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Thoughts on designing policies for oneself

73 Post author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2012 01:27AM

Note: This was originally written in relation to this rather scary comment of lukeprog's on value drift.  I'm now less certain that operant conditioning is a significant cause of value drift (leaning towards near/far type explanations), but I decided to share my thoughts on the topic of policy design anyway.


Several years ago, I had a reddit problem.  I'd check reddit instead of working on important stuff.  The more I browsed the site, the shorter my attention span got.  The shorter my attention span got, the harder it was for me to find things that were enjoyable to read.  Instead of being rejuvenating, I found reddit to be addictive, unsatisfying, and frustrating.  Every time I thought to myself that I really should stop, there was always just one more thing to click on.

So I installed LeechBlock and blocked reddit at all hours.  That worked really well... for a while.

Occasionally I wanted to dig up something I remembered seeing on reddit.  (This wasn't always bad--in some cases I was looking up something related to stuff I was working on.)  I tried a few different policies for dealing with this.  All of them basically amounted to inconveniencing myself in some way or another whenever I wanted to dig something up.

After a few weeks, I no longer felt the urge to check reddit compulsively.  And after a few months, I hardly even remembered what it was like to be an addict.

However, my inconvenience barriers were still present, and they were, well, inconvenient.  It really was pretty annoying to make an entry in my notebook describing what I was visiting for and start up a different browser just to check something.  I figured I could always turn LeechBlock on again if necessary, so I removed my self-imposed barriers.  And slid back in to addiction.

After a while, I got sick of being addicted again and decided to do something about it (again).  Interestingly, I forgot my earlier thought that I could just turn LeechBlock on again easily.  Instead, thinking about LeechBlock made me feel hopeless because it seemed like it ultimately hadn't worked.  But I did try it again, and the entire cycle then finished repeating itself: I got un-addicted, I removed LeechBlock, I got re-addicted.

This may seem like a surprising lack of self-awareness.  All I can say is: Every second my brain gathers tons of sensory data and discards the vast majority of it.  Narratives like the one you're reading right now don't get constructed on the fly automatically.  Maybe if I had been following orthonormal's advice of keeping and monitoring a record of life changes attempted, I would've thought to try something different.

Anyway, what finally worked was setting up a site blocker that blocked the reddit.com homepage only.  There was no inconvenience associated with visiting other pages, so the "willpower upkeep cost" of this policy was pretty minimal.  I drew a mental "line in the sand" prohibiting me from ever loading a web page just to see what had changed on it (excluding email and some other stuff), and this rough heuristic (which I've safely gotten informal with) has served me well ever since.

The point of this anecdote is: Having well-designed policies matters.  In the same way that the laws of a nation or the rules of a board game are very important, the policies you set up for yourself to follow are very important.  ("Consequentialism is what's correct; virtue ethics is what works for humans.")

You might be wondering how I read Less Wrong, since it's a web page that changes.  Less Wrong is a tough one, because it's got the variable reinforcement that makes reddit addictive, but hanging out here can also be a pretty good use of time.  Lately what I've been doing is using Google Reader as one of my go-to break activities, and stuffing it so full of feeds that there's a growing backlog of interesting stuff to read every time I visit.  The idea here is to have a constant reinforcer instead of a variable one, and it seems to work as far as avoiding addiction is concerned.

 

Policy design tips

My reddit experience illustrates a few recommendations for designing policies:

  • Make the willpower upkeep cost of your policy as low as possible.  The higher the upkeep cost, the greater the chance that you'll lack the willpower to uphold it at some point, and thereby lose the cognitive momentum you've got behind it.  Willpower spent on upkeep is also willpower that can't be spent on other stuff.  (Yes, I know that the resource of model of willpower isn't perfect, but it seems pretty descriptive in my case and I haven't figured out how to subvert it significantly.  If you have, please write a post about it!)  I think this is the reason why the "cheat days" in diets like Tim Ferris' work--eating whatever you want one day per week decreases the diet's willpower upkeep from impossible to bearable.
  • Don't berate yourself, debug your policies.  In the same way having your program work correctly on the first run is not the default, successfully acting like an agent on the first try is not the default.  Just like in programming, you should expect to fix some bugs before getting something that works.  (Another way to think about it: You're trying to build a multi-story structure on a planet with extremely high gravity.  The high gravity represents the strength of your instincts to just do whatever feels good and doesn't feel bad.  Your first few structures fall down, but eventually you manage to figure out a blueprint for a structure that doesn't fall down.  Even if falls later, that doesn't matter too much 'cause you can just rebuild it, probably with a few improvements.)
  • If possible, have a clear line between policy-compliant and policy-breaking behaviour, to guard against slippery slopes.

