Category Archives: reflection

Reflections on Aristotle, ends, and leisure

What are the ends I pursue, and how do I pursue them?

I agree with Aristotle in that my ultimate end is happiness. For me, happiness is more along the lines of equanimity or tranquility: being able to appreciate the good parts and being confident that I can weather the tough parts. From stoicism, I understand that things aren’t good or bad in themselves; it’s more about my responses to those things. So for me, a good life is one where I can respond as I want to and as I should.

More specifically, what would that good life look like, and what are the goals I want to strive towards?

One easy goal to plan for is a good financial foundation. It’s easier to act freely when you’re not worried about food or shelter. I also work on keeping frugal, moderate tastes and a detachment from things. “It’s just stuff,” W- and I say as we drop things off for donation or resist buying more things.

I value learning, too. I like feeling concepts click together, learning how to build more complex things. I particularly like it when I can use what I’m learning to save time, especially when I help other people avoid repetitive, mechanical work.

I enjoy learning and working the most when I can create something distinctive that takes advantage of an unusual combination of skills or experiences. For example, I like the social business consulting that I do because it’s uncommon for people to be interested in large organizations, collaboration, workflow, change management, data visualization, programming, and design. I enjoy working on Emacs or on self-tracking because both lend themselves well to idiosyncratic questions and personal curiosities.

I’ve been self-consciously writing about leisure for what feels like too many days now. I’m trying to figure out how I want to spend my time, since that’s a decision I’m going to make repeatedly over decades. My answers will change over the years, too, but if I think about it a little, I might be able to make better decisions.

Most of the time, we think of relaxation and recreation as ways to recharge ourselves so that we can get back to work with more energy. Aristotle prizes the contemplative life, where you use your leisure time not just to amuse yourself, but to improve.

What does that mean to me, though? For example, I could spend some time learning languages, or developing my drawing skills, or picking up a new technology. There’s so much more to learn about all sorts of other subjects. An easy answer to the question “What shall I do with my time?” might be to volunteer, but I would also want to do that with deliberation. What will help me grow, and what’s just a nice-to-have?

Let’s say that I don’t know enough to choose those topics from the beginning. How can I get better at observing myself and learning from how I use my leisure time? What would make a difference when I look back over a long life?

One of the things that has helped me a lot and that I’d like to get very good at is the ability to notice (as the Less Wrong community phrases it) that I am confused, and to explore that confusion. Reading helps me notice the gaps and find words to describe things, and writing helps me start to untangle the knots. If I keep getting better at this, then when I’m much more experienced, I might be able to spot opportunities for growth, catch myself before I make mistakes, and also help friends think through their own lives.

Learning various skills (tech, DIY, cooking) helps improve my self-efficacy. I can make more things myself, and I can imagine more things too. Besides, it’s fun, and occasionally economically useful.

I’m still not as keen on conversation and friendship as I probably should be, at least according to Aristotle. I enjoy conversations with W- most of all. I like the mix of practicality, growth, and whimsical puns. On occasion, I enjoy conversations with other people, especially those I think well of and want to support. Other times, I talk to people for variety and social exercise. I’m comfortable with that because I’m not trying to be popular, entertaining, or entertained. I don’t mind taking my time with the slow collection of interesting people I can learn from and help.

I can use my leisure time to learn how to prefer things that are good for me. For example, I’m working on that exercise habit. I’m sure that once I’ve gotten into the swing of things, I’ll be able to enjoy it – I just have to stick it out until then. I have much to learn about music, art, design, and literature, too.

I think a good life is one where I have the space, awareness, and control to respond to life the way I want to, and that I’ve learned to want what’s good for me. I’d like to be able to say, looking back, that I’ve deliberated on how I wanted to live and that I’ve lived pretty darn close to what I decided. We’ll just have to see how it all works out!

Reflecting on goal factoring and akrasia

Following up on sketching my goals: I’ve been thinking a bit more about goal factoring. What do I want to be able to do with an overview of my projects and goals?

  • I want to make regular progress towards important goals, especially since I tend to move from topic to topic.
  • I want to translate abstract goals into measurable projects, and I want to translate those projects into actions.
  • I want to brainstorm alternative approaches that may get me to my goals faster, cheaper, or more effectively.
  • I want to see which actions or projects can support multiple goals.
  • I want to prioritize my projects and goals, putting things on the backburner as needed.
2014-03-24 How do I want to keep track of my goals #goal-factoring #planning #org

2014-03-24 How do I want to keep track of my goals #goal-factoring #planning #org

One of the benefits of writing down my goals is that I can look at the gap between plans and reality. An e-mail conversation with Daniel Reeves (Beeminder and the awesomely geeky Messy Matters) pointed me to the concept of akrasia, which is when you act against your better judgment (Wikipedia: akrasia; LessWrong: akrasia). In general, this happens because we value the present much more than the future. Short-term gains are more compelling than future ones. Immediate pains matter more than far-off sacrifices.

