[ Question ]

What self-help has helped you?

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Simply, what self-help techniques have you tried and found to help you? Bonus points if you can say something about the context in which you did the self-help and any speculations you have about mechanism of action.

Please give one technique per answer, multiple answers accepted per person (at least, I hope LW allows that, but I'm guessing it will), please read existing answer to avoid duplication, and comment on existing answers about a technique if you have more to say about that technique.

I'll put a couple of my own answers in below as examples and because I have answers to my own question!

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10 Answers

Internet blocks

I use SelfControl to block the entire internet for long periods of time. And I couple this with AutoSelfControl to set schedules where it gets blocked automatically. Currently, what I've been doing is blocking the entire internet for all hours other than an "internet window" of 5:00-5:30pm.

I do this because I find that the internet tempts me into using my time poorly, in terms of productivity, and fun. My thoughts on this are largely inspired by Cal Newport.

It is worth noting that I am a web developer, and I don't really find this the internet blocks all that inconvenient. In fact, I find that I am way more productive when I am working with an internet block. Being a web developer seems like it'd be one of the most inconvenient professions for this approach, so I imagine that if it works for me as a web developer, there is a good chance that it could work for others.

I use Dash for all of my offline documentation. They also allow you to include GitHub repos and StackOverflow posts. Yes, it isn't perfect. There are some times where I want to google around for a certain question and can't. But the downsides aren't that big a deal. I can just wait until my next internet window, and I can explicitly change the AutoSelfControl schedule if I truly do need to. More importantly, I find that the upsides really outweigh the downsides.

Not trying to do things alone

Doing things with other people or through other people makes everything a hundred times easier. I don't think I'm exaggerating.

For example:

Personality changes: I quit cigarettes and weed cold turkey, started lifting weights, completely changed my diet, and became much more ambitious (which manifested in learning programming and tripling my salary within one year), all completely effortlessly, just by switching from a social group where the previous behavior was the norm to a social group where the new behavior was the norm.

Material resources: Almost all of my jobs, almost all of the apartments I've lived in, and a significant proportion of my romantic/sexual relationships I got through friends or acquaintances. Also, a couple times I've got through a rough patch thanks to loans/material help from friends.

Doing things together: So far I've been doing most things alone, because (1) I'm still only beginning to grasp how much this whole lesson is true and how much I'm not doing it (2) I still have to fight things like extreme introversion (getting tired by people), extreme conflict avoidance (I'm an "exit" rather than "voice" type of person), the fear of reaching out/being vulnerable, not paying attention and falling into old behavioral patterns, etc.

But going off limited and/or second-hand experience, things like…

  • starting a business
  • learning a completely new field
  • moving to a different country and trying to get a job there

…can be pants-shittingly terrifying if done alone, and relatively effortless and enjoyable if done with other people.

Feedback: I still have to figure out how to beat honest feedback out of people (they're surprisingly reluctant to criticize), but even the limited amount of feedback I was able to get lead me to discover gaping blindspots in my social skills (which I can now work on) and helped me understand my social interactions in the past (e.g. why so many people hated me in high school). But again, I had to be really persistent to get at least one person to be honest with me for once.

It starts to seem to me that not trying to solicit feedback/input constantly is highly suboptimal. Would you believe that most people almost never actively solicit feedback?

In general, I'm trying to steer slowly from yapping at people about my own ideas to listening to what they have to say about things. I think it's recently been useful in learning about e.g. productivity and entrepreneurship, or what the world looks like from a woman's perspective. Again, it feels like almost nobody does this.

Summary

Trying to achieve anything alone is just plain stupid. (This is the kind of heuristic that's not meant to be literally true, it's just meant to make you better off if you trust it. YMMV.)

And I mean, it all sounds obvious, but just watch yourself, see how often you do things alone vs. ask for advice/help/feedback/companionship/support/etc. (or for that matter, how often you offer these things to others).

Time Blocking + No Timepieces

(technically two different techniques, but they play into each other so well)

Context: I'm a student, so all of my "work" is school stuff or fun side projects. Also, I just need to get things done my deadlines, and have no, "I'm at the place of work for X hours and need to appear active for all of them."

Time blocking is just going "I'm going to work on X for Y minutes/hours" and then doing it. If you get done early, great, you can stop. If you had a task in mind to complete, but didn't finish it in Y minutes, that's too bad, you have to stop working.

To be more flexible, I sometimes set up time blocks with conditionals. "I've got time in my schedule for a 2 hour morning block, and one after lunch. I expect X to only take 2 hours, but if it takes longer I've got the back up block." I'm cool with changing plans, but a key idea is to not end up "just working forever".

Time Blocking feels distinct from Pomodoros, which I know someone else mentioned. You can easily turn a Pomodor

No Timepieces is this: When doing work blocks, I strictly use timers instead of watching the clock. This actually extends beyond time blocks. I've gotten rid of my watch, and the clock on my computer. I try to make decisions

I do this because I noticed that it becomes much easier to loose steam if I realize that I'm 15-5 min away from the end of a time block. I also do it because I noticed that whenever I started to run up against hard problems, the very first distraction I would engage in would be to look at the clock (probably because it only required a head turn, and it doesn't feel like a distraction). When I was still habituating to No Timepieces, I would often look at my empty wrist, be surprised, and then realize "Oh, yeah, I'm encountering a hard problem and was trying to distract myself." Now a days I don't look at my wrist, but there is still a mental loop of, "I wonder what time it is?" and it helps me notice distraction.

Hypothesized Mechanisms:

Time blocking seems to mostly have the effect of making my commitments very concrete and clear. I'm not sitting down to "work for a while", I'm sitting down to work on X for 3 hours. In making a time block, I've already freed the time, so even if 20 minutes in I feel "Oh shit, I'm going to make very little progress" that's okay, because I've already checked that it's okay to spend 3 hours banging my head against something.

No Timepieces has given a lot of insight into how I distract myself. I've come to believe that almost all instances of me checking the time are some form of me trying to escape from the reality I'm in. "Maybe if I look at my watch, I'll see that it's time to stop working, and then I can stop!" or similarly it provides the escape hatch of, "hm, it's 2:30pm. Wasn't something happening at 4? Dinner? No, meeting Michael. Ooh, Michael's in town, I wonder what he's been working on?"

Reflecting

I would say that reflecting itself has been the most useful self-help thing to me. It serves as a sort of meta-self-help, in the sense of self-help for self-help.

For the past few weeks, I start every day off by writing a sort of journal entry where I reflect on things I'd like to improve on. Some examples: avoiding the internet, starting my work day early enough, giving myself enough personal time, and exercising. Eventually I want to move to other things like meditation, eating healthy, improving my ability to focus and think hard, and plenty of other things.

In the past, I've tried to address these things, but have realized that my efforts are often fleeting. I try for a few weeks, a few months, even a few years (in the case of exercising) and have success, but then something happens, I stop having success, and I just find myself not coming back to it and going into problem solving mode. Developing a system to reflect periodically had helped with this, and has been really awesome for me.

My system for reflecting periodically still is far from perfect though. I have been doing it at the start of my work day every time I have a work day (as opposed to an off, sick, or vacation day). Recently I've noticed that I've been feeling antsy to "just get started with my work". This makes me eager to cut the reflection short, which prevents me from seriously thinking hard when I reflect. So I need to revisit this and try to find something that works better.

Do the things you fear

I've written up this advice elsewhere in more detail as "act into fear and abandon all hope", but the general idea is to identify things you "fear" to do for a very generalized notion of fear including all immediate feelings of againstness, wanting to move away from something, wanting to avoid something, etc..

I got a lot of mileage out of this technique. Typically I identify something I'm feeling a desire to avoid, don't want to do, etc. and then ask why I don't want to do it. If I can't immediately produce an evidence-based reason based on recent evidence that provides a reasonably well grounded causal explanation for why it's a bad idea (e.g. I tried to pet that specific dog yesterday and it tried to bite me, so I'm not going to do that again with that specific dog until I learn something suggesting the dog doesn't generally bite), I mark it as a possible fear and aim to test that fear. Sometimes it turns out the fear was prudent (e.g. I tried to stand up to my bully and they punched me in the face and broke my nose), but often it turns out it was exaggerated (e.g. I stood up to my bully and he hit me but no lasting damage was done). Then, repeat.

I think the way this works is that you give yourself new information you were previously afraid to collect, and once you experience it first-hand, you get the system-1 update (have gnosis) that the thing you were afraid of is less bad than you thought.

Using this technique I've overcome a lot of things I'd identify as fears I used to have that I no longer have including but not limited to: speaking to people 1-on-1, showing up uninvited to a party, getting a tattoo, dressing up in a costume, asking someone out on a date, expressing sexual interest, asking for a raise, telling someone I disagree with them to their face, calling people on the phone.

Pomodoro Technique: Using a simple phone app, scheduling 25 minutes of uninterrupted (attempt to) work, then guaranteed 5 minutes rest, etc.

Worked very well for me in the context of (software-development) work; there are a myriad tasks that are neither fun nor interesting, but which need to be done, and cannot be delegated to juniors. I started using pomodoros for half a day, where regular best-effort spouts of work are more important than being in "the zone" or perfectly rested and focused or whatever.

I'm quite sure that in my case it helped because I guaranteed myself that the un-fun part would soon be over: 25 minutes is actually extremely short for just about anything, the attempts didn't drain me, and this helped to stop procrastinating. As a result, the remaining work-day wasn't overshadowed by guilt (and also, doing that kind of work helps smoothen team-work, and so reaps other benefits as well).

The short-time part is very important BTW. Skipping the 5 minute rests made the technique ineffective quite quickly. Monkey see banana monkey want banana.

P.S.: The technique also helped me to avoid burning my brain-candle from both ends when I was working on something I liked extremely much. Instead of causing a crash-and-burn I could continue to work on that for longer, with better end-results.

Meditation

Properly speaking I wouldn't call meditation self-help, but it can be used as a self-help technique to help you cultivate more calm, acceptance, stillness, relaxation, and generally less neuroticism. You can read about mindfulness meditation, which is most relevant to self-help, lots of places online, but the general idea is that you sit in a comfortable and alert position, tell yourself you're allowed to relax, put your attention on your breath, and if your mind wanders simply notice that and return your attention to the breath.

It seems to work by allowing you to get our of your own head and gain more perspective on the world. Literally noticing what's happening with your breath and what's going on around you seems to change how people think of themselves and their place in the world, which leads to decreased neuroticism.

My own experience is that meditation practice has correlated with a decrease in neuroticism, less anxiety, and a cessation of OCD symptoms (to the point I was able to go off medication (but talk to your doctor before you do this if you read this and think "oh boy, someone on the internet said I can stop taking my meds if I meditate instead" because that's definitely not what I'm saying)).

Immunity to change method (Robert Kegan) - book, "right weight, right mind" helped me lose about 10kg.

mechanism - cognitive method for emotional work that I wasn't otherwise doing. Some tricky method that enables the cognitive mind to access emotional systems without triggering them too badly.

Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking and Allen Carr's Easy Way to Control Alcohol have helped me stop smoking (20+ years ago) and drinking (2+ years ago). Can't recommend those enough!

My main current method of emotional problem solving: I imagine my problem as a visual image and then press internal delete button.

It may sound stupid and non-ecological, but it allows to go through enormous amount of problems quicker than they appear. All other attempts to "work" with emotional states, like core transformation, dialogs with subpersonalities etc didn't produce measurable results in my case. After I started practice the method, I can say that I am in ok emotional state most of the time (for last 2-3 years). I should add that I created this practice based on "Turbosuslik" Russian book by removing all irrational elements from their main idea of quick and unconscious problem-solving.

There should be added that I did profound research on my depression and I am able to distinguish "chemical" brain problems "emotional" brain problem. For example, if I feel bored, it is the first sign of oncoming depression burst which should be cured chemically. Vitamin D as a constant supplement and occasional small doses of memantine or huperzine provided the biggest change for me in this direction.