Minding Our Way

Nate Soares

I faked confidence, and it soon became real. I found that my social limitations had been largely psychological, and that the majority of my classmates were more than willing to be friends.

Yet even these simple ideas were absent in the actual system. Corruption and inefficiency ran rampant. Worse, my peers didn't seem particularly perturbed: they took the system as a given, and merely memorized the machinery for long enough to pass a test. Even the grownups were apathetic: they dickered over who should have power within the system, never suggesting we should alter the system itself.

My childhood illusions fell to pieces. I realized that nothing was meticulously managed, that the smartest people weren't in control, making sure that everything was optimal. All the world problems, the sicknesses and the injustices and the death: these weren't necessary evils, they were a product of neglect. The most important system of all was poorly coordinated, bloated, and outdated — and nobody seemed to care.

When grownups say you can't do something, what they mean is that they can't do it.

"So you want to be an idealist?", the book asked. "Very well, but what is your ideal?"

Nobody found flaws in my logic. Nobody challenged my bold claims. Instead, they simply failed to understand. They got stuck three or four points before the interesting points, and could go no further. I learned that most people don't understand basic economics or game theory. Many others were entrenched in bluegreensmanship and reflexively treated my suggestions as attacks. Aspiring politicians balked at the claim that Democracy, while perhaps an important step in our cultural evolution, can't possibly be the end of the line. Still others insisted that it's useless to discuss ideals, because they can never be achieved.

I learned a long time ago that most people are content to accept the way things are. Everyone wants the world to change, but most are cowed by the fact that they can't change it themselves.

if the chance that one person can save the world is one in a million, then there had better be a million people trying.

When "Make Good Music" is an instrumental goal, she schedules practice time on a sitar and grinds out the hours. But she doesn't really like it, so she cuts corners whenever akrasia comes knocking. She lacks inspiration and spends her spare hours dreaming of stardom. Her songs are shallow and trite.

Ideally, we would be just as motivated to carry out instrumental goals as we are to carry out terminal goals. In reality, this is not the case. As a human, your motivation system does discriminate between the goals that you feel obligated to achieve and the goals that you pursue as ends unto themselves. As such, it is sometimes in your best interest to modify your terminal goals.

Goal-hacking in the name of consistency isn't really a Dark Side power. This power is only Dark when you use it like the musician in our example, when you adopt terminal goals for instrumental reasons. This form of goal hacking is less common, but can be very effective.

You don't get good at programming by sitting down and forcing yourself to practice for three hours a day. I mean, I suppose you could get good at programming that way. But it's much easier to get good at programming by loving programming, by being the type of person who spends every spare hour tinkering on a project. Because then it doesn't feel like practice, it feels like fun. This is the power that you can harness, if you're willing to tamper with your terminal goals for instrumental reasons.

My Willpower Does Not Deplete

Ego depletion is a funny thing. If you don't believe in ego depletion, you suffer less ego depletion. This does not eliminate ego depletion. Knowing this, I have a compartment in which My Willpower Does Not Deplete. I go there often, when I'm studying. It's easy, I think, for one to begin to feel tired, and say "oh, this must be ego depletion, I can't work anymore." Whenever my brain tries to go there, I wheel this bad boy out of his cage. "Nope", I respond, "My Willpower Does Not Deplete".

I have to actually be tired out, in a way that doesn't trigger the My Willpower Does Not Deplete safeguards. This doesn't let me keep going forever, but it prevents a lot of false alarms.

Knowing this, you can easily activate the placebo effect manually. Feeling sick? Here's a freebie: drink more water. It will make you feel better. No? It's just a placebo, you say? Doesn't matter. Tell yourself that water makes it better. Put that in a nice little compartment, save it for later. It doesn't matter that you know what you're doing: your brain is easily fooled.

Want to be more productive, be healthier, and exercise more effectively? Try using Anything is a Placebo! Pick something trivial and non-harmful and tell yourself that it helps you perform better. Put the belief in a compartment in which you act as if you believe the thing. Cognitive dissonance doesn't matter! Your brain is great at ignoring cognitive dissonance. You can "know" you're wrong in the global case, while "believing" you're right locally.

I use Intentional Compartmentalization to "locally believe" things that I don't "globally believe", in cases where the local belief makes me more productive. In this case, the beliefs in the compartments are things that I tell myself. They're like mantras that I repeat in my head, at the System 2 level. System 1 is fragmented and compartmentalized, and happily obliges.

I have invoked Willful Inconsistency on only two occasions, and they were similar in nature. Only one instance of Willful Inconsistency is currently active, and it works like this: I have completely and totally convinced my intuitions that unfriendly AI is a problem. A big problem. System 1 operates under the assumption that UFAI will come to pass in the next twenty years with very high probability. You can imagine how this is somewhat motivating.

Explicitly, I believe UFAI is one possibility among many and that the timeframe should be measured in decades rather than years. I've concluded that it is my most pressing concern, but I don't actually believe we have a hard 15 year countdown. That said, it's hard to understate how useful it is to have a gut-level feeling that there's a short, hard timeline. This "knowledge" pushes the monkey brain to go all out, no holds barred. In other words, this is the method by which I convince myself to actually specialize. This is how I convince myself to deploy every available resource, to attack the problem as if the stakes were incredibly high. Because the stakes are incredibly high, and I do need to deploy every available resource, even if we don't have a hard 15 year timer.

Your brain was optimized with no concern for truth, and optimal performance may require self deception.

I remind the uncomfortable that instrumental rationality is not about being the most consistent or the most correct, it's about winning.

From another perspective, you could say that I deregulated a black market on distractions: By lifting the mental ban on entertainment, I was able to price it accurately and weigh the tradeoffs. If there is a new book I want to read, the answer is not an outright and unenforcible "No". Rather, it's "can we afford to be underproductive for the next few days?". And when the answer is negative, it's significantly easier for me to postpone gratification than to resist the temptation entirely. The end result is that I have much more control over when I indulge in escapism.

A number of my teachers took it upon themselves to press upon me just how much I could do if I actually applied myself. I didn't bother correcting them. If they weren't going to invent a grade higher than 'A', why should I waste my efforts in the classroom? I had better things to do.

This experience in school had two important repercussions. First, it taught me to seek out the gap between the intended rules and the actual rules. I developed a knack for it, and this has served me well in many walks of life. Noticing the space between what you meant and what you said is a fundamental skill for programmers. Math is a tool designed to narrow such gaps. Logical incompleteness theorems are statements about the gap between what logic can say and what mathematicians want to say.

school helped me make explicit the virtue of putting in the minimum possible effort.

This leads us to my second trick for avoiding akrasia: I am not Trying Really Hard. People who are Trying Really Hard give themselves rewards for progress or punishments for failure. They incentivize the behavior that they want to have. They keep on deciding to continue doing what they're doing, and they engage in valiant battle against akrasia. I don't do any of that. Instead, I simply Move Towards the Goal.

I don't will myself to study. It is not a chore, it is not something I force myself to do. That's not to say I enjoy studying, per se: it's hard work, and the reward structure is pathetic compared to programming.

I don't Try Really Hard. I simply Move Towards the Goal.

This is, internally, an immutable fact, made so both by habit and by crude Pavlovian training. None of this is explicit, mind you, it's just the nature of goals. I can change the goal and I can drop the goal, but I can't hold the goal and not pursue it.

I never decided to study really hard. You can "decide" not to watch the next episode of that TV show only to sternly berate yourself three episodes later. My decision to study hard was made on a lower level, it's been internalized.

Acting on goals is the thing that System 1 does regardless of what System 2 "decides".

System 2 controls things by picking the goals. It was a long and arduous process to internalize my most recent set of goals, the ones that have driven me to study hard and become a research associate and so on. It took a few months and a bit of mindhacking, and that's a story for another day. But once the goal was chosen, marching towards it was out of my hands.

System 2 isn't in control of whether I move towards the goal. Instead, it spends its time doing something it's very good at: finding the most efficient path. Minimizing effort.

When I'm Moving Towards the Goal, I don't worry about whether things will be done. I've outsourced that concern to habit. Instead, mental effort is spent looking for the shortest path, the easiest route. Difficult paths do not require additional willpower, because the internal narrative is not one of expending effort. If anything, a difficult path is worth extra points, because it means I'm pursuing admirable goals. Internally, I'm not Struggling Against Akrasia. I'm Finding an Efficient Route.

studying math at high speed for five months was hard. However, I have built myself a headspace where hardness is not an obstacle to overcome but a feature of the terrain.

System 2 doesn't have to spend effort convincing System 1 to move forward, because System 1 is going to move forward come hell or high water. Thus, System 2 spends its time making sure that the march is as easy as possible.

It seemed clear that if the goal had been 60k, many of the same people would have eeked out a victory with similar margins and the same narrative of butting against their limits. The natural conclusion was that I can't trust myself to feel out my own limits.

These days, I occasionally throw wrenches into my study plans when I think I'm growing complacent.

Often, this fails spectacularly. Sometimes, I am at or near my limits, and skipping an intro logic textbook to dive straight into Model Theory is a really bad idea. Other times, I find out that I actually was just hovering around an anchor point, seduced by a narrative of linear improvement.

