Iterated self-improvement - a worked example

The motivational use of causal narratives

One of my core skill gaps is that I don't have a system 1 level understanding of how I cause good outcomes in my life. I tend to forget my successes and remember my failures. I have often said, “nothing bad ever happens to me,” and this is a true account of the world I experience - but not because I have such incredibly good luck (which, to be clear, I do - but other people with good luck still know that they're responsible for some things that happen!). It’s because when I work towards a goal, I think of this as normal and forget about it. Then it seems like every so often the universe randomly gives me some reward, and occasionally people attribute the causality to me - but I wasn’t doing anything extra, I just kept doing normal things and got lucky! This isn’t just true of longer-term stuff my relationships - that the friendships and career I’m building feel like inexplicable repeated bouts of good luck even though I can point to the deliberate work and planning I did over an extended period of time to make them happen - but of things like ordering something i need online. It still feels like I have no control over what stuff I have. I do normal sensible things, and every once in a while a box randomly arrives from Amazon.

But when I fail - well, then I can remember. I can remember the wrong assumptions I made, the times I was too greedy for short term gains, the things I should have been able to do better. I can remember seeing that the house was nowhere near painted a few days before we moved in, and then deciding that the painters knew their business better than I did and besides my personal assistant was responsible for managing them. I remember agonizing over time management and choosing, repeatedly, not to talk as openly as I could with my partner, with my friends, with my manager about it, not to accept myself where I was and build on that.

This is especially bad when a plan has uncertain benefits and some intermediate step breaks. It's hard for me to see when I've failed because the plan wasn't sensible, and when got most of the way through a reasonable plan and then something unexpected happened. It's hard to reward myself for partial success, for getting most of the way to the goal, when it's invisible to me.

One thing I'm doing about this is narrating to myself, when I see a good thing happen in my life as a result in part of things I've done, exactly how I did it, with as much detail as I can stand, all the steps filled in, no "and here a miracle happened" - if it was just chance, but I did a thing to make the miracle more probable, then I give myself credit for that.

(I'm also doing the mirror image of this - if I take an action for future benefits, narrate to myself all the things that are going to happen, in as much detail as I can stand, to get it from here to done, so that I'll notice when intermediate progress points are reached. A simple example is to literally, every day, check the status of the Amazon packages I’ve ordered so I can remember that I caused a thing to arrive when it does.)

In that spirit, I recently made a few life system improvements, and decided to narrate to myself how they happened. It turned out that they were the result of a very long series of life improvements and investments in myself and my life, most of which were pretty abstract, generalized, or otherwise high-level, and I'd on some level thought were mostly pretty futile projects that I'd given up on. It turns out I was wrong - I stopped working on them because I was done!

The problem and the solution

Recently in my life, I made a bad error, that may have permanently damaged an extremely important relationship. A bunch of areas of my life have all been independently unusually stressful - some of them considered alone have been more difficult over the past few months than basically anything in my life before (largely because I deliberately sought out the hardest things I thought I could do, that would hold me to an unusually high standard for the possibility of outsized gains), and I didn't even realized it at the time. I kind of spectacularly burned out, and in most of these cases I managed a graceful crash landing, but in one I didn't, and hurt someone whom I love like life.

I'm proud of a lot of the things I did in response to these challenges, and looking back I can see that I did the best I could at the time, but my best wasn't good enough. It needs to be much, much better, fast. I did the ordinary things to manage the situations, but they weren't enough, so I need to build extraordinary tools and skills, and I'm working on that.

One contributing factor to my misstep was not telling people about a thing I needed more than once ever, and assuming that if they didn't give me the thing it was because they reflectively endorsed my preferences, and not because they mistook the intensity of my preference or needed a reminder. This is a longstanding failure mode of mine:

When I was a kid, I wanted to see the movie Toy Story. So I asked my mom if I could see it, and she said she'd think about it. I'm still waiting.

I didn't ask for anything else less important than Toy Story, since I didn't want to displace it from the queue. I didn't ask again - after all, I'd asked, and my mom hadn't asked for a reminder, or said she'd get back to me within a certain timeframe. I figured she was still thinking. I didn't say that I wanted to see it intensely - I'd already said I wanted to.

I still feel, absurdly, some slight amount of bitterness over this.

So this is a very sticky problem that's been with me for a long time - and harms my ability to get what I want, and to be in close relationships - because I grow to resent people as they continue to fail to meet the needs I told them about once in passing.

I can't just try harder. I have too many skill gaps that are about this bad and this sticky. Any adequate solution has to be nonexhausting for me, because I'll need to actually implement it and a bunch more like it. So I've added to the list of things I write down during the day.

