This is the public group instrumental rationality diary for the week of October 15th. It's a place to record and chat about it if you have done, or are actively doing, things like:

  • Established a useful new habit
  • Obtained new evidence that made you change your mind about some belief
  • Decided to behave in a different way in some set of situations
  • Optimized some part of a common routine or cached behavior
  • Consciously changed your emotions or affect with respect to something
  • Consciously pursued new valuable information about something that could make a big difference in your life
  • Learned something new about your beliefs, behavior, or life that surprised you
  • Tried doing any of the above and failed

Or anything else interesting which you want to share, so that other people can think about it, and perhaps be inspired to take action themselves.  Try to include enough details so that everyone can use each other's experiences to learn about what tends to work out, and what doesn't tend to work out.

Thanks to everyone who contributes!

Previous diaryarchive of prior diaries.

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I've had several "breakthroughs" recently in my long-term personal effectiveness/organization project.


I became aware of GTD well over a year ago, and put a tremendous amount of time and energy into implementing GTD through Emacs org-mode. This was a total failure, costing me not only the time I invested in it, but also intangible losses from missed deadlines, forgotten meetings and misfiled notes. I suppose perhaps I "wasn't doing it right," but I give org-mode a pretty honest go, and ultimately was severely let down.

Later, I tried to implement GTD through Evernote, but this did not work very well, despite the fact that I had already been using Evernote for a long time as a general note-taking app. If I may pontificate for a moment, I have come to believe that GTD only really works if certain fundamental aspects of the process can be made extremely relieable and easy to use/access. I will attempt to list these here:

  • Putting a new item in your action Inbox should take no more than 10 seconds, no matter where you are (phone, computer, home, work). If it takes much more than this, you will think of a reason why your current thought isn't important enough to make a note of.

  • Sorting items from the Inbox into their appropriate Project/Context should be not only fast but also error-proof. I don't want to totally lose a note because I forgot the exact character string for a certain project tag. I don't want to even feel like that is a possibility.

  • When I have finished an action item, I need it to Go Away, i.e. I don't want to see it anymore, but I want to trust that it has been stored in the right place for future reference. Again, I don't even want to have to wonder if it went to the right place.

  • All this leads to: You have to actually trust the system. Much is made of having a "trusted system" in the GTD literature but this is one of those things that you don't really understand until it personally hits home for you. I think org-mode never worked for me partially because I never trusted it, and I never trusted it because it wasn't clean and fault-tolerant.

I eventually discovered Nozbe and it's taken me roughly six months to get to a place where I trust it, and where it really does what GTD is supposed to do. (Nozbe is, I guess, a cloud-based implementation of GTD, with a seamlessly synching iPhone/Android, computer, and web app. Nozbe handles all the bullet points I describe above - in fact, it's only through using Nozbe that I realized those were the features that I was missing.)

One of my breakthroughs was the realization that "getting organized" is a process, not a decision. Historically, I have been prone to reasoning of the following nature:

"It makes sense to me that once I start using this complicated productivity tool which builds a Gantt chart for my activities, I will understand what my most urgent priorities are and thus I will work on them."

What I didn't grasp what that the previous sentence is a psychological hypothesis about myself, not a fact, but I acted as though it was a fact, and became dissappointed - "The system failed me" / "I failed the system", rather than, "That was never actually a good idea, but it's good that I proved that through trial."

Getting organized is a process that necessarily must be spread out over a long period of time. It is unavoidable, because you can't implement an organizational scheme until things start happening in your life. You have to view your organizational scheme as an evolving entity which grows and learns as you encounter new types of projects, new types of necessary action, and new structural challenges. You have to iterate and experiment and come up with a personal solution. "Based on the last month, I notice that this system really helps me remember to return phone calls, but doesn't help me remember to do recurring daily tasks - daily tasks just clutter everything up and my eyes just sweep over them. I didn't expect that, a priori. What if I remove all the daily recurring tasks?" Ultimately, it feels like the reason org-mode didn't work for me is that org-mode is somebody else's personal solution. It's like wearing somebody else's carefully tailored suit. It doesn't fit me.


