The January 2013 CFAR workshop: one-year retrospective

by Qiaochu_Yuan5 min read18th Feb 201418 comments


Postmortems & RetrospectivesCenter for Applied Rationality (CFAR)

About a year ago, I attended my first CFAR workshop and wrote a post about it here. I mentioned in that post that it was too soon for me to tell if the workshop would have a large positive impact on my life. In the comments to that post, I was asked to follow up on that post in a year to better evaluate that impact. So here we are!

Very short summary: overall I think the workshop had a large and persistent positive impact on my life. 

Important caveat

However, anyone using this post to evaluate the value of going to a CFAR workshop themselves should be aware that I'm local to Berkeley and have had many opportunities to stay connected to CFAR and the rationalist community. More specifically, in addition to the January workshop, I also

  • visited the March workshop (and possibly others),
  • attended various social events held by members of the community,
  • taught at the July workshop, and
  • taught at SPARC.

These experiences were all very helpful in helping me digest and reinforce the workshop material (which was also improving over time), and a typical workshop participant might not have these advantages. 

Answering a question

pewpewlasergun wanted me to answer the following question:

I'd like to know how many techniques you were taught at the meetup you still use regularly. Also which has had the largest effect on your life.

The short answer is: in some sense very few, but a lot of the value I got out of attending the workshop didn't come from specific techniques. 

In more detail: to be honest, many of the specific techniques are kind of a chore to use (at least as of January 2013). I experimented with a good number of them in the months after the workshop, and most of them haven't stuck (but that isn't so bad; the cost of trying a technique and finding that it doesn't work for you is low, while the benefit of trying a technique and finding that it does work for you can be quite high!). One that has is the idea of a next action, which I've found incredibly useful. Next actions are the things that to-do list items should be, say in the context of using Remember The Milk. Many to-do list items you might be tempted to right down are difficult to actually do because they're either too vague or too big and hence trigger ugh fields. For example, you might have an item like

  • Do my taxes

that you don't get around to until right before you have to because you have an ugh field around doing your taxes. This item is both too vague and too big: instead of writing this down, write down the next physical action you need to take to make progress on this item, which might be something more like

  • Find tax forms and put them on desk

which is both concrete and small. Thinking in terms of next actions has been a huge upgrade to my GTD system (as was Workflowy, which I also started using because of the workshop) and I do it constantly. 

But as I mentioned, a lot of the value I got out of attending the workshop was not from specific techniques. Much of the value comes from spending time with the workshop instructors and participants, which had effects that I find hard to summarize, but I'll try to describe some of them below: 

Emotional attitudes

The workshop readjusted my emotional attitudes towards several things for the better, and at several meta levels. For example, a short conversation with a workshop alum completely readjusted my emotional attitude towards both nutrition and exercise, and I started paying more attention to what I ate and going to the gym (albeit sporadically) for the first time in my life not long afterwards. I lost about 15 pounds this way (mostly from the eating part, not the gym part, I think). 

At a higher meta level, I did a fair amount of experimenting with various lifestyle changes (cold showers, not shampooing) after the workshop and overall they had the effect of readjusting my emotional attitude towards change. I find it generally easier to change my behavior than I used to because I've had a lot of practice at it lately, and am more enthusiastic about the prospect of such changes. 

(Incidentally, I think emotional attitude adjustment is an underrated component of causing people to change their behavior, at least here on LW.)

Using all of my strength

The workshop is the first place I really understood, on a gut level, that I could use my brain to think about something other than math. It sounds silly when I phrase it like that, but at some point in the past I had incorporated into my identity that I was good at math but absentminded and silly about real-world matters, and I used it as an excuse not to fully engage intellectually with anything that wasn't math, especially anything practical. One way or another the workshop helped me realize this, and I stopped thinking this way. 

The result is that I constantly apply optimization power to situations I wouldn't have even tried to apply optimization power to before. For example, today I was trying to figure out why the water in my bathroom sink was draining so slowly. At first I thought it was because the strainer had become clogged with gunk, so I cleaned the strainer, but then I found out that even with the strainer removed the water was still draining slowly. In the past I might've given up here. Instead I looked around for something that would fit farther into the sink than my fingers and saw the handle of my plunger. I pumped the handle into the sink a few times and some extra gunk I hadn't known was there came out. The sink is fine now. (This might seem small to people who are more domestically talented than me, but trust me when I say I wasn't doing stuff like this before last year.)

Reflection and repair

Thanks to the workshop, my GTD system is now robust enough to consistently enable me to reflect on and repair my life (including my GTD system). For example, I'm quicker to attempt to deal with minor medical problems I have than I used to be. I also think more often about what I'm doing and whether I could be doing something better. In this regard I pay a lot of attention in particular to what habits I'm forming, although I don't use the specific techniques in the relevant CFAR unit.

For example, at some point I had recorded in RTM that I was frustrated by the sensation of hours going by without remembering how I had spent them (usually because I was mindlessly browsing the internet). In response, I started keeping a record of what I was doing every half hour and categorizing each hour according to a combination of how productively and how intentionally I spent it (in the first iteration it was just how productively I spent it, but I found that this was making me feel too guilty about relaxing). For example:

  • a half-hour intentionally spent reading a paper is marked green.
  • a half-hour half-spent writing up solutions to a problem set and half-spent on Facebook is marked yellow. 
  • a half-hour intentionally spent playing a video game is marked with no color.
  • a half-hour mindlessly browsing the internet when I had intended to do work is marked red. 

The act of doing this every half hour itself helps make me more mindful about how I spend my time, but having a record of how I spend my time has also helped me notice interesting things, like how less of my time is under my direct control than I had thought (but instead is taken up by classes, commuting, eating, etc.). It's also easier for me to get into a success spiral when I see a lot of green. 


Being around workshop instructors and participants is consistently intellectually stimulating. I don't have a tactful way of saying what I'm about to say next, but: two effects of this are that I think more interesting thoughts than I used to and also that I'm funnier than I used to be. (I realize that these are both hard to quantify.) 


I worry that I haven't given a complete picture here, but hopefully anything I've left out will be brought up in the comments one way or another. (Edit: this totally happened! Please read Anna Salamon's comment below.) 

Takeaway for prospective workshop attendees

I'm not actually sure what you should take away from all this if your goal is to figure out whether you should attend a workshop yourself. My thoughts are roughly this: I think attending a workshop is potentially high-value and therefore that even talking to CFAR about any questions you might have is potentially high-value, in addition to being relatively low-cost. If you think there's even a small chance you could get a lot of value out of attending a workshop I recommend that you at least take that one step.