Useful maxims

by Paul Crowley1 min read11th Jul 2012111 comments

38

Principles
Personal Blog

In a New York shop, I once got pressure-sold something expensive I didn't really want; when I said it cost too much, I was asked what I might be prepared to pay, and we ended up haggling.  Since then, I've had a rule:

  • If it's a non trivial price, never decide to buy while you're in the shop

and I have been very glad of it on many occasions.  I can go for a short walk to decide, and if I don't want it, I simply don't return to the shop.  This means I'm deciding in calm surroundings, based on what I want rather than on embarrassment.

Are there other maxims I could adopt that would serve me equally well?

(Personal note: I'm in the Bay Area for a week after minicamp, Sunday July 29th to Sunday August 5th. Let's hang out, go to things together, help make my visit cooler! Mail me: paul at ciphergoth.org. Thanks!)

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A few maxims that serve me well, which might or might not serve you well. include:

  • Reward the behavior I want, ignore the behavior I don't want.

  • Get enough sleep. It's amazing how much smarter and more pleasant other people become when I'm not tired.

  • Attend to likely motives. In particular, if someone says something, consider what they intend to accomplish by doing so. If I'm not sure, then I don't actually yet understand what they said, regardless of the words they used.

  • Attend to the next thing. That is, large projects and future goals and so forth just tend to distract or overwhelm me; to make progress, I need to know what the next action/decision is, and the one after that, and the one after that.

  • As K&P put it: "When you make a decision, do something. Don't just go somewhere or make another decision."

4philh9y(That book is by Kernighan and Plauger, not K&R.)
3TheOtherDave9yWhoops! I even looked it up because I couldn't remember the other author's name, and then got it wrong anyway. Humph. Thanks for the correction; fixed.

Never sign a contract under time pressure. One day per page might be a usable heuristic.

Resist the urge to answer this email right now, especially if it's important. Treat emails as you would postal mail.

Before entering into an agreement with anyone, try to set up a small obstacle that they have to overcome in order to close on the agreement. (For instance: meet you outside of their office, or buy you coffee.) If they fail this dedication test, perhaps they don't really want this deal.

8Viliam_Bur9yIt reminds me about the idea that people treat zero costs psychologically very differently than epsilon costs. (Dan Ariely: Predictably Irrational) This strategy changes the cost of your help from zero to epsilon.

The Marine Corps has two maxims that I find useful in beating akrasia:

-If you can’t get out of it, get into it.

-False motivation is still motivation.

If you have to do something, you might as well find a way to make it fun (even if its a stupid way). Being ridiculously overenthusiastic about whatever it is you don't want to do is often enough to make the activity enjoyable. In the Marine Corps, this usually amounts to Marines yelling silly sounds at the top of their lungs or doing things as fast as they can or in a overly exaggerated manner, but I can attest to the fact that the maxims work well in the my rest of life too.

0aelephant9yAt 1st read the 1st maxim struck a cord in me. On 2nd thought, the 1st part, "if you can't get out of it", seems to be encouraging avoidant behavior. If I rephrased it to be more in line with my goals, it would be something like, "if you're doing it, get into it" but it doesn't sound as clever that way.
4Brigid9yIt is encouraging avoidant behavior, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Given a job you don't want to do at work? See if someone will trade with you; they might not mind it so much. Assigned a task for what you consider a bad reason, like covering someone's a**? Come up with a more productive solution and try to convince your boss. Trying to "get out of something" isn't negative; sometimes it just means convinving others to use common sense or pooling your resources (time, effort) with someone else.
0aelephant9yThat makes a lot of sense. Thanks for taking the time to re-frame it that way.

When you come to move, and a thing you're planning to move is still in a box since the last move, throw it out.

If you are keeping a thing 'because it might come in handy' and the occasion arises when it WOULD have been handy except you forget you have it, throw it out.

