My most complicated cookie recipe has four layers. Two of these require stovetop cooking, and the other two require the use of the oven separately before the nearly-complete cookies are baked in yet a third oven use, for a total of three different oven temperatures. I have to separate eggs. I have to remember to put butter out hours in advance so it'll be softened when I get underway. Spreading the fruit neatly and then the almond goop on top of that without muddling the layers is finicky and almost none of the steps parallelize well.
They're delicious, but at what cost?
People who don't cook as a hobby would never, ever make these cookies. And this is reasonable. They shouldn't. On most days I shouldn't either. They are staggeringly inconvenient.
But they're made up of individual steps that you could mostly figure out if you really wanted to. Lots and lots of little steps. This is why I want to scream whenever I hear someone try to add steps to someone else's life. Especially if they say "just".
"Just" Google it. "Just" rinse out your recyclables. "Just" add another thing to remember and another transition to your to-do list and another obligation to feel guilt about neglecting and another source of friction between you and your real priorities. It "just" takes a minute. Don't you care?
Anyone who didn't have any immune defense against things that just take a minute would spend fifteen hours a day on one-minute tasks, if expending the energy required to switch between the tasks didn't kill them before it got that bad. But "it would be inconvenient" doesn't tend to feel like a solid rebuttal - to either party; the one attempting to impose can just reiterate "but it'll only take a minute".
Everyone needs algorithms to cut down on inconveniences.
Some I am aware of:
- Chunking. Things feel less inconvenient (and accordingly are) if they are understood in batches, as one thing and not thirty. (This is related, I think, to a lot of manifestations of executive dysfunction - chunking doesn't work as well.) People naturally do more of this with things they're good at - I think a lot of being good at things just is being able to take them in larger chunks and finding larger amounts of the thing trivial.
- Delegating. For some people delegating is itself inconvenient but if you delegate enough things it can be useful on balance. Often costly in other ways too - quality, customization, money.
- Straight-up rejecting impositions, in whole ("I just won't recycle") or in part ("I'll recycle but no way am I washing out bean cans"). Pick what to reject at whim, from certain sources, or by another discrimination mechanism. Rejecting impositions from interactive humans as opposed to generic announcements or oneself requires social grace or a willingness to do without it.
I recently went to the flat of an old friend. The things that struck me were:
There were many more things in this reference class, of little things they did for little value that took up their time and attention. I had a strong overall impression of them 'not having the space or time to think'.
That in mind, here's a list of impositions I straight up reject:
More generally, I commonly say sentences of the sort "Huh, if we want to follow the plan then we have to move now and do everything in the exact allotted time? Cool, let's just cut one part of it. In fact, let's cut that one. Done."
The thing I think I'm much less good at is chunking. Terence Tao on the subject says to batch low-intensity tasks together. Can anyone who has more of a startup lifestyle than a research lifestyle talk about how they do it?
Added: It felt prudent to mention that we've had a post with an almost identical title and main point before (though I liked this post's slightly different take on it as much as the original one's); it's Scott Alexander's Beware Trivial Inconveniences.
I can totally accept that these things aren't worth it for you.
The top list of things your friend was doing, however, implies you think that cooking is universally a bad deal (in addition to assuming non-sacredness of slash abundance of money and/or well-paid work). I pretty strongly disagree with that as a general assertion and I'm certain Alicorn would as well, given the post. So I'm curious if you actually endorse this claim and if so how far it extends.
Alright, you got me there, my inside view is totally puzzled by people who think cooking is a good way to spend one's time.
I was about to write a few paragraphs trying to explain my inside view, but actually I think I'd rather ask about yours. I get the sense from you specifically that it's a source of slack in your life, rather than a drain on it (in mine). In my life, a source of slack is showering - there are tasks that I'm doing, but my mind is free to wander. Is cooking like this for you? (An alternative is that you see cooking more as an art/hobby that you choose to do for intrinsic pleasure.)
Are either right?
I also enjoy cooking and think it’s a good way to spend my time, so while I have no idea to what extent, if any, my own reasons for this parallel Zvi’s, here’s some of my thoughts on this:
I enjoy working with my hands. Cooking is one particular activity that falls into this category (I also do several more esoteric and less immediately useful things along these lines). I find such activities to be (a) relaxing; (b) not physically strenuous; (c) rewarding—cooking in particular has basically the perfect properties to be a rewarding activity.