Another core aspect of my current scheme is the use of checklists. Every day, when I get in to work, I (try to) immediately start a journal entry in Evernote, into which I copy the following checklist (taking advantage of Evernote checkboxes):

[ ]Start journal entry first thing in the morning [ ]Review Nozbe [ ]Clean cognitive plate for first task [ ]Open/locate relevant files [ ]Outline current task/project structure

I automatically "win" the first checkbox just by the act of starting the journal entry which contains this checklist, so I immediately have forward momentum. The next item is to review my Nozbe to-do list. That's right - my first daily task is basically a "pointer" forcing me to actually reference my real organizational system and thereby recall what I'm supposed to be doing.

The third checkbox, well, that's one of those things that I added in the course of trial and error. The fourth seems like a no-brainer, but again, this is exactly the type of thing that checklists are for. "Why am I having such a hard time getting started today? Oh, I my brain is trying to remember what input/code file is relevant to this problem while simultaneously coding/writing something else entirely. Maybe I should get all the files open as one discrete step?" The last checkbox I only do if I'm starting something new, but again, it's a "no brainer" which you can waste a whole day managing to not do, if you haven't provided it to yourself as a discrete option.

On top of having thechecklist, it's useful to have a timestamped journal entry associated with every day, a catchall for what I am thinking about, in a place where I know I will remember to look later. This is literally the first time in my life I've managed to keep a journal of any kind, and I think the reason is that I've built this checklist-mechanism into it.

On top of all this, whenever I make improvements to a code or some document, I put the latest version in a Dropbox folder named with today's date. I'm sure I'd be better off using a real version control system, and I'll probably get around to it in time, but on the other hand, I can use this method for any type of file.

I've been meaning to write all this up for some time. I hope it's useful to others to watch someone else's struggles.

Wow, I hadn't heard of Nozbe before. That looks very nice.

I also really like your beginning of the day checklists, because I find myself floundering a lot with getting started on my lists, and having them set up like you have them might just do the trick. Thanks for the brightening of what needs to be done.

Thanks, I'd be interested to hear how starting the day with a checklist works for you. If you come up with any generally useful checklist items that I haven't included, please share them!


I used to use Nozbe, but found it didn't sync well on Android. I've since moved to Toodledo. In order to fully utilize Toodledo, you may need "subtasks" (aside from that, the only hierarchy is folders containing tasks), which require a $15/year "Pro" account.

Found out my sister got an interview for a highly paid and prestigious job, and was reminded how low paid and not prestigious my job was. Since status is relative, my sister's success threatened my feeling of self-worth. I was tempted to rationalize my sister's success away, and think of some sort of excuse as to why I have achieved less than her. But then I thought of a better strategy.

Instead of seeing my sister as a status competitor, I could affiliate with her. I can truthfully say that I come from a family of high-achievers, even if I'm not a high achiever myself. When I affiliate with her, her success becomes my success and I feel more confident. And it prevents the animosity that would have developed if I'd seen my sister as a status competitor.


For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from a lack of motivation. Trying to understand and fix this aspect of myself has been my project for the past several years. The following are my attempts to find a source of motivation.

Fear: Doesn't work. At first, the fear of getting a C in a class was enough to get me to study. Then it was the fear of failing the class. Then it was the fear of failing out of college entirely, which nearly happened. I gave up on this strategy two years ago.

Creating an environment that encourages productivity: I am severely lacking in whatever personality aspect allows other people to do things they dislike, with the result that instead of doing the thing I disliked, I'd browse the internet. I tried to treat this by blocking the internet, leaving the laptop at home, and things of that sort, but all these strategies backfired, as I just found other ways to waste my time. Like staring out the window and daydreaming. Other strategies, like time and task management programs, I just ignored. That's not to say that creating a positive environment is useless; It does work to some extent. Just not well enough. I moved on to the next strategy one year ago.

Behavior modification: It was around this time that I joined less wrong and read a great many books on how the mind works. One comment about a person on this website using nicotine gum to reinforce positive habits caught my eye, and I have since done a great deal with nootropics and the like since then. Also started meditation, and journaling, in an attempt to understand myself better. This strategy has been the most successful by far. By this point I had built up some very strong negative associations with school, and would characterize myself as depressed. Journaling helped me to see these issues, and meditation and careful use of mood altering substances allowed me to dispel these issues. A reductionist model of my moods ("My current stress is just a symptom of a lack of GABA"), a strong understanding of how habits and mood work, in addition to mediation has allowed me to halt negatively reinforcing emotions by "seeing-through" them.

