Heuristics for Living

Rules of Thumb for Happier Days

Christina Wodtke
Feb 15, 2014 · 8 min read

If you don’t know what a heuristic is, it’s a short phrase that reminds you of a body of experience. It’s a rule of thumb that lets you make better decisions. Here is a list of some that I run my life by. I figured each one out the hard way.

The dark secret of heuristics is they are hard to learn without living the lesson. So good luck.

  • Optimize for Joy
    Make life choices based on if it increases or decreases your overall joy. Especially job choices.
  • Get Paid to Learn
    You can pay to learn, like at a school or conference. Or you can get paid to learn, by being at a job that grows you and gives you opportunities to learn. Why not get paid to learn?
    To be honest, I like both.
    I like to learn.
  • Don’t Ask, Don’t Get
    This is a reminder that while you do not get everything you ask for, you certainly don’t get things you don’t ask for. Stop wishing silently.
  • Do the Hard Thing
    Putting off conversations that must be had makes those conversations worse and the situation more miserable. Fire the people who need firing. Better yet, before you have to fire them, tell people whose performance is lacking that it is lacking so they can improve.
    Tell your loved one your needs aren't being met. Move out of abusive situations. Ask for the raise. Put the suffering animal to sleep.
    Do the hard thing.
  • Rejection is Often Surprise
    This has been a hard one for me to remember — no one likes their ideas shot down!—so I heuristic’d it.
    Often when I would introduce an innovative idea to an exec, he’d reject it out of hand. But later he might bring it up as something we should try (sometimes as if he thought of it.) This is not because he’s evilly plotting to steal my best stuff, but because new ideas need time to settle into a brain.
    When an idea is quite different, most people’s first instinct is to reject it, so it’s better to not take those first reactions as final. Wait, and bring it up again gently after a time.
  • Honesty Needs Compassion
    Honesty and compassion are not opposites. Honesty is more powerful with compassion. It is not compassionate to tell someone every single thing you think. It is not compassionate to give them a truth in a way they cannot hear. You must seek to love the person who you are sharing your truth with, and shape your truth so that they can hear and understand it. And respect it may not be their truth.
  • Comparison is the Path to Misery
    This was best said in Nonviolent Communication:
    To feel horrible, first look at swimsuit models. Are you as good looking as them? Then check on biographies of great people. Have you accomplished as much as they have? Even neighbors or friends on Facebook seem to have nicer things than you and go more interesting places.
  • Walk Away from Crazy
    I have found out the hard way when people show themselves to be genuinely unbalanced, it’s better if I withdraw. It’s not always possible if it’s loved ones who are suffering, but if a stranger (or acquaintance) has shown themselves to be destructively random, I find it’s better for me to disengage.
  • Their Shit Is Not Your Shit
    It’s good to remember that when someone is spinning around in a state, you can choose to not take that on. You can support them with love without having to participate in the drama that is clearly making them temporarily nuts (for full-time nuts, see above).
  • Their Shit Is Not Your Shit Part Two
    People will judge you based on what they think is good or bad. They may belittle your choice to stay home with kids or go to work away from your kids or become a manager or stay an individual contributor or work at a big company or start a startup… be careful not to take on other people’s values. Don’t suffer when someone is judging you by their worldview, because you do not have to take it. Just respect they have a different idea of good, and dance to your own tune.
  • Understand, then Be Understood
    We all get super excited about our stuff and want to tell the world about it! But usually it’s better to take the time to understand the person we are talking to first, so we can share/teach/persuade more effectively.
  • Cruelty is Suffering
    When someone is suddenly cruel, it’s often because they are hurting and lashing out. Be more compassionate to the cruel, not less. (Unless crazy, than see above)
  • When you are tired of saying it, they are starting to hear it.
    No one is so fascinating that every word is memorized. Get used to repeating yourself, if you have a message you want to be retained.
  • Your Body Knows Things About You
    Pay attention to your body. Are you hands wringing? Is your stomach churning? Is your leg twitching? You are receiving a message that you are in turmoil, and it’s worth taking a few moments to breathe into that loci of anxiety.
    As well, your body shouting about hunger, tiredness or achiness from inactivity all deserves to be heard. And acted on.
  • Compassion Starts at Home
    You can not be kind to others until you learn to be kind to yourself.
  • Enough Instead of More
    When do we have enough money. Enough food. Enough tvs, cars, electronics. What do we really need to live?
  • Avoid Chimpanzee Thinking
    This is my latest heuristic. Chimps will grow a tribe to a certain size, split into two, then try to wipe out the other. Our nearest genetic relatives are into genocide.
    When we notice two things are different, try not to immediately classify one as bad and one as good, or one valid and one invalid. Don’t go to war with the guy next door.
    We aren't chimps, we’re humans. We are better than that. I hope.

