Rationalist Lent

by Qiaochu_Yuan1 min read13th Feb 201863 comments


PicaRitualSelf Experimentation

It's that time of year again. Pick something to give up for 40 days as an experiment / comfort zone expansion. Post about it here. Good luck and have fun!

Edit: For anyone who wants it, here are some prompts for brainstorming things to try giving up (set a 5-minute timer for the brainstorm):

  1. What takes up too much of my time?
  2. What takes up too much of my attention?
  3. What in my life is most out to get me?
  4. What superstimuli am I most attracted to?
  5. What in my life feels the most like pica?

And also for anyone who wants it, here are some concrete suggestions for things to give up, in no particular order:

  1. Video games
  2. Smartphones
  3. Facebook, Reddit, etc.
  4. Sugar
  5. Caffeine
62 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:18 AM
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I'm giving up porn. I've tried this a couple of times and liked it, but stopped each time for various reasons; think it's worth trying again.

+1 to this. I think porn is a good example of superstimuli that society is insufficiently worried about.

I'll be putting my smartphone in airplane mode everyday from 21-09. I expect that this may reduce my stress levels and improve sleep, but I'm only tracking the latter.

I'm, um, going to give up videogames after successfully fending off a bajillion zombies in They Are Billions. :P

I'm specifically giving up games that encourage many short check-ins, e.g. most phone games and idle games. Binges aren't a big issue for me, they tend to give me joy and renewal. But frequent check-in games make me less happy and less productive.

What I actually feel weird and uncertain about is that binging They Are Billions has been a very rewarding experience - it felt good, inner child-like, in a way that I haven't felt for... probably 10 years?

At the same time, it very clearly has affected me negatively in ways that I might be tempted to discount. I have had trouble getting enough sleep (due to staying up late). I haven't focused as much on relationships, learning, or other projects as I'd like to have focused in the past few weeks.

I am glad that I had the experience, but it definitely needs to end soon. I am not sure how Optimal Ray would handle the situation according to his full values.

I'm giving up obvious sugar. Good timing, thanks for the push.

I did this 6 years ago, also for a non-religious "lent". I was actually very strict about it:

  • nothing with "sugar" (or an artificial sweetener as an ingredient)
  • nothing that is more than 5% sugar by mass.

The latter one means that most fruit was out (except lemons, limes, and (surprisingly!) strawberries & raspberries).

Everyone had told me this would have an effect on my mood or something, or that I would notice things if/when I went back to eating sugar. It didn't. I have since concluded my body is uncommonly resiliant to eating different things.

Oh, except that that all 3 times I have tried a low-carb diet (2× "slow carb", 1× keto) I have gotten ill (usually ~flu) about a week in. Could be a coincidence but feels worth noting.

When you tried low carb did you supplement electrolytes? I tried ~keto and it worked really well for about a week before making me feel worse, and the problem was eventually solved with a combination of drinking salt water and pedialyte.

I like the term "obvious sugar", and hereby commit to the same.

EDIT: On second thought, I'd like to allow for one slice of birthday cake per birthday, for social reasons.

I have a similar rule named "No sugar unless offered" that seems to work well for social events.

I was going to make mine "No obvious sugar, unless there's a special occasion and it's a special dessert", but I think this will have a more powerful effect if for the 40 days I completely stop obvious sugar, and then at the end I can decide if I want to eliminate it entirely or keep that "social eating" aspect.

I think part of what makes lent useful is that it's easier to commit to more drastic measures if it's only 40 days, and once you've done 40 days, the drastic thing might no longer feel drastic and you can just do it.

I gave up Reddit / FB / Netflix / Youtube / news, restrict dating apps to an hour a day, and porn to basically never. I’ve won at least two hours of my life back, each day. (Thanks to Freedom)

I have a few hours each Sunday where I can go to most of these sites and catch up on what I missed... I just don’t feel much of the urge to anymore. Feels good.

