Category Archives: Problem Solving

3 Immediately Actionable Tips to make your Day Better

Summary:

  • What is “Actionable”?
  • Biological Processes: HALT
  • Smile and Power Pose
  • Write it Down

What is “Actionable”?

In this context, actionable means that the results of a process will be immediately apparent. For example, stubbing your toe is an immediately actionable tip. A bad one, but I digress.

via GIPHY

1. HALT

I learned about HALT a few years ago and it has had a positive impact on my mindfulness since. The rules are simple. When you’re upset, stop and assess the following:

  • Am I Hungry?
  • Am I Aangry?
  • Am I Lonely?
  • Am I Tired?

From there, it’s a simple algorithm:

if (hungry) { eat something nutritious(it’s important that it’s nutritious!) }
if (angry) { take three deep breaths, 4 seconds in, 4 seconds out; and assess if there is any way to politely remove yourself from the situation }
if (lonely) { call someone who cares about you }
if (tired) { take a nap or set a reminder in your phone to go to bed early tonight }

2. Smile and Power Pose

Wonder Woman Pose

There is research that suggests that smiling and power posing can influence your mood in a positive manner. While not verifiable, power posing is easy to do, and the act of feeling in control of your emotion will have a positive impact on your mood.

3. Write it Down

If you want to solve a problem, the best way I’ve ever found is to simply write the problem down. Get it out of your head. Once on paper, it will become monumentally easier to deal with. Promise.

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Trying Out Mental Models

I’ve been hearing a lot about mental models. How they improve decision making, and can supplant heuristics we use day to day in our brains.

Over the next 30 days, I plan to use them to help me make decisions and see if I become happier, more productive, have a positive overall ROI.

via GIPHY

The Rules

Focus on one per week, try and make at least one major decision and two minor decisions based off the model of the week. First up, regret minimization.

The Models

  1. Regret Minimization Framework
  2. ICE

Make short-term decisions using this model: When facing many options needing prioritization, score each on a scale of 1-10 using three variables.

The positive impact it would have if it succeeds.
The confidence you have that it will succeed if you try it.
How easy it would be to try it.
For each option, average its three numbers to get its ICE score. Then order all your options by their ICE scores. Options at the top of your list will have the highest expected value and should be given priority.

  1. Pareto Principle
  2. Eisenhower Matrix
wall niche

The Niche Myth


Small Holes

When you think of a niche, an image of a penguin might come to mind. Penguins have mastered their frigid environment, huddling together in the cold, and sliding on their bellies doing badass backflips off of glaciers. An ecological niche is when an organism is well adapted for its environment.

“If you put a gun to my head and said, ‘You have to come up with a story for Happy Feet Three,’ I’d say shoot me.” – George Miller

Or, for you architecture buffs out there, you may think of niches’ second, and less commonly used definition, a shallow recess in a wall. I don’t know how frequently this applies to anyone, tbh.

Today however, we will be discussing the third definition of niche:

(n.) a comfortable or suitable position in life of employment

** N.B.: the English language loves to overload definitions

Comfortable or Suitable Position? The Heck?

To be fair, that definition is pretty sucky.

Organisms in general, prefer comfort over conflict. People are no different. So, let’s just define comfort as being in a comfortable state most of the time.

Ok, how about suitable? That word is well…suitable. It acknowledges that no situation will ever be entirely ideal, but it can be suitable. In other words, “Meh, I’m ok right now.”

this is fine

Environment Envy

Arguably, one of the reasons the human species is so successful on Earth is how quickly we adapt to new environments. Hot, cold, mountainous, desert, or rainforest, you will find people all over the surface of the planet.

According to natural selection, success is determined by survival and continuation of the genes of an organism.

In business, success is defined as making more money than you’re losing. Whether you sell shoes, technology, or insurance, the goal is survival and growth.

The environment is an always changing system. The larger the environment, the harder it is to predict change.

Big businesses are harder to operate because they are less adaptive. For a real life example of this, decide what you’re going to have for dinner tonight. Now, ask a friend and decide together. Now, ask another. For every friend you add, the more complex the decision becomes.

