Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Art is Like a Well-Ordered Ship

The Art is like having a well-ordered ship. You need sailors who can row or adjust the sails, you need strong oars or sails, you need a captain who can direct the ship, a navigator who can orient yourself by the stars, a plan to get to your destination, and a sound hull.

If you lack any of these things, it will make it hard to get to your destination. So if trying to get somewhere can often look like trying to have an awesome ship.

If you just care about having an awesome ship, you might not get anywhere interesting. You might decide that it's cold night and your sails can be better used as extra bedsheets, and cut them up - or build a second story with the oars. You might decide that it's more fun to party than to row. You might even light the mast on fire so you can see better at night, for a bit. But in the end, you'll still be adrift at sea.

And yet, if you just focus on the destination, you may not do much either. If there's a leak in the hull, or the captain is too cruel or too lazy to command the sailors well, or the sailors don't do their work, or the sails are loose, or the navigator is ignored, or your maps are wrong, then just doing the same things harder to get to the destination faster won't work very well either. If you have a leak and you're miles from shore, don't just row faster or keep staring at the stars to figure out which way to go - repair the leak immediately!

The Art is to have a well-ordered ship because that's how you get to your destination. To understand how the order of your ship promotes this goal. To teach your navigator about the stars and correct your maps, to keep discipline among the crew, to tend to the body of the ship - and yet, to know that these things, and not others, are what makes a well-ordered ship, makes much more sense if you know what the ship is for.

This is partly stolen from Plato's Republic (archived here), partly inspired by a conversation with Brienne.

Say it wrong first

I used to believe that it was good to be smart, and the smart people were the ones who had great ideas. So I came up with some ideas, and then decided to believe in them very strongly, so that they would be great.

Later, I learned that believing strongly in big, bold ideas isn't so great when they're wrong. I noticed that the smartest people often considered and rejected many appealing ideas, and could explain why they were wrong. So I learned how to be very, very skeptical of ideas. I didn't have any big ones of my own, but I was sure that when I did, if it survived my own skepticism, it would be great.

Then I realized that in order to have great ideas, I needed to have any ideas - and that I could only make an idea better, if I knew what it was. My skepticism had taught me to throw away my ideas before they entered consciousness. So I learned how to entertain an idea before believing it, play with it, ask what about it wasn't quite right - and then try to mend its flaws instead of throwing it away.

The top six reasons why I am procrastinating

It’s helpful to know why I’m procrastinating. Sometimes the reason for procrastinating can be easily corrected. Probably the most well known version of this is not knowing what the next action is.

Here are some other things that I’ve noticed cause me to put off tasks I intended to do.

1) An inessential aspect of the task is aversive.

The Tale of the Egg Sandwich

One morning at work I had a craving for an egg sandwich from the fast food restaurant around the corner. I didn’t want to go get the sandwich because it would predictably cost me half an hour - maybe a lot more more if I started reading something there and didn’t feel like going back into the office which seemed likely based on the outside view. So I tried to diagnose what was wrong by dialoguing with the part of myself that wanted the sandwich.

Am I hungry? If I ate some peanuts, would it feel good to go back to work?
No, I still want to go get the egg sandwich.
Imagine that I snap my fingers, and magically, the egg sandwich appears in my hands. Would it feel good to go back to work after I ate it?
No, I want to GO GET the egg sandwich.
Huh, is that because it feels bad to stay here and work?
Would it feel good to do something else in the office, like look at Facebook, or write a blog post?
Would it feel good to read a book?
Huh, that’s surprising. I usually want to read a book. Would it feel good to go elsewhere and read a book?
Oh… So it feels bad to be in the office?
Because there are people around who might interrupt me and distract me.
Huh. Maybe getting out of the office is sufficient. If I walked over to the Ferry Building, bought a coffee, and sat at the table near Peet’s, would it feel good to work there?
OK, let’s go.

And I did, and got a three-hour work block done.

The Tale of the Shoes and the Headband

I used to procrastinate a lot in the mornings, before getting out of my apartment. I did a few mindful walkthrough of my morning routine, paying attention to the urge to do something other than get ready, and being curious about why. I realized that there were some concrete and avoidable things that I was flinching from. First, I didn’t want to shower. Part of that is unavoidable - I have to take off my glasses and hearing aids. But another thing I dislike is that after the shower, I get the floor wet, and water’s dripping down my face from my hair, which is a sensation I hate. So I resolved to towel myself off before walking onto the tile floor, and to get an athletic headband to catch water before it reached my face.

The other thing I hated was putting on my shoes, because it would remind me that a bunch of my shoes needed to be properly put away, and maybe even needed polishing. I organized the floor of my closet, and then it wasn’t painful to go get my shoes anymore.

2) My reward gradient is wrong

Even after I’d taken the little problems out of my morning, I found that it was sometimes unmotivating to get out of the apartment, just to get into the office and start doing some solitary work - or join a meeting that wasn’t going to be very fun. But what did sound like it might be good was meeting a friend for breakfast. So I asked a few friends whether they’d like to meet for breakfast before work. Some said yes, and I found that on the mornings when I had a breakfast scheduled, I’d not only be faster in getting out of the apartment, but go to sleep faster the night before so I wouldn’t oversleep and miss the appointment.

3) I do not know exactly what I am trying to do

Sometimes, when procrastinating on a writing task, I ask myself, “What does this have to communicate?”, and list out the things I need to say. Then once I have that list, I can just write sentences that do the bare minimum of saying what I want to say. Then it’s mostly written.

4) I am applying an inappropriate standard

I was procrastinating on writing an important email. I looked at the flinch and noticed that I was flinching from the possibility of sending an email that said the wrong thing, and damaging my relationship with the recipient in some way. So I decided that the task was not to write and send an email, but just to write it. I’d worry about whether it was OK to send after I’d written something. Framed this way, the action of writing the email no longer seemed likely to cause damage if I made a mistake, since I could just not sent it.
Then I wrote the email.
Then I looked at it.
It looked pretty good.
So I sent it.

I’ve also noticed myself reluctant to start writing fiction.

“Why don’t I want to write this?”
“Because it won’t be good.”
“I’m not asking you to write a good short story. I’m just asking you to write a short story at all.”
“Oh, I can do that!”

Then I put together the bare minimum that tells the story I want to tell, not worrying about how good it is - and get practice, and become better.

5) I am trying to do too many mutually exclusive things

When I was in DC trying to build up the Effective Altruism meetup group there, I had a bunch of plans for things to try - and noticed my motivation flagging after an initial burst of enthusiasm. When I turned my focus inwards and asked why, I got a clear unambiguous answer, straight from the gut:

“Because I can’t actually do all this.”
“How will these plans fail?"
“There’s not enough room in the day.”

So I prioritized, and instead of doing three projects with the DC EA group, I decided to prioritize one project and meetups - and actually executed my plans.

6) I believe that my plan will fail

I noticed that I was putting off completing this section because it overlapped strongly with another thing I'm writing, so I decided to publish this post without it.