Direction vs Balance Problems

An idea I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is balance. We need balance with issues that can go wrong in multiple directions.

Some problems are one-sided problems–direction problems. Right vs. Wrong is a good example. More of “right” and less of “wrong” is always a good thing. More good, less evil. Though the execution might be tough, the idea is simple. If we move in the direction of more good, more right, and we’ll always be improving.

But many problems in life aren’t like that. For many topics, we can go wrong in multiple directions. So we need a different strategy to navigate it. We need balance.

“Work-life balance” is a good example. If we focused 100% on life, we’d be missing out on a lot of the joy of work. We wouldn’t be using our skills or providing value to others, or have a sense of purpose in our lives. But if we focused 100% on work, we’d also likely miss out on a lot. We wouldn’t enjoy our time outside of work. We wouldn’t have the family or travel experiences we’d like to have. So that’s far from ideal also. If where we can be lies on a spectrum, and both ends of the spectrum are wrong, then the ideal must be somewhere in the middle.

But where? Well…. it depends. On who we are. On what we think is important and what we’d be willing to settle for. On what’s possible. And on where we are right now, in this season.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed about Balance Problems.

Many of the big topics in life are balance problems. For problems that are difficult and long-standing, they’re typically about balance. Work and life balance. Money and happiness. Buy a house or rent. Pay down debt or invest for the future. How much companies or people should pay in taxes. How we should make our medical decisions. There are multiple ways to go wrong on all of these questions–so they require balance.

If everyone agrees where we are, balance problems seem like direction problems. When a group is homogenous in their views of the current state–when they have a shared understanding of reality–it’s easier to agree on the right direction. So balance problems begin to seem like direction problems.

Many teachers don’t include caveats with their point of view. If you read enough, you’ll see intelligent experts on both sides of big questions. Often the disagreements aren’t about the logic, but about the current state of the world. Where we are on the curve we’re trying to balance–or where our intended audience is. And the speakers rarely share those details: for us, right now, with what I think about our current state, I believe…

And here are a few strategies for dealing with Balance Problems.

Comfort with contradiction. A famous economist is credited as saying “When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?” This seems simple, but most of us resist updating our opinion when circumstances shift. We could also remember Walt Whitman’s words:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Recognize the temporary. Often we look at the present situation, form an opinion, and think things will always be the way they are now–forgetting that change is constant. For balance problems, consider: can I use “right now” or “in this season” instead of “always” in thinking about this issue?

Conditional Habits. I came across Eli Finer’s blog, where he shares the idea of Conditional Habits. If things are going smoothly, I’ll execute the plan. If not, I’ll make an adjustment. We don’t have to press ahead through the resistance. We can change when things aren’t working.

Mostly Reasonable over Coldly Rational. Morgan Housel includes this idea in his book The Psychology of Money, explaining why investment researchers don’t follow their own advice, or why people diversify their investments when the math doesn’t make sense. We’re human: when we’re dealing with difficult problems, we might prefer to be reasonable, and that’s okay.

I hope this encourages you today.

Embracing Limits

A few years ago I attended a talk by artist Phil Hansen. He spoke on embracing limitations can spark creativity.

Phil was an artist focused on pointillism–which meant creating art from tiny dots. But he developed a tremor in his hand, effectively ending his career.

He sought out medical opinions to stop the shake. In one of the sessions, the doctor delivered the news he’d heard before: the tremor was permanent. Phil, exasperated, asked what he could do. The doctor replied, “Embrace the shake.”

It turned out this was a turning point in his career. Instead of staying focused on pointillism, he broadened his ideas–and now he makes all kinds of art. You can see his artwork at his website here, and you can see his TED talk here.

This idea was a turning point: it changed how he thought about his condition.

“When we’re confronted with a challenge, our success is determined by our ability to change how we think about the challenge.”

Limitations often come paired with a self-limiting belief. The limiting belief is holding us back, and it’s connected to an actual limitation, which is often a gift.

But we can separate them. The limiting belief can be mitigated. We can make a plan: what can I do to manage this limiting belief when it arises?

The limitation itself can be a spark to creativity. We can explore it: what about this limitation makes me curious?

I thought this was a powerful idea. I hope it encourages you today.

Notes on the Lord’s Prayer

I am Christian, I grew up in a Lutheran family, and I have been going to church forever. This means I’ve memorized many of the traditional prayers.

