Optimize Your Algorithm
Optimize Your Algorithm

Optimize Your Algorithm

In the book, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” Yuval Noah Harari discusses human nature as an entity akin to a computer algorithm. In the past, psychologists such as Carl Jung and Freud have likened our brain to the steam engine, the leading technology of the time, as they talked about pent-up energy and letting off steam.

Here, I want to talk about this idea of people as algorithms and how this has provided me with some fruitful thoughts and tips on being more productive.

Harari offers an example of what he means by humans, and all living things, are algorithms. Imagine there is a monkey standing a mere ten meters away from a bundle of bananas. The algorithm’s output will be pretty obvious in this case: monkey sees food, monkey obtains food.

Now, let’s add some more difficult computations. Let’s say there is a lion standing twenty meters away eyeing the monkey. The monkey must factor in its own speed, the lion’s speed, and whether these bananas are truly worth risking its life. Now, add the fear factor: this monkey witnessed another monkey get slain by another lion just last week. Is the risk worth not only death but the gruesome suffering on its final breaths?

This primal example seems irrelevant from the environment of an office space, lecture hall, or social gathering, but we, as humans, compute decisions in a similar manner constantly. We input the sound of our alarm clock, the deadlines of work projects, and the touch and go of rush-hour traffic jams. I think many people find this analogy inadequate or scary because humans love to believe we possess free will to change our reactions, unlike animals.

I am here to argue that, while we are largely fixed-beings, our coding can be rewritten with intense practice and, more importantly, there is plenty of room to change the inputs of our environment which will optimize a better algorithmic output.

First, we are largely fixed beings. If you put your hand on the hot stove, you will flinch. Malcolm Gladwell defends this idea to the grave in his popular work Blink as he discusses the unconscious biases of music listening, car purchases, and more. As Gladwell puts it, there is a “locked door” of unconscious processes we cannot tap into, but we can control who knocks on that door by altering our environment.

As a personal example, I am a very tactile learner: I enjoy touching and holding objects and artifacts to learn. My imagination cannot always propel my thoughts forward when simply reading a book, my executive functioning cannot always remember that thought I had earlier, and digital reminders aren’t always as valuable as physical.

For a long-time, this part of my algorithm was a crutch. If I couldn’t physically write something down, I couldn’t imagine or remember it. If I couldn’t diagram or bullet journal an outline for an essay, I would lose track of my thoughts. If a reminder to do the dishes, read before bed, or wash my laundry was not physically standing in front of me, it often was placed on the backburner. I procrastinated and was largely chaotic in life.

That is, until I channeled this algorithm into my favor. In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the idea of making your cue obvious to catalyze the good habit. Rather than relying on my memory or my executive functioning to tell me, “Hey, don’t forget to read before bed!”, I place my book on my bed after making it in the morning. That way, my tactile algorithm sees the physical book and computes this input with the output of, “interact with this physical entity by reading.”

I’ve upgraded my environment to enhance my algorithm in a number of tactile ways: every night, I write down tomorrow’s goals on a sticky note and place it on top of my closed laptop; I have created a permanent space for my floss and retainer to remind myself to keep up with my oral hygiene; I have minimalized my desk space to nothing more than my dual-monitors, my sticky note pad, and my microphone for recording to make productive habits obvious and everything else obsolete. So ask yourself, how is your algorithm naturally coded, and what can you do to optimize its outputs? Maybe you’re an auditory learner and would benefit from a subscription to Audible instead of reading books. Perhaps you are naturally messy but love your morning coffee. IN that case, create a sequence of positive momentum and reward yourself by only drinking coffee after you make your bed.

To finish, I want to address my caveat of humans as largely fixed beings.

In the book Altered Traits, neuroscientists Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson discuss a number of studies conducted around meditation changing our permanent attributes and traits. One study dealt with anticipatory anxiety and post-stress. A control group of nonmeditators and a group of experienced yogis. Each group was connected to a thermal stimulator that would create a sensation of burning without any physical harm. While both groups showed a heightened sense of activity in the pain matrix section of their brain after the sensation was over the yogis immediately returned to normal levels of low stress, while the control group’s stress levels remained high.

This experiment offers hope for humans as algorithms. We cannot control that initial reaction to the hot stove, but we can permanently alter our behavior after the fact. Rather than getting overly distracted by a text message, frustrated for hours after an argument, or stuck in a rabbit hole of social media, we can recenter ourselves and change the output of our environment with meditation.

Currently, I am trying to rewire my code by upping my executive functioning power. To do this, I do one-pointed meditations by focusing on my breath or one simple mantra. This allows me to stay intentional and not lose focus when bad catalysts present themselves to my algorithm. While my progress may be slow, as some yogis clock thousands of hours meditating to alter their traits, I feel myself finding a flow state and dismissing distractions with more ease by the day.

Although our algorithms are written from birth and upbringing, this diagnosis does not have to leave us with a fatalistic attitude. Instead, we must learn the inner workings of our genetic code and optimize our output by finding how we each thrive as productive creatures. So the question is, how is your code written?

Have an awesome week!

  • Chantz

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