Related to: Compartmentalization in epistemic and instrumental rationality; That other kind of status.

Summary:  I’d like to share some techniques that made a large difference for me, and for several other folks I shared them with.  They are techniques for reducing stress, social shame, and certain other kinds of “wasted effort”.  These techniques are less developed and rigorous than the techniques that CFAR teaches in our workshops -- for example, they currently only work for perhaps 1/3rd of the dozen or so people I’ve shared them with -- but they’ve made a large enough impact for that 1/3rd that I wanted to share them with the larger group.  I’ll share them through a sequence of stories and metaphors, because, for now, that is what I have.

For me, these techniques came out of a stressful time period.

In October 2012, CFAR was very new, and I was very new to being its executive director.  

I was faced with a task that I basically didn't know how to do -- filling the first workshop for which we charged "real" money (the $3900/person that actually let CFAR run), and helping our team create our first decently polished workshop at the same time (which needed curriculum, operations, etc.).  But whenever I sat down to try to work, my head would fill up with all the other tasks I “needed” to get done, instead of the particular task I was trying to work on.  Or my head would fill with stress and mental static.  So, almost because of how badly I needed to work, I found myself unable to accomplish much of anything.

The set of stories and metaphors below is somehow what eventually gave me the ability to work with full focus in those conditions (I found them partway through that October), and cured most of my decades-long social shame at the same time.[1]  (Though, again, this stuff isn't rigorous yet.  It worked for a few folk, but failed a few others; your mileage may vary.  Do share your thoughts.)

Attempted telekinesis

One morning, that month, I was lying in bed, half-asleep.  And I wanted my laptop.  But my laptop was a few feet away, so reaching it sounded hard (because I was half-asleep).  

After lying there a while wishing, I finally noticed what my brain was up to.  And I noticed that what my brain was doing was visualizing my laptop whooshing toward me.  Again and again.  (Fix attention on laptop… visualize the woosh.  Nope, laptop isn’t here yet: repeat!)[2]

I’m going to call this process “Attempted telekinesis”.

It seems to me that something like “attempted telekinesis” underlies a large set of stress / shame / worry / etc., and that learning to vanish it has been super-useful for me and several others.  I’ll start with several examples of what I’ll be calling “attempted telekinesis”, and then go into some techniques for vanishing it.

The case of the munching noises

Later that day, I was sitting at the office trying to work, and someone next to me was eating.  Noisily.

Now, I’m part of the sizable minority of the population that is driven absolutely bonkers by munching noises.  Munching noises fill me with rage and make me want to punch someone.  But, like, I get that that’s petty of me.  

So my internal thinking stream goes something like this:

Coworker:  [Munch.  Munch.]
My system 1/ intuitive brain (silently, in my head):  Argh!  Stop it! 
Me:  [Type, type.]  (While thinking:  “I don’t want to be petty; best not say anything, nor show annoyance on my face in any way.”)

[1 minute later]
Coworker:  [Munch.  Munch.]
My system 1/ intuitive brain (silently, in my head):  Didn’t you hear me??  Stop it!!  
Me:  [Type, type.]  (… I don’t want to be petty; best not say anything, or show it on my face in any way.)

[and another minute later]
Coworker:  [Munch.  Munch.]
My system 1/ intuitive brain (silently, in my head):  Argh!!  Didn’t you hear me??  Stop it!!  Why won’t it stop!!  Clearly I need to use even more emotional force to make it stop!!
Me:  [no longer typing]  (… Oh, huh, this is that “attempted telekinesis” thing again, isn’t it.  I’m not doing anything with my face or voice that would cause the eating noises to cease.  I’m intentionally not doing anything with my face or voice, because I don’t want to be petty.  And yet my intuitive brain seems to feel like its “be upset” action should’ve changed something in the world...)

The ad copy writer who doesn’t know if she’s “good enough”

So, later on that day, I sit down to write some ad copy -- something I can email out to folks who might be interested in the workshop.

And I notice that a bunch of my thoughts aren’t about the details of the ad wording at all -- they’re about whether I’m good enough at writing to write ad copy, and also about whether the whole workshop is doomed and I’ll be cast desolate to the hyenas while my entire tribe mocks me for having ruined CFAR.

So I stop and think through my fears for a moment.  And I agree that, indeed, the workshop might not work -- but since it also might well work, it’d be pretty damn stupid to stop preparing right then.  And in fact, my useful “next actions” from this moment basically involve doing whatever’s most likely to make it work, and not wasting motions on the opposite prospect.

Similarly, I might not be good enough at the writing -- maybe I should be getting someone else to write it for me.  But since I might well be able to, and since there’s no one good sitting right there to give the task to instead, it seems best to set a 1-hour timer, do the best writing I can for 1 hour without distracting myself trying to evaluate it -- and then, when the timer rings, I can deliberately evaluate whether to write more myself or to look for someone else who can write it.