Much like an environment, the market must be worked with, not against.

Success in a market is a combination of timing, a solid product, and the ability to sell. Without all three of these being present in some shape or form, a venture will be dead in the water. For a real life example of this, try to open a lemonade stand in December.

The Common Advice

People argue the importance of finding a niche, a hyper-specific use case for your skills/product/juggling talent. This advice is well founded. Many successful businesses we see in our day to day lives do something well enough to get people to part with their money. Even in a sea of competition, they continue to generate value and capture a percentage of that value.

However, I’d argue that the way most people go about finding their niche is flawed.

Better Advice

When choosing a niche to work in, set out to find your particular competitive advantage. If you don’t think you’re good at anything, what do you suck the least at?

Competition

Examine the competition. Monitor what makes the Taco Bell franchise successful, or why Apple has so many raving fans.

After you examine businesses you admire, throw out your findings. You are not Taco Bell. You are not Apple. Imitation will only get you so far.

Great artists steal, but their personality isn’t run over by the stuff they stole.

The Benefit of Staying Small

The smaller the better! Right? Well, kinda. Being small can actually be a bad thing, if you’re small in the wrong thing. For example, if your niche is making boots that are for moon walking, your audience is going to be pretty small, if not zero. Not that many people have been to the moon.

So I should go broad?

On the other hand, if your audience is too broad, it’s likely that your product won’t be good enough at solving a specific problem and you’ll disappear into the noise. For a real life example, look at most YouTube channels.

“WHAT IS UP YOU GUYS THIS IS ** insert channel name here ** !”

Strike a balance. Build something brand new, but make sure it’s something people actually want. People may say they want a live-action remake of Hey Arnold, but they probably don’t need it.

How do I find my niche?

Unfortunately, I haven’t found one answer. I spent weeks trying to narrow down into a niche for my YouTube Channel. I’ve tried podcasts, comedy styles, how-tos, video diaries and more.

I do have tips to share though.

The first thing is to make content that you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy the process, you’ll eventually burn out.

The second thing is that the content worth creating will signal back to you. People will come up to you and ask you about it. They love your neon chair lights, or your charisma on stage, or the way you make that dank soufflé. This shows genuine interest, and is a sign from “nature” that you’re on the right path.

Specialize in Adaptation

If you must specialize, specialize in adaptation. The environment isn’t static, so specializing in the traditional sense can cause more harm than good! If your soufflé business is going under, utilize your baking skills and pivot to the hot new dessert!

Handedness

When I first wrote this article, I wanted to examine the relationship between niche and handedness. It didn’t end up fitting the vibe, but damn it, I’m gonna address it anyway!

I’m left-handed. About ~10% of the human population are left handed.

Why is this important? Well, almost by definition, left handed people are more adaptive to the environment. We have to be. Tools, cars, written language; are all made for right handed people.

For a real life example of this, ask a left-hander to write anything with a pencil and have their hand not look like this when they finish.

the struggle is real

Unfortunately, we also don’t get to complain about it. The environment very clearly signals that righties are dominant. Lefties must find their small hole as it was. Sitting on the left side of dinner tables as to not bump any elbows. Using notebooks with rings on top, etc.

Embrace your inner lefty. Adapt and utilize your strengths in any environment.

I’ve Been Journaling for a Month Now

Editor’s Note: Moving over a few of my old blog posts to the current blog — including this one, which I like a lot due to it’s vulnerability

Allow me to set the scene:

It was a cold day near the end of March. It was one of those days when you feel upset, not at anything in particular, you’re just upset to your core. I was browsing Reddit for todo app recommendations (I had recently felt very disorganized at work, and that I couldn’t remember the work I had done at standup meetings) and I came across a comment mentioning that their personal todo app wasn’t an app at all, but a bullet journal. Serendipitously, I was concurrently reading a biography about Leonardo DaVinci, whose journals are notorious and have secured him as one of the most talented individuals ever (Bill Gates bought one of his notebooks for $30.8 million back in 1994 [source]). So I impulsively left my studio apartment after midnight, stumbled into CVS and picked up a leather bound journal for $10 and a few pens.

