Rationality is systematized winning.

In Hammers and Nails, I suggested that rationalists need to be more systematic in the practice of our craft. In this post, I will use the word Hammer for a single technique well-practiced and broadly applied.

Hammertime is a 30-day instrumental rationality sequence I am designing for myself to build competence with techniques. Its objective is to turn rationalists into systematic rationalists. By the end of this sequence, I hope to upgrade each Hammer from Bronze Mace to Vorpal Dragonscale Sledgehammer of the Whale. I invite you to join me on this journey.

The core concept: One Day, One Hammer.

Hammertime Schedule

In Hammertime, we will practice 10 Hammers over 30 days. Each exercise is scalable from a half hour to an entire day. The Hammers will be bootleg CFAR techniques:

  1. Bug Hunt
  2. Resolve Cycles
  3. TAPs
  4. Design
  5. CoZE
  6. Mantras
  7. Goal Factoring
  8. Focusing
  9. Internal Double Crux
  10. Planning

There will be three cycles of 10 days each, practicing each technique a total of three times. The first cycle will cover basics and solve bugs at the life-hack level. The second cycle will reinforce the technique, cover variations and generalizations, and solve tougher challenges. The third cycle will build fluid compound movements out of multiple core techniques.

Day 1: Bug Hunt

A bug is anything in life that needs improvement. Even if something is going well, if you can imagine it going better, there's a bug.

On the first day of Hammertime, we will scour our lives with a fine-toothed comb to find as many bugs as possible. A comprehensive bug list will provide the raw material on which we practice every other rationality technique. For the first cycle of Bug Hunt, look for small, concrete bugs. The whole exercise should take a bit over an hour.

WARNINGS: Focus on finding bugs, not solving them. If you can solve the bug immediately, go for it. Otherwise, hold off on proposing solutions. Writing down a bug does not mean you commit to doing anything about it.

1. Setup

Find a notebook, phone app, spreadsheet, or Google Doc to record your bugs - preferably something you can bring with you throughout the day. We will refer back to it repeatedly in the coming days for bugs to solve.

During Bug Hunt, spend the next 30 minutes writing down as many bugs as you can. Following each of the six sets of prompts in the next section, set a timer for 5 minutes and list as many bugs as you notice.

2. Prompts

A. Mindful Walkthrough

Walk through your daily routine in your head and look for places that need improvement. Do you get up on time? Do you have a morning routine? Do you waste mental effort deciding whether to or what to eat for breakfast? Do you take the most efficient commute, and make the most of time in transit?

Fast forward to work or school. Are there physical discomforts? Are you missing any tools? Are there particular people who bother you, or to whom you don't speak enough? Do you ask for help when you need it? Do you know how to shut up? Is there unproductive dead time during meetings, classes, or builds? Do you take care of yourself during the day?

Think about the evening at home. Do you waste time deciding where or what to eat? Are there hobbies you want to try? Are there things you know will be more fun that you're not doing? Do you progress consistently on your side projects? Do you sleep on time? How is your sleep quality?

B. Hobbies, Habits, and Skills

Walk through the things you do on a regular basis. Are there habits you mean to drop? Are there habits you mean to pick up but never seem to get around to?

For each hobby or habit, answer the following questions. Do you do it enough? Do you do it too much? Are there ways you could improve your experience? Do it in a different place and time? Do it with other people or alone?

Perhaps you have skills to practice. Are you as good as you want to be? Do you practice regularly? Have you plateaued by overtraining? Are there minor recurring discomforts keeping you from trying? Are there directions you haven't tried which might indirectly improve your abilities?

C. Space

Look around your living space, your workspace, or the interior of your vehicle. What would you change?

Space should be functional. Is there clutter you circumnavigate on a daily basis? Are your chairs and tables at the right height? Is your bed comfortable? Are there towels, pans, notebooks, or papers sitting out taunting you? Are there important things that deserve a more central position? Have you set up Schelling places for glasses, wallets, and phones?

Space should be aesthetically pleasing. Do pieces of furniture or equipment stick out comically? Do your walls feel drab and depressing? Are there carpet stains or dust mites that keep catching your eye and sucking out your happiness? Are you tired of the art on the walls?

Space on the monitor can be as important as physical space. Do you have enough screens? Do you find yourself repeating mechanical boot-up and shutdown sequences that can be automated? Do you use all the browser extensions and keyboard shortcuts? Is there a voice in the back of your head whispering at you to learn vim?

D. Time and Attention

People and things clamor for your attention. What's missing from your life that would let you live as intentionally as possible?

