Just a monkey with a fasting app

The Matrix (1999):
Kung Fu

This came to mind when a friend asked my advice on fasting. I told her what worked for me, what I thought were best practices, and suggested the Zero fasting app.

The app has 330,000+ ratings. It’s in the top 100 Heath and Fitness apps. Which is kind of crazy because, it’s a timer.

Designs matter a lot in our actions. Using the app I make probably 90% of my fasting goals. Days without the app and the number is probably 25%.

One design theory is to consider appropriate information. If fasting is new to someone they need baby steps: an app that shows how much time has elapsed, guides to the ‘right’ fast, and advice, tips, community, etc.

Appropriate information feels like a weird concept until we see it. It’s like, oh, this other way of describing the world exists too Huh. Temperature is one of these areas. What’s the best way to convey information about thermal energy: Celsius, Fahrenheit , or Kelvin? It depends! What’s the gap between the individual and the information? Celsius and Kelvin work great for science and scientists because the information-individual gap has been narrowed by years of education. For the consumer though, Fahrenheit rules the day as the most legible.

Another is how to classify an avalanche. What’s the gap between an individual and the information? The US and Canada, for instance, use different systems. In the States avalanches have five levels according to “the path”: sluff, small, medium, large, major.

“These categories are in relation to path size, so a size or class number is not so meaningful without information on, or familiarity with, the path.” – Avalanche Institute

Locals have a small information-individual gap because they know the area. Compare the American system to the Canadian system, which also has five categories: relatively harmless, could bury or kill a person, could destroy a small building, could destroy a rail car, and largest known. There’s no information-individual gap when the warning is largest known.

It makes sense then that “just a timer” works for so many people. It’s not just a timer. It’s a tool to close the information-individual gap. Oh, I get it now. And even though the gap seems small (Siri set a sixteen hour timer), it’s large enough to matter.


per avalanche-center.org there’s also an international classification system.

the “just a monkey with a…” idea comes from Erik Jorgenson’s Navalmanack curation.

Show the way or in the way

One common mistake in our understanding of “how the world works” is to think that lack of action is due to a lack of information. If people just knew how important X was they would definitely do it.

One form is seen in the social media question: What would you add to the high school curriculum? Answers tend to hover around statistics instead of calculus, personal finance, or decision making.

Those are well intentioned suggestions, and on net, students would be better off if we could download a stats module in place of the first derivative. But information is not action.

Orlando Marriott hand washing sign

Geez. We’ve looked at hand washing (twice!) and there’s probably a well designed study that notes signs like that, in bathrooms such as this, change a proxy for health in some-such-way.

But, there’s a better example. It’s a real life example. It’s been tested on thousands. It’s also in Orlando. Arrange hand sanitizers to be avoided. To hijack Ryan Holiday: the obstacle is the way. But after two days people watching in the theme parks it’s very clear, this works.

And the reason for signs showing the way and not sanitizer stations in the way is incentives.

Back to Twitter. Some schools offer personal finance. From Kris’s nephew.

“I have this assignment for school where I have to invest $1,000 into a company’s stock. And I know you’re a stocks person so I was wondering if you know a good company i should invest in. Because the winner gets a prize of who makes the most money.”

Just give every twelfth grader $200. But there’s no action in that. There’s no standards or benchmarks or assessments about net learning in the second quarter of the school year. So in a way, Kris’s nephew is getting exactly what the system incentivized.

This is the system. In education it’s hard to measure “financial literacy”. In public health it’s hard to measure “healthy place”. In these systems optics are rewarded. Theme parks are in the optics business too, but for them results like: Person Gets Sick at World Famous Theme Park matter more. It’s important to know the rules if we want to play the game.


In finance there’s paper returns and there’s “moolah in the coola”, that’s another analogy. Paper returns are optics. Money in the pocket is an outcome.

Day to day designs

There’s a lot of advantages to designing day-to-day decisions. It’s may seem unglamorous but changes add up. For instance, try to leave your phone out of reach.

