tap tap who’s there gradual exposure

One way to implement trigger action plans might be to notice that something is TAPpy. That is, that you’re in a particular circumstance that has an obvious best next action, which is one you might not take.

A specific recent example: I had received a bill, and rather than just leaving it on my usual pile of junk I thought “this is TAPpy”, left it on top of my laptop, then after I took my shoes off found it on my laptop thought “this is TAPpy” again and paid it straight away. (Instead of just leaving it unpaid for ages for no reason which is my usual behaviour with bills).

I hadn’t consciously set out to have a trigger action plan of paying bills on time, but having recently had the concept refreshed in my mind, the moment of finding a bill in my mailbox was salient in the sense of “this is the sort of thing I would have a trigger-action set on, if I was setting trigger-actions on things”. With the same ultimate effect.

This could be seen as a kind of generalized TAP: “when I recognize something as something that should have a TAP associated with it, then do that obvious thing”. I think there’s more to it than that though.

First of all, recognizing something as TAPpy isn’t something which just happens as a natural part of our experience. Or maybe it does for some people (but under a different name) but not for me. This time it did – and again just now when I realised I had been browsing Facebook for a long time for no good reason, and the trigger action was to close down Facebook and instead look at meetup.com, where I genuinely wanted to know whether someone had written to me about something but hadn’t checked it yet. And then I came here.

In general, “if I notice I’ve been on Facebook too long, close Facebook and open WordPress” is not a bad TAP.

It has one problem though: noticing I’ve been on Facebook too long. Maybe with enough iterations, and if the process of switching over to blogging is rewarding enough, that noticing will start to happen sooner and more reliably.

But how to generalize that to all potentially TAPpy events?

Looking around, I notice a lot of yucky dishes and there seems to be something TAPpy about noticing that. The exact action isn’t clear though: I could wash the whole lot, but I have a hypothesis that if the action part of a TAP is too unrewarding it becomes impossible to set up as a habit. I could wash one spoon. I could at least throw out any obvious pieces of garbage that are sitting on the dishes.

Another possible action which might generalize a bit better, is to start a TAP journal. When something salient happens – which is often just me noticing something, not some actual external event – my action is to write it down in the TAP journal.

Trigger: notice something that vaguely feels like it has a correct action associated with it

Action: write it down

The purpose of this would be twofold. Firstly, it helps train the process of noticing TAPpy things. Secondly, it’s a source of material for creating actual, non-meta-level TAPs. Often a suitable action will occur to me shortly after. For instance, with the dishes it would be “throw out any garbage, or if there isn’t any then wash at least one item and carry on washing them until you have the urge not to”. I think I’ll do that now.

I notice my external hard disk sitting on my desk, and I explicitly put it there with the intention of causing my future self to initiate a backup. It’s too late at night to start that now, which is annoying and again might make the next action ambiguous. But this time I think it’s actually clear, and I dislike myself for saying this: add the task to my to-do list.


A to-do list, of course, doesn’t work as well if I don’t trust it. Right now the distrust extends both ways: I don’t believe I’ll actually do the things written here, and I don’t believe all the things that need doing have made it onto the list yet.

As triggers go, “noticing my to-do list isn’t working” is one hell of a one. The associated action, rather than something concrete, is probably first to categorize the failure mode a bit more precisely. The different failure modes will probably have different associated actions. Let’s look at a few, all of which appear to be active at the moment:

  • Things on there are ughy
  • There are things on there I’m otherwise not sure if I should actually do or not
  • A feeling that there are still items missing
  • A feeling that the list is too long

What do I do about any of those?

Well the first observation is that if I’m just putting things in my TAP journal, I don’t need to answer that question yet. This is a good observation in the sense that the moment I notice something annoying is not always the moment I’ll think of a solution to it. But my TAP journal is going to be pointless if most of the things in it don’t grow associated actions, and right now I’m in as good a mood as any to try and solve problems.

So what to do with a broken to-do list?


A standard, and good, piece of advice for dealing with ughy items is to make them more concrete and break them into smaller pieces. If a task is sufficiently vague and complex, and in particular doesn’t suggest an immediate first action which can be accomplished now, then it’s just going to have a vague aura of can’t-be-doneness about it.

That’s all well and good, but for the most part I’ve already done that.

