Reply to: A "Failure to Evaluate Return-on-Time" Fallacy
[A] large majority of otherwise smart people spend time doing semi-productive things, when there are massively productive opportunities untapped.
A somewhat silly example: Let's say someone aspires to be a comedian, the best comedian ever, and to make a living doing comedy. He wants nothing else, it is his purpose. And he decides that in order to become a better comedian, he will watch re-runs of the old television cartoon 'Garfield and Friends' that was on TV from 1988 to 1995....
I’m curious as to why.
Why will a randomly chosen eight-year-old fail a calculus test? Because most possible answers are wrong, and there is no force to guide him to the correct answers. (There is no need to postulate a “fear of success”; most ways writing or not writing on a calculus test constitute failure, and so people, and rocks, fail calculus tests by default.)
Why do most of us, most of the time, choose to "pursue our goals" through routes that are far less effective than the routes we could find if we tried? My guess is that here, as with the calculus test, the main problem is that most courses of action are extremely ineffective, and that there has been no strong evolutionary or cultural force sufficient to focus us on the very narrow behavior patterns that would actually be effective.
To be more specific: there are clearly at least some limited senses in which we have goals. We: (1) tell ourselves and others stories of how we’re aiming for various “goals”; (2) search out modes of activity that are consistent with the role, and goal-seeking, that we see ourselves as doing (“learning math”; “becoming a comedian”; “being a good parent”); and sometimes even (3) feel glad or disappointed when we do/don’t achieve our “goals”.
But there are clearly also heuristics that would be useful to goal-achievement (or that would be part of what it means to “have goals” at all) that we do not automatically carry out. We do not automatically:
- (a) Ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve;
- (b) Ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it (“what does it look like to be a good comedian?”) and how we can track progress;
- (c) Find ourselves strongly, intrinsically curious about information that would help us achieve our goal;
- (d) Gather that information (e.g., by asking as how folks commonly achieve our goal, or similar goals, or by tallying which strategies have and haven’t worked for us in the past);
- (e) Systematically test many different conjectures for how to achieve the goals, including methods that aren’t habitual for us, while tracking which ones do and don’t work;
- (f) Focus most of the energy that *isn’t* going into systematic exploration, on the methods that work best;
- (g) Make sure that our "goal" is really our goal, that we coherently want it and are not constrained by fears or by uncertainty as to whether it is worth the effort, and that we have thought through any questions and decisions in advance so they won't continually sap our energies;
- (h) Use environmental cues and social contexts to bolster our motivation, so we can keep working effectively in the face of intermittent frustrations, or temptations based in hyperbolic discounting;
.... or carry out any number of other useful techniques. Instead, we mostly just do things. We act from habit; we act from impulse or convenience when primed by the activities in front of us; we remember our goal and choose an action that feels associated with our goal. We do any number of things. But we do not systematically choose the narrow sets of actions that would effectively optimize for our claimed goals, or for any other goals.
Why? Most basically, because humans are only just on the cusp of general intelligence. Perhaps 5% of the population has enough abstract reasoning skill to verbally understand that the above heuristics would be useful once these heuristics are pointed out. That is not at all the same as the ability to automatically implement these heuristics. Our verbal, conversational systems are much better at abstract reasoning than are the motivational systems that pull our behavior. I have enough abstract reasoning ability to understand that I’m safe on the glass floor of a tall building, or that ice cream is not healthy, or that exercise furthers my goals... but this doesn’t lead to an automatic updating of the reward gradients that, absent rare and costly conscious overrides, pull my behavior. I can train my automatic systems, for example by visualizing ice cream as disgusting and artery-clogging and yucky, or by walking across the glass floor often enough to persuade my brain that I can’t fall through the floor... but systematically training one’s motivational systems in this way is also not automatic for us. And so it seems far from surprising that most of us have not trained ourselves in this way, and that most of our “goal-seeking” actions are far less effective than they could be.
Still, I’m keen to train. I know people who are far more strategic than I am, and there seem to be clear avenues for becoming far more strategic than they are. It also seems that having goals, in a much more pervasive sense than (1)-(3), is part of what “rational” should mean, will help us achieve what we care about, and hasn't been taught in much detail on LW.
So, to second Lionhearted's questions: does this analysis seem right? Have some of you trained yourselves to be substantially more strategic, or goal-achieving, than you started out? How did you do it? Do you agree with (a)-(h) above? Do you have some good heuristics to add? Do you have some good ideas for how to train yourself in such heuristics?
