Appreciating Contempt

A couple of years ago, Will and I attended an event where someone asked us all to consider which emotion we had the hardest time owning and were most likely to resist and push away. We both gave the same answer: contempt.

At the time I remember thinking that contempt seemed mean and not that useful. I talked to some people about contempt, and don’t remember anyone at the event giving me a compelling reason to embrace it, though it’s possible I did hear good advice, but wasn’t in a place to process it.

And I’m happy to say that I’ve finally made some progress on appreciating contempt!

In particular, I noticed that a lot of my internal dialogue was actually pretty self-contemptuous. I seemed to be using self-contempt to notice when my own positions didn’t make any sense and straw man them.

Noticing when my own positions don’t make sense is awesome!

Using self-contempt to do that seems pretty efficient. If you’ve never asked yourself, “what would my enemy think about what I was doing,” I recommend trying it. It’s been eye-opening for me in the pass, and my worldview makes the claim that most people assume most people are more virtuous than is actually the case.

But then, viewing myself with contempt is also costly. It’s easy for me to miss how costly it is, because these thoughts are tinged with the cold kind of contempt contempt, and that tone can slip under my radar pretty easily. But I end up feeling small and not very confident as a result :-(.

And even though my thoughts aren’t perfect, they’re usually a better guess than than my best arguments against them.

Here’s an example of my contemptuous voice being mean:

“I think it worked out okay that I didn’t obsess about not having the dog jump on people. He’s naturally doing it less as he gets more comfortable.”

“OR you’ve created a behavior pattern that he didn’t have to have that makes everyone like him a little less and a generally pushy attitude that doesn’t serve him or anyone else very well.”

Sometimes, it says things that imply that I’m doing something more right than not.

“Meh, Argos (same dog) gets so frustrated when I try to teach him stuff. It didn’t seem as bad before, so maybe I’ve poisoned the process somehow.”

“OR you just thinking that because you’ve accidentally reinforced frustrated barking a few times in a row, that factor is very salient for you, and nothing else is all that different. You weren’t sure he’d ever learn the other stuff either, but he did.”

The self-contempt thing isn’t about me being a bad person, or about me having done the wrong thing. It’s M.O. is telling me that my thoughts, flattering or unflattering, are generally crappy and not to be trusted. 

Kinda costly, but also useful and overall truer than not. Thanks contempt!

How to Build a Tribe

It is important to preface this entire document by saying that I had very specific objectives for creating a tribe. In particular, I wanted a group that was emotionally vulnerable with each other, who are reacting in real time to each other’s responses, where we create a safe space to say and feel and process anything. If you’re looking for something else, only some of this will apply to you. If you share this vision with me, a list of concrete steps to get there from here is below the fold:

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How to Deal with Email

One of the biggest problems that I commonly hear from my friends is that processing email is completely unmanageable. The most important thing to remember is that your attention is the most precious resource that you have, and you need to guard it jealously. All of the following principles flow from this fundamental insight. The following seven steps will get you most of the way towards inbox sanity.

Turn Off Email Notifications

The very first step you need to take to reclaim your valuable and limited attention is to turn off any form of email notification. If your phone vibrates, knock that off immediately. If your mail client gives you a popup or rings or displays a red badge, change the settings. If you are keeping your inbox open in another tab and see new emails coming in, close it. By having your devices constantly pushing email on you, you will be constantly tempted by email and switching between tasks repeatedly, which is a disaster for productivity.

The most common pushback I get on this point is that sometimes there are legitimately urgent messages that need to be answered. In some cases this may be true, but for the vast majority of people what is the worst case scenario? We have a different method of dealing with urgent concerns, and that is called a telephone—call or text will do. If you need to respond to emails for work, go to the people who need you urgently and explain the situation. You are very busy and constant emails are distracting you from important tasks, ask them to give you a quick call when they urgently need your attention.

Unsubscribe from Everything Immediately

By this point, it has probably become habitual to scan over your inbox and either ignore (or preferably archive) specific sources of messages — maybe this is a company that keeps emailing you about its latest deals or products, for instance, or maybe this is some noisy Facebook group that a distant acquaintance thought you would enjoy. Regardless of how quick and easy you think it is to get rid of these things, you are incurring a small penalty of time and attention again and again to even glance at the email. So from now on, you have a new habit: unsubscribe from everything the first time you no longer want to read it. This takes a little bit of upfront time — usually one or two clicks, maybe typing your email or unchecking boxes—but it saves you precious seconds every time you look at your inbox. You would be shocked how quickly you recoup that particular investment.

