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.
Yoda

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.

Motivation

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.

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23 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:55 PM
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Starting the challenge today, making this comment for accountability. I have 48 bugs in my spreadsheet, with rows for the date added and date solved. I know I'm eight months late to the party, but I'll post updates and take part in the challenges as I go. Thanks for putting together a great sequence!

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.

What can I say, I only have a few tricks and one of them is renaming things. :)

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

On top of this, you should probably just refresh all the notes on a weekly basis.

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.

I'm posting here to hold myself publicly accountable for taking on this challenge (starting yesterday), when I generated 80 bugs (many of these are likely to be broken down into more smaller bugs, so I'm inclined to be satisfied despite not reaching the magic total of 100). In fact, posting this comment is the last bug I'm tackling today to complete today's Yoda Timer exercise to kick off my being a more active member of this community.

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.

Very simply, I don't brush my teeth as regularly as I ought: Therefore, I put a sticky note outside my bathroom door reminding me to do so.

What I enjoyed about this most was that often, solutions to one problem fed into partial solutions to others. Keeping my phone out of my hands directly on waking meant organizing all my small-item chargers next to the front door, which is the most convenient and correct place for them, anyway.

I've been finding Yoda timers helpful, but not because they show "look how much you can do in 5 minutes!" - many of my tasks had to do with cleaning things up around the house, and these tasks take at least an hour to actually accomplish.

There was some clutter in my kitchen from more than 2 years ago, including a container of Soylent powder, some syrups that I used to flavour plain Soylent, and bottles of vodka and rum. I only drink ready-to-drink Soylent (I had ordered the powder to try it out, but it's not as convenient as RTD Soylent), and there's now enough variety in the flavours of Soylent that I don't have any need for extra flavours; I also no longer drink alcohol, because the idea of putting poison into my body to relax just doesn't seem appealing to me these days.

Beyond all the unused items, the area was also just very dusty. I could have easily cleaned the area a long time ago, but it never really registered on my radar as a problem that needed to be fixed. Yesterday, walking through my house as part of the Bug Hunt, the messiness of the kitchen (as well as other parts of my house and car) stood out to me, so I made a note of it as a bug to potentially fix, and once I had chosen that bug for my Yoda timer, even though I knew it would take more than 5 minutes to thoroughly clean the area, the Yoda timer gave me just enough space to create a plan in my mind and rally the motivation to actually tackle this problem that has been there for a long time.

I hit some nice and easy challenges today - replacing my shoes that have holes in them, getting a new ice scraper that isn't broken in half, and setting some reminders to take out the trash before it overflows. 

The most successful Yoda timer-like item I've hit recently was upgrading my work setup. I work at a small built-in desk in my apartment, too small to fit two monitors. I also use the desk both for work and for school/videogames. For a long time, I just dealt with working on a small single monitor and having to get under the desk to unplug my mouse and keyboard from my work laptop at the end of the day and plug them into my personal computer. A few weeks ago, I finally decided to see if there was a better way, and ended up purchasing an ultrawide monitor and a USB switch. Now I can have two large windows open on my screen, and I'm a single button press away from swapping inputs!

I had a strong urge to skip bugs when casually doing this exercise last month. The following thoughts came up:

  • This one isn't actually an easy bug, move it to level 2 or 3
  • This one can't be fixed without a change to my habits, which almost by definition can't be done in a single 5 minute session
  • I could fix this with a purchase but the price of the item is higher than the benefit of the having the bug gone (i.e, I would not pay $150 for this bug to go away, but I would still consider this a bug)

Writing this out helped me figure out some potential antidotes for this round. Here's what I told myself:

  • Who cares. Do them in order. Try it for 5 minutes (you'll be surprised how wrong your simulation is)
  • Even if you can't find the answer, brainstorming for 5 minutes might get you closer
  • If the bug is too abstract, breaking it up into more concrete pieces is a good use of 5 minutes

Bugs fixed this time

  1. Need new underwear and socks: googled, read some quick reviews, and ordered. Very satisfying, took 10 minutes
  2. Can't find a nail file: texted family group chat and was lead to one within 30 seconds. Felt kinda magical, took 1.5 minutes total
  3. Don't know my greek letters: Downloaded an anki deck of them after reading a few reviews of different options. 3 minutes total (this isn't solved per se, but it will now take care of itself)

