Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

[Link] Win $1 Million For Your Bright Idea To Fix The World

0 morganism 18 March 2017 10:12PM

Planning 101: Debiasing and Research

12 lifelonglearner 03 February 2017 03:01PM

Planning 101: Techniques and Research

<Cross-posed from my blog>

[Epistemic status: Relatively strong. There are numerous studies showing that predictions often become miscalibrated. Overconfidence in itself appears fairly robust, appearing in different situations. The actual mechanism behind the planning fallacy is less certain, though there is evidence for the inside/outside view model. The debiasing techniques are supported, but more data on their effectiveness could be good.]

Humans are often quite overconfident, and perhaps for good reason. Back on the savanna and even some places today, bluffing can be an effective strategy for winning at life. Overconfidence can scare down enemies and avoid direct conflict.

When it comes to making plans, however, overconfidence can really screw us over. You can convince everyone (including yourself) that you’ll finish that report in three days, but it might still really take you a week. Overconfidence can’t intimidate advancing deadlines.

I’m talking, of course, about the planning fallacy, our tendency to make unrealistic predictions and plans that just don’t work out.

Being a true pessimist ain’t easy.

Students are a prime example of victims to the planning fallacy:

First, students were asked to predict when they were 99% sure they’d finish a project. When the researchers followed up with them later, though, only about 45%, less than half of the students, had actually finished by their own predicted times [Buehler, Griffin, Ross, 1995].

Even more striking, students working on their psychology honors theses were asked to predict when they’d finish, “assuming everything went as poor as it possibly could.” Yet, only about 30% of students finished by their own worst-case estimate [Buehler, Griffin, Ross, 1995].

Similar overconfidence was also found in Japanese and Canadian cultures, giving evidence that this is a human (and not US-culture-based) phenomenon. Students continued to make optimistic predictions, even when they knew the task had taken them longer last time [Buehler and Griffin, 2003, Buehler et al., 2003].

As I student myself, though, I don’t mean to just pick on ourselves.

The planning fallacy affects projects across all sectors.

An overview of public transportation projects found that most of them were, on average, 20–45% above the estimated cost. In fact, research has shown that these poor predictions haven’t improved at all in the past 30 years [Flyvbjerg 2006].

And there’s no shortage of anecdotes, from the Scottish Parliament Building, which cost 10 times more than expected, or the Denver International Airport, which took over a year longer and cost several billion more.

When it comes to planning, we suffer from a major disparity between our expectations and reality. This article outlines the research behind why we screw up our predictions and gives three suggested techniques to suck less at planning.


The Mechanism:

So what’s going on in our heads when we make these predictions for planning?

On one level, we just don’t expect things to go wrong. Studies have found that we’re biased towards not looking at pessimistic scenarios [Newby-Clark et al., 2000]. We often just assume the best-case scenario when making plans.

Part of the reason may also be due to a memory bias. It seems that we might underestimate how long things take us, even in our memory [Roy, Christenfeld, and McKenzie 2005].

But by far the dominant theory in the field is the idea of an inside view and an outside view [Kahneman and Lovallo 1993]. The inside view is the information you have about your specific project (inside your head). The outside view is what someone else looking at your project (outside of the situation) might say.

Obviously you want to take the Outside View.


We seem to use inside view thinking when we make plans, and this leads to our optimistic predictions. Instead of thinking about all the things that might go wrong, we’re focused on how we can help our project go right.

Still, it’s the outside view that can give us better predictions. And it turns out we don’t even need to do any heavy-lifting in statistics to get better predictions. Just asking other people (from the outside) to predict your own performance, or even just walking through your task from a third-person point of view can improve your predictions [Buehler et al., 2010].

Basically, the difference in our predictions seems to depend on whether we’re looking at the problem in our heads (a first-person view) or outside our heads (a third-person view). Whether we’re the “actor” or the “observer” in our minds seems to be a key factor in our planning [Pronin and Ross 2006].

Debiasing Techniques:

I’ll be covering three ways to improve predictions: MurphyjitsuReference Class Forecasting (RCF), and Back-planning. In actuality, they’re all pretty much the same thing; all three techniques focus, on some level, on trying to get more of an outside view. So feel free to choose the one you think works best for you (or do all three).

For each technique, I’ll give an overview and cover the steps first and then end with the research that supports it. They might seem deceptively obvious, but do try to keep in mind that obvious advice can still be helpful!

(Remembering to breathe, for example, is obvious, but you should still do it anyway. If you don't want to suffocate.)



“Avoid Obvious Failures”

Almost as good as giving procrastination an ass-kicking.

The name Murphyjitsu comes from the infamous Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” The technique itself is from the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), and is designed for “bulletproofing your strategies and plans”.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Figure out your goal. This is the thing you want to make plans to do.
  2. Write down which specific things you need to get done to make the thing happen. (Make a list.)
  3. Now imagine it’s one week (or month) later, and yet you somehow didn’t manage to get started on your goal. (The visualization part here is important.) Are you surprised?
  4. Why? (What went wrong that got in your way?)
  5. Now imagine you take steps to remove the obstacle from Step 4.
  6. Return to Step 3. Are you still surprised that you’d fail? If so, your plan is probably good enough. (Don’t fool yourself!)
  7. If failure still seems likely, go through Steps 3–6 a few more times until you “problem proof” your plan.

Murphyjitsu based off a strategy called a “premortem” or “prospective hindsight”, which basically means imagining the project has already failed and “looking backwards” to see what went wrong [Klein 2007].

It turns out that putting ourselves in the future and looking back can help identify more risks, or see where things can go wrong. Prospective hindsight has been shown to increase our predictive power so we can make adjustments to our plans — before they fail [Mitchell et al., 1989, Veinott et al., 2010].

This seems to work well, even if we’re only using our intuitions. While that might seem a little weird at first (“aren’t our intuitions pretty arbitrary?”), research has shown that our intuitions can be a good source of information in situations where experience is helpful [Klein 1999; Kahneman 2011]*.