Fast forward a month and I can’t believe I hadn’t come across the idea of journaling earlier. I can say with 100% accuracy that a journal has been a game changer.

Summary

In this article I’ll discuss:
1. Why journaling is a big deal
2. How this meta habit affects all of your other habits
3. Personal Experiences

What is a journal?

According to Dictionary.com, a journal is defined as:

[jur-nl] noun:

a daily record, as of occurrences, experiences, or observations

If I we’re to add to this definition, I’d say that a journal is also:
* A reflection device
* An idea generator
* An investigative tool
* A personal companion
* A secretary
* A source of truth

Let’s use these definitions to explore why journaling is a worthwhile endeavor.

Why journal?

Thoughts

Everyday, we think thousands of thoughts. Most of these thoughts are mundane. Some are pleasant, others are troubling. Some are great ideas. Others aren’t. A journal serves as a record of all of these, helping you categorize useful ones vs. the ones that aren’t productive.

Gratitude

Gratitude journaling has been shown by numerous studies to be an effective way to increase happiness. By writing down the things you are grateful for, you can make these feelings concrete, and they allow you to see the positive aspects on life instead of drilling in on the negative. Gratitude journaling has helped me be appreciative of those around me, and more open to gratitude in my daily life.

Mindfulness

The buzzword of the decade, in this case being mindful means to have a written relationship with the present. A journal acts like a picture of your mental state at any given moment. By freeing up your mind of these thoughts, it’s easier for your mind to create new thoughts, and therefore to appreciate the things going on around you at any moment.

Less rumination -> more mindfulness

Passion Finder

I haven’t been journaling long enough to take advantage of this one yet, but the roots are being laid for sure. In this case, you use your journal as a reflection tool, looking back at things that keep recurring in your mind. For example, lets say that you notice that you tend to write about whales. Like a lot. After a few months of this, you may decide you should start a passion project involving whales. Who knows? Honestly, it just helps to have a daily representation of where you want to be vs. where you are.

A Secretary / Goal Tracker

Accomplishing goals is a great way to feel that life is meaningful. Often, goals are complex and amorphous. We know that we want something, but the steps to achieve that thing seem unreasonable. Or we get distracted. Or we get set back and feel disheartened. A journal is a great way to have an honest interaction with your goals. Are you moving towards them? Away from them? Are you going after something else all together?

Discipline

Journaling is a great way to establish discipline. It becomes something you do everyday, and therefore it becomes a cornerstone. And if I learned anything from elementary school, routine is a good thing. The mind very much appreciates routine.

A Friend

This one is a bit more subjective because it depends on how you use your journal. Basically, a journal is a fantastic space to talk to yourself about whatever you want. It doesn’t have to make sense, or be grammatically correct, all that matters is that it makes sense to you. A journal is a listening companion, it will never talk back to you, or try to give you advice, or complain. It’s simply a space for you to project. Writing about stressful events in a productive manner has been proven to help overcome these events

Writing

I’ll be honest. I hate the idea of writing with pen and paper. It feels like homework, and I hate homework. But writing is a very important skill. Making the brain write forces clarity. It also makes you think more deliberately, and replaces useless thoughts with focused revelations.

Personal Experience

In the past month that I’ve been journaling, it’s proven itself to be an invaluable tool. I’ve received clarity on my relationships with others and myself, I’ve been able to see how I’m progressing towards my own goals, and I’m capturing so much every day in between. I’ll say it’s important to have a methodology while journaling, and I recommend the bullet journal. The index and monthly logs have proven very helpful. People always ask you “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”, and I’ll be excited to respond, “I’m not sure, but I’ll bet my journal knows.”

Hacking The Rate of Self Improvement

What You’ll Learn

  1. Why change is slow
  2. Why planning too much is bad
  3. Using the Pareto principle to grow faster

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

“Where is that saying from?” I thought to myself. After a quick Google search, I found out that the saying originates from a French phrase from 1190, written in the collection Li Proverbe au Vilain. I love this maxim. To me, it represents the slow motion of a stream that erodes the face of a mountain, the slow formation of the Earth at the infantile stage of the Solar System over 4 billion years ago. It represents a patient parent, waiting for the day that their young child’s violin lessons (even though they sound pretty bad now) will create the next concerto.

