Epistemic status: Anecdotally strong
This technique was largely developed by Kenzi Amodei in the context of after-workshop followups and pair debugging. It has been refined and iterated, and has proven highly useful to our alumni, but all theorizing is post-hoc and untested, and direct research into (e.g.) an underlying theory of mind has yet to be done.
Consider the following scenarios:
- You’ve been assigned a task that feels like it’s going to take about ten or fifteen hours of work, and you’ve been given three weeks to get it done (e.g. a document that needs to be written).
- You’re facing a problem that you’ve tried solving off and on again for years, a problem that your friends and family never seem to run into (e.g. a struggle with motivation as you try to learn a new skill).
- There’s a thing you need to do, but it seems impossibly huge or vague (e.g. to achieve your goals you’d need to found a company, emigrate to India, or cure a disease), and you don’t know where to begin.
- You’re pretty sure you know all the steps between you and your goal, but there are about forty thousand of them (e.g. you’re hoping to run an actual marathon).
- You’ve got a to-do list that’s long and growing, and you can only ever manage to get to the ones that are urgent (e.g. getting your car’s registration renewed, two months late).
Problems like the ones above can range from trivial to crucial, from simple to complex, and from one-time bugs to persistent, serious drains on your time, attention, and resources. There are a lot of elements in the mix—motivation, creativity, perseverance, prioritization—and a lot of justifiable reasons for thinking that solutions will be hard to come by.
Sometimes, though—despite every bit of common sense and experience telling us otherwise—those solutions aren’t hard to come by. Or rather, they might be hard, but they’re not elusive or mysterious or complicated.
The resolve cycle technique is one we offer up with a sort of shamefaced shrug, because it doesn’t sound like “real” applied rationality. It doesn’t have the rock-solid research underpinnings of TAPs or inner sim, or a carefully considered model like the ones behind turbocharging and double crux. It sometimes comes across like the worst possible advice—the sort of thing people say when they don’t actually want to help you with your problem:
“Have you tried setting a five-minute timer and just, y’know—solving it?”
But it works. Not always, not perfectly, but shockingly often and surprisingly well. And so we recommend that you suspend your disbelief (it’s justified) and put your objections on hold (we were just as incredulous as you are) and give it an actual, honest shot. In the worst case, if it does you absolutely no good, you’ve only wasted five minutes, and you’ve successfully exercised your Try Things muscles.
Post-hoc and half-baked
We’ll provide more detail in later sections, but the core of the technique— set a timer and solve your problem in five minutes or less—is extremely straightforward. The question is, why does this work? What’s going on?
We don’t have a complete answer yet, but we do have some quasi-models that pseudo- explain parts of what might be happening for some subset of hypothetical people (maybe).
If we look at the line above, it’s clear that, within the context of a given problem or project, we’d like to be operating as close to the upper end as possible. This is assuming that the project is genuinely important, that we aren’t in need of a break or a vacation, that we aren’t neglecting something else, etc.
There are situations which naturally bring out the Actually Try, such as deadline mode or emergencies, but ideally, we’d like to be able to access it at will, rather than by having to trick ourselves into panic and stress.
There’s also more to it than time pressure and dire consequences. Yes, most people find themselves much more productive in the last few hours before the assignment is due, and that’s at least partially because they no longer have an affordance to meander or procrastinate. If it takes three hours to finish, and your job depends on it, and you have three hours left, then there’s not much doubt about what you’re going to do (unlike earlier in the week, when quitting a schedule slot only meant quitting that slot, and didn’t have any real bearing on your overall career).
But athletes in flow state, children at play, actors doing improv, artisans working on their craft, mathematicians theorizing, gamers at tournaments, and people cooking a special meal for friends and family also Actually Try, with no time limit and nothing immediately obvious at stake. Indeed, if we were to expand our line out into a two-dimensional graph, it’s not at all clear what the second axis should be, nor which side of it is better to be on.
