Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Better Solution to Counting Calories

Background:
Do you know how far you have to walk in order to burn off a piece of chocolate cake?  Most foods have this obscure value called a calorie but do you really understand what a calorie is?  Part of the problem of counting calories is that people can not relate to the concept of a calorie.  I propose that when people can relate to the amount of energy in foods, then they can better judge the impact the food may have on their diet.

Imaging that you are in a foreign country and you ask the concierge, “How far is it to the museum?”, and they tell you, “8 furlongs”.  If you are not familiar with this unit of measurement you wouldn’t know whether to take a taxi or walk.  However, if they said, it is a 15 minute walk (1 mile or 8 furlongs) then it would be easy for you to make a decision.  In this post I share an experiment to try and find a better way to frame calories for people who are trying to lose weight.

Experiment:
To determine if there was a better way for people to relate to calories, I chose a hamburger meal that has 900 calories.  I then converted that calorie content into the amount of energy that a person consumes walking as well as climbing up steps.

Next I conducted a poll on the Behavioral Economics group in LinkedIn with the question, “If you were trying to lose weight, which of the following hamburgers would you avoided based on the energy you get from eating the hamburger?”

The control group and was the calorie content of a McDonalds Happy Meal (hamburger with French fries and drink.)

The second answer presented the calories burned while walking.  I chose a normal pace for an 180 pound man of 100 calories burned per mile because it would be easy for the average person to do the math.

The third answer presented the calories as the amount of stairs you would need to climb to burn the calories.  The conversion factor is a little more cumbersome with a range between 5-10 calories burned per flight of 12 stairs.

Unfortunately, LinkedIn has a limit on the number of characters for the question and answers choices so a lot of information was lost when I edited the poll to fit in the allowed space.  When I was editing the poll, I kept the calorie amount for a happy meal but only referred to a hamburger based on the limited space. 

Results:
The poll is shown below along with the outcome:



From the result, there is no clear distinction between the control group and the walking option.  It does appear that people would not try to avoid eating a burger that would allow them to climb 600 steps.

Leanings:
The Choices were Equal:
Even without doing the math, many people guessed that the options all represented the same food item.  One way to prevent this from happening is to use a food item where the calorie content could possibly change between servings such as a plate of pasta.

Calorie Judgment: 
Some people had an intuitive sense of the calorie content of a hamburger and were able to recognize that 900 calories sounded high for a plain hamburger and guessed correctly that 900 calories referred to a Happy Meal.  By the time I recognized the error, several people had already responded to the poll and I did not want to change the poll and throw out the initial responses.  Additionally my original assumption was that people did not understand the size of a calorie and while several people were able to guess the inflated numbers, many people confessed to having no reference to how big a calorie is. 

Distance Walked vs.  Times Walked:
Several people mentioned that they could relate better to time spent walking rather than actual distance walked.  This is something that I had not considered however it does make sense.  Take the example of someone going for an afternoon walk around their office building.  They may not know the actual distance traveled but they would pay attention to the time in order to not be late for an afternoon meeting.  Given an average speed of 4 Miles an hour, the average person would burn off roughly 6 calories for every minute walked.

Steps vs Flights:
Another comment that came up is flights of stairs instead of a number of steps.  The average floor has 12 steps.  I had considered this option but did not use it because I thought that the higher number of steps would be a bigger deterrent than the lower number of floors.  Additionally, most people take the elevator when the have to walk up more than 3 floors so I felt that after 4 flights, people would again lose reference to the number of flights.

Framing with Energy:
One recommendation is that the energy be related to energy consumed by an electronic device such as minutes of TV watched.  With all of the variation in TV sizes and efficiencies, I think this may also be an abstract reference.  An idea similar to this concept would be to reference the distance a car could travel from the energy.

Attracted to Exercise Option:
One person I talked with turned the question around and was attracted to the walking option because they felt that eating the burger gave them the potential to walk 9 miles.  This concept would make sense for endurance athletes who need to store up energy but the intention of the experiment is to try and help people who are dieting chose low energy foods.  Remember, that framing also needs to take into account the other person’s perspective.

