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Identity Factoring

Humans are not perfectly rational machines who take the most efficient actions towards our values. We procrastinate, are prone to peer pressure, and in general “actually doing things” is a fairly difficult process. One method for improving your efficiency and motivation is the process of goal factoring. For example, say you frequently procrastinate by visiting . There’s a very simple biological need that’s met whenever you get distracted or switch tasks, which is the release of dopamine. So instead of trying to use willpower to stop procrastinating, you can focus on getting your dopamine hit from other sources, such as doing 10 push-ups  whenever you feel the need to switch. This tends to be a lot more effective in the long run than trying to will yourself not to procrastinate: you’re quickly satisfying your body’s needs while giving yourself space to get back to work pretty easily.

But biology isn’t the only source of human needs. We take action based on emotions, desires, and self-conceptions: if you think of yourself as a good person, you’re more likely to donate to charities and less likely to kick a puppy. So one of the best ways to understand your own motivations is to understand how you see yourself, in other words, to factor your identity/self-concept. The goal is to break your self-concept down into distinct parts, which you can then use to analyze the motivations behind your different goals. You can tell which parts of yourself are emotionally malnourished, or being fed through poor goals, and rework your actions in order to more effectively meet your needs. Here’s the list I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Genius. The prodigy identifies with effectiveness and fast learning. This part of me is satisfied when I do something I couldn’t do before, show exceptional skill in some area, or improve very quickly. (I’m not actually claiming to be a genius under any formal definition, but the word is productive for me.)
  2. Bond-maker. This part identifies with connecting with other people, and is satisfied when I spend time with friends, teach, or generally help others.
  3. The simplifier. This is the part of me that values elegance, simplicity, and efficiency. The part that spends inordinate amounts of time refactoring code to be as small and clear as possible or optimizing my workout routine, and generally focuses on finding ways to do more with less.
  4. Formless. Ironically I have a very strong identity about not having an identity-not getting attached to one place, or belief system, or body, or job, or comfort zone. The formless hates the status quo bias, and thinks statements like “I can’t do math” don’t make any sense.
  5. Futurist. I believe in the power of technology to improve the world, and want to make it happen as soon as possible.
  6. Altruist. This is the part of me that wants to help people, increase happiness, and reduce suffering as much as possible. Unlike most of the others, this was acquired fairly recently and I’ve deliberately been making it part of my identity.
There are two major practical applications:
  • Resolving Internal Disagreements. Genius and Simplifier love to go off and spend hours solving Math problems, but this frustrates Bond-maker, since Math tends to be a solitary activity. Thus I would end up feeling conflicted, which often made it very difficult to get anything done. The solution I use is to add a social element by going to Math club, discussing Math with friends, and giving talks. Explicitly identifying the points of disagreement makes it easy to come up with a solution.
  • Motivating or demotivating actions: humans have a very strong bias towards trying to appear consistent. If you think of yourself as a simplifier and encounter a piece of messy code, you feel compelled to clean it up. If you think of yourself as an athlete and a healthy person, then eating unhealthy food or failing to exercise several days in a row feels wrong. And having these be part of your emotional response makes it much easier to stick to the desired behaviors: instead of exerting willpower to clean up messy code or eat healthy, you have to exert willpower not to do so. That said, deliberately adding or removing pieces from your self-concept is quite difficult. The easiest way to accomplish this is to hang out with other people who identify as athletes (or simplifiers, or altruists) and realign your reference group…social pressure is incredibly powerful, and can be a huge help when you want to make major behavior/identity changes.

Categories: Career, Effective Altruism, Happiness, Productivity, Uncategorized

Sleeping Better

In my last post I mentioned that my sleep has improved tremendously over the past year, and this has been a significant boost in my happiness and productivity. In particular, I used to need about 10 hours of sleep to feel fully rested, and now I only need about 7.5 hours. Currently I sleep an average of 7.5 hours a night with about 45% REM/deep sleep and 55% light sleep.