Ultimately, we suspect that the actual answer is “whichever side helps you move upward on the graph, per the specifics of the situation and your own motivational structure.” Some people find that they do their best work in a harshly disciplined, drill-sergeant sort of mode, where there’s no forgiveness and no wiggle room. Others find that sort of pressure extremely counter-productive, and perform better with less shouty-crisis-willpower stress, not more. Additionally, most people aren’t consistently one-sided. It’s likely that you’ll find a playful spirit helpful in certain cases, and a hardcore attitude useful in others.
Less, not more
Okay, so—how does a five-minute timer help you actually do it? One theory is that the timebox allows you to do less of certain kinds of thinking that generally inhibit progress. It’s a paring down, rather than an addition—there are certain mental strategies and mental filters which most of us keep on as a general rule (and for good reason), but which an ideal “cheap experiment” lets us temporarily abandon.
For instance, many of us more or less constantly run a mental censoring algorithm—we actively stop ourselves from thinking things that are useless, irrelevant, nonsensical, immoral, manipulative, or otherwise outside of our identity. When attempting to solve an interpersonal problem, we avoid reaching for monetary solutions; when dealing with negative feelings, we try not to be overtly judgmental and blame everything on others; when brain-storming “ways to get a decent job,” we don’t usually come up with things like “forge a diploma” or “chain favors together until a CEO owes us one.” We typically don’t bother trying to solve our long-term health struggles with nothing but the stuff in our pockets—except when the five minutes have already started, and those are all the resources we have on hand.
As another example, people (especially those who attend applied rationality bootcamps) often keep strategic running tabs on whether their current activities are effectively pointed at their goals. We tend to spend some fraction of our attention asking questions like “How long is this going to take?” or “Is this still worth it?” or “Am I even heading in the right direction?” For people who are focused on maximizing their potential (rather than merely doing well generally), that fraction can be large enough to put a serious dent in their productivity, making it hard to get started and hard to keep going, and sometimes resulting in decision paralysis.
There’s also the question of conservation—for many people, effort is a limiting factor, and it’s scary to embark on a project that requires you to commit a lot of resources. It’s very easy to ask the question “Am I ready for this right now?” and come up with a lot of reasons to say “No” if the task is at all large or daunting.
A resolve cycle blows the lid off these restrictions. There’s no need to worry about wasting time, because the clock is only set to five minutes. It’s okay to uncensor yourself, because you’re supposed to think outside the box. You don’t have to conserve energy, because it’s just a quick sprint, with no further commitment beyond that. And yes, there are real benefits from the artificial deadline and the sense of now-or-never, which help a lot of us get over the initial “activation energy” of laying hands on a thorny problem.
At their best, resolve cycles are a letting go, a putting-on-of-the-headband, a moment when we hold off on asking why or whether and instead start asking what and how. They provide a strong bias toward action, which is a valuable counterweight for those of us who tend to default to hesitation, consideration, and caution. They’re not for everyone, and they’re not for every problem, but they’re an excellent tool to have in the toolkit.
The Resolve Cycle technique
1. Choose a thing that you would like to solve. This could be a bug you’re trying to get rid of, a potential you’re trying to realize, a project you’d like to start or complete... anything. Don’t be afraid to pick something big, and don’t be ashamed to pick something small.
2. Try to solve the problem—in five minutes. Yes, actually. No, don’t just make a plan; try to completely solve it. If there are any steps left to future you, try to make sure they’re effortless and very hard to mess up (e.g. you solved the problem by ordering something on Amazon, and it’s not hard to open a box once it arrives). A good target is "even if I just run on autopilot from now on, and can't actually put forth agency or effort, this problem won't be a problem anymore."
3: If the first five-minute timer didn't cut it, spend five minutes brainstorming five-minute next actions. Now that you’ve come up against some of the obstacles, use your second resolve cycle to make a list of things that you could do to make progress, where each item on the list is itself doable in five minutes or less. (So, for instance, "drafting a quick email" or "doing five minutes of research" or "meditating on a single TAP.")