While a premortem is usually done on an organizational level, Murphyjitsu works for individuals. Still, it’s a useful way to “failure-proof” your plans before you start them that taps into the same internal mechanisms.

Here’s what Murphyjitsu looks like in action:

“First, let’s say I decide to exercise every day. That’ll be my goal (Step 1). But I should also be more specific than that, so it’s easier to tell what “exercising” means. So I decide that I want to go running on odd days for 30 minutes and do strength training on even days for 20 minutes. And I want to do them in the evenings (Step 2).

Now, let’s imagine that it’s now one week later, and I didn’t go exercising at all! What went wrong? (Step 3) The first thing that comes to mind is that I forgot to remind myself, and it just slipped out of my mind (Step 4). Well, what if I set some phone / email reminders? Is that good enough? (Step 5)

Once again, let’s imagine it’s one week later and I made a reminder. But let’s say I still didn’t got exercising. How surprising is this? (Back to Step 3) Hmm, I can see myself getting sore and/or putting other priorities before it…(Step 4). So maybe I’ll also set aside the same time every day, so I can’t easily weasel out (Step 5).

How do I feel now? (Back to Step 3) Well, if once again I imagine it’s one week later and I once again failed, I’d be pretty surprised. My plan has two levels of fail-safes and I do want to do exercise anyway. Looks like it’s good! (Done)

Reference Class Forecasting:

“Get Accurate Estimates”

Predicting the future…using the past!

Reference class forecasting (RCF)is all about using the outside view. Our inside views tend to be very optimistic: We will see all the ways that things can go right, but none of the ways things can go wrong. By looking at past history — other people who have tried the same or similar thing as us — we can get a better idea of how long things will really take.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Figure out what you want to do.
  2. See your records how long it took you last time 3.
  3. That’s your new prediction.
  4. If you don’t have past information, look for about how long it takes, on average, to do our thing. (This usually looks like Googling “average time to do X”.)**
  5. That’s your new prediction!

Technically, the actual process for reference class forecasting works a little differently. It involves a statistical distribution and some additional calculations, but for most everyday purposes, the above algorithm should work well enough.

In both cases, we’re trying to take an outside view, which we know improves our estimates [Buehler et al., 1994].

When you Google the average time or look at your own data, you’re forming a “reference class”, a group of related actions that can give you info about how long similar projects tend to take. Hence, the name “reference class forecasting”.

Basically, RCF works by looking only at results. This means that we can avoid any potential biases that might have cropped up if we were to think it through. We’re shortcutting right to the data. The rest of it is basic statistics; most people are close to average. So if we have an idea of what the average looks like, we can be sure we’ll be pretty close to average as well [Flyvbjerg 2006; Flyvbjerg 2008].

The main difference in our above algorithm from the standard one is that this one focuses on your own experiences, so the estimate you get tends to be more accurate than an average we’d get from an entire population.

For example, if it usually takes me about 3 hours to finish homework (I use Toggl to track my time), then I’ll predict that it will take me 3 hours today, too.

It’s obvious that RCF is incredibly simple. It literally just tells you that how long something will take you this time will be very close to how long it took you last time. But that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective! Often, the past is a good benchmark of future performance, and it’s far better than any naive prediction your brain might spit out.

RCF + Murphyjitsu Example:

For me, I’ve found that using a mixture of Reference Class Forecasting and Murphyjitsu to be helpful for reducing overconfidence in my plans.

When starting projects, I will often ask myself, “What were the reasons that I failed last time?” I then make a list of the first three or four “failure-modes” that I can recall. I now make plans to preemptively avoid those past errors.

(This can also be helpful in reverse — asking yourself, “How did I solve a similar difficult problem last time?” when facing a hard problem.)

Here’s an example:

“Say I’m writing a long post (like this one) and I want to know how what might go wrong. I’ve done several of these sorts of primers before, so I have a “reference class” of data to draw from. So what were the major reasons I fell behind for those posts?

<Cue thinking>

Hmm, it looks like I would either forget about the project, get distracted, or lose motivation. Sometimes I’d want to do something else instead, or I wouldn’t be very focused.

Okay, great. Now what are some ways that I might be able to “patch” those problems?

Well, I can definitely start by making a priority list of my action items. So I know which things I want to finish first. I can also do short 5-minute planning sessions to make sure I’m actually writing. And I can do some more introspection to try and see what’s up with my motivation.



“Calibrate Your Intuitions with Reality”

Back-planning involves, as you might expect, planning from the end. Instead of thinking about where we start and how to move forward, we imagine we’re already at our goal and go backwards.

Time-travelling inside your internal universe.

Here are the steps:

  1. Figure out the task you want to get done.
  2. Imagine you’re at the end of your task.
  3. Now move backwards, step-by-step. What is the step right before you finish?
  4. Repeat Step 3 until you get to where you are now.
  5. Write down how long you think the task will now take you.
  6. You now have a detailed plan as well as better prediction!

The experimental evidence for back-planning basically suggests that people will predict longer times to start and finish projects.

There are a few interesting hypotheses about why back-planning seems to improve predictions. The general gist of these theories is that back-planning is a weird, counterintuitive way to think about things, which means it disrupts a lot of mental processes that can lead to overconfidence [Wiese et al., 2012].

This means that back-planning can make it harder to fall into the groove of the easy “best-case” planning we default to. Instead, we need to actually look at where things might go wrong. Which is, of course, what we want.

In my own experience, I’ve found that going through a quick back-planning session can help my intuitions “warm up” to my prediction more. As in, I’ll get an estimation from RCF, but it still feels “off”. Walking through the plan through back-planning can help all the parts of me understand that it really will probably take longer.

Here’s the back-planning example:

“Right now, I want to host a talk at my school. I know that’s the end goal (Step 1). So the end goal is me actually finishing the talk and taking questions (Step 2). What happens right before that? (Step 3). Well, people would need to actually be in the room. And I would have needed a room.

