TIME psychology

How to Find Happiness in Today’s Hectic World

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Trying to find happiness in a world so busy and complicated can seem impossible.

What’s weird is that in so many ways our lives are objectively better than our grandparents’ lives were. We have more… yet we often feel worse. Don’t you wonder if life was happier when it was simpler? I do.

Who has the explanation for this? And more importantly, who has answers on how to fix it? I don’t. But I know someone who does.

So I gave Barry Schwartz a call. He’s a professor at Swarthmore College and the author of the bestseller, The Paradox of Choice.

Barry’s work explains why more choice can actually make us miserable and what we can do to simplify our lives and become happier. His fantastic TED talk on the subject has been viewed over 7 million times.

Here’s what you’ll learn in the post below:

  • Why a world of so many choices can make us unhappy.
  • Why always wanting the best can be a path to clinical depression.
  • How gratitude and relationships can be the key to fixing these dilemmas.
  • The one sentence you need to remember to start on a path to a simpler, happier life.

Less really is more. Here’s why.

The Paradox of Choice

Economics tells us that more choice is better. And for most of human existence that has been true.

But research is showing that more choice is not always better. Overflowing email inboxes, 500 television channels and 175 different kinds of salad dressing at the grocery store don’t make life drastically better — it’s paralyzing. Here’s Barry:

The standard way of thinking about this is that more choice will help some people and hurt no one. But it turns out that when people have too many options, instead of being liberated by all these choices, they’re paralyzed. They can’t choose at all. And if they overcome paralysis, they make worse decisions.

What happens when your employer gives you more choices for your 401K? I’ll tell you what: for every 10 options given the likelihood that you pick any of them goes down by 2%.

And if your employer matches your contribution, not picking can mean giving up as much as $5000. More choices can make people poorer. Here’s Barry:

How does the number of 401K choices people have influence the likelihood that they’ll participate? What Sheena Iyengar found is that the more options people had, the less likely they were to choose any. Employers were thinking they were doing their employees a favor by throwing options at them. In fact, what they were doing is decreasing the chances that they would choose at all. Often, by not choosing one, people were passing up significant matching money from the employer. It’s like taking a match and lighting it to a $5,000 bill but that’s what people were doing.

More options in the dating market should mean you’re more likely to meet the perfect person, right? Wrong.

In a study of speed dating people were more likely to find a match when they had only 6 choices instead of 12. Here’s Barry:

It would seem like you’d make more matches when you saw 12 people than when you saw 6 but what they found is the reverse. There were more matches made when people saw 6 people than when they saw 12 people.

New York has more single people than any city but research shows this makes it harder to find a spouse there.

And the scary thing is that choice doesn’t just paralyze us — it also makes us unhappy. Seeing more options makes you more likely to second guess yourself and experience regret. Here’s Barry:

Even if you manage to overcome paralysis and choose well, you end up less satisfied because it’s so easy to imagine that one of the options you rejected would have been better than the option that you chose. That’s what the research has shown. It doesn’t happen all the time. It doesn’t happen with all people but it happens at least some of the time with most people.

(For new Harvard research on how to be happier and more successful, click here.)

Okay, fancy studies on 401k’s and dating are nice but maybe that doesn’t seem relevant to you day to day. The problem goes deeper than that. A lot deeper.

How Choices Are Making Your Life Unhappy

Work-life balance is a huge issue these days. But it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why. Our lives are far more flexible. Shouldn’t that promote happiness?

But years ago, when you left work, you were done. Now with technology, we can work anywhere at any time. Every minute you spend with friends or playing with your kids is a minute you could be working.

So you need to decide. That decision didn’t exist in the past. But having it in the back of your head all the time is enormously stressful. Here’s Barry:

These days, when you come home, your work comes with you. In fact, no matter where you go, your work comes with you. You’re at a ballgame, your work is in your pocket, right? What that means is not necessarily you want to work all the time but you have to make a decision not to work. There’s no constraint. “Should I play with my kid or should I answer these emails?” That was not an issue 30 years ago. You’re home; of course you play with your kid. No decision. Now, there’s a decision to be made.

Do you feel like you’re procrastinating more? You probably are. It’s not because we’ve all gotten lazier. More decisions at every turn makes it harder to choose. And so we put things off because it’s just too much.

The proliferation of choices is even giving you an identity crisis. In the modern era we have more freedom to be who we want to be. And in many ways that’s great. But it also means more decisions.