Recommendations / Next Steps:
To further test the concept of re-framing the energy in food, a simple label would be required that easily presents the energy content of specific food.  Here are some examples.  Please share any additional suggestions you have in the comments section.

Walk 20 minutes to burn this energy in this food.
Enough energy for a 20 minute walk.
You need to walk 20 minutes to burn this energy.

Conclusion:
Losing weight by counting calories can be very confusing.  Every different type of food has a different calorie density and the weight of food that you eat also impacts the amount of calories that you consume.  This prevents people from developing an intuitive feeling about the calories that they consume during an average day.  By using a metric that people can relate to, people may have a better understanding of the energy content of food and start to improve their decisions about the foods that they eat.  With energy content listed in terms of exercise that people can relate to, people can begin to better understand when their energy input is grossly larger than their energy usage and begin the process of bringing the two in balance.

Footnote:
During the poll, Dan Goldstein pointed out an excellent article in Decision Science News that also addressed this same topic.

Friday, October 11, 2013

If you want to leverage your brand, you need to maintain the promise!

The other day I received a UPS envelope that was addressed to the previous occupant my house.  Thinking that the envelope must be important to the previous owner, I took it to the local UPS Store in the hopes that they could forward it to the correct address which I did not know.  When I talked to the clerk behind the counter he said that there was nothing that they could do since they did not have the new address.  I told him that he should call the sender and try and resolve the issue.  At this point the manager of the store came by and said that they had no affiliation with the main UPS company.  If I left the package at his store, he would just have it re-delivered to my address.  He then gave me an 800 number to call and said I should deal with UPS directly and they may send a truck out to pick up the package.

At this point I started to get frustrated.  A customer of UPS had sent an envelope to the wrong address and the recipient notified a division of UPS that there was a problem.  The division then told me the that I was responsible for making sure that the envelope got back to the intended recipient.

Here is where I have a problem.  I trust the UPS brand.  UPS is a worldwide company that has a history of delivering packages around the world and I have used their service many times in the past.  When they put their name to a store, I instantly apply the trust in the parent brand to the store.  However, when something goes wrong, I expect the same level of service from the local store carrying the UPS name as I do from the parent company.  I feel that the UPS store is trying to take advantage of the UPS brand without taking on the responsibility that comes with the brand.  This undermines both my confidence in the UPS store and the parent UPS company.  The worst part is that this problem does not concern me.  The sender made a mistake and now it is up to me to fix it.

A little background on the UPS store.  According to the website, "The UPS Store, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of United Parcel Service (“UPS”) of America, Inc., is the world’s largest franchisor of retail shipping, postal, printing and business service centers...In 2001, UPS acquired Mail Boxes Etc., Inc. In 2003, the two companies introduced The UPS Store brand. On April 7, 2003, approximately 3,000 Mail Boxes Etc. locations in the United States (at the time, nearly 90% of the domestic U.S. network) re-branded as The UPS Store and began offering lower (around 20% on average) UPS-direct shipping rates. In 2012, Mail Boxes Etc., Inc. became The UPS Store, Inc. The centers remain locally owned and operated..."

In my opinion, I don't see why a company should be able to take advantage of the strength of a brand and then hide under the excuse of being a franchise when there is a problem.  In my mind, you are all one company.  If that is not the case then let me know and I will no longer apply the same trust to the UPS Stores as I do to the parent UPS company.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How to Improve the 2013 America's Cup

The 2013 America's Cup has once again proven to be a showcase for the pinnacle of sailing technology.  However lack of spectator involvement makes it hard for the laymen to appreciate the advancements in the sport.  Here are some recommendations on how to improve the Cup so that more fans may enjoy the worlds oldest sporting trophy.

