Saturday, 13 August 2011

RBC review exercises

Well, I'm at the end of Rationality Mega-Camp. They seem to have saved a lot of the good stuff for last -- the sessions this week were astoundingly helpful, and I expect the stuff I've done this week to be stuff worth doing at least every few months.

On Monday we did a great exercise called "Mapping your rationality strengths and weaknesses", and on Wednesday we did one called "Using RBC to create a good life."

Mapping your rationality strengths and weaknesses:

For each of the below subskills, analyze it with respect to:
  • When do you use it in your personal relationships?
  • When do you use it in your career? (work, schooling, startups, long-term planning)
  • When do you use it to understand yourself?
  • When do you use it to model abstract issues or the outside world? (politics, the economy, existential risk, etc.)
  • What's the biggest obstacle to using it more?
  • Brainstorm at least 5 simple tasks to help you do this subskill more.
Subskill 1: Actually wanting an accurate map. Want an accurate map more than you want to believe your map is accurate, your past actions are justified, or your opinions are respectable.

Subskill 2: Use fungibility. (The procedure where you ask what goals an action serves; ask what other ways you can think of to achieve those goals; check for resistance if you find what looks like a better way.) Do this procedure often, and find that it leads you to better plans and better paths to executing those plans.

Subskill 3: Bother to form models of the world. Be curious. Be specific and ask for examples. Have anticipations ("What would I see, if X were true? What would I see, if X were not true? Which do I see?") Write down your predictions, and update your calibration.

Subskill 4: Know your own motives. Have a moment-to-moment awareness of your own emotions and the motivations guiding your thoughts. Notice rationalization. Notice fear. Notice lack of curiosity.

Subskill 5: Keep your eyes on the prize. Focus your effort on the issues most relevant to your goals, notice when you're getting on a tangent, and asking "is this the right path?"

Subskill 6: Take ideas and reasoning seriously. Expect the world to make sense, realize that nothing works or fails by magic, trust in explicit reasoning, and use arithmetic in your daily life.

Subskill 7: Act conscientiously. (I added this one myself.) When you notice a failing, make a plan to correct it immediately; when you make a plan, execute on it; walk towards the darkness (the areas you feel weakest); constantly search for hidden aversions and ugh fields.

My answers to the rationality map

Some of this stuff is quite private, but I'll tell you the stuff that's not too private. My ratings are out of 10 where zero is I don't do this subskill at all, and ten is I do it perfectly.

Actually wanting an accurate map -- relationships 4; career 7; self 9; world 8. After several tries to understand and model my own behavior, I've gotten great positive feedback for when I modeled myself more correctly, and so I really want to understand myself well. Lying to yourself isn't very productive. So I rate myself an 8 at this. The weakest one is obviously my personal relationships, especially for my friends; I enjoy the company of my friends, but I seem to not want to discover flaws in them, or reasons that I shouldn't be friends with them. Biggest obstacle to wanting it more is not wanting to imagine the consequences of having an accurate map because of ugh fields. Task to improve: include regularly imagining my ugh fields in my weekly routine.

Using fungibility -- relationships 2; career 6; self 4; world 4. Applying this procedure is far from a regular occurrence in all areas of my life; in the below exercise I applied it to my career and it worked well. Biggest obstacle to using this more is laziness. Adding it to my weekly routine.

Bother to form models of the world -- relationships 3; career 4; self 5; world 7. Weak on relationships because of not wanting the accurate map. Strong on world because that is where predictions come up regularly, so lots of opportunities to test. I do sometimes adjust my own behavior because of my self model and it does sometimes work. Biggest obstacle is actually making and writing predictions. I'm joining the Good Judgment Project which should help with world, and I'm attempting difficult motivational challenges in my career path which should help with self also.

Know your own motives -- relationships 4; career 7; self 5; world 6. Weak on relationships for above reasons. Strong on career: I can easily enumerate the tradeoffs among career choices for me. Low on self because reflection is hard. Biggest obstacle is reflection. Next task is following the self-reflective steps, especially the data-gathering ones, in the excellent luminosity sequence.