But even after I think that through… my brain keeps on trying to waste these motions.  It’s like “write… pause… `what if I'm not good enough?'”.  And I notice that it has the same feel as the laptop and the munching noises.  As though something in me hopes that if I just feel upset about things, or if I just visualize that I need the world to be a certain way or worry about how it isn’t, this will somehow magic the world into a better state.

A musical artist once said:  “You know, how good or bad you are [at making music] is really none of your goddamn business.”  And I get what he meant, now.  My business this hour is to write, not to worry about how I’m not good enough at writing.  

But how to do it?  How to get my brain to focus on writing, and to drop the attempted telekinesis?[3] 

Useful “telekinesis”:  Separating babies from bathwater

The “attempted telekinesis” examples above are all examples of pointless behaviors -- the kinds of behaviors a person is better off removing.  I’d like to take a moment, now, to distinguish pointless cases of “attempted telekinesis” (where a person tries to change the world just by repeatedly stressing out about it) from their useful cousins.

Here’s a useful cousin:

The other morning, I was lying in bed, again.  Thinking that maybe I should get up.  But feeling like bed was warm and getting up would be a little hard.  

And then I thought about breakfast.  I pictured it: nice, fried eggs; a sliced fresh tomato; a steaming cup of tea.  I pictured biting into the eggs, with the runny yolk on my tongue.  And suddenly, without any need of prompting from conscious-me, my body was in motion -- up and heading toward the eggs.  (Perhaps, from the perspective of the submodule of my brain that did the "wishing for eggs" manuever, wishing had in fact made it so!  It wished, and my body responded: telekinetic success.)

As in the above "pointless" cases, my system 1 brain had a thing that it wanted, and visualized a picture of the desired end-state.  But in the breakfast example, that visualization was useful.  The imagined flying laptop had just filled my head with repeated wishing.  The imagined vanishing munching noises had just filled my head with repeated aggravation.  The imagined "being a better writer" state had only distracted me from writing.  But the imagined experience of eating breakfast... pulled my system 1 into actually obtaining breakfast.

Similarly, when I imagine Archimedes in the classic bathtub story, I imagine him obsessing a bit about how to measure the crown's density.  "How can I measure it?  How can I measure it?" his brain might repeat... a little like repeating "Get my laptop to whoosh toward me!".  Obsessing on problems at CFAR certainly seems to help me notice potential solutions.

So, what's the take-away?  When is it useful to try to wish the world into a different state?  What distinguishes the kinds of "attempted telekinesis" that one might like to remove, from the kinds that fetch you breakfast or give you insights into the king's crown?  

This matter seems to me to be a bit complicated, but also seems quite important -- if you get it wrong, you either stay unnecessarily distracted and ineffective (like me in the lead-up to CFAR's first workshop), or you end up a sort of parody of pop Buddhism, sitting there being placid about your problems instead of harnessing your drives to solve them.

How to distinguish?

In practice, I tend to distinguish between useful and useless attempted telekinesis based on task type and emotional tone.  (Improvements/kibbitzes appreciated.)

Task type:

Type 1: Problems that System 1 can solve by itself:

Examples: Making breakfast; causing someone to know you care about them.

Suggested response:  This sort of wishing is healthy, and may prompt actions that make a lot more sense than those system 2 would plan (e.g., your nonverbals as you apologize are likely to be far better if you viscerally care about your interlocutor).  Leave system 1 be.

Type 2: Problems that are worth solving, but that need help from System 2:

Examples:  “There’s nothing good to eat” (situation: you notice that several times, over the last hour, you’ve gone to the fridge, opened it, stared inside, closed it... and then opened it again a few minutes later -- as though to see if something good has magically materialized into the closed fridge); Feeling 'stuck' at one's job (or in a relationship); Not having enough money. (The distinguishing feature here is that system 1 has been looping on the problem for a while to no effect, and that system 2 has not yet taken a good look at the problem.)

Suggested response:  Raise the problem to conscious attention; then, try to figure out what is bothering system 1; finally, decide what to do about it.  As you do this, parts of the wishing will naturally shift from the general problem ("Somehow make work less stuck-feeling") to the specific strategy you've chosen ("Figure out how to renegotiate with my manager").[4]

Type 3: “Problems” that should be given up on:

Examples:  “Make the munching noises go away” (in a case where you’ve decided not to); “Make San Franciscans be better drivers”;  “Let me vanish into the floor.”  (The distinguishing feature here is simply that these are "problems" that, on reflection, you do not wish to take action on.)

