I Will Not Rest Until…

It recently struck me that only one sort of person makes statements of the form I will not rest until X: politicians. Usually in the context of some sort of holy-warrior mission like reforming healthcare, killing all infidels or exacting revenge. It’s a mark of a pursuit motivated by priceless values.

For the rest of us, there are what engineers call duty cycles: patterns of work and rest, uptime and downtime. It’s a pattern of work that doesn’t really include a sense of deadlines at all.

We get to an uptime/downtime understanding of how we’re working by lying to ourselves about the messy nature of effort and relaxation. We do this by marking out arbitrary thresholds that we can consciously detect. Then we lie a little more to club different effort levels together under “work” (in the worst case, calling all effort levels 1 and all relaxation levels 0). In the final stages of habit formation, we ritualize the threshold crossings into start/quit rituals (with warm-up/wind-down rituals before/after that we may or may not count as work).  Once the ritual scaffolding is in place, we allow ourselves to relax, letting the effort range shrink and smoothen into the comfort zone. The approximation created for understanding turns into the legible reality used for managing work . Here’s a picture:


Through such quantization, binary-ization, ritualization and comfort-ization, we get to an approximate and tractable understanding of how we’re working, and when it hardens into a prescription, we get to a passably effective approach to sustaining effort over indefinite periods of times, with predictable outcomes. This is what a habit really is: a ritualized way to sustain work that is not optimal with respect to the work itself, but with respect to the overheads of effort monitoring, feedback, etc. This is why habits have inertia: they are defined in terms of behaviors optimized for minimal meta-work.

When it’s really entrenched, the politician’s lie becomes a sort of truth. When we say something like “I will not rest until,” we really mean “the steady duty cycle will be focused without interruption on this objective.” We don’t really mean we won’t take downtime off. We mean, “this will be top priority within the duty cycle” or possibly “the only priority.” We don’t (and can’t) mean no weekends or evenings.

It’s a fairly harmless, if rather hypocritical/postury little lie.

But this understanding falls apart as we get closer to a deadline. There are times we actually cannot-rest-until something happens because our duty cycle unravels and our mind won’t let us relax until either a new one is in place OR an objective is achieved. Duty cycles are really the mind protecting itself against its own obsessive-compulsive demons. Or to put it another way, your mind is fundamentally atemporal: if time is nature’s way of ensuring everything doesn’t happen at once, OCD is our mind’s way of ignoring time and trying to force everything to happen at once. Duty cycles are how we artificially import a sense of time into our fundamentally atemporal brains. Possibly we are this way because we are fundamentally visual creatures and visual perception is an all-at-once kind of deal. When failure looms, it looms in an all-at-once way. When success is visualized, it springs relatively fully-formed into our minds, with no real hints of how to get there. We try to get around this at an intellectual level by translating time into space (otherwise known as a “having a plan all at once”) but that doesn’t actually work. It merely moves our OCD desire for an all-at-once anxiety-relief pill to a meta-level. Now we can’t rest until the plan is perfect.

As our sense of having a functional duty cycle unravels near a deadline, we are forced to reverse the quantization and binary-ization in order to understand what we’re doing, give up the rituals, and allow anxiety to creep back in, taking us out of our comfort zone. To those with low self-awareness and low tolerance for anxiety, this feels like the world falling apart. To more stoic people, with a more gritty, sisu temperament, this is just a period of learning and leveling-up to a more effective habit.

Perhaps this is why the advice smart people give for this sort of situation is just breathe, take it one day at a time. They key is to get back to living in actual time rather than the horror of spatialized time.

This is sort of an addendum note to this piece and this piece. I’m moving that line of writing from ribbonfarm to the tempo blog.

Effort Shock and Reward Shock

One of the most useful concepts I’ve come across in recent times is the idea of effort shock. It’s in a great post by David Wong of Cracked, How ‘The Karate Kid’ Ruined The Modern World.  

It seems so obvious that it actually feels insulting to point it out. But it’s not obvious. Every adult I know–or at least the ones who are depressed–continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock.

We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.

Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s 10 or 20 times harder. Like losing weight. You make yourself miserable for six months and find yourself down a whopping four pounds. Let yourself go at a single all-you-can-eat buffet and you’ve gained it all back.

Effort shock captures the nature of what I called the The Valley in Tempo, which roughly corresponds to the montage phase of many movies built around the character learning somethingThe insight Wong adds to the party is the tendency to actually think of the phase as a five-minute montage set to music, instead of the long, arduous phase with no music. Due to this tendency, we vastly underestimate the effort involved even in modest projects, to the point that when we actually understand what’s involved, we wonder whether the reward is worth it at all.

The good news is what I’ve started calling reward shock. In some (not all) domains, it is more than enough to offset effort shock.

When you overcome effort shock for a non-trivial learning project and get through it anyway, despite  doubts about whether it is worth it, you can end up with very unexpected rewards that go far beyond what you initially thought you were earning. This is because so few people get through effort shock to somewhere worthwhile that when you do it, you end up in sparsely populated territory where further gains through continued application from the earned skill can be very high.

Programming, writing and math are among the skills where there you get both significant effort shock and significant reward shock.

The Rumsfeld Behavioral Landscape

I made up an interesting way to visualize habits, routines and larger behavioral complexes in terms of Rumsfeld’s famous known, known-unknown and unknown-unknown typology.


Here’s how it works. Your basic building block is a habit, and these are either built around attractors or repulsors (the green and red contour sets respectively, with the green representing valleys and the red representing hills). Your behaviors are decision patterns that may orbit one or more habits in complex ways.

