New year’s resolutions: Things worth considering for next year

Original post: New year’s resolutions: Things worth considering for next year

This post is duplicated in full from the original.

The beginning of the new year is a natural Schelling Point and swiftly approaching. With that in mind I have created a handy go-to list of things worth considering for next year.

Alongside this process; another thing you might like to do is conduct a review of this year, confirming your progress on major goals; double checking that you are on track.  and conduct any last-minute summaries of potential failures or learning-cases.

This list is designed to be used for imagination, opportunity, and potential planning purposes.  If you find yourself having the feelings of (disappointment, failure, fear, regret, burdens, guilt and others) reconsider looking at this list and instead do something that will not lead to negative feelings about the future.  If you are not getting something positive out of doing this exercise, don’t.  That’s a silly idea.  I am banking on the fact that it will be more helpful than not; for most people.  If you are in the category of people that it does not help – I am sorry; I assume you know your priorities and are working on them as reasonably effectively as possible – good luck with that task.

This list is going to look a bit like my List of common human goals because it was written concurrenlty with the ideas listed there (and by the same person).

You might want a pen and paper; and 10 minutes to go through this list and consider what things you want to do over the next year that fall into these categories.  This time is not for you to plan out an entire year, but something of a chance to consider the playing field of “a year of time”.  After you have a list of things you want to do; there are lots of things you can do with them.  i.e. time planning, research, goal factoring, task-generating.

without further ado; the list:

1. things I might want to study or learn next year

Often people like learning.  Are you thinking of higher level study?  Or keen to upskill?  Thinking of picking up a textbook (our list of best textbooks on every subject) on a topic.  Or joining a learning group for a skill

2. life goals I would like to have completed by next year

Do you already have a list of life goals?  Should you review them and do you want to particularly work on one over the next year?  Is something overdue?  Is there something you have been putting off starting?

3. health goals

Are there health targets that you let get away from you this year?  Are you looking to set future health targets?  Start new habits for the year?  beeminder suggests setting actionable goals as beeminding tasks, i.e. “eat carrots today” rather than targets “lose 1kg this month”.

4. savings I want to achieve by next year.

Do you want to save money towards something?  You need a budget has a free course on getting ahead of the paycheck cycle, pocketbook can also help you manage your money.  The best advice seems to be to open a savings account and initiate automatic transactions each week of $n.  After several weeks (provided you don’t pull money out) you will have accrued several*n dollars of savings.  (relevant to people who have a tendency to spend any money in their account at any given time.  It’s a bit harder to spend money not in your spending-account) In any case; having savings and putting it towards owning a passive income stream is a good goal to have or consider getting in on.

This post may also be of use.

5. job/earning goals

Are you planning to get a new job?  Hoping to get a raise?  transfer to a new department?  work less hours?  work more hours?  land a few big gigs? While I can’t tell you what is worthwhile; it’s worth knowing that in the process of interviewing for a new job – you should ask for more pay.  for that 5-10 uncomfortable minutes of your life (asking for a raise) you have the potential to earn $5-10 thousand dollars more (or more) for the exact same work.

6. relationship goals + family goals

Married; Kids; Poly; single->not transition; break-up? Divorce? moving away from your parents?  Getting better Friends?  Thanking your current friends for being so awesome?  Doing something different to previously – now is the chance to give it a few minutes thought.  There’s never a good time to stage a break-up but also living in a bad state of affairs is also not a good thing to prolong.  (Disclaimer: before quitting a relationship; first improve communication, if needed contact a professional counsellor)

About families and friends – A lot of people feel like their family holds a stronger bond than their friends by default.  For an excellent family that is supportive in your darkest hour that is an excellent situation to be in.  However for a burdensome family that drags you down; often it can be hard to get away.  In contrast to friends; where good ones can be better than family and bad ones can be walked away from.  Specifically what’s worth considering is that friends OR family can be a result of how you choose to treat them.  in the sense that if you have a preference that your friends be stronger than the strongest family ties then you can carry that into reality and achieve friendships to the envy of most families, and the same goes for a strong supportive family.  Your choice of what shape of reality you want to make for yourself will influence (on some levels) what sort of mess you get yourself into, and what sort of support network you have around.  Make that consideration over the next year of what sort of friendships and families you want to make for yourself and keep for yourself.

7. lifestyle goals

Start exercising daily (do you even lift)? Quitting smoking?  Do you go clubbing too often?  maybe you want to get out more? Addicted to curry puffs?  Hate hanging out with that group of friends?  Don’t like going to pub trivia but do it anyway?  Too many doughnuts?  Go hiking?  Thinking of trying out a new hobby? holding out for “the right time”. take that leap, sign up for a class.  Now is the time to make lifestyle changes.  (fair warning: most new year’s resolutions fail, look into SMART goals)

8. holiday goals/ travelling goals

looking at doing a month-long holiday?  Visiting someone in another place?  Maybe consider planning from now.  Studies have shown that anticipation and putting energy towards planning positive things leads to happiness (in the journey) the ability to look forward to your next holiday is going to have positive impacts on the way you live.

9. donations 

Have you had intention to make donations but haven’t made the plunge?  Maybe put some thought into how much you might like to donate and when/where to?  Many LW’ers are also EA’s and have interests in motivated and purposeful giving for maximising possible outcomes.  This could be an opportunity to join the group of EA’s that are actively giving.

10. volunteering

Have you always wanted to volunteer but never looked into it?  Maybe next year is the year to try.  Put some research in and find a group in need of volunteers.  Volunteering has the potential to give you a lot of positive feelings as well as a sense of community; being part of something bigger, and more.

