The January 2013 CFAR workshop: one-year retrospective

About a year ago, I at­tended my first CFAR work­shop and wrote a post about it here. I men­tioned in that post that it was too soon for me to tell if the work­shop would have a large pos­i­tive im­pact on my life. In the com­ments to that post, I was asked to fol­low up on that post in a year to bet­ter eval­u­ate that im­pact. So here we are!

Very short sum­mary: over­all I think the work­shop had a large and per­sis­tent pos­i­tive im­pact on my life.

Im­por­tant caveat

How­ever, any­one us­ing this post to eval­u­ate the value of go­ing to a CFAR work­shop them­selves should be aware that I’m lo­cal to Berkeley and have had many op­por­tu­ni­ties to stay con­nected to CFAR and the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity. More speci­fi­cally, in ad­di­tion to the Jan­uary work­shop, I also

  • vis­ited the March work­shop (and pos­si­bly oth­ers),

  • at­tended var­i­ous so­cial events held by mem­bers of the com­mu­nity,

  • taught at the July work­shop, and

  • taught at SPARC.

Th­ese ex­pe­riences were all very helpful in helping me di­gest and re­in­force the work­shop ma­te­rial (which was also im­prov­ing over time), and a typ­i­cal work­shop par­ti­ci­pant might not have these ad­van­tages.

An­swer­ing a question

pew­pewlaser­gun wanted me to an­swer the fol­low­ing ques­tion:

I’d like to know how many tech­niques you were taught at the meetup you still use reg­u­larly. Also which has had the largest effect on your life.

The short an­swer is: in some sense very few, but a lot of the value I got out of at­tend­ing the work­shop didn’t come from spe­cific tech­niques.

In more de­tail: to be hon­est, many of the spe­cific tech­niques are kind of a chore to use (at least as of Jan­uary 2013). I ex­per­i­mented with a good num­ber of them in the months af­ter the work­shop, and most of them haven’t stuck (but that isn’t so bad; the cost of try­ing a tech­nique and find­ing that it doesn’t work for you is low, while the benefit of try­ing a tech­nique and find­ing that it does work for you can be quite high!). One that has is the idea of a next ac­tion, which I’ve found in­cred­ibly use­ful. Next ac­tions are the things that to-do list items should be, say in the con­text of us­ing Re­mem­ber The Milk. Many to-do list items you might be tempted to right down are difficult to ac­tu­ally do be­cause they’re ei­ther too vague or too big and hence trig­ger ugh fields. For ex­am­ple, you might have an item like

  • Do my taxes

that you don’t get around to un­til right be­fore you have to be­cause you have an ugh field around do­ing your taxes. This item is both too vague and too big: in­stead of writ­ing this down, write down the next phys­i­cal ac­tion you need to take to make progress on this item, which might be some­thing more like

  • Find tax forms and put them on desk

which is both con­crete and small. Think­ing in terms of next ac­tions has been a huge up­grade to my GTD sys­tem (as was Work­flowy, which I also started us­ing be­cause of the work­shop) and I do it con­stantly.

But as I men­tioned, a lot of the value I got out of at­tend­ing the work­shop was not from spe­cific tech­niques. Much of the value comes from spend­ing time with the work­shop in­struc­tors and par­ti­ci­pants, which had effects that I find hard to sum­ma­rize, but I’ll try to de­scribe some of them be­low:

Emo­tional attitudes

The work­shop read­justed my emo­tional at­ti­tudes to­wards sev­eral things for the bet­ter, and at sev­eral meta lev­els. For ex­am­ple, a short con­ver­sa­tion with a work­shop alum com­pletely read­justed my emo­tional at­ti­tude to­wards both nu­tri­tion and ex­er­cise, and I started pay­ing more at­ten­tion to what I ate and go­ing to the gym (albeit spo­rad­i­cally) for the first time in my life not long af­ter­wards. I lost about 15 pounds this way (mostly from the eat­ing part, not the gym part, I think).

At a higher meta level, I did a fair amount of ex­per­i­ment­ing with var­i­ous lifestyle changes (cold show­ers, not sham­poo­ing) af­ter the work­shop and over­all they had the effect of read­just­ing my emo­tional at­ti­tude to­wards change. I find it gen­er­ally eas­ier to change my be­hav­ior than I used to be­cause I’ve had a lot of prac­tice at it lately, and am more en­thu­si­as­tic about the prospect of such changes.

(In­ci­den­tally, I think emo­tional at­ti­tude ad­just­ment is an un­der­rated com­po­nent of caus­ing peo­ple to change their be­hav­ior, at least here on LW.)