There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level. - Bruce Lee

I'm not wondering whether I will be able to convince myself to study each day. Instead, I'm gauging whether I'm reading the most effective material. I'm noticing that it won't be enough for me to just learn the material, I also have to signal that I've learned the material (and that I should start doing book reviews). I'm monitoring to see when I've grown complacent and looking for ways to keep me on my toes. This is process is doubly useful: It helps me sidestep akrasia and it also helps me become more effective.

Productivity is a habit of mine. As I mentioned in the previous post, I've been following a similar schedule for years: two days doing social things, five days doing something constructive. Before I turned my efforts towards FAI research, this mainly consistent of programming, writing, and self-education.

I deplore fun. Ok, not really. However, I do have a strong aversion to activities that I find unproductive.

"KILLING TIME!" roared the dog—so furiously that his alarm went off. "It's bad enough wasting time without killing it." And he shuddered at the thought.

Before long, I began to view escapism as a guilty pleasure: fun and addictive, but unsatisfying. Things like hiking and going to parties became almost a chore: I superficially enjoyed them, sure, but I yearned to be elsewhere, doing something permanent. Even reading fiction took on a pang of guilt. I valued things that moved me forward, that honed my skills or moved me closer to my terminal goals. I wanted to be building things, improving things.

These days, I aim to spend about two evenings a week (one on weekdays, one on weekends) doing something that's traditionally fun. I spend the rest of my time doing things that sate my neverending desire to march towards my goals. It's interesting

These days, I aim to spend about two evenings a week (one on weekdays, one on weekends) doing something that's traditionally fun. I spend the rest of my time doing things that sate my neverending desire to march towards my goals.

When I was quite young, one of the guests at our house refused to eat processed food. I remember that I offered her some fritos and she refused. I was fairly astonished, and young enough to be socially inept. I asked, incredulous, how someone could not like fritos. To my surprise, she didn't brush me off or feed me banal lines about how different people have different tastes. She gave me the answer of someone who had recently stopped liking fritos through an act of will. Her answer went something like this: "Just start noticing how greasy they are, and how the grease gets all over your fingers and coats the inside of the bag. Notice that you don't want to eat things soaked in that much grease. Become repulsed by it, and then you won't like them either."

This woman's technique stuck with me. She picked out a very specific property of a thing she wanted to stop enjoying and convinced herself that it repulsed her.

If I were trying to start hating fun (and I remind you that I'm not trying, because I already do, and that you shouldn't try, because it's no fun) then this is the route I would recommend: Recognize those little discomforts that underlie your escapism, latch on to them, and blow them completely out of proportion.

When skiing, partying, or generally having a good time, try remembering that this is exactly the type of thing people should have an opportunity to do after we stop everyone from dying.

When doing something transient like watching TV or playing video games, reflect upon how it's not building any skills that are going to make the world a better place, nor really having a lasting impact on the world.

Notice that if the world is to be saved then it really does need to be you who saves it, because everybody else is busy skiing, partying, reading fantasy, or dying in third world countries.

If you can structure your life such that productive things are the things that you do by default, the things that you do in your free time when you have nothing else on your plate, then you will be in good shape. When "do something that forwards your goals" is the fallback plan then it becomes much easier to scale your efforts up.

I was careful not to let schooling get in the way of my education.

I'm writing this because I was able to learn a lot very quickly. In the space of eighteen weeks I went from being a professional programmer to helping Benja discover Fallenstein's Monster, a result concerning tiling agents (in the field of mathematical logic).

I estimate my total study time to be slightly less than 500 hours. I achieved high retention and validated my understanding against other participants of the December workshop. I did this without seriously impacting my job or my social life.

the normal weekday I studied for an hour and a half in the morning, a half hour during lunch, and three to four hours in the evening. On the average weekend day I studied 8 to 12 hours on and off throughout the day.

While my studying did not affect my schedule much, it definitely affected my pacing. Don't get me wrong; this sprint was not easy. I suspended many other projects and drastically increased my intensity and my pace. I spent roughly the same amount of time per day studying as I used to spend on side projects, but there is a vast difference between spending three hours casually tinkering on open source code and spending three hours learning logic as fast as possible.

had a number of techniques for handling difficult exercises. First, I'd put them aside and come back to them later. If that failed, I'd restate the problem (and all relevant material) in my own words. If this didn't work, it at least helped me identify the point of confusion, which set me up for a question math.stackexchange.com.

I had a number of techniques for handling difficult exercises. First, I'd put them aside and come back to them later. If that failed, I'd restate the problem (and all relevant material) in my own words. If this didn't work, it at least helped me identify the point of confusion, which set me up for a question math.stackexchange.com.

Upon finishing a book, I would immediately start the next one. Concurrently, I would start writing a review of the book I'd finished. I generally wrote the first draft of my book reviews on the Sunday after completing the book, alternating between studying the new and summarizing the old. On subsequent weekdays I'd edit in the morning and study in the evening until I was ready to post my review. It's worth noting that summarizing content, especially the research papers, went a long way towards solidifying my knowledge and ensuring that I wasn't glossing over anything.

I live with two close friends. This meant that social contact was never out of reach. Even when spending an entire day sequestered in my room pouring over a textbook I was able to maintain a small amount of social interaction. If ever I had a spare hour and a thirst for company, I found it readily available. My primary partner was, up until early 2014, going to school full time while holding down a full time job. Thus, her schedule was more restrictive than my own and we had been working around it for some time. Our relationship was not further constrained by my efforts. My core friend groups knew and respected what I was doing. I was more tense and exhausted than usual, but I had warned my friends to expect this and no friendships suffered as a result.

Most important of all, I had friends I could call on when I needed a mental health day. I could rely on them to find time where we could just sit around, play with LEGO bricks, and shoot the breeze. This went a long way towards keeping me sane.

I tentatively believe that someone could sustain my pace for significantly longer than I did, so long as they were willing to live with the strain. I don't plan to test this myself: I'll be slowing down both to improve performance at work and to reduce my general stress levels. Five months of fervent studying is no walk in the park.

There is no magic to it. If you study the right material, do the exercises, and write what you've learned in your own words, then you can indeed learn MIRI-relevant math in a reasonable amount of time.

Learning fast does not need to dominate your life. There can be time for social activities and even significant side projects. You will have to work really hard, but that work does not have to consume your life.

If you're going to do something like this, let people know what you're doing. This is much easier if you have people you can turn to for support who don't mind you being extra snappy, people who can drag you away for a day every week or two. Also, stating your goals publicly helps to stop you from giving up.

The thing I miss most about college is tight feedback loops while learning. When autodidacting, the feedback loop can be long.

There are a number of little misconceptions you have when you're familiar with something but you've never applied it, and I found myself having to clean those out just to understand what Model Theory was trying to say to me.

The third pass was necessary to understand the greater theory. I've never been particularly good at memorizing things, and it's not sufficient for me to believe and memorize a theorem. If it's going to stick, I have to understand why it's important. I have to understand why this theorem in particular is being stated, rather than another. I have to understand the problem that's being solved. A third pass was necessary to figure out the context in which the text made sense.

After a third pass of any given chapter, the next chapter didn't seem quite so random. When the upcoming content started feeling like a natural progression instead of a random walk, I knew I was making progress.

but I did not anticipate requiring three passes. Mostly, I didn't anticipate gaining as much as I did from a re-read; I would have guessed that something opaque on the first pass would remain opaque on a second pass.

In the vein of cognitive exhaustion, there were a few times while reading Model Theory where I seem to have become cognitively exhausted before becoming physically exhausted. This was a first for me. I'm not referring to those times when you've done a lot of mental work and you shy away from doing anything difficult, that's happened to me plenty. Rather, in this case, I felt fully awake and ready to keep reading. And I did keep reading. It just… didn't work. I'd have trouble following simple proofs. I'd fail at parsing sentences that were quite clear after resting.

I found that this went a long way towards helping me track down places where I'd thought I learned something, but actually hadn't. If you're having trouble, go explain the concept to somebody (or to a text file). This can bridge the gap between "I read it" and "I can do the problems" quite well. For me, this technique often took problems from "unapproachable" to "easy" in one fell swoop.

I try to move the needle on at least two projects a day (more on weekends).

This tendency to see patterns in randomness is occasionally harmful. In tests where a green light is lit up 80% of the time (according to some random process) and a red light is lit up the other 20% of the time, where the subject must guess which light will be lit up, rats and pigeons always pick green while humans try to predict the pattern. In these scenarios, the rats (who always guess green) are right 80% of the time, while the humans (who tend to guess green 80% of the time but not the right 80% of the time) are correct only about 68% of the time.

Whether you use my tools or some other method, it might well be worth a few hours of your life to retrain your intuition for randomness. It may help you avoid premature judgements.

In part, this gave me a greater appreciation of small large numbers like a hundred. But mostly, it lowered my bar for what counts as a "large number". Which worked, in a way — my subconscious now has a much deeper respect for large numbers in that it finds anything greater than a few dozen to be tediously huge. When I encounter big numbers (such as, say, fifty three), it sort of throws up its hands and says "this is like that thing with the dice — way too big for it to be worth my time to comprehend."

