Going Back to Basics
You've likely had computer problems in the past. We all have at some point. But what did you do? Did you immediately call up the IT department in a panic? Or did you use the tried-and-tested method of "turning it off and on again"?
Often, this simple step can be enough to solve the problem. But imagine for just a moment that, instead of using it, a technician was sent out to look at your computer every time you encountered a problem. The enormous cost to your company, not to mention the time wasted, could make your job just about unworkable.
This is a prime example of a heuristic method at work. In other words, a simple, standard rule that we refer back to when we're problem solving.
What Are Heuristic Methods?
Heuristics are most commonly referred to as "rules of thumb," a term first thought to have been coined by Scottish preacher James Durham in his book, "Heaven Upon Earth," which was published in 1685. In it, Durham referred to "foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb."
This method of measurement has its origins in carpenters' ages-old habit of using the tip of their thumb to estimate an inch. In fact, in Dutch (along with several other European languages), the word for thumb – "duim" – also means inch.
Heuristic methods are reliable and convenient mental shortcuts that you can use to narrow down your options when you're faced with several different choices, to ease your cognitive load, or to solve problems.
Perhaps you're a hiring manager, and you decide to dismiss any résumés that contain spelling mistakes. Or maybe you're an office manager and you have to make an educated guess about the amount of stationery you need to order every month. In both instances, you are using an heuristic method to meet your objective.