Some lists are worth staying on—maybe you’re on the mailing list of your favorite author because you actually want to be notified when he’s in town, or maybe you’ve signed up for an email course or some daily tips that you actually read. Maybe your favorite fanfic is constantly being updated, and being notified when the new chapter is up prevents you from obsessively refreshing your browser. Pay attention to your behavior. Once your eyes start preemptively glazing over when you see an address, you know it’s time to unsubscribe.

Create Filters

There is an intermediate step between emails you want to know about immediately and ones that you never want to read, and for this purpose some brilliant software engineers created filters. Any emails that you receive on a regular basis are extremely good candidates for filtering.

For some personal examples, I have a filter that sends all emails originating from Meetup to their own special folder. Any time I am wondering what is going on in town, or if I have a free evening to kill, I have a host of events available to me at the click of a button. I do something similar for mailing lists, which routinely contain interesting information that I do intend to read — at my leisure, that is.

Batch Process Email

Now that you’ve greatly reduced the number of incoming emails, you are in a much better position to deal with your inbox. You have also stopped your devices from constantly distracting you, so you’re not constantly processing emails — from here on out, processing email is a deliberate choice on your part. You will pick exactly when and where you want to deal with emails, and not a moment before. When you have an unbroken block of time — and this may even be worth explicitly scheduling — you should sit down and continue processing emails until you run out of time or are finished. (What does ”finishing” email even mean? Keep reading!)

By the way, in case this is not abundantly clear, you should always do batch processing of replies from a computer with a full keyboard. Mobile keyboards are simply not designed for rapid typing in the same way. The kind of batch processing that you can do on a mobile phone is that of reading and archiving emails — which allows you to focus immediately on responding when you get to a computer. Leave anything that requires a non-urgent response for later.

Minimize Replies

The first principle I introduced was about reducing the number of incoming emails, and now it is time to look at the other side of the equation. Writing emails takes even more time than reading them, so if anything this step is even more critical! You can follow one very simple heuristic here: shorter is better, and replies that never get written are the shortest ones of all. And that’s it!

Ironically, I didn’t learn this lesson for myself until I finally caved in and got myself a smartphone. I am the king of verbose emails, I love to write paragraph after paragraph in response to just about anything. Ask me a question and I will go on at great length. Well, I very quickly gave up on the idea of composing long emails using the smartphone’s keyboard. In fact, I learned to become as parsimonious with my words as possible, because it was so aggravating. And you know what? Nothing changed. If anything, I got faster responses from shorter emails! No one was upset I didn’t provide them with reams of information. This was so striking that I changed my email signature to say: ”Sent from my smartphone, enjoy the unusual brevity.” And I never looked back.

There is one situation where I believe that a quick reply is better than no reply, and those are the emails sitting at the bottom of your inbox the longest, the ones you have been putting off indefinitely because you really want to do them right This was one of my biggest personal challenges in dealing with my own inbox, especially given my propensity towards long emails. It still hurts me that I put off the most important emails for weeks, or months, or sometimes even forever, because I wanted to write a long reply and simply never had the time or motivation. I failed to congratulate people on major life events, or catch up with old friends, or follow up important leads, because I didn’t think I could get away with a quick response. But the truth is, a quick response to an important email is better than no response at all. Please don’t leave the most important parts of your life to ferment at the bottom of your inbox.

Be Realistic

Your colleague sees a funny video and emails it to your group, or an old friend of yours sees an article and thinks of you. While these are kind and even important gestures, there are simply only so many hours in the day. There is already more content out there than we could consume in our entire lives, so we need to prioritize where we direct our attention. One type of email that I tend to keep around is something that seems like it could be really interesting, but never quite get around to looking at. So what is my solution? I collect all of these links and I put them in a separate file or bookmark folder. When I have a spare moment and think about it, I go back and look at them. Some of them you will probably never get around to, and that’s okay. Be realistic about how you are going to spend your time, and don’t waste any of it agonizing over whether or not to consume content.

Inbox Zero

So what is the end result of all of this advice? Quite simply, to have zero emails left in your inbox at the end of processing. This should be the default resting state of your inbox: you are either ignoring email entirely, or your inbox is empty, end of story.

