Categories
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
Lifestyle Productivity

Understanding Habits and The 1% Rule

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

The other day I was thinking about how my life, and everyone else’s, is the accumulation of all the little moments of our lives. A lot of people I’ve talked to, including myself, are waiting for this imaginary future when their lives can finally start, but it’s a delusion. Our lives are happening right now and how we live in each moment decides what our lives actually are. So when I think about lifestyle design, or living my life by my own design the question arises –

How can I have the life I’ve always wanted?

Well if our lives are the sum of all the smaller moments, then living the life I’ve always wanted means to be the person that lives that ideal life in every moment. Everything I want to be, I ought to strive to be in every moment. If I do this, then over time I will have many small moments of me living out my ideal life and it will eventually be indistinguishable from my life as a whole. I can build my dream life one moment at at time. Thinking about this excited me, but at the same time terrified me.

How was I supposed to keep up with a demand that high?

How will I actually be able to build my dream life?

Through one decision at a time. Every moment I’m confronted with potential and I have a choice to turn it into something good or something bad. All I have to do is choose good every time right?

Yes, but the fact is I’m human, we’re all human, and for whatever reason we won’t always choose the good option.

So what can be do to make up for this peculiar quality?

Build habits. James Clear is a fantastic author who wrote the book, Atomic Habits, which outlines exactly that. Clear suggests that success (or how I like to think of it – ideal lifestyle design) is not a one time transaction, but the product of daily habits. In other words, we slowly build the kind of lives for ourselves one moment at a time. This phenomenon can work in our favor and take us towards our best life or can work to our detriment and create holes for ourselves indistinguishable from Hell.

This idea is relevant to self-talk and our thoughts as well. If we tell ourselves that we are capable and strong people often, then we are more likely to believe it. However, on the flipside, if we tell ourselves that we are weak and not good enough, then eventually we will believe that as well. I try to avoid saying things that make me weak, because my thought habits are pretty easily malleable.

I’ve seen this idea pop up in multiple places. In Atomic Habits, Clear states that habits are the compound interests of self-improvement and in The Slight Edge, Olson suggests that everything is curved in life especially the results from our seemingly tiny decisions.

The Slight Edge Two Life Path

Making the kinds of choices to propel our lives forward is a difficult thing to do and that’s where habits come into play. Building habits will help us stay on the upswing even when we don’t “feel like it.” Typically, making upswing choices takes a lot of willpower and if we are presented with a crossroads and have low willpower, then chances are we’ll make a choice that brings up on the downswing. Habits are our brain’s way of automating familiar and old tasks so it can focus on other areas and mastering new tasks. Put more simply, habits save cognitive load.

Life operates by design or by default, the best part is we get to decide.

The 1% Rule

“Small helpful or harmful behaviors and inputs tend to Accumulate over time, producing huge results. According to Lean Thinking by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, Toyota’s approach is based on the Japanese concept of kaizen, which emphasizes the continual improvement of a system by eliminating muda (waste) via a lot of very small changes. Many small improvements, consistently implemented, inevitably produce huge results”

Josh Kaufman (1976 – )

The idea behind the 1% rule is pretty simple – 1% for better or worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over time it will add up to who we are on a day-to-day basis. Renowned authors James Clear, Josh Kaufman, and Jeff Olsen all noticed the 1% rule independently of each other and I think that means there’s something objectively true about the observation.

YouTuber and Productivity Guru Thomas Frank also brings up the 1% rule in this video!

Thomas Frank is super cool

I love the advice Thomas gives in the video to set a scheduled release date and aim to get 1% better every time. It doesn’t matter what domain you are improving, as long as it is consistently improved we can use time to our advantage rather than our detriment. I did this with music production, with every project I aimed to get better at making melodies, or mixing drums, or sampling and now that it’s been a few years, I can do all of those things fairly well. I also did this with blogging. I have experimented with a different aspect of blogging with every post and over time my blogging skills have improved. I can honestly say that using the 1% rule to approach any new skill is the most effective way to learn something without being let down by unrealistic expectations. Things like The Transition Curve are also things to keep in mind when we are trying to learn a new skill.

While this is a fantastic discovery for those of us who feel up to the challenge, but like I mentioned in my post Tracking vs. Loss Aversion, I talk about the importance of not just chasing a carrot, but also running from a stick. The stick in this case is the compound effect of getting 1% worse every day over time.

