Friday, September 22, 2017

A Review of Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg

Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg is a pseudo-sequel to his first book The Power of Habit. Duhigg is a New York Times reporter with an interest in productivity and efficiency.  While his first book looked at how habits are formed and shape us, Smarter, Faster, Better looks at how those habits fit into a larger context of interpersonal teams and setting larger goals in life.

As Duhigg notes, people are more motivated simply by being given the appearance of control. For example, nursing home residents live longer when they are giving a plant to care for, or given more leeway in how they structure their day. The choices that are most powerful in generating motivation are the decisions that convince us that we are in control, and that our actions have some larger meaning.

Many people are starting to note how modern life, despite all its conveniences, has engendered a form of malaise (pithily summarized by Louis CK as "Everything is amazing, and nobody's happy").

To combat this, we have to endow are actions with purpose. As Duhigg argues, when we are faced with unpleasant chores or choices, we must ask ourselves, "Why?" As in, what greater goal does this serve. I think this works because it forces us to avoid the strong human tendency to focus on the present and urge to procrastinate and instead, focus on the future payoff. This better aligns the incentives of the present self with the future self. To paraphrase Duhigg, "Self motivation is a choice we make because it is part of something bigger and more emotionally rewarding than the immediate task that needs doing."

This framework can be expanded to working in groups. To be successful, any group needs some measure of psychological safety, which is the belief that the group is a safe place for taking risks. Good teams have everyone contributing in nearly equal amounts, with team members in sync with each other, reading each other's emotional states well. The best approach for establishing this psychological safety is by the team leader demonstrating those characteristics. Duhigg notes that all this leads to a surprising conclusion: how teams work matters more than who is on them.

Looking at the work done at Google and elsewhere, Duhigg finds that good teams have five key norms, and good team leaders demonstrate 8 good qualities (from Goolge's Project Oxygen). The key norms are:
  • Belief that work is important
  • Work is personally meaningful
  • Psychological safety
  • Know that other members are dependable
  • Clear goals and defined roles
The 8 team leader qualities are:
  • Good coach
  • Empowers and does not micromanage
  • Has clear vision and strategy
  • Helps with career development
  • Has key technical skills
  • Listens and shares info
  • Results oriented
  • Expresses interest and concern in subordinates' success and well-being

Despite forming a good team, the group still has to actively combat cognitive tunneling, both as individuals and as a whole. Cognitive tunneling is a mental error that occurs when one is forced to switch rapidly between tasks, causing people to fall back on reactive thinking. Nobel laureate psychologist/behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman labels these two ways of thinking as System 1 and System 2. Where as System 1 is slow and deliberate, System 2 uses a system of heuristics to quickly (but not necessarily accurately) solve problems at hand.

As Shane Parrish of Farnam Street blog and Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway argue, mental models helps to minimize the risk of such reactive thinking and increase the odds of making the correct response. Making a habit of trying to forecast outcomes will make one less likely to err over time.

Duhigg then looks at other organizations to see how they tried to solve the collective action problem, the challenge of aligning everyone's individual actions towards a shared goal. At GE, they used a system of SMART goals. SMART stands for:
  • S: Specific "I will run 5 miles."
  • M: Measurable "Measure 5 miles."
  • A: Achievable "I've run 3 before, so 5 is doable."
  • R: Realistic "Fits in schedule after work."
  • T: Timeline "Weekly to monthly perspective - will get to 5 miles by first of next month."
However, further investigation showed that a SMART goal was not enough. Generally, these goals create a bias towards attainable targets, the low-hanging fruit. These should be paired with stretch goals. Unlike SMART goals, there is no clear path to a stretch goal, at least not yet. The path will have to be invented.

While Duhigg focused on companies, these norms can be applied to any organization. He found that companies fall into one of five cultural types:
- Star: reward best and brightest, highest success and highest fail rates; least likely to make it to IPO
- Engineer: team based, no stars, but strong together; grow quickly
- Bureaucracy
- Autocracy
- Commitment: value slow, steady growth; outperformed every other type of firm; not one of them failed in the study; also fastest to go public, highest profitability ratios, leaner, fewer middle managers

Ultimately, any system is only as strong as its people. Finding the best people is key to success. What defines such people? They are the ones who perseverate on failure but are not paralyzed by it. They think more about their experiences than other pople, according to Steve Jobs. They take the stress that comes with any challenge and use it as a catalyst for growth. They force themselves to keep questioning their choices instead of falling prey to satisfaction bias.

