[This post is all about ideas / tricks / useful tools of mind. This is part five of a five-part series on how I changed my mind after attending a CFAR workshop. My views are my own and don’t reflect CFAR in any way.]
This is a collection of TAPs, heuristics, and concepts that I’ve been thinking about recently. Many of them were inspired by my time at the CFAR workshop, but there’s not really underlying theme behind it all. It’s just a collection of ideas that are either practical or interesting.
TAPs, or Trigger Action Planning, is a CFAR technique that is used to build habits. The basic idea is you pair a strong, concrete sensory “trigger” (e.g. “when I hear my alarm go off”) with a “plan”—the thing you want to do (e.g. “I will put on my running shoes”).
If you’re good at noticing internal states, TAPs can also use your feelings or other internal things as a trigger, but it’s best to try this with something concrete first to get the sense of it.
Some of the more helpful TAPs I’ve recently been thinking about are below:
Ask for Examples TAP:
[Notice you have no mental picture of what the other person is saying. → Ask for examples.]
Examples are good. Examples are god. I really, really like them.
In conversations about abstract topics, it can be easy to understand the meaning of the words that someone said, yet still miss the mental intuition of what they’re pointing at. Asking for an example clarifies what they mean and helps you understand things better
The trigger for this TAP is noticing that what someone said gave you no mental picture.
I may be extrapolating too far from too little data here, but it seems like people do try to “follow along” with things in their head when listening. And if this mental narrative, simulation, or whatever internal thing you’re doing comes up blank when someone’s speaking, then this may be a sign that what they said was unclear.
Once you notice this, you ask for an example of what gave you no mental picture. Ideally, the other person can then respond with a more concrete statement or clarification.
Quick Focusing TAP:
[Notice you feel aversive towards something → Be curious and try to source the aversion.]
Aversion Factoring, Internal Double Crux, and Focusing are all techniques CFAR teaches to help deal with internal feelings of badness.
While there are definite nuances between all three techniques, I’ve sort of abstracted from the general core of “figuring out why you feel bad” to create an in-the-moment TAP I can use to help debug myself.
The trigger is noticing a mental flinch or an ugh field, where I instinctively shy away from looking too hard.
After I notice the feeling, my first step is to cultivate a sense of curiosity. There’s no sense of needing to solve it; I’m just interested in why I’m feeling this way.
Once I’ve directed my attention to the mental pain, I try to source the discomfort. Using some backtracking and checking multiple threads (e.g. “is it because I feel scared?”) allows me to figure out why. This whole process takes maybe half a minute.
When I’ve figured out the reason why, a sort of shift happens, similar to the felt shift in focusing. In a similar way, I’m trying to “ground” the nebulous, uncertain discomfort, forcing it to take shape.
I’d recommend trying some Focusing before trying this TAP, as it’s basically an expedited version of it, hence the name.
Rule of Reflexivity TAP:
[Notice you’re judging someone → Recall an instance where you did something similar / construct a plausible internal narrative]
[Notice you’re making an excuse → Recall times where others used this excuse and update on how you react in the future.]
This is a TAP that was born out of my observation that our excuses seem way more self-consistent when we’re the ones saying then. (Oh, why hello there, Fundamental Attribution Error!) The point of practicing the Rule of Reflexivity is to build empathy.
The Rule of Reflexivity goes both ways. In the first case, you want to notice if you’re judging someone. This might feel like ascribing a value judgment to something they did, e.g. “This person is stupid and made a bad move.”
The response is to recall times where either you did something similar or (if you think you’re perfect) think of a plausible set of events that might have caused them to act in this way. Remember that most people don’t think they’re acting stupidly; they’re just doing what seems like a good idea from their perspective.
In the second case, you want to notice when you’re trying to justify your own actions. If the excuses you yourself make suspiciously sound like things you’ve heard others say before, then you may want to jump less likely to immediately dismissing them in the future.
