Most things worth doing take serious, sustained effort. If you want to become an expert violinist, you're going to have to spend a lot of time practicing. If you want to write a good book, there really is no quick-and-dirty way to do it. But sustained effort is hard, and can be difficult to get rolling. Maybe there are some easier gains to be had with simple, local optimizations. Contrary to oft-repeated cached wisdom, not everything worth doing is hard. Some little things you can do are like cheat codes for the real world.

Take habits, for example: your habits are not fixed. My diet got dramatically better once I figured out how to change my own habits, and actually applied that knowledge. The general trick was to figure out a new, stable state to change my habits to, then use willpower for a week or two until I settle into that stable state. In the case of diet, a stable state was one where junk food was replaced with fruit, tea, or having a slightly more substantial meal beforehand so I wouldn't feel hungry for snacks. That's an equilibrium I can live with, long-term, without needing to worry about "falling off the wagon." Once I figured out the pattern -- work out a stable state, and force myself into it over 1-2 weeks -- I was able to improve several habits, permanently. It was amazing. Why didn't anybody tell me about this?

In education, there are similar easy wins. If you're trying to commit a lot of things to memory, there's solid evidence that spaced repetition works. If you're trying to learn from a difficult textbook, reading in multiple overlapping passes is often more time-efficient than reading through linearly. And I've personally witnessed several people academically un-cripple themselves by learning to reflexively look everything up on Wikipedia. None of this stuff is particularly hard. The problem is just that a lot of people don't know about it.

What other easy things have a high marginal return-on-effort? Feel free to include speculative ones, if they're testable.

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I've noticed that people who have a hard time in intro-to-physics classes usually fail in a fairly predictable way: they see a problem, don't know how to solve it, and stop. But there's a trick to solving physics problems when you're not sure how. The general method is:

  1. Make a diagram or something, to depict what you know about the problem and make it easier to figure out stuff you don't know.

  2. Look at the problem until you can derive something you don't already know. Even if you have no idea how it will help (or if it will help) do the calculations, and write them down.

  3. Repeat step 2 until you see how to get to the answer.

The problem is when someone, not seeing a way all the way to the solution, stops trying instead of looking to make incremental progress.

I'm sure this applied to more than introductory physics problems. It's very similar to Terry Tao's advice on how to do math:

I don't have any magical ability. I look at a problem, and it looks something like one I've done before; I think maybe the idea that worked before will work here. Nothing's working out; then you think of a small trick that makes it a little better but still is not quite right. I play with the problem,

... (read more)
That's like something I've found works with Colour Shift-- even if you can't see how to hook up a circuit and get the right colour, getting all the bulbs with the same colour on one circuit can be much more helpful than assuming that the part you've already got working shouldn't be messed with.
Neat game in the link! I played it until I ran into some non-obvious ones, solved them, and then thought about what kinds of AI code might automate the solution process. When I came back here, your analogy between the game and solving math problems changed from opaque to beautiful :-) I wonder if there is a pedagogical application? Maybe it would work as a side exercise in the intro to math/physics classes, so you could use the game plus the verbal analogy to help students vividly experience the way that playing with a tough problem for a while can be productive?
I"m glad you liked it. If you play Scrabble, it's also important to have ways to not get locked into the first word or near-word that occurs to you. If you're more serious about the game than I am, you'll have heuristics for getting closer to the best possible use of the letters you've got. It wouldn't surprise me if it was possible to put together a course that covers a great deal of rationality with video games for examples. And which covers more of rationality by teaching how to design video games.
Hmmm... A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer?
"I call this the Iterate-and-Repair strategy." I will try this the next time I play sudoku.
Thank you for sharing this technique. It's similar to what I use, but put in to words far better than I've managed before. Hopefully it will be of help to my friend who has recently thrown themselves back in to the study of math :)

The first place I saw the claim that a huge amount of life success is encapsulated in many simple life optimization "tricks" (or "cheat codes" in your terminology) was in David Allen's book "Getting Things Done" which is full of many such tricks (plus motivational exhortations) organized around the rough theme of efficiently increasing the number of one-off embarrassingly parallel actions you accomplish per day.

