Hammertime Day 4: Design


This is part 4 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

A central theme of Hammertime is that rationalists interact with reality first. We try for at least five minutes. We build habits to solve the bugs. We stick our necks out and ask reality for rapid feedback. Only after doing our due diligence and getting beaten back by reality should we turn to introspection.

That’s why the first five Hammertime techniques are for getting out and solving problems immediately. Only after interacting with reality and actually trying do we get to turn inwards to meditate, to question our motives, to get in touch with our feelings, and to make long-term plans.

Design is the most subtle approach for directly solving problems. It’s about permanently distorting the physical reality around you to propel you towards – instead of away from – completing your goals.

Day 4: Design

Design (sometimes taught as Systemization at CFAR) is rationalist fengshui. Its main goals are:

  1. To inject intentions into the physical space you live and work in.
  2. To free attention from unnecessary and repetitive distractions.

Design principles work across domains: in the establishment of routines, in the shaping of social environments, and in the organization of screen space. For the first cycle of Hammertime we will focus on Designing physical space to make concrete and immediate improvements.

Here are the three core principles of Design, according to yours truly.

1. Intentionality

The very first tear I shed at CFAR was in response to Valentine’s speech in Design class about the subtle machinations of Moloch infecting the very space around us:

The counter-top next to the front door that attracts mountains of junk like a gravitational well.

The dressers that hide away our running clothes and with them our good intentions.

The disarray that sends us stumbling back and forth to find our glasses, wallet, keys, and phone in the morning.

Moloch’s servants appear wherever attention is lacking.

The first principle of Design is Intentionality: things are where you intend them to be. Look around your room or desk. Everything should have a purpose. The purpose can be functional, but it also can be sentimental or aesthetic. You can intentionally organize things in the order you use them. You can intentionally arrange things in a pretty way. You can also intentionally leave a mess because you aspire to discover the next Penicillin. Regardless of how things are arranged, they should be arranged so because that’s what you intended.

2. Amortization

The second principle of Design is Amortization: pay up-front costs now to save attention in the long run. Amortization is particularly concerned with the intentional placement of commonly used objects. Here are some examples to illuminate this principle:

I spent a day noticing all the wasted attention in my life. The first thing I noticed is that I search for my glasses all the time. Every time I wake up, come back from running, or get out of the shower, it’d take a minute to find them. The problem with having abysmal vision is that I can’t see my glasses until they’re right in front of my nose. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that my wife’s glasses have thicker, more visible frames.

To solve the glasses problem, I picked a central location, a Schelling place if you will, to always leave my glasses, and placed my glasses case there permanently. Then, I rehearsed the TAP of taking my glasses off and putting them in the case. Four days later, it’s become routine.

A number of other changes follow this principle: placing my keys and wallet in a box near the front door. Putting my running shorts on an easily reachable wall hook (you need more of these). Moving the oatmeal right next to the stove. Placing the vacuum cleaner next to its outlet.

3. Reflexive Towel Theory

Derived from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Towel Theory is an extension of the Fundamental Attribution Error which says that people decide the kind of person you are from superficial signals:

A towel is just about the most massively useful thing any interstellar Hitchhiker can carry. Partly it has great practical value. […]
More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
Hence a phrase which has passed into hitch hiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.”

The third principle of Design is Reflexive Towel Theory: we all apply towel theory to ourselves. Look at the space around you. It is telling you something about who you are. The blank walls call you a minimalist. The two-story rack of shoes reminds you how superficial you are. The unmade bed and unkempt piles of laundry, mail, and dirty dishes say, you’re not the kind of person who deserves to be cared for.

Pay attention to what the space says about you – and not to other people, to yourself. Figure out if those are messages you want to be hearing. Maybe you want to hang up a print of Kandinsky’s Composition 8 to replace that old Death Note poster. Maybe you’d like to be the kind of person who makes their bed. Whatever subliminal message your surroundings are sending via Reflexive Towel Theory, make sure it’s the message you intend to hear.

Design Time

Today’s exercise will take 10 minutes. Specify the physical space you’d like to redesign: anywhere from a single room to an entire house. Get pen and paper.

Step 1. Set a Yoda Timer. Walk around to explore the space and jot down all the things you’d like to change. Is there visible clutter you’d like to store away? Is there unsightly blank space? Is the furniture arranged in a productive way? Is there a better way to arrange commonly used objects to save time? What objects – appliances, decorations, furniture – are missing?

Step 2. Set another Yoda Timer. Hit as many things on your list as you can in that time. Move things and furniture around to their optimal permanent locations. Order all the organizational knick-knacks you need from Amazon. Pack the clutter away in empty suitcases, cupboards, or under the bed.

Daily Challenge

Fix as many bugs on your Bug List as you can by only rearranging physical objects. What’s the hardest bug you fixed this way?