Group Rationality Diary, September 1-15

This is the public group instrumental rationality diary for September 1-15.

It's a place to record and chat about it if you have done, or are actively doing, things like: 

  • Established a useful new habit
  • Obtained new evidence that made you change your mind about some belief
  • Decided to behave in a different way in some set of situations
  • Optimized some part of a common routine or cached behavior
  • Consciously changed your emotions or affect with respect to something
  • Consciously pursued new valuable information about something that could make a big difference in your life
  • Learned something new about your beliefs, behavior, or life that surprised you
  • Tried doing any of the above and failed

Or anything else interesting which you want to share, so that other people can think about it, and perhaps be inspired to take action themselves. Try to include enough details so that everyone can use each other's experiences to learn about what tends to work out, and what doesn't tend to work out.

Thanks to cata for starting the Group Rationality Diary posts, and to commenters for participating.

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A mental habit I've been cultivating for several months with considerable success: "cardinality reduction".

I often find myself in a state where I'm keen to get things done, but there's no obvious next task to work on, and I don't have any specific desire to direct my attention. Bad things can happen in this state. I can start projects (initiate a git repo, open a book, start writing something, etc.), only to discover that I'm not in the mood for that particular type of task, before casting it aside, (perhaps developing an aversion to it in the process), and looking for another potentially abortive task. I can waste a lot of time casting around for the "right" thing to do, after which I feel like I've expended a lot of energy but have nothing to show for it.

Anyway, I've learned to recognise this state, and when it happens I tell myself "just reduce the cardinality of the total set of things that need to be done at some point", (i.e. "find something that needs doing, and do it"). This usually starts out as shallow maintenance tasks, chores, housework, etc., but with some frequency will turn into some complex dependent task lurking at the back of my to-do list. Something gets done, even if it's not what I might have imagined I'd end up doing, and I get my productivity afterglow rather than being frustrated at having wasted an evening not doing very much at all.

"Cardinality reduction" has become such a crystallised concept that I will sometimes schedule an hour of it, safe in the knowledge that afterwards, some progress will have been made on my assorted stuff.

I often find myself in a state where I'm keen to get things done, but there's no obvious next task to work on

This is precisely what the GTD system focuses on.

I have this pattern too.

For parents it is likely easier to switch to a task/chore which needs to be done anyway. That it comes as a welcome distraction doesn't matter too much - if it doesn't interrupt another task. In that case task switching costs can still slow you down too much.

Asked my boss to move me from an hourly contractor position to full-time employee. Then negotiated the salary I was offered and got an extra $4000/year.

Joined Toastmasters and my local Rotary Club.

Toastmasters has been interesting. My local one meets once every two weeks at a small community college. They're a mix of highly religious citizens and highly active citizens with one or two stage-shy older folk. My experience so far has been good. I'll admit that a lot of that probably stems from the group dynamic more than a specific increase in my speaking abilities. They are an approachable group and easy to talk to. Their organization is good and the meetings always (so far) go well. I'll be holding my first speech soon and my only concern is they are very heavy on doling out compliments but can be somewhat lax on critical points. I'll give them six months and see if it pays off in improved public speaking abilities.

Rotary was different. I fell into the Rotary Club. I was invited to speak after taking over the local library and (despite a flub where I forgot a point I was making) it went well. None of the old men nodded off, that I saw. I was invited to come back and was offered to join. I took it. A bit more spur-of-the-moment than I should like, but I did have my reasons. Public libraries depend on community connections, and I feel it is my job to be the library's public persona. It ought to be represented in the community. As with Toastmasters, I will give Rotary six months or so and then analyze my experience and if I or the library have or will gain from continuing on there.

I'm beeminding my bedtime (a Do Less goal pegged to averaging a 1am bedtime or earlier). This lets me go to sleep earlier, instead of waiting til I'm almost too exhausted to go to bed, I spend more time doing both what I enjoy and what is important (since I don't have infinite time), and it makes it socially easy to turn some things down that interfere with my Beeminder-enforced bedtime ("Sorry to cut out early, if I don't make it back soon, my Beeminder will fine me")

Tenuously related: I've been using a Fitbit Flex for the past month, and set it with alarms at midnight and 00:09, between which I should take some melatonin, clean my teeth and start reading something in bed that isn't too stimulating. I still have frequent lapses in sleep discipline, but have found a vibrating device on my wrist a much more visceral nudge than mindfulness alone.

Wanted to experiment with working more often while standing (since I estimated a 40-50% chance this would be a good overall choice, between potential health gains and potential productivity gains). Winced at the thought of buying a $100 piece of furniture that would make this possible. Realized that this equated to about 25 cents a day, even at a relatively conservative value of how often I'd use it. And I would absolutely pay 25 cents per day to RENT this thing.

