personal allegory: time-locked fictional journals

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

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Even anemically ignoring the perspectives of neuroscience, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology, Wikipedia acknowledges that, “the relationships between the imaginary worlds of fiction and the ‘actual’ world in which we live are complicated” (inner quotes mine).

I’m continually surprised by the power of narrative and perspective-taking in assisting communication between system one and system two. While narrative has lowwwww compression, with respect to, say, mathematical formulas or nonfictional exposition, the degree to which narrative can tap into and align with deep human values and concerns is just flabbergasting to me. I mean, have you gotten past your resistance sometime (non-trivial) and played with a few characters interacting within a setting of your choosing?

If you can tap into that dreamlike, allegorical, allusional state of childlike play, woven through with adult values, perspectives, and concerns… So quickly, sometimes, do fictional, seemingly unrelated characters and scenarios, through sophisticated, oblique mappings, perfectly cover aspects of your own cares and concerns in the world…

Seemingly, your world and your actions can become enchanted, that is, your actions in the world become imbued with deeply cherished, lived values that were perhaps previously inaccessible in realtime interaction…

I’m currently experimenting with keeping a “time-locked” journal of a fictional character interacting with other fictional characters in a fictional world. I say, “time-locked” because one day in this world is one day in their world. I’m using a 2015 hardcover diary that has full pages for each day of the year, including Saturday and Sunday.

(I use angle brackets <> if I’m “backfilling” a day with more information, and I use curly brackets {} if I’m the character exploring what might happen on future days.)

As alluded to above, it’s fascinating how the inside of a fictional character in a fictional place comments on my cares and concerns, paced precisely as I live things. And the planning of that character, on future time-locked pages, facing superficially very different situations–that planning is oblique, powerful planning for me (of course by my semi-intentional but oblique, dreamlike design).


See: Reading Other People’s (Fake) Diaries

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Systematizing Implementation Intentions and Trigger-Action Plans in a Getting Things Done (GTD) System; (Also, one-shot habit installation)

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An “implementation intention” is a research construct which was designed to study goal pursuit. (I am told CFAR has adapted this construct to be a practical tool [as has lots of popular advice] and given it the name “trigger-action plan.”)

The idea is that, if you want to make sure you do something, you specify to yourself when or especially where you’re going to do it. Research has shown that, if you specify when and where, you’re significantly more likely to do what you intended, versus the condition where you merely made the intention without specifying when and where.

For example, you might check that you’re holding your car keys in your hand, every time you touch the interior driver’s side door handle, thereby making sure you never lock your keys in your car. (Choosing triggers is an art and a science. I prefer fairly high-level but, importantly, relatively unambiguous triggers, e.g. classes of situations or events. The trigger triggers [sic] as long as it’s ultimately recognizable/graspable-all-at-once by the attentional system.)

(Note that research has shown that the triggered behavior need not be performed mechanically. Research subjects can recall that a particular behavior is available to them but they retain the option to not perform it or to perform a contextually appropriate or creative version of that behavior.)

Again regarding what to call these things, I prefer to just think, “if/when-then-because”.

I think “when-then-because” when I have high confidence that the “when” condition will come to pass. I think “if-then-because” when I’m thinking opportunistically, and I don’t know if the condition will ever come to pass, at least in a form that triggers the “then” clause. [I like having the “if” versions so that I’m decisively prepared when future opportunities present themselves in the environment.] Anyway, let’s simplify it to “if-then-because,” for now; the if/when distinction doesn’t really matter, except that it helps the strategic gears in my brain turn a little better.

The “because” clause is to explicitly, strongly remember why I’m setting this intention, which strengthens the intention, makes its successful formation and triggering more likely, and it also helps me to contextualize, chain, and strategically form and dissolve these intentions. The “because” clause links up the intention with the bigger picture. Often the “because” clause is the very first thing I’ll “capture” (to use GTD language) and then I’ll elaborate or refine it a bit before moving to the “then” clause. The “if” clause is often the last thing that gets specified, though they all influence each other.

So, I have long been interested in forming “swarms,” “suites,” or “chains” of implementation intentions to facilitate achievement of complex goals.

There is some potentially discouraging research that forming implementation intentions makes it less likely you’ll carry out intentions, if the number of intentions set is greater than a handful. My suspicion is that this doesn’t have to be the case and that those results aren’t super-generalizable. If I had to guess, I would expect that the brain can handle many hundreds of them, with training. (I’m sure that the parts of the brain involved in prospective memory would get noticeably bigger over time, like the hippocampi in those London taxi drivers.)

My impression is that CFAR suggests lightweight trigger-action plans, setting them and forgetting them (heh) in the moment. I prefer something slightly more heavyweight (in the practiced limit), and I generally look for ways to systematize behaviors so that I can one-shot install them if at all possible.