Keep your eyes on the prize -- relationships 3; career 5; self 4; world 6. Weak in relationships because I easily get distracted by positive or negative emotions. Strongest on world due to the opposite of that. Biggest obstacle is non-equanimity with regard to outcomes of these decisions. Next task might actually be meditation; I don't have a better idea there, but meditation is supposed to train equanimity.

Take ideas and reasoning seriously -- relationships 6; career 6; self 8; world 8. I have the sense that all of these are modelable and that good models would produce decent predictions; my belief is substantially less strong about my personal relationships and my own career path for some reason. Biggest obstacle is thinking that my career is subject to luck, even though I know it's not really true. Next task is to convince my elephant of this, I guess try IFS on myself.

Act conscientiously -- relationships 3; career 5; self 6. Weak on relationships because I'm afraid to offend people. Strong on self; I do actually do some of the reflective things I say I will do. Medium on career because I do take some actions, but probably later than I should. Biggest obstacle is overcoming social fear ugh field. Next task is to stare at and write about my social fear ugh field (it's on my monthly task list but I will do it this weekend).

Using RBC to create a good life:

1. List the major components of your upcoming life. (Example: do reading; write papers; play video games.) Run the "use fungibility" procedure on each.

2. List the major unknowns in your upcoming life. (Example: which career to go into; which grocery store to shop at; how much time to spend talking to professors.) Run a quick value-of-information calculation on each one.

3. Write your hypothetical character assassination, and then make a plan to counter it:

a. Suppose you were looking at another person, Bob, who is exactly identical to you. Suppose you found out that in the year after leaving Rationality Boot Camp, Bob didn't do anything remarkable at all. Explain why Bob's failure was totally predictable, and what aspects of Bob's skillset (and skills gas) should have made everyone predict that failure.

b. Write each missing skill (that you invoked to explain Bob's failure) at the top of a blank sheet of paper. Under that heading, list the components of that skill, and then the sub-components, and perhaps the sub-sub-components... continuing as far as you need to continue until your list is filled with mundane, visibly accomplishable tasks.

c. If you're feeling any despair, talk to someone about it. Brainstorm, plan, visualize, anticipate, and problem-solve until you both (1) understand the faults you listed in part a, and (2) actually expect that you'll be able to succeed well beyond the level of success your pre-RBC self would have had (e.g., you'll be able to make $1M over the next five years if you aim for money).

I'm not going to give you my results here, because they're very private. I'll tell you about them if you're interested, but I'd rather do it in person. If you want to have an in-person meeting, email me and we'll set it up.

I think this will be my last post here. I will keep my personal blog alive, and probably put a decent amount of rationality content up there. In fact, I've added "write a blog post" to my weekly tasks.

Sunday, 7 August 2011


I'm trying to figure out how to train conscientiousness.

When I imagine how a formidable rationalist would act, I imagine a particular superpower: achieving the things he or she sets out to do.

Part of this superpower is the skill of planning: choosing what goals to achieve, breaking them down into subtasks which are achievable, and so on. I'm not going to talk about planning now, though that seems important.

Instead, I'm going to talk about another required skill: conscientiousness -- following through on your plans. This means doing all the steps, not just the ones you feel like doing; doing them in a timely fashion, before your plans go stale; cutting down on procrastination and other forms of akrasia; and keeping your effectiveness high even when your motivation flags.

Since these appear to have synergistic effects, I categorize them all under "conscientiousness." Some synergistic effects: if you're working efficiently, you will quickly finish things you don't want to do, so you can get onto more fun tasks. Checking things off of a list produces positive feedback and improves your motivation level.

