Schelling points, trajectories and iteration cycles

Schelling points

I have lived in the same suburb of the same city for all of my life.  We have a shopping centre that I know, if I go there for more than an hour – I will bump into someone I know.  I know this because it always happens.  And because it’s a natural collection point for humans.  Humans who need to go shopping for time to time.  This shopping centre is a schelling point for me to bump into people I know.

There are many types of schelling points.  When do we think about resolutions?  What time of year do we naturally contemplate the year, and resolve to do things for a new year?  New year’s eve.

When do we think about getting older?  When we officially increment our age by +1: Our birthdays.

When do we think about death?  At funerals.

When do we think about marriage and getting married?  At weddings.  And to a lesser extent wedding anniversaries.  Or engagement parties.

When do we think about having kids?  When we see other people having kids.  When we meet and spend time with lots of kids.

When do we think about luck?  When something particularly lucky happens like finding a coin on the ground.

These are all schelling points, natural times that we are compelled to think about these things.


Yes I mean the projectile motion trajectory.  When you make a plan and set yourself off in motion you make some assumptions that your trajectory will carry you there.

For example: if I read one page of this textbook a day I will be done in 12 months.  It’s a pretty simple calculation that 365 pages can be read in 12 months at the rate of 1/day.  Looks like it’s going to work.  Except that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.  In the first week you might read two pages a day, and then you might have a bad day and then skip a whole week, then to keep up you want to read 3 pages a day just in case that happens again.  But then you find a particularly easy chapter so you slow down and skip a few days.  When suddenly you find yourself stumped by the next chapter and running 30 pages behind.

Trajectory is a great and powerful concept when paired with Schelling Points.  In this example there was some kind of Schelling point to review progress on the textbook roughly each week, until suddenly (at the end) there wasn’t.  And the trajectory failed.

When you throw a rock in space, if you stop looking at it for a few years, you can expect it to keep going for a really long way.  However we don’t play out our plans and goals in space.  Most of them happen here on earth in a noisy system of all kinds of things that can go wrong.  This is why we want a schelling point.  A point to ask, “how am I going with this”, “am I still traversing the streams at the right speed”, “Is this still my goal?”

Iteration cycles

In startups there is a concept called, fail fast.  What you really want to do is not fail at all, but in lieu of that – what you really want to do is fail after the first week, give up and do something different for the other 51 weeks of the year, rather than spend 52 weeks failing spectacularly at the end.  Spend your other 51 weeks trying again, trying different things and trying not to fail.

An iteration cycle is when you go to the optometrist and they hold up lenses and say, “better or worse” repeatedly for 5 minutes, instead of making you a pair of glassed and then handing them to you and asking you if they are right or wrong.

If you set off at a trajectory of y=2x/day, and review at your schelling point in a year to find you are only at 120x for the total 365 days, that’s a lot less useful and you have a lot less chance of getting there on or near the original trajectory than if you review after a month to find your predicted 60x is in fact 10x and it’s time to figure out a different way to reach that trajectory.

Synthetic Schelling points

So you don’t currently have enough Schelling points?  It’s okay.  Most people don’t.  For starters it might be worth identifying your existing schelling points.  Some examples include:

  • Talking to your mother
  • New year
  • Birthdays
  • End of big assignments or projects
  • “payday”
  • When you buy new clothes (an entire new wardrobe)
  • The onset of seasonal change
  • Big fights with people you care about
  • political events
  • major financial changes, (i.e. buying a house or car, winning a prize)
  • new relationships, ending relationships
  • new job
  • weddings, anniversaries,
  • funerals, death of pets

You may have points here, you may not.  Whether you actually attend a funeral is different to whether you use that opportunity to consider your trajectories (and relevant trajectories to that event).

How frequent Schelling points is too frequent?  Every person will be a bit different.  I propose a test to find out.  Declare and test a Schelling point once a week.  If that’s too often, reduce to once a fortnight, and once a month.  If that’s not often enough – increase.  The other thing to keep in mind is the duration may change over time.  Some iterations will be shorter than others, some will be longer.

Starting a Synthetic Schelling point

To help, here are some seed questions to guide introspection.  They have an overlap with Hamming questions (from CFAR), but are generally known for being the really really important question that you want to have obvious answers to:

  • Am I travelling at the right trajectory?
  • Do I know my goals and do I still feel connected to them?
  • What were some of my biggest achievements?  When is my next one?  Am I heading there at speed?
  • Is my plan working?
  • Can I do the things that I am currently doing in a faster/better way?

Try it and report back.

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