A lot of successful people use signals to nudge them toward one action, thought, or idea compared to another. This idea has come up so often that it needed it’s own post.


Why do we need signals?

We need signals because we can only process so much information. Our attention is finite, our short-term memory limited (4-7 spots), and our resources constrainted.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman offered the first explanation I really understood.

“You make many small decisions as you drive your car, absorb some information as you read the newspaper, and conduct routine exchanges of pleasantries with as spouse or a colleague, all with little effort and no strain. Just like an easy stroll.”

Kahneman, like good authors, is setting us up. (A quick digression, both Penn Jillette and B.J. Novak said that an unnoticed setup is the key part to their craft)

Back to Kahneman, we understand this. A lot of what we do we don’t have to pay attention to, mostly because we are already filtering it out. It’s why Scott Adams leverages reticular activation.)

But when we get to hard problems things change. Back to Kahneman:

“It is normally easy and actually quite pleasant to walk and think at the same time, but at the extremes these activities appear to compete for the limited resources of System 2. You can confirm this claim by a simple experiment. While walking comfortably with a friend, ask him to compute 23 x 78 in his head and to do so immediately. He will almost certainly stop in his tracks.”

Aha! We have something.

Not only to we have limited bandwidth, but even a task as automatic as walking gets interrupted when we need to draw more. Fascinating.

Okay, let’s get past the academic cuteness.

Why does this matter to you and me?

The most successful people succeed because they quickly get rid of what’s not important. They focus their bandwidth on the most important task at hand.

Casey Neistat asks, “is this good for me and my technology company (Beme), and if the answer is no it gets a pass.” Neistat’s signal is the question, “does this help Beme?”

Richard Feynman got so tired of choosing a dessert, that he resolved to always order chocolate ice cream. That was his dessert filter.

Barry Ritholtz said that he looks at the prices of classic cars as a signal for bull and bear markets, or if people say “ugh” to his trading ideas.

Ramit Sethi and Taylor Pearson both construct interview questions that need answered in an exact way.

Stephen Dubner called this, “teaching your garden to weed itself,” and wrote an entire book chapter about it.

Some banks figured out how to filter out dangerous marijuana growers.

The most famous of the signals might come from Van Halen.

The story goes, that when Van Halen was touring they had the latest and greatest light and sound rigs. There was just one problem. Each venue had a different person set them up. The guy who set things up in New York wasn’t the same guy that did it in Charlotte. So, according to David Lee Roth, Van Halen introduced a wrinkle to their rider.

They said that among the other rock star accoutrements, they wanted a bowl of M&M candy with the brown ones removed. Some people looked at this as divas being divas. Au contraire mon ami. Roth said they did this to see how closely a promoter read the rider. If someone removed the brown M&M candy, they probably set up the equipment correctly.

Okay, I’m a believer. How do I do this?

First, shift your self perspective.  Scott Adams calls this the “moist robot theory.”

Some of you will liken the idea of reprogramming your brain to self-hypnosis, and that might feel creepy or unlikely to work. A better approach, as I mentioned, is to think of your body as a moist, programmable robot whose outputs depend on its inputs, not magic. Imagine you’re an engineer who is trying to find the user interface for your moist robot body so you can make some useful adjustments. It’s as if you had one menu choice labeled “Make Sleepy” and another labeled “Energize.” You can choose “Make Sleepy” simply by eating simple carbs.

Ah, so I can think of signals as a very basic programming language to use on myself.

If dessert does not include fruit, then do not eat.

If spouse yells, then do not yell back.

If this takes time, money, resources, beyond X, then do not engage.

The best way to start is just to start and know that it won’t be perfect. Barry Ritholtz admits he missed some investment opportunities. Ramit Sethi says that he didn’t hire some great people.

It won’t be perfect. Good signals are a trade off:

Good results + more time > Perfect results + less time.


Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

6 thoughts on “Signals”

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