Design 3: Intentionality

by alkjashRadimentary3 min read16th Mar 201811 comments


Exercises / Problem-Sets
Personal Blog

This is part 24 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

Intentions are momentary, but problems last forever.

A human being’s attention flits around like the Roman God Mercury, root of the word “mercurial” – subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind. The biggest problems in life require concentrated effort over years or decades, but you can only muster the willpower to even intend to solve a problem for minutes or hours. Worse, you can pretty much only maintain one intention at a time.

How do we make intentions count?

The philosophy of Design is: build intentions into external reality. Like your problems, external reality also lasts forever.

Day 24: Intentionality

You need to lose those love handles. Your reading list is piling up. You need to learn ten different programming languages. You need to sleep three hours earlier. You need to maintain your closest friendships. You juggle three different addictions that take turns monopolizing your life. You need to present like a functioning adult to your parents and coworkers. A childhood trauma you’re repressing makes it impossible to befriend a certain half of the population.

You have a lot of problems, each of which requires dedicated effort and thought to fix. Worse, each problems deteriorates while you’re working on the others. Perhaps some have gone so neglected they’re impossible to look at, and are slowly swallowing the rest of your life like a super-massive black hole.

Right this minute, there’s probably only a handful of problems that feel alive enough to you to inject energy into. Of those, you can only work on one at a time. In this crazy unfair world, how do you make the most of your intentions?

Outsource the Burden

There’s a certain unproductive way of thinking which goes like this:

“If I were really rational, I wouldn’t need all these aids. I wouldn’t need chrome extensions to block Facebook and Twitter, friends to reward me for the slightest progress, and SSRI’s to keep my demons at bay. I could just do what is right all the time.”

Give it up. There might be something aesthetically appealing about handicapping yourself this way, but it’s no way to actually solve problems. Life is tough and deeply unfair and you’ll need all the help you can get if you want any chance of success.

Part of the Design philosophy is allowing yourself to outsource your heroic burden. You can’t complete this quest alone. Make all the inanimate and animate objects in your life sidekicks in your quest – not obstacles. Every tiny push in the right direction you can get externally is one less ounce of force you need to generate yourself.

Incentive Gradients

The world is filled with tiny incentive gradients that slowly push you towards local optima. Look for and pay attention to these incentive gradients so that you can turn them to your advantage. Tipping the scales in the smallest way can do work for you in the long term.

In practice, we focus on the 4 S’s of Design. All of these we’ve already covered, but it’s time to review again.

Space. How is your space designed to help achieve your goals? Is the place you work maximally comfortable and well-lit? Are the things you need for your routines placed in optimal locations? Does the aesthetics of the space properly reflect your values? Is it conducive to productive social interaction?

Schedules. How do you manage your time and energy throughout days and weeks? Do you work better by interleaving different kinds of activities, or by batching? Do you schedule things in such a way that you look forward to the future? Do you use Calendars and apps efficiently to remove the mental load of remembering things? Do you follow your plans?

Social Groups. Do your friends reward you for making progress? Do they punish you for failure? In any social network, every individual is drawn inevitably into a niche: the Silent One, the Alpha, the Clown, the Cheerleader, the Cynic. What niche do you inhabit? What forces push you there? Is it where you want to be?

Screens. Given how much time we spend on screens, and the Machiavellian motions by which everything on the internet tries to ensnare your soul, pay attention to your computer habits. Draw a quick graph of how you navigate applications and websites. What factors take you from one place to the next? Where do you get sidetracked most often?

Be Good Incentives for Others

I had a vision yesterday of what the best friendships look like:

Two little boys want to fly. Each crouches on the mulch in one corner of the playground, tugging as hard as they can on their bootlaces, trying to pull themselves up into the air. They tug until veins bulge in their foreheads, but their little boots remain firmly planted on the ground.

One of the boys notices the other, and walks over. After a moment of silence, they each drop their own laces, interweave their arms and hold on to the other’s bootlaces. Pulling as hard as they can, they ascend into the air. Faster and faster the boys fly upwards. Until the neon yellow tube slide is the size of a pinky. Until the red brick schoolhouse is the size of an ant. Until the Earth is the size of a droplet of water.

Learn to provide good incentives for the people around you. If the smallest push on a regular basis might solve your problems, providing this push for other people can solve theirs. And the smallest push in the wrong direction can corrupt the purest of souls. Take a good hard look at the way you interact with people, and what this implies about what you want for them. Are there particular people around whom you happen to always play Devil’s Advocate? Are there ways you act to intentionally deceive, manipulate, or ignore?

