From part 1:
part 1 on lesswrong:

(this) part:

I had a chat with a person who admitted to having many problems themselves.  I offered my services as a problem solving amateur, willing to try to get to the bottom of this.  Presented is the conversation (With details changed for privacy).

I had my first shot at analysing the person's problems and drilling down to the bottom.  I am interested in what other people have to say is the problem.  Here we study the meta-strategy of how to solve the problem, which I find much more interesting than the object level analysis of the problem and how to solve it.

I don't think I got to the bottom of the problem, and I don't think I conducted myself in a top-notch capacity but needless to say I wonder if you have any comments about what IS TheProblem(tm), how did you come to that conclusion and what can be done about it (for the benefit of this person and anyone with a similar problem).

What is actually the problem?  I have a theory, but I also wanted to publish this without declaring my answer.  I will share my ideas in a few weeks but I want to know what you think and how you came to that answer.

This is a new style of post so I expected some responses along the lines of:

I considered downvoting. I opted instead to ignore after reading the preamble. - buybuydandavis

That's fine.  It was literally a chat log.  Not for everyone.

I also got some interesting and relevant responses.  There are several and they overlap so I decided it's best to answer with another post.

Many people narrowed down to a few particularly alarming examples:

  • The most alarming part of that conversation for me was "A few weeks ago I punched a housemate in the face ten times, breaking her nose;" - Strangeattractor
  • Is it really the most alarming part? I would think suicide ideation more so. - Romashka
  • Treatment for mental illness (and possibly organic brain trauma) seems priority #1 here... -CronoDAS
  • Zebra was extremely bad at imagining good outcomes in a way which led to him taking action-- in other words, probably depression. - NancyLebovitz 

And then this:

There are lots of problems. If I had to pick only one, it would be that you seem to think there is a single, simple problem that can be identified from this transcript. - Dagon

It sounds a bit as if you are implicitly proposing a principle like "there is always a single underlying problem, if you can only find it" - gjm

To gjm first:

I present "The Problem (TM)" because I suspect in this case there is an underlying problem.  Not always.  Often when problem solving we try to figure out what is the lowest hanging fruit, or what one thing can be changed first.

There was a scene in Doctor Who - The ends of time Part 2 where the doctor is trapped in space on a spaceship that doesn't work.  Instead of giving up he just (knowing what he is doing) starts fiddling with the heating.  Other characters insist that everything is hopeless and lo and behold; as he fixes the heating; that fixes the engine and the computers and everything whirs back to life and we continue to the next epic fight scene!

Now, generalising from one fictional example.  As rationalists we wish that there really was one thing that you could fix, which would cause the fixing of the next thing and a chain of events that fix everything.  When we look at the accelerating factors, we wish this is how it happens:


We'd be dreaming to think that such a thing can actually happen.  After 41 days we are at 1.5x where we started.  After 70 days 2x, and 111, 3x.  Which is just nuts.  What if I told you that in a month of nudging 1% you'd be nearly 1.5x from where you are.  Not likely, not going to happen.

1 1.01 51 1.6610781401
2 1.0201 52 1.6776889215
3 1.030301 53 1.6944658107
4 1.04060401 54 1.7114104688
5 1.0510100501 55 1.7285245735
6 1.0615201506 56 1.7458098192
7 1.0721353521 57 1.7632679174
8 1.0828567056 58 1.7809005966
9 1.0936852727 59 1.7987096025
10 1.1046221254 60 1.8166966986
11 1.1156683467 61 1.8348636655
12 1.1268250301 62 1.8532123022
13 1.1380932804 63 1.8717444252
14 1.1494742132 64 1.8904618695
15 1.1609689554 65 1.9093664882
16 1.1725786449 66 1.9284601531
17 1.1843044314 67 1.9477447546
18 1.1961474757 68 1.9672222021
19 1.2081089504 69 1.9868944242
20 1.2201900399 70 2.0067633684
21 1.2323919403 71 2.0268310021
22 1.2447158598 72 2.0470993121
23 1.2571630183 73 2.0675703052
24 1.2697346485 74 2.0882460083
25 1.282431995 75 2.1091284684
26 1.295256315 76 2.130219753
27 1.3082088781 77 2.1515219506
28 1.3212909669 78 2.1730371701
29 1.3345038766 79 2.1947675418
30 1.3478489153 80 2.2167152172
31 1.3613274045 81 2.2388823694
32 1.3749406785 82 2.2612711931
33 1.3886900853 83 2.283883905
34 1.4025769862 84 2.306722744
35 1.416602756 85 2.3297899715
36 1.4307687836 86 2.3530878712
37 1.4450764714 87 2.3766187499
38 1.4595272361 88 2.4003849374
39 1.4741225085 89 2.4243887868
40 1.4888637336 90 2.4486326746
41 1.5037523709 91 2.4731190014
42 1.5187898946 92 2.4978501914
43 1.5339777936 93 2.5228286933
44 1.5493175715 94 2.5480569803
45 1.5648107472 95 2.5735375501
46 1.5804588547 96 2.5992729256
47 1.5962634432 97 2.6252656548
48 1.6122260777 98 2.6515183114
49 1.6283483385 99 2.6780334945
50 1.6446318218 100 2.7048138294