The rest of this post is going to consist of more policy design advice.  I don't remember the policy design attempts that spawned each piece of advice, and my advice may not work for you.  But hopefully it will make for a good starting point for your own policy design experiments.

 

Consistency

An overarching principle: As much as possible, you want to there to be consistency between what you tell yourself to do and what you actually do.  If you've been telling yourself to do something and it's not working, stop.  Step back, gain some self-awareness, get creative, and try to figure out some other way to modify your behaviour.

Why is this so important?  Because ignoring what you tell yourself to do is a really bad habit.  Let's say I'm trying to lose weight.  Every morning I tell myself that I shouldn't eat a cookie at lunch, and every afternoon I give in and eat a cookie.  This amounts to reinforcing the behaviour of rationalizing my way around my diet!  The more times I rationalize my way around my diet and get rewarded with a tasty cookie, the stronger my habit of breaking diets is going to become.  It might even be a good idea for me to stop trying to diet completely for a while until the behaviour of rationalizing my way around my diet dies off.

I also think the game-theoretic view of time-inconsistency is useful.  If you build up a track record of self-cooperation, following pre-commitments becomes easier because you know that by breaking the pre-commitment, you'll be destroying something valuable.  Part of this is not making excessive demands on yourself so that track record can actually be built up in the first place.  See also: How I Lost 100 Pounds Using TDT.

If you keep these arguments in mind when your brain starts making "just this once" type arguments, hopefully you'll be better at resisting them.


Translating guilt in to policy ideas

  • Instead of feeling guilty about something you find yourself doing, think "what policy should I make"?  Then continue doing the activity guiltlessly and implement the policy when you're feeling energetic later.  (Implementing the policy later means you'll be less likely to break it right after having made it.)  Untargeted guilt isn't that useful, and it's especially useless if you're going to do the behaviour anyway.  It's much better to translate your vague suggestions for yourself in to a set of specific guidelines, and then put enough momentum behind those guidelines that they don't take much willpower to follow.
  • For me, there seems to be a very strong effect where if I make a policy when I'm not feeling very high-willpower, I won't take it seriously and will ignore it later on.  So I recommend just noting down policy ideas if you're feeling tired.  Then you can refine them and commit to actually following them later on.

 

Refining policy ideas

(Suggestion: Refer back to this list when you're in a high-energy state and you've got a policy you want to implement.)

  • You're encouraged to spend a while on thinking about implementation details if the policy is important to you.  The longer you spend thinking about and refining your policy, the more cognitive momentum you'll have behind it.
  • Keep willpower upkeep low, as mentioned above.
  • Do brainstorming in a text document and finish with a written description of your policy.
  • As you think about your policy, brainstorm a to-do list of ways you could modify your environment to make following your policy easier (ex.: throw out your cigarettes, tape reminders on stuff).
  • If you don't remember that you made a policy, then violating it probably shouldn't count as a "real" violation.  Your memory isn't perfect, why try to affect what you can't control?
  • For each policy you make for yourself, I recommend giving yourself two ways to change it.  The "slow" way: make a change and it comes in to effect X hours later.  The "fast" way: think of a change, think as hard as you can for Y minutes about why it may be a bad change, and if it would seem like a good change to the self that made the policy at the end of Y minutes, make the change.  You'll have to decide on X and Y when you make the policy.  Policy changes should be reflected in your text document.  It may be a good idea to have a "dry run" for a few days with Y = 0 or something like that.
  • It also may be a good idea to have two standards for yourself: a carefully-defined "formal" standard, and a higher "informal" standard that isn't as rigorously specified.  Try to anchor on your informal standard and follow it in practice, but count it as a win every time you do better than your formal standard.  (Think of your formal standard as being at zero, and your informal standard as being at some positive number.  Ideally you should have periodic feelings of pride for beating your formal standard, reinforcing the behaviour of following your policy.)

 

Tips on repairing broken policies

Hopefully this won't actually happen, but let's say you broke your policy.  What now?

  • Hold the line.  Decide that whatever you did to break the policy is allowed for now, but keep the rest of the policy intact.
  • Some point later on, when you're feeling energetic, restore your original policy and try to improve it to prevent the particular failure mode you encountered.

 

I've additionally found regular meditation to be useful for maintaining policies.  (Sam Harris on meditation.)