Based on a True Story

Getting 1% better for a year makes us about 38 times better than we were when we started, while getting 1% wrose for a year makes us 3% of what we were when we started. If we aren’t getting 1% better, than we’re getting 1% worse. It sounds like a wild accusation, but let me use science to explain.

Since we’re relatively large creatures, compared to subatomic particles, our bodies follow laws of conventional science (non-quantum laws), which means we adhere to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The 2nd law states that entropy is always increasing. Entropy can be thought of as a measure of chaos or disorder. So the natural state of things is that they decay over time. Which means, if we aren’t actively trying to be 1% better, then we are truly getting 1% worse.

Progress is a Long Game

New habits don’t seem to make a difference until we reach a critical point. We expect to make linear progress, but our progress has more of a logarithmic behavior. James Clear calls this the expectancy curve. I talk more about the Expectancy Curve in my post The Valley of Disappointment.

The point when reality meets our expectations is known as the critical point

In order to notice the powerful outcomes, we have to stick with a skill longer than the valley of disappointment lasts. We must allow time for our habits to develop and not let our own disappointment take us out, especially at the beginning. The best way to avoid disappointment and see massive results is to set up a system that works for you.

Set Up Systems, Not Goals

“How you do anything is how you do everything.”

Dr. Andre Pinesett

Rather than try my hardest at one thing, or only do my best work when I’m blogging, I choose to try to do my best in every little thing I do. I do this for many reasons:

  1. To know myself as someone who always does their best
  2. So I don’t have to try harder than usual at any given time

I’ve developed a habit of being excellent, at least as much as I can be, all of the time. This is because I truly believe that how I do one thing is exactly how I do another. If I half ass a blog post, you can bet real good money that I’m half assing everything else I’m doing too. A big part of designing our lives is to pay close attention to how we decide to approach situations and decide if that is the kind of person that we would like to be.

When I work with my students on math problems, I do not only see how they perform academically, but I also see how they approach new challenges in general. Most get frustrated and try to ignore the problem. Some double down and use even more firepower to get through it. A few of them just lie and tell me that they understand it when they clearly do not. I don’t make judgements on their choices, I see my job as someone who ought to help them elevate their own problem solving skills by meeting them at their level.

I personally believe that the students who double down when they are confronted by challenges will be the most successful and most satisfied with their lives. Life is full of challenges and if we were only allowed to get one thing from our education it ought to be the ability to surmount challenges healthily. Using these tiny, low risk, problems as practice in developing ourselves in this skill is one of the best things we can do for ourselves.

So rather than just trying really hard in one area, we should apply Leonardo’s personal mantra to every aspect of our lives:

“Ostinato rigore” (Constant rigore)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

We need consistency because we fall to the levels of our training, not to the levels of our goals. If our training is rigorous, then we will fall to the level of excellence. If we’re having trouble changing habits, then we should pay more attention to our systems.

Goals are the results of what we want to achieve and Systems are the processes that get us there. Here are a few reasons why we should have goals, but we shouldn’t focus on them:

  1. Winners and losers often have the same goals. Some people think that winners are more ambitious goals, but that isn’t the case. People who win do not win because they have ambitious goals.
  2. Achieving a goal is satisfying for a moment. The next moment, we need a new goal. If we don’t have one, we can easily spiral into depression. It’s also easy to fall into black or white thinking. Achieve goal and be happy or fail and be disappointed. If we fall in love with the process, rather than the outcome, we give ourselves permission to be happy.
  3. Solving problems on the goal level is usually only momentary. Solving problems on the systemic level will prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.

With all my content creation, blogging, YouTube Videos, and Music, I don’t try to just make 1 song every day, or 1 blog post every day. I aim to produce a little every day or write for an hour every day. Back in college, I used to tell myself that I needed to make a beat a day if I wanted to be a good producer. While its a good goal to have, I noticed that once I made the beat, I wasn’t motivated to keep going. Sometimes I wasn’t even able to make something because looking at the task at the level of making an entire beat was too big! Now I have a simple step by step system that I can run whenever I feel unmotivated or uninspired that produces content. Every step of my content creation process is crystal clear to me so all I have to do is focus on putting one foot in front of the next, rather than just trying to get to the finish line.

