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56 Mental Models That Help You Tick

Published: Sep 3, 2020

Last updated: Sep 3, 2020

Life is relentless. Our days can be any variant of monotony, routine, adventure, the unexpected and everything in between. How we deal with change or maintain consistency is something we constantly must work on for the rest of our days, but there are ways to help manage it and bring out our best.

Whether it comes to health, code, career, human interaction, downtime or personal introspection, mental models help you to slow down, re-frame and make decisions grounded in good practice. Here are 56 mental models and concepts that have come to the rescue in my own life time and time again that may help you in your own time of need.

Control What You Can, Manage What You Can't

An old adage. There is constant influence coming indirectly into our lives. This principle is a reminder to take the cards we are dealt to do the best we can and manage the stress and outcomes that comes from those of which we cannot.

Avoid Premature Optimisation

Avoid preparing for scale before it is required.

Clean Code > Clever Code

While what is defined as "clean code" can come from perspective, the general gist is to keep code in a manner that is maintainable by others.

Find Your 30

Find 30 minutes throughout your day for exercise. This comes from an old Australian campaign, but it is a great minimum to stick by.

Think In 3rd Person

Whenever you are emotionally charged, use this concept of viewing your predicament in 3rd person to help consider the viewpoint outside of emotion.

Take Pride In Your Yard

The analogy here is about ensuring that your yard is nice and tidy but it speaks to the principle of taking pride in your own craft. This means that if you take short cuts and do not do things correctly, this will be reflected in your work.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

We tend to be over-confident in a subject early in the piece without the tenure and experience to back it up. Use this to remind yourself when you are in a relatively new field for yourself to remain humble and seek complete information or advice.

Regression to the Mean

Long deviations will tend back towards the average over time. Avoid outliers.

The Pareto Principle

80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Use this knowledge to time-box yourself when required and focus on discovering the 20% of the causes.

Templating Awareness

We all tend to generalise and we all have bias. Understand this at all times and be aware during interactions or approaching problems.

Black Swans

Do not be skewed by incomplete or missing information. Look to gather as much information as possible before drawing a conclusion.

Too Good To Be True

Self-explanatory. If it is too good to be true, it probably is. Tread with educated caution on the matter.

Least Astonishment Principle

In code, naming should come as no surprise to what it does. In life, you should follow this principle for things such as home layout and where to look for items and essentials.

Availability Bias

We have bias towards what is most important and most recent.

Keep It Simple Stupid

Avoid unnecessary complexity.

Keep Thing Simple But No Simpler

When simplifying, do not overreach and break things down further than is useful.

Parkinson's Law of Triviality

Know your priorities and work towards them. Working on something to avoid what is important is trivial.

If You Want Something Done, Give It To A Busy Person

This is also known as Parkinson's Law. Fill your time to become more effective (but beware of overwork!).

Thinking, Fast and Slow

As denoted by Kahneman, actively use the "slow mode" of the brain when required and avoid emotional, reflexive responses.

Macros and Micros

When planning out work or journeys, use this distinction to break down the relationships between smaller, moving parts that make up the larger ecosystem.

The Russian Space Pen

This relates to defining the problem-solution space and the importance of re-framing. The USA came up with incredible ingenuity when it created a pen that could work in space, but those hours and cost were countered with Russia who opted to simply use a lead pencil. Spend time to look at the problem space in different ways to come up with pragmatic, creative solutions.

Validated Metrics > Empty Metrics

Self-explanatory. Make educated decisions where possible.

Begin With The End In Mind

When starting anything out, ensure you have a clear idea about where you are going.

The 5 Whys

To dig deeper into the problem, ask the question why five times. The answers will uncover a deeper root cause. For example, production went down. Why? Because the screen continued to show a spinning wheel. Why? Because no message told the loading wheel to stop and give the user a message. Why? Because a failed XHR called was not handled correctly. Why? Because our decoder failed decoding the response. Why? Because we are using a legacy system with a known compatibility issue.

Ask the question multiple times will uncover more. Five is just a minimum.

Functional, Non-Functional, Out-Of-Scope

When defining projects, be sure to define the differences between a functional requirement, a non-functional requirement and what is out of scope.

Avoid Confirmation Bias

We tend to hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see. Avoid tunnel vision and bias to confirming our own theories.

Avoid Emotional Decisions

As obvious as this may sound, if you are emotionally charged do whatever it takes to delay massive decisions (work, moving, etc). While there are times where it is appropriate to make a decision as soon as possible, more often than not this emotional charge will paint your decision and lead you to make an irrational decision.

