These posts were originally published on the Tempo book blog between 2011-14, and imported here in 2019 when that blog was shut down and replaced with a single page.

Maintenance Thinking

Maintenance is action based on past decisions, primarily designed to prevent loss. It is patterns of behavior that by definition require no thinking and bring no new rewards. A double-negative definition. Examples of maintenance actions include:

  1. Brushing and flossing
  2. Keeping work areas clean
  3. Renewing licenses and permits
  4. Keeping certifications active
  5. Spending time in a relationship consistently
  6. Inspecting processes in a workplace
  7. Reviewing performance of investments
  8. Routinely purging filing cabinets or digital storage of things you no longer need

Maintenance must be distinguished from three similar patterns

  1. Consistent creativity behaviors (such as posting regularly on a blog, which I haven’t been very good about lately here)
  2. Testing behaviors (such as audits and probes into the state of operating systems).
  3. Periodic procedures (such as filing taxes, which may involve serious thinking and different actions year to year)

Creative people don’t like maintenance tasks because they are addicted to stimulation from variety. It’s a kind of immaturity.

One reason is that a lot of maintenance is the result of bad planning and decision-making further upstream. If a repeating human behavior pattern is anticipated in the future, it makes a lot of sense to try and make it self-motivating. The best way to do this is to build an element of continuous learning so that repeat instances are not identical, but exhibit subtle variations that the maintainer can learn to be mindful of, and use to improve the process continuously.

If this is not possible, the only two options available are to try and automate that action (codify it sufficiently that a less creative human or machine can do it) or turn it into an act of meditation.

If I could come up with an approach to improving maintenance behaviors, or making them easier to endure, I’d be rich.

The Three Clocks of Trial and Error

I am not very good at troubleshooting. I get impatient and end up either giving up or breaking something by trying to force a solution too quickly (for example, in assembling a piece of Ikea furniture where the parts don’t seem to match the drawings).

But I’ve been getting better slowly over the years.

The key to effect trial and error processes is to switch from your regular sense of time to a sense of time governed by three clocks. If you do this right, the process should feel like time standing still for the most part, as in the movie Groundhog Day, where the character of Phil is stuck in the same day until he gets everything exactly right and wins the girl, via a trial and error process that takes months in experienced time.

In normal situations, one or two clocks will do.

  • When you’re doing something you already know how to do, and doesn’t evoke strong emotions, one clock — the physical clock — will do. Up to a point, you can speed up and slow down, pay more or less attention, depending on the urgency.
  • When you are dealing with churning emotions, you need two clocks: the physical clock and the emotional one (which runs faster when you are experiencing positive emotions, and slower when you are experiencing negative emotions).

But in trial-and-error you need three clocks.

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Is Decision-Making Skill Trainable?

I shared an article a while back on decision fatigue. The article came up again in a recent discussion, and another idea was raised, this time from the fitness/training world: Acute Training Load vs. Chronic Training Load

“ATL – Acute Training Load represents your current degree of freshness, being an exponentially weighted average of your training over a period of 5-10 days…

CTL – Chronic Training Load represents your current degree of fitness as an exponentially weighted average of you training over a 42 day period. Building your CTL is a bit like putting money in your savings account. If you don’t put much in you won’t be able to draw much out at a later date.”

This seems like a very fertile idea to me.  The language here is very control-theoretic, and the idea seems to be basically about separating time scales of training in a useful way. It also seems to relate to what I think of as the raise the floor/raise the ceiling ways of increasing performance, which I talked about in the context of mindful learning curves.

The interesting question, as a friend of mine put it, is whether decision-making skill (and therefore decision-fatigue limits) responds to training the way our bodies do. I don’t mean this in the sense of gaining experience. That of course happens. I mean, being able to go for longer before performance degrades.

I think the jury is still out on that one.

Frictional and Structural Unknowns

In labor economics, frictional unemployment is when people are in between jobs, looking, and will most likely find one.  They are unemployed for a time because search and matching are not efficient in the labor market. Structural unemployment by contrast, occurs when there is an oversupply of people looking for a certain kind of work, because of some disruptive factor such as technology change.

