Reflecting on risk aversion

I’m more careful about risks than I was at the beginning of this experiment. I see more negative consequences when projecting the results of decisions, and I perceive more volatility. I tend to overestimate the probability and impact of negative possibilities, and I’m conservative about taking advantage of opportunities.

This is interesting to me because I expected the opposite result when I started this experiment. A safety net should enable me to feel comfortable with taking more risks. In particular, I would probably have expected to take more risks in terms of:

  • Tools: get better at seeing the possible improvements or new capabilities opened up by tools
  • Education: learn faster with other people’s helps
  • Networking: connect with and help more people
  • Creation: make and ship more things
  • Delegation: working with other people to get even more done
  • Commitment, schedule: plan for larger things, and hustle in order to get more things done

Hmm. Come to think of it, even my perception about increased risk aversion is perhaps inaccurate. Over the past two years, I’ve learned a lot from taking risks in terms of business models, sales, delegation, and so on. Let me take a closer look at the categories I mentioned to see if I can come up with counterpoints:

  • Tools: Small hardware, software, and network upgrades have worked out well.
  • Education: I’ve learned that I can learn a lot from books, experimentation, and connecting online, which is why paid courses and conferences haven’t really been on my radar.
  • Networking: The Emacs Chat podcast is a new thing for me, and I’m slowly getting the hang of it. I’ve been moving to getting to know people online instead of focusing on in-person connecting, and I like connecting with peers or people I can help rather than trying to connect with high-flying celebrities. I think I like the direction I’m going, actually.
  • Creation: PDFs, guides, and e-mail courses are new for me. That’s working well. Free/PWYW helps me reduce risk and avoid being anxious about satisfaction.
  • Delegation: Not as good as I could be when it comes to assigning tasks, but still better than nothing.
  • Commitment, schedule: This is probably where the biggest difference is. I’m less inclined to schedule things, and I try to minimize my commitments in terms of time and energy. Every so often, I think about whether I should be hustling more, but I like my current pace.

Oh, that’s interesting. I think I’m surprised by the way I’m getting better at saying no, which is apparently a very useful skill. I’m getting better at not feeling guilty about it, too. I want to make sure I’m saying yes to some things, what I’m saying yes to is worth it for me, and that I’m not prematurely closing off things that do want.

How do I want to tweak this? I’d still probably minimize the number of commitments. I might take more notes on decisions. That would give me a better handle on risks that worked out well and risks that didn’t, because what I recall is biased by my mood. What I take notes on is biased by mood as well, but it’ll be easier to find contrary examples.

Also, when I find myself possibly overestimating the likelihood or impact of negative possibilities, I can sanity-check my perceptions with research and with other people. Hmm…

It’s kinda fun noticing when your brain is acting a little weird. =) We’ll see how I can work around things!

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?

Digging into my limiting factors when it comes to interviewing people for podcasts

The world is full of interesting people, the vast majority of whom don’t share nearly as often as I do. If I interview people, I give people a more natural way to share what they’ve learned in a way that other people can easily learn from. I also get to learn about things I can’t find on Google. Win all around.

I am better-suited to interviewing than many people are. I’m comfortable with the tech. I have a decent Internet connection. I have a flexible schedule, so I can adapt to guests. I use scheduling systems and can deal with timezones. I’ve got a workflow that involves posting show notes and even transcripts. I am reasonably good at asking questions and shutting up so that other people talk. I often stutter, but no one seems to mind. I usually take visual notes, which people appreciate. I’m part of communities that can get more value from the resources I share.

So, what’s getting in the way of doing way more interviews?

interview

I feel somewhat self-conscious about questions and conversations. The Emacs Chats have settled into a comfortable rhythm, so I’m okay with those: introduction, history, nifty demo, configuration walkthrough, other tidbits. Frugal FIRE has a co-host who’s actively driving the content of the show, so I can pitch in with the occasional question and spend the rest of the time taking notes. It’s good for me to talk to other people out of the blue, but I don’t fully trust in my ability to be curious and ask interesting questions.

Hmm. What’s behind this self-consciousness? I think it could be that:

  • I don’t want to ask questions that have been thoroughly covered elsewhere. – But I know from my own blog that going over something again helps me understand it better, so I should worry less about repeating things. Judgment: IRRATIONAL, no big deal
  • I worry about awkward questions and making questions that are really more like statements. What are awkward questions? Closed-ended questions or ones that lead to conversational cul-de-sacs. — But the people I talk to also want to keep the conversation going, so between the two (or three) of us, we should be able to figure something out. And really, once we get going, it’s easy enough to ask more. So I’m anxious about being curious enough, but once we’re there, it’s easy. Judgment: IRRATIONAL, just get in there.
  • I worry about not being prepared enough, or being too forgetful. – But when did I ever claim to have an excellent memory or to be great at doing all the research? Maybe it’s enough to have the conviction that people have something interesting to share, and help them have the opportunity to share it. (And possibly warn interviewees about my sieve-of-a-brain in advance, so they’re not offended if I confuse them with someone else.) Judgment: IRRATIONAL
  • I’m not as used to the flow of an interview as I could be. It’s similar to but not quite the same as a regular conversation, which is something I’m not as used to as I should be. Oddly, it’s easier when I’m occupied with taking visual notes, because I can use my notes to remember interesting things to ask about (and the other person can watch it develop too). So maybe I should just always do that, and then the drawing is a super-neat bonus.
  • I hesitate to ask questions unless I have an idea of what I’m going to do with the answers. Why are the questions interesting? What do we want to explore? Who am I going to share this with, and why? I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on Emacs Chats, so that makes it easy to keep going, but the one-offs can be harder to plan. Maybe I should just become more comfortable with asking in order to explore. Besides, I’m good at rationalization, so I can make sense of it during or after the conversation. And the kinds of interviews I do are also about letting people share what they think would be useful for other people, so I can follow their lead.