 

Conclusion

It's been over 6 months since I wrote this article.  Here's what my internet distraction policy has evolved in to (it's been stable for the past few months at least, so I thought it might be worth sharing).  I have a list of websites that I've classified as "distracting", which include reddit, Less Wrong, and Facebook, but not my email (it's too useful to restrict and I've been able to live with having that one distraction).  If I have a reason to visit one of the webpages, I create a log entry in my notebook explaining the reason and then go visit.  Sometimes the reason is just "I could use a break right now", and so far using this reason hasn't caused any problems.  (If it did, I would probably have to change my policy and hammer out what constitutes a valid reason.)  I also open all of the distracting websites on my list in tabs after 11 PM (after a one-minute delay) most days, which means I regularly check my LW/reddit/email inbox and don't have to worry about missing important things in my inbox.  For Hacker News in particular, I came up with a more unusual solution: I have a server that's set up to spider the HN homepage every half hour.  I originally did this with the intent to write a software tool to browse the homepage archives and filter out all but the best content, but so far I haven't gotten around to this.

Comments (62)

Comment author: Will_Sawin 28 November 2012 02:36:35AM 20 points [-]

Reading this, I had a brilliant idea. Similar to taking a break from dieting one day a week, I could take a break from working (or from having to work - I can still be productive if I feel like it) one day a week. This seemed like an excellent hack to conserve willpower and reduce procrastination or, at the very lest, make my procrastination more fun because I didn't have to feel bad about not working during it.

Then I realized that I had reinvented the weekend or, more prosaically, Shabat.

Comment author: moridinamael 26 November 2012 04:51:53AM *  37 points [-]

It has helped me to realize that the policies I implement to govern my behavior are implicit hypotheses about my behavior. The general form is "I predict that installing policy X will produce behavior Y." In the past when my imposed self-regulatory policies have failed I have viewed it as a personal failure, a failure of the will, my failure to adhere to the policy. It helped a lot to realize that my hypothesis was merely wrong. I became free to update. I started learning from my failures.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 26 November 2012 11:03:58AM 19 points [-]

So much this. It's a common lesswrong mantra but it's hard to really internalize the implications of you are running on hostile hardware. These sorts of experiments are akin to gathering intelligence on a clever enemy.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 26 November 2012 09:45:44PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Error 11 December 2012 01:32:18PM 1 point [-]

I like to describe policy-breakage-rationalization as "Your brain will work very hard to lie to you."

Where's the original source of the hostile hardware quote, by the way? It's attributed to Justin Corwin. I wanted to look it up in context, but all the google hits lead back here.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 12 December 2012 01:15:09AM 0 points [-]

Weird, I could have sworn I've seen it a bunch of times. I guess it just made an impression on me and I use it a lot.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 26 November 2012 05:07:54PM 10 points [-]

This overlaps with Einstein's Superpowers-- it's important to stop believing that people who do things you can't are unanalysably magical or superior.

Comment author: MugaSofer 26 November 2012 11:33:04PM 1 point [-]

Of course, Einstein has since been proved not to be neurotypical. It was all over the news. The ... science news.

Comment author: wattsd 30 November 2012 02:41:25PM 3 points [-]

The problem is that we don't know if Einstein not being neuortypical is the cause of his genius, or the result of a lifetime of thinking in a certain way. Brains aren't static and can change over time, it's entirely possible he was born with a neurotypical brain that became aytpical over the course of his life.

Comment author: MugaSofer 01 December 2012 06:16:47AM 1 point [-]

It's possible, yes. But he may, in fact, have had superpowers unavailable to the rest of us.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 June 2014 05:15:36PM 0 points [-]

What type of non-neurotypical was he?

Comment author: MugaSofer 11 June 2014 08:53:42PM *  1 point [-]

The complicated kind.

Wikipedia says "Scientific studies have suggested that regions involved in speech and language are smaller, while regions involved with numerical and spatial processing are larger. Other studies have suggested an increased number of glial cells in Einstein's brain."

Comment author: Swimmer963 27 November 2012 02:38:41AM 9 points [-]

This is a brilliant post–thank you so much for writing it!

The idea here is to have a constant reinforcer instead of a variable one, and it seems to work as far as avoiding addiction is concerned.

This is so obviously true from a behavioural-psychology point of view, yet I had never thought of applying it to my own addiction behaviours. Clever!

For me, there seems to be a very strong effect where if I make a policy when I'm not feeling very high-willpower, I won't take it seriously and will ignore it later on. So I recommend just noting down policy ideas if you're feeling tired. Then you can refine them and commit to actually following them later on.

I don't know if anyone else has noticed this, but my tired/low willpower self doesn't actually agree with my energetic self as to what I want to change.

