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Errors Merit Post-Mortems

After people make errors, they should do post-mortems. How did that error happen? What caused it? What thinking processes were used and how did they fail? Try to ask “Why?” several times to get to deeper issues than your initial answers.

And then, especially, what other errors would that cause also cause? This gives info about the need to make changes going forward, or not. Is it a one-time error or part of a pattern?

Effective post-mortems are something people generally don’t want to do. What causes errors? Frequently it’s irrationality, including dishonesty.

Lots of things merit post-mortems other than losing a debate. If you have an inconclusive debate, why didn’t you do better? No doubt there were errors in your communication and ideas. If you ask a question, why were you ignorant of the answer? What happened there? Maybe you made a mistake. That should be considered. After you ask a question and get an answer, you should post-mortem whether your understanding is now adequate. People usually don’t discuss thoroughly enough to effectively learn the answers to their questions.

Regarding questions: If you were ignorant of something because you hadn’t yet gotten around to learning about it, and you knew the limits of your knowledge, that can be a quick and easy post-mortem. That’s fine, but you should check if that’s what happened or it’s something else that merits more attention. Another common, quick post-mortem for a question is, “I asked because the other person was unclear, not because of my own ignorance.” But many questions relate to your own confusions and what went wrong should be post-mortemed. And if you hadn’t learned something yet, you should consider if you are organizing your learning priorities in a reasonable way. Why learn this now? Why not earlier or later? Do you have considered reasoning about that?

What if you try to post-mortem something and you don’t know what went wrong? If your post-mortem fails, that is itself something to post-mortem! Consider what you’ve done to learn how to post-mortem effectively in general. Have you studied techniques and practiced them? Did you start with easier cases and succeed many times? Do you have a history of successes and failures which you can compare this current failure to? Do you know what your success rate at post-mortems is in general, on average? And you should consider if you put enough effort into this particular post-mortem or just gave up fast.

You may wonder: We make errors all the time. Should we post-mortem all of them? That sounds like it’d take too much time and effort.

First, you can only post-mortem known errors. You have to find out something is an error. You can’t post-mortem it as an error just because people 500 years from now will know better. This limits the issues to be addressed.

Second, an irrelevant “error” is not an error. Suppose I’m moving to a new home. I’m measuring to see where things will fit. I measure my couch and the measurement is accurate to within a half inch. I measure where I want to put it and find there are 5 inches to spare (if it was really close, I’d re-measure). The fact that my measurement is an eighth of an inch off is not an error. The general principle is that errors are reasons a solution to a problem won’t work. The small measurement “error” doesn’t prevent my from succeeding at the problem I’m working on, so it’s not an error. It would be an error in a different context like doing a science experiment that relies on much more accurate measurements, but I’m not doing that.

Third, yes you should try to post-mortem all your errors that get past the previous two points. If you find this overwhelming, there are two things to do:

  1. Do easier stuff so you make fewer errors. Get your error rate under control. There’s no benefit to doing stuff that’s full of errors – it won’t work. Correctness works better both for immediate practical benefits (you get more stuff done that is actually good or effective instead of broken) and for learning better so you can do better in the future.
  2. Learn and write down recurring patterns/themes/concepts and reuse them instead of trying to work out every post-mortem from scratch. If you develop good ideas that can help with multiple post-mortems, that’ll speed it up a ton. Reusing ideas is a major part of Paths Forward and is crucial to all of life.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Open Discussion (2019)

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Podcast Discussion

Discuss podcast episodes below! Share your questions, criticisms, comments, additional points, related stories, thoughts, and reactions.


