Hammertime Day 2: Yoda Timers

This is part 2 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

No! Try not! Do, or do not. There is no try.

There's a copy of Barney Stinson in my head who pops up every so often to say: "Challenged Accepted!" When Eliezer wrote about the biggest mistakes in the Sequences, my inner Barney started bouncing off the walls. Hammertime is a sequence designed to correct the three top mistakes by:

  1. Creating a program to actually practice rationality.
  2. Emphasizing doing better in everyday life.
  3. Focusing on rational action instead of rational belief.

This is going to be legen ... wait for it ... dary!

Day 2: Yoda Timers

Look, you don't understand human nature. People wouldn't try for five minutes before giving up if the fate of humanity were at stake.
Use the Try Harder, Luke

The Yoda Timer (CFAR calls it a Resolve Cycle) has three simple steps:

  1. Pick a bug.
  2. Set a timer for 5 minutes.
  3. Solve the bug.


Before we begin, I want to call attention to two ways to make the most of Yoda Timers.

1. The One Inch Punch

Pick something you're afraid of doing. Suppose I told you, "Try!" Try as hard as you can. What does that feel like?

Now suppose I told you, "Just do it!" Actually go and get it done. What does that feel like?

To me, trying feels like pushing hard against my own resistance. Doing feels like pushing hard against reality. The Yoda Timer is designed to teach (or remind) you to notice what pushing against reality feels like.

Bruce Lee was famous for his One Inch Punch, which had such explosive power because every muscle in his body aligned into the punch:

The one-inch punch is a skill which uses fa jin (translated as explosive power) to generate tremendous amounts of impact force at extremely close distances. This "burst" effect had been common in Neijia forms. When performing this one-inch punch the practitioner stands with his fist very close to the target (the distance depends on the skill of the practitioner, usually from 0–6 inches, or 0-15 centimetres). Multiple abdominal muscles contribute to the punching power while being imperceptible to the attacker. It is a common misconception that "one-inch punches" utilize a snapping of the wrist. The target in such demonstrations vary, sometimes it is a fellow practitioner holding a phone book on the chest, sometimes wooden boards can be broken.

When you're in doing mode instead of trying mode, the inner conflicts fall away and you can practice punching reality with your whole soul. Imagine how far you'll go if every move you make carries the entire weight of your being.

2. Lateral Thinking

It's easy to get tunnel vision and freeze up with only 5 minutes to go. To get maximal effect out of Yoda Timers, however, you'll need to get more creative, not less. If you had to fix the bug in five minutes to save the world, what rules might you break?

To get you started, here are a few classic approaches: How much money will make the problem go away? What email or phone call could you make? What external reward, punishment, or commitment can you set up in five minutes that will guarantee the thing gets done? What alternative course of action would achieve the same desired effect?

3. Permission to Try

If there's something you can do in five minutes to improve your life, as a fellow human being I grant you permission to do it.

Five for Five

Pick your 5 easiest bugs from yesterday's Bug List.

WARNING: There only one valid reason to skip a bug - if you're uncertain whether you actually want to fix it. Later on, we will practice techniques for resolving inner conflicts. Difficulty is not a valid excuse to skip.

For each one, set a Yoda timer for five minutes and do it. That's it. Just do it.

If it helps, imagine that Yoda is watching. Yoda doesn't care how hard you try.

Daily Challenge

Share your most successful Yoda Timer bug-fixes.

Here are seven things I did in the past couple days with Yoda Timers:

  1. Move furniture around and store unused junk to double effective floor space.
  2. Train myself to place my glasses on one fixed countertop in the apartment.
  3. Practice keyboard shortcuts for archiving emails and Chrome tab management.
  4. Send all the emails and messages I plan to (and already can) send in the next week.
  5. Order a white noise machine on Amazon and open the blinds to let in sunlight in the morning to optimize sleep schedule.
  6. Practice keeping a pen in my pocket at all times so I can penspin instead of picking my face.
  7. Plan and outline Hammertime.
Moderation Guidelines: Reign of Terror - I delete anything I judge to be annoying or counterproductiveexpand_more

I wonder if all of the CFAR techniques will have different names after you are done with them :) Looking forward to your second and third iteration.

Many of my best resolve cycles boiled down to finding and ordering something on Amazon; thanks in large part to Andrew Critch leading by personal example this got trained into a TAP and now I do it more or less automatically. The most recent thing I ordered, after trying it at the last CFAR workshop, was a bunch of pedialyte.

Putting all of my TAPS on post it notes on my wall so I see them when I wake up. This should make a good trigger for keeping them in mind during the day. It also gives some potentially free utility over time in the form of "see that wall? All those notes are different habits I was able to cultivate".

One thing to be aware of is you probably need to make the reading of the notes intentional, as once they stop being new, you’ll stop noticing them.

meta-TAP: wake up and read post-its

I'm generally pretty wary of this sort of thing. When I've tried things like this in the past I generally end up ignoring what I've written over time, like TurnTrout says.

This is basically Allen's "Getting things done" 2-min method, I think. Just doing very short tasks right away to clear away the (mental) clutter. I think it's a good idea to practice this, but I also think that the opposite is also good, i.e. ignoring the small things and focusing all time and energy on one big thing, first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, that way, you will do your thing, but ignoring small tasks will also lead to a dirty apartment, eating crap and not practicing the guitar... So I think, for me personally, every morning has to be one big thing, with Yoda timers sprinkled throughout the rest of the day.

Adding to Qiaochu's point, Yoda Timers scale to pretty much any difficulty. There's a vast generalization which really works for me of the form: "take any given thing, imagine (inside view) the shortest possible time span in which a human being could do it, and set a timer to do it in that time." You might say Hammertime is me setting myself a 30-day timer to solve instrumental rationality.

Resolve Cycles has a somewhat different flavor. One thing we emphasize in the CFAR class is that you'll be surprised at the kinds of things you can get done in 5 minutes; you can just try to e.g. solve a bug, even a pretty big-looking bug, with a concerted 5 minutes of effort. We tell a nice story about a participant whose bug was "I don't have a job" and who in fact successfully acquired a job in 5 minutes (he called a friend).