I prefer the term "technique" personally because when I tried using Mr. Allen's term "trick" it sometimes backfired and confused people into thinking that there was bad moral intent involved. They could teach me one, and I would be happy and exclaim "That's an awesome trick!" and they would get defensive instead of take it as the compliment I intended it to be. I suspect that your term "cheatcodes" will run into this problem even more dramatically because it literally contains the word cheat in it.

The term "technique" primes for things like skill development, kung fu, painting, and technology rather than "violation of social norms" so it is safer to use, but all of these terms are im... (read more)

Ars brevis?
I think the idea of "a quick art" is conceptually almost perfect but I'm not sure about the latin declinations/conjugations and it doesn't sound pleasing to me somehow, as in "That's a neat ars brevis you showed me, thanks!" Thinking about it more maybe "lifehack" is so close as to be as good as we're going to find? The quibbles I have with it still are: * Whereas "a technique" is too generic, "a lifehack" it feels too narrow -- like I wouldn't expect someone to share a solution to a solution to a common failure mode in physics classes if asked for a "lifehack". I think the perfect word would be a parent category for lifehacks :-) * Like a trick or a cheatcode, a "hack" also has negative connotations with many people, either as a malicious computer break-in or as a sloppy solution one step up from a kludge. It would be nice to have a word that someone unfamiliar with would be complimented to hear applied to a technique that they have shared.
Ars translates to many English words including "Art", but also "Technique", "Skill", and "Cheat". I agree that it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Ars rapido?
'ars vitae' translates as "an art of living" according to google translate
Ugh, no. Just no.
That's your objection to adopting the name arse?
(1) I think using the word "technique" rather than "cheat code" or "trick" is an excellent idea. (2) You say that Allen suggests using the common human reaction to sunk costs (which is to count them as if they were relevant to the decision). Now, as far as I know, it may well be advisable to use error to combat error. However, let's not forget that considering sunk costs in the case of exercise might make it harder to ignore them when it counts.
Slight + 1 on that exercise clothes thing: I wear nice comfy track pants and a singlet to bed, and leave my sneakers at the foot of my bed in the morning. I don't even give myself the choice to put on the task specific clothing!
"tool" ?
Using one bit of irrationality to stave off another - I love it!
Putting on your exercise clothes doesn't create a "sunk cost", you have to put on something, after all. It removes an impediment to exercising - the need to change into your exercise clothes if you are wearing something else.
It's a sunk cost if your exercise clothes aren't suitable for whatever things you were going to do other than exercising, such as going to work.
In my view, if your exercise clothes aren't suitable for whatever else you were going to do, then you aren't exercising particularly well. If the point of exercise is to strengthen the body and thus prepare it for potential adverse circumstances, isn't it best to wear that which you wear under normal circumstances so that your training matches reality as closely as possible?
I have a friend who says this is why she won't take martial arts. She invariably wears a skirt, so if she were ever called upon to actually defend herself, she'd have to do it in a skirt; yet no dojo will permit her to learn while wearing a skirt in the first place.

I forget, what's our term for 'counter-arguments which are bogus and not actually why a person disbelieves what they disbelieve'? I'm sure we have one.

Anyway, this is a classic example. First, her argument is internally weak. What, the physical conditioning will be of little benefit? The hand strikes will simply not be useful? The reflexes cease to operate when she is in her mufti? The skirt reduces any footwork (not even talking about kicks here) to utter uselessness? And so on. Risible.

Second, not to insult your friend, but either she knows very little about martial arts or she hasn't asked anyone who does have a modicum. There are plenty of martial arts which have uniforms functionally identical to skirts. From :

"Hakama are also regularly worn by practitioners of a variety of martial arts, such as karate, kendo, iaido, taido, aikido, ryu-te, and kyūdō."

(That's two empty-handed arts right there, which are both quite popular and common in the US.)

what's our term for 'counter-arguments which are bogus and not actually why a person disbelieves what they disbelieve'?

I suspect you are thinking of true rejection.

