Exploration/Exploitation Applied

In my previous post, I discussed the exploration/exploitation tradeoff that is inherent to optimizing under significant uncertainty, and alluded to some of the ways that this influences my thinking. In this post, I want to give some examples of how using this framework has actually changed my behavior.

From a Global Parameter…

As far as I can tell from using my introspection, it does seem like the exploration/exploitation tradeoff exists as something of a global variable in mind space. Where I am located along that spectrum changes the way I interact with the world. One notable example is how my curiosity functions. In exploration mode my curiosity is free floating, attaching to anything that catches my attention. This is Wikipedia plus tabbed browsing. In contrast, when I am in exploitation mode my curiosity is goal-directed. What specific skills do I need to accomplish the task at hand? I am very motivated to learn exactly what I need to know to make things happen. [Read more…]

What I Wish I Knew in College

I feel like I only learned how to optimize effectively during my senior year of college. At that point I was mostly set into my college path: I was an economics major, I had already used my off-terms, I was involved in particular organizations, I had my group of friends, etc. What I could change was the entire course of my future, but I still looked back on the previous three years and thought about how I wasted so much time and possibility. I wished that someone had told me what I needed to know back when I was a freshman, it seemed like such a unique opportunity that I simply didn’t know how to optimize when I first got to college.

The typical advice about college is that it is a time to explore. You are expected to get to campus as a blank slate, try out a bunch of different classes (indeed this is often required), and probably settle on some liberal arts major. By default, you will hang out with the first people that you meet, and by mostly sheer chance your social group will be established for you. Thinking about your career is forbidden until junior year at the earliest. You definitely won’t be doing things like paying bills or cooking for yourself for at least four years. I think this is, in fact, almost diametrically opposite to what you should be doing. [Read more…]

IFS Unpacked Recap

On Tuesday, Divia and I did our first webinar on Internal Family Systems, a therapeutic technique that we’ve both gotten a lot of mileage out of. We briefly covered the model and some theory about how we think it works, followed by a live demonstration, and then a Q&A.

This time we actually did record the webinar, so click here to listen. [Edit: link now broken, sadly.]

There are also written notes available again, this time courtesy of Scott Fowler.

Thanks everyone for your interest, for attending, for volunteering, for asking great questions, and for giving great feedback!

Analytical Parts in IFS

When I do IFS work, one of the first things I have to do before I can really get somewhere with the person I’m working with is to disengage the person’s analytical part. I usually start by doing this implicitly. I choose my questions with the intent of bypassing the analytical mind, and that tends to work pretty well.

Questions about emotions, visually imagery, and feelings in the body are good for this, and there are some other rhetorical tricks that also play into the process. For example, if someone doesn’t respond to the question “what does that part look like?”, I sometimes have better success with, “if that part looked like something, what would it look like?” For some reason counterfactuals often let the analytical part relax.

On the other hand, “why?” questions are very likely to activate the analytical part. [Read more…]

Lessons From (and For) the Quantified Self Movement

The very first time I heard about Quantified Self I was excited by the world of possibilities contained therein. I pride myself on my self-awareness, and it seemed like adding quantitative rigor to this process would allow me to uncover new patterns below my current awareness – and ideally, to change them. Besides, I liked what I saw from this community: the ethos of self-experimentation and optimization that pervades my own life. You didn’t have to tell me twice, I was already sold. I joined as one of the original members of the NYC QS group, and dove into this world head first.

My Self, Quantified

Seeing some of the projects people were doing was intimidating. Lots of the people involved were the ones building the tools themselves, which was impressive in its own right. Others were gathering lots of esoteric data, combined with stunning visualizations, and I had no idea how to apply this to my own life. [Read more…]

The Exploration/Exploitation Framework

We all have a variety of mental models that we use to interpret the world around us. In many cases we have very specific models, e.g. I know that turning the key in the ignition makes my car turn on, and this does not assist me very much in my understanding of the world. At the same time, the concept of different keys fitting into different locks is a metaphor that we apply to other areas of life.