I then took a step back and marveled about how easy it was for me to find that information. In fact, a lot of things are pretty easy in this day and age. I’m rarely ever bored, because I can always distract myself at a moment’s notice with my phone. The irritation from boredom is easily remedied by opening Reddit or Instagram. What does that make me? Impatient.

In some ways, being impatient is a really good thing. Hopefully this will come as a surprise to no one, but death is inevitable. Time is limited for us humans, so being impatient spurs action. Being impatient keeps us hungry, hungry to solve life’s problems before we buy the farm.

I became interested in the idea of finding a happy medium between the guarantee of change over large periods of time, and the day to day minuscule changes. How do I make measurable changes in myself in a fair amount of time? What if I don’t want to wait a whole generation to become happier? What if I don’t want to spend five years in school pursuing a graduate degree to have a piece of paper tell me I’m an expert?

Planning (in correct doses)

In machine learning, there is a problem set known as overfitting. Overfitting happens when an algorithm that describes and predicts data is much too complex.

As an example, imagine we are trying to decide what to eat for dinner. We had pasta yesterday, so we don’t want pasta. Oh, and my partner just started Keto, so we can’t have pizza. I’m not in the mood for tacos. But General Tso’s has too much salt. Down the rabbit hole we go. We could spend weeks mulling over what to get for dinner out of the near limitless options. And in the process, die of starvation. By trying to acknowledge every potential data point, we end up making a worse decision.

Often, overfitting can be attributed to zealousness. We have data, we see what didn’t work before, and we analyze, analyze, analyze. We all know people who are compulsive overthinkers. People who spend their waking hours trying to predict every single outcome. This type of thinking is necessary to a point. Forging through a forest without a map is a dumb idea. Mapping out every rock is an equally dumb idea.

For myself, I try to not overthink things, but I’ve found a good trick is to set a timer to think and worry. I give myself 20 minutes to think of worst case outcomes, to pick apart data, to dissect any morsel of meaning. After that timer goes off, I step away.

By doing this, I’ve been able to short circuit the urge to overthink things.

Effectiveness

I’ve mentioned the Pareto Principle before, but I’d like to take a few sentences to give some real life examples of how you can add the Pareto Principle to your life.

The Three Steps To Effectiveness…ness

First, start with a well defined goal. Your goal doesn’t have to be SMART but it should point you in the correct direction.

Second, choose one thing you can do today that will bring you closest to this goal.

Third, repeat this process and tweak as needed. Iterate on what you did yesterday, try something new, because the same inputs net the same result.

Examples

Here’s an example. Say I want to learn how to be an archeologist. That goal is pretty vague, so let’s first define it better.

1) Define the goal

Instead of “I want to be an archeologist.” let’s say, “I want to go on a geological dig with paleontologists.”

2) Find the most effective thing you can do today to achieve this goal.

Day 1-7: Research what archeologists do, what they study in school
8-14: Search for volunteer opportunities on https://www.archaeological.org/fieldwork
15-22: Buy/rent a metal detector on Amazon, and go dig in a public park or forest
23-31: Post your findings on a blog, or YouTube

3) Repeat to taste

Example 2: I want to be able to bench press 1.5x my body weight

1) Define the goal

Goal is well defined already. Awesome!

2) Find the most effective thing you can do today to achieve this goal.

Day 1-7: Research what bodybuilders do, the correct form for bench pressing
8-14: Work on grip strength (apparently this is pretty important for confidence while lifting heavy)
15-22: Find a spotter, work out and eat the right foods
23-31: Get the amount of sleep you need to perform your best in the gym

Our goal will morph over time, which is why it’s important to not have the goal be too rigid. Remember, we aren’t trying to think of everything, just the important things.

How Fast Can I Change?