I haven’t thought a lot about akrasia yet. If I can understand the concept and identify my akratic actions, then I can change my systems or try other tactics to live better.

2014-03-26 Reflections on akrasia - acting against my better judgment #rationality

2014-03-26 Reflections on akrasia – acting against my better judgment #rationality

  • Sleeping: I could probably get away with sleeping less. That said, it’s good (and uncommon) to get plenty of sleep, so this might not be too bad. I averaged about 8.9 hours a night over the past year. If I manage to tweak this to get, say, 0.5 hours more core time per day, that would be amazing. On the other hand, I could be the sort of person who really does need that much time, and it’s still within the normal range. We’ll see how sleep works out with my changing routines.
  • Reading fanfiction during my commute when I could be reading nonfiction, learning Morse code, writing, or listening to podcasts… Actually, I’ve been doing more Morse code lately, so maybe this is not an issue. And I should probably have more mental downtime anyway.
  • Being glued to my phone: On a related note, W- has teased me about my being occasionally glued to my phone. (It’s funny when I’m trying to tidy up or make the bed one-handed.) This is more of an awareness issue.
  • Not doing enough strength/flexibility/endurance: Biking helps me with lower-body strength, but my arms are weak. If I don’t exercise to maintain my flexibility, I’ll lose it over time. I have plenty of energy throughout the day, although I suppose it’s good to build that up so that I have even more energy for bigger tasks. If I determine that mornings are the best time to exercise, then my lack of exercise is a combination of my desire to spend that time reading or writing (even though I already do this to the point of possible diminishing returns) and my dislike of how it initially feels to exercise.
  • Socializing: I often don’t feel like going out, although I conceptually know that connecting with people is a good thing. I suspect it’s because I feel more connected with people around ideas instead of history or circumstance, and connecting to people over the Internet tends to more reliably result in good conversations like that compared to going to events or get-togethers in person.
  • Crossing my legs: This is an awareness thing. I just have to notice it, and then I can gradually untrain myself. If I’m seated correctly, I’m fine. I tend to cross when I need a higher, slanted surface to draw on. More observations – maybe stochastic?

There are lots of other possibly akratic actions in my life. These came to mind first when I thought about things that I often do and that I can change when I pay attention to them. Still, looking at this set… I don’t have a strong desire to eliminate akrasia while the suboptimal results aren’t major hindrances. I’m fine with having a little slack in my life. Even when my actions diverge from my stated goals, I still learn a lot.

That’s an interesting meta-thing to explore, though. Am I too comfortable? I’ve experimenting with moving away from carrot-and-stick approaches to personal productivity (or taskmaster and slave) and more towards appreciative inquiry (let’s observe what’s working well, and do more of that). Most people want to become more machine-like in their productivity, reliably following their plans. The contrarian in me is curious about alternatives. I don’t know that life would be better if I worked with more focus or commitment. I know that it would be different, and there’s a possibility that following the butterflies of my curiosity also creates value.

So let’s say that akrasia (or at least how I understand it so far) tends to be effectively addressed with self-imposed deadlines, commitment devices, constrained environments, and so on. Writers sign up for NaNoWriMo. Entrepreneurs bet each other that they’ll complete their tasks. Dieters remove junk food from their cupboards. These constraints support progress (by adding enough incentive to get people started or to convert downtime into productive time) or prevent backsliding (by removing temptations and distractions).

What are the trade-offs I make for not using these tools against akrasia? Are there ways I can turn weaknesses into strengths for those approaches?

Commitment devices are good for keeping you focused. If I let myself follow my interests, then I don’t get to take advantage of momentum or compounding results. However, my habit of sharing along the way means that people can get value even from intermediate steps. Cross-pollination is valuable, too. On my personal blog, it’s probably a good idea to have variety instead of focus, so that people can find what they’re interested in.

Commitment devices are good for preventing backsliding. When you make undesired actions more costly (ex: eating junk food), you make desired actions cheaper in comparison (ex: nibbling on carrots). If I don’t tinker with incentives that way, then I’ll be more influenced by short-term effects rather than long-term effects. I am generally future-oriented anyway (ex: retirement savings, batch cooking) and I have fun connecting actions with long-term plans, so the disadvantages may be somewhat mitigated. I don’t have a sense of urgency around this, either. Perhaps I need to exaggerate long-term costs in order to make this more compelling.