Suggested response:  Find a way to let system 1 know that solving this problem isn't worth the cost, or that keeping this problem on your internal "worry/fume about" list is quite unlikely to have positive effects.  For example, you might:

  • Make a plan for what it would actually take to cause San Franciscans to be better drivers.  Estimate the total amount of work involved.  Ask your emotional brain if it would, in fact, like you to carry out this plan.
  • Visualize a stressed-out/fuming/worrying you getting cut off in traffic.  Now visualize a calm you getting cut off in traffic.  See if you expect to see anything good happen in the stressed-out case that doesn't happen in the calm case. (Be open to the fact that the answer might be "yes".)[5]
  • Notice, in detail, what system 1 is upset about.  Acknowledge that, yes, you may be late to your work meeting because of the traffic.  And that, indeed, your personal driving habits are different from those of the driver who cut you off.  And that someday a driver like that may in fact kill you via aggression or carelessness -- it isn't likely, but it's possible, and the lifetime risk of death by traffic accident is distinctly nonzero.  Once you've noticed all the painful things, check again to see whether it's worth taking some sort of constructive action on some of them.  System 1 may trust your policy decision more now that you've looked at all the downsides (and may be more willing, therefore, to stop trying to will the drivers into a different state).[6]
Type 4: Problems that should be delegated to a particular future-you:

Examples: The problem of locating a workshop venue (during the hour at which I was trying to write the workshops ad, that October); the situation with your roommates and the dishes (while you're at work solving a coding problem).

Suggested response:  Designate a particular future-you to do the task.  Dialog with your "inner simulator" (your system 1 anticipations) until both system 1 and system 2 are convinced that that specific you will actually do the task, and that there is no additional positive effect to be gained via staying preoccupied now.

Type 5: Problems that System 2 needs "shower-thoughts" help with:

Examples: Archimedes' problem measuring the king's crown; "My relationship with Fred is broken, and I can't figure out what to do about it"; "How the heck can I solve that math riddle?"  (The distinguishing feature here is that both: (1) the problem has already been raised to conscious attention at some point (and system 2 failed to instantly solve it); and (2) the problem is a worthy use of your shower-thoughts -- either for what it'll accomplish directly, or for the improvement it may give to your pattern of thought.))

Suggested response:  This sort of wishing is healthy.  Leave system 1 be.

Emotional tone:

Wishes often seem to me to have emotional tones.  Some tones are simple desire (“Breakfast... mmm....”).  Others have an overlayed hopelessness or bitter resignation about them (“I just always have to put up with how everyone else is incompetent”); others, still, have a tone (at least in me) of hammed-up flailing, self-pity, or desire for outside help -- as though if I just feel helpless enough, somehow a grown-up will come to the rescue ("Make the workshop crisis not be in this state... Make the workshop crisis not be in this state...").

It seems to me that it's worth installing an "alert" that sounds, in your head, whenever it hears either the hopeless/bitter/resigned tone, or the flailing/save-me tone.  Both are often signs of buggy "attempted telekinesis" situations that are worth conscious debugging (a la the schema above).  And the emotional tones can be easier to automatically flag.


[1]  A book called "Bonds that make us free" played a substantial role in prompting these thoughts and was extremely helpful to me.  It's written from a Christian worldview, but if you're up for navigating a foreign expository style and sorting out for yourself which parts to keep, and if in addition you are interested in vanishing social shame or other forms of loopy thoughts, I'd recommend it.

[2] Thanks to Alicorn for making the cartoon.

[3]  Other than, you know, to repeatedly visualize my thought patterns whooshing into the new state that I now wished them to be in?  ;) 

[4]  The book "Focusing" by Eugene Gendlin teaches one useful way to do this.  If you decide to check it out, I'd strongly recommend the audiobook over the paper book, as it is abridged and far clearer.

[5] For example, perhaps, if you remain stressed out, perhaps your boss will see how much you suffered in your attempt to be on time to work and will deduce that you care about timeliness.  (If you notice some good effect coming from the stress that doesn't come from the calm, you might want to look for an alternative way to cause the effect.  For example, you might update your heuristics to decrease the chances of future lateness; plan to explain this to your boss and to offer a 1-sided $100 bet against this ever happening again; and then drive with your mind free to focus fully on interesting problems.)

[6] More generally, when setting out to convince system 1 that X is true, it is best to be honestly curious as to whether X might in fact be false, and whether system 1 may have some good reason for suspecting this.  It is much the same as when attempting to convince another human.  Saying "Hey, look, you're wrong and stupid and so your proposed office policy is really bad" is usually not very persuasive; saying "huh; I'm confused; the office policy looks to me as though it'll cost a lot of hours to little effect, but you usually have good reasons for things; maybe you could tell me why you think it's plausible?" is often a better way to persuade; one wishes to do the same thing for system 1.
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Type 4 problems have a wrinkle I've found interesting/useful once I identified it. Successfully executing on the strategy mentioned for Type 4 requires what I call self-trust. That is, the system breaks down if you form these agreements with yourself and then have a pattern of breaking them. This can happen regardless of the content of the conversation between System 1 and 2 you have at the time. It is not automatic to ask yourself a question like "what is my track record with this sort of agreement" and much more common to just model your future self as being more virtuous than your present self. Fortunately, I think this problem is amenable to a general counter-strategy that had positive spillover effects elsewhere in my life. Building self-trust can be done with offline training.

