Tag Archives: buffet problem

Buffett as a solution to the buffet problem

Maybe there's another way to think about not getting caught up in the buffet problem. Here's an episode of Charlie Rose with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates that made me think of this—video and pertinent transcript below. So, for a single attribute—call it structuredness (sorry)—you could end up hitting the information buffet too hard both by being overstructured and understructured.

Overstructured is planning what information needs to be collected, and then sticking to it dogmatically even when it turns out to be unnecessary, or the wrong path to follow, etc. This is me when I read a book—you'd think there were Serious Consequences to leaving a book unfinished the way I plow ahead through books that I really don't want to finish. Let's leave this thread alone.

Understructured is the opposite—going in without a plan. Although it sounds sloppier, I think it breaks down again into two paths: sloppy and exploratory. Sloppy is just straightahead unthinking consumption. One more link, one more article, one more dinner roll—if you can reach it, put it in your face.

Exploratory is different. I mean "exploratory" in the same manner as "experimenting"—and "experimenting" in the scientific way of thinking about the problem and what needs to be evaluated to understand the problem, not "experimenting" as in just throwing something out there and seeing what happens. The latter is the sloppy path. The former has purpose. That's what I took from the interview below. I don't think that Warren Buffett leaves himself big blocks of unstructured time and blows it by stumbling through links and citations and whatever else is available at the information buffet. (I might be giving him too much credit... but what's the worst that could happen by just assuming that someone is a genius because they're rich?) But to have free time and a hypothesis or two to test, and an idea or two how to prove the hypothesis false, and a good method or two to collect the data and reduce it to information... that would be even more powerful than assuming you know enough to plan all steps of the path forward because—surprise—you don't, and you'll miss all sorts of useful side paths because the plan called for Straight Ahead.

[15:40, Bill Gates] I also remember Warren showing me his calendar. You know, I had every minute packed and I thought that was the only way you could do things. And the fact that he is so careful about—he has days.


[16:10, Charlie Rose] This is the week [sic] of April, of which there are only three entries for a week.


[16:20, Charlie Rose] So it taught you what, not to crowd yourself too much and give yourself time to read and think and...

[16:24, Bill Gates] Right. You control your time. And that sitting and thinking may be a much higher priority than a normal CEO, where's there all these demands and you feel like you need to go and see all these people. It's not a proxy of your seriousness that you fill every minute in your schedule.

[16:48, Warren Buffett] And people will want your time. I mean, it's the only thing you can't buy. I mean, I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can't buy time.

A very quiet moment as a solution to the buffet problem

What's the opposite side of the buffet problem? I think it's either (a) practicing the mature person's Art of Discretion when choosing where to invest attention or (b) a Very Quiet Moment.

I don't have much to say or think about (a) without turning it into a research project on decision analysis. (read these, if you're interested in it.) It's a fascinating topic, trying to understand the logic behind the dumb decisions one makes... presumably to make better ones, but it's perhaps more fun to rubberneck the bad ones, smoldering in the median, as they recede in the rearview mirror. Just writing and writing that sentence is an insight into the problem: if the problem is signing up for more work than one can do, focusing on the decisions that precede the work is just shifting the burden, not lightening it.

So: if avoiding the buffet problem is the goal, surrounding oneself in the absence of things to choose might be a better way. Escaping to the wilderness? Not quite—past life. For a few months in 2016, I tried Headspace guided meditation, if only due to susceptibility to podcast advertisements. I don't know if it helped—I don't even know what hypothesis to test to see if it helped—but there's one thing I do know after trying it: it's nearly impossible to be still.

The easiest test is to sit somewhere quietly and concentrate only on breathing. In out etc. Try to get to ten without thinking of anything, lightly guiding the mind away from encroaching thoughts back into some cold dark quiet center. Three times—maximum. Usually less. Three times of concentrating only on that spot in your head where the air catches some turbulence when you breathe in through your nose, and after that the small thoughts that were pawing at the closed door of your mind like a cat burst in and fill the space. The chief one—the one I'm most conscious of after it breaks in—is the one that says "Let's use this time for something productive, let's get something done while we're sitting here". This is pointed 180° from the desired direction. I understand that it's possible to get to 10 and beyond. It's difficult to imagine the discipline to do it, but it's not hard to imagine it's the same kind of discipline needed to avoid the buffet problem.

Because thoughts lead to thoughts... I remembered that I have a copy of the Bhagavad Gita (भगवद्गीता, bhagavad-gītā), a good not-flowery translation (compare to the alternatives...) by Barbara Stoler Miller. I've had it for over ten years, it's tiny, yet I've never finished it. I couldn't get into it—too much abstract stuff about non-action, self, discipline, etc. Anyway, I dug it up and gave it a quick pass. Chapter 6, verses 35-36:

असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलम् ।
अभ्यासेन तु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते

असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलम् ।
अभ्यासेन तु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते

I don't read Sanskrit either—here is Miller's translation:

Without doubt, the mind
is unsteady and hard to hold,
but practice and dispassion
can restrain it, Arjuna.

In my view, discipline eludes
the unrestrained self,
but if he strives to master himself,
a man has the means to reach it.

Buffet problem

Buffet, or not buffet, that is the question.

I'm not talking about the food line this time (though it does remind me of this old thing: Enough).

Every day, every week, every month, I do a little bit of planning ahead, thinking about goals, assigning the things I think I want to do to abstract pieces of future time. It never really works out. It's usually good enough—some of the important things get done—but, honestly, few things are as consistent as the too-long list of disparate things I wanted to accomplish in a day getting yanked out to sea by the furious riptide of Real Life.

For example, here's how I break down goals into "curricula":

  • Chinese curriculum: learning how to speak Chinese
  • Business curriculum: learning how work works—mostly reading books, papers, articles
  • Technical curriculum: keeping technical skills sharp—mostly studying things that can be written into software
  • Physical curriculum: running and strength training
  • Home curriculum: I added this to my list because if I didn't I'd get caught up in my own self and the things I wanted to do and crowd out the obviously more important facets of being better at home
  • Communication curriculum: writing and keeping in touch with people
  • Projects: the other things like professional societies, the Illinois alumni club, etc.—sort of a catchall for things that require time and planning but don't fit in other classifications

Every day, every week, every month, I think about these things, what the goals are, how to break them down, how I want to structure my time to to account for them. Et cetera. Even I know it's a little out of control. It's statistically unlikely to have a week that lines up well enough to do it all. It leads to weird behavior. Contorting to stuff plans into a fixed period of time. Overplanning and overthinking how to find the One True Way to organize a day or week. Feeling ashamed at not getting things done. And even if you do it all, it feels a little robotic and constrained, and there's another funny feeling that doesn't have a name, something like "if I could actually hit the target, was the target maybe a little too easy?"

Standing in the buffet line of possibilities, with your plate that can hold πt2, grabbing promises by the fistful... What can you do about that, really? Want less? Grab less? Be more time-efficient? Sleep less? Plan better? Execute more? Hire people to do things for you? Not all of those things at once, that's just a different flavor of the same thing—a meta-buffet problem.

I admire the people who focus on a single theme, hunker down, and execute. I think that's really the only way. No clever planning tricks. Why are you putting that thing on your plate? Do you really want to eat that? Why?

Here's an interesting take: Chris Brogan, Your Buffet Problem (You Have to Stop), LinkedIn Pulse (2015-05-22)

Follow-up posts:

  1. A very quiet moment as a solution to the buffet problem (2018-12-04)
  2. Buffett as a solution to the buffet problem (2018-12-07)