Things to think about…

Have you reflected on akrasia? Can you share your insights?

Living your dream

It’s really easy to get caught up living someone else’s dream. It makes sense to want what other people want. You see the visions that other people paint for you and say, “Yes, that looks pretty good.” Sometimes being influenced by other people can be very useful. We surprise ourselves by reaching goals that we didn’t even know that we could try. Other times, we drift away from what matters to us. This is why it’s important to check in with yourself once in a while to make sure that you’re still going towards your dream.

I’m a person of small and simple dreams. I want to have enough, to know that I have enough, and to know that whatever I have is always enough. Of these three things, I think the last is the most important. After all, people do well with more and with less, and people do badly with more with less. Reading all these books about stoicism reminded me that having enough is one power that we always have, no matter what our situation is.

2014-02-09 Living your dream

2014-02-09 Living your dream

I’ve been thinking a lot about the motivations and values that underlie my questions. Safety is surprisingly important to me. I plan for different scenarios, and I look at other people’s lives to get ideas for mine. I want to make good decisions: decisions that consider the true range of choices, take potential consequences into account, and leave me with enough space for both mistakes and opportunities. With the basics taken care of, I can focus on doing well. Knowing my tools helps me make the most of them. Learning from other people and sharing what I know helps me grow. I like taking advantage of low hanging fruit, the little things that I can do to move things forward.

2014-02-07 What are my motivations for questions

2014-02-07 What are my motivations for questions

Just as motivations are behind questions, values are behind motivations. What do I value? When does my life feel like it’s consistent with who I am, and when does it feel inconsistent? I really like exploring the things that make me curious, especially if they lead off the well-worn paths. I like helping people learn. I like building things: a good home life, tools, processes, knowledge.

2014-02-11 Reflecting on building a value-filled life

2014-02-11 Reflecting on building a value-filled life

What kinds of questions can you ask yourself to check if you’re following your dream, not some dream that other people have given you?

Simplifying with Stoicism: examining negative feelings

The more I can master myself, the less I need, and the freer I am.

I dug into a collection of Epictetus’ discourses to learn more about Stoicism. While I’ve never been much worried about death and I’m unlikely to run into issues with jail, exile, or hemlock (!), I have a lot to learn about dealing with aversion and negative emotions. I live a happier and luckier life than most people do, and I wonder what it would be like with even more understanding.

How can I learn more about this through practice? I can start with negative feelings, then move to attachments, and then get even better at understanding what I do and don’t control.

Mapping a path to understanding Stoicism

Mapping a path to understanding Stoicism

When do I feel negative emotions? What situations disrupt my feelings? Mostly these emotions are directed at things or at myself: frustration with . I’m getting pretty good at not being perturbed by people, even though sometimes other people think I’m annoyed with them when I’m more annoyed with the situation. That said, I’m becoming less inclined to do the emotional work of reassuring people that it’s not about them, so sometimes I just take responsibility for what I can control and let them be responsible for their feelings.

Exploring negative feelings

Exploring negative feelings

Hmm. Frustration and annoyance tend to be outward-directed, while anxiety and embarrassment are internal. I can deal with frustration and annoyance by accepting that the world is what it is. Anxiety can be addressed by faith that things will work out, and embarrassment is just ego in disguise.

So what are those anxieties about, anyway? Let me dig into those further.

Recognizing potential fears

Recognizing potential fears

Come to think of it, there’s not much to be afraid of. I don’t have to worry about missing out. Life is pretty darn good even like this, and the rest is icing on the cake. Likewise, I don’t have to worry about falling short of expectations, since proper expectations are other people’s responsibilities. Messes and mistakes can teach me a lot. As for the fear that pressure or other forces might sway me into making bad decisions… Being able to recognize the warning signs will help me slow down, and mistakes are good for learning anyway.

The fear of falling short is at the root of the impostor syndrome, something I’ve written about a few times before. I remember reading about the impostor syndrome when I was in school, and recognizing myself in it. You might think that the validation of programming competitions, newspaper articles, and personal projects would boost my belief in myself, but that often made me feel even less like the image I thought people had of me.

Taking a closer look at the impostor syndrome

Taking a closer look at the impostor syndrome

But the impostor syndrome, too, might be ego disguised: part desire for validation, part aversion to embarrassment. If I can let go of both, I’ll be more free to concentrate on the things worth thinking about, and I can take better risks. So out to the curb they go.

As for the fear of missing out, of not quite doing enough… I’ve been thinking about how to learn more and how to increase the difference I want to make in this world. In particular, I want to get better at learning from people, which includes learning from coaches. I hear coaches are good for accelerating your growth. I’m careful about how I frame this to myself, because it’s much too easy to become unhappy with how you’re growing and to want more, more, more.