For those not familiar with the technique: Let's say you want to stop pressing the snooze button on your alarm clock, but like clockwork every morning you do. Instead of trying to train in the actual scenario you need the skill in you try training in an artificial situation. You lie down, set your alarm and practice getting up as soon as it goes off. You do this multiple times per training session until you have built a mental circuit for "getting up when alarm goes off." If all goes well you then find online execution easier.

So to circle back to building self-trust. You practice lots of pre-commitments in low stakes situations and make sure to reward yourself a lot (could just be internal rewards) when you succeed and don't punish yourself when you fail. You are building the mental circuits associated with "I do what I say I will do." After sufficient practice many things start becoming easier. The biggest spillover effect for me was that my internal selves started getting along much better when I could tell a sub-agent that I would attend to their needs later and have them actually believe it and calm down about the current situation. Eventually sub-agents stopped being so "grabby" about my attention.

BTW can we get Anna a time turner so she can post more? This is an excellent post.

Good comment; I've noticed this myself. Fyi, in case you didn't know and might be interested, Nate Soares has written a few blog posts on this exact topic: Self-signaling the ability to do what you want and Productivity through self-loyalty.

I find that actually scheduling my task on a calendar makes it a lot easier to trust myself. If it's on the calendar, I'm going to see it again, which means that my various sub modules can shout at me if I don't address it.

I'll have to try the offline training though - hadn't heard of doing that before.

Agree. An exo-brain you can trust is stress reducing. It was non-obvious how much stress was being caused by trying to repeatedly remember all the things.

I expect that The Work of Byron Katie will be particularly useful for your type 3 classification, as it's specifically intended for getting system 1 to update on "X should/shouldn't be/do Y" beliefs. (e.g. "that person shouldn't be making munching sounds")

Per note 6, The Work actually involves a process of asking "Is that true?" about your beliefs, along with some other questions, and some pattern reversals... eg. "I shouldn't be making munching sounds", which helps in realizing that you actually have options.

For example, options that were not obvious before because system 1 was so stuck on the idea that things just shouldn't be that way. (For example, you might suddenly realize that you can wear earplugs, leave the room, politely ask someone to stop, etc.)

Of course, it might be even more helpful to question the belief "I shouldn't be petty", as it would have an even broader positive impact. ;-)

I say that because I've noticed in general that the impulses which propel people to self-improve are precisely the impulses that need to be negated in order for them to actually improve. That, e.g. a desire to "not be petty" leads precisely to a continued experience of one's self as being petty... in much the same way that the desire to not be an inadequate writer leads to a continued experience of feeling inadequate as a writer.

The thing that distinguishes these desires from healthy ones is that they're about you (the generic "you", not you, Anna Salomon specifically), rather than about the world, and that they are trying to avoid a perceived negative about the self, rather than being a desire to improve who you already are. (Even if the surface phrasing of the desire is positive, it's the emotional "tone" (as you called it) that matters.)

"Not being petty" or "being a good enough writer" are self-descriptions, not goals. A goal is, "have a good relationship with person X" or "have a good ad written". These are 1) not about one's self, and 2) can be reduced to positively-stated sensory descriptions of outside-world phenomena, without reference to your internal state.

Conversely, self-directed improvement goals (what Heidi Grant Halvorson calls "be good" goals) are negative descriptions of internal state, and lead to lots of back-and-forth and frustration because there isn't actually anything for you to optimize or move towards. All you can do is continually run headfirst into whatever you are trying to prohibit yourself from experiencing: i.e., the awareness of yourself as being "petty" or an "inadequate writer". Awareness of these self-descriptions triggers a negative self-judgment, which is painful. So your brain tries to avoid awareness, but this only perpetuates whatever outside situation is triggering the awareness (munching, needing to have a finished ad), because you're not doing anything to actually resolve the situation.

So, the solution is to question the belief that one ought not to be petty (or ought to be a good writer, or whatever), so as to discover that it is not necessary to achieve some state of perfect internal grace in order to accomplish one's true, external goals. Systems 1 and 2 will usually object, of course, because System 1 thinks that if you give up on not being petty, something awful is going to happen, and System 2 will back System 1 up with perfectly logical reasons why giving up the injunction to not be petty will in due course lead to the fall of civilization as we know it. ;-)

One of the peculiar side-effects of the way our brains render these personal injunctions is that they act like an override on both System 1 and System 2. We can't actually think about solutions to the problem of a munching noise, if the injunction is triggered by the mere thought of our not liking the noise. (Because in our mind, "not liking a noise" equates to "being petty".) So we don't even get so far as considering solutions, because we're barely even allowed to admit there's a problem.

