I hired 5 people to sit behind me and make me productive for a month

Warning: this is not in typical LessWrong “style”, but nevertheless I think it is of interest to people here.

Most people approach productivity from the bottom up. They notice something about a process that feels inefficient, so they set out to fix that specific problem. They use a website blocker and a habit tracker, but none of these tools address the root problem. Personally, I even went as far as making my own tools, but they yielded only marginally more productive time. I craved more, and I was willing to go as far as it takes. I wanted to solve productivity top down—with a system that would enforce non stop productivity with zero effort on my part.

I had tried less intense “watch you work” solutions before. Sharing a screen with someone through FocusMate coworking was great, but I had problems scheduling and keeping consistent sessions because of my chaotic calendar. StudyTogether’s leaderboard was a great way to push myself to spend hours in the server, but I found myself eating dinner or napping instead of being productive with nobody the wiser.

I decided it was time to try the nuclear option: having people physically sit behind me to keep me on task. And if I was going to do that I was going to do it right: they’d be there 16 hours a day and only leave for me to sleep. (I have an endlessly growing list of projects I want to make, books I want to read, and skills I want to learn, so productivity means a lot to me!)

It fit my chaotic schedule well, because if I had a call or appointment I would step out, and then go right back to work when I would get back. There was also no way to game the system because they could see everything I was doing.

Hiring

I made the following Craigslist post and eagerly refreshed my inbox:

At first, I interviewed applicants about their data entry and cooking skills, but realized it was far more important to get a feel for how comfortable we were working around each other. I moved all but one of the interview candidates who actually showed up (which was only ⅓!) to the trial stage and, in the end, chose three people, with two others as backups.

This is what the shift schedule looked like (not their real names):

(I didn’t mean to only hire women; it just turned out that way. One guy actually canceled at the last minute. For reference, ~70% of my applicants were women.)

The Experience

Sunday night, before the first day, I was also so scared of sleeping through my alarm—and failing my first productivity test—that I almost didn’t get any sleep. I woke up at 6:55, threw on my clothes, double checked that my room wasn’t a horrible mess and raced downstairs to meet Sophia by 7.

Walking up the stairs, we exchanged morning pleasantries as best as one can at 7am in the morning. To my surprise, we were both less nervous than I had expected. Sophia actually seemed excited about the experiment, talking about her own journey with productivity and how she thought this was a smart thing to do. Upstairs, I let Sophia get situated at the desk, and we were off to the races!

The first thing I immediately noticed was I felt uncomfortable going to the bathroom because the assistants were effectively right outside my bathroom door. Aside from that, the first day was unquestionably a success. In the morning session, I did yoga, went to the gym, started two blog posts, and did some work for my job. The thought of doing happy baby in full view of someone else mildly unsettled me, so I asked Sophia not to watch my yoga. I asked her to prepare a post-workout smoothie to be ready before I came back from the gym.

I was unjustifiably worried about an assistant crossover, so near the end of the session I asked Sophia to leave a little early before Julia came in. Like Sophia, Julia seemed surprisingly relaxed about the prospect of working the next 8 hours from a stranger’s home, but I wasn’t one to complain.

In my evening session, I continued to work on my blog posts, and then I went on a dinner date. I told Julia I would be back by 7 (I take it slow 😉) so she could feel free to grab dinner as well. As I walked to the restaurant, it suddenly occurred to me that all my electronics in my room were up for grabs, causing me to frantically call my roommate and ask him to keep an eye on her. However, as a testament to my vetting process, she left uneventfully. In the middle of the date, Julia texted me that her car had a flat tire so she wouldn’t be able to finish the session. I didn’t think much of it, but after that she never came in again. (I would ask her if she was available and she would respond that either she was sick or had car trouble, so eventually I gave up. Which made it all the more surprising when she texted me after the experiment asking for a link to my blog.)

Tuesday morning—under Sophia’s supervision—I wrote a random blog post and did more work for my job. In the evening session with Hannah I picked up where I left off for my job and then went breakdancing. When I came back to my apartment, the internet was out so I read two chapters of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them until the internet came back on, after which I completed a lesson in the UI/​UX course I’d enrolled in.