Is that all? (Step 3). Also, for people to show up, I would have needed publicity. Probably also something on social media. I’d need to publicize at least a week in advance, or else it won’t be common knowledge.

And what about the actual talk? I would have needed slides, maybe memorize my talk. Also, I’d need to figure out what my talk is actually going to be on.

Huh, thinking it through like this, I’d need something like 3 weeks to get it done. One week for the actual slides, one week for publicity (at least), and one week for everything else that might go wrong.

That feels more ‘right’ than my initial estimate of ‘I can do this by next week.’”


Experimental Ideas:

Murphyjitsu, Reference Class Forecasting, and Back-planning are the three debiasing techniques that I’m fairly confident work well. This section is far more anecdotal. They’re ideas that I think are useful and interesting, but I don’t have much formal backing for them.

Decouple Predictions From Wishes:

In my own experience, I often find it hard to separate when I want to finish a task versus when I actually think I will finish a task. This is a simple distinction to keep in mind when making predictions, and I think it can help decrease optimism. The most important number, after all, is when I actually think I will finish—it’s what’ll most likely actually happen.

There’s some evidence suggesting that “wishful thinking” could actually be responsible for some poor estimates but it’s far from definitive [Buehler et al., 1997, Krizan and Windschitl].

Incentivize Correct Predictions:

Lately, I’ve been using a 4-column chart for my work. I write down the task in Column 1 and how long I think it will take me in Column 2. Then I go and do the task. After I’m done, I write down how long it actually took me in Column 3. Column 4 is the absolute value of Column 2 minus Column 3, or my “calibration score”.

The idea is to minimize my score every day. It’s simple and it’s helped me get a better sense for how long things really take.

Plan For Failure:

In my schedules, I specifically write in “distraction time”. If you aren’t doing this, you may want to consider doing this. Most of us (me included) have wandering attentions, and I know I’ll lost at least some time to silly things every day.

Double Your Estimate:

I get it. The three debiasing techniques I outlined above can sometimes take too long. In a pinch, you can probably approximate good predictions by just doubling your naive prediction.

Most people tend to be less than 2X overconfident, but I think (pessimistically) sticking to doubling is probably still better than something like 1.5X.


Working in Groups:

Obviously because groups are made of individuals, we’d expect them to be susceptible to the same overconfidence biases I covered earlier. Though some research has shown that groups are less susceptible to bias, more studies have shown that group predictions can be far more optimistic than individual predictions [Wright and Wells, Buehler et al., 2010]. “Groupthink” is term used to describe the observed failings of decision making in groups [Janis].

Groupthink (and hopefully also overconfidence), can be countered by either assigning a “Devil’s Advocate” or engaging in “dialectical inquiry” [Lunenburg 2012]:

We give out more than cookies over here

A Devil’s Advocate is a person who is actively trying to find fault with the group’s plans, looking for holes in reasoning or other objections. It’s suggested that the role rotates, and it’s associated with other positives like improved communication skills.

A dialectical inquiry is where multiple teams try to create the best plan, and then present them. Discussion then happens, and then the group selects the best parts of each plan . It’s a little like building something awesome out of lots of pieces, like a giant robot.

This is absolutely how dialectical inquiry works in practice.

For both strategies, research has shown that they lead to “higher-quality recommendations and assumptions” (compared to not doing them), although it can also reduce group satisfaction and acceptance of the final decision [Schweiger et al. 1986].

(Pretty obvious though; who’d want to keep chatting with someone hell-bent on poking holes in your plan?)



If you’re interested in learning (even) more about the planning fallacy, I’d highly recommend the paper The Planning Fallacy: Cognitive, Motivational, and Social Origins by Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Johanna Peetz. Most of the material in this guide here is was taken from their paper. Do go check it out! It’s free!

Remember that everyone is overconfident (you and me included!), and that failing to plan is the norm. There are scary unknown unknowns out there that we just don’t know about!

Good luck and happy planning!



* Just don’t go and start buying lottery tickets with your gut. We’re talking about fairly “normal” things like catching a ball, where your intuitions give you accurate predictions about where the ball will land. (Instead of, say, calculating the actual projectile motion equation in your head.)

** In a pinch, you can just use your memory, but studies have shown that our memory tends to be biased too. So as often as possible, try to use actual measurements and numbers from past experience.

Works Cited:

Buehler, Roger, Dale Griffin, and Johanna Peetz. "The Planning Fallacy: Cognitive,

Motivational, and Social Origins." Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 43 (2010): 1-62. Social Science Research Network.

Buehler, Roger, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross. "Exploring the Planning Fallacy: Why People

Underestimate their Task Completion Times." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67.3 (1994): 366.

Buehler, Roger, Dale Griffin, and Heather MacDonald. "The Role of Motivated Reasoning in

Optimistic Time Predictions." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23.3 (1997): 238-247.

Buehler, Roger, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross. “It’s About Time: Optimistic Predictions in

Work and Love.” European Review of Social Psychology Vol. 6, (1995): 1–32

Buehler, Roger, et al. "Perspectives on Prediction: Does Third-Person Imagery Improve Task

Completion Estimates?." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 117.1 (2012): 138-149.

Buehler, Roger, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross. "Inside the Planning Fallacy: The Causes and

Consequences of Optimistic Time Predictions." Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment (2002): 250-270.

Buehler, R., & Griffin, D. (2003). Planning, Personality, and Prediction: The Role of Future

Focus in Optimistic Time Predictions. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 92, 80–90

Flyvbjerg, Bent. "From Nobel Prize to Project Management: Getting Risks Right." Project

Management Journal 37.3 (2006): 5-15. Social Science Research Network.

Flyvbjerg, Bent. "Curbing Optimism Bias and Strategic Misrepresentation in Planning:

Reference Class Forecasting in Practice." European Planning Studies 16.1 (2008): 3-21.

Janis, Irving Lester. "Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes."


Johnson, Dominic DP, and James H. Fowler. "The Evolution of Overconfidence." Nature

477.7364 (2011): 317-320.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan, 2011.

