Less Wrong is explicitly intended is to help people become more rational.  Eliezer has posted that rationality means epistemic rationality (having & updating a correct model of the world), and instrumental rationality (the art of achieving your goals effectively).  Both are fundamentally tied to the real world and our performance in it - they are about ability in practice, not theoretical knowledge (except inasmuch as that knowledge helps ability in practice).  Unfortunately, I think Less Wrong is a failure at instilling abilities-in-practice, and designed in a way that detracts from people's real-world performance.

It will take some time, and it may be unpleasant to hear, but I'm going to try to explain what LW is, why that's bad, and sketch what a tool to actually help people become more rational would look like.

(This post was motivated by Anna Salomon's Humans are not automatically strategic and the response, more detailed background in footnote [1].)

Update / Clarification in response to some comments: This post is based on the assumption that a) the creators of Less Wrong wish Less Wrong to result in people becoming better at achieving their goals (instrumental rationality, aka "efficient productivity"), and b) Some (perhaps many) readers read it towards that goal.  It is this I think is self-deception.  I do not dispute that LW can be used in a positive way (read during fun time instead of the NYT or funny pictures on Digg), or that it has positive effects (exposing people to important ideas they might not see elsewhere).  I merely dispute that reading fun things on the internet can help people become more instrumentally rational.  Additionally, I think instrumental rationality is really important and could be a huge benefit to people's lives (in fact, is by definition!), and so a community value that "deliberate practice towards self-improvement" is more valuable and more important than "reading entertaining ideas on the internet" would be of immense value to LW as a community - while greatly decreasing the importance of LW as a website.

Why Less Wrong is not an effective route to increasing rationality.


Work: time spent acting in an instrumentally rational manner, ie forcing your attention towards the tasks you have consciously determined will be the most effective at achieving your consciously chosen goals, rather than allowing your mind to drift to what is shiny and fun.

By definition, Work is what (instrumental) rationalists wish to do more of.  A corollary is that Work is also what is required in order to increase one's capacity to Work.  This must be true by the definition of instrumental rationality - if it's the most efficient way to achieve one's goals, and if one's goal is to increase one's instrumental rationality, doing so is most efficiently done by being instrumentally rational about it. [2]

That was almost circular, so to add meat, you'll notice in the definition an embedded assumption that the "hard" part of Work is directing attention - forcing yourself to do what you know you ought to instead of what is fun & easy.  (And to a lesser degree, determining your goals and the most effective tasks to achieve them).  This assumption may not hold true for everyone, but with the amount of discussion of "Akrasia" on LW, the general drift of writing by smart people about productivity (Paul Graham: Addiction, Distraction, Merlin Mann: Time & Attention), and the common themes in the numerous productivity/self-help books I've read, I think it's fair to say that identifying the goals and tasks that matter and getting yourself to do them is what most humans fundamentally struggle with when it comes to instrumental rationality.

Figuring out goals is fairly personal, often subjective, and can be difficult.  I definitely think the deep philosophical elements of Less Wrong and it's contributions to epistemic rationality [3] are useful to this, but (like psychedelics) the benefit comes from small occasional doses of the good stuff.  Goals should be re-examined regularly, but occasionally (roughly yearly, and at major life forks).  An annual retreat with a mix of close friends and distant-but-respected acquaintances (Burning Man, perhaps) will do the trick - reading a regularly updated blog is way overkill.

And figuring out tasks, once you turn your attention to it, is pretty easy.  Once you have explicit goals, just consciously and continuously examining whether your actions have been effective at achieving those goals will get you way above the average smart human at correctly choosing the most effective tasks.  The big deal here for many (most?) of us, is the conscious direction of our attention.

What is the enemy of consciously directed attention?  It is shiny distraction.  And what is Less Wrong?  It is a blog, a succession of short fun posts with comments, most likely read when people wish to distract or entertain themselves, and tuned for producing shiny ideas which successfully distract and entertain people.  As Merlin Mann says: "Joining a Facebook group about creative productivity is like buying a chair about jogging".  Well, reading a blog to overcome akrasia IS joining a Facebook group about creative productivity.  It's the opposite of this classic piece of advice.

Now, I freely admit that this argument is relatively brief and minimally supported compared to what a really good, solid argument about exactly how to become more rational would be.  This laziness is deliberate, conscious, and a direct expression of my beliefs about the problem with LW.  I believe that most people, particularly smart ones, do way too much thinking & talking and way too little action (me included), because that is what's easy for them [4].

What I see as a better route is to gather those who will quickly agree, do things differently, (hopefully) win and (definitely) learn.  Note that this general technique has a double advantage: the small group gets to enjoy immediate results, and when the time comes to change minds, they have the powerful evidence of their experience.  It also reduces the problem that the stated goal of many participants ("get more rational") may not be their actual goal ("enjoy the company of rationalists in a way which is shiny fun, not Work"), since the call to action will tend to select for those who actually desire self-improvement.  My hope is that this post and the description below of what actual personal growth looks like inspire one or more small groups to form.

Less Wrong: Negative Value, Positive Potential

Unfortunately, in this framework, Less Wrong is probably of negative value to those who really want to become more rational.  I see it as a low-ROI activity whose shininess is tuned to attract the rationality community, and thus serves as the perfect distraction (rationality porn, rationality opium).  Many (most?) participants are allowing LW to grab their attention because it is fun and easy, and thus simultaneously distracting themselves from Work (reducing their overall Work time) while convincing themselves that this distraction is helping them to become more rational.  This reduces the chance that they will consciously Work towards rationality, since they feel they are already working towards that goal with their LW reading time. (Adding [4.5] in response to comments).

(Note that from this perspective, HP&TMoR is a positive - people know reading fanfic is entertainment, and being good enough entertainment to displace people's less educational alternative entertainments while teaching a little rationality increases the overall level of rationality.  The key is that HP&TMoR is read in "fun time", while I believe most people see LW time as "work towards self-improvement" time.  Ironic, but true for me and the friends I've polled, at least)

That said, the property of shininess-to-rationalists has resulted in a large community of rationalists, which makes LW potentially a great resource for actual training of people's individual rationality.  And while catalyzing Work is much harder than getting positive feedback, I do find it heart-warming and promising that I have consistently received positive feedback from the LW community by pointing out it's errors.  This is a community that wants to self-correct - which is unfortunately rare and a necessary though not sufficient criteria for improvement.

This is taking too long to write [5], and we haven't even gotten to the constructive part, so I'm going to assume that if you are still with me you no longer need as detailed arguments and I can go faster.

Some Observations On What Makes Something Useful For Self-Improvement

My version: Growth activities are Work, and hence feel like work, not fun - they involves overriding your instincts, not following them.  Any growth you can get from following your instincts, you have probably had already.  And consciously directing your attention is not something that can be trained by being distracted (willpower is a muscle, you exercise it by using it).  Finding the best tasks to achieve your goals is not practiced by doing whatever tasks come to mind.  And so forth.  You may experience flow states once your attention is focused where it should be, but unless you have the incredible and rare fortune to have what is shiny match up with what is useful, the act of starting and maintaining focus and improving your ability to do so will be hard work.

The academic version: The literature on skill development ("acquisition of expertise") says that it involves "deliberate practice".  The same is very likely true of acquiring expertise in rationality.  The 6 tenets of deliberate practice are that it:

  1. Is not inherently enjoyable.
  2. Is not play or paid practice.
  3. Is relevant to the skill being developed.
  4. Is not simply watching the skill being performed.
  5. Requires effort and attention from the learner.
  6. Often involves activities selected by a coach or teacher to facilitate learning.

One must stretch quite a bit to fit these to "reading Less Wrong" - it's just too shiny and fun to be useful.  One can (and must) enjoy the results of practice, but if the practice itself doesn't take effort, you are going to plateau fast.  (I want to be clear, BTW, that I am not making a Puritan fallacy of equating effort and reward [6]).  Meditation is a great example of an instrumental rationality practice: it is a boring, difficult isolation exercise for directing and noticing the direction of one's attention.  It is Work.

What Would A Real Rationality Practice Look Like?

Eliezer has used the phrase "rationality dojo", which I think has many correct implications:

  1. It is a group of people who gather in person to train specific skills.
  2. While there are some theoreticians of the art, most people participate by learning it and doing it, not theorizing about it.
  3. Thus the main focus is on local practice groups, along with the global coordination to maximize their effectiveness (marketing, branding, integration of knowledge, common infrastructure).  As a result, it is driven by the needs of the learners.
  4. You have to sweat, but the result is you get stronger.
  5. You improve by learning from those better than you, competing with those at your level, and teaching those below you.
  6. It is run by a professional, or at least someone getting paid for their hobby.  The practicants receive personal benefit from their practice, in particular from the value-added of the coach, enough to pay for talented coaches.

In general, a real rationality practice should feel a lot more like going to the gym, and a lot less like hanging out with friends at a bar.

To explain the ones that I worry will be non-obvious:

1) I don't know why in-person group is important, but it seems to be - all the people who have replied to me so far saying they get useful rational practice out of the LW community said the growth came through attending local meetups (example).  We can easily invent some evolutionary psychology story for this, but it doesn't matter why, at this point it's enough to just know.

6) There are people who can do high-quality productive work in their spare time, but in my experience they are very rare.  It is very pleasant to think that "amateurs can change the world" because then we can fantasize about ourselves doing it in our spare time, and it even happens occasionally, which feeds that fantasy, but I don't find it very credible.  I know we are really smart and there are memes in our community that rationalists are way better than everyone else at everything, but frankly I find the idea that people writing blog posts in their spare time will create a better system than trained professionals for improving one's ability to achieve one's goals to be ludicrous.  I know some personal growth professionals, and they are smart too, and they have had years of practice and study to develop practical experience.  Talk is cheap, as is time spent reading blogs: if people actually value becoming more rational, they will pay for it, and if there are good teachers, they will be worth being paid.  Money is a unit of learning [7].

There are some other important aspects which such a practice would have that LW does not:

  1. The accumulation of knowledge.  Blogs are inherently rewarding: people read what is recent, so you get quick feedback on posts and comments.  However, they are inherently ephemeral for the same reason - people read what is recent, and posts are never substantially revised.  The voting system helps a little, but it can't even close to fix the underlying structure.  To be efficient, much less work should go into ephemeral posts, and much more into accumulating and revising a large, detailed, nuanced body of knowledge (this is exactly the sort of ""work not fun" activity that you can get by paying someone, but are unlikely to get when contributors are volunteers).  In theory, this could happen on the Wiki, but in practice I have rarely seen Wikis succeed at this (with the obvious except of Le Wik).
  2. It would involve more literature review and pointers to existing work.  The obvious highest-ROI way to start working on improving instrumental rationality is to research and summarize the best existing work for self-improvement in the directions that LW values, not to reinvent the wheel.  Yes, over time LW should produce original work and perhaps eventually the best such work, but the existing work is not so bad that it should just be ignored.  Far from it!  In reference to (1), perhaps this should be done by creating a database of reviews and ratings by LWers of the top-rated self-improvement books, perhaps eventually with ratings taking into account the variety of skills people are seeking and ways in which they optimally learn.
  3. It would be practical - most units of information (posts, pages, whatever) would be about exercises or ideas that one could immediately apply in one's own life.  It would look less like most LW posts (abstract, theoretical, focused on chains of logic), and more like Structured Procrastination, the Pmarca Guide To Personal Productivity, books like Eat That Frog!, Getting Things Done, and Switch [8].  Most discussion would be about topics like those in Anna's post - how to act effectively, what things people have tried, what worked, what didn't, and why.  More learning through empiricism, less through logic and analysis.

In forming such a practice, we could learn from other communities which have developed a new body of knowledge about a set of skills and disseminated it with rapid scaling within the last 15 years.  Two I know about and have tangentially participated in are

  1. PUA (how to pick up women).  In fact, a social skills community based on PUA was suggested on LW a few days ago - (glad to see that others are interested in practice and not just talk!)
  2. CrossFit (synthesis of the best techniques for time-efficient broad-applicability fitness)

Note that both involve most of my suggested features (PUA has some "reading not doing" issues, but it's far ahead of LW in having an explicit cultural value to the contrary - for example, almost every workshop features time spent "in the field").  One feature of PUA in particular I'd like to point out is the concept of the "PUA lair" - a group of people living together with the explicit intention of increasing their PUA skills.  As the lair link says: "It is highly touted that the most proficient and fastest way to improve your skills is to hang out with others who are ahead of you, and those whose goals for improvement mirror your own." [9]


If LW is to accomplish it's goal of increasing participant's instrumental rationality, it must dramatically change form.  One of the biggest, perhaps the biggest element of instrumental rationality is the ability to direct one's attention, and a rationality blog makes people worse at this by distracting their attention in a way accepted by their community and that they will feel is useful.  From The War Of Art [10]:

Often couples or close friends,even entire families, will enter into tacit compacts whereby each individual pledges (unconsciously) to remain mired in the same slough in which she and all her cronies have become so comfortable.  The highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket.

To aid growth at rationality, Less Wrong would have to become a skill practice community, more like martial arts, PUA, and physical fitness, with an explicit focus of helping people grow in their ability to set and achieve goals, combining local chapters with global coordination, infrastructure, and knowledge accumulation.  Most discussion should be among people working on a specific skill at a similar level about what is or isn't working for them as they attempt to progress, rather than obscure theories about the inner workings of the human mind.

Such a practice and community would look very different, but I believe it would have a far better chance to actually make people more rational [11].  There would be danger of cultism and the religious fervor/"one true way" that self-help movements sometimes have (Landmark), and I wonder if it's a profound distaste for anything remotely smelling of cult that has led Eliezer & SIAI away from this path.  But the opposite of cult is not growth, it is to continue being an opiate for rationalists, a pleasant way of making the time pass that feels like work towards growth and thus feeds people's desire for guiltless distraction.

To be growth, we must do work, people must get paid, we must gather in person, focus on action not words, put forth great effort over time to increase our capacity, use peak experiences to knock people loose from ingrained patterns, and copy these and much more from the skill practice communities of the world.  Developed by non-rationalists, sure, but the ones that last are the ones that work [12] - let's learn from their embedded knowledge.