On Wednesday, I asked Julia’s backup assistant, Rachel, to cover the evening shift. Rachel didn’t seem to be as much of a fan as Sophia of my experiment. She asked if I had a life, and that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It caught me a little off guard, but she seemed a little younger than me so I shrugged it off. At one point I had to take a call so I stepped out of my room. Coming back, she slammed her laptop shut. Laughing, I asked what she was doing that she needed to close it so frantically. She retorted coldly that she was watching porn. I instantly replied “makes sense” as if it were a reflex, and sat down at my desk. I must have been in some sort of a daze from my call, because only once I sat down I thought “wait WHAT?” I proceeded to stare blankly into my screen, afraid to turn around and look at her, as I processed the situation. After calming myself down, I continued the session as normally as possible to avoid awkwardness and breathed a sigh of relief when she left.

Saturday morning Hannah texted me she couldn’t make it, so I slept in and skipped the gym. When I woke up, I put the finishing touches on a blog post I had started earlier in the week and published it. It hit the #1 spot on Hacker News; I couldn’t stop myself from constantly refreshing the post as it got more upvotes while chuckling at the classic Hacker News hate comments. I only escaped the Skinner box when Sophia came in and I explicitly told her I wasn’t to be allowed on Hacker News.

The rest of the experiment continued in a similar fashion (albeit less hectic), with me doing yoga and working out in the morning, working my job, reading books, doing my UI/​UX course, writing blog posts, working on some side projects, all interspersed with ping pong and breakdancing classes. In the moment I didn’t feel I was working especially hard or that I was being crazy productive, but looking back, sometimes during the experiment I would do in one day what previously took me a whole week.

When I tell people about this experiment, they often ask me what the assistants would do when I would go on a website I wasn’t supposed to be on, like Twitter. I actually found that I would never go on these websites, and it’s surprising to me that people think I still would with an assistant practically breathing down my neck.

Actually, whenever the assistants did check in with me to make sure I was being productive I would feel more productive afterwards. (Maybe due to a fear of further check-ins? A desire to impress? I’m no psychologist.) However, I think they struggled to come up with a way of phrasing their check-ins that wouldn’t feel too aggressive. I couldn’t think of a clean solution either until Julia’s second replacement (one who didn’t watch porn on the job) asked me the benign question, “What are you working on?” and I realized that was a great way for them to enforce my productivity while not coming off too strong.

Another minor communication hurdle for me was asking the assistants to do tasks other than sit behind me. Although I had mentioned both in the job post and in interviews that chores would be involved, I felt I hadn’t laid it out explicitly enough, so I still felt bad when asking. (Also, I’m generally wary of being overly-assertive.) Luckily, a few assistants really liked cooking and did it of their own volition. The meals were far better than what I could have prepared myself, and I wouldn’t be surprised if having quality home cooked meals made me happier and thus more productive as well.

Aside from stopping me from going on bad websites, a big benefit of hiring productivity assistants was that I would move from task to task very quickly. Normally when I finish a task, I take a break or just dawdle. This context switching causes a lot of inefficiency. With assistants in the room, I would be forced to instantly pick up a new task, or at least consciously look for a new task.

Results

I intended to continue tracking my productivity for another month after this experiment to see how the assistant-free life compared, but I basically immediately fell off the wagon. The day after the experiment ended I tested positive for Covid. Over the weekend (after I tested negative) I participated in the ETH SF hackathon where I pulled an all-nighter, which killed any remainder of a routine I had.

Had an assistant been with me, I would have instantly gotten back on track. (That’s what happened on nights where I went out; I would ask them to come in at 11am instead of 7am and get right back to work.)

For more objective measurements, I used ActivityWatch to track how much time I spent on various things such as social media, writing, side projects, etc… I manually tracked things such as whether or not I did yoga or went to the gym on a given day, my phone screen time, and my phone pickups. However, once I fell off I also stopped tracking my time for the most part. Luckily, I recovered my yoga stats from the yoga app I use, and I recovered my gym stats from looking at my Google timeline to see if I had gone to the gym that day.

Raw results

I classified (most of) my ActivityWatch data as productive or unproductive, and here is what I got (averaged per week):

I’m always surprised by how time tracking makes you wonder where the hours went. The sum of my unproductive and productive time was only ~25 hours per week, which is surprisingly low. After looking at my time tracking during the hackathon on 11/​5-6, I only spent 9 hours in my IDE (a code editor) despite pulling an all-nighter.

Fitness

As I expected, my fitness routine got obliterated after Covid and the hackathon, and then picked back up a little as I started getting back into my routine.

