Perspective-taking

IMy hand holding a jar, in front of our kitchen sink.
To wash or not to wash? That’s not the question. The question is how to even decide.

(If this is your first or second time on my blog, this background info might be helpful for context.)

The Jar Story

Last summer, after living at Zendo56 for maybe a month, I was in the kitchen, getting ready to head to class. I had just finished using a glass jar, and I gave it a brief rinse in the sink then found myself wondering what to do with it at that point. (It’s worth noting that our dishing system includes, by design, an ample waiting area for dirty dishes.)

So the decision I found myself with was: do I put it back in the drawer, as I probably would if I were living on my own, or do I leave it to be thoroughly washed later?

Conveniently Jean was in the kitchen, drinking tea at the table. I turned to her and (with some deliberation so as to avoid merely asking her what I “should” do) asked her for help in deciding.

She posed two questions for me:

  1. If you leave the jar out to be washed, what will be the experience of the next person to interact with it?
  2. and

  3. If you put the jar back in the drawer, what will be the experience of the next person to interact with it?

Whoa. That style of thinking was very new to me, and very appealing.

Taking others’ perspectives

Fast-forward half a year and I use reasoning like in the jar story on a fairly regular basis. I’ve done a lot more thinking about what it means to take others’ perspectives; reading, talking, and thinking about words like “empathy”.

Perspective-taking is related to empathy but is more conscious. You might say that it involves active and intentional use of the same brain circuits that run the empathy networks, to really model other peoples’ experiences. Where the Golden Rule says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” perspective-taking as a mindset suggests “understand your own impacts by modelling how others experience your behaviours, from their perspective“. It’s not just walking a mile in another shoes, but walking with their gait and posture.

I’ve come to realize that while I do a decent amount of perspective-taking for basic decision-making contexts, I don’t actually do it much in other situations. This can sometimes lead to confusion around others’ behavior, and can lead to them feeling hurt or otherwise negatively affected by me. At the same time, this very pattern is part of what allows me to avoid having self-consciousness that might restrict my behaviour in ways I don’t want. A large part of what has allowed me to become so delightfully quirky is that I’m not constantly worried about what other people think. And ultimately other people do enjoy this. They’ve told me so, quite emphatically. So I don’t necessarily want to become immensely concerned about others’ perspectives either.

I attended a student leadership conference at uWaterloo yesterday, and one of the sessions was on personal branding and how to create the traits that you want other people to experience of you, in order to achieve your goals. I noted there that perspective-taking would be a valuable skill for any teamwork-related goals, of which I have many. Last night, I found myself asking, out loud, to Jean: what might happen if I were to adopt perspective taking as an intense, deliberate practice for a week. Could I build new affordances for modelling other people and their experiences?

(I’m using the secondary meaning of “affordance”, which refers to an agent having properties such that certain actions feel available to perform.)

Taking the systems(‘) perspective

Jean said “yes, and not just what’s going on for people, but what’s going on for…” and turned slightly to look roughly towards the kitchen table. “…the system!” I thought, and began considering the perspective of the cutting board, the knife. “The system,” she said. I began to talk about the knife and she said, “Not so much just the knife itself but the experience of everyone using the knife.”

Which, of course, brings us back to the jar story.

Taking it to a new level

I decided to do it. To make that a primary focus of mine for this week, both here at the house and with friends and classmates. This is actually part of a larger behaviour-design experiment I’ve created for 2014. My reasoning is that rather than trying to change 50 habits all at once as a New Year’s Resolution, I’ll change 50 habits… in series, one per week.

My first of these was the lowering of the lavatory lid, so chosen because I share a bathroom with a housemate who experiences a raised lid with rather intense anxiety. Also to test-drive this. My second of these was to fix the out-toeing in my gait. Up until about 2 weeks ago, my feet usually had a ~90° angle between them while walking and often while standing.

Each of these has been a fairly solid success. They’re not fully unconscious habits yet, but it no longer takes additional energy to pay attention to them enough to maintain the change (while it becomes an ingrained habit). My third habit (which was to briefly mutter my intention every time I open a new browser tab) didn’t go so well, in large part because I was doing some work early in the week where I totally got into flow and (a) didn’t think of this and (b) would have experienced a net-negative effect from doing it. So I didn’t practice.