That was 5 hours of my semi-Work time, so I really hope it wasn't wasted, and that some of you not only listen but take action.  I don't have much free time for new projects, but if people want to start a local rationality dojo in Mountain View/Sunnyvale, I'm in.  And there is already talk, among some reviewers of this draft, of putting together an introductory workshop.  Time will tell - and the next step is up to you.


[1] Anna Salomon posted Humans are not automatically strategic, a reply to the very practical A "Failure to Evaluate Return-on-Time" Fallacy.  Anna's post laid out a nice rough map at what an instrumentally rational process for goal achievement would look like (consciously choosing goals, metrics, researching solutions, experimenting with implementing them, balancing exploration & exploitation - the basic recipe for success at anything), said she was keen to train this, and asked:

So, to second Lionhearted's questions: does this analysis seem right?  Have some of you trained yourselves to be substantially more strategic, or goal-achieving, than you started out?  How did you do it?  Do you agree with (a)-(h) above?  Do you have some good heuristics to add?  Do you have some good ideas for how to train yourself in such heuristics?

After reading the comments, I made a comment which began:

I'm disappointed at how few of these comments, particularly the highly-voted ones, are about proposed solutions, or at least proposed areas for research. My general concern about the LW community is that it seems much more interested in the fun of debating and analyzing biases, rather than the boring repetitive trial-and-error of correcting them.

Anna's post was upvoted into the top 10 all-time on LW in a couple days, and my comment quickly became the top on the post by a large margin, so both her agenda and my concern seem to be widely shared.  While I rarely take the time to write LW posts (as you would expect from someone who believes LW is not very useful), this feedback gave me hope that there might be enough untapped desire for something more effective that a post might help catalyze enough change to be worthwhile.

[2] There are many other other arguments as to why improving one's ability to do work is unlikely to be fun and easy, of course.  With a large space of possible activities, and only a loose connection between "fun" and "helps you grow" (via evolutionary biology), it seems a priori unlikely that fun activities will overlap with growthful ones.  And we know that a general recipe for getting better at X is to do X, so if one wants to get better at directing one's attention to the most important tasks and goals, it seems very likely that one must practice directing one's attention.  Furthermore, there is evidence that, specifically, willpower is a muscle.  So the case for growing one's instrumental rationality through being distracted by an entertaining rationality blog is...awfully weak.

[3] What are the most important problems in the world?  Who is working most effectively to fix them and how can you help?  Understanding existential risks is certainly not easy, and important to setting that portion of your goals that has to do with helping the world - which is a minor part of most people's goals, which are about their own lives and self-interest.

[4] I also believe the least effective form of debate is trying to get people to change their minds.  Therefore, an extensive study and documentation to create a really good, solid argument trying to change the minds of LWers who don't quickly agree with my argument sketch would be a very low-return activity compared to getting together those who already agree and doing an experiment.  And instrumental rationality is about maximizing the return on your activities, given your goals, so I try to avoid low-return activities.

[4.5] A number of commenters state that they consciously read LW during fun time, or read it to learn about biases and existential risk, not to become more rational, in which case it is likely of positive value.  If you have successfully walled off your work from shiny distractions, then you are advanced in the ways of attention and may be able to use this particular drug without negative effects, and I congratulate you.  If you are reading it to learn about topics of interest to rationalists and believe that you will stop there and not let it affect your productivity, just be warned that many an opiate addiction has begun with a legitimate use of painkillers.

Or to go back to Merlin's metaphor: If you buy a couch to sit on and watch TV, there's nothing wrong with that.  You might even see a sports program on TV that motivates you to go jogging.  Just don't buy the couch in order to further your goal of physical fitness.  Or claim that couch-buyers are a community of people committed to becoming more fit, because they sometimes watch sports shows and sometimes get outside.  Couch-buyers are a community of people who sit around - even if they watch sports programs.  Real runners buy jogging shoes, sweat headbands, GPS route trackers, pedometers, stopwatches...

[5] 1.5 hrs so far.  Time tracking is an important part of attention management - if you don't know how your time is spent, it's probably being spent badly.

[6] Specifically, I am not saying that growth is never fun, or that growth is proportional to effort, only that there are a very limited number of fun ways to grow (taking psychedelics at Burning Man with people you like and respect) and you've probably done them all already.  If you haven't, sure, of course you should do them, and yes, of course discovering & cataloging such things is useful, but there really aren't very many so if you want to continue to grow you need to stop fooling yourself that reading a blog will do it and get ready to make some effort.

[7] Referencing Eliezer's great Money: The Unit of Caring, of course.  I find it ironic that he understand basic economics intellectually so well as to make one of the most eloquent arguments for donating money instead of time that I've ever seen, yet seems to be trying to create a rationality improvement movement without, as far as I can tell, involving any specialists in the art of human change or growth.  That is, using the method that grownups use.  What you do when you want something to actually get done.  You use money to employ full-time specialists.

[8] I haven't actually read this one yet, but their other book, Made To Stick, was an outstanding study of memetic engineering so I think it very likely that their book on habit formation is good too.

[9] Indeed.  I happen to have a background of living in and founding intentional communities (Tortuga!), and in fact currently rent rooms to LWers Divia and Nick Tarleton, so I can attest to the value of one's social environment and personal growth goals being synchronized.  Benton House is likely an example as well.  Groups of rationalists living together will automatically practice, and have that practice reinforced by their primate desire for status within the group, this is almost surely the fastest way to progress, although not required or suited to everyone.

[10] The next paragraph explains why I do my best not to spend much time here:

The awakening artist must be ruthless, not only with herself but with others.  Once you make your break, you can’t turn around for your buddy who catches his trouser leg on the barbed wire.  The best thing you can do for that friend (and he’d tell you this himself, if he really is your friend) is to get over the wall and keep motating.

Although I suppose I am violating the advice by turning around and giving a long speech about why everyone else should make a break too :).  My theory is that by saying it right once, I can refrain from wasting any more time saying it again in the future, should this attempt not work.  But that may just be rationalizing.  On the other hand, doing things "well or not at all" is rational in situations where the return curve is steep.  Given my low evaluation of LW's usefulness, I obviously think the early part of the return curve is basically flat zero.  We will see if it is hubris to think the right post can really make a difference, and that I can make that post.  Certainly plenty of opportunity for bias in both those statements.

[11] Note that helping people become personally more effective is a much easier meme to spread than helping people better understand how to contribute to public goods (ie how to better understand efficient charity and existential risk).  They have every incentive to do the former and little incentive to do the latter.  So training people in general goal achievement (instrumental rationality) is likely to have far broader appeal and reach far more people than training them in the aspects of epistemic rationality that SIAI is most interested in.  This large community who have grown through the individually beneficial part of the philosophy is then a great target market for the societally beneficial part of the philosophy.  (A classic one-two punch used by spiritual groups, of course: provide value then teach values.  It works.  If rationalists do what works...)  I've been meaning to make a post on the importance of personal benefit to spreading memes for awhile, this paragraph will have to do for now...

[12] And the ones with good memetic engineering, including use of the Dark Arts.  Many difficult decisions will need to be made about what techniques are and aren't Dark Arts and which are worth using anyway.  The fact remains that just like a sports MVP is almost certainly both more skilled and more lucky than his peers, a successful self-help movement is almost certainly both more effective at helping people and better memetically engineered than its peers.  So copy - but filter.

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forcing yourself to do what you know you ought to instead of what is fun & easy.

I had difficulty engaging with most of your article from this point on, because your premise seems to be that Work is hard and problematic and we must be forced to do it.

This premise is not just epistemically false: believing it has bad instrumental effects as well.

Ask anybody who's actually productive -- especially those who make a lot of money by being productive, and nearly all of them will tell you that they love their work. (The rest will probably say they love money, or prestige, or whatever other result their work gets for them.)

IOW, instrumental observation shows that the driving factor of high productivity is loving something more, not forcing yourself to do something you love less.

Paul Graham on "How to do what you love":

It used to perplex me when I read about people who liked what they did so much that there was nothing they'd rather do. There didn't seem to be any sort of work I liked that much. If I had a choice of (a) spending the next hour working on something or (b) be teleported to Rome and spend the next hour wandering about, was there any sort of work I'd prefer? Honestly, no.

But the fact is, almost anyone would rather, at any given moment, float about in the Carribbean, or have sex, or eat some delicious food, than work on hard problems. The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn't mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month.

Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

As a lower bound, you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of "spare time" seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working. You can only work s

... (read more)

Another quote from Paul Graham:

The way to work for long periods on something is to be interested in it. Few to no people have the discipline to make themselves work on something that bores them for many hours straight without paging it out. Probably none of the people whose work I admire do. Their trick is to work on stuff they like.

The emphasis is mine, and note that Graham knows a lot of extremely successful people.

Patri links to Paul Graham, but IIRC those links advise one to remove distractions and temptations from one's office and from one's life so that one does not have to exert willpower to resist the distractions and temptations. ADDED. The thinking behind that, which is supported by psychology experiments, is that simply successfully resisting a temptation (such as refraining from eating from a plate of fresh cookies left in a waiting room by a psychology researcher) depletes a person's daily reserve of willpower so that the reserve is unavailable for other things (such as keeping oneself at a tedious task).

In his essays, Graham probably never advised building willpower by forcing yourself to do things you do not like. (I've read most of his essays.)

Some people wil... (read more)

Sure, there are two ways to work on the problem. One is to increase willpower. The other is to learn tricks not to use it. I agree the second one is better. But let's take this back to the context of Less Wrong and its effects.

Paul Graham's tricks include turning off the internet. The "distractions and temptations" he wants you to remove from your office are things like Less Wrong. The existence of Less Wrong is the existence of a temptation tuned to those who wish to become more rational and more effective at achieving their goals. This makes it just as bad a thing in Graham's analysis as in mine!

"Working on stuff you like", and "rationalizing that stuff you like is work" are very different. The former is great when you can do it. The latter is the type of rationalization that Paul talked about in his recent essay Self-Indulgence, where the wost time-wasters are those that don't feel like time-wasters:

The most dangerous way to lose time is not to spend it having fun, but to spend it doing fake work. When you spend time having fun, you know you're being self-indulgent. Alarms start to go off fairly quickly. If I woke up one morning and sat d

... (read more)
Yes, exactly. And getting yourself to do this work for long-term reasons, when at the moment you would rather read Less Wrong or check Digg or Reddit, is the skill of "consciously directing attention", which is a core skill of instrumental rationality. And Less Wrong not only makes it hard to do this, it promotes a value of this not being important through the shared idea that reading Less Wrong is growth work, or will make you more rational and better at your job, rather than admitting that it's a shiny distracting, much more like being teleported to Rome than like doing your work.
I'd read this article before but it was useful to read it again in the context of this discussion. According to Paul Graham, my suspicion that most people who say they like their jobs are lying is correct. However he also claims that a few people genuinely do find something they love to do. He also makes a point of saying in this essay that it is very difficult to find something you love to do and can get paid for. I find myself still wondering whether anyone (i.e. me) can find something they love to do and get paid for it or whether it takes the combination of a certain personality type with the right kind of work to achieve that. I find it difficult to imagine crossing this lower bound for anything I'd have to spend 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year on until retirement or death. I find it more plausible for something (or a series of somethings) with a more flexible schedule. I've been trying to figure out possible candidates that would also bring in sufficient income and haven't had much success so far. As Paul Graham points out in the essay, if it was that easy it would be a lot more common than it is.

Ask anybody who's actually productive -- especially those who make a lot of money by being productive, and nearly all of them will tell you that they love their work.

I have noticed this pattern but have always been a little skeptical because there seem to be obvious signalling reasons to make this claim irrespective of its truth. I've also considered the possibility that there are personality types who are telling the truth when they basically claim to be happy and motivated all the time. The third possibility I've considered is that people mean something different by 'love my work' than I understand by it - not that they are literally full of enjoyment and motivation all the time while working.

I don't believe I've ever met anyone who I've had what felt like an honest conversation with about work who literally 'loved their work'. They may enjoy some parts of it but much of it is still effortful and not the most enjoyable thing they could think of doing at any given moment.

Could you clarify exactly what you think productive people mean when they say they 'love their work' and explain what leads you to believe that it is literally true?


As someone who loves his work, here is how I see it.

No one is happy and motivated at all times when working. For any substantial work, that work is divided into many different things. Some of those things are inevitably going to be things that you do not love, and some will be things that you actively dislike. Loving your work means loving the composite of the things you love and the things you don't love, and it means that the parts you love give you the motivation to do the things you don't.

In my job, there's a core task. I spend the bulk of my time actively engaged work time either on that task or trying to find ways to do that task better. I love both of these tasks, but I also spend a large amount of time waiting for these tasks to reach a point where they become engaging, and I have to deal with people many of whom I'd prefer not to deal with, and I have to do things like maintain all the computers and connections and programs necessary for this work.

But that's true of anything! I love eating, but there are subsets of this task I don't enjoy, and that's even more true of baking or cooking. It's true when I play a game, or write an article, or watch a television show (gotta skip those ads!), or anything else I can think of. There's nothing special about work.

Ok, this makes more sense to me. There are certainly things which I would say I 'love' doing which I do not enjoy every aspect of. In that sense I have never loved work but I can imagine that some people are fortunate enough to do so. I still don't really understand pjeby's comment in this context though. I love snowboarding in this sense for example but I still have to make a conscious effort to motivate myself with the sub-tasks required to get to the enjoyable parts. Working is merely a particularly large and complex sub-task I perform in order to obtain the financial resources to do the things I actually 'love' and many (work and non-work) sub-tasks are boring and unpleasant and require motivational hacks to get done, which seems to be the whole point of the kind of self-improvement being discussed.

I have noticed this pattern but have always been a little skeptical because there seem to be obvious signalling reasons to make this claim irrespective of its truth.

But there are also equally obvious signaling reasons to make the opposite claim -- i.e., I Am Doing This Work That Is Really Hard Because It Is (And Therefore I Am) Important And Prestigious.

And some people do make that claim. They just usually don't have much to show for their efforts, by comparison to the people making the other claim.

They may enjoy some parts of it but much of it is still effortful and not the most enjoyable thing they could think of doing at any given moment.