4. Set a five-minute timer and do the most promising item on your new list. At this point, you’re set up for success, but you want to get some momentum on those next actions. Do at least one resolve cycle, so that your new list is an “in progress” rather than a “to do.”
Or, to use Hogwarts houses as a metaphor, our first five-minute timer is Gryffindor, boldly trying to solve the problem. Our second is Ravenclaw/Slytherin—cleverly scheming all sorts of possible next actions. And our third is Hufflepuff, diligently chipping away at it.
A few further thoughts on the process:
The first timer is very important. Even complex and intractable-seeming problems often turn out to have short or simple solutions; we often (reasonably!) skip over the “easy answer” bucket entirely when we go to tackle something hard. After a few cracks at resolve cycles, though, you’ll learn to be suspicious of people who claim their problem can’t be solved in five minutes, and also haven’t actually given it a shot. Give yourself permission to succeed—worst case, you’ll spend a few minutes getting a clearer sense of the possibility space.
For all of the steps, it sometimes helps to use narrative framing as a tool. For instance, what if I would give you literally a billion dollars if you solved the problem in the next five minutes? Or, what if, at the end of the cycle, a genie will permanently freeze your neural patterns in this one domain, so that this is literally your last chance to improve? Many people find that working under these or similar frames gives them additional energy or affordances.
Problem reframings can be useful, too—if you’re having a hard time getting away from thoughts you’ve already had over and over again, try asking yourself some of the following questions:
- What’s concretely different about the universe where I’ve already solved this problem? What things would I be able to see or measure?
- How would I become the sort of person for whom this problem isn’t hard, or never even comes up?
- How would I solve this problem if I were [Person X]? How would I advise [Person X] to solve this problem, if it were theirs?
- Why do I want to solve this problem? What’s it going to unlock? What do all my ideas and efforts so far have in common? What axes am I not moving on?
- How have I felt during my previous attempts to solve the problem? Should I be harder on myself, or gentler? More frantic, or more measured? Is this a problem that calls for curiosity and exploration, or for determination and drive?
Be sure to take breaks—for many people, resolve cycles are a high-energy burn, and trying to do too many in a row or trying to do them without enough time in between could mean driving yourself very hard into a hole.
Also, take advantage of all available resources—use pen and paper! Use your computer (as long as it doesn’t diffuse your focus)! Use other people, if you have them available to you and your first solo attempt doesn’t crack it.
Finally, take note of your successes, both the concrete ones and the cognitive or meta-level ones (even if you don’t make progress, if you stayed on it and ruled out a lot of bad options, you’ve done real work and should pat your brain on the back).
Developing a "grimoire"
Over time, you may find that you develop a standard set of prompts and actions that you find useful to draw on when doing resolve cycles—your own personal grimoire of debugging exercises. Here is an example of what one person’s grimoire might look like (this one from a participant who was focused on changing emotional patterns and developing character traits):
Exploring the problem space
- Five terrible models of what might be going on
- Similar problems I’ve solved before
- Five situations this reminds me of
- Details of the experience of [Feeling X]
- Three times I would have expected to have this problem and didn’t
- Three times I had this problem recently
- Three times where I didn’t expect to have this problem, but did
- Times when I’ve done well at handling this
- End-goal alternatives to my current plan
- List of known or suspected obstacles
- Pre-hindsight: I achieved my goal and everything was bad; why?
- Button test: I can push a button to achieve my goal. Any reluctance?
- What’s bad about getting better at this?
- What’s good about the status quo?
- Spend five minutes inhabiting the unpleasant present. Can it be made livable, if left unsolved?
Generating possible solutions
- Ten terrible ideas for step one
- Times when I’ve felt this way before, and what got me out of it
- What are the prerequisite subskills for success? How can I get them?
- Pick a time when I didn’t navigate this well, and rewrite history. Where do I make changes, and what are they?