A trivial example: when I'm feeling tired, grumpy, or physically sluggish, I usually dislike my body and think I'm too fat. I think it's almost an automatic thing for girls from Western cultures. When I'm well rested and cheerful, I like my body perfectly well. Objectively speaking, I definitely don't need to lose weight for health reasons–my BMI is well within normal range even though I have higher-than-average muscle mass for a female. My tired self thinks that's stupid and wants to look like a magazine model, but lacks the energy to do anything about it.

A more significant example: my biggest prioritization issue is that I try to fit too many activities into my life, and end up tired. I like all of these activities–in fact, they're all the things that make me happiest. School takes up about 35 hours a week just of classroom time, not including homework, but I wouldn't give up school. Taekwondo takes up severals hours per class, on average three days a week, not including transportation time. I would never give up taekwondo. I go swimming one to three times a week–I wouldn't give that up either. Lack of exercise makes me cranky. I work 12 hours as a lifeguard and swim instructor on Sundays–it's a job I love. I also work part time as an orderly at the hospital, most nights shifts at the ER, which is fun (and pays well). And I volunteer. And I try to have a social life and hang out with friends at least once a week. And see family maybe once a week...

All these things are awesome. On the whole I don't like relaxed days at home–they make me feel sluggish. I like all the things I do–but I do too many things, and then I'm tired, and that reduces the amount of pleasure I get from doing them. However, choosing to do less means I have to give up Activity X, and that sucks! Not only that, in exchange I get to spend more time sitting around at home not getting stuff done.

My energetic self thinks my life is perfect–I get to do so many things I love doing! My tired self wants to murder my energetic self for betraying me and making me pre-commit to doing something when I'm so exhausted I can't focus or experience pleasure. (Fortunately or unfortunately, the context tends to determine my mood, and I'm fairly good at hacking my moods, too–I arrived at clinical this morning wanting to murder someone, after having been up for 30 hours straight the day(s) before and sleeping 7 hours that night. By 10 am I was Supernurse and having a blast.)

I also want to be and stay as healthy as possible–exercise is good, but lack of sleep is bad, and I would be able to eat healthier if I had more time to cook and didn't have to cram enough food for 16 hour days into a lunch bag. However, the only time I succeeded in having a less packed schedule was when I was in a long-term relationship, and that was a deliberate sacrifice towards the relationship itself. I probably slept less during that time period, and may have done more things that I endorsed myself doing but didn't actually have an urge to do ever (i.e. sex).

Has anyone successfully hacked this type of problem?

Comment author: Alexei 28 November 2012 09:58:35AM 5 points [-]

You can always get more time by spending money. For example, consider hiring a personal chef (not as expensive as you might think) or look at other options for having packaged & cooked food shipped to you (even cheaper).

When it comes to exercising, doing the right kind of exercise is the most important part. You actually don't need to do that much. Read "4-hour body" and look into high intensity interval training (e.g. tabata sprints).

Comment author: Swimmer963 01 December 2012 11:59:31PM 2 points [-]

For example, consider hiring a personal chef (not as expensive as you might think)

Probably quite expensive compared to the monthly budget of a student–I can only work on weekends–but something to think about when I graduate. I have this weird aversion to doing things like that, which I think is based on the association with 'stuff that snobby rich people do."

I already have a very efficient cooking routine–I probably spend an hour on cooking once every four days, to make a large pot of something I can put in waterproof glass Tupperwares and take to work or school, and then I spend another 10 minutes a day heating up food to eat it, etc, and packing my lunchbag for that day. I know how to shop cheaply and I spend well under $200 a month on all food-related expenses. I'm guessing a personal chef is more expensive than that. Plus I like cooking–it's therapeutic when I'm stressed.

I will very likely hire someone to clean my house for me once I have a house, though–I hate cleaning. Right now my apartment just isn't very clean. And it was someone on LW who gave me the idea of hiring a cleaning lady to trade money for time. I had the same snobb-rich-people aversion, but convinced myself to overcome it.

You actually don't need to do that much. Read "4-hour body" and look into high intensity interval training (e.g. tabata sprints).

Sounds efficient. Also doesn't sound like much fun. I'm not a fan of sprints, mostly because I've always done exercise with a group (swim team a long time ago, now taekwondo), and I likely have a genetic tendency towards having lots of slow-twitch muscle fibres, and great endurance, but fewer fast-twitch muscles, therefore awful sprinting ability. Sprints and high-intensity stuff in general is now associated, in my mind, with me being the slowest one, whereas I used to overtake even much faster swimmers in long endurance sets.