And now I own the thing! And I'm happy every time I see it, and so far I feel good on days when I use it. Odd that one of my lasting gains from CFAR is being better at spending money.

What product do you use? For good posture, I want the monitor(s) to be much higher than the surface the keyboard lies on, but most standing desks I've seen have just one surface.

I use a cardboard desk from Single-surface, but I'm in the process of setting something up for less neck strain. The desk itself was very cheap and portable.

I've set up Ikea IVAR so that the middle shelf is at a good height for a keyboard when standing up and the top shelf can hold a display. The keyboard height needs to be pretty precise, so the adjustable shelf height is a very nice feature.

If you're not picky about aesthetics, it's almost trivially easy to build a platform for the monitor to go on -- textbooks, sturdy boxes, locker shelves, even small side tables can be stacked atop a keyboard-height platform.

ETA: Obviously, this goes for improving the viewing angles of one's seated workstation too (though it seems like a side table might be a little much.)

I'm not at all picky about aesthetics, just curious about what people use in case I want to make a more expensive purchase in the future. My own setup is this, with which I'm reasonably happy (though I need to get a larger and slightly taller table/dresser/keyboard surface).

headdesk I could also just answer your question I suppose:

I briefly had access to a Fredrik desk from Ikea; it was the right height for me so I didn't examine closely but I'm fairly sure it was adjustable. (But it was only briefly. Hence my box experiments.)

I added in a n hour f the week for grounding and values, in which I meditate, do gratitude journaling, some centering exercises, and read my mission statement.

My other three renewal days (one for tuning my mind with learning, one for tuning my body with exercise, one for emotions where I'm not allowed to work and just have adventures) have proved to be easy ways to start small success spirals, which I can then expand to more than just an hour a week.

About six weeks ago I started using TagTime, a time tracker that pings you at random times. One big advantage of TagTime is that it integrates seamlessly with Beeminder and makes it feasible to beemind lots of things with minimal overhead. (Though if you just want to track productivity and work mostly at a computer, you're better served with RescueTime's Beeminder integration.)

I've also found it informative (and quite pleasantly reinforcing) to plot the general trend of how much time I spend on various things such as work, school, sleep, commuting, standing vs sitting, and so on. I use an R script for that, and have an interactive app for a few time use categories here (sample code here). I've given the link to a few friends, which so far seems to help me make better choices.

Pushing a couple of blogs to Feedly instead of manually checking them has massively reduced the time I spend mindlessly checking the sites, so that is a win. Instead I check Feedly, browse through the titles and read what interests me from time to time. It might be because there is a backlog of blog posts and I manually have to sift through the titles to find those that really interest me. In any case the payoff seems to be much more leveled and thus not as stimulating to the seeking system.

But the win is completely offset by spending the now freed up time browing Lesswrong and Reddit, netting me the same amount of wasted times and useless drivel. It seems like I'll have to find a way to filter the interesting things from those two sites. For LessWrong it will have to be something that notifies me at fixed times whether an interesting discussion has new posts, especially since most of the interesting conversations seem to happen in the comments of the open thread. For Reddit I might make the radical decision to cut it out completely.

Your win isn't completely offset -- you spend more of your time on consuming content and less on fruitless search.

Adventures In HamLand:

  • If you remember when I said I'd start using Google Now for all my reminders.... Well, I tired of its passiveness and resistance to rescheduling, so I resorted to GTasks. I still use Google now for the location-based reminders. The nice thing about GTasks is it doesn't generate any upcoming repeats of a task until I've clicked the last one off. Too many task managers made me choose between accumulating a slew of undone tasks or losing track of whether a task is completed at all.

  • I've been skipping days in the control end of my melatonin self-trial. That slants my results. Recording is easier to forget when I eliminate the 'take melatonin' alarm.

  • I tried to turbo-charge the skill of goal factoring. This went on for a few episodes, until I realized I instead practiced the habit of 'Set a timer, write down a few vague ideas, get swept down a minor train of thought, remember timer and panic, blank out, panic some more...' So I broke it down into steps to practice individually, and then I'll practice transitioning smoothly between steps. Summarized steps: Notice a need to goal-factor, Assign exercise to the proper (timeless) self, prepare mentally and do a first pass of sub-goals, revise list, brainstorm other ways to fill those sub-goals & revise ad infinitum. The eventual goal is to confidently and consistently generate a strong list of purposes and alternatives in the first two minutes of sitting down and thinking about a problem for 5 minutes.

I am establishing a habit with fast execution of (a) noticing how I feel about an object or behavior, (b) estimating how I will feel about it in the future, (c) reacting accordingly.

Early successes include getting rid of a bunch of paper trash, a couple of workouts I would not have done otherwise, and somewhat more judicious snack consumption.