This really depends on how you define change, how many variables are outside of your control, and how well you are able to stick to a schedule. But I’d argue the going rate is around two months of continuous, well placed work. This conclusion is anecdotal, but is also based off of James Clear’s blog on automatic habits. We don’t need something to become automatic, but the less you need to actively think about the process, the better. This goes for everything from dating to astrophysics to piano to basketball. Work on the effective fundamentals and you’ll notice changes! I promise.

On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact.

Conclusion

The only constant is change.

In conclusion, set a defined goal, work on the most effective thing you can do today, and iterate/restructure your goal weekly. You may not become Donald Glover overnight, but you might like what you find instead. It’s important to find a balance between patience and impatience, to learn when to look and when to leap. Change is inevitable. However, we can steer the ship. It’s really great to walk into a room with people you know and have them say to you: “You seem different.”

You can check out my three favorite apps to stay productive here.

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Scrabble pieces spelling Divide and Conquer

Splitting headaches into Solutions

Theory

sisyphus

In the face of massive problems like, “I need to pay back $30,000 of this debt” or “I have this massive project above my head at work”, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed. Most of us will do what makes the most sense, nothing at all. And that’s okay! But most of the time, this leaves us feeling depressed and dejected. What can we do to solve these massive problems? This post will discuss using a method used in Computer Science called Divide and Conquer. This helps us get the solutions we want.

The divide and conquer algorithm is pretty straightforward. All we’ll want to do is split our problem into smaller and smaller subproblems until we get to the easiest subproblems possible. Ideally, the smallest subproblems solve themselves. Divide and Conquer is like Thanksgiving dinner. Your plate is overflowing with food, and there’s no way you could eat all of it in one go! But if you take one bite at a time, you can move towards completion. Let’s look at the example above: “$30,000 in debt”. This is a huge problem, and oft times, it’s even scary to think about! Let’s see how we can divide this problem into more manageable chunks.

Example

  • $30,000 in student loan debt
    • Monthly payments: ~$300/month for 10 years
    • Principal: ~$220/month * Interest: ~$80/month
    • 3 different loans with 3 different APR%
    • Find the loan with the highest inetrest rate
      • Loan 1: $10,000 at 8% (This loan is our highest priority)
        •  Put our $300 a month towards this loan
        • Calculate payoff time
          • ($10,000 * 1.08%) / $300 = 36 months to pay off entirely
          • Write down each month on paper with how much you’ll pay
          • Find a pencil and paper
          • $300 / 30 (~days in a month) = ~ $10 / day
        • Build a budget
          • Write down expenses on paper that you know happen each month (like rent and other bills)
          • Take a pencil and write down what you bought today
          • Think about what you can live without tomorrow or find a cheaper alternative
      • Loan 2: $10,000 at 5%
      • Loan 3: $10,000 at 3%

As you can see above, we broke this problem into manageable chunks (the bold ones)! We prioritized our loans into categories, and split our monthly payments into daily payments of $10. This does a few things for us.

  1. The problems now feel achievable – $10 is an amount of money that’s not terrifying to think about
  2. Setting our mindset – We’re now problem solvers, no longer victim to huge problems
  3. Inspires us to do more – we know that $10 a day is what we need, imagine if we could up that to $15 with budgeting! Snowball effect!

Code

This code in JavaScript that symbolizes the divide and conquer theory. Just like above, it basically helps us find manageable ways to solve our problems. You can divide and conquer on paper, but doing it with code is kinda the point of this blog 😉. Also, when written with code, we get to keep old problems around and organize new ones. We also get to mix and match.

Principles

The code today is pretty straightforward. We’ll be using the Object Oriented class model. JavaScript doesn’t actually have classes, but in ES6, classes we’re added as a syntax sugar.

Here’s the full example:

This could be extended out a lot, as this is just the basic structure. We could:

  • Make a webpage to visually add and remove problems
  • Return a list of all the unsolved problems we have, sorted by difficulty
  • Add a reward system to our code, giving us positive incentives to complete tasks

I hope this inspired you to go out and look at your problems differently. Take that first step!

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