Hammertime Day 7: Aversion Factoring

by alkjashRadimentary2 min read4th Feb 201813 comments


Goal FactoringExercises / Problem-Sets
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This is part 7 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

As we move into the introspective segment of Hammertime, I want to frame our approach around the set of (unoriginal) ideas I laid out in The Solitaire Principle. The main idea was that a human being is best thought of as a medley of loosely-related, semi-independent agents across time, and also as governed by a panel of relatively antagonistic sub-personalities à la Inside Out.

An enormous amount of progress can therefore be made simply by articulating the viewpoints of one’s sub-personalities so as to build empathy and trust between them. This is the aim of the remainder of the first cycle.

Day 7: Aversion Factoring

Goal factoring is a CFAR technique with a lot of parts. The most resonant sub-skill for me was Aversion Factoring, so we’ll start there. I highly recommend Critch’s TedX talk on the subject, where I first learned this way of thinking.


Pick from your Bug List a habit you want to start but haven’t, or that you’ve been forcing yourself to do but remains a drag. What’s happening?

For concreteness, let’s say the habit is “blog every day.”

At some level, you want to blog. You have good ideas. Writing helps you think clearly. You’d reap the benefits of being publicly wrong. If you blogged, other human beings might benefit. But if you really wanted to blog then why does it cost so much willpower every time? Why aren’t you leaping into it every day the way you leap into deep fried ice cream?

Aversion factoring is about noticing and removing the subconscious roadblocks keeping System 1 from wanting the same things System 2 wants.

1. Articulate Aversions

The first step to Aversion Factoring is to articulate the aversions that are holding you back. Begin by listing all the reasons you don’t like about doing the thing. Two things to keep in mind:

Be honest.

“I’m afraid my ideas aren’t original, my writing hasn’t improved since fifth grade, and I’m terrified of people on the internet.”

Being honest is difficult. However, there’s a second category of insidious aversions: trivial, repetitive annoyances that leave a bad taste surrounding the whole experience. See Beware Trivial Inconveniences. Finding such aversions requires attention to detail:

“I hate blogging because of the awful LaTeX support, because every time I want to include a picture I get anxious about copyright issues, and because I recently discovered a popular blogger friend has the exact same WordPress template so if I change mine I lose and if I keep it the same I feel like a copycat so I’d rather just block the thoughts out aggghhhh.”

The primary focus of today’s exercise is to find and debug the trivial inconveniences in our lives.

2. Decide Whether to Endorse the Aversion

For any given aversion, there are two ways to proceed. Endorse an aversion if it points to a real underlying problem that needs to be solved. In my blogging example, I might decide that I care about writing quality and targeted writing practice is long overdue.

If you don’t endorse the aversion, then it’s unnecessary and should be removed. A common class of such “bad” aversions is bucket errors about identity. When deciding to remove aversions, remember Chesterton’s Fence! Figure out why you have the aversion before you try to remove it. Almost any aversion can be removed by gradual exposure, so be careful (see Boiling the Crab).

3. Solve or Reduce Aversions

Once you’ve figured out what the aversions are, it’s time to solve them as much as possible, one by one. For endorsed aversions, the course of action is to modify or upgrade the habit itself to solve or sidestep the underlying problem. To solve my writing problem, I might decide to reread and act on Strunk and White or Nonfiction Writing Advice. (Huh. That’s a good idea.)

Meanwhile, un-endorsed aversions should be targeted with exposure therapy or CoZE. To apply exposure therapy, build a path of incremental steps towards the aversion, each of which feels individually safe. Take steps one at a time as gently as necessary. I gently amped up my blogging frequency over about a year to an audience of zero, then one, before I got over my fear of y’all internet people.

CoZE is the upgrade to exposure therapy in which you build in ejector seats: pre-commit to multiple points along the route where you can reflect on whether or not you endorse the aversion.

Aversion Factor Three Bugs

For today’s exercise, please pick THREE bugs from your Bug List related to habit-building. These can be habits you want to pick up, or habits you already have but want to upgrade.

For each bug, set a Yoda Timer for five minutes and Aversion Factor it:

  1. Walk through the habit and list out as many aversions as you can, paying particular attention to trivial inconveniences.
  2. Decide for each aversion whether or not to endorse it.
  3. Solve as many as you can in the remaining time.

Daily Challenge

I have a friend who stays in bed for hours in the morning because it’s too cold to make the voyage across his bedroom for clothes. Share a trivial inconvenience in your life that might have (or has had) dramatic consequences.


13 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:35 AM
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You’d reap the benefits of being pubicly wrong

Bad typo.

By the way - did I mention that inventing the word "hammertime" was epic, and that now you might just as well retire because there's no way to compete against your former glory.

I'm confused about the typo, is it publicly we're talking about?

Thanks for that - if I thought like that I'd have retired a long time ago.

Edit: Oh god I'm blind, took another 5 reads to notice. And here I'm supposed to be teaching noticing or something.

My pet rabbit's bed was positioned under my work desk at home, making sitting there uncomfortable at best and hazardous at worst, so I often would choose uncomfortable positions around the house that weren't conducive to a productive mental state. Moving his bed under a different table (they prefer to have coverings) means I have a work desk again!

I have no idea what's going on with aversion factoring. I think there's something else you need first, without which it will never really work.

Here's my story: I spent most of the last 5 years averse to a whole bunch of shit, mostly revolving around either thinking or exposing myself to rejection from other humans (this included, as a special case, doing aversion factoring to myself). After doing a bunch of work on personal growth over the last year, which helped but did not solve the problem, most of my aversions suddenly disappeared in December when I switched to a ketogenic diet, then came back later in the winter (I think because I gave myself an electrolyte deficiency). For the last week or so I have been doing a whole bunch of shit spurred by the last CFAR workshop, including but not limited to drinking copious quantities of pedialyte, and my aversions are gone again.

