This is part 3 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

A running theme of Hammertime, especially for the next two days, is intentionality, or deliberateness. Instrumental rationality is designed to inject intentionality into all aspects of your life. Here’s how the 10 techniques fit into the intentionality puzzle:

  1. Noticing and having more intentions (Bug Hunt, CoZE, TAPs).
  2. Resolving internal conflict about what you intend to do (Goal Factoring, Focusing, Internal Double Crux).
  3. Learning how to convert intention to action (Yoda Timers, TAPs, Planning).
  4. Injecting intentions into System 1 so you can do what you intend even when you’re not paying attention (TAPs, Design, Mantras).
  5. Injecting intentions into reality so that reality pushes you towards, and not away from your goals (Design).

Trigger-Action Plans (TAPs) are the if-then statements of the brain. Installing a single TAP properly will convert a single intention into repeated action.

Day 3: TAPs

Recommended background reading: Making intentions concrete – Trigger-Action Planning.

1. TAPs 101

TAPs are micro-habits. Here’s the basic setup:

  1. Pick a bug. Again, skip bugs you’re conflicted about.
  2. Identify a trigger. An ideal trigger is concrete and sensory, like “water hitting my face in the shower,” or “when I press the elevator button.”
  3. Decide on an action you want to happen after the trigger. Pick the minimum conceivable action that counts as progress towards solving the bug. Thus, “look at the stairwell” is better than “go up the stairs,” and “sit up in bed” is better than “force myself out of bed.”
  4. Rehearse the causal link. Go to the trigger and act out the TAP ten times. If the trigger is not currently available, visualize it. Focus on noticing and remembering sensory data that will help you notice the trigger.
  5. Check the TAP in a week. Write down the TAP when you intend to do it, and check back in a week to see if its installed. TAPs can require a lot of tweaking.

TAPs take a couple days to install successfully. Today, we will practice installing two TAPs.

2. The Sapience Spell

Many bugs in life can be solved by merely paying attention to them. The most important TAP to install is a meta-TAP, or Sapience Spell, that wakes you up periodically into Kernel Mode and reminds you to pay attention.

Here’s how to learn the Sapience Spell:

Finding the right trigger is of utmost importance. Treat this step with the gravity that a wizard puts into picking his wand or familiar.

The trigger should be concrete and constant in your life. Ideally, an item on your person at all times of sentimental value: a ring, a watch, a tattoo, a mole or birthmark on your hand, a specific gesture you make regularly. If not, it can be an attractive picture or bauble on your desk. Take your time to pick one that feels meaningful.

Once you’ve picked the trigger, it’s time to pick the action. The action should be a mental move in the category of pay attention, but personalized: breathereflect on my goals, be present in the moment, collect myself.

Now, set yourself a Yoda Timer for 5 minutes and practice the Sapience Spell with the five steps above. Walk around as if doing your daily thing, notice your trigger, and rehearse the action. Do that ten times. Visualize yourself in different situations where a Sapience Spell would help. Let your mind wander a bit and then snap yourself back with the Sapience Spell.

For my own Sapience Spell, I picked a mole on the inside of my right thumb that I’ve had since childhood. After staring at it for some time and injecting feelings of attentiveness and intentionality, I find that notice where it is in physical space even without looking at it. I hope it proves a constant and comforting note in the future.

3. One Concrete TAP

If you have any kind of habit or routine, you’re doing TAPs already. Today we will build one concrete micro-habit with TAPs.

Pick the easiest bug on your Bug List that might be solved by some kind of regular action. For example, I picked “forgetting things when I leave home.”

Set a Yoda Timer for five minutes to design and install a TAP to solve that bug using the checklist in TAPs 101 above.