Many activities are bottomless time sinks. Do you watch shows or play games you no longer enjoy? Do you get dragged into conversations that hold no value? Do you find yourself rolling the mouse wheel down endless Facebook or Reddit feeds? Are there classes, meetings, commutes, or projects that zombify you for the rest of the day? Do you set up ejector seats in advance to protect yourself from time sinks?

Focus on the things you don't pay enough attention to. Do you often make mistakes on autopilot? Are there friends or family you've neglected or grown distant from? Are there conversations you zone out in that you could get more out of? Is there a childhood dream you've forgotten?

Sometimes trivial distractions lead to spectacular failures. Are there slight, recurring physical discomforts that drain your agency? Does the temperature outside prevent you from exercising? Is there something shiny that always draws your eye away from work?

E. Blind spots

Our biggest bugs can hide in cognitive blind spots.

Outside view your life. Are you sufficiently awesome? What is your biggest weakness? If there is one thing holding you back from achieving your goals, what would it be? Do you have mysterious attachments to pieces of your identity? Do you routinely over- or under-estimate your own ability?

Simulate your best friend in your head. What do they say about you that surprises you? What behaviors annoy them? What behaviors would they appreciate? Is there a piece of advice they keep giving you?

Summon your Dumbledore. What would he say to you? What deep wisdom are you blind to? If you were the protagonist, what genre would this life be?

Look to admiration and jealousy for insight. Are you the person you most admire? What skills and traits do others have that you want?

F. Fear and Trembling

The shadows we flinch away from can hide the most bountiful treasures.

What are your greatest fears and anxieties? Do you have the strength to be vulnerable? Are there necessary and proper actions you need to take? Are there truths you're scared to say out loud? What do you lie to yourself about?

Look to your social circle. Are there good people you hide from? Are there conversation topics that cause you scramble away? What do people say that cause you to lose your composure?

Look to the past and future as far as your eyes allow. What deadlines cause you to avert your eyes? Is there a kind of person you are terrified of becoming? Or are you most afraid of stagnation? Do you trust your past and future selves?

3. Sort

Hopefully, you came up with at least 100 bugs; I came up with 142. Time for some housekeeping. Input your bugs into a spreadsheet to organize and coalesce similar ones. Using System 1, assign difficulty ratings from 1 to 10, where 1 is "I could solve it right now" and 10 is "Just thinking about it causes existential panic." Sort them in increasing order of difficulty.

In the coming days, we will go down the list systematically, hitting as many nails as possible with each hammer.

Daily Challenge

To help others brainstorm, share your strangest bug-fix story. I'll start:

The muscles on the left half of my face are more responsive, which caused me to smile asymmetrically for most of my life. Therefore, my usual smile wasn't far from a contemptuous smirk, and caused me to feel dismissive of everyone I smiled at. I trained myself to smile on both sides and now feel warmer towards people.

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Hopefully, you came up with at least 100 bugs; I came up with 142.

I wrote 20,000 words from these prompts. Not all of those bugs, but also my reactions to them. Ended up doing not much else for about three days, but I went over basically my entire life top to bottom. I now have a thorough overview of my errors. I stopped not because I ran out of things I think I need to fix, but because I realized the list would never end. I was still finding MAJOR areas I need to improve even after all that. I see why the exercise is supposed to only be half an hour now: there are about 200 million insects per person!

Lesson learned: sample, not catalog.

There have been many moments in life where I'd see something bad happen, or someone who just needed help, but not do anything about it. This would always make me feel somewhat bad about myself.

I added a card to my Anki deck which said: "If you see someone who needs help, help them". A few months later, I witnessed a car crash (Nobody was hurt, but there was gasoline pouring onto the ground). Part of me said "keep driving, someone else will take care of it, I have things to do", but I heard in my head: "If you see someone needs help, help them". And without even taking a moment to debate what I'd do, I hit the brakes, pulled over, and ran to the cars. Thankfully, no-one was hurt, but I called 9-1-1 and made sure everyone involved was okay.

There have been a few other similar situations since then, and that voice that I programmed into my head has always ensured that I did what I knew was right.

Interesting idea, I will try this. I'd generally been skeptical of the worth of adding rules like that to SuperMemo and memorizing them since there's a difference between knowing and doing but I think a lot of the ones I've memorized have become such a natural part of my thought process that I fail to explicitly recall them as being from a card.

I think my experience with cards like this has been of a distinct character compared to cards I use for, e.g., languages. Whereas when I'm quizzed on the meaning of a foreign word, I say the answer, then immediately move on to the next card, when I see a card which is a sentence or rule, and where the "correct" answer is already obvious, I pause for a few seconds, and reflect on what that rule means, why I added the card in the first place, and maybe think of some examples of when I've successfully applied the rule, or failed to act accordingly.