One of my favorite models comes from reinforcement learning, which is particularly applicable to how our brain functions. In the most general case, assume that you have many different options, and each of these gives you a payoff randomly selected from an unknown distribution. Your goal is to maximize the payoff you receive over a fixed time horizon. This type of game is epitomized by the multi-armed bandit problem, or the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test when that distribution changes over time.

So how do you optimize these types of tasks? [Read more…]

How to Network Effectively

Networking is a critically important skill. There is a great phrase that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time around. For humans, most of our environment is the social environment. Your ability to interact with others, and who those other people are, is most likely going to be your bottleneck on what you can accomplish in the world. Even skills like programming or engineering, where you’re creating something new in the world, are enabled by the web of social interactions you are embedded in – the greatest product in the world will never be used if it cannot be discovered.

Step One: Have a Goal

[Read more…]

Reflective Relationship Webinar Notes

Last month, Will and I hosted a webinar on how we stay close and happy in relationships. Two of our friends posted awesome notes. Here they are!

Michael Smith’s summary

Jasen Murray’s notes

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #10: Actively Recover and Try Again

Suppose you have tried everything above and you still can’t seem to bring yourself to work.  First, I want you to repeat step two and show yourself a little compassion.  Did you do that?  Good.  I’ll bet you’re feeling better already!

So given that you can’t seem to get yourself to work, what should you do instead?  When locked in internal conflict, we will often take some form of default action (a common one these days is to browse the internet).  This form of procrastination rarely feels very fulfilling or regenerative.  This is like a drowning man treading water – you’re not getting any closer to shore!  Instead, recognize that you are refusing to work in that moment, and engage in active recovery.  Make a list of your most fun activities, the things that will leave you feeling the most energized and happy, and commit yourself to enjoying them fully and without reservation for a period of time.  After that time is up, take your renewed energy and good mood and get right back on the horse!  You will undoubtedly have an easier time than you did from a place of unhappy resistance.

Note that sometimes we are legitimately tired – most people in the United States are getting less than 8 hours of sleep a night, and artificial lighting can wreak havoc on our body’s natural circadian rhythm.  When you have a low energy level, everything in life seems harder.  In that case, the best thing you can possibly do for your productivity is to rest!  Employers are starting to realize the importance of napping at work, so if you happen to work for one of those forward thinking companies or for yourself this is an easy solution.  Otherwise, I suggest setting a timer, closing your eyes, and allowing yourself to free associate: do not think of anything in particular or try to hold onto any thoughts (especially about work), let your mind wander undirected.  Afterwards you will feel refreshed and ready to go again.

This concludes my Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately series.  I am sure that you will find one or another of these tips to be helpful – leave a comment or drop me a line and tell me how they worked for you!  Please feel free to pass these along to friends, family, coworkers, or anyone else who you think could use this advice.  And be sure to leave us a note in the comments to tell us what techniques you have come up with, so everyone can share your success!

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #9: Commit to One Minute

The hardest part of any task is getting started – or maybe even before getting started, while you’re still busy worrying about doing the task instead of getting it done!  Luckily inertia works in both directions: once you’re already underway with a project you realize it isn’t nearly as bad as you originally thought.  So the trick here is to overcome that activation cost, to get yourself started working at all.

Fortunately there is a very easy solution to this problem: commit yourself to working for one minute.  How bad could 60 seconds of work possibly be?  The great thing about a one minute commitment is that it is a one minute commitment – if you legitimately find the work you are doing to be that torturous, you have kept your commitment to yourself and you can stop and figure out something else to deal with the problem.  I have rarely seen people object to this level of commitment, but if that feels like too much you can choose an even shorter time period to fit your needs.

Once you have begun working, you will find that the task is rarely as bad as you anticipated.  In fact, you might even find it easier to continue working than to stop abruptly and switch to something else!  I don’t know about you, but I don’t like leaving anything unfinished, so I will persist until the task I am working on is complete.  After you master the art of starting, you can switch to a system like the Pomodoro Technique and commit yourself to working for 25 minutes or more!