Looking at Shadows – An Indirect Input for Decision Making

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Photo by Omer Rana on Unsplash

I have a trick for finding parking at work in the morning.  The trick I use doesn’t guarantee that I’ll find a good spot every day, but it does prevent me from wasting time driving up and down lanes when there are no spots available.  The entrance to the parking lot at work is at the far end of the lot, with the building on the opposite side.  This means that when you start your search, you begin at the furthest point away from the building and your search pattern will take you towards the building.

In terms of strategy, this means that the spots with the highest probability of being empty are both the furthest from the building and the closest to you when you begin your search.  This obviously makes sense from a safety perspective – if the cars were entering the parking lot closest to the doors, then pedestrians would be in greater danger of getting hit and traffic would always be impeded.  However, this means that it’s hard to determine when you enter lot where empty spots are among the banks of cars.  Due to poor lines of sight and the number of large trucks used by students, you often won’t see an empty spot until you are a few feet away.

If you rely on this strategy for finding the closest parking spot to the door, you’ll waste a lot of time driving around except in cases where you stumble across a spot (which I estimate would be a low probability event).  I’ve started using a strategy to avoid searching for those spots and reduce wasted time in randomly driving around.

My strategy attempts to address a number of constraints:

  1. My parking utility is maximized when I find a spot close to the door.  This reduces the amount of time spent walking, which is good for inclement weather, icy conditions, and because I’m usually running late.
  2. My parking utility is diminished when I waste time circling the lot searching for ideal spots.  Instead, I’m seeking a satisficing outcome that balances maximizing utility and minimizing search time.
  3. I’m competing against other actors as they also drive around seeking empty spots.  These people are usually students, who are also usually running late or seeking to reduce their walking distance.

Keeping these considerations in mind, this is the strategy I employ in the morning.

First, I’ve limited my parking search to one of the three lots.  By reducing my options, I can make quick decisions on the fly.  Lot 1 is directly in front of the door, and since I arrive before the majority of the students, I find that it satisfies my needs most of the time.  If Lot 1 is full, I move to Lot 2, and finally Lot 3 being most sub-optimal.

Next, on my way to the entrance of Lot 1, I scan the first row of cars for empty spots there.  Since I drive passed it, it allows me to quickly eliminate it if there are no spots, or at least gauge where the spots will be relative to any additional spots in the second and third rows of the lot.

Then, I use a trick to quickly assess the likelihood of empty spots.  I look at the shadows of the cars and pay attention to noticeable gaps.  When I enter the lot, I can see down the second (middle) row.  If I see anything, I drive towards the gap and usually there is a free spot (except in cases where someone has driven a motorcycle and not parked it in the motorcycle-designated lot).  If I see no gaps in the shadows, I move on to the third row and repeat the pattern.

The majority of the time, this gives me enough information quickly to know whether I need to drive down a row.  There are two limitations to this strategy: first, it relies on there being no cloud cover, and it doesn’t allow for east-facing shadows to be examined.  This is not a perfect strategy, but my goal is to maximize my parking preferences while eliminating my wasted time driving around the lot examining each parking spot hoping to stumble onto an empty spot.  Using this strategy balances these two interests and generally gives me a satisfactory outcome quickly.

A final consideration I use is to notice cars leaving the lot when I enter, and noting where they are coming from.  That is the fastest indication of where a parking spot is on the busiest days when I’m competing against other cars looking to park.

All of this occurs within about 15 seconds of me driving up to the lot at work.

If you have reached this point in the post, you might be wondering why I spent so much time explaining how I find a parking spot (is this really the best use of a blog???).  I think this example of setting up a solution to a problem is a fun way of explaining how I ideally like to approach a problem.  I try to consider what outcomes I’m aiming to achieve and work backwards to consider options that would fit those criteria.  In doing so, I have to consider what input I need to let me quickly assess a situation and make a decision by eliminating extraneous options.