  1. It’s best to pick natural, concrete TAPs that you notice already. For example, I pay a great deal of attention to boundaries and thresholds. The trigger I picked is “stepping across the threshold of my apartment.” Another example too good not to mention: I frequent a restaurant on campus called The Axe & Palm. Every time I go I reflect on all the TAPs I’m currently installing.
  2. Be realistic and pick baby steps for actions. Difficult habits should be built out of multiple TAPs. If your TAP is “After brushing my teeth, go running,” make it “After brushing my teeth, take a walk” or “After brushing my teeth, go outside” or even “After brushing my teeth, look at the front door.”
  3. Keep rehearsing/practicing the TAP until five minutes are up. Yoda Timers quickly remind you just how quickly you give up.

Keep building one TAP a day over the course of Hammertime. If you’re lost for ideas, try extending solidified TAPs into longer sequences of actions, one step at a time. Soon you’ll have complete routines for specific situations. We’ll check in again on TAP progress on Day 13.

Daily Challenge

If you don’t mind, share your Sapience Spell.


17 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:55 AM
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How confident are you in the sapience spell being best triggered by an object-like thing, as opposed to a felt sense? It sounds like your goal is basically "be Sapient all the time", and this doesn't ek el quite like the most useful frame to me. I'm imagining myself constantly going "hmm, I should pay attention", and then not really having anything to actually do with the sapience, and then ending up training a weird counterhabit of "think about being sapient but then not doing anything with it."

I think this comment is 100% right despite being perhaps maybe somewhat way too modest. It's more useful to think of sapience as introducing a delta on behavior, rather than a way to execute desired behavior. The second is a classic Straw Vulcan failure mode.

Some initial thoughts:

I agree that "be Sapient all the time" is not productive; however, I used to live in a zombie haze where I might be at the meta-level making conscious decisions O(1) times a day, and to a first approximation what I needed was just More Dakka. I would guess that this is a common enough issue that installing a general-purpose sapience spell to trap into kernel mode regularly should be large net positive for most people.

I'm still debating whether a felt sense is a better trigger. I will definitely say more about that in the second cycle on TAPs after we've done Focusing and are good at noticing such things.

The weird "think about being sapient but then not do anything about it" counterhabit seems like a serious pitfall that happens to me already, I would love to hear thoughts on if it's possible mitigate it. The best I can say is that in the stressful or emotionally charged situations where I've used my Sapience Spell, thinking about being sapient was already a useful step.

Some brief comments based on my literature review of habits + a few conversations w/ people involved w/ said papers:

  1. Apparently the current consensus is that implementation intentions aren't that good, or something? I was pretty surprised by this, but I had a recent chat w/ Wendy Wood, who's done a lot of work looking into habituation, and apparently she now thinks that rewards are a better way of incentivizing behavior. I don't agree, but it's interesting to note experts (or at least one) shifting away from this paradigm. (Or, my sense was that Wood's sense was that everyone wants to make implementation intentions out to be this Magic Tool, but actually they're only effective for a more narrow range of use-cases.)
  2. One of the reasons that TAPs fail is because the action you've linked it to from the trigger is way too far removed from the trigger, temporally, spatially, or otherwise. EX: If your TAP is "see pedestrian crossing sign on the drive back from work -> go running", it'll probably fail because you have no affordance to act on the TAP. So specificity and atomicity seem very important to make them actionable. (I think this is the more correct way of interpereting "start small" when people talk about setting your TAPs.)
  3. I think that the sort of intentionality / directed attention we're trying to point to when we talk of Summon Sapience is very important, but I don't think it's best put within the TAP framework. In line with 2), having a TAP for "trigger -> apply effort" feels like you'd encounter a lot of resistance, which is the opposite of what you want your TAPs to be.

Thanks for calling your posts to my attention! I'll take a look at them before the next cycle of habit-building rolls around. My sense is that positive (and especially negative) reinforcement learning are overpowered in habit-building as well, but I don't know of a systematic way to apply it to every problem - fast feedback loops seem to be essential.

Point 2 is absolutely correct. Regardless of whether we use TAPs or reinforcement learning to build habits, the general principle is that every habit can be built out of tiny microhabits that you learn and become comfortable with one at a time.

