posttitle = You flow downhill (and you can sculpt the hill) titleClass =title-long len =47

You flow downhill (and you can sculpt the hill)

“It was a pity thoughts always ran the easiest way, like water in old ditches.” ― Walter de la Mare, The Return

You’re probably more predictable than you think. This can be scary to realize, since the perspective of not having as much control as you might feel like you do, but it can also be a relief: feeling like you have control over something you don’t have control over can lead to self-blame, frustration and confusion.

One way to play with this idea is to assume that future-you’s behaviour is entirely predictable, in much the same way that if you have a tilted surface, you can predict with a high degree of accuracy which way water will flow across it: downhill. Dig a trench, and the water will stay in it. Put up a wall, and the water will be stopped by it. Steepen the hill, and the water will flow faster.

So what’s downhill for you? What sorts of predictable future motions will you make?

In making sense of this question, it might be helpful to think about other people, for whom obviously you have no willpower. Have you ever had the experience of talking to someone, and perhaps they say that they’re intending to do something, or maybe you just find yourself wondering “Will Person do Thing?” And you just… kind of know if they will or not? You may not be certain, or correct, but from your perspective you have a kind of sense of what that person is likely to do?

You can do this with yourself too. One way is to think of yourself in the third person and wonder what you seem likely to do. But this won’t catch all of the internal mental triggers you have, or the kind of downhillness that takes place entirely in your thoughts.

Triggers and Actions

One way to think about this is to consider the simple trigger-action patterns you seem to have. Little sequences of if-thens that you follow. For instance, if there’s snackfood next to me, then I will probably eat it. (Embarrassingly, this has sometimes included times when it wasn’t mine. Apologies to both of my sisters.) Another pattern that I have is that if I open my email inbox, then I will tend to become engrossed in the emails. These patterns might sound like “bad habits”, but I’ve used the former to get myself to eat broccoli (just put some next to my desk!) and the latter is helpful for staying focused on email, provided that that is what I actually want to be doing at that moment.

Here are some example triggers. For some, you might be able to get extra mileage out of them by adding “in the morning”, “in the afternoon” or “in the evening”. I’d suggest only doing that if they feel like they have clearly different and dependant answers though. Also some of them might have multiple answers, with no clear way to predict which will occur. That’s fine.

  • If I’m hungry at home…
  • If I’m hungry at work/school…
  • If I’m bored on my computer…
  • If I’m bored when on the bus…
  • If I’m outside with my running clothes on…
  • If I hear my alarm going off…
  • If my phone dings with a message…
  • If I finish a book…
  • If I finish catching up on my facebook notifications…
  • If I finish eating dinner…
  • If I notice it’s time to go to bed…
  • If I read an interesting article…
  • If I think of a task I need to do…
  • If I’m wondering what to work on today…
  • If I notice myself doing something that seems counterproductive…
  • …and so on!

Take a moment right now and (in your head or out loud) complete a few of these sentences with your own behaviours. Your actual behaviours, not the ones you think you should have. If you’re feeling really into it, you could even write them out, and maybe even come up with a bunch more triggers to answer. If you come up with more, definitely let me know, as I’d love to have a long list of these.

Tendencies, hobbies, etc

The other category is more subtle. You might look at the items above, and note that there are lots of actions that you regularly perform that don’t have obvious triggers. So then we add a few more triggers, such as “when I sit down at my desk, I sometimes work on the project I’ve been assigned” or “when that person I think is cool/cute recommends a book/video/blog, I will go check it out”.

But even if we were to make a pretty exhaustive list, then there would still be some other things, things you just seem to come back to. Topics that draw your interest, projects you’re inclined to work on, thoughts you ruminate on. Where your attention naturally gravitates towards. What you think about in the shower or as you fall asleep. The answer to the question “what are you up to these days?”

I consider this to be your overall downhillness, with the triggers above being the bumps and walls and ditches in the surface you’re rolling down. Sometimes little cavities might catch your attention for a bit, but eventually something else jostles you out and you continue back on your general path.