It’s important to know when you need to be right, and when you need something to work well enough most of the time.  For instance, if this were a higher-stakes situation (say, I was doing surgery), I would want a strategy that would be the equivalent of finding the closest spot to the door every time.  Instead, I know that my goal is achieved if I reduce the amount of walking time and reduce the amount of time and fuel spent hunting for an optimal spot.

When coming up with a strategy, I knew that hoping to stumble across an empty spot would be a net increase in my search time.  So, I found a way to quickly gain information that would eliminate many non-options.  Rather than looking at the cars themselves, I instead look for gaps in shadows – an indirect indicator of outcomes I want.  It’s a simple heuristic that eliminates the need to confirm that cars are occupying spaces all the way down the long row.

While the strategy will not save me time in 100% of cases, it does shift the outcomes to a net decrease in search time, which meets my goals and gets me to work on time (most of the time).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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What You Say “No” To

Last week I discussed some thoughts on being busy.  Near the start of the post, I made an off-hand comment about why I’m typically busy:

It’s often less of an issue of seeking achievement, and more the result of me absent-mindedly saying “yes” to obligations without regard to the impact it has on my time and calendar.

This is the perfect example of an answer to those interview questions of “what is a weakness of yours?”  It took a lot of self-reflection to realize that a lot of stuff I do is less because it fits within a plan, and more because it sounded like a cool thing at the time.  It was a habit I formed when I was single and life was simple.  However, as things started piling up, it made it really difficult to prioritize.  The most important things in my life (love, sleep, exercise, etc.) end up taking a back seat to those things that seemed cool when I said “yes” to an ask.

I was watching a video from Jon Call, aka Jujimufu on YouTube, and he was discussing email tips that he uses to stay organized.  However, around the 3:30 mark of the video, he drops a fascinating insight:

“If I said yes…, I’m basically saying ‘no’ to (my wife) Sam, I’m saying ‘no’ to (my friend) Tom, (and) I’m saying no to you guys…”

Whether you are talking about your email inbox, your work, or the important people in your life, it’s important to reflect on what you are saying “no” to when you decide to say “yes.”  It’s a hard lesson that I am still struggling with, and I’m thankful with how patient my loved ones have been.

I invite you to reflect on your own life: what are you saying “no” to?

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

(Blog) Weak Will and my Monkey Brain

I did something bad last night.  I went against my better judgement and stayed up until just after 1:30am.

*Gasp!*

Ok, perhaps this isn’t the worst thing in the world.  In fact, given the demographics of the area I live in, there were plenty of other people in my neighborhood who were still awake well past my drifting off to sleep.

Why is this bad?

It’s bad for two main reasons.  First, it’s bad because it goes counter to my expressed goals of striving for 7-hours of sleep per night.  It also creeps in on my desire to not use YouTube late at night.  I’ve identified this as a problem before, and I know  that giving in to “just 10-minutes on YouTube” is a recipe for failure.

But the second and more pressing concern is that I knew better, because just 15-minutes before I sat down at the computer, I was musing on the car ride home from my shift at the bar that I should put my staff meal in the fridge and go straight to bed.  I got home, let the dog out, then sat down at the computer and thought “I haven’t done any late night surfing in a while, and I could unwind a bit since I’m not tired, so how about some YouTube?”

Big mistake.

Never mind that passively consuming online videos makes it easy to lose track of time as you spiral down the rabbit hole of content; never mind that staring at a screen is bad for your sleep and inhibits the production of chemicals that help you feel tired; I rationally knew and actively thought to myself that I know what I’m supposed to do, and I went and did the irrational thing anyway!

While I’m talking about this as if it’s an addiction, I know that this is less an issue of some sort of neuro-behavioral compulsion and more of a weakness of will.  Or, more specifically, it’s a lack of discipline on my part.  It’s thinking that I’m smarter than my own laziness.  Once again, my monkey brain won out and I ended up sabotaging my goals without really being aware of it.

You win this time, Laziness.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

I Really Need to Sleep More

As the title says, I need more sleep.  It should surprise no one that sleep is good for you and you generally feel better getting more of it.

