Self-help, hard and soft

by technicalities1 min read7th Jun 2020No comments



Summary: Four types of trying to be better.

Confidence: 90% that this beats the 0-D or 1-D idea. 50% that this is the best phrasing or 2D projection.

I get annoyed when I click a post and find that it's not a list of things to try, or a cool tool for reasoning or deciding. But I don't endorse this annoyance, and I try to be less narrow.

The following may be helpful if you're like me, and want to understand what people are doing and so circumvent annoyance. (I think it beats "rationality" vs "post-rationality" because it drops the incipient in-group/out-group stuff and focusses on what people are actually doing.)

I began with a vague 1D idea: that there's "hard self-help" (actionable, crisp, objective) and soft self-help (contemplative, vague, subjective). This is really not useful without using two dimensions, though:

External Internal
Legible Lifehacks Techniques
Illegible Attempts Seeking


External Internal
L supplements, exercise, Things I Use, Quantified Self, checklists, Anki, time management, Algos to Live By Models, CBT, bug lists, IDC, Focussing, this 2x2
I brainstorming, CoZe, Oblique Strategies, 'Actually Try', 'Dive In', going with your gut Art, stream entry, Kōans, aphorism, Replacing Guilt


  • This abstraction clearly strains to cover its large, wild, continuous domain.
  • The top axis covers a few things. It could be "Environment optimisation vs Inner alignment", or "Action vs Contemplation", or "Objective vs Subjective".
  • My original name for the left axis was "Algorithm vs Heuristic".
  • The idea of a "Rest Day" is an unambiguous algorithm: 1) Make no appointments; 2) Do what you want. But each instance is different and highly illegible. "Why am I doing this? Because." Outer loop is algo, the inner loop is heuristic.
  • If it worked, biofeedback would be the exemplar of legible-internal.
  • This is probably not the most significant difference beween rationality and post-rationality: that might be "rationality realism vs anti-realism".
  • I have no idea where to put Circling. It's right in the middle.

Build your own typology

  • Particular vs General: Is it targeting one bug or a raised 'waterline'? Object vs Meta level? Incremental or revolution?
  • Objective vs Subjective: Is the target your environment (including the body and habits) or your mind?
  • Action vs Contemplation: Does the idea involve doing things besides thinking or introspection?
  • Algorithmic vs Heuristic: Is the idea a complete recipe or a general prompt?
  • Propositional vs Nonpropositional: Is the target beliefs, skills, plans, or attitudes?
  • Cognitive vs Emotional.
  • System 1 vs System 2: Is the target implicit or explicit?
  • Scientific or Rational evidence: What reason is there to expect it to work?
  • Some feedback or no feedback: how easy is it to check if it works?

Improvements welcome.

Thanks to Misha, Neel and Nandi for helpful comments.