That's not an excuse not to look into it, though... I'll read the book and see if there's anything I would find bearable to do regularly. I need to re-motivate myself in this area, anyway; if I don't exercise I get cranky and emotional, so I have to exercise, but most of the time I don't like it and it saps my motivation.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 25 December 2012 12:23:33AM *  0 points [-]

When it comes to exercising, doing the right kind of exercise is the most important part. You actually don't need to do that much. Read "4-hour body" and look into high intensity interval training (e.g. tabata sprints).

Here's an earlier post on weight training. Some of the top comments are really good. By eneasz:

my biggest piece of advice would be to not worry at all about optimizing anything until you've first gotten into the habit of regular work outs, and actually enjoy it. Only then should you start optimizing in other ways. The biggest obstacle is always sticking with it.

and by jswan:

Book recommendations:

another vote for "Starting Strength" by Mark Rippetoe "5/3/1" by Jim Wendler. Available here: http://www.flexcart.com/members/elitefts/default.asp?pid=2976 Answering your questions:

1) It doesn't matter that much what you do, as long as you stick with the basic, multi-joint movements (see below); what's more important is that you do it consistently for a long period of time (i.e., years), and you train progressively harder as you make progress. That said, you need to avoid injury. Training with weights near your one-rep max is riskier as a beginner, especially without a coach. I like the set/rep progression laid out in the 5/3/1 book listed above. I've made good progress on it after doing regular weight training for 15 years; it's difficult to make progress at that "training age", so it should work even better for a beginner.

2) In general, you should strength train at least twice a week but not more than four times a week. This does not include conditioning or mobility training, which you should also do.

3) Don't bother with supplements. Spend your money on a clean diet with lots of protein and you'll be fine. Since you probably won't take this advice: creatine monohydrate seems to have the most evidence in favor of its efficacy, but the effect is still relatively small and seems to vary between users. I haven't noticed a difference when using it.

Remember that there are only a handful of great movements: squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, pull-up, push-up, dips, rows, power cleans. Consider the barbell, dumbbell, and bodyweight variations of these and you will have plenty to do without doing a bunch of exotic isolation work.

Comment author: Nighteyes5678 27 November 2012 10:53:34PM 7 points [-]

I've read the article a few times, but found myself getting confused. After some thinking, I think I've narrowed it down to working better with examples rather than general universals. The above seems like good material, but is there any way I could convince anyone to give an example or two, maybe walk through the process step by step?

Comment author: brazil84 28 November 2012 12:30:12PM 6 points [-]

I like your analogy to programming a computer and I would take it a step further. In "The Mythical Man-Month," the author points out that computer programmers have a tendency to believe that the bug they just fixed is the last bug. i.e. "This time it will surely run." In other words, they are overly optimistic.

So too with self-improvement. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking that you've finally figured it out and that the diet you started is the sure path to permanent weight loss or whatever.

To make matters worse, it's very tempting to evangelize your new-found self-improvement technique. To proudly announce to the world that you've got the True Path to weight loss, quitting smoking, or whatever. And urge people to follow your plan.

As a consequence, the internet is full of diet and other self-improvement advice that doesn't work all that well. Not to mention that it's condescending and annoying.

A reputable company would not ship untested software, and I would propose a similar rule for any kind of self-improvement plan or advice:

  1. Do not evangelize it until you've used it successfully for at least a year, preferably a year involving normal human experiences.

  2. If you feel you must push your ideas before that, make it clear that you are doing so and commit to following up a year or two down the road to honestly let people know if things are still working.

  3. In any event, commit at the beginning to honestly following up at the 2, 3, 4, and 5 year marks.

Comment author: drethelin 26 November 2012 08:36:11AM 6 points [-]
  1. Rules should achieve their goals.
  2. Rules should have positive or neutral affect*
  3. Rules should be as simple as possible.**
  4. Rules should have exceptions.*

*This is the most important and the list should work as Asimov's laws do, ie you should implement parts 2 and three only as long as implementing part one works. Any rule you set for yourself that you hate will make you unhappier as you follow it and has a great chance of not being followed.

**This is the rule that allows you to follow the rule in a large variety of circumstances, without needing to waste cognitive effort or emotional strength on decisions. For example: An extremely simple rule for dieting is : "eat no carbohydrates". This rule is pretty hard to enforce in that it constrains what you eat A LOT. If you find yourself regretting this decision, you need to follow rule 1 and modify the rule, while remembering rule 2. At the moment I go with: Eat few carbohydrates, except on Saturdays, where I may eat as many as I feel like. This leaves me happy to follow the rule, still keeps it pretty simple, and lets me lose weight.

*This is basically a way to say that you shouldn't get fucked by really weird events, and that your rule probably doesn't ALWAYS have plus ev consequences. EG, never eat carbs on weekdays is simple and easy to follow, but metarules about once in a lifetime events or things like weddings mean I won't regret the rule. This is more of an elaboration on the "possible" part of rule 3 than anything else.

