the art of self-tracking and semi-quantified self: word count alternatives as an example

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I track many different things in my life (meditation, exercise, etc.) Sometimes I track time (how many minutes I meditate); sometimes I track quantized achievements (did I do one of my exercise routines or not).

One thing that I don’t track, which is always surprising to me when I think about it, is anything to do with writing. This is surprising because, for me, writing is at the intersection of a many of my goals.

The usual thing to track with writing is probably daily word count. I know this works really well for lots of people. For me, I’ve found it counterproductive because tracking word count does not directly reward lots of the tacit, critical mental moves that I do in my writing.

Some people probably track “total-time-butt-in-chair” or “total-time-feet-in-front-of-standing-or-walking-desk.” Again, for me, I’ve found that this, by itself, doesn’t differentially reward and drive the kinds of inner behaviors that I actually use when I’m writing.

I know other people track finished pieces and roughly track progress towards those finished pieces. I can’t find the post, but I believe Malcolm Ocean publishes a post every ten-ish days, or something like that? And he increments a counter by less than one on each day he makes progress (115.1, 115.2, …). He only increments the integer place when he actually publishes (116). For me, I think this might require too much mental energy to honestly predict percent-progress-made each day, to assign a motivating increment.

Also, the inspired and bursty nature of my writing makes the Malcolm Ocean approach seem less useful for me personally. I would love, of course, to be able to make incremental progress on longer, more complex writing, while still achieving the depth and complexity in the final work that’s important to me. I think a more incremental approach would be more sustainable and would ideally improve my writing more steadily over time. But, when I’ve tried incremental progress in the past, the writing comes out flat.

Oh yeah, another thing I’ve thought about is using a diff tool that can count both insertions and deletions, which would sort of capture some aspects of revising. But again, I think it leaves out too much and possibly rewards too many of the wrong things (for me). I’d be worried of unconsciously starting to game it in unproductive ways or that it would be too cognitively exhausting to make sure it accurately reflected something motivating.

(For whatever reason, I’m more afraid of unconsciously gaming some combinations of a) tasks and b) types of tracking than others. Insertions/deletions happens to be one of them. But, like, for example, I’m personally not concerned about gaming the tracking of time spent meditating. Like, I think that’s harmless, for me, to track–and it’s probably harmless for most people, especially if taking mini-breaks.)

So just today, I got an idea for writing tracking that might work for me, for making steady, incremental progress on long, complex pieces while being less dependent on high energy, long blocks of time, and waves of inspiration.

As a first, I think I’m going to try simultaneously tracking at least two things at once in a single session, to sort of triangulate (ha):

  1. total-time-butt-in-chair
  2. max words simultaneously considered and wrestled with during that particular session

There are times, when I’m thinking intensely and carefully, that don’t involve words yet, and I want to reward that. There are also times when I’m working with a large word count, revising, which is important but super-taxing for me, but again not producing lots of new words, and I want to reward that.

(One worry here is that I won’t be rewarded for the important skill of breaking apart a piece of writing into smaller chunks that can be managed individually. This can be a huge reduction in cognitive burden, though sometimes complex stuff can’t be effectively decomposed, which is why I sometimes feel pressured to simultaneously engage such high word counts in the first place. I’m sure I could get much better at this; but anyway.)

I’m not too concerned about producing and publishing per se; the hope/test is whether that will take care of itself under this tracking regime. Again, the goal is to track in such a way that incremental progress becomes rewarding and effective, over and above trying to catch waves of inspiration and hoping that I have the time and energy to catch those waves near the exact time that they happen.

Seriously asking: How do you track your writing? What tracking challenges are you currently facing?

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New Product: Protocol to Generate Surprising Solutions, or at least Believable, Resonant Paths Forward, to Vague, Illegible, Ill-defined and Often Critically Important Problems

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I’ve published a new information product:

[…] This document describes a process for generating solutions to extremely difficult problems. It’s especially helpful for problems that are ill-defined; that is, you might not even really be able to put your finger on the problem. That is, you might not be able to fully grasp or describe it, or, if you can, only in a piecemeal fashion.

You might call these illegible, wicked, anti-inductive or tacit problems. Everything might or might not look the same in every direction (“environmental isotropy”). As described above, there might be uncertainty or contingency around what you actually want (“goal ambiguity”). And actions that you take, including waiting, might change the landscape and the game you’re playing, right out from under you (“enaction”).

Furthermore, you might feel trapped. Or you’ve been thinking tons and tons already. Or you feel like you have to pick between hopefully-least-shitty choice “A” or hopefully-least-shitty choice “B” (false dilemma).

So, how do you proceed under such situations? […]

Click to Go to Product Page

Fucking Meditation, How Does it Work?: Or, what are you doing and why are you doing it?

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At the weekly web meetup today, someone brought up what I call the “what am I doing and why am I doing it question.” Once you realize that meditation is a human invention, a human game played by humans, it’s natural to ask, well, now what? No gods, no masters, or something.

