Apr 29, 2018

Models for Life

Planning for the Future

Our mind continuously builds models for the future. This way, you know exactly what you will be doing tomorrow morning. And you know whether you have enough money to make it to the end of the month. If you don't, you know it, and you start to feel uneasy.

Plans

However, keeping these models in our mind he's not a good idea. This is because our mind is limited to the number of concepts it can keep the focus on at once. If you have too many things to buy in the supermarket, you need to compose a shopping list - otherwise, you will forget. Also, you forget things that are not associated with other ideas you remember. For example, some nice idea pops up in your mind, and if you don't write it down fast, it will be forgotten soon.

Because of these limitations, people compose plans and do New Year resolutions. Because they know that without them, their lives are likely to degrade into their usual routine. Achievement requires a sacrifice, and not every sacrifice yields and achievement - much less the absence of the sacrifice. This is why we need to plan our time carefully, so that say a year from now we make progress in life.

However, very frequently plans do not work as expected. The next day after the New Year, resolutions are frequently forgotten. Our lives degrade back into the ordinary routine. Why does this happen? One reason may be that the new information constantly pops up. For example, you have planned to learn programming starting from tomorrow. However, the next day you found out that you need to go out to buy some bread, and then a friend phoned you, and you had to go out. The day went by without your resolution being fulfilled. Another reason may be that you just found some excuse not to do what you plan to do. For instance, you plan to jog tomorrow morning, and the next day there is rain, and you use that as an excuse and don't jog. The plans are forgotten, and the lives go back to their ordinary routines.

Models

This situation can be changed if you stop composing plans, and start composing models instead. What happens when we fail our plan? Usually feel guilty and bad, and we want to forget the episode as fast as possible. Maybe make some excuses so that we do not feel as bad in our own eyes. If the plan fails, we just throw it away and move according to the flow of life. However, the mind keeps composing models of the future - always, even if they fail. In my experience, if you stop treating whatever you resolve to do as a plan and treating it as a model instead things start to work as you model them. With time.

So how do models that our brain composes differ from the plans and resolutions that we make? Our brain embraces modifications to its models. E.g. you most probably have some model of how your morning routine looks like. Stand up in the morning, get in a shower, get some breakfast and go to work. However if, for example, you'll find out that you're out of food and cannot cook breakfast, you do not ruin the entire model. Instead, you modify it. You go to a supermarket and buy some food, and have breakfast afterwards.

Why is such an approach not possible with our plans? Why do we not modify plans at will as new information arises? One reason may be that we equate plans to commitments. So, for example, New Year's resolutions. We tend to make ourselves believe that we absolutely must follow the plans that we defined on the New Year's Eve, and if we don't, we feel guilty and bad about it. Another possible reason is that we may be composing them on a wrong medium. The modification is hardly possible if you write down your plans on paper. On a computer, you are able to modify whatever you need very fast and quickly.

Here are some examples of the models that I am using to plan my future.

Google sheets for Budget

In Google Sheets, I have a separate table where I project my expenses for the next 3 months. I have three tables, one for each month, and each table has the following columns.

  • Name
  • Date
  • Amount
  • Cumulative Income
  • Financial Cushion Delta

The name is clear, it can be e.g. "trip to a supermarket". The date is also clear - it is the date on which I need to pay the money (or only which I receive money). The expense can be either positive or negative. So when I receive a salary, the expense is positive, and when I buy something the expense is negative. I can add up all the expenses and income up to a given date and get the amount of money I will have on that date. This is cumulative income. For each expense, I compute the cumulative income (that is, the sum of all income and expenses up to that expense) and see if it is positive or negative. And if for some expense the cumulative income becomes negative, I know the plan for the month is bad. And if I make that expense, I am going to get into debt. So I need to modify the financial plan so that for no expense the cumulative income is negative.

The final column is the cushion delta. Based on my monthly expenses, I can predict how much money on average I spend per month. Hence, I can define a certain financial cushion for myself. A financial cushion is the amount of money that is enough for me to get through a certain period of time without working. So for example, if you want a financial cushion for 3 months and you spend €1,000 per month, you need a financial cushion of €3,000. Hence, the financial cushion delta is the difference between the money you currently have and your desired financial cushion. The delta can also be either positive or negative and ideally, it should stay positive all the time. The idea here is that at all times when something unexpected happens, you should be able to get along without any external income for some period of time. So that you have time to recover from unexpected situations.

I started to compose this table for a week only. But after you have a projection for a week, it is natural for you to extend it for a larger span of time. This is so because there are some recurring expenses that you have every week, and there are ones you know you're going to make in a not so distant future. For example, you have scheduled a visit to a dentist in two weeks - you know in two weeks you will have a certain expense. You can write it down in your budget table. The advantage of having such a table is that you are confident about your financial future. If nowhere in your table for three months ahead you have the cumulative income dropping below zero, you can go ahead with your selected lifestyle. For the three months you can commit the expenses you have entered into your budget table and know you will not get in debt. Another advantage is that you know exactly what your lifestyle will be in the next 3 months. So for example, if you want to go to your work with uber every day, you can enter this expense into your budget sheet, and see if the cumulative income looks good at all times.

Google Calendar for Planning Time

The idea here is where is similar to that of the Google sheets for the budget, except that now you're dealing with time. Just like in case of money, you know certain things about how you will be spending your time in future. Your mind also composes a corresponding model automatically. So, for example, you have a visit to a dentist scheduled next week. You know it is going to happen - the mind has constructed the model of the future that accounts for the visit.

But you can forget about it. So we tend to write notes about things that are going to happen in future. Because our mind tends to unload it's model of the future from our attention if it is not immediately required.

A better solution is to use a dedicated software to plan the time. Make sure your Google Calendar is present on every device that you're using. If you're using iPhone, probably you will need to use some Apple's solution for the calendar. But the principle remains the same. You start with writing down the events that you know are going to happen to you in future into the calendar (e.g. the dentist). You can continue with writing down your daily routine. When you get up, what you do in the morning, when you eat your breakfast.

With time you start to naturally fall behind your schedule. Reality starts to differ from what you have on your calendar. You have your meeting with the dentist moved for some period of time. You failed to get up in the morning at the time you planned. Or it appears that you need more time to do breakfast than you originally allocated. And this is perfectly fine. If you embrace modification of your models of the future, you're able to change them whenever you want. At first, your modifications will be pretty major. For example, you decided you are going to jog every morning. But you lack the willpower to do it. So instead of jogging, you overslept. And you needed much more time to cook breakfast than you thought. When it happened, you go to your calendar and modify it according to the reality that already happened. Because it is not your plan. It is your model for the future.

When enough modifications are done, you'll end up with an accurate enough model that describes your time. In your calendar, you see clearly that you are by no means jogging in the morning. That you oversleep frequently for your work. And that you take 2 hours to cook yourself breakfast because you like to browse Facebook while doing it. You'll notice that you go about your life without modifying your model so much anymore - maybe here and there a little. But but the general pattern remains the same.

And this is where you can start to change your life to the ways that you wanted to be. You can start by changing one thing at a time. You can stop browsing Facebook when you cook breakfast. Whenever something unexpected pops up, you have a clear picture of when you have free time to handle it.