I like to link to the Minding Our Way sequence on overcoming guilt a lot, but I've recently gone and added "information hazard" warnings to several of my posts which link there. Someone pointed out to me that the sequence destroys some people's current (guilt-based) motivation without successfully building up an alternative, making it a somewhat risky thing to try.

In light of that problem, I was thinking about what practices might help build up the kind of positive motivation that sequence is aiming at.

I was also listening to an audiobook on cognitive behavioral therapy. The book mentioned gratitude journaling, a practice which has proved surprisingly effective for boosting mood and getting longer and more refreshing sleep. The practice is simple: every week, write down five things which you were grateful for. (Once a week seems to be about right; writing more often is less effective.)

Gratitude journaling is the proven practice here, and if you want guaranteed results, you're better off trying it rather than the technique I'm going to describe here. But, we'd never have new techniques if someone didn't make them up!

I wanted to make a version of gratitude journaling which might be more suited to aspiring rationalists. I decided that it could be combined with the idea of value affirmation. Value affirmation (surprisingly) shows positive effects a year later, after just 15 minutes spent writing about what you value in life. Might it be useful to write about what we value more often? Perhaps repeating the value-affirmation exercise exactly would get old fast (since values do not change that much from week to week), but if we tie our values to things which happened recently, we get something which looks a lot like gratitude journaling.

That's the basic idea -- write about what you valued over the past week. What follows are my elaborations based on several weeks of trying it out.

Details

Value Inventory

Over the first week or so, it seemed useful to me to do the values journaling almost every day. I was still doing a lot of mapping out of what I value overall. (I suspect the right frequency of writing is "however much you feel like" -- reduced/eliminated effect size when doing gratitude journaling too often is likely tied to forcing it when you don't have much to say. But, that's just my speculation.)

I started a list of core values, which I kept adding to when I noticed new things, and re-organizing whet I noticed values that could be clustered together. There's a risk of only putting down values which you reflectively endorse -- IE, things your system 2 thinks you should value. This could (imho) squish your intrinsic motivation. Try and figure out what you really want; what really motivates you. I took inspiration from an Agenty Duck post, The People In My Head Who Make Me Do Things. What she did was write down all the things she did over the past week matching the description "Doing What We Want Instead of What We're Supposed To Do". She then clustered those into drives, which she gave names to and personified.

I think that's a great way of looking at it. Uncovering "hidden" motives like this can be helpful in debugging procrastination and other habits. So, over my first week, I paid a lot of attention to activities I "shouldn't be doing" and what underlying values I was satisfying with those activities. I also ended up borrowing her idea of giving names to my core values and writing the value journal like a "weekly meeting" in which those personified values come together and discuss the week.

Don't let this stop you from putting values you "think you should have" on the list, though. These are legitimate wants, too. In my case, I ended up putting these "should" values on the list, but later collapsing them into more intrinsic desires once I recognized where the want was coming from more clearly.

The Role of Positive

So, my journaling evolved into a kind of "roll call" in which I tried to write down something from the past week connecting with each core value which I had identified, breaking out into little discussions between these personified values when it seemed appropriate.

Mentioning something positive for each core value, and keeping the tone of the journal mostly positive, is important for several reasons.

  • Keeping the practice of value journaling associated with positive feelings makes it more sustainable. If every time you do value journaling you're beating yourself up over what you should have done, you'll come to develop an ugh field around it and stop.
  • Criticisms are not sensible without positive alternatives. You might criticize yourself by saying you shouldn't do this or that, but this is not actionable without stating what it is that you would like yourself to do instead.
  • This is about connecting with your values. Even if you have an alternative (you're criticizing yourself by saying you should do this or that), clearly stating why you would like yourself to do this will tend to be more motivating than berating yourself. And clearly stating your motivation, rather than just what you think you should be doing, will tend to open up possible alternative solutions.
  • If you're not doing what you think you should be doing, there is probably some reason for that. Some part of you is motivated to do the thing which "you" think you shouldn't do. It will be more productive to identify (and personify) that other value, and then have a discussion between your several values to see what can best satisfy all of them. Labeling one motivating value as "bad" does not enable that kind of introspection. Be charitable toward your own actions and find your positive reasons for doing them before you try to impose better alternative actions on yourself.