 That is: the initial skill threshold for getting into the activity, and seeing useful/encouraging results from it is quite low; it’s possible to make small, incremental improvements from any level of skill; the feedback cycle is quite rapid and feedback is unambiguous; the task as a whole is decomposable into many sub-skills which may be improved separately; it’s possible to advance your skills in a variety of directions, according to preference; you can work on your skills in it at your own pace and in your own way; the skill consists of a mixture of sub-skills that require experience and sub-skills that can be improved by reading, etc.; much of the skill is transmissible (making it rewarding and pleasurable to discuss it with others) while still requiring practice to execute and also to develop your own personal approach to it (which means that if someone else discovers how to do it, you still have learning/improvement to do—it’s not simply algorithmizable). If cooking were a designed video game, for instance, it would easily win awards for hitting all the right psychological buttons for long-term engagingness and rewardingness!
Cooking as an art and a craft
Few people are very good at cooking—and even fewer, at baking / dessert cooking (which is what I am best at). It is a challenging art, and so it is rewarding, for its own sake, to become better at it, for the same reasons that it’s rewarding to become better at painting, or origami, or any other creative endeavor.
Cooking is also a craft—which is to say that there are “objective” standards by which it may be judged. This means that it is quite possible to become indisputably better at it.
Due to these two things—and the fact that the outputs of cooking (being delicious food) are intrinsically enjoyable to consume—cooking brings pleasure to oneself and to others, and being good at it affords a person social status. (When you invite friends to your place for a group activity, and serve them a perfectly baked, sublimely smooth and rich chocolate mousse cheesecake, they will be impressed.)
 More precisely: highly interpersonally consistent in subjective effect.
Cooking as expression of affection
Cooking (and, again, especially baking) requires the expenditure of effort (both to create the actual dish on that occasion, and to have learned the skills needed to do so). That makes it a costly and extremely hard-to-fake signal. If you make something that your friend / family member / significant other / etc. particularly enjoys, and make it the way they like, that is also a signal—that you pay attention to their preferences, that you know them well. And, as mentioned above, delicious food is intrinsically enjoyable to consume. This makes the well-cooked penne a la vodka, or tiramisu, or pavlova, or whatever, an excellent way to express affection, appreciation, etc.
This you may take as bragging if you like, but I state it as simple fact: the desserts I make are simply better than the overwhelming majority of what may be purchased in even specialty bakeries. (There are many reasons for this; part of it is due to my skill and many years of practice, but much of it is due to the realities of the food service industry—ingredient substitution, the need for preservation and transport, inevitable laxity in standards of freshness—and other cost-cutting measures, driven largely by competitition and rent prices—and many similar issues.)
That means that if I want to have a really good slice of sour cream cake, or pavlova, or even something so simple as a mint chocolate brownie, I can’t buy one that’s nearly as good as one I can make. It’s not a matter of preference; the product is simply not available at any price (short of paying extreme, exorbitant sums of money to hire a really good personal baker, or something to that effect).
A distinct but related point is that if I want something made just the way I like it, well, again I have no choice but to make it myself. And let me tell you—being able to eat exactly the things I like, cooked exactly the way I like them, all the time—that’s one heck of a boost to my life satisfaction.
I expect I'd like cooking a lot more if I got to do it much more socially; cooking with a group of people, for an even larger group of people, sounds like tons of fun to me. Cooking for myself is garbage.
Wow. I really appreciate the curious spirit of this comment.
There's a way to cook efficiently in batches that can lead to better nutritional profiles at rather low cost.
A pressure cooker is a totally overpowered tool in this regard — brown rice/quinoa mix takes around 2 minutes of setup (put rice in, rinse rice, turn on), around 20 minutes of cooking that doesn't need to be monitored, and around 3 minutes to wash the cooker and store extra rice/quinoa for reheating later.
Chicken breasts mixed with some vegetables takes similar amounts of time.
I probably spend around 45 minutes per week cooking in the purest sense of the term (and a couple minutes here and there to re-heat in microwave and wash plates, etc) and I eat most of my meals home cooked. It's almost an order of magnitude cheaper than eating out if you want similar quality nutritious stuff that wasn't cooked in junk oils and seasoned with garbage.
