This is the public group instrumental rationality diary for the week of December 10th. 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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In the spirit of this ridiculously chord-striking XKCD comic, I have been training myself to feel a warm sense of satisfaction whenever I don't respond to people who are wrong on the internet. It's a lot easier than I imagined. I simply visualise an angry and frustrated future version of myself, and make a better decision on his behalf.

I'm considering keeping a record of the subject of every intractable and drawn-out argument I fail to get into for subsequent review.

I've been using a version of this for a while, where I get a very satisfied feeling out of writing an angry response and then deleting it without sending. It's not that I train myself to write and then discard responses; I'd rather not write them at all and save the time. But when I catch myself having already written one, checking it before submitting, pondering what to change, I want to remember that I have the very satisfying option of deleting it all and backing out.

(I just thought that this may easily appear foolish - what's the benefit of deleting if I've already invested the time to write it, and furthermore, perhaps I'm inadvertently training myself to attempt engaging more often in order to get the satisfaction of backing out? But the thing is, for me personally the costs of writing one comment or post are dwarfed by the costs of entering a spirited debate or a flamewar. Having entered the arena, I tend to obsess over the ensuing argument, rehearse past and future responses in my head, try to predict the reply I'll get and how I'll answer it - all this even for stupid and trivial arguments. It's a gigantic time sinkhole. So remembering and valuing the option of backing out at the last moment before entering the fray is on balance hugely beneficial to me).

This is exactly the same problem I have. There are a couple of arguments I'm still having in the privacy of my own head, years after my correspondents have probably forgotten about the issue.

I generally exercise this option when going through the first draft of a response. I don't personally think this is foolish. Even if there's no value in explaining a position to the other person, there's value in explaining it to myself.

Do you have a blog?

If yes, then you could do this: Write a response, and save it. Wait one week. Read the response again, whether you still agree with what it says. If you do, publish it as an article on your blog. (If during the week you wrote more responses on the same topic, join them. If the response is too short for an article, just keep it in the database in case you will later write more reponses on the same topic.)

By doing this you could transform the response-writing impulse into something valuable, assuming that you care about blogging e.g. for reasons of status (articles are higher status than comments) or Adsense money. Waiting one week and posting on a different place than what made you angry could reduce the flamewar risk.

I do have a blog, but it won't work for this purpose (it's got way more readers than any comment flamewar I'm likely to participate in, so I'd probably create a larger flamewar in my own comments). Nice idea though.

Am I committing some sort of sin by reading your blog via Google Translate? Is there an alternative that doesn't involve my learning Russian?

I don't mind you using Google Translate, nor do I mind comments in English, if you ever feel like commenting. Unfortunately, there's no better alternative (and I'm aware of how much Google Translate can suck sometimes). I've tried in the past to blog in two languages and self-translate, and it just wouldn't work, hideously time-consuming and anti-fun.

Related: I used to have a much bigger problem tabling arguments, even if I really needed to be doing something else. (Especially pernicious if you're part of a college debate group where people think nothing of staying up til 3am talking, even if you have glassblowing class at 8:30am).

I felt like saying "I really have to go to bed, or I'll burn myself in the morning" was tantamount to "You're so much better than I am, but I'm too much of a coward to admit I'm begging off." So, what I did was to visualize the worst thing that would happen as a result of leaving the fight. In one case, I imagined my interlocutor, D___, emailing all our friends to say "I was arguing with Leah about how well fleshed out the female characters in Assassins are and she ran away because she sucks!"

One I said that explicitly to myself, it was pretty obvious that D___ wouldn't do that, and, even if he did, our mutual friends would think it was the email, not my going to bed, that was weird. And then I went to bed.

It seems far too easy for a verbal argument to morph into a degenerate crossbreed of Chicken and Last Word.

One of the most remarkable social inventions I've discovered here at LW is explicit "tapping out." Real Life needs a custom for tapping out.

I was reading Twitter today. I was tempted to create a Twitter account solely to publish a wry rebuttal to particularly obnoxious user, but then I remembered this post. Thanks for helping me resist the temptation.


My semester in review

Victories: I posted almost four months ago that I'd stopped biting my nails. I haven't bitten my nails since then. (Except two times in an emergency situation, where the nail was ripped and could have ripped off painfully unless I took care of it in a more controlled way.) This is probably the longest my nails have ever been. I am still working on getting myself to stop scraping them on my teeth (yes, it's a weird habit), but I'm not biting them anymore.