Comment author: lukeprog 26 November 2012 08:37:55AM 14 points [-]

Thank you for writing this.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 26 November 2012 09:40:48PM 4 points [-]

You're welcome!

Comment author: Tripitaka 26 November 2012 02:21:59PM 11 points [-]

Thank you for providing positive reinforcement for writing articles!

Comment author: Vertigo 07 December 2012 01:03:48AM 5 points [-]

Love this.

How do you feel about using rituals to reinforce habits and create momentum for new policies? It's basically outsourcing willpower to past selves.

For instance, I've always had a hard time regulating my sleep schedule. It's not always that I can't sleep, but that I seldom want to go to sleep and lack the willpower to not do whatever I want to do instead, no matter how sleepy I am. What finally worked was a ritual that served as both positive reinforcement and physiological manipulation. I love bubble baths, and they put me in a relaxed mindspace where much less willpower is required to go to sleep. Bubble baths are now my bedtime ritual. Between 9 and 11PM, I shut off my laptop, don my robe, light scented candles, and draw a bath. Exactly like that, every single time.

It's not difficult, in part because a ritual doesn't really feel like my decision. It feels more like an external way the world is, something it would take effort to change, like the lunch meeting scheduled for Wednesday. Taking a bath is the last thing I'm allowed to do before sleeping, and it's something I always look forward to. Sleeping is simply the conclusion of the ritual.

Obviously, rituals are dangerous, especially in group contexts. But they're dangerous because they really are powerful. We can delude ourselves with rituals, but we can also use them as cheat codes for winning. We just have to use them judiciously.

Comment author: gwern 07 December 2012 04:09:38AM *  7 points [-]

Between 9 and 11PM, I shut off my laptop, don my robe, light scented candles, and draw a bath.

I'd point out that there's a plausible physiological mechanism here: aside from a nice hot bath being relaxing (no doubt there's research on this), avoiding electronics may also mean avoiding blue light which suppresses melatonin secretion.

Comment author: Swimmer963 07 December 2012 04:33:20AM *  3 points [-]

There's a program called f.lux that you can download on a computer/laptop, and it senses your current location, looks up time of sunrise and sunset, and changes your screen to warm hues only after your local sunset. It's not distracting at all–I only notice it if I actually see the transition happen. However, I don't know if it makes any difference.

I also turn the screen brightness down if I'm on the computer right before bed, i.e. now.

Comment author: gwern 07 December 2012 04:41:21AM *  2 points [-]

I love Redshift myself, but he didn't mention taking any such precautions.

(As for difference - well, I've been randomizing use of Redshift since 11 May 2012, so in a few months I'll finish the experiment and look at the results.)

Comment author: Vertigo 10 December 2012 06:40:14PM 2 points [-]

Also, I'm not a he. ;-)

Comment author: pinyaka 05 February 2013 08:56:56PM 0 points [-]

How did your randomized trial with Redshift work out?

Comment author: gwern 09 February 2013 08:17:30PM 0 points [-]

It's not done yet. If it was, it'd be written up in the link.

Comment author: Vertigo 10 December 2012 06:39:21PM 0 points [-]

I do use Redshift, actually. Color change at sunset, computer off by 11. The first part's about melatonin, the second is about getting out of my head. Very interested in the results of your experiment.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 07 December 2012 08:10:54AM 0 points [-]

I tried f.lux, but hated the color change with a passion. As usual, there's a lot of individual variation-- I notice colors a lot in general. Do you?

Comment author: army1987 07 December 2012 08:42:37AM *  1 point [-]

I use Redshift, and while I do notice the change (so it'd be impossible for me to tell how much of the insomnia-preventing effect is due to placebo), it doesn't bother me at all.

(Edit: BTW, with Redshift the transition is gradual throughout the day, rather than near-instantaneous at sunset and sunrise.)

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 25 December 2012 12:29:59AM 1 point [-]

(Edit: BTW, with Redshift the transition is gradual throughout the day, rather than near-instantaneous at sunset and sunrise.)

f.lux offers fast (20 seconds) and slow (60 minutes) transitions.

Comment author: Vertigo 10 December 2012 06:24:47PM 0 points [-]

Yes, this is what I meant by "physiological manipulation". The dropping of body temperature as you cool down from a bath may also induce sleepiness. I try to make my rituals as efficient as possible.

Comment author: Swimmer963 07 December 2012 04:31:24AM 2 points [-]

Between 9 and 11PM, I shut off my laptop, don my robe, light scented candles, and draw a bath. Exactly like that, every single time.