I used to hate cooking, but there's a few things of types of food/cooking mixes that are very convenient — pressure cooker in particular is amazing. Hard boiled eggs. Oatmeal and electric water kettle that shuts off automatically once it hits boiling... Kerrygold butter and extra virgin olive oil if you want more calories from fat. Mix in some pre-washed or canned vegetables and put that all in an online grocery delivery and you're eating well at low cost in time and money.
Edit: Also, I find waiting for delivery orders to arrive inconvenient too. As long as the fridge is stocked with batches of made food, I'm always 5 minutes away from eating something rather nice — or instantly if I don't mind eating it cold and am in a hurry.
Note that the approach you implicitly endorse (via your list of “impositions I reject”) would have the effect, for some (many?) people, of impacting their quality of life in a strongly negative way. For me, these especially would be utterly unpalatable:
Oh yeah; I totally just meant it to paint a picture of what it could look like (and does look like for me), in case it was useful for anyone to get a bunch of concrete examples. These will not straightforwardly generalise to others' lives, and some of them might be bad for you.
Also, a lot of Ben's stuff involves trading money for time, which obviously requires you to be moderately wealthy.
Moderate wealth is sufficient for being able to trade money for time, but this also works if the market offers a high price for your time. Concretely, if you currently save $10 by cooking food at home for one hour instead of getting equally good food delivered, and you can turn one hour of time into $50 by selling math tutoring, you can get more time and more money by getting food delivered instead and tutoring math every second day. This works even if you don't have much money in the bank.
(This idea comes from Andrew Critch, but I can't quickly find a blog post to link to.)
Yeah, I was including "you're able to earn a moderately high income" as a subset of "moderately wealthy".
I found your point about your commute most interesting, in part because it is very different for me. I need movement in order to get active for the day, and if the commute provides this movement, it removes a possible failure mode – on days I do home office, I have to actively force myself to go outside for a run, and if I fail to do so and start working right away, I'll predictably less productive.
EDIT: The commute is also one of the parts of the day which provides time for reflection on my everyday activities, and I find movement intellectually stimulating.
I really enjoyed your list of rejected impositions. It seems you're optimizing for time, space, and cognitive capacity in order to do [thing] better.
I read the article you linked, and Terence Tao handles 10 short emails at a time, 5 pieces of paperwork at a time, 2 classes at a time, all errands while he's in town done, etc. (#'s are arbitrary).
When coding games, I would jump through several hoops at a time dealing with Apple Developer to post an app. Now with a different startup, I'll do all the emails/documentation at one time.
What specific "low-intensity" tasks do you struggle doing all at once? (It seems you already do this when buying in bulk)
One of the most upstream interventions I know of is to precommit to reinvesting some portion of gained slack into slack generating processes. Good prioritization in a chaotic environment doesn't come for free, you do have to invest.
Excellent post; I wholly endorse basically everything here.
Unrelated to the core point, but possibly useful to some folks reading this:
Cut the butter up into 1/2″ chunks while it’s cold; this way, it’ll become softened much faster.
Face palm. Of course!
Now I'm wondering what the cognitive failure is that caused me not to automatically do that without it being pointed out.
Presumably, the all-too-common “abstract knowledge of physics is a separate magisterium from practical life skills” sort of cognitive failure, of which most people are guilty (myself included—though I have managed to train myself out of it, somewhat).
If you can think of a good 'rationalist cooking' post to write (well, call it 'optimal cooking', but you get what I mean) about applying the rationalist paradigm to cooking e.g. what cognitive habits are better and the sorts of blindspots people have, that would just be awesome.
I do have a “rationalist cooking” (heh) post in the works, as it happens, so I’ll take your comment as encouragement to finish it up and post it. (By the way, how does cross-posting work? Do I just manually copy/paste content from my blog, or is there some more fancy way?)
In the meantime, I can hardly do better than to recommend Christopher Kimball’s two books: the Cook’s Bible and the Dessert Bible. Kimball is already as close to a “rationalist cook” as you’re likely to find, and these two cookbooks are written with a very empiricist, question-all-assumptions, attitude; Kimball conducts taste tests, tries recipes in many ways, and consults with food scientists to figure out why things happen a certain way. The actual recipes then also (in addition to being very clearly written) come with “What Can Go Wrong” sections—notes about specific failure modes, and how to mitigate them. For anyone who likes to cook or wants to learn, I think these two cookbooks can advance your grasp, not only of cooking, but of rationality as well.
