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 http://www.reddit.com/r/aww . 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:
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.
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:
Let year 26 begin!