Thanks to Dakota Quackenbush from Authentic Bay Area for an earlier version of this tool.

So far, the main motivation for my work as a community builder and authentic relating facilitator was meeting my own need for connection.

I think that was a mistake.

First, it is difficult to harvest the fruits of community while I’m the one responsible for creating and holding the space. Second, this motivation leads to botched incentives that end up serving neither the cause nor me. After all, the subset of broke EAs and hippies I enjoy spending my time with the most are not in too dire need of my services, nor particularly capable of helping me pay my rent.

In other words, I’ve finally given up on trying to poop where I eat. Instead of building a product for my in-group, I now try to anchor my life in my tribe, and use the energy I get there to build products that serve the outside world and pay my rent.

Wish me luck.

Because my life happens all over the globe and making new friends is more intuitive for me than sustaining long-term relationships, I want to be a bit strategic about building a tribe that keeps me energized.

That’s where the Dunbar Playbook comes into play.

Some theory: Dunbar’s Number

The Dunbar Playbook is named after Dunbar’s Number, the number of people one can maintain personal relationships with.

In his earlier research, anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar concluded that that’s about 150 people. Later, he found that there are actually different circles of friendship. Apparently, people have a handful of very close friends, a couple more best friends, and vastly more loose friends and acquaintances. (Who would have thought.)

The Atlantic cites the following layers, with each layer being ~3x the size of the preceding ones:

1.5 people: Intimates
5: Close friends
15: Best friends
50: Good friends
150: Friends
500: Acquaintances
1500: Known names
5000: Known faces

Of course, these are all just rough approximations. Introverts will invest more energy into fewer people, extraverts less into more. There are probably also cultural differences or something.

Introducing the Dunbar Playbook

However big or small these circles are for you: It will probably not hurt to be a explicit about who is part of which one. Fine-grained categories make it easier to track where your priorities lie.

The process for creating a Dunbar Playbook is simple: Make a list of people you are or want to be friends with. Note down the “is” and “ought” of your relationship, and whichever other information you want to save in the playbook. Here is my playbook in anonymized form:

Image 1: An anonymized version of my Playbook. As you see, this boy cares a lot about vibing.

On the left, you find a bunch of tiers - inspired by the circles of friendship in the article above. How I named the categories is irrelevant. What’s important is that I want to be very intentional about investing into my relationships with the uppermost Alices and Bobs, and for the ones lower on the list, occasional “how are you?”s and a call every couple months is enough.

Then, you find the names of my people. The “Is”-column indicates where I’m at with these people (sorted by lowest to highest), and the “Want”-column indicates how close I’d like these relationships to be. The “want”-column is the one I actually auto-sort this list by; the “is”-column just shows discrepancies and how far from my desired state I currently am.

The boundaries between the categories are not firm, just very rough sizes of the different circles I think might be good to aim for. Sometimes the boundaries and the number of people I actually want in that tier match.For example, as there’s currently nobody who could count as an “Intimate” for me, tier 2/”close friends” spills over into tier 1. 

Creating your own playbook

If this seems useful, you can use my template and go through the following steps to create your own playbook.

1. Start with a list of names: Brainstorm all the people currently in your life. Some questions that might be helpful:

Who do you consider Friends? Family? Co-workers? Acquaintances?

Who do you regularly spend time with?

Who do you *want* to spend time with, but don’t yet?

Write until your list has at least 75 people. Don’t obsess about perfection and completeness; this is a living document you can add to or remove from at any time. Just have *some* list to start with.

2. Add or remove columns. Add whatever additional information your playbook shall contain; remove what doesn’t suit you. Dakota’s original playbook, for example, didn’t have the “is” and “ought”-columns that are crucial to mine. Maybe she never overthinks who to invite over for dinner, gets overwhelmed by the options, and then stays home alone.

You might want a column for things you have to contribute to your peoples’ lives? Ways in which they could be beneficial for you? Their location in the world? Their relationship status, so that you can play matchmaker?

Include whatever feels useful, delete what doesn’t. Experiment and iterate. For example, a friend of mine tracks whether people reliably show up when they say “yes” to an event. (I don’t look good on that list.) Another friend has the policy to never accept anyone to a retreat again when they don’t show without canceling. Blocking spots for people on the waitlist sucks.

3. Fill the Is-column. Now that you have a list of (potential) friends and acquaintances, assign numbers to each of them that indicate how close you currently are. No need to overthink it; just fill it by gut, you can make infinite corrections later on.

4. Fill the Want-column. Order the people by how much you are willing to invest into the relationships with them. That should be a lot for the inner circle, and less and less for the outermost. Who are you eager to spend more time with? Who is actually more present in your life than you’d appreciate? IMPORTANT: Be completely honest with yourself at this step. There’s no forbidden feelings, no reason to suppress your first reaction. After all, nobody but you will see this list of numbers. And if you have strong reasons to contradict your gut, you can still do that later on.