When there weren’t many choices, what you picked didn’t say much about you. But now everything, including the clothes you wear, can and does say something about you. So it has stakes attached. And that’s stressful too. Here’s Barry:

If all there is is Levi’s, then what jeans you wear doesn’t tell the world about who you are. But suppose there are a thousand different kinds of jeans… now what you wear is a statement about who you are because there’s so much more opportunity for you to shape your image to the world. The result of this, I believe, is that it makes even relatively trivial consumer decisions more high stakes because when you buy jeans, you’re not just covering your body, you are also making a statement to the world about who you are.

And all these high stakes decisions at every turn are making us unhappy. Yes, we’re richer. Yes, we have more options. And depression is exploding in the developed world.

Via The Paradox of Choice:

…the rate of serious clinical depression has more than tripled over the last two generations, and increased by perhaps a factor of ten from 1900 to 2000.

(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

What underlies all this? We love choices but they can make us miserable. If we understand the psychology better can we address the problem? Yes.

“It’s All Your Fault.”

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry discusses a number of reasons why so many choices can hurt well-being but let’s focus on one here:

“It’s all your fault.”

When the world doesn’t give you much choice and things don’t work out the way you want, it’s the world’s fault. What else could you have done?

But when you have 100 options and you don’t choose well the burden shifts because you could have picked better. If you’re unhappy with your choice now it’syour fault. And whether you’re cognizant of it or not, that can make you sad. Here’s Barry:

It’s very hard to blame the world when you make decisions in an environment in which there are essentially unlimited options. It’s easier to blame the world when you make bad choices in a world where there are limited options. Blaming yourself for bad results is one of the hallmarks of clinical depression. If your life sucks, you’re sad. If your life sucks and it’s your fault, you’re clinically depressed. The environment we operate in just makes it impossible for people not to blame themselves for anything that doesn’t work out as well as they hoped it would.

Who suffers the most in a world of so much choice? Ironically, it’s the people who strive to get the best.

“Satisficers” (those who settle for “good enough”) are happier. “Maximizers” (people who explore every option to make the best decision) end up doing better — but feeling worse.

Students who were maximizers in trying to get the best job after graduation ended up better off — they got salaries that were 20% higher. But they ended up more unhappy with their jobs than satisficers did. Here’s Barry:

We found that people who are satisficers are generally more optimistic, happier, and less regretful than people who are maximizers. We did a study of college seniors looking for jobs and found that maximizers got better jobs but felt worse about the jobs they got than satisficers did. People who score as maximizers score as borderline clinically depressed.

We’re constantly told to never settle. But in a world of limitless choice, that presents a nearly insurmountable hurdle to being happy.

(For more on how Navy SEALs, astronauts and samurai make great decisions under pressure, click here.)

So more choices can make us miserable. But is there anything we can do about it? Yes, there is.

3 Things That Will Make You Happier

Barry offers a number of solutions in his book. Here are three to get you started:

1) Keep an “attitude of gratitude”

There’s tons of research on the power of gratitude to make us happier.

We have a natural tendency to see the negative. But by making an effort to note the good things that happen in life we can fight the regret that so many choices often creates. Here’s Barry:

We tend to focus much more on the aspects of decisions that disappoint us than on the aspects of decisions that satisfy us. The idea behind the attitude of gratitude is, and there’s a little empirical evidence to support this, that you can actually cultivate an attitude toward your decisions and your experiences that counteracts this negativity bias. You can get into the habit of identifying what’s good in the mundane everyday experiences that you have. I think it’s like a muscle that you need to build up with exercise. You practice by forcing yourself to focus on the positive aspects of your experiences and over time, this becomes more and more automatic, the muscle gets stronger and the negativity bias is overcome.

(The best way to build that attitude of gratitude is here.)

2) Be a satisficer — with maximizer friends

In some areas, being a “maximizer” and not settling for less can certainly be valuable. But most decisions are in trivial areas, and the downside of choosing wrong isn’t worth feeling overwhelmed and making yourself unhappy.

So be a “satisficer” and choose the “pretty good” option quickly. I can already hear some people complaining: “But then I’ll miss out! I won’t get the best.” But there’s a way to have both.

Be a satisficer and rely on your maximizer friends to choose for you. Here’s Barry:

Whenever you need a new laptop, call up one of your maximizer friends and say, “What laptop did you buy?” And you buy that laptop. Is it going to be the perfect laptop for you? Probably not. Is it going to be a good enough laptop for you? Absolutely. It takes you five minutes to make a decision instead of five weeks and it’s a “good enough” decision. You need a place to eat in a city that you’re visiting, so call another friend who’s been to that city. Just go to the restaurant he tells you to go to. I don’t think you can delegate all of the decisions in life in this way but you can certainly delegate a hell of a lot of them. What’s best for your friend won’t be best for you but chances are it will be good enough for you. I think this is a great way to reduce the clutter and the paralysis that afflicts people. Just ask for advice and follow it.

