A heuristic is a cognitive technique, a strategy or thought pattern.

Here are 8 that I like.

Look at neglected problems

Venture capitalists are look for first rate teams working on hard problems that no one else is working on. Effective altruists measure how important a cause is by how neglected it is.

Why does Peter Thiel go on and on about how competition is overrated?

Because if you're competing against others then you're already playing a crowded game. A few years ago, a book called the lean startup was written. The main idea is to create products in an iterative way: deploy, measure, improve, and then repeat. This works well when you find fast feedback loops. But now everyone knows that fast feedback loops are valuable. The neglected space is where the feedback loops are slow and noisy.

As an analogy, consider a financial market. If you're trying to make money on the financial markets you want to:

  • Have information that no one else does.
  • Relate information that everyone else has in a unique way.
  • Trade on the information that everyone else has in an advantageous way

It's easier to do all of these things if your market isn't crowded.

Neglected problems are hard, risky problems. There's a reason why they're neglected. But, if you're working on a neglected problem, your contribution may be more valuable.

Do boring things

Daniel Chambliss studied olympic swimmers in order to tell them apart:

"What these athletes do was rather interesting, but the people themselves were only fast swimmers, who did the particular things one does to swim fast. It is all very mundane."

Most paths to success are mundane, obvious in hindsight. In The Mundanity of Excellence, Daniel Chambliss boils down the path to discipline and technique. Amongst other cases, he mentions the following: when Mary T. Meagher was 13 years old she decided to try to break the world record in the 200 Meter Butterfly race. She did. What did she do? She decided to do turn correctly and show up to every practice on time.

The improve teacher Keith Johnstone has the line: "Don't do your best." What he means is that striving after originality and trying to be clever is a distraction. In improv, you don't want to be clever or original. That takes you away from natural acting and makes your work mediocre.

In general, there is no magic. If you want to do X, think through the particular things you need to do X.

Execute quickly

If you make faster decisions and have error correcting mechanisms, you can beat out more accurate, but slower decision makers.

In some fields speed isn't that relevant. You won't be able learn about the results of some decisions for years. But often one can take advantage of speed even when it isn't obvious how to do so at first. You can reduce uncertainty in a lot of ways. Be creative and do it quickly.

Life is short. Execute quickly, improve.

Create success spirals

Many processes in the world are autocatalytic. Success is one.

This is well known in the productivity literature. When you succeed, you build expectancy and confidence. This fuels motivation. With the motivation, you're more likely to succeed again, which continues to build confidence and on and on.

George Ainslie described the will as "a recursive process that bets the expected value of your future self-control against each of your successive temptations." The upshot of this is that you want to have confidence in your future self-control, and to build that you need to provide evidence that you can get things done.

Build momentum by starting with simple, realistic tasks.

Be direct

It's easy to not be direct. It's easy to avoid real work. Or think that in order to achieve a goal you need to add on additional subgoals.

If you want to achieve a goal, be direct as possible. If you're following a well trodden career path, talk to people about the process and then do it. If you're publishing a book, there are a pretty clear number of things you need to do, one of which includes writing a book (though, depending on your goals, potentially not right away).

This matters for making plans and constructing goals, but also for talking to people.

Play with where you're knowing from

You can know how, know that, but you can also know from. Perspectival knowledge matters because it changes the salience landscape. If I picture myself as a human occupying this room, that's different from picturing myself as part of a whole: one human among billions. The picture enlarges, and I shrink, if I include a wider time range. I become one human among the past hundreds of billions and trillions of future humans. It becomes even larger if I include other sentient beings, in addition to humans.

I don't encounter any new facts during this exercise, but what I am paying attention to does change. I find that when I do this, what's most important to me stays, but trivial concerns fall away.

John Hicks described the religious life as a movement from egocenteredness to realitycenteredness. This is, in part, a matter of relating to life from a larger point of view.

Signal to yourself

If you commit to something, signal to yourself that you really care. To get a grip on this, imagine that you need to convince a skeptical party that you care (there's a real sense in which this is true - that skeptical party is yourself). What would you do to persuade the skeptic? You'd go a bit overboard and be radical in your pursuit.

If you cared about becoming fit, you'd spend more money and time on the endeavor. Pay for a personal trainer, exercise more than three times a week, change your diet, film yourself, make a public commitment, maybe even get workout gear.

I expect that a lot of what you'd do wouldn't work intrinsically. Getting workout gear doesn't help you get more fit. Many of the fancy diet and supplement routines probably don't work. But it communicates that you care about becoming fit. And this makes it easier to do what does matter.


Backtracing, also called backwards induction, is a way of coming up with plans.

It's simple: start with the end state. And then work backwards. For some reason, we're inclined to plan forwards. Or we think through the three most plausible ways of achieving a goal and then pick one. But you need a theory of change. The most complete picture of how to get from B to A.

Start with the end, then work backwards.

Note that these are heuristics, sometimes they're appropriate, other times they're not.

Many are related. Success spirals work by self signaling competence and motivation. Backtracing and directness are applications the mundanity of everything.