Perfecting The Motion


See also: Life can be better than you think.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

— Annie Dillard

“To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

The way I see it, the aim of life is to maintain a sustainable and pleasant motion. The idea that happiness is not a destination, but a journey, although admittedly rather trite and cliche, strikes me as something to be taken very seriously, both at an individual level and at a societal level.

We lust for vacation, love, accomplishments, etc., partially because we’re driven by instinct to do so, and partially because those were the things that have made us happy in the past. But one major issue with that is that there is more variability in happiness between, rather than within, individuals, and the set of human experiences that is possible today is vastly larger than the set of what was possible throughout human evolution. We learn what makes us happy based on our past experiences — individually and as a species — and those past experiences are but a sliver of all possible human experiences.

(On top of that, one of the findings of happiness research I have found most interesting is that someone’s baseline mood correlates negatively with their variability in mood. Unhappy people have a better idea of what it is like to be happy than happy people have an idea of what it is like to be unhappy. For unhappy people, happiness is a fleeting experience, associated with love, accomplishments, etc., then quickly dissipating, whereas for happy people — in a certain way for most of us — it is merely a way of life.)

This post is partly inspired by an essay Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in the 19th century, The Emptiness of Existence. I was absolutely fascinated by it when I was a 15-year-old angsty teen, and now that I am older, happier, and don’t see much point in reading philosophy from the time when computers did not exist, the text does not fascinate me nearly as much — but it still seems to me to be the case that Schopenhauer, both in that essay as well as in much of the rest of his work, points out a very crucial aspect of life. Namely, the pressing nature of entropy, and the necessity for continuous motion and restless striving. Quoting from the essay:

“Our existence is based solely on the ever-fleeting present. Essentially, therefore, it has to take the form of continual motion without there ever being any possibility of our finding the rest after which we are always striving. It is the same as a man running downhill, who falls if he tries to stop, and it is only by his continuing to run on that he keeps on his legs; it is like a pole balanced on one’s finger-tips, or like a planet that would fall into its sun as soon as it stopped hurrying onwards. Hence unrest is the type of existence. [...]
“Looking at the matter a little closer, we see at the very outset that the existence of inorganic matter is being constantly attacked by chemical forces which eventually annihilates it. While organic existence is only made possible by continual change of matter, to keep up a perpetual supply of which it must consequently have help from without. Therefore organic life is like balancing a pole on one’s hand; it must be kept in continual motion, and have a constant supply of matter of which it is continually and endlessly in need. Nevertheless it is only by means of this organic life that consciousness is possible.”

I think that there is immense value in acknowledging that, in acknowledging the restlessness and continual motion of life, in acknowledging that there isn’t really a restful end. You just need to replace the hopelessness in the text with well-founded optimism, with a desire to bring about continuous improvement.

That is the reason why I am so interested in optimizing routine. Not only that, but also in doing the same at a broader time scale — optimizing the rhythm, the motion of life, so to say, of not only my days my also of my weeks, months, and years. That strikes me as a very, very important question in the search for happiness.

I am very far from being a know-it-all when it comes to optimal scheduling, and in fact, I began examining this issue in-depth only rather recently, after spending a few weeks in panic under the overwhelming pressure of all the things that I wanted to do. But I am going to share some of my preliminary thoughts.

In life, we face a certain tradeoff. The modern world is significantly different from the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, and so our instincts are no longer a guide for success. Humans do not feel naturally inclined to sit on a desk for eight hours a day, and yet many of us ought to do just that, apart from having to pay bills, make calls, think far into the future, make complex decisions, eat healthy, go to the doctor, visit relatives, etc.

Doing all of those things right can require quite a lot of thinking and planning. Unfortunately, that can be detrimental for our happiness. There’s often more authenticity, as well as more joy, in living mostly in execution-mode, in living in the present moment without thinking much about either the past or the future. Mind-wandering has a substantially large negative relationship with mood.

Thankfully, I think we can use computers to outsource the scheduling we need to keep our lives in motion, in such a way as to allow ourselves to spent long stretches of time being silly, fun and happy in the moment, or in the wonderful flow of deep work — states associated with good mood, and with getting things done — while simultaneously knowing that we don’t need to bother ourselves with the distraction of the million of issues in our lives, knowing that we are going to deal with whatever other issues that involve what we are not doing at the moment at a later time.

