Too busy to think about life

Many adults main­tain their in­tel­li­gence through a ded­i­ca­tion to study or hard work. I sus­pect this is re­lated to sub-op­ti­mal lev­els of care­ful in­tro­spec­tion among in­tel­lec­tu­als.

If some­one asks you what you want for your­self in life, do you have the an­swer ready at hand? How about what you want for oth­ers? Hu­man val­ues are com­plex, which means your tal­ents and tech­ni­cal knowl­edge should help you think about them. Just as in your work, com­plex­ity shouldn’t be a cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per. It means “think”, not “give up now.”

But there are so many ter­rible ex­cuses stop­ping you...

Too busy study­ing? Life is the exam you are always tak­ing. Are you study­ing for that? Did you even write your­self a course out­line?

Too busy helping? De­ci­sion-mak­ing is the skill you are aways us­ing, or always lack­ing, as much when you help oth­ers as your­self. Isn’t some­thing you use con­stantly worth im­prov­ing on pur­pose?

Too busy think­ing to learn about your brain? That’s like be­ing too busy fly­ing an air­plane to learn where the en­g­ines are. Yes, you’ve got pas­sen­gers in real life, too: the peo­ple whose lives you af­fect.

Emo­tions too ir­ra­tional to think about them? Ir­ra­tional emo­tions are things you don’t want to think for you, and there­fore are some­thing you want to think about. By anal­ogy, chil­dren are of­ten ir­ra­tional, and no one sane con­cludes that we there­fore shouldn’t think about their welfare, or that they shouldn’t ex­ist.

So set aside a date. Some­time soon. Write your­self some notes. Find that in­tro­spec­tive friend of yours, and start solv­ing for hap­piness. Don’t have one? For the first time in his­tory, you’ve got LessWrong.com!

Rea­sons to make the effort:

Hap­piness is a pairing be­tween your situ­a­tion and your dis­po­si­tion. Truly op­ti­miz­ing your life re­quires ad­just­ing both vari­ables: what hap­pens, and how it af­fects you.

You are con­stantly chang­ing your dis­po­si­tion. The ques­tion is whether you’ll do it with a pur­pose. Your ex­pe­riences change you, and you af­fect those, as well as how you think about them, which also changes you. It’s go­ing to hap­pen. It’s hap­pen­ing now. Do you even know how it works? Put your in­tel­li­gence to work and figure it out!

The road to harm is paved with ig­no­rance. Us­ing your ca­pa­bil­ity to un­der­stand your­self and what you’re do­ing is a mat­ter of re­spon­si­bil­ity to oth­ers, too. It makes you bet­ter able to be a bet­ter friend.

You’re al­most cer­tainly suffer­ing from Ugh Fields: un­con­scious don’t-think-about-it re­flexes that form via Pavlo­vian con­di­tion­ing. The is­sues most in need of your at­ten­tion are of­ten ones you just hap­pen not to think about for rea­sons un­de­tectable to you.

How not to waste the effort:

Don’t wait till you’re sad. Only think­ing when you’re sad gives you a skew per­spec­tive. Don’t in­fer that you can think bet­ter when you’re sad just be­cause that’s the only time you try to be thought­ful. Sad­ness of­ten makes it harder to think: you’re farther from hap­piness, which can make it more difficult to em­pathize with and un­der­stand. Nonethess we of­ten have to think when sad, be­cause some­thing bad may have hap­pened that needs ad­dress­ing.

In­tro­spect care­fully, not con­stantly. Don’t in­ter­rupt your work ev­ery 20 min­utes to won­der whether it’s your true pur­pose in life. Re­spect that ques­tion as some­thing that re­quires con­cen­tra­tion, note-tak­ing, and solid blocks of sched­uled time. In those times, check over your anal­y­sis by try­ing to con­found it, so lin­ger­ing doubts can be jus­tifi­ably quieted by re­mem­ber­ing how thor­ough you were.

Re-eval­u­ate on an ap­pro­pri­ate time-scale. Try de­vot­ing a few days be­fore each semester or work pe­riod to look at your life as a whole. At these times you’ll have ac­cu­mu­lated ex­pe­rience data from the last pe­riod, ripe and ready for anal­y­sis. You’ll have more ideas per hour that way, and feel bet­ter about it. Be­fore start­ing some­thing new is also the most nat­u­ral and op­por­tune time to af­firm or change long term goals. Then, bar­ring large un­ex­pecte d op­por­tu­ni­ties, stick to what you de­cide un­til the next pe­riod when you’ve gath­ered enough ex­pe­rience to war­rant new re­flec­tion.

(The ab­sent minded driver is a math­e­mat­i­cal ex­am­ple of how plan­ning out­performs con­stant re-eval­u­a­tion. When not en­gaged in a deep and care­ful in­tro­spec­tion, we’re all ab­sent minded drivers to a de­gree.)

Lost about where to start? I think Ali­corn’s story is an in­spiring one. Learn to un­der­stand and defeat pro­cras­ti­na­tion/​akra­sia. Over­come your cached selves so you can grow freely (definitely read their pos­si­ble strate­gies at the end). Foster an ev­ery­day aware­ness that you are a brain, and in fact more like two half-brains.

Th­ese sug­ges­tions are among the top-rated LessWrong posts, so they’ll be of in­ter­est to lots of in­tel­lec­tu­ally-minded, ra­tio­nal­ist-cu­ri­ous in­di­vi­d­u­als. But you have your own task ahead of you, that only you can fulfill.

So don’t give up. Don’t pro­cras­ti­nate it. If you haven’t done it already, sched­ule a day and time right now when you can re­al­is­ti­cally assess

  • how you want your life to af­fect you and other peo­ple, and

  • what you must change to bet­ter achieve this.

Eliezer has said I want you to live. Let me say:

I want you to be bet­ter at your life.