Become a person who Actually Does Things

by Neel Nanda3 min read25th Jul 202017 comments

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MotivationsPracticalRationality
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(This is a post from a daily blogging experiment I did at neelnanda.io, which I thought might also fit the tastes of LessWrong)

There are two kinds of people in the world: People who actually do things, and people who don’t.

Now I’ve got the unnecessarily provocative opening line out of the way, what do I actually mean by this? To achieve a goal, this breaks down into two parts: figure out what needs to be done, and actually do it.

As stated, this sounds completely trivial. But I think there’s a really important and non-obvious point in here. Some part of is convinced that the main bottleneck for achieving my goals is being smart, coming up with the best plan, getting all of the necessarily information. And this is true! It doesn’t matter how good you are at doing things, if what you’re doing is crap. But it also doesn’t matter how good my plan is if I never act upon it.

And it’s really easy to miss this point. It’s easy to always think “I can do this tomorrow” or “this is not a priority” or “this would never work”. And it’s hard, because sometimes those thoughts are correct. But I find that, unless I put in active effort, I’m the kind of person who’ll always have those thoughts. I’ll never actually act upon my goals, change things about my life.

One of the main symptoms of this is that I’m always aware of problems in my life, and will often be aware of them for a very long. I’ll notice that I don’t exercise enough, that I’m not enjoying the courses I’m studying, that I really dislike being single, that I don’t have enough time to do what I find most fulfilling. But there won’t be a connection in my mind from “this is a problem” to “what am I going to do about it”. It’s not that I think through the problem, and conclude that I can’t do anything, it’s that it never feels like there’s a question to be asked in the first place! And I think this is a problem that extends far beyond me - I notice some amount of this in most of my friends, and I think it’s incredibly widespread. There seems to be a mental block between “things are not as I want them to be” and “I can actually do something about this”.

I think this really sucks, and can be one of the biggest meta-problems holding you back. But the reason I’m writing this post is not to complain about how much it sucks, it’s because I think this is a solvable problem. Being the kind of person who does things, an agent, is a skill, and I think it is a trainable skill. And this is hard, and won’t work perfectly, but there’s a lot of room for progress. And this is one of the most valuable skills I’ve ever tried developing.

The main symptom is that, in the moment, acting upon your desires never feels urgent. It never feels important, and can be put off. Or it never feels possible, the problem just feels like a fact of life. And so a solution must center on solving the problem in the moment. And the solution that worked for me, is to make it part of your identity to be an agent. Make it a point of principle to do things, not because the thing is necessarily the perfect action, but because I choose the life where I do things, over the life where I always wait for the perfect opportunity.

Notice the small problems, and fix them. Notice when everyone isn’t enjoying what they’re doing, and be the first person to voice this. Notice when the jug of water is empty, and be the one to fill it. Notice when you say “oh, I can do this tomorrow” and do it today. Notice when you think “I should get round to this some time” or “I’ve always wanted to learn juggling” and actually do it. Notice when something is inefficient, notice the thing nobody is doing, and be the person who does it!

The point of this, is that I avoid the paralysing perfectionism and uncertainty by changing the question I am answering. It doesn’t matter if I’m not doing the right thing, because what I’m doing isn’t that important. I can close off the paralysing thoughts, not by answering them on their own terms, but by realising that the choices I make today affect the kind of person I’ll be for the rest of my life. And that that’s far more important than whatever trivial bullshit is going in my life today. And thus, I train the habit of actually doing things. Figuring out the right thing to do is also a vital skill, but can come second. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

And it doesn’t even matter if I do make the wrong or imperfect choice in all of the day-to-day mundanity. What matters is that, when that one golden opportunity comes along, I am the kind of person who will take it. A thousand tiny losses are nothing against the big win that really counts.

If there’s one thing you take from this post, let it be this: notice the next time you agonise over a choice, or pass up an opportunity. And ask yourself not “what is the right decision” but rather “which decision will get me closer to the kind of person I want to be”.

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I think this is a very difficult skill to teach people (I say this as someone who had to learn it myself). As a result this is a very heavily weighted part of my hiring process.

One thing I’ve found is that people who are naturally good at this almost never realise that they’re doing anything unusual - it doesn’t occur to them that other people don’t do it.

And the solution that worked for me, is to make it part of your identity to be an agent. Make it a point of principle to do things, not because the thing is necessarily the perfect action, but because I choose the life where I do things, over the life where I always wait for the perfect opportunity.