That is possible because there is a certain predictability, a certain cyclicality to life’s duties. At approximately fixed intervals of time, you must perform the very same actions, or analogous actions. It is a good exercise to summarize what all those actions are and what is the optimal timing for their execution. Working, studying, paying rent, getting a haircut, going to the doctor, talking to your relatives, taking your relatives to the doctor, etc. all follow a certain predictable regularity. Furthermore, although at different stages in your life the set of things you need to do in a frequent basis will be different, there will be patterns, and the more clearly you notice those patterns, the less you risk being caught off-guard by a bad life event.

I think it’s very important to develop that trust in yourself — the trust that yes, you can just enjoy yourself now, or that you can just keep working on this one thing for several hours, and not have worry about the million of other issues in your life. It’s important to show to yourself that you deserve that trust, moreover, by repeatedly succeeding at such time management.

I myself use Wunderlist in order to schedule actions to be taken at certain times in the future; that allows me to do wonderful superhuman things like signing up for 7-day free trials of software and cancelling the subscription in time and remembering to cancel before being billed. (Recently I’ve been slowly but steadily developing the necessity for something more complex than that, so I hope to work more closely on this issue later in the future.)

I think the Computer Science concept of batch processing is an important component of an ideal motion for life. Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths describes that and the closely related concept of interrupt coalescing in Algorithms to Live By (wonderful book, I recommend reading it, or at least checking out the 80000hours podcast episode with the authors and Robert Wiblin.). Batch processing and interrupt coalescing basically come down to scheduling the things you have to do in a regular basis in a manner so as to minimize the instances of context-switching, so as to maximize the amount of time spent on one task uninterruptedly. I really like that idea, as it seems to make it much more easy to achieve a state of flow, and to be fully immersed in what one is doing. Brian Christian's practical advice is synthesized well in this paragraph:

“The moral is that you should try to stay on a single task as long as possible without decreasing your responsiveness below the minimum acceptable limit. Decide how responsive you need to be—and then, if you want to get things done, be no more responsive than that.”

That, perhaps, may also help make work and study more enjoyable. I don’t know if this would work as well for others, but I myself have grown to deeply enjoy quite a few tasks that I used to find irksome merely by immersing myself deeply in them. It’s much more fun to become the Calculus Queen for sixteen hours at a time than to begrudgingly study a little bit per day because I have to.

Relatedly, when I lived with my parents I remember I routinely had to leave home for a few hours, and it always killed me inside. Spending three hours outside of home means way more than three hours of work lost. Tellingly, I learned to code very quickly one month after I started living on my own and spending more time alone than I had ever been able to before. Finding joy in work and immersing yourself in it seems to be a wise way of dealing with the endless striving that characterizes life, both in efficiency and in valence and batch processing seems to help with that.

“Life presents itself next as a task, the task, that is, of subsisting.”

— Arthur Schopenhauer

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

— Lewis Carrol

“There is only one law of Nature — the second law of thermodynamics.”

—Arthur Eddington, in The Nature of The Physical World

I don’t know what a maximally good world would look like. What I do know, however, is that stillness is not an option.

Continuous work is necessary in order to avert entropy. That’s largely why I like the sentence “the meadows of heaven await harvest,” and have it as my personal website’s subtitle. It encourages optimism, but simultaneously emphasizes that heaven is not static, that it is not an idle, restful state, but rather something that is to be continuously harvested: it encourages a definite optimism. Due to the nature of entropy, that seems to me very much appropriate.

Just like while building our routine we need to understand that the very process is in a certain way an end-in-itself, and there’s no such thing as a permanent destination, the same concept applies to axiology.

Schopenhauer is far from being the only person to have noticed the importance of entropy. Steven Pinker does a great job at describing the importance of entropy in Enlightenment Now:

“How is entropy relevant to human affairs? Life and happiness depend on an infinitesimal sliver of orderly arrangements of matter amid the astronomical number of possibilities. Our bodies are improbable assemblies of molecules, and they maintain that order with the help of other improbabilities: the few substances that can nourish us, the few materials in the few shapes that can clothe us, shelter us, and move things around to our liking. Far more of the arrangements of matter found on Earth are of no worldly use to us, so when things change without a human agent directing the change, they are likely to change for the worse.

“Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for want of a horseshoe nail. […]
“Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can to avoid becoming our food. As Adam Smith pointed out, what needs to be explained is wealth.”