I have a running list of things I want to remember in a day, that tracks everything: things I wanted to email someone, to-dos, insights I had that I want to do something with later, book recommendations. And then roughly once a day I process this into a more structured list of to-dos or other things. Since this is a thing I already do, it's easy to add something to the system - I just have to decide that I'm supposed to write it down instead of supposed to not have the thought or something. Any time I notice a thing I resent someone for because I told them what I needed, a long time ago. Or, symmetrically, any time I'm confused because someone doesn't like this thing they told me to do once a long time ago. This give me at least an opportunity to notice these things when I'm looking at my workflow system, and think about how to check in to make sure it's not just a misunderstanding.

This takes no willpower, and has already unearthed, not just old unmet needs or hurts I can dissolve or express, but also things that, as I thought about them, seemed good on net and I'm grateful for. An unexpected benefit!

The causal chain

Wait, I have a tool I reliably use to record thoughts? But I've always hated logging things! How di this happen?

At the recent CFAR alumni reunion, I asked a friend to help me with my workflow management problems. My friend asked me,"if the problem were easy, what would it look like?" and I realized that my workflow system had two independent flaws:

  1. I had short-term to-dos grouped together with longer-term projects and errands, which was demotivating when I'd see stuff sit on my to-do list for months alongside short-term stuff like "do the laundry".
  2. The other was that it was a hassle to enter stuff.

I solved these problems separately. I noticed that I already had a frictionless task-intake system (Apple's Notes app, which I was already using regularly on my smartphone and laptop), and decided to use that as my intake system for everything. I also knew of a good system for keeping multiple and hierarchical lists of things (Workflowy, highly recommended if you have a need for tracking multiple hierarchical lists of things, like subtasks on a bunch of different projects).

Why could I ask a friend to help me on an important life problem at a CFAR alumni reunion?

I was at the CFAR alumni reunion because in November 2013 I went to a CFAR workshop to help myself improve at stuff. I went to a CFAR workshop because I read blogs I found interesting, followed links to blogs about rationality that I found interesting, evaluated the arguments for working on rationality, found them plausible, and started paying attention to other projects these people had, one of which was CFAR.

I had friends whom I expected to be able to help me on whatever the most important problem in my life was because starting in November 2013, I made a concerted effort to pursue the kinds of friendships I wanted because both the CFAR workshop and my life coach - whom I hired on purpose because I wanted to improve my life - helped me clarify exactly what I wanted in my friendships and outline steps to pursue this.

Why did my friend ask me, "if the problem were easy, what would it look like?"

Because I invented this prompt, tested it out on other people and found that it fairly often produced good results, and taught it to him. I accidentally learned it from my life coach and a CFAR instructor, neither of whom invented it on purpose. I was able to learn it by accident because I keep trying to make things intelligible and systematize them, because it's painful for me not to, because that's how my mind currently works.

Why was I able to instantly diagnose what my to-do list pain points were?

I tried to-do list systems because people said they were really helpful. I read Getting Things Done and it persuaded me further that trusted systems for task management are helpful, I tried using to-do lists and checklists. They never worked out. I hated all my systems and dropped them, but in hindsight this gave me valuable experience about what worked, and what didn't.

Why was I already using Notes?

I was already using Apple's Notes app to record things I needed to remember, because I realized I wouldn't just remember everything in my head, and I used a reasonable tool that I came included with my phone. Since it benefited me and was painless to use, I gradually used it for more and more note-taking.

How did I know about Workflowy?

I knew about Workflowy because I have read a bunch of blogs where readers are interested in productivity, have made friends with people interested in productivity tools, and subscribe to mailing lists like the CFAR alumni mailing list with similar people. So when a tool is the obvious one for some common need, I hear about it a lot, and even see people using it. I'd even tried it a few times (and failed to make good use of it because I wasn't sure what the optimal use case was).

Secondary benefits

Oh, and once I used Workflowy I found I could use it to address the problem this narrative itself is working on. You can tell it to send you a daily email with what you added and what you completed, so I can see (some of) the tasks I completed on each day, without having to log this separately. I set up Gmail to automatically filter these emails into a separate folder (which I could do because I had access to the time and attention of someone who was pretty good at operations and setting up systems, which I could do because I was dating her, which I could do because I find that quality attractive, because my brain is pretty sensible in that way).

What effect did all this have on my soul?

It seems to have worked. I feel much better about generalized life improvements, and I'm in awe of my past self's perseverance, given that I didn't yet have the skill of interpreting intermediate results as positive feedback. Thank you, Ben. Thank you so much. Thank you for taking care of me. Thank you for these gifts you gave me, these friends you introduced me to, these skills you taught for me, this life you wove for me. I am ever in your debt.

I am deeply grateful to the others who helped me along this path. Kenzi and Gideon, Maxine, Anna, Satvik, and all the others who didn't make it into this particular story. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I hope that this example will help provide a concrete example of the long path towards high-leverage gains. It's not just that I was able to make this kind of probable improvement to my life. It's that it's now the sort of thing that's so routine that I don't even remember making the final effort. Have hope. Build good things for yourself. Pay attention to the steps along the way.

3 thoughts on “Iterated self-improvement - a worked example

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