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Podcast: How To Learn Philosophy

I've made lots of new podcasts. You can normally find them via the link in the sidebar or subscribe in iTunes. I'm sharing this one on the blog because I especially recommend it:

How To Learn Philosophy

You should actually do this ... or post your objections below. Also share comments, questions, tips for others, etc.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (4)

Improving The World With Written Discussion Rules

my current main idea for how to improve the world is to spread the idea that intellectuals should publicly write down their discussion rules.

it’s something that fans could demand from authors, podcasters, etc, esp the many who do Q&As, AMAs, etc

and it gives a way for new ppl to identify themselves as rational, and challenge those with larger audiences and differentiate themselves

this is an example of a medium level CR idea. it’s not tiny details, but it’s an application of CR thinking.

it’s not super connected to CR, like it doesn’t logically follow from evolutionary epistemology. but it fits the critical, fallibilist spirit and concretizes a piece of how error correction can work.

other ppl are less interested b/c of their disinterest in criticism and error correction, whereas i see things like how to be open to lots of criticism as crucial.

it’s also one of the main problems i ran into when trying to talk to intellectuals. also with the ppl who come to FI and quit, it’s very hard to stop them from quitting b/c they all have different unstated rules about what they will quit over.

also, the vast majority of discussion forums are moderated. they usually have some written rules but the moderators do not follow those rules, and actually moderate by unwritten rules.

intellectuals will lie about their discussion rules. they’d have to be called out for this a lot. and there’d have to be an ethos of follow the literal rules instead of it being ok to break them whenever it’s common sense or you have a reason.

which is why ppl put up with moderator actions. they routinely break written rules, or enforce unwritten rules, to act in socially normal ways that seem reasonable or common sense to many ppl.

our legal system is better than this. you only go to jail if you LITERALLY break laws. this is very ingrained in judges, jury instructions, etc. (otoh you can be let off the hook if you literally broke the law but ppl think what u did is fine. the exceptions mostly just go the one way, for innocence and tolerance.)


See also my writing on Paths Forward, such as Using Intellectual Processes to Combat Bias and the further material linked at the bottom of that article.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (4)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (21)

Helping Resource Budget

People help each other. I will discuss parents helping children. These comments apply to many other situations.

John helps his daughter Lily in lots of ways, but he can’t give her unlimited help. He has a limited amount of resources: time, money, energy, attention, creativity, etc.

When Lily is very young, John decides how to help her. He uses his best judgment. He tries to take into account Lily’s gestures and reactions, but he makes the decisions. He decides how much to help and which types of help to provide.

As Lily gets older, she can make verbal requests for help, and John is often responsive to those. And later she can start planning her life more and having long term goals that she asks for help with. How John helps is still partly his decision, but he partly lets Lily decide for him. Sometimes John does something to help that he doesn’t want to, or disagrees with, because Lily cares a lot.

Since Lily gets a limited amount of help, it must be budgeted just like any other scarce resource. Lily could benefit from more help than is available. Choices have to be made about which help happens and which help does not happen. John and Lily have to say “no” to some types of help that would benefit Lily because they don’t have the resources, like time, to do them all.

John and Lily will be better off if they know that helping must be budgeted and they try to understand the prices of different types of help.

In order for Lily to get helped effectively, cost and benefit must be considered. How expensive is a particular piece of help, and how big are the benefits?

Suppose John can provide 100 points of help per day. Having a 30 minute tea party with Lily and her dolls might cost 20 points, and having a 2 hour tea party might cost all 100 points. And going out to the park is 40 points, and watching Lily’s TV show with her and answering questions is 30 points, and making her an easy dinner is 10 points, and making her a hard dinner is 50 points, and so on. That means, for example, that Lily shouldn’t ask for a 2 hour tea party if she also wants to go to the park today.

Some days, John goes over budget. That’s unsustainable. he can’t help that much, on average, every day, but he can do it occasionally as an exception. If John helps too much and keeps it up for months, then his own life will suffer, he’ll be unhappy, he’ll be exhausted, and he’ll end up having a worse life and being less helpful to Lily.

For life to go smoothly in general, John and Lily need to be aware of the budget and make reasonable choices about which things to fit into the budget and which not to. That requires having some idea of how big the budget is and how expensive different types of help are.

The prices are just estimates, but they can often be pretty decent estimates. You can’t make perfect predictions, in advance, about how expensive an activity will be. For example, John doesn’t know exactly how tiring taking Lily to the park today would be.