Decrease the Size of the Boats:
To begin with, it is true that the current AC 72 class of boats is amazing.  The New Zealand boat has hit a top speed of 41.5 Knots or 50.8 miles an hour.  This is an impressive speed when you consider that up until 2007, the world record for any type of sail powered boat was 41.14 knots over a 1 mile course and that the speed limit on the Golden Gate Bridge overlooking the America's Cup racing is 45 miles an hour.  However speed alone will not attract a following.  The first change should be to the boats.  With the current boats, the speed is so fast, that when you try to view the race on land the boats are only in your field of view for a few minutes and then disappear around a corner.

The large wing sail makes an impressive sight on the bay but the sheer size of the boats has increased the cost to a point where only three countries were able to mount a challenge this year.  Using slightly smaller boats would decrease the top speed but it would also decrease the overall costs and allow more countries to compete.  More competitors would increase worldwide interest and allow for more racing that could be watched.


Dock the boats at the Pavilion:  People come to the pavilion because they want to have a closer relationship to the boats and the people involved in the sport.  With the compounds located away from the pavilion in San Francisco, it is hard to see your local hero.

Here is a picture of the dock in Newport for the 1984 cup when Australia II finally won the the cup.
Americas Cup boats at the dock in Newport RI, 1983

While experts can argue about the merits of hull shapes and keel wings, it is easy for the laymen to notice the similarity of the boats at dock to thoroughbred race horses lined up to for a start and appreciate the building tension as the race approaches. 


The start of a horse race:

Increase Shore-Side Activities:
Currently the South side of the harbor is taken up by large yachts.  Instead of excitement, there is a hush as people are afraid to talk around all the wealth.  Instead, the dock should be taken up by classic America's cup boats that offer rides.  At $50 a person for an hour tour with just the main, the endeavor would be cash-flow positive, the classic boats would get some usage and people would get a chance to ride on a legend.  For the boats that are too fragile to sail, just allowing people to walk on the boats would be a big hit.

One of things that is constantly talked about is how the physical exertion by the crew during the race and the biggest symbol of this is the winch grinder.  A booth should be set up that allows people to have a go at using the winch.  Since people can relate to the weight of water, a rope from the winch could be lead to a bucket that picks water up out of the bay and makes a big splash when the bucket reaches the top of a pole. 

 Winch Grinders on an Ocean Race, Man vs Nature


A fundamental challenges of sailing is that the sea already forms a natural barrier between the competitors and the fans.  One way to overcome this is by having a series of mini races close to shore in boats like the Hobie Wild Cat.  The small races would give people a chance to watch several races in a short time helping people understand the patterns in sailboat racing.  Think of it as watching the junior rodeo while you wait for the real bulls to come out.  There must be thousands of college sailors around the world that would be willing to sail on a daily basis for a summer in front of a crowd.


A diversion while you wait for the America's Cup to start

One of the hardest things for people to relate to is the fact that boats have to follow a zig zag pattern to get around the course.  To clarify this concept for spectators, a mini course should be set up on shore that mimics the real course.  People would run along lines drawn on the ground to mimic tacking up wind and gybing down wind.  The color of the line would determine what tack you were on and the contestants would have to follow simplified sailing rules as they avoided other racers.

This America's Cup continues to be a showcase for man's mastery over the wind.  However it is hard for the average person to be interested in the races due to natural barriers and a lack of understanding of sailing. Following these suggestions may help to improve appreciation for the sport.  This should lead to greater spectator involvement and renewed interest in the the greatest sailing event in the world.

Friday, August 16, 2013

You always take home a little bit of what you work with.

When you choose a profession, remember there will all ways be a little left over of what you work with.  A gardener will come home with mud on their shoes.  A baker will have a couple of rolls left over.  A programmer will have sample code on their computer.  A banker, well you get the picture.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How to Minimize Home Buyers Remorse:


Why is it that we experience buyers remorse when we purchase a new home?  One of the reasons could be that everything is unfamiliar about the new house.  I recently moved into a new house and had questioned the decision for a very long time.  Last night, I was driving home listening to the radio when I realized that I was driving the route to my house without thinking about it.  It occurred to me that when I first moved in, I had to think about every stoplight and every turn as I was learning the quickest path.  This process of learning is a cause of frustration in itself.  Whenever you learn something new, your mind is literally being rewired as you practice the new task.  After a while, you become proficient at the new task and you mind can work on auto pilot, allowing you to focus on other things and reducing the anxiety.  You can learn more about this concept in an earlier article that I wrote about How People Learn.