Us­ing all of my strength

The work­shop is the first place I re­ally un­der­stood, on a gut level, that I could use my brain to think about some­thing other than math. It sounds silly when I phrase it like that, but at some point in the past I had in­cor­po­rated into my iden­tity that I was good at math but ab­sent­minded and silly about real-world mat­ters, and I used it as an ex­cuse not to fully en­gage in­tel­lec­tu­ally with any­thing that wasn’t math, es­pe­cially any­thing prac­ti­cal. One way or an­other the work­shop helped me re­al­ize this, and I stopped think­ing this way.

The re­sult is that I con­stantly ap­ply op­ti­miza­tion power to situ­a­tions I wouldn’t have even tried to ap­ply op­ti­miza­tion power to be­fore. For ex­am­ple, to­day I was try­ing to figure out why the wa­ter in my bath­room sink was drain­ing so slowly. At first I thought it was be­cause the strainer had be­come clogged with gunk, so I cleaned the strainer, but then I found out that even with the strainer re­moved the wa­ter was still drain­ing slowly. In the past I might’ve given up here. In­stead I looked around for some­thing that would fit farther into the sink than my fingers and saw the han­dle of my plunger. I pumped the han­dle into the sink a few times and some ex­tra gunk I hadn’t known was there came out. The sink is fine now. (This might seem small to peo­ple who are more do­mes­ti­cally tal­ented than me, but trust me when I say I wasn’t do­ing stuff like this be­fore last year.)

Reflec­tion and repair

Thanks to the work­shop, my GTD sys­tem is now ro­bust enough to con­sis­tently en­able me to re­flect on and re­pair my life (in­clud­ing my GTD sys­tem). For ex­am­ple, I’m quicker to at­tempt to deal with minor med­i­cal prob­lems I have than I used to be. I also think more of­ten about what I’m do­ing and whether I could be do­ing some­thing bet­ter. In this re­gard I pay a lot of at­ten­tion in par­tic­u­lar to what habits I’m form­ing, al­though I don’t use the spe­cific tech­niques in the rele­vant CFAR unit.

For ex­am­ple, at some point I had recorded in RTM that I was frus­trated by the sen­sa­tion of hours go­ing by with­out re­mem­ber­ing how I had spent them (usu­ally be­cause I was mind­lessly brows­ing the in­ter­net). In re­sponse, I started keep­ing a record of what I was do­ing ev­ery half hour and cat­e­go­riz­ing each hour ac­cord­ing to a com­bi­na­tion of how pro­duc­tively and how in­ten­tion­ally I spent it (in the first iter­a­tion it was just how pro­duc­tively I spent it, but I found that this was mak­ing me feel too guilty about re­lax­ing). For ex­am­ple:

  • a half-hour in­ten­tion­ally spent read­ing a pa­per is marked green.

  • a half-hour half-spent writ­ing up solu­tions to a prob­lem set and half-spent on Face­book is marked yel­low.

  • a half-hour in­ten­tion­ally spent play­ing a video game is marked with no color.

  • a half-hour mind­lessly brows­ing the in­ter­net when I had in­tended to do work is marked red.

The act of do­ing this ev­ery half hour it­self helps make me more mind­ful about how I spend my time, but hav­ing a record of how I spend my time has also helped me no­tice in­ter­est­ing things, like how less of my time is un­der my di­rect con­trol than I had thought (but in­stead is taken up by classes, com­mut­ing, eat­ing, etc.). It’s also eas­ier for me to get into a suc­cess spiral when I see a lot of green.


Be­ing around work­shop in­struc­tors and par­ti­ci­pants is con­sis­tently in­tel­lec­tu­ally stim­u­lat­ing. I don’t have a tact­ful way of say­ing what I’m about to say next, but: two effects of this are that I think more in­ter­est­ing thoughts than I used to and also that I’m fun­nier than I used to be. (I re­al­ize that these are both hard to quan­tify.)


I worry that I haven’t given a com­plete pic­ture here, but hope­fully any­thing I’ve left out will be brought up in the com­ments one way or an­other. (Edit: this to­tally hap­pened! Please read Anna Sala­mon’s com­ment be­low.)

    Take­away for prospec­tive work­shop attendees

    I’m not ac­tu­ally sure what you should take away from all this if your goal is to figure out whether you should at­tend a work­shop your­self. My thoughts are roughly this: I think at­tend­ing a work­shop is po­ten­tially high-value and there­fore that even talk­ing to CFAR about any ques­tions you might have is po­ten­tially high-value, in ad­di­tion to be­ing rel­a­tively low-cost. If you think there’s even a small chance you could get a lot of value out of at­tend­ing a work­shop I recom­mend that you at least take that one step.