Problem Solving


The Complexity Bias

Many of us prefer complicated solutions and explanations over simpler ones. This cognitive error is known as the Complexity Bias.

We don’t listen to simple, basic advice to be productive and healthy, like doing regular exercise or rising early every morning. Our mind gets attracted to complex procedures and ideas like intermittent fasting, keto diet, and other finicky solutions that dazzle us with their twisted ways.



Problem Solving

  1. Move towards action by doing more and researching less. Follow the ‘Just Do It’ mantra.
  2. Choose one system that works with your natural inclination, even if it isn’t the best way.
  3. Occam's Razor states that the explanation which is the simplest and has the least number of assumptions is more likely to be true. Embrace this mental model in your daily decisions.

Too much complexity in our daily decisions and routines could lead to avoidance of work, and though complexity keeps life interesting, we need to embrace it only when we enjoy the process.

Skilled improvisers are necessary

When you deal with a crisis, you need managers and employees that can think on their feet and act fast without first looking for an instruction manual. It means that you need skilled improvisers.

Capable improvisers will steer their companies through crises, paradigm shifts, technological breakthroughs and environmental disasters. But employee training programs seldom focus on becoming better improvisers, and hiring teams don't often screen for improvisation skills.

  1. Imitative improvisation. A person will observe what more-experienced people are doing and copy their responses with minimal variation. This is an effective starting point for people with limited experience.
  2. Reactive improvisation: Using inputs from the environment and other people to develop your own reaction to an unexpected situation, without relying on other's actions. It is generally developed after you have already mastered imitative improvisation.
  3. Generative improvisation. It is about proactively trying new things to anticipate and catalyse what could happen (rather than react).

A key factor in determining how improvisation skills develop is the extent to which an individual was competitively vs collaboratively oriented.

  • Competitive individuals generally develop reactive improvisation faster since they grab every opportunity for themselves. This approach tends to alienate others and impede the longer-term development of generative improvisation skills.
  • Collaborative individuals take longer to develop reactive improvisation because they first watch how others react to new environmental cues. They gain social connectedness and mutual trust to improvise generatively.
  • Build awareness of how different types of improvisation skills are developed. Educate yourself and your team on the kinds of improvisation skills. Newcomers could be paired with more experienced improvisers.
  • Balance collaboration and competition. Managers need to push employees to develop collaborative skills without impeding the competitive instincts of newcomers.
  • Nurture social structures. Managers should create a psychologically safe environment of rich social interactions that engenders trust and collaboration - especially when working remotely.
A popular view of self-control

There is a view that sees self-control as a battle between impulsivity and deliberate foresight. This idea has roots in ideas from ancient Greeks.

The International Society for Research on Impulsivity defines the desire for smaller rewards available now over larger, but later rewards as a type of impulsivity that involves a lack of planning and regard for future consequences. But, this view rests on a false dichotomy between foresight and impulsivity.

People can use their foresight to prioritise the present. Many behaviours that seem like a lack of willpower are not caused by a reluctance to plan ahead. Instead, they come from our capacity for long-term thinking.

For example, our decision-making can be influenced by the motivation to avoid future regrets about missing out. People foresee their own reliable tendency to spend money on boring essentials. Pre-committing to indulgences forces us to have some fun.

People living in poverty tend to favour smaller immediate rewards over a larger delayed payoff.

A possible reason for this is if you live in a highly uncertain environment or where people tend not to keep their promises, a farsighted view will lead you to get what you can now. Even children will use background information when forming expectations about whether their patience will pay off.

Metacognition - the ability to reflect on our thinking - plays a large part in our decision-making processes.

We don't only have emotions or desires that drive us. We also reflect on our emotions, regret our decisions, and try to work around them to pursue our immediate and delayed goals.

The label of 'failure' when people don't opt for delayed gratification is often completely misleading, such as when someone chooses immediate rewards because they don't trust the promise of a delayed reward.

Prescriptive moulds that say how people are supposed to act is unhelpful. Instead, the goal should be to understand the actual reasons for decision-making within the broader context.

Efficacy, effectiveness, efficiency

These terms sound very similar and are often used interchangeably in everyday conversations.

  • Efficacy means getting stuff done. (Related question: Is it working?)
  • Effectiveness means doing the right things. (Is it working well?)
  • Efficiency means doing things right. (Is it working in the most economical way?)

Efficacy is mostly used in a scientific setting. Efficacy is the ability to create an anticipated effect.

For example, a specific medication that improves a patient's symptoms in an ideal environment has demonstrated efficacy.

Efficacy is not always enough. Medication that improves a patient's symptoms under ideal conditions is technically getting things done, but not always the right things.

Effectiveness in clinical trials is about how well a treatment works in the real world, not just in perfectly controlled conditions.

Once you find an effective solution, you can try to improve it, or make it more efficient.

Efficiency is about doing this in the most economical way in terms of time, energy, or money.

A recent theory on forgetting states that everything we learn remains in storage inside our memory, but our ability to recall and retrieve that information fades if we do not practice fetching information.

Spaced Repetition Learning Systems

Spaced Repetition Time Intervals can be practiced using:

  • The Analog spaced Repetition System: Making flashcards or 'boxes' of study material to review daily, weekly or bi-weekly.
  • The Digital Method: Use an App like Anki, or SuperMemo.
A New Way To Study

Studying takes too much time, and there is only a limited number of hours. Spaced repetition method uses time intervals and makes you recall more information, using less time.

The spacing effect maximizes learning and your study becomes more efficient and consumes less time.

If there's a test coming up in the next 7 days, the recommended way to study: 3 to 4 sessions with spaces in between, instead of studying non-stop for 7 days.

This way, you study less, yet retain more for the day of the test.

Pierce J. Howard
“Work involving higher mental functions, such as analysis and synthesis, needs to be spaced out to allow new neural connections to solidify. New learning drives out old learning when insufficient time intervenes.”

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