The archive button is your best friend. Every time you finish reading something, archive it. Every time you send a reply, archive it. (Note that Google Labs has a ”Send and Archive” button that seriously comes in handy here.) Every time you add another link to your ”eventually” list, archive it. When you get an email about coordination or scheduling, enter it into your calendar immediate and then archive it.

After your initial quick pass over the inbox to clear out most of the items, everything remaining should be something that is awaiting either immediate reply or action. After you do what is necessary, archive it. If something is sitting in your inbox that you don’t intend to do until later, then add it to your to-do list, flag the email or send it to a special folder, and then archive it.

…and there you have it: a pristine inbox. Doesn’t that feel relaxing? Your inbox induces no cognitive load whatsoever! You are never left feeling guilty, or wondering if something slipped through the cracks, or worrying about replying to important emails. Everything is exactly where you put it, and you know just where to look to find it.

Low Hanging Fruit for Health and Wellness

Include in Diet

Fish or cod liver oil: excellent source of omega-3 fats which most people are severely deficient in, take 1-2 tsp/day.  These fats are fragile molecules and can go rancid easily, so store them in the refrigerator.  If you buy capsules, bite into one occasionally to test for bitterness.  I buy the oil in translucent glass bottles online, sealed with vitamin E and nitrogen – I recommend Carlson’s or Nordic Naturals, check before you buy!

Liver: the most potent single food in terms of vitamin and mineral content, in a form that is easily absorbed by the body (much better than a multivitamin).  Eat at least 4 oz/week for optimal health.  You can find grass-fed liver at local farmer’s markets, or frozen liver in most grocery stores.  If the taste of beef liver is too strong, switch to calf or chicken liver, or soak it in milk for at least 30 minutes before cooking.

Grass-fed butter: excellent source of healthy fats unique to dairy products, and fat-soluble vitamins.  Kerrygold is the most commonly-available brand of grass-fed butter.  Grass-fed ghee is often available in specialty ethnic stores.

Coconut oil: the medium-chain triglycerides are metabolized by the body in a unique way, and promotes cellular repair mechanisms.  You can buy in bulk online, for instance at Tropical Traditions.

Remove from Diet

Sugar: probably the least controversial thing on this whole list!  In general, cutting back on sweets means you will lose the taste over time.  Liquid sugars like soda and fruit juice are the worst offenders, drink coffee or tea or flavor water with fruit instead (diet soda may not have calories but it maintains that sweet craving).  Pure solid sugar like candy can be replaced with fruit, which has water and some vitamins in addition.  For replacements, try using the natural non-caloric sweetener stevia, or buy dextrose powder (a fructose-free sweetener) online.

Vegetable oil: primary source of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, unfortunately it is very common in the food supply.  First, avoid deep fried foods entirely, because heated omega-6s are highly unstable.  Avoid margarine or vegetable shortening, which contain trans-fats.  When eating out, ask for your food to be cooked in butter.  When eating salad, stick to olive oil and vinegar, as most dressings have a vegetable oil base.  Never use this in your own home!

Grains and legumes: your mileage may vary on these foods, if you want starch then try to mostly eat root vegetables like (sweet) potatoes.  Many people have problems with gluten, found primarily in wheat, barley and rye – stores will often have a gluten-free section with alternatives.  Most people tolerate rice and corn well, so substitute rice pasta and corn tortillas.  Opt for sprouted or sourdough-fermented bread over white or whole wheat.  With legumes, see how your GI tract responds.  Soaking, sprouting, fermenting and cooking all improve digestibility.  Soy is particularly bad since it has chemicals that mimic estrogen. Peanuts are also strongly immunogenic.

Non-Dietary Measures

Vitamin D: ideally produced from sunlight, but more practically supplemented.  To get enough from sun you need a UV index above 3, which happens in the tropics and during spring and summer noonday sun in temperate regions.  For someone with pale skin, 15 minutes front and back of full-body exposure between 10 AM – 2 PM gives you the maximum dose.  When not exposed to this amount of sunlight, supplement at least 2,000 IUs/day (and no more than 10,000 IUs). Ideally, get your blood levels tested regularly and find out what dose keeps you in the optimal range.

Sprinting: anaerobic exercise gives you all the benefits of aerobic exercise and then some, releasing beneficial fat-burning hormones and encouraging mitochondrial proliferation.  Sprinting requires no equipment, and only minutes of work!  Alternate 20 seconds of max-effort sprinting and 10 seconds of rest for 8 intervals, twice/week.  This will be very difficult at first, but it gets easier each time – if 10 seconds of rest is not enough, you can rest for longer periods between each interval and sprint harder.  You don’t need any more exercise than that to see benefits, unless you want to build muscle or have fun!