We also need to distinguish between thoughts and actions—just because you regularly come back to ruminating on an idea to build a shed or a company, does not mean that actually building a shed or a company is downhill for you—merely that thinking about it is. Of course, if you know that you do have the tendency to eventually turn rumination into action, then it may be accurate to say that building the shed or whatever is indeed downhill for you.

But what if you don’t, at present, have such a tendency?

The power to sculpt and tilt your hill

This downhillness model suggests three types of ways you can influence your future behaviour. From easiest to hardest, they are:

  • cause more instances of kinds of bumps that your natural flow already responds to
  • create new kinds of bumps that your flow will respond to
  • tilt your hill so that you have a new overall downhill direction that you flow by default

I’ll discuss them each in turn.

Add/remove instances of bumps that your flow will already respond to

You already have lots of triggers with predictable actions, so the simplest way to change your behaviour is just to cause those triggers to appear more or less often (or in different contexts).

For instance, say you have trouble flossing. You might notice that whenever you pick up one of those floss sticks, you happily floss all of your teeth, nbd. So buy some floss sticks, and put the bag on top of your pyjamas, or on top of your bed. When you’re heading to bed, you’ll pick up the sticks, and voila–flossed teeth. You have to remember to put it back there later, but that’s as easy as putting them on top of something you’ll use the next day, then when you go to use that other thing, you can put the floss sticks back on your bed. More on this trick here.

Or of course, the removal example. It can be much easier to stop a given bad habit if you remove the trigger that causes it. Try not buying a particularly bad kind of junk food (though maybe give yourself an alternative snack so you don’t get antsy).

On a more meaningful level, if you want to get more into a particular topic, try things like:

  • leaving a book about it right next to your bed (if you already have the habit of picking up such books to read)
  • subscribing to relevant blogs via RSS or email (if you already have the habit of keeping on top of that sort of thing)
  • scheduling coffee-dates or skype-dates with friends to talk about the topic (if you already have the habit of showing up to such scheduled events)
  • enrolling in a course on the topic (if you already have the habit of attending courses you enroll in)

This approach leverages your existing habits but puts them to new uses. The example I mentioned at the start about me eating more broccoli by grabbing some and leaving it next to my desk is one of these. I also have started taking the broccoli I buy at the store and cutting it up and putting it into little bags, so that when I go to grab a snack, it’s easy to reach for some broccoli with no extra effort/time.

Create new kinds of bumps that your flow will respond to

This is kind of the classic trigger action plan (TAP) process. That’s the name CFAR teaches it as. In academic literature, it’s commonly known as implementation intentions. I’ve written about it here. There’s also a framework called WOOP which is the same idea.

Basically, you set up a new if-then pattern, so that in response to some trigger, instead of having the reaction you might previously have had (eg snoozing your alarm and going back to bed) you’ll have some new reaction (eg getting up, turning off your alarm, and going to shower). The literature suggests that this works better if the plan is associated with both (a) why you want to have the new plan and (b) a recognition that changing behaviour won’t necessarily be easy.

Since this topic has been well-covered elsewhere, I won’t say much more about it in this essay.

Tilt your hill so that you have a new overall downhill direction that you flow by default

This one might sound initially like it’s easy. Maybe for some people it is. But I think for most people, we tend to roughly care about roughly the same sorts of things, and unless we take a step back and say “hang on, I seem to care too much about X and not enough about Y”, then any attempts to do more ying and less xing will tend to gradually drift back towards baseline. Or unless we give ourselves different surroundings where we’re more incentivized to care about or work on Y, or unless we give ourselves regular reminders to check in about Y.

Of course, what’s downhill for you isn’t exactly static—it will drift. Just… not necessarily via your deliberate control. Note that to the extent that you can reliably predict what will be downhill for you in the future, then you can consider that to already be downhill for you. Like if you’re planning to have kids and you know if you do then you’re likely to change various aspects of your value function, then the implications of those changes are already in a sense downhill.