Technically the budget involves many different currencies: time, money, energy, etc. An activity can use 3 points of time, 7 points of money, and 5 points of energy. To simplify, it’s often OK to just think of a single budget for help and hope things average out OK (some activities cost more money than average, but some are free, so overall if the help budget comes out OK then the money budget may come out OK too). If there’s a notable shortage of a particular resource (commonly time, money or energy), then paying attention to that budget can help. People are pretty aware of time and money as limited resources, but pay somewhat less attention to energy. Sometimes you have plenty of time to do something but you’re too tired. E.g., after work one day, John might have 4 hours of free time, but because he’s tired he doesn’t want to do much more than watch TV.

Typical families do a poor job of communicating about budgeting. Parents don’t tell their children much about money. The child doesn’t know how much money the parent makes or what it’s spent on. Instead of rational budgeting, parents help in socially normal ways with no overall plan. As individual things come up, the parent tries to help if it’s a normal way that parents help children, and the parent can help (the budget hasn’t already run out). Then when the budget runs out, the parent starts saying “no” to stuff and the child is disappointed. Then the parent talks about how much he already helped his child, and how much he does for his child in general, instead of talking about how to stop doing some of those ways of helping so that the child can get some more things of his choice without running into “no”. The parent doesn’t normally say, “I don’t have time to do that for you today, but we can talk about which things I can skip doing for you tomorrow in order to save time for it and for your other requests.”

Parents often find their children’s requests unpredictable. Some days have way more requests than others. This makes it hard for the parent to know how much budget to save for the child’s requests, vs. how much help to offer the child earlier in the day.

Children often don’t think about budgeting, they just want all the help that seems reasonable or normal to them, that they see on TV or see their friends get, or that sounds good to them. That doesn’t work and leads to disappointment. They would be better off if they thought about budgeting. A 4 year old can understand and think about some budget, and a 14 year old can do a lot.

Parents can think of helping their children in three different ways: asks, expectations and guesses. Asks are things the child asks for. Expectations are things the parent is pretty confident the child wants, e.g. because he’s asked for it a lot in the past or likes it a lot. And guesses are things the parent thinks the child might like. Guesses should usually be small things so it’s not a big deal if it doesn’t work out. If the parent guesses the child would like a big thing, the parent should ask the child about it before spending a lot of resources on it.

With babies, parents start out guessing. These guesses are informed by our culture. People know, in general, what kinds of stuff babies commonly like and dislike. That gives the parent some ideas about how to help. Then the parent sees how the baby reacts, and what happens, and can start customizing the help and having some expectations. As children get older, they ask for more and more things. Once they are adults and move out, they still occasionally get help from their parents, and most of that help is specifically asked for.

At first, the parent controls the whole helping budget. Over time, he gives up control of an increasing large amount of the budget to the child. This makes rational budgeting harder. When the parent makes all the decisions, he can have a master plan. Parents are often stressed and don’t do a great job at bigger picture planning, but at least they can do it, and do give it some thought. Once the budget has two people deciding on expenditures, it’s harder to control and plan. The two people don’t have all the same goals. So one person is spending the budget for some goals, and the other is spending it for different goals, so it’s not all being used according to one single plan. People fight over budgets when they have different goals: John is trying to get Lily to do the stuff John thinks should be done, and wants help budget spent on that, but Lily has other ideas and wants more of the budget used her way. It gets really bad when people’s goals contradict and they are using shared resources, so they end up using up the resources to work against each other.

It’s hard for 10 year old Lily to control the helping budget because she doesn’t control the help provided in the expectations or guesses categories. And it’s hard for John to control the helping budget because he doesn’t control the help provided in the asks category. Lily does have some control about expectations (John is paying attention to what she likes, what she wanted in the past, etc) and guesses (Lily has less control here, but John tries not to spend a lot of budget on this because, for that reason, it’s a riskier category). And John does have some control over asks – he can say no or he can discuss whether an ask is a good idea and maybe change Lily’s mind.