My own recent successes:
  • I am most of the way through signing up for cryonics, which is a stupid long and painful process involving talking to lots of people and waiting for bits of paper to go through the mail system. (Lots of people decide that they want cryonics in general, but that they don't want it now, or something like that, when in reality, if they're young, they can get it now for less than $400/year.)
  • I adopted about six new small daily habits: planning every day; brushing my teeth consistently in the morning; doing Anki and N-back; taking a multivitamin.
  • I use to-do lists regularly and they make me get all the little things done that I used to waste time on.
  • I created a better model of my own procrastination / time-wasting habits, and apply it regularly to reduce these behaviors: I browse Reddit or Hacker News when I'm "bored" of whatever I'm doing, but I've changed my default response to boredom from "do something fun and idle" to "go figure out why you're bored".
I still have a long way to go, but there were a few fundamental insights which caused me to put everything together and start developing this model.

The first useful model I built was when I read about ego depletion: the idea that self-control is a resource which can be used up. The main thing I learned from this was just that self-control isn't all-powerful in my own head. When I was younger, I used to have the belief that I was very much in control of my own actions and that if I decided I wanted to do something difficult, I just had to try hard enough. I was disabused of this when I tried to stop biting my fingernails through sheer willpower (I still have never solved this habit), or tried to work on a boring project for a long period of time. I was amazed at how much I was able to rationalize why I couldn't work on it "today" every day. I could summon the willpower to start working on it, but I couldn't maintain it for a long period of time without a different motivational structure.

The second useful piece of the model was my brain as a set of interconnected agents, each with its own needs and goals. This came from Rationality Boot Camp and it came to me through the sessions about The Elephant and the Rider -- IFS and mind-charting (a topic which I intended to, but never wrote about -- whoops). Basically, my brain is not unified in its goals, but instead it has lots of agents. I should individually optimize those agents so they don't block me from my higher level goals.

The third useful piece of the model comes from positive affect and conditioning. I can make myself want to do something by getting positive feedback when I do that thing, so if I am trying to find out how to convince myself to do something, I better figure out why I would enjoy it, or how I could make myself enjoy doing that thing.

Specific techniques I've used:

"I'll just do it for 3 minutes" -- I think I read this one on Hacker News. It only takes a bit of self-control to convince yourself to start doing a task if you know it'll only be for a short time. Once you're doing it, maybe you'll actually enjoy it and want to keep doing it. This works for me when I have a complicated programming or administration task I don't want to do, because those sorts of things are hard to motivate myself to start doing, but once I start doing it, I don't usually want to stop.

"Imagine the goals it serves" -- as Anna calls it, the "use fungibility procedure". I wrote about this before, but I'll say it again, because it comes up a lot: notice you're doing some action, figure out what goals it serves, figure out if there are other ways to achieve those goals, and then check for resistance along the new plan you've conceived. This is useful even if you're pretty sure you're achieving your goals optimally -- it is quick and it allows you to be more likely to notice options that might have just opened up, and it also makes sure you know where you're going with anything you do.

When I notice someone (including myself) saying "you should probably X" or "I should really Y", I now have a really strong affordance where I ask "when will you do that?" Tons of people seem to decide they SHOULD do something that they never really do. Automatically asking "when?" has two purposes: it asks you to commit to doing a thing which is beneficial; and it helps you notice your own bullshit, when you don't actually intend to do the thing you say you "should".

Related: asking "what's the next action?" for all your goals, all the time. (Once you've figured out the next action, figure out when you'll take that step.)

"Planning is good": You can actually achieve a lot by thinking, being strategic, analyzing your goals, figuring out other routes to achieving them, and so on. An hour a day of planning is a fair bit more than most people do, and depending on their goals, lots of people would benefit from well over that. Basically, it seems like opportunities appear all the time, but you have to regularly write down your goals to notice them. I don't think I'm averaging anywhere near an hour a day yet, but it seems like a goal to achieve. (What's the next action? Spend an hour today meta-planning!)

Keeping a notebook: I write every day in my notebook. I take five minutes every morning to plan -- write down my short, medium, and long-term goals. The notebook serves as my general scratch pad for planning too. I rarely reference anything in my notebook, but having something on paper while I'm planning serves to greatly clarify my thoughts. (Don't know if it's better than random sheets of paper -- it's more viscerally satisfying I guess, and I don't have to go hunting for pen and paper.)