You could stop here but there are a few more.  Out of the more general List of common human goals comes the following list of other areas to consider.  They are shorter in description and left open to imagination than those above.

11. Revenge

Is next year your chance to exact revenge on your foes?

12. Virtual reality success

Is next year the chance to harvest your gemstones?

13. Addiction

Is next year the year to get addicted (to something healthy or good for you, like exercise), or un-addicted (to something unhealthy for you)?

14. Ambassador

Are there things you want to do next year which will leave you as a representative of a group?  Is there a way to push that forward?  Or better prepare for that event?

15. Help others?

Do you know how you might go about helping others next year?

16. Keeping up with the joneses

Are you competing with anyone?  Is there something you are likely to need to prepare for throught the year?

17. Feedback

Are you looking for feedback from others?  Are you looking to give feedback to others?  Is this the year for new feedback?

18. Influence

Do you want to influence the public?

19. fame

Do you want to achieve some level of fame?  We live in a realm of the internet!  You wouldn’t believe how easy that is these days…

20. being part of something greater

Joining a movement?  Helping to create a revolution?  This could be the year…

21. Improve the tools available

As scientists we stand on the shoulders of the knowledge before us in order to grow.  We need sharp tools to make accurate cuts and finely tuned instruments to make exact measurements.  Can you help the world by pushing that requirement forward?

22. create something new

Is there something new that you want to do; is next year appropriate for doing it?

23. Break a record

Have your eye on a record?  How are you going to make it happen?

24. free yourself of your shackles

Are there things holding you back or tying you down?  Can you release those burdens?

25. experience

hoping to have a new experience, can you make it happen with thinking about it in advance?

26. Art

Want to have developed a creation?  Can you put wheels into motion?

27. Spirituality

Anything from a religion based spiritual appreciation to a general appreciation of the universe.  Revel in the “merely real” of our universe.

28. community

Looking to make a community, looking to be part of an existing community.  Looking to start a lesswrong branch?  Do it!


about 2.5 hours of writing plus feedback from the room and the Slack channel

If you are looking for some common ways to work on these possible goals?  That sounds like a great title for the next post in a matching series (one I have not written yet).  If you want to be a munchkin and start compiling thoughts on the idea, feel free to send me a message with a link to a google doc, otherwise you might have to wait.  This post was written out of necessity for the new-year, and wasn’t on my to-do list so the next one might take time to create.

Feel free to comment on goals; plans; progress or post your plans for the next year below.

If you can see improvements to this post – don’t be afraid to mention them!

To see more posts I have written see my Table of contents

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A strategy against the call of the void.

I wrote before about The call of the void.  That uncomfortable feeling where a voice in your head seems to ask you:

What would happen if I jumped off the balcony here…

Previously I quoted the one paper that exists on the topic:

…we propose that at its core, the experience of the high place phenomenon stems from the misinterpretation of a safety or survival signal. (e.g., “back up, you might fall”)

Now I wonder; if that were the case, which is to say that the hypothesis were true; how could we go about using this knowledge to relieve the feeling.  I came across an idea that I have tried out the few times that I have been struck with a call since writing about it above.  My idea is this:

Focus wholly and completely and loudly on the concept.  Let it take your full attention and acknowledge that yes; this is in fact a present danger.  Of course don’t jump, or do anything drastic, just acknowledge the feeling, boldly, sharply, ugly.  Then return as you were to the other tasks at hand.

I have tried this, and it seems to work, almost like clockwork the feeling of The Call drifts away.  Any intrusion is no longer intrusive.

I once heard the story of Dr. Morton Doran who is a surgeon but also has tourette syndrome.  How might that be possible?  Tourette syndrome is known for it’s involuntary tics:

A tic is a sudden, repetitive, nonrhythmic motor movement or vocalization involving discrete muscle groups. Tics can be invisible to the observer, such as abdominal tensing or toe crunching. Common motor and phonic tics are, respectively, eye blinking and throat clearing.

Well the interesting thing about Tourette syndrome is that it comes with a feeling of an involuntary urge or need to release the tics, which can be supressed from time to time, but a release is needed.  So all he has to do is go into another room, release the tics and return to concentrating on the surgery at hand.

This solution feels like the same solution; there is some kind of build up of urge in the brain; that warns you to DO THIS and to relieve it you need to give it a certain amount of focus.  This gives that part of the brain that is urging you to DO a feeling of acknowledgement that yes; it’s definitely been acknowledged.  It’s certainly really a ledge to jump off.

If you recognise it; this strategy might look familiar because it overlaps with Acceptance Commitment therapy (ACT).  A process of accepting thoughts, being mindful of the present, observing yourself and moving forward towards your values.

Act seems powerful overall, and is worth looking into to add to your toolbox of ideas.

Meta: this took an hour to write.  It’s been a while but I hope to write more over the coming weeks.

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Worked example of a mnemonic Memory technique

In 2015 I wrote a list of techniques to help you remember names.

Today I was working through trying to remember a specific theory and I noticed a pattern I have been using for a few days now.  When trying to remember theories or ideas.  The inspiration for this concept came to me because I have been using an app called FBreader, and a Text-to-speech plugin.  Using the two I now listen to ebooks in robot-voice while I drive or concentrate on other tasks.  The trouble is that sometimes a book will present (verbally because it’s being read out to me) some model or list of ideas that I need to hold in my head for the book to make any sense over the next few minutes or pages.  So I needed a way to generate a picture (possibly a system 1 visceral image) of the ideas so that I could play around with them as the chapter continued or also just; as I needed to recall the information a few days later.

