Things that I’m currently the most interested in (Jan 21st of 2015 edition)

* Creating social environments that actively support and reinforce people’s growth, as well as the incentivizing the development of valuable projects. Our environment has a huge impact on us. The topics that we happen to see or hear discussed around us will, if not quite determine the topics that we spend our time thinking and ultimately caring about, at least vastly influence those topics. Similarly, the habits of the people around us affect our motivation and behavior: if everyone else is slacking off, then we too are likely to follow suit.

As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words: even people and communities with good intentions may get sidetracked into becoming less effective than they could be, if they spend a lot of time talking about noble goals but in practice do little but play games. On the flip side, if people really do consistently act in a purposeful manner, that is likely to also motivate the others around them.

I want to figure out the social technologies we need to consistently create communities which encourage people to develop themselves, work on valuable big-impact projects, and feel good about themselves.

* Reducing societal conflict by making people feel more safe. Our emotions evolved for specific purposes, one of which includes defending us and protecting us from threats. Someone lashing out in anger or exhibiting some other form of physical or emotional violence is an indication that there is a world-model in their head that evaluates the situation as being dangerous to their well-being, and requires a defensive reaction. Unfortunately, this has a tendency to make things worse: a person whose defensive systems has been engaged will predominantly focus on the potentially threatening aspects of the situation, causing them to exaggerate other people’s bad sides and be less likely to see those others as fellow humans. In response, the other person will (correctly!) feel unsafe, causing their protective systems to engage as well, and what started out as a minor disagreement may quickly escalate into a major conflict.

We are currently living in the safest, most well-off period in history. Our evolved instincts, still calibrated by evolution to a riskier time, have not properly caught up. What’s worse, parts of modern society exaggerate our perception of risks, and incentivize people to manufacture polarizing new conflicts. It can be seen all the time on social media, with communities united by their hate and mistrust of a common enemy, or people sharing articles ridiculing or highlighting the worst sides of their common enemies. As people stop viewing the people disagreeing with them as human beings inherently worthy of respect, and rather start to treat them as enemies, those others will lash out in return, their brains correctly interpreting the situation as a threatening one and engaging protective systems.

I would like to find ways to put a stop to this cycle.

* Creating a sense of purpose for people. Modern Western society has a distinct lack of clear vision and sense of purpose. Young people are told that they can do what they want with their lives, but are rarely given much in the way of suggestions of what could be a valuable, interesting thing to do with one’s life. Many drift aimlessly, never quite finding anything that would motivate them, or that would encourage them to really work hard for some deeply fulfilling aim.

There’s no need why this would need to be so. The world is full of valuable things that could be done, countless causes needing heroes. There are still people living in poverty, diseases that need to be cured, people living in unsatisfying circumstances, whole societal structures that could be reformed and remade, and even things threatening the survival of all of humanity. People just don’t know what they could do about all these things, nor have they been provided with emotionally compelling stories about working on these things that would make them feel valuable and important to do.

* Develop ways to live in harmony with one’s emotions. There’s a stereotype that has reason and emotions as two opposed things, and a popular view of the world that makes people think that in order to succeed in life, they often have to grit their teeth and force themselves to do things that they wouldn’t actually want to do.

I think that both ways of looking at things are mistaken. Reason and emotions are two mechanisms for furthering our goals and protecting our well-being: they only seem opposed when the two mechanisms aren’t properly sharing information with each other, and come into conflict instead of co-operating. Any time that we have to use willpower in order to make ourselves do something that we ”wouldn’t want to do” is a time when we have failed to bring different parts of our minds into harmony. They are situations when one part of our mind believes that we should do something and another is unconvinced, but instead of the two clearly considering the situation together and seeking to come to an agreement, one of them uses brute force to compel the other to obey.

This doesn’t need to be so. With enough practice, one should never need to encounter a situation where they needed to do something unpleasant. Either they would conclude that the thing wasn’t worth doing in the first place and happily give up on it, or had their whole being agree that it was worth doing and do it with pleasure.

Saving the best moments

A combined productivity/mood thing that I’ve been doing recently is this: whenever I do something that I deem to have been worth doing, even if it’s something really small, I write down a few words that record that I’ve done it. At the end of the day I elaborate on those descriptions a bit, so that I can actually remember what they were referring to even afterwards, and save them in a file that lists everything that I’ve done on each day.

These things can be small. For example, my list of things that I’ve done today includes mentions of several messages that I’ve replied to, a link that I’ve shared on FB, and the fact that I promised a friend to give them private tutoring about some rationality techniques once they’d figure out when they’d have the time for it.

