All Choices Are Binary

This entry is part of 6 in the series The First World Problem is Choice

“Don’t make the right decision; make the decision right”
Dunno who first said it, but I heard it from Ali Brown

Once, a little while ago, I can’t be bothered to go look for the exact comment text but, a kid asked me something to the effect of:

“Khatz, why are you so clued in on human flaws and pitfalls when it comes to getting used to languages and other long-term projects and stuff? Are you just awesome or did you go through these yourself, or…?”

The answer is yes. Haha.
Indeed, I am pretty awesome. But, yes, the reason I’m so clued in on all the mistakes is because I’ve made them, if not in one field, then in another.  Most of the insight comes from experience + observation rather than pure observation. Thinking about it, I certainly wish I could be perfect, and I do spend a lot of time projecting perfection — which, frankly, is very emotionally immature. But even more than that, I wish I could be more courageous about projecting imperfection. For me personally, as a consumer of information on people’s experiences, I find accounts that lay the subject’s imperfections bare much more reassuring, relatable and inspiring.

The snob in me looks down on the “culture of confession”. But the sweetheart in me feels emboldened and more worthy and like much less of a noob, when reminded that non-noobs used to be noobs. As it turns out, if you dig deep into the stories of people who’ve achieved great things, who’ve topped and/or dominated a field, you often find that they overcame apparently insurmountable odds; they came from a position of “you have no right to be here”; “you don’t belong”; “you shouldn’t even consider entering this field” and moved to, well, the very top.

Professional sports is replete with examples of this phenomenon. You get world champion runners like Billy Konchellah and Jackie Joyner-Kersee having severe asthma, Wayne Gretzky being derided as too small and too slow to ever amount to anything in ice hockey, Michael Jordan being dropped from his high school team.

Arguably, the obvious “talent”, the sure thing, the “born superstar”, clear as mud for the whole world to see, is actually the exception rather than the rule. Almost everyone starts off scrappy and unlikely and pretty much looking like a loser, but the legend of their greatness gets ret-conned after the fact. Perhaps anything else would force as all to think (and work — haha!) too much.

Of course, sports has high visibility, but this phenomenon comes up in all kinds of places. So many people were inspired by want in youth to become fabulously wealthy (the “Horatio Alger Effect”, if you will) that many middle-class people started to believe that being raised in poverty was a prerequisite for major wealth! Now, that’s probably taking it too far. The real lesson is, and here I go using poker-based clichés even though I’ve literally only played the game once in my entire life — it’s not the hand that’s dealt, it’s how it’s played.

TL;DR: The reason why I’m writing to you today about making decisions is because I’ve gotten pretty good and pretty fast and pretty happy at doing it. But only because I was so bad, such an emotional wreck (yeah, I was a total be arch) even picking cereal at the grocery store, that I went out and deliberately absorbed, copied, refined and developed all sorts of techniques and heuristics, including timeboxing and, now, “binarization“, to get over it.

Now, it physically pains me to admit this. I was so different back then and I would rather not remember how I used to be, because it’s so embarrassing and because I would never want to return to being that way again, but…more than once, I spent hours — hours — at the video store picking movies to rent to watch that weekend. Yes, enough time spent picking a movie to actually watch a movie. Ridiculous. And tiring. And very unsatisfying. And this happened more than once. And the stupid movies were only a buck each — 100 yen rentals, man! Sometimes, for multiple weeks at a time, they would even have 50-yen specials. And do you know what I did? I SPENT LONGER PICKING! I SPENT LONGER PICKING WHEN IT WAS CHEAPER. I spent more time for less money; if that isn’t bass ackwards, I don’t know what is.

The video store thing is just one example. There are many others.

But that was then. This is now. Reading and learning have been good to me, so things have changed in big ways. Now, friends and acquaintances are frequently shocked at the speed with which, I, say, order food at a restaurant. I’ve gone from abnormally slow to abnormally fast, driven by the crippling slowness and enlightened by other people’s insights on the mechanics and value of decision-making.

And the restaurant thing is just one example. The effects, the benefits, the habits of fast and relaxed decision-making have bubbled up from trivial things like that to even bigger things. Paradoxically, though, the very banality and triviality of selecting a dish at a restaurant or picking a movie to watch turns out to be important. If I recall correctly, it was Cyril Northcote Parkinson (of Parkinson’s Law fame) who said that the time devoted to making a decision tends to be inversely proportional to the importance/value of the thing being decided. That assertion never fails to hit me like a fast-moving vehicle. And never fails to remind me that a lot of what you think are major roadblocks are actually just pebbles in your shoe. But just like real pebbles, they can affect your life far out of proportion to their size.

Here’s another concept to add, I’d like to think it’s an original idea but it probably isn’t: the quality of a decision is not proportional to the time taken to make it — not for long anyway — diminishing (and even negative) returns start to kick in real darn fast. In fact, the quality of a decision isn’t even proportional to the amount of information known. As Nassim Taleb has discussed, people famously get worse at successfully picking stocks the more information (data points) they’re given. So, giving a decision more time isn’t going to make for a better decision, and nor is collecting more data — not to the extent you probably think.

