Want to think better faster, more productively/creatively, less stressfully?
We'll be running through exercises related in this blog post. In a nutshell, we'll be practicing mindful puzzle solving noticing what strategies your brain is using to solve problems on the microsecond timescale, and then reflecting on which of those strategies is most helpful.
I think this was one of the better meetups that I've run. I'm optimistic about this exercise becoming a pretty core LW/CFAR-esque cornerstone. It seemed worth a retrospective. tldr:
I'd summarize the exercise and philosophy, but honestly the original blogpost did a very good job being succinct. So I'm going to focus mostly on how I operationalized it and how I currently understand it.For easy reference, I'm including what SquirrelInHell listed as the key insight:
Ray's Core Summary of Exercise
My attempt to distill the exercise down:
0. Previous Skill: have practiced at least one style of introspection, such as Gendlin's Focusing or Mindfulness Meditation.1. Mindfully solve a puzzle.
2. While doing so, record your stream of consciousness in as much detail as possible (the ideal goal is to include things on the sub-second level, that includes both verbal thoughts and vague impulses, flinches, desires etc). Recording the stream of consciousness is more important than actually solving the puzzle.
3. Whenever you either complete the puzzle, or come to natural stopping points in the process, review your mental stream and look at the deltas in between mental snapshots. In as high a resolution as possible, pay attention to steps in your mental process were most fruitful.
Some snags in the exercise that needed clarification/operationalization:
1. Thinking in batches
I often found I was solving a subproblem within the exercise, and interrupting that solving process to record my second-by-second experiences was disruptive. I resolved this by "thinking in batches" – let my train of thought run interrupted until it hit a natural stopping point, and then going back into my list-of-things-I-experienced and filling in gaps.
2. Look for positive deltas more than negative ones
One thing a few people ran into was something like "ending up in a loop of useless thoughts", sometimes literally thing "I'm stuck, I'm stuck, I'm stuck" over and over, and otherwise second guessing their worth as a person ("I'm not smart enough to solve this.") Noticing when you're stuck is helpful, but ultimately the thing that's more relevant is "what gets you unstuck."
Eventually, you will become unstuck (maybe by stopping to think about an entirely different thing). Notice what happened in the moment when you became unstuck.
It's hard for human brains to learn not to do things, and easier to learn to do things (i.e. "don't think about an elephant" and all that). So noticing and then reinforcing/rewarding yourself for breaking out of the loop is the most important bit here.
3. Stuck on the 2-3 second timescale
The blogpost says to be looking for the subsecond timescale of internal mental states. I'm not sure whether I actually got to the point where I could identify multiple states per second, and some people at the meetup also struggled with that. (I did get to points where, in a given 2-3 second timescale, I could identify maybe one flash of impulse/insight that took less than a second, but then it came with a 2-3 second batch of thought)
My current take on this is something like "you can get a lot of value out of the 2-3 second resolution. You can (I assume) also get value from practicing noticing what's going on at the subsecond level. I wouldn't stress out too much about which area you're focusing on until you've started exhausting the low hanging fruit.
Some Aha moments
a. "Remember to look for cheap tests"
The first time I did the exercise, I had a hypothesis, and then I figured I'd need to check a large-ish number of things, calculate something, and then check another set of things to find out if it were definitely true. I thought about that for 10 minutes or so.
Then I checked the very first thing, and it completely falsified the line of reasoning. If I had done that sooner, I'd have saved 10 minutes.
This has led to a new TAP of "look for cheap tests".
b. Claim: Spin cycles / willpower are a waste of time.
Something that I didn't quite get the first time I did the exercise, but did get during the workshop, but am not sure if I think is real, but seems probably real...
...is that the claim that spending willpower to think is just a wasteful byproduct that some people accidentally learn, as they cobble together their cognitive patterns as they grow up. Thinking shouldn't be effortful. You should just be able to watch your thoughts happen, the only resource you're spending is time. Any extra effort you put in is misguided wasted motion.
I'm a person who generally gets headaches when I think strategically. For awhile this meant I didn't think strategically. Then it meant I just dealt with headaches, and limited myself to what I could do sustainably. (i.e. I could think hard for about 2 hours before my head hurt). So, figuring out if this was true was important to me.
The guy at the meetup who ended up in a loop of "I'm stuck... I'm stuck..." described it as feeling like their brain was spinning real fast. And I had something of a crystalization of "ah, so is the claim that every time I'm doing a mental motion that feels effortful, I should just... not be doing that?" (which other thing to be doing instead being a bit context dependent).
I dunno, hard to explain exactly what I'm thinking here. I'm not sure I buy the claim that no thinking should be effortful but now I do buy that there's *enough* wasted motion that you can trim out a lot of it.
Important: Bring a laptop.
The exercises we'll be doing involve trying to pay attention to sub-second transitions in your thought process, and I find it much easier to write those down and review them with a keyboard. Pen+paper will be available but if you can bring a laptop that's preferable.