 For example, why do many people go through long training programs “to make money” without spending a few hours doing salary comparisons ahead of time? Why do many who type for hours a day remain two-finger typists, without bothering with a typing tutor program? Why do people spend their Saturdays “enjoying themselves” without bothering to track which of their habitual leisure activities are *actually* enjoyable? Why do even unusually numerate people fear illness, car accidents, and bogeymen, and take safety measures, but not bother to look up statistics on the relative risks? Why do most of us settle into a single, stereotyped mode of studying, writing, social interaction, or the like, without trying alternatives to see if they work better -- even when such experiments as we have tried have sometimes given great boosts?
I'm disappointed at how few of these comments, particularly the highly-voted ones, are about proposed solutions, or at least proposed areas for research. My general concern about the LW community is that it seems much more interested in the fun of debating and analyzing biases, rather than the boring repetitive trial-and-error of correcting them.
Anna's post lays out a particular piece of poor performance which is of core strategic value to pretty much everyone - how to identify and achieve your goals - and which, according to me and many people and authors, can be greatly improved through study and practice. So I'm very frustrated by all the comments about the fact that we're just barely intelligent and debates about the intelligence of the general person. It's like if Eliezer posted about the potential for AI to kill us all and people debated how they would choose to kill us instead of how to stop it from happening.
Sorry, folks, but compared to the self-help/self-development community, Less Wrong is currently UTTERLY LOSING at self-improvement and life optimization. Go spend an hour reading Merlin Mann's site and you'll learn way more instrumental rationality than you do here.... (read more)
I've disappointed in LessWrong too, and it's caused me to come here more and more infrequently. I'm even talking about the lurking. I used to come here every other day, then every week, then it dropped to once a month. This
I get the impression many people either didn't give a shit or despaired about their own ability to function better through any reasonable effort that they dismissed everything that came along. It used to make me really mad, or sad. Probably I took it a little too personally too, because I read a lot of EY's classic posts as inspiration not to fucking despair about what seemed like a permanently ruined future. "tsuyoku naritai" and "isshou kenmei" and "do the impossible" and all that said, look, people out there are working on much harder problems--there's probably a way up and out for you too. The sadness: I wanted other people to get at least that, and the anger--a lot of LessWrongers not seeming to get the point.
On the other hand, I'm pleased with our OvercomingBias/LessWrong meetup group in NYC. I think we do a good job in-person helping other members with practical solutions to problems--how we can all become really successful. ... (read more)
If there are (relative to LW) many good self-help sites and no good sites about rationality as such, that suggests to me LW should focus on rationality as such and leave self-help to the self-help sites. This is compatible with LW's members spending a lot of time on self-help sites that they recommend each other in open threads.
My impression is that there are two good reasons to incorporate productivity techniques into LW, instead of aiming for a separate community specialized in epistemic rationality that complements self-help communities.
Our future depends on producing people who can both see what needs doing (wrt existential risk, and any other high-stakes issues), and can actually do things. This seems far higher probability than “our future depends on creating an FAI team” and than “our future depends on plan X” for any other specific plan X. A single community that teaches both, and that also discusses high-impact philanthropy, may help.
There seems to be a synergy between epistemic and instrumental rationality, in the sense that techniques for each give boosts to the other. Many self-help books, for example, spend much time discussing how to think through painful subjects instead of walling them off (instead of allowing ugh fields to clutter up your to do list, or allowing rationalized “it’s all your fault” reactions to clutter up your interpersonal relations). It would be nice to have a community that could see the whole picture here.
But part of my point is that LW isn't "focusing on rationality", or rather, it is focusing on fun theoretical discussions of rationality rather than practical exercises that are hard to work implement but actually make you more rational. The self-help / life hacking / personal development community is actually better (in my opinion) at helping people become more rational than this site ostensibly devoted to rationality.
Hmm. The self-help / life hacking / personal development community may well be better than LW at focussing on practice, on concrete life-improvements, and on eliciting deep-seated motivation. But AFAICT these communities are not aiming at epistemic rationality in our sense, and are consequently not hitting it even as well as we are. LW, for all its faults, has had fair success at teaching folks how to thinking usefully about abstract, tricky subjects on which human discussions often tend rapidly toward nonsense (e.g. existential risk, optimal philanthropy, or ethics). It has done so by teaching such subskills as:
Well, I think that's the rational thing to do for the vast majority of people. Not only due to public good problems, but because if there's something bad about the world which affects many people negatively, it's probably hard to fix or one of the many sufferers would have already. Whereas your life might not have been fixed just because you haven't tried yet. It's almost always a better use of your resources. Plus "money is the unit of caring", so the optimal way to help a charitable cause is usually to earn your max cash and donate, as opposed to working on it directly.
Agreed. Not just a motivator to help other people - but f2f contact is more inherently about doing, while web forums are more inherently about talking. In person it is much more natural to ask about someone's life and how it is going - which is where interventions happen.