I think the benefit SRS provides to this framework isn't that it helps me remember something new that I risk forgetting, but rather, it schedules timely opportunities to refect on principles I chose to live life by, and ensure that I always have the principle in the back of my mind. It elevates a saying from a platitude to something meaningful to me.

I just found this sequence, and am going to try going through it. I came up with about 90 bugs. I was surprised by how many easy to fix problems I had been procrastinating on - motivating me to just solve all of those now was an immediate benefit of reading this. I haven't been able to think of a strange bug fix story, but one general thing that has helped me is keeping things I might need close - for example, having multiple pencils and a tissue box on my desk, rather than in a different room.

I just did this exercise and came up with something like 150+ bugs - interestingly, none of them at difficulty level 1, I think because if a bug is actually easy to fix and something I'm able to notice then I've already fixed it by now. I also put priorities on the bugs, since it felt wrong to sort them only by difficulty when some are vital to fix and others I don't really care about very much.

I really like easy bug fixes but can't think of any that have been particularly strange per se. A couple maybe noteworthy ones:

  • I noticed that because I procrastinate mightily on getting out of bed in the morning, I sometimes stay in bed so long I get very hungry, which makes me have less energy, which makes me procrastinate even more, and so forth in a vicious cycle. I started keeping Clif bars in my bedside drawer to have a way out of this cycle. Now I also keep Clif bars in my various backpacks and purses so that if I get hungry while out and about I don't have to spend effort thinking about where to get food.
  • I typically fidget a lot in somewhat destructive ways like picking at the skin on my fingers. Getting a fidget spinner has helped me fidget in less destructive ways.
  • I've made doing boring tasks more endurable by listening to podcasts while I do them
  • Sometimes I need to do a thing which feels too long and complicated to do in my current state (e.g. get ready for bed when my bed is a mess and I'm exhausted). I've found it's really helpful to break the task down into chunks and tell somebody about each chunk as I do it (e.g. "ok now I'm going to take my meds, refill my waterbottle, and clear my bed", "ok now I'm going to brush my teeth, use the bathroom, and take out my contacts", etc.)

Uh oh. My first run-through yielded only 11 bugs. Considering I'm not hilariously successful at everything means I'm missing a ton of information. My second search yielded a total of 50 bugs. This is still only half of what you minimally requested. I'm glad this was brought to my attention as it's a really glaring deficiency, however I'm not sure how to go about remedying this, as it feels like I wrote down everything I could reasonably come up with (and I still ended up scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas).

Also something that appears at least tangentially related- The Strategic Review by Sebastian Marshall (u/lionhearted) brings up a lot of useful concepts and approaches to bug-fixing. Give it a read for a different perspective.

Not the strangest fix, but it's the best I've got:

When trying to get into making lists and journaling I kept not doing it because of the inconvinence of lugging around a journal. I tried using smaller journals that went into my pocket but then I also needed to carry around a pen. I used a jacket with inside pockets which worked for a while but they were seamed in such a way that it was frustrating to reinsert the journal. Eventually I just went ahead and bought a small purse that I now carry everywhere I go. This completely fixed the problem.

Going for quantity is a nice way to brainstorm and make sure you've covered a lot of bases but I wouldn't stress out too much about it. In my experience people only have a small number of "real" bugs and if they solve those then their other bugs sort of go away automatically or don't feel like they matter. (The "real" bugs are less like "thing X is going wrong in my life" and more like "I am the sort of person for whom things X, Y, Z, W... go wrong in my life.")

I wouldn't worry about it, 50 is plenty for now. My hope is that the first cycle will cultivate stronger lateral thinking and expand your comfort zone enough that you'll be able to come up with plenty more on the next cycle.

There's a larger point I want to make which is that the reason one wants to be a rationalist is to win in general. If there were a particular one or two domains you care about, then applying force on those domains will get you more for your dollar than working on rationality as such (unless the particular domain has something to do with minds). Therefore, to make maximal use out of rationality you have to be solving lots of disparate problems, which requires that you notice lots of bugs to solve in the first place.

Seconding Qiaochu's point to an extent: huge families of bugs can all be manifestations of one "real" bug at the bottom. On the other hand I have the sense that the best way to get started on these "real" bugs is to solve some of their small consequences, so being able to fractionate bugs into specific pieces is still useful.

I read this sequence almost a year ago. It helped me figure some things out, but I felt like I didn't get enough reps in - some days I just read the posts and simulated myself doing something instead of actually doing it.