A further (slightly obvious) suggestion for improving the effectiveness of implementation intentions.

From research by Oettingen/Gollwitzer (I'm thinking of this paper in particular it seems that visualising concrete failure modes before implementing a TAP is a good strategy for improving long term commitment, in that subjects who used both mental contrasting and implementation intentions were better able to resolve bugs than subjects who only used only one technique. Think of ways you have failed to achieve precommited goals in the past; as well as potential obstacles that may prevent you from winning in this instance. (Oettingen herself is fond of framing this as WOOP: make a Wish; visualise the fuzzy-happy Outcome; visualise the Obstacles; make a trigger action Plan.)

By the way, I'm very grateful for a sequence like this, having never been to a CFAR workshop.

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Absolutely, I plan to cover CFAR's take on visualizing failure modes, Murphyjitsu ("everything that can go wrong will go wrong") on Day 10, Planning. After that it'll definitely be helpful to apply Murphyjitsu to bulletproof every single other technique.

TAPs is actually one of the CFAR concepts I'm most unsatisfied by. It doesn't integrate very well with my broader understanding of how reinforcement learning works in humans. Briefly: most of the TAPs you already have were produced naturally by some mechanism as opposed to installed one-by-one. This mechanism produces a lot of TAPs which are hopefully reasonably well-suited to your actual needs, and it feels inelegant and hacky to me to install individual TAPs on top of this as opposed to working more directly with this mechanism (which I think other CFAR classes do).

Summon sapience is an interesting enough special case that I have separate thoughts about it; I'll register that like Raemon I'm wary of setting a TAP for summoning it when you don't actually need it. On the other hand, one CFAR alum claims to have no TAPs and to be sapient basically all the time, so this is apparently a way a mind can work. Mind-space, huh? It sure is a thing.

I'm pretty late to the party, huh. Despite that, I'm really glad I can take part in this experience. It's the very thing I longed for: concrete instructions, baby steps, daily progress.

Now, my Sapience Spell:

It was kinda hard to think of a thing-that's-always-on-me. I don't really have prominent moles or rings, a bauble would stay on my desk even if I had it. One idea was to use my phone, but then I thought of situations where I didn't have it on me, and I would have really benefited from increased awareness back then.

I made one up. I took a choker that was collecting dust on one of the shelves and wrapped it around my wrist. A ring would work better, since sleeves could cover up a watch or a wristband, as in my case. I think I'll get one eventually.

No worries, I wrote the thing at my own pace with the expectation that as an instructional tool people would want to space it out over much longer than a month anyway.

I struggled to come up with an item or action that would be well-suited for a sapience spell, as I don't have any tattoos or jewelry or birthmarks, but I've come up with something that I am happy with: My trigger is cleaning my glasses. This has the benefit of not seeming entirely random, as I can feel a metaphorical connection between wiping away smudges in my vision and introspecting to see myself and my mind more clearly (there is an added benefit of reminding myself of Klaus Baudelaire. I always admired how the Baudelaires have unique behaviors they perform when they're getting "in the zone" to use their unique skills to solve their problems - you know something serious is about to go down when Klaus cleans his glasses or Violet puts her hair up).

I've chosen to focus on the ideas of clarity and vision in my mantra, and the goal of my Sapience Spell is simply to assess whether I am satisfied with my current actions, motivations, and plans: "See clearly: what am I doing? Answer honestly: why? Looking at this moment from tomorrow, consider: How will I use the rest of today?"

Summon Sapience: When I look at my birthmark on my hand. 

I used to have these flashes of extreme clarity as kid, the feeling being "I am here". I found that I could make it happen on command but didn't think anything of it other than it being a unique feeling. When I use that clarity in my adult life, I either smile a bit and appreciate life or become very aware of what I should be doing (and the feeling of not doing it). I don't think it helps me break out of akrasia but it's probably a step forward.

