Wtf is a deadline? Showtime, missing the bus, time walls, check-ins, &+

If this blog post contains only this paragraph and bullet list, it’s because it was showtime and this was all I’d written. The post is about distinguishing different kinds of things that are often all called “deadlines”. I really like showtime, and I liked the idea of writing being like a kind of showtime, although in practice this is quite hard to do for anything except an exam. I may schedule a time to write this post in full, but for now (Oct 4th) I’m simply writing this and scheduling a time when it’ll be published: noon on Wednesday, October 8th. If you’re reading this text (and only this text) before then, there was a bug with my schedule publish feature 😂

  • showtime – “however prepared we are, the audience is waiting”
  • deadline time wall – go/no-go – “I miss the bus” is the extreme case
  • check-in / estimate – may not be finished by this date, but I want to reorient
  • experiment end – try a thing for a bit, and then reflect on it

(Written the following day, in my personal journal, and added, at the time: Man, I’m excited for the blogging showtime! Fascinating that it took me this long. This is just making it true that something of mine will get published every so often, but not with any sense of commitment or whatever. The consequences are just the quality of whatever’s published. And I guess in that sense it really is a showtime. Hm… yeah, feeling that.)

Okay, here I am, 3h 11mins before the publish date. This is my performance over the next 3h. I’m not going to do this every time, but in this case I think there’s a beauty to simply leaving the above paragraphs there and continuing from them, as they function as a kind of teaser for the topic of the post.

This is a model that has been percolating in my system for years, and it was animated by 2 main questions, that didn’t obviously have any thing to do with each other:

  1. why, as a student, did I usually vastly prefer tests & exams over homework & projects?
  2. what does it mean (in the context of designing the Complice goal-tracking system) to put a date on something you intend to do?

The model, like posts I’ve written about habits, expectations, commitments & accountability, distractions, and explanations, is a model that takes a word and says “you thought this was one thing? this is actually 2 things, and it’s worth knowing the difference.” In this case, there are at least 4, maybe more things. But let’s start with the difference between tests & homework.

» read the rest of this entry »

Laughter and Dominance: 5-year reflection on againstness training

It’s now been five years since I first attended a CFAR workshop. I wrote a 3-year retrospective 2 years ago. Today I want to reflect on one specific aspect of the workshop: the Againstness Training.

In addition to the 5 year mark, this is also timely because I just heard from the instructor, Val, that after lots of evolution in how it was taught, this class has finally been fully replaced, by one called Presence.

The Againstness Training was an activity designed to practice the skill of de-escalating your internal stress systems, in the face of something scary you’re attempting to do.

I had a friend record a video of my training exercise, which has proven to be a very fruitful decision, as I’ve been able to reflect on that video as part of getting more context for where I am now. Here’s the video. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching! If you have, I recommend you nonetheless watch the first 2 minutes or so as context for what I’m going to say, below:

» read the rest of this entry »

Make an appointment with your saner self

Most people have had the experience of being able to articulate advice that they themselves do not follow, even though it applies to their situation as well. Usually this implies that there’s some sort of internal conflict present—a competing commitment that gets in the way of doing the thing that the person might consider reasonable. I have written much on transcending and untangling internal conflict (see these posts) and I will write much more.

But transcending internal conflict can be a lengthy, complex, and non-monotonic process, and in the meantime you’re still sitting around with a bunch of great advice you’re not taking. A bunch of untapped potential.

There’s a really straightforward technique that can help with this:

make an appointment with your saner self.

Put an event on your calendar, and treat it with the respect you’d give any other appointment. Which is to say: show up. Or, if for some reason it turns out you can’t, then reschedule for the nearest appropriate time.

Then, when the time comes, take your own advice. You can do this literally—consider what advice you’d give a friend in your situation, then do that—or you can just do the obvious thing. You can do this with specific object-level situations, eg “I need to get around to submitting that application” or with more abstract things like “I really should take more time to reflect on my life.”

Or perhaps you’ve got a technique that you know really helps you, whenever you do it, but you never seem to do it. “If I actually used the CFAR techniques, my life would be way better,” said almost every CFAR alumnus ever. Well, make an appointment with your saner self (the one who does the techniques) and then show up and do them.