The first graph doesn’t tell the whole picture. First, my productive hours for the first week post-experiment are too high because of the hackathon. Second, it doesn’t account for time spent doing fitness, which I think is fair to classify as productive. Third, I picked up the unfortunate habit of going on social media and YouTube on my work computer after the experiment ended, so the post-experiment unproductive hours are drastically undercounted.

To adjust for these three factors, I subtracted the 9 hours I spent in my IDE from my productive hours, added 27 minutes for every time I did yoga (that’s how long my yoga sessions take), added 1 hour for every time I went to the gym (whenever I go I go for at least 1 hour), and added 1.5 hours/​day post experiment for social media + YouTube (looking at my history, unfortunately this is an undercount).

This shows the full extent that the assistants were keeping unproductivity at bay; post-experiment my unproductivity skyrocketed.

Looking at the average productive/​unproductive hours per week during/​after the experiment, we get this table:

This means that having assistants sitting behind me increased my adj. productive hours by ~2.8x and decreased my adj. unproductive hours by 3.1x.

All in all, I feel comfortable saying this experiment tripled my productivity, especially since I didn’t even track reading, dancing, and playing sports.

Burnout

I don’t think I got close to burnout, but towards the end of the day I would usually get a little antsy and anxious. I think most of that can be attributed to a lack of a wind-down routine. My lights turned off at 8pm and my computer turned off at 9pm, but I think I should have also had my computer shut down at 8, done my evening routine, and then read for the remainder of the time to get sleepy.

Also, the assistants did not seem to significantly affect my sleep quality. Here are the average sleep quality scores from my Fitbit and Eight Sleep mattress:

Fitbit says my sleep score increased and Eight Sleep says it decreased, and I didn’t feel a difference in tiredness.

Cost

Hiring people for 16 hours a day for a whole month is expensive! I want to acknowledge that I’m privileged to be able to do this experiment and it’s not for everyone.

