The Exploration/Exploitation Framework

We all have a variety of mental models that we use to interpret the world around us. In many cases we have very specific models, e.g. I know that turning the key in the ignition makes my car turn on, and this does not assist me very much in my understanding of the world. At the same time, the concept of different keys fitting into different locks is a metaphor that we apply to other areas of life.

One of my favorite models comes from reinforcement learning, which is particularly applicable to how our brain functions. In the most general case, assume that you have many different options, and each of these gives you a payoff randomly selected from an unknown distribution. Your goal is to maximize the payoff you receive over a fixed time horizon. This type of game is epitomized by the multi-armed bandit problem, or the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test when that distribution changes over time.

So how do you optimize these types of tasks? [Read more…]

How to Network Effectively

Networking is a critically important skill. There is a great phrase that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time around. For humans, most of our environment is the social environment. Your ability to interact with others, and who those other people are, is most likely going to be your bottleneck on what you can accomplish in the world. Even skills like programming or engineering, where you’re creating something new in the world, are enabled by the web of social interactions you are embedded in – the greatest product in the world will never be used if it cannot be discovered.

Step One: Have a Goal

[Read more…]

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #10: Actively Recover and Try Again

Suppose you have tried everything above and you still can’t seem to bring yourself to work.  First, I want you to repeat step two and show yourself a little compassion.  Did you do that?  Good.  I’ll bet you’re feeling better already!

So given that you can’t seem to get yourself to work, what should you do instead?  When locked in internal conflict, we will often take some form of default action (a common one these days is to browse the internet).  This form of procrastination rarely feels very fulfilling or regenerative.  This is like a drowning man treading water – you’re not getting any closer to shore!  Instead, recognize that you are refusing to work in that moment, and engage in active recovery.  Make a list of your most fun activities, the things that will leave you feeling the most energized and happy, and commit yourself to enjoying them fully and without reservation for a period of time.  After that time is up, take your renewed energy and good mood and get right back on the horse!  You will undoubtedly have an easier time than you did from a place of unhappy resistance.

Note that sometimes we are legitimately tired – most people in the United States are getting less than 8 hours of sleep a night, and artificial lighting can wreak havoc on our body’s natural circadian rhythm.  When you have a low energy level, everything in life seems harder.  In that case, the best thing you can possibly do for your productivity is to rest!  Employers are starting to realize the importance of napping at work, so if you happen to work for one of those forward thinking companies or for yourself this is an easy solution.  Otherwise, I suggest setting a timer, closing your eyes, and allowing yourself to free associate: do not think of anything in particular or try to hold onto any thoughts (especially about work), let your mind wander undirected.  Afterwards you will feel refreshed and ready to go again.

This concludes my Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately series.  I am sure that you will find one or another of these tips to be helpful – leave a comment or drop me a line and tell me how they worked for you!  Please feel free to pass these along to friends, family, coworkers, or anyone else who you think could use this advice.  And be sure to leave us a note in the comments to tell us what techniques you have come up with, so everyone can share your success!

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #9: Commit to One Minute

The hardest part of any task is getting started – or maybe even before getting started, while you’re still busy worrying about doing the task instead of getting it done!  Luckily inertia works in both directions: once you’re already underway with a project you realize it isn’t nearly as bad as you originally thought.  So the trick here is to overcome that activation cost, to get yourself started working at all.

Fortunately there is a very easy solution to this problem: commit yourself to working for one minute.  How bad could 60 seconds of work possibly be?  The great thing about a one minute commitment is that it is a one minute commitment – if you legitimately find the work you are doing to be that torturous, you have kept your commitment to yourself and you can stop and figure out something else to deal with the problem.  I have rarely seen people object to this level of commitment, but if that feels like too much you can choose an even shorter time period to fit your needs.

Once you have begun working, you will find that the task is rarely as bad as you anticipated.  In fact, you might even find it easier to continue working than to stop abruptly and switch to something else!  I don’t know about you, but I don’t like leaving anything unfinished, so I will persist until the task I am working on is complete.  After you master the art of starting, you can switch to a system like the Pomodoro Technique and commit yourself to working for 25 minutes or more!

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #8: Break it into Sub-Steps

One of the most common causes of procrastination is that the task at hand feels incredibly daunting – the project is so large that it seems impossible to complete.  Somehow even thinking about the project makes you feel tired!  When you imagine the project it feels like a giant monolith in your mind, leaving you unable to gain traction anywhere.  No wonder you don’t want to work on it!