The Role of Negative

Positivity is also good for a few other reasons. People like to be around happy people who say positive things. Maybe positivity also provides some safeguard against learned helplessness and stress. That being said, we also need the negative. Positive thinking alone can actually de-motivate you, as if some part of your motivation system is satisfied to sit back and visualize success. Mental contrasting, in which we visualize the positive outcome we want alongside the negative which we'd like to avoid, is more effective.1 Along similar lines, stoicism recommends negative visualization as a way to come to appreciate the things you have.

So, along with my appreciation of the positive things which happened over the past week, I try to also note the negative which was avoided. This actually makes it even more similar to gratitude journaling. I also do some self-criticism, so long as I can link it to positive motives as I discussed in the previous section. The value journal acts as a kind of weekly review, so it's good to do some debugging in there! (Again, I find discussions between personified values to be helpful there. This can become quite similar to a CFAR technique called "internal double crux", but I don't think there's a nice blog post summary of that technique yet. The basic idea is to double crux different parts of yourself which disagree.)

Conclusion

It's at least interesting to create a map of your values by spending a little time doing this. It's also a potentially useful way of connecting to your intrinsic motivations. You can use this information in further self-debugging. For example, if you do this for several weeks, you can start to identify values which don't get much attention or don't connect with things in your life right now. These may give you focus in looking for ways to improve your life.

You can also start to identify the motives behind your actions in everyday life in terms of the core values you've identified. Since you've made sure to identify the core values as positive things you want, this can change your self-model from things like "I'm being lazy" to things like "I'm making room for random exploration of the internet" or "I'm satisfying my need for self-direction, because everything else I did today was imposed by someone else". Having the underlying goals brought to the surface in this way can help you change your behavior, by thinking about whether it's a good trade-off in a way that doesn't ignore your true desires. Or, it can make you OK with your existing behavior in a way you weren't before.

References:

 

1: Oettingen, Gabrielle (2014). Rethinking Positive Thinking.

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17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:07 AM

PSA: replace the word gratitude with the word appreciation.

Made a big difference for me. Something about gratitude being grateful for an invisible power and appreciation being acknowledgement for concrete things.

[-][anonymous]7y5

This is a really great post! Minding Our Way (and CFAR's Internal Double Crux) both seem to converge upon something very specific, regarding how we internally debug things. There was a Willpower essay linked a little while ago which was also similar.

Thanks for writing this up for others. I think this sort of mindset is very useful to keep in mind, and this is the most concise version of the idea I've seen.

Two quick notes: Malcolm Ocean has also done the "let me see who lives in my head" exercise, inspired by Brienne.

I myself keep a normal journal every day, recording my state of mind and events. This isn't exactly the same thing, but I think it approximates some of the benefits, and it also feeds my desire to record my life so ephemeral things have some concrete backing. I'd recommend that if gratitude journals don't feel right.

Typo:

muth to connect with in your life. These may give you focus in looking for ways to improve your life.

"much" to connect with, I think.

Malcolm Ocean has also done the "let me see who lives in my head" exercise, inspired by Brienne.

Ah, cool, thanks!

I myself keep a normal journal every day, recording my state of mind and events. This isn't exactly the same thing, but I think it approximates some of the benefits, and it also feeds my desire to record my life so ephemeral things have some concrete backing. I'd recommend that if gratitude journals don't feel right.

For me, regular journalling never felt interesting. I've kept a "research thoughts" journal for a long time, but writing about everyday events just didn't feel very motivating -- until CFAR convinced me that life debugging was an interesting thing to do. And then I still needed to find this format to make it into a thing I'd do regularly.

"much" to connect with, I think.

Fixed.

[-][anonymous]7y0

Hm, re: journaling, I think it works for a subset of people. I've met friends who, like me, swear by journaling as a great way to keep track of mindspace. But other people seem to (on the outward) do just fine w/o them. To each their own, I guess.

This sounds like something I could maybe benefit from. But I still may need some prompting before this, which would lead to me doing this. I'm not yet sure. . . .

Due to a series of many poor decisions from my early teens to mid-twenties, I hadn't been able to muster up enough motivation, self-esteem, or whatever I needed to get back on the track I should've been on to begin with and get into a profession I could feel good about. But it could just be a too-low intelligence thing too.

This experience seems to have forever colored my ultimate outlook in a doloric way.