Ace. It's copy-only. If there's issues, do ping me in the intercom.
Thin slices work pretty well too. Or you can (with care) accelerate the process with a microwave oven on its lowest setting.
You can also grate butter, as in with a cheese grater, and that helps too.
Indeed you can! However, I find that this approach is not worth it except in one case, because washing a box grater is annoying, and cubing the butter works well enough.
(That one exception is when making pie dough by hand, i.e. without a food processor.)
(Also, I expect the “cleaning is annoying” calculus is different for people who own a dishwasher… although some box graters may not be dishwasher-safe—I am fairly sure mine is not, for instance.)
The microwave method is a lot more error-prone! (Also, I don’t own a microwave.)
I freeze butter; cutting it up from frozen is hard.
Here’s what you do:
Take a sharp knife (i.e. a chef’s knife). Run it under hot tap water for a few seconds, then wipe it with a paper towel. Then, use it to cut your butter (repeating the hot-tap-water/wipe-with-towel procedure after every few cuts).
(After all, where do you think the expression “went through [thing] like a hot knife through butter” comes from? ;)
(This is also how you can cut cheesecake, or brownies; doing it this way results in clean cuts, and prevents the cheesecake/brownies/etc. from getting mangled.)
To banish "just"s, approach every decision as a decision about how you are going to handle all similar situations, instead of "just" this one — a decision about what person you want to be.
Related: Making Exceptions to General Rules; also, Lullaby Language (one of my favorite pieces of “rationality” writing that comes from far outside the lesswrongosphere).
See also: "How I lost 100 pounds using Timeless Decision Theory".
TDT is the mathematical unification of virtue ethics and consequentialism.
Sometimes I feel like we lose out on a lot of potential human energy by not having good social or work systems for distributing tasks to people for whom they don't feel like inconveniences
Note that there are a lot of dimensions to this. A whole lot of things don't feel like inconveniences when done occasionally, for myself or loved ones, but would be incredibly draining if they were "distributed to me".
I think the type of person who tries to systematize their thinking a lot tends to also be particularly susceptible to arguments of the type "why don't you just do X?". I think these arguments are very widespread and have large effects on people, and I've used this post as a reference a few times to counteract those arguments in the many cases where they were wrongly applied.
Agreed with most of this, but beware premature optimizations. Also, prefer quantitative over qualitative evaluation. Not all inconveniences are equal, and at least some of them (for example, those cookies) may come with an outsized joy, which you wouldn't know if you didn't try it at least a few times.
This is in contrast. "deal with it the first time it comes up" means no repeating inconvenience. "just Google it the first time".
You appear to be disagreeing with this idea though.
Which approach makes sense depends on the extent to which it will come up again and how much that's your problem. (And potentially, in the case of Googling things, how good your retention is.)
I may be off topic here, but for me some of the ideas for dealing with impositions really seem harmful for the planet. For example not recycling, using plastic cutlery and cups, throwing away things just to buy new ones feeds the culture-ideology of consumerism. I personally want to preserve our planet.
If you want to save the planet, don’t recycle. (See also https://listverse.com/2013/01/27/10-ways-recycling-hurts-the-environment/)
Don't quote Tierney, he's a hack - https://archives.cjr.org/behind_the_news/the_problem_with_john_tierney.php
For an extensive rebuttal of this particular piece, try here: https://web.archive.org/web/20061204065042/http://www.nrdc.org///cities/recycling/recyc/recyinx.asp
That rebuttal doesn't appear to be very extensive at all. All of the claimed benefits are extremely vague other than job creation, and if creating jobs is the only concretely measurable benefit of recycling, there seems to be no strong reason to believe it wouldn't be more economically and environmentally efficient to pay those people to do other things, or even just to twiddle their thumbs.
Sorry, I should have linked to the index of the 4-chapter + preface + conclusion + 4 appendices long report, instead of the 1-page long preface: (I'm fixing the link above to change that.)
Promoted to frontpage.