Perhaps. I thi... (read more)
Interestingly, the people who seem most interested in the topic of instrumental rationality never seem to write a lot of posts here, compared to the people interested in epistemic rationality. Maybe that's because you're too busy "doing" to teach (or to ask good open questions), but I'm confident that's not true of all the I-Rationality crowd.
Of course, as an academic, I'm perfectly happy staying on the E-Rationality side.
Instrumental rationality is one of my primary interests here, but I don't post much -- the standard here is too high. All I have to offer is personal anecdotal evidence about various self-help / anti-akrasia techniques I tried on myself, and I always feel a bit guilty when posting them because unsubstantiated other-optimizing is officially frowned upon here. Attempting to extract any deep wisdom from these anecdotes would be generalizing from one example.
An acceptable way to post self-help on LW would be in the form of properly designed, properly conducted long-term studies of self-help techniques. However, designing and conducting such studies is a full-time job which ideally requires a degree in experimental psychology.
If that's true, we absolutely need to lower the bar for such posts. Three good sorts of posts that are not terribly difficult are: (1) a review of a good self-help book and what you personally took from it; (2) a few-sentence summary of an academic study on an income-boosting technique, a method for improving your driving safety, or other useful content, with a link to the same; or (3) a description of self-intervention you tried and tracked impacts from, quantified self style.
I can think of at least 3 ways that people fail to make strategic, effective decisions.
(as the above post pointed out) it's difficult to analyze options (or even to come up with some of them), for any number of reasons: too many of them (and too little time), lack of information, unforeseeable secondary consequences, etc.. One can do one's best in the most rational fashion, but still comes out with a wrong choice. That's unfortunate, but if this is the only kind of mistakes I am making, i am not too worried. it's a matter of learning better heuristics, building better models, gathering more data... or, in the limit, admitting that there's a limit to how much human intelligence and limited time/resources can go, even if correctly applied to problems.
A second, more worrisome, mistake is not to even realize that one can step out of one's immediate reactions, stop whatever one's doing, and think about the rationality of it, and alternatives. This mistake differs from (1). As a hypothetical example, suppose the wannabe comedian generated a list of things he could do, and decided to watch the Garfield cartoon. His choice might be wrong, but it's a conscious, deliberate choice that h
A few years ago, Paul Graham wrote an essay about type (3) failures which he referred to as type-B procrastination. I've found that just having a label helps me avoid or reduce the effect, e.g. "I could be productive and creative right now instead of wasting my time on type-B procrastination" or "I will give myself exactly this much type-B procrastination as a reward for good behavior, and then I will stop."
(Embarrassing aside: I hadn't looked at the essay for several years and only now realized that I've been mentally calling it type-A procrastination this whole time.)
EDIT: The essay goes on to link type-C procrastination with doing the impossible, yielding a nice example of how I-rationality and self-help are linked.
 Paul Graham, Good and Bad Procrastination
There's an important piece missing from the articles analysis.
As humans we are inherently social in nature.
We delegate a lot of our reasoning to the wider social group around us. This is more energy efficient.
The article asks 'why do many people go through long training programs "to make money" without spending a few hours doing salary comparisons ahead of time'. We do long training programs (eg, college degrees) mostly because they are socially esteemed. This social esteem serves as a proxy to their worth, and its typically information that has a lower personal cost to obtain, than going and looking at salary surveys.
The reason we do so little systematic testing for ourselves is that we have trusted our wider social grouping to do it for us. I don't find a rational argument about the bungie jump mechanism nearly as compelling evidence of safety, as I do my talking with enthusiastic friend who has done it 20 times. If I was to learn about my cars braking mechanism in sufficient detail to convince myself of why it worked, I would never go anywhere. Instead, I see others who I trust driving the car, and 'delegate' to them.
This is simply a heuristic. It doesn't always wo... (read more)
This strikes me as half right. Specifically: Yes, we often use social indicators to take the place of personal reasoning. And, yes, these indicators are better than nothing. But given the rapid (relative to the EEA) of change in e.g. what jobs pay well, what we know about how to avoid accidents, what skills can boost your productivity (e.g., typing on computers is now important, and, thus, it's important to learn more than two-fingered typing), etc., and the fact that social recommendations update fairly slowly, it seems that most on this site can do far better by adding some internet research and conscious thought to standard socially recommended productivity heuristics.
This a point I've been thinking about a lot recently - that the time between the evolution of a species whose smartest members crossed the finish line into general intelligence, and today, is a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, and therefore we should expect to find that we are roughly as stupid as it's possible to be and still have some of us smart enough to transform the world. You refer to it here in a way that suggests this is a well-understood point - is this point discussed more explicitly elsewhere?
