Travel Through Time to Increase Your Effectiveness

by tanagrabeast9 min read23rd Aug 201513 comments



I am a time traveler.

I hold this belief not because it is true, but because it is useful. That it also happens to be true -- we are all time travelers, swept along by the looping chrono-currents of reality that only seem to flow in one direction -- is largely beside the point.

In the literature of instrumental rationality, I am struck by a pattern in which tips I find useful often involve reframing an issue from a different temporal perspective. For instance, when questioning whether it is worth continuing an ongoing commitment, we are advised to ask ourselves "Knowing what I know now, if I could go back in time, would I make the same choice?"Also, when embarking on a new venture, we are advised to perform a "pre-mortem", imagining ourselves in a future where it didn't pan out and identifying what went wrong.2 This type of thinking has a long tradition. Whenever we use visualization as a tool for achieving goals, or for steeling ourselves against the worst case scenarios,3 we are, in a sense, stepping outside the present.

To the degree that intelligence is the ability to model the universe and "search out paths through probability to any desired future" we should not be surprised that mental time travel comes naturally to us. And to the degree that playing to this strength has already produced so many useful tips, I think it is worth experimenting with it in search of other tools and exploits.

Below are a few techniques I've been developing over the last two years that capitalize on how easy it is to mentally travel through time. I fully admit that they simply "re-skin" existing advice and techniques. But it's possible that you, my fellow traveller, may find, as I do, that these skins easier to slip into.

Second Chances

There are those who tell you to live each day as if it might be your last. I prefer to live each day as if I'm doing it over.

These philosophies could not be more different. The first invites short-sightedness, and, if followed to its logical conclusion, results in each day being worse than the one preceding it, as you burn bridges and fail to act on any longer-term goals. The second philosophy, in contrast, invites you to optimize for mindfulness, growth, or productivity based on the circumstances of the day and its relation to all subsequent days.

I am doing today over. I trust that there is some reason I chose to go back in time to today specifically. In this particular case, I came back to write this article -- an article which, in a prior version of the future, never got written. How much sadder, that other future. What an opportunity I have to improve on it! In the grand scheme of things, whatever else I might have done today must not have really mattered; that must be why I picked today. But this article... this could really make a difference in someone's life! No wonder I burned out a star to power the machine that took me back to this moment. (It helps to imagine that the choice to come back was taken after much deliberation, and at great expense.)

So today might be all about productivity. But most of the last two weeks I did over again with a focus on growth. You see, I wasn't ready for the prior version of the future -- the one where I brought my best knowledge and skills to bear, but still fell short. So I did those days over. I studied. I trained.  Then I studied and trained some more. Maybe this time it will be enough.

Other days have been more about mindfulness. I've always had a difficult time being "in the moment" during times I hope to be able to look back on fondly. I can be prickly and impatient at weddings, for example. On vacations, I fret about the money I'm spending, and worry about the home I've left unattended. On such days, it helps to imagine that I've chosen to come back to this day and really appreciate it this time -- to soak in the beauty of the of my surroundings, to relish the functionality of my still-youthful body, to feel the warm presence of my loved ones, to fully imprint the memory of the smile on my daughters face. More than appreciate the day, I want to master it, with Bill Murray-like panache, Groundhog Day style. I want to grab my wife's hand, and, at just the right moment, tell her I love her in a way that makes her know I mean it.

I don't have to limit myself to the coarse grain of an entire day. Most days actually have a mix of purposes. Whenever I'm driving a car, the purpose of the moment is to prevent getting that ticket or getting into that accident -- you know, the one that happened in the prior version of that commute. How embarrassed was my future self! To think that I had thought that going a little bit faster mattered in the slightest, or that the notifications on my phone couldn't wait until I got home. How lucky I am to be able to fix things this time around, and with such trivial changes to my behavior.4

Split Selves

I think that much of our stress and akrasia come from feeling overwhelmed by what the future requires of us. We find it hard to write chapter 4 because the thought of still having to write chapters 5 through 36 terrifies. If you don't trust yourself to stick with the program tomorrow, there's no point in working on it today. The fear becomes self-fulfilling.

Much has been written about the importance of building up habits that allow you to trust yourself. While I agree that those are important, my confidence comes from a different place: the place next to my time machine where I keep my cloning vats.