I budgeted ~10k for the month, (16 hours per day * $20 per hour * 30 days), but due to a combination of not finding a long-term replacement for Julia until the last week, going out a few nights, going into the office, and a few other assistants canceling some days, it ended up being ~5k. The data says that the assistants gave me an extra ~57 hours of productive time a month, which means you would need to value your time at$5,000/​57 hrs=$88 per hour to break even. This suggests to me that more people that struggle with productivity (and can afford it) should consider doing this, especially since you can write this off as a business expense if you have an S-corp or similar. For Next Time Though this experiment greatly improved my productivity, I still think there are a lot of things I can do to make it more effective next time. The most basic one is that I should have scheduled my day in the evening before. Normally I don’t do this because it never works for me, but here there was a reasonable enforcement mechanism that I should have taken advantage of. Without a schedule, I would decide on what the next task was in the spur of the moment, and all these decisions probably added fatigue. Next time I’ll also give my assistants a clearer outline of my expectations. I’ll set guidelines for how often they should check in with me, how they should check in with me, and what chores need to be done on what times/​dates. During the experiment I half-assedly committed to checking in every 30 minutes through a 30 minute Pomodoro-esque method, but often I would forget to set a timer. Laying these details out upfront will also eliminate a lot of the awkward moments that I faced like having a hard time asking for them to do chores. Because I was constantly jumping from task to task, I never got any reflection in. During the experiment, I would have nagging feelings around things I should improve (like when I was/​wasn’t allowed to use my phone), but because I was constantly working on tasks I never took a breather to act on those feelings. I should have dedicated a weekend morning to thinking about my previous week and how to make my next week better. However, this would probably be most useful when I’m doing this for multiple months in a row. While it was nice that the assistants cooked for me, occasionally it did get a bit excessive—some days they would cook for 3+ hours, which noticeably decreased my productivity. It turns out having an assistant in the kitchen is not that same as feeling their gaze on your neck! Next time I might clarify how much time I want them to spend on cooking, ask them to stick to making frozen meals, or hire someone for cooking separately. For longer periods of time, I will have one of the assistants manage the hiring process and the scheduling to handle people getting sick and quitting, as interviewing was a pretty significant disruption, especially when most people are no-shows. Personally, I had a great time cranking out tasks and getting to know my assistants (the savory ones). Next on my list: one year of productivity assistants! • Am I the only one who, upon reading the title, pictured 5 people sitting behind OP all at the same time? • Knowing how supervision scales sounds important to me. Can we get some scaling laws going here for productivity? I need to know the dollar-optimal scaling of worker/​supervisor/​proximity; it may be more Chinchilla-optimal to hire 20 remote workers to occasionally screenshare instead of 1 in-person person. • Not me. However, I thought of that part in Dr. Seuss where someone watches a bee to make it more productive, someone watches that watcher to make him more productive, someone watches him and so on. • Great to see this post, and the 3x improvement is very significant. Probably by coincidence, I am about two weeks into doing the same experiment myself! I currently employ a single person who I pay to sit beside me and watch me work for 8-10 hours a day (and 6 hours on the weekend). I’m collecting similar data, perhaps I should also do a write-up after a month? Here’s a few differences in our setups: • My assistant’s primary job is to track how much time I’m spending on everything, and produce a google sheet at the end of the day showing what I did for different chunks (e.g. “10:30: Processing inbox + breakfast” or “13:34: Reading new Eliezer-Scott dialogue”). • At the end of the day, we look through the sheet together, and I label all the chunks into three categories: “Unendorsed”, “Necessary Busy Work”, “Priority Time”, and the sheet sums up the amount of time in each category. It’s aggregated in my master sheet, here’s a screenshot of what that looks like. • Perhaps obvious technical note: Each column had conditional formatting to color green the better times in that column. More time spent on priority is better, more time on busy work or undendorsed is worse. • Only today did I try having my assistant view my screen the entire time, and after a few hours I gave up, because there was so much sensitive content that I kept asking her to look away. In general I find it works very well just from her regularly asking and time-tracking what I’m working on. • There’s other things I’m doing differently. At the same time as starting this experiment I also wanted to try using lots of timers to force myself to get tasks done quickly. So either me or my assistant is constantly setting 5, 10, 15, 60 min timers, with sometimes a few mins of overtime if a task isn’t complete. (For the record this is my favorite such timer.) This also gives her a natural time to ask “and what task are you working on during this timer?”. • She also writes lots more detailed notes about what I do, that I later read back. This includes lots of observations that aren’t things I typically bring to awareness. There’s also a number of amusing or odd sentences in there, here a few I just found now looking through: • He is furiously typing in a slack channel (14:18) • “I wrote such a terrible essay,” -Ben “Want me to look at it?”-Ray “No it’s too bad,” -Ben • Ben returns, cream cheese in hand (17:46) • “huhooooh” “Holy shit” “Got the [data that I really wanted to analyze]” “Whatever I was doing before, I’m doing this now” (16:15) • Unauthorized facebook (18:21) • Looks around for a second then says “sometimes saying the problem out loud is enough” (12:06) but he didn’t tell me what it was and is just writing it down. • “This sucks,” Ben sighs, as timer goes off. (11:55) • Kurt comes in and talks about Ben’s German twin (11:49) [note: I do not have a German twin] • “I think I might be happier if I ate some food” aka breakfast (13:17) • “Oh no I didn’t check my email” “Well, too late another time” (13:24) • 1-minute timer “Buy infinite sharpies” (16:39) I had been working alone on projects for a while, and my basic hypothesis was that having a second person with whom to keep a social context about what I was working on, to check in regularly with, and who would be expecting me to do the things I just said I’d do, would improve my focus and time-spent. I don’t have hard data on how much it’s improved my focus (I wasn’t tracking my time before hiring an assistant), but I’m quite confident my time-spent-working has substantially risen. I no longer spend big chunks of time slacking off which I used to, and because of the use of timers it’s far less often that I get into unproductive rabbit-holes that are “technically work” — after a timer goes off letting me know I’ve spent a whole 15 minute timer “checking slack”, I am much more likely to move on than to spend another hour. • Please do a write up as well. I think this experiment is very interesting and I’d love to read another report. • This is awesome! I highly encourage you to write up your experience; I think this should be more normalized! • Kurt comes in and talks about Ben’s German twin (11:49) [note: I do not have a German twin] Does this mean… Habryka? (does not seem very twin-like but does seem German) • This is hilarious and beautiful and exactly what I expect from LessWrong. Also, hello fellow Simon. • “you would need to value your time at$5,000/​57 hrs=$88 per hour to break even” Wait, this sounds like approximately the rate where you’d start setting up an office and getting a secretary or receptionist. Which makes me wonder… is that actually what a major function of secretaries has always been? • The secretary doesn’t just watch you to keep you accountable. They also remind you off stuff so you do not need to dedicate mental resources to keeping on top of it, take over scheduling and calls, which otherwise take excessive time, take over small tasks you delegate, and they block idiots from taking your time by working as a literal shield in front of your door, making people wait, or keeping them feeling okay if you are running late. A secretary is very much a guardian of your focus and ability to prioritise and be less stressed. • There’s also the totally free option of streaming your workday live, on Twitch or whatever. Even if nobody is watching, just knowing there’s a chance that somebody might be watching is often enough to make me a lot more productive and focused. And you will get a random chatter stopping by once in awhile for real. This has the added benefit of encouraging you to talk out loud through your problems, which can also get you some Rubber Duck Debugging benefits (asking somebody else for help requires explaining your problem in a way where you solve it yourself.) You do open yourself up to chatters becoming a whole new source of distraction, of course. • I expect most people have employers that would strongly object to them streaming their entire workday? Even if you don’t work on anything especially sensitive, things phrased for an internal context will not generally be suitable for being fully public. • Relevant side note: I have found you can rubber duck debug excellently with chatGPT. Helped me structure my thoughts, explicate them, and figure out new ideas. And unlike a literal rubber duck, it reflects back what it understands, and hence highlights potential misunderstandings. And if you are completely stuck, you can ask it for a random idea, which, while often not good, gets you something to work on as you explain why no, that is bad. They have also now changed Bing so it can ask questions back, which is neat for this, though the restricted conversation turns limit utility. • I have considered doing this for similar reasons, but the logistics of managing API keys, passwords, and other sensitive forms of information have always made me reluctant to pull the trigger. Have you found a workflow that lets you maintain a reasonable amount of opsec? • Haven’t found a great solution. When you stream you typically designate specific apps, and everything else is invisible. So for example I try use FireFox for anything public, and Chrome for everything private. I’ve only done it a few times myself, I’ll try and pay attention the next time I see other people’s streams. • Hiring people for 16 hours a day for a whole month is expensive! I want to acknowledge that I’m privileged to be able to do this experiment and it’s not for everyone. I budgeted ~10k for the month, (16 hours per day *$20 per hour * 30 days), but due to a combination of not finding a long-term replacement for Julia until the last week, going out a few nights, going into the office, and a few other assistants canceling some days, it ended up being ~5k.