Week #4 is going to be perspective-taking. Unlike the first two, I’m not intending for this to produce a “complete” change in my behaviour, but rather to nudge my behaviour some noticeable distance from where it is now. To give me more affordances for taking others’ perspectives, until it starts happening regularly and naturally as part of basic relating with people.

I’ve set up a new page on these habits here.

PS: In case you were curious: I put the jar away.

This Post May Contain Traces of Gluten

I’m giving up gluten for a month. Maybe longer.

Many of my earliest posts on this blog are about my 30-day challenges: behaviour changes I undertake for a month. I’ve been on a hiatus for awhile, which initially was for the purposes of installing some new habits but then later was just because I forgot to restart.

Last week at work, I realized that I’d nearly stopped eating gluten. The cafeteria at Twitter (where I’m interning for my penultimate co-op placement) has a lot of very healthy food, including grass-fed beef and many gluten-free options. Since I try to eat a kind of “relaxed paleo”, I gradually started eating fewer and fewer of the dishes containing gluten. I haven’t been a huge fan of bread for years, so this was a fairly easy transition to make.

I hear, however, that for many people the biggest changes result not from severe reduction of gluten intake but from complete elimination. This is obviously true for those with coeliac disease or a wheat allergy, but various bits of evidence (google for this if you care) suggests that there’s a decent probability of having some effect occur for me anyway. New models suggest that there’s a spectrum of gluten sensitivity.

At any rate, since this is an relatively very easy experiment for me to perform right now, with potentially very valuable results, it seems like something worth doing. I’ll decide later in the month if I want to continue being gluten-free or not. It strikes me that most gluten-sensitive people notice a pretty sudden and dramatic effect when they start consuming it again, so maybe I’ll do that just as a further experiment.

The official box for my Gluten-free Challenge:

For all of October 2013, I will not consume gluten.

Small text: I will try very hard to avoid products that say “may contain traces”. I’m going to disprefer products made in the same factory as gluten, but not avoid them outright. I reserve the right to drop this challenge in life-or-death / starving situations.

Everything You Want

I have decided that things are going to change. Obviously I can’t entirely drop my present habits, but I’m done with fooling around.

Several things have contributed to this:

  • Seeing someone’s particularly fit body (abs especially) at the party this weekend. He is so ripped, and it just looks like life. I want that.
  • Taking a happiness survey on Happify and realizing through answering the questions that I am not nearly as happy as my mean happiness for the past several years.
  • Realizing I have a general frustration with my own present default states of being, largely through conversations with Kenzi about our interactions

So. What does that yield? Watching this body move and wanting my own body to look like that (~again) made me reflect on the nature of wanting. As it turns out, you can’t get everything you want. This is obvious in cases like “I want to be in Canada right now” and “I want to be in San Francisco right now”. However, I had been allowing myself to believe that somehow “I want to be able to eat whatever I feel like (where ‘whatever I feel like’ includes tons of junk food)” is compatible with “I want to lose a bit of weight, put on some muscle, and generally be healthy”. Upon reflection, this appears not to be the case. I think this is a breakthrough of sorts.

Much more generally than diet and physique, I think I’ve been (not quite this explicitly) thinking that “I want to do what feels fun/appealing in the moment, including following various dopamine surges” and “I want to achieve my medium-term and long-term goals” are compatible. Hell, that first one isn’t even compatible with “I want to get to bed at a predetermined time, ever”. Upon reflection, it’s very clear that the want of impulses is not the one I care about, yeah

What am I going to do about it?

[ Brief interruption while I take a pomodoro break
and go for a beeminded 600m barefoot run. ]

One thought that came to mind right now is to have a morning reflection period where I review my long term goals and affirm to myself how my actions today will advance them. This could be a decent time for the alternate-paths part of goal factoring too. Although I think I want to keep it super short, at least to start. My experiences around designing new habits and getting bogged down in wanting to get the details perfect suggests it could be valuable to create a little procedure for myself for designing and implementing new habits.


I wrote most of the above text on Sunday (edited a bit for this post) and since then I’ve indeed done this reflection each morning. It seems to have been an awesome action to choose as it has had substantial ripple effects on my other habits as well. For the past few weeks, I’d been gradually slipping behind at my Bees (Beeminder, mentioned in the run block above, is a service that lets you track your progress on your goals, and stings you (with a credit card charge) if you don’t make sufficient progress). Earlier this week, I had about 6 or 7 goals that were going to derail that evening if I didn’t do them. Not only did I do them, but I’m now ahead on most of my Beeminder goals, with 1-5 days of buffer!