My personal track record with TAPs is so-so. The TAPs that have worked for me before tended to be part of habits/activities I was motivated to do anyway. When that motivation faded, so did the associated TAP.

However, I don't think I ever practiced (while installing) or adjusted them - I just tried to do it and got frustrated with myself when I didn't. So, two meta-TAPs for keeping me on track:

  • When installing a TAP -> set a timer for 5 minutes (to practice it)
  • When I fail a TAP card in Anki -> ask myself why it failed (to change it eventually)

I didn't notice the "add a TAP a day" part of this post before - I will resolve to do that. I like the idea of TAPs a lot and I need the practice before I decide how well they work for me.

Sapience Spell: I wanted to use my tattoo because it has deep significance to me, but it's on my back. So, when I become tangibly aware of my (long) hair on my back, that triggers a thought of the tattoo, which in turn reminds me to be aware of who I am (Name, drives, capability/confidence) in this moment.

I picked standing up as my sapience spell, but I'm not sure having something that happens at unpredictable times is more helpful than taking a few minutes to focus as the start of each day.

I found the idea of TAPs useful - rehearsing a habit I want several times in a row when I first start doing it was something I hadn't thought of doing before, and it seems very helpful.

I have a couple of sapience spells (from before this article).

  1. Every time I step into public transport or go out somewhere, I am very aware, very meditative. I have trained myself to do this because I've been reading a lot of Dune and watching probably too much survivalist videos on Youtube.
  2. Every time I feel anxious or nervous, this triggers a meditative body scan, not thinking, just feeling the sensations in my body. I am generally aware of the reactions in my body when I am doing something I don't really want to be doing.
  3. When I'm lying in my bed before sleep, I have a habit of doing a body scan, starting from the toes, all the way up to the top of the head.

Sapience Spell trigger: whenever I crack my knuckles.

I like the general rehearsing TAPs part of this, but I had to opt out of doing a general-purpose sapience spell.

It took me a while to figure out a thing that might work at all here, because in real life I tend to spend too much time on the meta level in an anxiety kind of way, and it was hard for me to figure out something I could do that wouldn’t just map to the anxiety thoughts and have either no effect or a negative one. It was sort of unclear whether anything in this category would even be beneficial; there are specific times in my life when I need more sapience, but those are I think mostly pretty well-defined (Internet rabbit holes that I need to snap out of, and also times when I feel generically shitty in unclear ways and benefit from remembering to try and locate the shittiness in specific parts of my body and/or thoughts (which sometimes lets me remove some stressors)), and in other contexts I actively do not want to go on the meta level (e.g. when I have finally managed to focus on a work task and want to stay focused and not snap out of it).

I decided to try this: “when I look at my watch, notice something in my environment, appreciate it, notice its spatial relationship to me”. Point being to take me out of my head instead of into it, to notice that things exist outside my brain and I am a person in the world.

But then I tried to rehearse this and I found it really stressful. I would notice my watch and then be like “oh no I have to notice a thing now” and it felt like a new obligation and this was really unpleasant. I would start reading an interesting thing and then have to snap out of it and notice a thing instead - being immersed in something is sometimes bad and snapping out of it can be necessary, but often being immersed in something is in fact good and in general I want to do it more, not less!

(This may be related to the thing Kaj cited in their post on TAPs finding that a certain kind of perfectionist can be harmed by TAPs because it activates the “oh no this is an obligation and I have to perform” thing. I’m not convinced that that’s always a real effect - I certainly find lots of TAPs useful to me and not that stressful - but in this case it very much triggered the “oh no an obligation” thing.)

So I’m going to instead work on situation-specific sapience TAPs, which are likely to have more false negatives (i.e. not trigger when it would be better for them to trigger) but also fewer false positives along the lines of interrupting my focus:

1. [when I switch between apps on my phone] AND [when I notice myself scrolling social media for a long time], look up from my screen for five seconds and try to notice whether I want to currently be doing this thing.

2. when I notice myself feeling generically shitty, try to enumerate sources of physical discomfort.