Whilst reading John Wentworth’s What Are You Tracking In Your Head? I came to the depressing realization that almost all the ways in which I am better than average come from certain small things that I track in my head that others don’t.
Below is the list. It aims to be interesting in its own right whilst also complementing Wentworth’s original post with more non-academic life-related examples. Feel free, also, to jump around and read what catches your eye. Each section is fairly independent of the others.
I apologize that this is really very narcissistic. But as Borges says, “What are we gonna do?”
What Warren’s Tracking In His Head
All these general life trackings are related to Prioritization—what tiny subset of actions should I choose to do, and in what order, amongst the infinite array of things that I can potentially do, to achieve goals that I, and future me, would want to achieve?
First, three heuristics help identify what is the best thing to do:
“Am I actually working towards any of my goals?” If not, stop doing whatever I’m doing.
A typical loop would be something like: I am proofreading my LaTeX homework file the $n^th$ time out of anxiety. Moving back and tracking my goals, I realize that I don’t actually care about getting a perfect grade. I then stop proofreading the file and go read some more of the course’s textbook (until I realize that I don’t want to get good at Representation Theory, and task-switches into blog post writing).
N.B. In a well-defined problem space (i.e., I have to decide amongst a few clear alternatives), goal-tracking reduces to Goal-Factoring.
After finding that I am doing something of value through goal-tracking, I then ask, Is there something else that I can do that is strictly better than this? If so, do that other thing.
For example, I might quite enjoy a textbook. But perhaps I’d simply learn better if I just went to my lectures (Sorry, Axler). Don’t let good be the enemy of perfect.
(The name comes from the concept of a “dominant strategy” in game theory.)
Am I better at doing everything else that I want to do by doing this thing? If so, I should do these multipliers first.
Examples of multipliers include touch-typing, really basic pure math, “Great Books,” communicative writing, public speaking, getting a group of good friends, clarifying my goals, and building healthy habits (sleep, exercise, diet).
Now, here are the general properties of things that I track which help me narrow my action space further.
Basically, is value in doing a task uniformly distributed in terms of time invested, or is it much weirder? I consider two things related to this:
I first think about The Pareto Principle, which forces us to identify how value is distributed with the amount of time spent.
E.g. Maybe I need to get really good at Spanish for it to be useful. Therefore, if I do decide to learn Spanish, I should go all in—else I shouldn’t learn it at all. Or, perhaps most of the value in a friendship comes when it is extremely deep, so I’d be better off intentionally cultivating deep friendships, perhaps at the cost of losing some mild friends. (See this post for more examples.)
Then, I’d also consider dependencies between actions. That is, does the order in which I do tasks matter?
The more obvious examples come from things like eating a meal. The appetizer should come before the entrée, and it matters that it does. Non-obvious examples include stuff like considering multipliers (multipliers should be done early) or productive procrastination (it may be really good to leave some things for later).
Is this action antifragile? That is, am I benefiting (and perhaps benefiting more) even if the plan fails? I consider this the most non-trivial tracking of all the things in this post.
A relevant example: Asking a girl out is antifragile because getting rejected builds character/life experience.
Other applications of antifragility include:
Risks Of Ruin
Am I taking a risk that is so big that I’ll simply not recover in a semi-likely worst-case scenario? E.g. Cheating on a test/driving too fast/tax evasion. Here, you’re basically being anti-anti-fragile since in death, metaphorical or literal, there is no bouncing back.
(The technical argument for avoiding risks of ruin is related to some property called ergodicity. Be warned that this term is really very confusing. But at least this makes it good at allowing you to show off to all of your remaining imaginary friends.)
Do I have the option to choose/change what I have chosen?
It is surprising how often I invest a shit ton into something, thinking that I would remain the same, and end up wasting tons of money. E.g. Buying a Disney Land Annual Pass and ending up not going again. We’re horrible at taking the uncertainty of the future into account. Maintaining optionality avoids this.
Implications include avoiding over-specialization/rigid career planning early on in life because that prevents you from jumping to some crazily good opportunity when it arises (see multipliers). A more concrete example is inviting someone you don’t particularly know for coffee rather than a meal, so you can leave quickly if they end up being boring. (Full Disclosure: I first encountered this as dating advice.)
N.B. Because optionality is such a wonderful thing, foreclosing one’s options can be an extraordinarily powerful thing to do—as when people, for example, marry (but note also how often divorces happen). Observe also that Optionality and Risks of Ruin are two sides of the same coin. The first serves to exploit the best case, the second, avoiding the worst case.
Systems vs. Goals
Where I want to do something, can I avoid using willpower but build a system instead?
