk measuring too many things.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

This is one of the more straightforward ideas – what we put in is what we get out. The quality of the output is only as good as the quality of the input. You get what you give. There are so many cliche phrases that express this idea.

I found this to be especially true when I started cooking. I used to watch Gordon Ramsey cooking videos to try to learn how to cook (I even watched his Masterclasses), but I could never make my food taste good until I spent the extra money on fantastic ingredients. Now, I try to only cook with fantastic ingredients. It really makes all the difference.

One of the best ways to improve the quality of a system is to pay attention to what we start with.

Tolerance

This can be thought of as the range in which the system is working normally. If the system is performing within that range, then it’s within tolerance.

Tolerance can either be loose or tight. A loose tolerance is when there is a considerable amount of leeway and small mistakes don’t make a huge difference while a tight tolerance is when there’s little room for error or change, this is usually the case for essential components of a system.

Analytical Honesty

In order to properly analyze a system, we must acknowledge our propensity to make things look better than they are. We have to be able to apply objective judgment to our data which means that the best analysis of a system will come from someone who isn’t personally invested in it.

As I mentioned in my post, Our Unconscious Filters, human beings view the world through their bias and it’s hard to shake them, even if we’re aware of them. Having an outsider provide analysis is the only way to completely prevent our bias from contaminating our observations.

Context

Most measurements are meaningless without context. Context is all of the information we use to understand if measurements are favorable or not. Setting goals for arbitrary numbers like a 20% increase or 3 new deals are meaningless if we don’t know the performance of the system in the past and it’s projected performance in the future.

Trying to oversimplify how a system operates by judging it off one measurement will blind us to other important changes as well. Context is crucial for an accurate understanding.

Sampling

Sampling is what we do when we try things. We’re simply taking a small part of the output and using it as an example for the entire system. Sampling is great for catching errors without needing to check the entire system.

Just like all other methods of analysis, we have to consider our bias, and sampling is prone to bias. A way to control for it is to make sure the sample is random.

Margin of Error

Of course, not all samples will be perfect representations of the entire system. The margin of error is how much the sample deviates from the whole. The higher the margin, the more inaccurate the sample. The more samples we have, the smaller our margin of error.

Ratio

Ratios are fractions. Somethings divided by something else. It’s a simple way of measuring multiple variables at once. Ratios are also great for letting us know how a particular measurement changes.

For example, ROI is a percentage ((Returns/Investment)*100%) or comparing MPG (miles/gallons) or unit price of groceries. You know a ratio is involved in you hear the words per.

Typicality

In order to analyze a system properly, we need to know how it would operate normally. Kaufman suggests that we can measure typicality through calculating mean, median, mode, and midrange or various measurements.

Correlation & Causation

Causation comes from the idea of cause and effect. One part of a system is causing another part of a system to act. Correlation, on the other hand, is not always causation. Sometimes variables may seem the act like one causes the other, but that won’t necessarily be the case. For example, 100% of people who drink water die. Does the water cause the death in this case? Probably not. Water and death are simply correlational.

So how can we determine is something is correlational or causational?

By adjusting for known variables. If we control for as many variables as possible, we can see the relationship between each more clearly. As systems grow more complex, this becomes more and more difficult. The more we can isolate a variable, the more confidence we have that the changes are causational.

Proxy

Proxies are measurements of something by measuring another thing. A proxy is useful when we cannot measure something directly. The closer the proxy is to the original, the more accurate the measurement. We have to be mindful about correlation and causation when measuring a proxy.

Segmentation

Segmentation is grouping data into separate subgroups to get a more comprehensive context. I do this with all of my blog posts! That’s why I have titles and headings and subheadings. It gives all the (seemingly) random information I’m spewing a more detailed context.

Segmentation plays a huge part in how we understand complex and large amounts of information.

Humanization

When looking at data is easy to see it as an inanimate object, but when analyzing systems we have to keep in mind that the data tell us information about human beings. They are insights into real people — their behaviors, experiences, and thoughts. It’s easy to disconnect from data about a system because it seems so abstract and inanimate, but it’s quite the opposite. If we pay enough attention, the data lets us understand people on a deeper level.

When I worked at Kohls, they always emphasized selling to “her.” Her being a personified collection of the average data on their customers. They used average household income, gender, family size, and other variables to create their typical customer and found ways to satisfy that person.

Our data tells us what’s up with other people if we look hard enough.

Other Things to Look Out For

“If something in your business is causing you stress, most likely, you either don’t have a system for that issue, or you are not following your system.”

Brandon Turner (The Book on Rental Property Investing)

Pay attention to environmental changes and selection tests. I talk a little bit about these in my last post. These changes give smaller players a chance to outperform larger players. Identifying selection tests gives us a competitive edge.

Some questions to ask while looking out for these things could be: How is the environment changing? Who is unable to adapt to these changes? What can I do differently from those who cannot adapt? Who is taking advantage of these changes? What can I do similar to those who are doing well?

Always keep an eye out for the “black swan.” I first heard about this idea from Chris Voss, an ex-FBI terrorist negotiator. The “black swan” is any information that if discovered would change everything. Back in the day, people would say swans are white and if anyone said otherwise they would be crazy because swans are white. Eventually, someone discovered a black swan and everyone had to change how they saw the situation. Systems are the same way, try to keep an eye out for the information that would change everything. There’s always a piece of information that, if known, would change everything This is excellent for accurately identifying and balancing risk and uncertainty.

It’s also helpful to keep in mind that we process the unknown the same way that we process threats. We literally see and respond to what we don’t know as a threat. Expect to encounter threats, but instead of responding to it, we can respond with curiosity to learn more.

The last thing I want to mention about analyzing systems is to analyze close-calls when they happen to minimize accidents. Sometimes shit happens, but most of the time we can prevent it from happening. If we can notice when things almost go wrong, then we can take the steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen again or prevent the conditions that allowed it to happen in the first place without having to deal with the fallout of the accident.