I hope this post describes what it feels like from the inside to be performing this skill.

The process

This is what I have been doing in my head:

0. (regular check on the trigger: this seems like useful information/this list seems important) Do I feel like I will remember it?  If yes, end here.  (if unknown – practice via trial and error, intuitively knowing what you are likely to forget is powerful and useful information to hold)

1. Think about the concept and how I am going to remember it.

2. Build a visual/spatial/sensory model that feels right to me about the model.

  • What does it sound like?  (words sound like other words)
  • What does it remind me of? (other theories or systems that are similar)
  • Do I have any memories of experiences that seem to relate? (people who acted in ways that fit the model)
  • What does it line up to? (if it’s a list of 9 items, maybe 3 of them line up to some of the 9 circles of hell, which is convenient)
  • Can I play with it a bit in my head?

3. double check that it feels right, hone it till it does.  (Maybe it only has 5 pieces but 3 of them are already circles of hell. Can I make a new version of hell for my purposes of remembering these details – and why not?)


example 1:  reading models of therapy around extramarital affairs.  (from the paper – an intergrative intervention for promoting recovery from extramarial affairs (paywalled))

This model has 3 stages:

  1. Dealing with impact
  2. Exploring context and finding meaning
  3. Moving on.

my visual/spatial model (because it works for me) is like this:

  1. An asteroid hits the earth (impact)
  2. There is general rubble everywhere and people start to explore the damage (exploring and finding things)
  3. People begin to rebuild (moving on)

My model tells a story, and all I need to do is remember parts of the story and the rest comes back.  I have checked with myself that it sounds like I will recall the model, so I am safe to hold onto it in this way.

Example 2: From the book Difficult conversations.

There are 4 types of conversations, the important take away from the book is to square with the participants what type of conversation this is, so as to lay the grounds of understanding what will happen next.  The 4 types are:

  1. communicating an existing decision
  2. collaborative on a decision to be made together
  3. consulting on a decision you will make
  4. delegation of a decision to someone else

To remember these on the fly the best I could do (which works better than the names) is to imagine a circle, an arrow and a dot.  For each of the above, the picture of the type of conversation looks like:

  1. A circle with an arrow leading through a dot to the east. (a decision was made and is being communicated to the dot)
  2. A circle and a dot each with an arrow leading out from them to the east.
  3. A dot with an arrow leading north to a circle, then an arrow leading east from the circle
  4. A circle with an arrow leading south to a dot with an arrow leading east.
I am not sure that my description makes sense, but they strongly visually represent the information for me, so much so that I accidentally had a hard time explaining the 4 types of conversations to someone when I tried to repeat back my knowledge (because I forgot the names of them and only held the pictures)
In contrast, information also from that book – the 3 major conversations that go on in a difficult conversation are:
  1. The recount of what happened (Observation)
  2. The feeling surrounding the events (Feelings)
  3. The implications on people’s identities (Identity)

For this set of information I have recently also been looking into Non-Violent Communication (NVC) (see here: watch in double speed), Which has a 4 step model of communicating needs in a non-judgemental way (Observation, Feeling, Need, Request) – the 3 major conversations are so similar that I have no need to build a picture to recall this information.

At the top of this post I mentioned my post about how to remember names.  One of the strongest techniques for names is the mnemonic technique.  Where you build a sensory model of this person which connects them to their name (like the name Rose, imagine a rose on their head).  I mentioned it in 2015; as it’s basically the accepted strong model of how to remember people’s names like a champion.  What really hit me across the face like a wet fish today was that the mnemonic system is exactly what I was doing here.  But I never used it on names, I adamantly swear by the fact that I just did everything else on the list to remember names and didn’t need the mnemonics, I only just started using this technique now as I was needing it – as I was encountering information that was not staying in my head, I had to set up a system 2 loop in my head to remind me to check if I am likely to remember it.  And work out how to remember it.  Mnemonics are how to remember things.

I can’t tell you how to use this system exactly, nor can I make up the models that work for your memory.  But hopefully this description helps with feeling out the need and ability to build pictures of recalling information you need to store in your head.

Meta: this took 1.5hrs to write and sprung up accidentally as I realised what was going on in my head.

Feedback appreciated.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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The time you have

Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation

Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.

Part 2a: Empirical time management

Part 3: The time that you have

Part 3a: A purpose finding exercise

Part 4: What does that look like in practice?

There is a process called The Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan.  The process is designed to deal with personal problems that are stubborn.  The first step in the process is to make a list of all the things that you are doing or not doing that does not contribute to the goal.  As you go through the process you analyse why you do these things based on what it feels like to do them.

The process is meant to be done with structure but can be done simply by asking.  Yesterday I asked someone who said he ate sugar, ate carbs, and didn’t exercise.  Knowing this alone doesn’t solve the problem but it helps.

The ITC process was generated by observing patients and therapists for thousands of hours and thousands of cases.  Kegan observed what seems to be effective to bring about change, in people and generated this process to assist in doing so.  The ITC hits on a fundamental universal.  If you read my brief guide on Empirical time management, as well as part 1 – exploration-exploitation of this series it speaks to this universal.  Namely what we are doing with our time is everything we are choosing not to do with our time.  It’s a trade off between our values and it’s counter-commitments in ITC that’s often discovering the hidden counter commitments to the goals.

The interesting thing about what you end up doing with your time is that these are the things that form your revealed preferences.  Revealed preference theory is an economic theory that differentiates between people’s stated preferences and their actual actions and behaviours.  It’s all good and well to say that your preferences are one thing, but if you never end up doing that; your revealed preferences are in fact something entirely different.