- Create five to ten relevant TAP
Hacks/shortcuts to victory
- Generate a narrative for why this has been useful or necessary or helpful to me in the past, but why that isn’t true any longer (i.e. why I no longer need the crutch)
- Explain why this is a particularly good moment for me to make a big shift or tackle this problem
- Imagine my future successful self looking back and encouraging me, having reaped all the benefits. What do I say to myself?
- Think of a skill I’m already good at, and explain how this skill is really just a transformation of that one
- Meditate for five minutes on why solving this is useful
- Decide that I’m just not going to fail.
Resolve Cycles—Further Resources
Research on attention and task switching has found that there is a large benefit to focusing on one task at a time. Task switching causes a large temporary drop in performance immediately after a task switch and a smaller persistent impairment as long as switching tasks is a possibility. Being engaged in a task activates a variety of cognitive processes (involving attention, memory, etc.) that are relevant for performing that particular task, which are collectively known as a task-set. One proposed explanation for the impairments caused by task switching is that they are due to the cost of switching task-sets and of having multiple competing task-sets activated at once.
Monsell, S. (2003). Task switching. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 134-140. http://goo.gl/f6Ek3
A brief summary of the psychological research on multitasking: http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx
Robert Boice (2000) studied the productivity of published professors. He found that the academics who were prolific writers often had a habit of writing for at least 15 minutes every day, while less productive academics tended to write for longer blocks more occasionally. Boice argued that regular short periods of writing drastically reduced the barrier to getting started, and that the frequency improved idea generation. Interventions that encouraged less productive professors to write briefly each day were effective at increasing the amount that they wrote, as well as the number of ideas that they had.
Boice, Robert (2000). Advice for new faculty members: nihil nimus.
A brief summary of Boice’s work: http://www.bmartin.cc/classes/writing.html
Self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of achieving a goal or accomplishing a task. Albert Bandura (1986; Bandura & Locke, 2003) describes respectably strong correlations between high self-efficacy and several attributes that make success more likely such as willingness to take on new challenges, persistence in the face of difficulty, and a tendency to assume that one directs and shapes one’s future rather than simply reacting to events as they arise.
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action
Bandura, A., & Locke, E. A. (2003). Negative self-efficacy and goal effects revisited. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 87-99. http://goo.gl/ab39bN
Did CFAR get entangled in some sort of violent turf war or something? Was this cross-posted to some other rationality forum where it's getting hundreds of upvotes? This isn't 71-upvote material, the ultimate CFAR handbook is clearly worth way more than that.
It would make a lot more sense if the lack of attention was due to CFAR having tons of baggage, such as the scars left behind from being defeated in a massive turf war.
It's not new content but just reposting existing content that already exists in the published pdf of the handbook. The fact that it's now published doesn't produce a sense of "I now have to read this new post and then vote on it after reading it."
Ah, I see. It was allegedly supposed to be an updated version (I haven't cross-referenced it with the pdf), but at the end of the day I guess it's still just a second edition. I'll lean on this one just because it's the latest version, and explicitly stated to be viable as a standalone work.
The content might be very good but it was already accessible to everyone. I'm not upvoting this post because I already was familiar with it.
That makes perfect sense, thank you! My confusion has been resolved.
If this is the canonical reference for one of the most important concepts of all time on LW (and I think it is), then I'd bid in favor of it getting upvoted on that basis even if it's not novel. My thinking is that LW is meant to mostly be a timeless repository of knowledge, where content continues to be used ten years from now rather than just being used for a month. If someone stumbles on this page in five or ten years, I want the upvotes to provide a signal about how useful the post is to read.
(The karma only matters as a signal for people who aren't familiar with the post/concept; if you are familiar, you can just decide whether to reread on that basis.)
'Karma as a signal that I want to see more things like this' matters a little, but less than usual since CFAR!Duncan is a dummy account and the handbook-posting is a scheduled thing.
(Of course, some people won't read the post because they've seen it in the past, and also won't want to upvote something based only on a vague years-old recollection. That makes total sense to me. But if you do read it, I wouldn't personally hold back on upvotes just because it's old.)