Keep Calm TAP:
[Notice you’re starting to get angry → Take a deep breath → Speak softer and slower]
Okay, so this TAP is probably not easy to do because you’re working against a biological response. But I’ve found it useful in several instances where otherwise I would have gotten into a deeper argument.
The trigger, of course, is noticing that you’re angry. For me, this feels like an increased tightness in my chest and a desire to raise my voice. I may feel like a cherished belief of mine is being attacked.
Once I notice these signs, I remember that I have this TAP which is about staying calm. I think something like, “Ah yes, I’m getting angry now. But I previously already made the decision that it’d be a better idea to not yell.”
After that, I take a deep breath, and I try to open up my stance. Then I remember to speak in a slower and quieter tone than previously. I find this TAP especially helpful in arguments—ahem, collaborative searches for the truth—where things get a little too excited on both sides.
Heuristics are algorithm-like things you can do to help get better results. I think that it’d be possible to turn many of the heuristics below into TAPs, but there’s a sense of deliberately thinking things out that separates these from just the “mindless” actions above.
As more formal procedures, these heuristics do require you to remember to Take Time to do them well. However, I think that the sorts of benefits you get from make it worth the slight investment in time.
Modified Murphyjitsu: The Time Travel Reframe:
(If you haven’t read up on Murphyjitsu yet, it’d probably be good to do that first.)
Murphyjitsu is based off the idea of a premortem, where you imagine that your project failed and you’re looking back. I’ve always found this to be a weird temporal framing, and I realized there’s a potentially easier way to describe things:
Say you’re sitting at your desk, getting ready to write a report on intertemporal travel. You’re confident you can finish before the hour is over. What could go wrong? Closing Facebook, you begin to start typing.
Suddenly, you hear a loud CRACK! A burst of light floods your room as a figure pops into existence, dark and silhouetted by the brightness behind it. The light recedes, and the figure crumples to the ground. Floating in the air is a whirring gizmo, filled with turning gears. Strangely enough, your attention is drawn from the gizmo to the person on the ground:
The figure has a familiar sort of shape. You approach, tentatively, and find the splitting image of yourself! The person stirs and speaks.
“I’m you from one week into the future,” your future self croaks. Your future self tries to tries to get up, but sinks down again.
“Oh,” you say.
“I came from the future to tell you…” your temporal clone says in a scratched voice.
“To tell me what?” you ask. Already, you can see the whispers of a scenario forming in your head…
Future You slowly says, “To tell you… that the report on intertemporal travel that you were going to write… won’t go as planned at all. Your best-case estimate failed.”
“Oh no!” you say.
Somehow, though, you aren’t surprised…
At this point, what plausible reasons for your failure come to mind?
I hypothesize that the time-travel reframe I provide here for Murphyjitsu engages similar parts of your brain as a premortem, but is 100% more exciting to use. In all seriousness, I think this is a reframe that is easier to grasp compared to the twisted “imagine you’re in the future looking back into the past, which by the way happens to be you in the present” framing normal Murphyjitsu uses.
The actual (non-dramatized) wording of the heuristic, by the way, is, “Imagine that Future You from one week into the future comes back telling you that the plan you are about to embark on will fail: Why?”
Low on Time? Power On!
Often, when I find myself low on time, I feel less compelled to try. This seems sort of like an instance of failing with abandon, where I think something like, “Oh well, I can’t possibly get anything done in the remaining time between event X and event Y”.
And then I find myself doing quite little as a response.
As a result, I’ve decided to internalize the idea that being low on time doesn’t mean I can’t make meaningful progress on my problems.
This a very Resolve-esque technique. The idea is that even if I have only 5 minutes, that’s enough to get things down. There’s lots of useful things I can pack into small time chunks, like thinking, brainstorming, or doing some Quick Focusing.
I’m hoping to combat the sense of apathy / listlessnes that creeps in when time draws to a close.