For example – if you say you want to be a healthy person, and yet you never find yourself doing the things that you say you want to do in order to be healthy; your revealed preferences suggest that you are in fact not revealing the actions of a healthy person.  If you live to the ripe old age of 55 and the heavy weight of 130kg and you never end up exercising several times a week or eating healthy food; that means your health goals were a rather weak preference over the things you actually ended up doing (eating plenty and not keeping fit).

It’s important to note that revealed preferences are different to preferences, they are in fact distinctly different.  They are their own subset.  Revealed preferences are just another description that informs the map of, “me as a person”.  In many ways, a revealed preference is much much more real than a simple preference that does not actually come about.

As a human with goals we ideally want our considered preferences (the ones we talk about, think about, and generally believe to be our preferences) to line up with our revealed preferences.  Which is to say that our actions match our intents.  Less fooling ourselves about how much we want to exercise and actually exercising that much.  Consider this in the context of intellectual truth seeking:

The litany of truth.

If the sky is blue

I desire to believe that the sky is blue,

If the sky is not blue

I desire to believe that the sky is not blue.

Or for this case; a litany of objectivity,

If my revealed preferences show that I desire this goal

I desire to know that is my goal,

If my revealed preferences show that I do not desire this goal

I desire to know that is not my goal.

Irrespective of what is said, you want to be revealing your preferences by your actions.

Revealed preferences work in two directions.  On the one hand you can discover your revealed preferences and let that inform your future judgements and future actions.  On the other hand you can make your revealed preferences show that they line up with your goal.

  1. Revealed preferences ===> cause future actions
  2. Past actions ===> inform revealed preference

I get asked from time to time – how do you find your purpose?  Easier said than done right? That’s why I suggest an exercise that does the first of the two.  In contrast if you already know your goals you want to take stock of what you are doing and align what you are doing with your desired goals.


I already covered how to empirically assess your time, That would be the first step of how you take stock of what you are doing.

The second step is to consider and figure out your desired goals.  Unfortunately the process as to how to do that is not always obvious.  For some people they can literally just take 5 minutes and a piece of paper and list off their goals.  For everyone else I have some clues in the form of the list of common human goals.  By going down the list of goals that people commonly obtain you can cue your sense of what are some of the things that you care about, and figure out which ones matter to you.  There are other exercises, but I take it as read that “knowing what your goals are” is important.  After you have your list of goals you might like to consider estimating what fraction of your time you want to offer to each of your goals.

The third step is one that I am yet to write about.  Your job is to compare the list of your goals and the list of your time use and consider which object level tasks would bring you towards your goals and which actions that you are doing are not enabling you to move towards your goals.

Everything that you do will take time.  Any goal you want to head towards will take time, if you are spending your time on one task towards one goal and not on another task towards another goal; you are preferencing the task you are doing over the other task.  (like how the Immunity to Change talks about above)

If these are your revealed preferences, what do you reveal that you care about?

I believe that each of us has potential.  That word is an applause light.  Potential doesn’t really have a meaning yet.  I believe that each of us could:

  1. Define what we really care about.
  2. Define what results we think we can aim for within what we really care about
  3. Define what actions we can take to yield a trajectory towards those results
  4. Stick to it because it’s what we really want to do.

That’s what’s important right?  Doing the work you value because it leads towards your goals (which are the things you care about).

If you are not doing that, then your revealed preferences are showing that you are not a very strategic.  If you find parts of your brain doing what they want at the detriment of other parts of your goals, you need to reason with them.  Use the powers of VoI, treat this problem as an exploration-exploitation problem, and run some experiments (post coming soon).

This whole; define what you really care about and then head towards it, you should know that it needs doing ASAP, or you are making bad trade offs.

Meta: this is part 3 of 4 of this series.

Meta: this took 5 hours to piece together.  I am not yet very good at staying on task when I don’t know how to put the right words in the right order yet.  I guess I need more practice.  What I usually do is take small breaks and come back to it.

Cross posted to Lesswrong:

Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation

Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.

Part 2a: Empirical time management

Part 3: The time that you have

Part 3a: A purpose finding exercise

Part 4: What does that look like in practice?

Posted in models of thinking, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A purpose finding exercise

I had a friend confused and come to me asking for suggestions on how to find her purpose.  I love these questions because it’s a journey I have also been on.  There is no solid answer to that but there are often clues.  Here is an exercise that helps:

0: sit down with pen and paper and remove distractions for 30mins.

  1. make a list of your biggest accomplishments over the past 5 years.
  2. make a list of other achievements that you have seen other people achieve that you liked in the past 5 years.
    1. If this seems hard; make a list of people who you like, and write out some of the things that those people achieved that you cared about or that matter to you or mattered to them.
  3. decide which ones you are interested in for the future, or similar things for the future.
  4. Make a list of idea of which of those to pursue for the future.
  5. Make a list (or several) of how to go about doing those things, then start implementing!  for example – putting reminders in your diary, doing research and generally doing the things you want to do!

Q: I’m stuck?

Great! contact me for help!

Meta: Thank you Anna for the request, now I hope that more people can benefit from this exercise.

Meta: this took 30mins to write.

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Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important

A friend came to me with a startup as her main goal.  I am keen on my coaching skills so I would from time to time ask her what the top 3 most important things she could be doing today would be.  She would proceed to come back with a list.  A few days later I would check back and ask her what she got done.  She would very excitedly tell me all about the other things she was doing that weren’t the top 3 things.

