Learn The System, Game The System: Using Heuristics In Your Everyday Life

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I am fascinated by heuristics.

A Heuristic, to put it simply (and incorrectly, if you’re being technical about things), is a rule of thumb. It’s a generalized principle you can quickly apply to a problem that will, more often than not, give you a desirable outcome.

“Lefty-Loosey, Righty-Tighty” is probably the king of all heuristics.

Heuristics are often used in programming and mathematics, but they’re powerful tools to use in your everyday life as well.

Their utility is due to the fact that they remove the need to think deeply on a problem or situation. Willpower and intelligence require energy in the brain (stored in the form of glucose). If you use it up, or are running low, your willpower and problem-solving ability suffer. This is why we tend to eat less healthily when we’re hungry, or buy more at the grocery store if we haven’t eaten.

Heuristics bypass this problem by providing you with a simple principle. Lefty, loosey. Your brain doesn’t require energy to simply apply an existing rule. Apply the heuristic and move on.

Whenever you are presented with a recurring problem, a heuristic can come in handy. In fact, I rigorously apply heuristics to almost all my problems and goals, using what I call a “heuristic mindset.”

Applying the Heuristic Mindset

The “heuristic mindset” is itself a heuristic. It states:

Whenever a problem reoccurs regularly, developing and applying a heuristic will be helpful.

How do we develop a heuristic? Luckily, I have another heuristic for that.

To develop a heuristic for a problem, determine the 3 rules which dictate the appearance of that problem, then determine what act would negate at least one of those rules.

That sound more complicated than it is. Let’s apply this process to two real-life problems: not having enough time to be creative, and eating a poor diet.

How do I find more time to be creative?

Over the past few months I experienced a dry spell in terms of writing music. I just couldn’t find the time to dedicate to writing in the way that I used to. I had a lot of new responsibilities, a new job, and less time by myself. Whenever I would want to write music, I’d be too tired to actually sit down and do it.

How can I apply heuristics to this problem?

First, I need to determine the 3 rules that affect my behavior in this situation. After a while of studying my own habits and actions, I discovered the following:

1. I do not ever feel like recording or writing music after work.
2. I am most productive in the morning.
3. I don’t ever want to write or record when there is someone else in the house.

Now that I have the three rules that govern the system, I can try to make a heuristic that will lead to a good outcome most of the time. The heuristic I came up with was:

Write and record music on Saturday morning.

Why Saturday morning? Because on Saturday mornings 1. I am in my most productive state, 2. There’s no one else in the house, and 3. I won’t have had work. This addresses all 3 of the rules of the system; a decent heuristic really only needs to address one.

Now, is Saturday morning the only time I’ll ever write or record? No. Remember, this is a rule of thumb, not a commandment. Most Saturdays, I’ll write and record. Some Saturdays, I may not do anything. But most of the time, following the heuristic will give me a positive outcome.

Since applying the heuristic, my rate of recording has gone up almost 400%. It’s less recording time than I used to have, but far more than I was getting when I was trying to figure out if I had the energy to work on music each day.

How do I eat more healthily?

I have a problem that is pretty common amongst Americans: how do I eat more healthily, when there’s so much delicious garbage out there?

There are a lot of ways to address this kind of problem: exercise more, don’t eat certain kinds of foods, etc. I always tend to fall off the wagon with that kind of approach, however.

How can I apply heuristics to this problem?

First, let’s identify the 3 rules of the system. After examining my eating patterns, I came to the following conclusions:

1. I eat really huge portions.
2. I tend to get fast food on my way to work.
3. I skip meals, which screws with my metabolism.

Now, each of these rules is more complex than those in the example I used earlier. Rather than tackling them all at once, which might require too much willpower or thought each day to be realistic, I’m going to attack just one rule: #1. How can I eat smaller portions?

I’ve read that using smaller plays causes people to eat less, but I don’t feel like buying smaller plates. Instead, I came up with the following heuristic:

No seconds, except on Sunday.

That’s it. No going back for seconds. That’s the entirety of my approach.

Cutting out seconds may cause me to put slightly more on my plate, but since I’m actively trying to control my food intake I doubt that’ll happen all that often. What’s more, not eating seconds will lead to a drastically smaller calorie intake at each meal. It’s also a pretty easy rule to apply. Leaving Sundays open creates an “escape valve” that will help me apply the rule: I can’t eat seconds now, but if I just wait till Sunday…

Does the heuristic solve all my problems? No. Am I going to get seconds on Thanksgiving? Yes. But most of the time, applying the heuristic will lead to a beneficial result. And good results are self-enforcing.

Heuristics can be a powerful method for tackling difficult problems. The goal isn’t to solve everything in one fell swoop; it’s to create momentum by chipping away at the problem, one piece at a time. Once heuristics become second nature you no longer have to expend any thought on them at all, leaving more energy and motivation to make further progress on the problem or tackle another issue altogether.

If you have any of your own heuristics, leave them in the comments. One of my personal favorites:

People will, on average, walk 7 minutes to get to a McDonald’s. This is why McDonald’s in urban areas tend to be built 14 minutes apart.

Think on that for a while.