January  2020     Edition 147
Heuristic Thinking

A Heuristic is generally defined as "a rule of thumb"

, i.e. a general rule to go by when problem solving and deciding.     Heuristic thinking greatly simplifies and speeds decision making.   This approach avoids complex analysis, reduces the need for expertise, and provides a guide to reduce the overwhelming choices we often have.    While Heuristic Thinking has a few downsides, it can provide a means to a sufficient solution for many of the decisions we’re faced with.

For example; In the winter, in the northern parts of North America, Europe and Asia it gets cold.

   The rule of thumb, i.e. the Heuristic would be; To stay warm, wear a coat when going outside in the winter.   As a result of this, you don’t have to check the weather report or do an analysis as to what to wear.  You don’t even have to think about it, you just put on a coat. 

The outcome of a heuristic decision isn’t necessarily optimal

, but most of the time provides a fast, easy way to make a reasonably good decision.  In the example above … sometimes in the winter there’s a warming, and maybe you need just a light jacket.   Of course, you can open your coat if it’s too warm.  The rule of thumb, the Heuristic, provides you with a good solution.

Heuristics can often provide a solution to a problem when an optimal solution is not possible.

  For example; When to get to the airport before your flight.   You can’t always predict how long the security or check in lines will be, especially at large airports.   The airlines help you out with a Heuristic … be there two hours before your flight time.  It’s not optimal; sometimes you get to your gate quickly, other times you’re running through the airport.  However, most of the time, it’s a good “rule of thumb”.

Heuristics can help you with decisions when there’s no expert available

, or you don’t want to spend the money, nor have the time to do a thorough analysis.   One example of this is an investment / retirement strategy.  To create an optimal plan, you would need to either hire or be a financial guru, use an enormous amount of data, be an actuary scientist, be great at statistics, modeling, and probability theory, read all kinds of reports from a large variety of companies, not to mention being on top of all the geo-political and economic theories and review this very often.    Alternatively, you might use an investment Heuristic that uses your age as a guide to set a certain percentage of your investments in fixed income (bonds, interest savings accounts), and a certain percentage of your investments in Stocks.   A refined Heuristic would consider your risk profile (low, moderate, high), your economic situation, and a few other factors, providing you with guidance as to what sectors / industries to make those stock investments. 

The Food Pyramid is a Heuristic

that provides you with the rule of thumb around how many portions of vegetables, breads, dairy, meats, etc. you should eat per day to have a healthy diet.  Of course, every person is different, and if you wanted an optimal solution, you would seek out a dietitian to create a specific food plan for your situation.  But the food pyramid Heuristic is a very simple, fast way, that will be sufficient for most people.

We are often faced with figuring out how long something will take to do.

  This might be a project at work or at home.  Sometimes, and warranted, you would create a bottom’s up, hour by hour analysis with resource allocations and critical path analysis to figure this out.  Many other times you might use a Heuristic to figure this out; “these sorts of activities generally take this long”.    When I’m undertaking a project at home, I typically include the following; “X amount of time to do the task” plus one trip to the hardware store plus “Y amount of time to do it over or fix something that broke in the process” and then I double it.  Not always right, but it’s usually good enough.

There are thousands of Heuristics you use

.  Many sayings and quotes are Heuristics.   “The early bird catches the worm” rule of thumb meaning you generally have an advantage if you do something sooner than later.

We make thousands of decisions a day

, from what pair of shoes to wear, to what to eat, which way to drive, what to say, etc.  Most of these decisions are made using Heuristics.    Using this method, we generally don’t have to think too much, we don’t have to remember very complex methods and do analysis, and most of these don’t require optimal solutions.

Having said all the above

, sometimes you do need an optimal solution, one that goes beyond a “rule of thumb”, but a solution that is precise and perhaps unique.   Sometimes you need a solution to a completely new problem where there is no Heuristic to guide you, or you’re faced with a situation when the outcome is so important, and the risk of error needs to be very, very low.  Heuristic thinking can produce biases which might eliminate consideration of other solutions.  At these times, you’ll need to switch gears and apply a deeper level of thinking … that’s when you need to do some critical thinking.

The Takeaway:
  Heuristic thinking is a simple, fast way to get to decisions that most of the time are sufficient and allow you and others to move ahead.   When making decisions, ask yourself if there are Heuristics (rules of thumb) that are available and applicable to guide your decision.

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