A few years ago I noticed I was having trouble slowing down when reciting the Lord’s Prayer in my head. It’s so familiar for me that I was having trouble savoring it. I was skipping ahead and not taking the time to dwell on the words as I brought them to mind.

To slow down, I created a document expanding each phrase. I pulled in verses and reflections that explained each of the parts of the prayer and resonate with me. There are other resources for this with different lists of verses–I compiled this for me, so this is not an authoritative list. It is only what speaks to me.

I’ve come back to that document often, so I wanted to share it here. I hope you find it helpful in your prayer life.

Context

Only once in scripture did Jesus’s disciples ask for him to teach them something.  They asked to be taught to pray.

Luke 11: 1-12

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

“He said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father,

Hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins, 

For we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

And lead us not into temptation.”

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.”  and suppose the one inside answers, “Don’t bother me.  The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed.  I can’t get up and give you anything.”  I tell you,even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity, he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

So I say to you:  Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?  Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Luke 18: 1-8

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.  He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.  And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”

For some time he refused.  But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?  Will he keep putting them off?  I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.  However, when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth?” 

 

The Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven

Hallowed be your name. 

Your kingdom come,

Your will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread

And forgive us our trespasses

As we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, 

For ever and ever.

 

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be your name.

“I AM WHO I AM”.  ehyeh-asher-ehyeh.  “Whatever I am, I will be.” – reflection here.

Exodus 34: 5-7

Then the LORD [Yahweh] came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD [Yahweh], the LORD [Yahweh] the compassionate and gracious god, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands [of generations], and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.

 

Your Kingdom Come

Meditation from “Searching for Sunday”, by Rachel Held Evans

“The kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed, he said, that grows into an enormous tree with branches wide and strong enough to make a home for all the birds.  It is like a buried treasure, a delicious feast, or a net that catches an abundance of fish.  The kingdom is right here, Jesus said.  It is present and yet hidden, immanent yet transcendent.  The kingdom isn’t some far-off place you go when you die;  the kingdom is at hand–among us and beyond us, now and not-yet.  It is the wheat growing in the midst of weeds, the yeast working its magic in the dough, the pearl germinating in the sepulchral shell.  It can come and go in the twinkling of an eye, Jesus said.  So pay attention; don’t miss it.

Luke 17:21

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is’, because the kingdom of God is in your midst.

 

Your Will Be Done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

1 Thessalonians 5:16

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 

 

Give us this day our daily bread

Luke 6:30-40

By this time, it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him.  “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late.  Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”  

But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”

They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages!  Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”

“How many loaves do you have?” he asked.  “Go and see.”

When they found out, they said, “Five–and two fish.”

Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.  So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.  Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people.  He also divided the two fish among them all.  They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.  The number of men who had eaten was five thousand.

Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures: he leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul.  He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me; your rod and your staff–they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in presence of my enemies: you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Isaiah 30: 15:18

This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel says:

‘In repentance and rest is your salvation,

in quietness and trust is your strength,

but you would have none of it.

You said, ‘No we will flee on horses.’

There you will flee!

You said, ‘We will ride off on swift horses.’

Therefore your pursuers will be swift!

A thousand will flee

at the threat of one;

at the threat of five

you will all flee away,

till you are left

like a flagstaff on a mountaintop,

like a banner on a hill.’

Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;

therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.

For the Lord is a God of justice.

Blessed are all who wait for him!

Joel 2: 12-14

“Even now,” declares the Lord,

“Return to me with all your heart,

With fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart

And not your garments.

Return to the LORD your God,

For he is gracious and compassionate,

Slow to anger and abounding in love,

And he relents from sending calamity.

Who knows?  He may turn and relent

And leave behind a blessing

Grain offerings and drink offerings 

For the LORD your God.

 

2 Chronicles 7:13-14

If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people;

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.

 

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Pslam 37: 1-9

Do not fret because of those who are evil

Or be envious of those who do wrong;

For like the grass they will soon wither,

Like green plants they will soon die away.

Trust in the LORD and do good;

Dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.

Take delight in the LORD,

And he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the LORD;

Trust in him and he will do this.

He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,

Your vindication like the noonday sun.

Be still before the LORD

And wait patiently for him;

Do not fret when people succeed in their ways,

When they carry out their wicked schemes.

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;

Do not fret–it leads only to evil.

For those who are evil will be destroyed,

But those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, forever.

Psalm 50: 7-15

“O my people, listen as I speak.

Here are my charges against you, O Israel:

I am God, your God!

I have no complaint about your sacrifices

Or the burnt offerings you constantly offer.