The sensation of "effort" is the sensation of your mind trying to escape whatever you're actually experiencing in the present moment, whether it's because you dislike what's happening or you wish it were something else.

In the absence of that escape attempt, there is no "effort" felt, vs. what you might simply call "exertion" instead. Things just are, and doing happens.

Could you clarify exactly what you think productive people mean when they say they 'love their work' and explain what leads you to believe

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There seem to me to be successful people who claim that they have had to work hard and overcome obstacles to achieve their success. Thomas Edison's famous "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." springs to mind but successful people who claim that 'damn hard work' was what brought them success don't seem as rare as you imply here. You seem to be saying that people who 'love their work' then do not literally enjoy the process of doing their work but take pleasure in the results. This sounds quite plausible but then I wonder why this is in conflict with the idea that 'Work is hard and problematic and we must be forced to do it.'? It all seems to come back to the question of how you motivate yourself to do things (or just to start things) that are not intrinsically pleasurable in the moment or intrinsically rewarding. For example, I do not find it easy to drag myself out of bed at 5am to head out into the wet and cold and take a 2 hour bus ride to go snowboarding but I find it easier to perform this somewhat unpleasant task when motivated by the relatively short term reward of an enjoyable day on the mountain. I find it harder to motivate myself to overcome obstacles at work and avoid procrastination because the reward is distant, abstract and only loosely correlated with my direct actions (and the sub-tasks often feel intrinsically more effortful). I'm curious if you have insight into how one could go about making distant, abstract and loosely correlated outcomes have the same motivational force as shorter term, more direct actions leading to actually-enjoyed outcomes.

You seem to be saying that people who 'love their work' then do not literally enjoy the process of doing their work but take pleasure in the results

You are still not getting what "love" means. I am talking about being loving -- the emotional state of giving love to something. This is during the work, not after the work.

If I make breakfast in bed for my wife, I am feeling love as I work. Not love for the process of cooking, but love for my wife.

This is not the same thing as anticipating the result of my wife's smile.

You're operating under a false dichotomy between "pleasure now" vs. "pleasure later", as though these pleasures can only come from things that happen outside you. This is not the case.

I'm curious if you have insight into how one could go about making distant, abstract and loosely correlated outcomes have the same motivational force as shorter term, more direct actions leading to actually-enjoyed outcomes.

The kind of thinking that produced this question is not the kind of thinking that can apply the answer. (Because the assumption behind the question is that motivation is something that happens to you to make you do things, and that is not the same kind of motivation that I'm talking about.)

I'm afraid your examples and explanations aren't really hitting home for me. I don't find cooking a motivational challenge in general for example because the rewards are so immediate and so correlated with the process (not to mention that the process does not feel inherently effortful in the way that the kinds of work tasks I struggle with motivationally do). The particular characteristics of 'work' tasks that are not fun and pose motivational challenges seem to be their inherent effortfulness (high degree of conscious attention) but low novelty/interest, the relative distance to achieving any actually pleasurable reward (like eating a tasty meal) and the relatively low (or loosely felt) correlation with high level goals that you actually care about. I just can't wrap my brain around how 'being loving' applies to these kinds of tasks.
Ok, try this one: Imagine a monk copying a manuscript, who fervently believes he's doing the Lord's work, and therefore treats every moment of it as a prayer and meditation. Note that this is not at all the same state of mind as the monk trying to force himself to work because he's anticipating a reward in heaven. Rather, the monk feels good now, because the work is important. (e.g. brings glory to god, is the expression of god's love, or whatever meaningless phrase is used to stand for the perceived inherent goodness of the immediate action.) IOW, the dimensions you're using to measure by (novelty, required attention, distance to reward) are not the solution, they're the problem.
I wouldn't really say I'm using them to measure by as a deliberate choice. These are the dimensions which seem to me to be relevant differences between tasks that pose motivational problems and those that don't. This is partly observational but also based on material and research I've encountered over the years on these issues. The lack of motivation comes first however and the dimensions are attempts to identify a pattern. Convincing myself that my work is important seems a more daunting challenge than finding motivational hacks and also more dangerous - what if I end up like the monk, squandering my efforts on some sub-optimal activity?
Two things: 1. You did ask how people could love their work, and 2. If you aren't convinced what you're doing is important, maybe that's a bigger problem than falsely convincing yourself it's important! Note, for example, that lots of people have ended up accidentally doing important things as a direct result of trying to do something stupid that they thought was important. (Like, say, Columbus.)
True, I think a couple of things are getting conflated here (largely my fault because I'm still confused about the distinctions). A couple of people have said they 'love their work' but still have motivational issues with particular sub-tasks of their work. If that is what people generally mean by 'love their work' I think I have a better grasp on the idea. If this is what people generally mean then all kinds of motivational hacks for dealing with low-level sub-tasks that are not inherently lovable are useful. They might even be useful for someone like me who does not 'love their work' but values the resources it provides to do things they actually want to do. You originally seemed to be claiming that people who really 'love their work' do not suffer from motivational issues on not-inherently-pleasurable sub-tasks or need ways of avoiding being distracted by 'shiny things'. I find this slightly implausible but it sounds like nice work if you can get it. Either sense of 'loving your work' above sounds like a great place to be and I'm very interested in attaining such a situation if possible. That seems a bigger / higher level problem than simple motivational hacks can help with however. For me and the vast majority of people I know however work is merely a particularly large and burdensome sub-task required to attain the resources to pursue things we actually value / consider important. Figuring out if there's an alternative is a major personal project for me however so I'm open to any and all advice in that area.
A quote that would be at least as credible in Edison's case (and in general): "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent taking credit for other people's work."
There's enough confusion about what the term "passive verb" means out there already, please don't add more.
You should come and work in the game industry! There are a few here.

You should come and work in the game industry! There are a few here

I do work in the games industry.

Damn. Errrm - you should come and work in France, where soul-crushing unpaid overtime is illegal! I enjoy my job, I get to do fun stuff, and generally look forward to going to work. Then I come home and program too, for personal projects.

I enjoy my job, I get to do fun stuff, and generally look forward to going to work. Then I come home and program too, for personal projects.

This gets back to my original question of what people mean when they say they 'love their job'. I'm reasonably well paid and work on reasonably interesting problems and there are certainly worse jobs. I sometimes enjoy aspects of my work and / or get a sense of satisfaction from them. But 'love' seems like a completely inappropriate word for something I would walk away from and never look back if I won the lottery tomorrow.


If I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd start a small game company, keep programming on the interesting bits and hire people to do the boring stuff or the stuff I'm not as good at.

Considering I never even played the lottery, that seems pretty unlikely, but still - I wouldn't want to stop working on cool nifty stuff, unless it was to work on something cooler and niftier.

I love my job so much that if I won the lottery, I would keep doing it too, and I would hire people to do the boring stuff which doesn't uniquely require me.

Yet, not having won the lottery, it remains the case that, at this job I love SO MUCH that I would keep doing it if I won the lottery, there are many subgoals and tasks which are boring, which aren't shiny and interesting enough to draw my attention naturally, and which I must force myself to do. And if I don't do them, my organization will proceed more slowly or not at all.

So to be more effective at this job I love, I either need to win the lottery, or I need to strength my attention-directing muscle.

I think that's apt, and I think that the people who love their jobs (like Emile) do not fit that description. I haven't yet held a job that I love. I am, though, studying to enter a field of work that, if I won the lottery, I would still want to work in, because I'm passionate about it. There exist jobs that I would love. If you still don't think it's possible to love your work, what would you do if you won the lottery? Sit on the couch playing video games all day? I doubt it--at least after the first year. Doing nothing, as it turns out, gets really boring after a while, especially for people with curious minds. (This is one of the premises of unschooling; I don't remember which specific book I read it in, or I'd link it.) You'd find something to do that interested or excited you. Odds are, there's work to be had which relates to that something. It has the potential to be work that you love. But I suspect that at least one of us is generalizing from a single example. Either you have not had a job that you loved and are thus assuming that such a thing is impossible, or I am naive and optimistic and don't understand what appears to me to be cynicism.
Nope, not at all. I've got plenty of things I'd do with sufficient free time and resources. None of them that I've yet figured out how to get anyone to pay me enough to cover my living expenses though. The reason I work is primarily to fund the things I actually want to do.
I was under the impression that the video game industry was a horrible pit of despair, crunch time, and routine 80-hour weeks that chews up innocent hopefuls who initially think "Cool, I'm making Video Games!" and spits them out when the idealism wears off in a couple of years...
The phenomenon you describe certainly does exist in the games industry but it's not something I've had to deal with a lot (just saying no works wonders) and isn't the primary reason I don't love my job.
I think the distinction between a "remembering self" and an "experiencing self" might be relevant here:

I'm productive, and I've been paid > $100/hr for my work (at Google, before moving to the non-profit sector), and could have multiple offers to do that again in multiple fields anytime I wanted.

I loved parts of my work, sure, but there were also large parts of it that I had to forcibly direct my attention to. The best tasks to be the most productive are rarely the most fun. And in a world of compelling entertainment, reading the latest blogs, books, watching TV, surfing the web, are always fighting for people's attention. Mine at least. To direct my attention to productive activities, to my consciously chosen goals and the best tasks to achieve them, is hard Work.

Yes, there are moments of flow, moments we love, moments that draw our attention. And the more of those, the better we've chosen our work. But I think you have a huge selection bias - it may be that the most productive people are the ones who enjoy a coincidence between what they do and what draws their attention, but I doubt that very many jobs offer that overlap or that we can employ very many people that way. Hence, for most people, the way to be more productive is to get better at directing their attention.

As... (read more)


But the tasks I need to accomplish each day to work towards my audacious and inspiring goal? Yawn. Bleh. I think that's just because inspiring goals often require boring subgoals and tasks, not because I haven't picked the right job.

You are indeed lucky to have such inspiring goals. For many people in modern workplaces, the trouble is that they not only have no such exalted motivating goals, but they don't even have any clear sense of what exactly their work is supposed to achieve -- or worse, they often clearly see that the tedious tasks they must perform are completely pointless and useless in the overall scheme of things. I mean the sort of thing which is the basic running theme of Dilbert.

This can have such soul-crushing effects that it's hard to find motivation even for living, let alone productivity. The real challenge is how to force yourself to be productive (or "productive"?) in ways necessary to prosper in such an environment if you're condemned to it, as increasing numbers of people are.

Since I can't double-upvote this I'll just add my agreement. Figuring out a way out of this trap has been one of my dominant top-level goals for at least a year and something I've been thinking a lot about for longer than that but it is a difficult problem. I know quite a few intelligent and 'successful' (by most conventional measures) individuals who are deeply unsatisfied with their careers but have great difficulty breaking out of the cycle.

This could be a selection effect: the people who naturally like effective behaviours succeed, the rest of us will still have to work for it.

Is effectiveness at self-improvement linked to the quantity and health of children?
Oscar is referring to this bias.
In short: "LW is bad because it's fun" is wrong.
There is nothing wrong with fun things, done with fun time, and known to be fun. This is why HP&TMoR is great. The problem is fun things, done with work time, and used to check off boxes like "personal growth towards rationality". Like Less Wrong. Or reading a book about Procrastination but never following it's system. Or reading a book about time management but never making it a habit. Or watching videos on the internet of workout routines but not going to the gym. All of these are the same - they have the purported goal of personal growth, yet they involve only the intellectual background research and setup needed in small amounts at the beginning before starting a growth program in real life, and none of the practice and dedication to forming new habits in real life that actually result in growth. Now, what's wrong with that?
What's wrong is that in fact a fun thing can be productive and "if it's fun it's not productive" is wrong - insofar as pjeby is right and I understand him right and you disagree. A fun thing can be unproductive too of course. I'm not challenging the unproductivity of any of your example fun activities.
"The War of Art" is a counterexample - a successful book by a very successful writer, who is paid for writing, all about how brutally hard it is to force yourself to write (or express yourself artistically in any way), and with various methods, tactics, and inspirational stories to overcome this. This book illustrates how your conflation of "love" and "easy to do" is wrong - these writers may love writing, but that doesn't mean it's easy for them to sit down and start filling the screen with words. The difficulty, in many cases (certainly rings true for me, and others I know) is in starting certain tasks, those w/ strong ugh fields. So one might love one's work, and still need to force oneself to start the right tasks.
Wait. You're claiming that the goals chosen by your executive function just happen to correspond to a succession of enjoyable activities for the rest of your brain? I know there's a lot of diversity in brain-space, but there's not so much that you couldn't find 100,000+ people with a nearly identical motivational system. What if I'm one of them? If so, I'll gladly pay you $500/mo for the privilege of doing all your fun work... and will successfully complete all your goals as a by-product! Boom! Win-Win! Then you can free yourself up to do something more high-value. And if your next goal turns out to be as fun and exciting, Boom!! -- you can do it again and get another customer like me to pay you for the pleasure of taking on all that work too. If your work is always fun, you have either a) Aimed so low in life that referring to what you do as "having goals" is laughable or b) Deluded yourself that your work = enjoyable for signaling and/or motivational reasons FACT: The #1 trait of effective people is being able to consistently do things they don't want to do. Not all of your work should be awful, but if a non-trivial part of what you do isn't boring or stressful, then your goals would already be fulfilled by others. And if other people fulfilling your goals doesn't work for your particular goals, consider the possibility that what you have are not goals, but simply desires.
Nope. See my second comment, here for a better explanation of "love" in this context. If it were impossible to love something boring or stressful, a lot of relationships would be in jeopardy. ;-)
Well, unless you're unusually capable for some reason or other. Lots of people write novels, perform music, act in plays or movies, or compete in sports. Very few people become Stephen King, Madonna, Russel Crowe, or Roger Clemens. In general, though, if any given job wasn't either difficult (such that few people can do it as well as you can), extremely time-consuming (so that you can't both do it and have a "day job") or less than optimally entertaining, it seems as though you'd have people doing it for free.
Unless I misunderstand, your argument works only for those goals held by pjeby that do not refer to pjeby. For example, would you really pay pjeby $500 / mo to make pjeby's wife happier (as opposed to making your own wife happier)? Or is making one's wife happier "simply a desire" in your terminology?
Exactly. It's not really a goal when you don't care about the results. If the dominating term in your decision to do something is that the result be YOURS (i.e., profit being created in YOUR bank account, YOU making your wife happy, credit for YOU achieving something, etc), you might as well just call it "shit you want to be yours". Most people are referenced in all their "goals". But that's because most people don't actually have goals in any meaningful sense beyond wanting a ton of shit to be theirs. If you notice that most all your goals wouldn't be desirable if they didn't include you, maybe you should look into actually finding something you care about besides yourself. I know you can do it -- heck, even most PUAs end up caring about things outside of themselves (after they try everything else first and it doesn't work). Just remember, if it's actually a goal, you wouldn't care who achieved it and you would gladly welcome more effective or efficient ways to achieve it... including other people doing it in place of you.
This has even more weight if you accept that the algorithm embodied by 'you' is probabilistically extremely similar to other algorithms out there in the multiverse, with no easy way to distinguish between them in any meaningful sense. So even when you have preferences over 'your' brain states corresponding to 'you' being satisfied outside of any external accomplishments getting achieved, there's still a philosophical arbitrarity in fulfilling 'your' preferences instead of anyone else's that I'd bet leads to decision theoretic spaciotemporal inconsistency in a way it'd be difficult for me cache out right now. (In practice humans can't even come close to avoiding such conundrums but it seems best to be aware that such a higher standard of decision theoretic and philosophical optimality exists.)
I had a similar thought on the distinction between "shiny/fun" versus "hard", but I still support the basic premise of the article. As it stands, I find LW valuable in a dual role... i.e. both for developing the right attitude towards self help and also as a "fun/shiny" thing. At the same time, I suppose there is a lot of scope for improvement with its role pertaining to the self help goals.
As another data point for patrissimo, I also had difficulty from the same point and for the same reason. I think it would be good to consider editing that section, either to change that proposition itself or to counteract this reaction.
Upvoted, but I think you're both right. I'm surprised you only see one side, I am used to you having deeper psychological insights.
I don't disagree that LW can be a massively addictive waste of time, it's only the "work != fun" part of the article that I object to. (Of the bits I read, anyway.)
I agree that "work" should highly correlate to fun, under normal circumstances. Still, there is a lot of drudgery on the way to accomplishing goals that needs to be overcome, and there are circumstances where fun might just not be appropriate. OP gives one example: Others that come to mind: * Running your own business is fun, having to fire people is not. * Exercise is fun once you get into the rhythm, but I had to trick myself into the gym for the first couple of month. * Having kids can be fun, changing diapers is not Some possibly rational actions cannot ever be fun * Killing people is not fun, unless you have psychopathic tendencies If all you mean is that the post overemphasized the necessity of occasional pain, I agree, and upvoted thusly
The claim was "work != letting your attention drift to wherever it wants to go". Once you have disciplined yourself to direct your attention, it can be fun to execute a task, sure. But I am very skeptical that very many jobs consist of letting your attention drift to whatever is most shiny, with no effort to direct it. Even in those jobs, I suspect the workers would be more effective were they occasionally to direct their attention to what is most useful rather than most shiny.