5. Sort the columns. By the numbers you put into “Is” and “Want”, or by location, or whatever. In Google docs, you can do that by marking the whole table, clicking “tools > data > create a filter”. Then, click the green triangle thingy in one of the top cells and sort by whatever criterion you like. Personally, I first sort “is” by “z-a” and then “want” by “a-z”, so that the most underinvested people in each tier are at the top.

6. Invest. When a number in the ought-column is higher than in the is-column, that tells you to make more intentional investments into that relationship. Set up a regular call? Drop an occasional “how are you?” Schedule a game of laser tag? Throw a party only for the 5-10 highest people on your list? That depends on you. There is probably wonderful advice out there for how to make friends. It’s up to you to google for it and throw out the junk.

If you want to build more close connections, I’d suggest you keep the overall list as short as possible (below 75?) and work your way down from the uppermost categories (“intimates”+”close friends”). If you want a bigger network, aim for a longer list and invest broadly but intentionally.

7. Continually adjust course. No matter what you choose - remember: Don’t be fixated on any particular outcome. After all, it takes two to tango, and nobody owes you anything. You know that you’re on track when your investments feel like random acts of kindness you don’t expect anything back for. You know that you are off-track when you start accumulating resentment for unreciprocated efforts. So: Celebrate when something comes back, and move on when it doesn’t. In order to be sure that your playbook aligns with reality, you may want to revise it weekly, monthly, or at whatever interval suits you.

That’s it. Let me know whether you have fun with the Dunbar Playbook!

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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:22 PM

Thank you, upvoted! (with what little Karma that conveys from me)

It will certainly live as an open tab in my browser, but it doesn't feel directly usable for me.

What is especially challenging for me is to assign these "is" and "want" numbers with a consistent meaning. My gut feeling doesn't reliably map to a bare integer. What would help me would be an example (or many examples) of what people mean when a connection to another human feels like a "3" to them, or they want to have a "5" connection, and so on.

Yep, I'm currently finding the balance between adding enough examples to posts and being sufficiently un-perfectionistic that I post at all.

My current main criterion is something like "Do these people make me feel good, empowered, and give me a sense of community?" I expect that to change over time.

If a simple integer doesn't work for you, maybe split the two columns into several different categories? If you want to go fancy, weighted factor modelling might be a good tool for that.

Yep, I'm currently finding the balance between adding enough examples to posts and being sufficiently un-perfectionistic that I post at all.

I think it was definitively good that you posted this in its current form, over not posting for want of perfectionism!

As an example which works with integers too: The Decide 10 Rating System. This gives me a sense of the space that is covered by that scale, and it somehow works better for my brain.

Weighted factor modelling sounds interesting and maybe useful, will look into that too. Thanks!


Should this be "want" to match the actual column name, both in the template and in the screenshot?

Feel free to adapt it however it makes sense for you. :)

I'm struggling with the precise semantics of the spreadsheet.  What does it mean to have a high "Is" number or "Want" number? From your example, it seems like the "Want" column is superfluous.

It's all about the difference: If they are the same, leave everything as is. If "want" is higher than "is", make some intentional decisions to invest into that relationship more. If "want" is lower than "is", ask yourself wtf is going on there and how to change it.

Strong downvoted. This seems naively useful but knowing someone had a CRM for our friendship would make me feel quite uncomfortable, objectified, and annoyed, and I would likely stop being friends with that person, and I'm confident that the majority of (most?) people who aren't pretty rationalist would feel similarly.

Seems pretty likely those people are bad fits for  Severin whether or not they actually make the spreadsheet. 

I actually told the most hippie human on my list (spending months on rainbow gatherings-level hippie) that she's on it. To my surprise, she felt unambiguously flattered. Seems like the people who know me trust that I can be intentional without being objectifying. :)

I expect business and sales people would mostly not feel similarly, though to be fair it's uncommon for business friendships/acquaintances to reach "best friend" or better status. The vibe of somebody putting you in a CRM to stay in touch without any direct/immediate monetary benefit is like, "oh, how thoughtful of you / props for being organized / I should really be doing that".

Anyway, the important question isn't how most people would feel, it's how one's desired friends in particular would feel. And many people might feel things like "honored this busy person with lots of friends wants to upgrade our friendship and is taking action to make sure it happens -- how awesome".

There’s an app called garden where you enter the name of the people you care about and how often you want to talk to them: once a week, a month etc.

I started using it and being open to people about it. A few mentioned it sounded a bit weird but otherwise I’ve gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback and I’m staying in touch regularly with the people I care about!

The “what I get/what they get from me” columns from this Dunbar exercise are a bit too much for me though.

Same, I’ve been using for this with good results. Biggest things I’ve noticed:

  • Taking quick notes after interactions with “I can get” and “I can provide” helps when trying to remember things before your next conversation
  • Clay will automatically update location and remind you about people without you needing to set reminders manually, which removes a lot of grunt work
  • People see through periodic “it’s been a while!” texts sent on the first of each month. Thoughtful gifts and things like holiday cards with a handwritten note go a long way toward making things feel intentional.