12 charts indicating my beeminder process. The colours show that I've got several days to spare on all but 3 of my goals.

As of writing this post. Click through for live data!

I’m sleeping better, waking up feeling more motivated, and my days have more interesting things in them. I haven’t quite shifted all of my impulses and habits while at my computer, meaning I’ve not actually completed everything I set out to do every morning. I have, however, done substantially better than if I hadn’t noted it (on my phone) or thought explicitly about it at all. I keep my goals numbered so that it’s immediately evident in any review if one has been missed. Now I’m checking twice a day. In reality, with 5 goals, it probably makes sense to give 1 mostly-a-break on any given day. So maybe to do some tiny little action toward it, but nothing huge. With my work-goal, I get weekends off.

Given that I’m biting off more than I can chew at this point, I think this would be an effective way to scale back and focus. I expect it to also slightly renew my vigour when I return to the goal then next day. At any rate, my sense of purpose has already improved so dramatically this week that I think this can be considered a success. The paradox of sorts is that working towards my goals is so much more enriching and rewarding than dopamine hits from skimming Facebook*. So I’m experiencing pleasure while I do things, which is mutually reinforcing with the alignment between my urges and goals. So in a way, I am getting everything I want. But it required being open to the reality that that doesn’t happen automatically.

*or any dopamine hits, for that matter. Dopamine is the lust neurotransmitter, not the pleasure one, and it mostly makes you want stuff.

Accepting my present chocolate addiction

I’ve had a chocolate addiction for a few years now, but I’ve only recently started looking closely at it rather than just joking about it. Part of what has facilitated this is a framework called the Living Room Context which I relate to in several ways. One way is the house I’m living at, which is full of other people familiar with the ideas and is designed to be a microcosm within which to develop a new culture. The other is a group called CoCoA, which meets Monday evenings to talk about the LRC, and our own personal and collective growth.

In relating to a member of our community with a serious addiction, I reflected that my only personal experience I had to empathize with was this chocolate addiction. As we spoke, it became more and more apparent how similar our addictions were. We both…

  • had a rather naïve view of it at the beginning
  • use it as a coping mechanism in times of stress
  • find it hard to stop once started
  • had a moment when it clicked about how harmful it was

This connection, along with some recent events, caused me to acknowledge my addiction more meaningfully than before.

Talking about it

One interesting property that a chocolate addiction has is that there’s no particular cultural stigma around it. This is true of several chemical addictions, notably caffeine, but less true of most psychological addictions, such as alcohol, smoking, self-harm, and pornography. The chemical/psychological distinction I’m making hinges on stress-based cravings: like many alcoholics and others who are psychologically addicted, I have experienced severe cravings when stressed, and have often used chocolate as a coping mechanism. This cultural stigma can make it hard for addicts to speak up, so since I have relative space in that regard, I’m going to take advantage of it.

When, last week, I mention my addiction to my parents, my dad said something like “well, you know, sometimes I have a bit of chocolate to take the edge off” and I felt misunderstood, so I asked if he would say the same about wine if talking to an alcoholic. Then my parents got really serious (which I could have anticipated but hadn’t really thought through). I do believe that the extent of my cravings is serious, but I’m fortunate enough to have a relatively harmless addiction. That is, while I have eaten myself literally sick on a couple of occasions, no reasonable amount of indulging in this vice is going to cause serious short-term harm to myself or to others, unlike alcoholism. I suppose it’s a bit more like a nicotine addiction—long term damage to my health in exchange for temporary relaxation—except far more socially acceptable indoors, not to mention delicious. The freedom to experiment without doing serious harm is perhaps a second property to take advantage of, in trying to understand and transcend addiction.

Initial behaviour-change attempts

The aforementioned deliciousness has vexed me, as it means that I don’t want to go cold-turkey on chocolate (although I have done that sort of thing temporarily as a challenge). What I want to do is reduce my chocolate consumption to healthy levels, while not setting any explicit restrictions on it. I have tried explicit restrictions, cutting down my sugar intake from around 80-200g/day to 40g/day, but then, well, midterms. And stress. And then I ate 200g of chocolate during one midterm. Then another. And besides, I found myself frustrated by the restrictions, because some days I just want some ice cream, cravings largely aside. I tried 4HB Slow-Carb-Diet-style “Cheat” Days, but some days I don’t know in advance that I’ll have the chance to try someone’s homemade torte. Opportunism is important to me!

