Thinking in reverse

I read about this idea in the context of Charlie Munger’s process for drawing good maps for pilots:

  1. Think about all the ways pilots could get killed.

  2. Do your best to avoid everything from 1.

The article describes applications to everyday life that are surprisingly helpful.

Example: Work Start Time

Permalink to “Example: Work Start Time”

Here’s an example of my own. Say you’re having an issue where you have trouble starting working early enough in the day. You can consider all the reasons this might happen:

  • You stayed up too late, so you (a) woke up late, (b) are too tired
  • You get distracted doing other things
  • Your morning routine beforehand takes too long
  • You don’t have a clear working time
  • Your work is nebulous so it’s difficult to get started

Not that all of them happen on a given day, but they’re all potential failure modes.

So, you simply make plans to avoid each of these failure modes.

  • Make sleeping on-time and well a high priority
  • Ban distracting things before you start working
  • Set a time limit for your morning routine
  • Set a goal time window to start working
  • Write down your day’s goals in detail the day before

Simply writing out the possibilities is great. It’s a finite list. And, if other difficulties come up, simply add them to the list.

It feels like “proof by cases.” It’s less elegant than a top-down explanation, but I think it’s more realistic. By default you enumerate the complexity of reality, rather than trying to come up with unifying theories at the start.

I also like this framework because it emphasizes looking at the set of causes and conditions around an event, rather than just the event itself.

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started 20 Jul 2021
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