[Old] Wayfinding series

As I said in the in­tro to the “map­mak­ing se­ries” post, I’m re­post­ing some con­tent from my old blog that peo­ple found use­ful. They par­tic­u­larly found things I wrote in this se­ries use­ful, and of the two se­ries I agree that this is likely the more use­ful one, the former be­ing re­posted mainly be­cause this one oc­ca­sion­ally refer­ences it. If you are fa­mil­iar with LW much you prob­a­bly don’t need to read the first post.

As I also said in the first post, this is old con­tent that I no longer en­tirely en­dorse, al­though I think most of it re­mains use­ful and sur­pris­ingly skil­lful ad­vice given how lit­tle I knew back then. I’ve been about 7 differ­ent peo­ple be­tween when I wrote these posts and now, to give you some idea of the dis­tance I’m sug­gest­ing I have from it. Nonethe­less, I think learn­ing to mas­ter the top­ics I dis­cuss here is pretty es­sen­tial if you want to at­tain to at least what­ever level of mas­tery I’ve achieved at be­ing a hu­man, much else be­sides not in­cluded.

I hope these words treat you well.

find­ing your way

hav­ing now a good sense of maps and map­mak­ing, we can be­gin to use our maps to find our way through the ter­ri­tory. this re­quires more than the skill of map read­ing, which is im­plicit to map­mak­ing. you need the skill of the wayfind­ing: find­ing your way through the ter­ri­tory to a des­ti­na­tion.

what sort of des­ti­na­tion? the kinds of des­ti­na­tions that ex­ist in the ter­ri­tory: pos­si­ble fu­ture wor­lds states you could find your­self in. for ex­am­ple, hun­gry? find your way to eat­ing a sand­wich. thirsty? find your way to drink­ing a glass of wa­ter. en­nui? find you way to hav­ing a life’s pur­pose. to put it in a story:

you are try­ing to go to your friend’s house. you have a map that shows you that to get there you need to walk down the street, though a patch of brush, past an an­gry dog, and then up a nar­row lane with your friend’s house at the end. the map tells you where to go, but just read­ing that map is not enough to get you there.
you know how to walk down the street just fine, but when you come to the brush just know­ing you must go through it is not enough: you have to know how to clear a path through it. and if you try to pass by the an­gry dog he’ll prob­a­bly bite you, so you also have to know how to ap­proach the dog to keep him from at­tack­ing. only then do you get to go up the nar­row lane to reach your friend’s house.

when put this way it may seem ob­vi­ous that wayfind­ing is a skill apart from map read­ing, yet many peo­ple fail to no­tice this be­cause they don’t re­ally know how to make mean­ing of wayfind­ing be­yond map read­ing, es­pe­cially when the metaphor is less clearly laid out.

sup­pose you want to lose weight, and fur­ther sup­pose, sci­ence aside, that weight loss is a sim­ple mat­ter of eat­ing fewer calories than you use each day. in this case you know ex­actly what the map looks like: you eat less and do more so that calories in are less than calories out. great! hav­ing read the map, you have now lost the weight. only it doesn’t work like that. you some­how have to use this knowl­edge of the map to lose weight. this is the skill of wayfind­ing: tak­ing what you read in the map to ac­tu­ally get some­where.

this is what makes wayfind­ing the first gap you must cross to move be­yond map­mak­ing. it’s not enough to read the map: you have to do things in or­der to move based on what you have read in your map. fol­low­ing the win­ning way re­quires that you not only make a map that helps you win, but also us­ing the map to help you win.

nat­u­ral wayfinding

al­though wayfind­ing is not as sim­ple as map read­ing, it’s still a skill you are already sur­pris­ingly good at. most of the ways in which you are not good at wayfind­ing are be­cause you don’t have a good map of the ter­ri­tory or be­cause you find your­self in situ­a­tions more com­pli­cated than those your an­ces­tors evolved to han­dle. but be­cause you already have ex­cel­lent nat­u­ral skills, we should look for ways to am­plify them so that they work in the mod­ern world.

this is, in essence, the whole story on wayfind­ing: the rest is just de­tails.