It occurs to me that this is one reason we suffer from the "parochial intelligence scale" Eliezer complains about - that the difference in effect between being just barely at the point of having general intelligence and being slightly better than that is a lot, even if the difference in absolute capacity is slight.
I wonder how easy it would be to incorporate this point into my spiel for newcomers about why you should worry about AGI - what inferential distances am I missing?
To be fair, the races of Middle-Earth weren't created by evolution, so the criticism isn't fully valid. Ilúvatar gave the dwarves spirits but set them to sleep so that they wouldn't awaken before the elves. It's not unreasonable to assume that as he did so, he also made them admire elven beauty.
Why do humans think dolphins are beautiful?
Is a human likely to think that one specific dolphin is so beautiful as to be almost worth fighting a duel about it being the most beautiful?
Well, elves were intelligently designed to specifically be attractive to humans...
But she doesn't even have a beard!
but he did have a preoccupation with her hair...
This seems a bad example to use given the context. If you are trying to convince people that greater than human intelligence will give AIs an insurmountable advantage over even the smartest humans then drawing attention to a supposed idiot who became the most powerful man in the world for 8 years raises the question of whether you either don't know what intelligence is or vastly overestimate its ability to grant real world power.
I woke up this morning with a set of goals. After reading this post, my goals abruptly pivoted: I had a strong desire to compose a reply. I like this post and think it is an excellent and appropriate reply to Lionhearted's (also a nice post), and would have liked to proffer some different perspectives. Realizing that this was an exciting but transient passion, I didn't allow my goals to be updated and persisted in my previous plans. An hour or two into my morning's work, I finally recalled the motivation behind my original goals and was grateful. It took some time, though, before I felt emotionally that I had chosen the right set of goals for my morning. Working through those transient periods of no-emotional-reward is tough. You need to have faith in the goal decisions of previous selves, but not too much.
The fact that we so blatantly fail to optimize for using reason to solve our problems, and so effortlessly use it to rationalize our actions, is another strong piece of evidence for the thesis that reasoning evolved primarily for arguing.
There's a reason why we don't think strategically, and it's actually a very good reason and is unfortunately why we will never have an innately strategic mentality: cost. Specifically, the cost of time. i.e. it's always cheaper in terms of time to make a correct lucky guess on the first try than to work out a solution properly over a significant length of time.
Imagine there was a such thing as a lucky charm, and by holding it, you were, say, 70% more likely to always get the right answer on your calculus test without even needing to completely understand the problem. In this situation, taking the calculus test would take you just a few minutes, and you'd still score well enough to pass the class. In fact, you could take the entire years worth of tests, perhaps, in the same amount of time that it takes the rest of the students to work their way through the first one, yet still most likely pass. Your lucky charm didn't give you the best grade, but it allowed you to quickly solve all the problems you needed to solve and now you can spend the rest of the year taking other classes.
Well, the thing is, the human mind has evolved just such a "lucky charm", specifically our... (read more)
Part of it is that achieving success through means other than the standard things you're supposed to achieve success by doing well at can feel like cheating, possibly for some sort of signaling reason. Part of it is there are serious psychological and social costs not only to doing things that other people don't do, but to doing things for different kinds of reasons. Part of it is you're suggesting the benefits of what you call being strategic are larger than they really are by focusing on available cases where it changed someone's life and ignoring a great many forgettable and hard to pinpoint cases where it was just a time/energy sink, or where considering it was a time/energy sink, or where there was good reason to believe the relevant strategy had already been taken into account by whatever caused you to be doing the default thing, or where there seemed to be such good reason absent an appreciation of the world's madness.
I think you're underestimating the average person.
I might well be. Given the value of empiricism-type virtues, anyone want to go test it (by creating an operationalized notion of what it is to understand the heuristics, and then finding randomly choosing several people independently from e.g. your local grocery store and testing it on them), and let us know the results?
Jasen Murray and Marcello and I tried this the other day concerning what portion of native English speaking American adults know what a "sphere" is ("a ball" or "orange-shaped" count; "a circle" doesn't), and found that of the five we sampled, three knew and two didn't.
I once taught middle- and high-school teachers who wanted to get certified to teach math. I was a TA for a class in geometry (basically 8th or 9th grade Euclidean geometry.) I had an incredibly hard time explaining to them that "draw a circle with center point A" means that A goes in the middle of the circle, instead of on the boundary. As I recall, it took more than a week of daily problem sessions before they got that.
Of course, I may have been a bad teacher. But I was trying.
Did the ones who failed to give correct answers say something like "a species of worm found in south America," or did they refrain altogether from answering--possibly from fear of a trick question, or that they might be asked to explain the Banach-Tarski theorem about sphere doubling via the axiom of choice if they worded their answer in a way vulnerable to that?