Maybe due to long periods of not feeling good about being nowhere near the front-lines of anything important, I deeply wonder how people in communities like this perceive future scenarios where "things go relatively very well" and we're not wiped out. In particular, if super AIs are running things, do you see yourselves having merged with them so that you're still on the front-lines of important things doing important things, or do you just see yourselves maybe as entities more like gamers, solving problems but relatively very unimportant problems, analogous to what people like me do today (virtually out of necessity)?

And personally, finding some small niche and indirectly bolstering the front-lines in some relatively small way, whether now or in the future, would not be valuable, satisfying, or something to particularly look forward to. Also why I'm asking.

This is a bit tangential, and a bit ranty, maybe a bit out of line, but it might help [a bit]...

From one self-hater to another: I've always been negative. I've always disliked myself, my past decisions, the world around me, and the decisions made therein. Here's the kind of philosophy I've embraced over the past few years:

My pessimism motivates me something like the way nihilism motivates Nietzsche. It is the ultimate freedom. I'm not weighed down by this oppressive sense that I'm missing some great opportunity or taking an otherwise good life and shitting on it. Why? Because I suck, the human condition sucks, and life sucks—so I might as well fucking do whatever I've got to do to get to wherever I want to go. I'm probably not going to get there, but I'll be damned if I don't die trying.

I've tried a lot of different things to try to absolve myself of this kind of inherent, long-standing negativity, but it's the wrong way to go about it. This is the way I am, and I'm pretty ok with that. I feel like when I embraced this, it was cathartic, a little like someone discovering a repressed memory. I've come out of the pessemist's closet. ;)

Things like this journaling method are good—it's good to be explicit about what you're thankful for, it's good to act in ways that maximize your ability to do things, and maybe, after some time, that negativity will go away (or, at least, the negative part of said negativity). But, you don't need self-esteem, and motivation is a farce; it's what people sit around waiting for some translucent muse to inspire them, telling themselves they need "motivation" to do what they've got to do. The thing to be weary of is not turning your negativity into a force that oppresses you.

I think I'm on the track to doing important things (relatively "late" in life [compared to my peers], but w/e), and here's how I see myself: Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the end of Terminator 2, except instead of lava, it's sewage—and instead of a thumbs-up, it's my middle finger.

This does help, thank you. I'd come to similar judgments and maybe couldn't sustain them long because I didn't know of anyone else with them.

I think this also happens to help me ask my question better. What I'd also like to know:

What are the intended trajectories of people on the front-lines? Is it merging with super AIs to remain on the front-lines, or is it "gaming" in lower intelligence reservations structured by yet more social hierarchies and popularity contests? Is this a false dichotomy?

Neither is ultimately repugnant to me or anything. Nothing future pharmaceuticals couldn't probably fix. I just truly don't know what they think that they can expect. If I did, maybe I could have a better idea of what I can personally expect so that I don't unnecessarily choose some trajectory in exceeded vain.

I guess, above, what I was trying to communicate—if there's something there at all to communicate—is a kind of appreciation for how not-fun it may be to have no choice but to be in a lower intelligence reservation, being someone with analogous first-hand experience. So if all of us ultimately have no choice in such a matter, what would be some things we might see in value journals living in a reservation? (Assuming the values wouldn't be prone to be fundamentally derived from any kind of idolatry.)

I sympathize with the worry, but my attitude is that comparing yourself to the best is a losing proposition; effectively everyone is an underdog when thinking like that. The intelligence/knowledge ladder is steep enough that you never really feel like you've "made it"; there are always smarter people to make you feel dumb. So at any level, you'd better get used to asking stupid questions.

And personally, finding some small niche and indirectly bolstering the front-lines in some relatively small way, whether now or in the future, would not be valuable, satisfying, or something to particularly look forward to. Also why I'm asking.

I think it would be nice if someone wrote a post on "visceral comparative advantage" giving tips on how to intuitively connect "the best thing I could be doing" with comparative advantage rather than absolute notions. I'm not quite sure how to do it myself. The inability to be satisfied by a small niche is something that made a lot more sense when humans lived in small tribes and there was a decent chance to climb to the top.

I don't think many people on the "front lines" as you put it have concrete predictions concerning merging with superintelligent AIs and so on. We don't know what the future will look like; if things go well, the options at the time will tend to be solutions we wouldn't think of now.

So at any level, you'd better get used to asking stupid questions.

It's probably just me but the Stack Exchange community seems to make this hard.

I think it would be nice if someone wrote a post on "visceral comparative advantage" giving tips on how to intuitively connect "the best thing I could be doing" with comparative advantage rather than absolute notions.