To get more meta, not only has Less Wrong not produced "results", but all the posts saying Less Wrong needs to produce more "results" (example: Instrumental Rationality Is A Chimera) haven't produced any results. Even though most people liked the idea in that recent PUA thread, I don't see any concrete moves in that direction either.

Most of these threads have been phrased along the lines of "Someone really ought to do something about this", and then everyone agrees that yeah, they should, and then nothing ever comes out of it. That's a natural phenomenon in an anarchy where no one is the Official Doer of Difficult Things That Need To Be Done. Our community has one leader, Eliezer, and he has much better things to do with his time. Absent a formal organization, no one is going to be able to move a few hundred people to do things differently.

But small interventions can have major changes on behavior (see the sentence beginning with "I was reminded of this recently..." here). For example, I think if there were and subcommunities linked to the top of the page, they would auto-populate with a commun... (read more)

Upvote this if, out of the solution set [keep things they way they are, have subreddits, have bulletin board], you would prefer to have subreddits.

I will donate 10 USD if Yvain does this.
I would prefer subreddits, and would match a consensus donation at up to $10 on pledgebank.
2Scott Alexander14y
This won the poll, so I'm going to talk to some people and see how it would get done and what it would take. I'll report back when I get answers, maybe in an Open Thread or somewhere.



My only feasible solution to follow rapidly developing discussions is still to read the recent comments, rather than the thread (due to all the thread and which bleeds onto continued pages)... basically a full table scan of LessWrong. The flat view of comments is better for avoiding missing something, even with comments on other posts thrown in.

It would be nice to have a recent comments link for specific threads.

Upvoted for agreement. Even better, add subscription flags to threads, and provide a recent comments view that shows only the subscribed threads. Poking around at the source tree, this seems to be the current CMS template for the global recent comments page. As far as I can tell, the query for listing the comments is here. A quick hack solution would be to add a second comment query where comments from posts one isn't interested in are filtered out of the all comments query before the list is returned.
I've been suggesting developing trn capabilities for a while, but that would be a big job. Adding the most valuable aspects as needed probably makes more sense.
Yes it would.

Even though most people liked the idea in that recent PUA thread, I don't see any concrete moves in that direction either.

Seriously? That's a pretty quick judgement! I wrote most of a follow-up post, but I'm going to reevaluate it a bit in light of Patri's article.

I strongly support proposal 1, and I'd welcome some monitoring to make sure I don't violate this new norm.

If the subreddits idea wins, I will also chip in for the technical cost. seems like a decent way to do the thing-that-isn't-PUA.

I like the sound of
4Scott Alexander14y
You're right, I was rounding you to the nearest cliche of the last few people who said this sort of thing, and I was wrong.

Upvote this if, out of the solution set [keep things they way they are, have subreddits, have bulletin board], you like the way things are now.

Forgive me if I'm just being oblivious, but did anything end up happening on this?

I messaged Eliezer several times about this and he never got back to me. I talked to Tricycle, they said they were working on something, and what ended up happening was the split between Discussion and Main. This was not quite what I wanted, but given my inability to successfully contact Eliezer at the time I gave up.

Seems not. Three years is plenty of time.
Personally, I would say there has been very clear progress between 2010 and now, though I suppose if you don't think much of CFAR you might suppose otherwise.
Progress, yes, but I'm not seeing anything quite on the level of the call to action presented here. The argument isn't that LessWrong isn't useful, but that it is operating without the recursive return on its investments that would benefit it so much more than the current (slowly advancing) practices.
I certainly don't think we're "there yet," but it seems somewhat uncharitable to say that nothing ended up happening. I also don't think the final stage of rationality practice/training will look like a martial arts dojo in almost any respect.
I'm sorry, but creating subreddits is too trivial a task that would bootstrap this specific advancement to overlook. The only way to offset this oversight is if the administrators were trying to perform some kind of "test" to see if the community can work around the problem, but that's really stretching it. I fault the entire system regardless. I suppose I don't disagree that it is somewhat uncharitable, but the advancements that have been made aren't ... Looking over your submission history, I can see what's happening here. You are advancing and improving, and writing posts about it, with those posts being received well, but the reception is far from effective. There are any number of psychological tendencies in place to cause you to inaccurately project your own advancements onto your peers. The truth is Eliezer_Yudkowsky has already embedded a ton of these lessons in the sequences over and over again. You're stating them more formally and circling the deeper ubiquitous causes of specific individual opinions here and there, but you've yet to make the post that resonates with the community and starts breaking some of the heavier cognitive barriers in place whose side-effects you've been formalizing. It's all well and good, you're doing well, and your effort is paying off, and the community is advancing. Some of us are just getting really impatient with how slowly LessWrong refines itself in the immediate presence of so much rationality optimizing knowledge. I honestly expected my comments back here three years in the past to go unnoticed for some time. That people still pay attention to these events is surprising. That you took the time to reply was surprising, and while I recognized your name as the author of one of the recent LessWrong-advancing posts, I didn't properly think of the full implications until now. As long as you're paying attention across time, I might as well point out to you that nobody else is. I was going to focus on getting this article bump
I'd suggest that you go along with this anyway-- while I have an article in the works that deals with some of these matters, it won't be forthcoming for some time.
Karma Score: -8 My own attempt at an article would be something vastly different, encompassing issues in such a way that article revival (anti-forgetfulness) would be a more apparent issue in need of being addressed. That's just one aspect in a deeper pool of cognitive shortcomings that I aim to empty significantly. But first I need to acquire a more detailed picture of exactly what set of biases exist in that pool, so as to trip only the ones that produce a productive pattern of thought when activated. More or less, I need to (l)earn the karma. Article/thought re-ignition is simply an immediate and (presumably) "easily" communicable step that would produce powerful results; this community is sitting on a gold mine of cognition just waiting to be used.
1. Didn't Sarah C just have a big post about this as a fallacy? I think it's a natural phenomenon on a blog - a format which is so anti-growth, so focused on shininess, that even energy towards productive change, when directed through the blog, goes nowhere. One big reason is the community norm of this all being free stuff done in spare time (except for Eliezer). Helping people grow, and designing curricula for and monitoring their growth, is hard work. It requires professional time and getting paid. I do X all the time in my life and in my organization. The question is whether someone will take the time to create X for others. I am happy to participate in figuring out how to do X by supplying some of my very limited time. I will pay for X (workshops, coaching, or instruction), if X is taught more effectively from this community than from the many other places offering to help me grow and become better at achieving my goals. That demand will create it's own supply. Re: subreddits & bulletin boards - Great, more shiny ways to waste people's time. Real change happens from what you do off the internet, is that so hard an idea to understand?
  1. I have re-read the Affect Heuristic post, and I don't see its relevance. Explain?

One of the last posts on this sort of thing mentioned the phrase "'Good enough' is the enemy of 'at all'".

Yes, the best way to do this would have in-person groups with paid instructors. I interpreted you as saying we should go create these groups. If your point was that these groups already exist and we should get off Less Wrong and go to them, then I misunderstood, but I am still doubtful. The vast majority of people don't have access to them (live in smaller cities without such groups, don't have time for such groups, et cetera), those who do probably don't know it, and among those who do have access and know it but still haven't joined, saying "You ought to be going to these!" is unlikely to change many minds.

But I understood you to mean that Less Wrong should work to create such groups. If that's true, then they're unlikely to happen. Only a tiny handful of cities have enough Less Wrongers to form a group, and as far as I know only the Bay Area and NYC (possibly also Southern CA?) actually have one that meets consistently and with defined agendas. That immediately excludes a... (read more)

It was a reference to Something's Wrong, I think.
Same here. We've found 3-4 Texas LWers. Since I have a lot of vacation time I need to use up by the end of this year, I would very much love to spend a few weeks with a more concentrated rationalist community. Anyone have any ideas for how this could work out? I'm thinking of something sort of like a SIAI house visit, but I was turned down as a visiting fellow. Edit: A NYC LWer offered me a chance to stay a few weeks with the NYC rationalist crew, so count that as progress in this direction.
-1Scott Alexander14y
Upvote this if, out of the solution set [keep things they way they are, have subreddits, have bulletin board], you prefer to have a bulletin board, and you would use it and check it often if it existed
-49Scott Alexander14y

It’s critical to distinguish between ease/convenience and pleasure.

Absent conscious intervention, we don’t optimize for pleasure -- we optimize for a combination of pleasure and non-effort. For example, TV is for many people easy to choose, and work and exercise are hard to choose, despite TV having low-average enjoyment ratings, exercise having average ratings, and work having high-average ratings (see e.g. p. 243 of this book).

Patri’s concept of “shiny/fun”, insofar as it is correct, seems to be about low effort activities more than about high reward activities. To attain high personal growth, we need to learn to exert effort toward the highest-value learning and productivity tasks. As Patri emphasizes, this involves learning to direct our attention, learning to resist shiny, low-effort distractions, and to get through relatively boring local drudge work when needed. It does not, AFAICT, involve choosing less rewarding tasks on average; peak growth and productivity are often more rewarding (though also harder to choose) than clicking repeatedly on the “next comments” button.

(The ideas in this comment are stolen from Michael Vassar.)

work and exercise are hard to choose

As I've mentioned elsewhere I've rarely experienced high pleasure from work but the exercise phenomenon is one I've been aware of for a long time. Going back to when I was a kid I remember the realization that I really hated getting up early and going out in the cold to play rugby but I enjoyed it once I was there. The same is true for most of the physical activities I do now.

I've never been able to 'integrate' this knowledge for exercise / physical activity though. Some people seem to reach a stage of genuinely anticipating exercise with pleasure but for me it is always still a conscious effort of reminding myself that I will enjoy it once I get going in order to overcome the reluctance and lack of motivation. I still fail at this more often than I'd like.

I can second this one. Literally hundreds of times I have realized that it will soon be time to go to tae kwon do class, and that I was dreading it, even though each time I mentally noted for future reference during class that I was enjoying myself considerably. I sometimes wonder if a few hundred more repetitions will make the dread go away, but Laplace's rule is not optimistic.

Absent conscious intervention, we don’t optimize for pleasure -- we optimize for a combination of pleasure and non-effort.

This is a bit tangential to your point, but why should we consciously optimize for pleasure, instead of of a combination of pleasure and non-effort? If you think pleasure is likely to be part of our True Preferences (however defined, e.g., our consciously held preferences after sufficient reflection), why not non-effort also?

Good question. Still, if I found out now that my pleasure would be raised above my usual baseline from now on, I'd feel happy. And if I found out my effort would be reduced (without side-effects), I would not. It could be that the temporal discount rates work differently for pleasure vs. non-effort.
Much has to do with short-term pleasure vs. short-term flow and long-term satisfaction. Both wise old people and happiness studies tell us that if we do the instinctually easy things, even though they are sometimes pleasurable and the pull to do them feels strong, we will later feel regret at the way we have lived our life, and indeed at the time may not even feel happy. Whereas if we do things that take some effort to start, that are based on research indicating they will make us happy, and that are in service of our goals, both wise old people (who have tried various strategies) and some happiness research suggest that we will end up happier. Yes, effort matters, but our internal/instinctual effort/reward calibrator is totally whacked, especially when long time periods are involved. And it screws up things that were in the evolutionary environment (food, sex) because the modern environment is different (caloric abundance, pictures of 1 in a million hot women everywhere while the normal hunter-gatherer would only see 1 in 100 hotness), and it screws up things that weren't because it isn't tuned for them (no idea what TV gets interpreted as, but whatever it is, it is highly addictive but doesn't lead to short or long-term happiness). So if we want pleasure, we need to override the hell out of this miserable instinct - ie learn to direct our attention consciously.