Did you hold clipboards or wear lab coats while doing the questioning?
We tried to be friendly and unintimidating and, if asked, we explained with a bit of embarrassment that it had to do with a bet. Many just assumed we needed to know what a "sphere" was, though. We might have said we weren't looking for a fancy answer, I'm not sure. (Ideal, if you want to repeat this experiment, would be to get a child to do the asking and to say it's for their homework or something.) I don't clearly remember what wrong answers we got; it's possible that someone said "Does it mean circle-shaped?" but couldn't give follow-up detail and someone else, who looked rather blank, said something like "Um. 'Sphere?' Do you know what that is, Frank?" and then asked the man she was with, who answered correctly.
Like SarahC, I used to tutor folks who were en route to becoming high school math teachers, and who had to pass a math exam to be allowed to teach. Many of them genuinely didn't know what a sphere was, in the sense that often their eyes would light up if I told them that "sphere" meant "ball-shaped" (and, if I didn't, they would memorize the formula for the volume of a sphere but would often not know they could app... (read more)
...in the weeks and months that followed, San Franciscans became accustomed to being accosted and asked a brief series of questions by a friendly young person carrying an archival quality notebook and wearing a clown suit.
... I think San Franciscans are already accustomed to that. It's just that kind of place.
Is it really fair to say there has been "no strong evolutionary or cultural force sufficient to focus us on the very narrow behavior patterns that would actually be effective"?
Clearly we've evolved the ability (trainable hardware) to do the kind of planning, abstract reasoning, and analysis that would help us find these optimal courses of action. Furthermore, we've evolved the tendency to do a fair amount of this (compared to other life forms) automatically.
This isn't just a hardcoded ability to execute plans that bring food, shelter, and sex. If you decide you want a new pair of shoes, it's trivial for you to mentally construct and carry out the relatively complex (again, comparing to other species) plan required for you to get them. You'll even carry out some optimizations without too much effort ("wait, there's a closer shoe store east of here").
While it's trivially true that we haven't evolved to automatically seek the optimum path in all things (which there might be a good reason for, e.g. time-constraints on assessing and choosing paths), I think it's fair to say evolution has given us a running start.
And the selective pressures are pretty clear: somethi... (read more)
Here's a strategic thing I figured out:
When I wake up really early, I get a lot more work done because the morning hours have no distractions and I feel like I'm ahead of the day, like I'm using 100% of the possible day.
Therefore I wake up really early now - 3-5am.
The deciding factor there is likely to be biochemistry, not environment. Many people simply can't be very productive late at night. They run into issues like caffeine crashes, as well as other biochemical fatigue causes that're harder to identify.
I've wrestled with this disparity myself, the distance between my goals and my actions. I'm quite emotional and when my goals and my emotions are aligned I'm capable of rapid and tireless productivity. At the same time my passions are fickle and frequently fail to match what I might reason out. Over the years I've tried to exert my will over them, developing emotionally powerful personal stories and habits to try and control them. But every time I have done so it tends to cause more problems that it fixes. I experience a lot of stress fighting with myself in this way and quickly lose the ability to maintain perspective or, more importantly, to prioritise. My reason becomes a tunnel visioned rationalisation, and rather than being a tool for appropriate action becomes a tool to reinforce an unwise initial judgement of my priorities.
More recently, I've come to accept that my conscious reasoning self is, to an extent, a passenger in an emotional mind. What's more, that that emotional mind often has a much more sophisticated understanding of what will lead to a satisfying future than my own reasoning can provide. If I have the patience to listen (and occasionally offer it suggestions) I... (read more)
I agree with all of this.
At my organization, the leaders regularly (every 3-12 months) get together and say "what have we been doing? Is it the most useful thing? If not (as has always been the case when we've done this) why not? how can we do better". We always find ourselves having made substantial errors, and over our 2+ years have found that our activities are slowly getting more focused on what matters - although still much less than we'd like.
Personally, the standard goal-setting / time-management techniques don't work great for me, but they are better than nothing. At least yearly, I explicitly review my life goals and annual sub-goals, which has some effectiveness. I keep them printed out on my laptop, which has had no effect. I have been experimenting lately with tracking time spent on each project (the Pomodoro Technique), which has been going quite well - it is harder to deny that you aren't working on the right thing when the timer is staring you in the face saying "I am off because you are not working on one of your projects, you mus... (read more)
It has little to contribute about what to work on when and how to make that happen. I'm somewhat ADHD, so my problems are filtering my mass of ideas, and focusing on the ones that are most important, not most shiny. Tracking all my to-dos just results in my having lots of long lists of things I will never do. GTD has a teeny bit of this with their 50,000 foot through 10,000 foot review, but it mostly ignores the question of "how do I decide what to do, what to defer, and what do dump?", and to me that's the crux.