This makes it much easier for me to disregard my (broken) intuitions about large numbers, and rely more on doing the multiplication.

counting wildlife threatened by other oil spills. And if he

if he cares that much about de-oiling birds, then how much does he actually care about factory farming, nevermind hunger, or poverty, or sickness? How much does he actually care about wars that ravage nations? About neglected, deprived children? About the future of humanity? He actually cares about these things to the tune of much more money than he has, and much more time than he has. For the first time, Daniel sees a glimpse of of how much he actually cares, and how poor a state the world is in. This has the strange effect that Daniel's reasoning goes full-circle, and he realizes that he actually can't care about oiled birds to the tune of 3 minutes or $3: not because the birds aren't worth the time and money (and, in fact, he thinks that the economy produces things priced at $3 which are worth less than the bird's survival), but because he can't spend his time or money on saving the birds. The opportunity cost suddenly seems far too high: there is too much else to do! People are sick and starving and dying! The very future of our civilization is at stake!

In the original mindstate, the reason he didn't drop everything to work on ALS was because it just didn't seem… pressing enough. Or tractable enough. Or important enough. Kind of. These are sort of the reason, but the real reason is more that the concept of "dropping everything to address ALS" never even crossed his mind as a real possibility. The idea was too much of a break from the standard narrative. It wasn't his problem. In the new mindstate, everything is his problem. The only reason he's not dropping everything to work on ALS is because there are far too many things to do first.

You don't get to feel the appropriate amount of "care", in your body. Sorry — the world's problems are just too large, and your body is not built to respond appropriately to problems of this magnitude. But if you choose to do so, you can still act like the world's problems are as big as they are. You can stop trusting the internal feelings to guide your actions and switch over to manual control.

I think that at least part of it comes from a certain sort of desperate perspective. It's not enough to think you should change the world — you also need the sort of desperation that comes from realizing that you would dedicate your entire life to solving the world's 100th biggest problem if you could, but you can't, because there are 99 bigger problems you have to address first.

becoming a philanthropist is really really hard. (If you're already a philanthropist, then you have my acclaim and my affection.) First it requires you to have money, which is uncommon, and then it requires you to throw that money at distant invisible problems, which is not an easy sell to a human brain.

Courage isn't about being fearless, it's about being able to do the right thing even if you're afraid. And similarly, addressing the major problems of our time isn't about feeling a strong compulsion to do so. It's about doing it anyway, even when internal compulsion utterly fails to capture the scope of the problems we face.

When you do the multiplication, you realize that addressing global poverty and building a brighter future deserve more resources than currently exist. There is not enough money, time, or effort in the world to do what we need to do.

CDT agents fail to cooperate on a one-shot Prisoner's Dilemma. That's a bullet that causal decision theorists

I won't object much here, except to note that this answer is still unsatisfactory. CDT agents fail to cooperate on a one-shot Prisoner's Dilemma. That's a bullet that causal decision theorists willingly bite, but don't forget that it's still a bullet.

you can imagine that Ω gets its impeccable predictions by simulating people. Then, when you find yourself facing down Ω, you can't be sure whether you're in the simulation or reality.

when attempting to become well-calibrated, you're forced to take a second glance at your own predictions. I keep a personal prediction book (for purposes of self-calibration), and there's this moment between saying a prediction and going to write the prediction down where I introspect and make sure that I actually believe my own prediction.

I am (obviously) aware of this impulse, and I like to pretend that I'm pretty good at suppressing it, but let's not kid ourselves: for every time you catch yourself acting biased, there are probably half a dozen instances you missed.

When I worked at Google, I'd occasionally need to convince half a dozen team leads to sign off on a given project. In order to do this, I'd meet with each of them in person and pitch the project slightly differently, according to my model of what parts of the project most appealed to them. I was basing my actions off of how I expected them to make decisions: I was putting them in Newcomblike scenarios.

Failures of this form can generally be fixed by "just not doing that," which in this case entails forcing yourself to stop eating. I don't like that solution, as it requires an application of willpower, and in general, any solution that requires an application of willpower is a stopgap, not a remedy. I much prefer solutions that get all of myself onto the same page, including the parts that make distracting arguments so they can shovel more food into my mouth while I'm not looking.

(A problem isn't solved until it's solved automatically, without need for attention or willpower.)

Committing to this, and actually doing it once or twice to show myself that I mean business, had an interesting effect. First of all, it had the obvious effects that I stopped stuffing myself and that I occasionally had three-bite snacks available in the fridge. But more importantly, credibly committing (to myself) that I would do the right thing even if it seemed too late made it much easier to automatically do the right thing.

This, in turn, allowed me to actually look at the remaining food and (armed with more experience about which tiny portions of food are actually appreciated later) and decide whether or not to save it.

and I no longer get the feeling that I'm trying to distract myself for

I no longer get the feeling that I'm trying to distract myself for long enough to do something that I wouldn't approve of.

I occasionally see people hitting the failure mode where they try to apply willpower in order to do a thing (such as only eat half of their sandwich, and save the other half for later) and then fail slightly (such as by taking a bite out of the second half) at which point they proceed to completely ignore the parts of themselves that suggest restraint (such as by eating the entire second half of the sandwich and thereby stuffing themselves).

I refer to this failure mode as "failing with abandon."

People might feel strange saving the second half of the sandwich after they've taken two bites out of it, but if you actually do that a few times then it becomes much easier to believe that you can. The narrative shifts from "well I guess I'm not saving the second half of this sandwich" to "I guess I was hungry enough for two more bites, but now I'll save the rest."

As it turns out, you can do the right thing after missing the initial target! Just promise yourself that you'll allow yourself to do the right thing, no matter how late.

A problem isn't solved until it's solved automatically, without need for attention or willpower.

I am going to discuss a technique that I use for productivity which results in a sense of austerity through compassion/camaraderie: the parts of me that need rest take as much rest as they need, but also try to take as little as they need out of awareness of the scarcity of resources and compassion for the other parts of me.

or they can wait until the deadline is so close that even the short-sighted mob can see it, at which point they'll go into panic mode (which is kinda like high productivity mode, if you squint).

Sometimes, the mob in you will make demands that sound unreasonable, such as "cancel everything today, I need a break." In these situations, it's easy to try to force or plea or bargain with yourself. I take a different tactic: I ask myself if this is really what I need, and if it is, then I do it. I show the mob that I respect its demands, and that I'm on its side. After all, we have the same goals; and furthermore, I am not the king in my mind. I do not desire a fight (and if I did, I wouldn't win it).

The trick is to signal respect for the mob instead: what my mind reports it needs, it gets. This—an unflinching willingness to get the mob what it wants—tempers the mob's demands.

This is the sort of relationship—between George Bailey and the mob—that I have the "voice of reason" cultivate with the varied and disparate parts of my mind. When some part of me demands that I pay its full account, I'll ask it once how much it needs, but if it still demands its full account I'll pay up without hesitation (and extend some additional compassion). This is done not in an appeasing way, but it a respectful way: we're all in this together.

My loyalty is not to any individual appointment or task. My own mental health is among my top priorities.

This is the mindstate in which I attain high productivity: various parts of the mob of my mind occasionally need rest, recuperation, and procrastination. Parts of me ask for these things. When they do, I ask them how much they really need, how much they can get by with. Do I actually need to take four days off? Because I will, but it's expensive.

Often, when a part of me really needs a break, and throws up its hands feeling overwhelmed, its initial demands are unrealistic—"two weeks with no responsibilities!" So then I ask it again, with the demeanor of George Bailey, what it really needs to get by. And that part of me quickly remembers that all of me is in this together, and that I'm trying to do some very difficult things, and that all parts of me are constrained by scarce resources. Then the part that protested searches for what it really needs, the bare minimum, and it usually answers something like "I can get the rest I need in fifteen minutes."

I formed a "sacred pact" with myself by essentially handing myself an "override phrase" which throws me into all-out "escape this addiction at all costs" mode. It's a precommitment to "actually try" to stop bingeing, and it's proven useful in a number of ways.

If, instead, you notice the feeling of helplessness or powerlessness while in the middle of things, and you notice some non-verbal part of yourself that is begging you to find some way to pop out and step off this well-worn path, then you're in business. Treat with that feeling, of helplessness or tappedness, and make a pact with that thing. Promise it that that if it calls, you will move the heavens and the earth to answer.

The mental override is a nuclear option. It's a promise to destroy the addiction as totally as possible, eliminating not only local desires to continue the addiction, but all future desire and future possibilities of relapse, potentially via an uncomfortable application of internal force. This is not expected to be a pleasant experience.

Given my own personal temperament (and extreme self-loyalty), I'm quite confident that the override would work the first few times I tried it. But I also expect, outside view, that the effect would degrade with each use. Which means that successful mental overrides are a scarce resource.

Nowadays, even the notion that I might have to use an override to escape this [programming project / book series / video game] is enough to pop me out of the addiction immediately, in large part due to aversion to needing to use one of the "scarce" working overrides. The penny-pincher is working for me, now.