Yes, that would be nice. And personally speaking, it would be most dignifying if it could address (and maybe dissolve) those—probably less informed—intuitions about how there seems to be nothing wrong in principle with indulging all-or-nothing dispositions save for the contingent residual pain. Actually, just your first paragraph in your response seems to have almost done that, if not entirely.

I don't think many people on the "front lines" as you put it have concrete predictions concerning merging with superintelligent AIs and so on. We don't know what the future will look like; if things go well, the options at the time will tend to be solutions we wouldn't think of now.

It may not be completely the same, but this does feel uncomfortably close to requiring an ignoble form of faith. I keep hoping there can still be more very general but yet very informative features of advanced states of the supposed relevant kind.

It may not be completely the same, but this does feel uncomfortably close to requiring an ignoble form of faith. I keep hoping there can still be more very general but yet very informative features of advanced states of the supposed relevant kind.

Ah. From my perspective, it seems the opposite way: overly specific stories about the future would be more like faith. Whether we have a specific story of the future or not, we shouldn't assume a good outcome. But perhaps you're saying that we should at least have a vision of a good outcome in mind to steer toward.

And personally speaking, it would be most dignifying if it could address (and maybe dissolve) those—probably less informed—intuitions about how there seems to be nothing wrong in principle with indulging all-or-nothing dispositions save for the contingent residual pain.

Ah, well, optimization generally works on relative comparison. I think of absolutes as a fallacy (whet in the realm of utility as opposed to truth) -- it means you're not admitting trade-offs. At the very least, the VNM axioms require trade-offs with respect to probabilities of success. But what is success? By just about any account, there are better and worse scenarios. The VNM theorem requires us to balance those rather than just aiming for the highest.

Or, even more basic. Optimization requires a preference ordering, <, and requires us to look through the possibilities and choose better ones over worse ones. Human psychology often thinks in absolutes, as if solutions were simply acceptable or unacceptable; this is called recognition primed decision. This kind of thinking seems to be good for quick decisions in domains where we have adequate experience. However, it can cause our thinking to spin out of control if we can't find any solutions which pass our threshold. It's then useful to remember that the threshold was arbitrary to begin with, and the real question is which action we prefer; what's relatively best?

Another common failure of optimization related to this is when someone criticizes without indicating a better alternative. As I said in the post, criticism without indication of a better alternative is not very useful. At best, it's just a heuristic argument that an improvement may exist if we try to address a certain issue. At worst, it's ignoring trade-offs by the fallacy of absolute thinking.

Whether we have a specific story of the future or not, we shouldn't assume a good outcome. But perhaps you're saying that we should at least have a vision of a good outcome in mind to steer toward.

Yes.

I think of absolutes as a fallacy (whet in the realm of utility as opposed to truth) -- it means you're not admitting trade-offs.

I may just not know of any principled ways of forming a set of outcomes to begin with, so that it may be treated as a lottery and so forth.

But it would seem that aesthetics or axiology must still have some role in the formation, since precise and certain truths aren't known about the future and yet at least some structure seems subjectively required—if not objectively required—through the construction of a (firm but mutable) set of highest outcomes.

So far my best attempts have involved not much more than basic automata concepts for personal identity and future configurations.

You may be lacking self-esteem because of previous mistakes you've done in your life. They make you think that you are flawed and are bound to repeat them. But we learn on our mistakes (at least we should), so only the fact that we did some mistake does not mean we will repeat it. You should not see your past as a measure of your current state, it is a measure of what you were before and if you learned your lessons, it means that you are now a better person than you were, and can live a better life than before.

yul, I think my worry is more about whether my past is a strong indication of my human maximum potential, and not as much whether I'll repeat the same poor decisions.

Live is way more complicated than simple comparison of potentials (even if it would be possible). Lots of talented people are wasting their lives, while those who is using what they have achieve outstanding results through hard work.

I like how the book The Compound Effect makes you feel like anything is possible as long as you're consistent and get rid of bad habits.

I would recommend reading 'Undoing Depression' of Richard O'Connor. Specifically, there are good ideas about work and motivation in ch.15, but I would recommend reading the whole book anyway for the big picture.

I'll second this as breaking and recrystallizing my value structure again and again has been way better than carrying it around gingerly for fear of breaking it. Journaling, Focusing, meditation, and physical exercise all complement each other very well.