Sleep: the second-least controversial thing on this list, chronic sleep deprivation has numerous health consequences and acute sleep deprivation just doesn’t feel good.  Go to sleep early enough that you don’t need to wake up to an alarm clock.  If you are not getting tired at night, try eliminating sources of blue light from your bedroom (or wear Uvex orange glasses before bed), and take 300 mcg melatonin an hour before sleep.  If your mind is racing, try writing those thoughts down on a piece of paper, or go talk to a friend!

Intermittent fasting: useful to get your body into fat-burning mode, encourage cellular repair, and generally give your body a break from metabolism.  This will be much easier once you have transitioned to a high-fat diet, since fasting through hypoglycemia is unpleasant.  Due to the hormone ghrelin we get hungry around habitual meal times, but this effect fades within days.  The easiest way to create a longer fast is to skip one of the meals around sleep, either breakfast or dinner, whichever is easier for you.  Work your way up to a 16 hour window daily – and longer if you feel like it!

Brief Clicker Expo Notes

I went to ClickerExpo in January!

The whole experience was terrific, and I think I learned quite a bit. I got a few new ideas, but not many. But I do think I understand many of the things I’d previously read about it more fully and in a way that’s more actionable. Real-life examples are invaluable when it comes to updating all parts of my mind.

I jumped around between talks quite a bit, and when I wasn’t compelled by any of the speakers I went to the hands-on “learning lab” clicker sessions with dogs. 

This post is a bit shorter than I had originally intended. I realized that I wasn’t getting it written so I lowered my criteria :-).

Here are some rough notes:

  • I was impressed with Karen Pryor as a speaker. I found her quite engaging–particularly her talk about how most scientists aren’t actually using the conditioned reinforcer properly. Yet another lesson in how crazy the world is, and in particular how messed up our scientific institutions are. Seems like things are slowly improving though in this area!
  • I saw some fun videos about some dogs distinguishing between one, two, and three objects fluently.
  • There was quite a bit about emotions. Everyone agreed that behaviors originally associated with angry, scared, or other upset emotions do not retain their original tone when captured with clicker training. In particular, the faculty noted that clicker training dogs to act ferocious didn’t work very well, and that this had been a challenge for people training dog actors for commercials. And there also seemed to be consensus that behaviors would acquire the emotional tone of the reinforcers used to train them. I updated that using multiple marker signals with different emotional tones was an excellent idea. (I’d heard of this idea before but hadn’t been compelled by it.)
  • I both got some good heuristics for good shaping and a bunch of hours observing good shaping. I think I (and most amateur shapers) should raise criteria more slowly and take more breaks). It’s hard not to be impatient and overenthusiastic! One thing I hadn’t considered was that jumping ahead too quickly with criteria increases both the likelihood that garbage behaviors will get chained in and that the learner will then get stuck at a particular level.Variability is worth preserving.
  • Verbal stimulus control is hard with dogs! Argos and I have been practicing since ClickerExpo to try to get him to listen to my actual words, but it was actually fairly heartening to see in the learning lab that many of the professional dog trainers hadn’t done any better with their dogs.
  • Kathy Sdao gave a lecture on Premack’s principle that I found quite inspiring. It didn’t contain any entirely new information, but it was a very welcome refresher. I had heard the idea of reframing distractions as the best possible rewards for dogs, but I hadn’t actually thought of it that way for Lydia. I can tell I have a lot to learn about this whole clicker baby/toddler business, and I do think I’m slowly learning it.
  • I also went to Kathy Sdao’s lab on cues. If anything, I was comforted that the professional trainers who had brought their dogs didn’t seem to have much better stimulus control than I have with Argos for verbal stuff. We’ve been working on that since I got back, but he’s still confused about sit vs. down, since he often goes down by sitting first, so it has historically worked well enough for him to guess. I’m trying to clean it up bit by bit.
  • I had heard that Clicker Expo was an unusually positive and rewarding atmosphere. Makes sense. Not sure i would give the same review, but I think I’m implicitly comparing it to events I futurist-type events I usually go to that are usually full of my friends and people in my general demographic. I did get a few genuine compliments each day though, which was nice!
  • I’m now part of a Clicker Parents Facebook group! I was going to start a list, but then I found out that already existed.