3) Be a chooser, not a picker

Picking from 100 options is a nightmare. So don’t look at all the options. First, ask what’s important to you. Then choose the first one you see that has all those elements. Here’s Barry:

A better thing to do is just sit down and ask yourself what do I care about in a car and then, having articulated that, you go and buy the first car you see that satisfies your standards with respect to the things you care about.

You need constraints. Limitations. We think we always want freedom but that’s just not true.

What does the research say makes us happier than anything else? Strong relationships.

But relationships constrain us. You don’t move to another city because your spouse doesn’t want to go there. You don’t take that fancy job because the hours would mean you wouldn’t have time to see your friends or your kids.

Barry says what we often fail to realize is that those constraints are welcome. They make decisions easier. They make life simpler. They make it “not your fault.” And so they make us happier.

(To learn a shortcut to bonding with a romantic partner on a deeper level, click here.)

We need to satisfice more and maximize less. So what’s one sentence you can keep in mind to simplify your life and remind you of how to find happiness in a world of overwhelming choice?

The Most Important Thing To Remember

“Good enough is almost always good enough.”

Here’s Barry:

The single most important piece of advice I can give is: Remember that good enough is almost always good enough. If people go through life looking for good enough results, the choice problem will take care of itself. Go through your day getting a good enough cup of coffee and a good enough toasted bagel and so on and so on and life will look much sunnier.

You’ll be happier if you stop trying to make all your choices perfect and you just focus on what’s really important.

That’s good enough.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 161,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

The 8 Things The Happiest People Do Every Day

How To Stop Being Lazy And Get More Done – 5 Expert Tips

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

Forget the ‘To-Do’ List, You Need a ‘Stop Doing’ List

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Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

Think about how you're spending your time today, when you can still do something about it to change your ways

It’s interesting to think about the things you want to accomplish in life and work towards those goals.

This is, after all, what we’ve been taught to do since birth. But over time we accumulate other habits and end up spending our time on things that aren’t important to us.

Jim Collins, author of the cult business classics Good to Great and Great by Choice, suggests an interesting thought experiment (reminiscent of Alan Watts) to help clean the windshield so-to-speak.

Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?

What would you stop doing?

In his book How To Avoid Work, William J. Reilly offers the three most common reasons we give for not doing what we want.

Whenever a person is not doing what he says he wants to do, he always has what sounds like a good excuse. And it’s always one or more of three:

  1. ‘I haven’t the time.’
  2. ‘I haven’t the money.’
  3. ‘My folks don’t want me to.’

Each of these, Reilly argues, “melts away as an imaginary obstacle when we shine the light of intelligence upon it.” Time is the key. “Without time nothing is possible.”

Everything requires Time. Time is the only permanent and absolute ruler in the universe. But she is a scrupulously fair ruler. She treats every living person exactly alike every day. No matter how much of the world’s goods you have managed to accumulate, you cannot successfully plead for a single moment more than the pauper receives without ever asking for it. Time is the one great leveler. Everyone has the same amount to spend every day.

The next time you feel that you ‘haven’t the time’ to do what you really want to do, it may be worth-while for you to remember that you have as much time as anyone else — twenty-four hours a day. How you spend that twenty-four hours is really up to you.

We invest time consciously and unconsciously. If you believe the advice of the wisest Americans many of us think about how our time is spent at the end of our lives, only to find regret about how our precious resource was squandered on the meaningless.

Collins’ thought experiment is an attempt to help us think about how we’re spending our time today, when we can still do something about it to change our ways. We don’t want to wake up when we’re 80, for instance, and realize that we unconsciously allocated all of our thought and effort.

But the value of this experiment applies not only to people but to organizations. The velocity and complexity of problems is increasing. In part, to ward off this pressure and delegate decisions to lower levels, organizations respond with a perpetually increasing internal information velocity. New policies and procedures are easily added while legacy ones are slowly removed. Culturally we value decisions to add things more than we value decisions to remove things.

Echoing the words of Steve Jobs on focus, Collins writes:

(This) lesson came back to me a number of years later while puzzling over the research data on 11 companies that turned themselves from mediocrity to excellence, from good to great. In cataloguing the key steps that ignited the transformations, my research team and I were struck by how many of the big decisions were not what to do, but what to stop doing.