How to Improve Systems

“Anyone who understands systems will know immediately that optimizing parts is not a good route to system excellence. For example, let’s build the world’s greatest car by assembling the world’s greatest car parts. We connect the engine of a Ferrari, the brakes of a Porsche, the suspension of a BMW, the body of a Volvo. What we get, of course, is nothing close to a great car; we get a pile of very expensive junk.”

Donald Berwick (1946 – )

Now that we’ve discussed analyzing systems and have a base framework for understanding systems, let’s talk about some of the ideas useful for improving systems. Most of these ideas are also included in Kaufman’s The Personal MBA.

Intervention Bias

This is the idea that human beings tend to add changes to a system just to feel like we have more control. So when we set out to improve a system, we have to entertain the thought that we might be implementing a new change just to feel in control. If we don’t, we risk adding unnecessary complexity to the system.

The best way to account for intervention bias is to analyze through a null hypothesiswhat would happen if we did nothing? What if the situation was simply an error?

If the null hypothesis experiment determines that we’re better off doing something than nothing, then we will have minimized our chances for intervention bias to take hold. Examining the null hypothesis isn’t our natural reaction, especially since human beings have a proclivity to doing something rather than nothing, but it’s crucial for actually improving systems.

When improving systems, first think about what would happen if we did nothing.

Optimization

Optimization is what people usually think of when it comes to improving systems. This typically involves maximizing output or minimizing an input. Optimization is usually focused around the KPIs.

Kaufman suggests when optimizing a system to focus on one variable at a time. Optimizing a system across multiple variables will almost always lead to disaster. System interdependencies and second-order effects make it challenging to change more than one thing at any given time.

Refactoring

This refers to changing a system’s process so that it can perform the exact same result but in a more efficient way. This is most obvious in coding. Some programmers will pride themselves on performing the same actions in fewer lines of code.

To the average person, refactoring may seem insignificant, but more efficient systems run faster and require fewer resources which could be redirected elsewhere.

Some questions to ask when refactoring a system could be: What are the essential processes to achieve the desired objective? Do these processes have to be completed in a certain order? What are the constraints of the system?

Critical Few

If you’ve heard of the Pareto Principle (a.k.a. The 80/20 Rule), then you understand the concept of the critical few. Essentially, 19th-century economist and sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, discovered an interesting pattern when analyzing data regarding land ownership and wealth distribution.

He discovered that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. Pareto didn’t just find this pattern in wealth and land distribution, he also saw it in his garden. 20% of his pea pods produced 80% of the peas.

Today, we can see his 80/20 split in almost everything. In systems is useful to know that 80% of the output is from 20% of the input. In businesses, typically 80% of revenue usually comes from 20% of customers. 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. 80% of our time communicating is with 20% of people we know.

Focus on the 20%. That is where the biggest changes will happen. Identify which parts are critical and give it attention or starve it of attention, whichever is required. The idea is to not try to focus on the whole thing, but the smaller parts that matter.

I do this with my students. 80% of my income comes from 20% of my clients and my attention and efforts are split accordingly. I give the clients who matter more attention and I starve the ones who don’t. After practicing these methods, I’ve eliminated a lot of headache clients and I’ve strengthened my relationships with the ones I do like. 80% of the problems came from 20% of the clients.

Focus on the critical few.

Diminishing Returns

This is the idea that after a certain point, adding more starts to cause more harm than good. This is common when optimizing high performing systems, people tend to try to push the system even more to the point where the system breaks.

“The last 10 percent of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems.”

Norman R. Augustine (Aerospace Executive & Former U.S. Under Secretary of the Army)

A way to control for diminishing returns is to apply Ramit Sethi’s infamous “85% Solution” from his fantastic book I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Simply get 85% of the problem right and move on. Yeah, we can really hone in on getting that extra 15%, but then we risk diminishing returns.

Is it worth doubling the effort just to squeeze out that extra 10-15%?

It might be, but not every time. It’s better to spend our energy getting the big wins, than trying to squeeze out every little bit.

Friction

Friction is something I pay a lot of attention to. I spend a lot of time dedicated to removing friction from my life because it stops me from doing so much. Friction is any force or process that removes energy from a system. Remove the friction, increase efficiency.

Amazon Prime is a perfect example of a company removing friction to make a system more efficient. If you have amazon prime, then you know how easy it is to purchase things. That’s intentional. The ease of use creates more cash flow for the business.

If a system has a lot of friction, it can still perform but it will require much more energy. If we don’t add more energy, then the system will eventually slow and stop.

For me personally, when I encounter friction while doing an activity that I don’t enjoy, then I won’t do it at all. So if I can help it, I try to remove as much friction as possible whenever I’m doing something difficult or something I don’t want to do.

Sometimes introducing friction is what’s needed to improve a system. When I want to prevent myself from performing certain actions, I introduce friction because I know it will stop me. Some business makes it cumbersome for a customer to return their product so they are less likely to return it.

Automation

The gold standard of no friction. Automated systems operate without human intervention. Automation is best for repetitive tasks.

Be mindful that automating a system tends to magnify the efficiencies and inefficiencies. If the system is already efficient, then automation will make it faster. If the system is not efficient, then automation will slow it down.

When it comes to understanding automation, we want to be familiar with the Paradox of Automation: the more efficient an automated system is, the more critical the human inputs are. While automate reduces the need for human intervention, the small amount of human intervention that occurs becomes increasingly significant.

Automation makes our actions count more, not less.

On that note, I also want to mention the Irony of Automation: the more reliable a system is, the less attention humans pay to it. Reliable systems train absentminded operators. This is dangerous because if something goes wrong, we aren’t likely to notice and the automation will propagate that error.

The best way to avoid automation errors is to perform consistent sampling and testing.