But I do not need the bulls from your barns

Or the goats from your pens.

For all the animals of the forest are mine,

And I own the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know every bird on the mountains,

And all the animals of the field are mine.

If I were hungry I would not tell you,

For all the world is mine and everything in it.

Do I eat the meat of bulls?

Do I drink the blood of goats?

Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God,

And keep the vows you made to the Most High.

Then call on me when you are in trouble,

And I will rescue you,

And you will give me glory.”

 

Optimism

I was reading a set of facebook posts from friend this week, and the outlook for everything seemed pretty bleak. Death, disease, division, defeat. Lots to be sad about. Plenty of reasons to believe that things are getting worse fast and will stay that way for a while.

Later in the day, I happened to be reading The Psychology of Money, by Morgan Housel, and really appreciated his chapter on optimism and pessimism. He points out that optimists tend to sound naive and uniformed, while pessimists tend to sound wise and well-educated.

As an example, he included two contrasting visions of the future–one pessimistic and one optimistic.

The pessimistic view was one that ran in the Wall Street Journal on December 29, 2008. You can find it here. It’s a story about a Russian professor and former KGB analyst predicting the demise of the United States. While 2008 was one of the worst years in memory, he had been predicting the collapse of the United States since 1998. And his decade-old projections were finding a greater following in 2008.

Obviously that didn’t happen.

Housel contrasts that with a fictional optimistic message that actually did come true. Imagine, he says, if a Japanese professor had written an article in 1946, after the country had been decimated by war, and was in the midst of famine, that said:

“Chin up, everyone. Within our lifetime our economy will grow to almost 15 times the size it was before the end of the war. Our life expectancy will nearly double. Our stock market will produce returns like any country in history has rarely seen. We will go more than 40 years without ever seeing unemployment top 6%. We will become a world leader in electronic innovation and corporate managerial systems. Before long, we will be so rich that we will own some of the most prized real estate in the United States. Americans, by the way, will be our closest ally and will try to copy our economic insights.

Seems like a crazy set of predictions for a defeated war-torn country. But it all came true!

Which caused me to imagine what a similar message might look like for the US today.

“Things seem bleak now, but we have a lot to look forward to. In the next 30 years, our economy will more than double. The SP500 will return 15x to anyone who stayed invested. The pandemic has been horrible, but it accelerated innovations that will revitalize the country. mRNA vaccines, one of the most important medical advances of recent decades, have made incredible progress towards widespread acceptance and will be central to huge gains in life expectancy by fighting cancer and viral infections. Remote and hybrid work will make more people more productive from more places–and allow much of the country to join in the prosperity from technology that has been limited to a few cities so far. This will also reduce the political division in America by allowing more diversity of jobs in different places. The withdraw from Afghanistan has been filled with death and human tragedy. But it was the right call. In 30 years the country will have reformed its extremist government by participating in the world economy, and many of the refugees will have created prospering businesses in the US, which is a good thing for America. And, while many thought the US became less of a world leader during this time, these events happened in the midst of extremely authoritarian moves by China’s government. This contrast actually reinforced that the US is the best place in the world to grow a business, build a family, and enjoy the blessings of liberty.”

Admittedly, it seems far-fetched. But I think there is reason to hope for the possibilities that are ahead.

Stay encouraged.

Finding Meaning

I read David Kessler’s book Finding Meaning about a year ago, and I was revisiting my notes from it this week. Kessler writes on grief and dying, and published an HBR article on grief at the start of the pandemic. I picked up his book shortly after.

This is a fantastic book for anyone going through the loss of a loved one. But I’ve also come to believe we all suffer much more loss in life than we might admit–and the lessons from books like this can help. I thought of this book because of the sadness of everything happening in Afghanistan this week.

Here are my takeaways.

We can keep learning. Kessler writes that finding meaning is about engaging in a life enriched by the lessons of people we have loved. When someone we love is gone, we ourselves are often we are the best evidence that they existed–we can honor them by carrying forward the lessons they taught us..

Our presence helps others. Kessler talks a lot about the role of community in healing from tragedy–that rituals are important because they allow people going through tragedy to be witnessed. Simply listening and reflecting back the emotions of others can help them heal. “I hear what you are saying.” “It seems like this sadness will go on forever.” “It seems right now like all is lost.”