Well, I think it has something to do with the fact that she wouldn't wish to stop wearing skirts during practice either. I don't know if hakama "count" in her book.
That's... very strange. Sounds almost autistic, actually, in the refusal to wear something other than skirts. (Doubly so if hakama don't 'count'.)
I asked her about hakama. She had thought that they all had divided legs, but seems willing to accept an undivided hakama as a sufficiently skirtlike item.
Tell her to look into Krav Maga.
That surprises me. I would have though there were dojos out there that were a bit more pragmatic. At very least I would expect them to allow her to wear a white skirt over the top of the pajama uniforms. Obviously it would rule out several schools of martial arts. Karate and Taekwondo would be out for example - too much reliance on kicking. I don't see why she couldn't learn judo, aikido or krav maga with that handicap though. Then there are options available to her to learn to defending herself while wearing skirts despite not wearing them in practice. There is skirt choice - shorter skirts, fragile skirts and skirts that are easily removable all provide little penalty in combat. Practice in removing, cutting/tearing or moving the skirt to an unconstraining position would also serve her. But even ruling out those options she could simply have training in one of the practical martial arts and just not use any kicks higher than the assailant's kneecaps. Kicks are overrated anyway.
My rule of thumb is that if my knee cannot reach the average person's groin, my clothes are too restrictive.
Depending on how long the skirts are, they could be restrictive even for low kicks, for ground fighting, stand up grappling... Long skirts are really not combat appropriate attire.
They interfere with punching rather a lot too. Obviously. And they are even worse attire for running away (my preferred option if it is available). We have to the best we can with what we have. I'd go as far as to say that not being a tall well built male in his prime wearing dragon skin armour and wielding an assault rifle is inappropriate for combat. ;)
I remember someone once asked my Krav Maga instructor what he would do if someone threw a grenade at him, and he said "die?" (after he stopped laughing). While that's not strictly true-- there are ways to minimize your chances of being killed by a grenade-- it expresses a good point, which is that there are certain circumstances that martial arts aren't really designed to protect you for. Thankfully, though, those circumstances are unlikely to occur in civilian life, and knowing martial arts does help against the random drunk/crazy guy and the like.
This reminds me of a Hungarian TV crime series "Linda" in 80s, where the policewoman Linda Veszprémi always had to take off her shoes before fight. But she did it rather quickly, so it did not decrease her fighting abilities.
Well, the clothes you're comfortable sweating heavily into are not necessarily the clothes you'd like to present yourself to the public in.
Because that is not the only possible point. Looking better and feeling better and living longer are often more important ones. Quite frankly I don't expect to ever encounter adverse circumstances. I live a safe modern urban life.
I agree, that comment was written during a somewhat silly period of my life. :)
Well, I do find that exercising regularly helps me e.g. run to catch a bus I'm about to miss without gasping for breath. But then again, I needn't be dressed the same way when I exercise and when I run to the bus to get this effect.
But if you cannot catch a bus in 30 secs you cannot catch it. So this is something like a very beginner level of HIIT.
Just for the record I once missed a bus, ran after it and succesfully got on on the next stop. So technically you are wrong here. This is very extreme outlier though.

I really love the idea of spaced repetition, and I really love Wikipedia. I wish, however, that there was a fusion of the two spaces. Imagine surfing Wikipedia, reading an interesting fact you'd like to remember, and simply clicking a button next to it that added that fact to your daily spaced repetition learning database.

Also, while there are good spaced repetition programs/databases out there (like Anki), the databases aren't collaborative like a Wiki, and in general could be much better. Actually, collaborative abilities aside, I think even a very well kept but closed database could be quite valuable (more so than Rosetta Stone or other such software for learning a language for instance).

Tackling some of these ideas is something I'm planning on doing once I finish up my current projects, but if someone else jumps on them first, all the better.