Categories
Education Productivity

Strategies for Better Studying (Part 3)

“Premature optimization is the root of all evil.”

Donald Knuth (1938 – )

Check out the first and second parts! This is part 3 of my buffet of study techniques. Be sure to check out my post on Active Recall and Spaced Repetition to learn the main principles which efficient and effective studying is based. Applying methods without understanding the principles is a great way to waste time and energy, but once we understand the principles then we can mix and match the different strategies to develop our own personalized study system.

Scope the Subject

I first brought up the idea of Scoping the Subject in my post on Note-Taking. Scoping the subject is most effective when we do it at the beginning of a study session or when we are learning something new. It is simply asking yourself how much you already know about a subject before diving in.

Scoping the subject has many forms. One of them is through a mind map, which I also talk about in my Note-Taking post. Through creating a mind map, we can easily visualize the information we know and how they are related to each other.

Another way to scope the subject is to skim through the chapter of a textbook and noting any recurring words, phrases, or topics that you are not familiar with. These little holes of unknown are going to be landmarks, so to speak, that our minds will be on the lookout for when we actually learn the material. This is gives our minds an aim. Without an aim, it is extremely difficult to know what to pay attention to. The idea of people needing aims and direction can be taken much further than studying and I talk a lot about it here. People need purpose and purpose only exists in relation to something else. Scoping the subject gives us that reference point necessary to relate to something.

One more extremely helpful aspect of scoping the subject is having a ready made list of the concepts that we need to know. This list can be prioritized which is key to scheduling and timetables.

Build Knowledge Frames

I brought this up in my note-taking post a little while ago. Knowledge Frames work fantastic with mind maps. In a sense, mind maps are a type of knowledge frame. Knowledge Frames can be thought of as a generalized representation of a concept which smaller details can easily be attached.

I originally head of this idea from Dr. Andre Pinesett, a Stanford trained medical doctor who is an expert in student success. He says that students should build a simple understanding of a concept, then expand on that simple frame by adding details to it later on. In one of this long-form videos, he brings up learning the flow through the heart, a concept which most people find difficult to commit to memory.

The best part about knowledge frames is being able to learn these complicated ideas easily and simply. I used knowledge frames to help me memorize blood flow through the heart during EMT school. I’ll show you how I did it here –

One could simply memorize the flow of blood through the heart:

Vena cava → right atrium → tricuspid valve → right ventricle → pulmonic valve → pulmonary artery → lungs → pulmonary veins → left atrium → bicuspid valve → left ventricle → aorta → the rest of the body…

….but that’s not intuitive if you aren’t familiar with anatomy. The best way to memorize the flow isn’t through brute force memorization, but through knowledge frames.

First, we have to create a simple and generalized conceptualization of blood flow through the heart:

The Heart

This is the heart, or at least an extremely simplified version of it. This box will be our initial knowledge frame. As long as we think about the heart like this, it will be easier to learn the smaller details. Now that we’ve build the foundational structure, let’s hang some details on it.

Blood only comes into the heart through the atriums, from the top. It starts a the right atrium.

Entry into the Heart

There are 3 valves between each opening so the blood doesn’t flow backwards. The names are tricuspid, bicuspid, and pulmonic. The tricuspid and bicuspid valves are between the atrium and ventricles and the pulmonic valve is between the right ventricle and the lungs.

I remember this through the classic mnemonic “Try it before you buy it.” The pulmonic valve is named such because it leads to the lungs and things related to the lungs are known as pulmonary.

Veins carry blood towards the heart and arteries carry blood away from the heart so the blood leaves the right ventricle through the pulmonary artery and enters the heart through the pulmonary veins.

Veins, Arteries, and Lungs

The blood enters through the superior and inferior vena cava and exists through the aorta.

Further Specify Enter and Exit

And there you have it! The entire flow of the heart in 4 steps. We can always memorize complex systems and ideas, but chances are there’s a way to understand these things that are less burdensome. Now that we’ve created a knowledge frame, I recommend drawing out the frame in its entirety for active recall.

I’ve also used this idea (before I knew it had a name) in my chemistry classes to learn VSEPR theory in a simple and intuitive way. I’ve also used it to understand cellular respiration and all its’ little details. It’s difficult and time consuming to create knowledge frames but once they are made, they are invaluable, our understanding becomes solidified, and our retention skyrockets.

