When I was 16, I accepted I would die.
It wasn’t hard to do—I was about to die! What point would there be in not accepting it?
Spoiler: I didn’t die. But at that moment, I thought I was about to die. I was jumping off a cliff into some water, with friends, on a volunteer trip in Kenya, and on this particular jump I did some sort of flip and thought I hadn’t cleared the part of the cliff below my jump spot that stuck out, and I saw the rock coming towards me and thought
“This is it. I’m going to smash my face into this rock, and then die of that impact, blood loss, or drowning.”
We were hours’ bumpy drive from anything remotely resembling a hospital.
Moments later, a splash—
I spent a few minutes, shaken, sitting on the bank and appreciating my life.
Years later, I noticed that that acceptance of death wasn’t persistent. It was a kind of short-issue visa, and because it was issued last-minute it also expired pretty quickly.
And over the last few years I’ve noticed I have many layers of complexities in my relationship to death.
A lot of people have patterns in their relationships (particularly romantic or familial) that cause them to get upset, bizarrely intensely. These patterns have built up over years of experience pushing each others’ buttons. I’ve done a lot of work on these kinds of patterns over the last few years and have made substantial progress, to the point where I’m no longer particularly worried about getting angry at my parents or partners. Even my younger sister, for the most part. (If she’s reading this, she’s probably saying “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED”)
But I still have a massive class of relationships that need serious work: my relationships with technology.
I have an eye for design—it’s part of why I went into Systems Design Engineering for undergrad. Being a designer is a great skill to have, for the most part. But it comes with a big drawback: you notice bad design.
And most things, it turns out, are badly designed.
There are reasons for this, of course. Big organizations are hard to coordinate. Points of failure are often hard to foresee.
I came to the realization a few weeks ago that some of my biggest potential growth in the dimension of againstness-y responses is in this domain. I noticed that my defensiveness in social situations is fading broadly—though not gone, not yet—and I was switching more and more to curiosity as a default mode of interaction. My patterns around poorly-designed products, however, seemed as strong as ever.
I found myself realizing that I felt entitled to well-designed products. Honestly, even as I write this, it feels hard to let go of the idea that I am. But I’m not. I’m not entitled to well-designed products. Even when » read the rest of this entry »
Two experiences in the last 48h have caused me to redesign some of my language and communication patterns in a pretty serious way. I suspect that these are generally applicable and very useful, so I’m sharing!
Before I get into it, take a moment and see what comes to mind when you read the phrases “that made me feel uncomfortable” or “I noticed some discomfort while reading that.”
Okay, turns out that I’d been using phrases like that, and they were totally backfiring, because they communicated something totally different than what I was intending to communicate.
On a mailing list I frequent, someone offhandedly made a remark that was intended to be humorous. I felt uncomfortable reading it, which I shared with the group, along with an explanation for why I consciously endorsed that feeling of discomfort. Fortunately, I edited the subject before replying, because it prompted a massive email thread about (among other things) whether or not it makes sense to be offended by things and whether or not it makes sense to avoid saying things that will make people uncomfortable. And a bit about the content-level topic itself.
Someone else shared that their perception of this conversation was that I was trying to shame the OP for what he had said, to which I responded:
Thanks for the feedback that that was how it looked. I will maintain, as one of the main this-made-me-uncomfortable-sayers, that I was not intending to send any guilt or shame.
However, I’ll drink my own medicine, noting that this whole conversation happened because of person A saying something that was interpreted by person B in an unexpectedly negative way.
So I just did the same thing!
“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.
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.
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:`
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…
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Complice is launching soon.
What do people think of you? What affects what people think of you? I’m realizing that if you focus on what people think of you this moment, you usually lose track of what they’re going to think of you next month.
I’m interning at a large tech company for the first time (previous max was a 22-person startup) and I’ve been having some trouble navigating how to ask questions and get things done in the rather complicated system. Today, in my 1-on-1 meeting with my manager, we were talking about asking others for help, which he pointed out is really important in a large organization with relatively little documentation. I commented that I was worried that people would feel like I was asking them to solve all of my problems—that they might judge me for doing so. I described one part of this problem using this analogy:
Say I’m trying to make myself a sandwich, and I don’t even know where the bread is kept. So I ask you, “where’s the bread?” You indicate the appropriate cupboard. Then I get distracted for half an hour, initially trying to choose a kind of bread but then reading the ingredients… after which I find the knife and realize it’s totally dull and won’t slice the bread (the next step).
At this point I feel really apprehensive about asking you for help again, because I feel like you’ll notice how I haven’t really accomplished anything for awhile (with software development, this can be more on the order of hours and days) and that I’m now asking you for help with something that’s basically a next step to the last thing I asked about. Or that could be expected to follow within 2 minutes.
“Don’t worry about what people think of you,” my manager responded, to this story and to other concerns about pestering people, “think about the results.” In other words, if you’re hungry, do what it takes to get that sandwich made. Then it dawned on me that by trying to avoid having people think negatively toward me in the short term by asking too many questions, I was ultimately sacrificing their long-term opinion of me by reducing what I was able to accomplish.
When I’m finishing my internship, I’d much rather have a couple of people think, “Oh yeah, Malcolm was great, though he asked a lot of questions,” than have everyone think, “Malcolm just kind of went off on his own and barely accomplished anything”. Which is sillifying to realize, because I haven’t been behaving with that in mind. Well, it’s hard to change what you don’t even notice, so this is a start.
I wrote the bulk of the above this afternoon in an email to myself (something I do with surprising regularity) and then thought I’d share it on my blog, for a few reasons, notably that it’s a great example of conflicting wants. There’s a deeper shift happening here too, which is the realization of how my concern over my own image is itself getting in the way of both image and goals, therein being quite unproductive. But for now it seems easier to shift on the level of behaviour->values, achieving them in the short term rather than trying to change my values overnight.
