We all want to be able to make better decisions around nutrition, fitness, and life in general, but how to do that isn’t always so simple.
On this episode Andy was thrilled to sit down with Shane Parrish of Farnam Street, a site dedicated to teaching strategies for making better decisions.
Shane went from an executive in an intelligence agency, to MBA student, to creator and founder of Farnam Street – an online intellectual hub that teaches you how make better decisions using frameworks and mental models.
A lot of what you’ll hear Shane talk about revolves around mental models. Using these can create the successful frameworks that allow you to make the best, most informed decisions possible.
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- 02:30: The best time of day to make decisions that will help you reach your goals.
- 10:00: Why to-do lists are ineffective, and what a better alternative is.
- 12:30: How to decide which mental models will be most effective for you.
- 21:20: Why mentally arguing both “sides” of a decision will help you make better choices.
- 29:10: Shane’s favorite quotes and how they apply to mental models.
Transcript: How to Make Decisions You Can Be Proud Of
Andy: All right, so welcome to the GMB Show. This is Andy, and today, I am talking to Shane Parrish from Farnam Street, which is one of my very favorite websites on the internet. How are you doing, Shane?
Shane: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me, Andy.
Andy: Excellent. You want to give just a brief description of who you are and Farnam Street is about?
Shane: Yes, so Farnam Street is an online intellectual hub that’s geared towards helping people make better decisions, and I’m the author behind it. It started with my MBA when I wasn’t learning what I needed to learn in school, but how the world really worked to make consequential decisions. I started educating myself, and this is the journey that I’ve taken.
Andy: Very cool. A lot of that journey, and a lot of the things that you write about seem to be centered around a lot of things, from Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger.
Shane: Yes, I think the website has always been an homage to them. It started out as the zip code to [inaudible 01:12]half away, and it’s evolved into something that people can type which is Farnam Street.
Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Shane: It’s always been an inspiration. They’ve always been an inspiration for me about how I think and how I see the world. They’ve been exemplars in so many different categories, not only in the way that they run and operate a business, but the way that they think about things. This is my way of giving back to them.
Andy: It’s super cool, and I think maybe it’s strange to think about that sort of thinking being related to fitness in a lot of ways, but I read a while back something Warren Buffett actually said about health. If you think about your body like a car, you know? If you only have one that you have to drive for the rest of your life, you’re going to take really good care of it, right? You should do the same thing with your body. I think that that sort of thinking is really important. We have to look at not just health as something that we’re supposed to do, or we have to eat these foods, or whatever, but how do we take care of the one body that we have and the way that’s going to serve its best for the rest of our lives.
Shane: Yes, definitely. We don’t think about it in the context of how it affects our performance as well, right?
Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Shane: What you eat actually affects how you decide. When you make decisions during the day, it’s actually affected by what you’ve done that day and the time of day. We don’t tend to think about those things, but you’re going to make a worst decision if you have a really heavy carb lunch, and you get sleepy in the afternoon. Then, you will, if you’re making a decision in the morning.
Andy: Yes. I think that’s really important, you know? We all have to make decisions about a lot of things, and for some people, even just doing the things that they know they should be doing like eating, choosing a better choice on a menu, or something like that. Choosing to work out, or even to make it less impact, choosing to just do a little bit of stretching in the morning, you know? Making that decision to do that thing can be the hardest part for a lot of people. It’s not that we have a lack of information out there.
Shane: Yes, definitely.
Andy: With that, I really think that one of the biggest things that I’ve taken away from reading Farnam Street over the past few months that I’ve really been paying attention to it is that there’s a lot of different ways that we can try to make better decisions, given the information that we have. Do you want to talk a little bit about your framework for this kind of decision-making thinking?
Shane: Yes, so we believe that if you see the world for what it is, you know what to do. You know, once you have no blind spots, it becomes very easy to make a decision. One of the ways to actually see the world for what it is is a concept we call [mental models 04:06], which is a representation of the world itself. There’s different types of mental models. There’s things that are psychological-based and how we fool ourselves, which are human misjudgments. Those are like attributioner and envy and jealousy and hindsight bias and overconfidence. Then, there’s simulators of time, which is the big idea is from different disciplines. They become time simulators when you think about supply and demand and scarcity and evolution. You understand the concept, and then you’re trying to apply it forward to a situation that hasn’t happened yet using your brain to making some sort of judgment call. We want to collect this wisdom, and make it available for people, and then, you can apply it.