If I, for example, want to get some more exercise, maybe rather than going to the gym, which requires effort, I can simply run to class every day (possibly by leaving my dorm later than warranted). Or, if I don’t want to watch YouTube, maybe I can get a YT blocker rather than relying on sheer willpower.
Other techniques that are in the general “systems vs. goals” framework include:
Can I pair certain mandatory unproductive tasks with productive things? Can I listen to a podcast whilst cleaning my room? Can I bring a notebook and work through some interesting ideas when I’m obligated to go to some boring talk?
When I am feeling extremely tired and want to distract myself, do I have productive distractions prepared to prevent a cycle of unhelpful distractions from starting? ? Things like an interesting novel at hand, a person I want to text, a podcast I want to listen to, an email I want to write, a blog post I want to brainstorm, a Wikipedia page I want to read, an article that I want to read, a nap that I want to take.
When learning, I mainly consider two things. a) Should I even be learning this at all? b) How can I think more deeply about what I am learning (since deeper thinking leads to better learning)?
Should I be Learning This At All?
First, I ask whether what I am reading is actually non-trivial. A good metric is the density of Kevin-Sharable Information. That is, whether I am gaining insights that are worth sharing with my friends (the friend here being Kevin, who suffers through thousand-word essays that I write via iMessage when tired—see Emergency Exit above).
Then, I ask, “Do I need to know this right now, or can I reference this later?” For example, I’d skip numerical derivations of results if it looks particularly tedious, knowing that I can check back if I really need to do know it for some calculation.
How Can I Think More Deeply About What I Am Learning?
Below are really just useful habits of thought that I’d keep in mind even when thinking, even when not in the context of learning (although I’m increasingly considering thinking as an extension of learning).
What are things that I can apply this new concept to?
I also have go-to examples in different subject areas—Love when I’m doing continental philosophy, Relationships when I am thinking about sociological stuff, and Porn when I am reading about Psychology,
Thinking Within Everyday Life
When going through everyday life, I think about how concepts I know apply to the specific episodes that I am going through. Examples in my own life include going clubbing and thinking about the analogy between fluid dynamics and people moving around the crowded space, or thinking about shard theory after seeing how my mom mechanistically tells the same story in full as long as anything, however remotely tangential, comes up in a conversation.
Note that this is really the other side of coming up with characteristic examples. Rather than finding examples under general principles, we find general principles that match examples that come up in life. (Kant calls the first thinking and the second judgment.)
Non-Trivializing the Concept
A lot of times the nuances of a new concept are washed away when we identify it with some more comfortable and familiar idea. Harvard’s EarlyChinese Ethics Gen-Ed, for example, teaches Lao-Sze’s Wu-Wei (Non-Action) as basically “follow your intuitions/be yourself”—at least according to my friends. See how this makes sure that you’re not learning anything new when reading Lao-Sze, but merely reaffirms some banal thing that you’ve heard a thousand times.
The better way to go about it would be thinking something like “Oh shoot, here’s this strange concept called Wu-Wei. It kind of seems like it means “follow your intuitions,” but Lao-Sze must be more sophisticated than this pseudo-hippy mantra. What nuances am I missing? Oh, yes, Lao-Sze is telling me to “follow my intuitions so completely that I am not even trying to follow my intuitions.””
When encountering a new and interesting concept, stop and think about how this connects with other stuff. Perhaps by sitting back right now and thinking about how “connecting” is linked with characteristic examples by them both being techniques that help us see the broader significance of a concept beyond its definition.
You can connect stuff either through subsuming things under a higher-level concept, or heterarchically relating it to another concept.
I spend most of my free time talking to people and have recently realized that there are useful properties of a conversation that I consciously track which most people don’t:
How do other people feel about this conversation?
Are they liking what I’m saying? Are they enjoying it? Am I providing enough value to them such that they will want to talk to me next time? How can I make them enjoy this conversation more? Am I talking way too much?
(Learned in large part from listening to and reading David Foster Wallace.)
Where could this conversation go?
I try to track a set of topics that I can bring up when the conversation seems to be dying (that is, if I want to continue the convo.). In addition, I use backtracking (“What were we saying just then about XYZ?”) to rejuvenate a conversation—an especially good technique when the conversation has gone on for more than 30 min (taken from Impro).
(Extension of Where could this conversation go? )
If I know I’m going to meet a friend/acquaintance, I’d brainstorm beforehand a few things to talk about to get the conversation starting/prevent the conversation from failing. They’re normally unfinished threads from some earlier conversation (“Finish that story!”) or things I know that the person likes to talk about (“How’s your boyfriend doing?”).
Wow. That was a long list. Hope it was not all banal and that I’m being helpfully narcissistic!