Kahneman, Daniel, and Dan Lovallo. “Timid Choices and Bold Forecasts: A Cognitive

Perspective on Risk Taking." Management Science 39.1 (1993): 17-31.

Klein, Gary. Sources of power: How People Make DecisionsMIT press, 1999.

Klein, Gary. "Performing a Project Premortem." Harvard Business Review 85.9 (2007): 18-19.

Krizan, Zlatan, and Paul D. Windschitl. "Wishful Thinking About the Future: Does Desire

Impact Optimism?" Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3.3 (2009): 227-243.

Lunenburg, F. "Devil’s Advocacy and Dialectical Inquiry: Antidotes to Groupthink."

International Journal of Scholarly Academic Intellectual Diversity 14 (2012): 1-9.

Mitchell, Deborah J., J. Edward Russo, and Nancy Pennington. "Back to the Future: Temporal

Perspective in the Explanation of Events." Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 2.1 (1989): 25-38.

Newby-Clark, Ian R., et al. "People focus on Optimistic Scenarios and Disregard Pessimistic

Scenarios While Predicting Task Completion Times." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 6.3 (2000): 171.

Pronin, Emily, and Lee Ross. "Temporal Differences in Trait Self-Ascription: When the Self is

Seen as an Other." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90.2 (2006): 197.

Roy, Michael M., Nicholas JS Christenfeld, and Craig RM McKenzie. "Underestimating the

Duration of Future Events: Memory Incorrectly Used or Memory Bias?." Psychological Bulletin 131.5 (2005): 738.

Schweiger, David M., William R. Sandberg, and James W. Ragan. "Group Approaches for

Improving Strategic Decision Making: A Comparative Analysis of Dialectical Inquiry,

Devil's Advocacy, and Consensus." Academy of Management Journal 29.1 (1986): 51-71.

Veinott, Beth. "Klein, and Sterling Wiggins,“Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Premortem

Technique on Plan Confidence,”." Proceedings of the 7th International ISCRAM Conference (May, 2010).

Wiese, Jessica, Roger Buehler, and Dale Griffin. "Backward Planning: Effects of Planning

Direction on Predictions of Task Completion Time." Judgment and Decision Making 11.2

(2016): 147.

Wright, Edward F., and Gary L. Wells. "Does Group Discussion Attenuate the Dispositional

Bias?." Journal of Applied Social Psychology 15.6 (1985): 531-546.

A collection of Stubs.

-5 Elo 06 September 2016 07:24AM

In light of SDR's comment yesterday, instead of writing a new post today I compiled my list of ideas I wanted to write about, partly to lay them out there and see if any stood out as better than the rest, and partly so that maybe they would be a little more out in the wild than if I hold them until I get around to them.  I realise there is not a thesis in this post, but I figured it would be better to write one of these than to write each in it's own post with the potential to be good or bad.

Original post: http://bearlamp.com.au/many-draft-concepts/

I create ideas at about the rate of 3 a day, without trying to.  I write at about a rate of 1.5 a day.  Which leaves me always behind.  Even if I write about the best ideas I can think of, some good ones might never be covered.  This is an effort to draft out a good stack of them so that maybe it can help me not have to write them all out, by better defining which ones are the good ones and which ones are a bit more useless.

With that in mind, in no particular order - a list of unwritten posts:

From my old table of contents

Goals of your lesswrong group – As a guided/workthrough exercise in deciding why the group exists and what it should do.  Help people work out what they want out of it (do people know)? setting goals, doing something particularly interesting or routine, having fun, changing your mind, being activists in the world around you.  Whatever the reasons you care about, work them out and move towards them.  Nothing particularly groundbreaking in the process here.  Sit down with the group with pens and paper, maybe run a resolve cycle, maybe talk about ideas and settle on a few, then decide how to carry them out.  Relevant links: Sydney meetup,  group resources (estimate 2hrs to write)

Goals interrogation + Goal levels – Goal interrogation is about asking <is this thing I want to do actually a goal of mine> and <is my current plan the best way to achieve that>, goal levels are something out of Sydney Lesswrong that help you have mutual long term goals and supporting short term goal.  There are 3 main levels, Dream, Year, Daily (or approximate) you want dream goals like going to the moon, you want yearly goals like getting another year further in your degree and you want daily goals like studying today that contribute to the upper level goals.  Any time you are feeling lost you can look at the guide you set out for yourself and use it to direct you. (3hrs)

How to human – A zero to human guide. A guide for basic functionality of a humanoid system. Something of a conglomeration of maslow, mental health, so you feel like shit and system thinking.  Am I conscious?Am I breathing? Am I bleeding or injured (major or minor)? Am I falling or otherwise in danger and about to cause the earlier questions to return false?  Do I know where I am?  Am I safe?  Do I need to relieve myself (or other bodily functions, i.e. itchy)?  Have I had enough water? sleep? food?  Is my mind altered (alcohol or other drugs)?  Am I stuck with sensory input I can't control (noise, smells, things touching me)?  Am I too hot or too cold?  Is my environment too hot or too cold?  Or unstable?  Am I with people or alone? Is this okay?  Am I clean (showered, teeth, other personal cleaning rituals)?  Have I had some sunlight and fresh air in the past few days?  Have I had too much sunlight or wind in the past few days?  Do I feel stressed?  Okay?  Happy?  Worried?  Suspicious?  Scared? Was I doing something?  What am I doing?  do I want to be doing something else?  Am I being watched (is that okay?)?  Have I interacted with humans in the past 24 hours?  Have I had alone time in the past 24 hours?  Do I have any existing conditions I can run a check on - i.e. depression?  Are my valuables secure?  Are the people I care about safe?  (4hrs)

List of common strategies for getting shit done – things like scheduling/allocating time, pomodoros, committing to things externally, complice, beeminder, other trackers. (4hrs)

List of superpowers and kryptonites – when asking the question “what are my superpowers?” and “what are my kryptonites?”. Knowledge is power; working with your powers and working out how to avoid your kryptonites is a method to improve yourself.  What are you really good at, and what do you absolutely suck at and would be better delegating to other people.  The more you know about yourself, the more you can do the right thing by your powers or weaknesses and save yourself troubles.