This has several benefits. Previously I would never remember, at the end of a day, what exactly I’d done: getting a record showing that I have actually been productive is nice. Furthermore, writing down accomplishments feels pleasant, and makes me look for more things that I could do, so this is a nice way to get into a productive mindset. And even if I’m feeling particularly unproductive on some given day, there’s almost always at least something that I can find and record to make me feel better.

Another thing I record in the file is all the pleasant things that happened to me during that day. If a friend tells me about something nice that’s happened and I feel happy for them, if I have a good time talking with somebody, if someone compliments me in a way that makes me feel good – all of that goes down in the file.

Afterwards I have a big file that I can read, which records and reminds me of the pleasant and productive moments that I’ve had, while letting the bad moments be swallowed by the mist of time.

On the plane

Mine is an eleven-hour flight: I’m sitting between two people, a woman on my left, by the window, and a man on my right, by the corridor.

We’ve hardly spoken to each other: she once asked if I preferred to have the window open or closed, and I spoke to him when I needed to go to the bathroom, apologizing and then thanking him for making room for me.

Still, in this cramped space it’s hard to avoid the feeling that we know each other, at least for a bit.

I know that he’s reading George R. R. Martin’s The Dance With Dragons.

I know that she’s been napping under a blanket for a large part of the time.

He was the only one who had brought food of his own. When one of the in-flight staff asked whether she wanted water or juice to drink, she said no, but she did ask when our food would be served. (In half an hour.)

I know that both of them, when given the choice between a meal with chicken or one with potatoes, went for the chicken. I went for the potatoes.

All three of us chose to have tea rather than coffee.

He’s been up from his seat twice; she hasn’t moved from hers; I’ve been up once.

I think that she’s attractive; I haven’t paid attention to his appearance. I don’t know what they think of mine.

I’m the only one who’s been using a laptop, he’s the only one who’s been reading a physical book. Both of them have watched onboard movies; I haven’t.

She and I happened to think of filling our customs form around the same time, and did so side to side. I haven’t seen him fill his.

All of us end up occasionally touching each other, or stealing space for our elbows: it’s impossible not to. None of us says anything about it, each of us forgiving the violations of our personal space in exchange for having our similar violations forgiven.

As of this writing, it’s only two more hours before we arrive. I’ll enjoy their company for a while yet, and I do feel happy to have them here.

Plans need motivational components

One of the most valuable things that I got out of the Center for Applied Rationality’s recent workshop, but which took a while to really sink in, is that a plan isn’t finished until it also includes a component for how you’ll actually get yourself to carry it out.

I think that people in planning mode have a tendency to think of themselves as magical robots, as in “once I know what I need to do to accomplish my goal, the hard work is done and all that remains is executing the plan”. But in my experience, getting yourself to actually carry out the plan is the hard part. Everyone knows how to Bungee jump, or how to get a date: just tie a elastic cord around your leg and jump, or just walk up to everyone who seems attractive and ask them out until someone says yes. It’s not figuring out what you need to do that’s hard.

Probably the thing that taught this the most viscerally was an exercise at the workshop, called Focused Grit. It’s really simple: you imagine that there’s an evil genie behind your back, who’s giving you five minutes to solve some particular problem that you have. Once the five minutes has passed, the genie will delete your ability to ever think of the problem again. So if you don’t want the problem to be with you for the rest of your life, you have five minutes to either actually solve the problem, or at least make a plan for how you’ll solve the problem that’s good enough that you can just execute it afterwards.

Then you set a timer, and solve your problem within the next five minutes.

This works surprisingly well.

A mistake that a lot of people make with this technique at first is that they only create a plan which would work if they were to carry it out. Then they stop there, feeling that they’re done.

But remember the evil genie. You won’t have a chance to develop your plan further once the five minutes are done, and that includes trying to motivate yourself to carry out the plan. When the five minutes finishes, you need to actually be in a state where you’ll carry out the plan, or you’ll be stuck with your problem for the rest of your life. And the genie will laugh at you.

I found this to be a very effective way to internalize the “a plan is only complete once it includes a component for how you’ll actually complete it” lesson. In the past, I used to do write-ups of techniques that seemed good and useful if I could get myself to use them, but which I knew I was unlikely to actually use. They seemed so good on paper!

Now I know better. A technique that you don’t think that you’ll be able to use isn’t good even on paper.

This is now the most important lens that I use to evaluate all of my plans and techniques.