I realized that I could actually get a pretty good sense of what my life might look like in thirty to forty years, even if I continue in my current trajectory. My parents are in their sixties and I have other mentors around that age, so I know roughly what to expect. Assuming that my skills and tools stay roughly the same, I’m probably going to end up with an even bigger archive of ideas and notes. However, I already know what it’s like to have more notes than I can remember and more sketches than I can grasp. Even if I continue with the same strategies, things will probably already be wonderful. If I learn from experience, adapt to the changes in technology and society, and explore new ways of doing things, then it will be even better.

This means that I can probably let go of the fear of missing out, of not living up to my potential or not maximizing awesomeness. Life is already wonderful.

Extrapolating my futures

Extrapolating my futures

I like thinking through this in advance, when I can reason about them with a clear mind. When situations come up, at least I’ll have rehearsed some options. The real tests are when I’m tired or hungry or sleepy, or when something major happens. We’ll see. =) In the meantime, it’s good to look at the things I might unconsciously avoid looking at, to see what I can do to let them go.

Learning how to deal with mild panic

Another mild panic attack in fitness class yesterday, jolts of worry and tears that I wiped away as sweat. I knew it was just my lizard brain in overdrive. I couldn’t stop it by reasoning it away as irrational. All I could do was breathe and keep on going, dampening my emotions by spacing out while going through the motions of the exercise. W- checked on me frequently, cheering me up from time to time, and I finished the class.

It’s not so bad, actually. It would be better to not have to deal with panic at all, but since it happens, it’s better that I know what it’s like in a safe(ish) controlled environment and I can start figuring out what to do about it. Part of the reason that I’m susceptible to panic attacks is probably because I’m using willpower instead of motivation to get through the fitness class, and that can get quickly sapped in a stressful environment with negative self-talk. I don’t intrinsically enjoy this form of exercise, although I like spending time with W-. Also, It turns out that I’m pretty good at imagining how something will hurt, like the time I freaked out over a leapfrogging exercise a month after I’d sprained my ankle, and that sends me into a whirl even as I’m reassuring myself that pain is both unlikely and temporary. The good thing is that I seem to get panic attacks only in fitness class these days, and not all the time either.

What would better look like? I’m good at knowing I’m having an unreasonable panic attack. Wouldn’t be interesting if I could label it and put it on a shelf for the time being, procrastinating the analysis for a quieter and more composed time? I’m good at plodding through the class anyway, even though I’m embarrassed at the thought of quietly sniffling in class. If I can let go of that embarrassment, I can use that energy for other things. I don’t get panic attacks all the time. I can get better at understanding the contributing and mitigating factors, and tweaking things to fit me (a mental soundtrack? a mantra or prepared objections to drown out negative self-talk?). Eventually finding another kind of exercise that suits me better will help in the long run so that I can build confidence along with strength, but I still have to hack stressful situations.

This, too, is part of life, and I can embrace it and make it mine.

Understanding my procrastination

This week’s Less Wrong Toronto rationality challenge was about procrastination: observing how, why, and when you procrastinate, and what you can do about it.

The word “procrastination” comes from the Latin roots pro (“for”) and cras (“tomorrow”). The more I think about that, the more it seems that putting things off is actually a very useful skill, despite its negative connotations. There is only so much time in the day and so many years in a life. Figuring out what makes sense to do right now, what might make sense to do later, and what doesn’t make sense to do at all–that can be really helpful. To describe how we decide what to do later, we use the word “planning.” We reserve “procrastination” for when we put things off to our detriment, when we do low-value tasks instead of high-value tasks.

The Wikipedia article on procrastination describes procrastination as “replacing high-priority actions with tasks of lower priority” (emphasis mine), but I’ve been working on not letting perceived urgency mess up my true priorities. Thinking of it in terms of value instead of priority helps me not get caught up in false urgency.

Because the procrastinating mind can be good at rationalization (“I know I should write that blog post, but dinner needs to be cooked and the blog post isn’t that important anyway”), it can be difficult to recognize procrastination unless you’re obviously avoiding something. It’s easier to look at various decisions to put off actions, figure out the reasoning behind them, and look for patterns.

I put off many ideas by adding them to my Someday/Maybe list or scheduling them for the future. I’m working on getting better at finishing projects, so I try not to get too distracted from today’s to-do list unless it’s really important. Stashing other ideas in my Someday/Maybe list means that if I get blocked on all my current tasks, I can easily find something else that I might want to work on. Structured procrastination for the win! (Procrastination explanation: Low value compared to current tasks.)