I watched this behaviour for a while before commenting.  Eventually I asked her about it and she conceded she was doing tasks that seem easier than the important things because they feel like progress, say by doing four small 15 minute tasks you got four things done right?  Whereas if you work on an important task for an hour you only got one thing done.

Our brains like to use Rule of thumb type judgements to know what pathways to follow.  In this case, Am I making progress towards my goal was replaced by, have I completed things which was easily gamified by, How do I do the most little things I can.

The same thing happens when people pay attention to their health.  Get healthy turns into, Lose weight, which turns into unhealthy body images and great confusion.  Although this is probably more related to us not being clear and specific on what the health goal was in the first place.

So what say you have a lost purpose.  You want to do X but you find yourself doing the remarkably similar Y.  How do you fix that?

1. Be specific

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

It’s not going to work 100% of the time, but it does help.

Imagine you told a monkey to go collect coconuts, every coconut the monkey brings back you will give him one reward.  You mean the large useful ones that you might find in a supermarket.  Knowing how important coconuts are but not really understanding the task, while collecting large coconuts he finds some smaller ones, realising he can carry two half-size coconuts instead of one large one, he goes to find more smaller coconuts, until he is collecting teeny coconuts about the size of a coin.  Strictly speaking he is collecting coconuts, but you can easily say that’s not the coconut you want.

We don’t actually work with monkeys (despite what you might think).  Your own brain as well as the brain of other people will get a good return on specific instructions.

2. Goal factoring (CFAR technique)

Goal factoring is about working out the purpose of a task that you do.  For example I used to attend a group that was often hit and miss about whether I liked it.  I broke down my intentions of going to the group as:

  • meet new people
  • learn cool things
  • hang out with friends

I didn’t notice so easily, but as soon as I had this list it was easy to see that the group was waxing and waning in such a way that there were (for a more than 6month period) no new people.  Along with this I had been there long enough that learning new things was hard simply because I knew everything that everyone else knew, so there was less “new” to learn.  The third thing that happened is that a culture shift happened and the friends I liked hanging out with were less often there than the friends I was not super thrilled about hanging with.

Consequently I left that group and rescued my weeknight.

3. Applause lights in the territory

The concept of Applause lights were not invented by me:

“…it means that you have said the word “democracy”, so the audience is supposed to cheer.  It’s not so much a propositional statement, as the equivalent of the “Applause” light that tells a studio audience when to clap.”

Applause lights are often things that sound good but are not of any substance.  We need these because sometimes we need to climb ladders of abstraction and very quickly explain what we mean without being specific.

But we also need to climb back down those ladders and get specific if we ever want to make progress towards the goal.  What is actually going to lead us to Health, or Coconuts or A successful startup or Progress towards that goal?

And how can we pursue it with the ferocity of someone who knows exactly how much time they have left.

Meta: this post is a true story.  Thanks to Sarah for the inspiration and I hope she moves swiftly towards the important tasks from here on.

Meta: this took 1.5hrs to write

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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Bargaining trade-offs in your brain

Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation

Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.

Part 2a: Empirical time management

Part 3: The time that you have

Part 4: What does that look like in practice?

So you are now at the point where you are thinking about your exploration and exploitation behaviours.  Exploration and exploitation is a trade off between the value of what you know and the value of what you might know if you find out.

Remember the heuristic: You want to explore as much as to increase your information with regard to both the quality of the rest of the exploration and possible results and the expected returns on the existing knowledge.

You know they are trade-offs between different types of things you want to do, specifically I want to address this:

  1. You probably make the most measurable and ongoing gains in the Exploitation phase.  I mean – lets face it, these are long running goal-seeking behaviours like sticking to an exercise routine.
  2. The exploration might be seem more fun (find exciting and new hobbies) but are you sure that’s what you want to be doing in regard to 1?

What’s going on here?  If you know you know where to get the most reward, say exercising but you don’t find yourself doing the action you seem to know is the right thing, what’s going on?

I covered increasing complexity of models, and in aid of that I propose the idea of Bargaining trade-offs to your own brain.

As long as you take it with a grain of All models are wrong.

“The most that can be expected from any model is that it can supply a useful approximation to reality: All models are wrong; some models are useful” – George Box

Bargaining with your own brain

We take the model of Daniel Kanemann, in Thinking, fast and slow, that the brain is made of up System 1 and System 2.  System 1 feels like the automatic intuitive process, the process that can catch things thrown at it, or know what an apple looks like, just as  *it is this thing*.  System 2 is the part of you that can do complicated stepwise tasks, like multiplication of long numbers, following a recipe.

Going back to our example, it seems like we have an intellectual understanding that exercise is a good thing.  Yea; pretty important for health and long term well-being.  But why is that not automatically an easy thing to do.

I propose that the understanding of exercise being good is a System 2 activity, where the motivation to actually do exercise (or in this case – not do exercise), can be in System 1.  Of course you can still use system 2 to force yourself to get up and go exercise, but if you can make your System 1 believe that exercise is a good idea, life will be so much easier.

Intellectually understanding the importance of exercise is one step.  Negotiating it to System 1 is a lot less intuitive.

I want to cover a major bug in just trying to commit to exploration and exploitation automatically.  And that is where you feel like you want to exploit more but your system 1 still wants to explore.  It’s that voice in your head that sometimes says, “maybe I should go to the bar with my friends” or maybe it’s the other way around, all you want to do is go home, but you feel like you have to stay at the bar with your friends.

What do?

It’s an internal disagreement, (CFAR calls it a double crux.) and it has a solution.  While I can’t objectively solve every single internal disagreement you have ever; I have a few pieces of machinery to offer.