2015 update

  • Worry About the Problems You Have, Not the Ones You Might Have
    In Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers, Sapolsky points out we are the only animals that can so vividly visualize a potential danger… say a tax audit… we can create a stress response in our bodies. With our imagination, we can stop digestion, stop growth, create ulcers, and worse. Stress kills.
    I recommend not doing that. When your mind wanders to negative scenarios, bring it back to any real issue at hand.
    And when you can’t seem to hold down those dark thoughts, meditate.

2016 update:

  • Never Take the Package Deal.
    I was talking to Richard Saul Wurman, founder of TED, and I asked him for advice on putting on conferences. He said “I can’t tell you anything.” I was shocked. He continued “You’d have to follow me around for days. For TED, I picked the location, then had the furniture designed. I picked the chef, and approved the menu. I had music composed. Every single thing I designed.”
    I realized this is a man who never ever takes the package deal. No crappy wired together chairs for him. No Muzak. No airplane-breast chicken. And it got me thinking about how many things we take for granted. What could we change if we refused to take the package deal.
  • Never Take the Package Deal 2
    For example, in life you want to get ahead. And people say, you can be a manager. You can start a company. You can get a better title. But why would you ever take anyone’s idea of success?
    I opened with Optimize for Joy, but that’s what I optimize for. You should always know what you are optimizing for. Maybe it’s money, which is fine in certain times of your life when you want the things money can buy, like a house. Maybe it’s a title (because it can be traded for money. Bad news: it’s can’t be traded for respect.)Maybe it’s learning. Maybe it’s the power to make a difference.
    Ask yourself what really matters right now in your life, and optimize for that.

That’s just a few, I make up more as life teaches me stuff. What are yours?


Still all true… adding…

  • Travel Costs, Get Paid
    I keep forgetting how much travel takes out of you, from airplane food to sleep deprivation (hotels that have weird heaters, sounds, jet lag.) It’s often not worth it to travel to present for free (you can die of exposure.)
    Current rules for accepting a speaking gig: right place, right people, right price, right topic.
  • Play Clean and Document Everything.
    Sometimes we are in very bad situations at work. Don’t engage at the negative person (people?) level. Keep acting true to your values. But write everything down. You may need it later. See Livia’s post on Working with Psychopaths for the importance of a delta file.


I was recently reminded of two heuristics I imposed on my daughter as she grew up. Motherhood is basically a science experiment anyhow. You work with the data that’s out there and make up the rest.

  • You can’t change the past, you can only change the future.
    I used to be crippled with guilt and regret. I eventually realized I had a bad mental model of learning from my mistakes: I thought I had to torture myself over my mistakes — the mental equivalent of 40 lashes. I realized I could skip the torture and go straight to the learning.
  • I don’t care whose fault is it, I only care who is going to fix it.
    When my kid was little and something went wrong (spilled milk was cried over often) she’d say “it’s not my fault. And I’d say this.
    I hate the blame game. It makes everyone feel bad and improves nothing.
    “Who fault is it” promotes a culture of blame.
    “Who can make it better” promotes a culture of responsibility. If you can fix it, fix it. Mistakes are just data for learning.


More parenting Heuristics! Kiddo is now 14, and we’re having a great time together.

  • Listen to them when they’re boring and they’ll talk to you when their life gets interesting.
    I hear from parents they ask the kid what happened in school today, and the kid says “nothing.” I realized early on ANY time she wanted to talk to me, I needed to listen. I’ve listened to stories about Dinosaur train and lists of dinosaurs, how to tell different kinds of horses apart, entire plots of books and webtunes, weird dreams (of course,) and how the Alola region of Pokemon differs from Johto. But she’s also talked to me about a bullying situation, her work with the LGBTQ club (first ever in a Palo Alto middle school!) and struggles with friendships and romance.
    P.S. This works with grown-ups also.
  • Every year is the best year.
    Maybe it’s just me, but I am happy to be there for kiddo no matter what. Terrible twos weren’t; they were just her trying out her autonomy. And now she is a teen, she is such a strong and powerful woman. I love arguing with her and exploring strange ideas, and sometimes she is crabby but she warns me and tells me it’s not me (I knew it anyway but polite of her to give a heads up. Hormones suck.)
    I know there are kids for a variety of reasons have behavioral issues, and I don’t want to demean the work of anyone who has to navigate them; but at the same time many kids act as you expect them to act. Might as well expect them to be marvelous, no matter what they do. Love is a balm.

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