And yet, I’m terrible at it.  I’ve known for a while I’m terrible at managing sleep, but wearing a Fitbit over the last year really helped quantify how terrible I am.

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Here is a typical week for me back in mid-October, 2016.  As you can see, I was averaging less than 6-hours a week, and I would occasionally punctuate my sleepiness with a crash that would waste half a day by recuperating.  By the end of the academic term, I was turning into a zombie.  Things were starting to slide, I felt irritable, my weight had gone up; basically everything bad about not getting sleep was happening.  The only thing that thankfully did not happen was falling asleep behind the wheel.

A small part of me wore my fatigue like a badge of honour.  It was the natural consequence of hustling and being busy.  The problem with this is it was impressing no one, it was wearing me out, and it was pissing people off who I was failing to deliver to on my promises.

Something needed to change.

… And the Clock Strikes Twelve – New Year, New Rules

While I’m not a big new year’s resolutions guy, I saw the start of January as a good time to try and reclaim my sleeping habits.  I had wound down a bunch of my obligations, finished teaching, and was going to spend less time commuting for a long-distance relationship (the fiancee was moving back to my city), so January made sense to focus on cultivating a better sleeping habit.

Step one in any major change is to identify and isolate the variables you want to modify, and track the delta from your baseline.  After all, you can’t change what you don’t measure.

I set 7-hours as a good goal to strive towards as it was more sleep than I was used to but not an unreasonable jump that would set me up for failure.  I decided to track each day’s worth of sleep as a binary yes-no check in my notebook.  The Fitbit would auto-track my sleep, and I would manually log my sleep to ensure I was consciously paying attention to sleep.  I modified the Bullet Journal method and tracked the days I got less than 7-hours of sleep (alongside the days I read, and the days I exercised).

After one month, I look back at my progress.

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For privacy reasons, I’ve blocked out my calendar notes.

Yikes.

Needless to say, if January is my baseline, then at least I have nowhere to go but up.  I hit my target four times all month.  My reading habit was fairly strong, and my exercise is still abysmal.

Light on the Horizon

There is one thing that has changed in February so far that has given me hope: my fiancee has started a new job.

As of writing, she’s in her first week at her new job, and I have only now given notice to my apartment managers that I will be moving in with her, so I’m spending a few nights a week at her place to help support her as she starts the job.  This includes groceries, errands, and taking care of our dog.

Her new job is a few cities over, so she needs to commute about an hour each way, meaning she needs to get up before me and hit the road before I normal would wake up.  As a consequence, she needs to follow a fairly strict bed time while she adjusts to the new schedule.

At one point, I would have let her go to bed, then I would have gone to bed whenever I felt like it, and set my own alarm.  But, in the spirit of supporting her (and wanting to spend quality time with her), I’ve been going to bed at the same time as her, and getting up with her to tend to the dog’s morning needs.

The days where I’ve gotten 7+ hours of sleep have been the greatest I’ve felt in a long time.

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Wednesday would have been 7-hours if I hadn’t had restless sleep.  The Fitbit subtracts your restless period from the total duration of sleep.

Obviously, it’s too early to suggest that I’ve got my habit down, but subjectively I can report feeling better overall.  I have wanted to wake up early for some time now, and getting up with my partner has felt great.  I have time to enjoy my morning coffee while I read or listen to the news, and not feeling rushed out the door has lifted my spirits.  Ideally, I want to keep this going, so it’ll be interesting to see how the system adapts to other obligations in my life (working at the bar being the harshest pressure on my sleep schedule).

I know that rationally, sleeping is good.  It’s good for mental clarity, it’s good for decision-making, it’s good for general health as well as weightloss.  But knowing the facts has so far proven to be a challenge for me.  Perhaps focusing on my relationship and supporting my partner’s success is just the motivation I’ve needed to force me to take better care of myself.

We shall see where things go from here.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Checking Intuitions – Is Facebook As Bad As We Think?