The fact that you will regret a choice does not imply that the choice is irrational, since the way our regret works is itself irrational.

If we accept Eliezer's position, we'd probably take all of these things - pleasure, non-effort, non-regret, happiness, etc. - and make them components of our utility functions. But I have no idea how we are supposed to weigh these things against each other. How do you know that your consciously chosen trade-off is the right one? How do you even know that it's an improvement over what your subconscious/instinct/intuition tends to choose?

In short ... how do you be less wrong?

I'm a relatively new lurker, still working through the Sequences. It strikes me that patrissimo's disaffection and resultant call to action are targeted at "the more advanced students", or where I hope to be at some point. To use a shop-class analogy, once you've finished Shop 101, sitting around reading back issues of Woodcrafts magazine wil be lower ROI than designing and building a Mission chest of drawers. But until you've been through the basics, "go build" is less productive and potentially dangerous. I 've discovered that reading LW has helped me notice a common thread in my haphazard intellectual explorations, and align my current ones. So a follow-up question I'll pose in 2 parts is: a) is it a fallacy to presume one must walk before learning to run?, and b) if not, how can one judge when it's time to "go build"?

If you are working through the sequences, how did you get to my post? :).

It seems that instead of paying attention to your lathe and table saw in Shop 101, you are leafing through the latest copies of "Advanced Carpentry". This can be motivation, it can add context to the class, or it can be a form of procrastination, focusing on the dream of producing great things in the future instead of the hard work of learning to produce small things in the present. Only you can decide, through conscious examination, which is.

Do you read my post (and presumably many other new LW posts, which slows your reading of the Sequences) because you truly, consciously believe that they enhance your learning of the Sequences? Or because of the dopamine hit you get by seeing something new, something timely, a post where your comments will get seen by others, rather than the sterile years-old Sequences with no feedback?

Here comes a new challenger..... a) The issue of learning to walk before running, though seemingly simple, is not. Reading originals, for instance is highly likely to displace the good meme grasping/producing potential you'd have if you never went through them. Recently this link about that was posted here, can't find the post now: I agree with the author, and after 4 years in a continental philosophy department, can assure you, there is no way the rational strategy for being rational is to go through the history of rationality. The added value of learning through historic order is greatly inferior to the value of time-saved, hindsight view analytical capacity towards ancient stuff that you get from reading only what is recent. Not that I'm claiming the Sequences are moldy old stuff. Go through them, but speed up your pace whenever you can. A final point on "a)". Do not read what is too recent (give 4 months here, 1 year in science as a tentative suggestion), thus allowing others to filter for you. Unless the post claims that the whole Less-Wrong endeavour is anti-instrumentalist! When dealing with catastrophic risks, even tiny probabilities (that the Sequences suck) ought to take priority. b) There is no doubt that the first 100 posts you read here will be more important than the second.... if you are past 400 (I'm not), probably you are beyond the tipping point. Learning rationality is logarithmic. Maybe, for professional reasons, Eliezer needs 99% of the abstract rationality he can achieve (he is the coach, after all). But if you are just part of the team (as I am) I would never get to the point where you are actually regularly reading yesterday's stuff. This is a red signal, if you (reader of this sentence) want only to be part of the team, and you've been reading daily or weekly before you got a chapter, a plan, a framework, or just plain work done, then not only you are wrong because Less W
For posterity's sake, the original reading originals page is down, but it's here on
You make a good point here and I'll go on to add... This (usually, but depending on the engagement level) does constitute deliberate practice. It's directed and requires intense construction of new mental concepts and ways of thinking. In fact, I would say that even for people who have read the sequences previously could still be executing deliberate practice by engaging with them again. It must be 'engage' rather than skim and obviously doesn't apply indefinitely. Practice must move to a new area once a skill is mastered to an acceptable level. When it comes to learning stuff that means not just 'kinda get it' but also not having understood it enough that going over it more isn't even effortful.

This is why I have left the LW community for a year. I think that there is a lot to be learned from LW, but I also think that LW is currently 95% distracting by volume of text and by time-you'll-actually-spend-on-it.

I'd like to make the additional point that LW is not only a time-wise distraction, but it is also motivationally toxic, or at least has been to me.

More specifically, I think that investing emotionally too much in big-picture issues like efficient charity or high-technology risks and futurism tends to remove healthy, positive motivations from one's everyday life. You, as a human being, have to care about what you're going to do tomorrow and in the next week, and you have to be in a frame where most of the time, things are looking good and you're "winning". I think that a lot of the frames that LW encourages people to adopt (e.g. the frame that the entire future of the human race is likely doomed) contribute strongly to psychological depression and motivational exhaustion. That these frames and memes are based upon careful analysis is beside the point: there are some life-frames that you simply cannot live with, truth be damned.

What to do? I think that Patri'... (read more)

For me right now, the thing I need to care about that's going on tomorrow and next week is getting LessWrong to answer the call to action they've had for three years now.
I don't think there's any good reason for thinking that humans are "likely doomed". Rather, I think that there is a good chance of humans persisting for a long time - in historical simulations. For one thing, recording the past is a common instrumental value. I don't think I am engaging in wishful thinking. Indeed, I would point to the financial incentives of DOOM-mongering as being behind the DOOM conception. DOOM is pumped into people by films and comic books - and after a while some of them actually come to believe it. DOOM is frightening - and so it gets propagated around a lot - and people earn a living from it - but that doesn't make it true. Indeed, its spreadability as a meme is a factor that actually makes it less likely to be true.
I agree with everything after this sentence. Because you haven't just left, you did a lot more. But I don't want to revive this topic any further, it has been discussed in your absence.

The 6 tenets of deliberate practice are that it:

  1. Is not inherently enjoyable.
  2. Is not play or paid practice.
  3. Is relevant to the skill being developed.
  4. Is not simply watching the skill being performed.
  5. Requires effort and attention from the learner.
  6. Often involves activities selected by a coach or teacher to facilitate learning.

Whoever came up with this list of tenets is wrong. The development of expertise in skills is something I have taken a particular interest in, both as part of my qualification as a teacher and as an independent passion.

A prominent introductory reference to the field as it is studied academically is of course The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology) although it is a field in which research has begun to accelerate. While the findings of the studies are completely in line with your overall contention they contradict some of the 'tenets' that you put forward here. Specifically:

  1. Is not inherently enjoyable. FALSE! Deliberate practice is vital whether it is inherently enjoyable or not but if it is also something that you find inherently enjoyable then so much the better.
  2. Is not play or paid practice. True.
... (read more)
On a sidenote, are there any ways to get the Cambridge Handbook? My local libraries don't have it (closest holder in Worldcat is Yale), there are no ebooks floating around, Google Books has a quite limited preview, and the cheapest I can find it for is around $50 paperback used (!). (I'm thinking of just interlibrary loaning it and scanning it. I mean, sheesh.)
A couple of months after the handbook was released I was trying to get access to it. At that time I didn't have university library access and even if I did there were only two copies in the entire city. I actually drove 45 minutes away to a university that had the book not checked out and spent a couple of days reading it and consolidating the information in the form of notes and supermemo entries.

To my great surprise, turned out my library had access to an e-copy of it. I took an hour and printed out all 47 entries to PDFs, and combined them to get this:

(I would like to crop the margins, but pdfcrop results in doubled file size; I'd also like to remove the headers & footers, but none of my PDF CLI tools seem to support that.)

LW! Never say I have done nothing for you!

Wow. Nice work. If I were the sort of person who did morally grey things like that I would totally have used TextAloud and selected an academic sounding voice (Graham) to read the text to mp3 files. Then right now I would have it on my ipod so that I could listen to it on my ipod while commuting and exercising. Actually, that isn't quite true. I would have the first chapter and expecting the rest to be spoken to file by tomorrow.
1. Contrasting work, play, and deliberate practice, Dr. Ericsson (author of the book you cite and founder of the study of deliberate practice) writes (emphasis mine): * "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance" , K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer. So while I appreciate feedback from someone who has actually read the material, and while the list I used was certainly abbreviated and lacking nuanced, the same author uses the exact phrase "is not inherently enjoyable". Does not mean that it can't be enjoyable, only that if it is, it will be by random coincidence, so it usually won't be. It could be that the research has changed - the handbook you cite was published in 2006, the paper I cite was published in 1993.
An abbreviation of "Not necessarily inherently enjoyable" would be less misleading abbreviation. (Albeit still seeming out of place if found anywhere near the top of the list of tenets.) The "usually won't be" is not implied by the source and isn't the point they are trying to convey. The "will be by random coincidence" is clearly false. There is a strong (and rational) motive for people wishing to achieve mastery to alter their intrinsic motivation responses (using mind hacking, etc) such that they do find deliberate practice inherently enjoyable. Apart from that there is a significant selection effect in place - people who find deliberate practice inherently enjoyable are far, far more likely to do it in volumes that are at all significant. This applies to me, for example - I take near masochistic pleasure in that kind of physical and mental exertion and so structure my life such that I do more of it. I couldn't tell you whether the phrase 'is not inherently enjoyable' is in the 1996 reference. I don't recall it but it also isn't something I pick out as a take home message in the quote you make so I most likely wouldn't have included it in my supermemo notes on the subject in any case, at least not with that wording. I again appreciate the overall contrasts we're considering here. What I reject is the claim "IF enjoyable THEN NOT deliberate practice" which is what is implied by the tenet list. From your reply I don't think that is a position that you are trying to take and I do appreciate the clarification and reference.

I am not a major Less Wrong participant, but I suspect that there are many lurkers or mostly-lurkers in the same position as me, so I want to make this point:

I read Less Wrong on "fun time". And if it were less shiny, I would not read it at all. Yet reading has led me to reevaluate my goals and actions: it has led to a small amount of self improvement, not initially intended by me, as a side effect.

So by all means, make it more effective for you! But also keep in mind its effect on lurkers attracted by the shininess.

If you buy a couch to sit on and watch TV, there's nothing wrong with that. You might even see a sports program on TV that motivates you to go jogging. Just don't buy the couch in order to further your goal of physical fitness. Or claim that couch-buyers are a community of people committed to becoming more fit, because they sometimes watch sports shows and sometimes get outside. Couch-buyers are a community of people who sit around - even if they watch sports programs. Real runners buy jogging shoes, sweat headbands, GPS route trackers, pedometers, stopwatches...

One simple improvement would be to add exercises at the end of articles whenever possible, and to encourage people to do them before or instead of reading the comments.

I've been collecting exercises (slowly) for years. Would love to contribute to a shared collection of exercises, ideally on a site that allows them to be tagged, rated, searched, and have people comment with their experiences. I am skeptical that people reading fun shiny LW posts and encountering an exercise would actually then go do that exercise. Doing exercises is work!
Bring on the Work! I would be very interested in seeing rationality exercises posted, including the ones you've been collecting.
Where can I find rationality exercises?
The Center for Applied Rationality is currently collecting and developing rationality exercises and training people with them. They have not published a list of their exercises, but you can find a game they made here.
This is a nice idea. There was a string of decision theory and anthropics posts (including various dilemmas - sleeping beauty, counterfactual mugging, etc.), which I assume are the sort Phil Goetz prefers, that included some math. It was obvious in the comments who had done their homework. Among those who didn't bother with the technical details, very few made an entertaining or valuable contribution. It's fine for less people to be interested in posts with a significant technical component. It's merely a smaller audience, and the lower numbers of comments and votes shouldn't discourage those interested in such discussions. Hopefully people who don't care to fully understand such a post can avoid rashly commenting on it.

My list of daily self-improvement activities for while I'm in Tucson (on vacation):

  • One hundred pushups workout
  • 20 sessions of dual n-back
  • 30 minutes of meditation
  • 2 miles running
  • 30 minutes weight lifting
  • 300 ab lounger crunches
  • 30 minutes of focused online blitz chess
  • <30 minutes on whitelisted sites.
  • 30 minutes of active binaural beat listening
  • 30 minutes of music composition (guitar or Ableton Live)
  • 90 minutes of dead tree reading (currently evo. psych. books)
  • 1000 words of writing (not including LW comments etc.)
  • 30 minutes of email and outreach
  • 45 minutes of IA research (following links online, etc.)
  • barfing as many comments onto Less Wrong as I can (hitting the 'comment' button impulsively) so as to get critiques of my writing ability and especially my epistemic rationality, as well as get practice writing in a pseudo-academic setting.

As I build up my mind/body I'll probably spend less time there and more time on things like keeping up with my email and staying in contact with the Singularitarian community. I'm trying to make the transition from Hufferpuffer to Slytherclaw.

Intelligence amplification?
These are mostly activities you already know are worthwhile for you? I've done similar and while I think I have a decent chance at understanding what's helpful without actually trying all subsets (or greedy leave-one-out or add-one-in), I've been confused when I periodically ponder what I should keep doing. It's interesting that nothing (except 2 miles running and pushups) is less than 30 minutes. I've favored 15 minutes but that might be too short.
20 sessions of dual n-back and 1000 words of writing feel like they take a long time but I'd be surprised if they took 30 minutes or more in reality. 300 ab lounger crunches takes less than 10 minutes. Honestly the highest value thing on that list is probably the 45 minutes of IA research, followed by the 30 minutes of email and outreach. Everything else is more about cultivating the self-image of someone who consistently does things to make themself more awesome. In so doing I hope to gain an aura of competence, after which I'll be more effective at doing whatever it is I want to do. (Currently, that is to contribute significantly to SIAI's IA division when I get back to California.)
Nitpick: the default settings in Brainworkshop, one of the more popular DNB implementations, take 72 seconds per session for a minimum of 24 minutes for 20 sessions. Adding in saccading between sessions (20-30 seconds) or tweaking options could add in still more time. 24 minutes is pretty close to 30 minutes.
How long have you kept this up?
A full 3 days!!! At least, that's how long it's been formally written up in a Google Docs spreadsheet. I'd been doing most of this for the past few weeks but not consistently enough (especially not the weight lifting and n-back, both of which my brain seems to accidentally forget more often than the other activities... also some of the exercises I only do every other day if I'm particularly sore). It's funny how making a simple checklist can make one roughly twice as productive.
This is interesting, because I am also going down the same path: creating a list of things I need to do (daily, every so often, and one in a while). What website do you use for dual n-back task. Let me (and others) know if it's effect. Is there any good literature/research on it? Does it help?