Things that worked really well:

  • Waking up at the same time every day: I wake up at about 7 AM nearly every day, including weekends and holidays, regardless of when I went to sleep or  even which state I’m in. Conversely, I go to sleep whenever I’m tired, whether that’s at 2 AM, 6 PM or (more frequently) 11 PM. This means I rarely have to worry about an alarm clock, can wake up with the sun, and can adjust whenever I’m tired: it’s much easier for me to adjust when I go to sleep than when I wake up.
  • Setting the temperature of my apartment to 74 degrees: when it’s too hot I get dehydrated and my sleep quality drops significantly (from about 50% light sleep to about 80%!) When it’s too cold I simply have trouble falling or staying asleep. The range seems to be very narrow, from my experiments 70 degrees is clearly in “too cold” territory.
  • Using a neti pot: without intervention, my nose tends to get stuffed about every two weeks. Using a neti pot lets me breathe clearly and improves the quality of my sleep (as well as significantly improving the quality of my waking life.)
  • Eating right before bed: most sleeping advise tells you to eat2-4 hours before going to sleep. This didn’t work for me; I tend to have a hard time eating enough and would always wake up too early. The gain from making sure I’m don’t wake up due to hunger seems to be significantly larger than any loss from eating so late.
  • Not doing any work in bed: as somewhat of an accident, over the last year I’ve pretty much only used my bed for sleeping. This has given me a significant ability: I can fall asleep immediately once I lie down.

Things that worked poorly or didn’t seem to matter:

  • Naps: I have tended to take naps throughout the day whenever I feel tired or mentally worn out. However, my Zeo tells me that I’m getting almost no REM or deep sleep from naps-in other words, I’m gaining nothing from actually being asleep. This was a major surprise as I’ve always felt better after naps, but it may just be a placebo effect. I successfully induced the same effect in ~5 minutes through self-hypnosis, so it does seem to be pure placebo.
  • Caffeine: surprisingly irrelevant. Caffeine does not seem to have a significant impact on my sleep even if I consume coffee an hour before bed. Similarly, I’ve done weeks entirely without coffee and it hasn’t seemed to have a positive or negative impact on my sleep.
  • Being on the computer right until I sleep: conventional advice indicates you should turn off any blue-light emitting devices an hour before you sleep, but this doesn’t seem to make a difference for me either way-it could be because I already use flux.
  • What I eat: quantity of food seems to be important, but the type of food doesn’t seem to matter. The balance of carbs, fats, or proteins I eat before sleeping doesn’t seem to have an impact, even two slices of cake seems to satisfy the need for food.

Things I’m trying going forward:

  • Melatonin: several people report significantly better sleep using small doses of melatonin, e.g. Gwern reports shaving roughly 50 minutes off his sleep schedule while remaining equally well-rested. Note that doses in pharmacies tend to be overly large, the recommended dose seems to be about .5 mg, and pharmacies typically sell 3-5 mg, or about 6-10x the recommended amount.
  • Dual n-back tracking: the major worry of sleep experiments is degradation of mental performance, when you’re sleep-deprived you can’t even tell how stupidly you’re acting. So it’s important to have an objective measurement, which is why I’m tracking performance on the dual n-back game. I don’t have any useful data so far because I have yet to plateau, but once I hit a plateau experiments should tell me what is and isn’t affecting my brain.
  • That’s it: unfortunately my Zeo headband seems to be dying, so I won’t be able to measure small changes in my sleep quality until someone comes out with a replacement. I’ve already tested most of the things that are supposed to have a large impact on your sleep quality (except melatonin), so trying to measure anything else would most likely cause me to be tricked by statistical artifacts-therefore I’ll stop.

Categories: Career, Focus, Happiness, Intelligence, Learning, Productivity

Year-end review (25)

As of today I’ve been alive for 25 years, which makes it a good time to review what’s happened and what I’ve learned over the last year.

Year 25 was pretty diverse. I moved from New York to Boston (and then to Cambridge), switched jobs (from Analytic Engineer to Product Manager), partied with porn stars in Las Vegas, studied a bunch of Math, got really good at sleeping, started hosting game nights, got involved with the Less Wrong community (and gave multiple talks), gained 6 pounds, made a bunch of friends, entered some Kaggle contests, and more.