Thanks for spending your own money to generate data the rest of us can use! This feels like a scalable service, a sort of productivity panopticon.

If you’re doing mostly computer work, for example, you could potentially have one person remote accessing and monitoring multiple clients’ computers simultaneously, and speaking up if they notice people straying. It might start with a wakeup call, or a group first-thing-in-the-morning zoom session among the users of the service. If people are willing to come to your house for $20/​hour, I’ll bet they’d be willing to remote monitor 5 people for$4/​hour per person.

It might also be possible to have a group of people do this for each other for free. It would entail taking occasional brief breaks to spy on what your group mates are doing on their computers, but then again it doesn’t cost \$10,000/​month :D

• The group version of this already exists, in a couple of different versions:

• You might also be able to do even the original setup for non-trivially cheaper (albeit still expensive) by just offering a lower wage? Given that for most of the time they can be doing whatever they want on their own computer (except porn, evidently; what’s so bad about that anyway :P ) and that you were able to find 5 people at the current rate, I’d guess you could fill the position with someone(s) you’re happy with at 10% or even 20% less.

• You might even be able to drop the price to effectively 0. Find two other people that are interested in this type of service, and perform the service for each other by sitting in a triangular formation. (If you’re not already working at the same location, there are travel costs though. The person not traveling might need to pay the two other people to fix that.)

• At one point I had to take a call so I stepped out of my room. Coming back, she slammed her laptop shut. Laughing, I asked what she was doing that she needed to close it so frantically. She retorted coldly that she was watching porn. I instantly replied “makes sense” as if it were a reflex, and sat down at my desk. I must have been in some sort of a daze from my call, because only once I sat down I thought “wait WHAT?” I proceeded to stare blankly into my screen, afraid to turn around and look at her, as I processed the situation. After calming myself down, I continued the session as normally as possible to avoid awkwardness and breathed a sigh of relief when she left.

This might have been her incredibly awkward way of engineering a scenario for you to flirt with her.