On a related note, some neurological (?) research has suggested that we actually make decisions very quickly and almost completely subconsciously — and irrationally — but then spend all kinds of time rationalizing, ratifying and testing the original quick decision. Some researchers have gone so far as to postulate that there is no such thing as free will, which is a thought-provoking but decidedly distasteful idea.

Without going into too much detail on it today, the idea that we already, subconsciously or pre-consciously or whatever, know exactly what we want and what we’ll like and what will work best for us, was really helpful in disabusing me of the linear illusion of “more time = better decision”.

Anyway, the latest research goes back and forth and takes a while to settle down, and that’s not the point I was even trying to make. So, enough making myself look bad and trying to be “relatable”. Gosh. So lame. You know I’m actually perfect and flawless, right? 😛 Anyway, to the point let us get — all decisions are binary.

You think you have to choose between 10 things. In reality, you only have to choose between two. There’s an unintentional joke in there somewhere. You only ever have to choose between two things.

All choices are binary. There may be more than one binary choice to make, but each individual choice is actually binary and thus easy.

All so-called “difficult choices” are (if not pure, self-created emotional drama) simply long chains of multiple binary choices. So it’s not that it’s one choice between 10 or 100 things: it’s 5, 10, 20, 100 or more choices between 2 things at time, and you’re overwhelming yourself by treating it as one, big choice. You’re trying to swallow an entire hamburger and you’re choking and you wonder why.

No matter how complex and realistic things look or get on your computer screen, it’s all binary numbers. Just lots of ’em. Similarly, no matter how big and intractable your decisions look, it’s all binary decisions, just lots of them.

For the sake of sanity, I am deliberately excluding dramatic, imminent life-or-death choices; those are off the table. Almost none of us make those choices on a daily basis. They are unhelpful outliers whose perceived frequency is distorted upwards by movies and TV news. Not to mention comic books. I spent a good deal of last night reading American comics. Way too much drama.

My only fear is that now I’ve told you that there’s no excuse, I’ll have to follow my own advice and actually practice what I preach 😀 . Because If there’s no place to run or hide for you, there’s none for me either. It’s bad enough that I’ve never consumed alcohol or narcotics: I can’t pretend that I was drunk — when I grope you or insult you, I know exactly what I was saying or doing…

…I’ll find a way out 😉 . Anyway! Yeah. At some level, this is the same as the idea of chunking or “binary fission” — cutting in half until you get to smaller and smaller pieces. The difference is that binary fission is more a top-down, task-based thing rather than a bottom-up, decision-based…thing. Decision binarization is also similar to David Allen (GTD)’s idea of “action steps” versus “projects”. Many people conflate the two, treating projects as action steps, treating a multiple decision chain as if it were one big, bad, permanent, monolithic decision. This results in a lot of unnecessary blockage, trepidation and avoidance behavior.

Realizing that decisions are binary has helped me the most in situations where the outcome is not pre-determined, where creativity is required and the goal state is somewhat fuzzy and not already defined — where I’m inventing things more or less from scratch, basically — such as when writing or programming. Again, often, it amounts to pebble removal. When writing or translating, word choice used to be a constant, almost nightmarish, ordeal for me until I came up with a little heuristic: “when deciding between two words, pick the shorter one. If they’re the same length, pick the one higher (= that comes earlier) in alphabetical order”.

Focussing on one small, clear decision at a time makes the whole picture much clearer over time, one step at a time. Almost by definition, to focus on one thing is to exclude another. But this is a good thing. We can only make small decisions (without being overwhelmed), but we only need to make small decisions. So the implication is that we need never be overwhelmed (at the very least, we need never stay that way). Panic may be heartfelt and endearing, but it’s never helpful.

Deciding things so clearly and quickly and unambiguously doesn’t make me “happy” or “satisfied” in the “yeah…this was the right word” sense, but it makes me productive, light, free and easy, all of which does make me happy. It gets things out of the way, which would seem to be the opposite of “enjoying the process” and “enjoying the moment“. But you and I both know that certain elements of the process — metaphorical pebbles — can vary rapidly outstay their welcome and cease to be enjoyable. They may have started out as roses, but they turned into…I dunno…thorns? Make that one make sense for yourself 😛 .

Many (most?) of us try to make better decisions, when really what we need to do is make decisions better. The point of the word choice thing was to make a decision and move on. I didn’t pick shorter words because they’re intrinsically better (although some people think they are): length just happens to be a quick, easy  and universally applicable way to compare words. It’s the best bad idea. As Parkinson would have put it: the fact that you even have doubt to begin with indicates that either option will do, because if there were a clear winner, there would be no doubt (you don’t decide whether or not to breathe or avoid oncoming vehicles). Picking what language to learn (first) is the classic example of this.

