How to Run Your Brain

Sports psychologist Josephine Perry was on the Bad Boys of Running podcast to talk about the mental aspects of the sport and how to design your life to work with your brain.

Want to use your phone less?, asked Atomic Habits author James Clear, put it out of reach. The need to “check things” is small and easily clears any friction when the phone is in our pocket or on the table. But make yourself get up, a small but significant task, and we simply don’t do it as often.

A design approach works for our brains too.

1/ Your brain is a relative thinker, from Instagram to other runners, what we see sets the terms.

We prioritize information based on its availability. Change what’s easily available, change what we compare ourselves to, like a PR.

2/ Your brain is designed for danger, food, and sex (aka survival). Don’t you dare start into the unknown it sternly warns.

One solution is to deconstruct large problems into small ones. Writing a book is hard. Writing something every day is easier. Collecting ideas from a podcast is easier yet. Each big and scary attempt is a collection of small and doable attempts.

Another is to create a jar of wins. Write down accomplishments and put them in a jar. The visual is good – we’re visual creatures – and it uses the brain against itself. Rather than being fearful, our brain has evidence of hard things we’ve already done and we’re more likely to start.

3/ Your brain is lazy. Our how ya feeling language is limited. We only use words like: fine, angry, frustrated, tired, good, or excited. Limited words mean we have limited responses.

But precise language changes our description and consequently our reactions. Rather than be tired we can be worn out mentally from work. That’s different from I’m an introvert and need a break from people. Different triggers, different actions.

Personal growth is a challenge. We’re working on the thing while we’re working with the thing. But it’s easier with tips like these.

Alice and Bob own soccer teams…

Alice runs her team conservatively and finishes with 17 wins, 17 draws, and 4 losses. 

Bob runs his team with more variance and finishes with 19 wins, 11, draws, and 8 losses. 

Which is better? 

Let’s reframe, like the ball bet. Is it better to exchange 2 wins for 6 draws and 4 fewer losses? 

Haralabos ‘Bob’ Voulgaris bought a soccer team because he knows these answers because he’s seen these questions. 

After Moneyball but before Morey-ball, Haralabos discovered and gambled on basketball inefficiencies. The best known now is the three-point shot. Voulgaris thinks that soccer is similar. Teams earn three points for a win, one for a draw, and zero for a loss. Rather than three or two points in basketball, it’s three or one points in soccer standings.

Soccer’s business model is like the music business model. Artists lose money recording an album, break even touring, and profit from the merchandise. This had to be Pixar’s business too. Division three soccer teams lose money, division two teams break even, and La Liga or Premier League teams “print money”. 

Soccer teams can move up (promotion) or move down (relegation). Bob’s team, CD Castellón is in the third division and they need about sixty-eight points for a chance at promotion. 

Both Alice (17/17/4) and Bob (19/11/8) earned sixty-eight points – but they don’t seem equal. This is Bob’s point – it’s worth risking more for wins than less for draws.

The big question is: What are the right metrics for this system? 

  • Hurricane wind speeds are probably the wrong metric. Though easy to measure they don’t convey the potential storm damage which comes from the rain, surge, and flooding. Moneyball and Morey-ball are both descriptions of systems where the important metrics shifted.
  • ‘Draws’ is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It seems fine – splitting the difference between a win and a loss – but the unique point system shifts the weight. 
  • Risking more – Bob’s approach – focuses on what matters. It’s the points stupid.

Humans are loss averse but the soccer standing scoring rewards bucking this trend. Alice and Bob own soccer teams, let’s see what happens.

How to board an airplane?

Everyone knows how to board an airplane, back to front. It’s logical. Back to front means that if someone is taking their time in seat 21C the person in 20A can still seat themselves.

Physicist Jason Steffen built a computer model to see how much faster back to front was relative to front to back. He was shocked. The difference was minimal. Hmm, Steffen scowled at his code, is there a better way?

What if instead of 30 to 1 or 1 to 30, a plane boarded everyone in row 30, then rows 1, 2, 3…. That might work right? The folks in row 30 would have time to stow and seat without holding anyone up.

That kinda works. Steffen’s code continued and compared the 30, 1, 2…29 option to the 1, 2,…30 option. The code noted the faster sequence, and switched around two more numbers. Again it kept the faster option and computed another switcheroo. The fastest boarding process turned out to be boarding every other row.

“It turns the boarding process from a serial process, where one person gets to their place, puts their luggage away, and sits down into a parallel process where you send in fifteen people, say in all the even rows, and they all put their luggage away and sit down at the same time. And then you send in the next group of people.” – Jason Steffen, August 2021

Steffen’s code was a Markov Chain Monte Carlo, a way to solve problems through computer code and exploration. But like wet bias or wait times, ideal solutions may not be the best.

One problem with Steffen’s method is when people travel in groups, especially families. Another obstacle is the culture of air travel, there’s some established norms. Further confounding the case is an airline’s incentives. Faster turns do matter, but relative to upgrades how much does saving time save the company?