(I’ll preemptively apologize for citing Pinker; I am fully aware and upset with his refusal to acknowledge existential risk, but it still seems to me that 95%+ of his contributions are valuable.)

There is a reason why, despite being so fundamental, entropy seems to be underrated. As Peter Thiel describes in Zero to One, technological progress has made people assume that things get better by default:

“Indefinite optimism has dominated American thinking ever since 1982, when a long bull market began and finance eclipsed engineering as the way to approach the future. To an indefinite optimist, the future will be better, but he doesn’t know how exactly, so he won’t make any specific plans. He expects to profit from the future but sees no reason to design it concretely.
“The strange history of the Baby Boom produced a generation of indefinite optimists so used to effortless progress that they feel entitled to it. Whether you were born in 1945 or 1950 or 1955, things got better every year for the first 18 years of your life, and it had nothing to do with you. Technological advance seemed to accelerate automatically, so the Boomers grew up with great expectations but few specific plans for how to fulfill them.”

(I thank Scott Alexander for having recently reviewed the book; it made me read it, and I really enjoyed it. in retrospect I should’ve read it much sooner.)

One issue with this view, which Peter Thiel pointed out, is that it is inherently unsustainable. “How can the future get better if no one plans for it?” he asks in the book. “To a definite optimist,” on the other hand, “the future will be better than the present if he plans and works to make it better,” which to me makes more sense. As Steven Pinker pointed out, things don’t get better by default. Definite optimism sounds to me like combining Schopenhauer’s harsh realism with a fruitful can-do attitude.

Another issue with underestimating the relevance of entropy is that doing so severely taints our moral intuitions.

“Many people imagine some future that won’t be much fun—and it doesn’t even seem to occur to them to try and change it.”

Eliezer Yudkowsky

As Ozy describes it,

“One very common critique of hedonic utilitarianism is the wireheading objection. If you try to fill the universe with beings experiencing as much pleasure as possible, then the perfect world would consist of nothing but rats– a larger or more intelligent animal would use up resources better spent on new morally relevant beings– with a steady drip of heroin into their systems, and the infrastructure necessary to keep them alive and drugged. (If you don’t happen to think animals are morally relevant, feel free to replace “rats’ with “humans.’) This seems, to put it lightly, counterintuitive.”

The rats on heroin meme is nothing new to EAs, every once in a while showing up in the Dank EA Memes Facebook group. Last year Scott Alexander wrote:

“Utilitarianism agrees that we should give to charity and shouldn’t steal from the poor, because Utility, but take it far enough to the tails and we should tile the universe with rats on heroin. [...]
“This is why I feel like figuring out a morality that can survive transhuman scenarios is harder than just finding the Real Moral System That We Actually Use. There’s a potentially impossible conceptual problem here, of figuring out what to do with the fact that any moral rule followed to infinity will diverge from large parts of what we mean by morality.

The post includes this lovely chart:

But it seems to me that in large part, such divergence is an illusion; it seems to me that there isn’t a disagreement there. Intelligence, as well as lucidity and self-awareness, seem to me altogether necessary for infinite bliss, in a world where it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place, in a world where life is only made possible by continual change of matter and must be kept in continual motion. Perhaps intelligence wouldn’t be used to its fullest 100% of the time in 100% of the locations of the universe, but contingent on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, its availability and readiness would be necessary. The infrastructure needed to maintain beings experiencing infinite euphoria throughout the entire universe which Ozy briefly mentioned would need to be extremely complex.

So the usage of that phrase might gratuitously and actively harm the image of utilitarianism (especially hedonic utilitarianism) by making it repulsive to the most well-meaning and altruistic of people wanting to make the world a better place, and by making many people confused about what it is that they truly value.

Granted, it could be that a superintelligence would eventually completely beat entropy (and therefore time itself(?)), thereby rendering that constraint unnecessary. But it seems to me that a world devoid of entropy would be so unimaginably different from ours that there is a burden of proof to claiming that the concept of “rats on heroin” would even make any sense at all. What would it mean for entropy not to exist? Would valence even be possible in such a world?

And, granted, I guess you could say that that phrase is just a metaphor, or a theoretical ideal. But at some point someone will have to investigate the minute engineering details. At some point someone will have to take the definite optimism approach to this whole “making the world a better place” thing.