This seems like shifting from act utilitarianism to rule utilitarianism, where you don't try to calculate the value from each option in relation to all other options but instead act upon a principle (or core values in business speak).

Notice the small problems, and fix them. Notice when everyone isn’t enjoying what they’re doing, and be the first person to voice this. Notice when the jug of water is empty, and be the one to fill it. Notice when you say “oh, I can do this tomorrow” and do it today. Notice when you think “I should get round to this some time” or “I’ve always wanted to learn juggling” and actually do it. Notice when something is inefficient, notice the thing nobody is doing, and be the person who does it!

Maybe I'm overthinking, but with this logic I imagine this happening:

0. Imagine someone who thinks “I can do this tomorrow” or “this is not a priority”

1. Read this article and start to take action on all the things they view as wrong in their life, following their newly developed principle of action

2. Find that they don't have enough time to take care of all these things

3. Become disillusioned and conclude that they have to adjust their principle to only tackle problems that are worth it

4. Start shrugging off most problems as not being worth it

5. Frequently shrug off problems thinking “I can do this tomorrow” or “this is not a priority”

And the person has now ended in the same place they started... How would one avoid this?

Typically I see the pattern go more like this:

  1. Start doing things.
  2. Notice that some things you do have higher payoffs.
  3. Start naturally gravitating towards the things that have higher payoffs.

I'm making the empirical claim that people systematically don't take enough opportunities. Essentially that people fall too far on the exploit side of explore/exploit, thanks to a bunch of human biases that lead to paralysis. And empirically I've found that when I started taking opportunities more, some were meh, and others were really valuable. I don't think this claim is obviously true, but empirically it seems true for my experience and my observations of people.

I think there's also an important skill of prioritising and choosing the right opportunities. But people are bad at this, and I think that trying to do this often leads to excessive paralysis. I think you first need to develop the skill of taking opportunities, there will be enough good ones in there for this to feel motivating and sustainable, and then you develop the skill of selecting things and prioritising.

I'm also not arguing that you should take literally every opportunity - just that on the margin people should take opportunities more. I think it's really hard to give advice that leads someone paralysed to take too many opportunities, because their bias goes so far in the other direction. And so getting them to take the marginal opportunity naturally means they select good ones (on average).

I agree this can go wrong! Eg, somebody who signs up to a bunch of extra-curriculars, realises they don't have enough time and burns out. I'm not sure how to give advice that can help people to overcome paralysis and be good at filtering opportunities at the same time.

Yeah, this is definitely a case of "the opposite advice would be useful." 

People who are overly risk averse may need to hear "Say yes to more opportunities" whereas others need to hear "say no to more opportunities."

Do you have any further reading on "the opposite advice would be useful" besides the SSC article? I've found it difficult to navigate the tension between two sides of some pieces of advice.

That's my go to article.  Was trying to think if there's any other sources of advice that I use implicitly when dealing with conflicting advice, but nothing springs to mind. Let me know if you find a good resource!

There is this HBS article I found which talks about it from a management lens and offers some okay recommendations at the end

I think my own spin on the incorrectness of the article would be, I think some forms of procrastination and laziness are valuable. Sweeping every day will only make the floor so clean. Some tasks truly DO go away if you ignore them long enough.

...But overall, I do firmly agree with the intent of your article.

It's surprisingly hard to consciously notice a bad thing as being a solvable problem, I agree. I will once in a while notice that I've been inconvenienced by X for a long time, but only now am I actively aware of it as a discrete entity. It's a skill I think would be particularly worth learning/improving.

Similarly, with opportunities - this has happened a couple times in my life, but the first I remember was that beforehand, I would hear about people volunteering at animal shelters, and I'd think "that sounds nice/fun"...end of thought. One day, all of a sudden, something clicked, and the thought occurred, "There's nothing fundamentally special about those people. That thing is a Thing I Could Do. There's nothing actually stopping me from doing it." And there wasn't; I did a Google and made a few calls, and in a few weeks I was cleaning kestrel poop out of a concrete enclosure XP. (These days I hand-feed baby squirrels/possums/rabbits, mostly.) But I remember how much of a revelation it was: those people on the other side of the screen are by-and-large the same kind of people I am - if I want to do what they do I can. If I wanted to drop everything and build thatch houses in a third world country, I could. (I just don't really want to, haha.)

