programming myself

As I’ve mentioned before, I write software. On previous occasions I’ve got myself interested in some productivity technique by telling myself that it’s like programming – except I’m both the programmer and my computer, able to give myself instructions that will lead me to becoming more efficient, and that concepts such as debugging carry over.

There’s a problem with this.

As a programmer, you’re strictly on the dominant side of the relationship. Acquiring complete control over some microcosm produces an amazing feeling of power, a feeling which is exploited by some genres of video game. But programming does that too. The computer will do exactly what it’s told, and if you’re smart enough you can use that to accomplish something amazing.

But programming yourself, by introducing some system like Getting Things Done or Pomodoro or whatever, means that you also take the role of the computer, the willing slave to your own system of rules. Apparently I am not a willing slave to systems of rules, even ones which I set up myself and seemed like a great idea a few weeks ago. Usually if I have a system I’m really enthusiastic about at the start, it will last a few weeks and then totally fall apart.

When Beeminder fell apart for me it cost quite a lot of money. Needless to say, they weren’t terribly sympathetic about it either [edit: this isn’t really true, see this follow-up post].

My productivity goes in cycles. Right now I’m on one of the upward bumps – this became apparent about 1-2 weeks before I resumed writing on here. Exactly what characterizes the subsequent crashes I’m not sure, as it seems to involve some loss of self-awareness. It’s not even really apparent whether these cycles are tracking some vaguely biological thing that I have no direct control over (unless I happened to discover the exact relevant piece of biology that was going on). Or whether the systems that I put in place during the upswings are unsustainable and somehow my productivity becomes responsible for its own decline.

In other words, is it like the seasons or like business cycles?

Someone I attended CFAR with was involved in the development of an interesting system of self-experimentation. Basically, you would quaff various potions (i.e. chemicals that were rumoured to have complex effects on brain chemistry, such as coffee or butter) in a completely systematic way, turning the faucet on each one on or off on according to a predetermined schedule. At the same time, you would regularly undergo some quick tests of your alertness and other cognitive functions. At the end would pop out this amazing graph that shows you you should totally not have been drinking coffee this entire time, your entire life would have been so much better what the hell were you thinking – or possibly the opposite, or maybe there would be no signal there at all and you were lacking some vitamin instead.

Needless to say, I’m scared of the idea and never tried it.

This sort of sounds like a general aversion to things that sound like they might actually work. It also sounds like I’m merely scared of messing around with my own brain chemistry on purpose to see what happens, especially since my psychosis. There’s a sense in which if I restrict myself to substances I would normally ingest anyway, it’s doubtful anything scary would happen. I don’t think my subconscious really understands that though.

I have also not shaken off the skeptic bias, where I’m averse to getting involved with things that sound sort of sciencey without having triple gold-plated studies backing them up. The entirety of CFAR falls into that category too. It does sound like an actual bias, in that wacky things sometimes do work and a lot of things are individual, i.e. they seem to work wonders for one person and then totally fall flat for the next, and that you might reasonably expect to get better information about what works for you from self-experimentation (I’m thinking at the meta level here where getting involved in the systematic quaffing experiment mentioned earlier is merely one of many experiments that you would subject yourself to). We have more immediate and detailed feedback on what’s going on in our own minds that a psychologist would, and all of that.

Given I pay zero attention to diet, don’t exercise, hardly socialize and as such would seem to be ignoring most of the factors that people say help with cognition, it doesn’t seem on the face of it to be a terrible idea and I’m glad it’s at least come to my attention again even if I suspect I’m not going to manage to act on it.

Oh yeah I should make the connection to what I was saying last time about the Big Pile Of Sludge model of the brain vs. the Flawed Rational model. Soaking your brain in random chemicals to see what happens is obviously on the Big Pile Of Sludge end of the spectrum.

At the other end we have… what? Clearly, when I’ve been on upswings in the past I’ve tried to put into place systems that will help capitalize on that, and somehow it hasn’t been enough. Doing this wasn’t obviously wrong either: maybe it helped extend the length of productivity, or help me get the most out of it while it lasted. Maybe it helped me learn stuff about myself. But… things always end up crashing, and if I want to avoid that this time or make it less likely or make the transition to the next upward cycle easier, I need to do something differently this time.

My overall strategy this time is to be more social, since I think that the community can really help with this. It’s a little difficult putting that into action though, since generally I have enough energy during these productive phases to sort out whatever the major crises in my life currently are, but not all the underlying nice-to-haves like reaching out to friends more.

That issue needs further investigation, but first I wanna think about the productivity systems themselves.

One thing I am trying differently this time is to build flexibility into the systems themselves.

Productivity systems are often defined to be quite rigid, and people seem to like that. I assume that’s because if they’re vague or allow too many options, people will exploit those in order to procrastinate. If you took a perfect productivity system and inserted everywhere the clause “or at this point you can choose to just browse facebook randomly for the next 15 minutes” it would immediately become terrible.

