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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Religious Fasting Traditions

If you’ve ever talked to me about nutrition, you would know that I’m a huge proponent of fasting. I knew that cultural and religious traditions throughout the world had incorporated some form of fasting practice into their doctrines, though I had not systematically tried to document it myself at the time. There may be a decent review article on this somewhere, but I decided to sit down and do a little research myself last year, and these are my notes from that exercise.

tl;dr: there are lots of different kinds of fasting. Some commonalities include the use of sunrise/sunset, fasting as a spiritual practice (opposed to mere starvation) including prayer and charity, proscribed feasting days/periods, and not drinking water either. Longer-term fasts usually restrict eating during daylight hours and/or restricted types of food during the night, and these appear to be the most common. Fasts of 1-2 days can involve complete cessation of both food and water. The strictest fast is 2 meals over 5 days. Fasting is at most 250 days/year, and 1-2 times per week or month is very common. Exceptions for the young, the old, the sick, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, laborers, and travelers are relatively common. Not every religion has a fasting tradition.

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Memorizing Emotionally Salient Quotations

One of the more unusual projects I undertook a few years back was memorizing a bunch of quotations. In particular, I mostly picked ones that seemed emotionally salient.

I love it when I read something that lets me glimpse a truth about the world that I hadn’t quite noticed or thought of in that way. And typically, the clue that I’m realizing something is that I have an emotional reaction.

I did find that if I spent enough time with the quotations, I was able to grok them more fully. I could update my model of the world and internalize the meaning that I had been reacting too. I was still able to recognize the words as beautiful afterwards, but the character of my appreciation for them had changed to something softer.

Looking back at some of the passages I memorized at the time, I thought I’d share a few and what I think I learned from them.

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Parenting and the Non-Shared Environment

There is a major thread in the parenting literature that claims, in short, that parenting (short of outright abuse) has little to no effect on adult outcomes that we care about. Two exemplars in this category include The Nurture Assumption and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. This claim is largely based on twin and adoption studies, which allow us to attribute the observed variance in traits to genetic, shared environment, and non-shared environment factors. The general pattern is that lots of traits are about half genetic and half non-shared environment, with little contribution from shared environment. There is a major embedded assumption in this line of reasoning: that parenting effects are mainly in the shared environment. It turns out that this assumption is not a particularly good one.

A review article on research into the non-shared environment was released about two years ago, and it provides some fascinating data on this subject. I will quote some sections at length, but the entire paper is worth reading. Here is the first excerpt of interest:

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Suffering is Created by Resistance

I got an email a few days ago about a card from one of my Anki decks that says “Suffering is created by resistance.”

I wanted to explain what that statement meant to me. To start, in my mind there is a companion phrase: “Pain is not suffering.” 

Here’s what I’ve written about that statement. I hope it makes sense.

But suffering seemingly exists, and so if pain doesn’t account for it, what does?

This post is a more complete and articulate presentation of the idea that suffering results from conflict between two subsystems. 

And sometimes I do put it that way. I think there’s another card in the same Anki deck that says something about how internal conflict results in suffering. Saying that suffering is created by resistance is a slightly different framing, and one that I think is useful.

Physical suffering is a lot about tensing up, which seems to go along with the framing of suffering being resistance. Suffering comes from wanting the world to be different, and making some mental or physical motion that sort of kind of almost works on the margin but is actually ridiculous.

A very rough idea of how I think our brain works is that we hold in our mind a mental representation of how we want things to be, and then move towards that goal state. It seem to be strongly reinforcing to have our external experience match our internal pictures. But when we resist, we’re trying to hack this system. Like closing our eyes to prevent someone from seeing us.

Or trying to ignore and silence disturbing thoughts because that better fits our mental picture of health and happiness.

Pretending not to be angry because I don’t know what to do with anger. Slumping and having bad posture to dampen my feelings.

All that stuff feels bad, and I would call it resistance.

Feeling Better than Other People

This post will just be a quick note based on a conversation I had with someone recently on the subject of feeling superior to other people. I’ve been there before, as I suspect many people have. If you find yourself simultaneously thinking you’re somehow better than other people and thinking it’s wrong to think that way, here are some distinctions that may make the issue less loaded.

  • The question of how much net value you are providing for the world is a legitimate one, in my opinion. And the answer may be that you’re providing more than most, especially if you’re optimizing for it. 
  • If you’re feeling a sense of entitlement that seems less than pro-social, remember that most things aren’t zero sum. If you want more attention from others, influence in the world, money, etc., that’s legitimate! But these things don’t have to come at other people’s expense.
  • People are pretty different from each other. You may be more intelligent, powerful, aware, etc. than many people. And you are almost certainly less of all the above characteristics than others. It can be polite to ignore differences in ability between people, but there comes a time when you may also want an accurate assessment of where you are. Make it okay to think about these things as objectively as possible when you choose to focus on them. It’s okay that differences exist, and if you try to repress your desire to discern them, you might get messy side effects.. Sometimes these differences have far-reaching implications, and often not. 
  • The capacity to feel respect and compassion for all people is a really important one. Some thinkers say that we get our gut-level feeling of self-worth primarily from recognizing this particular capacity, and this seems plausible to me. Whatever causes you to lose track of this ability is worth reconsidering.

I think I had more thoughts there, but that’s a brief partial brain dump.

Incorporating Training into Management

We have a dog now!

