“I’m onto something”

We live in a cruel world. We are awash in information, and yet it never feels as if we have all the information we need to make those big life decisions. What perhaps makes this worse is that these decisions need to be made starting at a very early age.

Would those high-school subjects help me maximise my skills and talent? Will this college degree help me find the things I would love to do? Is that job really something I can spend all my waking hours caring about? Am I marrying a person who will be the soulmate I’ve always been looking for?

Choosing the “best” microwave for your home might be easier today than 20 years ago, but that decision wasn’t a very hard decision even then. The hard decisions remain hard because of an information asymmetry problem. You will always have far less information than you would like to make these decisions.

This is where our gut instincts help. It is not easy to explain why we get that tingling feeling of “I’m onto something”, when we get close to an answer we’ve been looking for, but that feeling is the best indicator that we have of being on the right path.

The trouble with gut instincts is that they feel too flimsy to base important decisions on. But the information asymmetry problem is never going away, and so it is perhaps better to hone our gut instincts through practice. You will fail but you will also learn and thus trust yourself more in this unpredictable world.

It is easy to keep postponing life’s big decisions in the hope that one day we may have all the information we need to find the answer. But if you’re sure you want an answer, just look for the “I’m onto something” feeling and take the dive.

Image by shinealight. CC-BY-SA.

Change is good—we know it, but we hate it

On my last trip home, for the first time since I left the country six years ago, I spent a whole month in India. It gave me the opportunity to think about some things more deeply than I have been able to on previous trips. One realisation was that most people don’t change very much at all. Their habits, thoughts, views, opinions, arguments, dressing style, preferences…. remain surprisingly unchanged.

For certain aspects of a person that is a good thing. But overall such an attitude has more negative consequences. I think it stops people from living happier lives that they are perfectly capable of living.

I don’t know why this is the case. Of course change is hard, but surely people would have figured out that it is also disproportionately rewarding and totally worth the occasional failures. If humanity hasn’t figured out that yet, then it is the failure of the collective that desperately needs fixing. And I am not the first one to recognise that.

One solution to the problem of enabling change is to use technology. Take the Coach.me app (previously, Lift). It lets you set goals and then helps you to reach them. It does that through social engineering and simple digital nudges.

The social engineering aspect involves the offer of live coaches or encouragement by strangers. Your goals are public and, if you’re friends use the app then they can look at how you’re doing and perhaps give you that much needed push. The digital nudges are reminders and simple tutorials to help you in your goal to, say, meditate daily.

Coach.me is not the only app. But what any of those apps do is provide a solution to the people who are already convinced that changing is important. That is a tiny slice of smartphone-using humanity.

What if we want to spread the message “change is good” and convince a much larger part of humanity? Education? Celebrities? Social media? How do you convince yourself to change? What do you do to make it happen?

Image: arthurjohnpicton CC-NC.

The best hack for a to-do list

Summary: Every morning, put down on a to-do list only the three most important tasks. 

For the office-goer of the 21st century, a to-do list is both a boon and a curse. While it can help get stuff done, it also creates a lot of anxiety. That is because, on most occasions, the list keeps growing without an end in sight.

What is needed is a way to ensure that you get enough stuff done and end the work day on a happy note. The best hack I know to achieve that is to make a simple tweak to building a to-do list. It is not an original idea, but its implementation has completely changed how I work.

Choose the three most important tasks (MITs) that need to be done that day, and put them down on a to-do list. Come what may, decide to do those three things before leaving work. If possible, do those them first in the morning.

Of course I do more than three things every day, but the idea is that I ensure doing the things that matter the most first. I leave work without lingering anxieties of incomplete tasks at hand.

The exercise is not as simple as than you’d think. The prime difficulty is the prioritisation of tasks. But once you start doing it, you realise through trial and error how to find those three MITs. And it is that which really changed how I work.

Bonus: There are two more tweaks that I’m trying to implement to this routine. First is to ensure that I leave work at a certain time. This is to respect Parkinson’s law that states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

Second is to choose one of those three MITs to be a task towards a long-term goal. On days when I have been able to do that, I feel I’ve accomplished more than what is needed of me at work, and I sleep a little better that night.

This is the first post in “the best hack series”, where the aim is to find small ideas that have a big impact in improving everyday life.

Image credit: naomi_pincher, CC-BY-NC-ND

Soliciting negative feedback is hard, but you must do it often if you care about progressing

Last week, I tried an experiment in self-promotion. I made a birthday wish that I shared among my Facebook friends, wishing that they would read more of my writing. The experiment went well. That post became one of the most read pieces since I moved my blog to this website last year. I got lots of friends to subscribe, and many told me how they had already been enjoying my work.