People seem to be motivated by the fact that they’ve explicitly not allowed themselves to do anything other than the obvious right thing in the exact circumstance that they find themselves in.

So far, I have not been. I’ve mentioned before about staying up until 4am because one side of my mind wouldn’t let me go to bed until something was done and the other side wouldn’t let me start the task either. Deadlock like that is one outcome for me, the other possibly more common one is just to ignore whatever the rule was and go and do what I please anyway. There is some kind of virtue or strength there that I seem to be really lacking.

I also sort of want to believe that I actually want to do the right thing for the most part. Sometimes it can be difficult to reconcile that with reality, but there’s certainly a pull towards viewing myself that way. I’ve mentioned before about the attraction of seeing my mind as complex, and that’s related to that.

So while allowing total freedom in a productivity system can be problematic, I’m on board with the idea that my feelings in the moment are providing useful information and that I should listen to them and incorporate that. That’s the thinking behind coming up with a few possible approaches to a problem and then grading them, not according to some predetermined set of criteria but according to whatever feels alive in the moment. That way I feel less boxed in and if there’s one approach that I’m obviously going to hate, I can just carry on thinking of reasons why that approach is the worst and come up with a pseudo-justification for picking one of the lower-resistance approaches.  This technique has problems, but it has advantages.

I doubt that it’s going to be enough. Those two insights on their own – building in some flexibility and listening to my feelings – don’t seem anything like enough to make this little upswing end differently from all the others. So, what else is there?

Well, there’s the whole coffee and vitamins thing, let’s not forget about that. But what else?

One idea is that it would be good to measure or record somehow what’s really going on. As I said, I lack a clear idea of what causes the crashes and having a bunch of hard information might help with that (not so much this time, as it might be too late by the time I notice a trend, but maybe for next time). Figuring out what to record and then doing that systematically is the sort of tedious system that I mentioned being averse to at the start though, so while this has the vague shape of a good idea I’m not quite sure how to put it into practice. Measurements are only really useful if you’re going to keep them up consistently over a long time.

Another idea would be to pick up some ideas, like pomodoro or eat that frog, and actually read up on them properly and try to apply them correctly rather than sort of half-arsed or not at all. Again not sure this is enough, especially if it seems to be pulling in the opposite direction of what I just said about making the systems able to adapt to how I feel in the moment. As soon as you take an existing popular system and tweak it heavily to suit your own needs like that, it loses all its scienciness and possibly also loses the thing that actually would have made it work for you.

Kind of stuck on this one but will think about it more.



3 thoughts on “programming myself

  1. > When Beeminder fell apart for me it cost quite a lot of money. Needless to say, they weren’t terribly sympathetic about it either.

    Eek, can you say more about that? That doesn’t sound like us. I mean, I guess in one way it does. We’re pretty serious about the commitment device aspect — it would defeat the point if you could change your mind and get out of the commitment. Like you said, you’re setting up a program with yourself as the slave who has to faithfully execute it. On the other hand we have a whole list of safeguards to minimize any regret:

    1. It’s free at first and the amounts at risk go up gently (at first) and you can cap them at whatever amount of money you find sufficiently motivating.
    2. You can change your mind and end a goal or change how much you’re committing to do with one week notice at any time. So if you do change your mind you just have to stick it out for another week. (Or less if you can manage to maintain some safety buffer on your graph.)
    3. We’ll never charge you if there’s any kind of technicality, our fault or not, that led to the derailment. We make it super easy to cry foul if something does go wrong.
    4. There’s even a deadman switch so we won’t just keep charging you forever if you go completely AWOL (or die).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yeah! Beeminder and their staff totally aren’t like I just made them sound, and I’m really sorry about that. A lot of happy people use Beeminder and is very customer-focused. I definitely got interested in it because it was both run and used by people a lot like me. Points 1-4 are all completely accurate.

      They didn’t unfortunately quite cover what happened with me, and I can explain why. Points 3 & 4 are out, because it wasn’t a technicality and I wasn’t awol. I had genuinely fucked up in the exact way I was trying to incentivize myself not to. Point 1 applied in the sense that the amounts involved in each goal were fairly small – I don’t remember how much I got burned by in the end, it was enough to really sting and make me not want to use it again but nowhere near the amounts of money I’ve lost on stupidity in other ways.

      Point 2 didn’t apply because somehow I didn’t realize what was happening until it was already too late. I had got to the point where I had lost any intention of following through with any of my goals, but somehow imagined the tomorrow version of me would get it back, or something. If I could somehow sense a crash was coming, and not lie to myself about that, then I could have scheduled the canceling of all the goals and spent the next week trying to keep the graphs above water as best I could. As it was, I had to panic-cancel them all and watch that last week play out in pure frustration.

      If you want I can dig up the old emails and talk in private about what happened in more detail.

      Just to be clear though: no refunds, and no intention of making you look or feel bad about this.


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