Glad it works for you, but I don't have 2 hours a night that I can spend not doing anything.

Then again, I don't have a huge amount of difficulty regulating my sleep schedule. It takes me a long time to fall asleep (I would say 45 minutes on average) but it always has and it doesn't stress me out–it's awfully comfy lying in bed. I tend to get tired fairly early–in fact, I'm often pretty tired all the time, because my schedule is insane, thus the lack of 2 hours a day for bedtime rituals.

Every once in a while I'll pass my bedtime while engaged in a superstimulus, like reading a good book, but most of the time I look at when I have to wake up, count back eight to nine hours, and put myself to bed at that time. If not a ritual, this is definitely a strongly reinforced habit–it doesn't take much willpower to get myself off my laptop 10 minutes before bedtime, because I know full well how good being in bed will feel, and how I'll feel the next day if I don't go to bed on time.

Comment author: Vertigo 10 December 2012 06:28:42PM *  1 point [-]

Oh, I didn't mean I shut my laptop off for the duration of 9 to 11. I meant "I shut it off not after 11, and closer to 9 if possible". This actually ends up taking up about half an hour. It nets me lots of time, really, because it makes it easier for me to go to sleep, which makes it easier for me to get up at a regular time, which makes me far more productive while I'm awake. So less of the time in my day is wasted on being inefficient.

Comment author: CronoDAS 27 November 2012 03:20:18AM 5 points [-]

instead of working on important stuff.

Having important things to do appears to be correlated with all kinds of problems. It should come with a warning label or something.

Comment author: mathnerd314 01 December 2012 02:27:04PM *  4 points [-]

I look at it in terms of efficiency; sites like reddit are simply inefficient ways to communicate. They are good at making random connections and exploring new subject areas, and that is what I use them for: if I have heard of a subject, but don't know about it, I find a subreddit on the topic and subscribe.

As a tool for discourse, however, there is much to be desired; communication is lossy (many posts are simply not upvoted enough to be seen) and interspersed with noise (unrelated but "viral" posts). Google Reader is almost lossless; it maintains a buffer of all messages for 30 days and then archives them so that they are available in search results but not as unread items. If one reads every feed to its end at least once a month, then no data is lost.

Google Reader thus has the odd effect of making one commit; either you are subscribed to a feed, and read every post of it, or you are not, and never see it anywhere. I have not used Reader for more than a few years, and furthermore haven't conducted a survey of its users, but I would theorize that Reader users as a whole are more productive/active than non-users as a result. Perhaps it could be a question on the next LessWrong survey.

Comment author: matias 07 December 2012 04:46:14PM 1 point [-]

Assuming of course you use reddit for communication, for me it would be more about finding interesting pieces of information and seeing the analysis of other people, by the time I get to it most of the discussion has already occurred. For me personally Google Reader does not make more more productive, it is just another way to waste time.

Comment author: thespymachine 01 August 2014 10:12:17PM *  0 points [-]

Thanks to this, I'm now officially using Feedly (since Google Reader is dead).

Comment author: mathnerd314 02 August 2014 12:39:32AM 0 points [-]

So more recently I've been using a big 6000-line text file, it has all of my TODO's as well as some URL's. I randomized the order a while ago and now I just go through them. I've stalled on that (actually doing things is hard, particularly when they're vague things like "post story"), so I might go back to feed reading; I experimented a bit with TinyTinyRSS but Feedly is probably a better choice.

Comment author: army1987 02 August 2014 03:20:03AM 1 point [-]

I've stalled on that

Re-shuffle!

Comment author: mathnerd314 04 August 2014 10:10:22PM *  0 points [-]

It's already random; replacing randomness with more randomness doesn't help except for mixing in new tasks. I went through ~50 tasks today, so it's not really that bad; just that I feel like some tasks should have more time dedicated. "Is putting animals in captivity an improvement?" is not the sort of question you want to dash off in 2 minutes. (Final answer: list of various animal rights groups).

The real problem is the list keeps growing longer; I'm starting to run into O(n^2) behavior in my text editor. It's not really designed for handling a FIFO queue. I've been staring at TaskWarrior, which might be adapted for doing the things I want.

Comment author: Vaniver 07 December 2012 05:05:00PM 0 points [-]

One of the important features about Google Reader is that it's generally one-way; yes, I could comment on the original items for many of them, but I have way less desire to than LW posts.

A related massive productivity gain from Google Reader is that it is very easy to make it only interfere with your day once at a scheduled time, and you can just forget about the sites for the rest of the time. There's no routinely checking to see if something new has shown up, with the associated variable reinforcement, but that means it's not as appropriate for media where two-way communication is frequent and opportunities are transient.