On smaller purchases I note that I have a danger zone of between £3 and £8 where it's easy to just spend money without discernible benefit (it's no coincidence that this equals about a coffee and a bun in Starbucks). So I have a rule that unless it's something I actually need Right Now, I make a maximum of one such purchase per non-working day.

8Xachariah9yThere's a neat little related lifehack regarding clothes that works similarly. Each year at a good landmark point (ie, spring cleaning or 1st week of the school year if you're a student), sort through your closet and organize/clean your stuff. Then, when you put your clothes back into the closet, put the hangars backwards, so that you have to reach around and hook them behind the bar. As you wear clothes, place the hangars in normally. The next time you organize your closet (ie, spring cleaning the year later or when the school year ends), note which clothes and still backwards and consider throwing them away or donating them. If you didn't wear them that year, chances are you won't wear them next year either.
6Alicorn9yIf I did this, I would know exactly which clothes would still be backwards, and if I still didn't want to throw them out I'd wear them exactly once, effectively sabotaging the system.
9billswift9yIt would still help you identify clothes you were overlooking rather than either wearing or throwing out.
0Benquo9yWell, if on reflection, you don't want to wear them, and don't want to throw them out, you could at least store them more compactly rather than taking up valuable closet space.
2MixedNuts9yIf a given year is warm, you'll throw away all your warm clothes and be screwed the following winter.
1handoflixue9yHuh. You and I live in completely different climates - I'd be shocked to go through a winter that doesn't require warm clothes, or a summer that requires cool clothes. I might not put on snow gear each year, but I wouldn't consider that "clothes" for the purposes of this maxim.
1MixedNuts9yPortland has an unusually small thermal amplitude.
1handoflixue9yIs it really that unusual to expect both summer and winter clothes to get worn every year? I know it's true of Minneapolis and Seattle as well, and I've been lead to believe it's true for most of Canada and Alaska.
1MixedNuts9yI think in terms of layers that can be added or shed. (So it's less "winter and summer clothes" and more "winter and year-round clothes".) They are in order: shirt or T-shirt, cardigan, jersey, other jersey, thick woolen monstrosity. This year I've never needed the outermost layer, but I expect to next year. I also wore a light coat, but next year I'll probably need a winter coat.
1David_Gerard9yHell yes. [http://lesswrong.com/lw/453/procedural_knowledge_gaps/3i6s]

In a sense everything under about $300 is already mine in that I could have it if I really wanted it with no real consequences on the rest of my life. This relieves the need to buy lots of stuff, if I ever REALLY need it it will be there.

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently what should not be done at all.

-- Peter Drucker

Not doing something is almost always an option. Sometimes it's even the right one.

My instinctive reaction, which is by no means a maxim, is

  • when pressured by a hard-sell tactics, disengage immediately

The justification, in retrospect, is that were the merchandise worth the price, chances are the seller would not have to resort to extreme measures. It has served me well when dealing with car salespeople and telemarketers. but is probably not applicable in many other cases.

One I find useful for interpersonal dealings, as well as a lot of other things is:

  • If you don't like the effect, don't produce the cause.

Seems like a simple rule to follow, but I'd say at least half of the mistakes I make are due to when I neglect this rule.

7billswift9yClosely related: * When you choose an action, you are also choosing the results of that action.
2sixes_and_sevens9yEarlier this year a dance instructor advised me "don't initiate anything you're not prepared to deal with".
3fubarobfusco9y"Don't let your make promises your can't keep" — for various values of foo and bar.
  • Just because I'm wrong, that doesn't mean you're right.

The truth might be somewhere completely different.

The converse, "Just because you are wrong, doesn't mean that I am right", is harder for most people to remember.

3Dorikka9yRelated, from a past rationality quotes thread: “Just because you two are arguing, doesn’t mean one of you is right.” ~Maurog (from the XKCD forums, I think)

Related to your original maxim: If you want to buy something, always spend at least five minutes, by the clock, thinking about whether the you of three hours from now, three days from now, and three years from now will be glad of your purchase.