Here’s how you read/use the map (you can build a real one around your own habits of course, this is just an illustration).

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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.

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.

Schleps, Puzzles, and Packages: Solving Complex Problems the Iron Man Way

There is an old joke about cadets in a tank warfare training program with three sessions, on mobility, communications and firepower.

The first instructor, an engine expert, concludes his session with the declaration, “a tank that can shoot and communicate, but not move, is useless.” The next instructor, a radio expert, concludes his session with a similar line, “a tank that can shoot and move, but not communicate, is useless.”

The last instructor, a gunnery expert, finishes his session with the line, “a tank that can move and communicate, but not shoot, is basically a 50-ton portable radio.”

The lesson I draw today from the joke (which I first heard 30 years ago) is this.

Complex problems contain three sub-problems: schlep, puzzle and package.  For a tank, mobility represents the schlep sub-problem (building a vehicle for lugging a big gun around on rough terrain, using known technologies). Firepower represents the puzzle sub-problem (shooting accurately from a fast-moving, wobbling platform). Communication represents the packaging sub-problem (integrating the tank into a battle plan). It took decades to get the solution right, resulting in the modern main battle tank (MBT).

When you solve complex problems right, you are left with three corresponding intangible things of value: an asset, an insight and an aesthetic, which make the solutions both durable and generative (the solutions gradually and intelligently expand to occupy bigger problem spaces, realizing the potential of the original specific solution).

Understanding the interaction of these 3+3 input and output elements can make a big difference to how you attack complex problems. I am going to try and explain using the Iron Man movies.

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Why Habit Formation is Hard

Recently, I moved from Las Vegas to Seattle. In the process I realized that activities like moving belongings and getting a new driver’s license are not the hardest part. The difficulty of moving habits is much higher. About 80% of the cost of a move, I suspect, is the cost of moving habits. We lose months of time in the run-up to a move and after.

An example is your gym routine. It’s possibly the most important habit in your life. But it is surprisingly hard to “move” from one context to another.

In my case, I signed up for a gym very similar to the one I used to go to in Vegas. It has similar facilities and a similar range of equipment, trainers and programs. Like my old Vegas gym, my Seattle gym is about a mile and a half from home. The membership cost is about the same.

Yet, it’s been more than a month and I still haven’t found my rhythm. By contrast, when I joined the Vegas gym, it took me less than a week to settle into a great routine.

Why is this?

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How Many Steps Do You Really Look Ahead?

The planning/decision-making literature focuses a great deal of attention on computing actions many steps ahead. But it recently struck me that looking ahead is not actually a very natural behavior for humans in most real-time domains (which is most domains).

A simple illustration is the problem of adding milk or cream to your coffee in a self-serve situation. We all recognize that putting the milk in first and then pouring in the coffee eliminates the need for stirring (and therefore saves a wooden stirrer or a spoon-washing). But few people do it. I myself forget about half the time.

Even if you discount the people who prefer to put the milk in later for whatever reason (in order to use the changing color as feedback, perhaps), I bet there’s a sizable number of coffee drinkers who don’t care about the milk-coffee sequence but don’t choose the simpler and less wasteful sequence.


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Jason Ho on Cultivating a Jiu-Jitsu Mindset

Jason Ho has a very practical, yet philosophical post up on his blog, qaboom.com on themes very relevant for students of decision-making. Well worth a careful read (the whole blog, not just this post). There’s more between the lines than just the personal examples he describes.

Cultivating a Jiu-Jitsu Mindset

Every once in a while, when a hobby like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu captures my fascination, it takes me by surprise. Since I’m usually interested in more things than I have time for, I tend to be very selective of the hobbies I take up. When I find myself falling in love, I take a cautious step back and start asking questions.

Why have hobbies like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, programming, and bodybuilding captured my fascination, when others have lost their appeal? What do they have in common, if anything? Why BJJ but not Muay Thai? Why computer science but not engineering?

In a world full of options and not enough time, often the hardest decisions are not what to do, but what not to do.

It occurred to me that my love-at-first-sight attraction to BJJ was more than just serendipity. BJJ, and its underlying principles, are a perfect representation of the kind of philosophy I’ve internalized. If I could compress all its wisdom into one motto, it’d be this: Spend your time and effort on where it will make the most impact.

He cites an old post on this blog that I’d forgotten about and just re-read. I didn’t really understand what the heck I was thinking back then. This often happens to me these days. I must be headed downhill.

Annealing the Tactical Pattern Stack

Human behaviors are complicated things. They are easy to describe, as fragments of narratives, but hard to unpack in useful and fundamental ways. In Tempo, I offered a model of behavior where universal tactics (universal in the sense of arising from universally shared conceptual metaphors, and being enacted in domain-specific ways) form a basic vocabulary, and are enacted through basic decision patterns, which are like basic sentence structures in language.

I suggested that there are four basic kinds of tactical pattern: reactive, deliberative, procedural and opportunistic, that could be conceptualized via this 2×2, where the x-axis represents the locus of the information driving the action (inside/outside your head) and the y-axis represents whether the information has high or low visibility (i.e. whether it is explicit and in awareness, or whether it is part of the frame/background, and below awareness).

 While writing the book, I tried to figure out whether these behaviors also form a natural hierarchy of sorts. I was unable to make up my mind, so I did not include the idea in the book. Now I think I have a good model. The stack looks like this (the simplicity is deceptive):


Why? And how should you understand this diagram?

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