So this is my current situation. While I've gotten rid of my bad habits and thoughts, I have yet to replace them with good ones. I spend less time on the internet, and the time I do waste isn't quite as wasted as it used to be, but I'm not reading the books I want to read. I'm not writing the code for the game I want to write. I'm not writing the fantasy story I want to write. And most importantly, I'm not studying enough for the classes I need to study for.

With this in mind, my current strategy is two-fold.

First, treat myself as being mildly depressed due to being unable to find enjoyment in activities that I ought to enjoy. This is a change from my previous view, which is that nothing is wrong with things like being unable to enjoy doing well at school, and that enjoying this sort of success is simply not in my nature. I've ordered St. John's Wort, a mild anti-depressant, which I will be taking soon. I am not expecting much out of this experiment, but it only cost me $8 and a bit of time spent reading about depression, so I think it's worth a shot.

Second, to continue working on using behavior modification type stuff. Record whenever I meet a goal, and why ("It seems the internet and video games suck my will to study, while fascinating books, less wrong and writing restore it.") Continue writing in my journal, encouraging myself to build discipline and good habits, not being upset when I fail and rewarding myself when I succeed. Sharing my progress in the rationality journal. Telling myself I will not give up. That sort of thing.

I had some exams at the end of last week that I'd been working towards for most of the year, and for the few weeks prior I'd been eliminating all other distractions to focus on revision. I now have no more study commitments (or any commitments, beyond 'go into work and do my job') until mid-January.

As a result, right now I have a lot of free-floating focus. I have no demands on my attention, coupled with enough discipline to direct it all at specific tasks. Housework? BAM - done. Exercise? BAM - done. I'm also finding it hard to get absorbed in akrasiatic activities, even though I'm 'allowed' to do them now. It's like the voice in the back of my head telling me to do more productive things isn't fatigued enough to give up.

Past experience tells me I'll have adjusted in a few weeks, and filled my time up with enough distractions to rob me of my newfound superpowers, but I'm a little curious as to how sustainiable they might be.

Past experience tells me I'll have adjusted in a few weeks, and filled my time up with enough distractions to rob me of my newfound superpowers, but I'm a little curious as to how sustainiable they might be.

It sounds like it may be valuable to do low-value projects just to stay in the habit of working. Are there any online classes you would be interested in taking, local charities you'd like to volunteer for, or books you'd like to read? (I find reading a book to write a review a good way to give myself time pressure and make sure I'm paying enough attention.)


I was unusually anxious about about asking someone out, because I worried I might have overestimated how interested they were. I felt worried somehow that I would get rejected right away and my imagined opportunity would disappear.

I thought of the Litanies of Tarski and Gendlin and reminded myself that whether they were interested or not was basically a matter of objective reality, that it wasn't something my actions would do a lot to change right away, and I should just go on, find out the truth, and not worry about such things. It pretty much totally fixed it and I stopped being anxious at all. Chalk one up for System 2.

To improve my study habits, I'm trying two pretty straight forward strategies:

1) Noticing when I'm wasting time on the internet and not having fun, but rather just trying to waste time, and immediately switching to something productive. 2) When doing an assignment that doesn't involve using a computer, going to the library with whatever I'm doing and leaving my computer behind (the library is 2-3 minutes away from my dorm).

I've only just started using 1, and I've only used 2 once, but both sound like they should work and seem like they have so far. With 1, I often end up switching from bored internet browsing to reading one of my open tabs, which is more enjoyable and almost sort of productive, so even that is an improvement I think. When I used 2, I was surprisingly productive and surpassed my expectations. For unrelated reasons I had to return to my dorm, and various distractions made the time in the library about 3x more productive than the time away from it.

  • I have tried alternating 30 minutes of work with 30 minutes of play, with the aid of an alarm clock that let me know when it was time to quit whatever I was doing, and it worked pretty nicely. I have confidence in my ability to sustain such a schedule habitually without finding it particularly unpleasant. (I have tried schedules with higher work-to-play ratios and shorter "play" intervals, and I got burnout.)