I do meeting observation work on occasion for clients, and it recently struck me that something similar happens when a group of people are debating a topic, attempting to reach some sort of rough consensus and decision.

Frictional unknowns are things that should be said, and could have been said by one or more participants, but remain unsaid because meetings are loosely coordinated collective intelligence mechanisms rather than systematically coordinated ones like courtroom proceedings.

Structural unknowns are things that should have been said, but could not have been by any participant because the necessary viewpoint is systematically absent in the conversation. This need not be restricted to obvious things like the female viewpoint being missing in an all-male meeting. Anything from a particular language being used, to a dominant vocabulary, to the shape of the room, can create structural unknowns.

So frictional unknowns are ideas that remain unemployed in a discussion due to inefficiency, while structural unknowns are ideas that remain unemployed because there are no employers for them.

Understanding this distinction is very useful for fixing ineffective meetings. In practice, the frictional/structural distinction matters a lot more than Rumsfeld’s known, known-unknown and unknown-unknown three-way distinction.  The latter is conceptually useful. The former is useful in live situations.

Frictional unknowns can be addressed by modifying processes, but structural unknowns can only be fixed by either bringing new people into the discussion or via creative breakthrough in a participant’s private thought process.

On Thinking Caps

I’d like a literal thinking cap. A regular baseball hat, but with the look of an orange or yellow construction hard hat. It would say “Construction in Progress, Do Not Disturb” on it.

Here’s why. There is an annoying asymmetry between inside-head and outside-head thinking. A thinking cap would solve this problem.

Somebody thinking outside their heads looks obviously busy. Whether they are cleaning, doing laundry, assembling furniture, performing brain surgery or repairing a broken computer, they send clear “do not disturb” signals.  You are unlikely to interrupt a coworker or spouse obviously occupied in such external thinking tasks to ask them to do something unrelated. I use the phrase external thinking rather than the word doing to distinguish tasks that require active logical thinking/planning and nearly full attention from those that are more mindless.

But somebody busy doing some intricate thinking inside their heads doesn’t send such clear signals. They just look somewhere between idle and spaced-out. Or they might be doing something that seems low-effort and okay to interrupt, like putting away dishes.

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Personality Ambidexterity: Or How to Turn Yourself Inside-Out

Fox and hedgehog are related archetypes that form an archetype schema: a set of related archetypes that arguably covers most of humanity very well. Push come to shove, most people are willing to classify themselves on a good schema, and suspend the instinct to challenge the underlying assumptions and fuzziness in boundaries.

The simplest sort of archetype schema is a binary classification (“there are two kinds of people in the world…”). Developing some capacity to inhabit the other side of a binary schema, within which you see yourself relatively clearly as being on one side, is like developing personality ambidexterity. To do this, you have to understand the symmetries and polarities in a given schema.

A symmetry in mathematics is a transformation that turns one thing into another. For example, a reflection symmetry flips (say) a left-hand silhouette drawn on paper so it looks like a right hand. Any archetype schema is based on various symmetries and polarities, but it may not be immediately apparent how to describe it explicitly as such (a necessary step before you can apply a transformation), or why it is worth bothering.

What operation might turn, say, a fox into a hedgehog? And why would we want to attempt that sort of “trading places” switcheroo?

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Inside the Miscellaneous Folder

In any workflow taxonomy for classifying anything from individual to-d0 lists and desk drawers to countries and large corporations, there are things that require more trouble to classify than they are worth. If you’ve done your job right, you’ll achieve a 80-20 split, where 20% of the taxonomy captures 80% of the action in clean-edged ways, and the remaining 80% that contains the 20% of special cases, outliers, exceptions and so, can all be lumped together under something analogous to a folder marked “miscellaneous.”

Every organization scheme, if it is useful at all, handles a dynamic flow of action. The action enters through some equivalent of an inbox, evolves at varying rates through the taxonomic scheme, and exits through some equivalent of an archival scheme combined with a trash can. Between entrance and exit, the flow divides itself into the ordered part of the organization scheme and the miscellaneous folder.