This is interesting, because I am also going down the same path: creating a list of things I need to do (daily, every so often, and one in a while)

Hey, me too! I guess we all read this.

I've also been thinking about social checklists. One of Dale Carnegie's books is essentially four checklists already, so I just put them on a small card in my wallet for daily review.

I feel like it's had an impact, but it's tough to evaluate. I suppose you could assign yourself a grade and track your progress, but that seems fluffy.

Any thoughts on how to judge the effectiveness of something like this?

I wish I could upvote this comment an extra time. Atul Gawande's article is great, and applying it to personal life seems highly worth experimenting with. I'd love to hear results from personal experiments with checklists.
I use checklists for website maintenance - I have lists of things that need to go up or change with each update. I find that when I remember to use the checklist, I'm usually paying enough attention that I've already remembered everything on it; it's when I'm doing a sloppy enough job to forget my checklist that it would have been most helpful.
I've used spaced repetition to memorize checklists for things for me to do in certain situations and found it to be quite useful. Some of my thinking on this was inspired by The Checklist Manifesto, which I read recently. I'm still figuring out how to make my system work better and have it cover more situations, but an example of one checklist that I've gotten a bit of mileage out of is the one I've made for accessing my inner anticipation controller.
I use to maintain a variety of checklists, from daily and the14thofeachmonth to one time next year, divided into different areas of growth (health, career, science knowledge, social/family, etc.) and non-growth-but-needs-to-be-done. It has markedly increased my productivity on both small goals and larger life goals, and also stopped 95% of my "oh I was busy with X, so I forgot about you asking me to do Y" that used to happen to me quite a bit at home and at work.
I'm also a big fan of that Gawande article. I use lists in a couple of ways, but one relevant one is a poster I made for my bedroom wall. It's titled "MORE USEFUL THINGS TO DO than fucking around on the internet," and is followed by a column and a half of such activities, with room for more as I think of them (there's a marker on a string nearby). The items on the list are a combination of practical things or chores ("do laundry" "do dishes" "practice guitar/piano") and unnecessary things that I would like to do more often ("go for a bike ride" "call a friend" "sing"). Obviously it's not perfect, since I'm here, but it has taken away any possible excuse I might have to say "I don't have anything better to do." I might not have anything I need to do, or much I want to do, but there's almost always something better I could do. The only problem is that the poster's in my bedroom, where I tended to use my laptop a lot at the time I made it. Now that I'm out of that habit (which was one of the waste-less-time-on-the-internet moves), I don't see the poster at the times I need it most. I suppose I should move it into the office now!
Gwern from here on LW maintains an excellent FAQ about n-back. My personal experiences thus far (though I haven't done much of it) are actually listed in the FAQ. :D The FAQ is here. I use Brain Workshop on Jaeggi mode (a harder more test-like mode which you can switch on in the config file).
Isn't Jaeggi mode the one that ends with a series of the same letter in the center every session to make sure there's an equal number of matches in each session? Most of the arguments I could imagine for that being superior are pretty tortured. You should ask Justin for the config file we used. I'm pretty sure we turned Jaeggi on at first but then turned it back off due to that artifact. I certainly found it more stimulating/difficult after Jaeggi was turned back off.
Hm, there don't seem to be an equal number of matches in each session. Sometimes there are 4, sometimes there are 10. Do I misunderstand? Or perhaps I have a different version of brain workshop?
Can you say what you get from this? I've done meditation from time to time, but all I get from sitting for half an hour is having sat for half an hour. I'm familiar with the book you linked to.
I think I got really lucky: after a few days of 30 minutes a day, I was meditating while laying down and over the course of a few minutes slipped into something that is very similar to what is called jhana in the texts I've read. It was an incredibly intense 'body high' where I could feel my whole body quivering and had an incredibly strong focus on my body (so it wasn't dissociative in any way). At first I tried to ignore this and keep focusing on my breath but I quickly realized this was silly and just tried to be mindful of my whole body. I became very aware of small muscle tensions and the like. Throughout the experience was an amazing bliss... truly beautiful. I'm normally a very self-critical person, which had previously made meditating a little stressful: I wonder what... no, stop, why must you always wonder what others think of you? Focus on your breath. But in the maybe-jhana sate I became accepting and understanding of my flaws and others' flaws, and this understanding just made me incredibly happy. I involuntarily laughed out loud several times over the course of 10 minutes. At some point I sat up and tried my best to get into a half-lotus position, and noticed that the 'images' of random color and such that I would normally see on the back of my eyelids was completely grey, which was odd. I laughed at that, too. I sang out 108 'om mani padme hum's and got up. The effect stayed very strong for about... 10 minutes afterward, during which I managed to play 1 blitz chess game to test my cognition. It wore off over the next 15 minutes. My chess ability was surprisingly a little subpar, which was odd, because I felt like I should have had superpowers. From what I've read some students who experience jhana think that they've become enlightened: I think that's very understandable. The sense of compassion and kindness and acceptance and joy I felt was exceptionally strong. I got into the state after a series of insights about my breath that I'd never noticed bef
Thank you for that reply. I've certainly never experienced anything like that in goodness knows how many hours, although I've read theoretical descriptions of the jhanas. There's a general convention that one does not ask about another person's meditation experience, nor speak of one's own except with one's instructor. In fact, people attending meditation class are sometimes advised not to discuss their experience with each other, which does not make for epistemic hygiene around the subject. I hope that on LW we need not be constrained by that (nor, of course, obligated to speak of these things).
Nice :). Now that sounds like conscious application to tasks and goals!

I didn't read the whole article (It's a school day; I'm busy), but in my case, I have to disagree with your premise. LW has definitely been a net positive for me.

First, it has introduced me to different "tricks" for increasing productivity/doing what I want. Melatonin, knowledge of heuristics/biases, PUA/Ev Psych inspired social skills, etc.

Second, reading LW has directly contributed to me constructing an identity for myself that makes me more rational. If I identify myself as a rationalist, then my brain will act accordingly. This has been crucial in fighting akrasia.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, I know where my priorities lie. I post on LW irregularly, don't read every article - let alone most of the comments, and realize that LW is primarily "fun time." It's rationalist porn to some degree, and I'm ok with that. It certainly beats normal porn.

Am I atypical here on LW?

I don't think you are very atypical.

I can easily imagine that some of the most "advanced" rationalists here might not be getting as much useful information out of LW, and so they might see it as a low-ROI site.

But the average LW reader probably isn't so "advanced" (might not have been familiar with a lot of the concepts taught here before reading LW), and so the ROI can be much higher.

Update: In fact, one of the main benefits of LW might be to transfer some of that knowledge from the more advanced rationalists to the beginners.

If you read it during "fun time", then you may well be getting positive value out of it. Just understand that you have joined a community with a strong displayed value of "talking about rationality", and little to no displayed value of "becoming better at achieving our goals in real life". If that identity works for you, great. You've leveled. But I don't think it will get you very far. I think the value of "relentless self-improvement through deliberate practice in real life" will get you much, much further towards being an actual rationalist, not just someone who signals their love for rationality.
Not everyone would accept the definition of 'rationalist' that you seem to be using. (And many would find your attitude condescending and a little obnoxious. This stuff is obvious and well understood.)
Just to be precise: do you find that your productivity is increased, and that you do more of what you want?

Phooey on you, I like having fun.

"Just because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"

I do my work on my own time, and my attempts to be more productive are my own responsibility/own business. When I'm not working, I want to not work. It would be a more masochistic person than I who actually wanted her recreational websites to give her lectures about duty. I treat LW as an interesting discussion forum with smart people. What's wrong with that?

I think the original poster assumes--and, in fact, says, at one point--that the purpose of Less Wrong is for self-improvement. To him, it is supposed to be work, and it is something he alleges to participate in during work time, and he is operating under the assumption that other people do the same. You're not disagreeing about the conclusion, you're disagreeing about the premise. Judging from similar comments, you're not alone.

There's nothing wrong with buying a couch, if you aren't buying it from a "increase your health with exercise!" store, and you aren't buying it out of your exercise budget and using it during your exercise time. But the LW store claims to be about making people more instrumentally rational (ie productive), and a significant proportion of those I sampled agreed that by reading LW, they were mentally scratching their "be more rational" itch while decreasing their own productivity through being distracted by LW. So while nothing is wrong with having fun on fun time (I had so much fun in college that my name is still known there 12 years later), and you may be getting positive value from LW, you have not contradicted my claim. Also, I am far from virtuous - it is because I am so distractable that I have developed (slowly and painfully and with much sadness at my own foolishness) a finely tuned sense for when I am doing something because it is shiny rather than because it serves me. I only turn this sense on for 6-10 hours a day - in the evenings, anything goes.
What is wrong with having asking people on a interesting discussion forum with smart people if they would like to work together on improving themselves?
The presumption that everyone else is here for the purpose of difficult self-improvement, not for pleasure, which is a premise of the post. It's not morally wrong, but it appears to be factually wrong.
As a foreigner I have to ask: shouldn't it be "ptooey on your hooey"?

Reading LessWrong is primarily a willpower restorer for me. I use the "hit" of insight I get from reading a high quality post or comment to motivate me to start Working (and it's much easier to continue Working than to start). I save posts that I expect to be high quality (like Yvain's latest) for just before I'm about to start Working. Occasionally the insight itself is useful, of course.

Commenting on LessWrong has raised my standards of quality for my own ideas, understanding them clearly, and expressing them concisely.

I don't know if either of those are Work, but they're both definitely Win.

Fascinating! This is very different from my own experience. I believe in the "manage your energy" / Pomodoro techniques of regular breaks, so I might work for 25-50 minutes with consciously directed attention and then go read a blog to relax before working again. I am no disbeliever of conscious relaxation and breaks. I am a disbeliever in unconscious slipping of attention. If I let my attention slip to blogs or Reddit or comments during my chunks of work time, it tends to feed on itself and happen again and again and decrease my productivity, not restore my willpower. YMMV. If your attention slips are self-correcting, then congratulations! Your mind has a feature that I envy.

The key is that HP&TMoR is read in "fun time", while I believe most people see LW time as "work towards self-improvement" time. Ironic, but true for me and the friends I've polled, at least)

Why I read less wrong:

  • A. 23% Already read all the good web-comics today
  • B. 22% To discuss important ideas that aren't being discussed anywhere else, eg friendly AI
  • C. 20% To show off, gain some name recognition, and meet interesting people
  • D. 19% To cooperate with others in analyzing rationality, behavior, ethics, and the future in a more rigorous way than is being done elsewhere
  • E. 10% To observe arguments between smart people, and get a sense for how smartness correlates with agreement, making stupid errors, and size and frequency of blind spots; or how it generalizes across domains
  • F. 6% Self-improvement

Item D is the most important to me, but LessWrong has not been very successful at it. EY rarely gives the posts that I think are important along those lines the coveted green button, nor does the LW readership vote them up highly.

I think that the most important purpose LW could serve would be to critically analyze the ideas EY has put forth, and discuss dif... (read more)

Are there some available statistics about that?
Not that I know of. You can see that green-button posts have higher scores than the white-button posts; but you would expect that in any case; they're supposed to be better posts. I believe most people don't see the white-button posts because * a) If you go to, you don't see the white-button posts * b) If you're reading overcoming bias, it only links to the green-button posts * c) When a post gets a green button, the rate of upvoting increases dramatically, even if the article is several days old.
That sounds reasonable. When I go to, I usually first look at "Recent Posts" and don't care about the button color. But it is probably not generic. (I haven't even known that greenness is awarded by EY.)
When I was initially reading through some of the sequences, I didn't upvote them at all, and I continue to not upvote them even now. Initially I didn't notice the voting mechanism at all, because I hadn't yet created an account. Then after I registered, I didn't bother because EY already has a jillion points, and because those posts had already been green-lit so registering my approval wouldn't have much effect.
I've done the same. When I stumbled upon lesswrong, it's like I got sucked into a vortex. I just kept reading and reading and reading, until I essentially ran out of things to read. I didn't care about voting or commenting, just reading. Then I realized there are other people here besides Eliezer and other posts too. I realized the community here is pretty interesting, so I decided to join in.
Well, here we come to the gap between "the stated intention of Less Wrong" and "what people actually use it for". This is surely a big part of the resolution of the gap I pointed out. If people are not using LW to increase their own rationality, then it should be clearer about that. Perhaps it's my misreading of "refining the art of human rationality" - I assumed that the goal was "by making humans more rational", but if the goal is just to sit around and have a delightful intellectual wankfest about the deep nature of rationality in isolation from people's execution of their brains and use of their abilities in real life, then the site is being consistent :). But this doesn't seem consistent with Eliezer's claim "Rationalists win". I've seen enough of life to know that winners spend time building their many different kinds of muscles, not chatting on web forums.
I'm currently reading the old sequences. But felt discouraged to comment since I felt no one would respond anyway.
You've got a chance of getting replies from those of us who follow Recent Comments.
Recent comments on old sequences have actually been getting pretty interesting.

I work 40 hours each week. Reading LW is consciously part of my R&R time. Am I in the minority here?

Like HP:MoR though, I consider it to be beneficial R&R. My idea of "fun" consists of solving math problems, having philosophical discussions, etc. It's a shiny distraction like going for a hike, when you aspire to work in forestry. It doesn't detract from your ability to study forestry. Just don't confuse hiking and field work.

That said, I am in the wrong field of work, long-term. That I consider the ideas here so interesting makes them pointers toward future career directions. I really do think I've gained ideas here that will play out in my future career.

I should mention also that this site has made me see connections between my current line of work and future paths, and made developing those common skills more enjoyable. To get through the less fun parts of work, you have to connect it with the fun and the big picture, and this site does that for me. Perhaps not for most people. I couldn't say.

