Being Rational and Being Productive: Similar Core Skills?

by John_Maxwell2 min read28th Dec 201013 comments

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Productivity
Personal Blog

A synthesis of How to Actually Change Your Mind and PJ Eby, written for a general audience.

Several years ago I started suspecting that I needed glasses.  At first, I was afraid.  I began trying to convince myself that my vision was normal.

But then I stopped to reflect.  If I went to see the eye doctor, either he would recommend glasses for me or he wouldn't.  If he didn't recommend glasses for me then my life would be the same.  But if he did recommend glasses, I would get a vision upgrade.  Therefore, I reasoned, I should eagerly await my doctor visit.

By following the principle of letting control flow from thoughts to emotions, I gained two benefits.  First, my beliefs about my vision weren't being distorted by my desire for it to be normal.  And second, my emotion of eagerness for a potential vision upgrade meant that I wasn't tempted to put off visiting the doctor.

My glasses example might seem kind of mundane, but it demonstrates how thinking before emoting helps with two core human objectives: Being Correct and Getting Things Done.

Many of the cognitive biases that distort human reasoning can be explained by emotions that get in the way of our thought process.  For example, status quo bias occurs when we are unreasonably skeptical of arguments that suggest we should change the status quo.  The emotion that distorts our reasoning in this case is our fear of things that are new and unfamiliar.  This is the bias that made me try to convince myself that I didn't need glasses.

When it comes to Getting Things Done, both productivity and procrastination are emotional states.  Being able to turn these off and on would be useful.

So having control flow from thoughts to emotions has strong theoretical potential to help humans be less biased and more productive.  But is it possible in practice?

Yes.  The trick is to notice and reflect on negative emotions.  Negative emotions like fear, guilt, shame, and regret are hardly ever useful and frequently interfere with our reasoning and working.

Sometimes that's all that's necessary.  For example, once I was arguing with a friend about global warming and I started to become afraid that he might actually be right.  Fortunately I noticed my fear and reminded myself that if my friend was right about global warming, I wanted to agree with him.  This helped me maintain calm objectivity.

At other times it makes sense to take specific actions to influence one's emotions.  When it comes to getting work done, I've had success with taking drugs like caffeine, talking to other people, and taking breaks to do other activities.  When my work seems especially dreary, I find that if I do several new things for a while and come back, my emotional state is reset to a random value that's generally better for work than the one I started with.

Ultimately I've realized that it's mostly not me who's in control of what I do.  It's my emotions.  In years past I would procrastinate like a typical student, trying for hours to get myself to do something and not getting anywhere.  Now I realize that I was quite literally not fully in control of myself.  I was just pretending I was, and disappointing myself as my illusions repeatedly failed to match up to reality.

There are evolutionary reasons why our rational minds don't fully control us.  The most important activities we evolved to do, like hunt, avoid predators, and reproduce, can be done just fine without human ingenuity, as demonstrated by the dumb animals that surrounded us.  Our rational mind was only to be used in specific situations like constructing tools and coming up with excuses for why something we had done wasn't a violation of tribal social norms.

In this modern era, where surviving and reproducing are solved problems, evolved instincts are useless behavioral distortions.  It makes sense that we could become significantly more successful by learning to counteract them.  That's what reversing the flow of control between thoughts and emotions does.

I'm convinced that by thinking before emoting, anyone can become more Correct and Accomplished.

This is a modified version of an essay I wrote for my Thiel Fellowship application, so if you have any suggestions for how I can improve the writing, please put them in this etherpad.  The application deadline is December 31st.

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13 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:43 PM
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The trick is to notice and reflect on negative emotions.

It also helps to notice and reflect on opportunities to have positive emotions. You weren't just indifferent about going to the doctor, you were eager- this is a vision upgrade! It's a cybernetic enhancement!

Now I realize that I was quite literally not fully in control of myself. I was just pretending I was, and disappointing myself as my illusions repeatedly failed to match up to reality.

I really like how you worded this.

Our rational mind was only to be used in specific situations like constructing tools and coming up with excuses for why something we had done wasn't a violation of tribal social norms.

Not sure whether it's an improvement to mention it, but I find the "coming up with reasons why others should have sex with you" motive far more compelling than the "talk your way out of trouble" motive. It's more directly tied to reproduction, and people are a lot better at seduction than they are at lying.

To me this seems like common sense, but the number of people I have met who resist these kinds of mental excercises is surprising. Once you start to value your current state of mind, you have sacrificed every chance to become smarter.

Anyway, I just took a break from some excessively dull assignments to alter my mental state online, and the first two articles I saw were yours and this . Its like the internet is telling me to to get back to work. :p

In a book called "The Happiness Hypothesis", Jonathan Haidt described the unconscious mind as an elephant and the conscious mind as an elephant rider or driver. I wonder if a similar metaphor is useful here. His book certainly spends some time talking about how we might control our emotions to our benefit, though I don't know that it's more useful in that regard than most other pop-psych-with-a-side-of-CBT offerings.

I don't take it as a given that the problems of survival and reproduction are solved, though their context has certainly changed. I've not yet met anyone who could live forever if they so chose, or anyone who can reproduce without the help (with or without permission) of another person.