For a corporation, the inbox is usually the sales pipeline and the miscellaneous folder is often the CEO’s office. For a country, it is a mix of domestic and international economic, political and military “issues” that converge on the governance apparatus in the country’s capital. In the case of the military, the “miscellaneous” folder is often the special forces.

We recognize the need for the organization scheme to evolve with the flow it is processing, but it is usually hard to operationalize this basic idea. Here’s are some basic principles.

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Coincidences and Correlations

Most people have heard the admonition, “correlation is not causation.” Few have heard the related admonition, “coincidence is not correlation.”

In common usage, a coincidence is about pairs of rare events that have a background relationship within a model. Like thinking about a friend you haven’t thought about for ten years, and then running into him the next day. But here, I mean a more banal technical sense of “coincidence” — juxtaposition. Co-incidence, as in “occurring together”

So if you and I are at a coffee shop at the same time, our mutual presence is a “co-incidence” whether we are long-lost friends or strangers who ignore each other.

But why are these two admonitions necessary at all? Why would we assume relatedness among unrelated things, or see causal relationships where there are only correlations? They are necessary because decisions enacted in the real world as opposed to inside your head, share physical time and space with other enactments in progress: situations.

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Lagrangian and Eulerian Decision-Making

This metaphor is not for everybody, but if it works for you, it will probably be very useful.

Writing Tempo has sparked a lot of  fascinating conversations for me. People either seem to immediately get the decision-making model, or find it completely counter-intuitive and bizarre. Some tell me, “this is exactly how I think, thank you for describing the process clearly.” Others tell me, “nobody could possibly think this way, this is ridiculous.”

In reflecting upon the bimodal responses, it struck me that they were coming from two very different kinds of people. The ones who find the model natural are (predictably) somewhat like me: they do most of their thinking inside their heads with models. The ones who find it unnatural seem to do most of their thinking outside their heads by “watching machines work” as it were. What Myers-Briggs types refer to as the Ti vs. Te distinction (ask your friendly neighborhood Jungian to explain this to you). In terms of concepts in the book, this is the difference between narrative thinkers and situated thinkers.

Narrative thinkers tend to process by following a flow of causation, by keeping an evolving model of it going in their heads. Situationist thinkers focus on the logic of the events flowing through a particular static block of space and time: the one they happen to inhabit at the moment. It’s like following a case as it winds its way through the police investigation, different courts, judges and jurys, versus sitting in a courtroom all day and watching slices of different cases each evolve through a chapter locally.

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Extrovert-Introvert Fog

Many coastal geographies experience interesting patterns of fog formation when hot and cold currents mix. There are more complicated ways fog forms, but essentially it is a consequence of a collision between two distinct local weather patterns.

It recently struck me that many extrovert-introvert interactions have a similar characteristic. Extroverts gain energy from social interactions. Introverts gain energy from private, secluded thinking. When the two kinds of personalities have been “charging” for a while, they are not just energized, they are also in the grips of serious momentum.

The extrovert’s momentum manifests as wanting to continue social interactions, past the “social charging” event. 

The introvert’s momentum manifests as wanting to continue to think, past the “solitude charging” event.

When the two collide in this stage, the resulting energized communication confusion is really frustrating to experience and hilarious to watch. I call it the extrovert-introvert fog.

The introvert tries to take whatever the extrovert says as more thinking raw material, but the extrovert isn’t interested in that. He or she is interested in continuing to talk, it doesn’t matter about what.

So the extrovert keeps trying to restart the conversation, skipping from topic to topic in an effort to feed the existing momentum. The introvert keeps trying to think about what was said 5 minutes ago and getting the extrovert to shut up while they process.

The interaction usually ends in disengagement with one walking away in frustration, usually the introvert. Otherwise the introvert says something like, “god, will you shut up, and let me think for a moment!” Or the extrovert says something like, “will you pay attention for a moment, you keep tuning out!?”