• I’m not sure what happened here, but if I had to guess (in order of likelihood, not all are mutually exclusive):

• Got flustered, said the first thing that popped into her head

• Flirting

• Was actually watching porn, and thought that coming clean would in some way be better, or that saying the truth but in a weird way would mask the truth

• Wanted to get fired but didn’t want to quit, somehow this was more socially acceptable than quitting

• I think an important theory is missing here:

• She was telling him “None of your business!” in an intentionally rude way. He walked in, she obviously snapped her computer shut. Then he asked what she was intentionally keeping from him. I think its plausible she was saying “I snapped the computer shut because it is private. Why would you ask after something when I signalled so clearly it was private. Do you really expect me to just tell you the answer immediately after making it clear you are not supposed to know?” This means it could be her doing work of her own that is private (eg. she does digital art in some weird sub-community and doesn’t want the “hey, that image is cool what is it?” discussion.)

• Another theory is she thought she had been hired for performing another service entirely and this was her way of breaking the ice.

• I’m missing “is deeply committed to saying the truth in all circumstances” from your list. Seems at least possible, right?

• I’ve known enough people who watched porn at work that I don’t doubt her statement.

• Probably you knew men who watched porn at their desk or in the bathroom while they’re not expecting people to drop by. To do it the moment your boss takes a 15 minute call in the other room, entirely aware that he will come back at any moment, suggests that she anticipated the interaction.

• feels unlikely

• Makes you wonder if she would have worked for free. It’d be fascinating to conduct a survey on what the assistants were expecting.

• I notice this system is based solely on aversives (punishment/​negative reinforcement). You’re being productive because if you were unproductive you would be punished by how you’d feel having the assistant see you being unproductive (and what you’re doing instead of being productive). And this is the main reason there was no lasting behavioral change, even if it did work during the experiment.

Adding a reward mechanism to the experiment could create lasting changes. This would work much better than rewarding yourself for being productive by yourself, because you can let your assistant be in charge of it instead.

Here’s an idea for a mechanism, inspired by Don’t Shoot the Dog:

Every time you start working on something productive, your assistant should complement you with “good job” or something (or you can even give them a bell or a clicker to use), and sometimes (but definitely not always!) this should come with a reward (perhaps a cookie, or something). Whether it comes with a reward should either be random, or decided by the assistant; Two criteria I can think of is how much you worked last session, so the system doesn’t reward context switching, and how hard/​important is the thing you starter working on now.

This would considerably change the job description from just sitting there doing whatever, to actively watching and doing things in response to your behavior. It doesn’t really afford doing other things at the same time.

• This is why I activated sound on my todoist. It makes a satisfying sound when I tick a task off. I’m embarrassed by how effective it is, and yet would feel silly not utilising the fact that my brain apparently adores clear, reachable, positive feedback so much it gets interested in tasks it otherwise would not.

I also have treats I enjoy (like liquorice and barebells vegan protein bars) which I only eat at my desk, so that a craving for them has me wanting to get started on work right away.

We also use a household task tracking system (which is genius in its simplicity for ensuring fairness and immediate transparency with zero time spent arguing or evaluating), which involves writing my initials on a blackboard in our living room when I do chores. It is eerily satisfying. Visited my family in Christmas, and both my girlfriend and I were helping clear up the kitchen, and then clearly had a moment where we both wanted to jot down our initials, realised this was not a thing here, that there would be nothing tangible gained from how much we had respectively helped, and felt visibly annoyed and disappointed, and far less interested in helping the next night.

It had me wondering if I should go back to school measures—like, take a pretty wall calendar, and every day that I did the thing I selected as highest priority, or engaged for x hours, or whatever metric, I put a cute star sticker on my calendar, until I see an emerging row.

Why are brains so into this. I feel like I am fooling a small, easily manipulatable child into following my life goals rather than arguing online, except that small child has the ability to fuck up my future.

• We also use a household task tracking system (which is genius in its simplicity for ensuring fairness and immediate transparency with zero time spent arguing or evaluating)

Interesting. Can you elaborate?

• Yes. The basic idea is establishing equivalent tasks in a point system, and only tracking points, in a clearly visible fashion making it immediately apparent who is in the lead, and how much needs to be done to fix this.

You will need an initial investment of about 20 euros, and about 1-2 h of time with your significant other.

Obtain a surface on which you can effortlessly and cleanly erase writing an unlimited number of times. We used a small blackboard, whiteboard will also work. DIN A4 is big enough. Hang it up in a location where many chores are done (e.g. kitchen), and place a container with writing material (chalk) next to it. You can get all this stuff on amazon.