Here's my plan/experiment this time:

  • I made it a goal for the past 30 days to read each post in the sequence and reflect, experiment a bit and not hold myself to too high of a standard (basically what I did last year)
  • Now I'm going to dedicate a portion of my day to really trying the exercises and techniques in each post - doing rather than just simulating. If one technique seems especially fecund, I might spend two days on it
  • I will post a comment for each day, introspecting and explaining my experiences as openly as possible. (For many reasons: tie me to the mast, social CoZE, etc.)

I came up with 170 bugs this time.

Weirdest bug fix: Switching from wired headphones (while sleeping) to wireless ones.

  • I need to listen to a podcast in order to fall asleep (a bug in itself), but I shared (pre-covid) a bed with my girlfriend and didn't want to annoy her with the audio.
  • I was procrastinating sleeping because I'd get sucked into my phone while picking a podcast, which would often lead me to wake up late for work stressed out and tired.
  • Since my headphones were wired I'd have to sleep with my phone in my bed, which lead me to stare at it first thing in the morning and use it my entire commute.
  • Getting wireless headphones enabled me to play a podcast, put my phone in my backpack across the room, and go to sleep with the podcast still playing.
  • This bug is now obsolete as I moved out of the city during the pandemic, but I'm hoping to be able to fix a few more like this in the next month.

I made an account just for this, having lurked LW for the past year or so - apologies if I break any rules, please let me know.

I think the whole sequence will be very useful for me. And I recommend mentioning in section 1 that we will enter the bugs in a spreadsheet later. If I had known that from section 1, I would have typed the bug list into the computer right away, rather than hand-writing it first and then typing it up. Not a good use of my time…

Thanks for writing this! I've often wondered about CFAR techniques given that I can't afford to go. I'll be following this Sequence.

CFAR offers financial aid for people who can't afford the full price (many participants don't pay the full price; the ones who do effectively help subsidize everyone else); after you apply and interview, including explaining your financial situation, they'll come back with a financial aid offer and you can see how good it is.

I don't have a bug fix story yet, but I don't think I just speak for myself when I say my biggest (non-x-risk) fear is becoming and achieving nothing compared to my potential.

I also generally place great trust in my future self (as my rationality gradient has been positive for quite some time) and firm trust in my immediate past self (allowing me to precommit to emotionally fraught decisions, like a difficult breakup, wherein my in-the-moment regret might otherwise overwhelm a sound judgment).

I'm sorry I couldn't answer the main question, but I'm definitely appreciating this sequence so far.

Thanks for the support! I have a favorite quote about achieving nothing compared to my potential, from the extraordinary Ursula Le Guin who recently passed away. :'(

Brunoy smiled; they walked on a little way, and Itale broke out afresh, "I admire your patience so much, Egen, - I get cross with them - How do you stay patient?"

"I have nothing but patience to fill the gap between my own ideals and my actual achievement."

One strange bug-fix: praying once in a faraway Church in Spain helped daylight some relationship damage I was suffering. I've never been religious and still am not.

This didn't come out of explicitly looking for bugs, but it seemed in keeping with the theme.

This entire project looks very exciting. I hope it yields something life-changing, and I'd love to take part.

Wonderful! I'm really excited about writing a longer sequence like this but have a lot of gaps in my knowledge. Ideally the comments section will be a useful way to fill those gaps.

Thanks for posting this! I'm feeling in a bit of a rut currently and will be giving the 30-day sequence a shot. 

To start off, I can't think of anything especially strange, but I'll share a good bugfix story from undergrad. Spring of freshman year, I found myself struggling somewhat in an intro thermodynamics class. I resolved at some point to always read the textbook as I was eating breakfast, and carried on this tradition for whatever my hardest class was each following semester. While it did result in a lot of hot sauce-stained textbooks, I found it to be an extremely good way to encourage consistent review and practice.

It's not that easy to come up with strange bugfix stories (or even noteworthy bugfix stories in general).

One that's still in progress is that I've been using gamification to improve my posture. I simply count the occurrences throughout the day when I remember to sit/stand straight, and track them, summing them up over time to reach certain milestones, in combination with a randomized reward system. While I wasn't too convinced in this attempt at first, it happens more and more often that I remember to sit up straight and realize I already do so, which is a good sign I guess.

Quite a few bugs could be solved for me using spreadsheets. Tracking stuff and seeing graphs of development over time often provides just enough motivation for me to stick to new habits.

The bug of occasionally watching too many youtube videos has been partially resolved by me initially being too lazy to connect speakers to my computer. I'm now more or less deliberately keeping it that way just for that advantage.

I think this will be an exciting sequence and I'm looking forward to taking part.

By the way, did you obtain the "bootleg CFAR techniques" by attending a workshop, or do they provide digital content now?

I live far outside the U.S and am not able to go to workshops, but if they have ebooks or something that would be great.

By attending. There's a decent chance the staff will share the docs if you ping them.