It can be hard to stay engaged with a project that may last months, especially when you’re working on your own. In addition to meeting with my students every couple of weeks, and sometimes pairing them up with other students, there are five kinds of independent practices I often recommend to support consistent progress over the course of a naturalist study.

Some of the support structures tend to be more important than others, and it’s critical to find a balance among them that works well for you.



Undirected Time

Naturalism involves learning new ways to perceive, not just updating explicit beliefs, so it relies extensively on background processing. 

That means it’s crucial to make space for shower thoughts. It’s crucial to make time for daydreaming, for mind-wandering, for the kinds of things your thoughts do when you’re neither trying to do anything in particular with them, nor having them directed by an external force (such as a book, conversation, or TV show).

The busier you are, the more important it will probably be to create undirected time in your daily life while undertaking a naturalist study. You don’t actually have to schedule fifteen minutes each day to stare at a blank wall (although that’s a perfectly good way to go about this if it’s what you want to do); most people find that there is some existing part of their ordinary routine that can be modified to create more space for daydreaming. Some people who listen to a podcast during their morning commute choose to go without the podcast instead. Some people replace post-lunch Reddit scrolling with a short walk or a semi-nap. Anything that gives you a little more space to let your mind wander could do the trick.



Field Work

Field work is anything you do to observe experiences in their natural habitats. If you’re studying something that shows up while writing code as part of your job, field work happens on the clock, mostly without breaking the normal flow of your coding process.

In general, successful field work requires two components: Opportunities to encounter fulcrum experiences, and a plan for how to observe them when they happen. If you’re studying interpersonal dynamics but you never actually interact with other people, you’re not giving yourself any opportunities to observe. If you encounter plenty of opportunities but haven’t planned ahead to notice when they happen, you probably won’t make many new observations.

“Undirected time” and “field work” are the two most important structures in naturalism. Without them, there is no study. A successful study doesn’t necessarily require anything besides a plan to observe at the right times, and enough processing space to integrate observations.


Field Notes

“Field notes” means any method of recording observations that happen in the field.

Some people try to record a brief note whenever they make a marking gesture, either in a notebook, as a voice memo, or in a text chat to themselves. Technically, a tally kept on a counter ring is a kind of field note.

Another approach to field notes is daily reviews or journaling. Rather than taking notes on your experiences as they happen, you look back over your day and write down a little of what you remember about what you noticed. This method is farther removed from the observations, so key details sometimes get lost; but it can also be a lot easier for people who don’t want the flow of their activities interrupted.

I often use both of these approaches at once: I make three-to-five-word notes in the field, and then I expand on them a little during daily reviews.


Lab Work

Lab work is any part of your study that happens under artificially designed circumstances.

There’s a continuum from field work to lab work. If you create fulcrum experiences by orchestrating a carefully controlled situation that would never happen in ordinary life, that’s pure lab work. Example: Preparing a meal at home with all of your least favorite foods so you can study your disgust response. 

But if you lean into a certain activity in the hopes of eliciting more fulcrum experiences, you’re somewhere in between field work and lab work. Example: Ordering whatever your friend ordered so the foods aren’t perfectly tailored to your own taste.

A lot of the preparation you might do for field work, such as making an initial prediction for a POU loop, also falls under lab work. Even though you’re not trying to observe an experience during the preparation, you’re still working “offline”, in a context where things move only at your chosen pace and regular life isn’t in the way.

Any kind of exercise meant to support your study is also lab work. Sometimes I take people through original seeing exercises, for example, which aren’t necessarily focused on their object of study in particular; they’re just meant to build skills that may be useful during observation. That’s lab work as well.

Once someone has a steady rhythm of undirected time and field work, I often suggest that they consider scheduling a little time each week for lab work. If they’re open to that, we usually build a toy together so they can try it out during lab time. (I discuss toy design in “Collection”, at the end of “Troubleshooting”.)



In the context of naturalism, “analysis” is any time that you spend reviewing your project-relevant memories or notes, and any deliberate processing you do in response. 