John and Lily often don't see the costs or benefits of help the same way. Sometimes Lily asks for something which she believes is easy, but it's hard for John (it uses up a lot more budget than Lily expected). Sometimes John offers help which he thinks is very helpful to Lily, so it's worth the price. Lily accepts because it helps her a little, but it's not actually worth the price.

The budget model of helping can help John and Lily understand that there are limited resources (rather than just trying to do socially normal help in an ad hoc way) communicate about the costs and benefits of different ways of helping, think about big picture plans and goals, and try to figure out a budget which will do a good job of helping with those goals.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comment (1)

Social "Intellectuals"

The primary qualification for being regarded as an intellectual is to develop a reputation and convince people to regard you as an intellectual.

Being widely regarded as “intellectual” is a social status. It is achieved through specific types of social climbing.

Social climbing and reason are enemies. They’re incompatible. Someone really good at reason would reject social climbing. So we should expect to find that most “intellectuals” are bad at reason. And, from extensive surveying, I think the evidence fits the prediction well.

Being regarded as an intellectual does have something to do with being smart or figuring out some good ideas, at least in some cases. It’s not purely a social game. The best thinkers sometimes gain some intellectual reputation, though often not the best or highest reputation. So e.g. the best living economist, George Reisman, is largely unheard of, but would be regarded by most people as being an intellectual (since he was a professor and wrote a 1000 page book on economics). There are many more examples of great thinkers without accurate reputations.

Some types of intellectual accomplishments are easier to judge than others, so they do a better job of leading to a reputation regardless of what else the person does. Generally scientific ideas (“hard” sciences only) are easier to judge than philosophical ideas. Hence most famous philosophers are awful, while a fair amount of famous scientists are actually good (particularly people who got famous for scientific work, not for writing popular books about science or doing a science podcast or something like that).

Reputations sometimes get more accurate centuries after someone dies. That removes some of the social factors from mattering, and it gives people in the field more time to sort out which ideas are actually good. In general, scientists are much better at science 300 years later, so they can do a decent job of judging the scientific achievements of the scientists from 300 years in the past. However, historians are often wrong. The news is often wrong about what happened yesterday, and historians have a much harder job that gets harder as things get older. False reputations can persist for centuries and the refuting information can be lost.

The good news is: making intellectual contributions has a lower barrier to entry than you may have thought. You don’t need a fancy reputation. Most of the people you think are above you are incompetent. You don’t need the same education or peers that they have in order to do good work.

But beware. You can easily make the same mistakes as them. You can focus on social climbing while pretending to yourself that you’re seeking truth. Avoiding that is more important, and harder to come by, than any credentials.

The bad news is: if you don’t think, you can’t safely expect other people to do it for you. It’s not a safe thing to count on others doing correctly. You should try to learn and reason, yourself, if you value your life, instead of leaving your fate in the hands of our society's “intellectual authorities”.

The world needs more people who are willing to try to learn and think. The main tools needed are honesty, curiosity, energy, avoiding bias, choosing truth over social perceptions, and some stuff like that, not to have an extensive education or to be born a “genius”. Those things are harder and rarer than most people think, but if you think you have them, do something with them. E.g. start discussing ideas in the comments below. Anyone can do it if they are willing to prioritize truth over social status.


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Time-Based Metric For Overreaching

How can you tell if you're overreaching? Here are simple guidelines:

90% of the time, thinking should take 2 minutes or less. (1 in 10 things goes past 2 minutes.)

90% of cases that take longer should be under 15 minutes. (1 in 100 things goes past 15 minutes.)

90% of the cases that take longer than that should be under 2 days. (1 in 1000 things goes past 2 days.)

Next steps should be fast. You shouldn't be stuck for long periods of time. ("Long" means longer than the amounts of time above. A main point of this post is that people have the times wrong and are routinely stuck for a few hours and don't realize how long and bad that is.)

Most stuff you do should be small and easy. If it's not, break it into smaller parts (so that you can be making progress frequently by finishing one little part) or find easier stuff to do.

