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Luck, Accidents, and the (Mistaken) Sense of Control

Luck, Accidents, and the (Mistaken) Sense of Control

Luck, Accidents, and the (Mistaken) Sense of Control

    What in your life can you control?

    Not much, as it happens. In fact, most of the areas we feel most in control of are riddled with uncertainty and unpredictability: business, health, parenting, finances. In a lot of cases – like picking which stocks to invest in – the average person actually underperforms random selection. That is, when it comes to picking stocks, a monkey with a dart board and a copy of the stock page can do a better job picking winning stocks than most ostensibly informed humans.

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    Why is that? In the case of selecting stocks, it’s because while a random selection has a 50/50 chance of going up or down, we humans tend to invest our choices with emotional weight that keeps us in markets too long or too short – unlike randomness, we act on hunches, fears, and hopes. More generally, we tend to be poor judges of risk and uncertainty, yet we have brains that are more than willing to impose patterns and meaning that cover up rather than address such unknowns. So we act as if we knew what we were doing, and as if we had some level of control over the situation, when really we’re at the mercy of luck – and the more uncertain the situation, the more likely we are to act as if we were in control.

    The (Mistaken) Sense of Control

    Consider this situation: Let’s pretend you have an infant girl, and one night you get a call at 1 am from a friend across town who desperately needs your help. As you prepare to drive across town to meet your friend, you have a choice – leave the child sleeping in her crib, or bundle her into a car seat and take her with you.

    For most parents, this is a no-brainer – of course you’re going to take her with you. What if something happens in the house while you weren’t there, like an electrical fire? What if someone broke into the house and kidnapped her? What if she stopped breathing?

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    The reality, though, is that the single riskiest thing you could do to an infant at 1:00 am is to take her driving in a car. Far more people die every year in car accidents than in all the potential risks to your child alone at home combined. In your car, she’ll be exposed to danger from poor road conditions, mechanical failure, and worst of all, other drivers – who at 1:00 am are likely to either have been drinking or be exhausted, neither of which makes them safe to be sharing the road with.

    But with our child with us, we feel in greater control than if she was left at home, unattended. There’s no rational basis to this feeling – it’s entirely grounded in emotion, a poor comprehension of risk, and an over-assessment of the degree to which our own presence has any significance.

    Our failure to understand risk and the role chance plays in our lives is profound and cuts across a wide swath of our lives. Consider the efforts we make to assure our children grow up with decent values – and how often parents raise kids that completely reject their values. Or consider how many businesses go under every year, and how many of them were headed up by people with strong qualifications, solid training, and a clear sense that they knew what they were doing. Or, in the financial sector, consider how many stock brokers, financial analysts, and others are caught entirely by surprise by massive shifts in the financial sector, like the recent collapse of the credit system – if there were really a pattern, and people really understood it, they all should have seen it coming.

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    Dealing with uncertainty

    If we’re really bad at understanding risk, and if we’re led astray by a mistaken sense of control, then what should we do? Should we just throw up our hands and accept whatever Fate throws at us? Should we lock ourselves in our homes, wrap ourselves in padding, and huddle in a corner until our lives mercifully end?

    Fatalism and despair are, thankfully, over-reactions to the uncertainty of life. As it happens, there are quite a few things we do control, even in the midst of uncertainty. For instance, while even the best poker players are largely at the mercy of luck as to what cards they hold, good players can control enough of the situation – their facial gestures, how much they bet, when to fold, etc. – to come out of even several lousy hands in a row ahead (at least sometimes).

    While we can’t eliminate uncertainty, there are ways we can act to minimize its effects – at least in some instances. If the Moon spins out of its orbit and collides with the Earth tomorrow, all bets are off. But for more everyday sorts of uncertainly, it pays to:

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    • Be prepared. Good planning leaves enough “slack” to adapt readily to unforeseen circumstances. For example, many people keep a “rainy day fund” to make sure they’re prepared for an illness, loss of a job, accident, or other emergency.
    • Diversify. Balancing high-risk options with low-risk ones can help make sure that a sudden freak occurrence wreck everything. It’s the classic “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” theory – balance your investment portfolio, hedge your bets, pursue multiple medical treatments (where possible), and so on.
    • Get a second opinion. Or a 100th. James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds shows how the cumulative voice of the many can be more accurate than any one individual, even an expert. Whenever undertaking a risky endeavor, make sure to consult as many people as possible – and find a way to split the difference. Get another doctor’s opinion before embarking on a course of treatment, Discuss investment options with more than one financial advisor. Get feedback from a range of employees before instituting a radical new policy or process. By sampling a variety of people, you’ll have an opportunity to “cancel out” conflicting worldviews that, in most cases, have little to do with the reality at hand.
    • Create habits. Uncertainty often leads us astray most when we respond directly to fluctuating and random events. For instance, maybe you go to Vegas with a $300 budget to spend on slot machines, but when you see a particular jackpot is up to $12 million you throw caution to the winds and drop $800 into the machine. Creating habits that you stick to religiously can help minimize the desire to act based on emotional factors that have little to do with the actual level of certainty or uncertainty involved.
    • Recognize risk. There is a far higher injury rate for softball players than for base jumpers. Why? Because softball is seen as a safe sport and so players take few precautions, while base jumpers train heavily, invest in solid equipment, and approach the risk inherent in their sport seriously. When you recognize risk and respect it, you act smarter – which helps you to stay more in control when that’s possible, and to minimize harm when control isn’t possible.

    Life itself is inherently uncertain – and that’s a good part of its beauty. That uncertainty shouldn’t paralyze us, it should energize us – it should make us doubly aware of our surroundings and doubly appreciative of our successes. By ignoring risk – or pretending it doesn’t exist – we make ourselves stupider, which ironically leads us to act in riskier ways. By respecting and even embracing uncertainty, we can often come out even further ahead than if we tried – usually in vain – to control inherently uncontrollable situations.

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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