List of effective behaviours – small life-improving habits that add together to make awesomeness from nothing. And how to pick them up.  Short list: toothbrush in the shower, scales in front of the  fridge, healthy food in the most accessible position in the fridge, make the unhealthy stuff a little more inacessible, keep some clocks fast - i.e. the clock in your car (so you get there early),  prepare for expected barriers ahead of time (i.e. packing the gym bag and leaving it at the door), and more.

Stress prevention checklist – feeling off? You want to have already outsourced the hard work for “things I should check on about myself” to your past self. Make it easier for future you. Especially in the times that you might be vulnerable.  Generate a list of things that you want to check are working correctly.  i.e. did I drink today?  Did I do my regular exercise?  Did I take my medication?  Have I run late today?  Do I have my work under control?

Make it easier for future you. Especially in the times that you might be vulnerable. – as its own post in curtailing bad habits that you can expect to happen when you are compromised.  inspired by candy-bar moments and turning them into carrot-moments or other more productive things.  This applies beyond diet, and might involve turning TV-hour into book-hour (for other tasks you want to do instead of tasks you automatically do)

A p=np approach to learning – Sometimes you have to learn things the long way; but sometimes there is a short cut. Where you could say, “I wish someone had just taken me on the easy path early on”. It’s not a perfect idea; but start looking for the shortcuts where you might be saying “I wish someone had told me sooner”. Of course the answer is, “but I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway” which is something that can be worked on as well. (2hrs)

Rationalists guide to dating – Attraction. Relationships. Doing things with a known preference. Don’t like unintelligent people? Don’t try to date them. Think first; then act - and iteratively experiment; an exercise in thinking hard about things before trying trial-and-error on the world. Think about places where you might meet the kinds of people you want to meet, then use strategies that go there instead of strategies that flop in the general direction of progress.  (half written)

Training inherent powers (weights, temperatures, smells, estimation powers) – practice makes perfect right? Imagine if you knew the temperature always, the weight of things by lifting them, the composition of foods by tasting them, the distance between things without measuring. How can we train these, how can we improve.  Probably not inherently useful to life, but fun to train your system 1! (2hrs)

Strike to the heart of the question. The strongest one; not the one you want to defeat – Steelman not Strawman. Don’t ask “how do I win at the question”; ask, “am I giving the best answer to the best question I can give”.  More poetic than anything else - this post would enumerate the feelings of victory and what not to feel victorious about, as well as trying to feel what it's like to be on the other side of the discussion to yourself, frustratingly trying to get a point across while a point is being flung at yourself. (2hrs)

How to approach a new problem – similar to the “How to solve X” post.  But considerations for working backwards from a wicked problem, as well as trying “The least bad solution I know of”, Murphy-jitsu, and known solutions to similar problems.  Step 0. I notice I am approaching a problem.

Turning Stimming into a flourish – For autists, to make a presentability out of a flaw.

How to manage time – estimating the length of future tasks (and more), covered in notch system, and do tasks in a different order.  But presented on it's own.

Spices – Adventures in sensory experience land.  I ran an event of spice-smelling/guessing for a group of 30 people.  I wrote several documents in the process about spices and how to run the event.  I want to publish these.  As an exercise - it's a fun game of guess-the-spice.

Wing it VS Plan – All of the what, why, who, and what you should do of the two.  Some people seem to be the kind of person who is always just winging it.  In contrast, some people make ridiculously complicated plans that work.  Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle.  I suggest that the more of a planner you can be the better because you can always fall back on winging it, and you probably will.  But if you don't have a plan and are already winging it - you can't fall back on the other option.  This concept came to me while playing ingress, which encourages you to plan your actions before you make them.

On-stage bias – The changes we make when we go onto a stage include extra makeup to adjust for the bright lights, and speaking louder to adjust for the audience which is far away. When we consider the rest of our lives, maybe we want to appear specifically X (i.e, confident, friendly) so we should change ourselves to suit the natural skews in how we present based on the "stage" we are appearing on.  appear as the person you want to appear as, not the person you naturally appear as.

Creating a workspace – considerations when thinking about a “place” of work, including desk, screen, surrounding distractions, and basically any factors that come into it.  Similar to how the very long list of sleep maintenance suggestions covers environmental factors in your sleep environment but for a workspace.

Posts added to the list since then

Doing a cost|benefit analysis - This is something we rely on when enumerating the options and choices ahead of us, but something I have never explicitly looked into.  Some costs that can get overlooked include: Time, Money, Energy, Emotions, Space, Clutter, Distraction/Attention, Memory, Side effects, and probably more.  I'd like to see a How to X guide for CBA. (wikipedia)

Extinction learning at home - A cross between intermittent reward (the worst kind of addiction), and what we know about extinguishing it.  Then applying that to "convincing" yourself to extinguish bad habits by experiential learning.  Uses the CFAR internal Double Crux technique, precommit yourself to a challenge, for example - "If I scroll through 20 facebook posts in a row and they are all not worth my time, I will be convinced that I should spend less time on facebook because it's not worth my time"  Adjust 20 to whatever position your double crux believes to be true, then run a test and iterate.  You have to genuinely agree with the premise before running the test.  This can work for a number of committed habits which you want to extinguish.  (new idea as at the writing of this post)

How to write a dating ad - A suggestion to include information that is easy to ask questions about (this is hard).  For example; don't write, "I like camping", write "I like hiking overnight with my dog", giving away details in a way that makes them worth inquiring about.  The same reason applies to why writing "I'm a great guy" is really not going to get people to believe you, as opposed to demonstrating the claim. (show, don't tell)

How to give yourself aversions - an investigation into aversive actions and potentially how to avoid collecting them when you have a better understanding of how they happen.  (I have not done the research and will need to do that before publishing the post)

How to give someone else an aversion - similar to above, we know we can work differently to other people, and at the intersection of that is a misunderstanding that can leave people uncomfortable.