“How could I resolve this disagreement in my head?”
Or more specifically:
“what information could I use as evidence to make my decision of what to do next?”

Obviously there are reasons on each side.  To continue the bar example; we are trading off social friend opportunity with going home and doing other things.  However social friend opportunity comes only at opportune times for other people.  It’s not something that guarantee-ably happens on your schedule.  In weighing up these options we find ourselves sitting in the middle both not able to go home right away and not able to stay in the bar with our friends (kind of like a Buridan’s ass situation, except you probably won’t starve to death and have powers to resolve the puzzle).

It’s an all too common pattern to get in this position.  The process of solving the bug is a matter of signalling to either system (the one that disagrees with your choice) that you are doing some disagreeing with it for reasons that it supports.

Example 1:
In an internal dialog you can say okay System 1.  I am going to stay in the bar.  I feel the urge to “go do work”  that you are giving me (I clearly acknowledge the stimuli, including focusing on the other option for a moment), and this isn’t the most productive thing I could be doing right now, yes.  I know I also like to enjoy the company of my friends.  And tomorrow when I do want to enjoy their company more after I have done my two hours of work, I will be unable to, so to best take advantage of the company of my friends while they are available, I am going to stay in the bar.

Example 2:
In an internal dialog you can say, okay I know on a System 2 level that I should be working but being here in the bar is worthwhile to my system 1, because it likes my friends.  I value my friends as important right now compared to my other goals.

Some creative example of a discussion between s1 and s2 doesn’t need to be sensical, it just needs to be acceptable to you at the time so that you can finish deliberating and continue on with the task at hand.

The meta question being:

How will I resolve my indecision at this time?

It’s important to note that this is not, “how do I decide?” but what should be the easier version of, “what would inform my decision?”, “how can I help myself decide?”

Which is really – “what evidence do I need to convince my other indecision of my choice in this decision?” Or, “How do I go about gathering evidence for better making this decision?”  (You may notice this is becoming a lot like the VoI process from Exploration exploitation.


One big part of this process is noticing that you are indecisive.  That’s a really important and exciting event!

Oh great!  The opportunity to resolves an indecision, I always feel better after my indecision is resolved.

If you are the kind of person who is with limited anxieties; the positive reinforcement of the correct attitude may be irrelevant, but if you are in need of the affirmation this is a step that cannot be left out.  Leaving it out will give you ugh fields, and holding plenty of stress and confusion of indecision.

Communication and being honest with yourself

Emirically assessing your time use is a process I designed to help defeat a s1/s2 incongruity.  You can System2!know that these are all the tasks you spend your time on, so in order to System1!change your mind on what you want to do in your time you need to inform/convince/bargain/wrangle the monkey of your system 1 that there is no time that has sneakily “escaped” your view, fallen down the back of the couch, or somehow there is “more time” other than what you already have.  This is what I consider the most powerful insight of this process.

What this whole meta-process of asking yourself questions and untangling really entails is establishing strong and confident pathways of communication between different parts of yourself.  And that really comes down to being honest amongst those different parts.  People take actions based on their desires and goals.  That’s fine.  Sometimes we do things for bad, dumb, silly, irrational, frustrating, self-defeating, or irrelevant reasons.  That’s okay.  As long as you are okay with it.  If you are not okay with it, that’s when you have the choice to do something else.

Humans are complicated, they have many motivations and goals and reasons why they may or may not do any given action.  That’s fine.  Sometimes the possible actions in front of us take competing paths.  Whichever path you end up going down you need to be okay with that.

Meta: this took 2 hours to write.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation

Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.

Part 2a: Empirical time management

Part 3: The time that you have

Part 4: What does that look like in practice?

Posted in exercise, lesswrong, models of thinking, self-improvement | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Turning the dial to eleven

I have a local lesswronger, he likes to use the phrase, “turning the dial to eleven”.

I think XKCD emphasises it well:

There’s something sweetly satisfying about turning the dial TO THE MAX just to see what it does. The really beautiful thing about this idea is that you can apply it to any goal seeking, more specifically any behaviour that can be done can be done in an extremely studious way.

Do all the things!

This is not always applicable, we know things like, working yourself ragged is not a virtue, as well as Systems not goals which preaches framing plans in terms of systems, not in terms of the finish line.

There are also some domains where this is a really bad idea.  For example: exercise – if you decide to exercise constantly you will discover that you can’t actually do that;  or if you decide that exercising every 3-4 days is not enough, and you want to cut out the rest days, and instead exercise every day, you will have made a beginners mistake and not realised that exercise is a process of using muscles and days off repair the damage caused by the use of muscles on the active days.  So simply turning the dial up to 11 on exercise without doing your research first will be a detrimental idea.

Nevertheless there is still some satisfaction to be gained from turning the dial to 11.  Specifically, the question:

“If I were to go all out on this goal, what would that look like?”

Followed by

“What is stopping me?”

There is a certain joy that comes from trying to turn the dial up to eleven just to see what happens.  Pursue your goal with all means necessary just to see what comes of it.  This ties into Nate Soares’ half assing it with everything you’ve got.

If you are still reading;  put this down on the list of experiments (post coming soon) to try “next time I have a goal” to test it on.

Try turn the dial up to eleven you won’t believe what happens next.

meta: This took 1.5hrs to write.

Written as a tribute to Tim.

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Exploration-Exploitation problems

Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation

Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.

Part 2a: Empirical time management

Part 3: The time that you have

Part 4: What does that look like in practice?