Oh! I'm giving up Youtube! Nice. Also Netflix, which is the obvious next thing I would start using more.

(Specifics: I'll only use either of them with friends, which is pretty rare (i.e. the occasional movie). I'll also let myself get friends to download and send me videos, like 3Blue1Brown's series on Linear Algebra.)

P.S. I use the app SelfControl, which means I'm unable to load blacklisted pages (there's also a whitelisting option). It makes it incredibly hard to break without doing a lot of coding in the terminal. I set it for a month.

Added: Oops I accidentally blacklisted facebook on my laptop. I still have it on my phone, but this actually seems like a good thing on net.

I will try out not using YouTube for 7 days, and if it still seems like a good idea then, will not use it for a month. Exception are UC Berkeley course captures.

FYI, SelfControl looks like it should be a link due to being underlined, but I can't actually click on it.

Thanks, fixed.

Not sure if anyone's gonna see this, but I'd be curious to hear quick check-ins: how's everyone doing ~1 month in, with ~2 weeks to go?

I've stuck to no porn and basically felt no desire to go back, which is nice. In general I've felt incredibly free from all of my non-social addictions since the beginning of February; watching TV or playing video games by myself holds almost no appeal either. I still find myself drawn to social addictions like Facebook but I mostly endorse this for the time being.

I've stuck to no fiction. (I unthinkingly read a few paragraphs of a short story that came across my Twitter, but otherwise have been consistent.)

It's mostly been fairly easy. It's really obvious now that it's a social pica. I think some of the time I would have spent on it has been going to increased use of LessWrong and Facebook, which are also social picas, but those are both more genuinely social, and harder to lose 8 hours at a time to.

There was at least one night where I was pretty unhappy, and didn't have access to any actual friends to spend time with, and really wanted to lose myself in a book. I probably think that ordinarily it would have been an ok thing to do as a coping mechanism, but it was useful to observe how badly I needed the coping mechanism. That makes it obvious how much I need the real thing.

There are also a couple things I'm genuinely looking forward to reading when Lent is over. (Murphy's Quest, for one.) But I'd say those things are probably ~1/4 or less the amount of fiction I would have read this month without Lent.

This has been an especially exciting/productive/momentum-filled month for me. This probably makes it easier than normal to not read fiction. Though maybe there's some causality the other direction as well?

I've stuck to not using Youtube for three weeks (I only committed to not do it for a week), and found it a very enlightening experience. I now use it much more sporadically, and was quite surprised how much I really wanted to go to Youtube during the first week.

Not having Facebook or YouTube on my laptop has been net positive I think. Not having Netflix has been weakly negative, I’ll not keep that up.

Basically stuck to my commitment - early on I bent it a bit by taking 'notes' in the form of drawing abstract scribbles, but I now mostly don't do that. I have also once or twice looked up info relevant to the meeting, but both times felt pretty in the spirit. This has partially been achieved by attending fewer lectures and meetings, which is something I explicitly permitted myself to do.

I did in fact meditate 10 minutes a day for a week, then promptly stopped.

Oh man there are so many things it would be cool to try this with! But in the interest of not getting distracted I’m going to choose only one, so: I’m giving up saying negative things about myself. And also specifically the phrase “I can’t.” Yay, I can succeed! Thanks for the prompt Qiaochu :)

Seems interesting but tricky to set TAPs that will reliably hit this. Maybe ask friends to help you monitor?

I know this doesn't square with the CFAR canon, but in my experience changing things about myself, it's surprisingly often enough for me just to notice that I want the thing to change, and then it just happens without further effort (the two examples that jump to mind are 1. drastically improving my handwriting and 2. transforming myself from a bully into a ray of sunshine). I've been doing this one for the last ~20 hours and it feels like it falls in that category - I've always noticed when I'm doing it in the past, the only difference is that now I've decided to do something about it.

Also, Oli is pretty good at protesting vehemently when I put myself down, so I have a reliable external enforcement mechanism :)

Sounds good to me. I've also had that experience, but I've also known people who would have a really hard time with something like this.

I've recently noticed something about me: Attempting to push away or not have experience, actually means pushing away those parts of myself that have that experience.

I then feel an urge to remind readers of a view of Rationalist Lent as an experiment. Don't let it this be another way that you look away from what's real for you. But do let it be a way to learn more about what's real for you.

While in lectures or meetings, I will only listen or take notes, rather than surfing the internet or playing games. This will probably be aided by putting devices in aeroplane mode.

I will also spend the first week of Lent meditating for at least 10 minutes every day, which I may or may not continue.

I predict that a lot of people who would take rationalist lent's advice seriously would try to quite the same things and there are others who has hit on a good diet of experience that they could try to emulate. So It would be helpful to have a list of diets for quitting unwanted behaviour. Feel free to leave your recipes as a reply to this comment.


I permanently blocked the website in all browsers I use. I use command line tool youtube-dl to download the videos I want/need to watch. This workflow gives me an option to watch videos (and also some friction to reevaluate the decision to watch a video); but prevents me from engaging with youtube, the risky game I might 'loss' otherwise.

This is a good idea.

I hereby commit to giving up reading fiction for the duration of Lent.

I'm giving up Twitter and Reddit.

I've actually been off of both for a few days now. I was planning to take a week hiatus, but it's going well (I'm more focused), so I'll keep going through Lent.

Going to do the same.

edit: Might still look at Reddit on my phone at work sometimes when taking a break, but not at home.

I think exceptions are generally bad for this sort of thing; it's less cognitive load to make a clean break of things.

I would be interested hearing more details about your experiences around exceptions. My inner simulator is confused about how to categorize this particular example.

On the one hand, "no Reddit at home" is a fairly clear rule that I wouldn't anticipate too much trouble implementing. On the other hand, if the goal is to break the dopamine cycle associated with Reddit, it might be better training for your brain to stop entirely rather than "teasing" it with exceptions?

My experience (mostly involving sites like StackExchange) is that if I disallow the thing in setting A but not setting B then I mysteriously find myself using the thing a lot more in setting B. I get similar substitution effects around e.g. if I disallow addictive site X but not similar addictive site Y then I mysteriously find myself visiting Y a lot more.

On the other hand this seems to be a useful strategy to slowly upgrade the value of your leisure time, e.g. facebook => netflix => reddit => lesswrong.

I think Facebook if used properly can be a lot more valuable than Netflix and plausibly more valuable than Reddit, but yeah.

I think Facebook used properly is probably about as valuable as Reddit used properly.

Leah Libresco gave up jaywalking for Lent and found it was very valuable.

I'd choose the smartphone one...except that I've already removed the browser/email from my phone, rendering it largely incapable of being superstimulating.

I guess I'll give up on reading manga/web fiction for 40 days, as that seems like the next biggest thing for me.

An interesting experiment would be to try giving up fiction in full generality. I think people are insufficiently worried about this.

I don't have any particularly rigorous thing to support this with, nor do I really think that there's even any objective truth of the matter to be had about this, but... I just want to note that whenever people talk about cutting out all fiction, it strikes me as Deeply Wrong, the same way it might if someone said they were considering cutting out all friendship from their life. My aesthetic says that fiction is one of those things that makes life worth living in the first place, and that cutting it out makes one's life worse.

... that said, I recognize that this is just my aesthetic and that other people have different ones, but I felt compelled to push back a little anyway.

So, first of all, like Peter says, I'm not advocating a permanent ban, but a temporary reprieve, for several reasons. I think it's common to have a lot of addictive and escapist behaviors around fiction (in a way that I think is less common with friendships). I think people are basically on board with this idea as it applies to TV and video games but I would extend it to books as well. My addictive and escapist behaviors over the last 5 years were pretty evenly distributed between video games, anime, manga, and fantasy / sci-fi novels. (And this wasn't true when I was in college; it all started when I entered grad school and became a lot more socially isolated.)