Because WP is unstructured natural language, this is impossible to automate completely. It might be possible to automatically generate flashcards from something more structured like the entries in Freebase, but would you want to learn them? If you are willing to do a little work, Supermemo has an idea of structured note-taking/editing, called incremental reading. SM has the most support for it, but really it's just copying the text into a text editor and expecting you to cut it down to notes and then to flashcards. Agreed. If I were to tackle this, I would start with the Anki folks (Mnemosyne is too slow and conservative), and I would do something like write an Anki plugin to scrape a page inside a Category on a wiki (probably the card contents would be formatted using tables or templates), and then everyone just edits the page and any future downloads get the modified version. This wouldn't handle existing users getting updates, but that's the general problem of distributed revision control, which is certifiably Hard. I think all the commercial providers of flashcards for SM have failed. Apparently it isn't that valuable.
I agree. What I intended was a markup language that editors could use. Then somebody could surf Wikipedia with some plugin installed so that marked facts would be highlighted in some way. Clicking on the fact would then bring up a box showing the relevant note card (or multiple variants), and you could select to add it to your database. Links? I'm more keen on the collaborative idea personally, but I haven't totally ruled out a commercial (curated) angle. I'm pretty stingy myself, but I would definitely pay for a high quality SR deck. Maybe I'm unusual though.
Currently the only surviving seller of SM flashcards that I know of is SM itself: And if you look at their recent-addition list (, #1 is which was last updated... 2004. My theory is that hand-made cards are good enough and often better than purchased ones; it's even harder for commercial ones to compete with the best freely-distributed ones. (Take a look at the samples for a number of the decks, like the assembler deck. My own assembler flash cards are better!)
The quality doesn't seem particularly great for the SM bought decks. For instance, for a foreign language deck I'd like to see images and native pronunciations, preferably from multiple speakers. For a chemistry deck I'd like to see 3D representations of molecules, preferably in multiple manners (ball-and-stick, spheres, etc), even better if the flash card allowed for rotational viewing of the molecule. I definitely wouldn't buy any of the decks I saw on SM.
There are various plans to finally implement some sort of Wikidata - think "infoboxes on steroids" as an absolute minimum, and then unknown possibilities we haven't even thought of yet. Erik Moller's been asking around the Wikimedia Commons and technical lists for ideas of what we actually want in terms of a specification.
That sounds like a great step in the right direction! I'd love to hear more about this as it evolves.
Supermemo has wikipedia integration. (Supermemo is also a usability nightmare in other areas!) I'd like to see that!
This seems like it would be really easy to implement as a bookmarklet that would work on any page. (assuming you were logged in to the service) Then it could email you later.. Hmm, might work even better with Twitter.

I don't want to sound like too much of an evangelist, because I'm not amazingly skilled myself, but when I saw the heading "cheat codes" I immediately thought "lifting weights."

If you're interested in looking (conventionally) good, feeling well, and making progress in physical performance, and if you don't have any physical problems that make it impossible, free weights are sort of the "secret weapon" that most people aren't using. Quite a few people who can't lose weight (or fat) with cardio, can once they try weights (this is true of me, on a small scale.) The added advantage is that you save time. (>8 mile runs may be pleasant on occasion, but they sure do take a while.)

That's fascinating. Do you have any links to more information that you would recommend?
The Starting Strength wiki.. Basic how-to instructions and a little explanation of why it's a good idea.
Give that a couple of months then move up to something fun. (If you have a masochistic streak.)
Once I started doing some free weights exercise, I got the unexpected bonus of enjoying other physical activity a lot more (or at least disenjoying it less), because it became less tiring. I found I would spontaneously do things like sprint up the metro escalator or several flights of stairs, without being winded when I got to the top. I do kettlebells; more conventional free weights may or may not produce the same effect, though I started with the latter..
This is very interesting to me. I've been lifting every morning for the past month or so, and have been quietly annoyed with myself for almost always lacking the willpower to just spend 20 minutes on an elliptical. Should I still expect losses once I've built some muscle mass? Actually, now I think of it, I'm pretty down. I'm gonna make a second gym stop on the way home -- thanks for priming the option ^_^
Ellipticals are horrendous. I can't spend 20 minutes on an elliptical. Something about it is just willpower-sapping and no fun at all. Try doing something outside. As I understand, complexes (switching from one lift to another with no rest) are a perfectly sound fat-loss workout no matter how advanced you are. If you hate all cardio, complexes are just as good.
I've spend over 20 hours per week on ellipticals for over a month before. One of the major aspects of my approach to exercise is "quantify everything mercilessly," and having readouts for how fast I'm going, heartrate, calorie burn, etc. made it more attractive than just running outdoors. (I'll note that I don't consider this to have been particularly sane behavior; it was accompanied by some extremely harsh diet restrictions, and it probably had a lot to do with a resurfacing of old eating disorder habits.) I wouldn't play music or anything while using them, I would just zone out, and let the whole experience blur together. It made the sessions feel much shorter in retrospect than they actually were. I generally use treadmills instead when they're available, but running outdoors is pretty near the bottom of my list for enjoyable forms of exercise.
Depends how often you do them. ;)
Even if you can maintain a 5 minute pace, 40 minutes is a sizable time sink. I can get a killer workout in the gym in 20 minutes, or I can get an even more intense workout on a 100 meters of flat ground in 5 minutes (although, to be fair, recovery time after sprints is quite substantial if you're not in shape =P ).
I'd run out of breath in 5 minutes during running anyway. I don't have such problem with activities like weight lifting or boxing where there are regular breaks after 20 to 180 seconds of activity to pant and catch my breath. Maybe I need to learn breathing. But so far, the idea of any physical activity without these breaks seems preposterous to me. I haven no idea what runners do. I also have the impression that via all these activity - break and panting -activity - break and panting - I am cheating myself with willpower through activities without really engaging my cardiovascular system.
Your body has several different ways of producing energy depending on how fast you need it and for how long.
I was thinking 16km/h (3.75 minute pace). 30 mins is hardly excessive!
Ah, at first I thought you were some kind of superhuman god, but then I realized you were talking in km and I was talking in miles =D