So, I’ve been thinking about how to systematize suites of implementation intentions. What I present below could be plugged into an already-existing GTD-style system. (I intend to do just that.)

So, first consider, say, a spreadsheet of implementation intentions that would fill up and evolve slowly over time.

Ok, so, “if-then-because.” That’s three columns:


(Note that this example isn’t to scale. Each column could have several hundred words, whatever’s needed to sufficiently evoke a complex condition, behavior, or situatedness/bigger-picture context.)

The fourth column is used for linking the intention to a tracking sheet, because I love tracking sheets. I consider the tracking sheet below to be the main “touchstone” or “dashboard.” If you don’t love tracking sheets, just consider this a provocative example that you could adapt.

So, I use generic and tailored tracking sheets because I find them helpful for one-shot installation of habits. If I can figure out how the tracking sheet should look, I’m 95% of the way there towards a regular habit. This one will probably go through more iterations as I play with it:


(Click graphic to enlarge.)

Alright, so that’s pretty complex. Let me break it down:

  • This sheet can track up to 64 intentions (0-63). Each tiny cell refers to a single intention on a single day. Each column is a particular intention over time. Each row (except for the interspersed informational rows) is a single day.
  • “Sheet code” refers to the id column in the spreadsheet above. It is intended to a be a prefix, e.g. “A” for intention “A1.” All the intentions on this sheet would start with an “A” if that’s what I filled in for the sheet code. There could also be a “B” sheet, etc. An “A” sheet and a “B” sheet could track up to 128 intentions, and so on. We’ll see if I get that far. In any case, I wanted to be able to add in additional intentions up to an arbitrary number. GTD systems sometimes track hundreds of discrete elements.
  • The “Location” cell points back to where the explicit evocations (text) of the intentions are stored, e.g. the name of the electronic spreadsheet or the label on the paper file folder, etc.
  • Each cell contains something like “i > t”. There are three possible letters: i, t, b. And there are two slots, _ > _. This gives six distinct strings that could appear in a cell. i, t, and b stand for, “if,” “then,” and “because,” of course. The idea is that they allow me to quiz myself in a pre-arranged way. (I suppose you could also throw everything in Anki.) “i > t” means that I can look at the “if” clause, and then I have to generate the “then” clause, and so on. These prompts are ordered and staggered to evenly exercise all permutations for a particular intention, over the course of six days.
  • Finally, I creatively repurpose the “i > t” strings to structure my daily tracking; these strings have three symbols for me to color over, the two letters and the angle bracket. I color over the first symbol if that slot/id is currently occupied. I color over the second symbol (“>”) if I got the quiz right and/or it metacognitively feels like the intention is “locked in.” (I could also take the CFAR-style inner simulator view on that, like, simulate the future and ask myself if I’d be surprised if the intention didn’t trigger in the future, etc., etc.) I color over the final symbol if that intention was triggered that day. I may make a hollow circle if the intention could have been triggered but it wasn’t. These notation systems evolve naturally.
  • So those are the big pieces. With a little practice, based on prior related experiments and experiences, I expect to be able to get through this in 5-10 minutes per day, not including curating intentions. But, anyway, we’ll see how it goes. I’ll keep stripping it down until I find the right speed/benefit tradeoff.

In any case, the goal of this system is to have a relatively lightweight (for me) way to signal commitment to myself, to form commitments with myself, and to make it more likely I’ll carry out those commitments when I desire to do so. I’m very curious to see if/how I use this system.

I’m looking for ways to cache dense, sophisticated, opportunistic behavior that importantly do not put a drain on working memory. (And indeed, research shows that the more likely an intention is to be triggered, the less drain on working memory and cognition it has!)

I’m also especially interested in anti-goal-shieldingGoal shielding is often thought to be a positive thing: if you focus on goals over time, to the exclusion of other environmental stimuli and opportunities, then you’ll be more likely to achieve those goals. But that can come at the cost of missed opportunities. It just depends on the specific situation on the ground.

So, one-shot habit installation, sophisticated goal pursuit with reduced drain on working memory and attention (and thereby more flexible attention, for deep focus or open focus), and cached triggers to decisively engage in opportunistic behavior. We’ll see how it goes: about one-in-six of my experiments gets used for weeks (these usually don’t make it to the blog), and about one-in-ten get used for years.

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added a google group

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

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I’ve added a google group up on the header. Right now there’s just one schizophrenic post from me, but I’m hoping it’ll become a backchannel for the web/IRL meetups as well as a place for general discussion. I’m going to be gently nudging everyone I correspond with about blog topics to start posting there. We’ll see if it takes off or at least becomes an interesting, steady trickle.

If you’re reading this, you’re welcome to post anything about anything. Please let me know if you see settings I should tweak to improve the experience and make you more likely to post.

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

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

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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

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

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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? […]

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