Contrast with something like "Eat That Frog!" which is about repeating again and again the simple message that if you focus your time working on the most useful task for your most important project, you will be much more productive. (Plus various heuristics for identifying such projects, such tasks, and building up the habit). It's a very simple message, yet following it, for me, yields much greater productivity returns than GTD.
Thanks for the list, and to you and Lionhearted for the posts. I haven't yet figured it all out. But I'm trying to get started on this approach:
Time "working toward your goals" as you usually do is habitual. There's no harm in writing out a calendar for your pre-existing habits, and it's probably very useful for most people to do so to form new habits. My system mostly revolves around calendars.
In my calendar, the habit I've written in is a bit of planning or "meta" time. Twice a week, I plan out a full week. By re-evaluating the course of action half-way through, I'm hoping it should be easier to track where I go off-track.
Once a month, this planning time must include meta-planning. During this time, the idea is to review that my planning method is the most effective. This is the time for reviewing the past month's calendar, and also for reading any books on planning.
As for evaluating sub-goals, I've decided that the best step after some initial self-reflection is consultation. Therapy/coaching can be valuable for anyone working to solve an internal problem that defends itself, and it seems prudent to gain what I can from professional guidance. I've stated that... (read more)
Having regular time which is explicitly for planning, not working, is vital. Daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly seems to work pretty well. Daily - what are my most important tasks? Weekly - how did the last week go? What are my critical projects/tasks for next week? And so forth. That's one of the simple-but-massively-effective insights of things like GTD, even though I disagree with their tactics - regularly spend time explicitly planning rather than working.
Perhaps the only way to train yourself to achieve long-term goals is to use short-term motivation to improve your automatic behaviours, instead of trying to train ourselves to have motivational systems that work on long-term multi-step plans.
What if we broke down the action steps of your algorithm into:
I think you rather overstate your case here. When you say:
I'm not sure who you are referring to by 'we'. Most of these tactics are fairly commonly advised by everything from management and business books to self help and sports training. Some of them are things that come naturally to me and seem to come naturally to quite a few other people I know ... (read more)
I agree that many of these heuristics are discussed in the business and self-help literatures reasonably often. My point was simply that we for the most part do not automatically implement them -- humans seem not to come with goal-achievement software in that sense -- and so it should not be surprising that most human "goal-achievement" efforts are tremendously inefficient. These heuristics are relatively obvious to our verbal/analytic reasoning faculties when we bother to think about them, but, absent training, are mostly not part of our automatic reward-gradients and motives.
If you find that e.g. (a) and (c) come fairly naturally to you, ask yourself why, and see if you can spell out the mechanics in ways that may work for more of us. The question here isn't "are (a)-(h) novel ideas that demonstrate amazing original insight?" but rather: "how can we get our brains to automatically, habitually, reliably, carry out heuristics such as (a)-(h), which seem to offer straight-forward gains in goal-achievement but seem not to be what we automatically find ourselves doing".
Don't ask what will make you happy, ask what future conditions you would prefer to experience, and what self-descriptions you would prefer to judge yourself as having.
Why? Because our brains aren't evolved to optimize happiness, they're evolved to steer the world to more-preferred states, and to optimize our expectations of others' perception of us. So if you start from those points, your inquiry (and subsequent optimizations) will benefit from hardware assistance.
(Whereas, if you try to optimize "what will make me happy", your brain will get confused, and/or try to optimize what things, socially speaking are "supposed to" make you happy, i.e. what your brain expects would cause your peers/tribe members to judge you as being happy.)
More examples please in the likes of . I am bright enough to understand them, but not to come up with too many on my own.
I disagree - I think that people usually do know how they could be more productive. This argument is really about people who TALK versus people who DO - the talkers know that optimally they should be "do"ing. But, being a sheep (talker) is BORING, and being a fox (do-er) is LONELY.
In the author's example, the comedian knows that watching re-runs is the easy way out. He'll be bored, but he'll learn a little bit and he can tell his friends he's working.
He also knows that, ideally, he'd be working comedy all the time instead. But he's already workin... (read more)
What do you do when the answer to (a) is "Nothing in particular"?
Keep introspecting. If you find yourself preferring to e.g. play a video game, rather than to lie in bed, there's a reason you prefer it. Micro-goals count too.
I predict with p=0.95 that you have at least one micronutrient deficiency which is greatly contributing to your depression, and that starting to take a multivitamin regularly would be enormously to your benefit. I predict with p=0.6 that you are specifically deficient in thiamine, and that a single dose of sulbutiamine (a molecule that crosses the blood-brain barrier and then breaks into two thiamine molecules) would cause a large and sudden reduction in your depression. I am basing this on my own experience with thiamine deficiency (caused by T1 diabetes), which produced in me a specific type of apathy which I recognize in your comments.