I agree though that this may not be an ideal tool for the express purpose of being more productive (and then more rational in doing your productive activities). Do people view the site as having that purpose?

I fairly strongly suggest that if you are planning to change careers you actually discuss the possibilities with other members of the LW community. Maybe make a post describing your situation and desires and requesting advice.
Would this kind of request be appropriate for a top level post, or in the open thread? I've been considering making such a post for a while now.
It depends how in depth you want to be. I've made such a top level post myself and found it useful.
I'd say it depends on how valuable you expect the post to be for other people to read. I'm probably going to post in an open thread when I do so, but if I'm uncertain, I may message a couple of people to see what they think.
Thanks, I definitely will do so by the end of the year. I still have some evaluation of goals to do (by experiment right now - doing a couple of small projects, logging my attitude on the work and progress over the course of each). This is almost certainly a community which would act as a good CEV dynamic for me.
I view it as fun. It is so fun that it DOES sometimes cause me to procrastinate on my work, like right now. I'm going to go do some of that work now.

Perhaps we should have a monthly 'show off your I-rationaility improvement' thread, the same way we have rationality quotes? So that people could get the warm glow of LW status from being able to boast about how productive they've been recently, while also providing peer pressure to others to be more productive.

Exactly that format is being used right now to solicit suggestions for group activities that would be of high value at the next SoCAL LW meetup in 10 days. Reply (and moderate replies) right here to help influence the activities at the meetup. I will be printing out the top suggestions and bringing them to the event in hopes of getting traction with some of them. Part of the idea is simply to try out the best suggestion but its also intended to test LW's actual capacity to fold reasonable criticism into behavioral improvements :-)
This idea sounds really good, I'm supporting it. Maybe people who could contribute to such a thread should tell now in this thread?
I'm waiting until October to post it (so it aligns with the quotes and open thread), I have a couple of ideas how to structure it though Option 1: Structure it identically to the quotes thread, and post it each month. Pros: Lots of opportunities for status boosting and hopefully lots of incentive to try new methods. Cons: People who aren't specifically having akrasia/productivity problems will likely be annoyed to see a million comments proclaiming the awesomeness of GTD and removing trivial inconveniences. Option 2: Same as Option 1 but only do it once every 3 months. Mostly just an attempt to strike a balance between the people who have issues with akrasia vs those who are here for the other posts. Option 3: Borrow Sketerpot's format from 6 months back and have a new anti-akrasia tactics thread, complete with statistics about the effectiveness of each method for the LW community. Pros: More useful than just boasting. Cons: I would need to relearn basic statistics and update the effectiveness statistics in a timely fashion (not usually a problem, but I'm meant to be writing a thesis at the moment, not doing maths or having an incentive to hang out here a lot). Possible solution: If someone else wants to write the post up in this format, I hereby grant permission to do so. Regardless of which option was chosen there would obviously need to be a re-assessment after the first one to see whether there is enough support for an ongoing I-rationality thread.

There are many who do come to Lesswrong for fun, we shouldn't discourage them in that I think Lesswrong should not stop doing what its doing. While yes a thousand flowers should bloom, they shouldn't splinter off into oblivion. I propose we expand this community blog's de facto function. We should make Lesswrong a hub for self-improvement, study and even research groups all open to each other for rationality checking. All clearly and transparently stating their goals and methods.

Martial arts is a wonderful metaphor for what should be done. Why not really make the first steps towards something like Elizers fictional Bayesian conspiracy? A large fraction of Lesswrong posters is convinced that we have just a few more decades of cramming to do before humanity faces its final exam. There are perhaps good reasons to believe we need to become more rational quickly. To do this we need to start setting goals. Concrete ones, let me start with a few propositions:

Isn't the Social Arts (PUA-PU) proposal basically already a existing call to a project? Many posters have expressed regret at not understanding critical elements of game theory, compsci, physics, evolutionary biology, statistics ... (read more)

Yes. Ahem. The issue here is that this is a community. If you want something done, just do it! You don't really need approval, or much support (unless technical skill or something is limiting). I am aware that this applies to me. I have one pesky little thesis to hand in, then I'm good to go. Hold me to this.
Thanks for linking! I didn't know we already have a study group! However I would first need to order the book, I look forward in participating with them in a week or two, however joining the book club half way is less enjoyable, joining a study group halfway through its course means more homework to catch up to. Why not feature "University" or university of less wrong just as prominently as the Wiki or Sequence once we get more than one active group? When I check someones latest post and his karma, why not have information about which study groups he is a part of stand out? I know if you want something done, one should just do it... however lots of people don't have imaginations or will only join a project half way and I wanted to underscore that there are things one can do that are beneficial for the community without having to do the hard work of becoming more rational himself. Edit: Another idea is for some study groups to work as a class and go through a "class" available on a site like this:

(willpower is a muscle, you exercise it by using it

Willpower is a battery - you drain it by using it.

Making choices led to reduced self-control (i.e., less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure, more procrastination, and less quality and quantity of arithmetic calculations). A field study then found that reduced self-control was predicted by shoppers' self-reported degree of previous active decision making. Further studies suggested that choosing is more depleting than merely deliberating and forming preferences about options and more depleting than implementing choices made by someone else and that anticipating the choice task as enjoyable can reduce the depleting effect for the first choices but not for many choices.

Source: "Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative." from Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Vohs, Kathleen D.; Baumeister, Roy F.; Schmeichel, Brandon J.; Twenge, Jean M.; Nelson, Noelle M.; Tice, Dianne M.

However, I'm not arguing against pushing ourselves to work when our innate motivation falls a little short.

I would exp... (read more)


Muscles are muscles, and you drain them by using them too- it's just that they come back stronger.

I think willpower is actually like this, but my only data for strengthening willpower is personal/anecdotal.

This seems to be similar to how people behave morally- there's the consistency effect that reinforces itself ("I am someone who gives to charity (clearly, since I gave to charity last week) so I'll give again"), but there's also the feeling that you've given enough so you become less charitable shortly afterwards (wasn't there a study that found that people coming straight from church tipped less?)

Yvain's Doing Your Good Deed For The Day included a related study that actually got through peer review and connected it to a pastor who wrote about how it helped him understand his flock better. Also, this works for me as an example of the kind of thing that I think LW excels at: processing criticism into reparative impulses that might work, while keeping more factors in mind than a single person's criticism/action/outcome cycle is likely to handle well. I think its easy to think "I'm doing something bad, I must change!" and then you leap into something not so well considered and it still doesn't work so well. Having this sort of content in our "canon" probably helps avoid some of the dumber things we might otherwise have done in an attempt to self-improve.
I don't wish to engage "willpower is X" metaphors any further. Every experience I've had where I'm tempted to think "you sure have trained your willpower muscle lately" is also entirely explainable by altered self-image, consistency, and habit. Yes. You really have your work cut out if you want to show some sort of generalized morality or willpower training effect (as opposed to a task specific one).
I suspect that the strength of the rebound effect has a lot to do with the motivations for an action-- is a person supporting something they have an emotional attachment to, or are they fulfilling a virtue checklist?
Somewhere on LW/OB, we have discussed a study or two specifically about strengthening willpower, said studies explicitly invoking the muscle analogy and IIRC one of the willpower tests being a grip fatigue one.
This is relevant but disappointing. What research? The article is well written but poorly sourced. Everything I've seen demonstrates a short-term "drained battery" effect, and nothing I've seen indicates a long-term "trained muscle" effect. Perhaps this is because the studies simply aren't long-term or large enough. Edit: thanks to Unnamed: I see that I was wrong. I say "large enough" because I expect most people to consistently fail to do things which are difficult; we want to know what happens to people who really can try (subjectively) hard over a long stretch, and not only when especially aroused. I'd be interested to see a study design that can cause a significant portion of its subjects to enter and maintain this state. If willpower training really can happen, but most people aren't going to reach it, then showing the exact mechanism by which it works in the small minority who can effectively train it would also satisfy me.
Here's a paper that reviews some of the evidence for the muscle hypothesis, pdf. The relevant section starts on p. 1779. The citation is: Baumeister, R.F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C.N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74, 1773–1801. Another relevant study, which I can't find free online (except for the abstract), is: Gailliot, M. T., Plant, E. A., Butz, D. A., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). Increasing self-regulatory strength can reduce the depleting effect of suppressing stereotypes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 281–294.
I finally got around to reading this. You're right, there is some evidence that willpower-poor individuals can be easily trained to do better (assuming they can actually implement for a long period of time some habit which involves self-regulation). Amusingly, there's also evidence that consuming more glucose also helps ward off ego depletion. My detailed response is here:
The argument has been made that blood glucose essentially is the resource that gets depleted when you're low on willpower. Using willpower is an energy-intensive brain activity, so it's hard to do when your blood sugar is low. Some of the studies that have shown this have given people a sugary drink to restore their willpower, but that's probably not the way to go in real life since it'll cause a temporary spike in blood sugar followed by a crash. But it's possible that fixing your diet to avoid low blood sugar could improve your willpower. There have also been several studies looking at immediate interventions that can counteract the drained battery effect. In other words, people come into the lab, they do one task that drains their willpower, then they get some intervention that might restore their willpower, then they do another task that requires willpower. This review by Baumeister, Vohs, and Tice (pdf) lists a few that have worked and gives citations:
Thanks. I like this line of research also. Are you (or did you) study this area for your college degree or profession? You seem quite well read.
Any chance you could remove all the newlines in the quotes? They're pretty unreadable with random newlines.
sure. paste from pdf artifact.
Thanks. I'll recant as needed after reading.
Presumably the sourcing is in the book being reviewed which presents 'much' research about the muscle paradigm.
Yeah, I considered this - perhaps my library can get me the book.

Lots of great points. If you can't make the full conversion to using the site for instrumental rationality and helping it accomplish that, there are some baby steps that should be easy to take:

  • Any time you make an insightful, upvoted post, which is applicable beyond the present thread, find some way to incorporate into the Wiki.
  • Organize existing articles into shorter sequences (~5 articles) targeted at people coming from a specific background. (Don't forget Truly Part of You, which for some reason doesn't show up in any sequence.) Provide a short summary of each article. It's killing us to only be able to refer newcomers to intimidatingly long lists.
  • Think of and suggests places in your area that could be repurposed into a "rationalist dojo", complete with concrete general problems and personal optimization techniques that the dojo could focus on.
  • Generally, spend at least as much time helping the wiki be informative as you do posting.
  • (Maybe): Explain an academic problem that is excessively obscure for outsiders, so that people here can try their hand at applying rationality to it.
  • Suggest wealth-enhancing careers that people could easily enter if they're of the g
... (read more)

Honestly, I can't help but see this as attacking a strawman. Does anybody actually think that they've done their good deed for the day just by reading and commenting on LW?

When I spend a couple hours on here, I don't treat it as having been productive even to the degree that I count reading a good book. Now I think I've had more good effects from reading LW (for one thing, seeing more areas of my life as things to be optimized) than from most books I've read, but it's just a matter of which mental account I assign my time here to.

I say keep Less Wrong fun ... (read more)

Continuing other comment:

To take patrissimo's arguments on what makes something useful for self-improvement:

patrissimo says,

My version: Growth activities are Work, and hence feel like work, not fun"

I call foul. He tries to claim he's not being puritan, and not saying that growth is never fun, but then proceeds to dismiss fun in that "all use you could get out of it, you've probably already gotten." In essence stating that fun activities only helped you grow in the past, and to move towards the future, you have to be not-fun.

He also com... (read more)

The 6 tenets of deliberate practice are that it:

  1. Is not inherently enjoyable.
  2. Is not play or paid practice.

This is wrong. Why do you think the ability to "play" evolved?

The original article, cited by ~1800, from which the study of "deliberate practice" evolved, is free online: The Role of Deliberate Practice In The Acquisition Of Expert Knowledge It may be wrong, but since it is based on far more research than your opinion, I'm going to go with the guy who has studied (heck, who founded) the field for now, unless you can present compelling evidence to the contrary. Yes, play can teach. Yes, that's what it's for. But the author argues that it only gets us so far. Using only play, you plateau, and to progress further, you must break down your skill into components that can be deliberately practiced individually, even if it's boring (which it usually will be) in order to advance further. This is an empirical statement based on the study of experts. Maybe we didn't evolve to be experts, because the returns from achieving that level of greatness were not worth the extra time. But in the modern world, with the "superstar effect" and high levels of competition - and of free time - our cost/reward curve is different. I suspect many LWers would like to become really good at rationality. If so, they should study this material, not dismiss it.
(Agreeing with particular part and expanding.) The most significant benefits we can expect while playing are those few instances where our play throws us into a situation we can't quite manage without engaging full concentration with a small boost of 'deliberate' effort. Deliberate practice amounts to actively putting ourselves in the challenging situation over and over again for hours at a time. If we are following the evolutionary reasoning we can consider deliberate practice to be 'gaming' the built in learning mechanism. This is similar to an RPG character scumming random monster encounters for experience or, more to the point, going to the gym.

This calls for immediate discussion!

An alternative attitude would be that LW is just not for people whose lives aren't in working order. If you have pressing real-life problems to solve, log off and go solve them. And if you're after the secret to success in sex and business, there are other places you can get that.

Note that helping people become personally more effective is a much easier meme to spread than helping people better understand how to contribute to public goods (ie how to better understand efficient charity and existential risk).

It seems much easier to change the amount of effort someone expends on near-optimally-useful public goods from 1% to 2% than to double someone's productivity.

No question it is much easier, but in almost all cases it would be massively more useful for yourself and for the world in general to double your productivity than to double your effort towards or effect on public goods.
I strongly disagree. Whether it's existential risks or cryonics or Africa or whatever else it is you think near-optimally-useful charity would be focused on, the effect of a dollar going there outweighs the effect of making a random LessWronger a dollar richer by orders of magnitude. Given that we're talking about helping other people be more productive, this isn't an egoism vs altruism thing; it's a stupid altruism vs smart altruism thing.
Our intuitions disagree. People, in my experience, are much more highly motivated to affect their own lives than to become slightly better at affecting the lives of distant (in space or time) un-seen others. The latter is abstract and personally irrelevant, the former is concrete and personally beneficial. How many people spend thousands on personal growth workshops vs. spending money to research the best charities? I think there are many orders of magnitude there. On the other hand, getting the best charity right may make your charity 100x more efficient, while a personal growth workshop may only make you a few percent more efficient. But personal productivity is multiplied by everything you do, while only a small portion of your budget goes to charity. Multiply these out, and I think you'll see that the effect on improving individuals is much higher than on improving their charitable giving.
My charitable donations aren't the only benefit others derive from my work. Also, I have no idea how persuadable most people are in the amount of their total giving. Maybe it's very hard to get anyone to double their contributions.

