Monday, December 14, 2009

What's Right vs. What's Practical: Part 2

I had planned to write this second part about heuristics and it also just so happened that Colin Marshall conveniently put out a post about his personal heuristics just a few days ago. His definition of heuristics in his words:
Easily memorable and implementable life problem-solving strategies — "quick and dirty" ones, if you like — that I've drawn from experience which, even if they prove shaky in border cases, still work most of the time. Naturally, they therefore concern the sort of problems I personally care about and nudge the user toward the sort of resolutions I personally desire. Mileages, as ever, vary.
I'd recommend reading all of them. Some of my favorites:
"Would I respect me?" I supposedly ask myself this about either my life in general, as a tool for broader self-assessment, or about a specific action I'm contemplating taking. Pro: straight to the point. Con: too much wiggle room — where's the line between what's respectable and what isn't?
I find this one very useful, and I have used it and a variation of it, "Would the past me be proud of the present me?" for quite a while now. Here's Colin Marshall's post on the relationship between his present self and his future self.
"Barf it out, then clean it up." A friend quoted her journalism teacher as saying this, and I've since adopted it as a pithy reflection of the broader phenomenon that the sole path to non-suckage winds through the treacherous woods of suckage. I must therefore make peace with producing something sucky and then iterate that initial product until it achieves decency. The trick is avoiding discouragement by that first piece of suckiness. As a writing principle, everyone knows this — you pound out the rough draft, then do the real writing, which is rewriting — but I submit that it's applicable across all pursuits. Pro: it's the only way to create good things, I suspect. Con: risks incentivizing producing crappier than I have to, at least to start. A worse initial effort might make fruitful iteration tougher.
Here's my post on iteration.
"What's the deadline?" Even when solidly in the actually-doing-stuff phase, I find my stuff rarely reaches actual doneness in the absence of a hard end date. Because how do I identify "doneness," anyway? I can always keep noodling away on a project, telling myself it's incomplete, if I never need to hand it in. This has the ancillary effect of preserving the precious mythologies of B.S. one builds about one's own brilliance. ("Oh, but it would've been awesome if I'd had more time!") Hence the importance I've come to grant the skill of adhering to self-imposed, sharp-edged rules. I have set a deadline of 11:30am on this post, for example, because I otherwise risk spending all day on squirrely retoolings. It's happened before. Pro: prevents life from being overtaken by unending boondoggles. Con: how to know exactly where to set the deadline?
I've been posting every Monday for a few months now. It's a deadline, and I stick to it. Chris Guillebeau has now gone over 550 days without missing a posting day.

These heuristics are definitely useful for making quick decisions on actionable items to get things done, but not for figuring things out just for the sake of figuring them out. Using heuristics to come to a decision is a "quick and dirty" way to come to a conclusion and get on with things- which makes them very practical in this society that is more apt to reward those actually doing things instead of thinking about things. Heuristics aren't the right way to properly come to a conclusion about something because they go against rationality and its crusade against cognitive biases- optimally, you would be to be able to evaluate everything fully and properly all the time but that just isn't possible- the human brain wouldn't be able to handle all that figuring- heuristics are necessary. They're immensely practical but aren't exactly right.

For more on heuristics and cognitive biases, I would recommend reading Influence, Kahneman & Tversky and Nassim Taleb.

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