Big Rock Theory

When it comes to projects, order things "into the jar first with the big rocks, then the pebbles, then the sand". The idea is to define the larger pieces and then work on clarifying the smaller pieces.

Sell Many Things

Whether you are in an interview, positioning an idea or actually selling a tangible product for money, be sure to be selling more than just the core idea/concept.

Define Your Fears

When making grand decisions, define what is stopping you instead of what you stand to gain.

Regret Minimisation Framework

Made famous by Jeff Bezos. What is likely to cause you the least regret when you turn 80?

Measuring Happiness In The Mirror

Made famous by Steve Jobs. In the morning, ask yourself the question, "If I had to do what I am about to do today for the rest of my life, would I be happy?" If the answer for too many days in a row is no, then you know that something needs to change.

Embrace Imposter Syndrome

No one knows everything and even you and I are better than Einstein at something. Learn to that human nature is your strength.

Teach A Person To Fish

Similar to "The Law of Diminishing Returns". Give a person a fish and you will feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish and you will feed them for the rest of their life.

Dog Food Marketing

Have you ever seen a dog buy dog food? Know your audience.

Acknowledge, Align, Assure

When dealing with detractors or unhappy customers, use this to humanise the conversation and disarm the situation.

Early And Often

If there is a message you want to get across, bring it up early and bring it up often.

Keep Saying It

"When you are tired of saying it, people are starting to hear it." - Jeff Weiner

Murphy's Law

Anything that can happen, will happen. Be prepared.

Occam's Razor

The simplest explanation with the least number of variables is likely the be the correct one.

Hanlon's Razor

Give benefit of the doubt and assume the best of intentions. Anything malevolent that happens is more likely to be explained by neglect.

Aim Wide

When pitching timelines, first work towards something with 90% confidence. When was William Shakespeare born? If you have no idea, start with a wide pitch (1900BC to 1900AD) and work backwards with reasoning.

Path Of Least Resistance

When offered chances for a shortcut, choose against it. Resistance is a sign that you are on the right path.

Teach Others

Being able to teach others effectively on a topic is a sign that you have strong competence in that area.

Delegate Everything (You Can)

You don't have time to do everything. Whenever possible, delegate the needless and mundane tasks elsewhere.

The Illusion Of Choice

Design can give the illusion of freedom where you are in fact guiding their choice to be finite. Use this concept wisely and do not be a tool.

Don't Make Me Think

A simplified statement that great user experience comes from naturally intuitive operations. The same can be said for much that happens in your life.

Despise The Free Lunch

Be sceptical of anything offered to you for free. There is always a cost.

Assume Formlessness

This is a concept that is able remaining unpredictable to others, however I find it a great principle to keep a little of that "unpredictability" in your own life with what you do. Try new things and always be exploring.

Hang By Your Teeth

From Leil Lowndes book "How To Talk To Anyone", this concept is about holding your head high when you enter a room. It will make a remarkable difference on how others interpret you if you manage to keep your head help high.

Turn Up

Half the battle is showing up. Whether it is work, class or life: just get there.

Done Is Better Than Perfect

Just ship the damn thing.

Feedback Loop From Hell

Taken from Mark Manson's "The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck", the feedback loop from hell refers to negative spirals that occur from negative re-enforcement and momentum.

Being able to acknowledge and understand when you are in it is the first step to working your way out.

Strength Through Diversity

Understand that opening up to learning more, expanding your horizons and becoming more wholesome is one of the most powerful ways to get the bigger picture.

Connect The Dots

Another mantra famously spoken by Steve Jobs. As you work toward your goals and reflect back on achievements, you will be able to connect the dots that lead you to where you are today.

Have Many Tools Ready For The Right Job

This is an interesting one as it sounds as if it contradicts the idea of "it is not about the tools, it is about the person who uses the tools."

My math professor, on the other hand, would speak to the idea that you could use different methods to get towards the same answer, but there were times where one approach was a better choice based on the scenario. I use this a lot when thinking about code and tradeoffs. The more you open yourself up to learning about more approaches and programming paradigms, the better equipped you are to making the best decision when choosing the "tools" for the project.


These are 56 of the principles that I try to keep ingrained in my day and work towards upholding. They speak a lot to the character I strive to maintain.

Have you got other principles in your own life that have paid dividends? Feel free to share!

Image credit: Adrian Swancar

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Dennis O'Keeffe

  • Melbourne, Australia

Hi, I am a professional Software Engineer. Formerly of Culture Amp, UsabilityHub, Present Company and NightGuru.
I am currently working on Visibuild.


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56 Mental Models That Help You Tick


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