Duhigg is a gifted writer who writes lucidly about a topic that can be challenging to digest at times. While there is no silver bullet to becoming "Smarter, Faster, Better", the book points at many avenues one can use to improve themselves and their teams in order to achieve their goals.


Friday, July 7, 2017

Basic Running Technique Tips

Running has to be the most basic 'sport' around, right? Just left foot, right foot, repeat til finish line. Not so fast (sorry heh). There is actually a lot more to the technique of running well, with a lot of room for debate.


Paradoxically, we will start with your head. For some reason, many people start running with a heads-down posture, watching their feet fall. This tends to cause the rib cage to collapse, making breathing more difficult. Running with your head up, eyes scanning the road, is much better. The tips for good posture overall apply doubly while running. Imagine a string attached the top of your head, pulling you up. Round your shoulders back so that your chest is wide open. If oxygen is the fuel of running (it is), then your rib cage / thorax is the tank - you want it to be as large as possible.

Continuing down, you want your neck and spine in alignment, stacked on top of each other. Much like Jenga, your spinal column will be stable if it is vertically aligned but will cause problems if it is off to one side. Try to keep your head centered on top of your spine and pelvis. If you want to know what this feels like, just press your body up against a wall. The back of your head, shoulders, hips, and calves should all touch. If they do not or you have difficulty, you should see a physical therapist to help improve your static posture.

Your arms should swing gently at your side with your elbows are about a 90 degree angle. I like to think of it as if you are trying to serve someone breakfast in bed but you're late so you're running to them. You have a tray of food that you have to hold, but you have to hold it flat enough that the items on it do not fall. If you can mentally do that, you should have pretty good form.


Cadence, also known as stride rate, is the number of steps you take per minute. The consensus is that most runners take too few steps per minute, while each stride itself is too long. There is room for debate though. The number that most posts discuss is 180. This comes from research from long-time running coach Jack Daniels who found that most competitive runners run at 180 steps per minute or higher during races.

Of course, your total distance is going to be a function of your cadence multiplied by your stride length. Increasing either will increase your speed. Since most people tend to overstride and under-cadence, fixing your cadence is easier to start with. At first, it will feel like you are running too slowly but once you get the hang of it, you can accelerate faster by changing up your cadence (rather than trying to elongate your stride length). It should feel like you are stepping on pebbles or jumping rope at first - that's normal. Give it a shot two or three times and see how it feels.


The last major concern is your pace. You want to run at a speed you can maintain. Generally that means slow down! A common rookie mistake to start out running at too fast a pace to maintain, leading one to get winded easily and feel 'slow.' A better strategy is to start jogging comfortably at a pace you think you could maintain indefinitely. You should be able to maintain a conversation at this pace. As one advances, there are training styles in which you will sprint but to start, maintaining an even pace throughout a run is a great goal.

But what about terrain? It's hard to stay at the same speed going up a hill! The key with uphill or downhill segments is to focus on maintaining constant effort. If  you could maintaing a conversation on flat terrain, you should slow down enough to be able to continue that conversation going up the hill.

That's it! Making these simple tweaks will make your early runs more enjoyable and possibly even avoid injury. If you have any doubts, just remember - you were born to run!


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Try, Try Again: An Empiric Approach To Learning

The two key concepts for today are empiricism and inculcation. Fancy four dollar words but both with very simple meanings for our purposes:

Empiricism: learning by doing

Inculcation: learning by repetition

The first time has launched scores of philosophical debates over the nature of reality but ultimately, there is no substitute for trying something out. If you want to figure whether you enjoy something or not, you have to go *do* it. No amount of book learning, dialogue with practitioners, visualization, or any other pre-"doing" technique will suffice for the actual experience.

Over on Farnam Street Blog, the post "The Map is Not the Territory" reminds me of my own literal first jarring experience with this truism. As a college student, I was new to the city and did not have a car to move around. Like most cash-strapped folks, I relied on the subway to get around. The map was nowhere near to scale, yet I assumed it was a reasonable proxy for distance.

In simpler terms, I assumed something two stops away was "twice" as far. Big mistake.

Imagine my surprise when I realized I could walk the same distance for free in less time. 

The map: 
Source: MBTA

is not

The territory: 
Notice any differences? The city began to make much more sense to me once I started running regularly and could understand how physical places connected together. 

The larger lesson is that the models we are given to represent a concept to learn are great for getting you about 70% of the way there. By necessity though, they must leave out detail in order to not overwhelm one with extraneous information. 