The way that we think about is adding tools to your mind’s toolbox so that you’re better prepared for whatever job you’re showing up at. If you are building a house, you don’t want to show up with just a hammer. If you show up with all of the range of tools, you’re going to build a much better product in the end than if you have a very limited number of tools.
Andy: Yes, absolutely. I live in a very small place in Honolulu, and my actual number of tools I own is something like 6, you know? If it comes to anything that’s broken around here, there’s very limited things that I can do with it, but when I was growing up, my father was a handyman who liked to build things. Basically, anything that we could dream up, we could build it at home. It took my a long time to get used to not being able to do that actually. It’s really important, I think. Looking at it as mental tools is something that is super interesting. What do you think are some of … so GMB, we talk a lot about health, but I know that you also discuss productivity, and in a lot of ways, since health and productivity are about just trying to make slightly more optimal choices about how you go through the day and how you take care of things. What are some of the mental models that you’ve found, that you return to again and again when you’re giving people advice about productivity?
Shane: Well, I can’t talk specifically about health per se, but with productivity, one thing that we think that I find particularly helpful when I’m consulting with people is small changes make a huge difference. The small changes tend to be matching energy to task. If you’re tired, you don’t want to be thinking about cognitively difficult things.
Shane: Right? You want to take the most valuable time in your day, which is typically the morning for most people, and apply it to your most valuable task. That’s how you lever things. If you have big strategic projects you’re working on, don’t do them in the afternoon. Do them in the morning when you’re at your freshest. Those types of things tend to make a huge difference because what ends up happening is you take low-value tasks like perhaps reading the newspaper, which is a habit you’ve gotten into. Now, you move it to later in the day. You still do the the same things, but your effectiveness has dramatically changed.
Andy: Yes, so that’s really, really interesting.
Shane: Then, the other thing that I recommend to people, and it’s all individualized. When I consult with people, we come up with things that work for you, and obviously, there’s no prescription that works for everybody. You have to take what works and ignore what doesn’t. The other thing that’s really helpful for people is just getting in routines, right? Blocking off chunks of time like for your listeners, it might be, “I go to the gym every Thursday from 6:00 to 7:00 am,” or “everyday from 6:00 to 7:00 am.” Once you have those routines, you’re not struggling the night before, going “when am I going to fit the gym in tomorrow?” You just know. “I have the same time blocked off everyday, and I follow the same routine.” You’re putting less of a cognitive load on all of that stuff.
Andy: Okay, yes. That’s really very interesting. You’re talking about managing energy, and specifically, managing the kinds of decisions you have to make to the right kind of energy as it changes in a day.
Shane: Yes, I mean it would be really difficult, I think, for people to consistently go to the gym at 10:00 pm at night because you work a long day, and it’s hard. That’s where most failures of productivity come. That’s where most willpower failures. Later in the day, when you’ve made all of these decisions all day, your mind is fatigued. It’s just trying to rest, and then, if you’re adding the gym to it, you come with excuses as to why not to do that. You cannot gym to any task, really.
One thing that I found that makes a huge difference in people’s lives is that if you wake up earlier, and go to bed earlier, you will get way more done, because what tends to happen is we come home from work after a long day. We make supper. We feed the kids. We put them to bed. By the time the kids go to bed, and we clean up, we’re exhausted. Then, we just want to relax, so we watch TV. We zone out. We do things that are … you know, they’re entertainment, which is great, but as long as we recognize that they’re entertainment. For so many people, that’s a way that they’re not productive, and they want to be productive. If you want to be productive, the secret to that is you just start moving your bed time earlier and waking up earlier. When you wake up, you’re refreshed. You’re energized. You’re ready to do things. You can check your e-mail. You can go to the gym. You can do the highest priority task that you have, the most difficult tasks that you have when you have all of these energy from waking up.