If someone says something, you should usually have an idea of your reply within 2 minutes. A clarifying question is fine as a reply. It doesn't have to be a big thing. Or if you are going to give a big reply where you make 5 points, then you could think of each point as a mini project and figure each one out in 2 minutes.

If you're writing an article or novel, most steps should take less than 2 minutes of thinking before you do them. A paragraph is a reasonable step. You decide what the next idea will be, then you write the paragraph for it. If you stop midway through the paragraph, starting again is another step. If you need to do planning for the paragraph, e.g. checking your notes about the plot and your chapter outline, those activities are also steps. If you spend 10 minutes reading your notes before starting a paragraph, that's fine, that's time spent making progress on the activity. The time limits are for the time you aren't doing anything, where you're just thinking and not actively, directly getting anything time. When the breaks between actively doing stuff are larger than these time limits, that indicates it's hard for you and a lot of problems are coming up and you're probably making a bunch of mistakes.

Don't try to cheat. This will only help people who approach it honestly. Like if you think of a clarifying question in 10 seconds, just ask it. Don't save it for 1 minute 50 seconds to try to get extra thinking time.

If you're usually going near the time limits, something is wrong. Sometimes it should be 5 seconds, sometimes 30 seconds, sometimes 90 seconds. If you're frequently just under 2 minutes (or a little over and rounding down), you're probably overreaching. For the 2 day timeframe, most of those should only take a couple hours of time you actually spend on it. Actually spending a large portion of one day, let alone two days, should be much rarer. Two days gives you time to sleep on it, or leave it on the back burner for a while, wihch is good to do occassionally.

These guidelines are not exact but the simplicity and ease-of-measurement are major upsides. They can give you a ballpark of what to look for. Compare what you do to this and see if it's even close. I think people don't have much understanding of how long "too long" is, in concrete numbers, so this will help.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comment (1)

Mixed Society

We live in a mixed society. Partly open, partly closed, in Popper’s terms. Partly dynamic/rational, partly static/anti-rational, in DD’s meme terms.

What sort of mix is it?

Things change within the time scale of one generation or less. Not just technology. Fashion changes. Political trends/ideas/talking-points change, and these changes aren’t just adaptations of the same principles to new situations, there are changes in goals and bigger picture ideas.

Our society allows for lots of change, but it’s full of contradictions. Many people advocate being nicer to animals than to children. People learn anti-macho ideas, and ideas about peace instead of war, and various others, and they don’t apply this to their treatment of children. They make an exception for children. It’s not the only exception, just a big one. People’s way of behaving towards children is resistant to change. Many things resist change and progress.

Intellectuals, in general, are not open to criticism in general. There are specific, limited mechanisms by which they listen to new ideas (and they are extremely resistant writing down what the mechanisms and limits are, they don’t want to study or document that, or think about it much). They have some partial willingness to listen to ideas from peers, from authors with good reputations, from people with lots of credentials who get past the gatekeepers who edit academic journals. Sometimes they’ll listen to an idea from any source, if they happen to like it, but that’s much less reliable, there’s more resistance there. They find it much easier to ignore an idea from a low intellectual-social status person than from a high status person in their field.

Intellectuals, in general, are not interested in ideas as a category. They work in some limited area. This isn’t just a matter of specialization. They generally stick to the limits even when presented with explanations of why ideas in other areas are relevant to what they are doing. Intellectuals are generally either fakers or people who are interested in one area instead of no areas.

Most people really aren’t very interested in ideas in a serious way. So plenty of intellectuals are different. Even if it’s only like 5% of intellectuals that are interested in ideas in one area, that’s still a lot of people. The faking rates are higher in academia and in government work, and lower in the business world and with hobbyists/amateurs/non-professionals who actually spend a lot of time on it (there are a lot of amateurs who do intellectual stuff to feel clever, or whatever, but they don’t do a whole lot of it, and the faking rates are very high there).

Some of the difficulties for me, btw, are:

1) Only a handful of people are genuinely interested in epistemology. I present as evidence that someone with a real interest in the matter would not ignore Popper. They might disagree with Popper, but they’d be interested in some other ideas to engage with that offer some originality and some different approaches.