A lot of people wait until the start of the New Year to pause and reflect but there is no better time than now.

Collins also suggests that you ask yourself these three questions as “a personal guidance mechanism.” The answers can be used to course-correct.

  1. What are you deeply passionate about?
  2. What are you are genetically encoded for — what activities do you feel just “made to do”?
  3. What makes economic sense — what can you make a living at?

Think of the three circles as a personal guidance mechanism. As you navigate the twists and turns of a chaotic world, it acts like a compass. Am I on target? Do I need to adjust left, up, down, right? If you make an inventory of your activities today, what percentage of your time falls outside the three circles?

If it is more than 50%, then the stop doing list might be your most important tool. The question is: Will you accept good as good enough, or do you have the courage to sell the mills?

Question 3 is the most complicated, perhaps because in the ‘find your passion’ movement doing what you love will not necessarily lead to a living. Cal Newport argues the counter-point: following your passion is horrible advice.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

Here’s What Your Voice Tells Others About You

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

People judge you by your voice in many ways.

Via Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

The result: speakers with higher-pitched voices were judged to be less truthful, less emphatic, less potent, and more nervous than speakers with lower-pitched voices. Also, slower-talking speakers were judged to be less truthful, less persuasive, and more passive than people who spoke more quickly. “Fast-talking” may be a cliché description of a sleazy salesman, but chances are, a little speedup will make you sound smarter and more convincing. And if two speakers utter exactly the same words but one speaks a little faster and louder and with fewer pauses and greater variation in volume, that speaker will be judged to be more energetic, knowledgeable, and intelligent. Expressive speech, with modulation in pitch and volume and with a minimum of noticeable pauses, boosts credibility and enhances the impression of intelligence.

When you hear a woman’s voice talking about relationships you trust it more than a man’s voice, even if the content is the same. You like a forceful male voice more than a forceful female voice, again, even when the content is the same.

Via Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

Those who had female-voiced tutors for the love-and-relationships material rated their teachers as having more sophisticated knowledge of the subject than did those who had male-voiced tutors, even though the two computers had given identical lessons… students who heard a forceful male-voiced computer tutor rated it as being significantly more likable than those who heard a forceful female-voiced tutor, even though, again, both the male and the female voices had uttered the same words.

Women find men with deep voices sexier.

Via Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

…women miraculously tend to agree: men with deeper voices are rated as more attractive. Asked to guess the physical characteristics of the men whose voices they hear in such experiments, women tend to associate low voices with men who are tall, muscular, and hairy-chested— traits commonly considered sexy.

And men with deeper voices have more kids.

Via Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

The researchers found that while the pitch of women’s was not a predictor of their reproductive success, men with lower-pitched voices on average fathered more children.

Men subconsciously know the connection between voice and dominance. When they feel powerful in a group they deepen their voice and when they feel weak they raise it, unknowingly.

Via Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

And the researchers found that when the participants believed they were physically dominant— that is, more powerful and aggressive— they lowered the pitch of their voices, and when they believed they were less dominant, they raised the pitch, all apparently without realizing what they were doing.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 161,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

The 8 Things The Happiest People Do Every Day

How To Stop Being Lazy And Get More Done – 5 Expert Tips

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

Here Are the 3 Steps for Getting People to Pay Attention to You

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

In her excellent book 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, Susan Weinschenk lays out a research backed 3 step process that really impressed me:

1) Start with what you know they believe.

If you start your presentation with the opposite of what they believe, they may turn you off right away. For example, if you start a presentation to me by saying how amazing Android phones are or that Android phones are superior to iPhones, then you’ve likely lost me already. But if you start with an idea I agree with or know about— for example, how amazing iPhones are— then you have a chance of getting through to me.

2) Surprise people.

One way to get past people’s filtering is to present them with information or an experience that they did not expect. For instance, I recently heard that over 50 percent of smartphone sales are Androids and only 33 percent are iPhones. That surprised me and made me stop and think, “Perhaps I should find out more about Android phones.”

3) Set up a situation of cognitive dissonance.

In 1956, Leon Festinger wrote a book called When Prophecy Fails. In it, he describes the idea of cognitive dissonance, which is the uncomfortable feeling a person gets when they are presented with two ideas that they believe might both be true. For example, if I believe that I am a person who cares about others but I don’t give money to charitable causes, then I now have cognitive dissonance. The two ideas conflict with each other, and the cognitive dissonance will make me feel uncomfortable. I can either deny one of the ideas (for example, I can deny that I’m a caring person or deny that I didn’t give any money to charity this year) or change my behavior to get rid of the dissonance (for example, I might now be interested giving a donation to the charity I hear a presentation on).