but de­tails are never ‘just’ de­tails: they’re the in­for­ma­tion you need to know. so let’s be­gin by con­sid­er­ing the things you are already good at in terms of wayfind­ing. the core of your skills boil down to these:

  • you can fo­cus your attention

  • you can au­to­mat­i­cally prioritize

  • you can hold thoughts in your mind

  • you can re­mem­ber old thoughts

you may not ap­pre­ci­ate how amaz­ingly good you are at these pro­cesses be­cause you reg­u­larly hit their limits, but con­sider that all the time ev­ery day you make mil­lions of de­ci­sions by au­to­mat­i­cally and un­con­sciously pri­ori­tiz­ing pos­si­ble fu­ture ac­tions, base those pri­ori­ties on what you are think­ing and what you have thought in the past, and then ex­e­cute on those de­ci­sions with­out be­ing con­stantly dis­tracted by the hun­dreds of bits of sen­sory in­put you re­ceive each sec­ond. most of the uni­verse, and even most liv­ing things, can’t do that.

why do you some­times drink wa­ter? not ul­ti­mately, but prox­i­mally how do you come to drink wa­ter? first, your body senses a lack of wa­ter through one of many pos­si­ble mechanisms, so let’s sup­pose here that your mouth is dry. this pro­duces a ‘thirsty feel­ing’ thought about need­ing to drink wa­ter. re­mem­ber­ing there is a glass of wa­ter near you, you choose (even if it hap­pens be­low the level of con­scious­ness) to lift the glass of wa­ter and take a sip. while drink­ing this wa­ter you are au­to­mat­i­cally ig­nor­ing most of your sen­sory in­put to fo­cus only on the senses you need to help you take the drink. you con­tinue drink­ing un­til the ‘thirsty feel­ing’ thought is pri­ori­tized un­der some other thought, like the ‘take a breath’ thought, at which point the choice pro­cess has already be­gun again.

this story about wa­ter drink­ing is highly stylized: there are many de­tails ex­cluded, mostly be­cause we don’t even un­der­stand all the de­tails. but the point re­mains that you have an in­cred­ible abil­ity to make com­plex choices based on a mas­sive amount of in­for­ma­tion. to the ex­tent you can get bet­ter at wayfind­ing, we’ll be look­ing for ways to take these nat­u­ral skills and build some­thing more pow­er­ful out of them.

find­ing focus

al­though we have mar­veled at the power of our nat­u­ral wayfind­ing skills, if we are to im­prove upon them we must ac­knowl­edge their limits so we can build sys­tems to do more than we could on our own. thank­fully the limits of hu­man cog­ni­tion are great fod­der for aca­demic re­search, so we know quite a bit about the edges of at­ten­tion, choice, and mem­ory. we’ll con­sider each in turn, so let’s start with the most fun­da­men­tal of all to get­ting things done: fo­cus and at­ten­tion.

fo­cus is limited and heav­ily in­fluenced by en­vi­ron­men­tal, metabolic, and psy­cholog­i­cal fac­tors. this is well known, but it bears re­peat­ing be­cause many of us do a bad job of act­ing on this in­for­ma­tion when we need to fo­cus.

the sim­plest things to deal with are the en­vi­ron­men­tal as­pects of fo­cus. in terms of en­vi­ron­ment, ev­ery­one is a bit differ­ent, but i think we can sum­ma­rize an en­vi­ron­ment con­duc­tive to fo­cus as:

  • free of distractions

  • calm

  • cog­ni­tively untaxing

some might ob­ject that they fo­cus well in chaotic en­vi­ron­ments. they feel like they get more done there than in a quiet room. i have no ob­jec­tion to this and see it as just an­other ver­sion of a dis­trac­tion-free, clam, com­pre­hen­si­ble en­vi­ron­ment. maybe quiet dis­tracts you? fine, add some noise. maybe be­ing alone is dis­tract­ing. fine, add some peo­ple. the point is to find an en­vi­ron­ment in which you are min­i­mally taxed by hav­ing to deal with the en­vi­ron­ment. you should feel com­fortable and able to pay at­ten­tion to what you want rather than what you are made to.