A picture of the cookie monster from sesame street, with the caption "Today me will live in the moment unless it's unpleasant in which case me will eat a cookie"

I found this after I made the post, but had to add it because it’s just so relevant.

Some of my recent introspection supported by the Living Room Context is related to motivation, and it prompted me to think of a new approach. Perhaps, rather than balancing my “I want” with an “I can’t”, I might try relaxing the “I can’t” to see if my “I don’t want” would strengthen itself. I think I did this too quickly, because days later I ate about 300g of chocolate during about 20 minutes. Turns out the “I don’t want” wasn’t ready to handle such extreme stress. I relayed this to Jean (one of the people who started the LRC) and she pointed out the retrospectively obvious point that psychological addiction is driving by patterns of thought—typically shame and anticipation. Anticipation is normally quite a valuable thing (research has demonstrated that people would pay much more for an awesome experience in 3 days than 3 hours) but this becomes toxic when the anticipation is tainted with dread and shame because the anticipated activity feels akratic (against one’s better judgement).

Noticing these urges

A bag of two-bite brownies.

About a third of my attention was in this bag, in my cupboard.

I didn’t really know what to do with the anticipation point for awhile, but during the most recent CoCoA meeting I had an idea. I had been sitting there finding myself spending about 30% of my cognitive energy on dealing with the urge to eat a two-bite brownie. I ultimately revealed this to the group when we were talking about sharing our own experiences, and after that the intensity relaxed somewhat, but it was still there.

My train of thought went something like this: the anticipation becomes intense when thoughts spiral and become obsessive. What do I know about obsessive thought spirals? They are also a key part of depression. What else do I know about this? Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – Wikipedia, a simple meditation practice I’ve taken workshops on at University of Waterloo, has been shown to seriously help people with depression escape their downward spirals.

Entering the Present

Then I recalled my earliest experiences with mindfulness, which were reading Eckhart Tolle, and I recalled one potent principle from one of his books. He spoke of stimulus and response. Stimulus: a dog barking, or a car alarm outside your window. Response: anger? frustration? As an alternative, he proposed using this potentially annoying cognitive interruption as an invitation to enter the present moment. I tried this at the time and found it a profound shift in perspective. I still do it today sometimes and it remains very powerful.

(I showed a draft of this post to some people, and one of them asked what “entering the present” means. It refers to not being caught up in thought patterns. To be experiencing and noticing, rather than thinking mindlessly. Directed thought, such as problem-solving, is very valuable, and meandering thought can be valuable and enjoyable as well. Persistent negative loops, on the other hand, are not, and so by returning to what’s happening in the here and now (in this case, the urge itself, and my friend speaking) I can break free from them. Meandering thoughts can be undesirable in situations like this too. Presence also implies a kind of acceptance: that reality is as it is, right now. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. This is what the title alludes to.)

My addiction as a resource

I realized during the meeting that I could do the same thing with my intrusive urges to go eat another piece of chocolate: treat the urge as a cue to relax into the present moment. This appears to be way more powerful than just thinking happy thoughts, because the entirety of the urge is a “wanting something else” which is by its nature nonpresence. So becoming present here does several things:

  • it diffuses the intensity of the urge by taking me out of anticipation mode,
  • it offers an alternative way to achieve the underlying need of stress-reduction,
  • & it changes my relationship with the urges from one of shame, frustration, impatience and anger, to a relationship of gratitude and delight.

Quoth I during the closing round of the meeting:

I have this thing that reminds me every few moments to be present? AWESOME!

This is a profound shift. I’ve wanted for awhile something that might remind me periodically to become present to what’s happening. Turns out I already have one, I just wasn’t using it. This is part of a larger pattern in the community I’m presently in, which is recognizing our patterns (both in thought and behaviour) as resources in the work we’re doing, rather than resenting them.