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:
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?
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!
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.
Happy birthday to me. As a Canadian, one of the joys of living in San Francisco during the few months around my 21st birthday has been getting to turn legal twice. Not that I really care. Relevant thoughts:
I don’t really feel any age. Before telling people my age, I usually get them to guess, and the typical answer is about 25. Since many of my peers/friends are 25 or older I don’t mind this, and projecting as older probably helps me gain some respect. I know some people who feel like they’re a certain age, whether older, younger, or equal to their actual age, but age just feels really arbitrary to me.
I no longer think that. Probably since I’ve had some friends who are much older than me (in one case half a century) and I’ve started interacting a lot more with mixed-age groups. Also flirting.
The other half of this is that I’ve realized that I sometimes have difficulty relating to some people who are my age.
I periodically feel impressed with myself when I’m able to do things like navigate airports between countries, or have a job, or maintain a schedule that involves meeting people for coffee. I’m not sure why these things make me feel like this, since they aren’t actually that complicated compared to e.g. multivariable calculus. Or empathy.
I find myself often thinking “Wow, this will change my life!” or thinking that an idea has profoundly affected the way I think. This causes me to look back at musings of past-me and be astonished with how much I knew so long ago… since I assume that I’ve learned so many important things this past year, clearly I was an ignorant fool a year ago. Except apparently not.
Sometimes I feel like I’m just going through motions and chasing ideas and emptying my email inbox, but then I’ll be talking to someone who hasn’t had the same experiences I’ve had and they’ll practically start taking notes. At this point, I realize that I’ve actually synthesized a lot of interesting stuff during this time.
This point is essentially the net point of the previous two. This realization emerged from my spreadsheet of all the books I’ve read since summer ’11. I looked back at my notes on some of Seth Godin’s books and the notes suggested my life had been profoundly changed by reading them. Months later, I barely remember what Poke the Box is about. These books inspired me, but didn’t actually change my behaviour or even my thought patterns.
Sort of. It’s related, but they’re not the same. I seem to feel mostly the same about myself regardless of the facts in my head. Even when I learn new models or frameworks, or ways of approaching things, they rarely have a substantial effect on my self-conception. The main things that do are ones that actually relate to relating. Any time I feel like I’ve learned to connect with people better I expand my comfort zone in certain situations and this is a really good feeling.
I’ve recently been realizing that awkwardness often arises from the feeling that something is supposed to be awkward. If you give up the assumption that an experience or interaction will be awkward, often it simply isn’t. Often it’s just fun, or pleasant, or profound instead.
There are a lot of factors that affect the sensation of the passage of time. The main one for me is tiredness. Time passes much faster late at night. I’d like to figure out ways to hack this so that I can experience more.
Something similar happens on a days-months scale too: the experience of yesterday feeling like last week but months ago feeling like yesterday. My current theory is that doing lots of interesting (and varied) things makes time feel like it’s passing quickly because there’s always something going on, but when you look back things are stretched out forever because there are so many details.
People all age at a rate of 60 seconds per minute, but the variance in amount and type of experiences is so broad that age makes a very poor proxy for what someone is like. I mean, guess it’s the best one we have, but like, some people could be safely drinking at age 16 (not too much, of course) whereas others can’t even in adulthood. But anyway…
Now, when I’m drinking, I tend to think alcohol is underrated, but I trust sober!me’s opinion more. People make a really big deal about it but for me these months of being 20 in the USA have been more annoying for lack-of-ability-to-go-dancing than lack-of-ethanol-in-my-bloodstream. In fact, I’d consider going off alcohol entirely if that wouldn’t seriously restrict my drink options. I like to try new things, and most drinks appear to be booze.
One night, when I was 15, I made a vow to myself that I would never do “drugs”. I clarified at the time that this didn’t include alcohol or caffeine, but implicitly included pretty much everything else except prescription drugs or the odd painkiller. My main reasoning was that I, at the time, felt infinitely happy. That is, I didn’t feel like I could possibly feel happier, and therefore there was no need to pursue artificial highs.
For years, this has given me an easy way to refuse an offered smoke of any kind, but I’ve lately come to realize that the original argument doesn’t apply to some places where I’m applying the rule. Nootropics are the main thing in this category. I have other reasons to be wary of them, but nonetheless, I’m realizing that my cached response (“no drugs!”) is not quite sufficient. That’s a much bigger topic… I just wanted to note how it’s both hard and easy to justify breaking a promise to yourself.
I had originally intended to write 21 thoughts, but this prompt only produced 12. Oh well, it’s the same digits. I won’t be able to cheat next year 😉
This is the first time in a few years that I’ve set my birthday to public on Facebook. I might decide to have another one in a few months, just for fun.
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:
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 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?
This arrived in my inbox this morning:
In general, I don’t mind getting deals and recommendations emails from you, because you know my shopping history and my wish list and so you can easily present me with more interesting books than I have time to read. Having too many books is a problem, but it’s my problem and it’s a good problem to have.
However, can you stop sending me arbitrary gender-normative ones for father’s day and mother’s day? You really know nothing about my parents, so unlike the emails targeted at me, these ones are just annoying, boring, and irrelevant.
Thanks for listening and have a fantastic day!
(I sent them such an email, but got a reply saying “This is an automated response, but it contains information that should help answer your questions.” Obviously, it did not address my concerns. More about this in a later post.)
I have a new blog. If you were hoping this blog would actually have content on it, because you really enjoy my rants and ideas and so on, you can check out my old blog, Obfuscatism. To be quite honest, this blog may well end up being full of similar rants, but I recently purchased this domain name and wanted to start over.
PS: to anyone who is here to follow my Uberman journey, the next post will be about that.