This is the public group instrumental rationality diary for March 16-31. 

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 cata for starting the Group Rationality Diary posts, and to commenters for participating.

Immediate past diary:  March 1-15

Next diary:  April 1-15

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37 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:30 AM

Some of my friends and I have started betting on our productivity, with smaller prizes for the person who starts the bet. We will be working together, and Friend A will say "I bet I can write the next 500 words of this essay in less than 20 minutes." Friend B replies "no way, this essay is too hard." Then A will say "Bet you I can. Let's set a timer, and if I fail, I'll buy you dinner, but if I succeed, you'll buy me a coffee."

We also race on assignments for prizes.

Are you sure you're rewarding the right thing? What if quality suffers in favor of speed?

It can, but we at least find procrastination more problematic for finishing assignments well than overly hasty or shoddy work.

Realized that if akrasia doesn't respond to "try harder", maybe I should try "quit not-doing the thing you're procrastinating on and do something else."

But "try harder" is extremely seductive. "Surely I can get tons of stuff done if I just try a little harder" might be more problematic than "no way I will be able to do this", because the former feels a lot nicer and therefore I'm less inclined to fight it.

I've had success by reframing these decisions from "crap, this is too hard (probably because I'm bad), I should give up" to "interesting, this isn't working, what's the best way for this to not work."

I've heard this called "constructive procrastination".

Recently put into words why I find weightlifting and similar so difficult to motivate myself into doing; despite the demonstrated benefits, it still feels like enemy attire, and every time I attempt it, this alief gets reinforced. I haven;t thought of any good ways to fight the gut reaction, but at least now I'm thinking about it.

Nicely put.

I used to wonder why other transhumanists seemed to neglect their bodies so much. All this talk about becoming perfect, immortal machines, yet aside from nootropics and the occasional trendy diet, hardly a one put any effort into optimizing what they had; even the really simple stuff, like maintaining decent hygiene and occasionally wearing things other than T-shirts with clever references on them, often fell by the wayside.

The answer, of course, was that the transhumanist identity for most of these people grew out of their geek identity, and that physical and social fitness were seen as threatening or at least alien for male, American geeks of that era: they coded as the domain of jocks or scenesters or boring preppies. I hadn't fallen into the same trap because I'd been disillusioned with the culture for a while by then, but perhaps another solution would have been to change the precedence of those identities.

Alternately you could try looking into the Quantified Self scene; I expect that might make the instrumental nature of e.g. weightlifting more salient.

I know it would be beneficial, but weight rooms are populated by people I dislike interacting with and do not wish to be like so that just sticking around takes extra effort. And AFAIK none of the programs like starting strength are the kind of thing you can do in your apartment with minimal equipment (if there is one, I can probably manage that).

Why minimal equipment? Is there a problem with spending money on equipment? Your profile indacates that you are a programmer instead of a poor student.

I am only slightly removed from student, and not at all from poor. It turns out loans are expensive, and reassurances that family would be able to help assuage it were based on cached knowledge that was no longer correct.

But really, the proximate issue is space rather than money. I could probably buy and use these, but not this, regardles of whether I could afford it.

I could probably buy and use these

Well, do that.

ETA: I have similar space constraints, and because of that, indeed have several dumbbells and kettlebells but no weights bench. I also use a gym, because I have no problem going to a place to work out in which there are other people who are there to work out.

As far as I can tell, starting exercise programs (Starting Strength etc.) generally assume use of a gym. I'd work around that, but the parts where significant weight increases happen quickly would require several sets of weights in quick succession, and that cost is prohibitive.

Adjustable dumbbells are a possible solution. Especially plate loaded handles. I purchased this dumbbell set and expanded it with additional 1.25lb, 10lb, and 25lb plates. I can now load up to 125lbs on a dumbbell, with the limiting factor being the length of the handle. I'm looking to acquire some 20" handles which should last me for years.