What I've done here is identified a strong impulse that controls short-term planning (the "hoarder impulse"), and then identified a class of scenarios where short-term planning has failed (the "binge" failure mode), and then I recruited the impulse to help me avert the failure mode.

Experience hypnagogia.Hypnagogia are the "sleep hallucinations" that sometimes happen as you're drifting off to sleep. "Hallucination" isn't really the right word; the experience (for me) is more one of a meandering mind and "threshold conciousness." In my experience, effective naps are almost exclusively preceded by hypnagogia; I postulate that this signals an ability to go directly into a REM state. Fortunately, in my experience, if I'm not experiencing hypnagogia before sleeping, it is possible to induce. There's a mental motion when falling asleep that feels like "hey wait don't fall asleep yet:" not the feeling of fully keeping yourself conscious, but the feeling of trying to stay awake in a boring class. If I maintain that "try to stay awake while falling asleep" state for long enough, I tend to get the hypnagogia.

No seriously, nap without an alarm even when you have important things to do. The way you practice waking up at the end of a dream is you take a nap, without an alarm, about two hours before something important. (Be a little careful here, of course.) The goal is to put your body into a state where it needs to wake up on its own, because the stakes are high and there are no safeguards.

the point is to put yourself into a situation where you really need to successfully wake on your own from the nap, and then, right after you wake up, notice what it was like just before you awoke.

I have found that there is a character to the parts of sleep where you can naturally pop out, and that it's possible to put yourself into a state where you will wake naturally at the appropriate time.

It helps if you treat "having an afternoon" as fairly high-stakes/important, and then the wake-up monitor can still jerk you awake with a feeling of "oh gosh I hope I didn't sleep the whole day away."

in my experience, the sleep phase I am awoken from has a lot of effect on how I feel upon waking.

I do think it's useful to undergo some short-term discomfort in order to figure out how to actually get good sleep from naps.

Cognitive degradation is often happening before you feel any of the effects of sleep deprivation.

I am of the opinion that good sleep is an important component of high productivity/motivation, so if you're currently lacking in motivation, it's definitely worth checking whether or not sleep is the bottleneck.

have a mental motion that is somewhat hard to describe, but which works pretty well.

I have a mental motion that is somewhat hard to describe, but which works pretty well.

It's a bit hard to describe how to do this, but the internal experience is one of some part of me saying "I acknowledge that this is going to be hard, and now I am going to point you at it, and I will check back in after it is done to see how things went."

Then, in the midst of the difficult task, whenever I am feeling overwhelmed or under motivated, and I internally check the status of "can I actually do this?", I remember that the part of me which handles those worries is checked out, and I just need to keep moving towards the goal.

Then keep the note present. It may seem a bit silly, writing a note to yourself, but I have found the technique to be powerful. There are parts of me, at least, which control the motivation system, and which are much more amenable to ritualistic acknowledgement than reasoned arguments. I have done this twice, and in both cases, when times got particularly tough, there was a part of me that deeply appreciated knowing that I was put into the situation on purpose, and which appreciated explicit pre-emptive acknowledgement.

The analog is to notice the feeling of agency, to notice the fact that you can do what you put your mind to even when default human psychology is stacked against you. This is a feeling worth enjoying — if you can remember to notice it for a moment or two when it happens, then hopefully you can train your subconscious to eagerly anticipate the feeling of approaching an ugh field.

For me, this is a daily power signal, a reminder that I can act where others fail to, a reminder that I can cause the world to be a little more how I want it to be, even in the face of

For me, this is a daily power signal, a reminder that I can act where others fail to, a reminder that I can cause the world to be a little more how I want it to be, even in the face of mental inertia that many find difficult to overcome.

Most people, upon acquiring an annoying responsibility (such

If the problem will not, in fact, disappear when ignored, then it must be dealt with eventually. One powerful way to deal with it now rather than later is to recognize an opportunity to demonstrate agency.

Forbidden conversations are conversations where the very idea of having the conversation feels bad.

If you can make taboo topics seem fun and healthy at a subconscious level, then it will be much easier to notice and approach. (Don't spend conscious effort on things that you can get your subconscious to do automatically!) The forbidden conversations are where all the fun is! Taboo topics are the fast track to connection and bonding. They are shortcuts that allow you to avoid the usual period of social awkwardness and help you get to know people better.

Train yourself to explicitly notice the feeling of procrastination, of avoiding a context change.

Start seeing this resistance as an opportunity to exhibit agency and win back time from the Procrastination Gods; start enjoying the puzzle of figuring out how to initiate a context change without spending willpower.

In my case, the part of myself that enjoys noticing that I'm in procrastination-headspace is closely related

In my case, the part of myself that enjoys noticing that I'm in procrastination-headspace is closely related to the part of me that enjoys the raw feeling of agency.

I enjoy opportunities to demonstrate to myself that akrasia doesn't need to apply to me; I appreciate opportunities to self-signal personal control.

after noticing that starting work feels slippery, I deploy a number of procrastination-busting tools: First, I check whether or not I really need to complete the task (If not, problem solved). Second, I check for ways to Cheat and make the task easier (no sense doing hard work needlessly). Third, I check whether I need a nap, food, or a break. Fourth, I ask myself if there's an interesting task that I could substitute for the boring one without harm. If none of these things work, I may take a minute to clear my mind and focus, or I may check whether I want to do a Pomodoro, or I may go grab a friend and have them watch me for ten minutes to ensure that I actually carry out the context change.

Think not of what you could have done differently, think of how you could have thought differently.

What patterns of thought could you have been using, which would have systematically generated a better outcome in situations such as yours?

we understand that young children are hardly at fault for their misconceptions: their brains are still in training; they can't be expected to correctly parse the meaning out of every ambiguous sentence, they can't be expected to understand every implicit social rule by magic.

Children aren't "finished people" yet, they're expected to fumble around a bit. I have a secret for you: adults aren't finished people yet either.

it's just completely unrealistic to expect me to have any given defensive thought-pattern by the age of eleven. But it's similarly unrealistic to expect an adult to have any given defensive thought-pattern! We aren't taught these things in school; we have to learn how to avoid the standard human blunders, and we have to do it the hard way.

Once you've identified a way you could have been thinking differently to avoid an entire class of mistakes, ask yourself what mental process could have led you to adopting that thought-pattern earlier.

it's often hard to see which thought patterns we need to change in order to become more the people we wish to be.

Usually, it takes a whole lot of information to convince us that we've been thinking ineffectively — it usually takes a giant, harrowing mistake to get us to even notice. The clearest signal you ever get that your thougth patterns aren't working out is everything going horribly wrong.

The above pattern is about identifying something you want to change in yourself and then finding a way to enjoy the difficult part of fixing the problem. But you can cultivate this more generally!

The above pattern is about identifying something you want to change in yourself and then finding a way to enjoy the difficult part of fixing the problem.

Once you can enjoy staring into learned blanknesses, and steering towards hard conversations, and listening to regrets, you can start to feel the pattern of Hard Things Worth Steering Towards, and install a part of yourself that moves towards those hard parts in general, for any problem.

Most people can recognize the ruts they're in, they can see the social and mental chains that bind them there, but seeing isn't enough to free them.

it is important to care not only about the lives we save, but about the lives we live.

Your preferences are not "move rightward on the quality line." Your preferences are to hit the quality target with minimum effort.

I personally find that shooting for the minimum acceptable quality is usually fun. Doing the homework assignment is boring, but finding a way to get the homework assignment up to an acceptable level with as little total effort as possible is an interesting optimization problem that actually engages my wits, an optimization problem which both my inner perfectionist and my inner rebel can get behind.

Instead of being a perfectionist about the paper, be a perfectionist about writing the paper. Be a perfectionist about identifying good strategies, about abandoning sunk costs, about killing your darlings, about noticing when you're done. Be a perfectionist about wasting no attention. Be a perfectionist about learning from your mistakes. Perfectionism can be a powerful tool, but there's no need to point it at overachieving on metrics you don't care about.

mistakes are irrevocable. Time cannot be un-wasted.

Succeed, with no wasted motion.

if ever you forget what it means to "succeed" in one context or another, take a moment to pause and remember what you're fighting for.

A brain is a specialty device that, when slammed against its surroundings in a particular way, changes so that its insides reflect its outsides. A brain is a precise, complex machine that continually hits nearby things just so, so that some of its inner bits start to correlate with the outside world.

A brain is a complex piece of machinery that, when immersed in a big soup of photons while connected to light-sensors, undergoes a massive chain reaction that causes the inner parts of the brain to correlate with the things the photons bounced off of.

Somehow, tribal social monkeys have found themselves in control of part of their world-models. But they don't feel like they're controlling a world-model, they feel like they're right. You yourself

Somehow, tribal social monkeys have found themselves in control of part of their world-models. But they don't feel like they're controlling a world-model, they feel like they're right.

Have you ever been using a hammer to bang in a dozen nails, and noticed your awareness shifting to the hammer's head? Have you ever been driving a car and noticed the car start to feel like an extension of your body? These sorts of observations can be confusing if you forget what sort of artifact the brain is.