When you're feeling depressed for no good reason, force yourself to laugh. It triggers happiness almost as well as externally-induced laughter. Eventually, you will noticeably condition yourself to release seratonin (or endorphins, or something) every time you notice that you're seratonin-deficient.

It's been effective for me. I started it as a moody teenager and it quickly became self-perpetuating. Google suggests I'm not alone. It's got a whiff of wire-heading, I admit, but ideally you're using it to solve a brain chemistry defect, not an external problem.

I do this. Sometimes I just smile. Sometime's I just 'choose' to feel good, as if I've learned to control a new muscle and don't need to go through the intermediary of laughing or smiling. The effect is very short term for me, and I can't maintain it while I work. It's great for relaxing though.
Taking a physical action, such as smiling, makes it easier to maintain. I actually learned this trick back in the eighties from a book Self-Creation by George Weinberg. Your attitudes and general outlook tends to follow your physical actions as much or more than the other way around. So act how you want to feel, then you will become more like you act.
You mean, read jokes?
In this scene from Final Fantasy X, Tidus and Yuna demonstrate the technique.
Ewww. Right in the uncanny valley. Somehow, the dialogue is just as uncanny-valley-ish as the computer-generated characters, but presumably that's just plain ordinary ineptitude.
That scene, in particular, is infamous among the fandom for being horrible.
Final Fantasy's never been the same since they started using (bad) voice acting. Then again, it's also never been the same since they stopped doing random battles, so it's not all bad.

Well, since you mentioned expert violinists...most people find that guitar is alarmingly easy to learn once they sit down with it. With a 1 hour lesson per week and 30 minutes of practice 3 times a week for 10 weeks, most people can get to the point where they are affirmatively entertaining -- much more fun to listen to than silence or small talk. Being able to play an instrument reasonably well is good for making friends, impressing people, expressing emotions, achieving flow, and improving self-esteem.

Unless you're a perfectionist, extremely busy, or extremely lazy, you will probably find that after the first 5 hours or so of time-investment, both the lessons and the practice can be a lot of fun -- you don't have to follow a rigid system; you can just see interesting techniques used and then copy whichever ones interest you as best you can, and music comes out.

Is this specific to the guitar, or does it apply to some other instruments as well?
There are probably some other instruments it works for, but it does not seem to work that way for most classical symphony instruments, e.g. trumpet, clarinet, viola, etc.

It seems as if the guitar benefits from these qualities:

  • Sufficient tonal depth to sustain a melody (i.e. not a drum)
  • Sufficient harmonic depth to be a solo instrument
  • Since it's a "plucking" instrument (rather than blowing or bowing) it's less sensitive to the quality of the musician's touch - an amateur can play a single note almost as well as a professional

Am I missing some crucial element? It looks like these attributes are not all present in the drum, trumpet, clarinet, viola, &c., but are all present in the piano, harpsichord, harp, &c. Maybe piano, harp, and harpsichord are all more difficult to learn than the guitar?

