Not with a bang, but with a yawn.

This post is a lightly-edited transcript of part of the recording of the Monday evening gathering of culture-nudgers. I’m sharing it because a lot of people are curious about the workings of the intentional community that I’m involved with, and I think this exploration of my own thought patterns provides an excellent window into our context. I also think that it can stand on its own as a powerful example of mental control… being able to step back and look at my thoughts as they arise. In some ways, this is Mindfulness Field Training 3. Read one and two.

Things you may need/want to know, for context:

  • There were about 7 of us at this meeting and we’d been there for 2 hours at this point.
  • A few of the others had just been talking about noticing how they’re relating to the garden, since the person who has often tended it is moving out soon.
  • We don’t have any rules that say anyone has to do the dishes, ever. In fact, we encourage people to only do dishes when they feel attracted to doing so.
  • I’m serious about the previous point. It’s not passive aggressive, and while the system isn’t totally perfect, it’s more functional than any other system I’ve ever seen (and I’ve lived in a lot of houses). And, it’s more complex than this.

The transcript

Malcolm, with a grin: I’m noticing a lot of shit come up around this.

Jean: Cool! As you would say—cool!

Heather: I like…that you can smile about that.

Jean: Ohhh, he’s been practicing! » read the rest of this entry »

Habit Models: Routines vs Reflexes

I feel like it’s valuable to distinguish between two types of behavior change: routines & reflexes. Both of these are based on creating a new pattern of action given a certain trigger. The distinction I’m making is that routines occur with a very predictable frequency (usually daily, also weekly/monthly) and so they have a kind of cyclic nature. Reflexes, by contrast, are conditioned responses to triggers that might show up dozens or hundreds of times in a given day, or sometimes not even once.

The reason I think it’s valuable to disambiguate between them is that I find that they are nearly polar opposites in terms of what approaches are effective for intentionally changing them. I’ll explain those approaches in the second part of the post.

Lexical/semantic note: I had been using “habit” to refer to reflexes, but it turns out that many people also use “habit” to refer to daily routines, so that would be immensely confusing. I think there can be value in redefining words, but in this case I’ve opted to concede “habit” as a more general term for behavior change, which includes both sporadic, frequent habits (reflexes) and cyclical habits (ie. routines). Edit: I originally published this as “Routines vs Defaults” instead of “reflexes”, but Brienne proprosed “reflexes” and I like that word better.


The follow examples are designed to help you map out the clusters of concepts, if you don’t already have an intuitive sense of the distinction I’m talking about. While not exhaustive, they might also be helpful starting points for brainstorming some habit changes you’d like to make.

Kinds of routines

  • morning routine: probably starts with waking up; from there, varies widely
  • breakfast routine: for some people, this is tightly coupled with their morning routine… for others,
  • commute routine: the route / mode of transportation, as well as what you typically do during it (read, listen to audiobooks, etc)
  • when-I-get-to-work routine: what you do when you arrive at the place you work/study… not everyone will have one of these
  • lunch routine: where and when you eat lunch, how you acquire it
  • supper routine: etc
  • » read the rest of this entry »

What I Learned From 20 Weeks of Habit Hacking

Finding myself one-third of the way through my 2014 Habit-a-week challenge, I decided to look back and critically assess the success of my various habits. You might want to keep that link open in a new tab so that you can refer to the descriptions of each of them. This post mostly isn’t about the content of the habits, but it’ll probably be hard to read if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

  1. Lowering the Lid
  2. Straight Gait
  3. Intentional Tabbing
  4. Perspective-taking
  5. Filler Killer
  6. Befriending my Judger
  7. Pausing before responding
  8. Yes, and…
  9. Eye contact
  10. Transparency & Trust
  11. Hands Off Face
  12. Cutting Corners
  13. Pausing Distractions
  14. Pomoeditation
  15. About You
  16. Revealing Patterns
  17. TagTime
  18. Expressing Appreciation
  19. Learning & Using Names
  20. Curiosity & Model Exploration

Of the 19 habits I’ve tried so far, 7 were successes, 4 were partial successes, and 8 failed. My theory of why this happened is that the first few went well because of phenomena such as the Hawthorne Effect. Essentially, the new-ness of my challenge itself made it exciting. Also, these were habits that I’d been meaning to install for a long time, and which I was 100% on-board with thinking they made sense as default behaviours.

Then… Intentional Tabbing happened. » read the rest of this entry »

Cozy (and CoZE) Cuddle Parties: a Q&A

On a facebook comment thread about cuddle parties, I gave a few tips on hosting one, and said “if you have any other questions, feel free to message me.” Well, one of my friends took me up on that offer and sent me an email asking me a bunch of questions. So I answered them!