Find ways to simply concepts, then hang the smaller details on your frame.

Clearly Articulate Failure and Success

“When things cannot be defined, they are outside the sphere of wisdom; for wisdom knows the proper limits of things.”

Seneca (Letters from a Stoic XCIV – On the Value of Advice)

This is an applied idea from the lessons in my posts about drifters and definitive purpose, the reality-possibility exchange, tracking and loss aversion, and the power of failure. We are purpose driven creatures and we need to strive towards something. Having something to specific to strive for does us a lot ot good not just because we experience dopamine releases observing ourselves move towards goals, but because it can help us stay on track.

Always set an intention with every study session, set clear boundaries for failure and success. This is so we know when we’ve finished studying and when we’re behind. I don’t mean using time as a measurement. Have concrete goals that you can measure yourself up against.

This can look many different ways depending on the situation. When I’m working with my students, my goal is usually to do practice questions that cover the topics they will be tested on until they are able to complete the problems without mistakes. Sometimes, I’ll have less qualitative specifications for a study session. If time is short, I may say that the student has to do at least 20 practice problems.

My girlfriend is currently studying for the MCAT and she has the goal of finishing 1 chapter of new information per day. This way, she’ll know when she will actually be done studying. Rather than aimlessly trying to “study as much as we can,” we know exactly when we are done for the day.

As with most of the things I like to share, this lesson can be taken much further than simply studying. Articulation is the highest level of understanding and paying attention to how well articulated our goals and boundaries are will change our lives for the better.

Apply this to any endeavor you choose and watch your accomplishments slowly grow.

Past Papers, Exams, and Essay Plans are Crucial

I mean this with my heart and soul. Textbooks, the internet, fantastic tutors, friends are all great resources but nothing compares to old exams and thorough plans.

When we study for an exam, we want to be able to answer the questions that come up on the test and the best way to do that is to practice recalling the concepts that will be covered on that test. When many students, including myself, try to create active recall questions they inevitably wonder if the questions they’re using are sufficient for the exam.

How do we know we’re studying the right questions?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard and thought “I didn’t study any of the stuff that was actually on the test.” There are few things that suck more than preparing for the wrong situation, especially if the stakes are high. Studying the wrong material sucks so bad. We put in the work, only to discover that we’ve sacrificed the wrong thing.

Nothing is better than studying old exams or past papers, especially if those tests were administered by the same professor! This way we’ll already know what their tests are like. We will know what types of questions to expect, the wording of the questions, the length of the exam, and so many other things. By reviewing an old test, we remove a lot of the uncertainty surrounding it, which gives us more confidence and lowers our need for anxiety. Anxiety is our response to preparing for unknown variables and studying past exams takes out many unknowns.

If old exams aren’t accessible, practice tests are usually supplied at the end of a chapter which cover the 80/20 of the need-to-know for most STEM classes.

If you have to write an essay, examine the structures and characteristics of past essays can provide a stronger structure to work with especially in timed constraints. Read over an old essay and ask:

  • How did they structure this paper?
  • Why did they structure it that way?
  • What are weakness of this paper? Avoid those.
  • What are strengths of this paper? Mimic those.

Plagiarism is a terrible thing, but finding inspiration from others is totally fair game. In Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, he talks about the uniqueness of each individual how that affects our ability to imitate. Kleon suggests that if one were to try to make a copy of another’s work, individualism would influence the work enough to create something new. I believe this is so true! By allowing ourselves to be influenced by our surroundings, we are naturally influencing the world around us. When we look over old papers, I suggest mimicking as much as possible. Allow your own voice to shine through, but steal the concepts, plans, and ideas and make them your own.

Once the ideas for the essay are gathered, write out an outline over and over and over and over and over until you can write that essay in your sleep.

Be Mindful of Diminishing Returns

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

Norman R. Augustine (1935 – )

The idea of unproportional output to input is found in so many places and has been given many different names from many different people. The 80/20 rule is a fantastic example. I think everyone should spend a little time learning about these different observations and natural phenomena because the knowledge of these ideas changes how we would approach situations in a more powerful way. These ideas are powerful because they are based on the assumption that diminishing returns are something to pay attention to.