Time is a tool. Things change over time, and when we’re dealing with tragedy it’s easy to confuse the past, the present, and the future. We often think our sadness and grief is pervasive and permanent: it is not. Again, the feelings we have right now are not permanent; they will shift over time. Remember that things will not always be the way they are right now. Pain changes, suffering dissipates. We can choose for our life to go on.

We believe what we repeat. Kessler talks about the role of repetition and process in finding meaning. We tend to accept difficult things a little at a time, so dealing with a tragedy is a process. And, as we repeat a story, we can shift its meaning. We can figure out what is random and what is within our control. We can find the right perspective for our actions, and choose a frame of comparison. And–we know from neuroscience–that the stories we repeat become easier for us to return to, easier for us to believe.

Remember to be grateful. “Although the sun rose this morning, many people didn’t wake up to see it. Some dogs jumped on beds to find their owners had died. You didn’t just happen to wake up this morning… You woke up for a reason, and that reason is for the purpose of finding meaning in your life.”

I hope this is encouraging for you this week!

On Learning

I’ve been reflecting on education and learning recently–and all the many purposes for it. A friend runs an education company, and shared with me a few overviews the different ways education is changing and shifting, which started me thinking about it.

There are companies to help you learn at home, or to support you learning at school. You can focus on specific topics–or have companies propose topics for you. There are classes, lectures, assignments, games, content, and travel–all to help us learn.

At work, I run a program to help people learn to connect them to one another and to build agency–to help them help us change our organization for the better.

We pay for education to improve our career prospects, or to learn more skills. To open doors for our jobs or our futures. Or simply for fun. This weekend my wife and I took a class on wheel pottery as a way to pass the time, connect with friends, and enjoy each other’s company.

I recently came upon this quote, which seemed to sum it up, from “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White.

The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

Have a great day!

Joy shared everywhere

This weekend we went for an afternoon bike ride with our kids. Our oldest two rode their bikes, their mom jogged, and I pushed the stroller with our youngest.

Normally our youngest hates riding in the stroller, but for jogs–since the older two are riding bikes and wearing helmets–we let him wear his helmet too, and he loves it.

We are quite a scene! We went 5 miles–we saw prairie dogs, passed a bunch of people, waved to friends, had falls and close calls, needed perseverance to keep going… great afternoon!

When we got home, I said to my son, “Whew! I’m tired.” And he said to me, “That’s okay, Dad. It’s all a part of toughness training. You’ll be okay.”

Great day.

Here’s something I’ve noticed on the bike rides: people can hardly help but smile as they go past us. It’s a scene, our kids our focused, we’re trying to keep up and keep them safe. And it makes the day for everyone we see.

Generally — that’s something I notice having kids that I didn’t understand before: they spread joy everywhere they go, just by being themselves.

It’s not all the time. Often they’re needy, or grumpy, or immature. And the logistics are a lot. We frequently hear “it looks like you have your hands full” from strangers.

But for a surprising amount of the time, kids just spread joy simply by being themselves. By having fun or being excited. By cheering for the Garbage truck driver. By getting up and trying again to start their bike without a boost. By having the highlight of the day be the neighbors cat in the driveway. By skipping when an adult would walk, as my daughter has been doing for months. By earnestly asking for a chips and salsa party, and immediately making decorations for the walls. Or asking if there will be a combine and corn swimming at the Farmer’s market. Or diagramming an activity they’d like to do. Sometimes it’s their innocence and happiness, or their generosity. But it’s also their ambitions and enthusiasm, pride at their accomplishments, and the things they’re working on and trying at. The things they enjoy. The small victories. They things they ask for–some of which are unattainable, some easy, and they can never tell the difference. The things they’re hoping for. Even their fears and their struggles.

And, come to think of it: I have no reason to think this will stop when they turn 8 or 13 or 18. Maybe it will never stop.

Maybe YOU and I spark joy in others too, all day, just by being ourselves.

Which is a fun thought for a Monday.

Have a great day!

Stories & Mental Health

I recently listened to a presentation by Professor Jon Adler. He is a professor at Olin College, leads the Health Story Collaborative, and researches the relationship between the stories we tell ourselves and our mental health.

In short: stories are essential. They color everything about how we view the world and how we view ourselves. And our stories are the central tool for processing our own experiences, for finding meaning, and choosing a path forward.

Professor Adler’s research identifies themes and structures in how people tell stories about their life. He finds that the stories people tell are predictive of their well-being. That is–when people experience a difficult event, how they tell the story of it, and how their narrative shifts over time, precedes positive changes in their mental health.

Our stories are central to our mental health.