Lists - Creating lists is a great thing, currently in draft - some considerations about what lists are, what they do, what they are used for, what they can be used for, where they come in handy, and the suggestion that you should use lists more. (also some digital list-keeping solutions)

Choice to remember the details - this stems from choosing to remember names, a point in the conversation where people sometimes tune out.  As a mindfulness concept you can choose to remember the details. (short article, not exactly sure why I wanted to write about this)

What is a problem - On the path of problem solving, understanding what a problem is will help you to understand how to attack it.  Nothing more complicated than this picture to explain it.  The barrier is a problem.  This doesn't seem important on it's own but as a foundation for thinking about problems it's good to have  sitting around somewhere.


How to/not attend a meetup - for anyone who has never been to a meetup, and anyone who wants the good tips on etiquette for being the new guy in a room of friends.  First meetup: shut up and listen, try not to be too much of an impact on the existing meetup group or you might misunderstand the culture.

Noticing the world, Repercussions and taking advantage of them - There are regularly world events that I notice.  Things like the olympics, Pokemon go coming out, the (recent) spaceX rocket failure.  I try to notice when big events happen and try to think about how to take advantage of the event or the repercussions caused by that event.  Motivated to think not only about all the olympians (and the fuss leading up to the olympics), but all the people at home who signed up to a gym because of the publicity of the competitive sport.  If only I could get in on the profit of gym signups...

leastgood but only solution I know of - So you know of a solution, but it's rubbish.  Or probably is.  Also you have no better solutions.  Treat this solution as the best solution you have (because it is) and start implementing it, as you do that - keep looking for other solutions.  But at least you have a solution to work with!

Self-management thoughts - When you ask yourself, "am I making progress?", "do I want to be in this conversation?" and other self management thoughts.  And an investigation into them - it's a CFAR technique but their writing on the topic is brief.  (needs research)

instrumental supply-hoarding behaviour - A discussion about the benefits of hoarding supplies for future use.  Covering also - what supplies are not a good idea to store, and what supplies are.  Maybe this will be useful for people who store things for later days, and hopefully help to consolidate and add some purposefulness to their process.

list of sub groups that I have tried - Before running my local lesswrong group I partook in a great deal of other groups.  This was meant as a list with comments on each group.

If you have nothing to do – make better tools for use when real work comes along - This was probably going to be a poetic style motivation post about exactly what the title suggests.  Be Prepared.

what other people are good at (as support) - When reaching out for support, some people will be good at things that other people are not.  For example - emotional support, time to spend on each other, ideas for solving your problems.  Different people might be better or worse than others.  Thinking about this can make your strategies towards solving your problems a bit easier to manage.  Knowing what works and what does not work, or what you can reliably expect when you reach out for support from some people - is going to supercharge your fulfilment of those needs.

Focusing - An already written guide to Eugine Gendlin's focusing technique.  That needs polishing before publishing.  The short form: treat your system 1 as a very powerful machine that understands your problems and their solutions more than you do; use your system 2 to ask it questions and see what it returns.

Rewrite: how to become a 1000 year old vampire - I got as far as breaking down this post and got stuck at draft form before rewriting.  Might take another stab at it soon.

Should you tell people your goals? This thread in a post.  In summary: It depends on the environment, the wrong environment is actually demotivational, the right environment is extra motivational.

Meta: this took around 4 hours to write up.  Which is ridiculously longer than usual.  I noticed a substantial number of breaks being taken - not sure if that relates to the difficulty of creating so many summaries or just me today.  Still.  This experiment might help my future writing focus/direction so I figured I would try it out.  If you see an idea of particularly high value I will be happy to try to cover it in more detail.

Cultivate the desire to X

3 Elo 07 March 2016 03:40AM

Recently I have found myself encouraging people to cultivate the desire to X.

Examples that you might want to cultivate interest in include:

  • Diet
  • Organise ones self
  • Plan for the future
  • be a goal-oriented thinker
  • build the tools
  • Anything else in the list of common human goals
  • Getting healthy sleep
  • Being less wrong
  • Trusting people more
  • Trusting people less
  • exercise
  • interest in a topic (cars, fashion, psychology etc.)

Why do we need to cultivate?

We don't.  But sometimes we can't just "do".  Lot's of reasons are reasonable reasons to not be able to just "do" the thing:

  • Some things are scary
  • Some things need planning
  • Some things need research
  • Some things are hard
  • Some things are a leap of faith
  • Some things can be frustrating to accept
  • Some things seem stupid (well if exercising is so great why don't I automatically want to do it)
  • Other excuses exist.

On some level you have decided you want to do X; on some other level you have not yet committed to doing it.  Easy tasks can get done quickly.  More complicated tasks are not so easy to do right away.

Well if it were easy enough to just successfully do the thing - you can go ahead and do the thing (TTYL flying to the moon tomorrow - yea nope.).

  1. your system 1 wants to do the thing and your system 2 is not sure how.
  2. your system 2 wants to do the thing and your system 1 is not sure it wants to do the thing.  
  • The healthy part of you wants to diet; the social part of you is worried about the impact on your social life.

(now borrowing from Common human goals)

  • Your desire to live forever wants you to take a medication every morning to increase your longevity; your desire for freedom does not want to be tied down to a bottle of pills every morning.
  • Your desire for a legacy wants you to stay late at work; your desire for quality family time wants you to leave the office early.

The solution:

The solution is to cultivate the interest; or the desire to do the thing. From the initial point of interest or desire - you can move forward; do some research to either convince your system 2 of the benefits, or work out how to do the thing to convince your system 1 that it is possible/viable/easy enough.  Or maybe after some research the thing seems impossible.  I offer Cultivating the desire as a step along the way to working it out.

Short post for today; Cultivate the desire to do X.

Meta: time to write 1.5 hours.