The Point of Diminishing Return is a phenomena of systems and it is the point when the ratio of output/input has decreased to a point where it’s no longer reasonable to continue. In terms of studying, this is the point when you would have to put in MORE effort to be able to learn LESS information. The point of diminishing returns eventually turns into Negative Returns, which should be avoided at all costs.

f(x) = x^(1/2) ish?

Derek Sivers has a fantastic story about him biking which illustrates this idea perfectly, I write about it in my post Another 5 More Tips for Better Scheduling. 45 instead of 43 is the preferred method of doing things.

Ramit Sethi also preaches his idea of “getting the big wins” and moving on with his life, which also is predicated on the idea of calling it quits at the point of diminishing return. Ramit calls it The 85% Solution – get 85% of it right and move on! I love this because it allows us the freedom to leave if something takes too much of our precious and nonrenewable attention. I do this all the time with my students, if we come across a problem that takes 20 minutes for us to complete I would either try to break down the concepts into smaller chunks or just leave it. I will literally say “don’t worry about this and plan to get it wrong on the test.” This idea shocks people, but it gives us the freedom to move on and cover other material. When it comes to studying rather than use the 85% solution, I say do the 90% solution – get 90% of it right and move on.

One thing to consider is where the point of diminishing returns actually is. One person’s point of diminishing return can look different from another’s. So the question is –

What determines our own point of diminishing returns?

I believe it’s a few different things, but the biggest factor lies in our trajectory. Our future plans decide where our point of diminishing returns are. This is another reason why Clearly Articulating Failure and Success is critical to being a better student. Where we are going decides what our present circumstances mean to us and through clearly defining where we are headed, we can more easily determine if our efforts are worth it.

We don’t have the energy to fight every battle. We must pick and choose. Know when it’s time to back away and know when it’s time to push.

Categories
Lifestyle Productivity

Tracking and Loss Aversion

“What gets measured gets managed.”

Peter Drucker (1909 – 2005)

This quote is probably one of the most life changing ideas I’ve come across this year. I like to add “…and what gets managed gets improved, as long as you’re aiming up” to the end of it to give it that extra punch. The idea is pretty simple, we’re able to manage the things we pay the most attention to and we can manage to improve them with a little intentionality.

If we’re trying to lose weight, we’ll need a way to determine if we’re making progress. Most people use weight, but we can use an indefinite amount of different measures. We can measure our BMI, arm width, torso width, torso circumference, daily energy levels, etc. Once we pick a measure, we track the measure over time and we can see if we’re moving towards our goals or away from our goals. In The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss (which is on my Must Read Book List), Tim suggests that people measure as many variables as possible when they are trying to make new changes to their fitness routine so they can see potential progress in domains they may not be focusing on. This prevents us from quitting if we aren’t meeting the goals we set for ourselves. For example, if we spend a week doing kettlebell swings and we don’t lose any weight but we’re able to increase our maximum number of reps, then we aren’t totally wiped out from the failure. The progress in the other domain gives us the boost we need to stick with it. As long as we’re getting better, it’s all good.

The best part of measuring multiple variables is being able to improve them intentionally. I’ve noticed this in my own life, anything that I keep track of inevitability gets improved over time. This is partly because I’m (possibly unhealthily) obsessed with personal development but also because I know my metrics and where I objectively stand.

Tracking

Man will only get better when you make him see what he is like.

Anton Chekhov (1860 – 1904)

We can think of tracking as our ability to notice when we’re on path towards our ideal life so we can use it to stay on the path towards our goals. It’s helpful to see tracking as a skill that we practice, but it’s much more than that. Our ability to track is deep-seated in our biology. We have connections in our limbic system wired throughout our entire body which entangles our emotional states with the trajectory of our desired goal. We have visceral feelings when we suspect something may physically harm us or feelings of unease when we’re doing something we know we shouldn’t. These deeply ingrained systems are examples of our tracking mechanisms letting us know where we stand in relation to our goals.