His presentation outlined a few of the key themes:

Redemption vs. Contamination. Every story (and every life) has highs and lows. Narratives that run from low points to high points–that is, stories of redemption–are better.

Agency vs. Incapability. We all have things within our control and outside our control. Stories that focus on agency–on what the individual can control and what they did with those things, are better.

Communion vs. Isolation. Stories that emphasize communion, togetherness, and connection are better.

Autobiographical reasoning. In general, reflecting on how events fit with the broader picture of our lives is better–either through how current events reflect past themes, or how a new season of change has happened.

Structural Coherence. Stories that are detailed, coherent, and elaborate are better.

This list reflect my own experience. One of my last jobs in the military was supporting soldiers who had been through a traumatic event. The key tool to normalize a traumatic experience was storytelling. We listened to people tell their stories of an event, in their own words. We encouraged them to think about it in the context of the training they’d received and what would happen next. And we emphasized how they’d performed well–given what they could control and the situation they were placed in–and how their lessons would be used to help others. That set of actions subtly addresses all the themes in Professor Adler’s research.

The paper is here, and a shorter overview is here.

I hope these themes help you as you consider your own stories. Have a great day!

Tools for Better Decisions

I’ve been reading a few books on decision-making lately.

I’m sharing this because almost everyone I know uses the “List of Pros and Cons” technique when they’re making decisions. But there are better ideas on how to make tough decisions. Here’s what I learned.

First – Consider both Quality and Quantity

Too often we can get caught up in the complexity or difficulty of a decision, when any progress would be better than a delay.

Great decisions make the difference, and great decisions only come where we’re making decisions.

If a decision is easily to reverse, make it quickly and move on. Likely with only 70% of the information you think you need. This idea comes from Jeff Bezos’s 2015 Shareholder Letter, and was reiterated in 2016.

If a decision is close between two good options, make the choice and move on.

A close decision means two alternatives of roughly equal value: you’re better off making an informed choice and getting to the next decision so you can keep learning. This comes from Annie Duke’s book “How to Decide.”

Second – Use a Process –> “WRAP”

In their book Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath outline a simple process for making better decisions.

Important to note – you don’t need to agonize

Each step is designed to confront one of the “Four Villians of Decision Making.”

  1. Narrow Framing – seeing things as a choice when they’re not
  2. Confirmation Bias – seeking out information to confirm, rather than contradict
  3. Short Term Emotion – making us feel conflicted, when we shouldn’t
  4. Overconfidence – making us think we know more about the future than we do

Here is the process they recommend.

  1. Widen your options – Take time to consider what other alternatives are available. Often we miss better alternatives because we’re too focused on what is in front of us.

Tools to help:

  • Avoid “whether-or-not” decisions. When one comes up, look for more options.
  • Find people who have solved the problem. Either other people who have successfully solved your problem, or places in your life where you have already solved a similar issue.
  • Use the “vanishing options” test. If none of the options you’re considering were available, what else might you do?
  • Blend two mindsets. Normally our decisions are focused on either preventing negative outcomes or pursuing positive ones. Consider blending these two ideas. If I’m cutting cost, can I cut more and find a way to invest? If I’m investing heavily in the future, can I also find a way to mitigate risk?

2. Reality-test your assumptions – Look at what the data says about what you’re considering. Specifically, look at the “base rates”–what happens on average.

Tools to help:

  • Talk to an expert; ask about base rates. Find someone with more experience than you, and ask what happens on average (not what will happen in your situation).
  • Ask “What would have to be true?” Consider: what if your least preferred option were actually the best option? What data would you need to convince you? This harnesses your confirmation bias to surface information you might not otherwise consider.
  • Ooch. In situations when you need more information, test a small step in the direction you’re considering. “How can I dip a toe in this decision without diving in headfirst?”

3. Attain emotional distance – We often overweight the short term consequences of our actions, while underweighting the long term impact. Finding distance to overcome the short term emotion can help.

One reason we overweight the short term is “mere exposure”. We grow to like things we’re familiar with. That, combined with loss aversion, generally leads us avoid change.

Tools to help:

  • 10/10/10 rule. How will you feel about this decision in 10 minutes? in 10 months? in 10 years?
  • Advise a friend. What counsel would you give to someone else in your same situation? Or, if I were replaced, what would my successor do with this dilemma? When we’re advising others, we pay less attention to the short term emotion, helping us give better advice.
  • Honor your core priorities. Write down your values and your principles for making decisions. Then, when deciding, ask “What would the person I want to be do in this moment?”