For a lot of people, analysis means weekly or bi-weekly journaling about their project. For others, it just means looking back over their notes in the ten minutes before their regular meeting with me. On occasion, it even involves crunching numbers to reveal statistical patterns in collected data.

Whatever it looks like for you, analysis is an excellent time to re-orient: Look back at your most recent version of your story statement (if you’ve been keeping track of those), and ask yourself how it impacts you from your new perspective. Does it seem off? Has something changed? What’s your story now? What assumptions underlie your new story, and what are you wondering about at this point? Might you want to shift focus to investigate something new?

Scheduling regular blocks for analysis isn’t right for everyone; but if it’s been a whole month and you haven’t taken a time out to deliberately process what you’ve learned, you’re probably due for some analysis.


End Note: Prioritizing Balance

Few people make equal use of all the support structures, and nobody starts out using all of them at once. There is always a tradeoff, in infrastructure, between the benefits of support and the costs of maintenance. It’s important to find your balance, rather than shooting for as much structure as possible.

I recommend starting very small, just taking quiet walks and tapping your leg when you notice something relevant. Only add more structure when you’re yearning for more, and don’t overwhelm yourself by adding too much at a time.




Problem 1: The things you describe as “undirected time” sound bad to me. What should I do?

That depends on what sort of “bad” you have in mind. Sometimes things that feel kind of bad at first turn out to be worthwhile (as often happens with exercise), and sometimes they don’t.

Generally speaking, it seems to me that neurotypical minds tend to experience some discomfort when reducing their use of passive entertainment. According to my working model, this discomfort largely results from a masking effect. 

Organic experience is a mix of pleasure and pain, excitement and boredom, and many other phenomena that constantly fluctuate in irregular ways—importantly, ways that respond to what’s going in the world around the experiencing mind, and to what’s going on inside of the mind as well. 

Things designed for entertainment, on the other hand, afford a steady stream of enjoyable experiences in reliable patterns. When attention is directed by sources that are designed to entertain, the irregular and often unpleasant phenomena of organic experience are effortlessly crowded out; so the more time a person spends in directed attention, the more oddly uncomfortable undirected attention may feel, at least at first. 

This kind of “badness” will likely have a character that’s pretty well described by a combination of “discomfort”, “boredom”, and “not knowing what to do with yourself”. If that’s what you’re experiencing, then I think it’s pretty likely the methods I describe above will indeed end up supporting your study. You will probably start to get the hang of undirected time with practice, if you’re willing to stick it out.

However, a strict reduction of external stimulation is not right for everyone. If you find that your experience during undirected time is less like "uncomfortable boredom" and more like "panic and agony", then this is probably not the right approach for you.

The goal here isn't to torture yourself; it's to let more of your mind do what it wants to, as opposed to what someone else wants it to do. Whatever form that needs to take in your case, try to find conditions that support free and easy wandering for your own particular mind.


Problem 2: I’m skeptical of “reviews”. What exactly is the point of them?

Someone once sent me an email that said (in paraphrase):

I've heard a lot of rationalists praise reviews, and productivity bloggers are super into them too. But I've never really seen the point. What's the deal with them? How are they worth it?

Here was my response (slightly edited):

I'm not going to try to talk about how other rationalists or productivity enthusiasts use evening reviews. I'll just try to talk about how I use them.

I have a vague memory of having read, at some point, about a kind of spider that can do its visual processing only one tiny pixel at a time. It will go to the top left corner of a branch and look out, and see a little spot that is dark. Then it will move down slightly, and see a little spot that is a bit less dark. Eventually it will have scanned an entire object, and then it can finally begin to respond. (I don't have the description of the spider exactly right. It's a very old memory, and I don't remember where it came from. I hope someone who knows will read this and tell me.)

Since you have very advanced visual processing, you can look at a large swath of your visual field and figure out a whole bunch of stuff about it all at once. 