An analogy: imagine standing on a slippery cliff with an endless train of lemmings walking toward you. You can try to stop them by pushing back, but you’re unlikely to be able to hold them off forever, especially since the ones you repel will double-back with increasing pressure. Consider that you also have the option of simply stepping aside and watching them pass. Now, in most actual cases, the lemmings/urges are slightly more responsive and will change their route to again try to push you off. Step aside again. Not only is this more effective than fighting them, it’s a lot more enjoyable. Maybe you can even push off them as they pass, to gain momentum to get off the cliff altogether.

Beyond noticing

I know I said in my recent post on noticing that I’d write a report my progress in noticing my urges and thoughts. Well, what I’m realizing is that I didn’t focus on actually installing the habit of practising noticing. I also didn’t take my own advice about starting with one. I think the act of writing the post brought the noticing itself close to my attention, but then shortly thereafter I forgot. For the immediate future, I’m going to hone in on just using my chocolate urges as a cue to become present. I may delight in noticing other urges, but I think for now I need the clarity of focus. We’ll see how well it holds up under extreme stress. I expect it to work really well for the other half of the addiction, which is when I’ve had a small amount of chocolate and then I go back for seconds, thirds, fourths, etc…

One final note on addiction:

Depending on how it’s defined, it can be estimated that over 90% of Americans have at least one “soft addiction” or “behavioural addiction” that they indulge in to unwind, to ultimate negative effect. We live in a culture of addiction, as Jean pointed out. So if you’re willing to admit it, chances are this article is personally relevant (and hopefully valuable) to you whether you identify as an addict or not. Be it chocolate or reddit, the first step is to be present to whatever your reality is.

On Sleep and Sticktoitiveness

I want to share something I’ve gradually learned about myself with respect to sticktoitiveness, using my experience with polyphasic sleep as a case study.

Almost exactly two years ago, I embarked on a quest to adapt to the uberman sleep schedule: sleeping only six 20min naps per 24h. I made it about 6 days.

Almost three months ago, I started an adaptation to the everyman sleep schedule: 3.5h core sleep at night plus three 20min naps. I’m still going. The obvious difference between the two cases is that uberman is insanely hard and everyman is only very hard. I think that’s a big part, but there’s another pattern I want to delve into.

Quitting… while… ahead?

One day in my high school cafeteria, a friend of mine got a few of us to see how long we could hold some sort of downward dog plank exercise. One friend collapsed, and it was just two of us. Someone said something that made me laugh, and I toppled, lamenting that that had caused me to fall. One of my friends immediately laughed and said, “That is so like Malcolm!” and the others agreed emphatically. I wasn’t sure what they meant, or… if I did, I wasn’t then brave enough to admit it, even to myself.

Years later, I quit my uberman adaptation with a similar attitude, although it took me longer still to realize the parallel. A quotation from my final uberman post:

The Supermemo article I linked to above describes how many bloggers try this, and some of their blogs just end abruptly with no conclusion. While I was ultimately unsuccessful at transitioning, I’m very proud to say that I did not crash or burn out.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad that my blog is not dead. Immensely glad. But there’s an aspect in my tone of voice that suggests that I didn’t give the adaptation my best, or fullest shot.

Sticktoitiveness vs determination

Growing up, my parents would often use “sticktoitiveness” to refer to a certain kind of determination. I’m going to suggest a subtle distinction between them based on their etymologies.

  • Determination: seeing something through to the end
    (de-, “concerning”; terminus, “end, limit”)
  • Sticktoitiveness: refusing to let something end prematurely
    (just sticking to it, ends aside)

So, determination is what pushes you through the last mile of a marathon, and sticktoitiveness is what maintains your habits.

In preparing to write this post, I re-read my old uberman archives, and I was somewhat surprised at how many references I made to my life as a future ubersleeper. I had been thinking that one of the reasons I gave up before was that I didn’t have a long-term commitment to it—that I lacked determination. Rather, I had determination, or at least some of it: I was committed to successfully adapting. What I didn’t have was sticktoitiveness: I didn’t have commitment to the process of adapting.

