When you can't optimize

In previous posts, I have been talking about decision-making through the lens of mathematical optimization. Heck, I even gave a formula for real-life decision-making. But the crucial question is, what if we can’t implement the optimized decision? What if we are in the heat of the moment and cannot think it through?

I am fascinated by the study of addiction and the neural science of dopamine (and its relation to reinforcement learning, of course). As Anna Lembke pointed out, one can have a perfect life and still have an addiction problem. My view is that addiction is everywhere around us – eating too much for our own good, getting angry in a counterproductive way, drinking too much coffee, workaholism. Unlike one of my favorite authors on such topics, I disagree that you can curb the email addiction by filling the void in life – addiction has its physical and biological causes, they don’t simply go away. I digress; why did I bring up addictions? My point is that addiction is a form of suboptimal decision-making. In fact, it is so suboptimal that it’s almost optimizing to the opposite of our objectives. What do we do when you can’t optimize?

Not surprisingly, I’m going to bring in some ancient (adapted to modern societies, of course) practices. I propose two main strategies when we can’t optimize:

  1. Stopping and breathing.
  2. Using heuristics.

In this post, I briefly elaborate on approach 1 and leave 2 for future posts. A closely related practice is the art of stopping, taught by the great Thich Nhat Hanh. Just to play nerdy for a minute, stopping works when you are in a stable system state: if you are hanging on the edge of a cliff, fight for your life, by all means. But when you can stop and take a deep breath before typing up an over-reacting response to that upset email, or arguing back against the person who just seems to have offended us. Meditation, going for a walk, tidying your room can all be forms of stopping. Therefore, what I advocate here in approach 1 is to stop when you can’t optimize. Practice stopping instead of reacting. Finally, I love the metaphor of a surfer here: stop and breathe while you can, before the next big wave hits you.

Written on September 29, 2021