Fortunately there is a very effective technique for dealing with this particular objection: break down the task into smaller components.  Starting from a large nebulous goal, make an exhaustive list of everything you need to accomplish to get there.  Figure out which step needs to happen first, and then break that one down into sub-steps as well.  Keep following this procedure until you get down to a single step that you can take immediately to get you closer to your goal.  This tiny step feels much more manageable now, doesn’t it?  (Note that if this sub-step still feels daunting, I’ll bet that you can break it down even further.)

Now that you have the first specific action you need to take, I want you to close your eyes and imagine doing the task.  Imagine it right down to the very motor actions that you need to execute: imagine moving your arms, your hands, speaking, walking, whatever is required to complete your task.  See yourself finish your task, and then imagine how good it will feel to have this step completed.  Once you have finished this visualization, accomplishing the actual task feels like second nature – you’re practically already done!

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #7: Be Mindful

The most common response to encountering resistance is to try harder, feeling a host of negative emotions about the situation, and retreating into thoughts that cycle repeatedly with no resolution in sight.  By now you may have experienced this resistance so often that it feels like is just the way the world is, that it is a necessary part of working and couldn’t be any other way.  I want you to pause for a moment and ask yourself: how do you know that you are actually experiencing resistance?

The phenomenon of resistance or effort is ultimately a sensation that resides somewhere in your body.  When we get wrapped up in our head we are diverting our limited attention towards our own unproductive thoughts – valuable attention which could be directed elsewhere.  By merely trying harder we are trying to push away that sensation, we are wishing that our subjective experience were different in that moment.  When you next notice yourself feeling resistance, I want you to pause for a moment.  Take a deep breath.  Close your eyes.  Focus your awareness onto the sensations in your body that you have identified as resistance.  Sit with that sensation for a time and observe it.  Identify exactly what is going on.  When you notice that your attention has drifted, gently release whatever thought arose and return to the sensation.

Once you have observed this sensation, you may notice it has different qualities.  Sometimes you may turn your attention to the sensation and it doesn’t actually appear to be there, in which case you can resume what you were doing without conflict.  Or maybe this sensation oscillates back and forth, sometimes it is present and sometimes it isn’t – and in fact, this can happen within a fraction of a second!  How weird, right?

The great thing about observing your resistance from the outside is that it won’t seem inevitable anymore. Once you can say, “Huh, I seem to be resisting this,” you’re more than halfway there.

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #6: Turn it into a Game!

Work couldn’t possibly be fun… or could it?  The very word conjures up images of endless factory lines with single repetitive tasks for hours on end, or row upon row of cubicles with people chained to their desks…  Of course this is all very melodramatic, but you get the point: work is not something that most people think of as being fun.  Why that’s almost the very definition of work!

Let’s turn things on their head for a minute.  Remember how to be curious and ask yourself: how could you turn work into a game?  I can think of one way right off the bat… here you are, trying to get a stubborn primate to diligently execute some boring task it doesn’t even want to do!  What a ridiculous situation this is!  Trying to get this primate to cooperate seems harder than herding cats sometimes.  So turn your resistance into a game.  From a place of curiosity and compassion, start trying different things to see how the primate responds.  Could you actually trick him into doing work… and enjoying it?

First try making the work itself into a game.  Throw yourself a party every time you accomplish a goal, and really celebrate that victory!  Play it up, because you deserve it.  Figure out how long you think this task is going to take, add another half of that to your time estimate, and then turn it into a race against yourself!  Then turn increasing productivity into a game too.  Try giving the primate incentives: set goals and rewards for yourself, and make sure to actually treat yourself if you reach them.  Maybe keep tasty food on hand for this purpose, or commit to paying for a massage or letting yourself goof off for a bit.  Go down the list of recommendations I am giving you and try each one in turn, see if it works and why it does or doesn’t.  Keep doing what works, figure out what doesn’t, and how you need to tweak it for your next experiment.  When you are treating productivity as a game, the consequences feel much less dire and it is easy to be in good spirits about the whole thing.  This is how work becomes play!

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #5: Use Curiosity

The most natural thing in the world is to get stuck in our usual patterns.  We do the same thing day in and day out and it becomes a habit, it feels incredibly easy or maybe even right to take the same action.  Each time we follow the path of least resistance we create a slightly deeper mental groove, which makes the next iteration even more difficult to escape.