Supercharge Motivation by Propagating Emotional Bonds:
[Disclaimer: I suspect that this isn’t an optimal motivation strategy, and I’m sure there are people who will object to having bonds based on others rather than themselves. That’s okay. I think this technique is effective, I use it, and I’d like to share it. But if you don’t think it’s right for you, feel free to just move along to the next thing.]
CFAR used to teach a skill called Propagating Urges. It’s now been largely subsumed by Internal Double Crux, but I still find Propagating Urges to be a powerful concept.
In short, Propagating Urges hypothesizes that motivation problems are caused because the implicit parts of ourselves don’t see how the boring things we do (e.g. filing taxes) causally relate to things we care about (e.g. not going to jail). The actual technique involves walking through the causal chain in your mind and some visceral imagery every step of the way to get the implicit part of yourself on board.
I’ve taken the same general principle, but I’ve focused it entirely on the relationships I have with other people. If all the parts of me realize that doing something would greatly hurt those I care about, this becomes a stronger motivation than most external incentives.
For example, I walked through an elaborate internal simulation where I wanted to stop doing a Thing. I imagined someone I cared deeply for finding out about my Thing-habit and being absolutely deeply disappointed. I focused on the sheer emotional weight that such disappointment would cause (facial expressions, what they’d feel inside, the whole deal).
I now have a deep injunction against doing the Thing, and all the parts of me are in agreement because we agree that such a Thing would hurt other people and that’s obviously bad.
The basic steps for Propagating Emotional Bonds looks like:
- Figure out what thing you want to do more of or stop doing.
- Imagine what someone you care about would think or say.
- Really focus on how visceral that feeling would be.
- Rehearse the chain of reasoning (“If I do this, then X will feel bad, and I don’t want X to feel bad, so I won’t do it”) a few times.
Take Time in Social Contexts:
Often, in social situations, when people ask me questions, I feel an underlying pressure to answer quickly. It feels like if I don’t answer in the next ten seconds, something’s wrong with me. (School may have contributed to this). I don’t exactly know why, but it just feels like it’s expected.
I also think that being forced to hurry isn’t good for thinking well. As a result, something helpful I’ve found is when someone asks something like, “Is that all? Anything else?” is to Take Time.
My response is something like, “Okay, wait, let me actually take a few minutes.” At which point, I, uh, actually take a few minutes to think things through. After saying this, it feel like it’s now socially permissible for me to take some time thinking.
This has proven in several contexts where, had I not Taken Time, I would have forgotten to bring up important things or missed key failure-modes.
Ground Mental Notions in Reality not by Platonics:
One of the proposed reasons that people suck at planning is that we don’t actually think about the details behind our plans. We end up thinking about them in vague black-box-style concepts that hide all the scary unknown unknowns. What we’re left with is just the concept of our task, rather than a deep understanding of what our task entails.
In fact, this seems fairly similar to the the “prototype model” that occurs in scope insensitivity.
I find this is especially problematic for tasks which look nothing like their concepts. For example, my mental representation of “doing math” conjures images of great mathematicians, intricate connections, and fantastic concepts like uncountable sets.
Of course, actually doing math looks more like writing stuff on paper, slogging through textbooks, and banging your head on the table.
My brain doesn’t differentiate well between doing a task and the affect associated with the task. Thus I think it can be useful to try and notice when our brains our doing this sort of black-boxing and instead “unpack” the concepts.
This means getting better correspondences between our mental conceptions of tasks and the tasks themselves, so that we can hopefully actually choose better.
3 Conversation Tips:
I often forget what it means to be having a good conversation with someone. I think I miss opportunities to learn from others when talking with them. This is my handy 3-step list of Conversation Tips to get more value out of conversations:
1) “Steal their magic”: Figure out what other people are really good at, and then get inspired by their awesomeness and think of ways you can become more like that. Learn from what other people are doing well.