I had a shift this winter, where some friends pointed out to me that despite me saying that I seriously wanted my actions to be reducing existential risks to humanity, it didn’t actually seem like I was on a path to doing so. In other words, doing much of anything towards reducing existential risk didn’t seem like it was downhill for me.

At least… not directly. One could argue that by saying I wanted to work on it and by cultivating relationships where people would call me out on stuff like this, I had made it downhill in the sense that it was inevitable and natural that sooner or later someone would cause me to seriously adjust my path towards this. And that sort of thing is worth being aware of—part of managing your flow is having systems in place that will help you make high-level course corrections when you fail to be sufficiently aware on your own.

What’s a meta for?

This whole thing is of course, a metaphor, and to be honest, I think it’s a kind of messy metaphor. But it seems like a cool way to integrate a bunch of distinct concepts:

  • the concept of upstream effects (covered in fantastic detail in the first section of Sebastian Marshall’s Progression)
  • the idea of modeling your life and designing it
  • the difference between willpower-based approaches to behaviour change versus design approaches
  • the realization that plans need motivational components: if you make a plan that will require a lot of willpower to execute, it probably won’t work

(The metaphor of the naturalness of water flowing downhill for human behavior comes in part from chapter 113 of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, although I’m not trying to point at quite the same thing)

Here’s the model applied to a few other concepts:

Getting Things Done

One of the huge selling points of this classic time-management system is that it lowers stress. It does this by ensuring that any tasks you may need to complete get captured into the system, where you’ll later reflect on them, and ultimately do them. To the extent that your system is working, the moment you put a task into the system, you can trust that its completion (or delegation, or archival, or whatever) will be handled by your future self.

So now you don’t need to spend the slightest bit more effort in the present worrying about the task, because you implicitly know that you will naturally flow towards doing it.

Strategic Reviews

This is related to GTD, but I want to pull it out on its own. Regular strategic reflection is a very good way to cause the shape of your hill to make more sense. In many ways, when we reflect—either because we do so every week/month/year, or because we’ve just realized our life has gone off-track—what we’re doing is looking down our hill into the future (possibly by referring to the past) and seeing if we like the course that our flow is on. I think to some extent a ball rolling downhill works better as imagery here than water: you can direct it more precisely.

So strategic reviews can act as a powerful general tool for ensuring that you don’t end up tilted in the wrong direction for too long. In his newsletter The Strategic Review, Sebastian Marshall uses the metaphor of a firebreak: a strip of plowed or cleared land that makes a forest fire unable to spread past a certain point.

Effective Reminder Systems

One of my favorite chrome extensions is Tab Snooze. You push a button and the tab you have open closes and opens again later today, tomorrow, next week, or next month—or at some predefined frequency. I love it because it lets me cause various kinds of daily and weekly check-ins to happen automatically, without me having to remember to diligently handle things. I know that if the tab shows up, I’ll look at it, so all I have to do is automate the tab showing up. Then being on top of things—my Complice onboarding stats or support emails, my book-reading chart, or my gmail newssources label, where I aggregate content for sharing to facebook—is downhill, without any more work.

What’s cool too is that because I know I’ll check various stats regularly, I don’t feel as tempted to check them at other times. It doesn’t feel like “Oh! I just remembered about this… better look into it.” I know I’ll get to it later that day or week. Here are a bunch of powerful ways to use Tab Snooze.

Any reminder system that works will work because it’ll reliably put things downhill for you. If it doesn’t—because you won’t get the notifications or because you’ll ignore them—then it’s broken.

One last thought

Has reading this article (or any thinking you’ve done while reading it) affected the shape or tilt of your hill? That is, do you anticipate that reading this has shifted some aspect of your behaviour/values/attention? Are there things you might have not expected to do before, that now you expect you’ll do?

an image of a couple biking down a mountain. the image is distorted so that you can see the entirety of africa and europe before the horizon, and the curve of earth's globeness in the background

This image is one of my favorite desktop wallpapers. I don’t know its creator or name, but I call it “Downhill from Here” and I set it as my background every few years when I’ve passed some sort of major hurdle.
I don’t actually think it’s that relevant to the post, but it’s relevant enough and I wanted to share it 🙂

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.