Bugs worked on but not fixed

  1. I don't watch the movies on my "to watch" list - I'll scroll through Netflix trying to find the perfect one, give up, and watch nothing
    • I ended up brainstorming 8 possible fixes and reflecting on this. It's an unassumingly tricky bug.
    • Brainstorming for 5 minutes made me think about how I spend my free time; a not-small percentage goes to me neither enjoying myself nor being productive (watching YouTube videos I don't like, flitting from headline to headline, etc).
      • (IIRC) there's a part in Infinite Jest where a character's phone rings at the same time the doorbell rings and he gets so perfectly stuck between the two possible actions that he gets (psychologically) torn apart and paralyzed, unable to take either action, plunged into a valley of misery, made worse by the fact that he's aware of the self-imposed nature of his paralysis
        • I often feel like this when I get stuck while picking between doing something productive or (harmlessly) hedonic - at the minimum I could be enjoying myself. The worst case is being stuck in between with a vague panicky-yet-tired feeling I get, doing something neither productive, enjoyable, or necessary
          • This thought made the brainstorm worth it and I'll likely revisit it
  2. Redness around nose:
    • I've tried to fix this with a face-cream recommended from Reddit before, but didn't really see any fix. This bug has a slight hopeless vibe to it, but I did the 5 minute timer anyway
    • Researched again and found that I might've been using the cream wrong. Though in another thread many people expressed frustration with their inability to fix it even after seeing a dermatologist.
    • I decided that I will try the new face-cream technique for 3 days. If it doesn't get better from that I'll delete this bug. I'm the king of my list and that is how I will it

most successful were

  • cleared my desk
  • ordered window curtains
  • did initial body photos for tracking progress in sport and stretching + scheduled next checkup

1. I plan to take a sabattical next year. Wrote an impressive researcher in a field I'm interested about to hear about any research opportunities in the pipeline.

2. Formalised my morning-routine in a document to decrease time spent reading about other's meditation before I start my own. Reviewing notes from last session, finding a relevant passage in my book.

3. Set up a routine to stay in touch with a far-away friend. Asking kindly about thoughts on a subject, and about what I can help him with.

4. I'm often distracted in my long study sessions by a desire for food. Made a routine to ensure snacks are in my room, not in the dorm-kitchen, without them spoiling.

2. consisted of many sub-items, so I count it as 2 separate items ;-)

It seems this method is very useful for meaningful tasks with some negative affect that I've been putting off without any good reason. Thanks for this!

Did this today. Results:

1. set a reminder every evening to make a schedule for the next day (problem this was solving is that lack of schedule means I procrastinate somewhat endlessly on things)

2. cleaned up the many bags lying around my closet door. now it is much easier to approach and use my closet.

3. looked into what grocery delivery services exist, made an Instacart account, decided to do the free trial of their annual subscription, and preliminarily decided that if that goes well I intend to just go ahead and pay for the annual subscription. (for this to be fully solved I still need to go ahead and actually try ordering some stuff; that's a more-than-5-minutes task probably)

4. I do a few weights exercises every day and I'd noticed that as I get stronger some of the exercises are no longer hard enough. so I thought through the exercises I do and decided on which ones I'd increase the number of reps I do and by how much. this also let to me adding a new exercise to the routine upon realizing it would be a good idea.

5. my tea drawer had too much stuff in it and was hard to use. I thought I'd need to fix this by just getting rid of some tea I don't care about very much, but it turned out that just consolidating the tea into fewer boxes sufficiently solved this problem for me.

I said yesterday that none of my many bugs felt like difficulty 1 because if something is actually quickly solvable I would have probably fixed it by now. All of the above were listed as difficulty 2 (except #3 which was 4 or so), but clearly they were in fact things I could fix right now, they just felt vaguely aversive or did not quite reach the priority level at which I'd actually make an effort to fix them. (I guess 1, 3, and 4 are not actually fully solved as I'll need to follow through with these changes to see if they're actually effective. But they at least have a good chance of already being solved, and if not then they're on a path that will almost certainly lead to them being solved.)

I guess 5 minutes is longer than I thought.

I see this comment but not your other one – we're not holding comments for moderation. I'm guessing this was a random hiccup due to flaky internet (although possibly on our end).

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).

  • I committed myself to leave a comment on every post/YouTube video/reddit thread I Interact with since I have a pretty strong aversion for online interaction and asking for help on the internet.
  • I do TimeTracking for all my activities and don't really look at the data all that much, so I put a reminder to look through all I did at the end of the day and search for areas to optimize.
  • I made a commitment to be more critical in my media consumption by at least writing some notes on everything since I tend to just 'like' or 'dislike' stuff without forming an actual opinion.

I ordered a new clock on Amazon, cleared my desk, sent several emails, and cancelled some email subscriptions I no longer wanted. I also decided on specific later times to do a few things, but I will need to wait and see if I successfully do those things.