The mind is implemented by the brain, but that's not the only thing the brain is doing.

The path to rationality is not the path where the evidence chooses the beliefs. The path to rationality is one without beliefs. On the path to rationality, there are only probabilities.

The likelihoods don't tell you what to believe. The likelihoods replace belief. They're it. You say the likelihoods and then you stop, because you're done.

Most people, when they encounter evidence that contradicts something they believe, decide that the evidence is not strong enough to switch them from one binary belief to another, and so they fail to change their mind at all. Most people fail to realize that all evidence against a hypothesis lowers its probability, even if only slightly, because most people are still thinking qualitatively.

Contrary to popular belief, you aren't entitled to your own opinion, and you don't get to choose your own beliefs. Not if you want to be accurate.

You're allowed to over-indulge, if that's what you want to do. But for lots and lots of people, the idea of missing by as little as possible never seems to cross their mind.

My first goal will be to address the guilt that comes from a feeling of listlessness, the vague feeling of guilt that one might get when they play video games all day, or when they turn desperately towards drugs or parties, in attempts to silence the part of themselves that whispers that there must be something else to life.

This sort of guilt cannot be removed by force of will, in most people. The trick to removing this sort of guilt, I think, is to start exploring that feeling that there must be something else to life, that there must be something more to do — and either find something worth working towards, or find that there really isn't actually anything missing. This first sort of listless guilt, I think, comes from someone who wants to find something else to do, and hasn't yet.

Don't just look for ideas that sound nice. Look for changes in the world that compel you, ideas such that thinking them makes something move in your chest.

Look for places where the world is broken and in need of fixing.

Look for things in the world that are unacceptable. Reject the natural order.

The listless guilt is a guilt about not doing anything. To remove it, we must first turn it into a guilt about not doing something in particular.

I surely don't lack the capacity to feel frustration with fools, but I also have a quiet sense of aesthetics and fairness which does not approve of this frustration. There is a tension there.

My strong feelings are in conflict with my quiet aesthetics, but when push comes to shove, the quiet aesthetics win hands-down.

When we look at humans, we see them as plotters or schemers or competition. But when we look at puppies, or kittens, or other animals, none of that social machinery kicks in. We're able to see them as just creatures, pure and innocent things, exploring an environment they will never fully understand, just following the flow of their lives.

every so often, I take a mental step back and try to see the other humans around me, not as humans, but as innocent animals full of wonder, exploring an environment they can never fully understand, following the flows of their lives.

I try to see the tragedies in humans who have been conditioned by time and circumstance to be suspicious and harmful, and feel the same compassion for them that I would feel for an abused child.

Rationality of this kind is not about changing where you're going, it's about changing how far you can go.

A few months ago, a friend of mine was describing her motivational issues to me. As an example, she explained she was having trouble making herself clean her room, despite her dissatisfaction with the constant messiness.

either (a) you stop forcing yourself to clean the room, and you realize you don't actually care about having a clean room, and then your room stays messy and that's fine because you don't care; or (b) you stop forcing yourself to clean the room, and then you get a bit worried, because some part of you actually wants the room cleaned, so you listen to that part of yourself, and you work with it, and you find a time to clean the room because you want to. Either way, you win. No need to use internal force.

Shoulds are for retrospectives, not for deliberation.

instead of forcing yourself to give to charities sporadically when the guilt overcomes you, promise yourself that you won't give sporadically due to guilt, and then listen to the part of you that says "but then when will I help others!?" Don't force yourself to be an altruist — instead, commit to never forcing yourself, and then work with the part of you that protests,

instead of forcing yourself to give to charities sporadically when the guilt overcomes you, promise yourself that you won't give sporadically due to guilt, and then listen to the part of you that says "but then when will I help others!?" Don't force yourself to be an altruist — instead, commit to never forcing yourself, and then work with the part of you that protests, and become an altruist if and only if you want to help.

Don't resent the bad option for being better than the worse option — if you must resent something, resent the situation.

better yet, turn your resentment into a cold resolve to change the situation.)

Your shoulds are not written in the heavens, nor in the void. But your shoulds are written in you.

Your true shoulds, if I could show them to you, would not look like a list of obligations. Your true shoulds would look like a recipe for building a utopia.

A true opportunity to execute a moral commitment feels not like an obligation, but like a priviledge. It feels like executing a Screw The Rules I'm Doing What's Right trope.

That's how you use a should. Not with obligation and resentment, but with steel in your heart and no other choice that compares.

The goal is not to maximize how much work you get done today. The goal is to maximize your productivity over time.

We're not yet gods. We're still apes.

precisely, it would have had you do instead of what you did. (It

ask the guilt what, precisely, it would have had you do instead of what you did. (It is important, when refining, to also possess the virtue of concreteness: do not settle for "I should have been studying." Demand a specific action: Which book? Which chapter?)

more often than not, when you succeed at refining guilt, you find yourself left with an obligation ("I should have drank less" or "I should have studied" or "I should have worked overtime.") This has not yet shifted enough to be confronted.

What would happen if you decide to never study that textbook again? Is it a relief? If so, then drop the obligation, and relinquish the guilt. You probably just accidentally confused someone's quality line with your preference curve.

The third tool for shifting guilt is the filter of realism. Look at your guilt, and ask it whether its demands are realistic.

Perhaps you will realize that you've been adrift, that you've lost focus,

Perhaps you will realize that you've been adrift, that you've lost focus, and you'll feel guilty for failing to maintain your drive.

If you must feel guilty, I recommend feeling guilty not about what you did or didn't do, but about the pattern of behavior that corresponds to acting against your will.

Guilt is one of those strange tools that works by not occurring. You place guilt on the branches of possibility that you don't want to happen, and then, if all goes well, those futures don't occur. Guilt is supposed to steer the future towards non-guilty futures; it's never supposed to be instantiated in reality.

I would argue that they're using their threats poorly. I would say that, if you keep finding yourself carrying out a threat, then you really need to consider whether or not your threats are really capable of steering the future in the way you hoped.

Guilt is the same way: if you find yourself regularly experiencing guilt, then you're using guilt incorrectly.

If the situation occurs regularly, then guilt is not the tool to use! You're welcome to feel guilty if you ever kidnap a baby or punch a homeless person, and you can tell that the guilt is working in those cases because you never do those things. But if you repeatedly find yourself in a situation that you disprefer, then guilt is just not the tool to use. That's not where it's useful. If you want to figure out how to avoid

No! If the situation occurs regularly, then guilt is not the tool to use! You're welcome to feel guilty if you ever kidnap a baby or punch a homeless person, and you can tell that the guilt is working in those cases because you never do those things. But if you repeatedly find yourself in a situation that you disprefer, then guilt is just not the tool to use. That's not where it's useful.

then treat it like an experiment! Write up your hypotheses. Experiment with many different ways to fix your glitches. Write postmortems when you fail. If you attempt a fix and then find yourself binging again, then don't heap loads of guilt on yourself! That still doesn't help. Instead, say "Aha! So that attempted fix didn't work. I wonder if I can figure out why?" Cross a hypothesis or two off your list. Refine your models. Expand your hypothesis space. Gather more data. Do science to it.

Don't feel terrible whenever you do something you wish you hadn't! That is a poor mechanism by which to steer the future. Instead, when you do something you wish you hadn't, identify the pattern of behavior that led to this, and add addressing that to your todo list.

Sometimes you'll ignore a pattern of failure. Maybe the failures are relatively cheap and the pattern is hard to change, and fixing the pattern simply isn't worth your attention. In this case, when the failure occurs, there is no need to feel guilty: the

Sometimes you'll ignore a pattern of failure. Maybe the failures are relatively cheap and the pattern is hard to change, and fixing the pattern simply isn't worth your attention. In this case, when the failure occurs, there is no need to feel guilty: the failures are the price you pay for time spent not fixing them.

Most people use their individual failures as a signal to themselves that it's time to feel terrible. It is much more effective, I think, to use your individual failures as a chance to update your tactics.

I have seen many groups of friends form a tacit pact of non-excellence, where each individual in the group is reluctant to outperform the others, in fear that high performance will be punished with ostracization.

Many have condemned themselves to a life of dissatisfaction thanks to a non-excellence pact. I say: better to inspire your friends than validate their mediocrity.

Close your eyes, and pretend you're arriving in this body for the very first time. Open them and do some original seeing on this person you now are. Rub your hands together, look around, and take stock of your surroundings. Do some internal checks to figure out what this body values, to figure out what it is you're fighting for. Check the catalog of plans and upcoming actions. Check the backlog of memories and obligations.

There will probably be some housecleaning to do: homunculi are known to get a little careless as they age, and the old homunculus that you replaced probably let a bunch of useless tasks accumulate without realizing

There will probably be some housecleaning to do: homunculi are known to get a little careless as they age, and the old homunculus that you replaced probably let a bunch of useless tasks accumulate without realizing it. As a new homunculus you have the privilege of pruning the things that obviously need pruning. Maybe you'll look and say "Ah, yes, we're going to cancel

There will probably be some housecleaning to do: homunculi are known to get a little careless as they age, and the old homunculus that you replaced probably let a bunch of useless tasks accumulate without realizing it. As a new homunculus you have the privilege of pruning the things that obviously need pruning.