(It irks me the way e.g. Tumblr has built up this whole memeplex around reading being this wholesome pure thing when it feels to me only slightly less bad than other forms of fictional escapism. People used to worry in the old days about people reading too many novels or comics and I think we should update at least slightly in their direction.)

(The goal of this is not to produce shame in anyone who engages in a lot of fictional escapism; I don't want to deny anyone their useful and important coping behaviors. This is for anyone who engages in a lot of fictional escapism and doesn't know it.)

More broadly, I worry about fiction as a source of bad training data; it is not reality, it systematically differs from reality in many ways, and I think people who grew up absorbing a lot of fiction generally get screwed by it in subtle ways (for example, I've been posting on Facebook recently about ways in which I feel like my approaches to romantic relationships were screwed up by the TV and movies I watched growing up).

I also worry about fiction as pica, also like Peter says. A friend of mine recently told me about how he watched Avatar: The Last Airbender explicitly at a point in his life where he had no friends, so the characters were his friends instead. Giving up fiction can bring things like this into stark relief; if you notice that when you give up fiction all you do is stare blankly at the walls of your room because your life doesn't put you into regular contact with other humans by default, that's a valuable thing you've learned about your life / a valuable opportunity to confront the thing if you knew about it already but had been avoiding thinking about it.

A particular kind of fiction-as-pica that I don't think people talk about enough is using video games as pica for personal growth / skill development (the only piece I've seen come close is Pixel Poppers on Fake Achievement, which is what first opened my eyes to this sort of thing). I notice that a lot of enjoyment I get out of playing, say, RPGs is enjoying the experience of my characters getting stronger and more capable of handling the challenges of the game. This is entirely pica; what I actually want is for me to get stronger, not my Pokemon.

I agree that all of the things that you listed can be issues, and if the two of you are just advocating a temporary break in order to recalibrate, then I don't have an objection. I feel like I've seen sentiments in the rationalsphere that weren't just about taking a temporary break but actually seriously recommending giving up all fiction for good, and I might have been responding more to my recollection of those sentiments than what you were actually saying.

On the thing about fiction as a source of bad training data specifically: agree that this can be an issue, especially if one has a very one-sided diet of fiction. There's a lot of fiction out there that conveys outright toxic thought patterns and expectations about relationships. (One of my abhorrences is the whole "you get married and then you live happily ever after" trope and stuff related to it, which I suspect does damage in more subtle ways than just the obvious one.)

But at the same time, I would feel that the training data available to someone who didn't consume much fiction, was also much impoverished compared to someone who consumed a varied diet of quality fiction. Any single person's life can only provide them with direct experiences of a very small slice of all the possible human experiences and perspectives; somebody who supplemented their ordinary life with fiction could experience a vastly larger amount of them. Yes, those experiences are fictional, but good authors will draw on enough of their own actual life experience - as well as on actual background research - to make their fiction feel plausible and real. And if you are, say, reading an author from a different culture than your own, their own cultural perspective and assumptions will inevitably color the work and give you a taste of entirely different (real) perspectives and underlying assumptions. For example, this was an interesting comment that I happened to read recently:

Personally, I find that a focus on subverting norms of gender, race, and power hierarchies is the surest sign that a fictional work is thoroughly suffused with contemporary Western culture.
Part of it is that I read a lot of Korean and Japanese stuff. Their fiction, and their societies, are generally a lot less concerned with such things. Sometimes horribly so, to be honest (some Japanese fantasy works have a disturbing fascination with slavery).

(The work you consume doesn't need to be geographically remote, either - if you take novels from even a century or two back, they're already starting to be more delightfully alien than anything that an average science fiction or fantasy novel is capable of presenting.)

I don't really find very compelling the psychological studies claiming that literary fiction can boost one's ability for taking different kinds of perspectives - they suffer from all the standard cautions and caveats of psychological research, plus it's a proposition that's difficult to test experimentally - but I would be surprised if that claim wasn't actually true. One definition of empathy says that it's about the ability to put yourself in someone else's head, and good fiction is about exactly that.