So let’s look at the most urgent task and see what’s the barrier to completion. I can do this by simulating what would happen if I attempted the task. In this case the task is that there is some mail that needs opening, and I just know that when I open it I’m going to feel really bad about what I find there. Doing so is also going to spawn a bunch of other to-do list tasks most likely.

Thinking about this makes me anxious, and I’m averse to any really obvious stress trigger of which this is one. I mean, I’ll probably be fine – whatever this information is I’m better off knowing it – but somehow I don’t trust myself to be fine.

Also it might flip me into panic mode, where I’m suddenly spurred into action by the urgency of what I’m reading. Leaving something in the envelope doesn’t have that effect. It’s an obvious rationality fail, and one I wasn’t so explicitly aware I was falling into until just now, so I think I might be making progress here. Even right now, anticipating how I’d feel reading something annoying and not dealing with it straight away, but going off to do something else knowing I’d have to come back to it, I can feel my blood pressure go up.

Definitely some embodied cognition going on here.

From the outside, of course, whoever is waiting for me to read their letter and act upon it is going to be equally pissed off no matter whether I leave the letter unopened, open it and get super stressed out but do nothing, or open it and calmly do nothing. And if those were the only options, the third one seems like the best from my point of view.

But there is a fourth option, which is to open it and PANIC and try and sort out the now all too evident mess and then FAIL at that and PANIC SOME MORE and by now it’s late at night and the apartment is a mess (on top of the mess that’s already here) and I have to go to bed now hating everything and knowing I have a big mess to deal with still the next day.

From my point of view, there is a sense in which this is less preferable than option 1. There’s a sense in which it could be preferable to any of the original three options, though, because at least the original problem would get sorted out in the end. And so we have option 1 > option 4 > option 3 > option 1. A preference cycle.

Of course, with any consistent weighing of preferences, such a cycle shouldn’t happen. So if I’ve formulated this correctly, the next step would be to investigate why my preferences shift around depending which comparison I’m making. But I don’t think I’ve got the whole picture here yet, because I missed out option 2 (getting stressed but doing nothing) and left in option 3 (calmly doing nothing) which I’m not sure is physiologically possible.

Let’s look at some numbers.

                         Hedonic      Plausible    Task gets completed
1 (Leave unopened)       0.9          1.0          0.0
2 (Stress & do nothing)  0.2          1.0          0.1
3 (Calm & do nothing)    1.0          0.0          0.1
4 (Panic & complete)     0.0          1.0          0.8

Some features to note here:

  • Actually following the task through to completion, or attempting to, is going to feel the worst.
  • But at least it gets done. Or does it? I’ve left it as 0.8 here (just in case you’re choosing to read that column as a probability, it’s a reminder that I feel uncertainty about my ability to complete it)
  • The ideal of rationalist zen, being able to calmly absorb the information and then carry on as before but with the strength of additional information, I’ve marked as being hedonically beautiful but low on the plausibility spectrum.
  • All the other options are equally plausible.
  • Leaving the thing unopened is in some sense the path of least resistance option, and the one I’ve been following so far. But it still creates anxiety, so doesn’t score the full 1.0 on hedonism.
  • Finally, options 2 and 3, which both involve opening the letter but not committing to do anything yet, at least seem to advance me towards completion somehow, so I’ve given them a modest 0.1 here to indicate that at least it’s the first step (and makes it correspondingly more likely that I’ll get the rest of the things done that need doing)

Essentially, if you exclude the option marked as implausible, it’s just a question of choosing 1 if I prefer short-term gratification or 4 if I prefer long-term goal fulfilment. To no-one’s surprise, especially given that I’m complaining about it, I’ve been choosing option 1.

But that “plausible: 0.0” has me interested. Obviously we don’t get to just choose what will stress us out and what won’t, so while 2 and 3 represent different outcomes I can’t directly choose one or the other. If I could, 3 seems like the best choice – given that “do nothing” means “do nothing for now“, it’s a logical first step towards doing some version of 4 minus a lot of the stress.

So why does a stress explosion seem inevitable? I’m going to go to bed and maybe think about that.


Interlude: I’m imagining someone reading this, and thinking “this guy sure does a lot of thinking about not doing stuff. Why doesn’t he just go ahead and do the stuff instead?”

I’m imagining this person has an aura of smugness, like they themselves went through a process of thinking all the time and then one day thought no! I shall just go ahead and DO.