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

Adding Tools to Your Mental Toolbox

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Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

It is important look at a problem from a variety of perspectives and increase the odds of coming to a better solution

In The Art of War Sun Tzu said “The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought.”

Those ‘calculations’ are the tools we have available to think better. One of the best questions you can ask is how we can make our mental processes work better.

Charlie Munger says that “developing the habit of mastering the multiple models which underlie reality is the best thing you can do.”

Those models are mental models.

They fall into two categories: (1) ones that help us simulate time (and predict the future) and better understand how the world works (e.g. understanding a useful idea from like autocatalysis), and (2) ones that help us better understand how our mental processes lead us astray (e.g., availability bias).

When our mental models line up with reality they help us avoid problems. However, they also cause problems when they don’t line up with reality as we think something that isn’t true.

In Peter Bevelin’s Seeking Wisdom, he highlights Munger talking about autocatalysis:

If you get a certain kind of process going in chemistry, it speeds up on its own. So you get this marvellous boost in what you’re trying to do that runs on and on. Now, the laws of physics are such that it doesn’t run on forever. But it runs on for a goodly while. So you get a huge boost. You accomplish A – and, all of a sudden, you’re getting A + B + C for awhile.

He continues telling us how this idea can be applied:

Disney is an amazing example of autocatalysis … They had those movies in the can. They owned the copyright. And just as Coke could prosper when refrigeration came, when the videocassette was invented, Disney didn’t have to invent anything or do anything except take the thing out of the can and stick it on the cassette.


This leads us to an interesting problem. The world is always changing so which models should we prioritize learning?

How we prioritize our learning has implications beyond the day-to-day. Often we focus on things that change quickly. We chase the latest study, the latest findings, the most recent best-sellers. We do this to keep up-to-date with the latest-and-greatest.

Despite our intentions, learning in this way fails to account for cumulative knowledge. Instead we consume all of our time keeping up to date.

If we are prioritize learning, we should focus on things that change slowly.

The models that come from hard science and engineering are the most reliable models on this Earth. And engineering quality control – at least the guts of it that matters to you and me and people who are not professional engineers – is very much based on the elementary mathematics of Fermat and Pascal: It costs so much and you get so much less likelihood of it breaking if you spend this much…

And, of course, the engineering idea of a backup system is a very powerful idea. The engineering idea of breakpoints – that’s a very powerful model, too. The notion of a critical mass – that comes out of physics – is a very powerful model.

After we learn a model we have to make it useful. We have to integrate it into our existing knowledge.

Our world is mutli-dimensional and our problems are complicated. Most problems cannot be solved using one model alone. The more models we have the better able we are to rationally solve problems.

But if we don’t have the models we become the proverbial man with a hammer. To the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. If you only have one model you will fit whatever problem you face to the model you have. If you have more than one model, however, you can look at the problem from a variety of perspectives and increase the odds you come to a better solution.

“Since no single discipline has all the answers,” Peter Bevelin writes in Seeking Wisdom, “we need to understand and use the big ideas from all the important disciplines: Mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, psychology, and rank and use them in order of reliability.”

Charles Munger illustrates the importance of this:

Suppose you want to be good at declarer play in contract bridge. Well, you know the contract – you know what you have to achieve. And you can count up the sure winners you have by laying down your high cards and your invincible trumps.

But if you’re a trick or two short, how are you going to get the other needed tricks? Well, there are only six or so different, standard methods: You’ve got long-suit establishment. You’ve got finesses. You’ve got throw-in plays. You’ve got cross-ruffs. You’ve got squeezes. And you’ve got various ways of misleading the defense into making errors. So it’s a very limited number of models. But if you only know one or two of those models, then you’re going to be a horse’s patoot in declarer play…

If you don’t have the full repertoire, I guarantee you that you’ll overutilize the limited repertoire you have – including use of models that are inappropriate just because they’re available to you in the limited stock you have in mind.

As for how we can use different ideas, Munger again shows the way …

Have a full kit of tools … go through them in your mind checklist-style.. .you can never make any explanation that can be made in a more fundamental way in any other way than the most fundamental way. And you always take with full attribution to the most fundamental ideas that you are required to use. When you’re using physics, you say you’re using physics. When you’re using biology, you say you’re using biology.