Standard Operating Procedure

SOPs are predetermined processes for completing certain tasks or solving common problems. We save cognitive load and cut down the number of decisions we have to make in a day if we have a preselected method that’s known to work.

Using SOP helps us spend our energy on improving a system, rather than solving repetitive problems over and over.

Kaufman recommends reviewing the SOPs every two to three months to keep it running effectively.

SOPs can look many different ways. For example, I have a set price for certain students, and certain times I will tutor. But it can go further than that, I have predetermined phrases that I say when talking to clients to make communication easier when it comes to scheduling or other common tasks. I also have predetermined methods for dealing with certain kinds of students so we have a simple system for us to start with and build upon.

Focus on creating go-to methods for things you encounter often. You’ll find that it can seem like a lot of work upfront, but it will streamline the process in the long run and it’s so worth it.

Checklists

I can’t talk about checklists without referencing Dr. Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto. That book beautifully describes the power of checklists. Checklists have been a vital part of pilots take off routines and are the reason for their high success rate. Checklists have also played their role in minimizing infection rates in hospitals all over the world. The secret to repeatedly completing complex tasks perfectly is writing it down as a checklist.

Checklists are simplified SOPs for specific tasks. They’re fantastic because they create systems for processes that haven’t been articulated and minimize our chances of skipping critical steps.

I always make a checklist for my students who are struggling to “manage the chaos.” Transforming the glob of craziness that is school work into a list that can help us narrow our focus works for every single student I have ever worked with. Seriously, I haven’t come across any academic situation that a checklist could not solve.

Checklists are so critical for entropy management that I use them whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed. Whenever I’m feeling stressed and swamped with work, I ask myself “What’s the 80/20 I need to tackle here?” then I made a checklist to conquer the critical few.

I’ll probably write another post on checklists because they’re so damn powerful, important, and useful.

Checklists are also great because once we have a good one, we can delegate or automate it — which frees us up from doing the work! Checklists tend to be the first step to freedom.

Cessation

This refers to the idea of stopping something intentionally. Sometimes a system may be going haywire and the best thing to do is to stop a process. As I mentioned earlier, humans have a proclivity to do something to improve a system, but sometimes the best choice may be to not do anything or stop altogether.

Cessation is not our natural reaction when we want to improve systems and it’s usually an unpopular choice when dealing with a group, but keep in mind that it’s a valid option.

When analyzing and improving systems, I entertain the idea of cessation after I’ve tried the null hypothesis. If both of those options are determined to be ineffective, then I’ll start doing something to improve the system.

Resilience

The resilience of a system is determined by how much change it can withstand. The ability to weather change and adjust plans means the difference between disaster and survival.

Resilience usually comes at the price of optimal performance. A system can increase its resilience through leverage. For example, if a business needed some money to weather the storm it will be more resilient, but that money can’t be used more efficiently. Resilience comes at a cost.

Another way to boost resilience is to prepare for the unexpected. Having plans for different/unexpected scenarios or extra supplies on hand are great ways to make a system more resilient. Fail-safes and backups are great for that also. A fail-safe is a backup system designed to prevent or recover from the original system failure.

Stress Test

This is the process of identifying the boundaries of a system by changing the environment. Testing different extremes on a system can help determine which variables affect which processes.

When I stress test my systems, I try to break them. This is the part when we want to try and test out our “what-if” scenarios. Scenario planning is at the heart of any effective strategy. Rather than trying to predict the future, we can prepare for a handful of imagined scenarios and be ready for what comes next. A proper stress test can really help with a system’s resilience.

Sustainable Growth Cycle

This cycle is a pattern that systems follow when undergoing consistent growth without any major issues and it’s split up into three phases:

The Expansion Phase – this is when the system is focused on growing. This is a creation phase. New components and strategies are implemented and dedicated to growing the system and collecting data.

The Maintenance Phase – this is when the system focuses on executing the strategies and maintaining the functionality of the system. Pressing play on the system, so to speak.

The Consolidation Phase – this is when the system is focused on analysis. All the data that was collected is now put into context. Things that work are given more resources and attention while things that don’t are cut back or reworked.

The Middle Path

This idea comes from the fact that the balance between too much and too little are constantly changing. Balancing what systems need requires constant reevaluation. The best approach usually lies somewhere between too much and too little.

Experimentation

No one has everything figured out and determining the best choice when it comes to improving a system is a difficult task. This is when experimenting comes in handy. Frequent experimentation is the only way to accurately determine what improves and system and what doesn’t.

I like to treat experimenting is play. I love trying to new things, changing stuff up, and seeing what happens. The more we experiment, the more we learn about our systems.

More Methods of Improvement

“A man with a surplus can control circumstances, but a man without a surplus is controlled by them, and often has no opportunity to exercise judgment.”

Harvey S. Firestone (Founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company)

A personal note for improving systems – I like to have stock built up for projects with continuous deadlines like blog posts and beats. Having more stock makes me less anxious about meeting a deadline and I can focus on making good music or writing a good post. To increase stock, simply increase inflows and decrease the outflows. In this case, I increased how many beats I made in a week, but released only 1 (I usually release 2). After a while, I started to build a stock and the beats I made later were of higher quality. My end goal is to make high-quality music while enjoying the process, so I modified my system to make that happen.

In every system, there’s always a limiting reagent. Finding that constraint and removing it will improve a system’s efficiency. Israeli author, Eliyahu Goldratt, suggests using the “Five Focusing Steps” to identify and eliminate constraints:

  • Identification – examining the system to find the limiting factor
  • Exploitation – ensuring that the resources related to the constraint aren’t wasted
  • Subordination – redesigning the entire system to support the constraint
  • Elevation – permanently increasing the capacity of the constraint
  • Reevaluation -after making a change reevaluating the system to see where the constraint is located

When dealing with systems that involved other parties, we introduce counterparty risk. The best way to deal with counterparty risk is to have a plan of action in the event that the other party doesn’t deliver on their end of the deal.