Comment author: matias 06 December 2012 09:17:08AM 3 points [-]

I have exactly this problem and this is a good solution. So just to make it concrete if you want to block reddit as above I used the following..

Get Leechblock Add these into the specify site section +reddit.com/r reddit.com

So far this works well, I am not sure yet whether reddit puts anything in a different subdirectory.

Comment author: Alexei 28 November 2012 09:44:31AM 3 points [-]

Additional suggestion to follow after you created a policy: print it out, read it out loud in a solemn voice, sign it.

Comment author: matias 07 December 2012 04:46:59PM 2 points [-]

Ideally written out in blood with a quill that will show how serious you are.

Comment author: DaFranker 07 December 2012 04:58:59PM 3 points [-]

A quill made from the bones of loved ones?

Comment author: Kawoomba 07 December 2012 05:02:20PM *  4 points [-]

Writing the policy "Be better to my loved ones".

Comment author: Alexei 07 December 2012 09:12:55PM 0 points [-]

I was thinking about adding that part in, but decided to opt-out. :)

Comment author: Will_Sawin 27 November 2012 06:04:08AM 3 points [-]

Usually I strongly dislike reading articles on motivation. (Primarily due to an Ugh Field) This article did not have that property.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 27 November 2012 06:07:14AM 0 points [-]

Good to know!

Comment author: hankx7787 26 November 2012 04:38:55PM 2 points [-]

upvoted mainly for some of the cool links you included...

Comment author: drethelin 26 November 2012 08:44:09AM 2 points [-]

Keeping willpower low and modifying your environment are related and extremely important. It's often easier to prevent future you from doing something than it is to make present you do something. It's really quite easy for me to not buy fruit or candy at the grocery store, but it's much harder not to eat them if they're mine and in the house. It's easy to order food in a restaurant that fits what you can eat, it's a lot harder to not eat part of what's on the plate. Telling someone you're going to be somewhere (EG, a martial arts class or a meetup or something) is really easy(for me), and makes the decision at the moment as to whether you should go a lot easier.

Comment author: eridu 29 November 2012 05:30:44AM 3 points [-]

My solution is to design policies that evaluate to real numbers rather than binary choices (i.e., rather than asking "did I break policy X," I ask "to what extent did I fulfill policy X"). I aim to have "policies" (though I call them "metrics") that range from 0 to 1, update in real time, and are easy to compose with other metrics.

I have a program that calculates these metrics in real time, and embed the output of that program into my desktop on my primary viewport. Since I'm usually working on my secondary viewport (a large external monitor) this allows me to have an eye on my metrics most of the time.

If I start feeling bad about the state of my metrics, I can usually do something to fix that. If I can't (if there isn't enough time in the day) I can just resign myself to having a bad day, and go back to whatever I was doing.

I prefer this because it allows me to see how fast I'm improving and how far I've improved. It also lets me 'fail' some days without much penalty.

Comment author: Metus 29 November 2012 07:26:57AM 1 point [-]

Can you give an implementation example like a screenshot?

Comment author: eridu 29 November 2012 05:27:19PM 3 points [-]

This is what I have on my desktop:

http://imgur.com/snqht

They refer to:

  • minutes asleep / minutes in a day
  • minutes in the category 'social' / minutes in a day
  • (minutes in productive categories - minutes in my 'waste' category) / minutes in a day
  • Success rate of all habits
  • habits succeeded today / number of habits

(I've had this data for a long time, but these scripts are relatively new, and I plan on making it more configurable so that I can drop the "sleep" metric from my HUD, since it doesn't usually change over the course of the day.)

Comment author: Dorikka 26 November 2012 06:52:41PM 1 point [-]

This seems like it should be in Main.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 26 November 2012 09:40:12PM 0 points [-]

OK, moved.

Comment author: thespymachine 01 August 2014 10:33:05PM 0 points [-]

Just read this yesterday (July 31st 2014), and let it sink in before I commented.

In the past I've attempted to do self-improvement checklists (like this, but better organized), and haven't gone further than 2 weeks with them. With this post I think I have much improvement to make on my list design (and designing policies in general).

Question: what are good rewards/punishments that could be implemented in not finishing a set goal?

Comment author: zplesivcak 04 December 2012 10:53:55AM *  0 points [-]

Very relevant video to the topic; I've found it amazing! I'm aware of the fact that it probably was discussed here before, but I'll link to it for people who haven't seen it: Authors@Google: Kelly McGonigal.

Comment author: blogospheroid 26 November 2012 05:04:37AM 0 points [-]

Thanks, John. I will try some of the above.