Which is why just admitting to problems is often a helpful first step. Admitting to one's self that, "yes, actually, I am petty, if petty means disliking munching noises. And yes, I am an inadequate writer, if I define that as "not having written this ad yet"." In each case, the problem isn't the (accurate!) self-definitions, but rather, the belief that the self-definition is horrible and ought to be avoided at all costs. (And/or, the belief that the pejorative labels "petty" and "inadequate" are truly relevant or applicable to the neutral facts of the situation.)

Anyway, an awful lot of stuff is like this. Enough so that I've chosen to primarily specialize in the field of just problems that work like this. Tons of addictive and self-sabotaging behaviors build on things just like this, so I'm not going to run out of people to help any time soon. ;-)

I expect that The Work of Byron Katie will be particularly useful for your type 3 classification, as it's specifically intended for getting system 1 to update on "X should/shouldn't be/do Y" beliefs. (e.g. "that person shouldn't be making munching sounds")

Hmm... I actually read "The Work" a year or two ago, and mostly intentionally avoid recommending it to people: it seems to me that it contains powerful techniques for helping with the Type 3 classification above (as you say), but that it tends to draw people into classifying nearly all problems as Type 3, and into removing many drives that would have been better used as rocket fuel toward action.

I'd be interested in your thoughts on how Byron Katie interacts with Type 5 (worthy uses of shower thoughts and of persistent drive/energy) , or whether you think there are Type 5 cases of persistent wishing/drive that are worth keeping.

removing many drives that would have been better used as rocket fuel toward action.

I think this is a recipe for getting burned. Most of the time, working smarter is better than working harder, which leads us back to:

it tends to draw people into classifying nearly all problems as Type 3

So, I have not noticed this in my application of it, but I have noticed this in how she presents it. (In particular, one chapter of the work deals with death, and I remember reading thinking "hmm, I probably can't recommend this book to any rationalists without minimizing that claim somehow.") I found watching Youtube videos of her doing work with people as more effective than reading the book, I think, because there was a clear sense of "I now know the right way to go about this problem" whereas the book had more of a feeling of "I have now accepted the inevitable." (Sometimes the latter is the right way to go about the problem, of course.)

I think the two tools she presents--the "is it true?" question and the reversal--both mostly solve this problem.

First, "is it true?" separates the is from the should, which helps in classifying something as type 3 or type 5. If I say something like "my lawyer shouldn't have told the other side's lawyer fact X," and I ask myself "Is that true?" and the answer comes back "well, it's a violation of his professional code of conduct, and I can sue him for that breach," then I'm in a more useful place than I was before. If I say something like "Bob shouldn't have told Joe fact X," and I ask myself "Is that true?" and the answer comes back "well, I never actually made it clear to Bob that I wanted fact X private, and Bob never gave me the impression of being someone who was willing to keep secrets," then I'm in a more useful place than I was before.

Second, the reversal points out the many ways in which it's possible to minimize or avoid harm, which helps determine whether or not a problem actually is one you can do something about. I think pjeby's point with regards to the munching noises works well here; when you reverse "he shouldn't be making munching noises" to get "I shouldn't be making munching noises," the desired end goal is realizing that it takes one entity to make a sound and another entity to hear it. There are a vast number of unpleasant noises generated throughout the world, and you can't hear most of them, because of distance or muffling or so on. You could leave, or plug in earplugs, or ask them to stop, all of which might be better than suffering to prove how much you don't suffer!

You could leave, or plug in earplugs, or ask them to stop, all of which might be better than suffering to prove how much you don't suffer!

Yep. This is one area where I differ in application from Byron Katie; I tend to focus heavily on self-applied judgments -- i.e. "I should(n't) X" -- rather than other-applied ones. So in AnnaSalomon's story it seemed to me the real problem was the thought "I shouldn't be petty", since there didn't seem to be any moral judgment being levied against the muncher, vs. against herself.

That being said, Byron Katie is correct that it's a lot easier to work on other-applied judgments and that it's better to learn the method using those first.

(I also sometimes find, oddly enough, that when I get to "who would I be without this thought?" on a self-applied judgment, my mind will sometimes object that if I didn't have this thought, then I'd have to stop being mad at other people for doing the same thing that I'm upset with myself about! I then have to reflect on whether on balance it actually benefits me to be upset at those other people, considering that it rarely motivates them and that the self-judgment is impairing me.)

removing many drives that would have been better used as rocket fuel toward action.

That's just it, though: a "should" is not "rocket fuel towards action", unless the most useful action to take is instinctual social punishment fueled by moral indignation.

For example, the only action that's motivated by the thought, "I shouldn't be petty", is self-directed judgment and feelings of guilt, and a futile effort to suppress a feeling of annoyance that you in fact already have.