But ideas alone are not enough. We need to understand how they interact and combine. This leads to lollapalooza effects.

You get lollapalooza effects when two, three or four forces are all operating in the same direction. And, frequently, you don’t get simple addition. It’s often like a critical mass in physics where you get a nuclear explosion if you get to a certain point of mass – and you don’t get anything much worth seeing if you don’t reach the mass.

Sometimes the forces just add like ordinary quantities and sometimes they combine on a break-point or critical-mass basis … More commonly, the forces coming out of … models are conflicting to some extent. And you get huge, miserable trade-offs … So you [must] have the models and you [must] see the relatedness and the effects from the relatedness.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

Join over 50,000 readers and get a free weekly update via email here.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

5 Simple Notions That Help Solve Problems

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Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

Every problem can be broken down into smaller and easier pieces

Here are five simple notions, found in Damn Right!: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger, that Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett, finds helpful in solving problems.

1. Simplify

My first helpful notion is that it is usually best to simplify problems by deciding big “no-brainer” questions first.

2. Numerical Fluency

The second helpful notion mimics Galileo’s conclusion that scientific reality is often revealed only by math, as if math was the language of God. Galileo’s attitude also works well in messy practical life. Without numerical fluency, in the part of life most of us inhabit, you are like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

3. Invert

Inverting the problem won’t always solve it, but it will help you avoid trouble. Call it the avoiding stupidity filter.

The third helpful notion is that it is not enough to think problems through forward. You must also think in reverse, much like the rustic who wanted to know where he was going to die so that he’d never go there. Indeed, many problems can’t be solved forward. And that is why the great algebraist, Carl Jacobi, so often said: “invert, always invert.” And why Pythagoras thought in reverse to prove that the square root of two was an irrational number.

4. Study The Basics

The basics are something that keeps coming up. The first of the five elements of effective thinking is understand deeply.

Munger also believes in the basics:

The fourth helpful notion is that the best and most practical wisdom is elementary academic wisdom. But there is one extremely important qualification: you must think in a multidisciplinary manner. You must routinely use all the easy-to-learn concepts from the freshman course in every basic subject. Where elementary ideas will serve, your problem solving must not be limited, as academia and many business bureaucracies are limited, by extreme balkanization into disciplines and subdisciplines, with strong taboos against any venture outside assigned territory. …

If, in your thinking, you rely on others, often through purchase of professional advice, whenever outside a small territory of your own, you will suffer much calamity.

This happens in part because professional advisors are often undone, not by their conscious malfeasance rather by troubles found in their subconscious bias.

His cognition will often be impaired, for your purposes, by financial incentives different from yours. And he will also suffer from the psychological defect caught by the proverb: to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

5. Lollapalooza Effects

And you need to combine really big things.

The fifth helpful notion is that really big effects, lollapalooza effects, will often come only from large combinations of factors. For instance, tuberculosis was tamed, at least for a long time, only by routine combined use in each case of three different drugs. And other lollapalooza effects, like the flight of an airplane, follow a similar pattern.

Still Curious?

See how Munger applies these in this essay. Learn more about the wit and wisdom of Charlie Munger by picking up a copy of Poor Charlie’s Almanackand Damn Right!: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Charlie Munger.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

Do You Like Romantic Movies More When It’s Cold Outside?

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Are romance movies more desirable when people are cold? Building on research on (bodily) feeling-as-information and embodied cognition, we hypothesize that physical coldness activates a need for psychological warmth, which in turn leads to an increased liking for romance movies. Four laboratory experiments and an analysis of online movie rental data provide support for our hypothesis. Specifically, studies 1A and 1B show that physical coldness increases the liking of and willingness to pay for romance movies. Study 2 shows that the effect of physical coldness on liking of romance movies only occurs for people who associate romance movies with psychological warmth. Study 3 shows that people correct for the influence of physical coldness on their liking of romance movies when physical coldness is made salient. In study 4, using data on online movie rentals and historical temperature, we found a negative relationship between weather temperature and preference for romance movies.

Source: “Warm It Up With Love: The Effect of Physical Coldness on Liking of Romance Movies” from Journal of Consumer Research

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

7 Secrets Top Athletes Can Teach You About Being the Best at Anything

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

We’d all like to be better at what is most important to us.

Top athletes know the secrets to constant improvement but most of us don’t hang out with gold medalists or top coaches and we’re not familiar with the sports research. So I called a guy who is.