At an undisclosed location outside of time, there is a version of myself who notices when I have chosen a goal that requires reliable performance over an extended period. This self then runs an integrity check and, provided the task does not seem prima facie unrealistic given our capabilities, replicates us as many times as there are days needed to complete the task. Each clone is sent to a specific day.

I am one of these clones. I don't need to worry about whether I will follow through on my commitments beyond today, because that's not my job. Someone else is handling that. I am TodayMe, and if I follow through on my portion of the task, then I can trust that TomorrowMe -- who is, after all, identical -- will also do his part. And so on.

This is how the 2,000+ anki cards for my classroom spaced repetition effort got written last year.


A "bobble", to the uninitiated, is a type of stasis sphere central to Vernor Vinge's novels The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime. Anyone or anything inside a bobble experiences no passage of time until the bobble bursts at some specified future time determined at the bobble's creation. The experience of being bobbled is one of instantly finding oneself in that future.

What I call bobbling is a specific variation of the Split Selves technique, one that I find to be of use with tasks that are hard to get into and stay focused on, as writing often is. It's really just a role-playing wrapper for the timeboxing method of your choice (i.e. The Pomodoro Technique).

In its most elaborate form, bobbling works like this:

It's almost 5:00. I'm going to make a jump to 6:30. From my perspective, I will blink 90 minutes into a future where someone has done 90 minutes of work on my project -- someone with exactly the same brains and skills as me, but much more focused.

There are some restrictions: I cannot have any specific expectations about what that 90 minutes of progress will produce; I just have to trust it will be at least as much progress as I myself could have made in that time. Also, the task has to be one that I myself wouldn't mind or have trouble doing if I didn't live in realtime, with all its anxieties and distractions.

Before I make the jump, I'm going to make some preparations. It's bad to jump on a full bladder or an empty stomach.6 It also wouldn't do for anyone to find out that I'm mucking with time, so I'd better do what I can to make sure I'll be left alone. I close the door...

Do you ever have dreams that you're not completely in? Where there is thought but not self? Just ideas coalescing, cohering, constructing... Words becoming sentences, sentences becoming paragraphs, revising and rearranging... There is no outside world. There is no world at all. Only a sphere of focus floating on ripples of reflection in an aether sea where time has no meaning.

A timer beeps somewhere. 6:30? I thought it was 5:00.7 Oh yeah, I must have bobbled. It can be disorienting.

Hey, look at all this progress someone left. Hmm... [shifty eyes]... Guess I'll just take credit for this [shuffling papers up]...

One way to look at bobbling is that you're forking off a temporary version of yourself who ignores the passage of time and forgets all cares beyond the task at hand. As the forked self, it doesn't matter how long it takes to "spool up" and get through the "ugh field" surrounding the task, because time is meaningless inside the bobble. It takes what it takes and that's that.

This is how much of my fiction and code gets written. And how my tax returns get completed.

The Past, Interrupted

Context shifting carries costs. We are more productive when we can play a single role for an extended period without interruption. But sometimes it can't be helped. You need to get back to what you were doing and pick up where you left off. Hours ago. Days. Weeks. This is difficult because what you were doing just seconds ago is still running through your head.

Let it go.

When you last stopped doing the older task that you now need to resume, you created a Restore Point. Everything you've done since then has been a different Save file. Now it's time to suspend this present self and re-load your past self. If there's something you need to write down, do it... but you have to shut the present self down completely because you can't run two versions of yourself at once. Just do it quickly and efficiently, and don't feel bad about it. When it's time to go back to the newer self, you will, wholeheartedly, with that same zeal that you are now reverting to the past. It's going to be ok.

You are now the past self. Everything else was an irrelevant interruption.

Case Study: The Sleeper

Sleep is super important, so let me tell you about an increasingly old version of myself I call The Sleeper. The Sleeper has been trying to get a really good night's sleep since March of 2014. But something always happens. The sun comes up. An alarm goes off. And the sleeper keeps getting Suspended for 16 hours or so. So cranky is The Sleeper!

You see, I have always had trouble falling asleep, tossing and turning for 30-60 minutes most nights. But staying asleep and going back to sleep have never been problems. And there's nothing more satisfying than having an alarm go off on a Saturday, realizing that I can turn it off, and going back to bed.