Low-cost lives are not something to celebrate. They are a reminder that we live on an injured planet, where people suffer for no reason save poor luck.

Almost everybody is a total mess internally, as best as I can tell. Almost everybody struggles to act as they wish to act. Almost everybody is psychologically fragile, and can be put into situations where they do things that they regret — overeat, overspend, get angry, get scared, get anxious. We're monkeys, and we're fairly fragile monkeys at that.

The real choices tend to happen a few minutes before the choices that people beat themselves up about. If you have to apply willpower, you've already missed the choice node.

knowing that you won't save your own ass if you get into a situation where you need willpower to extract yourself really makes you notice the true point of no return when it comes along.)

If you find yourself in a pattern of behavior you don't like, then I recommend pretending you don't have any willpower. Imagine you lived in the world where you couldn't force yourself to stop doing something addicting after starting. In that world, how would you act?

I don't treat myself as if I "could" stop binge-reading a good book, and therefore I don't feel terrible if I binge. Instead, I say, "ah, I see, I binge-read engaging books; I will treat 'read an engaging book' as a single atomic action that takes five to twenty hours, with no choice nodes in between."

You don't need to make excuses for yourself, to take the outside view and feel the same warmth for a monkey that's trying to try, against the gradient of depression and doubt.

What if I lived in the world where it was both the case that I failed the interview and it was because I lacked the requisite skill?

The nice thing about the "what if" question is that I don't need to believe that that's the actual world when pondering the "what if". I don't need to acknowledge that I am unqualified for the job, I can simply ask what would do if I were. This makes it easier to plan out what I would do if I could see the dark world, and having a plan often makes it easier to acknowledge that the world I'm living in is dark.

I find it amusing that "we need lies because we can't bear the truth" is such a common refrain, given how much of my drive stems from my response to attempting to bear the truth.

when you're offered the choice between bad and worse, the first thing to do is look for a third option and the second thing to do is ask for help. Find shortcuts. Try to cheat. Call in the cavalry, if you can. But once you determine that you really have been offered a choice between bad and worse, and that there are no other options — Then it is useful to be able to choose "bad," without suffering over it.

I sometimes find it easier to frame my real problems as if they were hypothetical, identify the answer there, and then apply that to the real world.

it's quite easy to imagine selecting the least bad option from a terrible lot. In fact, it's easy to imagine doing this without any impulse to complain or struggle, but instead only a grim resolve to do the best you can in a bad situation.

Notice when you're measuring your options against what you think should happen; notice when you're measuring the futures you can attain against the futures you want to attain; and treat that as a cue to reframe.

Look: that's not what your grim-o-meter is for. It's not supposed to be attached to the global state of the world. Feeling grim or carefree in proportion to the aggregate disparity or well-being on the planet is difficult, impractical, and mostly useless.

Your grim-o-meter is designed for local occasions. You need to get more grim (and more buckled down) as the work immediately in front of you gets harder, and you need to get less grim (so that you can spend time recharging and relaxing) whenever you have the affordance to recharge and relax. That's the point of the grimness setting.

You can look at the bad things in this world, and let cold resolve fill you — and then go on a picnic, and have a very pleasant afternoon. That would be a little weird, but you could do it! The resolve is a useful source of motivation, but you don't need to adopt a permanently grim demeanor in order to wield it. In fact, personal effectiveness is all about having the right demeanor at the right time.

Except in a very few [tennis] matches, usually with world-class performers, there is a point in every match (and in some cases it's right at the beginning) when the loser decides he's going to lose. And after that, everything he does will be aimed at providing an explanation of why he will have lost. He may throw himself at the ball (so he will be able to say he's done his best against a superior opponent). He may dispute calls (so he will be able to say he's been robbed). He may swear at himself and throw his racket (so he can say it was apparent all along he wasn't in top form). His energies go not into winning but into producing an explanation, an excuse, a justification for losing.

If you really need to succeed on a task, then I suggest that you resolve to refuse to excuse your failure, in the event that you do fail. Even if the failure was understandable. Even if you failed for unfair reasons, due to things you couldn't have foreseen. Simply refuse to speak the excuse. Understand your errors, and learn from them, but if people demand to know why you failed, say only, "I'm sorry. I wasn't good enough." You may add "and I think I know what I did wrong, and I'll work to fix it, and I'll do better next time," but only if that's true.

Don't add anything else: if you want to play to win, you have to refuse to acknowledge excuses.

I suggest cultivating your mental habits such that it feels bad to check whether or not your failure will have an excuse. Refuse to have excuses. Refuse to cover your failures. Only then, without expected social protection, do you really start trying to figure out how to win.

Imagine someone who failed to exit an abusive relationship, despite three years of trauma. After they successfully exit, their friends are likely to be first in line with condolences along the lines of "they were gaslighting you" and "there wasn't anything you could have done" and "how could you have known what to do?" They are providing excuses, and these are toxic. They rob you of your power. They rob you of your ability to say "actually, I could have known, if I had been thinking more clearly. I could have acted differently, if I had known better. And that's the good part, because it means that I am not a helpless victim, because it means that I can learn how to become stronger. Because it means that I cannot be trapped in that sort of situation again."

Excuses rob you of your agency.

If three students give thin excuses for why they didn't finish their project on time, and you say only "I'm sorry, I wasn't good enough, I think I know what I did wrong, I'll do better next time;" then they are liable to glare at you. In refusing to generate an excuse when everyone else is doing so, you violate some unspoken pact of mediocrity.

Sometimes, other people need you to make excuses in order to help excuse the fact that they are making excuses, and if you violate this norm, they find themselves faced with their own shortcomings.

they provide a wonderful opportunity for self-signaling that you will refuse to excuse your actions even under intense social pressures.

Excuses have you looking out to the world to explain your failure, rather than revealing the weak points in yourself. Did the unexpected happen? Then learn how to expect better next time. Were you betrayed? Learn how to build tighter social bonds, and learn how to see betrayals coming sooner next time. Did the dice turn against you? Then own up to your bet and make sure you're only making worthwhile gambles.

This is part of the toolset that I use to replace guilt motivation:

play to win. Don't play to excuse your loss.

You don't need to win every time — but you do need to learn every time.

Excuses are a social artifact, a way to ensure that you don't lose face when you fail. But we're not here to win a social game.

If bad outcomes are in the possibility space, internalize that now. Come to terms with that terrible fact as soon as you can. You want to get into a mental state where if the bad outcome comes to pass, you will only nod your head and say "I knew this card was in the deck, and I knew the odds, and I would make the same bets again, given the same opportunities."

If you need to panic, panic once and get it over with. Otherwise, fear will strike again every time the bad outcome moves a millimeter closer, and that fear may debilitate you or incapacitate you at a crucial moment.

It's the thoughts you can't think that control you most, and it's the outcomes you can't consider that weigh heaviest on your scales.

I imagined that I could well end up a bitter old man, bemoaning plans that should have worked, to people who only scoffed. Now, I also planned not to become that bitter old man — but in those days, I wasn't yet sure how much control I'd gain over my own mind, and I saw lots of bitter old men around me. I was wary that my plans to avoid bitterness would also fail, and I'd become bitter and old despite my best efforts.

I decided to come to terms with that fact once and for all. I spent time imagining this outcome in detail. I didn't try to explain it to myself, I didn't try to tell myself stories about how I'd avoid the outcome, I didn't try to tell myself it would be OK. I just pictured what would happen, considered the cost, weighed the price, and deemed the possibility of failure a price worth paying.

I didn't convince myself it would be OK, but I did decide that a chance of a not-OK outcome was a price worth paying.

These seem like defense mechanisms, to me — defense mechanisms my friend generated unconsciously, because it was too painful look at bitter shallow adults and see lost mistreated eleven-year-olds.

Most of the time, if something is hurting you, I recommend making it stop.

Resist the impulse, and acknowledge the pain. Sit with the pain. Don't excuse yourself from it, don't tell yourself a story about how there's nothing you can do or about how your attention and effort can be better spent helping other people elsewhere. That may be true, but it's another coping mechanism, and it also shorts out the pain. Instead, I suggest sitting with the pain, and transmuting it into resolve.

Guilt is useful only insofar as it helps you wrest yourself from the wrong path. If you're already walking the path you want to walk, if you're working on becoming kinder, or more generous, or psychologically stronger, or wealthier, or smarter, if you're already moving as fast as you can given your current constraints, then the fact that the world is still hurting and you aren't strong enough to fix things yet is no reason for guilt.

Rather, it's a reason for anger,

a world where nobody is evil but everything is broken.