When you purchase a new home, every single task that you took for granted has to be re-learned.  The location of the silverware drawer, where you keep your keys, even where the toilet paper is in relation to the toilet.  While your body and mind are learning to coordinate each of these activities, you will naturally feel frustrated.  This felling of frustration compounds any other doubts that you may have had about the home that you chose such as did you pick the right school district and is the commute too long.  After you have learned your way around the house as well as the path to common destinations such as the grocery store and work, you can begin to function on auto pilot and the new home owner feeling begins to subside.  Your body begins to work from muscle memory as you perform tasks in your new environment without thinking about it.

So what can you do to minimize this initial frustration?  The short answer is that repetition is the only cure so you need to begin to standardize on the way that you do things as quickly as possible.  Even before you start putting dishes away in the kitchen, put labels on the outside of the cabinets and drawers for commonly used items.  Mark the silverware drawer, the utensil drawer and where you put the glasses, plates and pots and pans.  The labels will provide support until you can automatically reach into a drawer and find what you are looking for.

The same goes for other areas of the house.  Decide early what each of the rooms will be used for and how you will refer to them.  Is the spare room called the guest bedroom, the den or the play room?  Put tape over the door handles of any doors that might not be needed that often such as a hallway door that holds the water heater but looks like it might be a closet.  Put labels where other things may be installed or placed on the floor as a placeholder for where they will go.  This makes it clear what work has to be done and starts to give you some sense of orientation in a room that may only have a pile of boxes.  I like to use blue painters tape with a black Sharpie for this task.  The black on blue is a good contrast and the blue tape is designed to peel off without leaving any residue.  Another good use for the tape is to put tape over any light switches that are not critical.  That way you don't waste time turning on the garbage disposal when you are trying to find the kitchen light switch.

Real estate agents can also help with the task of orienting clients to the new neighbor hood.  After the new house is in escrow, take some time to drive with your clients around to common destinations.  The client should drive their car, while the agent sits in the passenger seat.  Make a list of destinations to drive to and then make a series of mini trips starting from the house each time.  Choose places such as the grocery store, a good place for dinner and the school if applicable.  For each trip be sure to start and end at the house so the patch to the new location can be determined.  Be sure to drive through the parking lot to the front of the building so any minor annoyances such as no left turn areas can be flushed out.  Driving together will not only give the homeowner the chance to learn the routes, but will also give the agent a chance to point out other stores that the homeowner might find useful such as a bank or drug store.

Buying a new a home is a major commitment that can produce financial and social anxiety.  This anxiety is compounded by the amount of new things that you must learn.  Only repetition can make the uncomfortable feel comfortable so get started living in your new environment.  With time you will have settled in and can't imagine living any place else.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why children misbehave.

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  A new book might show that much of what we think is deviant behavior in children might actually be good intentions.  My friend told me the story how his son was brushing his teeth.  The boy got his hands all soapy and wanted to leave the room before he had washed the soap off.  The dad didn't want the boy to leave until the soap was off.  After the usual discussion, the dad asked the boy why he wanted to leave the bathroom.  The boy said that he wanted to open the door and show his mom that he was using soap on his hands.  The dad thought that the boy was being disobedient when all the boy wanted to do was to show that he was listening to his mom.

Marie-Nathalie Beaudion talks about this concept her book http://www.skillionaire.org/ talks about much of child's erratic behavior is actually a result of their brain still learning the best way to solve a problem.  When child is first born, it has very few neurons and can not reason through a problem.  Between the ages of 7 and 12, the child has the most neurons that it will have in its life but the path between the neurons is not clearly defined. The child may become easily distracted when it tries to solve a problem because each thought leads to other thoughts.  As the child matures, the number of neurons begins to decrease but the path between the neurons becomes more defined and the person is more equipped to solve complex problems.