With everyman over the last three months, I’ve at times felt discouraged, and at other times felt very frustrated with myself. “It’s like I’ve got an addiction to my bed!” I lamented to my roommates after another episode of getting up and crawling right back in. Ultimately though, I’ve made progress, and while I’m still not fully stable in my sleep schedule, I feel like I nonetheless have a firmly polyphasic lifestyle and I’m not worried about slipping off of it. (I’m tempted to use the word <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metastability” title=””Metastability describes the behaviour of certain physical systems that can exist in long lived states that are less stable than the system’s most stable state.” – Wikipedia” target=”_blank”>metastable, which sort of applies insomuch as this current situation is stable enough to endure for the medium-long-term but I’m ultimately expecting to end up in a more stable state.)

Commitment to the process

I’ve matured since that day in the cafeteria. I’ve learned to tough things out more. More powerfully, perhaps, I’ve learned—and created—new ways to understand my own behaviour. This is one of them.

Sticktoitiveness, as I’m defining it, isn’t a blind persistence that persists even when it no longer makes sense. But it’s a commitment to the process of learning, growing, or establishing a new habit, that goes beyond just a commitment to have finished doing so. And sometimes that does mean refusing to be overcome by opposing evidence: at least, refusing to be easily convinced, when the evidence seems to favour what’s convenient or comfortable.

YES! I noticed!

This is a response to Can You Condition Yourself? on Slate Star Codex. Upon hearing about the “Propagating Urges” technique taught by CFAR, Scott was doubtful that humans could indeed successfully train themselves using operant conditioning. This is my response, which was also posted as a comment. I agree with him for some things but note that the technique has still been personally valuable to me and could be much more so.

I don’t know about big complex tasks, but I tried this once for a bad habit, and it worked impressively well. I used to pick my nose as a kid… and then I didn’t stop when I grew up. When I heard about the inner pigeon idea, I thought I’d give it a shot. Every time I noticed an inclination to reach my hand up, or that I was anywhere in the process of nose-picking, I would pump my fist and go “YES!” (this is my happy gesture-button).

You can’t stop a habit you don’t notice

The idea was to reinforce my own noticing. Since this action is generally considered gross and/or shameful, my brain generally tried to avoid thinking about it, which meant I definitely would never notice I’d done it until it was too late. By rewarding myself for noticing (whenever it happened) I taught my brain that it was a good thing to think about. When doing the opposite (cringing when noticing) we train our brain not to notice because it produces discomfort. This is likely punitive justice: it teaches people not to get caught.

I think perhaps this functions in a slightly different way than Skinner’s pigeons though. It’s almost like I’ve made a game out of noticing my brain’s urge, and I get an (uncounted) point every time I successfully do so. Regardless, this made me more aware of these urges, which meant I started noticing more and more when it was just my nose feeling itchy or my hand moving up. I would then reward myself and not bother actually doing it.

Within the first day, this almost completely eliminated the habit, although I forgot to go back for vaccines 2 and 3 so I confess that it’s not quite gone. However, during this comment I noticed once during the act, and YES’d. Then, not a minute later I noticed beforehand and YES’d again.

Noticing urges

I believe this could work for a number of these sorts of impulses, although I haven’t yet tried (upon reflection, this would be really valuable; adding near top of queue)

  • the urge to open Facebook/Twitter/HN/reddit/etc in a new tab
  • the urge to go on the internet if not already on
  • the urge to switch away from this tab where I’m writing a blog comment and go check my email (has happened twice thrice four times so far)
  • the urge to grab a snack when I’m already full
  • the urge to click on a link that is linkbaity but that I don’t anticipate actually being valuable.

Noticing thoughts

In addition to helping notice these urges, it could also be valuable for noticing thoughts to the effect of “this may not be a valuable use of my time” or “I’m doing something I don’t want to be doing”. Normally, my brain shies away from those, because if that’s true, it means I’ve been wasting my time. However, like being wrong, the only way to fix that is to admit it (to yourself, at least). This ranges from:

  • “Why am I still reading this site?”
  • “I’m not really sure what I’m getting out of this video…”
  • “This conversation/person-I’m-talking-to isn’t really very interesting…”
  • “Gah, I was going to submit that form this morning and I forgot…”

… and of course any ugh field or thought about a belief that’s generally aversive.

How to actually use this

Since there can be a fair bit of cognitive overhead to this at the start, I would recommend starting by focusing on only one type of thought or urge at a time, but it’s fun to do. I had to leave for a few hours in the middle of typing this and my attention to it while writing made it really easy to apply it to both the original unhygenic habit mentioned and also to the email-checking impulse when I came back.