I agree that it's possible to consume fiction in a much healthier, mind-expanding, empathy-increasing way than what I described. We can make a pretty strong analogy with food: many people consume junk food, junk food is plausibly somewhere between pretty bad and extremely bad for you, and taking a break from food (that is, fasting) can be a way to recalibrate yourself and get better attuned to the difference between good and bad food, none of which is to say that we should live our lives entirely without food. Similarly for "junk fiction."

Yes! I actually thought of a very similar food analogy while typing out my comment, but then didn't write it down.

A particular kind of fiction-as-pica that I don't think people talk about enough is using video games as pica for personal growth / skill development.

FWIW, I have definitely noticed that in times of my life where I've felt that I haven't achieved much, I've been really drawn to watching sports anime where the characters get better/overcome stuff/etc. I think this is a combination of pica and reminding myself what I want out of life.

For the record, even though I'm giving up fiction for Rationalist Lent, I would pretty much agree with that. I intend to use it as an opportunity to break what I consider to be bad habits around it and reevaluate its place in my life, not as a prelude to a permanent ban.

Why do you think we should be more worried about reading fiction? Associated addictiveness, time consumption, escapism?

I chose to give up fiction for Rationalist Lent (before reading the comments and before seeing this exchange).

I've been observing my fiction (particularly sci-fi) habits for the past year or so, and have tried to reduce/improve them, including making it a major focus both times I attended a CFAR workshop. This has been only marginally successful. The behavior feels addictive in both the sense that I lose sleep or forget other important things due to it, and in the sense that it's hard to stop.

When I investigate the desire to read scifi, it seems to be connected to desires around intellectual exploration, a sense of wonder/excitement, and some sort of displaced social desire around "camaraderie in service of large-scale goals". This makes me think it's a pica, and that I would be better served by using that energy to get more of those things in the real world.

So, all of the above, at least in my case.

Oh, and an important piece of evidence I forgot to include:

I have a close friend who has a strong "romantic fanfic" habit, and based on observation and conversation it's extremely clear to me that this is a pica/coping mechanism for them, to imperfectly replace real emotional intimacy/social safety/etc.

The similarity between their behaviors around fanfic and my behaviors around scifi are too strong for me to ignore, so that updates me in the direction of thinking it's important to uncover what's going on here.

This was me for quite a few years. I've noticed that in times when I'm really depressed I'll read fanfic until I pass out from exhaustion at 4am, but when I feel happy and emotionally fulfilled (e.g. the past few months) my fanfic habit completely disappears and I feel no desire to read it even when I get notifications for it. Strangely, this wasn't something I easily identified as pica at our CFAR workshop.

Yeah, I have a friend like that too.

I replied to Kaj above.

Was this Android? I tried removing Safari from iPhone but couldn't in a way that robustly worked. (Although by now I have Freedom running much of the time)

Yeah, it was Android.

I'm actually having a hard time deciding what kind of superstimuli are having too strong of a detrimental effect on my actions. The reason for this is that some superstimuli also act as a willpower restorer. Take music, for example. Listening to music does not usually get mentioned as a bad habit, but it also is an extremely easy stimuli to access, requires little to no attention or effort to maintain use of, and at least for me, tends to amplify the degree of mind wandering and daydreaming. On the other hand, it is a huge mood booster and increases confidence and determination to complete a lot of other tasks during the day, so in that regard it does seem to be helpful. But I could probably say something similar about many superstimuli, and so I wonder if straight "giving up" would be a less effective strategy than trying to optimize some kind of schedule for usage of each type of superstimulus.

Optimizing a schedule is cognitively demanding and constantly tests your willpower; giving up for 40 days is simple, if not easy. On the other hand, if there's no part of you that feels worried about music then I wouldn't give up music in your posiiton. You could try taking up a new habit / hobby instead.

Moved to frontpage.