How to live your life by numbers

Can't make up your mind if you should go to the gym, quit your job or ask that girl out? Surrender those tricky decisions to simple mathematical logic, says Guy Adams
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The Independent Online

Today, like every day, I had to make some tricky decisions. They began in bed: should I have a lie-in, or get up early. Do I phone in sick to work, or jump in the shower? Then, once I'd got up, I wanted coffee. But how many cups?

Later, the tyranny of choice continued. Was it to be a pub lunch, or a sandwich at my desk? Should I visit the gym, or spend yet another evening in front of the telly? Above all, how could I handle the stress of making all these decisions, decisions, decisions?

I'll tell you how: algebra, the basic branch of maths they teach in school. Today, using a system devised by an American academic called Garth Sundem, I lived according to a series of equations.

Sundem, a mildly eccentric character who lectures at Montana State University, has just published a book called Geek Logik, on what he calls the art of "easier living through mathematics". In a nutshell, it shows how to use algebra instead of the traditional decision-making process known as "making your mind up".

The mathematical sums in Geek Logik help you to cope with everything from mundane daily choices to a big, life-changing decision. Provided, that is, you can work a calculator. Say, for instance, that it's a cold Monday morning and (like me) you're wondering whether to call in sick. Using Sundem's technique, forget the normal soul-searching: instead, do a calculation where S represents how ill you are, M is how many days you've missed in the last month, and C is your chance (out of 10) of getting fired.

You bung these figures into an equation, grab a calculator, and come up with a number, called H (for hooky). If H is greater than one, you are advised to call your boss and prepare to recreate Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

The guide is aimed squarely at young males. In particular, Sundem is hoping to liberate two otherwise troubled social groups. One is the " hopelessly indecisive"; the other he describes as "brainiacs" or geeks who "lack basic social skills" and struggle to cope with the options offered by modern life. He therefore concentrates on dilemmas concerning things such as personal health (Geek Logik contains a mathematical formula to decide "should I see the doctor?"), careers, finance and, most fascinating of all, the art of dating.

If, for example, a reader wants to find out is he has "a snowball's chance in hell" with a young lady, Sundem advises performing a calculation that compares their respective "conversational skills" , salary and looks. Depending on the outcome, it could save a great deal of time, money and, let's be quite honest here, abject humiliation.

Sundem's theory could be seen as little more than a nerdy gimmick. But the author insists that Geek Logik stands up to scientific scrutiny. It is, after all, based around a sound thesis: that human decisions are made by weighing up factors that could, if we so desire, be expressed in neat, round figures.

Either way, living by the say-so of a pocket calculator turns out to be splendidly liberating. There is something refreshing about the certainty with which a mathematical answer replaces the soft uncertainties of normal decision making. In the manner of a benign psychiatrist, Geek Logik also teaches you about personal strengths, weaknesses and priorities.

Using maths to decide whether to quit your job, for example, involves combining your age and chances (out of 10) of finding another job, with current monthly salary, and number of hours per day the song "Take This Job and Shove It" runs through your mind.

"Almost every decision we make is made by weighing up a couple of factors," says Sundem. "You can do the same with mathematics by creating a cost-benefit equation. The very act of doing these calculations, while it might not give the answer you want, will at least let you know where you're going wrong, and what might help achieve your goals in life."

Admittedly, living by sums has drawbacks. You can no longer reply with a simple "yes" if a colleague offers to get coffee. Instead, it's out with the calculator to discover exactly how many cups you are allowed today "in order to be functional". There's also no concession to the occasional error in adding up. Living by maths opens up a few nightmare scenarios. You could, for instance, decide to part company with a girlfriend on the basis of a calculation that later turns out to have contained a misplaced square root.

Yet there's something comforting about throwing caution to algebra. The decisions I made this way were pretty similar to those I'd have taken anyway. This would seem to indicate that Sundem has achieved a degree of success in getting algebra to mirror human decision making. The man himself isn't surprised, though. There is, he claims, a larger truth at work here. According to chaos theory, our futures are predetermined: if it were possible to stop every molecule in the universe, and work out the speed and direction in which they were headed, one could (theoretically) devise a complex formula that predicted the future.

We are, therefore, entering the age of the equation. Forget gut instinct and soul-searching. With the power of algebra, a sturdy pocket calculator, and a small, hardback, self-help book, Sundem insists that the geek shall inherit the earth.

Geek Logik: how it works

Sa/Su (IT/100L - Snooze/2) = W

Equation One: "Should you wake up five minutes earlier?"