  • I have just printed a 30-day table that is meant to be filled in with data on my study habits. My goal is set to 5 exercise pages / day; I have rows for each day and columns for"I did 5 pages (or more)", "I did less", "I did none". Every day I have to tick the option that corresponds to my activity level that day. The table would also show the days when I had completely neglected the goal, not even bothering to tick an option, so that I would also gather data on how long I can sustain my interest in my goal.

  • I have noticed an increase in my ability to reason well under strong emotions. Granted, my emotional state does influence my optimism/pessimism levels, but the way I reason using these more or less optimistic premises approaches my rationality level in a neutral state of mind. I have the intuition that this is symptomatic of the general improvement in my ability to recognize flawed thinking; once you learn to do it well, you can't help doing it no matter your mood. Then again, some might have different experiences.

  • I have begun recognizing instances of the planning fallacy in my own thinking. Tried to do a layperson's version of reference class forecasting; found out that realistic estimates point to guaranteed failure. No wonder my mind tended to flinch away from it; it's like not just knowing you're going to fail, but having to live with the disappointment for months before it would actually happen. Now I know I either dramatically improve my productivity or start to get used to the idea of failing my final exams. The problem is, I might be irrationally optimistic about my ability to improve my productivity; I'm not unlikely to say to myself, "Don't worry, things are looking pretty gloomy right now, but rest assured you will begin to work much more in response to this sense of urgency!" and then just confidently pile up responsibilities on my future self while not doing much in the meantime. While the fact that I have gone from zero effort to some effort over the course of this summer gives me a reason to believe this is not impossible, I can't say I trust myself to make this leap.

  • I have begun riding my bike to school for a change. (It wasn't a very welcome change, since the main motivator was that public transportation was getting much too expensive.) The school is far away enough so that I get loads of intense physical exercise from one trip, and not doing it would mean that I'd either miss classes or get stuck with my bike far from home. It's difficult, physically demanding, and I arrive to school soaked in sweat, but at least I don't have to pay anything and I'm getting my share of exercising.

(Note: my main goal is getting better at math. When I talk about work or exercises, I mean whatever math topics I'm currently working on.)

Here is a picture of my life gamification project.

Some explanation: The nine papers are ordered by rows; starting with the top row. Each row represents one week, each column represents one day. I am doing this more than two months.

Different colors roughly correspond to different areas in my life (blue = relaxation, green = body health, orange = mental health, red = social life, yellow = long-term goals); but more precisely, I just had papers of five different colors, so I distributed my goals there by some pseudo-system. For example the top blue row is having enough sleep every day, to avoid sleep deprivation typically resulting from spending nights online. This is the self-improvement that worked best. The orange squares at the bottom are avoiding excessive internet. The green squares are mostly for avoiding sugar and exercising. As you see, most days, even most weeks I do not work on my long-term goals, which I would like to improve. But so far, partial improvement is also an improvement.

Looking at the statistics, the second week was the most difficult one. The initial enthusiams from the project wore off, and my internet procrastination habits kicked back forcefully. Otherwise it seems rather stable. I expected a slow improvement, but most of the gain is simply not repeating the second week later.

My previous comments on the same topic: 1, 2.

Through trial and error, I established near-optimal habits and learned many more facts about which other habits I should add in skills so basic I'm too embarrassed to specify them.

Maybe you could do a post under another name in a few months about the embarrassing bits. You're probably not the only one who had problems with whatever it is.

At the end of August I started the process of creating a game that runs on deep mathematics. Right now it is a card game, but I am waiting until I have both a nice template for the cards and a reasonable at-least-second-draft of the rules before I start flaunting it everywhere.

But, basically this week, I started talking to people about it more openly, in hopes of getting people interested in it for when it's ready for extensive public playtesting and to entwine my identity with it a bit more so that I actually get things done.

I intend to post about it here when it's ready (which might be as soon as this calendar-year for the early art-free releases.)


Hey, is it a glass bead game?


Here we all know the glass bead game is computer programming :)

No, and I had never heard of that term.

It currently looks like something between Magic and Munchkin, just with the complexity being more purposeful.

