The "What is Rationality?" page on the new CFAR website contains an illuminating story about Intel:

Semiconductor giant Intel was originally a memory chip manufacturer. But by 1985, memory chips had been losing them money for years. Co-founders Andy Grove (CEO) and Gordon Moore met to discuss the problem. The mood was grim. At one point, Andy turned to Gordon and asked, “If we get kicked out and the board brings in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?”

Gordon replied without hesitation. “He would get us out of the memory business.”

“Okay,” said Andy. “Then why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back, and do it ourselves?”

That year, Andy and Gordon shifted the focus of the company to microprocessors, and created one of the greatest success stories in American business.

I presume Andy and Gordon had considered intervening at many different levels of action: in middle management, in projects, in products, in details, etc. They had probably implemented some of these plans, too. But the problem with Intel — it was in the wrong market! — was so deep that the place to intervene was at a very low level, the foundations of the entire company. It's possible that in this situation, no change they could have made at higher levels of action would have made that big of a difference compared to changing the company's market and mission.

In 1997, system analyst Donella Meadows wrote Places to Intervene in a System, in which she outlined twelve leverage points at which one could intervene in a system. Different levels of action, she claimed, would have effects of different magnitudes.

This got me thinking about levels of action and self-improvement. "I want to improve myself: where should I intervene in my own system next?"

My bet is that if the next greatest leverage point you can push on is something like neurofeedback, then you're pretty damn self-optimized already.

In fact, I suspect almost nobody is that self-optimized. We do things like neurofeedback because (1) we don't think enough about choosing the highest-leverage self-interventions, (2) in any case, we don't know how to figure out which interventions would be higher leverage for ourselves, (3) even if there are higher-leverage interventions to be had, we might not successfully carry them through, but neurofeedback or whatever happens to be fun and engaging for us, and (3) sometimes, you gotta stop analyzing your situation and just do some stuff that looks like it might help.

Anyway, how can one figure out what the next highest-leverage self-interventions are for oneself? Maybe I just haven't yet found the right keywords, but I don't think there's been much research on this topic.

Intuitively, it seems like hacking one's motivational system is among the highest leverage interventions one can make, because high motivation allows on to carry through with lots of other interventions, and without sufficient motivation one can't follow through with many interventions.

But if you've got a crippling emotional or physical condition, I suppose you've got to take care of that first — at least well enough to embark on the project of hacking your motivation system.

Or, if you're in a crippling environment like North Korea or Nigeria or Detroit, then perhaps the highest level intervention for you is to get up and move someplace better. Only then will you be able to fix your emotions or hack your motivational system or whatever.

Maybe there's something of a system to this that hasn't been discovered, or maybe there's no system at all because humans are too complex. I'm still in brainstorm mode on this topic.

  • What do you think are some generally highest-level self-improvement interventions that more people should be tackling before things like neurofeedback?
  • What algorithm could be used for discovering the next best intervention one can make to improve oneself?
  • Has there been any research on this issue?

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The highest-level hack I've found useful is to make a habit of noticing and recording the details of any part of my life that gives me trouble. It's amazing how quickly patterns start to jump out when you've assembled actual data about something that's vaguely frustrated you for a while.

8JenniferRM10y
I've had the same experience. Connected with this, I've found it very useful to periodically process the same notes into a polite summary and communicate them with people who are interested and working on the same or related tasks. It does all kinds of good stuff, like helping me develop a more realistic "outside perspective" of myself, allowing me to function as a role model for self-aware self-improvement, engaging commitment and consistency in useful directions, and so on.
5Wilka10y
Is it possible for you to give an example of this works in practice? I'm curios what type of things you would note down. It sounds like a useful idea worth trying out, but I'm having trouble seeing how I would start using it.

Not the prettiest example, but I had a log-running acne problem that I could never seem to get a handle on. So a few years ago, I started writing down, every morning, whether I had new zits that day, what I was using on my face, and any other factors (like diet) I thought might be relevant. It suddenly became quite easy to zero in on the right solution (a low concentration benzoyl peroxide facewash), and I've been happy with the results ever since.

A second example is that I started a (rather involved and silly) spreadsheet tracking my time working one semester. It was far too complicated a system in retrospect, but the mere fact of observing my time-wasting led me to use my time moderately better than before.

And a third thing is keeping explicit track of what you spend, so that you notice what patterns are costing you money and can ask whether they're worth it. (Or, in the other direction, I learned that I shouldn't be so worried about marginal spending on clothes, since that amount is dwarfed by rent, food, etc. So I buy new clothes a bit more often.) There are automatic tools for budgeting (like Mint.com) if you trust them.

1Pablo10y
Seth Roberts found a cure to his acne problem [http://media.sethroberts.net/articles/2010%20The%20unreasonable%20effectiveness%20of%20my%20self-experimentation.pdf] by keeping track of how the number of pimples in his face fluctuated over time.
3GuySrinivasan10y
This is the "obvious" ideal which several of my ideas for hacks have been approximating. Adopting. Thanks.
2Paul Crowley10y
Could you flesh out some details here? What did you record, how did you fit recording it into your daily routine, how did you analyze it? Thanks!
3orthonormal10y
Is this [http://lesswrong.com/lw/deq/where_to_intervene_in_a_human/6yqm] enough detail?
[-][anonymous]10y 18

The Intel story's source should be cited. It's in Only The Paranoid Survive by Grove, Chapter 5:

I remember a time in the middle of 1985, after this aimless wandering had been going on for almost a year. I was in my office with Intel's chairman and CEO, Gordon Moore, and we were discussing our quandary. Our mood was downbeat. I looked out the window at the Ferris wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and I asked, "If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?" Gordon answered without hesitation, "He would get us out of memories." I stared at him, numb, then said, "Why shouldn't you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?"

Currently, the website directly follows ("without hesitation") but slightly mutates this ("brought in" => "brings in", "memories" => "the memory business").

4lukeprog10y
Cited.

But the problem with Intel — it was in the wrong market! — was so deep that the place to intervene was at a very low level, the foundations of the entire company.

Wouldn't this be better described as a very high level, not a very low level? You seem to adopt this mapping later on:

Or, if you're in a crippling environment like North Korea or Nigeria or Detroit, then perhaps the highest level intervention for you is to get up and move someplace better.

5atucker10y
The concrete metaphor switches within the article. High level can be meant in the sense of levels of action, where higher levels change more things. Low-level can also mean that it underlies many things, so that deep changes change more things. It would probably be helpful to adopt a consistent metaphor though.
[-][anonymous]10y 12

Ask whether you're hitting 'the basics of what normal people think makes people healthy.' Sebastian Marshall has a good list:

  • Drink lots of water
  • Enough high quality sleep
  • Not too much sleep
  • Eat fruits and vegetables
  • Scale back on any intoxicants
  • Spend time in nature
  • Spend time with people you respect
  • Read books you enjoy
  • Think/plan on what your goals are
  • Some light moving around/exercise (even just a walk)
  • Fresh air
  • Clean up your environment a little
  • Get small, achievable wins

Intuition pump: you have a low-powered genie who can grant wishes to the level of contemporary technology available on the open market. What do you ask for before you get to "man, I wish I could consciously regulate broad measures of neurological activity inside my brain"?

0[anonymous]10y
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7sixes_and_sevens10y
I have just come back from a surprisingly disappointing OKCupid date. This response may be heavily jaded. I have spent some time throwing around this idea with other OKCupid users. There is broad consensus that attraction is largely context-based, and in order for a matching algorithm to stand a chance of fostering attraction between two people, it would have to introduce them at a point when they'd be receptive to each other. A necessary component to this would be keeping a running value on all users' self-esteem, adjusting it for things like ignored messages and fecundity, and occasionally asking questions like "how long was it since you last had sex?", "do you weigh more or less than you did six months ago?", and "has your mother complained about not having any grandkids recently?"
0wedrifid10y
Who would answer those in a way indicating probable low self esteem? That'd be crazy!

There are a few answers to this:

  • OKCupid does actually ask quite a lot of personal questions, which people do answer. A few years ago the answers were kept private, but now users have the option to make them public, and there exists a certain amount of pressure to do so. I imagine this change results in less honest / accurate answers, but you would still be surprised what people admit to.

  • The service wouldn't have to tell you it was keeping track of your self-esteem over time, and matching you with concordant suitors at points when you'd both be most vulnerable to each other's charms. It would just ask you questions, like a curious but candid friend.

  • The questions I proposed above were gauche semi-serious examples. There are probably a number of more subtle questions that would correlate strongly with self-esteem without setting off alarm bells in the people that answer them.

  • Part of the reason for me talking about it is how unpalatable and creepy the idea is, and how a lot of the factors surrounding people being attracted to each other are not available to dating website service providers without a lot of effort they're probably not prepared to invest. There are probably some areas they can capitalise upon, however.

0wedrifid10y
This isn't something that requires alarm bells. This is a dating website. Full signalling and screening mode is activated as a matter of course. It is extremely unlikely that I could benefit from giving the system evidence that I have low self esteem so I am not going to do so unless all else is compellingly not equal. I suppose this also requires being able to judge what questions have what self-esteem connotations but that isn't too hard. It occurs to me that I play OkCupid as a min-maxing munchkin. (I recommend this. It seems to work!) I don't find it especially creepy. Sounds useful. I want the website to take whatever information I give it and connect me with people in the most effective way possible. Anything I don't want it to know I will not tell it (I will lie to it if necessary).
6[anonymous]10y
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3sixes_and_sevens10y
I would bet a sizeable sum of money that most users do not approach OKCupid in the same way you or I do, consciously or otherwise.
2[anonymous]10y
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2sixes_and_sevens10y
That's the sort of thing this algorithm [http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/df8/irrationality_game_ii/6ya5] is supposed to flag up.
2[anonymous]10y
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0sixes_and_sevens10y
Oh sweet Jesus there are more than five pages...

Michael Keenan pointed out that Scott Adams recommends maximizing one's energy should be the priority. That sounds pretty plausible.

7aaronsw10y
Then why don't you spend more time on finding tactics to increase your energy level? The eight you've listed [http://lesswrong.com/lw/3w3/how_to_beat_procrastination/#energy] seem pretty good, but surely they're just the tip of the iceberg.
3lukeprog10y
That is, in fact, my new priority. :)
5aaronsw10y
Fantastic. Me too!
1lukeprog10y
Any luck so far?
9aaronsw10y
* Doing hacker exercises [https://www.fourmilab.ch/hackdiet/e4/exercise.html] every morning * Taking a cold shower every morning * Putting on pants * Lying flat on my back and closing my eyes until I consciously process all the things that are nagging at me at begin to feel more focused * Asking someone to coach me through getting started on something * Telling myself that doing something I don't want to do will make me stronger * Squeezing a hand grip exerciser for as long as I can (inspired by Muraven 2010 [http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2009.12.011]; mixed results with this one) You?
1lukeprog10y
My interventions for energy are less creative: drink water, do jumping jacks, take drugs, etc.
2Homosapien1y
we miss you @aaronsw
[-][anonymous]10y 6

A bit off topic, does CFAR accept bitcoin?

1lukeprog10y
Not yet.

In my experience, one doesn't notice things that are wrong until there is something to contrast them to. For example, you might not even notice that you need new glasses until seeing the world through better ones.

So a first step might just be radical change. Be mindful of the adjustments you're making when changing food, location, or employment. Flail about a bit and do informal self-experimentation along as many dimensions as possible. This should help highlight location / emotional / physical conditions and suchlike that are getting in the way.

1handoflixue10y
I realized I needed glasses when I was hiking with a friend. She took off her glasses to clean them, and I happened to look through them. It was a rather instant reaction of "oh wow, I need glasses!" I got lucky in that she has an almost identical prescription to me, obviously :)

In fact, I suspect almost nobody is that self-optimized. We do things like neurofeedback because (1) we don't think enough about choosing the highest-leverage self-interventions, (2) in any case, we don't know how to figure out which interventions would be higher leverage for ourselves, (3) even if there are higher-leverage interventions to be had, we might not successfully carry them through, but neurofeedback or whatever happens to be fun and engaging for us, and (3) sometimes, you gotta stop analyzing your situation and just do some stuff that looks li

... (read more)

What the argument that neurofeedback has a relatively low utility?

0Rhwawn10y
Perhaps it's the expense? I looked into it very briefly, and apparently professional neurofeedback costs thousands of dollars!

I don't think it's setting a good example for the CFAR to use an unreliable (self-serving, given from hindsight) anecdote to make a point. The source listed for that story is an autobiography by one of the people in it.

If the truth of the events doesn't matter, why not use a more accessible urban legend than one that requires knowledge of microprocessors vs memory chips and the timeline of Intel's relative success?

North Korea or Nigeria or Detroit

These seem to go in increasing order of "that really needs to be made more specific before calling it a 'crippling environment'."

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Nothing new but doing thorough predictions about things you think you understand and follow up on them, being very fastidious about concreteness about predictions prevents me from re(miss)interpreting vague predictions when I get the results.

What algorithm could be used for discovering the next best intervention one can make to improve oneself?

Trying a bit of this, a bit of that, and comparing results? I doubt it can get any more precise, because the interventions on different levels can be, well, different.

For small changes I would recommend trying each strategy one week (to filter out work-day cycle and other noise), and having a set of similar tasks, randomly assigned to those weeks; or one repetitive task. But some level of change would probably disrupt such setting. As an example, if m... (read more)

The first place to improve is stop doing stupid things. If you don't know what you're doing that's stupid, then figure that out, and stop doing it.

6[anonymous]10y
Make new mistakes. Stop doing what isn't working, with or without having a new plan, with or without it being stupid. That particular form of not-working will end, and that ending is a lessening of cost or an increase of gain or both (all desirable outcomes).
0orthonormal10y
"Make new mistakes" has been my New Year's Resolution for several years now. I highly recommend it (as long as it's understood to refer to social risks and not physical ones).
0aelephant10y
Can you give us some advice about how to figure out whether what we're doing is stupid or not? What exactly do you mean by stupid?
-1drethelin10y
Posting vague advice about not doing stupid things is stupid. Don't do it, it will get downvoted. The reason it's stupid is that everyone already KNOWS that it's bad to do stupid things. The stupid things we do are not done in the knowledge that they are stupid. "Figure out what you're doing that's stupid" is basically the entire point of this site, and you're hiding an awful lot of knowledge and complexity in a simple order.
0wedrifid10y
I upvoted it. It's a useful thing to constantly remind yourself of.

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