This is a maxim that I only just now formalized, but it's something that, in principle, I always try to do.

I find it useful to consider alternative uses of the same money.

2beoShaffer9yI like the thought, but unless you have a serious problem with impulse buys I would limit it to purchases that are at least moderately expensive.
4RobertLumley9yYeah, it pretty obviously shouldn't be applied to things worth less than 1/12th X, where X is how much you value an hour of your time.

I'm anti-impulsive by default. In the face of new things to try or do or see, saying no is easy, saying yes is hard. I usually enjoy new experiences when I have them, and I crave them in general, but I have to steel myself to have them. I'm afraid of doing things wrong because they're new, I'm afraid of looking silly because I don't know what I'm doing, I'm afraid of doing things suboptimally, or paying too much, or spending too much time at something, and so on and so on. Reflectively, I endorse none of these fears to the degree I have them. And so:

  • Awkward and fresh beats comfortable and stale.

I run this in my head, and get some distance from those little fears, and that often suffices to do awesome things.

7bentarm9yMy counter to this instinct, which is obviously less accurate, but perhaps more snappy is: * Always do everything. In particular, if it comes to a choice between doing something and not doing it (as opposed to a choice between doing something and doing something else), you should always choose to actively do. Obviously, there are likely to be budget constraints, but it's only supposed to be a guideline.
3Paul Crowley9yHeh, the thing I try to think to myself is not always true, but worth thinking about.
4billswift9y* I have often regretted my speech, never my silence. - - Publilius Syrus * Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable. - - Sydney Harris * My version: You will regret missed opportunities far more than anything you actually do.
4Viliam_Bur9yBut that's probably a bias. You often don't realize what you missed; and even if you do, the missed things are usually in a far mode.
1wedrifid9yTotally not true. Things I actually do have far more salience. Things I don't actually do I usually don't even remember and if I do they certainly don't drag around much in the way of emotional weight. Perhaps my regret mechanism is different?
1TheOtherDave9yI expect that people who regret missed opportunities more than actual behavior have higher estimates of the expected value of hypothetical actions than people who don't. That is, they believe the X they didn't do would have been totally awesome, whereas the Xes they actually did do have various flaws and blemishes.
0handoflixue9yI tend towards inaction, so I tend to regret inaction more than action - there's often been situations where I think I probably could have made a difference if I'd just gotten involved. That said, actions occasionally explode in BIG ways and form very lasting, intense regrets. I seem to handle the latter MUCH better than the former, though, so I'd still rather push towards action over inaction. But, ideally, I'd like to push for "action, with 5 minutes of sane contemplation beforehand", because I almost never regret that - I often still have "learning experiences", but it's much easier to say to myself "Well, I did the best I could with the information I had at the time, and now I'll have a better model in the future".
3komponisto9yThe (mostly sound) heuristic underlying this, I think, is: choose the action that will cause you to learn more.
5RichardKennaway9y"Oh no, not another learning experience!"

Wise men store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin.

-Proverbs 10:14

My personal version would go something like this:

More Anki, less debating politics on Facebook.

2Will_Newsome9y— Matthew 7:6
0[anonymous]9yExcept for languages and stuff like that, I don't think the kind of learning you get from Anki and similar is that useful. I say I learn something when it becomes truly part of me [http://lesswrong.com/lw/la/truly_part_of_you/] -- which Anki cannot do. Merely memorizing stuff which I could look up on Google in a few seconds if I needed to doesn't sound like a terribly useful use of my time. (Einstein didn't see the use of learning the speed of sound in air when he could look it up, and he didn't have a cellphone with an Internet connection with him all the time.)
1Antisuji9yThis has not been my experience with Anki, or at least not exclusively. The optimal way to use SRS is to build a complex, redundant network of associations. In other words, to do what you'd be doing anyway, but ideally in less time and with less effort. Each repetition of a fact is an opportunity to strengthen not only the connection represented therein, but the adjacent connections in your network. You're not just memorizing facts; you're explicitly training your internal models.
1Benquo9yDo you have an example of where that's worked out well for you?

