Resolve: Post-CFAR 3

Resolve: Post-CFAR 3

[This post is about Resolve as an ontological framework for rationality. Resolve is about trying hard, but it’s also about more than that. I think that it is pointing to a useful cluster of ideas that are related to determination and grit. This is part three of a five-part series on how I updated my mind after CFAR. Once again, the views expressed here are mine and not CFAR’s.]

One of the coolest paradigms I picked up at the CFAR workshop was something taught by Duncan Sabien, called Resolve, which gets its name from the Resolve Cycle.

The Resolve Cycle is a CFAR technique where one sets a 5 minute timer and resolves to solve the problem in the allotted time. Despite no formal backing, this technique has proven surprisingly effective for people (me included).

While I do think that the lazy evaluation I covered last post explains part of why Resolve Cycles are awesome (you’re forced to ask yourself hard questions), there’s something deeper about “actually trying to solve the problem” here. The attitude that “I will solve this problem in five minutes!” seems to trigger a positive reframe, and I think this sort of attitude generalizes to a determined attitude.

Resolve builds off this determined attitude and turns it into an entire ontological worldview.

To a first approximation, Resolve means being driven by our own internal motivation instead of incentives present in the external environment. There’s a Nietzschean sense where you’re “fully coming into your power” as a human with your intentions, and you’re mindfully acting on them.

It’s about saying “I’m going to shut up and solve this problem, biases and obstacles be damned.”  

Two ideas I’ve been thinking about recently seem to tie into Resolve as an ontology.


Actually Trying:

The first of these ideas is that of Actually Trying, which seems to be an underlying thread in the rationality community. Actually Trying is where you, uh, actually try to achieve your goals. You’re relentlessly going all out.

I posit that most people are not Actually Trying in life. It seems to me that, often, when people are doing a task, they are looking for excuses to stop, rather than reasons to continue. That includes me; I don’t always find myself wanting to win.

Actually Trying refers to when you’re using every resource at your disposal to tackle your problems. You’re trying every path available to you. And if there are no paved paths, then you’re picking up bricks and laying your own.


A student who starts a math problem, can’t immediately solve it, and then gives up, saying, “Well, at least I tried.”

A student who starts a math problem and can’t immediately solve it. So she identifies multiple ways to try and solve it, tries all four ways. Re-reading the book again, she realizes she still doesn’t know how to solve it. So she systematically writes down how her thought processes and identifies what exactly what she doesn’t know. She tries checking online, but the internet is down. So she calls a friend, who also doesn’t understand things. Finally, she knocks on all the doors in her neighborhood, and it turns out that Mrs. Jones has a masters degree in mathematics and helps her out. Success!

I’d say the second student is Actually Trying.

She’s searching for multiple solutions in an attempt to solve the problem. When the first student encounters difficulty, they take it as a signal to stop. The second student merely sees each obstacle as closed path, and she simply continues on.

Actually Trying is about doing literally everything you can.

(In the above example, there also seems to be a distinction between doing something out of a sense of duty or obligation versus out of a deep internal sense of wanting.)

When we’re Actually Trying, we’re systematically trying to get to the goal. We’re searching across all potential solutions with an intent to get it done; our aim is to fully win.

I don’t think the “Actually Try” mindset kicks in for most people until the stakes are raised.

I’m trying to point at the differences that happen when everything you care about hangs in the balance. It’s the difference between trying to learn a foreign language because you’re sort of interested and trying to learn a foreign language because if you don’t half of the world explodes.

If you see yourself doing more to achieve your goals in the second scenario, then consider the question of, “If you can see additional paths to victory in the second example, what’s stopping you from doing those in the first example?”

For a quick mental heuristic, you may want to try Raising the Stakes: Ask yourself, “If the lives of my friends hung in the balance (or something else similarly drastic), is this really all that I’d do?”

In the field of AI, the idea of the “nearest unblocked strategy” probably best approximates what Actually Trying as all about. (I’d highly recommend reading the article for additional intuitions of what I’m trying to gesture at.)

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you go and Actually Trying at all the time. I suspect that’d only be working yourself ragged, which probably wouldn’t be optimal anyway. I also don’t suggest Actually Trying for everything in life. The point is to be able to have something like this in reserve for those times when you’re working on something where failure isn’t an option.



Taking Time is a related idea, where you’re, um, actually taking time to do things. Where Actually Trying is about powering through, Actually Taking Time is about sitting down and doing things right.


A student thinks about the things they have to do today. They mentally list the items and then go on with their day. They finish some of their things.

A student thinks about the things they have to do today. They sit down, write a list on paper, and do some minor scheduling. They think of potential obstacles, make a few contingency plans, and then go on with their day. They finish almost all of their things.

If you’re Taking Time you’re saying something like, “Okay, let me actually take the time to sit down and reason this out in a systematic way.” You’re willing to actually go and do things right, instead of just half-assing them.

Taking Time appears to be, in part, powered by the idea of cultivating Formalism in what you do.

Formalism is about rituals.

It feels present in the second example, where having a specific ritual for something makes it feel more important or official. The person has a more structured format to think about things. In the first example, the action only exists in the person’s head, where it’s less grounded.

Formalism is about having specific cues, rituals, or general things that help connect our mental tasks to the real world. It’s about specifically carving out the time and environment to do something, making it more “official”. We embody Formalism when use our environment to create more concrete associations with our mental intentions (be it through conceptual, temporal, or physical means).

I think that finding ways to build more Formalism into our tasks can improve our efficacy.

A personal example for me was that I found it easier to make running into a habit after I downloaded a running timer. In a way, this “manifested” my desire to run in a way that anchored it to the real world. For me, this changed running from “this is something in my head I want to do” to “now I’m starting my running timer which means it’s officially running time”.

The most important point is that though the actual anchors you use in Formalism might not greatly improve the tasks themselves (EX: a running timer doesn’t actually increase your stamina), they do change how we think about the tasks.

We see things with greater weight; it’s no longer about a wispy thought, but you’ve formalized it into an official Thing that you are doing. As a result, we might be able to improve our attempts at habituation, or just cultivate a stronger sense of engagement with the task at hand.

So if you’re looking for ways to think more deeply on topics, Actually Try, or Take Time, it may be worth considering how to build some more Formalism into your habits.

Some potential suggestions:

  • A timer + specific sound as a particular cue.
  • A certain notebook / document used for writing specific plans.
  • Going to a coffeeshop / particular place to do work.
  • Setting aside specific times for certain tasks.

Tying this all back to Resolve, most people will probably be content with flimsy mental notions. If you’re going to “do it right”, you need to be able to actually put in effort and Take the Time to sit down and work through it.

Resolve comes in where, whether or not you’re directly building in Formalism, you’re willing to spend time/energy to formally do whatever task you’re trying to accomplish.

Next Post In The Series


  1. […] in the real world, where they hopefully have some connection to people’s actions. For example, Resolve may be good for enabling people to power through things, while “humans are mainly habits” can […]


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