My table of contents contains my other writing

feedback welcome

New year's resolutions: Things worth considering for next year

5 Elo 07 December 2015 12:09AM

The beginning of the new year is a natural Schelling Point and swiftly approaching. With that in mind I have created a handy go-to list of things worth considering for next year.

Alongside this process; another thing you might like to do is conduct a review of this year, confirming your progress on major goals; double checking that you are on track.  and conduct any last-minute summaries of potential failures or learning-cases.

This list is designed to be used for imagination, opportunity, and potential planning purposes.  If you find yourself having the feelings of (disappointment, failure, fear, regret, burdens, guilt and others) reconsider looking at this list and instead do something that will not lead to negative feelings about the future.  If you are not getting something positive out of doing this exercise, don't.  That's a silly idea.  I am banking on the fact that it will be more helpful than not; for most people.  If you are in the category of people that it does not help - I am sorry; I assume you know your priorities and are working on them as reasonably effectively as possible - good luck with that task.

This list is going to look a bit like my List of common human goals because it was written concurrenlty with the ideas listed there (and by the same person).

You might want a pen and paper; and 10 minutes to go through this list and consider what things you want to do over the next year that fall into these categories.  This time is not for you to plan out an entire year, but something of a chance to consider the playing field of "a year of time".  After you have a list of things you want to do; there are lots of things you can do with them.  i.e. time planning, research, goal factoring, task-generating.

without further ado; the list:

1. things I might want to study or learn next year

Often people like learning.  Are you thinking of higher level study?  Or keen to upskill?  Thinking of picking up a textbook (our list of best textbooks on every subject) on a topic.  Or joining a learning group for a skill

2. life goals I would like to have completed by next year

Do you already have a list of life goals?  Should you review them and do you want to particularly work on one over the next year?  Is something overdue?  Is there something you have been putting off starting?

3. health goals

Are there health targets that you let get away from you this year?  Are you looking to set future health targets?  Start new habits for the year?  beeminder suggests setting actionable goals as beeminding tasks, i.e. "eat carrots today" rather than targets "lose 1kg this month".

4. savings I want to achieve by next year.

Do you want to save money towards something?  You need a budget has a free course on getting ahead of the paycheck cycle, pocketbook can also help you manage your money.  The best advice seems to be to open a savings account and initiate automatic transactions each week of $n.  After several weeks (provided you don't pull money out) you will have accrued several*n dollars of savings.  (relevant to people who have a tendency to spend any money in their account at any given time.  It's a bit harder to spend money not in your spending-account) In any case; having savings and putting it towards owning a passive income stream is a good goal to have or consider getting in on.

This post may also be of use.

5. job/earning goals

Are you planning to get a new job?  Hoping to get a raise?  transfer to a new department?  work less hours?  work more hours?  land a few big gigs? While I can't tell you what is worthwhile; it's worth knowing that in the process of interviewing for a new job - you should ask for more pay.  for that 5-10 uncomfortable minutes of your life (asking for a raise) you have the potential to earn $5-10 thousand dollars more (or more) for the exact same work.

6. relationship goals + family goals

Married; Kids; Poly; single->not transition; break-up? Divorce? moving away from your parents?  Getting better Friends?  Thanking your current friends for being so awesome?  Doing something different to previously - now is the chance to give it a few minutes thought.  There's never a good time to stage a break-up but also living in a bad state of affairs is also not a good thing to prolong.  (Disclaimer: before quitting a relationship; first improve communication, if needed contact a professional counsellor)

About families and friends - A lot of people feel like their family holds a stronger bond than their friends by default.  For an excellent family that is supportive in your darkest hour that is an excellent situation to be in.  However for a burdensome family that drags you down; often it can be hard to get away.  In contrast to friends; where good ones can be better than family and bad ones can be walked away from.  Specifically what's worth considering is that friends OR family can be a result of how you choose to treat them.  in the sense that if you have a preference that your friends be stronger than the strongest family ties then you can carry that into reality and achieve friendships to the envy of most families, and the same goes for a strong supportive family.  Your choice of what shape of reality you want to make for yourself will influence (on some levels) what sort of mess you get yourself into, and what sort of support network you have around.  Make that consideration over the next year of what sort of friendships and families you want to make for yourself and keep for yourself.

7. lifestyle goals

Start exercising daily (do you even lift)? Quitting smoking?  Do you go clubbing too often?  maybe you want to get out more? Addicted to curry puffs?  Hate hanging out with that group of friends?  Don't like going to pub trivia but do it anyway?  Too many doughnuts?  Go hiking?  Thinking of trying out a new hobby? holding out for "the right time". take that leap, sign up for a class.  Now is the time to make lifestyle changes.  (fair warning: most new year's resolutions fail, look into SMART goals)

8. holiday goals/ travelling goals

looking at doing a month-long holiday?  Visiting someone in another place?  Maybe consider planning from now.  Studies have shown that anticipation and putting energy towards planning positive things leads to happiness (in the journey) the ability to look forward to your next holiday is going to have positive impacts on the way you live.

9. donations 

Have you had intention to make donations but haven't made the plunge?  Maybe put some thought into how much you might like to donate and when/where to?  Many LW'ers are also EA's and have interests in motivated and purposeful giving for maximising possible outcomes.  This could be an opportunity to join the group of EA's that are actively giving.

10. volunteering

Have you always wanted to volunteer but never looked into it?  Maybe next year is the year to try.  Put some research in and find a group in need of volunteers.  Volunteering has the potential to give you a lot of positive feelings as well as a sense of community; being part of something bigger, and more.

You could stop here but there are a few more.  Out of the more general List of common human goals comes the following list of other areas to consider.  They are shorter in description and left open to imagination than those above.

11. Revenge

Is next year your chance to exact revenge on your foes?

12. Virtual reality success

Is next year the chance to harvest your gemstones?

13. Addiction

Is next year the year to get addicted (to something healthy or good for you, like exercise), or un-addicted (to something unhealthy for you)?