Or, rather, there’s this thing that’s been around for thousands of years. And lots of people alive today say it’s really valuable to do it. And/but, everyone recommends a different version. And how is meditation or Buddhism or whatever different from Christianity or prayer or whatever? Lots of stuff has been around for thousands of years. That doesn’t necessarily make it good idea. (I’m not dissing Christianity, at least not tonight. It’s just late and I can’t think of something in the class of like bloodletting that’s been around for thousands of years and is still around.)

Ok, so science. Meditation is being studied, but not (yet?) at the granularity of this is what you should do for minutes or hours a day.

So, like, what should you do and why should you do it? And should you even do it? We were talking today about what’s the proper control for meditation? Aging? Like what if a lot of the seeming benefits of a decade of meditation are just, like, getting older and wiser and having a brain that’s mentally and emotionally connected somewhat differently on some sort of DNA-encoded plan. If all you really had to do was just get older, then meditation is this big huge massive waste of time.

But, of course, you can do all sorts of crazy shit with meditation. And here I go making claims myself. But let’s take them for a given for a second.

But that doesn’t actually solve anything. How do you pick? How do you actually know if you want any of that? How do you know if any of that is worth the time and risk? Let’s say you’re pretty sure you want something; then, how do you get it in like an hour of meditation a week, for a couple years, versus three hours of meditation a day for a decade?

Well, yeah, read books, talk to teachers, test teachers’ claims for smaller, easier-to-test stuff before even remotely putting trust in more costly claims. See if the teacher is even remotely functional in the real world. Ask lots of questions about what their inner experiences are like. Engage in lots of mini-experiments on your own time–try to have “peak” and “peek” experiences, to catch glimpses of stuff that you might want to become stable, enduring traits, someday.

Another way I look at it is, follow what feels good right now. Tease apart your inner experience for stuff that you like, and then explore amplifying those things. And look for ever-subtler stuff, fine-grained aspects of experience that limn and color and shade consciousness, that make it three-dimensional, or whatever.

There is always talk of not getting trapped by beautiful or blissful or, in the past, psychic stuff [vid] on the way to enlightenment. And that talk is ubiquitous now–it seems like everyone knows not to get trapped by that stuff. All the meditation maps are available on the internet; I think there’s much less of a chance of getting “trapped” or “lost.” I mean, I’m still afraid of getting trapped in local maxima.

Or, as one of my acquaintances put it, you don’t want to end up in a state that “globally omniscient you” wouldn’t want to be in that, nevertheless, “local you” has no incentive to escape.

I’m still afraid. But I’m way less afraid than if I was living 1500 years ago and I had access to one teacher and no printing presses and no internet forums.

It just… seems so grim to like grimly hammer away at your meditation to practice to maybe be “enlightened” someday. Maybe. Daniel Ingram, if I remember correctly, makes that point that it should often feel good. Often. And he uses video game analogies.

I think faster progress can probably be made if you take total control of your practice. No gods, no masters. You feel into what you think is possible and then you reach for it and see what happens and how you like it and whether you want to do it more and whether you get a sense of whether you like where it’s taking you.

I know that’s maybe super intimidating. I’ve mentioned that it took me like eight years to even feel like I had any sense of what what I was doing was doing to me. I was stumbling around in the dark without a flashlight. So I sort of hope it goes a lot faster for everyone else. That’s one of the reasons I write on this blog.

There were a couple books that I found helpful, even within the past couple of years:

These books are rather… fluffy and poorly edited. They aren’t necessarily a good use of your time. I’m almost, almost recommending them purely for their titles. But, holy crap, are their theses important and necessary.

Why meditate?

Because you want to.

How do you meditate?

With great fucking difficulty.

It’s really fucking hard to let go of other people’s instructions and protocols and habits. And eventually you have to, or at least be willing to let go of the side of the boat often. And at first you flail and space out (and think that’s a bad thing) and flail some more, searching, searching (fold that into the practice…). I wrote my own damn protocol. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, one of the longest projects I’ve ever undertaken, and I didn’t even know I was undertaking it, sort of, blah blah. You don’t have to be that anal, or it’ll write itself when you’re ready. Or something.

When instructions stop making sense, or you thought you knew how to follow them and then you don’t, or you thought you were doing it right and now you’re not sure–

That’s a good thing. That’s a good problem to have. You’re starting to own the practice. You have enough experience and space that you can even begin to consider those questions.

Sometimes your selection of meditation practices goes in a spiral or an orbit. I would drop practices because I just got completely lost in them; I no longer had any idea what I was doing. Or I would blunder ahead until they made sense again. Or I would read my brains out until they made sense again. Or I would eventually come back to them with a new perspective that helped me revalue or reinterpret them. Sometimes I just needed a refresher.