Some people ignore these painful parts of the world. Others try to unsee them. Others try to distance themselves, by poking fun at those who are deemed "pathetic." I suggest seeing them, and remembering.

notice your impulse towards guilt. Notice your impulse to ignore. Notice your impulse to distance yourself from people you don't want to acknowledge. Notice your impulse to assure yourself that it's not your fault, that there's nothing you can do, that you can't help them because it's cheaper to help other people suffering just as much abroad. Then stop following those impulses. See the dark world. Acknowledge the pain, and remind yourself that we live in a universe worth changing.

The count of people we have to leave behind can be a persistent source of pain. But don't let it be a persistent source of guilt. Instead, let it be a reminder that the universe is vast and uncaring, and that our job here is unfinished.

stop asking "is this action the right action to take?" and instead ask "what's the best action I can identify at the moment?"

The nice thing is that "what's the best action I can find in the next five minutes?" always has a concrete answer. If you search for that, instead, you won't get paralyzed.

We've already missed our shot at a total victory. Now we're just building the best future we can. So don't get paralyzed looking for the right thing to do. Just find the best action you can find, and do that.

Stop trying to try and try

I think that many people who are in learning mode expect that mastery feels like learning mode, except that instead of feeling like they know very little, they feel like they know quite a bit. By contrast, I think mastery looks much more like teaching mode — it looks like someone operating in a context where their knowledge and their skills are not the focus, but are just unconscious assumptions in the background.

When the professor asks them questions, they're Expected To Do Their Best; when the undergrad asks them questions, they're just expected to answer.

notice when you're expected to try, and consider reframing. It's much harder to solve a problem when you're Expected To Do Your Best than it is to solve a problem when you're immersed in various subtasks, with the assumption that you're going to solve the problem buried implicitly and unconsciously in the context.

Many people find it much easier to exercise in a context where the exercise is in the background rather than the foreground. Imagine someone who plays recreational soccer, sprinting up and down the soccer field up till the brink of exhaustion. Now imagine them not playing soccer, but just trying to sprint up and down the field up to the brink of exhaustion. They probably push themselves a lot less in the latter case. If "sprint up and down the field a lot" is the main goal, then at each possible stopping point, part of them starts trying to convince the rest that they've exercised enough for the day, and they must spend willpower to continue. In a soccer match, by contrast, the focus is elsewhere. They aren't constantly pinging themselves with explanations of how they've done enough sprinting for today. They aren't generating reasons why it's OK to stop here. They're trying to score a goal. Getting exercise is a background assumption, not a conscious choice.

"I'm going to glance at my MIRI priority list, update it if today happens to be Monday, and then identify MIRI's biggest bottleneck and work on it directly."

I'm not asking myself whether I can run a research institute. I'm not asking myself how to run a research institute (though "study the strategies of people who ran other successful institutes" does occasionally get to the top of my priority list). I'm assuming myself capable — not consciously, but as a background assumption. I'm not assuming success — either I can run a research institute or I can't, the jury's still out on that one — but my capability is not the focus of my attention. I fret about much more practical things, like the tone to strike in a fundraiser announcement post, or how to prioritize paper-writing versus novel research. I'm never "trying to run MIRI;" I'm just working on the next top-priority task.

Trying to try to run MIRI would feel like just trying to run MIRI — it would feel like thinking about what it takes to run an institute and reading books about running institutes and worrying whether the board of directors thought I was doing a good job and so on. From the inside, I'd probably think I was trying very hard to actually run an institute. Actually trying to run MIRI feels very different from the inside. It doesn't feel like trying to make an institute run, it feels like trying to get all the most important emails handled while not letting administrative duties suck up my day. It feels like struggling to prioritize three important tasks that can't all be done. Actually trying to run MIRI does not feel like trying to run MIRI, it feels like a never-ending stream of smaller tasks.

This isn't how I imagine "actually trying." It's not trying-to-try with extra gusto. Actually trying looks like solving small subproblems, with the more ambitious target no longer the focus of attention, but rather a background task. Actually trying to cure aging doesn't look like a person getting a biology degree with especially grim determination, it looks like Aubrey de Grey wading through a mountain of mundane tasks while scraping together enough money to keep SENS running.

If you want to solve hard problems, stop trying to solve the hard problem directly. Change the context such that that's a background assumption: all your actions are going to be pointed roughly in the direction of solving-the-problem; what next? What's the next thing that needs doing? Work on that.

Many years ago, when I was in high school, a friend of mine came back from college having joined a fencing team. He wanted to show me some of the basics, so he tossed me a sabre, and we had at each other. We crossed swords a few times, and he said something along the lines of "Nate, the goal isn't to hit my sword, the goal is to hit me."

I have found it quite useful to occasionally spend a few weeks refusing to use the word "try" or any of its synonyms, at least when talking about myself, and especially when thinking about myself to myself.

The second person, who does not have 'try' in their vocabulary, is forced to say what specific actions they are actually taking — and now, failure on the entire problem is much further down on the list of possible outcomes. Failure at this particular line of approach just drops them into the next line of approach.

Imagine that I'm in the middle of flossing my teeth, when someone knocks on the door and asks what I'm doing. I wouldn't answer "trying to floss," I'd just answer "flossing" — unless I had been interrupted so many times that I was beginning to doubt my ability to complete the task.

When we're sure of our ability to complete a task, we don't describe ourselves as "trying", we just do it.

I don't get up every morning and try to dress myself, I just get up and dress myself.

Whenever you can honestly say that you are doing, rather than trying, then I suggest you do so — but often this is only honestly possible when you're quite confident in your own ability to succeed.

if you want to remove the word 'try', I suggest not finding a near synonym, but increasing the granularity of your descriptions. Don't say "I'm trying to solve this math problem," say "I'm transforming the problem into a programming problem so I can see it from a different angle", or "I'm gameifying the problem so that my intuitions can get a better handle on it," or "I'm producing random algebraic manipulations of this equation in desperate hope that one of them happens to be the answer," or "I'm staring at the problem waiting for my gut to say something for enough time to pass that I can give up without losing face."

Describe what you're doing on the level of granularity where at each step you describe, it would be silly to say you were "trying" at that step,

Often, when I get down to the level of granularity where I'm doing rather than trying, I find that I'm doing something pretty silly

"Try" is a useful word, but saying that you're "trying" to do something is a high level description, and it can often hide some very silly behaviors,

Before making any choices, I take a few minutes to write down all the obvious things to do before making the decision: spend five minutes brainstorming options before weighting any pros or cons; talk to people who have run different types of fundraisers in similar situations; and so on.

I can usually generate a handful of obvious things to do before making my decision. I write those things down, and then I describe my decision to one of my advisors and see if they have any advice. They say "only the obvious," and then rattle off five more obvious things I hadn't thought of, all of them useful.

Sometimes, I wonder how successful a person would be if they just did all the obvious things in pursuit of their goals.

Before carrying out any plan, actually do the obvious things.

When you're about to make a big decision, pause, and ask yourself what obvious things a reasonable person would do before making this sort of decision. Would they spend a full five minutes (by the clock) brainstorming alternative options before settling on a decision? Would they consult with friends and advisors? Would they do some particular type of research?

also occasionally consider not doing things the wrong way. Imagine someone who's recently failed at an endeavor that was important to them.

I have often myself found it useful, mid-hasty-decision, to pause, reflect, and ask myself "wait… is this a terrible plan?" (And then, if the answer is yes, I don't carry out the plan — a crucial step.)

when my attention slips, I am often helped by someone just asking me to consider the obvious — "what would make the task less dreadful?" or "have you thought for five minutes about alternatives?" or "have you considered delegating this?" and so on.

Train yourself to notice decision-points better by buying a tally counter and tracking decisions and giving yourself positive reinforcement every time you do.

One of the big differences, as I see it, is the difference in the response pattern between Alice and Bob. Alice justs gets down to addressing the obstacle before her, Bob spends mental cycles floundering. Managing response patterns is something of an art: when confronted with an obstacle, does your brain switch into problem-solving gear or do you start to flail?

The most competent people that I know are, almost universally, people who have very effective response patterns to obstacles in their areas of expertise. The good programmers I meet reflexively start breaking a problem down the moment they decide to solve it. The stellar mathematicians I know reflexively start prodding at problems with various techniques, or reflexively identify parts of the problem that they don't yet understand. The best businesspeople among my advisors are people who listen to me describe the choice before me, and reflexively describe the costs, constraints, and opportunities they observe. Each has acquired a highly effective response pattern to problems that fall within their area of expertise.

Confidence, practice, and talent all help develop these specific response patterns quite a bit. That said, you can often learn someone's response patterns with much less effort than it takes to learn their skills: you can start thinking in terms of incentives, opportunity costs, and markets long before you become a master economist (though reading a microeconomics textbook surely doesn't hurt).

In fact, I think many people could benefit from developing efficient "fallback" response patterns, to handle new or surprising situations. Response patterns like "verify that your observations were correct" or "find more data" or "generate more than one plausible explanation for the surprise" and so on.

As far as I can tell, there is a general skill of being able to smoothly handle surprising new situations and think on your feet, and I suspect this can be attained by developing good response patterns designed for surprising new situations.