Andy: Yes, and you know, again, nothing wrong with entertainment, but it’s interesting. Like you said, a lot of times, we try to tell ourselves that “I’ll do this later on after the kids are in bed, after I do the dishes, and after everything’s finished. I’ll set that time aside for the things I really want to be doing.” You know. For reading a book, for learning to play an instrument, for doing my workout or for whatever. Whatever thing that we tell ourselves are important, we try to make time for it, and the natural inclination is to do it later when we’re too tired.
Shane: Well, totally.
Andy: You’re saying that we just will usually make the decision not to do it as well as we could if we do it at all.
Shane: Then, on top of that, it becomes a mental to-do list.
Shane: Now, you’re keeping track of all of these things that you’re going to be doing. We run a productivity seminar at bewaymoreproductive.com, but one of the things we talk about there is that to-do list actually are horrible, the way that most people use them. Most people use them as this endless list you you just add things to, when it’s much more effective to schedule your time in chunks. Everyday from 5:00 to 6:00, you conceptualize it on making supper from 6:00 to 7:00, on eating supper with the kids and playing. 7:00, we start the bed time wind down, and then, you’re thinking about when you’re going to do things. You have the habit again of how your moves. You have the flexibility to adapt when thing change, of course, but you’re not constantly going, “oh, I need to do this. I’ll do it later. Oh, I need to do this. I’ll do it later,” because these are all threads that you have to keep track of, and your mind gets overwhelmed when you have so many of these threads. Not only do you forget things, but it causes fatigue in everything that you’re doing.
Andy: Yes, yes. With training and stuff, we also have a similar thing. It’s like a to-do list, and that people, they’ll say, “oh, I need to get stronger. Oh, I need to lose some weight, and I also need to work on where I hurt my shoulder last year. I need to do a little bit of stretching. I need to work on my mobility. I need to do all these things.” It becomes a super long list. When you think about working out, it looks like there’s 3 hours worth of things you have to do, and it makes it really hard. You can’t even get started because there’s too much. It’s looming out there.
Shane: Right. The way that I think of it is when I coach people on being more productive is that those are all nice, but there’s 2 or 3 of those things that are going to make the bulk of the difference. Do those, and don’t forget the other ones, but they’re not nearly as important, so don’t place equal emphasis on them. If you can’t prioritize, it means you really need to think about what you’re doing. You’re not as conscious about what you’re doing as you should be.
Andy: Yes. I like that, and so deciding on the 2 or 3 things that are going to be the most useful to you is definitely a really good mental model in itself. We try to tell people to pick the top 2 things, the top 2 goals that they really have for their training and focus on that above everything else. When it comes to the mental models, and thinking about thinking as it were, and looking at these things. If people were to go on your website and study some of the ones that you’ve described there, what would be a good way for them to find which of those models would be most useful to them?
Shane: Everybody comes to things with preconceived experiences, which has become knowledge over time through analyzing and judging. Everybody starts from a different place in these subjects. Our goal is not to necessarily take you from zero all the way to the end here. It’s to hone your understanding of these ideas, and allow you to apply them in different contexts. We may all understand multiplicative systems like if you times anything by zero, you get a zero. We might conceptualize that in a mathematical sense and not a business sense or not a gym sense. Think about it in the sense of a retail outlet. Apple spends all this time and money, branding a product. At the end of the day, if I go to the store to buy this product, and the sales person’s a dick, and I walk out. Everything that they’ve done to get me to that point doesn’t matter because I’ve left.
Now, we can take the concept of multiplicative systems and apply it to sales changing, customer service and our life. We can think about it. What’s a multiplicative system in life? Trust is a multiplicative system in life. Once you lose trust, you’ve lost it. You can’t rebuild it. It’s not additive. If you are not in win-win situations with people, you will eventually multiply by zero, right? There’s 4 permutations of relationships with people. There’s win-lose. There’s win-win. There’s lose-win, and there’s lose-lose. Only one of those systems will survive time, right?