But I wanted feedback on whether this experiment was really worth it. After all, I didn’t want it to sound like a sales pitch. This was a genuine request, and I wanted to know if it came across that way.

I’m lucky to have a group of really smart people whom I can ask for critical feedback. The group approved of my experiment, and the prompt led to a valuable discussion on feedback, which started, as many things do, with Elon Musk.

Feedback loop

Most of the time we walk around thinking that we are doing the right thing. That is important, of course, because if we were not confident in our abilities then we would not be able to function. But from time to time we must solicit feedback to help us spot faults and find better ways of doing things.

This might seem like common sense, but Elon Musk, one of the most successful entrepreneurs alive, says that most people don’t seek feedback that matters. He says we must not just seek feedback, but we must specifically seek negative feedback. (As a side, the operative word here should be critical, which means negative and analytically founded.)

When asking for feedback if you don’t ask for negative feedback, chances are you will never get it because people usually withhold such feedback for fear of hurting our feelings. This human folly to be soft on others leads to ineffectiveness. Even the times when negative feedback has to be given, it is usually sugar-coated, which often does not lead to the action that is needed.

Forget niceties

Truth is a hard apple to throw and a hard apple to bite.” These are slightly modified words of the American author Donald Barthelme. One way of allowing such hard apples to reach you, at least on an individual level, is to set up a system for soliciting feedback anonymously. With such an option, those giving feedback can forget niceties and really get to the point. It is also easy to do. For instance, here is a simple Google form where you can leave anonymous feedback for me.

However, before you jump to setting up your own form, you have to remember that negative feedback can (and will) hurt. You need to be sure that you are ready to hear nasty stuff. Smarter people than I have thought about this and they’ve developed rules that might help.

If you are thinking of soliciting anonymous feedback, try to abide by Crocker’s Rules (in full):

Declaring yourself to be operating by “Crocker’s Rules” means that other people are allowed to optimise their messages for information, not for being nice to you.

It means that you have accepted full responsibility for the operation of your own mind—if you’re offended, it’s your fault. Anyone is allowed to call you a moron and claim to be doing you a favour.

While Crocker’s Rules are simple, they are not easy to follow. In launching my own anonymous form, I’m taking a risk. But I do believe that the payoff will be worth it.

Mass change

On an organisation level, most places already have regular appraisals in place. However, these tend to be too formal for their own good. This can hurt an organisation, especially one that is growing rapidly or one where roles change quite often.

For this to work, on such a level, there will need to be behavioural change, which is hard. People will need to be encouraged to give feedback and a system will need to be in place to help them manage this feedback. Organisations can’t force people to follow Crocker’s Rules. But the human resource department can do something to help, if they want such a culture to flourish.

An experiment that has worked at some leading tech firms is that of radical transparency. Except for 100% personal emails, every email is shared with everyone else in the organisation. So someone new to a project can go read all the emails, all the way back if they want, and problems are uncovered more quickly. It’s hard to pretend everything’s going well with the customer when the email thread shows it’s not. (Of course email volume will be high, but email filters and selective reading can go a long way.)

One way or another, you must do your best to solicit negative feedback and do it often. If you care about progressing quickly, that is.


Thanks to Alex Flint, Christo Fogelberg and Xiao Cai for ideas and feedback. Image: gforsythe


Crocker’s Rules in full

Declaring yourself to be operating by “Crocker’s Rules” means that other people are allowed to optimise their messages for information, not for being nice to you.

Crocker’s Rules means that you have accepted full responsibility for the operation of your own mind—if you’re offended, it’s your fault. Anyone is allowed to call you a moron and claim to be doing you a favour. (Which, in point of fact, they would be. One of the big problems with this culture is that everyone’s afraid to tell you you’re wrong, or they think they have to dance around it.)

Two people using Crocker’s Rules should be able to communicate all relevant information in the minimum amount of time, without paraphrasing or social formatting. Obviously, don’t declare yourself to be operating by Crocker’s Rules unless you have that kind of mental discipline.

These rules don’t mean you can insult people; it means that other people don’t have to worry about whether they are insulting you. Crocker’s Rules are a discipline, not a privilege. Taking advantage of Crocker’s Rules does not imply reciprocity. How could it? Crocker’s Rules are something you do for yourself, to maximise information received—not something you grit your teeth over and do as a favour. The rules are named after Lee Daniel Crocker.