Really, what’s the point of being self-conscious when interviewing people? After all, I’m doing this so that the spotlight is on other people, and listeners can survive inexpertly-asked questions. Hey, if folks have the courage to get interviewed, that’s something. Like the way that it’s easier to focus on helping other people feel more comfortable at parties, I can try focusing on helping guests feel more comfortable during interviews.

And it’s pretty cool once we get into it. I end up learning about fascinating Emacs geekery, connecting with great people, and exploring interesting ideas along the way. Well worth my time, and people find the videos helpful.

So I think I can deal with some of  those tangled emotions that were getting in the way of my interviews. (Look, I’m even getting the hang of calling them interviews instead of chats!)

What’s getting in the way of reaching out and inviting people on? I should be able to reach out easily and ask people to be, say, a guest for an Emacs Chat episode. I have good karma in the community, and there are lots of examples now of how such a conversation could go. How about Quantified Self? I’ve been thinking about virtual meetups or presentations for a while, since there are lots of people out there who aren’t close to a QS meetup. What’s stopping me?

  • I generally don’t think in terms of people when it comes to cool stuff or ideas: This makes it difficult for me to identify people behind clusters of interesting ideas, or recognize names when they come up in conversation. Still, it shouldn’t stop me from identifying one particular idea and then looking for the person or people behind that. If I discover other things about those people afterwards, that’s icing on the cake. Hmm… So maybe I should update my confederate map (time to Graphviz-ify it!), interview those people, and then branch out to a role model map. Oh! And I can apply Timothy Kenny’s idea of modeling people’s behaviours beforehand as a way to prepare for the interview, too. Judgment: CAN FIX
  • It would be easier to reach out if I’ve already written pre-psyched-up snippets I can add to my e-mail. Aha, maybe I should write myself an Org file with the reasons why this is a good thing and with snippets that I can copy and paste into e-mail. There are a lot of blog posts and podcast episodes on how to get better at requesting podcast interviews, and there are also resources for getting better at interviewing itself. I can change my process to include psyching myself up and sending a bunch of invitations. Judgment: CAN FIX
  • I’m slightly worried about pre-committing to a time - but really, Google+ events make it pretty easy to reschedule, and I haven’t needed to reschedule most things for my part. Judgment: IRRATIONAL.

All right. So, if I want to learn from people and share useful stuff, I can work on being more actively curious about people, and at inviting them to share what they know. I don’t have to ask brilliant New York Times-y questions. I just have to start from the assumption that they know something interesting, and give them an opportunity to share it with other people.

Why would people take the time to do interviews? Maybe they find themselves explaining things to people a lot, so a recording (plus visual notes! plus transcript!) can save them time and give them something to build more resources on. Maybe they’re looking for other people to bounce ideas off. Maybe it helps them understand things better themselves. I shouldn’t say no on their behalf. I can ask, and they can decide whether it makes sense for their schedule. Right. People are grown-ups.

Okay. What changes can I make?

  • Write an Org file psyching myself up with a condensed version of the reasoning above, and include snippets to copy and paste into e-mail invitations.
  • Map topics/questions I’m curious about, and start identifying people. Identify the tactics I think they use, and model those.
  • Trust that the future Sacha will sort out the questions and the flow of the conversation. And hey, even if it’s super awkward, you don’t get to “interesting” without passing through “meh” first. So just book it, and be super-nice to guests for helping out.

Hmm. That actually looks doable.

Have you gone through this kind of mental tweaking before? Any tips?

Thanks to Daniel Reeves and Bethany Soule for the nudge to write about this! Yes, I should totally pick their brain about Quantified Self, applied rationality, and other good things. Check out their blog at Messy Matters for awesome stuff. Oh, and Beeminder, of course. (Look, I’m even using Messy Matters as a nudge to play around with more colours and brushes! =) )

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!

Less Wrong meetup notes: Goal factoring, fight-or-flight, and comfort zones

This week, I attended my first Less Wrong meetup in Toronto – a meandering conversation about applied rationality over coffee in a Tim Hortons café tucked into Dundas Square just east of Yonge. Here are my rough notes:

image

Goal factoring is a process of mapping your goals and the underlying needs that they address so that you can identify complementary or conflicting goals and alternative approaches that will also address your needs. Start by listing your goals, then organize them in relation to each other, and examine them to see which needs they meet. You can learn more about your implicit needs by looking at your evaluations of alternatives.

Fight, flight, or freeze: We talked about the fight-flight-or-freeze reaction, or the body’s response to stress. We also talked about the sympathetic nervous system (which stresses out when f/f/f kicks in), and the parasympathetic nervous system, which deals with non-urgent things. One of the effects of stress is that the blood flow to some parts of your brain is restricted in favour of the blood flow to other parts of your brain, which is why it’s easy to make stupid decisions when you’re stressed out.

Comfort zone expansion: We also discussed the process of growing your comfort zone gradually by imagining scenarios, using de-stressing techniques, and working with a safe space.

In order to practise applying rationality techniques to real life, we agreed to spend the next week studying our fight/flight/freeze reactions and to share our observations with the group next week. I’ll reflect on this a little more later – I want to post these brief notes first before I forget! =)