October 22, 2022
Decision Making
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Algorithms to Live By - Brian Christian - Summary & Quotes

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Note: The following are excerpts from Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.

Three Takeaways

1. The 37% Rule

I. If you want the best odds of getting the best apartment, spend 37% of your apartment hunt (eleven days, if you’ve given yourself a month for the search) noncommittally exploring options. Leave the checkbook at home; you’re just calibrating. But after that point, be prepared to immediately commit—deposit and all—to the very first place you see that beats whatever you’ve already seen. This is not merely an intuitively satisfying compromise between looking and leaping. It is the provably optimal solution. We know this because finding an apartment belongs to a class of mathematical problems known as “optimal stopping” problems. The 37% rule defines a simple series of steps—what computer scientists call an “algorithm”—for solving these problems. And as it turns out, apartment hunting is just one of the ways that optimal stopping rears its head in daily life. Committing to or forgoing a succession of options is a structure that appears in life again and again, in slightly different incarnations. How many times to circle the block before pulling into a parking space? How far to push your luck with a risky business venture before cashing out? How long to hold out for a better offer on that house or car? The same challenge also appears in an even more fraught setting: dating. Optimal stopping is the science of serial monogamy.

II. The 37% Rule derives from optimal stopping’s most famous puzzle, which has come to be known as the “secretary problem.” Imagine you’re interviewing a set of applicants for a position as a secretary, and your goal is to maximize the chance of hiring the single best applicant in the pool. While you have no idea how to assign scores to individual applicants, you can easily judge which one you prefer. (A mathematician might say you have access only to the ordinal numbers—the relative ranks of the applicants compared to each other—but not to the cardinal numbers, their ratings on some kind of general scale.) You interview the applicants in random order, one at a time. You can decide to offer the job to an applicant at any point and they are guaranteed to accept, terminating the search. But if you pass over an applicant, deciding not to hire them, they are gone forever.

III. A 63% failure rate, when following the best possible strategy, is a sobering fact. Even when we act optimally in the secretary problem, we will still fail most of the time—that is, we won’t end up with the single best applicant in the pool. This is bad news for those of us who would frame romance as a search for “the one.” But here’s the silver lining. Intuition would suggest that our chances of picking the single best applicant should steadily decrease as the applicant pool grows. If we were hiring at random, for instance, then in a pool of a hundred applicants we’d have a 1% chance of success, and in a pool of a million applicants we’d have a 0.0001% chance. Yet remarkably, the math of the secretary problem doesn’t change. If you’re stopping optimally, your chance of finding the single best applicant in a pool of a hundred is 37%. And in a pool of a million, believe it or not, your chance is still 37%. Thus the bigger the applicant pool gets, the more valuable knowing the optimal algorithm becomes. It’s true that you’re unlikely to find the needle the majority of the time, but optimal stopping is your best defense against the haystack, no matter how large.

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2. Getting Things Done

I. We’ve noted that in single-machine scheduling, nothing we do can change how long it will take us to finish all of our tasks—but if each task, for instance, represents a waiting client, then there is a way to take up as little of their collective time as possible. Imagine starting on Monday morning with a four-day project and a one-day project on your agenda. If you deliver the bigger project on Thursday afternoon (4 days elapsed) and then the small one on Friday afternoon (5 days elapsed), the clients will have waited a total of 4 + 5 = 9 days. If you reverse the order, however, you can finish the small project on Monday and the big one on Friday, with the clients waiting a total of only 1 + 5 = 6 days. It’s a full workweek for you either way, but now you’ve saved your clients three days of their combined time. Scheduling theorists call this metric the “sum of completion times.”

Minimizing the sum of completion times leads to a very simple optimal algorithm called Shortest Processing Time: always do the quickest task you can. Even if you don’t have impatient clients hanging on every job, Shortest Processing Time gets things done. (Perhaps it’s no surprise that it is compatible with the recommendation in Getting Things Done to immediately perform any task that takes less than two minutes.) Again, there’s no way to change the total amount of time your work will take you, but Shortest Processing Time may ease your mind by shrinking the number of outstanding tasks as quickly as possible. Its sum-of-completion-times metric can be expressed another way: it’s like focusing above all on reducing the length of your to-do list. If each piece of unfinished business is like a thorn in your side, then racing through the easiest items may bring some measure of relief.

Of course, not all unfinished business is created equal. Putting out an actual fire in the kitchen should probably be done before “putting out a fire” with a quick email to a client, even if the former takes a bit longer. In scheduling, this difference of importance is captured in a variable known as weight. When you’re going through your to-do list, this weight might feel literal—the burden you get off your shoulders by finishing each task. A task’s completion time shows how long you carry that burden, so minimizing the sum of weighted completion times (that is, each task’s duration multiplied by its weight) means minimizing your total oppression as you work through your entire agenda. The optimal strategy for that goal is a simple modification of Shortest Processing Time: divide the weight of each task by how long it will take to finish, and then work in order from the highest resulting importance-per-unit-time (call it “density” if you like, to continue the weight metaphor) to the lowest. And while it might be hard to assign a degree of importance to each one of your daily tasks, this strategy nonetheless offers a nice rule of thumb: only prioritize a task that takes twice as long if it’s twice as important.