Unless you either lied about taking a multivitamin to your current doctor, or ignored their advice to take one, fire him or her and find a new one. Also, thoroughly research every drug you're currently taking. At a minimum, search for the name of each one on PubMed, skim the first few pages of titles and read some of the abstracts. Don't adjust anything without consulting a qualified doctor, but do make sure to have that consultation.
Following up on this may be the most important thing you ever do.
EDIT: One other thing - if you're on antidepressants, you should be getting blood work, of the "large checklist of tests" variety, done on a regular basis. Make sure your TSH has been tested at least once in the past two years (result will be interesting with p=0.1, but very interesting if it is).
I have been getting blood work; everything always comes out just fine. (Yes, thyroid hormone is one of the things that's been checked.) And none of the many doctors I've been dragged to have told me to take vitamins, although my psychiatrist has occasionally asked about my diet. There are multivitamins in my house, but I stopped taking them a long time ago because they're these really annoying, very large chewable tablets the size of quarters.
In terms of vitamin deficiency, I'm actually most suspicious of vitamin B12. Both my maternal grandmother and my mother have low levels and get B12 injections regularly. (My mom is currently 60.) I once asked my psychiatrist to have my B12 checked, but I don't think it actually has been.
Also, the basic effect of my antidepressants has been "Well, I am more cheerful now, but my life still sucks every bit as much as it did when I wasn't taking them." I'll quote a doctor's anecdote:... (read more)
I expect physicians to be bewildered rather a lot. I spent years severely anemic. My father is an MD, my uncle is an MD, I saw a variety of doctors during this time, I was eating cups and cups and cups of ice every single day and was unremittingly tired and ghostly pale, partway through I became a vegetarian - and it took the Red Cross's little machine that goes beep to figure out that maybe I wasn't getting enough iron. I have a vast host of symptoms less serious than that which no doctor, med student, or random interlocutor has been able to offer plausible guesses about.
I expect bewildered people to make things up.
I would go as high as 0.3 if you extend to third world countries, but suspect it's lower among people like ChronoDAS who can afford a variety of food. Either way, it's good enough.
The law of conditional probability indicates that you think that a minimum of 75% of the population takes a multivitamin. I think this is way too high, especially for a population that has a 20% micronutrient deficiency rate.
So the rate of depression among those with micronutrient deficiencies (and who don't take their vitamins) is about 119% that of the general population? I can buy that, but if it's that low, then why are you so sure that a micronutrient deficiency is "greatly contributing" to his depression?
I agree that there's no harm in having CronoDAS gather data or experiment a little, since sulbutiamine seems to have very few negative side effects with recommended doses.
My main reason for brining it up is that I see some very high probabilities tossed about on Less Wrong, and it bothers me when I feel like they're assigning numbers that ... (read more)
How has your strategy (a-h) changed since you wrote this? Are there resources you can share for learning to be more strategic? A method for finding quality resources? Methods for practicing and assessing strategic skill?
Thanks for writing this. It has enabled me to articulate the rationales behind a lot of the "crazy" thoughts I have. For example:
People are horrible at choosing careers. They hardly explore their options at all, and thus limit themselves greatly.
People are bad at choosing who their girl/boyfriends are. They make decisions impulsively based on romantic love when the should really be considering the expected value of true attachment. A lot of times it seems that certain relationships "work", but are clearly suboptimal. Also,
Very interesting and revealing post. (I'm new)
I recently picked up a habit that makes me more strategic and goal-achieving that might be useful to share.
I have instated a rule to start the day by: Making a list of options of things that I could do and ranking them in importance and how much effort they cost, and then the rule is to do the most important / greatest effort or unpleasant first. Then, when I have done it, I have moved toward my goal and feel better about myself. Before doing this, I would choose what to do based on what you WANT to do fi... (read more)
What a thought provoking article. Thank you so much for writing this. I am especially interested in the question "why do people spend their Saturdays 'enjoying themselves' without bothering to track which of their habitual leisure activities are actually enjoyable. When I was younger I spent a large amount of my summer vacation and weekends playing Call of Duty Modern Warfare online. The bizarre thing was that I would always stop infuriated. It did not make me happy. In fact, there are few things more infuriating than what you hear while playing an ... (read more)
This was a magnificent post, Anna. I'd like to write a longer reply and more analysis later, but for the moment I wanted to say this was really fantastic and amazing, and there's wisdom and insight packed very densely here. Thank you for writing this up, it's inspiring and insightful.
