Checklists are powerful, and I don't use them enough. You probably don't, either.

Below are some of my own checklists. Please share your own!


I don't know how to do X.

  1. Check eHow, Google.
  2. Skim-read the For Dummies book on the subject.
  3. Check my social network for somebody who knows how to do X, ask the expert how to do X.

I don't understand X.

  1. Check Wikipedia, BetterExplained, WiseGeek.
  2. Read the relevant chapter(s) in a recent textbook, or find a recent review article. (See here.)
  3. Check my social network for someone who understands X, ask for a tutorial. Offer to buy them coffee or lunch if necessary.

I feel mentally exhausted but can't afford to sleep right now.

  1. Take a shower.
  2. Watch 10 minutes of, cats on YouTube, IGN video reviews, or movie trailers.
  3. Go for a walk and listen to awesome music on high-quality headphones.

I don't want to get out of bed, but I should.

  1. Imagine how good a hot shower will feel, then try again to get out of bed.
  2. Set my phone alarm to go off in 5 minutes, then slide it across the floor to the other side of the room.

I'm procrastinating on task X.

  1. Give the task to someone else. (Usually, this isn't possible, because I've always delegated away as much as possible.)
  2. Think about which part of the procrastination equation is likely causing me the most trouble, and use one of the techniques aimed at tackling that specific problem that has worked best for me in the past.
  3. Procrastinate on task X by doing a different task that is slightly less urgent/important but still productive. (See structured procrastination.)

I'm about to send an email / post a comment of some significance.

  1. Is there criticism in the email or comment? Use the sandwich technique.
  2. Emulate my reader(s) and predict what reaction they will have. If it's not the reaction I am aiming for with this communication, restructure the communication.

(I don't do these ones nearly enough! D'oh!)

I feel sad about not doing a better job at X.

  1. Figure out something I can do better with regard to X, simulate in my head the steps required to execute that improvement, and if feasible then execute the improvement.
  2. Think about all the things I'm doing pretty well despite running on fucked-up ape-brain software and hardware.

I'm about to make a decision of some significance.

  1. Check consequentialism.
  2. Check VoI. Can I improve my decision by purchasing some piece of information relatively cheaply? (This includes running checks against various biases that may be at play, performing a more formal cost-benefit analysis, etc.)
  3. Sanity-check the decision with a couple people who have good decision-making skills and possess much of the relevant information.

I could go on, but... what are yours? (Now is also a good opportunity to make some checklists for yourself, based on what you think tends to work for you.)


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I feel mentally exhausted but can't afford to sleep right now.

  1. Consume modafinil.
  2. Replenish choline (throw in some 'racetam for good measure.)
  3. Sprint.
  4. Eat food.
  5. Repeat step 1 as long as necessary.

I'm procrastinating on task X.

  1. Consume modafinil. (To boost executive function and lower perceived effort of tasks in general.)

I don't want to get out of bed, but I should.

  1. Consume modafinil.

I am feeling run down from pushing myself too hard and consuming too much modafinil.

  1. Consume less modafinil.
  2. Sleep.
  3. Self modify to respond to all instances of "But I can't afford sleep right now" with "Yes I can!"

Paraphrasing David Wheeler, it seems that all problems in life can be solved by taking more modafinil except the problem of too much modafinil.

I think it's an interesting testament to the human condition that mind-numbing and life-ruining akrasia is easily solvable through a simple neurochemical change in the brain.

Is there a reason step 3 on that last list isn't also part of the first list?

Is there a reason step 3 on that last list isn't also part of the first list?

If I don't have time for sleep I don't have time for campaigns of self modification. More to the point when I feel mentally exhausted and are pressed for time I do not trust my reasoning capabilities. Decisions to self modify to change fundamental priorities and life strategies should be done when fully functioning and without pressure.

That step three really is a non-trivial change. It can influence what goals or roles can realistically be taken on - some time pressures are not avoidable without sacrifice. It also potentially requires other adjustments. For instance - in my undergraduate days I did most assignments at the last minute under time pressure and suppressing sleep. If I were to study while having implemented step three comprehensively I would need to completely change my lifestyle.

I would go as far as to say I don't recommend step three for most people at all. I would perhaps recommend moving somewhat in the direction of less submission to external time pressures, just not to an extreme.

You have been taking modafinil for years now and pretty heavily. How have you dealt with tolerance? By taking more or cycling usage?

You have been taking modafinil for years now and pretty heavily.

I actually haven't. The last of the checklists in the post is actually the one I take the most seriously. I did use modafinil heavily when I was originally prescribed it (for sleep apnea) but now treat that with a CPAP machine instead. I use modafinil occasionally as needed(/wanted).

How have you dealt with tolerance?

I actually have a lot less tolerance for the stuff now than I did when I first started. Even at a third of the daily dose I orginally took I now don't feel tired much for several days. (I can only speculate about why.)

By taking more or cycling usage?

I cycle. Not because it doesn't work but because I need to ensure I get adequate sleep to keep up with the recovery demands of my exercise regimen without weakening my immune system and taking on the features of a zombie. (Bloodshot eyes, pale face. The look people get when they aren't sleeping enough.) I don't like taking modafinil more than once or twice a fortnight.

Are you sure modafinil doesn't have any long-term side effects for your liver or anything?

Are you sure modafinil doesn't have any long-term side effects for your liver or anything?

Yes. Liver strain (and toxicity in general) is not the strongest factor causing me to moderate my intake.

What is?

What is?

Sleep is awesome. While modafinil can enable me to perform cognitively as well on 5 hours sleep per night indefinitely as I usually perform on 8 hours it does not alter the physical consequences of less sleep. I will still end up getting physically run down and more vulnerable to minor infections. This is especially the case now when I am trying to train for a marathon while also doing as much body building as I think I can get away with. A recipe for overtraining without proper recover in place.

When I do happen to be using modafinil regularly I try to put a pay attention to forcing myself to sleep the right amount even when I'm not tired. More often I just don't bother with it. "With great power comes great responsibility... and sometimes responsibility isn't worth it!"


This algorithm also works if you replace modafinil with cocaine or caffeine.

This algorithm also works if you replace modafinil with cocaine or caffeine.

If we are going there we could also try):

  • Injecting ourselves with pure adrenalin.
  • Stealing then consuming entire shelves of energy drinks.
  • Putting our hand in a waffle maker.
  • Driving excessively fast through traffic.
  • Sex in public.
  • Picking fights with gangsters.

Or as I call it, Saturday night.

Not having seen the movie, my reaction to this list is "what is sex in public doing there? the others seem like stupid, pointless things to do."
Which perhaps says too much about me.


Are you saying cocaine wouldn't work in the original algorithm I was commenting on? I'm pretty sure it would.

Are you saying cocaine wouldn't work in the original algorithm I was commenting on? I'm pretty sure it would.

I didn't say that. Are you saying that any of the above alternatives wouldn't work also? Pretty sure they would too.


I don't think putting your hand in a waffle maker would work.

It might be wise to cycle modafinil, caffeine, energizing blend kratom, and nicotine (not too addictive if you are just chewing nicotine gum every few days without the other stuff in cigarettes, based on studies and my personal experience) to avoid habituation and cut down on potential side effects from chronic consumption.

It might be wise to cycle modafinil, caffeine, energizing blend kratom, and nicotine

Cycle, not stack? Oh, right.

Personally, I prefer not to stack drugs ever unless the stack is one that's well-known and widely used.

This stack is missing something that was mentioned before... what was it...

Oh right, cocaine.


Are you saying cocaine wouldn't work in his algorithm?

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I'd like to hear your answer to niceguyanon's question.

I'd like to hear your answer to niceguyanon's question.


I have too many checklists

  • shit
  • I can't stop

All joking aside I have run into over optimizing in cases where I am choosing between a set of similar items or actions. I have to remind myself that the harder a choice seems the less likely it is to matter since the only reason it is hard is that the choices are very close together anyway. It certainly doesn't feel this way from the inside.

OTOH, I think 'checklisting' a heuristic is something I need to do more of in cases where I haven't yet figured out how to turn it into an evocative catchphrase.

My morning checklist:

  1. Breakfast!
  2. Start the day not as a consumer (news, games etc.) but as a producer.
  3. Don't start the day responding to demands of others (email, family errands etc.)

Update: added a source link. Who would have thought that Reddit can be a source of good productivity tips?


My current checklist for finishing an essay:

  • spellcheck (ispell)
  • balanced brackets & quotes check
  • linkchecker for

    1. dead links
    2. inserting into archive queue
  • for academic hyperlinks, include a tooltip with the title & author metadata
  • for any papers cited: either link full text, provide a local full text, or submit a request
  • check readability level (eg. Flesch-Kincaid)
  • probability word checklist
  • do a Pandoc/Firefox preview for visible major formatting problems
  • Markdown lint-checker (shell script checking for common syntax fragments indicating error)
  • arrange for notifications of future results (when relevant, eg. for following dual n-back research):

    1. Google Alerts
    2. Google Scholar Alerts
    3. PubMed alerts

Agreed that there's a lot of mostly-untapped potential in checklists and generally in the area of "deliberately, consciously applying advice from system 2". I often feel like there's a big gap between reading some bit of wisdom on LW and actually applying it in real life. And not just because of akrasia. For instance, I read Gwern's page on melatonin probably at least a year ago, but only a few months ago did I actually get around to buying some. This wasn't because of akrasia - I just read the page, went "good points, this is definitely worth doing" and then completely ignored my own carefully-gathered advice. I think this is partly due to general forgetfulness (for which: Anki), and partly due to the fact that I don't actually really take ideas seriously enough, perhaps because I'm not used to my decisions actually leading to big real-life consequences (I've never had to make big grownup decisions about employment, where to live, etc.), which I'm still trying to fix.

I've lately been trying out running my life more on what my conscious thought processes output. Specifically, by using checklists that I refine by making them SRS cards and then think about and optimize and memorize every time they come up for review (and fail if I forgot them or made significant changes). I now have quite a lot of checklists, including a checklist for making checklists. Most of them are pretty trite or me-specific, so I'll just put a few good ones here.

For conversations:

  • Look at their eyes.
  • Ensure you're fully present, ie not thinking about what to say next. (So you don't interrupt, so you pause before speaking, and so your facial expressions update quicker.)
  • Unobtrusively mirror body language.
  • Match tone and speed of voice.

This is from this book, which I skimmed a few months ago. It's pretty useful. The book has more tips, intended mainly for male executives who want to convey an impression of power and charisma.

When my motivation's flagging (on a timescale of days, not minutes):

  • Do a few hours on a stationary bike while listening to angry rap or dance music.
  • If I'm unable to do that, try disconnecting whatever distraction's sapping my energy. (The internet, for instance. My short-term subagent is too dumb to realize that it should object to my going into /sbin and doing sudo rm if* iw*.)
  • If all else fails, take some caffeine. This'll only work if you haven't built up a tolerance. I haven't had to resort to this since discovering the wonder of cardio exercise.

Now of course these all require motivation to start, but I find them to be pretty self-sustaining, in that once started they generate enough willpower for me to keep going. About disconnecting distraction: I strongly advocate a program of active warfare against your akrasia-inducing subagent. I don't have internet on my main computer, for example. I've sabotaged the power plugs in my bedroom so I can't lie down while working on my laptop (for longer than the 30min it takes for my pathetic battery to run out). I have to sit on the stationary bike, even if I don't cycle, and that makes it a lot easier to start actually cycling. That's enough to get me cycling, but if it wasn't I could get someone to hide my laptop battery and only give it back when I really need it (so I have to run the laptop directly from the power plug). When I tell people this, they think I'm silly and eccentric until they realize I'm burning 2000 kcal a day and they're not :)

Other things that seem to boost willpower:

  • Shaking off sleep debt with a bottle of melatonin and a week of ten-hour nights.
  • If male, not masturbating may help.
  • Fasting seems to help, though this may be more because I'm feeling powerful because I'm disciplined enough to not eat.

At the start of every hour, when my watch beeps:

  • Do a quick reality check to see whether I'm dreaming. (If so, use the chance at a lucid dream.)
  • Visualize that every person on earth is a p-zombie, except me. Doing this well is an instant boost to motivation and confidence for me, and it creates the right munchkinly mindset. It's easy to do things if the only things watching you are heaps of atoms.
  • Apply mental contrasting (which I learned about from here) for increased motivation and more focus on higher-order bits. This nicely complements the p-zombie visualization.

I think there's a lot more in this. For instance, I think I can usefully model myself as having only four or five emotional states, each useful for different things. There are some things I can do deliberately to shift myself into some of these states. I think it would be productive to experiment with different mental procedures to see which are most effective for what. So I've been writing lists of mental procedures I can try out, and I intend to start systematically working through the list and noting successes and failures. (This is how I came up with the idea of considering everyone else p-zombies.) I'm planning to make a topic about this here, and we can share our ideas and experimental results (but it'll take me a month, so if someone wants to beat me to it, go ahead).

For instance, I read Gwern's page on melatonin probably at least a year ago, but only a few months ago did I actually get around to buying some.

Yes, but did it actually work?

Yes. Anecdotally:

I used it to shift back my sleep schedule from something like 10pm-6am to more like 7pm-4am. I tried this several times unsuccessfully prior to starting on melatonin. I like having an early sleep schedule because it makes it easier to recover sleep debt (sleeping one hour longer is easier than going to sleep an hour earlier). It also allows me to not waste the prime morning hours on school things, which is also good for motivation. Taking melatonin also seems to boost my mood and focus the next day if I used it to sleep long (10 hours, say) the previous night. It helps me self-enforce a time to fall asleep, as you say in your article. It also seems to have slightly mind-altering effects starting around half an hour after I take it, but I may have been primed by reading Tim Tyler saying it has effects like that. I take one 3mg cap around 6pm. I may experiment with decreasing the dosage sometime.

One thing I'm a bit worried about is that some of the lifestyle changes I've been making lately have led to seemingly-lasting improvements in mood. In particular, I'm worried about happiness causing contentment causing complacency causing suckage. I'm pretty sure happiness isn't an unalloyed good.

  • If male, not masturbating may help.

If male it is also often found that not getting laid an enormous amount can also help when it comes to goal focused motivation. To resolve the ambiguity, that does not mean "frequently or for an extended duration do not have sex" but rather "do not be in a position of getting an overabundance of sex or sexual variety". I am not aware of any studies, but anecdotal observation and expert testimony is at least somewhat credible, particularly given that this is what I would expect the influence of satiation to be in general.


It is alleged that Bertrand Russell was once asked why he'd stopped devoting much of his energy to philosophy, and replied "Because I discovered fucking". (This is one of those stories that would be much funnier if actually true, but I haven't yet been able to find any good evidence for whether it is or not.)

Fasting seems to help, though this may be more because I'm feeling powerful because I'm disciplined enough to not eat.

Weird. IIRC it was found that low blood sugar levels make ego depletion come faster. (OTOH eating too much does seem to weaken my willpower too.)

I am also confused by this. I've heard from many different places, and experienced myself I think, that fasting seems to make all your senses sharper and generally makes it easier to focus. And I've heard that this is because when you're hungry it's important in the EEA to get food, and focusing helps towards that.

But then why doesn't evolution just make your senses sharp all the time? The best hypothesis I can come up with is that having such sharp senses is bad or unsustainable over the long term.

In which case you probably shouldn't fast just for the heightened focus. Or maybe not much more than people in the EEA did.

(Another hypothesis is that people were hungry enough in the EEA to basically be in this state of heightened focus all the time. But then why turn it off as soon as you get food in your stomach?)

Huh, so are you talking about attention or willpower? They're not quite the same thing (though you can use willpower to help focus on something).

Another possibility is that heightened focus wasn't an unalloyed good in the EEA.

I can't focus on everything at once, after all; the whole point of focus is that I'm focused on one thing at a time (as in this example, food). If the universe of things other than food that I might notice were I not focused on food-gathering, and thereby be able to exploit or defend against, has a sufficiently high expected value, then relaxing my focus and increasing my peripheral awareness of that universe of things has a high payoff relative to focusing more exclusively on food... at least, when I'm not really hungry.

Yes, that sounds a lot more likely and I'm disappointed that I didn't think of it.

Agree with your points and suggest an edit to place an extra newline between text paragraphs and asterix denoted lists.

I did what you said and then saw that you had commented. :)

Do a quick reality check to see whether I'm dreaming.

How do you do that? How reliable is it?

Here is an excellent FAQ about lucid dreaming. It says:

Carry some text with you or wear a digital watch throughout the day. To do a reality test, read the words or the numbers on the watch. Then, look away and look back, observing the letters or numbers to see if they change. Try to make them change while watching them. Research shows that text changes 75% of the time it is re-read once and changes 95% it is re-read twice. If the characters do change, or are not normal, or do not make sense, then you are most probably dreaming. Enjoy! If the characters are normal, stable, and sensible, then you probably aren't dreaming. Go on to step 2.

(I know, there's lots of new age bullshit at that link, and in lucid dreaming generally. But no matter how much you cringe at the word "dreamsign", lucid dreaming is a very useful tool if you can spot and dismiss the garbage.)

On each day that the clocks go forward or backward:

  • change my master passwords
  • pour a carton of bleach down the external drains

What's the bleach thing for?

It apparently stops them getting clogged with fat. You follow the bleach with a kettle of boiling water as well, I forgot to add.

My unrefined checklist for sleep optimization.

  1. Run, (helps with being able to fall asleep. Don’t run after 5:00)
  2. Don’t drink water after 7 (if you’re urine is clear, you’re too hydrated). (you’ll wake up to pee. Though sometimes you want to do this if you’re trying to lucid dream).
  3. Naps (11:30 = 9) (12:30 = 10).

  4. Do you have a topic for reflection picked out? (Planning. Math. Personal).

  5. Practice N-Backing + Anki because it will enhance your memory.Better recall. (ANKI REVIEWS MUST BE AT ZERO). a. “(Other mental exercises show improvement when trained before bedtime; for example, dual n-back.)
  6. Make a to-do list for the next day.
  7. Keep a list of problems to solve by your bed (also, relaxation procedures. Try them out).
  8. Put EWLD by your bed. (convenience is the determining factor) (small inconveniences).

  9. Supplements (Melatonin, 5HTP, Mg) (Water) (Add to nootropics journal). (Camomil).

  10. Retainer, Put phone by your bed, Stretch, Earplugs in your pocket.
  11. Pillows by bed so that you can switch to fetal position. (I normally lay on my back)
  12. Tuck shirt in.
  13. Experimenting with covers (no covers).

  14. Yawning. (definitely helps you fall asleep.)

  15. Go through mental procedure to relax (61-point relaxation. CBT affirmation (like anxiety is dumb. Quit worrying, go to sleep).
  16. Options- pick a problem to solve. Pick an affirmation to repeat. Pick an image or dream to incubate.
  17. Make sure you don’t fidget. (why do I fidget?) (how do I stop that?)
  18. (As soon as I realize I’m awake, I want to lay perfectly still). (this applies even when you’re waking up to pee). I want to recall my dreams, then put htem in a memory palace, then go through the rest of the wake-up procedure.

  19. Wake up procedure (after dreams) a. Go through memory palace. b. Kickstart the mindset I want to be in for the rest of the day. (how?) i. (Collect, collect, collect). ii. Don’t be anxious (about anything). c. Harness creative ideas (on whatever topic comes to mind.). (naps may work better for forced topics)…

you’ll wake up to pee

I'm trying to train my bladder to hold more pee.

How's that going? I pretty much wake up every night no matter how much water i don't drink. I've also tried taking creatine before I go to bed to increase water retention, but that didn't seem to help either.

It seems to be going well. I drink the same as I used to but I have to go to the toilet much less often.

It would be interesting to see checklists on less important topics too. The particular example I have in mind is travel (i.e. what to pack, what to research, what backup plans are needed, etc). In what other mundane scenarios do people find checklists useful?

[-][anonymous]50 has some nice checklists for travel, advice for making your own packing list, and other advice.

Learn from my experience. Don't just pack your cell phone and a charger, make sure you have the right charger.

It seems to me that asking someone in your social network would be less trouble than going out and getting a book on the subject, especially if it's something that's commonly known.

Depends. A real life person can help you determine what to prioritize learning (what resources to look at first, which parts of which resources to pay the most attention to) in a way that books generally don't. Also, in several subjects, the best resources are not necessarily books.

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I think you misread my comment. I was also saying asking a person can be better than reading a book.

Oops. Yes, I read "less" as "more" somehow.

On data:

  • Determine similarity with existing data, increment counter.
  • Calculate and cache reality coherence probability.
  • Generate naive list of hypothesis for consideration.
  • Return to idle mode, processing all information.

My author has advised me that item #3 is the only process requiring conscious thought in tur brain.

I notice I am wasting time, or tempted to waste time.

  1. Very deliberately stop, or refrain from starting, the time-wasting thing.
  2. Go back to the productive thing I was doing.
  3. If I haven't been doing anything productive just now, or just finished a task, check my to-do list.
  4. If nothing on my to-do list sticks out as sufficiently important, either read something I've been meaning to read or write a blog post I've been meaning to write.


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I feel mentally exhausted but can't afford to sleep right now.

A half hour's caffeine nap. If I can't afford that either, I pour lots of cold water onto my face, and open all the windows and the blinds to make the room as bright as possible (during the day) or disable Redshift on my laptop (during the night).


I feel validated that the only other major job I've had besides SI (WiseGEEK) is still indirectly contributing to SI... full circle, y'know.

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Traveling: I sometimes have multiple trips lined up, so I put all relevant items for each trip in a seperate plastic folder. Items that are not free yet get replaced by a small piece of paper like "train discount card". That makes sure I do not forget travel specific items.

In general I use a packing list that I regularly update before and after each trip. I also unpack after the trip and check back on the checklist to see if I packed something needed that is not on the list yet. Afterwards I evaluate the items and write that in a seperate column to see over multiple trips if an item is never used (which might indicate I do not need it) or regularly needed but not brought or understocked.

Then I have a box with all the items I mostly use only while travelling. That makes packing these much easier. If my travelrate goes up someday I probably get doubles of most items.

My list also includes actions to before the trip (charge batteries, cut nails) and process goals like having packed a day early and stress free.

The results so far are a much more relaxed time while packing. I am faster and rarely forget anything. I still want to look through the data collected on my last 20+ trips and reorder everything, maybe put in a formular for quantities, or group items that only belong to specific types of trips (long, short, camping, summer, winter).

I found that for me travelling even a crudely done checklist is better than none.

I feel mentally exhausted but can't afford to sleep right now.

Watch 10 minutes of, cats on YouTube, IGN video reviews, or movie trailers.

The problem is that when I decide to do that, the 10 minutes turn out to be more like an hour, whereas a power nap would only take me about half an hour.