The way that I do it is by monitoring the ways that I respond to new obstacles placed before me. I watch myself facing various situations and observe which ones lead be to reflexively get defensive, or to reflexively blank my mind and wait for someone else to answer, or to reflexively freeze in shock and act dumbfounded. Then I practice building better response patterns for those situations, by figuring out what the checklists to run are, and I do my best to replace those patterns with reflexive inquiry, curiosity, requests for clarification, and impulses to take initiative.

Polished response patterns have proven useful to me, and I attribute much of my skill at math, programming, and running nonprofits to having sane responses to new obstacles.

On reflection, I've concluded that (at least part of) the answer is something I call "confidence all the way up". Insofar as I'm uncertain of my content, I'm confident in my analysis — except, I'm not fully confident in my analysis. But insofar as I'm uncertain of my analysis, I'm confident in my reasoning procedures — except, I don't put faith there, either. But insofar as I'm uncertain of my reasoning procedures, I'm confident in my friends and failsafe mechanisms that will eventually force me to take notice and to update. Except, that's not quite right either — it's more like, every lack of confidence is covered by confidence one meta-level higher in the cognitive chain.

Desperate people have a power that others lack: they have the ability to go all out, to put all their effort towards a task without reservation. Most people I have met don't have the ability to go all out for anything, not even in their imagination.

Desperation is about none of that mattering. It's about having a goal so important that the social concerns drop away, except exactly insofar as they're relevant to the achievement of your goal. It's about being willing to let yourself care more about the task at hand than about what everyone thinks about you, no matter how much they would deride you for fully committing.

I suggest finding a way to become able to become desperate. Perform whatever thought experiments and meditations you have to to be able to imagine a situation where you would do everything in your power to achieve some outcome, without regard for the consequences (beyond their affect on the outcome). Figure out the circumstances under which you'd pull out all the stops and unbar all the holds and put everything you have into the struggle.

(If there is no situation, even in theory, where you would give everything you have into your efforts, then consider that there may be a part of yourself that you're holding back for nothing, a part of yourself that you're wasting.)

The first step is allowing yourself to become desperate in principle. It's allowing there to be at least one imaginary scenario where you'd let yourself commit fully to a task without hesitation. Once you are able to do this, imagine the feeling that would come over you when you first committed yourself to that crucial undertaking, come whatever may. Is there a sense of desperation you would feel, a grasping need to change the future? Sit with it, become familiar with the sensation of desperation and any other feelings associated with the imaginary commitment.

Once you've gained some familiarity with those feelings, look with fresh eyes at what you're fighting for, at what you have to protect, at what you value, and see if any of it is worthy of a little desperation.

If they devote their efforts to the pursuit of something larger than them, will they lose touch with their humanity, and with their ability to connect to other human beings? And I tend to answer: You are not made of glass.

Dive in. Change things. Fix problems. If more problems crop up, fix those too.

You can recover from breaking a few parts of yourself, so long as you're modular rather than fragile. You can become able to roll with a few punches.

Think of all the people you know who are too stagnant, too cautious about breaking something important, to ever change at all.

Be unable to despair. Have confidence all the way up. Think of all the people you know who are too stagnant, too cautious about breaking something important, to ever change at all.

Think of all the people you know who are too stagnant, too cautious about breaking something important, to ever change at

Think of all the people you know who are too stagnant, too cautious about breaking something important, to ever change at all.

The second set would fail because they didn't really expect themselves to succeed. They could make themselves work on their idea, while reciting to themselves some story about being risk-loving, but they couldn't get their head into the idea, to the point where they were spending fourteen hours a day working feverishly while plans and paths and strategies dominated their waking thoughts.

There's a fugue state that successful entrepreneurs report entering, which the second set of people had rendered themselves unable to enter. Somehow, their realistic understating of their odds destroyed their ability to commit.

Recklessness is in the ability to say "screw the odds, I'm going to push forward on this path as hard as I can until a better path appears." If the odds are low, a better path is more likely to appear sooner rather than later — but the reckless let that be a fact about the paths, and they don't further allow low odds to prevent them from pushing forward on the best path they can currently see, as fast as possible.

Become the sort of person who can enter the fugue state and give an idea your all, while also being able to see and avoid all the common failure modes. The fact that you are unlikely to succeed is an epistemic fact, you do not need to give it dominion over your motivation. Be a little reckless.

Defiance-the-action is in the child chewing with their mouth open in an open refusal to submit; defiance-the-virtue is in the mental actions they make before they start chewing with their mouth open. It's in the internal steeling they do when deciding not to be ordered around. It's in their decision to be self-reliant, it's in their refusal to take orders lying down.

conscious. They're reflexive. Defiance-the-virtue is about encountering a badness that's brewing in the world, and reflexively doing everything you can to throw a wrench in the works, to twist things in your favor. Defiance-the-virtue is about taking nothing lying down, and refusing to let badnesses in the universe slide.

Defiance-the-virtue is about encountering a badness that's brewing in the world, and reflexively doing everything you can to throw a wrench in the works, to twist things in your favor. Defiance-the-virtue is about taking nothing lying down, and refusing to let badnesses in the universe slide.

Defiance is not about coming to terms with the world. It's about looking looking at the world and having the same mental reflexes as the defiant child. It's about the reflexive impulse to say "screw this" and choose self-reliance over hopelessness in the face of problems that are crushingly large.

Above all, it's about seeing that the wold is broken, and feeling something akin to "fuck these mortal constraints, I'm fixing things."

The more you practice negotiating and dialoging between internal conflicts, the less you'll need to resort to squelching little voices of doubt. With practice, it's also possible to become better at articulating the inarticulable concerns.

learn to detach the conviction from the statistics: You can still enter the mental state we refer to as "certainty that you're going to win", without in fact predicting victory with high credence.

I've done some rewiring on which feelings correspond to which epistemic states. Throughout that rewiring, I've endeavored not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Deliberate once, and then don't deliberate again until you get new information that would have changed the result of your deliberation.

If you have a big decision to make, set aside some time to do some serious thinking. Ask people you trust for the obvious advice, and then actually do it. Set some five-minute timers, spend time describing the problem before you spend time describing possible solutions, brainstorm a wide variety of solutions.

Figure out where you're highly uncertain, find the places where your decision turns on a critical piece of information you're missing, and add actions like "run thus-and-such an experiment" to your set of available actions. Build models. Make your best guesses about the probabilities of various outcomes in response to your actions, make your best guesses about how good those outcomes are, multiply out an expected value calculation, throw the numbers out, and consult your updated intuitions. And so on. Whatever your "think seriously" process is, run it, and then pick the best action available to you (given the information you currently have, having taken into account the incompleteness of your situation). Then do that. Then don't go back into deliberation mode until you encounter information that would have actually changed your answer. If you do it right, there's no need to go back to worrying about which thing you should be doing unless you encounter new evidence or information. When you do, deliberate again — or, better, plug the new evidence into the model you built when you deliberated the first time, instead of re-doing all that work. Half the reason for really deliberating hard the first time is to build a versatile model, anyway. (Though of course, evidence and experience will also cause you to update that model as you go.) Many people seem plagued by "am I doing the right thing?" thoughts which get in the way of them committing themselves to any action. I think there are at least three different types of "am I doing the right thing?" thoughts, each worth treating differently.

On my current best model of where the "am I doing the right thing?" thoughts come from, they tend to come from one of two places. Either (a) some part of you is concerned that your deliberation was dangerously biased, flawed, or otherwise invalid; or (b) some part of you is not yet comfortable in the face of uncertainty.

First, treat them as if they might be confusion pings: Learn to inspect them and extract content from them, especially content of the form "I think I have been ignoring factor X" or "I think I have been under-weighing concern Y." Second, learn to be comfortable in the face of high uncertainty, and develop a deliberation procedure of your own that deserves appropriate meta-confidence.

Think hard, pick the best action, and then don't worry about what action you're doing until you see something that would have changed the result of the hard thinking.

Deliberate well once, and then don't deliberate again until you come across new information that would have changed your answer.

I often bump into people who want to do something big, interesting, or important, but who utterly lack the ability to commit themselves to a particular action (often because they lack the ability to convince themselves that something is worth doing).

you find good things to do by getting your hands dirty, not by sitting on the sidelines and bemoaning how no task seems worthy of your conviction.

Alice is going to have dozens of opportunities to realize that her plan is bad as she struggles to work her way up the ranks with her eyes set on the presidency of the United Nations. If she's sufficiently good at updating in response to evidence and truly changing her mind, then she'll realize that her original plan was silly, and she'll find better plans. And because she'll have been out there in the wild, bumping into social constraints, running into other enthusiastic people, and stumbling upon new opportunities, she'll have more chances than Bob to put herself on a good course of action.

The way that Elie and Holden got to where they are is not by agonizing over whether a global poverty charity evaluation was literally the best possible thing he could be doing. They got to where they are by jumping directly into the fray and doing something.

Maybe the plan is "I'm going to get a biology PhD so that I can start my own CRISPR lab so that I can be on the forefront of human intelligence enhancement."

Your second plan doesn't need to be good or feasible either, of course — the important thing is that you (1) start with a plan; (2) get out there and start operating; and (3) get better plans as you get more information.