(For those unfamiliar, the term “CoZE” in the title refers to Comfort Zone Expansion, the practice of deliberately becoming comfortable with a wider range of experiences and behaviors.)

Q: When I visited the Bay Area for the first time in 2013, I was introduced to hugs as a form of greeting. The nature of these hugs is nonsexual. What is the nature of a cuddle party?

The nature of cuddle parties vary. Typically the term is used to refer to events that are explicitly nonsexual, though contexts do exist that involve cuddling and allow or encourage sexuality.

Q: If the answer is a definite “nonsexual”, then it would help me to get more explanation on how to keep it that way, what with your examples of kissing someone’s neck or spooning. I mean, sure, such things can stay nonsexual. And there are cultures where males kiss each other on the cheek in greeting. But across hundreds of cuddle parties, surely the issue of keeping it nonsexual must have come up before.

Nonsexual cuddle spaces

My first cuddle party was in January of 2013, and was fairly formal. » read the rest of this entry »

How to eliminate words from your idiolect


Why I’m writing this

I’m writing this a post because a friend and I were talking about how I’ve removed several words from my idiolect (the particular set of words used by an individual—kind of like your personal dialect). I mentioned that there are a number of factors that affect how hard it is to do this, and he was really curious to hear my advice on the subject.

Also, in attempting to do some research for this post, I googled how to eliminate a word from your vocabulary, and… nobody was really answering that question—nearly all of the posts were instead just lists of words to eliminate, with various justifications. So I thought I would step up!

Why might you want to?

There are tons of potential reasons to ditch words from your vocab. Off the top of my head:

  • because they offend people (or trigger them)
  • because they make you sound less confident (such as filler words)
  • because they’re considered jargony or buzzwordy
  • because you find they mask ambiguities (written about as Taboo your Words on LessWrong)
  • because you don’t like certain thought patterns that use those words

Thought patterns, are, I think, the most exciting one. » read the rest of this entry »

Trust-powered feedback loops

This is a followup to my two previous posts on what I’ve been calling mindfulness field training. Essentially, the underlying idea is to practice noticing your thoughts and not getting caught up in them. This post is also, in some ways, a followup to my post from last summer on a technique from CFAR called Propagating Urges.

When talking about behaviour change, we find ourselves asking: what kinds of feedback loops are most effective? One strong possibility is operant conditioning, which researcher B. F. Skinner developed to the extent that he could teach pigeons how to perform very complex tasks (like playing a tune on the piano) in a matter of minutes. Where Pavlovian “classical conditioning” would just associate one preexisting behaviour to a new trigger by creating an association with a natural trigger (eg dogs trained to salivate when bells ring because they’re taught the bells signify food) operant condition allows the trainer to create totally new behaviours. The way it works is that when any behaviour that at all resembles the target behaviour is exhibited, a reward is given, and that reward causes the subject to seek more reward by taking the behaviour further.

CFAR’s Propagating Urges class, last time I saw it, was based around this principle, with the additional aspect of it being a human influencing their own behaviour, which allows for the reward to be a lot more nuanced. The general approach of P.U. was to think of your long term goal and why you want to achieve it, and to connect that feeling to a kind of gesture that you can do (eg pumping your fist and saying “yesss!”) at the moment you notice a thought that’s related to your goal. Depending on how aversive the goal is, that could even include thoughts about how much you don’t want to work on it. So if your goal is filing your taxes on time, then even the thought “Gah, I still haven’t printed out the tax forms!” is still a really helpful thought because you’re at least thinking about your taxes, and you definitely aren’t going to be able to do them without thinking about them.

In my YES! I noticed! post from last summer, I tried exploring using this on myself to get rid of a number of personal habits like going to get a snack when I’m already full, or in general fleeing from aversive thoughts. It had limited effect, for a few reasons, the main two being:
1. I was trying to do a lot all at once and this lack of focus made it hard to stay motivated (I addressed that with this habit-a-week project)
2. I didn’t have very good feedback loops connecting my noticing with any reward
In theory, the focus and reward can be created, but it’s hard.

It’s especially hard because a lot of the highest leverage change comes from shifting mental patterns around fear, shame, judgment, and so on, where it’s hard to get yourself excited about them and where the long-term reward for overcoming them isn’t very tangible, making it hard to try to connect a “yes! I noticed!” with your sense of long-term goal.