II. When a task’s starting time comes, compare that task to the one currently under way. If you’re working by Earliest Due Date and the new task is due even sooner than the current one, switch gears; otherwise stay the course. Likewise, if you’re working by Shortest Processing Time, and the new task can be finished faster than the current one, pause to take care of it first; otherwise, continue with what you were doing.

III. If you don’t know when tasks will begin, Earliest Due Date and Shortest Processing Time are still optimal strategies, able to guarantee you (on average) the best possible performance in the face of uncertainty. If assignments get tossed on your desk at unpredictable moments, the optimal strategy for minimizing maximum lateness is still the preemptive version of Earliest Due Date—switching to the job that just came up if it’s due sooner than the one you’re currently doing, and otherwise ignoring it. Similarly, the preemptive version of Shortest Processing Time—compare the time left to finish the current task to the time it would take to complete the new one—is still optimal for minimizing the sum of completion times.

In fact, the weighted version of Shortest Processing Time is a pretty good candidate for best general-purpose scheduling strategy in the face of uncertainty. It offers a simple prescription for time management: each time a new piece of work comes in, divide its importance by the amount of time it will take to complete. If that figure is higher than for the task you’re currently doing, switch to the new one; otherwise stick with the current task. This algorithm is the closest thing that scheduling theory has to a skeleton key or Swiss Army knife, the optimal strategy not just for one flavor of problem but for many. Under certain assumptions it minimizes not just the sum of weighted completion times, as we might expect, but also the sum of the weights of the late jobs and the sum of the weighted lateness of those jobs.”

3. Context Switching

I. Every time you switch tasks, you pay a price, known in computer science as a context switch. When a computer processor shifts its attention away from a given program, there’s always a certain amount of necessary overhead. It needs to effectively bookmark its place and put aside all of its information related to that program. Then it needs to figure out which program to run next. Finally it must haul out all the relevant information for that program, find its place in the code, and get in gear. None of this switching back and forth is “real work”—that is, none of it actually advances the state of any of the various programs the computer is switching between. It’s metawork. Every context switch is wasted time.

Humans clearly have context-switching costs too. We feel them when we move papers on and off our desk, close and open documents on our computer, walk into a room without remembering what had sent us there, or simply say out loud, “Now, where was I?” or “What was I saying?” Psychologists have shown that for us, the effects of switching tasks can include both delays and errors—at the scale of minutes rather than microseconds. To put that figure in perspective, anyone you interrupt more than a few times an hour is in danger of doing no work at all.

II. Operating system schedulers typically define a “period” in which every program is guaranteed to run at least a little bit, with the system giving a “slice” of that period to each program. The more programs are running, the smaller those slices become, and the more context switches are happening every period, maintaining responsiveness at the cost of throughput. Left unchecked, however, this policy of guaranteeing each process at least some attention every period could lead to catastrophe. With enough programs running, a task’s slice would shrink to the point that the system was spending the entire slice on context switching, before immediately context-switching again to the next task.

The culprit is the hard responsiveness guarantee. So modern operating systems in fact set a minimum length for their slices and will refuse to subdivide the period any more finely. (In Linux, for instance, this minimum useful slice turns out to be about three-quarters of a millisecond, but in humans it might realistically be at least several minutes.) If more processes are added beyond that point, the period will simply get longer. This means that processes will have to wait longer to get their turn, but the turns they get will at least be long enough to do something.

Establishing a minimum amount of time to spend on any one task helps to prevent a commitment to responsiveness from obliterating throughput entirely: if the minimum slice is longer than the time it takes to context-switch, then the system can never get into a state where context switching is the only thing it’s doing. It’s also a principle that is easy to translate into a recommendation for human lives. Methods such as “timeboxing” or “pomodoros,” where you literally set a kitchen timer and commit to doing a single task until it runs out, are one embodiment of this idea.

III.  If you find yourself doing a lot of context switching because you’re tackling a heterogeneous collection of short tasks, you can also employ another idea from computer science: “interrupt coalescing.” If you have five credit card bills, for instance, don’t pay them as they arrive; take care of them all in one go when the fifth bill comes. As long as your bills are never due less than thirty-one days after they arrive, you can designate, say, the first of each month as “bill-paying day,” and sit down at that point to process every bill on your desk, no matter whether it came three weeks or three hours ago. Likewise, if none of your email correspondents require you to respond in less than twenty-four hours, you can limit yourself to checking your messages once a day. Computers themselves do something like this: they wait until some fixed interval and check everything, instead of context-switching to handle separate, uncoordinated interrupts from their various subcomponents.

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