Shane: Biology teaches us. Evolution teaches us that the number 1 thing for survival is time. If you look a relationships and those 4 permutations, you discover that there’s only 1 type of relationship that takes advantage of time, which is also how we compound things and how we get these non-linear results. I’ve just talked about 4 mental models that come together and form a cohesive picture of not only your relationships, but how you can think about things, and how you can think about where to get advantages, how systems apply in the relationships that we’re in and how we want to go about them. If I’m in a win-lose relationship with you, and you’re on the losing end of that, I’m happy. If I don’t recognize that you’re losing, it’s fragile because you’re looking for an exit. You’re sowing the seeds of resentment. It’s a fragile relationship. The only sustainable ones are win-win, so we need to think about all of these stuff and apply it to life outside of just the… We learn things in domains.
Shane: We learn them. We learn to identify them in their specific niche. That’s part of how we’re taught to learn. It might one of the failings of our education system if there was one, but they also apply outside of that. We need to use our brains to conceptualize how this works. Does evolution apply here? Is this a multiplicative system? I don’t know what to do because there’s so much uncertainty. Well, here’s another tool. Let’s talk about inversion, and if I don’t know what to do, I do know all of the outcomes I don’t want. How do I avoid those outcomes? If you eliminate the outcomes you don’t want, you’re probably going to get an outcome you do want.
We try to help people think about the world in that way. Then, [honing 16:34] people’s understanding, basically, through reading about how we can add to those models over time, how we can apply them to different contexts and situations. That enables us. This is the biggest productivity secret of all, but nobody ever believes me. When you think about what you do at work, if you work for a reasonably-sized organization, and I would say that’s 50 people or more, which is the vast majority of people, you actually spend most of your time fixing terrible decisions, right? If you do the investment upfront to understand mental models, to think about how you’re applying them, to time your decisions, to give yourself time to actually think about the decision you’re making, to argue the other side. These little tips and tricks, they take work upfront, but they save you such an enormous amount of time later because now, you’re not correcting the stupidity from before.
Andy: Right, right, right. That’s really obvious in fitness, too. One example is weight loss. Not to say that somebody who needs to lose weight has been stupid in the past, but they’ve made decisions that, in hindsight, especially we’re not the best ones. They have to spend a lot of effort on trying to reverse those sub-optimal decisions before they can do the things that they wish they could be doing that might be taking them more towards. That might sound like there are nicer goals, but they have to spend a lot of time undoing things that have happened in the past. People with injuries, people that their bodies are very stiff because they don’t move outside of a very limited range of motion all day. Then, they find themselves trying to expend that.
Shane: No architect builds a house without a foundation of some sort, right? They adapt the foundation to the terrain that they’re operating on. Our minds and our bodies are very similar to that. This is why most of the self-help industry is just bullshit because they come at it from the perspective that we’re all the same. If you just do these 4 things, you will be a leader. You will be super fit. Well, it doesn’t work that way, right? Then, we have to do the cognitive load of taking these ideas from these books, and saying, “does this work for me in the context of my life? What made it work for them in the context of their life? Are they really telling me something that can apply? Are they not? What is my foundation to build on? What is the foundation I need to build on?”
Andy: Right, and there, we get into survivorship bias, too, you know? This has worked for this person, so it should work for other people, too. We look at it like an Olympic gymnast, and we think Olympics is the way to be this strong, but we don’t think about all the millions of kids who signed up for gymnastics and then don’t make it to that level, right?
Shane: Totally, yes. I mean there’s tons of failure that we don’t see because it’s not available to us.
Andy: Right, right. That’s super common in, like you said, the personal development, the nutrition, the fitness. Any of these things. We’re looking at a map that somebody has drawn based on their experience that worked once, maybe worked 10 times in a certain context, but how portable is that context? We don’t know until we look at it in the light of knowing that the context is different.
Shane: Yes, definitely.
Shane: I think if you just step back for one second, and think about it like, if we had figured out leadership, there would be one book on leadership. If we had figured out nutrition and health and the best way to exercise, there would be one book on that topic. You wouldn’t need another book, but we haven’t figured that out, right? There’s so many different lifestyles. There’s so many different variations of our genetics. There’s so many different contexts that we’re operating in ecosystems. It’s like when I talk to people about innovation, we get this really funny thing. I talk to CEOs, and what are you doing for innovation? A few years ago, everybody was copying Google, and they were like, “oh, we’re just doing 20% innovation time.” It’s like, “oh, well, how does that work for you?” It’s like, “well, it’s not working, but it sounds really good.”