These ideas are foundational for analyzing and improving systems but the methods are endless and I recommend that you go out and find concepts and methods to build upon your knowledge of systems. Remember Gall’s Law, all complex systems evolve from simple systems, and these ideas are the components of creating a simple system to analyze and improve other systems. How meta.

However, the most important concept for analyzing and improving systems is understanding that we can always learn more and education never stops. Systems can be complex and there is always something more to learn about a system or systems in general

Categories
Education

Solo Studying vs. Group Studying

“Surround yourself with good people that compliment the areas where you are weak”

Jacko Willink (1971 – )

The professor just announced the exam is coming up. We’re a little stressed, but not too stressed. Luckily, we’ve read Chris’ blog posts and understand the fundamental principles of studying Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. We also read my posts of Strategies for Better Studying 1, 2, 3, & 4, so we know a thing or two about how to studying for this exam effectively.

On top of that, we read his posts on time management and scheduling Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 so we know exactly when and where we can start applying the study strategies. We even read his post on Conquering Test and Performance Anxiety, so we have some strategies to handle that too.

It’s safe to say that we know a little bit about kicking academic ass, but then our classmate turns to us and asks a question.

“Hey, do you want to join our study group?”

Suddenly, we’re present to the fact that we don’t know if we actually want a study group or not. We aren’t sure if the study group will help or harm the progress we already made.

Maybe there will be people in the group that know way more than us and this study group will be the difference between a pass and fail.

Or maybe they’ll constantly go off-topic and spend too much time on the concepts we already understand.

Study groups and solo studying each have their own benefits and drawbacks. What determines if a study group will be beneficial is based on a few variables. The best way to decide for ourselves is to be knowledgeable of the benefits and drawbacks of group vs. solo studying and weigh them according to our particular situation.

Benefits of Solo Studying

The first (and possibly most obvious) benefit of solo studying is fewer distractions. When we are left on our own, we have the minimum amount of distractions available to us. Fewer distractions mean a higher probability of accomplishing deep and substantial work. If we can minimize our distractions, we have a greater chance of reaching flow and making significant progress.

Fewer distractions also mean higher access to focus, which is a fundamental ingredient to deep work.

When we study on our own, we have complete control over the study environment and study schedule. This means we can study whenever and wherever we want. Want a midnight study session in the parking lot of McDonald’s? You got it.

Although I don’t recommend studying at midnight in a Micky D’s parking lot, it is nice to be able to choose when and where we study. This way we can minimize excuses. No waiting on other people. No scheduling conflicts. It’s just us and our material.

Studying solo gives us maximum flexibility. We can take breaks whenever we want and spend as much time as we need on whatever concepts we need to. When I was in O-chem, I spent an ungodly amount of time going over reaction mechanisms. I would come home at around 7 pm and review the mechanisms over and over until midnight or 1 in the morning. This was possible because I was studying alone. I didn’t need to wait for anyone or make sure that everyone was cool with the time. I was simply able to use the time I found and didn’t need to qualify it. Most of my classmates wanted to study when I had work, so I had to go about it on my own.

Another fantastic benefit of studying solo is not spending extra time on concepts that we already understand. For me personally, there are some topics that I get faster than others and some topics that take me longer to understand. When we study solo we don’t have to hold anyone back from their studying and no one has to hold us back from ours. We can spend our time focusing on the concepts we don’t really know, which is crucial for effective and efficient studying.

Drawbacks of Solo Studying

When we’re working on our own it’s easy to talk ourselves out of studying, especially when no one else is counting on us to study. It can be extremely motivating when we have people around us who are focused on the same goal as us. If sticking to commitments is challenging, I recommend checking out my posts The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 1) and Maintaining Purpose.

Another drawback of solo studying is increased potential inaccuracy with facts. It’s hard to make sure that we’re studying something correctly if no one is around to double check out work. Yes, we can refer to the textbook, lecture notes, or other resources, but it’s still possible to support evidence that supports our incorrect beliefs. When we are studying solo we have to be mindful of cognitive bias, particularly confirmation bias.

When it’s Best to Study Solo

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Self-Reliance)

There are a few indicators that let us know when it’s probably in our best interest to study on our own.

If the group is too talkative or off pace, then it’s probably time to switch gears and study solo. Now, this isn’t to say that study groups need to be quiet. After all, coming together and studying requires conversation but that conversation should be in service to the greater purpose of understanding and learning the information that we’re responsible for knowing.

Pay attention to where the group is headed. If you sense disaster, run immediately.

Another sign that it’s best to study on our own is if the sessions are rescheduled. In order to maintain a healthy relationship with ourselves, we need to maintain commitments to ourselves, no matter how small. If the group decides that 4-5 pm after class on Friday isn’t good enough, we can still study at that time. If the group bails, no worries we can still kick ass all on our own.

Although there are many indicators, the last sign I’m going to discuss is if the group has a different level of understanding that we do. It is a colossal waste of time to study in groups if the group is far ahead or far behind our own understanding. Trust me, I’ve tried it both ways. It’s best to study with people of similar or equal competency, too much time is wasted otherwise.

Benefits of Group Studying

While studying on our own is effective, studying in groups can provide many advantages. With groups comes an opportunity to discuss concepts with others which tests our comprehension as well as creates more intricate neural connections. The more connections we have to a particular piece of information, the easier it is for us to recall it.

The group setting can also be a place to get our questions answered. If someone in the group knows more about a concept, then they can explain it to us exactly how we need it. Our group members may have a fresh understanding of the subject, so they know precisely what we need to know to go from ignorant to expert. This is a fantastic place to break down complicated topics.

Additionally, being around other students can be motivating. I know I’m less likely to slack off if I’m in the library with a group of other academics trying to prepare for this test. Especially if the test is graded on a curve and I have to perform better than my classmates.