Our brains seem to have a certain class of counterfactuals whose "intended" evolutionary function is to support the maintenance of social rules through moral indignation. When we think of things in this type of "should" or "shouldn't" mode, it makes us want to punish the entity perceived to be responsible, while at the same time rejecting any personal course of action that doesn't revolve around "setting things right" or "setting people straight".

It's this machinery that drives us to pursue "irrational" levels of revenge, and to expend lots of energy arguing for "the principle of the thing"... but not one bit of energy on actually solving the problem.

And it's deactivating this indignation machinery that the Work is actually all about. That's why all of the worksheets begin with "Judging Your Neighbor" -- specifically directing the intended user to blame some individual for the perceived problem, to amplify the judgmental aspect of the problem to make it easier to spot the implicit (moral) "should" at work

Type 5 problems generally lack such a party, or even if there is one (e.g. blaming somebody for the state of your relationship), getting that blame out of the way then clears a space for working on the actual problem and what you can do about it. (Note again the turnarounds, which highlight what things you actually control.)

I'd be interested in your thoughts on how Byron Katie interacts with Type 5 (worthy uses of shower thoughts and of persistent drive/energy) , or whether you think there are Type 5 cases of persistent wishing/drive that are worth keeping.

I can wish for something without insisting that I should already have it. In fact, I have personally found these two states to be mutually incompatible: if I am insisting I should have done something already, all my energy is tied up in mentally punishing myself for not doing it, rather than being directed towards doing it. Once the "should" is dropped, I can pay attention to whether or not I actually want to do it now, whether it would be a good idea, etc.

In System 2 thinking, there is no difference in types of "should" and "want", and there is symmetry as well. If you don't want something bad, you must want something good, etc.

In System 1, however, there are many different types of toward and away-from motivations, each with different biases for behavior. "Should" thinking biases towards punishment and away from solving the problem, because evolutionarily speaking System 1 doesn't want to clean up somebody else's mess: they should be punished for violating group norms and made to clean up the mess themselves. This makes "should"-motivation the opposite of a "rocket fuel towards action".

Luckily, because there is not only one kind of motivational drive, using a technique that shuts down only one of them does not have any negative impact on your motivation. In practical terms, it actually increases your motivation, as long as there is some consequentialist reason for you to do the thing, not just a programmed injunction regarding what's moral behavior in your tribe.

The tl;dr version: there's no moral "should" in a type 5 problem, and if there were one, then you wouldn't be thinking effectively about it anyway. You'd be stewing over how bad the problem is and why isn't it solved and does nobody recognize the importance, blah blah blah. Get rid of the "should", and as long as there's still a consequentialist reason for you to pursue the matter, you'll actually be able to think effectively about it. Getting rid of "people shouldn't die" doesn't affect "I don't like that people die" or " it would be much better if they didn't, and I'd like to do something about that".

(As a practical matter, asking "is that true?" about many shoulds leads to the insight that no, it isn't true, what's true is that I wish things were different. "I wish I were less petty" is actually more actionable than "I shouldn't be petty", and the same is true for quite a lot of things we have should-feelings about.)

it tends to draw people into classifying nearly all problems as Type 3

Is that true? How do you know? ;-)

It does seem a bit odd for a rationalist to avoid recommending a technique whose first three questions are:

  1. Is that true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that that's true?
  3. How do you act/react when you think that thought?

On the basis that people might conclude too many things they previously believed are false. ;-)

The rest of the technique consists of considering counterfactuals, e.g. "who would I be without that thought?" as a simulation, and finding reasons why contrary/alternate positions could be true... pretty much textbook countering for confirmation bias, cached thoughts, and the like.

"Should"-beliefs can't survive this gauntlet of questions, but factual ones can and do. So ISTM that the Work is a basic form of (perhaps the most basic form) of a Procedure For Changing One's Mind.

This might be random; I'm not sure how it fits, but for some reason I feel like it's worth saying.

Sometimes I like to think about pain/suffering/bad things as good because they're a signal to how I could improve. I'm referring to any trivial bad thing at all.

I think what led this comment to pop into my head is that I imagined you (author) deriving the ideas in this article from doing it. Ie. I imagined you sitting in bed upset because you wanted your laptop and it was far away, and then thinking:

"I'm upset right now... this is signaling an opportunity for me to improve... how can I improve?... how is my mind screwing up?... it's sort of trying to use telekinesis..."

It reminds me of one doctor's description of pain as "one of humans' greatest gifts they wish they didn't have"

Is that my cartoon?

Yep! Forgot to note it; edited to include attribution. Thanks for the cartoon.


This idea of 'attempted telekenesis' is a good label for most peoples reactions to frustrating events I think. One type of frustration seems to occur when the result of an action is not as expected and yet we try to repeat the action but with more anger and expect things to change but predictably they don't.

