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Context matters

24 Mar

I have been coming across the word context a lot lately. So much so, that it really forced me to think about it and to appreciate how vital it is to our ability to make good decisions as well as to understand decisions of others and the world around us as such. Is £1000 a lot of money? When your friend was angry some time ago, was she being unreasonable? Is 15 degrees a warm weather?

Well, we cannot answer any of those questions without knowing their context. Extra £1000 is a lot to a student living off couple hundred pounds a month but not to a company for which if might represent only a 0.1% increase on profits of one million. Your friend might have been unreasonable if the cause of her anger was having to work overtime on a one off basis but not if her boss shouted on her for no apparent reason. 15 degrees is pretty cold in summer but unusually hot in winter. This might all seem obvious but I would bet we don’t always take the time to understand the context before making or perhaps even more importantly, interpreting one’s decision.

Making a decision…

When making a decision, we need to realise what are the options we have realistically have, what consequences would they have, what is the likelihood of them working out and how would they be perceived – we need to know the context of the problem. If we come up with a model solution but we cannot implement it because of a specific organizational constraint, it’s a useless one. In a similar fashion, if we do not understand how the final decision maker will perceive our recommendation and if we would not be able to secure her buy-in, even the ‘best’ solution in the world would be useless in that context.

Organizational models (see for example my previous post here) or personality models, heuristics and preferences (e.g. if the final decision maker is risk averse, if she prefers quantitative or qualitative analysis, what are her key concerns etc.) are usually good starting points for gaining deeper understanding of our context.

…& interpreting a decision

Being aware of the context becomes even more crucial when we are interpreting someone else’s decision. What is an overreaction in some situations is an appropriate response in other situations and vice versa. Big risks can go unchecked and relationships built over a long time can go sour if we wrongly evaluate somebody’s decision. This can be because we were too lazy to dig deeper and understand the context in which that decision was made before we start judging it or because we misunderstood what message the other person was really trying to put across.

So remember, although it might sound obvious, context matters and it often matters more than you think!

Never regret

14 Mar

I have recently been thinking about to what extend we can influence what is happening to us, if we should do so and how we should react if things don’t go as planned. Here is what I came up with.

Let me start more generally. When making a decision, we either do what we feel is right or we think of our objectives, generate some alternatives, assess how likely they are to help us in achieving those objectives and decide accordingly. From there on, things can go either well or not so well. It is however very important to separate the decision making process and the decision itself from outcomes of that decision for we can directly influence the former but not the latter. It follows therefore, that if we took the best decision possible at the time when we had to make it, we should never regret having taken it regardless on the outcome of that decision.

Influence what you can and don’t worry about the rest

With this in mind we can see that there are certain things we can influence by the decisions we make and our actions resulting from those and certain things we cannot influence – they just happen. You can call it fate, good or bad luck or whatever is appropriate in your culture. The first important point here is that you have to accept that there are things you cannot influence and therefore you should not worry about them. You should just accept them. The trick then lies in where we draw the line.

And here comes the second point – always do the best you can. That is the the best we can with the resources available such as time, intellectual capacity, money or influence at the time. You will have to make some trade offs but if they appear to be the most sensible actions to take at the time when things are happening, then that’s exactly what they are. If things go well, perfect. If they don’t, we should learn from the past but never regret having done what we did. The dots might connect just a little bit later on.

Here is a recent example from my life. I got to a final round of interviews with BCG, a leading strategy consultancy, and I really wanted that job. I spent almost all my time in the three weeks preceding that interview preparing for it and when I was entering their offices, I felt I have prepared the best I could have. Eventually, I did not end up getting an offer from them. I could have been regretting the fact I did not get it or that I spent all that time in preparation for nothing but that would defeat the whole point. I did the best I could have done and what made most sense at the time. I had nothing to regret and was able to look forward to other opportunities. I now have two other great consulting offers and most importantly, a clear mind.

