Time, Money and Bandwidth

The NYT has an interesting piece on the psychology of poverty, No Money, No Time:

My experience is the time equivalent of a high-interest loan cycle, except instead of money, I borrow time. But this kind of borrowing comes with an interest rate of its own: By focusing on one immediate deadline, I neglect not only future deadlines but the mundane tasks of daily life that would normally take up next to no time or mental energy. It’s the same type of problem poor people encounter every day, multiple times: The demands of the moment override the demands of the future, making that future harder to reach.

When we think of poverty, we tend to think about money in isolation: How much does she earn? Is that above or below the poverty line? But the financial part of the equation may not be the single most important factor. “The biggest mistake we make about scarcity,” Sendhil Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard who is a co-author of the book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,” tells me, “is we view it as a physical phenomenon. It’s not.”

“There are three types of poverty,” he says. “There’s money poverty, there’s time poverty, and there’s bandwidth poverty.” The first is the type we typically associate with the word. The second occurs when the time debt of the sort I incurred starts to pile up.

Worthwhile perspective on time, decision-making and scarcity of cognitive resources. Similar in spirit to the research on decision fatigue I reblogged a while back.

Frustration Effects and Curse of Optimality

Let’s say you have a project to staff with three available roles: a leadership role P with power, a sexy role S with opportunity for high public visibility, and a grinder role G with a lot of tedious schlepping. For logistics reasons, the partitioning of the work is not negotiable. You have three people with whom to staff the project: Alice, Bob and Charlie.

You chat with each, and it’s clear they all have the same preference order of roles: P>S>G, which means there’s no way to satisfy them all perfectly. All three believe they can do all three roles well enough. So you sit back, think through how good each is at each role, make up a little table like the one below,  crunch some numbers and assign roles: Alice gets power, Bob gets the sexy role, Charlie gets the grinder role. Your configuration has a nominal value of 5+4+2=11 points, and is the best you can do among all possible configurations.

Skill\Person Alice Bob Charlie
Power  5  4  3
Sexy  3  4  1
Grinder  3  4  2

Unfortunately, each also has an unknown motivational drop-off element to their personalities, due to which their commitment and productivity drops by at least a certain fraction for every degree removed from most-preferred role. So how does that change the actual outcome?

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Discovery-Heavy Projects

I don’t like processing huge fire-hoses of complex, poorly structured and somewhat arbitrary information, but I am good enough at it, mainly because I’ve had a lot of practice. I call these discovery-heavy projects. They require three cognitive skills:

  1. Triage Skill: Simple information, such as a shoe-box of family photographs, can usually be categorized rapidly within a simple taxonomic system. Complex information, such as a pile of paper documents that are part of a legal discovery process, tends to require much more thought to codify into usable form for processing. You have to triage the simple and complex, and resist the temptation to find a pigeonhole for everything. Some critical stuff will stay sui generis. 
  2. High-touch processing: Poorly structured implies low automation potential. This means you will need to examine every bit of information that comes in via the firehose.
  3. Data slumming: Arbitrariness of information means you cannot infer it from other information you’ve already processed. For example, the GDP of Great Britain in 1973 is something you just have to look up.

These behaviors can be very exhausting to those who are not naturally skilled at them, or energized by them. So what can you do?

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When Finishing is Easier than Starting

When you are young, beginning new projects is easy and finishing them is hard. As you grow older, beginnings get harder, but finishing gets easier. At least, that has been my experience. I think it is true of anyone of at least average intelligence, creativity and emotional resilience. The reason is simple.

When you are young, the possibilities ahead of you, and the time available to explore them, seem nearly infinite. When you try to start something, the energizing creative phase, (which comes with internal brain-chemistry rewards on a fast feedback-loop), gives way to exhausting detail-oriented work, maintenance work, and unsatisfying overhead work. You need to get through these to bank distant external rewards (money and such) that only come with completion. It is then that you are most vulnerable to the allure of exciting new beginnings. So you abandon things halfway. You bank the internal rewards of beginning, but not the external rewards of finishing.

But with age, this changes.

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New Year’s Resolutions as Self-Directed Camp

I’ve written a couple of whimsical posts about resolutions in the past, but I can’t bring myself to write about them seriously. Resolutions are not serious. Not anymore. I vaguely recall reading old novels whose characters took them seriously, but in our time, New Year’s resolutions are widely regarded as a joke. Very few expect to actually accomplish them.

I think Susan Sontag’s definition of camp as “failed seriousness” applies to New Year’s resolutions. They are a ritual we repeat as a kind of entertainment we manufacture for ourselves.

But while camp of the normal sort involves laughing at others, resolution-camp involves laughing at ourselves. There is a part of us that secretly hopes we will be able to miraculously figure out how to achieve our resolutions this year. The camp arises out of another part of ourselves laughing at the serious, but naive and wishful, part.

Which is why we actually follow through on resolutions by taking first steps in many cases. The cliched example is signing up for a gym membership, going once in January, and then failing to keep it up.

It’s an expensive way to get your campy entertainment. It’s probably smarter to just indulge in a marathon viewing of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies

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.

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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Sensitive Dependence on Paperwork Conditions

I have struggled with paperwork all my life, to the point that I sometimes joke that it is my kryptonite.  A paperwork attack can reduce me from feeling superhuman to subhuman. Especially vicious Catch-22 types of paperwork. My life exhibits a sensitive dependence on paperwork conditions. When pending paperwork levels are high, I am nearly useless to everybody and not exactly in love with my own life either. When pending paperwork levels are low, I can move mountains.

In an extreme example, I was recently locked out of my bank account and to unlock it, besides the usual identity questions, my bank came up with the brilliant scheme of asking for a detail about a recent deposit for additional security. Thanks to paperless statements, I couldn’t supply the detail. Genius, right? You need to get into the account in order to find the information that would allow you to unlock it.

Eventually, we figured something out. We are finally at the baroque stage of industrial civilization with paperwork as strange loop.

In general, things aren’t quite so bad.  But having had to deal with more than my fair share of the universe’s paperwork in the last few months, I’ve come to some conclusions about why I am particularly oversensitive to the stuff (and why you might be too), and how to cope.

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Overtake on the Turn, Overwhelm on the Straight

Sometimes, doing the right thing is just way too hard. So you have use the best approximate substitute available. When you can’t fly like a bird, you can aspire to be a frog that can jump really high, or a flying squirrel.

Decision-making is like that. There is, in my opinion, a “right way” to do decision-making in complex, dynamic environments (VUCA conditions — Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), but most of the time, the right way is way too hard. So like most people, I use approximations tailored to current conditions (I am partial to the geeky joke that life isn’t just hard, it’s NP-hard).

To explain the right way and the approximate way, it helps to think in terms of high-speed maneuvering as a metaphor. Think of the dog-fighting in-an-asteroid-field scene in Star Wars.  There are unpredictable moving obstacles and adversaries in the environment, and potential/kinetic energy considerations arising from the physics and energy levels of your own vehicle.

The “right” way to engage such a domain is with high situation awareness and calm mindfulness. Such a mental state allows you to maneuver smoothly and efficiently, with surgically precise moves that minimize entropy generation while achieving your objectives. This is the peak-flow-state, with your OODA-loop humming away at Enlightenment Level 42.

Unfortunately, if you’re like me, you’re in that state perhaps 1% of the time. What do you do at other times?

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