Last week, I published a long, rambley set of thoughts about my relationship to Facebook.  The following night, I sat down with a group of friends to discuss a taped forum discussion published by the CBC.  If you have never looked into CBC’s programming, particularly their show Ideas, and their daily program The Current, I highly recommend them.

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/screened-off-the-dangers-of-an-insular-web-1.3937638

It’s always good to check your intuitions and opinions against what others think, because sometimes its possible that your biases blind you to alternative considerations.

Now, what I’m about to write about is entirely unverified and does not serve as an argument on any side of this debate.  This post is not meant to deliver any definitive answers on the topic of whether Facebook (or the modern internet) is less democratized, more problematic, or having a polarizing effect on how people think.  What I wish to capture is how my mind expanded a bit when I listened to how others viewed the podcast topic and their reactions to it.

Going into the meeting, I felt that I aligned with the views discussed in the program.  I feel that people are polarizing in the online echo-chamber communities and that the internet, or specifically products created for the web, are designed to be attractive and modify behaviour to increase engagement.  Shallow content and emotional shortcuts are easily bypassing critical thought and our ability to maintain our attention is being eroded.

There were two counter thoughts brought up at the meeting that significantly shook my opinion.  Again, I pose these as items to consider, not definitive rebuttals to the original claims.

Rose-Coloured Nostalgia

The first assumption challenge by one friend was that the understanding and explanation of how the internet is currently, and how the internet “used to be,” do not adequately reflect reality.  In the first instance, the speakers on the program are only speaking to a mainstream understanding of social media.  They use Facebook as the default conversation piece because it is the highest trafficked site, however their descriptions do not account for all uses of the net, nor all demographic engagements.  In fact, Facebook-use is in decline among younger internet uses (“old people got on Facebook and ruined it”).

But in the second instance, my friend (whom is a few years older than I am) disagrees with the assumption that the internet in the late-90’s and early 2000’s was more democratized.  On a purely surface level, sure, it was more democratized because there were less corporate products.  But at the same time, the internet was more closed off to the mass market because no one knew how to use the internet.  Without the advent of streamlined user-interfaces, most people lacked the technical skills to adequately use the internet beyond services provided by internet providers (the Yahoo’s, the AOL’s, etc.).

I realized that my understanding and buy-in for the arguments is predicated on an understanding of the internet that I have no direct experience of.  I only started using the web in 1998, compliments of AOL and the many coasters they sent to our house.  Other than chat rooms and Slingo, my recollection of the net pre-2000 is pretty spotty.  I have nothing that informs my opinion on the matter, and it’s entirely possible that I’m agreeing with a characterization of the web that is out of line with reality.

Deep Data

Another excellent criticism that another friend raised is that Facebook isn’t necessarily forcing people into echo-chambers, nor are people necessarily becoming more radical in their views.  In fact, we don’t really know what’s happening relative to the pre-2000’s.  For the first time in history, we are able to collect massive amounts of data on the reading habits of people online.  Until recently, understanding where people seek out content, how they share, what they share, what they click through, etc, was not possible to the degree we are seeing now.  It’s bad for us to see the limited data and fit a worldview to it.  Quite simply, we don’t know if Facebook is changing anything, or if we are just able to glimpse into the minds of others for the first time.

But, you may say, “I’ve been on Facebook since the mid-2000’s and I’ve noticed a shift in my news feed.”  Yes, that’s true.  It’s also true that algorithms are more sophisticated now to curate your news feed.  The only thing missing from that consideration is that the sample size for you has changed.  If Facebook’s size had remained constant, we could potentially make an inference to how Facebook has impacted people.  Instead, Facebook has gone from being the domain of college students (a typically liberal-leaning demographic) to high school students (remember when we thought that was a mistake, and these kids shouldn’t be on the network) to when our parents joined Facebook (ugh! They ruined Facebook!).  Consider an alternative perspective – our experience of other people on Facebook was initially biased, and then regressed back to the mean once the user pool expanded to include non-university users (which is a fairly homogeneous class of people, all things considered).