I mean, maybe you’ll be less anal than me. But I found this time consuming as well as a cognitive and emotional energy drain. There is opportunity cost. This is mental and emotional energy that could be spent on other things.

And, like, yeah, I don’t just meditate “for the love of it.” It is fascinating. But also sometimes I’m lost and afraid and I want things to make sense or I’m in pain or I feel like I have nothing to hold onto. And I meditate because of that, too (as well as do a vast pantheon of other varied, constructive, and healthy things).

So I guess I’m making the point that a lot is at stake.

But fascination and curiosity and skeptical-hairy-eyeball discernment and fucking-brains-how-do-they-work are not terrible compasses…

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Akrasia is failure of the imagination, not failure of the will: goals and planning with paper, timesheets, and tally marks

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[An update in the comments below. This template makes the comments too unobtrusive, I think…]

I’ve noticed that System One seems to want to do things all in one motion. It wants the accomplishment of every goal to be as simple as extending your arm and hand to grasp a cup. Also, desire and “how,” ends and means, are intertwined: System One often does not make a distinction between X and “how to get X.” There’s just “Y,” which mixes those two things together.

If you’re bumping up against the seeming limitations of reality, I’ve found it tremendously helpful to explicitly split out “goal” and “planning.” I actually don’t even think about a single explicit GOAL. I simply have “goal time” and “planning time.” During goal time I only explore what I really want. During planning time I only explore how to get it. I can switch back and forth as many times as I want, but I have to spend at least six minutes before each switch. (I use six minutes because 6*5*2 = 60 minutes and then two sets of tally marks is one hour.)

For a single, broad, “goal-ish context,” like, I don’t know, fun+money+relationships (it should be bottom-up organic), I keep separate timesheets for goal time and planning time, as well as scratch paper per section, and some card stock for dividers and stiffness, all stapled together into a single packet.

I have a third section for “doing,” but I haven’t used it that much. If you spend time on “goals” and “planning” you may have some strong, unpleasant emotions for five minutes to 48 hours, depending on difficulty level. But then you might find yourself spontaneously and effortlessly springing into action.

Akrasia is failure of the imagination, not failure of the will. If I feel like I need to force myself to do anything, beyond some simple, painless behaviorism and bookkeeping, that sets off a blaring klaxon and flashing red lights that something’s gone horribly, horribly, horribly wrong. And I don’t stop messing around until the need for will goes way, way down to acceptably minimal levels. I try to use nearly 100% of my will to obviate the need for will. That scales.

See also:

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Informal experimenting rapidly builds intuition and synergizes unreasonably well with endless reading

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Some terse, cryptic thoughts below from after the weekly web hangout.


So, I’m *totally* paraphrasing, but one topic this past week was about gaining intuition about what’s possible by a) “pushing from the inside” and b) “looking from the outside.”

Regarding “psychic powers,” this is the book that I mentioned:
There’s some mental models presented for “how to do it,” involving interplay between symbolic and nonsymbolic awareness. Of course, I found that to be highly resonant with my expectations of how ESP *should* work if it’s actually real.
…And, I really painstakingly pushed at it, in a fine-grained way, using every last bit phenomenological precision I’ve built up. And that’s how I developed my inside-view sense that there doesn’t seem to be anything there, at least anything there that’s non-local.
From an outside view, the book is mildly convincing with its cherry-picked studies of “the best evidence available for ESP.” I would be pretty convinced in general if it weren’t for my meta-perspectives of evolutionary psychology and selection bias:
So, inside view plus outside view, sort of abusing those terms.
Regarding strategic use of time and energy, being careful of opportunity cost, and choosing practices that a) have no developmental ceiling and b) confer as many side-benefits as possible, for free, a lot of that exploring has been within this framework:
I also discuss my philosophy on choosing and creating practices, at the link below:
“How big can your practice become?”
“How much of the brain can we light up with a single practice?”
But I am actually slowly accumulating a few different “additive meditation”-style practices, which I want to detail soon/eventually.

legibility of interpersonal microdynamics and macrodynamics – currently reading (5/x)

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Driver, Janice L., and John M. Gottman. “Turning toward versus turning away: A coding system of daily interactions.” Couple Observational Coding Systems. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (2004).

Coan, James A., and John M. Gottman. “The specific affect coding system (SPAFF).” Handbook of emotion elicitation and assessment (2007): 267-285.

Gottman, John M., and Janice L. Driver. “Dysfunctional marital conflict and everyday marital interaction.” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 43, no. 3-4 (2005): 63-77.

Shallcross, Sandra L., and Jeffry A. Simpson. “Trust and responsiveness in strain-test situations: a dyadic perspective.” Journal of personality and social psychology 102, no. 5 (2012): 1031.

Wile, D. Collaborative Couple Therapy. Gurman, Alan S., and Neil S. Jacobson. Clinical handbook of couple therapy . Guilford Press, 2002. [doc]

See also: countersignaling

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