2) “Find the LCD”/”Intellectually Escalate”: Figure out where your intelligence matches theirs, and learn something new. Focus on Actually Trying to bridge those inferential distances. In conversations, this means focusing on the limits of either what you know or what the other person knows.
3) “Convince or Be Convinced”: (This is a John Salvatier idea, and it also follows from the above.) Focus on maximizing your persuasive ability to convince them of something. Or be convinced of something. Either way, focus on updating beliefs, be it your own or the other party’s.
Be The Noodly Appendages of the Superintelligence You Wish To See in the World:
CFAR co-founder Anna Salamon has this awesome reframe similar to IAT which asks, “Say a superintelligence exists and is trying to take over the world. However, you are its only agent. What do you do?”
I’ll admit I haven’t used this one, but it’s super cool and not something I’d thought of, so I’m including it here.
Concepts are just things in the world I’ve identified and drawn some boundaries around. They are farthest from the pipeline that goes from ideas to TAPs, as concepts are just ideas. Still, I do think these concepts “bottom out” at some point into practicality, and I think playing around with them could yield interesting results.
Paperspace =/= Mindspace:
I tend to write things down because I want to remember them. Recently, though I’ve noticed that rather act as an extension of my brain, I seem to treat things I write down as no longer in my own head. As in, if I write something down, it’s not necessarily easier for me to recall it later.
It’s as if by “offloading” the thoughts onto paper, I’ve cleared them out of my brain. This seems suboptimal, because a big reason I write things down is to cement them more deeply within my head.
I can still access the thoughts if I’m asking myself questions like, “What did I write down yesterday?” but only if I’m specifically sorting for things I write down.
The point is, I want stuff I write down on paper to be, not where I store things, but merely a sign of what’s stored inside my brain.
Outreach: Focus on Your Target’s Target:
One interesting idea I got from the CFAR workshop was that of thinking about yourself as a radioactive vampire. Um, I mean, thinking about yourself as a memetic vector for rationality (the vampire thing was an actual metaphor they used, though).
And the interesting thing they mentioned was to think, not about who you’re directly influencing, but who your targets themselves influence.
This means that not only do you have to care about the fidelity of your transmission, but you need to think of ways to ensure that your target also does a passable job of passing it on to their friends.
I’ve always thought about outreach / memetics in terms of the people I directly influence, so looking at two degrees of separation is a pretty cool thing I hadn’t thought about in the past.
I guess that if I took this advice to heart, I’d probably have to change the way that I explain things. For example, I might want to try giving more salient examples that can be easily passed on or focusing on getting the intuitions behind the ideas across.
Build in Blank Time:
Professor Barbara Oakley distinguishes between focused and diffused modes of thinking. Her claim is that time spent in a thoughtless activity allows your brain to continue working on problems without conscious input. This is the basis of diffuse mode.
In my experience, I’ve found that I get interesting ideas or remember important ideas when I’m doing laundry or something else similarly mindless.
I’ve found this to be helpful enough that I’m considering building in “Blank Time” in my schedules.
My intuitions here something like, “My brain is a thought-generator, and it’s particularly active if I can pay attention to it. But I need to be doing something that doesn’t require much of my executive function to even pay attention to my brain. So maybe having more Blank Time would be good if I want to get more ideas.”
There’s also the additional point that meta-level thinking can’t be done if you’re always in the moment, stuck in a task. This means that, cool ideas aside, if I just want to reorient or survey my current state, Blank Time can be helpful.
The 99/1 Rule: Few of Your Thoughts are Insights:
The 99/1 Rule says that the vast majority of your thoughts every day are pretty boring and that only about one percent of them are insightful.
This was generally true for my life…and then I went to the CFAR workshop and this rule sort of stopped being appropriate. (Other exceptions to this rule were EuroSPARC [now ESPR] and EAG)
I bulldozed through a bunch of ideas here, some of which could have probably garnered a longer post. I’ll probably explore some of these ideas later on, but if you want to talk more about any one of them, feel free to get in contact from the About page.