Can I use computer science to make better decisions? (This is not about AI)

Seldom does a book come along that makes you re-think. This is one of those that you may keep going back to. From the mundane choices (where to park) to often untenable solutions like optimizing global supply chains, a refreshing read.

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian

What I really liked about this book:

1. Pragmatic ways of looking at real problems and understanding how to approach the solution so it’s good enough for you

2. Learning that not all problems are solvable even for the world’s smartest people and computers so don’t lose sleep over them

3. It’s important to prioritize but also to know on the basis of what you need to prioritize. In other words, few things matter more than others but it’s important to validate against your intentions (aka what’s really important)

4. Simplicity is one way of breaking complexity – adding more constraints to your problem often makes the problem harder to solve

I hope you enjoy this book and let me know in the comments what you thought about it!

Optimal stopping or when to stop looking and start deciding (and other rational choices)

Can 80/20 be a good system? Part 3

Welcome to Part 3. Let’s take a deeper look at the 80/20 system with an example. We’ll use the same goal from Part 2 but dig in deeper.

So, let’s recap the goal and make it more specific and time bound: “Compete in a 5K race in 3 months”

Step 1: The Scientist –

Let’s start by collecting some data.

I spend 70% of my time in weight training or cardio

Remember 80% is just a basic anchor for measurement. It could be 70 or 90. Now let’s look at another related data point.

I do close to 90% of my running in just 2 days (about 30% of available time) – not exactly 80/20 but that’s okay

Finally, some other facts: I usually workout at a gym and feel like doing weights and breaking it up with swimming, cardio and another activity is good for me. The “other activity” gives me the chance to hang out with friends (which is the real motivation). Next, I prefer running outdoors to indoors especially when the weather is warm (hot is okay, cold is not okay). I got into the running habit after an injury and it stuck because I enjoyed the feeling of running outdoors (fresh air, sights, animals etc.). Finally, I prefer running alone but longer runs are exhausting when I’m by myself.

Step 2: The Futurist

So what should my future workout pattern look like? I did some research into competitive times, training plans etc. and came up with the following. Generally, to be competitive in a 5K, I need to be under the 30 minute mark. My goal is not to set a 5K record and it isn’t just to complete a 5K. My goal is to be competitive (remember SMART + ICE)


I need to spend 80% of my time running
  • Run 5 out of 7 days
  • Rest 2 days and do different types of runs (speed run, long run, recovery run) on the other days
  • Don’t run a speed run and a long run back to back
  • Run more than 30 minutes (at some point) for a long run, to build endurance for race day

Step 3: The Engineer

Let’s reverse engineer from future me back to current. By doing this, I’ll begin to narrow down which days to dedicate to which type of runs. For example: Monday and Thursday for Speed Runs, Tuesday and Friday for Recovery Runs, Wednesday, Saturday for Long Runs and Wednesday and Sunday for Rest.

You can already tell that I will also be faced with choices. The easy stuff is switching days around for certain types of workout like weights and swimming. But some of the harder stuff also becomes clear. For example, as I only have (or believe I have) 30 minutes available each day to work out, I will need to give up some activities (long term habits) or find additional time without risking physical exhaustion. In this case, I can choose to give up “other sport” but having understood why I partake in it (that is to hang out with friends), I can plan to meet them after any of my workouts at the gym or alternate between other workouts and playing sports with them every week.

There is another important consideration though and that is my preference to run alone. The issue is that I end up running out of steam on longer runs. Also, with the colder months approaching, I will need to run indoors. So, in conclusion, to focus on my 80s,

I need to give up some activities and also build endurance and motivate myself to run for longer than I’m used to both indoors and outdoors

Finally, as a result of this reverse engineering, I have also identified some simple metrics. Initially (say for a week or two), it will only be about how many days I start the plan even if I don’t run the full distance (getting warmed up to a new habit). Then it will be about how many runs I actually run from start to finish and finally it will be about pace. So you see, I can be in full control and focused on the main elements of the goal – consistent running and building endurance.