But imagine if there was something wrong with your visual processing, such that all blue things were left almost entirely un-processed in such sweeping summaries. It's not that blue things show up as gray, or that they show up as holes. Your brain treats them more like your blind spots, filling in the missing information with whatever it expects to see there. Your brain does a pretty good job, so you never notice this is happening. And since the failure to process is about blue things instead of about a particular unchanging spot in your visual field, you can't just memorize where the failure is. It's way harder to compensate.

And imagine if you were actually capable of seeing blue, you just weren't able to integrate that information, for some reason, with the rest of your visual processing systems. The data is there at the lowest level of processing. It's just dropped, in all the higher levels. Your brain receives it, but doesn't know how to deal with it.

In that case, you might possibly be able to start figuring out the blue things by taking the spider's approach: Looking at one pixel at a time, not even trying to make a whole picture out of it, crawling very very slowly across your visual field until you have taken note of each little dot individually.

For me, evening reviews are like that.

My mind has beliefs, grooves, presuppositions, about what kinds of information it ought to store for later use: When someone bought me a ticket to a chocolate tasting event, I stored the date of the event, and I've come back to that thought often in anticipation. When I noticed an unresolved conflict with my partner, I stored that in one of my sweeping summaries about the shape of the world, and I ruminated on it. If you ask me to describe a red-tailed hawk, I'll have no trouble, because I know how to see, recognize, and think about birds.

But there are many, many things that my automatic processing systems do not know how to pay attention to, because I am a human and the world is vastly more complex than my brain can hope to represent ("The map is not the territory, but you can't fold up the territory and put it in your glove compartment.") And my only clues are these little hints that I occasionally get when I'm looking at something in an unusual way, or when I feel a strong unexpected jab that came completely out of nowhere like an ice pick from the fifth dimension, or when I recognize a hiccup of the sort you might feel as something moves into your blind spot while you're trying to watch it.

When I set out to study something that I don't already basically understand, the questions I'm most concerned with are along the lines of, "What about this do I not know how to process? Where am I filling in holes that I don't even know are holes, what am I filling them with, and what are the consequences? What is the true shape of the world, and what can I do to learn how to see it better?"

So I name a very vague topic that I already know I've probably named incorrectly, since I have a hunch that I'm currently blind to key features of it. "Courage", for example. Or "fabricated options". Or, recently, "reaching outward into myself". 

(What is "reaching outward into myself"? I don't know! All I've got are some weird stabs from the fifth dimension, and that's my least terrible guess at what to call the thing that was poked.)

And every evening, I focus my attention on the one tiny pixel that is a single day's worth of experience, while it is still fairly fresh in my memory and has not undergone the triage of longer-term storage. A day may seem like a lot, and I have several methods for examining things at even finer granularity. But a day is still like a single pixel compared to my entire past, the pool from which my beliefs and habits and stories about the world are drawn. And as I look at that pixel, I note down anything about it that seems to maybe have something to do with whatever I'm trying to study.

Then eventually, after a couple of weeks, or a month, or maybe more than that, I look back at my notes, and I find out whether there are colors there that I did not previously know might exist. And very often, there are. There are almost always kinds of information that in my whole life leading up to that moment, I had habitually thrown out without even knowing it was happening. 

Not all of them are important. Not all of them turn out to matter. But sometimes there are so many bits of information of one particular kind that I'm able to recognize a pattern, and I manage to form a hypothesis that could never have occurred to me before.

For me, such novel hypotheses are the point of evening reviews.


Problem 3: I don’t really want to work on my own. How can I incorporate social support?

There are lots of ways to do this! I’m a pretty solitary sort, so I only have direct experience with a handful; I’d love for people to share their own ideas in the comments, but here are some methods I’ve seen work quite well.

1. Have a notes buddy. 

A notes buddy is a penpal with whom you trade field notes and bits of analysis. 

There can be some trickiness around privacy with notes buddies. It’s really important not to end up filtering your own observations based on what you’re comfortable sharing with someone else. When establishing a relationship like this, be sure you don’t accidentally commit yourself to sharing literally every note you write, unless you’re very sure that level of transparency will be good for you.