metabolic as­pects of fo­cus are a bit trick­ier, but still rel­a­tively straight for­ward. at the high level, the things you need to be able to fo­cus are:

  • enough sleep

  • suffi­cient nutrition

  • healthy phys­i­cal condition

sleep prob­a­bly has the most im­pact on at­ten­tion. adults need be­tween 4 and 12 hours per day at the ex­tremes, with 8 hours av­er­age and 6 to 10 hours typ­i­cal. whether that sleep is all in one block or seg­mented, get­ting enough sleep is mostly about cre­at­ing an en­vi­ron­ment where you are ready for sleep and have enough time to sleep the amount you need. be­ing ready for sleep means re­duc­ing light­ing, avoid­ing phys­i­cal ac­tivity, and re­lax­ing a few hours be­fore bed. if for some rea­son you can’t get enough sleep, a sleep ther­a­pist might pre­scribe you a stim­u­lant to help you stay awake or a sleep­ing aide to help you get more sleep.

in ad­di­tion to sleep, nu­tri­tion is im­por­tant to at­ten­tion, speci­fi­cally your gen­eral nu­tri­tion and the bal­ance of chem­i­cals in your body when you try to fo­cus. you need to con­sume a good bal­ance of fats, pro­teins, car­bo­hy­drates, and micronu­tri­ents in or­der to meet all your body’s needs. if you don’t you may feel tired, lethar­gic, or have dis­tract­ing symp­toms that re­sult from malnu­tri­tion. and be­cause your brain is the most en­ergy-hun­gry or­gan in your body but also one of the least crit­i­cal to con­tinued life, your brain is one of the first things to suffer when you are mal­nour­ished. fur­ther, your brain needs read­ily available en­ergy in the form of sugar, so good fo­cus also means hav­ing read­ily available sugar in your body. if you eat well your body should han­dle this for you, but if it doesn’t you may need to eat fruits or other small sug­ary foods to help main­tain fo­cus un­til your diet im­proves.

phys­i­cal con­di­tion also plays a role in at­ten­tion. healthy phys­i­cal con­di­tion is not so much about be­ing in shape, though, as it is about hav­ing a work­ing body. your body is in­tended to be used for things like run­ning, jump­ing, bend­ing, and lift­ing, so if you don’t get reg­u­lar phys­i­cal ac­tivity your body is not op­er­at­ing un­der nor­mal con­di­tions. this can lead to de­creased cog­ni­tive func­tion in gen­eral, and difficulty fo­cus­ing in par­tic­u­lar.

en­vi­ron­men­tal and metabolic im­pacts on at­ten­tion cov­ered, there are the psy­cholog­i­cal as­pects of fo­cus. it’s eas­ier to fo­cus on things you care about, even when those things may not be the things you think you should care about. when you lack a rea­son to care, it’s harder to fo­cus and get things done. if you don’t much care about some­thing then you ei­ther need to start car­ing or ac­cept you don’t ac­tu­ally care and not ex­pect to be able to fo­cus eas­ily. ei­ther way is fine, but it un­der­scores the point that car­ing mat­ters. fo­cus­ing on things you don’t care about is men­tally tax­ing and burns out abil­ity to fo­cus.

but fo­cus is not ev­ery­thing. even if you can fo­cus your at­ten­tion well on what­ever you want when­ever you want, you still have to de­cide what to fo­cus on. and the first part of de­cid­ing what to fo­cus on is re­mem­ber­ing.

re­find­ing thoughts

bet­ter wayfind­ing de­pends in-the-mo­ment on im­prov­ing fo­cus and at­ten­tion, but wayfind­ing is also about read­ing your map, i.e. re­mem­ber­ing things. and re­mem­ber­ing things is about re­think­ing old thoughts, i.e. re­call­ing mem­o­ries: thoughts you pre­vi­ously had that you can re­think quickly with­out hav­ing to re­gen­er­ate them from scratch. to out­perform nat­u­ral wayfind­ing, we’re go­ing to need to in­ves­ti­gate the limits of mem­ory and find ways to work with those limits to achieve more.