Writing this post has made me realize that there’s a lot of really low-hanging fruit for me here, and so I’m going to try adding a new noticing every few days for the next while. Will report back in later this summer with results. I suspect this can work with positive urges too but I’ll look into that later.

The Meta-Application of Rationality

Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of being able to attend an Applied Rationality workshop held in Berkeley, CA. I can say without a doubt that it has had a serious effect on the trajectory of my life. I want to talk briefly about this more specifically. I do have much more to say about the workshop when I get a chance, and I’d love to talk about it either privately or in the comments.

So, my life’s trajectory: those familiar with calculus will understand the following in terms of derivatives, but I’m going to use the analogy of a moving vehicle. If you want to describe the vehicle, you can talk about several things. The most obvious (and most immediately useful) is “where is it?” which often called displacement. The next most obvious/useful is “how fast is it going and in which direction?” also known as the car’s velocity. But, unless a wall or gas shortage stops the car before the relevant moment, the most useful thing to know about a car is how far down the gas pedal or brake is. This is the acceleration and ultimately it will tell you a lot more about how far the car will have gone by tomorrow than the velocity or displacement. You need to know roughly where the car was and how fast it started, but smaller changes in acceleration are much more important.

At the rationality workshop, I learned some things that definitely took me beyond where I’d been before (displacement / location). While at the workshop, I was definitely growing faster than usual, but right now I might be slower than usual as I focus on consolidating everything. Here’s why I’m not worried: what I definitely increased was my ability and propensity to assess how fast I’m going and to go faster still. Have a look at the chart to the right:

A chart demonstrating how much faster an exponential function increases than either a linear or polynomial function

Ideally, you want to be the yellow line on top.

Accelerating returns

It should be clear that the yellow line on the top is increasing much faster than the others. It begins just as slow, but because it’s not only getting faster but getting faster faster, it quickly takes the lead. This is the model I’m adopting. Short-term, it’s fine if my displacement and velocity are taking a hit. In the long run, by getting better at getting better (by applying my rationality skills to becoming even more rational) I can easily overtake my hypothetical other-self and never look back.

However, I’d like to think that I haven’t just increased my acceleration but that I’m increasing the rate at which I’m increasing my acceleration, and increasing that rate as well, and so on indefinitely. This resembles an exponential function, which is shown by the yellow line above. If I were just accelerating at a constant rate, I’d be the red line in the middle, and if I were just holding steady at a certain speed I’d be the shallow blue line. One fascinating principal is that no matter how many layers you do this acceleration like xbigNumber, the exponential curve always has more. That means that if I were to ask “who will win the race?” between x1234567890 and ex, then ex will always win as time goes on. I plan to do the same.

How?

How am I going to do this? I have some general thoughts on this which involve developing personal scaffolds that will make it easier to install what I learned at the workshop as habits, but I’ve modified my environment as well. Or rather, I’ve decided to put myself into a different environment. I’m working at a software startup in San Francisco right now, but rather than live in SF I’ve decided to spend the next 3 months living in Berkeley. This will make me much more likely to attend various free training events held by CFAR (the Center for Applied Rationality, who ran this workshop) and will also make it easier for me to hang out with some of the people I met at the workshop, encouraging me to focus on these various aspects of my life. By investing the time and effort now to make my next 3 months more fruitful, I hope to ultimately set up self-reflection habits that are exponentially powerful. I’m not sure how I’d tell success from a close approximation, but honestly I think that if I get the first 5 or so layers than there really isn’t much to be gained at that stage.

I was surprised by the variety of rational techniques that were relevant to my decision to live in Berkeley rather than SF. They included not only a substantial consideration of my preferences and goals, but also a recognition of how I’m not as rational as I’d hypothetically like to be, and therefore I can predict that if I’m living in SF I won’t go to as much CFAR stuff. Similarly, while I might generally enjoy not having a 1h-each-way bus commute, I expect to be able to devote a lot of that time to this work, where previously I felt like there was a bit of imbalance such that most of my waking hours were directed towards working on things for the company I’m at. Then, when deciding if I wanted to accept a certain sublet option, I also weighed factors like, “how much more valuable of a place do I expect to get by waiting / more effort, and is it worth it?” I decided it wasn’t, so I accepted. Personal happiness is hard to judge, but we do our best.