Step 4: Be like Mario

The key thing for this step is to start and be aware of my running. So first, I break down my goal into smaller targets. Since I have been running, my target is to keep running on the days I was already doing cardio and on the other planned running days, I aim to run for 10-30% (so 500m to 1.5K) of the 5K distance and walk the rest depending on the run and how I’m feeling. Basically, I’m getting my body used to the running without taxing it.

I also begin to keep a running log with some simple information: how did I feel before the run, how did I feel after the run, where did I run, when did I run. Some of this information can be captured by a running app.

Learn, Improve, Grow: The Virtuoso

And now, we’re ready to Learn, Improve, Grow

Learn: I decide to download a running plan which seemed a good fit with my goals and initial expectations from Step 4 (not exact, but close). Next, I start a habit of reading my log the night before to evaluate what adjustments I need to make today. For example: remember my “exhaustion” on longer runs. Well, I began to realize that it was not physical but mental – concretely, it was anxiety to finish the run amplified by running alone.

Improve: I address that anxiety by downloading an app with guided runs and by finding new places close to home thus increasing my interest and commitment to my goal. Being closer to home also gets me some extra time to warm up instead of going to gym, reducing some friction in starting a run and giving me that extra time I would need for a long run. On bad days, I adjust the plan – rest, recover, read, walk, to keep the motivation going.

Grow: As I hit the initial targets, I check in every week on how I’m feeling. I feel better every time I start and I celebrate more often during the run – the 20% and 80% mark as well as the 50% and 100% mark. I also begin to notice that I have more emotional energy, I am calmer and more relaxed now that I’m spending time on something I am beginning to enjoy more and more. When I hit a bad patch (or on cold days), I take the run to the treadmill (armed with my guided run).

So as you can see, using this system, not only kept me firmly in control of my goal but it also gave me a way to find and focus on what’s important to achieve my goal.

Why don’t you give it a try. Let me know in the comments what was most helpful for you. And yes, subscribe for more information and tools on how to use this technique on your specific goals.

Can 80/20 be a good system? Part 2

How was your experience looking for 80/20 relationships around you?

Are you ready to explore the concept more and take the first steps to apply it? Let’s do it! But first, let’s watch this video. (Don’t be distracted by the amazing couture, okay?)

How do you apply 80/20?

Step 1: Know yourself – The Scientist

All journeys have a beginning so let’s start by bringing out your inner scientist. As you review your goal, think about what your biggest challenge is to accomplish it. Generally, it will be time but it could also be income, space, relying on someone else, a piece of equipment etc. It could be more than one thing but keep it simple and start with one dimension. So, let’s say your goal is to run a 5K race this year and your biggest challenge is that you only have 30 minutes available for a workout, start by understanding how you use those 30 minutes and what to prepare for from a motivation standpoint as well.

Tactical: This is an assessment on how you manage the time/other challenge today. For example: What exercises do you do, how many are running related, outdoors or indoors, is there a fixed time of day or are you flexible, what do you do before and after the workout, with or without a group or partner?

Motivational: This is a measure of your motivations, that inner voice that keeps you going. For example: how do you motivate yourself on regular days and tough days (mine are cold, windy days), how did you reward yourself when you achieved a milestone, what distractions hold you back or have held you back in the past, how have you overcome them, what triggers your strongest habits (time, place, people)?

Dig deep and don’t be hard on yourself. You definitely have a lot within that’s untapped and unexplored. Write what you learn in a journal if you’re comfortable. I highly recommend it.

80/20 question – What do I spend 80% of my time on today?

Step 2: Know your goal – The Futurist

Now, bring out your inner futurist to imagine what your routine would look like if you achieved your goal. As a futurist, you can conduct exciting research into similar goals from your past or other’s achievements to imagine a future you. Taking our current goal for example, you will be running more or less 5K distances a few days every week, perhaps different types of runs mixed with rest or recovery days. This is a very exciting step because you’re discovering and imagining who future you is.

80/20 question – What should I spend 80% of that time on?