mem­ory is ac­tu­ally made up of at least three parts: sen­sory mem­ory, work­ing mem­ory, and long-term mem­o­ries. sen­sory mem­ory is the very short lived (less than 1 sec­ond) mem­ory that sense or­gans use in re­lay­ing in­for­ma­tion to the brain. work­ing mem­ory, also known as short-term mem­ory, is the set of thoughts you can keep con­sciously aware of with­out re­peated sen­sory in­for­ma­tion from out­side your body. long-term mem­o­ries are a col­lec­tion of differ­ent mechanisms you use to store differ­ent types of in­for­ma­tion in differ­ent ways for long pe­ri­ods of time out­side con­scious thought to be re­called later. for ex­am­ple, it ap­pears that long-term smell mem­ory is sep­a­rate from long-term fact mem­ory, thus you have mul­ti­ple long-term mem­o­ries.

your work­ing mem­ory is very limited. most peo­ple can only keep about 5 things in their con­scious thoughts at a time. it ap­pears that work­ing mem­ory is made up pri­mar­ily of an au­di­tory loop. this loop re­peats sound in­for­ma­tion in­side your head over and over, but it is of a fixed length, so you can’t re­mem­ber any­thing more than what you can cram in there. al­though it ap­pears that some peo­ple have had suc­cess train­ing longer work­ing-mem­ory through ex­er­cises, even then the in­creases are rel­a­tively small (and prob­a­bly not that use­ful). so even if you can get your­self more work­ing mem­ory, it still means you can keep lit­tle more than a hand­ful of things in your con­scious thoughts.

in com­par­i­son you store an al­most limitless num­ber of thoughts in long term mem­ory, but these mem­ory fac­ul­ties have their own con­straints. se­man­tic mem­ory is how you re­mem­ber in­de­pen­dent facts like ‘toma­toes are red’ and ‘the men­doza line is .200’. this is apart from pro­ce­du­ral mem­o­ries that store sen­sory in­for­ma­tion and emo­tional con­tent trig­gered by other mem­o­ries. ex­cept­ing cases of de­men­tia or brain in­jury, it ap­pears se­man­tic mem­o­ries can stay around in­definitely once con­soli­dated, but may be­come al­most im­pos­si­ble to re­trieve with­out reg­u­lar re­call to main­tain con­soli­da­tion. in this way se­man­tic mem­ory is like work­ing mem­ory in that you have to keep re­peat­ing thoughts to hold on to them, but the pro­cess op­er­ates over months and years in­stead of sec­onds.

epi­sodic mem­ory lets you re­mem­ber past ex­pe­riences and other generic in­for­ma­tion that isn’t oth­er­wise stored in an­other long-term mem­ory. un­for­tu­nately epi­sodic mem­ory is highly un­re­li­able: very lit­tle de­tail is stored in epi­sodic mem­ory so most of the de­tails have to be re­con­structed on-the-fly when re­call­ing a thought. this means en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors can heav­ily in­fluence the de­tails of epi­sodic mem­o­ries if not their gist. how­ever epi­sodic mem­o­ries seem to be more ro­bust than se­man­tic mem­o­ries, able to be re­called af­ter many years of di­suse, so they provide a po­ten­tial key to very long-term stor­age of ar­bi­trary in­for­ma­tion.

given this amaz­ing yet limited mem­ory, we now need to look for ways to im­prove upon it. tech­niques fall into roughly two cat­e­gories: op­ti­miza­tions and aug­men­ta­tions. op­ti­miza­tions are those meth­ods that make bet­ter use of your ex­ist­ing mem­ory abil­ities to max­i­mize their po­ten­tial. aug­men­ta­tions are pro­cesses that put mem­ory out­side your head so you can re­li­ably re­trieve thoughts later. we’ll con­sider both in turn.

re­find­ing optimizations

let’s first con­sider op­ti­miza­tions for re­find­ing thoughts. there are many well known mechanisms for im­prov­ing mem­ory, so i’m go­ing to fo­cus on three here that are rel­a­tively easy wins: sim­ple to learn and high value. They are chunk­ing, spaced rep­e­ti­tion, and the method of loci.