I have been working on the assumption that exploration-exploitation knowledge was just common.  Unfortunately I did the smart thing of learning about them from a mathematician at a dojo in Melbourne, which means that no.  Not everyone knows about it.  I discovered that again today when I searched for a good quick explanation of the puzzle.  With that in mind this is about Exploration Exploitation.

The classic Exploration-Exploitation problem in mathematics is the multi-armed bandit.  Which is a slang term for a bank of slot machines.  Where the player knows that each machine has a variable payoff and you have a limit number of attempts before you run out of money.  You want to balance trying out new machines with unknown payoffs against exploiting the knowledge you already have from the earlier machines you tried.

When you first start on new bandits, you really don’t know which will pay out and at what rates.  So some exploration is necessary to know what your reward ratio in the territory will be.  As your knowledge grows, you get to know which bandits are likely to pay, and which are not, and this later informs your choices as to where to place your dollars.

Mathematicians love a well specified problem like this because it allows us to make algorithm models of patterns that will return rewards or guarantee rewards given certain circumstances.  (see also – the secretary problem which does similar.  Where I showed how it applied to real life dating)

Some of the mathematical solutions to this problem look like:

Epsilon greedy – The best lever is selected for a proportion 1-ε of the trials, and a lever is selected at random (with uniform probability) for a proportion ε. A typical parameter value might be ε =0.1 but this can vary widely depending on circumstances.

Epsilon-decreasing strategy: Similar to the epsilon-greedy strategy, except that the value of ε decreases as the experiment progresses, resulting in highly exploratory behaviour at the start and highly exploitative behaviour at the finish.

Of course there are more strategies, and the context and nature of the problem matters.  If the machines suddenly one day in the future all change, you might have a strategy that would prepare for potential scenarios like that.  As you start shifting away from the hypothetical and towards real life your models need to increase complexity to cater to the details of the real world.

If this problem is more like real life (where we live and breathe), the possible variability of reality starts coming in to play more and more.  In talking about this – I want to emphasise not the problem as interesting, but the solution of <sometimes explore> and <sometimes exploit> in specific ratios or for specific reasons.  The mathematical solutions the the multi-armed bandit problem are used in such a way to take advantage of the balance between not knowing enough and taking advantage of what you do know.

What supercharges this solution and how it can be applied to real life is value of information.

Value of Information says that in relation to making a decision, what informs that decision is worth something.  With expensive decisions, risky decisions, dangerous decisions, highly lucrative decisions, or particularly unknown decisions being more sure is important to think about.

VoI suggests that any decision that is worth money (or worth something) can have information that informs that decision.  The value of information can add up to the value of the reward on correctly making the decision.  Of course if you spend all the potential gains from the decision on getting the perfect information you lose the chance to make a profit.  However usually a cheap (relative to the decision) piece of information exists that will inform the decision and assist.

How does this apply to exploration-exploitation?

The idea of VoI is well covered in the book, how to measure anything.  While the book goes into detail and is really really excellent for applying to big decisions, the ideas can also be applied to our simple every day problems as well.  With this in mind I propose a heuristic:

You want to explore as much as to increase your information with regard to both the quality of the rest of the exploration and possible results and the expected returns on the existing knowledge.

The next thing to supercharge our exploration-exploitation and VoI knowledge is Diminishing returns.

Diminishing returns on VoI is when you start out not knowing anything at all, and adding a little bit of knowledge goes a long way.  As you keep adding more and more information the return on the extra knowledge has a diminishing value.

Worked example:  Knowing the colour of the sky.

So you are blind and no one has ever told you what colour the sky is.  You can’t really be sure what colour the sky is but generally if you ask enough people the consensus should be a good enough way to conclude the answer.

So one guy gave you your first inkling of what the answer is.  But can you really trust him?

Yea cool.  Ten people.  Probably getting sure of yourself now.

Really, what good is Two Thousand people after the first fifty?  Especially if they all agree.  There’s got to be less value of the 2001st person telling you than there was the 3rd person telling you.

Going back to VoI, how valuable was the knowledge that the sky is blue?  Probably not very valuable, and this isn’t a great way to gather knowledge in the long run.

The great flaw with this is also if I asked you the question – “what colour is the sky?” you could probably hint as to a confident guess.  If you are a well calibrated human, you already know a little bit of everything and the good news is that calibration is trainable.

With that in mind; if you want to play a calibration game there are plenty available on google.

The great thing about calibration is that it seems to apply across all your life, and all things that you estimate.  Which is to say that once you are calibrated, you are calibrated across domains.  This means that if you become good at it in one area, you become better at it in other areas.  We’re not quite talking about hitting the bullseye every time, but we are talking about being confident that the bullseye is over there in that direction.  Which is essentially the ability to predict the future within a reasonable set of likelihoods.

Once you are calibrated, you can take calibration, use it to apply diminishing returns through VoI to supercharge your exploration exploitation.  But we’re not done.  What if we add in Bayesian statistics?  What if we can shape our predicted future and gradually update our beliefs based on tiny snippits of data that we gather over time and purposefully by thinking about VoI, and the diminishing returns of information.

I don’t want to cover Bayes because people far smarter than me have covered it very well.  If you are interested in learning bayes I would suggest heading to Arbital for their excellent guides.

But we’re not done at bayes.  This all comes down to the idea of trade-offs.  Exploration VS exploitation is a trade off of {time/energy} vs expected reward.

A classic example of a trade-off is a story of Sharpening the Saw (from the book 7 habits of highly effective people)

A woodcutter strained to saw down a tree.  A young man who was watching asked “What are you doing?”

“Are you blind?” the woodcutter replied. “I’m cutting down this tree.”