So to summarise, the key to never regretting is acting in a way so that we never have to. That is doing the best we can right now to maximise the sphere of our influence and accept that from there on, things will just happen and there is nothing we can do about it.

The power of habits

31 Jan

This post is about one of the best books I read in 2012 – The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

Habits are present everywhere – in our private lives, in businesses as well as in whole societies. They are an integral part of our everyday life and often supersede our rational decision making. This is beneficial because it shortens the time we need to make decisions (such as how to tie a shoe lace or the sequence of actions when we brush our teeth) thus allowing our brain to dedicate its processing power to other activities but it can be also detrimental to us (bad habits such as smoking or eating too many sweet things). Habits develop over time and once ingrained, different part of our brain controls them than the part responsible for our conscious decision making. Once triggered, they just unfold and guide our behaviour automatically. So the question is how to make the best use of this double edged sword.

The author argues we can put our beneficial habits to use and change our negative ones and he proposes a following solution. Firstly, we need to understand what habits consist of in general. Secondly we need to understand how our habits function and finally how we can alter them most effectively.

The habit loop

Every habit consists of three parts, together forming a loop. There is a cue, a certain trigger which makes us execute our routine, the routine itself and a reward we get from executing the habit and which incentivizes us do it next time we are exposed to the cue again. The author argues that it is very difficult to change the cue and the reward but relatively easy to change the routine if we keep the former two unchanged and gives a following example.



He would eat a chocolate cookie every day which he wants to stop doing as he is putting on weight. His routine is to stand up from his desk, go to a cafeteria to buy the cookie, chat with friends for a while and then get back to his work. So this is his routine; the next step to identify the reward.

Here he suggests we should experiment and try doing something else than our usual routine whenever we feel like executing it and then ask ourselves fifteen minutes later if we still feel the urge to do it or not. He tried going for a walk to a park, eating an apple or chatting with colleagues sitting nearby and then seeing if he still feels like eating a cookie. He realised is that what he really wants is not a cookie but a break to socialise with friends.

In order to change our habits completely however, we need to be aware of our cues as well. There are five main categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action. In order to identify the cue, answer the following questions whenever you do your habit. Where am I? What time is it? What is my emotional state? Who else is around? What action preceded the urge? After couple days, you should see a clear pattern emerging.

So the final step is consciously executing your new routine whenever the cue you identified happens and after some time the new habit will override the old one. After making himself go talk to a colleague for ten minutes at 3:30pm every day for couple weeks, the author stopped eating cookies at work all together.

How kebabs can trigger riots

Alternatively, you can try getting rid of a habit by inhibiting occurrence of the cue. When the US Army was still in Iraq, they had to intervene in several riots every day and for a long time could not figure out how to prevent them. Then one officer noticed by analyzing video tapes  that most riots are preceded by a small small crowd gathering on a plaza, gradually growing in size. At that point food vendors would show up to cater to the crowd, attracting in turn even more people. It is then enough if somebody throws a rock and a riot would begin.

Reaction of the officer was to ask the local mayor to keep food vendors out of plazas. The next time a small crowd gathered and started growing in size, signs of a riot were starting to emerge again. The only difference this time was that there were no food vendors and so after couple hours the people got hungry, dispirited and went home. The occurrence of riots decreased substantially.

Can you think of any ways you can change your habits or habits of your workplace/community for the better by a simple cost-effective intervention?

What’s your problem?

10 Jan

Have you ever spent hours or even days trying to solve a problem even though the solution was eventually simple and seemingly at hand? It has just happened to me. It’s two in a morning and I am writing a report for my statistical course at LSE. I am doing a regression model to predict birth weight of babies based on several factors. I did a few models but could not decide which one is the best one and have been stuck with it for the last hour and half.