2. Set up a recurring video chat or coffee date. 

Talking with someone else in real time about your project can help a lot, even when there’s no structure to the interaction at all. For some people, a regular free-form discussion works much better than journaling or other forms of solo analysis.


3. Form an adventuring party. 

When two or more people set out to study roughly the same topic, it is possible to coordinate exploration efforts. 

Since naturalism focuses on direct experience, and people’s experiences differ, it’s almost inevitable that different people will take their studies in different directions. Finding out what other people have focused on and how they’re processing their findings can be exciting and illuminating. Adventuring parties can convene regularly in person or over video chat; they can use group chat platforms like Discord; and they can also take turns pairing off into notes buddies for closer collaborations.

Quite apart from their utility as support structures in my studies, I think adventuring parties are a lot of fun, and they’re my personal favorite way to socialize.


Appendix: Glossary

Undirected time: Time in which your thoughts can wander, in which neither you nor another person is attempting to do anything in particular with your mind.

Field work: Anything you do to observe experiences in their natural habitats.

Field notes: Any method of recording observations that happen in the field.

Lab work: Any part of your study that happens under artificially designed circumstances; exists on a continuum with field work.

Analysis: Any time that you spend reviewing your project-relevant memories or notes, and any deliberate processing you do in response.

Adventuring party: Two or more people engaged collaboratively in naturalist study of closely related topics.


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6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:04 AM

I have a vague memory of having read, at some point, about a kind of spider that can do its visual processing only one tiny pixel at a time. It will go to the top left corner of a branch and look out, and see a little spot that is dark. Then it will move down slightly, and see a little spot that is a bit less dark. Eventually it will have scanned an entire object, and then it can finally begin to respond. (I don’t have the description of the spider exactly right. It’s a very old memory, and I don’t remember where it came from. I hope someone who knows will read this and tell me.)

The kind of spider in question is likely Portia. Peter Watts' description sounds similar.

Yes, that description is definitely Portia. I have more links for the interested.

I'm curious how universal the value of "Undirected Time" is. I've found that I pretty much just... don't have "shower thoughts", at least not ones that are more frequently about what I've been working on. Similarly, I don't relate to the phenomenon of taking a break from a hard problem, coming back, and then suddenly making faster progress on it. And I especially don't relate to the phenomenon of having ideas come to me in dreams.

It's not obvious to me whether this is better or worse. On one hand I could be saving time by not having to wait for background processes (I don't feel like I get particularly stuck on problems anyway), but on the other hand maybe I'm just failing to use the background processes to do the cognition for me?

On the other other hand, I have to wonder if maybe I just do the equivalent of "undirected time", like, all the time? I feel like I pretty often switch what I'm thinking about between unrelated topics, or change scope, or wonder about whether things are connected in a certain way, etc. It feels like this might be satisfying the intended meaning of "undirected time", even if it doesn't feel undirected to me.

the kinds of things your thoughts do when you’re neither trying to do anything in particular with them, nor having them directed by an external force (such as a book, conversation, or TV show).

I think there is a kind of conversation that resembles Rogerian therapy (where the other person mostly listens, or comments on what was said but does not try to steer the conversation) that would work too. Possibly better for the kind of person who needs to verbalize their thoughts. Could be done with a buddy (taking turns), with a sidekick, or with a paid assistant.

Oh, this thing I identify more with doing (and getting results from).

I wanted to bring up a mode of cognition related to the undirected time inspired by Kaj Sotala's multiagent models of mind, which I think of as directed undirected time. It's basically defining a vague area, such as how to bridge natural abstractions to interpretability, where I allow my thoughts to roam free. If I get a thought such as, "Ah man, I should have been nicer in that situation yesterday", then I don't engage with it.  It's related to "problem-solving meditations" and something very beneficial to me, especially in the context of a walk. 
For you who like visualisations, you can imagine it as defining an area where thoughts are allowed to bounce around.

(A caveat is that I have meditated quite a bit, so I have a pretty good introspective awareness which might be required for directed undirected exploration, I'm pretty sure it helps at least.)