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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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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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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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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Not Important, Not Urgent

In Stephen Covey’s famous important/urgent 2×2 diagram, why is the not important/not urgent quadrant even there (other than for geometric completeness)? If you’ve always got things going on, the other three quadrants always trump the NI/NU quadrant after all, so do things in it every get done? Do they need to?

I claim that the critical NI/NU stuff is stuff that usually only gets done when it moves to one of the other quadrants. When it isn’t being done, it exists in a state of brokenness. This is okay. Wanting to eliminate all brokenness from your life is practically the definition of OCD.

Most of us live in a state of constant semi-brokenness due to things in the NI/NU quadrant that we never seem to get around to.

Here’s how this quadrant works.

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The Daily Ugly

The Russian proverb, morning is wiser than evening (MWTE) is one of my favorite ideas about tempo management at the daily level. It makes a more abstract idea (avoid making decisions when you are tired or depressed) more evocative.

MWTE is a simple tempo management heuristic that works for most people, most of the time. If you are a typical sort, and you use it systematically, you’ll slightly improve your decision-making quality by introducing a timing bias. Most of the time. Sometimes, you are smarter at night-time. And there are people who are always wiser in the evening. Good heuristics have this robustness. Even if you proselytize them with no qualifications, on balance you’ll do more good than harm. Really robust heuristics can even handle being rhetorically exaggerated into absolutes (“If you practice MWTE, you will succeed, guaranteed!”). They are also very forgiving: if you execute partially, you get partial results. There is no all-or-nothing effect.

The 24-hour  circadian rhythm is usually the easiest one to work with when you first start to practice tempo management. This is the reason take it one day at a time is such a robust heuristic for tough times. The world of motivational speakers and self-improvement gurus is choked with circadian advice. It is useful to sort out the torrent of circadian tips this world throws at us. A decent classification is good, bad and ugly heuristics. It is the last category that determines the quality of your daily life.

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Creative Desks versus Administration Desks

For many of us, desks are where a lot of life happens. I realized about a year ago that psychologically, there are two different types of desks, which most people combine into one physical desk.

The two types are creative desks and administration desks.

Even if you have multiple desks (at home and at the workplace for instance) chances are, you combine both psychological types in each.

Creative desks are where you do serious maker work. Writing, coding, design, pen-and-paper math, spreadsheet analysis and so forth.

Administration desks are where you do all the overhead stuff. Expense reports, invoicing, book-keeping, contract signing, faxing, filing, travel arrangements, GTDing, certain kinds of email and calendaring, and so forth.

The two don’t go well together because people who get a high off  creative work are generally depressed by administration work, and vice-versa.  Basic systems and processes are also different around the two desks. If you consider emotion/energy aspects and system-process aspects, you could say that the two types represent very different field-flow complexes, with different tempos. Mixing them up results in a cacophony.

So how can you cope with both kinds of work? The solution is to separate the psychological desks physically to the extent you can afford to.

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The 6-Hour Maker-Manager Work Day

There are some ideas that keep popping up. They’re like Rome. All roads lead there, and you end up finding different viewpoints for the idea depending on the path you take.

The Maker-Schedule/Manager Schedule idea from Paul Graham is one such. It may be his most fertile idea.

Once you get used to thinking of work-tempo management around the idea of two fundamental frequencies (4 hour maker upcycles and 1 hour manager upcycles) you have a  framework for analyzing many different types of creative class work. One conclusion I’ve reached is that if you do both kinds of work, you’ll end up working 6-hour days. Here’s why.

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The Fundamentals of Calendar Hacking

I am always amused by time-management amateurs who have found a system that works for them and a few of their friends, and start imagining that they’ve created a perfect system.  “Universal time management system” is the perpetual motion machine of the self-improvement industry.

The zeroth thing you need to know about personal time management is that in a certain theoretical sense, there are no universal  systems. Only calendar hacks. What’s more, you cannot pick some compendium of calendar hacks and easily sort out the ones that will work for you. You need to learn the art of calendar hacking.

That’s what this post is about: the fundamentals of calendar hacking. I’ll be straight with you: the ideas in this post are going to be somewhat tough to grasp if you haven’t already encountered them, but I’ll keep it non-technical and provide several hopefully illuminating examples along the way.

The key is diagrams like the one below.


Diagrams like this are known as empirical computational complexity phase transition diagrams in computer science. I’ll show you how to read and draw informal, non-technical versions in a minute, but the key idea behind them is that an impossibly hard scheduling problem is not impossibly hard everywhere and at all times.

The key to calendar hacking is separating out the hard and easy regimes and dealing with them differently. This is one of my favorite technical ideas, and my excuse for playing fast and loose with it, as I am about to, is that my heart is in the right place. I mentioned this idea in a footnote somewhere in Tempo, but I figured I ought to do a proper post on the idea.

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