クリス » 6 Jun 2016 » Reply

Proud to say that my friends report the only thing they expect from what I’ll do is that they do not expect it.


One thing I’m wondering how you’d fit into this imagery is the concept of what I could call “jumping to opposed mindset”.

Let me explain what I mean: assume it is possible for you in your current life situation to have two mindsets (for a simple example: being a parent and not being a parent), such that looking from each of them, you’d never want to be in the other one (for example, giving up attachment to your children, or burdening yourself with it).

Let’s further assume that you literally see nothing valuable in switching mindsets, and have no triggers or tendencies that would drive you in that direction. I.e. the other mindset is as much not downhill for you as anything can be.

However, you recognize that logically, if you found yourself in the other mindset, your judgement would be reversed – and therefore it is invalidated. So you make the jump.

Now you could say that you had a tendency to make this jump somewhere in your “downhill” – however, this tendency is not targeted on any particular type of situation or mindset, but instead targets the “downhill” situation itself on a meta level.

How’d you make sense of this?

*For the record: I did this once, was fun. Jumped from enjoying fiction to shunning it. Still on the other side as of now.*

Malcolm » 7 Jun 2016 » Reply

Huh, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to imagine the situation you describe.

It doesn’t seem to me to be particularly relevant to the downhill thing, because it’s not really about traits or tendencies or things like that… although I suppose you’ve identified that it’s a thing that would make it hard to model your future self.

Trent Fowler » 10 Jun 2016 » Reply

Great post Malcolm! I have also used mantra stacks[1] and failure autopsies[2] to try and sculpt the hill down which the waters of my attention and motivation flow.

Rather than thinking of it as a single hill I usually imagine cognition to be a sort of manifold into which you can create depressions, not unlike rolling a bunch of bowling balls onto a really big, hyperpolygonal trampoline.


    Malcolm » 15 Jun 2016 » Reply

    Oh, I read your failure autopsy post before! Yes, I think it’s very relevant 🙂

    Reading mantra stacks now. “My theory is that these techniques work because they create depressions in a cognitive manifold towards which the liquids of attention, energy, and motivation flow.” …haha yes, exactly.

    Also this post is fantastic. Have you read my face ritual post? I suspect you’ll dig it.

    One thing that felt a bit off to me was the act of saying “I notice I am distracted” in a moment when one is not distracted. Although I guess thanks to English being slack with verb conjugations, you could parse it as “noticing I am distracted is a thing that I do” and then it would take on its present tense form in the moments when I actually notice I am distracted.

    I may experiment/play with this a bit myself! One thing I’ve recently been doing a bit is writing a particular phrase on my arm in pen, which I find inspiring. It could be a powerful thing to incorporate into a mantra stack. A tattoo with upkeep costs 😉

    Regarding custom gods, one thing I think would help is to have shared custom gods. The idea that the god exists for brains other than yours is, I think, powerful. Both because it makes it seem more real, and because talking with others about it gives you a richer sense of the god than you would have on your own.

クリス » 13 Jun 2016 » Reply

Hi Trent,

Thanks for the links; your article about mantra stacks seems to not load correctly, but it piqued my interest and I dug it up at:

Both mantras and visualisations of the future are tricks that I already know and use, but you have inspired me to make more and stronger mantras and see how it goes.

Looking at your struggles with your mantra routine, I would like to offer you this tip (phrased as a mantra :D):

My thoughts are not gears from metal; they are gears from clay.
It’s not the machine, but the mechanic who saves the day.

v » 7 Jul 2016 » Reply

Tab snoozing extension is a miracle tool that i did not suspect existed. thank you for recommending it! Already cleared up most of my 40 plus open tabs. I have been struggling with this for years and now it looks like I have it under more direct control and am able to free up attention to focus on the main things.

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