A new way to get excited

So typically it’s pretty hard to get excited about noticing frustrating mental loops. What has changed that for me is continued interaction with someone who wants to hear about them (my friend/mentor/project-partner, Jean). » read the rest of this entry »

Mindfulness Field Training

I’m excited.

I’m excited, because it’s working.

I’ve been trying for years to develop my sense of mindfulness and mental control, and I’m starting now to get a very direct taste of what that feels like.

And it’s thrilling.

So here’s what happened: last night, I was having a conversation with Jean (my friend, housemate, mentor and project partner) and the subject of epistemological arguments came up. I’ve had some conflict with some of my other housemates in this area, and while part of it is theoretical there is also a practical concern, because ultimately we base our decisions on what we (think we) know, and so has felt threatening to the relationships to be unable to use certain ways of communicating information. Threatening, I think, for both sides.

I want to note that this conflict isn’t a shallow one. I wrote last year about how I overcame some of my stress around the subject of astrology. It had been a hot topic for me for several years due to heated arguments with girlfriends-at-the-time-of-the-arguments. At my first CFAR workshop, I brought up some of this stress, in a controlled environment and then worked to calm myself down, and it gave me a strong sense of what this concept of againstness feels like. (The relevant post contains a video, if you want to see it in action.)

Violent agreement

Have you ever been talking with someone, and the two of you essentially agree about the topic at hand, but you still find yourself arguing your point violently? You know what that feels like? That feeling is againstness. And it takes mental skill to extricate yourself from the mode of vehemently asserting the thing you believe so strongly, and to instead have a productive conversation about it. And that’s the skill I’m learning. » read the rest of this entry »

The scientifically-validated way to align urges and goals: Implementation Intentions

“Implementation Intentions” is a tool from psychology literature that has been conclusively shown to increase the tendency of people to actually carry out actions towards their goals. Feel free to read the paper if you want justification. Since there’s plenty of that and I’d be just copy-pasting the article, I’m going to focus on the application side.

How to Intentionally Implement

Step 1: Have a Goal

You can use this for huge goals or things you’re trying to accomplish, or it could just be a simple habit you want to create/change/eliminate. One example that’s worked well for me is staying up when I get up. I don’t have a big issue with getting up when my alarm goes off, but if I’m at all tired or even just cold, I feel a strong inclination to just crawl back into my nice warm bed… but when I do that, I fall asleep, and it usually isn’t even particularly restful sleep. So my goal here is to stay out of bed once I’ve gotten up.

Step 2: Mental Contrasting

This technically isn’t part of implementation intentions either—but it’s another well-documented tool that helps with goal success and that works well with implementation intentions. Warning: there are two key parts here that must be combined. Doing both will increase your chance of success; doing only one will decrease it.

The first part is to spend some time thinking about the benefits of achieving your goal: the short-term peace of having a relaxed morning instead of a rushed one… the long-term time gained by not oversleeping, and the value of whatever I spend that time doing instead. The second part is to bring to mind all of the obstacles you can think of, ranging from the regular and simple (“I get cold” or “I get tired”) to the less frequent and complex (“someone else is in the bathroom”).

Here’s what mine looks like for up-getting:`

  • more time in the morning
  • better quality sleep
  • completer Zeo data
  • feeling more motivated


  • desire/urge for comfort
  • habits learned this summer while mis-doing everyman
  • sleep inertia in general
  • staying up too late

What’s key, the research reveals, is to then contrast those obstacles with the ultimate benefits, so that you get a clear association in your mind that those things are what’s standing in the way of you having all of that awesome success. Once you’ve done that…

Step 3: Think of Opportunities

In the case of getting up, there’s really only one main opportunity: when I hear my alarm clock. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar actually likes to refer to this device as an “opportunity clock” because he thinks it’s a helpful positive reframe. “If you can hear it, you’ve got an opportunity.”

For a goal like “exercise more”, there are many opportunities. One in each context where you’re choosing what to do with your body. Perhaps when you decide whether to drive or bike to work, or to take the elevator or the stairs. Is there a bar somewhere in your daily routine that would be great for pull-ups? What would be a convenient time and place to do some crunches?

Step 4: Create If-Then Statements

If you’re a programmer, then this will be really familiar. If not, then this sentence and the previous one are sort of examples. If-then statements are the core of implementation intentions. The name itself is to contrast with what researchers call “goal intentions”. Goal intentions are things like “I intend to be 10lbs lighter in 3 months” or “I intend to write a 50,000-word novel by the end of November.”