After having read a bunch of books and doing some clicker training with Lydia, I’ve now been doing it with a very food-motivated, very trainable breed of dog. Wow, is it much easier. The dog is totally happy to remain focused on me for dozens of minutes at a time in order to eat tiny pieces of cheese or liver. And he’ll repeat behaviors over and over again. The feedback loop for my own learning is much tighter, though I’m also in a pretty forgiving situation with the dog.

Lydia, primate that she has, has been pretty inclined to imitate both me and the dog during the sessions, but it’s impossible to directly motivate in the way that I do with the dog.

But anyway, those are just some scattered thoughts. What I actually want to write about is training, management, and how and whether to combine them, though my thoughts there are somewhat rambling, still, too.

With the dog, it’s easy to do a dedicated training session that’s pretty long where he can learn useful like skills. The first few days, before he was reliably looking at me when I said his name, coming when I called, going up and down stairs on his own, heading for the lawn when he had to pee or poop, or playing with his toys over other household objects most of the time were difficult. I invested a bunch of time into training each behavior listed above. 

But I also needed to take care of him as I was training him. Good training (of the style that I’ve subscribed to) involves not using cues when they aren’t well-established and not repeating them when the subject doesn’t comply. Fair enough. So I try not to abuse the cues I want to be most reliable, but if Argus is wandering into the living room, possibly to start peeing, when I’m in the kitchen feeding Lydia, it seems like the right call to call him twice if he doesn’t come when I do it once. 

I like the philosophy of shaping and capturing behavior without using lures and prompts. Lots of trainers claim to have anecdotal evidence that it teaches the animal to think for itself more. This makes sense to me. 

But in time-sensitive real-life situations, I find myself using lures and prompts quite a bit. Management can be done mostly with things the animal likes (luring him away from fragile or dangerous stuff with food), mostly with things the animal doesn’t like (yelling at him when he does things I don’t like), or by keeping him physically restrained. Most modern positive dog training books recommend using the crate quite often. I’m not willing to do that. It seems aesthetically wrong, and my intuitions advise against. 

Many people don’t want to take time to do dedicated training with their dogs. They would much rather incorporate training into everyday life. I am willing to do dedicated training, but I want my management techniques to be useful teaching tools as well. And in situations that don’t involve the dog, (Lydia yes, but also everyone I interact with), I want to be teaching in more informal situations.

Here are a few thoughts on how to do it:

  1. Always be on the lookout for behavior I like and be prepared to reward it. That’s the biggest one, and it’s classic advice, but it’s hard to do consistently. Do I usually notice when Argus looks over and decides not to chase Lydia while she’s waving the towel around?
  2. Say the cue you’re trying to teach just as the subject is about to do the thing you’d like. Say “down” when I see Argus lying down on his own. Say “come here!” when I see Lydia coming towards me. With adult humans, this exact thing could get obnoxious, but building compliance by asking for things in situations where people are inclined to agree works. (This can be nefarious, of course, but I have in mind things like asking a roommate to help unload the dishwasher when he’s hanging out in the kitchen anyway.)
  3. If you see behavior you don’t like, be willing to use prompts and lures, but try to transition away from them. When the dog has something that I do need back, I will say give it first, but if he doesn’t do it willingly I’ll put a treat by his nose. Maybe he’s not thinking for himself as much, but he’s catching on. (We do dedicated training of this one also, which I’m sure helps.) If I call Lydia and she doesn’t come over right away, I’m totally willing to do something to attract her attention. I just ordered a clean/dirty sign for the dishwasher for our house. That’s a visual prompt I’m fine using permanently though.
  4. Keep mental notes of things you have to keep managing, and figure something out. One advantage to delaying dedicated training is that lots of issues just go away. Lydia doesn’t chew power cords anymore. I’m not really sure why. The dog seems to slowly be getting over stealing diapers in favor of other activities. But, I can tell it’s going to be useful to have a rock-solid leave it, since he’s still learning what he can and can’t have. We decided to work on clicker training Lydia to relax in the car seat when we realized it might be years before she grew out of hating it.

The Life of William Ryan from 2008 to 2013

I wrote a very long email about the events of my life during the past 5 years, and sent it to more or less everyone I knew. This will serve as a great introduction to who I am circa September 2013, and I want to refer new people back to it frequently, so I am posting it publicly here on my blog. Enjoy!

Dear friends, family, and associates,

I admit that I have not been the best at keeping in touch with you over the past several years. Some of you I have not spoken to since graduation! Many of you I have only met subsequently, and may not know the earlier parts of my history. Events have been happening in very rapid succession, and I keep thinking I will hold off on sending an update until I get over the next hump… which usually leaves me waiting perpetually for a time that never quite arrives. This email is my attempt at correcting this trend. Due to the ground I need to cover, it will be quite a long email, and I will try to be as brief as possible while hitting the critical details.

I realize that many people do not like to read long emails, so in true internet tradition I will include a “too long; didn’t read” summary now. If you want to know more details of my life, skip the spoilers in the next paragraph and then read on – I think you will enjoy the story. :)

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Anki Cards for Don’t Shoot the Dog

I made some Anki cards for Don’t Shoot the Dog to help me better internalize the material. This deck isn’t intended to be a general overview of the most important concepts–just stuff that seemed important and I didn’t think I already fully understood. Your mileage may vary, but here it is!

Don’t Shoot the Dog.apkg