It’s been known that social interaction makes people feel safer and calm their nerves. Group studying can work the same way. Studying alone can be an anxiety-inducing activity, especially if we’re seriously behind, but studying with a group could help calm the nerves too. The sense of “all of us are suffering together” makes things a little less painful and nerve-racking. Working with a group to solve a bunch of problems is a lot less daunting than working along to solve a bunch of problems.

When we study in groups, we get to teach each other. The opportunity to teach others is one of the most powerful study methods at our disposal. Teaching to our group mates puts us in the role of “expert” and it is from that place where we confront the gaps in our knowledge.

This happens to me with tutoring all the time. There are two possible outcomes when I try to teach something – I either teach it flawlessly or I don’t and realize that I don’t understand something. The best part is that if I mess up teaching the concept, the less I mess it up in the future. Honestly, it’s embarrassing, stressful, and painful to teach something that we don’t understand and that negative emotion gives a strong enough jolt to make me remember all the things I didn’t know the next time I have to teach. It’s kind of like putting our hand on a hot stove, the pain helps us remember.

Drawbacks of Group Studying

Studying in groups can be extremely powerful, but that’s not at a price.

With groups comes a higher chance to get distracted. All it takes is 1 person to derail the whole group. The group is only as strong as it’s the weakest link. This isn’t to say that all groups are distracting, some groups could offer a perfect study environment but that has to be intentioally selected for.

Groups are also less flexible when it comes to studying schedules. We risk spending too much or too little time on concepts which is an inefficient use of our time. Additionally, we can only study when EVERYONE’S schedule allows for it, which drastically limits convenience. A certain time may be optimal for everyone’s schedules, but that time may not be optimal for studying. I recommend scheduling study sessions during the hours you feel the most alert, for me that’s around 11 am – 2 pm. Knowing thyself is key here, as with most things.

One last point, including more people tends to make systems run slower, be mindful of that when picking groups.

When it’s Best to Study in Groups

“In the crowd one feels no responsibility, but also no fear.”

Carl Jung (Archetypes & The Collective Unconscious)

Here are a few things to look out for when determining if we should study in a group:

If our classmates are high performers and highly motivated, a study group could be the difference between success and failure. I’ve had study groups with struggling students, average students, and high achieving students and I can say that without a shadow of a doubt that studying with the high performing students gave me better results than the other two groups. Be cautious of groups if other people tend to distract you more than motivate you. Know thyself is the most useful piece of advice here. If other people motivate you more than distract you, then go for it. Sometimes our classmates can help keep us focused when we get distracted.

Additionally, it has been proven that it is easier to recall information through discussions because the conversations allow us to make multiple connections to the information. The multiple connections we create make the recall easier. Study groups are great for having a discussion about a concept or idea.

I recommend group studying when we are comfortable with a subject. If there isn’t much deep work to be done, groups are a fantastic way of studying more efficiently, However, if there’s a lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done I suggest studying solo or with one other person.

What to Look for in Study Partner (or group)

There are a few things I like to keep in mind when looking for people to study with —

  1. Make sure that they are looking for the same type of study partner. They have to be able to match our needs as we can match theirs. Some questions to ask can be: How often will we be studying? What kind of studying will be do – more learning or more reviewing? Will it be online or in-person? Are they someone we can easily communicate with? Are they someone who is mindful and respectful of our time as well as their own?
  2. Make sure that they have a similar study plan and test date. This is easy if someone is in the same class as us, but not so easy for standardized tests where people have different dates and times. If they have a different test date than us, then they will inevitably have a different study plan and our time together may not be as constructive as it would be if we had to same test dates. A test coming up in 2 days requires a different strategy than a test coming up in 2 months.
  3. Make sure they have complementary or similar struggles. This is the best way to utilize group studying. Refer to the first quote I put at the beginning of this post. We get an opportunity to learn from our classmates when we surround ourselves with people who understand the concepts that we don’t. In my experience, if a student understands a concept proficiently, they can explain it to a fellow student better than a professor. Additionally, if they have similar struggles, then we can spend most of our time tackling the things we don’t know together.
  4. Make sure they have similar study habits. Maybe they like silence and we like some chill lo-fi in the background. Maybe they like larger groups and we like smaller ones. Maybe they prefer to study in the afternoon and we prefer to study at night. Paying attention to our own habits allows us to understand what we need to create our own optimal study environment.
  5. Make sure they are someone that you can share resources with. They should be knowledgeable in efficient and effective study techniques, (and if they aren’t then share my content with them so they can be) so they can teach us new methods or whatever else they learn. I showed my girlfriend Anki when she was studying for her MCAT and she showed me Anki plug-ins, which brings active recall to a whole new level.
  6. Make sure they can motivate you and keep on on track. It’s easier to hold ourselves accountable when we have partners. They can lift us up when we’re feeling down and keep us on the straight and narrow.
  7. Make sure that they are comfortable to be around. This helps us with actually asking for help when we’re stuck. When I’m tutoring my students, I try to make the environment as comfortable as possible because I know that we’re spending most of our time together working on something that makes them feel inadequate or is at least proof of their incompetence. These things are impossible to work on if we aren’t comfortable.

Bottom Line

I’ve had study groups save me, like my first exam for O-chem 2. I wouldn’t have studied anything that my group was studying, but thank God I did because all of that stuff was on the test. But I’ve also had study groups sink me, like in P-chem. I studied for my 2nd P-chem exam with a group of peers that I share multiple classes with. We studied for hours and hours but when it came to testing day, we all got D’s.

Group studying and solo studying — one isn’t inherently better than the other. Their benefits only shine through once we know what we want.

Determining the superior method depends on what we want to accomplish.

If there is a lot of work to catch up on I recommend studying solo or with 1 other person. If we’re more comfortable with the material and just have to focus on review, then groups are a fantastic option.

