2013: A Year of Connection

In 2012, when I did my yearly review, I called it A Year of Projects, and suspected this one would be a Year of Text. Well, it wasn’t, and… I couldn’t be more delighted. This blog post is long, so feel free to skim it or jump around.

I set out to do this review in the form that Chris Guillebeau does, with a “what went well” and “what didn’t go well” (with an added “what went weird”) but then I realized that this was prompting me to write about tiny wins and significant life-changers at kind of the same level. Instead, I’m going to structure this post around object-level things, process-level things, and meta-level things, which are kind of like “what”, “how”, and “why”. Click on the levels to jump down.

Object-level

Object-level things are just things I accomplished. According to Remember the Milk, I ticked 938 things off this year, and that’s not counting other todo lists, but I’m only going to talk about big object-level things.

The first big one is launching my 3.0 update for FileKicker, which contains ads and has made me a bunch of passive income over the course of the year. This has had a huge impact, such as allowing me to afford the event in the next paragraph, and it’s crazy to think that I could have easily put it off for another day, another week, another month… another year. As it was, that launch was delayed by months, and I think precommitment could have been really helpful: “I commit to releasing my update by Oct 1st or I’ll pay you $200.” My lost ad revenue in those few months was worth more than that.

I went to an Applied Rationality workshop in January. One of my best decisions to date. I went on to volunteer at 3 more workshops and have gotten immense value out of not just the material itself but also the alumni network. At that workshop, I released some pent-up angst I’d been holding against astrology, and learned about physiological stress response in the process. Watch me get really worked up then calm again over at this post.

After the workshop, I decided to move to Berkeley to spend more time with the rationalist community there, with whom I’d become connected. Part of me still hasn’t adjusted to the fact that I’m an adult and I can just decide to move if I want to.

I learned how to spin devils sticks, aka flowersticks. I find that spending time improving physical skills is a great reminder of the brain’s plasticity, which is harder to spot when trying to improve skills like “debugging” or “noticing when I’m feeling cognitive dissonance”.

Got an internship @Twitter for the fall, which was my top choice of where to work, since I wanted to try working at a large company, doing software development, in San Francisco. I started doing Crossfit and eating healthier at Twitter. It’s hard to say how much of the previous months’ chocolate I burned off, because I also managed to put on a few pounds of muscle! I tried giving up gluten, but that had no discernible effect that I could see.

Started a business, Complice, with an MVP and some beta users, which is making progress in various ways.

I read 21 books. I’d been intending to read 52 (1 per week) but didn’t keep this up for very long. It’s worth noting though that I’ve also stopped reading books as serially as I used to. I glanced through a half-dozen other books this year and I have another half-dozen in progress. I think this is healthy as it increases connections noticed between ideas.

As of this post, I hit my target for 24 blog posts this year! (although I fell way behind and have been catching up). If it looks like I’m only at 23, you’ve probably neglected to count Clothing and Identity, which was published on Medium.

Object-level general remarks: tons of random stuff! I fell short of some targets and hit others. Altogether I feel like I’ve got plenty to point at if anyone asks what I did this year.

Process-level

Process-level things are items where I tried doing things differently. I’m going to also include things I tried that didn’t work.

At a cuddle party in Santa Clara, I learned about explicit consent and began using it habitually. I had a lot of success applying it to physical intimacy, and I’ve noticed parallel places where it applies, such as asking if someone wants to hear a story before launching into it. I still have work to do on actually using it in those instances though.

Following the CFAR Applied Rationality workshop, I began applying various concepts related to deliberate practice to the way I learned things: starting at a skill level that’s easy/manageable, then moving to something more challenging.

I had a somewhat successful adaptation to polyphasic sleep in April. Things ultimately got messed up, but I retained a strong ability to get efficient night-time sleep and to take 20 minute REM naps. These days my preferred schedule is ~6h at night and one such nap around noon.

Started using Beeminder, a service I’ve mentioned many times on my blog, which helps you track progress towards any numerical goal and provides a financial incentive to maintain a certain rate of progress.

Intermittently for nearly two years now, I’ve been tracking what I do each day towards my goals in a more general sense. This fall, I started also setting daily intentions for the goals. This was inspired by the daily standup meetings/emails at Twitter, but I did it for my other goals as well. These daily intention and outcome emails being so effective at increasing my productivity and focus is part of what prompted me to start Complice, which is a lot like Beeminder but more focused on projecty things that are hard to quantify.

Complice itself is one such project, but I found it valuable to beemind at least one thing: User Visible Improvements. I’ve found them really valuable for forcing me to push forward daily in nontrivial ways. However, given my limited time available to work on this, I’ve found that my code becomes messier and messier because I’m hyper-focused on the user-visible side. The solution is to also track what beeminder cofounder Daniel Reeves calls “infrahancements”. These could be considered “developer-visible improvements”. I haven’t started tracking those yet mostly just because it’s the holidays.

I tried being excited every time I noticed my brain doing something I mightn’t want it to do. This worked really well while it worked, but it was a hard habit to maintain for very long at all. It seems like something I could perhaps install if I made a serious focus of it for a short period of time.

I started taking class notes straight into Anki, a spaced-repetition learning system and had a fair bit of success using this, until I stopped going to class consistently (and therefore my Anki decks became incomplete). Part of why I stopped going to class was…

I got kind of messed up mid-summer. In an attempt to avoid certain kinds of self-judgements, I… uhh… totally dismantled my internal motivational structures, and for several weeks was very much not-myself. I was despondent and apathetic. Not fun. What broke me out of this was when I realized that sometimes even things I really enjoyed doing, like blogging, I wouldn’t bother to do if I didn’t kind of force myself to do it. Turns out motivation is complex.