Step 3: Design your path – The Engineer

This is a pretty cool step because you now get to reverse engineer from future you to current you. Thus you will begin to shape what needs to change, what needs to stay, what needs to be strengthened, what needs to stop. You were limitless before, now you are pragmatic and narrowing down to a few or one option that will get you going and identifying anything you are doing today that stands between current you and future you. Three things to keep in mind here:

  • You are not setting targets yet, instead you are working backwards from your goal to determine what you’ll need. For example: You’ll need to dedicate Monday, Wednesday and Friday to running but 30 minutes may not be enough because you need to warm up, so you’ll need to take time from something else or find a safe running path close to home. Also, you may want something that conveniently tracks your miles while you run so you can track progress.
  • Dig deep into your motivations too to look for things that motivate you, you want to pull these ahead so they bolster your big motivation. Similarly, eliminate or increase the friction to do the things that cause you to slow down. For example: Get a running app like Nike Run Club to motivate you (like me)
  • Don’t look for perfection in your plan. You simply need enough to get started and one to five things you will measure. The plan and measurement will change over time so it’s good to not get too attached to it. For example: Initially, you might only measure number of running days. Later, perhaps miles or smiles per day (remember to smile). The objective is to give yourself something to focus on that diminishes the value of the distractions.

80/20 Question: What do I need to do to focus on my 80?

Step 4: Execute – Be like Mario

Have you ever played Donkey Kong? The premise of the legendary (or classic for the younger generation) Nintendo game is simple – Mario (you) needs to get to Pauline (your goal) to rescue her from Donkey Kong (challenges, distractions). It’s a nice analogy for this step, which is:

  • You won’t get closer to your goal without moving forward so you need to start. The game has started and Kong has already started throwing things at you.
  • You need to move up one level at a time. Without a hack, you cannot instantly get to the top of the construction site and to Pauline.
  • Just because you have a plan doesn’t mean you’ll get to your goal. Kong will make sure of it by randomly throwing things at you so you need to adapt.
  • The more you play, the better you get
Just watch the first few minutes to get the general idea

That’s what this step is about. Start on your goal; break it up into smaller goals; be present – be aware of your progress and your surroundings and be ready to adjust as life comes at you.

Tip: Set your initial target to between 5-20% of your goal and adapt your plan for the present

So, for our original 5K goal and you’ve never run before, you can set your initial target to run 250 meters and walk the rest. As you advance, if your target is to run 3 days of the week, start with 1 day of the week running and walking the rest. The power is yours; the target is yours. You just need to make a little challenging.

5-20% is not just an arbitrary number. Remember Pareto’s logic of the critical 20% that consume 80% of your time and the trivial 80% that consume 20% of your time. The idea is to first try to rationalize the 20% of time that is spent doing trivial things because they would be the easiest things to let go off, while the critical ones will be harder to let go of.

Learn, Improve, Grow – The Virtuoso

If you’ve ever watched a virtuoso play an instrument, they make it look so effortless but behind all of that incredible talent is hours of consistent practice aimed at improvement and an unrelenting excitement for their intention.

Steve Vai on motivation and focus

So now, you can build and sustain your own 80/20 system:

  • LEARN: (Step 1 and 2)
    • Review the few metrics that matter, see what’s working and not working.
    • Check your motivation – which rewards are working, which distractions are getting harder to overcome. It’s not just about the numbers, it’s about you becoming a better you
    • Get excited by learning new things about your goal and find new ways to enjoy it so it doesn’t get stale e.g. join a group that shares a similar goal, talk to your friends and family about it, write to me about it!
  • IMPROVE: (Step 3)
    • Aim to get a little bit better every day or every week. A best practice for motivation is to try to get 1-5% better than before
    • Adapt your plan based on what you’re learning from the present about yourself and your goal
    • Reduce friction for the habits that matter and increase friction for the habits that distract
  • GROW: (Step 4)
    • Remind yourself of your intention every day. Get a poster, make a note/a mark, send a message #WillRunAgain
    • Don’t wait for perfection – take a step forward and be in the present when you’re working on your goal
    • Celebrate the little wins (even starting is a win). Know that we all win when you win.
    • Don’t be afraid of setbacks or of asking for help. Setbacks are only a problem when you don’t come back to the starting line. Give yourself time to recover and know that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness

Now, try out some of the steps with your goal. Start simple. It’s okay to be stuck and to feel stuck – send me a message. I am confident you will get around it. I look forward to hearing from you!

If you liked this and would like more, subscribe and comment to let me know what was most helpful for you.