The popular novice programs have optimized the details for progress and effectiveness. The general principles of compound movements, consistency, progressive overload, and gradual changes can be applied to any amount of equipment. Assuming just the dumbbells listed above, you can do:

  • Day 1:
  • Goblet Squats (progress to single-leg if the weight gets too light)
  • Overhead Press
  • Romanian Deadlifts (progress to single-leg if the weight gets too light)
  • Day 2:
  • Goblet Squats
  • Floor press
  • Rows

Where progressing up in weight isn't an option, progressing up in reps is.

I suggest looking into r/bodyweight. Bodyweight exercises, followed by same supplemented by a bookbag gradually more full of books, then gradually more full of bags of sand/gravel are not expensive and don't require a gym.

Although I am likely biased by the location of the gym I go to, the real unpleasant experience for me was admitting that many of the "enemies" are in fact very reasonable and intelligent people.

Recently kettlebells become somewhat fashionable. AFAIK you can do kettlebell exercises in an apartment.

I've had similar objections in the past. What helped me overcome that was to think about it like I was "going undercover" and "behind enemy lines" to steal their secrets and techniques to use against them. I was going to get strong, yes -- but I was going to do awesome stuff with my strength, not lame stuff.

As Nornagest put, I totally had the geek mentality of "Physicality is for jocks/oppressors!!" Eventually I realized that they were winning on a lot of important levels, and I was avoiding successful methodologies because they were being used by The Enemy. This was needlessly sabotaging my own success.

Even now, the weight lifting communities tend to be extremely irrational, misogynistic, homophobic, and otherwise problematic, and for that reason I'm not totally OK with identifying as a weightlifter, since that's how most people associate it. However, there are groups of non-problematic weightlifters, and I find that identifying with that crowd is pretty cool.


I've been trying to learn a difficult language for some time now. I've found the process to be pretty painful, and I'm prone to akrasia. I've been trying to come up with some way of effectively practicing that isn't horrible. This is the solution I've come up with:

First, I've found that reading and translating with other people is fun and engrossing, and I'm ashamed not to show up. So whenever I can, I find other people to read with.

When I have to do read alone, the best way seems to be to give myself a fixed amount of text to translate and a fixed amount of time, little enough that I'm rushing. I tell someone I'm committing to show them my translation afterwards (i.e. just that I've done it). This isn't pleasant, but the time pressure keeps me focused, and I'm proud of finishing when I do.

When I read a foreign language, I prefer to read aloud. This helps me to understand some phrases I don't get from reading alone. This may work better for languages closely related to the native one, but it also helps getting the pronunciation right. (For languages I'm more fluent in, I read in different accents. This keeps me from getting bored)

For languages I don't know well, reading comics helps me most, because I can pick up many words from context and I don't have to look up words. Switching to comic books was perhaps the best change of learning habits I have done so far. It finally makes reading practice fun.

Generally, I first try to get the pronunciation right before trying to read texts. I listen to pronunciation samples and to radio until I can at least pronounce texts without compound words. Just from passive listening to radio you can pick up the general rhythm. Also, it works well with akrasia.


When I read a foreign language, I prefer to read aloud.

You're right that this helps, and I do it when I can. It's sometimes hard to find a place to do this where it's not so disruptive.

For languages I don't know well, reading comics helps me most...and to radio

No comic books or radio, unfortunately, since its a dead language. Thanks for the suggestions though. Now that I think about it, I think I can read Harry Potter. That might be worth looking into.

There are also multiple volumes of Asterix available in Attic Greek: Link


Cool! Thanks.

Latin? Ancient Greek? (Probably not koine Greek because I don't think Harry Potter has been translated thereto.)

What's your reason for wanting to learn the language? Is there something there that can be used for motivation?