Implementation intentions look more like “if I have the chance to eat a cookie, then I’ll just take a deep breathe and refuse the cookie” or “if I sit down at my computer, I’ll open up the draft of my novel and write at least 1000 words before I go on Facebook”.

Goal intentions, despite having little directly to do with behaviour, have been shown to be effective for producing behaviour change. With implementation intentions and mental contrasting, they become even more effective. To create your if-then statements, start with the opportunities you identified in step 3. This is the initial “if” part. Then, add the intended action in those circumstances.

This is what I started with:
• When I hear the zeo opportunity clock, then I’ll get up and turn it off

It helps to be specific so that your brain is really certain when the “if” is triggered. I actually started with something I almost always do anyway. I then added:
• If I’ve just turned off the zeo, then I’ll go to the bathroom and weigh myself [I’m tracking my weight on beeminder]

This helps to create a new habit at that decision point where I’m deciding whether or not to go back to bed. While these two lines would be better than nothing on their own, they actually still have substantial room for improvement. Brains are incredibly skilled at generating excuses for things that are unpleasant or inconvenient or even just unfamiliar. You need to catch those cases. This was the ultimate chain of If-Thens that I created:

• When I hear the zeo opportunity clock, then I’ll get up and turn it off
• • If I’ve just turned off the zeo, then I’ll go to the bathroom and weigh myself
• • • If I feel like going back to bed instead, then I’ll ignore that feeling and still go weigh myself
• • • If someone is in the bathroom, then I’ll stay standing and start my morning intentions
• • • If I still feel tired, then I’ll go to the kitchen, get water, and splash it on my face
• • • • If I’m not dressed, then I’ll put on sweatpants then go
• • • If I realize that somehow I’ve sat or laid down on my bed, then I’ll count from 5 down to 0 then stand up on zero [this helps in tired situations because it doesn’t feel effortful to start counting]

• After weighing myself, then I’ll start my morning intentions
• • If I feel like doing them in bed, then I’ll do them sitting at my desk instead

Note that in several cases the “if” is basically “if I don’t feel like it”. While this might be surprising, or seem silly, it’s actually really key. If you say, “I’m going to go to the gym on Monday” then you’re implicitly assuming that on Monday you will still want to go to the gym. If you don’t, your brain might assume that you therefore don’t need to go. If, however, you decide that even if you don’t feel like it, you’re going to go anyway, then that excuse doesn’t work anymore.

Tips for successful Implementation Intentions

Use positive language

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever heard someone say “I’m never gonna drink again” …more than once. Turns out that not only does that not work, but it backfirefs, in the same way that trying not to think of a white bear usually results in frosty ursine thoughts. So rather than focus on the behaviour you want to avoid, think about what you want to do instead. I know if I heard someone say “from now on, I’m only drinking soda at parties!” I might actually expect them to succeed.

Create a success spiral

Start with implementation intentions for something that feels challenging but not overwhelming. Then you’re likely to succeed, after when when you add a new layer to this (either in the original goal or for a new one) you’ll already think of it as an effective system, and one that you obey.

This post explains success spirals really well.

If you need caveats, build them in

If you set up your Implementation Intentions so that you’ve eliminated all snacking from your life with this, but you still want to snack sometimes, then you’re going to be forced to break your intentions to do so, which sets a precedent you don’t want. Instead, you might try something like what I did:
– If I really want a snack and I haven’t had one that day, then I can trade a coupon for a snack, provided that coupon was created at least a day ago.

I would just write eg “Friday Snack Coupon” on a sticky note on Thursday, and then on Friday I could buy a snack with this. This way I could still snack in a very limited way without breaking the official contract I’d set with myself.

Start small and memorable

One last tip—I know this is a lot! This whole thing doesn’t work if you find yourself in this situation and you don’t remember what your if-then actually was. There are two things that can help with this: first, start with simple If-Thens that are fairly easy to remember. Secondly, just create a global catchall If-Then:
• If I find myself in a situation where I’m pretty sure that I have an implementation intention but can’t quite seem to recall what it was, then I’ll behave in a way that seems like the kind of thing I’d put for the Then section in this context.

I just came up with that right now, so I’ll have to give it a field-test and see if it works.

Want more help achieving your goals?

Complice is launching soon.

Flow vs Deliberate Practice

Flow and Deliberate Practice are rather popular concepts these days. This shouldn’t be surprising, as everyone wants to be fulfilled in their work and play, and many people want to become an expert in some domain. However, proponents of each approach appear to be in conflict a lot of the time. On top of that, some people think they are the same thing! I believe that they are separate but compatible: two aspects of the same consistent model.

What do we mean by “Flow”?