Here are a few of the highlights and lessons learned from the year:

Morality: for about 7 years I practiced enlightened self-interest, which focuses on maximizing individual good, with the recognition that over the long term individual utility and societal good are strongly linked. So as a general rule, I would start by examining my own life and asking how I could improve it. That worked really well: I’ve significantly improved my social skills, established a rewarding and interesting career, developed close relationships with amazing people, and I’m not even bored…honestly it feels as though I’ve won the game of life at this point. So there’s no particular need for me to continue focusing on myself, which is why I’m shifting my outlook to helping others (as efficiently as possible.) Can I help every other human being be (at least) as happy as I am?

Learning style: I’m seeing strong evidence that I learn much faster from text than from any other source, including videos, in person lectures, audio, and so on. I’m still experimenting to see if this is true, but if it is that has major implications for my career and for my style of study going forward.

Gender stereotypes: for a long time I’ve accepted that being male, I should try to be “manly”, e.g. by being a leader, following some of the many sets of guides to manliness, gaining muscle mass, etc. For the most part this has made me pretty unhappy, so it’s obvious I should just stop and not worry about masculinity.

Physical state: my physical health has an enormous impact on my happiness and productivity. 8 hours of sleep debt accumulated over a week makes me noticeably cynical and grumpy. Further sleep deprivation results in high highs but also extremely low lows. Conversely, sleeping well and exercising significantly boosts my happiness levels. So physical state is a major priority worth testing and optimizing going forward.

Effectiveness: I’ve always acted as though there are problems that can be handled logically and rationally (e.g. programming) and problems that can’t (e.g. politics or learning to drive.) So I developed powerful disjoint skillsets, one based primarily on rationality and one based primarily on intuition. But recently I’ve been able to combine these to great effect, e.g. with improving my communication skills. It’s far more effective to dual-wield the System 2 rationality skills and the System 1 intuition skills than to try to isolate problems into one domain or the other.

Friendships: the single most important factor in developing close friendships seems to be spending a lot of time with people. The exact activities seem to be somewhat irrelevant, sheer exposure and the chance to interact casually matters more.

Projects: I tend to enjoy and produce a lot when working on projects that last for about 1-3 months. I get anywhere from 1.2-2.0x more productive hours, and more importantly, from 2x-10x more efficiency when focusing most of my energy around one topic or problem. Interestingly, the definition of “one problem” seems to be very hackable…”optimize this small section of code” and “optimize this entire system, including the business aspects” both seem to fit.

Rewiring reinforcement: it’s very clear that my natural reinforcement responses were not necessarily useful…for example, I used to feel terrible whenever I caused an awkward social situation. I would fret about it for days. And the natural result was that I would avoid socializing, because socialization could lead to awkwardness. By getting rid of this trigger (through self-hypnosis) and wiring myself to feel really good about trying uncomfortable social interactions even if they ended up being awkard, my behavior pretty quickly changed to the point where I was socializing much more. This has probably been the biggest factor in helping me develop a social circle relatively quickly in the last few months. (Credit for this goes to Johnny Soporno, who taught me this amazing technique at his Successfulness workshop.)

So there’s quite a bit that I’ve accomplished in the past year. The above also suggests several important projects for the next year, such as:

  • Further optimizing sleep. Trying things like melatonin, relaxation, and possibly polyphasic sleep to see if I can further improve the quality and efficiency of the sleep I get.
  • Aligning my career with skills that are highly learnable through text (e.g. programming, research) as opposed to skills that are primarily learned “in the field” (e.g. sales, presentations.) Also focus on studying through textbooks as opposed to video lectures, and take notes for everything that’s not easily available through textbooks.
  • Reducing my expenses and donating more. Currently my worst expense is rent, I pay a rather high price for my apartment and don’t really derive much value from having a space to myself. Finding a roommate will help a lot here.

Let year 26 begin!

Categories: Career, Creative Chaos, Focus, Happiness, Intelligence, Learning, Productivity