Attic Greek, and my motivations are serious and professional: I can't get the job I want without learning Greek. But on an hour to hour basis, that's still not enough pressure. My experience with myself is that I have to find something pleasurable about an activity to do it reliably. I'm just not disciplined enough to do things I find really unpleasant. Fortunately, I don't have to do unpleasant things very often, but this is an exception.

What's the job you want?

Sorry about the repeated questioning. I'm just thinking along the following lines: If you are keen to get a particular job that requires knowing Attic Greek, then presumably there are things about that job that you're keen to do for their own sake[1]; it seems likely that some of them involve actually using Attic Greek, in which case aren't there fun things you can do more of as your knowledge of the language improves?

[1] I can't think of any jobs that (a) people do just because they want the money and (b) require skill in Attic Greek.


No, you're right. It's a job in academic philosophy, and I want the job for it own sake. There are very enjoyable things I can do with attic once I have better command of it, but it's a terribly difficult language and I'm probably a year or so of hard work away from being able to enjoy them.

What could you do to make reading alone more pleasant, without a trade-off in productivity?


Well, that's the great question, and I'm open to suggestions. I've tried making games of it, but nothing works any better than the timed readings: I'm productive, but it's not fun, and so I get akratic about it. I assume that when I'm a bit better at reading, it'll be less unpleasant but at the moment...

Might it help to think of your reading as something to talk or blog about? At this stage, you may not have much to say about the content, but you might have something to say about your process of learning.


Hmm, that's a very good idea. I tried blogging about work once, but I couldn't get myself to post regularly. I take it this is a common problem. Do you know of a good way to encourage that?

Shorter posts when you're starting is a step in the right direction.

Observation: I've been back home for a little over a week, and my productivity and over all not-bleh declined rapidly.

As of ~36 hours ago, I've had the place to myself, and will until around Thursday evening. I've had similar breaks over the past couple years, and they're inevitably the best weeks of the year, but last year at least, there were a couple days of bleh before I managed a productivity burst.

Something I noticed while at WSB, and unable to break out of being mostly nocturnal, is that going several hours after waking without access to food was extremely beneficial in terms of mood and productivity and my ability to stick to good habits for general health. Being back at home, I can eat pretty much whenever I want, so replicating those conditions requires effort when it didn't previously.

This suggests that a good strategy for when I'm responsible for my own food would be to only buy what I'm going to eat in a given day, but that strategy has plenty of holes (what about days when the weather is awful? What about the increased cost of transportation?). Bleh.

Perhaps you can buy food that requires several hours of advance preparation. Wake up, dump some beans in the slow cooker, and you won't have easily edible food until lunchtime.

To do: brainstorm and practice ways to decide between unsavory tasks, in pursuit of ongoing goal of minimizing trivial inconveniences.

I've been using a slight modification of this "autofocus" system for a bit over two months now. It's not my first try with it - I used it for a few weeks a couple of years ago but I think at the time the type of tasks / priority structure I was trying to deal with worked less well with it. Two months in, I could definitely still be in the period where any change of system works really well for a bit before ceasing to work. I do think its effectiveness has declined a little bit since the first couple of weeks. However, subjectively it seems to have stabilised; I'm certain I abandoned it earlier last time; and I don't envisage giving up on it in the near future.

It feels like my motivation to keep using it is affected substantially by my choice of a very slim notebook with blocks of different-coloured pages. "I only have to fill in four more pages of tasks and I'll be into the green section!" Pretty soon I'll be more than halfway through the notebook and motivation to fill it completely is quite strong!

I've toyed with various higher-tech methods over the years, but for to-do lists I always keep drifting back towards good old paper, for the simple reason that I find it really motivating to browse back through long-crossed-off stuff and go "Hey, look at all this that I accomplished!" I've been through couple of digital approaches that sort-of worked for this, but none of them quite did it. (One of them did last ~18 months though, which is definitely my record for use of any organisational/motivational system. Let's see if the current iteration can beat it!)

I do really like notebooks! I'll take a look. Thanks!

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