So, binary decision-making stops blocks — stops stoppage — and helps create forward momentum, and, as all good AJATTeers know, having momentum is generally more important than having good ideas. Course can be changed easily, but getting started is a witch.

Anyhoo, that’s all I can think of to say about this right now. You’ll probably have a ton of questions and I’ll be happy to answer them in the future. Or maybe you have something you do that has helped you make decisions better. We’d all be excited to hear your story 😉 .

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  11 comments for “All Choices Are Binary

  1. Marco
    September 16, 2013 at 02:16

    Well, that is exactly why I never leave home without a coin.

  2. Tyson
    September 16, 2013 at 10:59

    I had the same video store epiphany – hours spent trawling the aisles, only to choose the new action movie with the tits and explosions on the cover. It started me thinking about making decisions – their costs, their outcomes and why we seem to be pretty bad at understanding how we even make them.

    Binary decisions are a great way to turn everything into yes/no, ranking questions. Hard to use sometimes when there is more than 1 person and the other person isn’t “into” proper decision making.

    So one good thing to remember is – stop arguing with other peoples decisions for the sake of argument alone. If they want to eat Turkish food tonight, would it really harm you to just agree in 5 seconds rather than discuss the merits of Thai food for 30 minutes? I used to have groups of friends (engineers/science types mostly) that would wander around downtown for hours, bored, because nobody could agree what to do, or how to get there. Then I met a group of colleagues (sales/marketing types) who did not needlessly argue over which nightclub to go to, but instead whipped out phones and immediately made (often different) plans on how to get there and raced each other to arrive first. If anyone had a dissenting opinion, it was dealt with simply “well why don’t you go to your place, and we’ll be at the other place” – but it rarely happened because everyone knew that you had to pick a plan so why dissent all the time?

    I also learned, you can double down on your decisions. For example, buying two black t-shirts instead of one (and you can do it again – what about 4 of them?). Because if you make a decision, and it feels like a good one, maybe you ought to double down – if one is “worth it” is two “worth it”? Get two for the price of two. (Great quote from Contact “First rule of government spending, why buy one when you can have two for twice the price”). I often buy two power adaptors for a new latop, or 3 identical trackballs for use in different locations.

    And this idea can even be applied to help cope with loss/bad decisions. Back in student days when a buck was something that had to be spent wisely, a friend inserted a buck in the coke machine and got nothing out – the drink bottle was just short of falling down due to a small mechanical issue. So he spent $1 and got zero back. He pondered this for sometime, then inserted another coin. His reasoning – $2 for 1 coke is a better deal than $1 for 0 coke. So he doubled down and got a more expensive coke, although in the long term his 1 coke a day habit would pretty quickly average the cost down.

    I apply this reasoning to a lot of things.
    Don’t fight unimportant decisions with your unimportant opinions.
    Don’t make a new decision if your previous decision is still good. Get 2 for the price of 2.
    Decisions sometimes don’t work out, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad decision, get 1 for the price of 2.

  3. yoann
    September 16, 2013 at 19:00

    about choices, this talk is quite impressive:

  4. 魔法少女☆かなたん
    September 16, 2013 at 20:13

    I suppose it’s possible to be too impulsive and therefore make nothing but poor choices, but overall. I think this is probably true.

  5. September 28, 2013 at 01:03

    @tyson : love your “get 2 for the price of 2” idea !

    @khatz : I agree with you that a lot of seemingly hard choices can be reduced to simple binary choice. However, I think it’s not the case for every choice.

    I’ll use a mathematical metaphor: let’s assume that finding the best decision is like finding the minimum of a function. Binarization works for single parameter decision: it’s easy to find the minimum of a 1-D function by comparing the value of two points for several iterations. But if you want to find the optimum of a multi-objective function (= complex choices), you have to use other techniques, such as Pareto front (the “80/20” Pareto). And that’s why we get stuck when we have too much elements to make a decision.

    But I’ve just realized, as I write this, that this is exactly what you suggest with you “shortest word algorithm” : a metaheuristic to transform multi-objective optimization into a simple problem…

    Thank you Khatz, now I look like an idiot with this message 😉

  6. weirdesky
    May 1, 2014 at 04:13

    I also used to have a lot of trouble with writing in Japanese when I came upon words I couldn’t quite remember, thinking it was a very big and important thing.
    So I would go and search for these words on the internet and completely lose my creative train of though. Pull myself completely out of the zone.
    Now? I simple put in a 。. It turns out that the way I write doesn’t use them anywhere else, really, and I can easily fix them when I’m rereading and editing later
    Similarly, I used to worry a lot about titles. So my solution? Use numbers. My titles are sequential . I’m currently on title 148. After I finish this little vignette, the next will be 149.
    I’ll probably never publish these, so they needn’t be understandable to anyone but me. If I decide one day to publish them, I may end up slapping some title onto them
    But probably not. I’ll probably just throw out the trash and renumber them
    Stay awesome, Khatz. You a boss

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