A relatable example of tracking mechanisms controlling our emotional states is being hungry. When we’re hungry, our entire body’s mission becomes “get food.” All of our senses become hyper aware of everything food related and we become perspective of all the possible ways of getting food. Our whole body is oriented towards getting the goal: food. This happens all the time when I’m hungry and I drive by an In-N-Out. I’m minding my own business, when BAM! I’m hit with the sweet aroma of burgers and fries. Now, imagine you’re hungry decide to go drive to your favorite restaurant. You get a flat tire on the drive and it’s going to take a while to get it fixed. Something came up that stopped you from reaching the goal. That bag of negative emotion you feel when an obstruction comes up is your tracking mechanism saying “You are off course!” or “Something is stopping you from reaching your goal!” Now, imagine you fixed the tired and made it to the restaurant and you see your hot meal coming out of the kitchen headed towards you. As the food gets closer and closer, your brain releases a bigger and bigger dopamine kick. These kicks also strengthen actions committed right before that point making them more likely to occur in the future. The same phenomena happens with all of our goals. We experience positive emotion when we move towards our goals and we experience negative emotion when we are impeded or off course from our goals. The feelings are experienced proportionally less intense as the goals become less crucial to our survival.

Tracking works best when we have a clear purpose. Tracking doesn’t discern what is a proper purpose and what is an inauthentic purpose, so we decide what we dedicate ourselves to, and tracking can be one of the many tools we can use. It provides powerful motivation and a built-in incentive structure. Some people like to track for shiggles, but I like to track with a specific goal in mind because seeing ourselves move towards a goal makes us happy, staves off depression and anxiety, and boosts confidence.

I mentioned this earlier but it’s so important to track multiple variables. In a classroom, only measuring our overall grade in the class may be discouraging since it doesn’t change as quickly as we’d like. It usually takes week of consistent improvement to raise an overall grade in a course, especially towards the end. But if we measure the number of questions we can answer easily in our a certain class, then we may see improvements faster.

Tracking multiple dimensions gives us boosts when we see improvement and prevents disappointment because we won’t trick ourselves into thinking that we’re stagnant. The more things you keep track of, the more things will improve, and the more you’ll be able to see how you’re progressing in a comprehensive way. When we are working on ourselves, there is always going to be some improvement in some dimension but it’s easy to miss those marks. Tracking is a way for us to see some of the different things that are improving. Keep track of many things, the more specific the better.

Loss Aversion

I like to think of Loss Aversion as an internal mechanism which motivates us to act to prevent losing something. Some examples of this could be going to work to pay the bills in order to avoid the water being shut off or studying for a test in order to avoid getting a bad grade. Loss aversion can also help us stay on the path towards our goals because it gives us something to run from. Research from Center for Experimental Social Science at NYU demonstrates that people will work way harder to avoid losing $5 than earn $20. Tracking and Loss Aversion are both powerful motivators but Loss Aversion is more effective. Not surprising considering that most people are more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive stimuli.

Everyone loves to envision themselves at the top of the mountain, so to speak, looking down at the world from their throne of success. That kind of envisioning is using the Tracking mechanism to create a possible future that we would love to run towards. But I believe that knowing what you want to do and where you want to go is not enough to accomplish something great. It is just as important to know what will happen if you do not take the actions necessary. If you don’t feeling like studying, ask yourself “What will happen if I don’t study?” Be vivid. The more clear the scenario of disaster, the better. I get myself to work out, stick to my routines, and create on a regular basis by asking myself:

What would my life would be like if I didn’t do this?

If keeping your own vision doesn’t work, there are fun apps to monitor loss aversion, feel free to google them and pick one that’s best for you. There are also organizations called Anti-Charities. You pledge money to these organizations and they will donate the money under your name if you don’t accomplish your goals. An example would be something like: Donating $5 to the KKK every day that you don’t study for an exam.

As much as I wish we could all just track down our goals like my dog when we wants to eat, success is extremely rare when we track without loss aversion. Trust me, I’ve avoided loss aversion intentionally for years but when I carefully reflected on a majority of my achievements I noticed that what really got the job done was the fear of getting the stick if I didn’t hold up my end of the deal.

Create something to run to and create something to run from. It will be pretty hard to procrastinate or do meaningless work if you are clear on what you want and what you do not.

Run towards Heaven and away from Hell. Nowadays, I hear so much contention between positive reinforcement and positive punishment. Some people say we should only use positive reinforcement and avoid positive punishment but I say we should use a combination of both. Run towards the carrot and away from the stick. Usually just one good reason isn’t enough, most of the time we’ll need more than one. Combining Tracking with Loss Aversion gives us at least two good reasons to do the things we want and it’s a surefire way to success.