David Epstein is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

It’s an excellent read whether you’re a sports fan or not and covers a lot of the science on how we can get better at anything. In this post you’ll learn:

  • The one word that top students and top athletes both use to get better.
  • The thing babies can teach us about learning.
  • How being difficult to deal with can boost your learning ability.
  • The quality all prodigies have in common.
  • The question that accelerates learning.
  • How to leverage your unique abilities to be your best.

And a lot more. Let’s get to it.

Don’t Let Anyone Say You Don’t Have Talent

You get told you don’t have natural talent at something. Or you’re not smart enough. Not fast enough. So you get discouraged and quit.

But new research is showing some abilities don’t make themselves visible until challenges get hard enough. Here’s David:

Once things get hard enough, people start to be differentiated and see some skills that they probably didn’t even know they had. Those skills were only activated once they got into the right spot and the challenges got difficult.

There’s a new factor in sports research called “trainability.” Some people may not have natural talent but they may be highly trainable.

They start out below average but improve far faster. When we measure these people on day one they get told they “don’t have it.” But after a few weeks or months they’re blowing away the so-called naturals. The lesson? Hang in there.

(For more on what the most successful people do that makes them great, click here.)

So talent’s not as big an issue as you may have thought. But where should you focus your energy?

What Do You “Rage To Master”?

What do prodigies have in common? Ellen Winner at Boston College calls it the “rage to master.” It’s an insatiable desire to get better at something specific. Here’s David:

I love some of the work done by Ellen Winner at Boston College on prodigies. She coined this term “rage to master.” It’s the obsessive desire to improve at something.

We think of prodigies as little miracle kids. And yeah, when you look at tests of working memory they score off the charts. But that’s the only metric they all have in common. So they don’t have completely alien super-brains.

A huge part of why they’re so good is they found the thing they had natural talent for and relentlessly applied themselves. And that’s something we can all do. Here’s David:

Real prodigies basically all score in the 99.9th percentile of working memory but after that they score really, really differently. It suggests that while they have some horsepower, they also have individualized unique strengths that have made them good for what they do. They aren’t just interchangeable. They gravitated toward unique strengths that they have.

(To learn how you can go from dreaming to doing, click here.)

So you know what you’re passionate about and you’re working hard. What’s the best way to get started? You’ll be surprised…

Don’t Follow Instructions. Learn Like A Baby.

When did you learn the most and learn the fastest? There’s no debate: it’s when you were a baby. You didn’t get clear instructions from anybody on anything and yet you learned some of the most complex things in the world, like walking and talking.

This process (“implicit learning”) isn’t just for babies. We’re often too focused on executing very specific steps and so we don’t take the time to fumble around and make mistakes like when we were kids.

As adults we think we don’t have time for it but it’s one of the reasons we don’t learn as well as when we were little. Here’s David:

Allowing implicit learning early in whatever we’re learning, whether it’s chess, whether it’s looking at market patterns, whatever it is, is very important. You don’t want too much explicit coaching early on. You want to learn like a baby. Babies are immersed and they’re given immediate feedback and they have to strive and try. Only later do you formally teach them things like grammar.

And it’s not just speculation. Research with young surgeons is showing the power of learning like a baby. Here’s David:

On the first try those given explicit instructions were better, but very very quickly the ones who started with more implicit-style learning surpassed them in surgical speed and accuracy.

(To learn about grit and resilience from a Navy SEAL, click here.)

What’s the main question you should be asking yourself when trying to improve?

Ask “What’s Most Important Here?”

In The Sports Gene, David tells the story of what happened when top baseball batters went up against a female softball pitcher.

She struck every single one of them out. How did she do it?

Because the old advice of “keep your eye on the ball” is dead wrong. In fact, it’s impossible — a baseball moves too fast. It’s not about reaction time. It’s about the subtle cues a batter sees in a pitcher’s body before they throw the ball.

But baseball batters aren’t used to how softball pitchers move. They get all the cues wrong and strike out.

If you don’t know what the important part of what you’re trying to learn is then you’re like a batter trying to keep their eye on the ball. You’re focused on improving the wrong thing. Here’s David:

The hallmark of expertise is figuring out what information is important. And in many cases, these are things that are implicitly learned that the performer themselves would not be able to tell you. They will tell you something that causes their success and in many cases they’ll be wrong. We’ve had to do some pretty complicated studies to figure out what it is they actually do.

(To learn how to find the best mentor for you, click here.)

