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!

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.