2020-07-17

The No-Miracle Question

I’m a fan of the Miracle Question

Imagine that there’s a miracle overnight, and you wake up tomorrow morning to find that your problem has magically disappeared. What is the very first thing you encounter that is evidence of the change?

Along the same lines, here is the No-Miracle Question (NMQ), a prompt for finding bugs (something that systematically goes wrong in your life).

Imagine that there’s no miracle overnight, and you wake up tomorrow as per normal. What is the very first thing you encounter that is evidence of a problem in your life?

By repeatedly solving the problem the NMQ suggests, you’ll eventually end up with a much better bug-free morning.

Morning routines are important and great to get nailed down. For my morning routine, I make the distinction between planning particular tasks (do X, Y and Z) and avoiding behaviours (don’t do X, Y or Z) useful. Using the NMQ will help with the latter.

Perhaps superstitiously, I feel like a day will go badly if I make a bad decision shortly after waking up, such as snoozing my alarm or spending too much time on my phone in bed. Things like waking up tired or dehydrated are also evidence of bugs. I’m planning to ask the NMQ and make one change each day.
5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 I’m a fan of the Miracle Question Imagine that there’s a miracle overnight, and you wake up tomorrow morning to find that your problem has m...

2020-07-16

My 10 favourite albums



In no particular order, and only allowing one album per artist:

Music for 18 Musicians — Steve Reich
In Rainbows — Radiohead
Magical Mystery Tour — The Beatles
Ys — Joanna Newsom
In The Aeroplane Over the Sea — Neutral Milk Hotel
Illinois — Sufjan Stevens
Glassworks — Philip Glass
Hosianna Mantra — Popol Vuh
Ágætis Byrjun — Sigur Rós
Heaven or Las Vegas — Cocteau Twins
5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 In no particular order, and only allowing one album per artist: Music for 18 Musicians — Steve Reich In Rainbows — Radiohead Magical Mystery...

2020-07-15

Hamming Questions for Teams



Hamming Questions are prompts developed by Center for Applied Rationality to get you to think about the biggest problems in your life. Hamming Questions for Potted Plants is a variant of the original Hamming Questions. This is another variation of the Hamming Questions. If you haven’t already, read and complete these two first.

In this framing of Hamming Problems, you are a team. These questions are not for actual teams of people to answer. Let me know if you come up with a better name.

You are a team:
  • You are a team of mental modules each with different roles. You can think of yourself as a team of sub-agents — the different voices in your head.
  • You are a team of context-dependent versions of you that take turns being you: tired-You, socialising-You, etc.
  • You are a team of people each taking a turn at being you for a day. You-July-15th is a distinct person to You-July-16th, in small but definite ways.

To get the most out of these questions, set a 5-minute timer for each category to answer each question.

Weakest link

It is said a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. What is your weakest link? Who is not pulling their weight? Is work being avoided, delayed or done poorly?

Fairness

Team members can feel unhappy if the work is unevenly distributed. Is anyone under-worked or over-worked? Can the workload be rearranged to everyone’s benefit?

Common vision

Different goals within a team can lead to wasted effort and inefficiency. Is there a clear goal that everyone is working towards? Are all members convinced of the attainability and value of the goal? Do more or fewer compromises in your plans and actions need to be made?

Communication

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.― George Bernard Shaw

Is relevant information being retained and communicated to all the members of the team? Do all team members feel confident and safe sharing their views? Are there things left unsaid, buried truths or taboos against certain ideas? Do team members ask for help when needed?

Disagreements

Are there unresolved disagreements between team members? Are there reliable mechanisms for resolving problems, and are these used when necessary? Are disagreeing team members attempting to converge on the truth, or something else?
5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 Hamming Questions are prompts developed by Center for Applied Rationality to get you to think about the biggest problems in your life. Ham...

2020-07-14

Pushing & pulling changes

Here are two ideas I've named, which I'm sure you are semi familiar with. I hope that by giving them a label they're easier to discuss, and prompt yourself. to use.

Pushing changes

Good for getting out of ruts, bad states of mind and breaking or stopping bad behaviours. Often useful in the middle of a day that’s gone off track, or in the middle of a low period. These work by pushing away the states of mind, and don’t deal with the underlying cause.

Examples

  • Intense perceptual stimuli: using cold water to splash your face or shower in, shining a bright (but safe) LED in your eyes, drinking something very cold, listening to some loud music. Temperature seems to work best for me.
  • Intense physical exertion such as a long run or very long walk. Make it difficult and effortful.
  • Gentler but less effective methods: a timed nap, meditating, taking 100 deep breaths.

Pulling changes

Good for getting into new routines, and creating new habits. The idea is not that the X actually improves you, but that you use it as a springboard on your journey to improve. These work by pulling you towards good states of mind but work like a blunt tool by"faking it until you make it" rather than reaching the good states of mind and routines through reasoned effort.

I find saying silly things to myself such as "after I've made change X, everything will be new and better" and this small bit of optimism acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Examples

  • Small changes to your living and workspace: rearranging furniture, changing your computer wallpaper, thoroughly cleaning and tidying.
  • Changing your possessions or appearance: a new watch, hair cut, etc
  • Going away: being away from home is a great time to break your script and do things differently.
  • Making use of meaningful dates: anniversaries, birthdays, solstices, the first day of a month, etc are all great opportunities for change. I find it very motivating to be able to say (and know I’ll be able to say) things like "I’ve been doing X since meaningful day Y".
5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 Here are two ideas I've named, which I'm sure you are semi familiar with. I hope that by giving them a label they're easier to d...

2020-07-13

Minimising distraction on the internet

Here’s a list of things I do to make web browsing less distracting and more aligned with my goals.

Blocking ads


uBlock Origin is available on Chrome and Firefox. It’s also usable on Firefox for Android.

Inbox zero


I like to keep my email inbox as empty as possible. With the archive feature, it’s possible to do the same on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. After replying to a thread, I archive it and the thread will only reappear in my conversation list after activity (e.g. a new message)

Zapping distractions


uBlock Origin allows you to zap any element of a web page you don’t want to see. Good things to zap:
  • Facebook news feed
  • Comments and suggested content on news and video sites
  • Stack Exchange popular community questions
  • Product recommendations on Amazon / other online shops

Blocking sites


Leechblock (available on Chrome and Firefox) allows you to block websites: entirely, after exceeding a usage limit, or during particular times of the week. Some websites I find too distracting and block completely (e.g. Reddit). Some other sites I give myself at most 2 minutes every quarter hour to look at.

Leechblock can also block sites using wildcards, such as blocking any URL containing a certain string or blocking only some pages on a website. The add-on also allows whitelisting.

These features allow you to create advanced filters such as: block any sites containing “news” except for “bbc.co.uk/news” but do block “bbc.co.uk/news/politics”.

I try to avoid reading the news as much as possible, and rely on friends and Wikipedia’s current events portal to keep me up to date.
5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 Here’s a list of things I do to make web browsing less distracting and more aligned with my goals. Blocking ads uBlock Origin is available o...

2020-07-12

Icky frogs

If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.
― Mark Twain

Sometimes I go whole days shadowed by icky frogs: tasks I don’t want to do or even think about. They stay on my to-do list and drag me down: both reminding me of the task itself and my inability to do it. The problem is always a lack of motivation, not a lack of ability.

I think there might be a feedback loop along the lines of believing the task is hard because I’ve neglected to do it for so many days, so I neglect doing it on that day too.

My most common icky frog is replying to certain emails or messages. I’m unsure exactly what it is that makes some emails feel so much scarier and harder for me to reply to. Often, it is that I really have to think about what they have written, and sometimes about something I don’t like thinking about (often identity-related).

Recurring frogs are bugs: systematic things that go wrong in your life. It is possible that all frogs are evidence of an underlying problem and that investigating the aversiveness towards them is a valuable activity.

Some ideas for eating and preventing frogs
  • Allocate some time every day for frog-eating (maybe the morning, following Mark Twain)
  • Use Gendlin's Focusing on the feeling of aversiveness
  • Set a 5-minute timer and just do it, or superCommit to doing it within a short time
  • Set a penalty for uneaten frogs (e.g. committing to a friend, using Stickk.com)
  • Keep track of uneaten frogs (e.g. in a daily journal) and review the list to spot common themes and tackle a more general problem

— -

On email and instant messages specifically, I am setting a bounty. Although the intersection of “people I haven’t replied to” and “people who have read this” is small, I will PayPal £5 to you if you have not received a reply from me within 5 days of your email or instant message. Chase me up on it!
5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the b...

2020-07-11

Thrashing

Thrashing is a term in computer science used to refer to ‘pretty much any situation where the [computer] system grinds to a halt because it’s entirely preoccupied with metawork’¹.