2) People who are interested in some other area, but not epistemology, are hard to talk with or collaborate with or whatever. Cuz they make some mistakes related to thinking methods (epistemology) and then they aren’t interested in that and won’t fix it. The thinking method errors create patterns of chronic error within their field. And I want to talk about the patterns, not the individual errors, but that doesn’t work for them because thinking about patterns like that is outside their field.

Epistemology is the most important field and it comes up so much in all the other fields. (That is a main reason why it interests me.) So when dealing with bounded intellectuals, who have limited interests, epistemology is the most common point of conflict. Epistemology is the most common tangent to come up that I think is crucially important and they don’t want to do.

Epistemology deals with thinking methods and criticism, and rational epistemology is a threat to static memes in all fields. So it’s one of the core things resisted by static memes in general. So that makes it hard.

Most of the resistance is passive, btw. People mostly just don’t do very much, and that passivity is extra strong when it comes to key areas like epistemology or parenting ideas. But hundreds of millions of people not doing much can still add up to quite a bit of change in society as a whole.

It’s very hard to tell how much there are a few doers/leaders/pioneers, and the others are mostly ballast, as Ayn Rand talked about. Or, in the alternative, the people getting credit didn’t do much and it was just lots of tiny contributions adding up. Maybe both things happen and it’s not primarily one or the other. Certainly there are plenty of fake leaders getting underserved credit, but there seem to be some real ones too. Some of the clearer examples are some of the few scientists who were highly productive. Maybe a few of them were just one among many who happened to get lucky, but I think some of them were actually exceptional. (Maybe some of them were one among twenty exceptional people who happened to get luckier than the others. Maybe that’s common. I don’t really know.)


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Infrequently Asked Questions

Why care about philosophy? Because it’s the field which studies methods of thinking, and you use thinking in your life.

Can’t I think without knowing philosophy? Sure, but philosophy is the field which helps improve your thinking. Your choices are: don’t think about thinking, think about thinking and try to create or reinvent good ideas yourself (try to be a pioneer who is also ignorant of the field), or learn what is already known about it (and then maybe try to improve something after you are familiar with existing knowledge).

Isn’t it good enough to read a few life hacks about how to think better? No, those don’t work very well.

And Kant works well? No, Kant’s philosophy is much worse than nothing. There are many different philosophies. Some are good and some bad. You should learn about a bunch of philosophies and compare them and make your own judgment about what’s good. If you don’t do that, you will think using some of our culture’s default ideas about how to think, while not having a clear idea of what you’re doing or why.

Are our culture’s default philosophical ideas good enough? If you look around you’ll see lots of suffering. You have problems in your life and so do your friends. Better ideas allow for better results.

How do I try a bit of this philosophy thing? Read a little bit of something. If you’re having a good time, try a little of something else. After a few things, say something. Talk about what you think it’s about, how you think it’s useful, etc., and get feedback and criticism. Or ask questions. Or see if other people agree about what it means. In the alternative, if you don’t like something, if you run into some problem, talk about that. Talk fairly casually and keep it simple. Don’t put a bunch of effort into trying to be fancy or clever or sound smart. Use small words. Any effort you put into writing should go into clarity – saying what you mean so that people can understand you.

Can you be more specific? Not without you sharing any info. People have different life situations. The Fallible Ideas website has essays you can read, book recommendations, and discussion forums. Look around at a variety of things, not just my stuff. You should compare and make your own judgments. And then talk about your judgments so that e.g. someone can point out a way you misunderstood something and can change your mind.