Closing Thoughts

Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure what’s right, but I suppose that’s a good thing.  Recognizing that my own views and opinions should be treated as suspect is a valuable insight to have.  It requires a level of self-awareness that usually doesn’t get a lot of discussion in today’s media.  Instead, everyone seems to speak from a position of authority that I feel as though I lack in my internal monologue.  Maybe my friends are correct, and that the think-pieces about the dangers of walled-gardens and the role that social media has on our ability to think critically is all smoke and little fire.  To be fair, where there is smoke, there is usually fire, so there is *something* there that needs to be discussed.

I appreciate the insight my friends brought to the table.  It shouldn’t be surprising that the answers they gave above are wholly connected to their fields of expertise.  The first friend has a PhD in criminology and has studied deviance online.  The second friend works in marketing for a major Canadian food company.  Their experiences are helpful to provide alternative viewpoints to my own, and if it is true that you are the average of the 5 people you most commonly associate with, it’s a pretty powerful example to me of the value in a diversity (plurality) of thought.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Quitting and Simplifying

A theme is emerging for January for me, so let’s continue our exploration of simplifying and cutting back.  My last two posts discussed how I’m shelving my goal to be a paramedic.  Getting engaged and reflecting on 2016 didn’t just lead me to the conclusion that I need to orientate my future towards stability for my fiancé and I.  I also reflected on how I felt at the end of the year about my life.

I concluded that I felt tired.

The Cult of Busy

I hate that I’m so busy.  I fully admit that I sometimes use my busyness as a humblebrag to signal my “hustle,” but truthfully, I rationally know that being busy isn’t a good thing.  When you are busy, the things that you prioritize begin to slip.  When you are busy, you sacrifice sleep.  When you are busy, you half-ass things.  When you are busy, you miss deadlines.  And on, and on.

By the end of December, I was a walking zombie just marking time until business wound down for all of my projects.  I was average around 5.5 hours of sleep per night and felt perpetually in a daze.

Mid-last year, I received an offer to be the Vice Chair of a grants committee I was on.  It was a potential huge step forward for me – it would be an important role for a prestigious community organization, it would groom me to Chair the committee, and it would give me access to important community movers and shakers.  Getting that kind of network exposure is like gold for the young professional.

I replied honestly that I was interested but unsure if I could commit more than one year, on the assumption that I would apply to a paramedic program in February 2017, which could lead me to leaving the region for school.  We set the conversation aside in the interim until I had a better idea of what my future looked like.

In December, the conversation came back up.  Having just proposed to my fiancé, I hadn’t yet had a chance to consider how the proposal will concretely change the next few years of my life.  I asked for the rest of the month to think things over and I’d get back to the Chair.

Being Strangled by Busy Creep

In reflecting on 2016, especially the last 4-months, I realized that my calendar suffered from busy creep.  I had over-committed myself and said yes to too many things.  Keep in mind, I love novelty and experiencing new projects.  I jump at the opportunity to learn something new and help friends out.  But in my quest to learn, I had lost sight of any sense of vision for what I wanted to accomplish, and through a death-by-thousand calendar entries, I had stretched myself too thin.  Working full time at the College, teaching, and working some nights at the bar was enough to keep me occupied, but I am also the Treasurer of a Board, regularly podcasting, blogging, maintaining a long-distance relationship, etc.  I was building a huge sleep deficit, gaining weight, and consistently making bad decisions (YouTube being my drug of choice late at night).

I tried simple hacks to help me, such as installing a light timer on my wifi router to force myself offline.  Truthfully, the only thing I needed to hack was my calendar.  After thinking it through, I realized that after having completed a full term as a grants committee member, now was a good time to bow out gracefully and resign my post.  I drafted a letter to the Chair, explaining my situation, and resigned from the committee.