So I no longer go to sleep every night. I only go back to sleep, by suspending my present self, loading up the The Sleeper and thinking, "Lousy stupid day interrupting my sleep. [Grumble grumble]. Now, where was I?...[snore]"

It's such a stupid-sounding hack, I know, but it works amazingly well for me. Your mileage may vary. For reference, I'm biologically a night owl.

Toward a More Excellent Future

In the 1989 cinematic masterpiece, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, the titular time-traveling protagonists find themselves in the clutches of the San Dimas police department. They escape this "bogus" predicament by committing to use their time machine in the future to arrange the details of their escape. From IMDB:

Captain Logan: [Captain Logan sees Bill and Ted pushing Billy the Kid out of the prison block window] Ted, what in the hell do you think you're doing?

Ted: Trash can... remember a trash can!

Captain Logan: Trash can? What are you talking about...

[a trash can with "Wyld Stallyans Rule" written on the side lands on Captain Logan's head]

It stands to reason that they did not leave their future behavior to chance. If possible, they probably used their machine as soon as they escaped. If not, they probably left themselves detailed notes and reminders. Whatever they did, it obviously worked. They made good on their commitments. This is excellence.

Successful time travel is all about bringing our past, present, and future selves into a cooperative alignment. They need to trust each other. They need to communicate. Sometimes, we need to prepare things in the present and send messages into the future. Sometimes, we have to envision different futures to provide direction to the present. Sometimes, we need to honor the past.

I wrote an initial draft of this article more than 18 months ago. I was eager to finish it and post it to Discussion with my freshly created LW account. But I knew that the article would improve with time and experience, after I had tested the ideas more and accumulated clearer examples. Perhaps, I thought, it could even become worthy of posting to Main. 

So to my draft I added some notes, links, and questions. I asked my my future selves to revisit the file, and also to accumulate enough LW karma to gain Main-posting privileges.

If I may now indulge myself with a message to my past: "Here's that trash can you ordered, dude."

Party on.


Second Chances

  • Imagine that your future self made great sacrifices to come back and do today over. Figure out what today was for, and get it right this time.
  • When struggling to feel fully present in a moment you wish to be able to look back on fondly, imagine that you have come back from the future solely to appreciate this singular occasion.
  • When performing a dangerous activity (i.e. driving), imagine that you have traveled back in time to prevent the accident you were otherwise going to have today.

Split Selves & Bobbling

  • When working on a task that requires consistent long-term output, imagine that you are a clone whose only concern is the portion of the task that has to be completed today. Other clones will handle other days, because they are identical to you.
  • When struggling to make headway on a task requiring focused attention:
    1.  Imagine blinking forward 1-4 hours into a future where that much work has been done on it. 
    2. Create conditions where a version of yourself could avoid all distractions during that window, and start a timer.
    3. Enjoy role-playing a time-insensitive version of your mind for whom nothing exists but the intellectual world of the task.

The Past, Interrupted

  • When needing to perform a dramatic task shift:
    1. Write down any thoughts you are afraid of losing from your current context.
    2. Completely dump the contents your current working memory without any reservations. 
    3. Imagine that you are now the prior self who last worked on the “new” (old) task.
  • If you’re struggling to fall asleep, role-play a version of yourself who was sleeping soundly but was interrupted by something temporary. Go back to sleep.

Toward a More Excellent Future

  • Imagine a cool future outcome that is inevitable because you’ve returned to carry out the requisite steps. Enjoy the sense of excellence that comes from being one with your past, present, and future.

1Cialdini, Influence

2Klein, Harvard Business Review (and many other writers in different places)

3Vika has written about this on LessWrong fairly recently.

4I feel like Eliezer or someone else may have articulated a version of that driving mindset somewhere else on LW, but I have been unable to locate it. My apologies if I am forgetting to credit someone.

5I will leave the relevant analysis of decision theory in Newcomblike scenarios to others.

6I am aware that a true bobble would have no such restrictions. My methods are not purely Vingean.

7You might reasonably ask what a clock is doing inside my bobble at all. Wouldn't it break the illusion? I answer that, in the bobbled mindset, the clock is less a chronological tracker than a device that randomly shows different combinations of digits, one of which will burst the bobble. It is not showing them in an order that necessarily brings this combination closer. The clock is more akin to a pair of dice that someone keeps rolling until it comes up snake-eyes and an alarm goes off. Time is meaningless here. Keep working.