Ways this can fail (and some suggestions)

Make sure you’re clear on what the appointment is. It’s okay to leave it open-ended when you make the appointment, but once the appointment starts, don’t take more than 5 minutes to figure out how you’re going to spend it. Or decide “I’m going to spend it prioritizing”. The key is not to let the time slip by while you wonder what the best way to spend it would be. Which of course you probably know on some level. The point of this technique is to tap into what you already know about how you can have a better life.

If you don’t have enough self-trust to show up for an appointment if there isn’t someone else who’ll be left stood-up, then make an appointment with someone else. Feel free to arrange this in the comments below. I’ve done this with strangers and also old friends I hadn’t talked to in years (which was cool!). I recommend just trying a half-hour skype call, with a minute or two of “Hi, this is what I’m going to work on,” then a 25-minute focused work period (aka “pomodoro”) then a minute or two of “Here’s how it went.” Then if both of you want, you can continue for more pomodoros, but you’re not committing up front to doing it for hours.

Even better, you can make a calendar where people can schedule such calls with you, using Calendly or youcanbook.me, share it with your friends, and then little sanity blocks will just automatically appear on your calendar. I did this for awhile and it was great. Each time a call occurred, I just asked “oh, what’s some thing I’ve been putting off?” and I would get started on it.

If you don’t have enough self-trust to show up for an appointment if there isn’t someone else who’ll be left stood-up, but you can’t/won’t schedule with someone else, then you could also try making a self-trust bet on this. Make sure to set a reminder so the thing doesn’t just slip by forgotten.

If you don’t have a calendar or any other system that you can rely on at all… get one? Assuming you have a smartphone, you can get it to bug you at a time. You then just need to (a) pick a time that you’re likely to be interruptible, and (b) when the timer goes off, actually shift into doing whatever it was you set out to do.

Let’s go meta: maybe you already knew about this sort of technique. Maybe you’ve done it before, or maybe you’ve suggested it to other people. Do you use it as much as you imagine would be optimal? If not, apply it to itself! Make an appointment right now with your saner self, and use the time to try to set up a regular event, or a youcanbook.me like I described above.

If the thing feels burdensome, then… this may not be the technique for you. You want to find a way of thinking about it so that you feel excited to spend time with (i.e. as) your saner self. If you can’t find a way to feel excited or at least engaged about it, then it’s not worth yelling at yourself about it. That defeats the point. Go read my post on self-referential motivation instead, and see if that helps.

Conceptual scaffolds and logistical scaffolds

For New Year’s last year, my business partner Benjamin and I ran an event called the Goal-Crafting Intensive. It was a five-hour online workshop on setting your goals for the year. Ostensibly, the main value of the workshop was the instruction: presentations I made about goal-setting & planning, a 23-page handbook, and chat-based coaching. Certainly, few people would have paid money for such an event if all three of those aspects had been absent.

And yet… I have a suspicion that the main value of the event was the fact that each participant carved out five hours from their schedule and then actually spent it focused on setting goals for the year.

Which is to say, if I imagine two people…

  • Allie buys the presentation videos and the handbook plus the ability to get some chat-based coaching.
  • Barry buys a ticket to “Open Goal Setting Afternoon” which is just a 5-hour solo-work context of some sort.

Who would have a more goal-directed year?

My money is on Barry.

Why? Our goal-setting content is actually quite good, but Allie would probably never actually open the handbook at all, let alone watch the videos. And even if she did, she would be likely to read it partway and then say, “Hmm yeah I really should do these exercises” …but still not actually do them.

Whereas Barry, who only has his own advice to take, is at least taking the time to do the best he knows how to do.

And that’s what counts. That’s why even though the Goal-Crafting Intensive is 5 hours long, only about 10-15 minutes of each hour is presentations. Then I mute my microphone, to give each participant the rest of the hour to focus on whatever seems most important to them—which could be the technique I just described, or it could be something totally different!