I’m a little bias because most of the powerful study techniques I talk about don’t require groups, but circumstances change and it’s better to be educated about the options so we can pivot rather than just picking one side and brute-forcing it.

Know what works best for you in terms of study techniques and do that. If you prefer flashcarding alone, do it. If you prefer discussion groups, do it.

The bottom line — get those neurons firing.

Categories
Lifestyle

Recall the Kindness of Strangers

“Let yourself be open and life will be easier. A spoon of salt in a glass of water makes the water undrinkable. A spoon of salt in a lake is almost unnoticed.”

― Buddha Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni

This idea was taken from Cheryl Strayed’s List of Writing Prompts. I found her list way before I started my blog, but I saved them for later for reasons that I do not have the vocabulary to express. I guess my best attempt would be to say that I followed my inclinations, God told me to, or the transcendence revealed itself to me in keeping the list. Part of me knew I was going to want to reference it later, and here we are.

I love the idea of prompts. I used to hate them, but over the past year I’ve learned the tremendous value in meditating on one idea for a while and writing it down.

I used to think this prompt was extra difficult because at the time when I found Cheryl Strayed’s prompt list, I could not think of scenario in which I can recall The Kindness of Strangers. Perhaps I was too cynical, but after reflecting upon the idea now, I have no trouble recalling an instance in which strangers were kind. Ha.

When I first found the prompt, I was wrestling with the idea that people could be kind, but that kindness was expensive in both energy and attention. So if people didn’t have to be kind, then they won’t. I foolishly concluded that kindness was a difficult and high achievement only to be obtained through righteous action and intense dedication. This was a issue because I believed that most people won’t voluntarily push themselves in this way and thus are not capable of kindness. This kind of thinking not only made it difficult to answer the prompt, but hung a slightly dark filter over my life.

So as a fun challenge to myself (and as a way to repent for my sins, so to speak), I’m going to recall a moment in which the kindness of strangers was obvious, but it will have to be during the time when I thought people were incapable of genuine kindness.


Before COVID-19 I was an event bag EMT, meaning I was the medical personnel on scene for various public or private events. I operated from my BLS (Basic Life Support) bag and would help patients in whatever limited way I could.

One day, I was an EMT for a motocross racing competition. It was one of my first events and I was nervous so I constantly ran through potential injuries and how to treat them in my head. The racetrack wasn’t that organized, so I had trouble finding the lady I needed to report to. After about 30 minutes of aimlessly wandering around, I encountered a lady who was frantically running around moving from one unfinished task to the next. I forgot her name, but for the sake of the story we’ll call her Peggy. She ended up being “in charge” of coordinating the competition.

I could tell she didn’t feel like he had an iota of control over anything. People who move quick and frantically do so because they typically feel out of control and beholden to everything and everybody around them. It’s subconscious and not something I would typically fault anyone for, but I like to keep that in mind when I’m helping patients in an emergency situation. I keep calm and try to make my movements as intentional and slow as possible without compromising the situation. It helps the patient feel like I have the situation under control, even if I don’t. Anyways, I digress.

She saw my uniform and instantly dropped what she was doing, ran up to me and asked “Are you my EMT?” I say yes and she gives me the biggest hug ever and quickly introduces me to everyone involved with the race competition for the day. Everyone was extremely nice to me. One lady offered me drinks and another gentleman offered to carry my bag and brought me a chair. Another lady even thanked me for my service; I said thank you, but I really I wanted to say that people should save those for the ones who actually put themselves in danger. It’s easier to just accept the gratitude in situations like these.

Talk about an overload of kindness. These people didn’t have to do any of that. But those aren’t the acts of kindness that make me remember this particular memory.

During the briefing, Peggy tells me that the day should be pretty easy, unless I see her running and screaming for an EMT. I was hoping it would be a smooth day and I could get paid just watching the races with my VIP treatment. Then, she asked me if I’ve ever driven a stick shift ATV. I kind of knew how to drive one, my friend and I drove a stick shift ATV one weekend in high school and I did alright. I let her know my experience and she seemed excited. I guess most EMTs who came through there didn’t know how to drive one, which makes a lot of sense. Peggy said that the EMTs get their own ATV so we can ride out to downed racers on the course.

For the first few hours the day was relaxed as I could wish for, I have never been to a racetrack like this so I had a good time watching the races and recording the racers start their vehicles. There was a point when I honestly forgot I was the EMT on duty, but then I see her.

Peggy running full speed towards me, screaming “I NEED AN EMT!” My little fantasy shatters and I suddenly remember, “I’m at work. Someone needs help.” I instantly start recalling potential injuries and treatments, grab my bag, and hoped on the ATV. Turning the key took a couple tries, but I got the ATV started and drove it over to the cash site. Not gonna lie, I felt like a real badass riding the ATV with my BLS bag going to help someone.

The patient ended up being a man in his mid-fifties who broke his collarbone. I handled that situation and after I send him to the hospital, I had to go back to the racetrack to bring my ATV back to the starting line where I was originally posted.

I hopped the fence of the racetrack, got back on the ATV, but this time I couldn’t get it to start.

I kept turning the key in the ignition and after a few tries, it broke in the ignition!

This ATV was not going anywhere. It was in the middle of racetrack and I had to get it out of the way for the next race. I really didn’t want to be the reason why we fall behind schedule. So I got behind the ATV and started pushing. This thing was heavy and I had to push it up a few hills to get it back to the starting line. I got it up the first one, but the second one was another story.

I’m halfway up the second hill and my arms give in, the ATV starts sliding back down, and I’m facing the reality that I’m going to have to work even harder to make this happen. At this point, I’m extremely embarrassed. I’m in the center of the arena and everyone is watching me having a really tough time. I remember wishing I could just be relieved of this problem.