Sa = Hours of sleep you'll get tonight

Su = Hours of sleep you need regularly in order to remain civil with telemarketers

I = How important is the extra five minutes of awake time? (1-10 with 10 being "in these five minutes I will solve the unified theory of everything")

L= How much light is in your bedroom when you wake up? (1-10 with 10 being "I live next to Bob's Neon Sings and Spotlight Emporium")

T = Temperature of your bedroom in degrees Fahrenheit

Snooze = Of the last five times you meant to get up early, how many times did you hit the snooze button until reaching your normal wake-up time?

* If W is greater than 1, you should wake up earlier

Guy's result: W = minus 0.33

Thankfully, I'm allowed the usual lie in. Spot on: it's a cold Monday morning in November, the weekend was hectic, and my central heating is yet to kick in.

Equation Two: "Should you call in sick?"

DS/(M+1)R (Fh/Fj - C) - $N/250 = Hooky

D = Do you have a doctor's note? (Enter 1 for "no", 10 for " yes, but it's a forgery")

S = How sick are you? (1-10 with 10 being "quarantined")

M = How many days have you missed in the last month?

R = Degree of responsibility in your job (1-10 with 10 being "lives are in my hands")

Fh = How much fun will you have if you stay at home? (1-10 with 10 being Ferris Bueller's Day Off)

Fj = How much fun will you have at work? (1-10 with 10 being "I am a personal trainer for underwear models")

$ = Your daily wage in dollars

N = How much do you need the money? (1-10 with 10 being "I owe the mob")

C= Chance of getting fired (If you think you have, say, a "3-in-10 chance" of getting fired if you skip work, enter 3/10)

* If Hooky is greater than 1, you should call in sick

Guy's result: H = minus 1.48

A resounding "no" kills the sickie before it's even started. Sage advice: I'm in perfect health, don't have a doctor's note, and frankly won't have much fun mooching around at home.

Equation Three: "How many cups of coffee do you need this morning in order to be functional?"

C (K + 1)/N+1 (Bt Su/Bu St) = Cups

C= In shots of espresso, the amount of caffeine you consume in an average morning

St = The hours of sleep you got last night (subtract one for every time you woke up in a cold sweat, thinking about the things you need to do today)

Su = The hours of sleep you need to remain civil with telemarketers

K = How many kids do you have? Kids in nappies are worth two; kids over 18 are worth half

Bt = How busy are you today? (1-15 with 1 being easy like Sunday morning and 15 being presently birthing triplets)

Bu = How many hours per day do you usually spend in non-recreational activities?

N = Hours of nap time you can squeeze in this afternoon

Cups = the number of cups of coffee you should consume before attempting anything functional.

Guy's result: 4

Four? That's enough to wake up a hibernating bull elephant, if bull elephants did hibernate, that is. Caffeine is an appetite- suppressing drug, which (looking at the outcome of equation four) is just as well.

Equation Four: "Should you grab a sandwich at your desk or head to the pub for a lunchtime blowout?"

(P+A+M/10 / L+I+C/10) (W - ISW+60/25) = Pub

P= level of peer pressure (1-10 with 10 being your buddy's last day before moving to Antarctica)

L = How much do you like your job? (1-10 with 10 being Ambassador to Italy)

A = On a scale of 1-10, your level of attachment to fried food, Guinness and watching darts over lunch

I = Importance of today's work (1-10 with 10 being brokering Middle East peace talks)

M = Cash available (enter max of £100)

C = The percentage chance that you would get caught

W= How many additional hours of work should you do today?

* If Pub is greater than one, give in to your Id and tell the boss you're crisis managing on-site for the afternoon.

Guy's result: 0.98

The nearest of near-misses leaves me chomping miserably on a cardboard baguette, while dreaming of the smoky haven across the road where they're showing cricket highlights on Sky.

Equation Five: "Should you go to the gym?"

FS/TM + FS - C (D+1)/10 = G

F = Pounds of metabolised fettuccini alfredo and Guinness needed to lose in order to reach ideal weight

S = Marital status (insert 1 for married and repressed, 5 for dating and optimistic, or 10 for swinging single)

T = How tired are you? (1-10 with 10 being kindergarten teacher the day after Hallowe'en)

M = Minutes to the gym

C = How much do you need to do other things? (1-10 with 10 being presently coaching wife's birthing)

D = How many days have you worked out in the last week? C'mon, be honest

* If G is greater than 1, you should go to the gym

Guy's result: 5.71

I'm still full of beans from all that coffee, there's nothing on telly, and I jolly well need the exercise. So out come the plimsolls.

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