14. Ambassador 

Are there things you want to do next year which will leave you as a representative of a group?  Is there a way to push that forward?  Or better prepare for that event?

15. Help others?

Do you know how you might go about helping others next year?

16. Keeping up with the joneses

Are you competing with anyone?  Is there something you are likely to need to prepare for throught the year?

17. Feedback

Are you looking for feedback from others?  Are you looking to give feedback to others?  Is this the year for new feedback?

18. Influence

Do you want to influence the public?

19. fame

Do you want to achieve some level of fame?  We live in a realm of the internet!  You wouldn't believe how easy that is these days...

20. being part of something greater

Joining a movement?  Helping to create a revolution?  This could be the year...

21. Improve the tools available

As scientists we stand on the shoulders of the knowledge before us in order to grow.  We need sharp tools to make accurate cuts and finely tuned instruments to make exact measurements.  Can you help the world by pushing that requirement forward?

22. create something new

Is there something new that you want to do; is next year appropriate for doing it?

23. Break a record

Have your eye on a record?  How are you going to make it happen?

24. free yourself of your shackles

Are there things holding you back or tying you down?  Can you release those burdens?

25. experience

hoping to have a new experience, can you make it happen with thinking about it in advance?

26. Art

Want to have developed a creation?  Can you put wheels into motion?

27. Spirituality

Anything from a religion based spiritual appreciation to a general appreciation of the universe.  Revel in the "merely real" of our universe.

28. community

Looking to make a community, looking to be part of an existing community.  Looking to start a lesswrong branch?  Do it!


about 2.5 hours of writing plus feedback from the https://complice.co/room/lesswrong room and the Slack channel

If you are looking for some common ways to work on these possible goals?  That sounds like a great title for the next post in a matching series (one I have not written yet).  If you want to be a munchkin and start compiling thoughts on the idea, feel free to send me a message with a link to a google doc, otherwise you might have to wait.  This post was written out of necessity for the new-year, and wasn't on my to-do list so the next one might take time to create.

Feel free to comment on goals; plans; progress or post your plans for the next year below.

If you can see improvements to this post - don't be afraid to mention them!

To see more posts I have written see my Table of contents

Fractals and time management

-1 saph 28 June 2013 01:24PM

As you might know, fractal structures appear in a variety of natural situations and have found many technical applications (see Wikipedia for more information and examples). In this short article I want to ask the question, whether it makes sense to structure various activities according to a 'fractal timetable'?

Cleaning rota

When you have to clean a flat or a house you probably you have seen a list like this before. There are some tasks that one needs to do every day, others come along only once a week or once a month. Aside from those main cleaning tasks, there will be many small things you do several times during a day, like throwing something into the trash bin or washing your hands.

If you analyse the structure of this behaviour, you will find that it looks similar to a one dimensional fractal (compare with the various layers in the construction of the Cantor set, for example).

School Timetables

Most schools that I am familiar with use periodic arrangements for the teaching. You have a weekly timetable and at the same time every week you have the same subject for a whole year. This makes sense from the point of view of teacher and room allocation, but is this the best structure for optimal learning?

My own experience suggests that the quality of my memory strongly depends on my understanding. If I take the time to understand everything, I will remember those things for years and can even reconstruct lost knowledge by using intuition and logical deduction. If I learned something poorly, on the other hand, I sometimes forget it completely in a matter of hours.

Understanding is usually gained by a deep involvement with the topic for a longer period of time. I also find it much easier to learn something if I can focus on it for a certain period of time and examine the object/concept in detail without being disturbed by other matters.

What if the best way of teaching school mathematics (for example) would be to have a 3 week long intense workshop once a year with some other 10 one day sessions allocated once a month and small homework problems evenly distributed throughout the year? The same could be done with the other subjects to fill the full school year.

Other Areas

Our motivation, health and available time fluctuate widely, but most jobs require a periodic commitment. This might be OK for mechanical jobs, but for professions with a substantial amount of creativity and cognitive demand one certainly can do better by playing around with the time/work distribution. (Here is an interesting TED talk about a 'year off'.)

Similar problems/opportunities arise in fitness, personal development and relationships. 


I don't know, whether there are any existing studies on this topic. A superficial Google search didn't reveal anything interesting. I also would like to know, whether you had similar or contradictory experiences? Maybe I am an exception when it comes to this type of learning.

Do you think that adding the mathematical model of a 'fractal' makes this approach more intuitive/useful or whether 'flexible time management' captures enough of the structure of the problem?


Private Manned Moonbase in the 1990s, Yet Another Planning Fallacy

7 DavidPlumpton 05 October 2011 12:09AM

Back in the 1990s I came across a site describing a plan for returning to the moon via privately funded enterprise. They presented a Reference Mission, a timeline (raise some money now, design the hardware, build the hardware, hire a launch vehicle, get to the moon, sell the movie rights) which had them starting to build hardware in a few years and touching down on the moon only a few years later. I even met one of the enthusiasts.

What I found interesting at the time was a presentation of the "Frequently Raised Objections" and their counter arguments. Their viewpoint was "we've got this completely solved--we're going!" The primary issue seemed to be raising the money, and this was covered by a business plan at least to some degree of detail. Of particular relevance was "It's all on paper, nothing is real". Wow, take that Mr Frequently Raised Objection.

Most of their points looked fairly reasonable in isolation, but of course the idea has failed completely. No launch, no hardware, and very little money. High confidence in the business plan despite little supporting evidence seems to have been the major problem.

I can't help thinking of these guys every now and then, with their nifty ideas like ascending from the moon with the astronaut sitting on a rocket motor in his spacesuit with no spacecraft needed. I guess the detail made the Planning Fallacy seem less likely at the time.

The parallels with some other ventures are striking.

Video: Getting Things Done Author at DO Lectures

2 JamesAndrix 11 October 2010 08:33AM

If nothing else, this is a distillation of him spending a lot of time analyzing how people ineffectively manage their time.



I expect to watch this two more times.