Shane: Of course, it’s not working, right? That’s like taking a snake out of the desert in Phoenix and chucking it into the winter in Canada. It’s not going to survive. That snake exists within the context of an ecosystem, which is a company culture that is self-reinforcing to create that outcome. You can’t just tease one of these ideas out and put it in another place and expect it to survive with any degree of probability.
Andy: Right, right, right. Like you said, there’s more than one book on things for a reason. We tend to look at things, and we see one expert say this, and another expert say that. We think, “well, one of them has got to be wrong,” right? “well, my guru knows what’s best, and yours is an idiot.” We tend to overlook the fact that one might be right on one situation, and one might be right in another situation.
Shane: Yes, totally.
Andy: Truly, one might also be an idiot. I mean that’s also a possibility.
Shane: One of the easy ways that the low-hanging [referred 21:51] here is to just argue both sides of the argument in your head for a while. Go for a walk, and just like, “oh, if I was pro this, here’s what I would argue. Here, if I was taking the other side, here’s what I would argue.” Then, just volley that back and forth for a little bit, and you will get to a much better understanding once you start obstructing who said what and categorizing it: democrat or republican. Just start thinking about the ideas yourself outside of the context. It’s like, “how would I argue against this? Is that a rational argument? Is that a logical argument? What would I say to myself making this argument,” right?
Shane: Then, you start finding out that these people aren’t all idiots. Sometimes they are, but there’s some sort of truth to both of them, and that’s where you can start blending things into your life. You’ll start getting better results.
Andy: Yes, that’s super, super interesting. It’s really, really useful because I think probably the number one e-mail we get at GMB is “I have all of these things that I want to do, but what is the answer?” People don’t yet look at the context of how they got to where they are. Our response is almost always, “okay, well, tell us more about where you’re at. Let us understand your situation so that we can give you good advice.” People think that they’re looking for a solution that’s just in a vacuum, that doesn’t take all those things into account. When you do step back and look at the other side and look at how you got here and all the other things you have to work with, it becomes a lot easier to figure out what is the right step forward. A lot of times, when people go through that and answer our question about where they’re at and what’s stopping them from the things they want, they can already see the next steps a lot more clearly.
Shane: Yes, definitely. I would agree with that.
Andy: Yes. Cool. What advice would you have for someone that wanted to learn more about how they can better see reality, how they can be a clear thinker, how they can take the first steps to trying to learn a bit of the science, so they can make better decisions with less stress for themselves?
Shane: I think the easiest way to do that is just start exploring subjects that you’re interested in, and honing your understanding of the big ideas in there.
Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Shane: That’s the best way to get people interested in something. It’s not to come up and try to climb the mountain all in one day. It’s to take a subject that you already know a little bit about, that you’re curious about. Then, outline for yourselves the big ideas. A lot of people find that really helpful to write memos to themselves, just explaining the big ideas and whatever discipline they’re looking at, and then teasing in their minds like when you’re on the bus. Instead of just looking out the window or checking your iPhone, you can just tease in your mind like, “would this apply to another situation? Under what circumstances does this work? Under what circumstances doesn’t this work?” You kind of have this mental volleyball that you’re just constantly playing. That helps you through. You don’t need outside things to change the way that you think about things. Your mind is completely capable of changing the way that you see the world on its own. You just have to do the work of thinking about it, which is generating a new input, and then testing it and analyzing it and revising it. Then, eventually, that leads to some sort of action.
Andy: Very cool.
Shane: Yes, but don’t try to look at a subject like if you’re not interested in engineering, I would start with something like the margin of safety even though that applies to everything, from bridges to building. I would just start taking like, “what is it that I do for a living? How do I add value at work,” which is a really important question that very few people think about. You don’t add value forwarding e-mail.
Shane: What is it you do that really adds value? Then, start thinking about what would make that more valuable. If I knew how to do XYZ, would that make that more valuable? What subjects and domains do they come from, right?
Shane: Then, that’s a good way to start exploring the world. You don’t necessarily need to start with mental models. You just need to start with, “how do I synthesize this reality to make a bigger impact at work?”