But the internet is on there!

The heart of design is to change a situation so that something is more or less easy. The beauty of design is that the change is not always in proportion to the effect. And we need designs because as Byrne Hobart notes, we have a lot of muscle memory.

“There’s a lot of muscle memory typing ctrl-t Reddit dot com. It is really important to resist that stuff because it is a continuous tax on your ability to accomplish things. This is a good reason to buy physical books or magazines. If can force yourself to focus for awhile, you can get non-linear benefits from learning a whole lot about narrow topics and understanding new topics by using analogies from previous ones.” – Byrne Hobart, World of DaaS, August 2021

Here Hobart offers a couple of useful ideas in an interesting way. One is design but he also frames Reddit as a tax. This is clever.

Tax is normally associated with money and with being bad. Tax reframed here keeps the bad part but shifts the focus to time. That works with travel budgets too.

Personal productivity is another one of the Large N small p cases. It may not seem like we are ‘doing a lot’ but small changes add up each day.

Local maxima

When stuck-at-home in 2020 my kids (12, 10 then) and I enrolled in the Marc Rober Creative Engineering course on Monthly. It was mostly above my engineering (and their in-depth interest) level but it was still great. We got to see Rober’s structure for brainstorming, more of the build process, and his thinking along the way. The hours of course video were like a documentary, a ‘Making of’ video.

One thing we saw was how Rober prototypes his builds. In the case of a making a candy launching device Rober made one using springs, one using compressed air, and one using hydraulics. The reason to prototype, Rober said, it to not get stuck at a local maxima.

Rober's sketches

We all have an idea for solving a problem and a lot of times we just do that. However in the situation we get more information. Rober suggests imagining a series of wooded hills. From the ground we don’t know which is highest (the best solution). So we need to hike up our best guess and look around from there. The hike up to, and the view from the top give us information on how best to act.

Rober’s process has come, in-part, from his years at Apple and NASA and making things like squirrel obstacle courses and glitter bombs. He’s a YouTuber with a very small staff, (no groupthink) so how might an organization avoid local maxima?

Rory Sutherland suggests following the bees. What’s great about Rory’s recounting is the structure. Organization direction is based on culture and incentives. Sutherland’s structure is one way to change the incentives.

“I think having two budgets, two sets of metrics, and two sets of incentives for exploit and explore. It would be utterly insane to learn something in a test and fail to exploit it by doing more of it. Make the most of what you know, but always invest twenty percent in what you don’t know yet. Bees do this where roughly twenty percent of bees ignore the waggle dance that tells you where to find nectar. The bees understand that if you don’t have these rogue bees the hive gets trapped at a local maxima and eventually starves to death.”

Part-of-the-question with a local maxima is the cadence of change: is a business more like Netflix or a pool construction company? Rober prototypes. Sutherland et al. ‘test counterintuitive things’. Some bees explore, some exploit. Each found a balance and designed a loose solution so not get stuck at the local maxima.

My 62 Favorite Ideas

Are you familiar with “the travel guide”? Before the internet, maybe still – I don’t know, people bought books that acted as guides for the things they wanted to do. My shelves have/had: Italy, Disney, Disney, Orlando, and the Bahamas.

The guides gave a nice overview. Here’s what to know about the Sistine Chapel. It wasn’t a substitute for going and gawking, but the guides were a map, combining: geographic, informational, cultural, and other bits of information. That’s what I made, an idea map.

It’s like a travel guide. Each entry is short and to the point. Each entry also connects with other entries. A travel guide might say something like: “make sure you visit in the morning and stop at the nearby coffee shop after”. That’s a considerate connection, two attractions that are nearby in space and time (low crowds, tasty treat after standing). My guide does that too. Here’s two examples:

Alpha erosion

Alpha erosion is the idea that advantages erode as the market notices a success. When an organization balances the explore and exploit nature of work, it will land on opportunities to deliver value and earn profits. Competitors will notice and attempt to recreate this success. Sometimes competitors will succeed, even outperform, and sometimes they will not. The best way to avoid alpha erosion is to not be noticed. There are at least two ways. First is the path taken by Amazon, where the company was unprofitable but valuable and the desire to imitate was limited. For many competitors, unprofitability was a restricted action. The second is to create alpha in a business where the rewards are unappealing. There are many people who want to be movie producers or winemakers, but many less who want to operate a regional chain of construction dumpsters — even though the latter suffers less erosion.