If you’re smart, you’re getting help with whatever you’re trying to get better at. What’s the best way to deal with your teacher? It’s probably not what you’d expect…

Be A Pain In The Behind

The Groningen talent studies have been following kids in the classroom and in a variety of sports for 15 years now. What do the ones who go on to get the best grades or become pro athletes have in common?

They didn’t merely do what they were told. They questioned coaches and teachers. They pushed back. They asked if this was the right activity for them to be doing. Here’s David:

The kids that outdid their peers in the classroom and the kids that went on to become pros in a variety of sports had behavioral traits in common. The kids who went to the top in soccer, for example, they displayed what the scientists called “self-regulatory behavior.” It’s a 12-year-old who’s going up to their trainer and saying, “I think this drill is a little too easy. What is this working on again? Why are we doing this? I think I’m having a problem with this other thing. Can I work on that instead?”

(To learn how to make your kids smarter, click here.)

So you’re asking questions. You’re engaged. Now how do you apply that to the skill you’re working on?

Find Your “Optimal Push”

The kids who questioned their teachers got to know themselves better. So they were better judges of what they could and couldn’t do.

This allowed them to best practice at a level where they were always stretching themselves but not so much that the task was impossible. This is called “optimal push.”

Knowing your “optimal push” means you don’t plateau — you just keep getting better. And when you screw up you’ll learn more from your mistakes. Here’s David:

“Optimal push” is something that’s a little harder than what you’ve ever done but not so hard it’s out of your reach. When the other kids plateau, these kids don’t. And that’s on the playing field and in the classroom. The kids who had these self-regulatory skills get more out of their mistakes than their peers do. Their failures are not wasted opportunities; they draw something from them.

(To learn how to apply “the craftman’s mindset” to your work, click here.)

Let’s say you’re doing everything mentioned thus far. Awesome. If you had to sum up the most important thing to focus on in just one word, what would it be?

The #1 Thing Is Reflection

David asked the head of the Groningen talent studies if she could sum up in one word the thing that all the top kids (in school or any sport) all had in common.

She said “Reflection.” They think about what they did and ask themselves if it’s working. Here’s David:

When they do something, whether it’s good or bad, they take time for reflection. They asked themselves “Was it difficult enough? Was it too easy? Did it make me better? Did it not?” It sounds simple and sounds facile, but I think we don’t do it. We naturally gravitate toward increasing comfort in everything we do in our jobs. We become more efficient and we fall prey to that efficiency. That’s a disaster. When all your efforts are things that you can do easily and without thinking about them, you’re not going to improve.

(To learn how the lessons of ancient thinkers can improve your modern life, click here.)

Let’s pull everything together and bust one more big myth about being the best at anything.

Enough Reading. Time For Doing.

Here’s what you can learn about learning from David:

  1. Don’t Let Anyone Say You Don’t Have Talent
  2. What Do You “Rage To Master”?
  3. Don’t Follow Instructions. Fumble Around.
  4. Ask “What’s Most Important Here?”
  5. Be A Pain In The Behind
  6. Find Your “Optimal Push”
  7. The #1 Thing Is Reflection

Some of you might think the above doesn’t really apply to you. It’s too late to start something. Or you’re too old to learn.

Wrong. The latest research says you’re never too old to learn. You can teach an old dog new tricks. Here’s David:

I think what the science is saying at this point is that a lot of the limitations that were placed on older learners and older athletes didn’t have any empirical backing. As we get older we trade a more flexible brain for one that is more efficient. We see that in sports and we see that in other cognitive skills. Experience and efficiency make up for some of the raw horsepower that we may lose as we age.

It’s never too late to be great.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 161,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 19

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Are rising tensions between nuclear powers and an increased risk of rogue actors getting weapons spurring a new nuclear age?

By Rod Lyons in RealClearDefense

2. Psychological barriers — not science — are holding back progress on treating wastewater, improving crop yields and more.

By Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker

3. Massive computing power and better tools are making it harder to hide submarines. Are they becoming obsolete?

By Harry J. Kazianis in the National Interest

4. It’s too soon to celebrate a win in the Net Neutrality battle.

By Blair Levin in Re/code

5. Mumbling isn’t lazy speech. It’s data compression.

By Julie Sedivy in Nautilus

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


Are You Secretly an Introvert?

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People often speculate about their personality types. But where do you truly fall on the spectrum between introvert and extrovert—and what does that say about how you live your life? We talked to Susan Cain, author of QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and co-founder of Quiet Revolution, to assemble a list of telling questions.

This quiz was adapted from Cain’s New York Times bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

Read next: 10 Tips Every Introvert Should Know

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