Well maybe, smug hypothetical reader, all that thinking you did was actually a necessary precursor. After all, I’ve tried doing stuff before and obviously while it helps in some sense it hasn’t cured me of any problem that didn’t come back again. But I haven’t tried thinking about it yet – at least, not to this extent.


So how’s my TAP journal coming along? I’ve got 28 entries, 13 of which have suggested actions. Reading the list over makes me feel uneasy: since each entry is essentially “when you notice such-and-such a thing is not in the state it should be, then do something about it” then reading down the list makes me notice a whole lot of things that are out of place and makes me feel I need to do something about all of them.

This suggests this isn’t the way to treat the TAP list: it’s not a to-do list. But the feeling I describe can itself be used as a trigger, where the associated action is presumably to schedule some kind of general tidy up.

The problem with scheduling a tidy-up is that I don’t yet have a working system of scheduling. That is, I don’t have a reliable way to tell particular future selves to do something, and be confident they’re really going to do it. This will wait for a future post though.


As it happens, I thought of a solution to the envelope problem. I can treat it somewhat like a phobia, and expose myself gradually to whatever it is that I expect to find so ghastly. In practice this means (and in fact I did this just now), opening the envelopes as a first step, with the potential to actually look inside them as a second. In fact, my curiosity took over and I took a peek inside anyway as soon as I opened them, apparently without causing me to flip out as I had originally anticipated. So I’m now in the “calmly doing nothing” position that previously I had assumed was impossible.

Actually I should write that down as a TAP: if I’m faced with a very simple task that seems extremely scary, figure out if I can turn it into exposure therapy.

I have another very similar task which doesn’t involve actual physical envelopes, and I’m not really sure how I could apply this method here. But I’m just going to check my to-do list to see if there are any other tasks of this nature.

Actually there is: there’s a really interesting one. It’s to set up a monthly donation to an effective charity of my choice. The exposure therapy approach to this is laughably straightfoward: I think of different numbers that I could be donating, and binary-chop down to the point where it doesn’t seem at all scary.

OK done. The number turned out to be 100ish, and interestingly the maximal non-scary number seemed to be the same regardless of whether it was talking about £ or $. I gave them the number in £ since that means they got more, and also presumably I’m more solidly anchored in the currency I grew up with. In a sense it doesn’t matter all that much since I expect the vast majority of my contribution not to come from this initial ramping-up segment.

(OK not quite done. I thought I had set up a monthly donation, but verifying this requires finding where the monthly donation info is on PayPal’s site. Their support page of course tells you to click on something which doesn’t exist. It turns out you click on the cog, and then on “payments”, and then on “manage payments”. My charity of choice does not seem to be listed there. Did I mention that Peter Thiel consumes the blood of the young in a dark bid for immortality?)

This could actually be a good thing though. Next month I can review my scary limit and then donate the new revised amount. I’m kind of concerned it will just be anchored to whatever I donated last time – but maybe it won’t.

Anyway, that seems pretty good going. Applying a new technique – gradual exposure – to two superficially dissimilar tasks that I’ve both been putting off for ages and ages, is proving successful in the first step.


I didn’t answer my question from before about why scary things are scary and stressful. But I’ve come up with two practical techniques – the TAP journal and gradual exposure – that on their first day of use seem promising enough.

They seem like something CFAR might have come up with. Obviously this in itself isn’t a good heuristic – these are things which seems plausible from a rationalist worldview and which somewhat resemble other fruitful techniques but which don’t have any research or evidence base backing them up in themselves.

But they’re MINE. Having a sense of ownership of your own techniques is great, and we pretty much know that different people’s akrasia is different and different techniques are going to work from person to person. Each productive person seems to implement their productivity systems slightly differently and these are a couple of reasons why.

For me there’s something else though. I had this big scarring event of psychosis and depression after attending CFAR, and while this wasn’t their fault – and doesn’t logically imply that any of their techniques shouldn’t still work afterwards – in my mind there’s still a big red X through them. I had to just forget everything I believed during my psychosis and this just slopped over into not believing in CFAR either. It’s a problem because, in terms of productivity, I don’t have any obvious better suggestions.

But it can be fixed. One thing I’ve already suggested is to take their techniques and apply them in micro amounts. Maybe that’s a particular case of the gradual exposure I already described? Though it feels different.

Another approach is to come up with an entirely different system of things that still seems like it should plausibly work. That seems to be what I’ve been working on today.

I hope at some point they will meet in the middle.

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