To master a concept though, 70% is nowhere near enough. To get as close to 100% as possible, we have to be empiricists. We have to do the thing we intend to achieve. Want to become an author? Make a habit of writing daily. Athlete? Practice. Chef? Cook. 

However, remember that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. That is why the inculcation must involve deliberate practice. 

The concept of deliberate practice has been advocated by psychologist Anders Ericsson who is most closely associated with the 10,000 hour rule (the notion that world-class talent requires 10,000 hours of practice). Ericsson dives deeper in his book Peak, explaining that each repetition must have some goal behind it in order to accelerate one's journey from novice to master.

As you ponder taking up a new task, focus on creating as many opportunities as possible to do the activity you are interested in. Once you start, then try to practice deliberately by breaking the skill down into its component steps. Ask those who have mastered the skill what specific steps they were taking to improve. You want as much detail as possible here. Then just try, try again until you are an expert. As they say: you make your habits, and then your habits make you, so make good habits!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

My Running Story

I do not remember the first time I intentionally went running. As a child, my first runs were as a means to an end: chasing a ball. Most likely a soccer ball, to be precise. I was never particularly fast but I could kick the ball hard! However, over time, I developed asthma and gained weight. I was still fairly active but no one would confuse me for a runner.

My first experiences running consistently were during college. I still much preferred playing pickup games of basketball. Occasionally though, the courts were closed so I wandered upstairs and discovered the strange hamster-like feeling of running on a treadmill. I would still wear my cross-trainers or basketball shoes, so you can imagine the quality of these runs.

During the summer between junior and senior runner, I had my first regular experiences running outdoors. I would run in the evenings along the Charles River to the Massachusetts Avenue bridge and back. Fun fact: the bridge has its own unit, the smoot! One particularly memorable run ended with a friend taking us out on her team's sailboat to sail out on the Charles itself.

Over the next several years, I would run a mix of treadmill and outdoor runs, mostly of the 3 mile length. The runs were regular but still supplemental to playing basketball and working out. Over time though, as work got busier, my fitness level dropped. The low point for me was returning to my regular 5k loop after a long layoff and not being able to complete it without stopping to walk and catch my breath. I felt defeated.

After that low point though, I resolved to never again let myself slack off so much. I made a goal of running a race, and practicing consistently for it.

My first actual race was a 5k in 2012. I learned a lot from the experience, especially how much pacing and heat affect how you run. While I enjoyed the race, I can't say the bug really bit until year later.

The two big differences were buying a proper running shoes and finding a running partner. A friend who was also getting into running encouraged me to invest in a pair (instead of my beat-up cross trainers). I was skeptical that there was much of a difference, and viewed it as marketing hype. However, you can't knock what you haven't tried, so one day, I went to the local running store, had a gait test, and got fitted. My first pair were from New Balance and looked something like this:

My first run out with the new shoes were eye-opening. I ran my usual 5k loop around the Rose Bowl, at my usual effort. The result?

I ran a solid MINUTE faster than ever before!

To the non-runner, that may not sound like much, but to shave an entire minute off your run time for a 5k is akin to 10% improvement in relative terms. It is hard to describe as a feeling, but it feels like you ran twice as fast. My eyes were opened to bigger possibilities after years of my runs all feeling roughly the same.

The other big difference? Having a running buddy! My friend Ashley served as an accountability partner: someone who makes sure you're staying on track with the goal you set. We never explicitly said we were AP's, but it happens naturally. You sign up for a big race, which means you have to do training runs. By yourself, you may choose to sleep in, but with a friend? No way you're wussing out and leaving them hanging.

A year after that first 5k, we completed our first half marathon in 2013. The bug bit and dug its fangs in deep. After that first half marathon, we have completed 9 more as well as two full marathons!

This is not the most inspirational running story ever, but that's okay. Rather, it shows how even an average person can achieve great things simply by making a plan and developing a keystone habit. As NYTimes reporter Charles Duhigg writes in the Power of Habit, developing a keystone habit is a consistent, sustainable routine that spurs other beneficial habits.

For me, the running habit has keyed into taking better care of my body by eating healthier, losing weight, and trying to be better organized about my life. As a bonus, running races outside my hometown has led to some great vacation memories. One of my favorites was running across the Golden Gate Bridge - the marathon is the only time they let runners do that!