Re akrasia and GTD: I've long had the idea that LW users could pair off and watch each other with screen-capture software. Whenever the other guy starts procrastinating, you stop him, and he does the same to you. Maybe randomly change the pair assignment every day or week to avoid getting too used to each other. Sounds pretty drastic, huh? I'd be up for that. (With the caveat that I'm in Russia, so my day cycle is likely out of sync with yours.)


In Soviet Russia, cousin_it watches YOU.

This reminds me of Pair Programming, which I happened to re-invent while in college... I get much more productive when working with a partner.
I was told by a friend in the educational-program-assessment industry that the more general form of this is "parallel play"--spending time in the physical company of someone else but doing your own thing. It's more enjoyable than working alone, even if you're not directly communicating, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's also more productive. Hence the existence of Coworking and similar programs. (I'm not familiar with that specific site, but it's at least a good description of the concept. I can't remember the name of the local office space where you can rent a desk for a day for this purpose.) (Edited to fix broken link.)
Wanna try it with me? I remember you had trouble getting programming work done.
I would, if not for the inconvenient fact that you happen to live on the other side of the world. (You're Russian, if I recall correctly.)
Our days still overlap. You may not get a full day of work done, but a couple hours is still valuable. Also, I often stay up at night because I work from home.
Yes, but how are we going to share a keyboard and monitor when we're thousands of miles apart?
Oh... you mean pair programming? Yeah, that would be difficult to do remotely. I thought we were talking about my akrasia idea. Sorry.
Um... maybe you misunderstood the idea? Start a VNC server on your machine so the other guy can see you goofing off and tell you to stop via chat. And vice versa.
Could work, except that you might end up procrastinating by watching the other guy's screen. :-)
This would happen all the time, no doubt, but if you're spending your time watching him then he'll see you watching him, because he's watching you, and tell you to stop watching him and get back to work. And since you're watching him, you're bound to see it! I also wonder how productive watching another user would be in and of itself...
Can you really watch the other person while you're doing your own thing, assuming it requires some degree of concentration and preferably a flow state. Watching the other person doing something entirely different sounds like a new opportunity for procrastination instead. Pair programming works, because both people are working on the same thing, so watching distracts neither from their task. Still, this thing's probably worth trying out.
The idea is that I check their screen from time to time (say, every 5-10 minutes), and if they're surfing LW instead of working, I scream at them via chat. You could probably write software to do that, but getting kicked by a living person is more humiliating.
Alternately, you could write the software to check every so often and alert the working person that the non-working person isn't working. That actually almost turns it into a PD situation, even without the being-yelled-at bit: If both people cooperate, nobody ever gets interrupted when they're working.
Yes, good idea. Thanks.
Interesting - I don't know if it would work, but I'd like to hear about somebody who tried it. Maybe a less invasive one would be a software that just shows a description of the current program the user is running - if he's on the web, the top-level domain, and if not, the name of the document he's reading/working on (Or more likely, the name of the application and the contents of it's title bar, anything deeper than that probably needs a lot more special coding).
This exists. I tried it for a while, but my life doesn't revolve around computer use enough for it to be especially interesting for me. For someone who spends most of their productive time at a computer, it might well help.
Why write special software? Isn't VNC enough? My work is sufficiently specialized that I can trust other LW users with seeing the code I write.
Oh, I wasn't thinking about privacy, more about screen real estate for the watcher (I have a laptop with one small screen), and having readable log files. Being able to look at the logs and say "hmm today I spent 10 minutes coding, 45 minutes on lesswrong, and 2 hours on tvtropes" would be neat. Something like that probably exists.

That would be awesome! Why don't I have that today? I didn't know until you said that that I urgently need that.

Hey! Now I do! It's here.

I know 2 reasons why people suck at bringing theory to practice, neither of which completely validates your claim.

1) They suck at it. They are lost in a sea of confusion, and never get to a valuable deduction which can then be returned to the realm of practicality. But they are still intrigued and still get better a little bit at a time with each new revelation granted by internal thought or sites like Less Wrong.

2) They are too good at it. Before going to implement all the wonderful things they have learned, they figure out something new that would r... (read more)

Good day, ladies and gentlemen. I'm still new, still working through the sequences, which is taking me a while because the needs and requirements of accomplishing my goals in life has down-prioritized my reading through Less Wrong. A somewhat appropriate reason for this discussion.

I see an implied assumption in the article, and additionally outright stated in the comments, that Less Wrong needs to create results, that it needs to have more successes, or it should be accomplishing something in its existence.

I disagree. Less Wrong cannot create results, n... (read more)



I am a new reader of less wrong. I don't really understand all the articles that are put up here including this one, but I like the idea of sharpening instrumental rationality to achieve your goals.

I have the following question: 1)

i have the experience/insight that having the skills or the will [i] to choose the right goals [ii] should come before [iii] gaining the skills to achieving your goals effectively (aka instrumental rationality)

My question is can rationality help in this pursuit of choosing the right goals?

[i] i am not sure if the skills to ch... (read more)


It is instrumentally rational for me to spend ridiculous amounts of time on Less Wrong because it gives me pleasure, and most importantly increases my social status among the rationalists.

Nah just kidding. You make a very important point. Good post.

What I love is that "Increasing your social status with rationalists" almost necessitates giving them new and relevant information that gives them more perspectives to work from on current problems. I cherish friendly incentives

Sometimes the whole business about rationality can be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. And then Less Wrong is about how you can upgrade your sledgehammer into a pile driver, or build a machine that can slice the nut into atomically thin layers. Can't we just use a nutcracker like everyone else does?

I think I agree about this - part of the wisdom of rationality is knowing when to delegate. Rational thought is hard work, and it's dog slow compared with every other technique your brain is capable of. Feel free to use the nutcracker if it's good enoug... (read more)

One of the previous efforts somewhat in this vein would seem to be the Akrasia tactics review, a post dedicated to applying and testing suggested techniques for combating akrasia.

When the post first came up, it was new and shiny, and I tried out a couple of techniques from it and reported back to them. But now that it's not on the main page so I have to do one extra step, I never visit the page any more, and I can see that the data has not been updated significantly over the past few months.

One easy step to take would be to make this a monthly thread, lik... (read more)

In theory, this could happen on the Wiki, but in practice I have rarely seen Wikis succeed at this (with the obvious except of Le Wik).

What about TvTropes?

Indeed, when mentioning consolidated information stores on the Internet, I tend to mention TvTropes before Wikipedia (though both in the same breath). And IMDB has been vaguely wiki-like.

I already read LW mostly "for fun", so...

LessWronging exclusively replaces time I used to spend on Tumblr, a comedy-based forum in which recently I accidentally discovered several lovely bloggers that enjoyed the rationalist body of work, leading me here- and most explicitly to the more popular and relevant formal texts. It has real value and even more potential in the ability to reform that this post implies. I also enjoy the theocracy of free market's ideals taken for granted in this post- nothing admirable has ever been done without massive amounts of extortion, and we should all aspire to labor in more and more gray encroachments of human relationship and mentorship. Of COURSE education should be a class barrier! That is simply How Things Are Done. Triple Agent Twist! The hand wringing I perform here is in no way of positive value, without an alternative. Everything the topic posits is correct. I particularly applaud the consensus and recognition that these posts alone are not enough and that further steps are the key. The reassurance that community members can bring the best of faith to a disagreement is the most valuable thing I could have in 2020, living in rural n.america, or rather, living on earth.

Alternatively, we could seek all seek lessons from DJ Khaled.


I'm made my previous comment halfway during reading and digesting your post patrissimo. I have to add to that long wall of text that I simply love the concept of Rationality lairs, but many Lesswrong members are geographically isolated, so I wouldn't disparage virtual groups too much. Open source projects show one can do real work that way. Perhaps strengthen them via obligatory webcam and skype contact?

I have a strong feeling at least some of the lairs will cut contact and turn into companies or perhaps what basically amounts to a cult. But ideally by then the community will grow enough so that it will survive this.

I tried and failed to start a rationality lair in NYC. Too many people wanted their own apartment, and could not agree on a single location, even within one city. But I remain hopeful.
That's a shame, I'd heard it was going well.
We are doing quite well as a community, but we didn't actually start living together. That is another level of immersion entirely.

I think my weakest point as a rationalist is my ability to notice when I'm confused. Especially IRL, my desire to maintain composure overwhelms the part of me that says "something's wrong here." I don't fully notice my own confusion until hours later, usually after the conversation is over.

If someone developed an exercise book of faulty arguments to spot the flaws in, I'd love to read that. As far as I know, that doesn't exist. Reading the arguments in LW comments, even if it isn't explicitly about increasing instrumental rationality, still seems like a good path to covering the Achilles heel of my rationality.

I have a similar problem. However I spot other people's fallacies right away, however I have a terrible habit of not seeing my own since the desire to win overwhelms introspection. Hours later I just hold my head in shame at the stupid arguments I used. This is particularly painful when I won the debate.

A recommended use for the site as it currently is:

A major use of LessWrong is an introduction to many fields of knowledge. It's like a catalog, presenting summarized subjects in tasty bites, which can be used to direct your focus towards what you're really interested in, or create said interest. It's a nice representation of rationality, and gives you a sense of what it is and why you should desire it. Posts on scholarship and the like will teach you the best ways to learn. And sprinkled along this road, is lots of eyeopeners and quick updates to your thin... (read more)

I don't know why in-person group is important, but it seems to be - all the people who have replied to me so far saying they get useful rational practice out of the LW community said the growth came through attending local meetups (example). We can easily invent some evolutionary psychology story for this, but it doesn't matter why, at this point it's enough to just know.

No need for evopsych, it's a matter of bandwidth and lag. When you're meeting someone face-to-face, they can see your gestures, hear the inflection and emphasis in your voice... that's... (read more)


Increased focus on effortful exercises, on measuring usefulness, and on in-person meetups sounds fruitful. However, despite the desirability of those changes, many LW-ers seem to substantially improve their epistemic rationality through participating on LW even as it currently is, especially when they read Eliezer’s sequences. If people skip LW so as to focus exclusively on effortful exercises in other communities, or on increasing their earning power or doing other work, they may never obtain this level of thinking skill concerning their aims, their pot... (read more)

Alexander Grothendieck used the analogy of opening a nut to illuminate two different styles of doing mathematics. One way is to strike the nut repeatedly with a hammer and chisel.

I can illustrate the second approach with the same image of a nut to be opened. The first analogy that came to my mind is of immersing the nut in some softening liquid, and why not simply water? From time to time you rub so the liquid penetrates better, and otherwise you let time pass. The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months—when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough, the shell opens like a perfectly ripened avocado!

Wow, fantastic post, thank you.

I had always assumed that the current primary purpose of the Lesswrong site is to spread the word - to increase awareness of the existing body of knowledge related to rationality, focusing on proof for the benefits of becoming more rational, and enumerate the techniques required to obtain it, only indirectly supporting the actual work required for becoming more rational. Similar in nature to the Harry Potter story.

For the actual practice, at least in an online setting, I imagine that something closer to the Lumosity site would be appropriate.

Thanks, this is a great post. I concur with a majority of the points raised.

Broadly, I indulge in four kinds of activities: a) high effort- high short-term reward, b) high effort - high long-term reward c) low effort - high short-term reward d) low-effort - high long-term reward.

The many individual tasks that constitute work fall into the second category. However, if I Practice hard enough at these individual tasks, I hope to push them into the low-effort high long-term reward category. This would leave me with additional Willpower Reserves that I would... (read more)


Tsuyoku naritai!

You're right. It seems everyone agrees LW is shiny and dull and unproductive, though some are fine with that. I'm not fine with that, which is why I'm not (yet?) a regular participant here. It cannot compare with exercise, working for money, reading textbooks, or practicing Dark Arts. But I'll be back to check on this frequently, in case it goes anywhere.

Now, anyone and everyone, instrumentally or epistemologically, make me more rational using your own rational capacities.

[Begin: Dojo Mode]

I'd also be in for the Mountain View/Sunnyvale thing.

Same here

In terms of epistemic and instrumental rationality, couldn't it be refining other people's rationality with respect to you, not just your own rationality? If I post information here, it will help others make decisions in regards to me. One vision and goal that I have is to finally take down my ugly, antiquated Angelist resume down and to advertise my Lesswrong content as who I am (might even chuck my CV into my Wiki page, if I ever figure out how to do it!). I feel it's a more honest and representation of me than the strategic self presentation elsewhere.

Awesome post. I think that lesswrong asks good questions to make you more rational. But in a complicated fashion. Although I am a newcomer, I think that there is a waste of time focusing on the rhetoric instead of practical problems. I have the feeling that lesswrong will be giving me some insights about the kinds of "algorithms" that my mind will need but, indeed I need to apply those "algorithms" in the real space in order to fully implement them...

I'm not saying less wrong is perfect, but after I first found it it fundamentally changed the wya I think and see things, and that is good enough for me. It's impossible to estimate the useful content density on less wrong, but it has to be higher then most other places on the internet. Even just reading wikipedia articles wouldn't be as productive, to me anyways, as checking up on less wrong. I wish there were more sites like it.

Thank you for this great post -- it matches my understanding perfectly. I recently joined the LW and after several weeks of reading I kind of felt that yeah all those essays are great and some of them just brilliant... but in general it does not get me anywhere, it does not change how I behave.

So I stopped reading it -- only maybe couple of articles a month.

Another thing I wanted to say is: thank you so much for those links for 'practical' stuff you put into the post!

And now I think: it would be very helpful to have a way to somehow filter 'teoretical' po... (read more)