the sim­plest is chunk­ing, and it ap­plies to both work­ing and se­man­tic mem­ory. rather than re­mem­ber­ing, for ex­am­ple, three let­ters as ‘b, r, and t’, you chunk them to­gether into ‘brt’. when com­bin­ing just a few things this chunk ends up as a sin­gle thought in your mem­ory that you can re­call all at once and then split apart when nec­es­sary. this is fa­mously used in tele­phone num­bers to make them eas­ier to re­mem­ber, but you can find ex­am­ples of chunk­ing ev­ery­where, es­pe­cially in how you re­mem­ber trade­names and com­mon phrases.

a naive model of how this works is that thoughts can each hold some max­i­mum amount of in­for­ma­tion. you store thoughts in your mem­ory rather than raw in­for­ma­tion, so chunk­ing al­lows you to bet­ter pack in­for­ma­tion into thoughts and make more effi­cient use of the space. this is es­pe­cially use­ful for work­ing mem­ory since you can only keep about 5 thoughts in your head at once.

but pack­ing your thoughts tightly does no good if you can’t re­mem­ber them. se­man­tic mem­ory re­lies on con­soli­da­tion, yet you have lit­tle di­rect con­trol over what gets con­soli­dated. some­times things you would like to re­mem­ber fail to get con­soli­dated while other things you per­ceive as less use­ful do. to en­sure the thoughts you most care about get and stay con­soli­dated, you can use the method of spaced rep­e­ti­tion.

the idea of spaced rep­e­ti­tion is sim­ple: on some reg­u­lar sched­ule you re­view thoughts to give them re­peated op­por­tu­ni­ties for con­soli­da­tion. of­ten peo­ple op­ti­mize and au­to­mate this pro­cess us­ing tech­nol­ogy as sim­ple as flash­cards or as com­plex as anki, but it works even with­out tool­ing. for ex­am­ple, when you meet new peo­ple most of the time you need to see them a few times spread out over days or weeks in or­der for them to be­come fixed in your mind. with­out re­in­force­ment at reg­u­larly in­ter­vals you’re likely to for­get them. the trick of spaced rep­e­ti­tion is to take this nat­u­ral method you have for fil­ter­ing what in­for­ma­tion to re­mem­ber and de­liber­ately us­ing it to choose what you will re­mem­ber.

the most ad­vanced tech­nique i’ll men­tion, and the one that takes the most effort to get the most out of, has been used for thou­sands of years and is known as the method of loci or the mem­ory palace. the idea is to use epi­sodic mem­ory to con­struct nar­ra­tives where you imag­ine a place in your mind that you can ex­plore and move through to find in­for­ma­tion. this is how peo­ple could re­cite epic po­ems like the home­ric epics from mem­ory. be­fore the mod­ern era of cheap writ­ing re­pro­duc­tion, most ed­u­cated peo­ple learned the method of loci so they could re­li­ably store in­for­ma­tion that they would have no other way to lookup later.

as this sug­gests, the method of loci is less pop­u­lar now be­cause we in­stead use mem­ory aug­men­ta­tion sys­tems, but it is still use­ful to some peo­ple, es­pe­cially those who may not have the lux­ury of ac­cess­ing the world’s knowl­edge from a tiny de­vice in their pocket or need faster re­call than such de­vices al­low. any­one who must re­act quickly and think on their feet with­out look­ing things up could stand to build a mem­ory palace.

so now you have tech­niques to bet­ter use work­ing, se­man­tic, and epi­sodic mem­ory, and un­til a few hun­dred years ago this would have been the limit of what you could have done to im­prove your mem­ory. but writ­ing and the tech­nolo­gies de­pen­dent upon it al­low us to do some­thing more: we can aug­ment our mem­o­ries by stor­ing thoughts out­side our heads for later re­mem­ber­ing by rein­put.