Upon reflecting on an ardent conversation I had with a friend a couple of weeks back, I have begun a new project. Being the creative and ruminating individual that I am, I graduated this year from university with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with honours. I've always been cognitively and internally aware of how I work as an artist and my intent is always primarily to pitch a message of some kind to an educated audience. Therefore, no decisions I make during the production process are ever arbitrary, from the first stages of conception, the theorists' work I engage with right down to the artists significant to my own practice and the medium I use. Every decision, whether consciously aware of it or not, is made for a specific reason.

Now, that being said, I am not always using hard-nosed rigourous rationality to arrive at my decisions. Often I decide intuitively on things, yet it's still a decision with a kind of 'force' or 'weight' behind it, if you will. Getting back to the conversation I had, my friend pointed out that of all the other artists he had met prior to meeting me, none of them could describe in any rigorous detail exactly how they came up with their ideas for their artistic endeavors in the first place. "I" or "I don't know....I just happened to think of it" are some typical responses from creatives for how they explain where their insights come from. The crux of our conversation came down to asking this question: Is it possible to come up with a rigorous formula or recipe for producing a meritorious idea? - My initial response was no, despite the fact that I knew a signification process was taking place internally in myself every time I came up with an idea and made decisions regarding artistic practice. "It's not that no particular way of reaching an idea was present", I thought, "but how am I supposed to figure out in precise detail what is going when such a process of signification occurs?" - That's when I remembered studying (although barely scratching the surface) semiotic theory and Bartesian notions of the formation of ideology in art school. If Barthes can explain how ideologies (he calls them 'myths') form and Saussure and Pierce can explain how the elements of signs come together, then I must be able to apply such thought to how I get to particular idea!

Of course much more research will be needed to even attempt this besides the Bartesian and classical theory of semiotics, but that now acts as a springboard for me to launch this project off of.

I would appreciate any input or thoughts any of you may have, whether positive, negative or neutral, but please keep it constructive :)


I have lots of ideas for all kinds of things. When I see people that are more "creative" than me, I most of all see them pursuing ideas that I don't think are any good, until they pursue them far enough, and then I finally realize that it was a good idea all along. I think maybe that the ability to recognize and pursue promising ideas is as important as the ability to produce them, or more so.

I am starting a project to take more deliberate control of my life:

  • At the macro level, I want to clarify my medium-to-long-term goals (of the "what do I want to accomplish in the next couple years?" variety).
  • At the micro level, I want to prioritize tasks and opportunities so that I can spend my time on the best ones.
  • At the pico level, I want to improve my memory for decisions and goals and reduce akrasia.

I have no idea how to proceed on the macro piece. Does anyone have any good ideas or know of any good resources for it?

The micro piece seems pretty straightforward; it's just a matter of doing it.

For the pico piece, when I try to improve in this regard, especially on the memory part, I tend to run into an infinite regress of "I need to do X" --> "I need to write down X so that I remember to do it" --> I need to remember to write down when I need to do something" ... Does anyone have any suggestions on how to prevent that?

The problems with defining long-term goals may be personality-specific. I mean the cure is probably different if your problem is that you often change your mood, or if your problem is that you think about things other people want from you instead of what makes you happy. So when you have problem clarifying your goals, go meta and ask why.

My problem was that my mood changes quickly, and my opinions sometimes move like a leaf in a strong wind; and I forget my conclusions made in the previous moods. And whatever I think may be strongly influenced by what happened to me during the previous hour; which is not a good mindset to start planning my life. -- The solution: I took a piece of paper, wrote my long-term goals, and turned it upside down, so I couldn't read it. Later, I did it again. And again. And again. And finally I looked at all the papers to see which topics are often repeated. Actually I was surprised, because the papers were more consistent than I thought; sometimes I wrote the same things repeatedly, not remembering I wrote them previously. This is how I made my list.

For inspiration, you can look at things other people do, and decide what seems good for you. Important thing is to look at what they do, not just what they have. Because the answer to: "Would you like to have billion dollars?" could be positive, and yet the answer to: "Would you like to lose your family and friends and spend 16 hours 7 days in a week running your business?" could be negative. Consider things within their contexts.

Another inspiration is to look at your previous selves: Which things in the past made you happy and proud? Could you do more of that, possibly on a higher level or a larger scale? If you like writing stories, would you like to write a novel? If you like programming, would you like to create your own software project? If you like travelling, how about a trip around the whole planet? If you like playing a musical instrument, could you find more people and start a music band?