4. Prepare to be wrong – we often think we can predict the future better than we can.

Across all domains, everyone, including experts, are terrible are predict what will happen in the future. We should prepare for our choices to be wrong.

One of the most interesting ideas in this chapter was that preparation has a relatively low bar. Simply thinking through how you’ll address obstacles when they come up can help you deal with them. In goal setting, this method is referred to as “WOOP”, which stands Wish –> Outcome –> Obstacle –> Plan.

Tools to help:

  • Bookend the future. Specifically think about the range of possible outcomes. What is the low end of what could happen? What is the high end?
  • Premortem for the lower end. Consider–if this decision doesn’t succeed, how will you know? What was the most likely cause? What will you do to mitigate the factor which could cause it to fail? What can you do recover if it does fail?
  • Preparade for the upper end. If this decision exceeds all expectation, what does that success look & feel like? What factor caused the unexpected success? What should you do to prepare for it?
  • Create a safety factor. Will I get a better result if I build redundancy into this system? Or if I deliberately leave space for
  • Anticipate problems to help cope with them. For each problem that you might face, spend a few minutes writing down how you’ll cope with it. Create a plan for how you will deal with it in the moment.

Third – Treat Decisions as a specific Instance of a General Problem

A really interesting insight was from The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker. He proposed that effective leaders make fewer decisions. Instead, they make them well, once, and define a principle to eliminate future decisions.

He proposed that new, unique situations are rare. Instead, new situations are often early manifestations of growing, recurring problems. Effective decision makers always assume new problems will become recurring problems.

He proposed these steps for developing a principle to handle a new problem:

  • Acknowledge the situation is recurring, and should be solved through a principle
  • Define the boundary conditions of the problem – what are the edges where this principle applies?
  • Think through what is right, before compromising. It’s always possible to compromise and negotiate later–but first, spend time thinking about what the answer would be without compromise.
  • Build into the decision the action to carry it out. In organizations, this means assigning responsibility, defining metrics, and changing incentives.
  • Create the feedback mechanism for the principle when you create it–so you know when to revisit this decision in the future if it’s not working. “Failure to go out and look [at what is happening] is the typical reason for persisting in a course of action long after it has ceased to be appropriate or even rational.”

Essential in these steps is writing down the principle so you can come back to it.

I hope these tools help you in your decisions.

Resources & Further reading:

  1. Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath — best simple overview for improving your decisions. Can be read in a few days. Plus, there are simple resources on their members page as well.
  2. Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
  3. How to Decide by Annie Duke
  4. Amazon Shareholder Letters – linked above.

Time Management Benchmarks

Experimenting with a few ideas for managing time.

I think it’s tough for Zoom workers / knowledge workers to lay out their day. I’ve struggled with this for a while, so I’ve been giving myself permission to use these ideas when scheduling my weeks.

Here are the ideas:

  • 2-3 hours per week for wellness
  • 10 hour per week for whatever is the top priority
  • 25% of meeting time for follow-through

Writing them down, they seem so obvious. But it’s something I haven’t made time for previously.

Here’s where they come from.

#1. 2 – 3 hours per week for wellness

Many Zoom workers work more than 40 hours per week. If you were an hourly worker, you’d be required (in most states) to take a 30-min break daily after more than 5-6 hours of work.

We should probably all be making time for 2-3 hours per week of things that make us happy. Unhurried meals, exercise, connecting with friends, being outside, taking a walk.

The time commitment should probably be a lot higher. But – if we’re not devoting 2-3 hours per week, we should consider starting.

#2. 10 hours per week for the top priority

We should all be blocking out at least 10 hours per week (or an average of 2 hours per day) for our real work.

Personally – I’ve felt selfish for a long time when I blocked my calendar other than for meetings. In reality, it’s generous: it helps me get work done, makes me a better teammate, and makes me more available for the things that really matter.

This advice is echoed by numerous books on effectiveness, for example: The Effective Executive, Essentialism, and The Great CEO Within.

#3. 25% of meeting time for follow-through

So, if we have 6 hours scheduled for meetings, we should only be meeting for 4.5 hours. We should reserve the other 90 minutes for follow-through from the meetings.

Meetings only matter if they produce action. So, of course, we need to reserve time on our calendar for following through.

As with wellness–the time allotment could be much more. But if it’s not at least 25%, we might be running more scattered than we should.

What benchmarks to others use?