re­find­ing augmentations

be­yond tech­niques to bet­ter uti­lize mem­ory, the skill of re­find­ing thought can be im­proved with mem­ory ar­gu­men­ta­tion sys­tems. they are not so com­plex as the name im­plies, though: sim­ply put these are ways of stor­ing thoughts out­side your head so you can eas­ily ac­cess them later. the com­plex­ity in mem­ory aug­men­ta­tion lies in the vast web of tech­nolo­gies needed to make these sys­tems prac­ti­cal. that’s why even as re­cently as a few decades ago these sorts of sys­tems were in less use than they are to­day, and will likely be in greater use in the fu­ture.

work­ing mem­ory is short, but the way it func­tions shows us how to im­prove upon it. work­ing mem­ory ap­pears to be pri­mar­ily an au­di­tory loop and vi­sual sketch­pad of you re­peat­ing things to your­self. it’s an in­ter­nal mechanism for re­send­ing in­for­ma­tion as if you were sens­ing it for the first time. we can take ad­van­tage of the same tech­nique, but us­ing your eyes and putting the ‘loop’ out­side your head.

you can aug­ment your mem­ory by mak­ing things visi­ble (as in liter­ally writ­ing them down where you can see them). when you can quickly look around to see things you don’t have to put any effort into re­mem­ber­ing them other than re­call­ing where to look when you need some­thing. this is a far eas­ier task than try­ing to keep lots of in­for­ma­tion in your head, be­cause if noth­ing else you can quickly res­can ev­ery­thing in your vi­sual field to find what you want.

but for this to work the in­for­ma­tion has to be ac­tu­ally visi­ble to you. this works well if, for ex­am­ple, you work on a com­puter and have a large enough screen that you can mul­ti­plex it to see many views at once: web pages, doc­u­ments you’re edit­ing, chat logs, what­ever. or, if you’re work­ing on pa­per or with a chalk board, writ­ing all the stuff you need to re­call where you can eas­ily glance over to see it. all these work by tak­ing the bur­den of re­mem­ber­ing some­thing in work­ing mem­ory and offload­ing it to a sys­tem so you don’t have to keep it in your head, free­ing up your work­ing mem­ory to have more space to work with new con­cepts as you think them up but haven’t writ­ten them down.

if we take this same tech­nique but make it about stor­ing in­for­ma­tion rather than look­ing at it right away, you get the great col­lec­tion of mem­ory aug­men­ta­tion sys­tems we know as notes, di­aries, pa­pers, web pages, and books. we take these tech­nolo­gies for granted to­day, but they have rad­i­cally changed how much in­for­ma­tion a sin­gle per­son can use over the course of their life. five hun­dred years ago the story was very differ­ent.

un­til the in­ven­tion of the print­ing press peo­ple had to per­son­ally write down all in­for­ma­tion they wanted to store. at best a per­son could hire scribes to help them, but this was still a very ex­pen­sive propo­si­tion. by us­ing mov­able-type print­ing presses peo­ple could write things for you, and all you had to do was buy a copy. this be­gan a trend of ac­cel­er­at­ing growth in knowl­edge stores that to­day gives you or­ders of mag­ni­tude more in­for­ma­tion than you could ever use in a life­time.

so now that we’ve cov­ered mem­ory and fo­cus, there re­mains one last part to your nat­u­ral wayfind­ing abil­ities to be im­proved: pri­ori­ti­za­tion. this is the last piece of the puz­zle of how you can bet­ter find your way.

find­ing priority

when we be­gan our in­ves­ti­ga­tion of nat­u­ral wayfind­ing we broke it down into three parts: fo­cus, mem­ory, and pri­ori­ti­za­tion. the former two make up the pre­req­ui­site skills of wayfind­ing, but they only take you as far as map read­ing. the last, the abil­ity to pri­ori­tize, is what is needed to find your way.

luck­ily you are already pretty good at pri­ori­tiz­ing! you pri­ori­tize all the time with­out even re­al­iz­ing it. that’s be­cause this is the fac­ulty by which you do things: you must always choose what things to do be­cause you can­not do ev­ery­thing at once. do you breathe now? eat? drink? dance? read? the choices you make are the re­sult of a com­plex pro­cess of pri­ori­tiz­ing all pos­si­ble ac­tions.