Andy: Right. Instead of saying, “what are the best mental models?” Then, chasing after those things, instead looking at yourself and your current interest and your strengths and trying to learn more about the context in which those work and exploring that.
Shane: Yes, exactly. What are you interested in? Learn more about that, and then apply it. Once you start getting these results, it’s like going to the gym, right? If you start out and you’re not going to the gym, you go to the gym, you start seeing results. It becomes this self-reinforcing loop. You want that with learning, too. Mental models are one place to start their niche. They’re for very curious people, and they take some sort of cognitive work on your part to be able to apply them. It might be more effective and a quick win for people to just start thinking about like “how do I add value at work? What skill or habit do I need to develop to make that a lever?” A lot of people, when you start thinking about how I add value at work, and then matching that to how you spend your time at work. They don’t line up, right?
Andy: Right, right.
Shane: I add value by coaching my team and determining, translating strategy into concrete work objectives. Then, you look at like, “how does my calendar match up against that?” It’s like, “well, I don’t actually do that.”
Andy: Right, right.
Shane: Then, you start thinking about it from a learning perspective. It’s like, “how do I learn to coach my team better? Are there books and resources that I can look at that would better help me coach my team?” Then, you start changing your calendar to line up to those levers, and the results will just be enormous. Then, what ends up happening, I would say 90% of the time, is that once you start learning about it, because we get so stagnant, right? We stop learning about things. We stop trying to apply. Once we get to some base competency, we just wing it really, most of the time. Most people don’t want to admit that, and we don’t want to call out people on that because we’re constantly worried that we’ll be called out on that. Then what? Once you learn these things, and you get some positive feedback and momentum, then you become curious about other subject. Once you become curious about other subjects, like Farnam Street is your home on the internet if you’re curious about everything in the world, from philosophy and history and art to mental models, right?
Shane: That’s what we’re trying to be for people, which is adding those tools, adding the context, talking about not only decision-making and innovation, but exploring the big questions of life. What does it mean to live a better life? What does it mean to live? There’s no one answer. There’s no theory that’s going to work for everybody because we’re all unique. Then, we talk about mental models, which is an over-arching framework for how we synthesize the world because you want the world to do the work for you. You don’t want to be doing that.
Andy: Right, right. Cool. Yes, we’ve talked about a lot of different ways of looking at things. We’ve talked a lot about context and a lot about decisions and a lot about just really trying to understand where you find value and understanding why and how you could do more of those things. Some really good advice on how to arrange your schedule around the value that you’re capable of creating, instead of trying to [cram 29:41] the value into an arbitrary schedule and how to make your decisions happen and the best part of the day for the energy you need to make that decision well. There’s a ton of things to try to digest here, and it’s been really, really useful. Do you have anything else? Any final advice that you would have for somebody who is just … for anything?
Shane: Totally. Can I throw 2 of my favorite quotes that I think apply to everybody in different ways? The first is by Joseph [Tasman 30:14], and what he said is, “what the pupil must learn if he learns anything at all is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it works, and align yourself with those realities.” If we don’t do that, he says, “the world will teach us a lesson.” That’s about understanding reality and adapting yourself to reality, no matter how painful that reality is against your preconceived notions. The second one, which is Andy Benoit who’s a writer in Sports Illustrated. He has an amazing quote that applies to fitness. It applies to life, and it’s so under-appreciated because we’re always seeking complexity. What he says is, “most geniuses, especially those who lead others, prosper not by deconstructing integrate complexities, but by exploiting unrecognized simplicities.”
Andy: Super cool.
Shane: I think that’s the foundation of what we’re trying to do at Farnam Street.
Andy: Awesome. To find the underlying simplicities and learn how to exploit them is excellent. Cool. Where should people look if they are more interested in hearing from you and learning from you?
Shane: You can Google Shane Parrish or just go to farnamstreetblog.com, which is F-A-R-N-A-Mstreetblog.com. Yes, I think you’d love it. Check it out.
Andy: Cool. Thank you very much, Shane. We really appreciate you being on the show.
Shane: Thanks, Andy.
Andy: All right.
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