Suddenly, some guy jumps the fence and rushes to help me push the ATV up. Both of us together get it over the hill and back to the starting line. As we were pushing, we exchange glances and I could tell he saw the appreciation in my eyes. I would not have been able to do that without him, and he knew that.

That man was kind. He saw me struggle, and he would not let me needlessly struggle alone. He lent a hand not to demonstrate power or moral superiority, he lend it because he was kind and reflecting back on that reminds me that strangers can be kind if we let them. Perhaps strangers have to capacity to act as the saving hand of God if they are called. People may not typically voluntarily push themselves to reach demanding and difficult standards, but sometimes they do, and when they do we ought to pause and reflect at the awe of the miracle this person chose to create.


The terrible part of all of this is that it didn’t take place long before I found the prompt list. This guy saved my ass and chose to create a miracle right before my eyes, but I could not see it because of my bias and unfounded belief that people didn’t have it in them to be kind.

The world I know is bigger than the world I can see. Intellectually, I know the world is more than what I can perceive, but it is truly breathtaking to see it actualized in my life.

Our Unconscious Filters

“If you judge a man, do you judge him when he is wrapped in a disguise?”

Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

The mind has a few habits that we should pay attention to when we are trying to maximize our learning. Everyone is susceptible to these thought patterns and it would be advantageous to find where these patterns occur within our own lives. Without understanding these habits we could subconsciously close ourselves off to information that could be important to our education. I like to refer to these habits of the mind as Cognitive Biases. Officially, they can be thought of as systematic errors in thinking as a result of subjective perception. Cognitive Biases act as filters between us and the outside world. We view the world through whichever lense our minds naturally applies to a situation. If we don’t see the world objectively, then we see the world through our biases and that can prevent us from learning information that we don’t know we need. Understanding our cognitive biases, or unconscious filters, is our best shot at keeping them at bay so we can be best prepared for the worst that Fortuna has to throw at us. (I’ve been reading a lot of stoic philosophers recently)

Understanding these biases helps with critical thinking development. We all have biases and it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to remove them completely, but we can develop more reliable ways of learning through our bias. This could be achieved through seeking out people who will challenge and critique our ideas. Not learning about our own biases will keep us in a bubble. Our minds will filter out important information because we believe it to be useless. Through understanding our biases of the world and ourselves, our education falls into our control rather than having our minds unconsciously run the show.

Cognitive Bias (2020) – Christopher S. Mukiibi

Types of Cognitive Bias

Below are a few examples of cognitive biases that, if understood well, could help us maximize our learning and make our minds an ally rather than an enemy:

Disconfirmation Principle

This principle describe the phenomena where people tend to accept new information that support their already held beliefs, and are more likely to refuse new information that challenge their beliefs.

I try to pay attention to any current beliefs that I have now and what new information I quickly reject because it doesn’t align with my beliefs. Just because something supports what we already believe doesn’t mean it’s true or that it will help us. It’s important for us to do a detached analysis of all the information we are presented with. Its healthy to keep a small degree of skepticism, but it’s useful to consider that we may just be dismissing something simply because we don’t agree.

Confirmation Bias

This describes the tendency to interpret new information as evidence to support your already existing beliefs.

This is different than disconfirmation principle. Confirmation bias is saying that we will look at information and try to make it support our already held beliefs. This is dangerous because it can lead to overconfidence and overconfidence can tank our test scores and lead us to make terrible decisions. The overconfidence comes from seeing constant validations everywhere we go. Thinking that everything supports our ideas can delude us into thinking that we always come to correct conclusions. It is important to be aware of this “mind habit” and remain objective, as we can be, when obtaining new knowledge.

Belief Preservation

The tendency to keep believing an initial belief even after receiving new information that contradicts or disproves the initial belief.

This reminds me of a mentally ill patient I once had who honestly thought the sky was green. When we took her outside, she saw that the sky was grey (it was raining that day) and refused to believe that the sky wasn’t green. Now it’s easy to think that since she’s not completely alert and oriented, she’s not going to follow the same conventions as everyone else but even if we are open minded, we have a natural tendency to keep holding on to our beliefs even if everything around us tells us were wrong. The best way to prevent belief preservation from hindering our growth is to recognize it’s there when it comes up and try to look at new information regardless of your personal feelings.

Conviction Bias

This bias is best summed up with the statement “I believe it strongly, so it must be true.”

We are so strongly captured by some of our beliefs that we mistake them to be truth. In order to remain open, we must constantly question the beliefs we tend to hold as truths. (I do think a little too often sometimes and wonder if I’m crazy but there is an optimal balance to be achieved) We cannot become too attached to our beliefs. Who we are and what we believe do not have to be the same thing. Learning something to be false that we believe so strongly has a punishing feel and has consequences deeper than we can see. It’s totally possible to be so rooted in our ways that we sacrifice who we could be for who we are.

Appearance Bias

This has less to do with incoming information and more to do with people that we encounter. This bias describes the assumption that we know and understand the people that we deal with and that we see them for who we are.

It is important to understand that we do not see people for who there are, but we see them as they appear to us. It’s a great piece of knowledge to bring with you throughout life but can also bring us success in the academic world. Do not think that you know a teacher, or a professor, or a student based on what you can see. Everyone is just as, or even more, complicated as you. Keep an open mind and notice when you start to think that you have someone figured out. They may know something you don’t and that knowledge may bring you incredible insights into the world. In order to maintain a grip on my appearance bias, I try to listen to people as if they always have something they can teach me.

Group Bias

This is regarding the lie we tell ourselves when we are in groups; we have our own ideas and don’t listen to the opinions of a group. Within a group, our thoughts are rarely our own, but are of the group and its very likely that the group will come to a conclusion that is incorrect. We are social creature and NEED to conform. This is the basis for groupthink and group polarization and can lead to dangerous outcomes. This is not to say that group work isn’t great. We can get far more done as a group than as an individual, but that trade isn’t for free. We sacrifice a bit of autonomy and individualized thinking.