I put off various types of tasks to certain days. For example, I balance my business books and handle other paperwork every Friday. If I need to get an invoice out quickly, I’ll do that any day of the week, but having one day set aside for paperwork and all those other little things makes it easy to keep the rest of my week clear. I put off worrying, too. I allow myself a chunk of time for planning and questioning, then focus in moving in roughly that direction the rest of the week. Mornings are great for code, afternoons for calls, and evenings for writing. On either Saturday or Sunday, we do our household chores and lots of cooking. Roughly sketching out our days like this helps me batch process tasks. (Procrastination explanation: Reducing impulsiveness / interruptions.)

I put off actions depending on my energy level. When focused and excited, I code or write. When I’m more contemplative, I like drawing or reading books. When I feel uncreative, that’s the perfect time to handle paperwork or do chores. When I’m optimistic, I flesh out my vision. When I’m pessimistic, I dig into my backup plans. (Procrastination explanation: Low value or expectancy; I expect to not code well if I’m preoccupied with something else.)

I absentmindedly put off putting things away. Not all the time, but enough times that this gets in my way. I have some workarounds. For example, I switched to using a belt bag because that was an excellent if unfashionable way to not lose track of my phone and my keys. I’m still working on slowing down, having one place to put things, and minimizing stress. W- has this saying, “One hand, put away” – put things away while you’re holding them instead of going back and forth. Working on it. =) (Procrastination explanation: impulsiveness.)

I put off going to the gym with W-, reasoning that I’m pretty tired from biking upwind and uphill. I should build upper-body strength and other things not covered by biking, though. One way for me to deal with this is by bargaining with myself: if I’m not going to the gym, I have to do kettle bells or similar exercises instead of spending the time writing. Or maybe I’ll train speech recognition on my computer so that I can increase the value of that activity… (Procrastination explanation: Low value because I don’t particularly like that form of exercise; low expectancy because of salient bad experiences, even though I’ve also had very positive ones.)

I put off shopping, especially when they are so many choices. I do this because I feel overwhelmed. I deal with it by limiting my choices based on predetermined criteria and focusing on items that meet my price thresholds. For example, I buy only flat/low-heeled shoes and machine-washable clothes. I eventually buy things when sales, thrift stores, or other buying opportunities intersect with my criteria. (Procrastination explanation: Low expectancy because of the feeling of being overwhelmed; low value because I have lots of things that still work for me.)

I put off learning skills if I think the costs associated with learning outweigh the benefits I get from doing so. For example, although driving is widely acknowledged as a useful skill, I haven’t gotten around to learning it because becoming a confident driver requires several big lifestyle changes: expenses related to cars, fuel, parking, and maintenance; I would need to shift my work to somewhere that requires a car-based commute instead of one that can be reached with public transit or biking; and I would need to get used to the thought of controlling this big, heavy, potentially lethal machine. The money I save by not driving can pay for quite a few cabs during the times that I do need to get around (say, accompanying a friend post-surgery). So far, clear costs (money! no free exercise from biking!) outweigh vague benefits (possibly being able to drive W- if he needs help, being able to navigate more cities). I’ll get to it when it makes sense. Or slightly before it makes sense. (Procrastination explanation: Low value.)

I put off putting some things off. Sometimes I feel myself getting annoyed for something I have to do. I could go round and round, internally whining about it, but sometimes it’s more productive to put off the annoyance, get things done, and then channel that annoyance into making sure that I don’t have to do similar things in the future. This actually works out quite well. (Procrastination explanation: Well, this is actually a useful thing…)

There are a lot of other things I procrastinate, but since I want to actually publish this blog post at some point, this is probably enough of a sample.

I use a lot of pre-commitment to deal with procrastination. I’m also halfway decent at recognizing when procrastinating something takes more energy and emotion than just doing the thing I’m procrastinating. I’m good at discovering (or even inventing) meaning for my tasks to make them more palatable. I need to work on being more conscious, though. All these techniques are useful only when I detect that I’m procrastinating. If I want to stop absentmindedly putting something down somewhere instead of putting it away, then I need to make putting things away automatic, and I need to get better at checking impulses.

There aren’t any big ominous tasks hanging over my head that I need to un-procrastinate, but I want to get better at catching unconscious procrastination. (Which was not quite the focus of the Less Wrong blog post on beating procrastination, but I lump it together with deliberate procrastination…) I’ll be focusing on being more mindful over the next month or so. It’s difficult to track how well I’m doing with this, so I track failure instead by recording “foggy” moments. I’ll probably never get rid of it, but I can develop more automatic behaviours to catch the common cases. One of the nice things about being married is that W- can help me catch things. =) Onward!