Like computers, humans also have limited resources (memory, attention, willpower) and can get stuck trying to remember every task, prioritising between tasks or switching between tasks.

I see myself thrashing alarmingly frequently, such as working in a distraction full environment and never making meaningful progress on my task at hand, or sorting a cupboard and being unable to hold every item in my mind to be able to decide where to start.

The solution


If you find yourself thrashing, arbitrarily pick a task and commit to completing it. Don’t do anything else, not even prioritising (which is hard). If you are going to complete every task eventually, it is not too important which order you do them in and so prioritisation is a poor use of time.

To prevent thrashing, minimise your resource use on anything other than your task at hand:
  • Write down any to-do as soon as you think of it, and use prompts to elicit to-do list items.
  • Keep your physical space tidy (a messy environment is a to-do list in itself).
  • Keep your digital space tidy: use fewer browser tabs, have fewer desktop and home-screen icons, and minimise or turn off notifications.
  • Plan your time or order of tasks in advance, and reevaluate your plan no more than a pre-decided frequency.

¹Algorithms to Live By, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths [highly recommended]
5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 Thrashing is a term in computer science used to refer to ‘pretty much any situation where the [computer] system grinds to a halt because it’...

2020-07-10

Mental cockpits

Here I describe a new tool I have named the mental cockpit. I have not yet tried it, and so it may be useless. I will report back with results by July 18th.

Image courtesy of Matti Blume


Your mental cockpit is a hybrid of a memory palace and a smartphone’s home screen.

Your mental cockpit exists in your mind and requires you to imagine a physical space. In this space, you will place objects to remind you of your most valuable mental tools and techniques.

Whenever something is going wrong, particularly when you are caught up in the moment, you can close your eyes, visit your mental cockpit and be reminded of these tools and choose one to use.

Once your mental cockpit is ready, create a Trigger Action Plan similar to:
Notice I am caught up in the moment→ Close my eyes and visit my mental cockpit

Some examples of tools and silly object mnemonics

Processing emotions
Planning and decision making
Executing intentions
  • superCommit: a Superman action figure suspended from the ceiling
  • resolve cycle / Yoda timer: Yoda sitting on a sand timer


Your mental cockpit will probably take some effort to set-up, and this technique will only be useful if there is little resistance to accessing your mental cockpit. You want an environment you can readily picture without much effort. Choose a space you already know well, or find a good reference image. Maybe photoshopping your objects in an image will help.

Let me know if you give this a go. I’m very keen to hear if anyone gets any mileage out of it.

Apologies for anyone with aphantasia, I don’t think this will work for you.
5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 Here I describe a new tool I have named the mental cockpit. I have not yet tried it, and so it may be useless. I will report back with resul...

2020-07-09

Low hanging chemical fruits

Here I give pointers to four cheap chemical aids that you may not be using: caffeine, creatine, melatonin, and zinc acetate.

Please take this post with a massive pinch of salt and do your own reading before diving in. Everything here is an (admittedly) rushed synthesis of recommendations and research elsewhere. To the best of my knowledge, these suggestions are all safe and have helped me or someone I know.

Caffeine


Caffeine is a stimulant and the world’s most commonly consumed psychoactive substance. I often use caffeine if I’m feeling tired in the morning of the afternoon.

Tablets containing 200mg caffeine can be bought for ~2p each, equivalent in caffeine content to 2 shots of espresso (I break them in half).

Caffeine is addictive, so I recommend not consuming caffeine on consecutive days. Caffeine can disrupt your sleep, so I recommend not consuming caffeine in the evening.

Gwern has a great summary of the research on caffeine.

Creatine


Creatine is a chemical found predominately in the muscles. Creatine improves muscle growth and may improve cognition. Creatine powder is available for ~5p per serving.


Melatonin


Melatonin is a hormone made by the pineal gland. Taking a melatonin supplement (<5p each) reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and increases total sleep duration.

Again, Gwern has an excellent summary of the research on melatonin.


Zinc acetate

5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 Here I give pointers to four cheap chemical aids that you may not be using: caffeine, creatine, melatonin, and zinc acetate. Please take thi...

2020-07-08

Mantra flashcards

Mantra flashcards are flashcards that you review every day.

I find it useful to remind myself of the following things in the following broad categories each day. Underneath each gives some examples.

commitments to daily goals
  • “Remember your commitment to avoid doing X. Although it may be tempting to do X in the moment, you know on balance that it doesn’t make you happier. Imagine how disappointing it would be to break your streak. You don’t want to let future versions of you down.”

quotes that resonant with me
  • “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” — Anne Frank
  • "You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” — Anonymous

life advice and short summaries of tools
habits I am installing
  • See a task that will take 2 minutes or less → do it now
  • Notice I have no mental picture of what the other person is saying → ask for examples


To generate ideas for your own mantra flashcards, ask yourself:

On the margin, what do I most need to be reminded of?”

Consider your biggest bottleneck, and ask how a small daily prompt could get you 1% closer to solving it. Avoid redundant mantra flashcards for personal problems you have already overcome.

Once you have created your flashcards, set a recurring weekly reminder to consider creating cards, editing cards, or taking cards out. Your mantra flashcards should change depending on your needs.

Good luck!

Appendix: Setting up Mantra flashcards in Anki


Create a deck for your mantra flashcards and open its options [cog icon -> options]
Click “Manage…” in the top-right and then “Add” and name the new options group “daily” or something.
Click on the “Reviews” and change the Maximum interval to 1 and then press “OK”.

5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 Mantra flashcards are flashcards that you review every day. I find it useful to remind myself of the following things in the following broad...

2020-07-07

Introducing superCommit™

Are you unable to stick to commitments you make?

Do you wish there was a way to guarantee you got round to doing that task you’ve been putting off?

You need superCommit™, a revolutionary new verb that will change your life.

How to use superCommit™

  • Charge it up. To begin with, only use superCommit™ on easily achievable concrete goals, by saying “I superCommit™ to do task X by the end of time Y”. Build your confidence in superCommit™ until you know that anything you superCommit™ to, does in fact happen.
  • Let it loose. Choose more ambitious concrete targets to superCommit™ to. Considing eating every frog as soon as soon as they arrive. Create and break habits by making superCommitments™ to become the best version of yourself. Remember to only superCommit™ to things that are concrete and time-bound. Renew any commitments to habits each day, by superCommitting ™ to that goal for that day only e.g. “I will not do X today” or “I will do Y for a least Z units today”

Limitations


Do not ever superCommit™ to anything you’re not highly confident a high willpower version of yourself could do.

By invoking the magic power of superCommit™, you are summoning a version of yourself with greater motivation to the task at hand — they will not have any superpowers that you do not.
Frequently asked questions

What happens if a superCommit™ doesn’t work?


This is bad news, and there are no exceptions. The ancient power of superCommit™ will leave you, and you will no longer have confidence in superCommit ™ any more than you have in the basic 'commit’. There is no way to weasel out of a failed superCommitment™.

Can I superCommit™ to very difficult things?


Only if a higher willpower version of yourself could complete them. Otherwise, Consider using the simple 'commit’.

Can I superCommit™?


Yes, superCommit™ is free for all to use.

Consider trying it now, by superCommitting™ to an easy, concrete task to do within the next five minutes such as writing down three things you’re grateful for.


Thanks to Tom B for comments on the initial idea. All errors remain my own.
5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 Are you unable to stick to commitments you make? Do you wish there was a way to guarantee you got round to doing that task you’ve been putti...

2020-07-06

Timeblocking

Timeblocking is a productivity tool for planning your day. I find it works better than (a) working through a list of tasks and (b) not having a plan (unsurprisingly).

To timeblock a day, you allocate a task event to every minute of the day, such that the day (or working day) is filled. Of course, you can put on routine tasks such as meals, traveling, and downtime. I recommend timeblocking the night or day before.

Then, on the day, you follow your plan.

Inevitably, your actual day will deviate from the plan. Things will come up you have to deal with, and tasks will take longer than you estimated.

Sometimes, it is worth making changes to your plan during the day, especially when the plan has been thrown off by several hours.

If possible, try to follow the plan from where you left off. You want to be the sort of person who can accurately predict the length of tasks, and also do them within that time. Knowing that you are allowed to change your plan decreases your incentive to do a good job at planning and execution.


Why it works


  • Timeblocking separates planning and doing. Prioritisation is hard, and mentally draining. You want to group your planning and try to minimise changing your plan.
  • Timeblocking gives you a default action. You’ll always know what to do. Humans tend to accept what they’re given.
  • Timeblocking gives you a target to aim for. Sticking to your plan can be a fun challenge - there’s no room for procrastination (though there should be time planned for rest).