&

Explore and exploit

Explore and exploit is the idea of a spectrum of work between exploratory work and exploitative work. At any given time there’s a better area on this spectrum to be for an organization as well as an individual. One way to view the explore and exploit spectrum is through two different businesses. One business is a streaming media technology firm. They have a direct relationship with their individual customers and bill them monthly. They also work with the providers of media to create content for the customers. Both the providers and the customers have a JTBD. The providers want freedom. The customers want choice, uptime, and lower bills. The competition meanwhile wants alpha erosion. This business must quickly move back and forth between the explore and exploit ends of the spectrum. They must innovate in delivery, technology, and marketing then implement each. A different business is the regional construction company. They too have customers who want a new kitchen or pool and they have suppliers who specialize, subcontract, or deliver supplies. But the regional construction company has to move back and forth at a different cadence. Someone’s system suggests their location on the spectrum. It is also rare for a situation at either extreme. Even the regional construction company must allocate resources to exploratory ends. The location between explore and exploit can guide a person or organization towards what type of work is best for the moment.

For the ideas in a daily email drip, buy the email-drip, pdf, and ePub in one package on Gumroad. Find it on Amazon too.

Travel budgets

Actions are the children of mindset and environment.

When running his document storage company, AJ Wasserstein created a travel budget. Budgets are good. Budgets are a design tool, and we are all designers.

Wasserstein’s budget wasn’t denominated in dollars, it was in days away from home

“One thing I did while working at Archives One was give myself a travel budget. I gave myself permission to travel a certain number of days a month. It wasn’t a financial budget, rather a nights-away-from-home budget. If I started to exceed that consistently, my role at the company needed to be cleaved and I had to hire someone to do part of what I was doing.” – AJ Wasserstein, Circle of Competence, June 2021

Wasserstein asked a different question. Rather than ask what was financially costly he asked what was socially costly and optimized for that. A lot of times we assume that the important is easily measured. Dollars? Yes. But other things too.

Creative Operations

Creativity according to John Cleese is “A way of operating.” This smart 1991 YouTube talk, is full of lightbulb jokes and advice on creativity. How many socialists does it take to change a lightbulb?

The problem with creativity is that it seems difficult. It’s like running a 5K for someone who doesn’t run. Like, c’mon, I can’t do that. Cleese nips this complaint right away and offers two helpful pieces of advice.

First, is to be a designer, and we are all designers. We are all designers because designs influence actions. Some designs tightly constrain action, like this Mario 1-1 walkthrough on YouTube. Other designs constrain loosely.

To design for creativity requires two things: space and time. Set the phone to DND. Sit at the desk. As Steven Pressfield notes, put your ass where your heart wants to be. Like a chef ready for the dinner rush Cleese offers his next piece of advice: think.

Rather he says ‘to play’. That’s the second step. Creativity is the subconscious bubbling up and it’s the conscious shutting up.

“As a general rule, when people become absolutely certain that they know what they’re doing, their creativity plummets.” Jon Cleese

Without interruption, think widely.

This will be hard. Most people, says Cleese, don’t like it. It’s hard to just sit or walk or be. It’s hard to just think. Annie Duke faced this. When she coached poker players they wanted to act, to do, to play the hand. But a lot of poker is not playing. Duke’s challenge was to get players to feel like they were poker players while also making good decisions. So, she reframed the actions.

Rather than playing hands as the action, Duke explained that deciding was the action. Thinking through the hands, the outcomes, the pot odds, the base rates and the game-theory-optimal case was what good players did. That was the secret for being a good poker player. This is the secret too, according to Cleese, for operating creatively.