At that point my girlfriend messaged me that she had a bad dream and cannot sleep. So we talked about it for some time and then she asked me how is my work going. When I told her I am stuck, she wanted to help so I had to explain the problem to her. And here goes the first lesson. Force yourself to be able to explain your problem simply and succinctly to somebody, who knows nothing about it. Try putting it in a text message! Mine was:

It’s very technical but basically there is a model that works very well only for some cases and so so for other and then there is one that works reasonably well for all cases. Which one to pick…

It forced me to strip the problem off all the technicalities and get to the point.

Then she asked if I cannot pick two models? A very simple question but a very powerful one at the same time. I’ve spent all my time before trying to improve or compare the two models mathematically but have not considered this one. And it is what I am going to do. For certain cases I am going to suggest the first model and for all other cases the second one.

The takeaway? If you are stuck, write down your problem in only few words and in a way so that anybody would understand what it is about. Then ask yourself some extremely simple questions about how you can solve it and give them proper thought. Great insights might emerge!

Are you being fully present?

18 Nov

With smart phones being virtually ubiquitous nowadays, an escape from the reality of right now is often only a swipe away. You surely have some friends who are constantly checking their email, facebook and twitter accounts on their phones or using WhatsApp, blackberry messenger and many other applications while being out with their peers. I believe these habits have a negative effect on how much we enjoy the presence.

I got a new iphone recently after having my old one pick pocketed while travelling in Mongolia several months ago. It has reminded me that we do not need to be in connection with everybody else all the time and that it is much better to devote 100% of our attention to whatever we are doing at the moment. I do not use facebook on my iphone and check emails only when absolutely necessary. Instead of seeking an escape or a distraction from here and now, I focus fully on the person I am talking to at the moment, the food I am eating or the class I am sitting in. It makes me enjoy those moments much more (and by consequence the people I am with have a better time as well), learn more from them and be happier in general.

Coincidentally, I saw a TED talk on the topic just yesterday, where Matt Killingsworth presented his research into tracking happiness concluding that ‘people are often happiest when they are lost in the moment… and that the more our mind wanders, the less happy we can be.’ You can watch it here.

We can extend this concept even further. I for example always used to read if I was eating alone. I have stopped doing that couple months back and just enjoy the food now and let my mind process all information it has been getting whole day and relax a bit instead. If at all possible, I also do not like checking my watch when I am out with somebody as that again only takes me out of the moment and gets my mind spinning in different directions.

So ask yourself a simple question. Am I genuinely present in my moments? When I am talking to my friends, working, watching a movie etc.? If the answer is sometimes no, I would encourage you to try devoting all your attention to whatever you are doing at a moment. You should see you will have a lot better time!

Perspectives on decision making by Ralph Keeney

10 Nov

Professor Ralph Keeney, world’s leading authority on behavioural sciences from the Duke University, gave a lecture at LSE some time ago, offering couple interesting views on the topic.

In addition to his summary slide bellow, his other main thoughts were following:



There are reactive decisions, which come to us and we are forced to make them, and there are proactive decisions which we generate and therefore we can exert more influence over them.


According to Prof. Keeney’s research, 56% of deaths in the US in 2000 were consequences of people’s personal decisions such as to drink and drive or to smoke cigarettes and get terminal lung cancer. He estimates the figure to be 20% and 5% in 1950 and 1900 respectively.


When making decisions, we are often guided by our objectives. It is therefore important to be aware of what our objectives are and to formulate them well. There are means objectives which’s accomplishment takes us to fundamental objectives.  In business, getting a product to market first, gaining competitive edge or increasing sales are all means objectives to the fundamental one of increasing profits. In personal life, being healthy or rich are means objectives to fundamental ones such as living meaningful or enjoyable life.

How can body language shape who we are

2 Nov

I have recently seen a very interesting TED talk by Amy Cuddy on how by consciously working with your body language we can shape who we are and how we come across.

I think it is very true, watch it till the end!


