Supposedly Irrelevant Factors

I’m halfway through reading one of the best books I’ve read in a long while: Misbehaving, by Richard H. Thaler.

One of the things that most stuck with me was that of “supposedly irrelevant factors“, which refers to something that, in theory, should not affect or influence the thinking of a rational person but does.

Thaler has also written about this in an article for the New York Times. The example that Thaler shared in the article is that of the grading of the notoriously difficult midterm exam that he gives, which he uses to separate his really good students from the rest.

As per the usual practice in academia, the maximum marks you could get in that exam was a hundred. But this posed a problem. Because of the difficulty of the exam, his students were averaging only 72 out of a possible hundred.

Though it didn’t affect the overall grades the students got, since their relative scores were more important than their absolutes (see: bell curve), they didn’t quite like getting such low marks and many complained.

Thaler got worried that the complaints might eventually lead to the loss of his job. So he made a change: instead of having the exam be out of a hundred marks, he made out of 137.

This change had a couple of things going for it: firstly, it made it more difficult to calculate a percentage score; at the same time, it allowed him to give students higher marks, closer to what they would have got on the usual, less challenging exams.

Students were on average now scoring 96 instead of 72, with some delightfully achieving scores above a hundred. Despite the lower percentage scores his students were getting (70 now instead of 72!) his students were happier.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. But it did.

To him, test scores were a supposedly irrelevant factor. To his students, they were anything but.

The concept of supposedly irrational factors really appeals to me because it’s something we tend to forget, especially in a work setting (because everyone’s somehow less human!) and yet something that may have large consequences.

Imagine this conversation between you and your boss:

Boss: Run this report for them every day by noon.

You: Why? They shouldn’t need to see the numbers at that high frequency – no actions can be taken at this late stage that will change anything anyway.

Boss: Just do it.

How would you feel? Would it make you a little more likely to be unhappy? To consider quitting and doing work that feels more worthwhile?

The knowledge of why could be seen as a supposedly irrelevant factor.

Knowing why you’re doing it wouldn’t really change anything – doing what your boss tells you is part of your job. Maybe she knows something you don’t.

But still, it just doesn’t feel right and the knowledge that there might be a purpose that isn’t shared doesn’t make you any less unhappy.

But what if your boss said this instead after you’d asked “why?”:

Boss: Maybe it won’t change anything. And I know it seems pointless from an actionable point of view. But what I know is that it helps calm their nerves; it helps calm their boss’ nerves. It’s not easy being in their shoes – they’re currently under immense pressure, and I’m hoping to support them in whatever way we can.

How would you feel now? If it were me, I’d actually feel even more empowered than before, and that I was making a positive difference in people’s lives.

The simple knowledge of why changes things quite a bit, though it really shouldn’t.

We’re not quite the uber-rationals we think we are.

Some interesting “supposedly irrelevant factors” examples that I’ve come across:

  • Choice architecture, and the default option – we go for default options more often than would be expected, even if the default’s the worst option available
  • Decoy pricing – Classic experiment done by The Economist where the introduction of a third, obviously poor subscription option made the most expensive option much more appealing
  • The Endowment Effect – Owning an item makes it seem much more valuable than it was before ownership came about

Anticipation, proactivity, and the Invisibles

Just read an article via Slashdot on this thing called “Tab Warming” that the Mozilla team is testing for the Firefox Web Browser.

I won’t go into the details, but in essence what Tab Warming does is that it anticipates whether or not you’ll click on a link, and if it does it “paints” the page in the background saving you milliseconds of loading time when you eventually click on it.

Despite the seemingly very small difference in absolute time, (I mean, really, milliseconds?) it has the potential to be the difference between somebody thinking about the page loading versus somebody not thinking about the page loading at all and purely on the content of the page.

And that’s huge. Isn’t the ultimate aim of interface usability to become invisible, after all?

This reminded me of how the best people I’ve worked with are those who pretty much do this all the time: they anticipate what I may need, and even before I’d mentioned it they’re bringing it up and telling me it’s already done.

And to me, despite my never thinking about them (because I don’t have to!), they’re the ultimate stars in our work lives.

To the invisibles: Thank you.

The difficulties of doing “deep work”

These past two weeks I’ve been on leave, staying at home and being a dad to my 2-year-old son.

He’s got quite a standard schedule: the wife and I bring him out in the morning to let him “see the world”, have breakfast, and/or visit the grandparents etc.; he comes back around noon, takes a snack, sometimes a full lunch, then goes to bed for his afternoon nap.

Depending on how tired we manage to get him before his nap, he’ll wake up between 5-6pm. Sometimes though, he surprises us and wakes up at 3pm or earlier. It’s happened enough times for us to unconsciously be in a constant state of high alert throughout his nap, hearing out for his cries.

(I wonder if it’s something akin to gambling addiction, where the release of dopamine is increased when winning is intermittent or unpredictable. Just in this case, it’s more of the opposite in that we’re always in fear that the boy wakes up before schedule!)

What I realised was that during this “high alert” phase, I’ve always found it hard to do anything that requires more than a cursory time commitment, anything that would not be considered “deep work”.

Deep work – the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.

Deep work requires a commitment of uninterrupted time. Going into a cognitively demanding task and then being interrupted halfway through often means that whatever you’d done up till then is wasted, or at least any progress made set back considerably.

I remember once making good progress on a machine learning project I was doing for work. Suddenly the boy cried and I had no choice but to stop. When I resumed my programming in the night, I found it almost impossible to resume where I left off. What made so much sense just 8 hours earlier made little sense now, and getting back up to speed was a slow and painful process.

What this means is that when I’m in the midst of “expected interruption” I’m gravitating toward activities that are not subject to such a regression. For example:

  • Instead of reading complex works of non-fiction, I’m reading “lighter” books that I can easily dive in and out of, especially great are those where the chapters are short or where stand-alone ideas are wrapped up within a couple of pages.
  • Instead of practicing my technical data science skills or actually writing code, which tends to require a heavy commitment of uninterrupted time, I’m practicing typing on, where within seconds I’m racing against my typing peers and getting an instant hit of dopamine since I win so much but not all the time (see: above link on “gambling addiction”!)
  • Instead of setting my goals for the new year and how I’m planning to achieve them, I’m thinking about what I feel like having for dinner and how to cook it.

Though I always knew this problem also existed at work, I’m now more aware of the impact it might have.

For those of us constantly barraged by “urgent minutiae” or unscheduled projects (i.e. pretty much all of us I bet), the lack of a system or structured approach toward addressing interruptions could lead us to a lifetime of firefighting at the expense of actually doing the impactful, deep work we were brought on board to do.

Personally, these are the things I do to prevent myself from drowning in urgent minutiae:

  • Relagating of e-mails to an hourly or two-hourly affair, which helps you avoid being interrupted mid-thought or while putting the finishing touches on your magnum opus.
  • Scheduling of a “meeting with yourself”, which blocks your calendar and allows you to work, guilt-free, on your most important tasks.
  • Addressing anything that takes 2 minutes or less immediately, which frees the mind of unnecessary clutter, something I picked up while implementing the wonderful Getting Things Done methodology.
  • Focusing on your highest priority tasks while ignoring everything else for the day, which is dangerous but oftentimes necessary.

(PS: To date I haven’t quite found a “hack” for myself at home, though. My kid doesn’t respect my calendar, nor does he bother with e-mails, and he’s just about impossible to ignore.)

(PPS: Above definition of “deep work” found on Cal Newport’s website, whom I *think* coined the term. The term itself came into my consciousness after it was first mentioned to me by S on my team at work.)

Feeling good about one’s work

I was just “thinking about things” when this thought came into my head: To feel good about one’s work, there are two sides of validation: the internal and the external.

  • External validation: somebody tells you, “you’ve done well. This is excellent!”
  • Internal validation: you tell yourself, “you’ve done well; you’d set out to do something well and you did it.”

This past year I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on my work. Still, something was missing.

“This is great work,” they’d say, and I’d smile.

Was it really? I’d think, feeling less than satisfied, tinged with impostor syndrome.

Luckily the opposite was true, too.

The work my team and I do are quite regularly behind-the-scenes “enablement” work. Nobody but us knows; no rah-rah; no fanfare.

They’d say nothing, even after I’d done something I thought was remarkable.

Still, this is awesome! I’d think.

And I’d be satisfied. Almost happy.

Please let me know if you have any questions

“Please let me know if you have any questions,” wrote I in an email I was drafting.

It has long been my signature email sign-off, but this time I was feeling a little reflective and reconsidered writing that line.

What did it really mean? 

But try as I might I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; it made no sense. So I deleted it.

Then I re-read the e-mail.

Ugh. No, it didn’t seem right.

So I put it back in.

The thing is though, I couldn’t reconcile this fact: if the recipients had any questions I’m pretty sure they would have not hesitated hitting “Reply” and asking me those questions. Would having left that line out stopped the questions from coming?

Surely not.

Still, I added the line back in because it “sounded better”, and from then on just accepted that I’d never know and simply kept that line in without too much thought.

Then just today I came across this passage from the book Simply Said by Jay Sullivan:

When you write at the end of an email “Let me know if you have any questions,” you are writing that line for a certain tone. Clearly, the reader will let you know if she has any questions, regardless of whether you make that offer. You add that line because it seems like a pleasant, conversational way to end the message. You include it to set the right tone, just the way you start the message with some basic pleasantry like, “I hope all is well” or “Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond.” Because email can seem so abrupt, it’s important to make sure we soften the tone of our messages.

I now feel extremely validated.

Turns out I’m just naturally inclined to be a pleasant, courteous person.

Dvorak Keyboard Layout Sucks

I hoped the header grabbed your attention because it’d sure as hell grab mine. I just read a (really long) article on how the studies/reports behind the Dvorak keyboard layout could just be all part of one hell of a marketing gimmick to help dear old Mr. Dvorak sell his keyboard layout (for the uninitiated, the Dvorak keyboard layout’s an alternative to the Qwerty keyboard layout found on almost all computer keyboards and — for the few that still exist — typewriters today.)

If you’d ever heard about the Dvorak keyboard layout (used often in business case-studies to show the failures of market forces weeding out the lousiest innovations, along with the Betamax/VHS ones — way back in 2003 even I had used it as an example of the failure of market forces), or if you’ve ever been interested in learning it, you probably want to read the article.

The authors, with too much time on their hands, did some research to find out just how true it was that Dvorak was a better keyboard layout (as opposed to Qwerty), and whether or not the success of Qwerty was truly a market failure, in the sense that the better product didn’t manage to become the standard while its supposedly weaker sibling did.

On a more personal note, I once dabbled with Dvorak some time back in my Polytechnic days (erm, that’s almost 10 years ago). I remember reaching speeds of about 40 or 50 words per minute after months of practice, but gave up after realising how impractical it was (back then shared computers were the norm, and it was pretty troublesome to constantly switch back and forth between Dvorak and Qwerty whenever someone needed to use “your” computer).

Besides, my Qwerty skills were already excellent, and achieving an improvement in typing speeds on Dvorak over my then Qwerty speeds was a pretty tough task.

Let me know your Dvorak stories if you have one. If you are, I’d like to ask you one question: you a nerd or what?