One could also consider a function of personal utility. Again, I expect to slow down briefly but ultimately go so much faster/further. This is fairly easy to measure but very hard to judge cross-domain.

What’s a moment that not just changed your life, but changed how you approach it?

How did you spend the last hour?

I want to talk about time, and how it’s spent. Almost every time I read about or listen to anyone talk about time management and personal development, they eventually get to TV. They say things like “Want to spend an hour a day learning a new skill? Just drop an hour of television.” or “Watch less television to improve your ability to pay attention.” While I wholeheartedly agree with this advice, I’m unable to apply it because I don’t watch TV.

Tonight, though, while mindlessly surfing the internet, I came across a wonderfully-titled article by Corbett Barr on Expert Enough: The Lost Art of Becoming Good at Things. I wholeheartedly agreed with the content of this article as well, but one sentence jumped out and stabbed me in the self-identity. In discussing how people make excuses for not learning and achieving things by saying they’re too busy, Corbett makes the typical comment “Really? How many hours of TV did you watch this week?” but then he asks:

How much time did you spend mindlessly surfing the Internet?

“Oh.” I said.

I believe that I’ve been excusing myself from learning and achieving things by saying, “Not only am I busy, but I already don’t watch TV!” …and yet… I definitely spend more time wandering the dregs of the internet than I would like.

Because good advice is a waste of your time if it doesn’t change your behaviour, I decided I would change my behaviour. I started using StayFocusd for Chrome several months ago, and it drastically cut the time I spend on sites like Facebook and YouTube. There are, however, more than 360 million sites on the internet, so I can’t block all of the time-wasting sites. Also, exploring is a good thing, so I don’t just want to have a whitelist (besides, I can waste plenty of time on very otherwise-productive sites).

My solution, instead, is just to be more mindful of my time. I’ve set up a script on my computer using Windows’ Scheduled Tasks feature that will bring up the following image fullscreen every hour:

How did you spend the last hour? Do you want to spend the next hour the same way? Yes? Wonderful. No? Stop doing it. Now. Right now.

I want to have reflection time.

I want to have reflection time. How am I going to do that?

I’ve been intending a while bunch, lately, to “take some time and reflect,” referring to a whole host of topics I’d like to reflect on, from romance to school to my blog to my habits to my goals (individually and as a whole) to setting up a system to easily track failures and improve on them. I have done brief goal reflections, but otherwise that’s pretty much it.

Ultimately I’d like to reflect on a very regular basis. If I could find a way to do it, twice daily would be optimal. It wouldn’t have to be for long. The morning could just consist of looking at my agenda for the day, planning the main things I want to accomplish, and reading an inspirational quotation or something. The night would consist of (ideally) an assessment of my day, reviewing how it met, exceeded, and fell short of my expectations, and then noting if there are any patterns of failure that I notice. Then, I’ll figure out what’s causing the failure and come up with potential ways to address it.

In a multilayered cake of irony, it was the lack of reflection that was causing itself. My not reflecting led me to not address my failure to reflect. (rinse, repeat). I have recognized for over a week (I distinctly recall wanting to reflect last sunday) that I wanted to do something about this, but haven’t done anything because it’s never felt like the right time to do anything about it. The idea with the reflections is that they’d give me regular chances to tune into those thoughts that have been hopping around anxiously on my back-burner, before they get burnt.

One fortunate thing is that this particular revelation comes to me at a moment when I have got myself into a reasonably regular (and early) sleep-waking situation. This is not habitual, but merely a necessity given 9am exams every other day. Even still, I think I’m going to start this with an MEA (term courtesy of Nir Eyal, though ZenHabits has written about the principle extensively as well). MEA = Minimum Enjoyable Action, and is basically the smallest form of the habit possible. It must be so small that: a) you can’t fail & b) you can’t complain.

For my reflection habit, that will be writing a sentence, morning & night.

I can’t possibly get up late enough that I don’t have time to write a sentence, and I can’t possibly be so tired that I can’t write a sentence. Long term, I’d potentially like to have a form I fill out with fields expressing certain things about my day, but I’ll get there eventually. This is a start.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll scale back the MEA to “pick up a pencil”. That I can definitely do every day.

~~~

(While selecting a category for this post, it occurs to me that despite years of reading ZenHabits, I still had not really been focusing my personal development around habits. That changes today.)

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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