Since it’s been a few weeks now since I attended, I can confirm that it seems totally worthwhile that I went. It’s impossible to run controlled experiments with my n=1 parenting situation, but I can see that my relationship with Lydia has changed for the better in ways that seem directly attributable to stuff that I learned and internalized at Clicker Expo. That’s what I wanted! I’m now working on writing up the details of the changes I’ve made in perspective and how we do things.

Balancing Needs in Relationships

I don’t have time to write something long this week, but I did want to pose a question that’s been on my mind.

When someone you care about wants something and you have mixed feelings about whether to give it to them, what are your heuristics for deciding what to do?

Do you have an internal voice or feeling that you trust to guide your decisions? Do you try to calculate how much it matters to each person, and if so is that process explicit or implicit? Do you like the way you think about these questions?

It’s possible that the question I’m posing already assumes an unhelpful frame, and I think it’s true that there’s often low-hanging fruit in the category of win-win solutions. But I’d love to hear people’s answers anyway.

Any and all thoughts on the subject are welcome.

One Thought and Two Links

I skipped writing a blog post last week because I was tired and busy. I don’t feel up for writing a long one this week either, but I will share a thought and some links.

I often look at my (13 month old) daughter’s eyes when I’m trying to figure out what she is thinking. But something I don’t do often enough is look at what she’s looking at. I try, and it’s easy to get a vague idea by following her gaze. I but I can get a more precise idea by actually getting my head over by her head and following more closely. I would recommend the same for getting into the head of younger babies and animals.

Here’s a post I liked about frustration and learning.

And another one about why the story about extrinsic motivation replacing intrinsic motivation may be more complicated than usually discussed.

Hypothetical Apostasy on Nutrition

As many of you know, I am a major proponent of paleo/primal/ancestral/etc type diets. At this point the term “paleo” has come to be applied to many very different diets, but for the record my own personal beliefs coincide most strongly with the Perfect Health Diet. Whatever you want to call it, it is certainly outside of conventional wisdom and mainstream scientific/medical opinion. This has been a point of contention between me and others who put more stock in mainstream opinion. I have spent many hundreds, or maybe thousands, of hours doing research into human metabolism, and as a result my ideas are starting to get sticky.

Periodically I like to subject my beliefs to one of my all-time favorite techniques, the hypothetical apostasy by philosopher Nick Bostrom. The basic idea is to produce a good faith effort at destroying your currently held position. This process has helped me improve my thinking on a number of topics, including the original mind-killer itself: politics. Given my particularly strong beliefs about diet, it is long past due for me to try this exercise. Below the fold is my best attempt to undermine the paleo position:

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My Current Productivity Stack

One of the main topics of conversation on this blog is productivity, as you can tell by its weighting in the tag cloud below. Much of the discussion thus far has been about productivity hacks, various techniques or environmental factors you can tweak to optimize your performance. What I haven’t talked much about is what my own personal setup looks like. While I expect everyone’s system to be a little different, this at least provides one specific example for people to work from.

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Other People’s Emotional States

Last week I posted as my Facebook status that: “Someone else’s emotional state is almost always a terrible optimization target.” I got a couple of requests to expand the thought to the length of a blog post, so here I go!

I’ve been thinking since I posted it, and I think there are two fairly separable reasons that I think the mental representation of another person in a particular emotional state isn’t a productive thing to focus my mind on. First, how other people feel isn’t something I can control. And second, it’s a metric that is easy and harmful to game.

Let me start by saying how I think intentionality works in the human mind. (These ideas are not original to me, but I also haven’t ever heard anyone articulate them in quite the way I do.) Intentions are represented as pictures of how we want the world to be. I think they usually have more influence over our behavior when they’re represented vividly. Pictures are almost always involved, words may be involved, feelings in our body are often involved. Smells and tastes may be involved too. They have size, color, and position. They may be moving or static. 

And ultimately, we try to make these pictures come true. Of course it’s somewhat more complicated than that. And we’re certainly imperfect at fulfilling our intentions, but that’s the basic idea. I won’t link to The Secret because that seems embarrassing and I haven’t actually read it, but I think that book says the same thing in more woo-woo language.

To break it down more, I think correspondence between our mental representations and our perceptions is reinforcing, and more so for the more vivid ones that are represented in many modalities. So approaching intentions shapes our behavior.

And it’s worth saying that the intentions that have most powerfully shaped our behavior aren’t necessarily ones that are aligned with our explicit goals. As the saying goes, “we’d rather be right than happy.”

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