I tried combating my chocolate addiction by treating each urge as a chance to be mindful. The process of writing the linked blog post was very helpful for diffusing some self-judgements around my impulses, but like the attempt above, I didn’t actually stick to this.

I started having conversations with myself. This was based on a realization that I have a lot of trouble holding onto trains of thought when I just try to think them, but that writing often feels too slow / self-censory. Plus I can’t do it while going for a walk, and I love walking. I’ve only done this a few times, but it seems to be really grounding, and valuable for helping me think things. When I have thoughts I want to remember, I store them in a memory palace, often keyed to the path I’m walking.

Oh, another process-level thing, I suppose, is that I’ve started using some explicit mnemonic techniques like the method of loci (memory palace) and the major system.

Process-level general remarks: I’ve identified a reoccurring theme of not sticking with various changes for long enough. This has sparked an idea for 2014, which, unless I decide it’s silly, I’ll talk about in my next post. Edit: I didn’t, but it has its own page: My Habit-a-Week Project

Meta-level

These items are areas where I’ve actually changed how I’m thinking about things. Changing how I’m modelling the world. Not just doing things differently, but doing “doing things” differently.

Goal Factoring

One CFAR technique is called Goal Factoring, which is essentially asking yourself “why do I do everything I do?” and trying to find more efficient ways to achieve those things. This summer, I successfully created a massive goal-factoring map. Except… it was too massive, and poorly organized. So while I gained some insight into why I do what I do, I wasn’t able to do much refactoring—the part where you actually change your behaviours so that they better serve your goals.

Part of this was due to trying to fit my whole complex life on one graph rather than doing subparts. I think other factor was that I was beeminding nodes/edges added to my goal-factoring graph, rather than eg. time-spent or some other value. This meant things got messy because I was focused on this thing correlated with success, but not spending enough time on the other components. This is similar to the issue mentioned above that happened with the Complice UVIs.

So this is meta-level, but ultimately a failure. In 2014, I’m going to try to goal-factor smaller parts of my life, with a focus on refactoring rather than just creating a complex graph.

Rationality

I’d been involved with the LessWrong rationality community for awhile, but nothing like what happened when I went to the CFAR workshop in January.

Thanks to the curse of knowledge, it’s frustratingly hard to spot the places where I’m thinking about things differently now. But these would include:

  • when I get in a dispute, I want to make a bet on it
  • I have a new sense of how introspection is unreliable
  • I relate to my emotions in more nuanced ways
  • I think of my past and future selves as being somewhat different people from present!me, which is really helpful for coordinating our efforts as a team
  • I’ve gained miscellaneous other new models for understanding human behaviour and decision-making processes
  • I check out my raw perceptions more. Somebody said something? That doesn’t mean that “something” is true. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that Somebody thinks “something” is true. It just means that Somebody thought, at that moment, that it made sense to say that.

Living Room Context

This is another case of deepening involvement in a community I was already familiar with. Since mid-2012 I’ve been part of a project called the Living Room Context, with a group of people who are working to build our capacity to create contexts for trust and open communication. I took this to the next level this year, deciding to live in the house dedicated to this project.

My thinking has changed in numerous ways as a result of this, many of which are captured by my blog posts about the LRC. There’s some other stuff I haven’t yet blogged about, which includes the eradication of the word “should” from my lexicon. One of the most direct ways to change your thinking is to eliminate a common word from it. Choose wisely, though. This is way easier when you’re socially interacting with others who are extra-aware of that word.

Meta-level general remarks: It’s mostly this section that prompted me to call 2013 the Year of Connection. Also the bits about explicit consent, reading books in parallel, and more. Maybe connections is such a general word that it feels like it applies to everything? At any rate, given all of the amazing people and ideas I connected with this year, this seems like a really good theme.


  The “what went weird” idea was inspired by research around pros/cons lists indicating that people make better lists when they try to list not just pros and cons but also neutral things that are interesting. Turns out that not only is this third list informative, but the process of creating it generates more pros and cons as well.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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3 Comments

Tess » 7 Jan 2014 » Reply

This is a rather small thing, but it hadn’t occurred to me that other people don’t have conversations with themselves. Heck, most of my thought is an imagined conversation with myself or a mental model of another person (usually one of my friends)… I guess this is not true for everyone. Good to know.

    Malcolm » 7 Jan 2014 » Reply

    Yeah, and I know lots of other people who think like that, but I definitely don’t by default. I’ve considered trying it as it seems like it would be very effective for certain things.

    The “conversations with myself” are kind of more like thinking out loud, inasmuch as it’s very much a monologue; a single train of thought. There’s no back-and-forth. I’ve found there to be something really powerful about doing it out loud though: having the thought stored not just in my prefrontal cortex* but also in my motor cortex from having just said it, and very strongly in my phonological loop from having just heard myself say it. This means that if I get distracted by a tangential thought or an environmental interruption, it’s immensely easier to remember what I was thinking about, because I can use the same processes I would use in a conversation: “So where were we?”

    *I’m guessing that’s where one has the experience of thinking a thought.

Kevin » 8 Apr 2014 » Reply

“I check out my raw perceptions more. Somebody said something? That doesn’t mean that “something” is true. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that Somebody thinks “something” is true. It just means that Somebody thought, at that moment, that it made sense to say that.”

My immediate response to this was “Holy Shit! That makes so much sense.”
Thanks for the insight.

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