I’ve tried discussing philosophy and the discussions weren’t very good, so shouldn’t I just give up? No, thinking better isn’t a topic to give up on just because some resources aren’t very good. It’s too important to pursue only if there are convenient, easy ways to pursue it. Try other options. And if you found something inadequate about my forums, you can and should say what it is. Unlike many other forums, no moderator will block you from expressing problems with the forum itself. That’s encouraged. Then a misunderstanding could be cleared up, or the forum could be changed, or everyone could agree it’s a different kind of forum than what you wanted, or whatever. Some kind of conclusion could be reached if you communicate about the issue. And keep in mind the problem could partly be you. If you go to a bunch of forums and the discussions you have aren’t very good (and you have the same issues with groups of friends, meetups, study groups, etc), maybe you’re doing something wrong. One of the things you can do about is try having a couple discussions then ask if anyone knows anything you’re doing wrong or knows anything you could do better to achieve some goal you have (saying what your goals are also helps).

How do I get inspired or motivated to actually do this? It’s up to you what to do with your life. Don’t look to me for that. I have suggestions about what makes sense and arguments that you haven’t refuted. But it’s up to you whether to be motivated by things like reasoning about why something matters which you can’t point out any errors in. Most people don’t find that kind of abstract intellectual issue motivating. Try thinking of some things that you find motivational, like some goals you have, and then writing down (or speaking out loud) some ways that better thinking would help with them. For example, if you want to get laid, better thinking helps. If you want to run or manage a business, better thinking helps. Thinking is a generic tool used in all human activities, so it’s relevant no matter what your interests are.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (5)

Method Of Doing Things Soon

People have two main modes of doing tasks: now or never.

They often try to do tasks soon, but not today. Then a few months later they haven't done it. A small portion of those tasks get reprioritized and most get abandoned (a few remain on people's unrealistic todo lists year after year).

People are bad at scheduling things which are semi-urgent. They don't have to do it immediately, but they shouldn't put it off for months.

Semi-urgent is a really common category. Learning in general is semi-urgent. It's uncommon that you need to learn something right now. If you learn to read at age 7 or at age 7.25 (3 whole months later), it's not a big deal. If you learn a math concept a few months later, in the long run that doesn't matter. If you learn about WWII a few months later, it doesn't matter. But you don't want to put those things off forever, either. They are good to learn reasonably soon.

A major reason for now or never is short-term emotions. People have a spark of excitement or interest that quickly fades, so they have to do something now (or quite soon) or else they lose their motivation. They commonly lose their motivation when they sleep and get an emotional reset. There isn't a simple fix for this. People should stop basing their lives on short-term emotions. They should stop being whim worshipers, as Ayn Rand called it.

I have a partial solution to this problem. It's a way of specifying "soon" in more detail.

You do 80% of the things you plan to do "soon" within 1 week. Of the ones you don't do, you finish 80% of those within 1 more week (2 total). Of the ones you don't do, you finish 80% of those with 2 more weeks (4 total). If you still didn't do it, you can give up.

With this method, less than 1% of stuff won't get done. And each phase is reasonably easy. You're only trying to do 4 out of 5 things. You can have a significant failure rate (up to 1 in 5) and still succeed at the 80% target. And there are only 3 phases, and the maximum time you have to worry about something is under a month.

Even though it has a small number of lenient phases, this method gets 96% of things done within 2 weeks and 99.2% within 4 weeks.

What can go wrong? The biggest thing is you plan to do stuff you don't want to do. Then you still won't want to do it next week or the week after. If you're intentionally avoiding something, I haven't offered any advice to fix that. And if you primarily act based on short-term emotions which are gone in week 2, this method also doesn't address that. And I don't tell you when you should change your mind and purposely decide not to do stuff (other than letting you off the hook after the third phase, which should happen less than 1% of the time so it's not that big a deal).

Still, I think it offers some useful guidelines. It gives you ballparks of what should be happening if things are going right and you're acting reasonably. When you deviate from this method, you can use that as a signal that something is broken – you're trying to do something you don't want to do, or you're trying to do something that you were emotional about when you decided to do it and you're no longer emotional about it, or your scheduling is broken in some way (e.g. you plan to do way more things than you have time for).

People commonly have only a vague idea of when "soon" is, so they don't even know when things should be getting done or when they are failing. It helps to have some guidelines for "soon" to compare your behavior against, so you can see which things you did soon and which you didn't, instead of fooling yourself with moving goalposts.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comment (1)