Many people when first asked to run reflexively respond, "Oh, I'm not a runner, that's not me." I know - I did, too. However, everyone who is physically able has a runner inside of them. Don't believe me? Check out Christopher McDougall's Born to Run:

McDougall convincingly argues that one of the key evolutionary advantages that humans have over other species is our ability to run long distances and our stamina. Sure, other animals like cheetahs are much, much faster but they cannot sustain that speed for more than a mile or two. Even an average human can run 26 miles more or less continuously. A marathon is actually quite a feat not just among humans but across the animal kingdom!

So there you have it: running is in your bones. It's your heritage. Get started today with your running journey. If you have any questions about how to get started, please contact me or comment below!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Running in the Sun for Beginners

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the world is conspiring to give you zero excuses to lace up and go for a run. It's really *really* hard to resist after being cooped up inside all day. A few precautions though can make that outdoor run much more enjoyable, not to mention safe.

There are actually three factors to consider: light, heat / temperature, and humidity. Light is the easiest to deal with. Basically, protect your eyes and protect your skin. For your eyes, I like wearing these Tifosi shades I found online. They're lightweight, durable, and come with their own case and cleaning cloth.

Next, protect your skin with sunscreen that covers with both UV-A and UV-B light with an SPF of at least 30. Remember to reapply hourly if you are doing a long-run, as you will sweat away your protection. Keeping a travel size sunscreen on you is not a bad idea.

Lastly, you want to wear clothing that covers your skin well while letting it still breathe and be ventilated. This means a cap or visor with clothes that wick away moisture. I prefer the Nike DriFit line of clothing but any of the wicking technology from the major brands will do. A cap like the Nike Aerobill works well, especially for runners.

While you want to look hot in your clothing, you don't want to *feel* hot. That feeling of overheating mixed with dehydration is awful. Why does this happen? According to Runner's World, the slowdowns due to heat can be significant:
It's generally recognized that for every 10-degree increase in air temperature above 55 degrees, there's a 1.5 percent to 3 percent increase in average finishing time for a marathon. (Translation: An extra 3 to 6 minutes for a 3:30 marathon with every 10-degree increase.) This slow-down occurs because heat impacts runners at a physiological level through various means, including dehydration, increased heart rate and reduced blood flow (and subsequently oxygen) to the muscles used for running.
Sweating helps you remove that heat from your body, as water has a high heat-capacity. That means each drop of water can carry away a large amount of heat relative to its volume. Unfortunately, as you keep running, the beneficial effects of sweating are offset by the dehydration that occurs. The lost circulating volume in your blood combined with the blood shunted to your skin to dump heat both reduce the blood available to your muscles to, you know, run! It's a vicious cycle that causes you to feel significantly slower.

And that's okay!

Learning how to listen to your body and adjust accordingly is the key to being a happy and healthy runner. In hot conditions, adjust your expectations and try to run to the same effort you trained for, rather than the same time. But what about humidity?

Humidity is defined as the percentage of water vapor in the air. It is related to the dew point, which is the temperature at which water condenses. As the Runner's World article notes, the closer the dew point is to the atmospheric temperature, the more difficult it is for your sweat to evaporate. This is also related to why a breeze feels good on a warm day: the breeze brings in new air that can be saturated with water vapor from sweat to carry off more heat. If the air around you is stagnant, there is nowhere for your body to dump that heat off.

All this science is awesome, but what should you actually do practically while running on a hot day, especially during a race?
  • Make sure your skin is protected from the sun 
  • During the race, try to run in shaded areas as much as possible
  • Re-hydrate more frequently than usual
  • Either drink or ingest electrolytes (ie Gatorade) especially later in the race 
  • SLOW DOWN - run to a particular effort / comfort level rather than a particular pace
As a rule of thumb, you can run up to a marathon in 50 degree weather, a half in 60 degree weather, a 10k to 15k in 70 degrees, and a 5k at most in 80 degree temperatures. Above 80 degrees? Consider that a rest day B-)


Disclaimer:  The information provided here is for general information purposes only. You should consult with your primary health care physician before beginning any nutrition or exercise program

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

How To Ski For Beginners

I recently went skiing for the first time. While the memory is still fresh on my mind, I figured it would be worthwhile to write about how to ski for beginners. While there are many great websites out there explaining the basics of skiing, sometimes experts forget what it is like to be a beginner and how even basic steps may require some explanation for the complete novice. This guide will go over what to wear, what to expect at the ski resort, and the very basic first steps of getting out on the slopes. This post will most definitely *not* teach you how to ski well, but rather how to get the most out of your first ski trip without breaking the bank or your bones! Warning: you will end up on your butt a lot with more than just your ego ending up bruised.