* Rock, pop and folk music, the things guitars are popularly used for, are quite simple, so you don't need to be able to play well at all to get music out of the thing. (Think how many punk rock bands could literally hardly play when they started. "Here's one chord, here's two more, now form your own band.") Also, you can get a guitar and amp that are good enough for your whole career way cheaper than the typical good classical instrument.
That's a good analysis, and the harp and electronic keyboard are both easy instruments to learn. I would add that the guitar also allows for: * nearly mindless strumming that will still produce many interesting variations on popular chords To get, e..g, different kinds of E Major sounds on a piano, you have to remember the finger shape for E Major and move it the correct number of spaces up and down the keys. To get that on a guitar, you just move one hand rapidly back and forth, hitting different strings at random. Maybe you occasionally release a finger on your nondominant hand.
Out of the instruments that are usable for both melody/soloing and harmony/accompaniment, the guitar family has the clinching virtues of being cheap and portable. Like keyboard instruments it is also applicable to virtually any genre of music. K/b instruments are more suited to complex material (hence their use in composition), whereas the guitar family allows more expression than instruments that are essentially controlled by switches. These advantages entail one overriding disadvantage: ever other bugger plays one. So it is proportionally harder to get into a band or college. If you want gigs,play something cumbersome, like drums, double bass or euphonium.

For improving writing skills, the two most effective methods I know are:

  1. Participate in National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to write a 50,000 word work of fiction in 30 days, without fretting over quality too much. If you do this, you will learn a lot. It's unavoidable. (Plus, you get a book with your name on it. That's a great feeling.)

  2. Write blog entries, and post them somewhere people will see and discuss them. Less Wrong, for instance, or Hacker News. If you know you're writing for an audience, it forces you to clarify your thoughts, and put more effort into writing well. This is good practice, and you get feedback; commenters on the internet are usually pretty blunt.

Each of these techniques exercises a different type of writing, so they're complementary.

I've done Nanowrimo on several occasions, beaten the goal twice. One can learn a lot that way, but for the most part I've only learnt "if I have to churn out 1,700 words a day, I write crap".
I suspect the major benefit of finishing NaNoWriMo is realizing that writing a novel is actually possible, for you. That it's not some impossibly huge and daunting project that you could never really pull off--you can do it in a month, even.
With writing, I find that taking your time and getting it right will teach you much more than trying to get 50,000 words in a month. Deliberate practice is much more effective than simply trying to fill pages.
Not sure they're blunt about poor writing skills though. I think they mostly ignore poor writers.
That's probably about as blunt as it can get, when an author wants feedback.

Waking up: I found brute force works best - Old style alarm clock with clanging bells placed on opposite end of room. This trumped all sorts of complex maneuvers, including training self to have a fixed pattern response to an certain iPhone alarm.

Brilliant! I think we often have a hard time seeing these cheat codes. One reason for this might be the following (OK, a bit speculative, granted)

Gladwell or Taleb writes in some book that we have a gut feeling that there should be a correspondence between cause and effect: we have trouble of conceiving of significant effects (e.g. the president of the US being murdered) as having trivial or uninteresting causes (i.e. a lunatic). Instead we postulate that there must be a significant cause - e.g. a Sovjet conspiracy. Similarly, we have trouble conceving of ... (read more)

Any data on how long in advanced for spaced repetition to be effective, say if you're studying for an exam or something ?

Spaced repetition is good for learning, but you need to be using it all along. You are basically "reviewing" the material, like for an exam, but in smaller doses, continuously. It does not help you cram if you haven't been keeping up. The "spaced" part is based on refreshing your knowledge just as it is fading from the previous repetition. As time and repetitions pass, the repetitions can get farther apart, because it is increasingly "fixed" in your memory.
It depends on # of repetitions and whatnot. : This wouldn't work with the SM-2 algorithm that Anki and Mnemosyne use; you would grade the series flashcard highly after a few repetitions and then it'd get pushed out a few days. So you'd have to lie to it - the SM-2 algorithm is meant to use as few repetitions as possible over the long term. It optimizes for retention over years, not days. Anki does have a 'cram mode'. I don't know how it works or whether it trades efficiency (in # of repetitions) for retention in the short term (next few days).