The young man was unabashed. “You look exhausted! Take a break. Sharpen your saw.”

The woodcutter explained to the young man that he had been sawing for hours and did not have time to take a break.

The young man pushed back… “If you sharpen the saw, you would cut down the tree much faster.”

The woodcutter said “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw. Don’t you see I’m too busy?”

The thing about life and trade offs is that all of life is trade-offs between things you want to do and other things you want to do.

Exploration and exploitation is a trade off between the value of what you know and the value of what you might know if you find out.

Try this:

  • Make a list of all the things you have done over the last 7 days.  (Use your diary and rough time chunking)
  • Sort them into exploration activities and exploitation activities.
    Answer this:
  • Am I exploring enough? (on a scale of 1-10)
    • Is this all there is to life?  I already know enough?
  • Am I exploiting enough? (on a scale of 1-10)
    • Have I banked on the gains I have already made?
  • Have I turned down any exploring opportunities recently?
  • Have I turned down any exploitation opportunities recently?
  • How could I expand any exploring I am already doing?
  • How could I expand any exploiting I am already doing?
  • How could I do more exploring?  How could I do less exploring?
  • How could I do more exploiting?  How could I do less exploiting?

There are two really important things to take away from the Exploration-Exploitation dichotomy:

  1. You probably make the most measurable and ongoing gains in the Exploitation phase.  I mean – lets face it, these are long running goal-seeking behaviours like sticking to an exercise routine.
  2. The exploration might be seem more fun (find exciting and new hobbies) but are you sure that’s what you want to be doing in regard to 1?

Meta: This is part 1 of a 4 part series.

This took in the order of 10-15 hours to finish because I was doing silly things like trying to fit 4 posts into 1 and stumbling over myself.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation

Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.

Part 2a: Empirical time management

Part 3: The time that you have

Part 4: What does that look like in practice?

Posted in lesswrong, models of thinking, self-improvement | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Empirically assess your time use

Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation

Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.

Part 2a: Empirical time management

Part 3: The time that you have

Part 4: What does that look like in practice?

168 hours in a week

You and me both buddy.  We both have equal access to our 168 hours.  We have different demands on our hours like the need for sleep or how demanding our job is, but fundamentally we all start with the same 168 hours (24*7=168).  That means we all have an opportunity to look at these hours and figure out how to get the most out of them by doing the things we want to do in the limited hours we have.

This process is about looking at your hours and discovering where they go.

Make a list of all the things you have done over the last 7 days.  As a time management technique, this is a procedure to follow that will be useful for other times.

This might take 30 minutes to do, and might take 10 minutes.

  1. Acquire writing implements
  2. Write down the day and time.
  3. Subtract 7 days from now, and figure out where you were at the beginning of that day.
  4. Go through your diary, your phone call log, your sms history, your messenger histories and work out what you did, in rough chunks, from when you woke up on that day until now.
  5. Start with sleep – You probably have a regular enough wake up time, and a regular enough time that you go to sleep.  This will put upper bounds on the number of hours in your life.
  6. Identify Routines and how long they take – regular meals, lunch breaks, shower processes.
  7. Identify regular commitments – meetings, clubs, events.
  8. Identify any social time.
  9. Identify time spent deeply working, studying, reading, planning
  10. Identify exercise.
  11. Identify dual purpose time, i.e. I play on facebook on the bus.

Here is an example

7 wake up
7-7:30 shower and get ready (30mins)
7:30-8 drive to work (30mins)
8-10 check emails and respond to people (1hour)
10-10:20 coffee break (20mins)
10:20-1 work meeting (1hr40mins)
1-1:30 lunch (30mins)
1:30-3:30 computer work (2hrs)
3:30-3:40 distraction food break (10mins)
3:40-4:30 work (50mins)
4:30-5 drive home (30mins)
5-6 make and eat dinner (1hr)
6-7:30 netflix (1.5hrs)
7:30-11:30 play on computer (3.5hrs)
11:30-11:45 get ready and head to bed. (15mins)

Another option might be to simplify this to:

7am wake up
7-7:30 shower and breakfast (30mins)
7:30-8 drive to work (30mins)
8-1 work(5hrs)
1-1:30 lunch (30mins)
1:30-4:30 work (3hrs)
4:30-5 drive home (30mins)
5-6 dinner (1hr)
6-11:30 relax and entertain myself (5.5hrs)
11:30-11:45 get ready and go to bed (15mins)

Now repeat for the rest of the days.


Time management is about knowing where your time is going.  it might be interesting to know that you spend an hour commuting, or 8 hours working or two hours dealing with food each day.  Or maybe that’s just Mondays.  And when you go out for dinner you spend more time with food.

If you are trying to work out the value of your time it helps to know what you do with your time.  Doing this exercise for 2-4 weeks in a row can help you establish a baseline of your 168 hours.  And where efficiency or inefficiencies lie.  If you want to grow; it starts with evidence and observation.

Yea but why did I do that? And what comes next?

Nothing, just think about what you uncovered.  Do as I do and revel in the joy of the merely real, knowing what you actually do with your time.  This is your life.  Do with it what you will.  Know that how you spend your time are your revealed preferences (post coming soon).

Meta: This took 45mins to write.  This is an exercise that I invented for myself years ago, this is the first time I have written it up.  You can’t get the most out of the exercise without trying it out to see what it’s like.  Good luck!

Cross posted to lesswrong:

Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation

Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.

Part 2a: Empirical time management

Part 3: The time that you have

Part 4: What does that look like in practice?

Posted in life maintenance, models of thinking, self-improvement | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment