10 Easily Implementable Life Problem-Solving Strategies

I'm a big fan of litmus tests, heuristics, rules of thumb (here's my wiki with hundreds of rules), and anything else that can help me make a quick decision when there's too little time or too much indecisiveness.

Colin Marshall posted 10 "easily memorable and implementable life problem-solving strategies" that are really stellar. I've excerpted all the heuristics below. Read each one.

  • "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?
  • "What benefits my future self?" I've found no better way to battle the bad habit of foisting tasks and undesirabilities onto the Colin of a few days from now than to identify what I could do next and automatically choose whatever benefits my future self most — or harms him the least, anyway. Pro: eases the dealing-with of future unforeseen developments, both positive and negative. Con: what if present Colin gets hit by a bus, leaving nobody to collect my future-self benefits?
  • "Find the thin end of the wedge." This is stuff of folk aphorisms about thousand-mile journeys begun by single steps, camel noses poking inside tents and what have you. Meaning: daunting tasks are made more doable than they seem by isolation of the small ones that precede or collectively constitute them. Werner Herzog, discussing the task of assembling an entire cast of little people for Even Dwarfs Started Small, put it eloquently: "One dwarf would tend to know another." Pro: makes hardish stuff not so hard, at least perceptually, which is half the battle anyway. Con: could potentially get me under more onerous obligations than I can foresee.

  • "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.
  • "Can I fail at this?" It's like Raymond Chandler said: there is no success without the possibility of failure. Therefore, something I can't fail at is also something I can't succeed at. I can fail at conducting an interview, writing an essay or making a video. I can't fail at meandering around the internet in search of "neat stuff to read." In a recent tweet, I defined procrastination "the temporary displacement of tasks at which it is possible to fail with tasks at which it is not possible to fail." I suspect I'm less far off the mark than ever, especially regarding why procrastination is not a productive tendency.
  • "Always produce." Hat tip, of course, to Paul Graham. Operating under the mandate of always producing something, no matter if it sucks, isn't fully formed or doesn't match my vision, drives away the seductive demons of fantasization whose mission is to keep me thinking about doing stuff but never actually doing it. Thinking about doing something doesn't help, and in fact probably un-helps. You might have noticed Nike's successful employment of their own version of this heuristic. Pro: easy motivator, addresses a hugely common issue. Con: could lead to a life-threatening miscalculation or two.

  • "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?
  • "What are the rules?" Though this is perhaps my interest in conceptualism talking, it seems to me that nothing interesting ever gets done or made without rules, whether imposed by the creator or by the creator's circumstances. I find "drive across country without using a freeway" more interesting than "drive across country," "write a novel without using the letter e" more interesting that "write a novel," "make a movie for ten grand" more interesting than "make a movie." Crude examples, but you get my meaning. This has all been said before, but more in terms of creativity being truly sparked by limitations, necessity being the mother of invention, things opened up by way of closing them off, etc. I like to think of it as arbitrarily setting down the first element and taking it as given, using it as a structure on which to build the rest of the work. (Then, if you like, remove the structure.) Pro: makes the first steps easier. Con: encourages stunts, though stunts aren't necessarily worthless.
  • "What am I doing now?" I often fall victim to the delusion that circumstances will be somehow be more advantageous in the future, so that's when I'll really bear down on my work. Of course, conditions are never so much more suitable when the time actually comes, or at least they're not as perfect as I'd perhaps assumed they'd be. So if I want do something or be a certain way, I try to cut off any line of thought that terminates in my having convinced myself that I'll act on my intentions in the future. If I'm serious about it, it'll be reflected in what's going on right now, at the present moment. There's no such thing as ideal conditions. Pro: prevents excessive pipe-dreaming. Con: sounds superficially like a mindset some flake on Oprah would peddle.
  • "What's the hardest thing I can do?" Again, my hat tips to Paul Graham: "This is a good plan for life in general. If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you're trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you're even considering the other is laziness. You know in the back of your mind what's the right thing to do, and this trick merely forces you to acknowledge it." What more could I add? Pro: helpful when choosing between defined options. Con: the usual problems about the very act of option definition, plus, how do you define "hardest"? Also, it might lead into pointless exercises in frustration.

9 Responses to 10 Easily Implementable Life Problem-Solving Strategies

  1. JBow says:

    Great post, thanks Ben

  2. Mike Kenny says:

    A couple rules I try to follow that have been useful for me, roughly stated:

    1. Look for something fun and productive to do, and do it, till it ceases to be fun or productive, then look for something else that is fun and productive to do.

    2. Don’t look for possible suffering coming down the road, but if you happen to see a possibility of suffering in your future, look for an easy way of overcoming that suffering and stop looking when you find one. If any easy approach isn’t forthcoming, go with the easiest available approach till an easy way comes.

    3. If you feel worry, ask yourself if there is a nontrivial chance of death, disablement, or an equivalent cost, and if this is the case, reduce the risk so that the chances of these costs are trivial. If risks are trivial, try not to worry about them by whatever means works for you.

    The rules are my own formulations, but I’m sure they’re influenced by others. For example, the first rule is quite a lot like psychologist Martin Seligman’s advice to focus on what he calls your signature strengths in doing something productive.

  3. Dan says:

    One of the top level quotes on the rules of thumb wiki was:

    “Rather than telling an associate, ‘You look good in that suit,’ tell the person, ‘That suit looks good on you.'” – Dale Carneigie

    I know I’ve heard similar before, but can’t remember (and have been unable to dig up) the explanation for it. Can anybody help me out?

  4. Akshay Kapur says:

    I know you’re a fan of randomness and it shows in this list, especially with the iteration concept and barf it out/clean it up. The list is balanced with some level of control too – what benefits my future self and what’s the deadline being good examples.

    The corollary is work/life balance. Everyone’s trying to achieve it and in your case it’s very conscious. There’s only so many things you can let go until you need to reign them back in. “Being your best self” and “life learning” come out as recurring themes in this list. I’m glad to see these concepts being promoted.

    I also like to ask, “Why am I doing this?” Knowing the reason you do something makes it highly rewarding simply for yourself.

  5. Ross Parker says:

    Thanks for the pointer to the Ben Graham essay, it is excellent.

  6. Ben Casnocha says:

    The latter formulation implies that you the person look good in general, and
    the suit is lucky to be on your body. The former implies that you only look
    good because of the suit. Thus, the latter is more flattering.

  7. Erick says:

    Ben–excellent, helpful input and I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for several years now.

    A simplistic but very effective rule of thumb/saying I’ve used for over a decade is: “when in doubt, work out.” (I think the rhyming adds a lot to it. Kind of like Johnnie Cochran’s “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”)

  8. It’s been a while since I’ve read any Dale Carnegie teachings.

    He was one of the most sexless yet successful salesmen in history, one who made his sales territory number one for Armour and Company’s bacon, soap and lard.

    There’s still plenty of that around, especially on the internet.

    Now if you want to pay someone a higher compliment, say, “That’s a good-looking suit.”

    It implies that he has good taste, and that he must be good-looking, too.

    If you’re a man speaking to a woman in a professional setting, better to not use either of the formulations ‘You look good in that suit,’ or ‘That suit looks good on you.’

    But if you’re trying to hit on someone outside work, ‘You look good in that suit’ is the way to go.

    “You look good…” sounds better to the receptive ear (male or female) than “That suit looks good…”.

    The emotional impact of those intro words will overrule the intellectualized and unemotional ass-backward emphasis on the suit.

    What did Dale Carnegie know about sex, anyway?;-)

  9. itrogers says:

    I especially agree with the final one…always choose the harder option. It builds character and makes you learn life lessons. Thanks-

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