Nonetheless we pursue.  It might be important too, to look for the problem at the bottom, otherwise we might find ourselves bikeshedding about the trivial problems.

This week while making the emergency room project, I spent some time looking at other data.  Specifically the (Australian) National Drug Strategy Household Survey data.  Where the first question on the survey was; "When people talk about “a drug problem”, which is the first drug you think of?".  What kind of information is that likely to yield?  Is it going to return the drug which is the biggest problem in the country?  Or maybe it's going to yield whatever the media feels makes a good story, (say ICE because it's dangerous) (weed because it's controvertial) (or alcohol because it's the most common)?  Or is it going to yield the one with the most personally damaging reputation (tobacco > alcohol)?

In reality, is the government going to take action on what people think is the biggest problem drug?  Or should the government instead take action on the drug actually killing people?  Are we bikeshedding on this issue?

What actually is the biggest problem, it's a relevant question, certainly not every time.  but sometimes it's worth digging into.

To Strangeattractor, Romashka, CronoDAS, NancyLebovitz:

You are not wrong.  The violence, mental health, potential head wound, depression, inability to leave the house, lack of friends, weight problems, exercise problems. Are all very very important problems to tackle.  And I will come back to this.

Some analysis:

I started with simple background questions.  History, etc.  knowing that anything being brought up is probably being brought up because it has special relevance to the topic.  It's almost like a job interview, when they ask you for your top 10 characteristics, they don't expect you to tell them about how you can fry a perfect egg (if that's not relevant to the task at hand).  There is a need to make certain assumptions about the truth and about the validity of the information.

I was previously very depressed, and then recovered for a few years.

Definitely relevant, sets the scene.  I asked, "So you are currently feeling depressed"

Yes. Possibly as a symptom of bipolar disorder (I’ve recently started having manic episodes), or possibly not–I’ve never been diagnosed with that, and until recently had never had issues with mania.

A while back I tried reading the DSM.  While it really doesn't tell you much about reality it is one instance of a Map of the world, Just like legislation, instruction manuals, guide books, Guides to how a project was done (this is an example of a map of how my process works), and more.  The interesting thing about what the DSM has to say about bipolar diagnosis is that there is a requirement for mania in both the upwards and downwards directions, often affecting sleep, and giving people feelings of godliness or invincibility.

So who cares.  Well; on the one hand; using this knowledge here to ask about sleep is a signal that I at least know a little bit of what is being talked about.  On the other hand I think I got lucky about whether sleep was relevant. (and on the third hand - sleep is a very common problem for people generally and worth asking about.)

I guess immediately I feel quite isolated, very stressed, and don’t know how to proceed forward.

The idea of "feeling stressed" is a complicated one.  On some level, you have an understanding of what "I feel stressed" means.  But on another level - if you spend enough time around different diversely stressed people.  You get the feeling that there is some kind of miscommunication going on.

sorry for the mess meme

Kind of like this one here.  It's a map and territory problem.  One person's map of stress is not the same as another person's map of stress.

ELiot: Is there a specific stress?

I guess; loneliness, numerous tensions with my girlfriend, some financial issues (to a large extent a symptom of the recent mania), extreme dissatisfaction with myself and especially my own appearance, frustrations with daily life, and a general dissatisfaction with the world.

So there's a list.  But the problem I find with vague lists is it's easy to see there's a problem here but harder to address any part and make a difference.  I personally have list making habits.  Something I will one day make a post about.   Which is where this comes from:

I am going to write the list out

1. Loneliness
2. Girlfriend tension
3. Financial issues
4. Self + appearance
5. Daily life
6. Dissatisfied with the world

Which grew a bit by the end of the conversation.

ChristianKl Rightly criticised me for saying this:  

Would you like to pick a specific one from the list to talk about?