I've had great success over the last decade or so by really reminding myself in times of frustration that it's my actions causing the events, and that if I want events to change, I need to alter my actions accordingly.

Entirely unrelated to this excellent post, but we should have a regular thread of math riddles. I got nerd sniped in the middle there.

Feel free to create one in Discussion. Best to start with one or two examples to kick-start it.

I have a few recurrent self-actualization fantasies that make use of fanciful abilities and resources. Sometimes the ability is time travel, which made this tweet by Liron Shapira stand out to me:

A time machine is a mechanism that lets you pretend like something far from you is actually near you, with respect to causal distance.

Likewise with your telekinesis and "vanishing into the floor", I propose that daydreams (as recurrent, unproductive consideration of situations involving plans that are, in reality, non-actionable for their use of fanciful skills and resources) commonly serve as agency-superstimuli: imagined successes, relying on expanded abilities (such as those which reduce effort, cost, or uncertainty of achieving some material effect), produce an inference with in-pretense-validity of one's own exceptional personal character.

Maybe it's worth distinguishing "wishing for an outcome", and "imagining the experience of the desired outcome (eating breakfast)", and "imagining a fantastical plan for achieving the outcome" as having different effects on one's motivation / decisions.

For your copy writing example, you list a few interesting techniques which show up later in only abbreviated form in the section of responses to Type 3 problems. Rephrasing and expanding a little bit, if you're worried about poor task performance you might motivate yourself by: 1) highlighting to yourself that you are uncertain about your performance quality, rather than certain that it will be bad, and that you're thus neglecting the possibility that you will do well at the task, 2) highlighting your comparative advantage in solving the problem for reasons other than skill (such as being in a unique position / time / place to solve the problem, or having special access to relevant resources, or having a title with related useful liberties / authorities), or 3) highlighting your (role-consonant) duty to try / to perform, while trivializing your duty to evaluate your performance (perhaps diffusing that responsibility by deciding that it belongs to some non-specified others).

I might add that questioning whether your own performance will be adequate / sufficient, probably has at least these three functions: 1) to make you change/improve your plans, or give up on your plans if they seem inadequate, 2) to motivate you to ask other people for information about your current/future performance, and 3) to excuse future failure ("I knew I couldn't do this. I kept saying I didn't know how. Everyone heard me. I shouldn't have been forced to do this. This isn't my fault. This outcome shouldn't/doesn't justify an inference decreasing anyone's estimation of my skill / social standing."). (Please not that I'm using "you" rhetorically. I don't know the specifics of your work with CFAR, haven't perceived any failure, and am not trying to accuse you of any, I don't know what you call that, "epistemic misfeasance" maybe.)

These suggest a few ways to suppress (the decision relevance / import of) such worries: 1) making more resolute in your mind that a) nothing more can/should be done to improve your plans / your expected future performance, that b) "backing out" would be more costly than continuing, 2) asking aloud for others to help evaluate / improve your performance, or 3) verifying (to your satisfaction in advance of the performance) a communal perception of the validity of your excuse by (confirming that others will not / persuading others that they should not) make such a judgment to bad character, due to whatever circumstances are in effect.

I think one of the most interesting parts of this post is your conceptualization of System I and System II as not just being parts of your decision making apparatus, but as being separate person with their own preference, beliefs, and signature behavioral characteristics. Is there other literature which suggests that dual process of decision making are paired with dual processes of motivation (appetitive/aversive drives (and also maybe some preference-like psychological state behind habitual / scripted action) vs. reflective / higher order, verbally endorsed, ego-syntonic preferences)?

A time machine is a mechanism that lets you pretend like something far from you is actually near you, with respect to causal distance.

This is only true for what people typically mean by "time machine" if causal distances may be negative.

Great post. Some cases of "attempted telekinesis" seem to be similar to "shoulding at the universe".

To stay with your example: I can easily imagine that if I were in your place and experienced this stressful situation with CFAR, my system 1 would have became emotionally upset and "shoulded" at the universe: "I shouldn't have to do this alone. Someone should help me. It is so unfair that I have so much responsibility".

This is similar to attempted telekinesis in the sense that my system 1 somehow thinks that just by becoming emotionally upset it will magic someone (or the universe itself) into helping me and improving my situation.

Shoulding at the universe is also a paradigmatic example of a wasted motion. Realizing this helped me a lot because I used to should at the universe all the time ("I shouldn't have to learn useless stuff for university because I don't have enough time to do important work."; "This guy shouldn't be so irrational and strawman my arguments"; etc. etc.)

I recently watched this Coursera course on learning how to learn and your post uses different words for some of the same things.

The course described what you call "shower-thoughts" as "diffuse mode" thinking, with an opposite called "focused mode" thinking and the brain only able to do one at a time. Focused mode uses ideas that are already clustered together to solve familiar problems while diffuse mode attempts to find useful connections between unclustered ideas to solve new problems in new ways. Not sure if these are the formal/correct terms from the literature that was behind the class, but if so it might be worth using them instead of making up our own jargon.