How much can we do in a day? Part 2

24 Oct

Couple days ago I wrote a blog post on how much can we do in a day. The main point was that if we schedule lot of things, it will force us to cut off our unproductive activities and focus only on the relevant ones (I suggest you read it first if you have not read it yet). If you get into this habit, you are probably going to have more genuinely free time than you had before despite the fact you are getting more things done. This blog post is about what to do with all that free time and on what you can do with your time in general.


We were asked to write down how we would like to spend our time while at LSE at our introduction lecture couple weeks ago.  I am now applying for consultancies so I used a framework I learned a long time ago from a great speaker and friend of mine called Houston Spencer, himself an ex-McKinsey consultant. It identifies four main areas you should devote your time to. These are:

1. Relationships – family, friends, girlfriend/boyfriend
2. Professional – work related activities
3. Body – sports, taking care of your health, appearance
4. Mind – reading, meditation, listening to relaxation music etc.

This is how Houston put it down:

Draw these on an x/y axis and then think what activities you want to do each of these areas. While your priorities might change depending on the stage of life you are in, you should take care to have at least something in every domain.


And here is a brief sketch I did in the lecture:

I would encourage you to be a lot more specific and spend some time doing this exercise. You might get some great insights. Here is how to do it:

1. Think how fulfilled you are in each area now.


2. What percentage of your time are you investing into each area now?



3. What percentage of your time do you want to be investing into each area in the future?



Closing thoughts

Did you see any correlation between your satisfaction with each area and your investment?
What are your goals for each area for now, in one year, five years from now?
What would you like your time investment mix to look like in the future? Is it realistic given the goals you set for yourself?

How much can we do in a day? Part 1

20 Oct

Now that I am back at uni, I have to balance my time between lectures, studying, applying for jobs, setting up my own business, working out, going out, and many other things. This has led me to a question of how much can I actually do in one day. I am sure you have asked yourself that question many times before as well. I have recently read a book by C. Northcote Parkinson, The Parkinson’s Law, which might offer us an answer.

One of the most famous Parkinson’s laws postulates that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. I think this is very true. Just imagine you are sitting in your room and have to for example write a short report for a class/your boss and you have three hours to do so. You would probably spend the first half an hour on facebook, the next half an hour deciding what to write about, ten minutes checking your email, hour and half writing the report with some more facebook in between and use the remaining time for formatting it and watching videos on youtube.

Now suppose you have only an hour to write the report because you are also planning to go to a gym for an hour and to catch up with a friend over a coffee afterwards to discuss your new business idea. I bet you would finish the report to a comparable if not better standard in that one hour of focused work and manage to do two more important things in those same three hours.

So what is the moral? Do not be afraid to schedule lot of activities in your day because it will only make you more effective in whatever you are doing. If I am under a pressure of a packed day and tight deadlines, I cut off most of my unproductive time such as facebook, focus on work at hand more intensively and therefore complete it a lot faster and to a higher standard, do many other things and at the end of the day, still end up with more free time than I had before.

The next blog post will be on what you can actually do with all that new free time.

Will you remember in 20 years what you did this year?

7 Sep

I finished my last placement with AIESEC on Friday August 31st which was the last thing as did as an active member of the organization. Now, I am an alumnus. I have spent amazing five years in the organization and have had countless life changing experiences I will remember until the end of my life.


I was a chair at an AIESEC conference in Moscow the very next day . I saw how much more the delegates have ahead of them and I felt little jealous that my experience is over. On the other hand I felt proud of myself that I have grabbed every opportunity available to me over the five years and made the most out of that time. I was feeling satisfied and at peace with myself, excited about the future.


During the closing plenary, I encouraged the delegates to fully embrace the next couple years ahead of them. I wished them to be proactive in creating powerful experiences for themselves and to have as many great memories as I have to look back on 20 years later.


One of my favourite quotes is from Mark Twain:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”


And how about you, are the experiences you are living now so powerful that you will you remember them 20 years later?