According to the book, your job as a parent, is to help the child reinforce the good neural paths.  The best way to do this, is to listen to how your children work through problems especially when things go wrong.  Instead of yelling at your child when they do something that makes you upset, try to understand the child's thought process to see what they were thinking.  Often times, you will hear that they have several conflicting ideas in their head.  By talking to them, you can help them sort through their thoughts and learn the best way to handle a problem.  Next time they encounter the same problem, their mind will have reinforced the neural networks and they will be better able to handle the problem.  See a previous article that I wrote on how people learn, http://latentvalue.blogspot.com/2013/01/how-people-learn.html.  The article talks about how repetition of a thought or an action leads to excelence.

The process of getting a child to talk about their thought process is not easy and is even more difficult when you as an adult are angry but the results can be very beneficial not only to your relationship with your child but also to their development.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

How to Fall Asleep


I recently had trouble falling asleep because I was thinking about work too much.  I then remembered that the mind has trouble concentrating on more than one thing at a time so I searched for a way to distract myself from the worries of the day.  I came up with a solution that hopefully will work for you.  The solution consists making up nonsense words in your mind preventing you from thinking about other things.   Eventually, your mind drifts off.  I will explain in more detail below, but first, there are two important steps you may want to consider when you have trouble sleeping because something is keeping you up.  This posts assumes that you have a normally busy day and the reason you can't sleep is because you mind is active not because your body is not tired.

First, read Dale Carnegie's book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.  This book is required reading for the Dale Carnegie course and a must read for anyone who is gripped with fear about what may happen in the future.  If you are still unsure, you may want to consider that 193 reviewers out of 237 gave it five stars on Amazon.

Second, keep a notebook by your bed.  When you have trouble sleeping, it is often because you are not sure how a particular event is going to unfold.  While you may not be able to control the outcome, you can control your actions.  Create a what-if scenario and then create an action plan if each scenario occurs.  Then, write down the top three actions that must be performed depending on the outcome.  Once you have clear path of action, you can relax because you know what must be done.  You may not like taking a particular action, but in your heart, you know that it must be done.  Then when you start to worry about the particular event, you just think about your action plan and you know what steps need to be taken.

Now comes the interesting part.  The goal is to distract your mind so that no other thoughts can enter your head.  You do this by creating up nonsense sounds or words in your mind that have no meaning and no connection except perhaps rhyming.  For example, you would begin to say, "ba, ma, sa, tee, wee, pee, knee, nin, pin, rin...".  The words should not tell a story or have any association with real life. As soon as you say one word, begin to say the next.  If you find your mind wandering to a concrete thought, refocus so that you get back to saying the words.

When I first started to use this trick, the tempo of the words began to increase until the sounds came rapid fire and became distracting.  I then realized that the sounds were much faster than my breathing.  By slowing down the creation of new words to match my breathing everything came together.  With each breath, I would create a new sound and this would be relaxing, my breathing would then slow with the relaxation and so would the speed of new sounds.  Eventually, I was not aware of either my breathing or the sounds and I was asleep.

The solution works because you conscious mind does not know how to interpret the words you are saying.  Your mind is engaged but there are no follow on thoughts that go in circles leading only to more worry or frustration.  You are literally creating static or white noise for you brain.  The brain is keeping busy but it does not know what it is doing.  With no clear action direction, your consciousness begins to lose control and you enter into Stage 1 Sleep which is the transition from consciousnesses to un-consciousnesses.  If your conscious mind can not track the thoughts in your head, it it cant be aware of whether you are awake or asleep.  This then allows you to enter the other stages of sleep automatically.

In conclusion, if you are having trouble sleeping because you worry too much, two things you should do are read "How to stop worrying" and create an action plan about what you should do.  The third trick that I recommend is to distract your mind by making up words that don't make sense   When you time these words to your breathing, your mind and body are in harmony and you will soon enter the next stages of sleep.

If this technique works for you or if you have another technique that works better, please share it in the comments section so that my readers may benefit from your success.