We’re running the Goal-Crafting Intensive again this year. So if you think your 2018 could be improved by taking 5 hours to set some goals and design some systems, then come join us on Dec 30, Jan 1, or Jan 7, and we’ll give you both good advice and time to take it.

Click this image to learn more about the 2018 goal-crafting intensive:

Get somewhere next year. "Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a year."

Building self-trust with Self-Referential Motivation

Noah asks:

I feel so incredibly much better when I don’t procrastinate, and yet I still procrastinate regularly. Why am I so resistant to classical conditioning in this context? What further questions should I ask myself / demands should I make of myself, to attack this problem?

I suspect that this is a paradox that almost everyone has encountered on some level. People want to be productive. It feels good to have a really fruitful day.

This is something we often forget, when we frame our self-improvement efforts as a fight between what we should do and what we want to do.

And note that it’s not just that people want-to-have-been-productive. It generally feels pretty good while you’re doing it too. There are exceptions, of course—some work is a grind—but in general it’s at least satisfying, if not fulfilling, to be doing good work. And even with relatively aversive work, it usually feels better to be actually making progress than to just be stewing in the feeling that you should be working but aren’t.

So here’s the million-dollar question: if it feels good to be productive, why aren’t people productive more? » read the rest of this entry »

Taking myself seriously

I realized recently that while I’m pretty consistently operating out of Growth Mindset, there’s another mindset shift that I’m often missing.

I was reading an insightful book called Influencer. One of the sections of the book describes a man with a love of chocolate, who wants to lose weight and tries to replace his chocolate-snacking habit with a carrot-snacking habit. I know the feel—chocolate is very compelling to me. From that book:

“Initially, failure signals the need for greater effort or persistence. Sometimes failure signals the need to change strategies or tactics. But failure should rarely signal that we’ll never be able to succeed and drive us to pray for serenity. For instance, you find yourself staring at a half-eaten ice cream cone in your hand. Should you conclude that you’re unable to stick with your eating plan so you might as well give up? Or should you conclude that since it’s hard to resist when you walk past the ice cream parlor on your way home from work, you should change your route? The first conclusion serves as discouraging brake on performance, whereas the second provides a corrective guide that helps refine your strategy.

The book describes the first response—concluding you can’t do it and giving up—as Fixed Mindset, and the second as Growth Mindset. They depict an overdramatic Fixed Mindset internal monologue:

“Henry wonders if he can overcome the genetic hand that he’s been dealt… has [no] self-discipline… surely he’s doomed… believes he hadn’t been born with ‘the right stuff.'” …etc.

I basically never have thoughts like that.

Which led me into the puzzle of why, if I’m consistently operating out of Growth Mindset, do I not consistently respond in that second way? That is, using each failure as a corrective guide, tweaking my path so I don’t encounter future temptations. » read the rest of this entry »

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?

» read the rest of this entry »

Expectations: Entitlements & Anticipations

Expectation is often used to refer to two totally distinct things: entitlement and anticipation. My basic opinion is that entitlement is a rather counterproductive mental stance to have, while anticipations are really helpful for improving your model of the world.

Here are some quick examples to whet your appetite…

A gif from Rocky Horror Picture Show: "I see you shiver with antici..."

1. Consider a parent who says to their teenager: “I expect you to be home by midnight.” The parent may or may not anticipate the teen being home on time (even after this remark). Instead, they’re staking out a right to be annoyed if they aren’t back on time.

Contrast this with someone telling the person they’re meeting for lunch “I expect I’ll be there by 12:10” as a way to let them know that they’re running a little late, so that the recipient of the message knows not to worry that maybe they’re not in the correct meeting spot, or that the other person has forgotten.

2. A slightly more involved example: I have a particular kind of chocolate bar that I buy every week at the grocery store. Or at least I used to, until a few weeks ago when they stopped stocking it. They still stock the Dark version, but not the Extra Dark version I’ve been buying for 3 years. So the last few weeks I’ve been disappointed when I go to look. (Eventually I’ll conclude that it’s gone forever, but for now I remain hopeful.)

There’s a temptation to feel indignant at the absence of this chocolate bar. I had an expectation that it would be there, and it wasn’t! How dare they not stock it? I’m a loyal customer, who shops there every week, and who even tells others about their points card program! I deserve to have my favorite chocolate bar in stock!