A Time For Reflection

The Chair, being a wonderful person, accepted my resignation without question and offered to keep the door open if I wished to return in the future.  I valued my experience on the committee, but I realized that it didn’t fit with my ultimate and immediate priorities – my health and my relationships.

I still feel bad about the resignation.  I had hoped that my anxiety and reservations about sending the email was the result of actually sending a resignation.  However, after sending the email, I’m still feeling down about the decision.  It was a great opportunity and could have lead to some amazing future possibilities.  Worse yet, I feel like I’m quitting or letting others down.  I know rationally that this is not true, but I can’t shake the feeling nonetheless.  I suppose this is the equivalent of a busyness detox – the feeling will fade over time as I start to feel more in control of my time and life.

The grants committee was only a tiny portion of my calendar.  It amounted to about a month and a half of moderate work per year.  Cutting this from my plate will not be the magic solution to my problems.  I see this as the first step to getting my house in order.  Truthfully, I don’t really have a lot of direction at the moment.  Once I decided to shelve paramedicine, I lost my direction and momentum.  I need to find something else to aim at and work towards professionally.  That is one area that will require some reflection.

But more basic that that, I need to reflect on my values.  I don’t have a good answer yet as to what I feel my core values are at the moment.  Without that level of self-awareness, I’m likely to allow unfocused busyness to creep back into the picture.  Without values to act as a filter, I’m likely to accept whatever opportunities come my way irrespective of whether they add value to my life or further my goals (or if they are time sinks that steal time away from more important things).  Because something sounds cool, or because a friend asked me shouldn’t be the only reason why I say “yes.”

Once again, I don’t have a pithy way to wrap this up; this will be a work in progress for me.  In the meantime, it’s probably time I get back to work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

New Year and New Updates

Happy New Year!

I hope you had a fun and safe weekend.  This year’s celebration was the smoothest we’ve seen at the bar in a long time.  No fights or accidents, and everyone left before close.  From the staff’s point of view, it was a great way to ring in the new year.

A big bit of news happened for me in early December – I got engaged!  After months of scheming, everything came together and my fiancé and I are busy with wedding plans.

The decision to pop the question also forced me to think more about my future, specifically the next 3-5 years.  While we are not planning to wed until late 2018, the added commitment of marriage raised some questions in my mind about what I need to focus on in terms of priorities.

When I started this blog, it was meant to help me focus on my learnings on my way to becoming a paramedic.  A lot has happened since then, and it would be bad if I ignored the contexts at play.  In the beginning, I was a bit down on myself, felt aimless, and I didn’t like work.  2016, while a crappy year for the world, was a good year for me in that I focused a lot on improving myself.  In that time, my conditions at work have markedly improved, and I feel better about myself and where I am in life.  The only thing that hadn’t shifted was my career – I was still running under the assumption that I would be applying off for a paramedic program and would restart my career in two year’s time.

Getting engaged, however, forced me to think critically about this.  With my fiancé just starting out on her own professional career, us moving in together in the near future, and planning for a wedding, it seems like a bad decision for me to drop the security I currently have and take several steps back for the sake of a new vocation.

Maybe if I were a few years younger (I turned 30 in December), I could have pulled this  gamble off.  But for the present, I will be putting my paramedic aspirations on the shelf to focus on building what I have in front of me.  Down the line, there is always a chance that I could make a pivot into medicine but for the interim, this is not a good choice for me.

Which now raises the question of what is happening to this blog?

Short answer: nothing.  I will keep the blog for the foreseeable future.

Long answer: a change in theme will need to be made.

Obviously this won’t be a medic blog anymore.  At the very least, this blog has been very broad, so I don’t see a lot changing in terms of content.  I’ll still post on topics that are relevant to me and my interests, such as personal development, teaching, etc.  I don’t know what the changes will amount to, but if you are enjoying my content now, then you can rest assured that things won’t change materially.  In time, you may see a new coat of paint and a some rearranging of the furniture.

However in the mean time, check back in each Monday for a new post.  Let’s keep this thing going!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan