If I could wave a magic wand and give every person alive the gift of a single piece of knowledge known in a thorough and complete fashion... I might choose to share that the power of small percentages, aggregated, is absolutely gigantic.
The human mind can't grasp this well, as many luminous writers have written about -- from Benjamin Franklin in the early American colonial days, to Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Paul Graham today.
It's like this -- you add a single percentage point of gain or advantage, and the results wind up being absolutely incredible.
The following table and notes are from Paul Graham's Startup = Growth --
Going from 7% weekly growth to 10% weekly growth means going from a company 33.7x larger in one year to a company 142x larger in one year.
That's a really big deal... yet, for someone untrained in thinking in this kind of statistical advantage way, hearing that customer onboarding could be improved by a single percentage point doesn't sound like a big deal.
That's wrong, of course. It's a really big deal. That's why people like Kai Zau get $1,500+ per day consulting on UI/UX design, and Peter Borden gets budgets of $50,000+ per month to improve customer acquisition for enterprise tech companies. A gain of single digit percentage points, to one specific aspect of getting new customers, translates to radically increased growth.
But okay, let's step back from the technology world, which everyone knows is crazy.
I posted a link to a paper by Gollwitzer et al on "Implementation Intentions and Goal Shielding" recently. There was a nice reception to it, but probably not as big as it should have been.
The paper was on how to do "goal shielding," a mental construct you can use to resist giving in to temptation to break one of your goals. If you observe the graph below, you'll see how having a goal-shielding intention in place reduced consumption of undesirable snacks --
The paper had built up to the technique, and then I saw the graph... and was disappointed.
"Oh, this isn't a magic bullet. It just reduces things a bit."
But wait. That's a 20% gain right there, for just doing some basic mental preparation. ("When I have a craving, I will immediately dismiss the craving." -- read the paper, it's good.)
20% is huge. Most of us -- myself included -- get suckered into looking for something that gives us a +100% or a +500% immediately on things like finances, business, health, nutrition, and so on.
Not many such things exist.
Meanwhile, we'll pass up even large boosts like goal-shielding, which is absolutely gigantic. You get into a basic mindset, prep some words, and you'll screw up your goals around 20% less of the time. Wow, that's a fantastic ROI on your time of reading a short paper and prepping yourself.
A final example -- you can buy Ephedrine HCL legally in Canada without a prescription. Ephedrine HCL mixed with caffeine boosts one's basal metabolic rate -- the calories you burn each day without doing anything -- by around 5%.
It's amazing going around online at the variety of different opinions. Many people say, "Ah, that costs like $40 per month, and it only increases your metabolism by 5%."
I saw 5% and said -- whoa. 5%. That's a big deal. My basal metabolic rate is probably around 2500 calories per day, that's what I burn without effort. 5% higher is another 125 calories per day, or 3750 calories per month.
That's one extra pound of fat lost per month, all else being equal. (Additionally, Ephedrine+Caffeine has mild appetite suppressing qualities, so you probably won't compensate by eating more.) There are potential side effects to ephedrine -- please do your own research carefully -- but for me, I've taken ephedrine before for allergies under a prescription, so I know it's safe and works for me.
If someone with my body makeup does Ephedrine+Caffeine for six months out of the year and hold everything else constant, they'll be six pounds lighter at the end of the year. Eat well and train smartly, and that should lead to being much more lean.
But most people don't think that way. They see, "5%? That's not much, forget it."
That's huge. The gains come at the margin. Get everything else right, of course -- don't just eat three pizzas a day. But once you've got your nutrition and fitness together, a 5% boost in metabolism is gigantic. It's hard to get across quite how big it is.
If I had my magic wand, I'd wave it now and point out that single-digit percentage point advantages -- in anything -- are tremendously incredibly valuable. Pass them up at your detriment. Seize them to your gain. And when someone says, "It's only a 1% difference..." -- then do feel free to smack them on the head, ideally with a magic wand.
This is similar to the idea of Aggregated Marginal Gain used by the British Olympic Team and it definitely shows the power of improving by percentages.
I don't think the problem is with people dismissing the seemingly small percentage but it's more towards our inability to compute the percentage themselves in the long term.
However, there is a corollary of this - illustrated very clearly in this video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umFnrvcS6AQ
Its the effect of compound growth on resource usage, population growth and externalities like pollution. One line I remember very clearly - US was described as having 400 years worth of coal left, at current usage levels. If you introduce 2% growth in usage, the US has something like 80 years worth of coal left.
INTERNAL SCORECARD #17: Operations and Organization
I write up these "Internal Scorecards" to look at production, productivity, habits. Some people like this, because you see the implications of long-term decisions unfolding in a real-world context. I like it because it gives me an accountability mechanism as well.
This one is a two-weeks-long edition. I've been too busy doing stuff to report on the stuff I'm doing! It covers 22 September to 5 October.
THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF ORGANIZATION
It's very easy to geek out on organization and productivity techniques at the expense of doing actual work. You probably don't want to do that.
Women, especially short women, seem to get the short end of the stick when it comes to fat loss. Despite seemingly-endless amounts of cardio and dieting, it is really fucking hard for some women to lose fat, especially once they start to plateau.
You're probably saying "duh they just need fewer calories," and you wouldn't be wrong, it's just that the problem – and the solution – is a bit more nuanced than that.
Jane is 5'2 and 180 lbs. She was once 200 lbs or so, and through sheer brute force, lost 20 lbs from diet and exercise. She has unable to lose weight in the past few years; no matter how hard she tries, she just can't seem to break 180. Due to cycles of dieting and binging, she hovers between 180 and 190 and feels like she's forever doomed to remain within this weight range.
A look at calories burned and metabolism