How-to

Timeblocking can be done on paper, a digital calendar, or with productivity software. Make sure you have easy access to your plan in the day, and that isn’t inconvenient to make changes to.

Here’s a timeblocked day in TickTick. Longer tasks should be broken down into concrete smaller tasks within their own plan.
5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 Timeblocking is a productivity tool for planning your day. I find it works better than (a) working through a list of tasks and (b) not havin...

2020-07-04

Why Rationally Speaking is my favourite podcast

In general, I think educational podcasts are a great way for hearing about new ideas (exploring), but a poor way of understanding anything deeply (exploiting).

I know of one exception: the Rationally Speaking podcast.

In each episode of the Rationally Speaking (RS) podcast, Julia Galef interviews a guest on a topic from their field of expertise, most often their latest research or book.

Despite listening attentively to RS episodes, I have forgotten most of the facts, statistics, and arguments discussed in the podcast. The same is true for all other podcasts I have listened too, and with books I have read. Without a sincere attempt to remember things, you will forget them. On top of this, it is rare for me to gain more than a superficial understanding of the topic through podcasts. This is not to say the majority of podcasts are bad at all because you don’t learn anything. They can be entertaining, and expose you to new ideas.

What is different about the Rationally Speaking podcast?


The crucial difference is the style of conversation. It sounds like Galef is genuinely seeking to engage the topic at hand, and will iron out any misunderstandings, ask probing questions and is not afraid to challenge lines of reasoning or point out hidden assumptions.

When learning a language, it is useful to be immersed in it. Similarly, when trying to improve your ability to form accurate beliefs about the world, it is useful to listen to someone fluent in the art of productive disagreement and rigorous inquiry. Listening to RS you’ll quickly pick up new cognitive tools, such as steel-manning and Bayesian updating.

Whatever the content of an RS episode (which I’m sure to later forget), there is great value in being taught how to think well on a meta-level. It is both a joy to hear Galef apply her sharp reasoning to such a broad range of topics and a reminder that it is possible to train your ability to find the truth.


Recommended episodes


RS 234 — Dylan Matthews on “Global poverty has fallen, but what should we conclude from that?”

RS 216 — Diana Fleischman on “Being a transhumanist evolutionary psychologist”

RS 176 — Jason Brennan on “Against democracy”
5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 In general, I think educational podcasts are a great way for hearing about new ideas ( exploring ), but a poor way of understanding anything...

2020-07-03

Journaling

I have been keeping a daily journal for a number of years. I think it can be a great tool for making your life go better. In this post, I suggest some pointers on how best to journal. These are things that have worked for me. Your mileage may vary!

Purpose

For referencing and reminiscing

  • Minimise the boring facts. Ignore times, meal descriptions, etc. Use bullet points and cut the connectives. Some lists and minutiae can be worthwhile writing: who did you meet? what ideas are you thinking about? what interesting conversations did you have?
  • Much of what you write can be redundant: are you repeating what is already implicitly told by your calendar, photos, social media, and location history? Can you solve this need to reminiscence by taking more photos and videos?

For emotional processing

  • Are you writing to remember how you felt or, in the case of bad feelings, trying to work through them? If the latter I recommend Focusing. It is easy to convince yourself that writing about bad feelings will make them go away or solve the underlying issues.
  • The purpose of writing the journal should be to make your life go better. Indulging in bad thoughts in your journal may make you unhappier. Conversely, gratitude journaling actually makes people happier. You should do it.

As a keystone habit


A keystone habit is a single successful habit that disrupts the status quo and makes other changes possible. If you are not keeping track of how things are going, how do you know that you are improving? Completing a daily check-in allows you to get some distance from whatever you’ve been caught up with in the day, and sometimes break a big slump.

Write down the good decisions you made
  • Every day there is something you have done to be proud of, even on your worst days.
  • What went surprisingly well today, and what did you do to make it happen?

Write down the slips in your behaviour

Every week, review your entries and distill your answers to these questions into a shortlist of your greatest bottlenecks. Now identified, you must begin to work on them, a topic I’ll leave to another post. In the meantime, I’d highly recommend Hammertime.


A template for a daily journal:


The most memorable things that happened today
1.
2.
3.

The best decisions I made today
1.
2.
3.

The worst decisions I made today
1.
2.
3.

The things I am most grateful for today
1.
2.
3.
5 Tristan Cook: July 2020 I have been keeping a daily journal for a number of years. I think it can be a great tool for making your life go better. In this post, I su...
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