Get the small serving size. I now have this as a reflex:

"Would you like a small, medium or large ?" "Small."

"Regular, large or jumbo ?" "Small." *

"Would you like to supersize that ?" "No."

"Would you like fries with that ?" "No."

Avoids being flustered by a waiter / waitress looking at you or a queue of hungry people. Avoids overeating regret or plates of of uneaten food. On the rare occasion I finish still hungry, I can usually get a doughnut or something.

(* you don't have to conform to stupid linguistic inflation games, they know what you mean)

0handoflixue9yFollow-up to this: It's much easier to purchase additional food. Over-ordering will lead to either waste or, more likely for most people, over-eating. Either way, you've wasted money, and in the latter case you're also suffering health effects.
[-][anonymous]9y 9

Eat sleep and have sex before making any big decision. Getting into that emotional ground state is valuable.

9Rubix9yI like this one. My favorite maxim about well-being is to check if I'm Hungry (or thirsty,) Angry, Lonely or Tired if I feel generic discontentment. (Spells HALT.)
4Trevor_Caverly9yWhat if you're deciding whether to have sex?

Have solo sex first.

0handoflixue9yThank you :)
1shminux9yFor what? Did it work out well for you?
3handoflixue9yIt's a pre-existing practice of mine, I just like seeing others encourage it. There's often a stigma against the idea.
2Viliam_Bur9yEat and sleep.

Think of the solution, not of the problem.

-- Terry Goodkind, Wizard's First Rule

Having your thoughts run in a loop about why your situation is horrible won't make it better. If you lock yourself out of your hotel room in your underwear, standing around in the hallway worrying about it isn't going to make going to the front desk any less embarrassing. You need a room key; go figure out a way to get one!

See also.

4OrphanWilde9yA poorly-defined problem gets poor solutions. I personally find that a well-defined problem almost always encapsulates the solution in its own problem description.
2fiddlemath9yI agree connotatively, but disagree denotatively. The version for LessWrongians might go a little more like this: * When you feel overconstrained, question your constraints, make peace with the consequences of breaking them, and attend your options, not your panic. In particular, in situations where your panic at fearful outcomes is worse than one of those outcomes, just accept that outcome instead of accepting the panic.
2Jonathan_Graehl9yYes (as you intend it). But I also see people discussing "the solution" all the time when they haven't understood a thing.

This helped me to prevent clutter from creeping back into my house after a dedicated decluttering effort: Never put an item on your list of things to buy the first time you feel a need for it. Wait until you feel its absence it 2 or 3 times, because chances are, something you've already got can substitute well enough for the functionality you are missing.

If you ever declutter, you'll find a surprising amount of products that end up in the corners of shelves which were used only once ever and then forgotten. Chances are you'll find 2 or 3 copies of the sam... (read more)

In the same vein, never be the sole arbiter of expensive purchasing decisions; pick another person to discuss the decision with. If you're married or dating, you have a good choice there.

This has several advantages; one which may come in particular handy for you in high-pressure situations, is that you can honestly say that you have to discuss the purchase with somebody else. Another is that discussing the issue forces you to articulate your reasons, which will give you a clearer idea of whether or not you really want it.

Pillage then burn!

More seriously, the things you don't want to do right now are probably the things that you should be doing. Works for me.

I don't want to repeatedly punch myself in the face with a large hammer. I suggest that your maxim may need a small asterisk indicating that a certain amount of pre-selection has happened. :)

4novalis9yPerhaps "the things you want to do some time, but not right now."

Perhaps "the things you want to do some time, but not right now."

More like, "the things you want to have done, but don't necessarily want to do."