As for the class it definitely had some stuff that I still try to keep in mind, but it also had some things that I haven't quite figured out how to incorporate (chunking) or didn't find useful (some of the interviews). There is some overlap with what CFAR seems to be trying to teach. Overall I'd recommend taking a look if you have an hour or so per week over a month for it.

Great course. I took it a few years back and got a lot out of it. I think as it relates to understanding the actual underlying physical processes of the brain and how they relate to making conscious meaning, it was super helpful to me.


First of all I'm french so please forgive my language mistakes Thanks for this article very interesting . A bit unconventional in methods that are used but still logic, so where is the problem? :) Then, this article is incredibly well done, a lot of details and examples a big Bravo ChapelierdeCheshire


Congratulations for having reinvented the idea of managing expectations! If you managed to do it independently without ever having read about it, it is quite a feat! I was taught this in a Buddhist meditation group, they told me it is not having to endure something unpleasant is what makes us unhappy, but the expectation, the hope that the unpleasantness will go away, and then feeling let down when it doesn't. And the solution is to work on your expectations.

That is of course easier said that done. A thought exercise like assuming the munching sounds will go on forever and you just have to live with it forever is certain helpful. Mindfullness meditation done right helps even more. In this type of meditation you just take every thought or sound as it is, without judging it, without hoping any change or lack of change, without expecting anything and letting impressions come and go.

Also, problems like this are solvable. The problem is that you don't want to offend coworkers. While that would worth an article on its own, it seems offense happens in an uncanny valley between being super nice and super funny rude. Because it is obvious that being super nice offends no one, but also we males tend to have a second trick with each other: be really super rude and it too will not offend people because it goes beyond that and becomes a parody of an offense, a good joke. So I could tell a male coworker hey hippo if you did not chow crap down your hideous excuse of a gullet all the time while sounding like a whole flock of rabies infected swine feeding, you would not have your own gravity field dwarfing some lesser planets. Then he would call me a pimple full of puss on a donkey's backside and suggest me to orally please a metric ton of tiny monkeys and we would both laugh and there would be no offense done and he would get the message of turn down the noise. But I know women don't usually do this. I think women need to learn to borrow this. This is classic counter-signalling: being overly rude means you are good friends. If you are not sure signalling a problem nicely would not give offense, you could try signalling it so rude that it can only be a friendly joke.

Um, the way they expressed it is false. People with anhedonia don't necessarily know they're miserable, and are still miserable by my definition.

I'll also go out on a limb and say that if you think women don't understand signaling, you should likely not be advising others.


Nobody said women don't understand signalling, just don't tend to use this particular kind of signalling.

I am not convinced about anhedonia (or minor depression, it overlaps). Sounds like an American cultural construct: you are expected to always feel "great" and run around with a smile. But for example in an ex-Soviet culture, what is called anhedonia is largely normal: you focus on trying to survive and cope, not on feeling good. I don't know if there is a culture-neutral objective platform from which it can be evaluated accurately... but clearly, evolution does not "want" you to be always happy, but only when you "earned it".

You're asserting that despite women's knowledge of signaling, they're not using it as well as men within friendships (in this respect). We observe that men share less with friends, tell researchers they want more intimacy with male friends (though I can't find a quick source for gender difference there), commit suicide more often, and die more often from "boneheaded" or ambiguous actions. (On the plus side, silence makes us less susceptible to psychosomatic contagion.)


How is sharing, intimacy, suicide etc. even relevant to this type of signalling?

Not "not using it as well" but "not using this type". I.e. this does not mean being worse at signalling, it means having reasons for not using this type.

I don't know the reasons, but I have a hypothesis. My hypothesis is that one reason may be the social expectation that women should not engage in brawling, fist-fighting, while it is more accepted for men. I think for groups of people where it is more accepted, offense and insult is often understood as a challenge to a fight. Therefore, putting offensive things in a non-challenging way makes them clear they are a joke. For groups of people where offense is not discarged with fists, because there is a social taboo against it, it means offense does not lead to hurting each other: it is, in itself, the hurt. So the offense, the emotional hurt lingers there forever, there is no possibility to discharge the emotional energy in the catharsis of a brawl. Therefore it is harder to get accross that it is not serious. This would be my guesstimate.

It's relevant to your original claim that people who appear better at friendship than men "need to learn to borrow this." It's only relevant to your current claim - which contradicts the old one - because you haven't shown that "women don't usually do this." I know I've heard young women doing something among themselves that could be what you recommended.

We observe that men share less with friends, tell researchers they want more intimacy with male friends

I think that's mostly a skill problem. Most men don't know how to share intimacy with their male friends in a way that works for them. I think saying "Most men don't understand sharing intimacy" does have relevant meaning in this context.