Laugh at good jokes. Learn when to listen and hold space for others. Give specific praise and gratitude. Provide criticism in a consequentialist manner.

Daily Challenge

Praise me for one thing I’ve done well in Hammertime and criticize me for one thing I’ve done badly.


11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:59 AM
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I know it's kind of a weird thing for this post to do, but this one finally gave the push I needed to setup decent journaling software, so I can do better planning, and also have something to reference in daily stand-up meetings instead of trying to come up with a summary of the previous day on the spot.

Yep, having a default place to jot down thoughts is super useful.

Would you share, what is the state of your practice today?

Making any progress / hardships visible could be helpful to all of those who are thinking of starting out.

Standard Notes had some annoyances (sync not working, license issues, too-strict page styles), so I switched to Notion. It also gave me a few more features:

  • File attachments
  • Page hierarchy
  • Web interface if I need it
  • Ability to share page links

Apparently I've been doing this consistently since I posted the original comment. My usual method is to write up a todo list and then add comments as a bulleted list under items and sometimes link to additional pages. At the start of each day, I copy the previous day's journal entry, delete anything that's no longer relevant, and then add anything new that comes up.

The major ways it's been useful are:

  • When people ask me questions about things I don't remember, I can look them up (if it was recent enough)
  • At the start of the day, I can quickly refresh myself on what I did and what I need to do (which makes it easier to get started)
  • It's useful as a reference during standups

I think there are still things I could do better:

  • I don't do enough retrospectives. A daily/weekly/monthly/yearly review and summary would be useful partially as an index to find things, something I could reference for performance reviews or resume material, and as just a feel-good "look at all the stuff I did".
  • Right now this is the majority of my work-related notes and it would probably be good if I had subject-based pages and not just date-based pages.

Maybe I'll try adding in more retrospective/summary stuff and see how that goes.

What journaling software do you use?

I've been using Standard Notes. It's basically just a networked text editor which can display structured text nicely.

Praise: The way you've layed everything out, following the hammertime routine is quite motivating and rewarding. Every new day comes with a bit of a dopamine rush.

Criticism: a few of the days don't have any real action attached, such as this one, where actually implementing design improvements appears somewhat optional and all you really ask us to do is write a comment. This may very well just be me, but more consistent "homework" (e.g. each day requiring at least one yoda timer of some kind) would be helpful to establish some consistency.

**** Challenge. One praise and one criticism of the Hammertime sequence
***** Praise
- Initial framing of daily practice.
Seems convincing and logical, 30 days did not seem like too long.
Relationship with daily Hammertime practice turned to a noticeable supportive state.

Having single course that is supposed to do 10 different items of applied rationality in spaced repetitions manner
is also convincing to try.
Even if in my mind doing "two weeks daily practice of one particular exercise" seems more important - it isn't more alluring

***** Criticism
- I keep stumbling on expecting more specific tasks related to the topic.
I.e in Design: "Now spend 5 minutes picking a bug that could be solved with application of Design in Schedules"
"Now spend 5 minutes devising a plan", "Now murfyjitsu this and set up a first step"

I often do this on my own, by starting a 60min timer at the start of the Hammertime practice, but encounter a lot
of resistence, when I've read the post, didn't found concrete instructions and have to invent something on my own.

Even "now set timer for 30 min and think of something to do to progress on one of your bugs" would help me with that.

Praise: this "daily activity" structure is really useful and easy to follow! also you give good examples and ask good questions that elicit useful thoughts.

Criticism: the daily activities are of very different lengths, which makes it hard to calibrate how long I'll need on any given day.

Praise: I appreciate your way of prodding the reader to question assumptions and unwritten rules. I feel like I'm getting a good sample of tools that have been genuinely useful to you, rather than something written purely for your ego.

Critique: I think the individual days could build on top of each other more, like prerequisites. I also think I'd benefit from doing the related days back to back, to build on familiarity with the concepts and techniques.

Are there particular people around whom you happen to always play Devil’s Advocate?

Yes, and I usually excuse it because I'm "trying to get to the truth" or something like that. But not everyone has signed up to play some epistemology game with me. Hm, I could probably be gentler, or at least somehow see if that's where the person wants to go with the conversation.

Done well: I really like the daily prompts to comment, I think they've done a lot to encourage me to stick with it. They've also been nice because I get to see everyone else's responses. 

Done badly: I wish more days had direct connections to the bug list (i.e. more challenges directly of the form "pick a bug from the bug list and apply today's technique to it"). It's harder to motivate myself to tackle challenges on the bug list when it's implicit that today's technique can be applied to them than it is when it's explicit.