What To Wear

The main consideration when consider ski gear for the first time is whether you should buy or rent. Depending on where you live and how much you enjoy your first trip, this whole skiing thing may be a one time deal. You can easily spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on equipment you may never use. When in doubt, err towards renting first. The list below covers all the items you should need from head to toe.
  • Helmet - Rent. Most ski resorts should have these available for one or two day use at a reasonable price.
  • Goggles - Buy. While these can get pricey, a basic pair should be fairly affordable.
  • Scarf/neck liner/balaclava - Buy. These should be fairly affordable and multi-purpose since you can use them in other cold settings, such as riding a bike on a cold day.
  • Base layer - Buy. You want something that easily wicks away sweat and moisture.
  • Mid layer - Buy but optional. If the weather is not too cold, you do not necessarily need this.
  • Jacket - Buy. Similar to the pants below, you want something thermal and waterproof.
  • Gloves - Buy. Look for gloves that are waterproof and thermal. Mittens are fine too. You do not need fine manual dexterity.
  • Waterproof Pants - Buy. Essential - you will have a very unpleasant experience if you try skiing with pants that let both the cold and the wet in.
  • Socks - Buy. Wear a single layer that has some insulation but is still able to wick away moisture.
  • Boots - Rent. This should be included with the skis.
  • Skis/Poles/Bindings - Rent. Similar to the helmet, these should be easily available.
  • Backpack - Buy. Any backpack should do, but one that is water resistant is helpful. The backpack is useful to keep water and other snacks with you while on the slopes. 

How To Prepare

To be honest, you could probably show up, take a lesson, and be fine. However, the more prepared you are, the more you will get out of the experience. As you can see above, you are likely going to have invest a little bit to even get started skiing, so might as well make the most of it, right? A great place to start is the Ski School channel on YouTube. They have a lot of great, short videos that address all the small points that beginners should know but many experienced skiers would take for granted. For example, here is how to put on ski boots:

What To Expect At The Ski Resort

I can only speak to my experience at Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont, but I imagine most places are fairly similar. Most likely, you will want to take lessons, so head to the ski shop to find out what your options are. You should try to call ahead and reserve, because spots can fill up quickly, especially on a popular weekend. Check to see if the ski equipment rental and lift ticket are included with the lessons. Give yourself enough time to change into your ski gear and head to the meeting point for the lessons.

Your instructor will most likely take you to the bunny slope, which is the lowest grade slope one can ski down. To get to the top of most of the trails, you will need to take some kind of lift. Many bunny slopes have a 'magic carpet', which is basically a human conveyor belt to ferry you up the slope. Simply approach the belt, shuffle forward with your skis, and let the belt carry you. It helps to lean forward a bit so that the jolt of the belt doesn't throw you off balance.

Once at the top, point your ski ends together in a wedge or pizza configuration, and slowly descend the slope. Your goal here is to maintain control. Being on ice, speed will come whether you want it or not. The main point to master is getting your skis to move when and how you want, and more importantly how to stop moving! Keep doing runs down the bunny slope until you feel fully comfortable... and then do 3 more runs just to be sure.

Your First Trail

If you have taken lessons, your teacher will be able to assess whether you are ready for a full trail. The trails are rated by a hybrid color / diamond system, with green being the easiest. Do not try for anything more on your first trip. Be careful to map out your trail beforehand and keep aware of all trail markings. It is easy to take a wrong turn and end up on a much more difficult trail. Also, go with a friend or someone more experienced for your first runs so that they can keep an eye on you, and help you out of a jam.

To get to the trail, you will need to take a ski lift. Similar to the carpet, you approach the lift by shuffling forward. Place one hand back and use it to gauge the seat as it approaches you. Once you make contact, lower yourself into the chair. After being seated and clearing the loading area, lower the safety rail down in front of you. As you reach the top, lift the rail up and scoot to the edge of the seat. Tip your skis upwards and lean forwards as you make contact with the snow. Push off as you land, and ski forward a few yards to clear the landing area for the skiers coming behind you.

As you head down your first trail, remember to take it easy! Aim for control and practice the skills you learned during your lessons. Keep your knees bent, lean forward, with the weight of your shins firmly against the tongues of your boots. Be safe and yield to skiers in front of you. Most of all, have fun!