1Morendil9yThat too has at least one counterexample. Many people want to have written a book, while very few want to write a book. Yet, I'm not sure I would advise everyone in the first category that the optimal decision is to embark on the effort.
4RichardKennaway9yEvery generalisation has at least one counterexample.
9Xachariah9yExcept for that one! Wait a minute...
[-][anonymous]9y 5

Quote from Tom West (guy in Soul of the New Machine): Not everything worth doing is worth doing well.

The courage mantra: Courage is being well calibrated with respect to risk; for small games you play often (ie social interaction), if your scariest actions aren't failing as hard as they succeed, you're not being courageous enough.

If you can't predict the outcome with the outside view, do it just to get the data. (Be sensible: don't if you suspect large negative payoffs)

Model people causally, not morally.

3Paul Crowley9y"If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly" - G K Chesterton

This works for romance/sex, too. Have a hard wall on how far you'll go, and only move it when you're alone and calm. When you're in the heat of the moment, keep in mind that you can move it when you're alone and calm. You can even intend to do so -- and if when the time comes, you still think so, there you go.

Having that pressure release helps actually stay within the bounds you set. Otherwise it requires a great dal more patience.

I have to say, I'm not sure I know why you would want to set strong bounds here, particularly when it comes to sex. I have never had occasion to think "I wish I hadn't done that sexual thing that seemed like a good idea in the heat of the moment".

5RichardKennaway9yThere are some other people of whom this is true, but not in a good way [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autoerotic_fatality].
1Paul Crowley9ySafety in general is a whole different thing. I think Luke's maxim is about regrets rather than safety.
0billswift9yThey are not mutually exclusive. I can't think of anything I would regret more than causing a permanent injury to myself or another person.
1Paul Crowley9yIs there a better word for the distinction I'm trying to draw?
0billswift9yNot really, because I don't think they are distinct in the way you suggested; rather, I think safety issues are a subset of "things I'll likely regret". ADDED: Or at least safety issues where things actually do go wrong are "things I'll likely regret".
0handoflixue9yThe set of regrets NOT related to safety, and the set of regrets over safety, are two separate sets. Or, if you must, two separate subsets of "things I'll likely regret." Most people seem to intuitively understand the idea of "emotional" vs "safety" regrets when it comes to sex. i.e. the difference between "I wish I hadn't slept with her, because it ruined our friendship" vs "I wish I hadn't slept with her, because now it burns when I pee."
5RobertLumley9yThis is much more commonly true for men than women.
2CronoDAS9yHave you ever been in a position in which you were tempted to cheat on a significant other? (I think you've written about being in polyamorous relationships...)
5Paul Crowley9yI've never been in a monogamous relationship. But that would seem like a situation where you already have decided on a bound in advance, and so a rule reminding you to set such a bound doesn't move you forward.
6CronoDAS9yBoundaries have a way of getting fuzzy in the moment. Is it cheating if you kiss someone? If you kiss with tongue? If you put hands on breasts? Etc. Slippery slope, and all that.
9RomeoStevens9ythis seems like a rule for permanently stifling the unadventurous.
8sketerpot9yNot necessarily! If you work out ahead of time what your reasonable limits are, this can serve as mental license to stop worrying and go right up to those limits -- and no one said you had to set them cautiously. This has been one of my most effective tricks for having fun doing things that are kind of scary.
1Luke_A_Somers9yIf it ever seems stifling when you're not in the heat of the moment - which is almost all the time - then change your rule. Was I unclear?
3RomeoStevens9yNot unclear. My point was that some people will never do things they wind up enjoying until someone pushes their boundaries in the heat of the moment.
1Luke_A_Somers9yOh, sure. And in that case, such a person suddenly realizes that they WANT to cross that line. They'll remember wanting to cross the line and reconsider when they're calm. It only gets to be a problem if someone's line is drawn so far away that they never even get a hint that they might want to cross it, and so never reconsider. I have seen one case of that, and it lasted a few years. It is possible that was from trauma, and the limit contracted once she recovered. I do not think being more aggressive in tearing down the wall would have been any help.
5wedrifid9yThis would severely interfere with most people's ability to comfortably maintain hypocritical inconsistent ideals. Not recommended.
0Luke_A_Somers9yPlease elaborate.
2wedrifid9yFor most people their instincts have far better judgement than whatever abstract ideas they have floating around in their head. It takes a lot of self awareness and rational thinking for "far mode" thinking to be as useful as "near mode" when it comes to actual behaviors.
2Rubix9yThis somewhat makes sense to me. Note that I still think consent is extremely important; it's a terrible idea to e.g. sleep with someone who has never let themselves think in far mode that they want sex, but who would probably like it if they had it - way too risky. But if one knows that a person wants, in far mode, to get laid, I think it's generally okay to push the idea onto them in near mode. ETA: I'm not disagreeing with OP, just pointing out that for some people, near-mode doesn't impel them to go further, it impels them to hold back.
-4MixedNuts9ywedrifid excuses his lax morals by claiming that others act like him but pretend not to want to.
0[anonymous]9yExcuses are for those who fail to live up to their own ideals.
0Jonathan_Graehl9yIt took me some effort to link "this" to "never buy when you're in the shop" :)
0MixedNuts9yNote that you can also move the walls to go less far. (A little harder to explain to your partner, though.)