Group bias is something we should look out for when we are group studying or working on group projects. Make sure that the group does not lead you astray by learning incorrect information. Its very easy to think that you understand a concept because you understand how the group looks at it, but it’s very possible that everyone in the group is incorrect. Group bias and confirmation bias can be a deadly combination, I learned this lesson the hard way when I took Physical Chemistry at Cal State Long Beach. I studied with a group and we all thought we understood what was going on, but we all ended up failing the test.

Blame Bias

The idea that we pretend that we learn from our mistakes but actually hate to look at our imperfections closely, which limits our ability for introspection and reflection.

Learning from our mistakes is usually the best way to learn anything but keep in mind that we cannot learn from our mistakes all on our own. It’s best to look to someone who knows more about your endeavor so they can help you explore why you made those mistakes in the first place. We all have blind spots and we need others to help us see them. We are a social creature after all! Additionally, being aware of this bias allows you to have a slightly deeper insight into your errors than you naturally would have.

Superiority Bias

The idea that we believe that we are different, more rational, and more ethical than other people.

Most people probably wouldn’t say this out loud but deep down we believe it. This is why we get so upset when we see other people make dumb mistakes or think “everyone else” is so terrible. It is important to keep in mind that we are more similar to other people than different and pitfalls that most people can fall into are probably a danger to us as well. Everyone believes that they are smart, capable, independent, and good. Keep in mind that you are not as superior as you might think and you will go very far in life and in learning. Humility removes a lot of unnecessary friction and coming to terms with our own delusions of grandiosity helps with our progress.

Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)

When we attribute other people’s errors to internal factors, and our own errors to external factors.

An example of this would be when someone cuts you off while driving. It’s easy to think that they cut you off because they are a terrible person. But if you were the one who would have cut them off, it would have been because “you had to” or “you were in a rush” and it’s not because you are bad person. FAE is a type of Self-Serving Bias, which are a set of biases that protect our self esteem or where we see ourselves in an overly favorable manner. Knowing this can help you be more patient with others and you can catch yourself when you start to think that one of your mistakes may be due to outside circumstances.

Neglect of Probability

The tendency to disregard probability when making a decision under uncertainty.

During my time in school I’ve always wondered why I had to learn something and didn’t bother learning a lot of it because I figured that most of that information would never come up. Turns out, I used more of it than I expected, like all the advanced math I use daily because I’m a math tutor. When we’re presented with new information we make a choice to learn it based on if we think it will be useful to us in the future, but this bias demonstrates that we naturally disregard actual the probability that it can come up again. It’s difficult to predict if it will come up at all and if we knew the probability, chances are we’d ignore the raw data and believe what makes feel good. This is true not just with learning but with many of the decisions of our lives. We should try to think about how often we may need the information we may learn and not be satisfied with a surface level analysis or even with what other people will tell us. Academic topics taught earlier on are taught for a reason and topics later will very likely build upon the assumption that you proficiently learned all of the topics prior, and the answers to the problems of life require a sophisticated synthesis of all the information you’ve been exposed to and internalized.

Availability Heuristic

We determine how likely something is by how easily we can recall events of it happening in our brain.

An example of this would be a medical assistant who is working in a stroke center believes that strokes occur more often than they actually do because they can remember many instances when someone had a stroke. Another could be a psychiatrist who specializes in ADHD can easily view a patient’s pathologies and conclude ADHD because they believe it is highly probable that the patient has ADHD, but the psychiatrist only believes that ADHD is highly probable because he can recall many events of people having ADHD. Just because we can recall an event easily, doesn’t mean it has a high probability of occuring often.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

This is a theory that suggests people tend to believe their cognitive ability is higher than it actually is.

My explanation above suggests the relationship between knowledge and perceived ability is linear but it’s more nuanced. As we learn more about a subject, our perceptions adjust from the initial ignorant and confident position following the graph below. I love graphs because they explain concepts better than I can with words.

Confidence vs. Knowledge of Field based on Dunning-Kruger

Priming Bias

Our tendency to be included by what someone else as said or made to create a preconceived idea.

This happens to me all the time with meal ideas. Someone will mention an In-N-Out double double in a conversation and a few hours later if someone else asks me what I want to eat, I’ll say I want a double double from In-N-Out and I will have completely believed this was my own idea. This is a big reason why I try to limit my social media use, I don’t like the idea that my thoughts could be decided by someone else’s poorly thought-through comment or that the standards for my life and myself could be created by other people’s standards. Our ideas aren’t always our own, and it’s useful to recognize that.

Hindsight Bias

Also known as the “I-knew-it-all-along” effect which is our tendency to see events in the past as highly predictable.

Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to wonder why we didn’t act differently when we were younger. “Last year, I couldn’t have even fathom the depths of my ignorance” is the phrase I’m telling myself every year and I tend to be a harsh judge of younger Chris’ choices. The truth is, in the present moment it’s difficult to know which is the path most aligned with our Jungian Self. When we reflect back on our decisions, it’s important to keep that in mind that our past selves were trying to make the best choices they could at the time, unless you know they weren’t. Hindsight bias makes the past make sense and with the knowledge comes a harsh judgment on our past selves. Hindsight bias gets in the way of compassion for yourself and can distort your narrative. Watch it closely, we never really knew it all along.


A big part of managing cognitive biases is taking a little extra time to recognize the patterns and reevaluating what we really think about something. Cognitive biases are strong forces in the mind, but we can overcome them by taking a little time and slowing down.

There are a huge number of cognitive biases that can help you with your learning and life in general and I recommend taking time to learn more of them. These were just a few of the biases that I have found relevant to student success and my own life. Understanding these biases, or “mind habits,” will give us power over our natural tendencies to filter information. Be aware of them when they come up and approach all new knowledge with an open mindset and healthy skepticism.