…says this voice. This is the voice of entitlement.

» read the rest of this entry »

“The sparkly pink purple ball thing”

Alternate title: “Use unique, non-obvious terms for nuanced concepts”

Naming things! Naming things is hard. It’s been claimed that it’s one of the hardest parts of computer science. Now, this might sound surprising, but one of my favoritely named concepts is Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2.

I want you to pause for a few seconds and consider what comes to mind when you read just the bolded phrase above.

Got it?

If you’re familiar with the concepts of S1 and S2, then you probably have a pretty rich sense of what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you have a partial notion: “I think it was about…” or something. If you’ve never been exposed to the concept, then you probably have no idea.

Now, Kahneman could have reasonably named these systems lots of other things, like “emotional cognition” & “rational cognition”… or “fast, automatic thinking” & “slow, deliberate thinking”. But now imagine that it had been “emotional and rational cognition” that Kahneman had written about, and the effect on the earlier paragraph.

It would be about the same for those who had studied it in depth, but now those who had heard about it briefly (or maybe at one point knew about the concepts) would be reminded of that one particular contrast between S1 and S2 (emotion/reason) and be primed to think that was the main one, forgetting about all of the other parameters that that distinction seeks to describe. Those who had never heard of Kahneman’s research might assume that they basically knew what the terms were about, because they already have a sense of what emotion and reason are.

Update: I have revised my opinion on S1/S2 in particular. There may or may not be meaningful clusters being pointed at by Kahneman and others, but in this case the terms S1 & S2 were vague enough that a bunch of other things got projected onto them instead. See this LW post and my comment on it for more on this.

The more general point I’m trying to make in this point still stands though.

» read the rest of this entry »

Debating the implications (not the facts)

I spent last weekend mentoring at a CFAR workshop. One interesting pattern that I and another mentor identified was that sometimes less enthused participants would confront one of us about CFAR’s flaws. These conversations often seemed to have a thing in common:

Participant: “So it seems that CFAR has flaw X, and also flaw Y.”
Me: “Oh yeah, totally. Those are definitely issues that are keeping CFAR from really being as great as it could be.”
Participants: “So like, ugh, CFAR?”
Me: “But like… CFAR!”

Which is to say that the participant was taking flaws X and Y as implying that CFAR was doomed or something, whereas I was thinking that CFAR was pretty great, and would be even better once X and Y were fixed. And hey, great, now that we’ve identified that X and Y are the main flaws, that’s substantial progress towards fixing them.

Neither position is necessarily right. The implications are » read the rest of this entry »

CFAR 3 year retrospective

“Made it back from the CFAR retreat. Wow. What an amazing 5 days.”

— me in my journal, three years ago, on January 29th, 2013. Tomorrow I’m about to go be a mentor at another workshop, that’s both deeply similar to the one I attended 3 years ago, and very different.

As am I.

I’m not very sentimental, but the decision to go to that workshop had a bigger impact on my life than most other decisions I’ve made (especially ones that seemed about that size) so I wanted to take some time to do a little retrospective.

Ideally, it would be cool to look at my Jan’13 workbook and compare it with my current sense of things, but unfortunately it’s back in Canada. One thing I was able to do was to pull up my Remember The Milk. Back then, one of the things that CFAR guided its participants to do was to set up a modified Getting Things Done system, with the idea that this was practically necessary to making anything else happen consistently in the weeks following the workshop.

It seems that I actually stuck to this system for longer than I remembered doing so—about a year, including several months after creating Complice, my own productivity system. This isn’t too surprising though, given that Complice itself is geared towards “what am I doing towards my goals today?” rather than the inbox+organization aspects of GTD.

At any rate, one of the things I found when I dug up my old list of tasks was a bunch of ones from the CFAR workshop highlighting phrases I wanted to look up. Three notable examples: (all concepts from the Less Wrong Sequences)

» read the rest of this entry »

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.

Focus on what matters
Check out Complice, a web-app that I built to help people achieve their personal & professional goals. Complice logo
Follow me on Twitter!