(Here is a rough and ready model of what I think is happening: I think there were various senses in which I was constantly sick for most of the last 5 years, and mostly what my body wanted to do was conserve resources and wait for me to heal. So I was averse to anything that seemed like it wouldn't help with this, until I became sufficiently less sick.)

Yea, sounds like you didn't have enough spoons. I've heard Jordan Peterson say something along the lines of "helping patients fix their sleep schedules and diets is one of the most powerful clinical techniques."

I'm also not entirely sure that aversion factoring is that helpful, especially with the big anxious aversions. I wanted to gesture towards a special case here which is more like "trivial inconvenience noticing" and more keeping with the tone of the first cycle. This is pretty much as far as I've gone thus far with aversion factoring and is already surprisingly useful.

My job involves sometimes dealing with information that can't necessarily be shared with everyone at the company. I have an official mentor, who's a senior employee who used to work in my group and is now in another. I put off setting up a mentorship meeting for months because I was working on a project and didn't know whether I could talk about it with him. All I needed to do was send my manager a quick email to check, but I just kept putting it off. 


On the flip side, I've had instances where adding a trivial inconvenience has been key to breaking a bad habit. For example, in college I was on the top bunk of a bunkbed for two years, Those years, I'd put my alarm clock down off the bed so that I'd have to get out of bed to turn off the alarm, at which point I'd never be tempted to snooze it and go back to sleep.

Share a trivial inconvenience that might have dramatic consequences

  • I didn't have my band's email logged in on my phone so I never checked it. I missed a few important emails/opportunities.

I have an important "ugh" task I have to do by early next week, so I picked that as one of my things to try this on. I felt like I needed more time, so I changed my rules slightly: I listed aversions for 5 minutes each, then spent 10 minutes working on the sub-aversions for each. I haven't finished yet. 

This sets off a small alarm bell in my head - I might be spending more time on the exercise as a way to avoid actually doing the things. Regardless, I'm going to try to finish this exercise today even if it takes a little longer than expected. 

I feel like this is a powerful exercise. I need to practice it a few more times to find ways to tailor it more to me.

Also, I'm a bit fuzzy on when to say I don't endorse something. Is the heuristic something like "when the best way to solve the sub-aversion is to just find a way to (emotionally) get over it?"

One rather trivial inconvenience that negatively impacts my life is having a great aversion to lack of clarity in any kind of workflow. I've been meaning to join a boat trip with my girlfriend on a nearby river for a while (the kind in a big boat where you just join 50ish other random people and tour around for an hour looking at things), but from the website it's really unclear what exactly I need to do. When to be where exactly, how and where to get the actual tickets and that stuff. So I've procrastinated that endlessly.

This isn’t a trivial inconvenience, but more of an actual aversion: I’m fairly new to a martial art, and there’s sparring every week. I often don’t feel like going because there’s another guy there (military, judo, etc) who usually beats me pretty soundly. I usually have no problem "learning how to lose", but in this setting, it really bothers my ego and self-image as the top of my belt rank (he’s one above me). I know it’s silly, that not going is a strictly worse strategy for actually improving and learning to fight, but that’s how my aversion works.

I don’t see how I can CoZE this (but this would be my first time trying to use it, so perhaps I missed something): I’m either fighting the dude (and probably losing), or not. I could space it out, go every once in a while, but that doesn’t seem any better.

My reasons for doing the martial art are to stay in shape and to make friends; I’ve succeeded on both counts. I could beat this guy if I poured tons of time in, but I have more important ways to use my time. I just don’t like having this feeling each week.

It sounds like this is a moderately serious aversion you probably endorse, but don't understand deeply. In this situation I think it's not correct to try to CoZE it. I would suggest throwing Focusing and/or Goal Factoring at it:

Focusing: try to conjure up the feeling of being annoyed at this guy, and see if you can attach a specific, resonant name to the feeling. Something like "I'll never catch up to him" or "Being around this guy makes me sadistic and anitisocial" or "This guy is not smart/virtuous enough to deserve to beat me."

Goal Factoring: not every aversion has to be tackled head on. If this seriously bothers you, there are a hundred ways around it. e.g. a different martial art/training place/sport.

I also wonder how you feel about talking to the guy/whoever's in charge and telling them about your aversion. If I had to guess, just thinking about this is also aversive - try to factor this aversion as well.

I do endorse it. Now that I have to label it, I realize it isn't about losing at all - it's about signalling. Throughout the week, I'm working hard to use my time as efficiently as possible, training with a weight vest, paying extra attention to my form and technique, doing cardio elements as quickly as possible... and then I get flattened each Wednesday.

I Focused. Here's what's fascinating: if I mentally simulate "sparring him in private", I'm excited - it's a chance to lose, learn, and improve. If I simulate "sparring him in front of my friends", I get the knot in my stomach. I never realized this before, but an important part of my self-image is doing constructive things for myself for reasons I endorse, and then signalling my progress in a genuine way to people I care about to encourage them that they too can make positive changes. If my friends see me training hard and getting rolled, that makes me feel like I failed them. As far as I can tell, this is separate from any social embarrassment attached to losing.

Sweet! This sounds like a huge step, thanks for sharing!

Let me know if you further resolve this problem. More data points are always appreciated.

I think that the underlying principles here are very powerful: 1. acknowledging "trivial" inconveniences (i.e. being explicit and honest with yourself) and 2. seeing all problems as groups of sub-problems, each of which can be solved much more easily than the entire thing.