I can pick one if you like

(Why do you offer to pick the specific issue? Agency is important for getting out of depression.) Unfortunately I stripped out time-stamps which would explain why I offered to pick one.  There are three parts to this problem.

  1. Not picking one would likely lead to more complaining about the issues without solving anything.  If Z was unmotivated enough to be unable to pick one (a worse failure mode) then picking any would be better than nothing.
  2. Leading with any of them would be fine, because I planned to cover a few of them and the conversation would naturally tend to flow onto the bigger problems anyway (as it did)
  3. If one cannot decide between them, they are probably all equally relevant-challenging-problematic and equal gains would be made on any of them from a bit of effort.

As it was - it was relatively easy for Z to pick one.  I generally wouldn't pick one - even if I suggested that I would.  and well done ChristianKl for spotting this.

Is that bad?

I often find myself not eating until nighttime, or sometimes not eating at all, due to wanting to avoid those stressors.

An important question - is that a bad thing?  I repeat this whenever I see an unjustified badness.  In the sense that it should be up to the individual to decide what is or is not bad.  In theory; not eating is a bad thing.  Possibly to lead to mood swings from hunger or sugar levels, and who-knows what else.  But, that's what I think; not what Z had to say about why it's bad. 

Is this correct: you feel stressed about not wanting to leave to go buy food. Then you feel stressed about not buying food as well.

And I guess I’m kind of lonely.


When I go out sometimes it’s ok, and sometimes I realise the people around me are crap and I am too and I get even sadder.

later still

And really I don’t want to be staying at home, as that’s also very stressful.

later still.

There’s nothing much I can identify that I really want to do.

and then:

Also I’m frequently very exhausted, and it’s often hard to work up the energy to do those things.

and on:

Well, I really dislike being alone, but I don’t much like most people.

(I think that's enough for now)

So Z is lonely, but doesn't want to go out because sometimes it's crap, but doesn't want to be staying home, but doesn't have anything they really want to do, but is also very exhausted and doesn't have the energy to do things, but really dislikes being alone....

If we looked at the loneliness it wouldn't really improve the state of The problem because the loneliness isn't the big deal.  If we looked at the going out problem, that wouldn't be it, because Z wants to go out, but also doesn't like staying home, but also if we solved the going out problem that wouldn't do it because they don't really have anything they want to do, but if we found something they want to do that wouldn't fix it because they don't have the energy to do that thing.  So what if we solve the energy problem?  

In the hope that once we solve the desire to go out they will have the energy, and they won't need to be stuck at home and they won't feel alone and they can go on to live a happy and prosperous life.  No.  That's not it.  Once we dig to the bottom of the energy problem we get to an absence problem:

I kind of zone out, frequently. People find that scary.

And down the rabbit hole we go.

I want to be clear that each of these problems are valid problems, each are the most important problem and each need to be solved to dig Z out of the hole.  I want to not disparage the ongoing discussion and identification of problems until we can really get to that root of all things; fix the heating and whirr the spaceship into action!

That's not how problems work.  Or at least - not how this one works.  At the bottom of every problem is another problem (reminds me of a poem - There's a hole in my bucket - this is not a coincidence).  We also have a term for getting side tracked from the real work at hand - Yak shaving.  

But wait!  What is the real problem we should be working on?  If all this talk is just yak shaving our way down the river - how do we know what to actually work on?

The problem

In this case - certainly not repeatable.  I can't say how often it happens but I wanted to identify this very clear problem as it sneakily tries to evade capture.  This problem is exactly the process of solving the problem has become part of the problem.  We can't solve the loneliness without first solving the home problem, but first - having nothing to do, but first energy, but first absence feelings.  It's a problem spiral.

What next?

Let's say you or a friend has a problem spiral.  You start talking about it and you spiral downwards, every problem being worse than the one before until you feel absolutely terrible, develop an ugh field and resolve to do nothing at all.  (probably a familiar pattern)

You get in this pattern and nothing gets solved.  To break out of this pattern; I propose a known solution (the scientific method).  Pick one of the problems, set a 5 minute timer (or a 20minute pomodoro, or a whole day to work on it).  Your task is to improve the state of this problem, conduct tests, observe what happens.  It's the loneliness problem, and it sucks because you don't want to leave the house.  But that's okay.  Keep trying.  Don't try to solve the house-leaving problem right now, just work on the loneliness.  Try talking to people about it, try therapists, try leave the house, try online forums, try anything and everything you can think of.  Take notes.

Notes are evidence, evidence is how we make progress.