It's still a hard skill to learn - I doubt I do it nearly as often as I could, or even perhaps should.

I think the ideal here is to be able to reflexively notice in the moment "this is bad and I should fix it", and then actually doing something about it. But this is really hard to consistently pull off. For me, a major bottleneck is that it takes a lot of attention and willpower to do this reliably in the moment.

I've found that I can get a long way by systematising it - creating a regular time when I dwell on "what opportunities am I currently procrastinating about?" Or "what is a low level inconvenience that I'm not doing anything about?". I find a weekly review is a great time to go through questions like that.

I find this really, really helpful, because it's easy to make something like that a routine, and it takes much less willpower than being agenty in the moment. And it also makes it easier to track things when they happen, because I can notice and make a note, and put in the actual effort to fix it during the weekly review

I think this is bad advice. Further, I think that the worldview the author espouses is inherently false, and that she acknowledges this in the opening statement, which is about as good an example of Satre’s “bad faith” as I can think of, on the internet.

A thought exercise, taken from a recent podcast- a guru tells her followers to ‘do something’. The followers, in their existential modernist angst, agree to do the something that the guru says to do. In doing ‘the something’ the followers pay tens of thousands of dollars to the guru, and some of them die in a trust-fall mishap. Question- who are the lives of these followers made any better at all, from ‘doing something?’ An easy answer is, of course, that they are not.

The missing virtue/value is moderation. The followers of the guru who perhaps only paid $50 for her initial seminar, received inspiration from vague universal platitudes that truly helped their lives, mostly by giving them gratitude for the things they had already accomplished, and the lives they had already lived. More is not always better, and when you’re inner John Hammond leans on his cane and tells you ‘do something!” listen to your inner Ian Malcolm, reminding you that even if you can do something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

Hmm, I'm wondering if the law of equal but opposite advice is applying here?

I completely agree that some people do too many things, and that moderation is important! Sky-diving without a parachute is an example of doing something, and obviously dumb.

I think the important question is, on the margin, are people better off doing things more? And in my personal life, and in the people I see around me, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. I see a lot of people paralysed by perfectionism, indecision, anxiety etc. Who always wait for the perfect opportunity, and never deviate from the path of least resistance. And I think those people have too much moderation and not enough agency, and that a post exhorting them to be more agenty is exactly what they need.

I think there are also people who are great at being agenty and really need to learn moderation. And it's approximately impossible to write a post catered to both at once.

My post is very much aimed at the people I have in mind. And I'm implicitly making the empirical claim that most people, on the margin, would benefit from being more agenty. Which is true in my experience, but I definitely live in a bubble.

I think "inherently false" is an extremely strong assertion against this post, and I'd be interested in hearing more justification for that.

I think it's an overly strong response to:

Now I’ve got the unnecessarily provocative opening line out of the way,

Ah, makes sense, thanks!

The intended nuance there was "this is an overly simplified and not-literally-true statement, but which I think can be a useful simplification for noticing a common mistake and overcoming it" (or, frankly, that part happened because this post was an experiment in speed-writing and didn't have much thought put into the exact wording. But that's my back-filled justification for why I like that line!)

I would base the justification of my response in regards to the validity of your argument on these terms:

1. In your opening statement, you admit to a false premise in order to grow the size of your audience.

2. In the body of your statement, you make many claims such as ‘some people’ and ‘more people ’, without any concrete example to cite- exactly how many people can or would benefit from doing more?

3. Your argument towards increasing ‘agency’ in others is thinly defined, without clearly stating whether or not this increased agency would also lead to increased happiness or production for the individual or society at large.

4. Your closing statement is an appeal towards personal emotions, and does not contain anything of substance.

5. Finally, your response to critical commentary contains most of these errors as well.

With all this in mind, I cannot personally agree with your argument that human beings should do more instead of less.

I'm very confused about your interpretation of the post. I read the post as saying:

Most people have too high of a risk/reward threshold for action (it has to be the perfect opportunity to act). Having a lower threshold leads to much more rewards. To become that person, install the TAP to notice when a problem shows up now and try to fix it now. Being that type of person increases the chances of finding golden opportunities/ black swans.

But I've also installed this habit before (noticing the risks were much smaller in reality than in my head!), so maybe that's why the purpose/message was clear to me?

My personal standard for LW posts would prefer more specific examples, so that it's more fun, clear, and vivid in my mind.

What benefits do you think this post would gain if it fit your standard of (1-4) in your comment?