My recent favorite maxim is "stabilize, modularize, upgrade". It means first get a working prototype or proof of concept built, then make sure the components are as modular and independent of each other as possible, then upgrade each module one by one until you have a complete system. It applies most directly to software engineering, but probably works in other domains as well.

[-][anonymous]9y 3

.

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Incidentally, probably the biggest mistake I have ever made could have been avoided by a similar maxim. I should have said "Yes, let's meet up to discuss these issues and try to make sure it will go well if you move in, but we won't decide while we're both in the room; we'll talk about it, then I'll sleep on it and let you know the next day."

Most people seem to giving a lot of rules of thumb, or even imperatives, instead of what I'd call maxims.

My rule of thumb: write down your maxims, and review them often.

Maxims that cheer you, maxims that motivate you, maxims that kick you out of bad habits, maxims that encourage good habits.

The most important are the maxims that touch you and move you. The best in that regard are quotes from a character in a movie or a book - that quote becomes a touchstone for a full context of meaning.

Two of my new favorites:

Sucker Punch (Sweet Pea)

Who honors those w

... (read more)

I think high level generalizations are found in aphorisms and teaching stories from all around the world. They can sometimes be shorthand for a whole story, for example I often remind myself not to eat my money referencing this story:

Mulla Nasrudin, as everyone knows, comes from a country where fruit is fruit and meat is meat, and curry is never eaten. One week he was plodding along a dusty Indian road, having newly descended from the high mountains of Kafiristan, when a great thirst overtook him. "Soon," he said to himself, "I must come acr... (read more)

0tut9ySo "Don't eat your money" is a warning against the sunk cost fallacy. But wouldn't the rational response in the mullah's situation be to start selling the "fruits" for about the same price as the one you bought them from.
0keefe9yInteresting point... it's worth noting that he bought them for 2 pennies and the vendor is now gone, but yeah, sunk cost fallacy seems to be about right. For me, the visualization of the story is more real and powerful to me than remembering an abstract idea. There's quite a lot of these stories and most of them are rather old, some more of them are here... http://www.nasrudin-stories.com/ [http://www.nasrudin-stories.com/]
  • I am not interested in what someone is against until I have seen what they are for.

A rule I have just applied here. It's easy to be against things. Anyone can do it, there are whole blogs created just to be against something or other. I don't read sucks blogs.

There are only so many words it is useful to expend on explaining why X sucks. Once you've given all the reasons, there is nowhere to go but to repeat yourself. To whine. It's the safe thing to do, because if you thought about what, specifically, you want instead ("Not X" isn't it), then ... (read more)

  • Be comfortable in uncertainty.

  • Do whatever the better version of yourself would do.

  • Simplify the unnecessary.