Making a to-do list. When I notice I have more than a couple things to do in the day, I write them all down in one place in my notebook and check them off. It seems much easier and more satisfying than doing it in my head. (Current goal: when I start school, start a proper Getting Things Done inbox, which collects everything I need to do in one place. Next action: buy a damn box.)

If you have any ideas about how you've learned the skill of conscientiousness, please share them in the comments.

Monday, 1 August 2011


Last Sunday at 10pm, I made some pancakes. The experience was fascinating because, having been thinking about this sort of thing quite a lot for the past few weeks, I think I can describe in some detail what led to me making pancakes, why the pancakes didn't turn out as well as they could have, and why this didn't bother me in the slightest.

Why did I make pancakes at 10 o'clock at night? Well, earlier that day, I had been out with a couple of my housemates, and we had decided to buy chocolate peanut butter (incidentally, it turns out this is not a good substitute for Nutella on pancakes) and lemon juice. Come 10 o'clock, I didn't have any particular desire to eat pancakes, and the other people I'd been out with earlier that day also did not seem interested. However, not only had we decided that we were going to make pancakes, we had also gone to the effort of stopping at a supermarket and picking up relevant condiments. Clearly, I was the sort of person who was going to make pancakes on Sunday. Equally clearly, it would have been a waste of time to buy chocolate peanut butter and lemon juice if I didn't subsequently make pancakes.

So, I started the pancake-making process. I used a recipe from the internet, because I didn't trust myself to remember exactly the proportions in which the relevant ingredients should be added. The recipe was the top-rated recipe on a fairly large internet site, and presumably large numbers of people had successfully used it before. However, there was an individual comment in the comments section underneath the recipe which claimed that the instructions were in the wrong order. Failing to properly weight statistical evidence, and giving into my instincts to weight personal anecedotes too heavily, I decided to follow the instructions posted in the comment.

About 5 minutes into the process of making pancake batter, I realised that everything was coming out way more lumpy than I would have liked, and that I didn't have an electric whisk, or even a normal whisk. At this point, I realised that I had probably made a mistake by following the non-standard recipe, and considered the option of throwing away the batter I had made so far, and starting again. However, that would have meant that I had wasted all the time I had put into making pancakes so far. Also, that I had been wrong to trust the person who made the comment on the original recipe. I persevered.

About 20 minutes into the process of making pancake batter (due to my sub-optimal recipe choice, and my unwillingness to sink my sunk costs, the process of making the batter ended up taking about half an hour) I was washing up the sieve that I had used to get rid of some of the lumps in the batter (the recipe choice was seriously sub-optimal) when another of my housemates came into the kitchen and thanked me for doing the washing up. I'm not quite sure whether it was because of a consistency effect, or some form of reciprocity, but 10 minute later, I had washed all of the dishes in the kitchen, and was ready to continue with the pancake batter...

I actually noticed that my actions were probably being guided by consistency effects a few minutes into starting the process of making batter. However, my brain was very able to come up with a variety of reasons why continuing to make the pancake batter was a good idea (I had by now promised pancakes to another housemate, I was not doing anything else anyway...). Similarly, I managed to justify not throwing the batter away once I knew it was ruined, even after considering the fact that I was almost certainly considering the time, and eggs that I'd put into things so far as a cost.

As I said, I have spent the last two months thinking in a fair amount of detail about this sort of thing, and it seems to have gotten me as far as being able to catalogue the motivations for my actions after the fact. It is perhaps worth noting that I had no introspective access to any of these motivations. Rather than introspection, I used the technique of looking at what I was doing, and considering the question "what might have caused a person who had been through the same experiences as me recently to be doing this thing?". I'm not sure how far I'm ever likely to get in reducing the impact these sorts of biases and bad heuristics have on my cognition. I'm not sure if I should be trying to train myself out of them, or just learning to notice them so that I can harness them for achieving more strategic goals. However, I'm fairly sure that being able to spot them is a good first step, so I am getting somewhere...