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?


10 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:34 PM
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I'm forcing myself to act on each suggestion in Hammertime as they arise and this one was suprisingly helpful. The biggest time-sink by far for me was the piano I had in my bedroom. I wasted a ridiculous ~20% of my waking hours playing without realising until today; so I've just moved it into the garage to disincentivise my largest waste of time. It's also freed up some space for me to excercise and meditate when I can't go somewhere else, and it lets me access my whiteboards without climbing on top of furniture!(?)

Sweet! I was talking to a friend the other day about Design and he said something along the lines of "I can never work in my room, it feels so bad." I felt a bit sad about that - the one space he has absolute power over to fit his own goals and idiosyncracies was significantly worse to work in than a generic computer lab or common room.

I had a really pleasant surprise when working on this one. I constantly feel like we don't have enough storage space in our apartment, and I had sort of resigned to the cabinets and closet feeling super cramped. During my Yoda timer today, I looked under the bed and realized that we have a bunch of empty plastic tubs there! My partner has been keeping them to be helpful for future moves, but we hadn't thought to store anything in them now. With a few minutes of work, we freed up a huge amount of space by putting a bunch of stuff in them. 

The best change I made was keeping a notebook nearby when I am reading on my computer. This makes me more likely to take notes on what I am reading, which helps with 1) remembering what I am reading, 2) noticing when I don't understand what I am reading, and 3) noticing that if I do not have anything I want to write down about something, I may not be learning much from reading it.

Before I set the timer, I looked around my room for things to change. Nothing excited me too much. The feeling I got was something like "none of this moves the needle." The optimistic devil's advocate in me responded with "well maybe it's the accumulation of these little things that moves the needle, just try it anyway".*

So I set the timer for 5 minutes and wrote down a few things. While writing, I realized the most important space for me is digital - specifically the software I use to make music. There are many up-front costs I haven't paid - namely organizing samples, creating templates for faster workflows, naming certain channel strips by default, etc. This got me much more excited because I could already see the impact this will have. It'll take a lot longer than 5 minutes though, so I decided to do it later today after 2nd part of the challenge.

2nd timer:

  • I put a command hook on my desk for my headphones. Now I have more room on my desk. Satisfying.
  • I ordered a dock and another monitor for my laptop from Amazon - more desk space, more screen real estate, and less plugging in cords. Felt like I splurged a bit - I expected that feeling. I'm trying to be more okay with spending money on things that help me.

I feel like I could benefit from doing today's challenge a few more times but I'll wait until the other design days before repeating this one.

* I've noticed that this voice in my head (the "simulator") has a jaded, even pseudo-omniscient, personality. Phrases like "oh don't worry, that won't work" or "no no no, you wouldn't like that" come up. Maybe it's the voice of status quo bias.

The second principle of Design is Amortization: pay up-front costs now to save attention in the long run.

I do this, a lot. More precisely, as soon as I think of something that can improve my lot, or that I should try, or that I should do in general -- given I don't plan it taking more than say 30 minutes -- I tend to add it to my todo for the day and do it in the evening. Aaand, it's not all rosy. The problem is if you do this at high volume enough, important but not urgent stuff (cf. the Eisenhower matrix) go onto the backburner.

I'm not too sure yet what the countermeasure to these "amortization traps" are. One thing that's been recommended is doing small tasks in batches. Another is to increase the periodicity on non-essential things (e.g. why shave your beard twice a week if once will do?).

One of the central problems I've encountered (and multiple people have bugged me about here) writing Hammertime is that I'm failing to the typical mind fallacy way too much. Thus far, my plan has basically been to just write about the direction I think I personally need to update towards the ideal instead of the big picture. So any given post is probably only helpful on the off chance that you deviate from the ideal in the same direction as I do.

I'm sad to say that even though I knew I was typical minding, I still instinctively registered surprise at your comment; thanks for sharing. Minds are weird and I need to get out more.

I think this post is great, but I personally already have most of this implemented. My room is clean and well-decorated, my computer cabling (meaning both internal and peripheral) is well-maintained, I even keep my Desktop totally clear. My programs update automatically using Chocolatey, backups occur automatically, and antivirus takes care of itself via scheduled tasks.

My space feels pretty well optimized, but perhaps I’m missing yet further applications.

Thanks! This technique was particularly helpful to me because I've never really thought about maintaining space/decoration at all. It sounds like you're several levels ahead of me - if you have any general tips or principles (as well as specific examples like Chocaltey) I'd love to include them in the next cycle's post on Design.

Chocolatey is package management for Windows. If you install your software via its command-line, you can set a daily system task to run a script and update everything (‘cup -all y’, I think).

Beyond that, I think you covered it!