It is time to break the pattern.  Take a deep breath and change your context.  Now, I want you to look at your situation with fresh eyes.  Forget for a moment everything you think you know – pretend you are an alien who has just been dropped into your body here on Earth.  Be curious about yourself, your reactions, what you are trying to accomplish and why.  You need to find out more information about the situation, so start listing a bunch of questions that you would need to answer to be able to make the best decision.  Write as many questions as you can before you start trying to answer any of them.  The purpose is to explore as much as possible before proposing any of your usual solutions!

Genuine curiosity is an incredibly powerful state because it is so open to new possibilities.  By asking all of these questions and wanting to know the answer, you have engaged your subconscious mind in gathering information.  Now that you have done this, imagine the outcome that you want in as much detail as possible, including any pictures, sounds, words or sensations you want to be experiencing.  You will begin to notice that ideas are spontaneously coming to mind, that there are in fact a number of ways to achieve that particular goal.  Don’t reject any of them, no matter how absurd, and let your subconscious keep working.  One of these original ideas could be the brilliant alternative you’ve been looking for!  When one of them feels right, you will experience a natural surge of motivation to begin working on that solution.  Well done!

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #4: Change Context

There is no doubt that when we change the physical configuration of our body, there is a corresponding psychological change. Earlier I posted about smiling making you happier, even when you’re feeling down. Another example is non-verbal communication, the complex signaling that happens between people based entirely on posture, hand gestures, vocal tonality, and many other cues. Just in case you think I am overstating the power of this effect, it turns out that people systematically underestimate guesses when leaning to the left. That one even blew me away!

In addition to the position of our body, our environment also plays a very large role on our mental state. The color red has connotations of danger, and this has deep evolutionary roots. The difference in energy level between a bright room and a dark room is profound – find a dimmer switch and try this for yourself! Thanks to our incredibly plastic brains, we can build up associations between any two phenomena over time, and this includes places and mental states too. For example, one common piece of productivity advice is to have a separate work space and non-work space.

I am sure you see where this is going. When you want to change your behavior you need to change your mind, and you can always change your mind by changing either your body or the environment! Are you working on a laptop right now? Pick it up and move to another location! If you find yourself stuck in an unhelpful mental state, stand up immediately and go take a walk around the block. Focus on the sensations of your face and body, notice any tension you are holding there, and consciously relax all of those muscles until you are limp. When you are about to make a habitual decision – like opening that internet browser again – do something immediately to interrupt the usual pattern. Sit on the edge of your chair with your back straight to focus yourself on the task at hand.

The power of this technique is both immense and incredibly subtle. The smallest changes in your body can affect your mind, and on the margin this can make all the difference. Learn how your body responds and keep trying different interventions!

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #3: Connect with your Reasons

Here you are, locked up with internal conflict, unable to work and yet unable to play guilt-free.  Remember the old saying, it takes two to tango.  This conflict is inside of you, which means you are in the unique position to understand both sides of the argument – how often do we get that opportunity to help resolve a conflict??  The truth is, all of your parts have a positive intent for you (whether the other parts want to believe that or not).  Each of them are trying to get you something that is important to you, so keep this view in mind when you talk to both parties in this conflict.

First connect with the part of you that doesn’t want to be doing work.  What does this part want for you?  Allow the very first thought to come into your mind, whatever that thought is let it be.  The answer may surprise you.  Some parts want you to be happy, to play and have fun.  Some parts are trying to protect you: maybe they are worried you will do the task incorrectly, or maybe they think the task will not accomplish your goals.  Acknowledge what that part says and why that perspective is important to your life.  Maybe you can find a way to address this part’s concerns right there in the moment!

Now connect with the part of you that thinks you should be working.  There is some reason you want to complete this task, after all, and you will know you have gotten to that underlying reason when you express it using positive language.  For example, you might be tempted to say, “I need to work because otherwise my boss will fire me!”  While this may be true, it is hiding the implicit fact that you value something about having your job.  Instead this could look like, “I choose to work because I want to provide for myself and my family.”

Once you have identified the ultimate reason behind your actions, remember what connecting with that feels like: the picture you see in your head, any words you hear, the wonderful sensations in your body.  When you are finding yourself struggling to stay motivated, I want you to remember that place in full vivid detail, to remind yourself what it is that you care about and why you are doing this thing that seems difficult.  When you act from that place, your positive motivation flows naturally from your goals into your actions, and you will find the energy to do what needs to be done.