Algorithmic Thinking: Changing How We Think About Human Improvement

The most significant improvements in human performance can be achieved through Algorithmic Thinking. Everything we do can be summed up through an IF-THEN process.

Seldom do we ever think about the underlying structure of success. If we define success through goal attainment, then we must be able to understand the basic structure of our situation and behaviors. For this we should turn to computer programming, specifically the IF-THEN-ELSE construct. To understand this structure, we must use words to express ideas as much as possible. We can do this through Pseudo-code description, where the IF-THEN-ELSE construct looks like this:

  • IF (Conditional Expression)
  • THEN (Consequent)
  • ELSE (Alternative)
  • End IF

What is Algorithmic Thinking?

Algorithmic Thinking, specifically using the IF-THEN construct, may appear as an odd framework for understanding human improvement; yet, it’s only when we dive deep into the concept that we understand its significance. An algorithm is simply a set of rules to be followed. For example, we all have different algorithms for how we make a cup of coffee. The image below demonstrates the relationship between a code and process map for a coffee-making algorithm.

The idea behind an algorithm is a step-by-step process where you write down and intentionally move through every step. It may seem strange, but let’s examine how this intentional process completely changes how we think of human improvement.

Implementation Intentions = Human Improvement

Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer hypothesized that the use of Implementation Intentions results in a higher probability of goal attainment. Gollwitzer introduced the concept of Implementation Intentions in 1999 as a goal-directed behavior strategy in the form of an “IF-THEN Plan” leading to better performance through a practical solution. He found that people improve by forming a concrete plan, one involving a specific situation and a response to the situation. This can be phrased as “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.”

The basic structure of Implementation Intentions is as follows:

  • IF = the situation
  • THEN = the behavior

IF-THEN Thinking

To illustrate a few ways we can put the IF-THEN (or Implementation Intention) construct into practice, let’s examine the following approaches I created for “Improving Muscular Strength and Cardiorespiratory Endurance.”

Using a Nested If Generator created by Stefan Walther at qlikblog.at, I was able to configure nested “Ifs” and even generate computer code for the “Ifs”. The image above illustrates the nested comparison.

IF-THEN Trees

The image above shows the basic structure of an IF-THEN Tree using exercise as an example.

Structure of my IF-THEN example:

Goal: Improving muscular strength and cardiorespiratory endurance

Attributes: Push-ups and Cardio

Condition 1: (< 20 push-ups a day) and (< 15 min cardio a day)

Expression: no improvement (regression)

Condition 2: (> 20 push-ups a day) and (< 15 min cardio a day)

Expression: slight improvement

Condition 3: (< 20 push-ups a day) and (> 15 min cardio a day)

Expression: slight improvement

Condition 4: (> 20 push-ups a day) and (> 15 min cardio a day)

Expression: significant improvement

Essentially, IF I do more than 20 push-ups AND run for more than 15 minutes daily, THEN I will significantly improve my muscular strength and cardiorespiratory endurance.

Gamification Skill Tree

Another interesting example is the algorithm used in video games known as skill trees. For example, say you want to increase your characters strength. IF you used a specific move AND performed the move X number of times, THEN your strength will increase. Each skill increase leads to another opportunity to further increase the skill.

Benefits of Algorithmic Thinking

Edutopia describes how Computational Thinking or Algorithmic Thinking provides us a unique way to solve problems, understand our own behavior, and design new and improved systems.

In Computational Thinking Across the Curriculum, Eli Sheldon discusses the specific benefits of Algorithmic Thinking:

  1. Decomposition. Breaking down complicated problems into components and working on them one at a time; thus, preventing someone from becoming overwhelmed.
  2. Abstraction. By stripping away unnecessary details to a solution, we can learn what information is important and what can be left out.
  3. Pattern Recognition. We leverage pattern recognition by analyzing trends and using the information for problem-solving.
  4. Essential Attitudes. Solving problems in this way requires an empowered and intentional attitude. We need this type of attitude to have the confidence to take on ambiguous problems.

By understanding and improving our algorithms, we have the opportunity to improve in everything we do. I have developed and optimized algorithms for nearly everything I do. For example, I have algorithms for writing (blogs, essays, etc) and I am using one right now. I also have specific algorithms for an exercise and morning routine, for which you can view here: This 24 Hour Workout Will Leave You Thinking, Looking And Feeling So Good!

When we use Algorithmic Thinking, we direct our behaviors to specific situations and in the direction of future events. Consequently, if we fail to understand this, we will simply never improve. To me, this makes complete sense. IF I exercise regularly AND stick to my morning routine THEN I will improve both physically and mentally… ELSE (IF I do not) THEN I will not improve (in fact, I will regress).

Lastly, if we direct our intentions toward success and create (as well as stick with) a plan, then we will succeed in whatever we do. It’s no different than believing in something. IF we believe we are good at something AND practice THEN we will be good at that thing. Or as Robert Anthony said,

“You can have anything you want if you are willing to give up the belief that you can’t have it.”