One big victory is that I did go rockclimbing once a week, every week, until the climbing wall closed. We even got some of the meetup group to come once or twice, which was also fun.

More ambiguous events: I've been reflecting on my original plan for this semester and how it worked out overall. I did very well for the first half or so; I used Beeminder to track my study time and rock climbing habits, and how often I did a 'weekly review' of planning my tasks for the week and taking care of bureaucratic annoyances. This worked well; I got 9 hours of sleep per night, I did my work in advance, I took care of bureaucratic annoyances, and I stayed on a reasonable schedule. But after I broke my streak once, I basically gave up and didn't get enough sleep or go to bed at a reasonable hour or do my homework in advance for several weeks in a row. So next time, I clearly need to plan how I will deal with such setbacks whille I make the plan.

The thing about Beeminder was that I'm a poor college student, and having broken my streak on Beeminder, more than anything else, motivated me to stop using it. It seemed like a waste of money to do, when I could just be tracking things on my own. This might not actually be true. I'm unsure about it, which makes me very hesitant to spend money on it; I don't actually have that much to spare.

I stopped using Fitocracy partway through the semester, which didn't seem to affect me much.

After my several weeks of not-enough-sleep streak, I decided I'd had enough and started making myself get 9 hours, strictly, every night. To this end, I tried stopping all work / computer usage at 11pm; that didn't work out so well because I still had a bit of a homework backlog that required me to stay up late, but I still got enough sleep because I have very late classes. That was a nice thing that I won't be able to take advantage of next semester.

Insights: I also noticed that I've been telling myself things like "I shouldn't do too many things, I'll get burned out" a lot. Then I thought about the last time I was doing a whole lot of things, like last fall, and realized I was quite possibly happier then. So, I'm making an effort to ramp up the number of social commitments and projects I take on, because I think I may not have enough right now.


My experience with Beeminder matches yours in that after breaking the streak, I basically gave up. Nonetheless it seems to have added value compared to alternatives solely based on the streak effect. I have an opposite but equally annoying problem with Beeminder. Being financially supported by my parents, the prospect of losing money isn't as daunting as I'd like it to be.

Have you considered making an enormous pledge (if Beeminder allows it) in hopes of never relapsing again?

Regarding sleep, have you given melatonin a try?


Hmm, Don't Break the Chain might actually be worth giving a try.

I don't think my goal is to never relapse, and I think it's likely enough that I don't want to screw myself over completely if I do. I would be very sad in the event that that happened, and it would probably result in all sorts of self-hating feelings that in my experience are very anti-productive.

I tried melatonin once and had extremely disturbing dreams. I don't think it would help me much, because my chief problem isn't getting to sleep or even precommitting to go to sleep half an hour in advance; rather, it's that I have work I need to get done for the next day. The half-hour precommitment might be useful in a few cases, but not that many.


I found myself forgetting (or avoiding) the DBTC website so a paper calendar may work best, provided you can prevent an ugh field from developing around it. I think there is more satisfaction in physically drawing a cross in permanent ink.

I see how the pressure of a massive pledge can be self-defeating. Perhaps it could work for short-term goals, but testing it is risky.

I've been having very odd dreams which may in fact be linked to my recent melatonin use. I'm surprised that I hadn't noticed the possible connection until you pointed it out. This sounds like a good candidate for a self-blind experiment.


If you do an experiment, please do report back. I'm interested in the results, though not enough to do it myself.

Mostly I regard very high-pressure pledges as a kind of personal "nuclear option". I occasionally will do this for a short period - like last semester, when I had to catch up on schoolwork after a very long illness, and needed very strict rules to keep myself on track - but it seems like a bad idea to do if you think the probability of breaking it is at all high. If you do break it, you lose a big part of your ability to trust important precommitments; I don't use such promises all the time because I want to be able to use them if I have to.

Also, I don't really want to lose that much money.

I've found it helpful to have a plan for what to do when I get off track, and a small allowance for random interference in my tracking.. Perfection is an unreasonable standard for the majority of my activities.

Learning how to start again is more valuable than keeping to perfection. And, it's a skill I use more often.

I tried to spend five days, 10. - 14. Dec 2012, without web browsing, even without reading LW. As a reward I gave myself a small piece of chocolate at the evening (inspired by Story 1 in this article). It worked. This week, 17. - 21. Dec 2012, I will try it again. (Why not? I still have 2/3 of the original chocolate.)