to ap­pre­ci­ate just how hard it is to choose, con­sider the prob­lem of build­ing an ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence. early on com­puter sci­en­tists thought it would be easy: just put a bunch of info in the com­puter, set up some sim­ple, self-im­prov­ing al­gorithms to work with it, and you’ll get an ai. but it turns out that doesn’t work: we to­day have com­put­ers with far more fo­cus and mem­ory than any hu­man could ever have, but we still don’t con­sider them to have in­tel­li­gence on par with in­sects let alone hu­mans. why aren’t com­put­ers already in­tel­li­gent? be­cause their pri­ori­ti­za­tion mechanisms are too sim­ple.

what hu­mans and most an­i­mals can do that com­put­ers can­not do yet is rapidly make nu­anced de­ci­sions among in­finitely many pos­si­ble choices that steer the world to­wards a par­tic­u­lar state. com­put­ers in­stead rely on hu­mans to nar­row down their choices enough that they can de­cide among a finite set of pos­si­ble ac­tions (this is, in essence, what an al­gorithm and, by ex­ten­sion, a com­puter pro­gram is). we take pri­ori­ti­za­tion for granted, but try­ing to un­der­stand it well enough to build it has made it very clear that it’s amaz­ingly difficult and re­quires tremen­dous com­plex­ity.

so choos­ing is hard, but luck­ily we are like magic pri­ori­ti­za­tion black boxes that some­how know how to do it with­out re­ally un­der­stand­ing how we do it. we reg­u­larly pick from among un­limited pos­si­ble ac­tions, mostly with­out any aware­ness of how it hap­pens. yet there is a small part of the pri­ori­ti­za­tion pro­cess we no­tice be­cause we have ac­cess to it, and that part is con­scious choice. but con­scious choice is ex­pen­sive and limited. in fact, it’s limited by the same 5 thought limit we have on our mem­ory.

be­cause it’s hard to think more than 5 thoughts at the same time, it’s hard to con­sciously pri­ori­tize among more than 5 po­ten­tial ac­tions at once. there’s not much we can do to op­ti­mize pri­ori­ti­za­tion be­yond im­prov­ing fo­cus and mem­ory, but we can aug­ment our abil­ity to choose similar to how we aug­ment mem­ory. so if you need to con­sciously pri­ori­tize among more than 5 things, and you are sure you can’t sim­plify your life so you don’t have to choose among more than 5 things, then you need a pri­ori­ti­za­tion sys­tem.

all good pri­ori­ti­za­tion sys­tems are built around:

  • cre­ation: putting stuff you need to get done in a sim­ple, re­li­able, highly available system

  • cu­ra­tion: keep­ing the sys­tem clean and cur­rent so you can trust it com­pletely (if you don’t trust it then it won’t work be­cause you’ll defend your san­ity by con­tin­u­ing to try to pri­ori­tize solely in your head)

  • choice: look­ing at that sys­tem when you need to choose what to do be­cause it is not im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous or be­cause you are confused

the most pop­u­lar mod­ern man­i­fes­ta­tion of a sys­tem with these three-cs is get­ting things done. it’s a great choice to get started, and gtd learn­ing ma­te­ri­als will teach you how to work a pri­ori­ti­za­tion sys­tem. but gtd is only one way: once you mas­ter the ba­sics you will likely go on to build your own sys­tem that fits your life and the tools available to you.

but i have to end on a warn­ing. pri­ori­ti­za­tion sys­tems can be in­tox­i­cat­ing to some peo­ple who would give them­selves up to the sys­tem so they don’t have to choose. it doesn’t work like that! you are the en­g­ine the drives the pri­ori­ti­za­tion sys­tem: the sys­tem has no power to drive you. if you ab­di­cate de­ci­sions to the sys­tem no de­ci­sions will be made and the sys­tem will just drain your time. you are the agent, and the pri­ori­ti­za­tion sys­tem is a tool to help you, not the other way around.

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