Creative people are comfortable with the lulls. They understand that the time of play is time working on the problem.

There aren’t good metrics for this. There’s no word count. There’s no investment return. There’s no miles or dollars or calls made. There’s nothing to count which means no numbers which means no comparison which implies no value.

Do not fall into this trip says Cleese. Trust that the moments of wide-open thought matter.
After the play it’s time for work.

How many socialists does it take? Five, but they don’t change it and instead insist that it works.

Fire hoses and tea cups

There are three ways to spend your days online. The broadest consumption of information is the Trend. A curated collection of information is the Feed. A laser focus is the Search. The best way depends on the situation. An ‘end of’ moment has more Search. A start has more Trend.

It’s not simple to know which way to spend a day but Jason Zweig beautifully addresses the balance of the three ways, the feeling of FOMO, and offering tactical advice on how to spend your day.

“If you’re drinking from a fire hose, which we all are, then the only sensible thing you can do is let it run. There’s no point in trying to put your face in front of the fire hose and open your mouth as wide as you can and take it all in. What I do is let the fire hose run and then once or twice a day take a little tea cup and dip it into the fire hose and pull it out and see if I like what I found.” – @JasonZweigWSJ, The Long View

This style of checking in feels slow. But then again, what does the work need? “Any recommendation to take action,” Zweig told Shane Parrish, “has to be compelling enough to overcome the inherent intrinsic advantage of just sitting there.” We design our own performance architecture and metaphors like fire hoses and tea cups helps us think — at least like Jason Zweig.

Landslides

One idea (Rory Sutherland and Nassim Taleb talk about it most) that’s perpetually interesting is that in real life 2 x 5 does not equal 5 x 2. One perk of Central Florida is the theme park day trip. Going to the theme parks seven days during the year is different from a seven day vacation once a year.

The heart of this idea is the balance of effect and time. Sun-skin damage is like this. It’s much worse to get sun burnt twice a year than it is to get the equivalent amount of sun spread over many days outside. Stress follows this pattern as well, and sleeping on it tends to always make things better.

This (via Reddit) is the best visual representation of the idea. The same amount of material flows down but it reaches the town at different times. We used to live in Athens Ohio which would periodically flood and it was the same idea: effect over time. Five inches of rain in one day was not equal to one inch of rain over five days.

Marc Andreessen commented on this too with regards to the culture of work: “I’ve never really got the water cooler conversation thing at the office. Maybe it’s because I’m too introverted but I always thought the water cooler conversations were so facile, light, and substance free…I wonder if the in-person setting of an off-site, over a meal, over a drink where we aren’t under pressure or in between meetings or emails, where we actually get to know somebody might actually create much stronger relationships than someone you see at the water cooler everyday.

If the mechanism is effect over time, we can consider how to extend, delay, compress, or shift some impact in time.

Liberty addressed this in edition #149 regarding self-driving cars: “If they’re all communicating at very low latencies, it’s trivial to make micro-adjustments to avoid animals, and all other cars around would know what your car is planning on doing before it does it…To a computer, it’s all happening in super-super-slow motion.”

Zombie revenue

One tenant of jobs to be done is that people tend to be not great at articulating the scope of a purchase. For instance, in early June 2021 the lumbar support on my car seat broke. There are no plans to fix it, and this deficit will be some kind of non-zero explanation for when it’s time to get a new car. Will I reason with this later? Unlikely.

JTBD exists in these moments. One moment is when users hack a product. For instance 60 jail broken iPhone features became part of the iPhone. Or even Instagram, lauded for the design choices, drew from teenage boys taking screenshots of solid colors, adding text, and posting as the first polls.

Another according to JTBD father Bob Moesta is zombie revenue. Gym subscribers may make their model work but other businesses can find future fruitful funds in dead accounts. Basecamp, Moesta said, noticed that archived projects were zombie revenues. Customers didn’t need to manage something but they did need to access it and Basecamp created something for them.

Source: Bob Moesta
Full JTBD post.