In an email thread among alumni of CFAR’s rationality workshops, one member commented with a few paragraphs to this effect:

What good SNS* looks like is being in a Flow state. A Flow state is a state in which you are intensely pushing yourself, to the limits of your abilities, toward a goal you are intrinsically motivated to pursue, and receiving frequent and immediate feedback on your progress.

*SNS: for a relevant discussion of the Sympathetic Nervous System, see my earlier post on Againstness Training from a few months ago.

I responded with

I do agree that good SNS looks like what’s described here. At the very least, anything that feels “intense” is almost certainly SNS, and this state you describe is clearly good.

However, I don’t believe this is flow. I think the term you’re looking for is deliberate practice. The turbocharging class/concept [taught by CFAR] is basically a framework for turning anything into deliberate practice.

A fascinating look into a very fundamental part of the psychology of happiness and life satisfaction.

What this exchange reveals, however, is the ambiguity in the word “flow”. » read the rest of this entry »

My Songwriting is On Fire

An image of a hot air balloon, its flame glowing in the dark scene.

The song isn’t actually about hot air balloons… right?

A month ago, a friend and I decided that we’d write a song each month with a preset title. This is kind of like Songfight, but I find that a month actually gives me time to flesh out a full idea rather than just scraping something together in a couple hours. This is my song for month one, “On Fire”.

My reflection above about hours versus months is interesting, because it reflects a recent (past year) shift in the way I write songs.

  • I get a snippet of a song… typically a single phrase with a melody or a couple phrases that rhyme. Note that at this point I rarely know what I actually want to sing about.
  • I frantically search for a piece of paper and a pencil.
  • I literally write the song, line by line, singing the lines aloud as I go.
  • I reword a few phrases and rearrange a few lines.
  • Within an hour or two, the song is basically finished, aside from instrumentation which I almost always do later.

I’ve since… changed. Now it’s more like this:

  • I get an inkling or idea for a song… often a snippet like above but in this case just the title “on fire”.
  • I sing it. I sing it again, a bit differently.
  • I try out another line to follow the first.
  • I iterate over the verse or chorus or whatever, ironing out kinks and adding flairs like alliteration and internal rhyme.
  • I do something else. Unlike before, where almost all of my songs were written completely the day they were first conceived, I now write songs intermittently, often while walking around.
  • I return to the song, ultimately finalizing it. At this point, I still may not have written anything down yet.

The first song I wrote this way was General Disregard

, which is on my album. If you’re familiar with the rest of the album you might notice that General Disregard feels more casual and less structured than the other tunes.

I’m a poet and I know it

I’ve been a poet for at least as long as I’ve been a songwriter, and I’ve long considered myself a poet first and musician second (this is related to the fact that I invariably do the words before the instrumentation). The poems I used to write were very structured: limericks, sonnets, or even just rhyming couplets with a strict meter. I haven’t totally ditched these but I’ve gotten more involved with slam poetry, which uses a lot more internal rhyme and stretching of beats, and I’ve also started casually freestyle rapping. Both of these have contributed to my new strategy for songwriting.

In fact, when I first started doing slam, I would create my poems like I used to write my songs. This is just simply the wrong medium. It’s like designing a painting using your sense of smell. Murmuring and writing are a really poor way of creating something that’s ultimately going to be performed. Similarly, I find I can work a lot faster and with way more nuance when I’m creating songs aloud and in my head versus on paper. It takes energy and intent to erase something from paper, while it takes effort to keep something in my head. This means that if a part is cumbersome or boring, it gets forgotten, and I have to replace it with something catchier.

The mental process of composition

I’ve learned a bit about the memory recently from reading Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (read my summary at and one key point that emerged was that the memory regularly drops details and adds others every time the memory is accessed. For my songwriting, this means that every time I want to work on a song in-progress, I get to massage it on the way out, rather than just turning text into sound.

I’ve also realized that writing the songs in my head is a real mental exercise! In another song I’ve been working on I found I had to stop because my brain was getting worn out. This saturation is a good sign, because it means both that my unconscious brain will continue working on it even once I move on, and that my mental capacity for this will expand. Neuroplasticity!

After my album launch last fall, I unintentionally took an almost complete hiatus from songwriting for nearly 3 months. Then I decided in February I wanted to write more songs. Now I have 1¾ songs since then, and I’m really excited to start sharing them again. Much of this will probably be posted here, but if you want my really musical news you can also subscribe to the Maleidoscope newsletter at

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to fractal coordination challenges (between parts of people as well as between people) based on non-naive trust and intentionality. More about me.

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