I am rather surprised by this, because my model of myself predicted that it wouldn't work; that a small piece of chocolate could not make that big difference in a behavior I've been having problems with for years. But I had nothing to lose, so I tried it. It seems like trivial rewards work really well.

If the experiment replicates successfully the next week, I will consider using the same reinforcement for other things I want myself to do or to avoid doing (probably replacing chocolate with something smaller, like M&Ms). And then I can measure whether the new motivating system works better than the old one. Yay, sweet utilons!

You might want to experiment with flipping a coin and giving yourself chocolate only if it's heads, or similar--variable reinforcers are supposedly more compelling than constant ones.

First thought: "No way! Abstaining from internet for the whole day and then losing the chocolate because of the wrong coin flip, that would make me really angry!"

Second thought: "Oh, maybe that's what makes the random reinforcement stronger..."

Third thought: A part of the first objection is still valid, because I am the person who makes and protects the rules. So making myself angry or frustrated could engage my emotions and make the reinforcement stronger... but also on meta level, it could make me change or quit the game. (On the other hand, what is the worst possible outcome? If this fails, I can stil return to the original rules.)

I was just throwing it out there, it seems likely that the longer time-frame of what you're doing would make constant reinforcement optimal.

I'm giving workflowy a try, after paulfchristiano's suggestion.

Earlier this morning, I looked at my project list, and tried to figure out which were acorns that could lead to oaks and which were just small projects. I've significantly shifted my priorities for projects as a result. (I still want to do most of the small projects, but it's the sort of thing where I should be spending twice as much time per week on the big projects than the small projects, rather than the reverse.)

A few weeks ago I tried to close out small projects, to reduce the total number of things that I could be thinking about. I don't think that worked particularly well, but I don't know how much of that is an artifact of the current project list I have (where several projects require waiting until some future point to do the next task), or what an optimal number of projects for me to have is.

Workflowy sounded cool, but I've tried so many similar apps and mind-mappers and other things supposed to boost my effectiveness (and wasting way more time using them than I was actually saving, if I was even saving any) that I've become very wary of trying any new ones.

For some reason, your comment prompted me to try it, even though the suggestion that led you to post this in the first place didn't really register enough to make me go try it.

So, all this leading up to: I'll also be giving it a try. It seems like it could be a very good midpoint between the mind-bending, waste-time-trying-to-figure-out-a-correct-structure TheBrain (though I haven't tried the latest version of it, which looks like it could have fixed some of my complaints), and overly-rigid, expand-madly-into-a-humongous-confusing-blob-of-text traditional mind-maps.

I've re-established the habit of recording the time I spend practicing. I record the times to the minute, rather than close estimates - if I sit down at the piano at 4:52, I'll write down 4:52 not "ten to five".

Even though there's no one checking my diary for practice times, it helps keep me focused and I'm more likely to practice for the length of time I've committed to and to meet my goals within the practice session.

I'm trying pomodoro with the added twist that I have a piece of candy each time I start a new block. I will not eat candy at any other time for the duration of this experiment.

I like the idea of implementing the reward at the start rather than the end! It seems to make use of the fact that getting started is often the hard part of a task. Completing a pomodoro once getting going is pretty easy. (I often use a similar technique to pomodoros and very rarely fail to complete a block of work or avoid distractions during it. I'm much more likely to get too sidetracked during my "break" time and fail to start the next block.)

Obtained new evidence that made you change your mind about some belief

Having worked through a number of models of EPR, I now put more weight into an MWI-like approach vs Penrose-style objective collapse due to gravity. As a result, I expect that a well-isolated macroscopic cantilever in this experiment will be shown to remain quantum.

Decided-behavior: I've deliberately started posting in current threads here rather than occasionally commenting on whatever sequence I'm going through. This is part of an ongoing effort to break my social isolation.

Surprising-beliefs: I'm genuinely sorrowful at funerals or the misfortune of friends, yet I'm a raging misanthrope and I cheer for Death when, say, I see a car on fire on the side of the road. On reflection I came to the conclusion that I set a radical boundary between people in my personal circle, and everyone else, and pretty much only care about the former. I think this also explains why I don't give much of a damn about the existential risks that seem to worry many people here; unless they occur within the next fifty years or so, they will only affect people I don't care about.

Learned something new about your beliefs, behavior, or life that surprised you

See my post on alief in.. something.

Trying to do something everyday that is useful or cool enough to tell people about (at work). There are obvious visibility arguments for doing this but I've also found it a great motivator. Asking "who cares?" seems to cut through a lot of prioritisation fuzz. (Only 11 workdays in so far.)