Disease, motor vehicles, and humans are very dangerous. Currently, everyone dies eventually(1), and almost everyone who dies is killed by one of these three things. The CDC has charts about this. See 10 Leading Causes of Death by Age Group, United States – 2007. Boxes that aren't one of the Big Three Of Doom are extremely rare. This chart breaks down the unintentional injuries. As you can s... (read more)
I agree plane crash concerns are generally more irrational. But I mean... take me, for example. I know plane crashes and sharks are mostly negligible while car accidents and humans present larger risks; that much information reached me be accident. But, even though I regularly go out of my way to "reduce my risk from car accidents", I haven't ever bothered to look up info on e.g. which lane is safest to drive in, or how accident rates scale with sleep deprivation, or which freeways near my home present the largest risk. I'm motivated to do activities I associate with driving safety, but not to systematically estimate and reduce the risks. If a book was published on how to actually reduce my risk, I might read it, but more because it fits my identity as an aspiring rationalist and an aspiring goal-oriented person than than to, you know, actually reduce my risk of death. Which is the point.
In my case, I don't run into "not being able to make myself pursue my goals effectively" a whole lot. What I do run into a lot is, "not being able to figure out what goals I actually want to pursue."
I think that what's going on is this in part. When I find resistance within myself to pursuing some goal (which I read into the comedian watching reruns), I take that as evidence that this goal isn't what I'm really after. I don't spend a lot of time in a state of trying to make myself do something, because of my assumption that whatever I r... (read more)
On Hacker News: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1673144
I really enjoyed your writing :)
Thanks so much for writing this great article! I'm new so for all of you this is an old hat. I want to add my 2ct anyways.
The above mentioned steps are the best system for progressing in life in general which I was able to find so far. I've read and applied lots of self-help in recent years and I can definitely agree that applying the theory is incredible hard (and I fail at that like >... (read more)
Because science shows, that being a two-finger typists can be of comparable speed of a ten-finger typist. I'm guilty of being a two-finger typists. But I'm also guilty of having learned the 10 finger way, practicing ot for days ongoing and then just dropping it when I realized that "this learning curve is way to steep for my 5 % realistic speed improvements".
Besides I figured "why the heck do I need to write fast anyways? 9... (read more)
I automatically do points (a) through (h).
I have always automatically done points (a) through (h).
I always attributed this to the fact that I had no identity with which to value particular opinions with. As impossible as I already know it is for anyone to accept, you have to let go of the idea that your opinions are even remotely correct. Not because your opinions are incorrect, but because you will not be able to effectively correct them until you accept that they could all be just outright blatantly wrong. But if I say it that way, you'll try to retai... (read more)
I've found that the most helpful thing for me in achieving my goals seems to be picking the right goals to begin with. I try to find goals that I really care about with a large portion of my being, rather than goals that only a small portion of my being cares about. This requires a fair amount of introspection. What do I want? It's not an easy question; counterintuitively, we don't know what we want. But, if I know what I want, then I can get it.
I'll give a couple examples. I used to have the conscious goal, "write music." My real goals, though I... (read more)
In common with all animal species, our sensory perceptual interpretation and behavioural action is also recognisable in basic physiological structure of (a) the peripheral nervous system, in our case the eyes, ears etc., and (b) parts of the central nervous systems, frontal lobes, the visual cortex, hypothalamus, amygdala, etc. that are within the brain. These are significant and extensive hardwired components. Using these structures, we can detect, recognise and evaluate a huge number of sensory patterns. For each of us these patterns are given emotion... (read more)
I think the term "abstract reasoning" is being conflated with acting on good or bad information (among other things). E.g., in most cases, one basically has to take it on faith ice cream is good or bad. And since most people aren't in a position to rationally make a confident choice re: the examples the author provides or comparable ones that could be imagined, agnosticism would seem the only rational alternative.*
More generally, I think a lot of these problems stem from radically defective education (if people aren't merely mostly morons as ... (read more)
Well put. I've realized that really planning (and acting) in order to reach hard goals, is something I almost never do. Most of the time I'm just working on what feels most rewarding locally.... (read more)
The calculus example is a good one for examining goal-achievement.
I am currently taking Calculus 2, Integration by Trigonometric Substitution is one of the methods.
The textbook I am using is very Implicit in examples explaining this method, and I have thought many times about how much easier it would be if it were to use more Explicit examples.
Implicit examples by nature take more time and effort than explicit examples, making the implicit less likely to be chosen than the explicit.
It would have to be one very highly motivated 8-year-old to pass the calcul... (read more)
Doing things the wrong way is a good way of discovering new ways and ideas. If we were programmed to go always in the right direction we couldn't explore the landscape and we should be trapped in a local minima. Random behaviour is part of an intelligent design to evolve and mature. Humour is a way of jumping across island of rationality.