Your task, should you choose to accept it - is to focus on making some kind of progress on any one of the many problems.  Then when you are sick of this one, or tired, or done, or successful, pick the next one.  repeat, fail, repeat, succeed, repeat.  Iterate.

I propose the 3 part solution to this one meta-problem is:

  1. pick something to work on
  2. work on it
  3. iterate

It's unlikely that you solve any one problem the first time around.  If you did - take your winnings!  Walk away!  On to the next one.  But if the situation is (as can be expected) a complicated problem - one that you already couldn't just solve - which led to the stacking up of layer upon layer of problems.  It's going to take some time.

Keep at it.  Good luck.

Credit goes to  DagonThere are lots of problems. If I had to pick only one, it would be that you seem to think there is a single, simple problem that can be identified from this transcript.

Well done.

Meta: this took two days to write, and the better part of 3+ hours.

If you are interested in a conversation, send me a message.  No guarantees we can solve your problems, but maybe we can try.

This has been a new style of post, not for all - thanks for reading.

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5 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:19 PM

Uncharitable paraphrase of previous post: "Here is someone who seems to have lots of problems. Please identify The Problem (tm)".

Uncharitable paraphrase of this post: "The Problem is that this person actually has not one problem but many problems."

So far as I can tell, introducing this business about "The Problem" adds nothing but obfuscation. You encountered someone who seemed to have lots of problems. You concluded that he has lots of problems. Amazing!

That doesn't mean that these posts are valueless! Even without the "TheProblem (tm)" framing, readers might be tempted to look for a single underlying problem, and being cautioned away from that is useful; and your proposed way of dealing with this sort of big-pile-of-mutually-reinforcing-problems situation may well be a good one. And it's interesting to read about how you approached the situation. So I'm glad I read these. I just don't see what the business about "The Problem" was for.


introducing this business about "The Problem" adds nothing but obfuscation.

Point taken. will think about how to better describe the thing.

You encountered someone who seemed to have lots of problems. You concluded that he has lots of problems. Amazing!

Prior to talking me; some of these problems had been around for a number of years. These problems didn't come from one day to the next; they built up. The spiral problem is maybe better described as a problem with the approach to the rest of the problems. In that sense it's one that is hard to see when you are too busy tackling the object-level problems...

Uncharitable paraphrase of this post: "The Problem is that this person actually has not one problem but many problems."

try: "the problem is the person's other problems are getting in the way of actually fixing any of the problems."


"the problem is the person's other problems are getting in the way of actually fixing any of the problems."

Yes, that may be a better way to put it.

Taken in isolation, part 1 left me confused. Part 2 greatly improves the value of the transcript.

Zebra is dealing with a set of problems, which may or not stem from a single Problem. I saw your questions as an effort, not only to clarify the issues, but also determine the structure of the problem set. Here, you describe the problem spiral, where solving one issue raises further issues because you keep thinking of the whole set instead of taking each issue in isolation.

Note there are two seemingly conflicting strategies here. One is to solve part of the problem, focusing on it for a given time, trying to jumpstart a success spiral. But how would you differentiate this from bikeshedding? How can you be sure you're not focusing on irrelevant things?

On the other hand, carefully thinking about the Problem, and how to solve it all at once, or by the correct sequence of actions, may lead to an efficient strategy. However, taking on the Problem as a whole shatters all motivation, warps the view of the problem set and makes small tasks seems undoable.

You linked Zebra, in the transcript, to Nate Soares's Replacing Guilt series. I would pinpoint my advice with Moving towards the goal. Solving the Problem (the cluster of problems, taken as a single eldritch entity) has to be set aside. You can picture the goal state, but the planning fallacy goes both ways: you can overestimate the difficulty of the solution. What matters is to make progress.

(I may have paraprashed your post here - I wanted to write down my own understanding of it)


Note there are two seemingly conflicting strategies here. One is to solve part of the problem, focusing on it for a given time, trying to jumpstart a success spiral. But how would you differentiate this from bikeshedding? How can you be sure you're not focusing on irrelevant things?

You can't. That's where iterating comes in. even if you do spend 20minutes solving the leaking tap in the bathroom, which is maybe the most irrelevant problem, you only killed 20 minutes.

I would suggest hamming style questions too - to ask "what is the biggest problem?" a few times. Not just listing out the things that are bugging me.

This strategy is not going to work the same if you have a sharp deadline - i.e. an assignment due tomorrow. In a problem-situation with no deadlines - try to work on any one problem for a period of time will work on that one problem.