Sit down with your significant other, and make a a digital list of the tasks that recur in your household and take significant time. Make sure you capture especially those tasks that either occur very often (cleaning and cooking tasks), or take very long (e.g. fixing devices). The list does not need to be complete and perfect, you’ll likely find it needs to be adjusted over time.

You will find that your feelings on this are not identical. That is okay. That is actually advantageous. Because what you are setting up is a complex trading system.

E.g. my girlfriend and I agree that taking out the trash out and emptying the dishwasher are broadly comparable tasks, so they both get 1 point. But we do not view them identically. E.g. I relatively rarely take the trash out—usually only when my gf can’t, or when I am running behind in points and therefore have to. Fucking hate it. Shit grosses me out. I would rather empty the dishwasher. My girlfriend, on the other hand, does not find taking the trash out so bad, and prefers it because it is quick, while she considers dishwasher a relatively lengthy task for the points. The great result here is that I can usually go without taking out the trash, and she can usually go without doing the dishwasher, and everyone feels like they are taking advantage of the system.

Here are some more examples for 1 point tasks in our household:

• Wiping all the counters

• Getting packages from the neighbours

• Spending five min on in-house refills (e.g. tea towels from the laundry to the kitchen, refilling soap, bringing toilet paper to the spare bathroom)

Here are some examples of 3-7 point tasks in our household (the exact point number is determined by how long they take, and if there are special circumstances making them particularly pissy)

• Cooking (e.g. 25 min of cooking with readymade ingredients is 3 points, 1 h + cooking with finicky ingredients from scratch is 7 points)

• Necessary phone calls (like calling our energy provider for having fucked up our bill yet again; here time is a factor, and time you are just in the waiting time counts for less, but still counts, as you cannot fully engage with something else)

• Fixing broken stuff (like a clogged sink; here apart from time factor, grossness and required focus for complex broken things count)

• Necessary (!) online or offline shopping. (Points are significantly reduced if the items are needlessly expensive or only arguably necessary, with extra points for going the extra mile to the cheaper store.)

You then track points only on the blackboard. To make sure that it is visible, at a glance, how many points you respectively have, you do it like this.

Your blackboard is divided in three areas; if you have colours, you can mark the boxes containing them green, yellow and red. Anything in the top line represents one point. Anything in the second represents 5. Anything in the third represents 20.

For the point you have acquired, you write a symbol that stands for you. We just use the first letter of our respective names. So if I have done enough labour for four points, the board’s top green section reads “KKKK”. If I then do something that gains me a fifth point (say empty the dishwasher again), I wipe out the content of the top line, and just write a single “K” in the second, yellow line.

If my girlfriend does a task and wants to register it, and the line she wants to write in is empty, she also writes her initial. But if she wants to register a task she has done, and yet I have already registered a task, instead of adding her initials to mine, she wipes out the same number of mine. So if I have done four one-point-things (KKKK), and she then does two one-point-things, the resulting board reads (KK) in the green section.

If we both put in the same amount of work, and everything is fair, the board is effectively wiped clean; letters briefly flicker up n small numbers in the top green area, but are immediately countered.

When we do not, the board begins to be taken over by the initials of one person—the person that is currently putting in more work. Not just abstractly more, but very specifically more. You can very literally see how much effort they are ahead, and they are owed. You get a very clear and transparent indication of how much you are exploiting the other person. And exactly how much you need to do to undo it.

And this is crucial. For us at least, we both go through periods where one of us cannot chip in as much as usual—bad mental health spot, or very busy at work. And it is alluring in that scenario to come back after the stress is over, fix the other person one really nice meal, hoover, and assume you are quits. And you are typically not. With the board, you have an objective way of seeing how much you have to make up for. Because of this, the person who has done more also gets less angry. Their effort is transparent, and they know they will be paid back. They can pull themselves together late at night loading away the dishes and tidying up, and think hah, together with the bits I did earlier, this means I am not the one who will have to cook.

If you have written your initial down so often that you run out of space on the blackboard to log, you are officially no longer required to do shit, and can force the other person to do whichever gross annoying task you do not want to do, and happily, guilt-free, sit in the sun and read a book as they do it alone, knowing all those annoying chores paid off because now you do not have to do the awful thing. Basically, if you are equal or on the lead, you can freely choose tasks; but if you are running behind, you cannot, you have to do the awful bits left over because you need to make up points, and they are all that is left. This makes it very, very attractive to proactively tackle tasks you find less awful.

You also track lots of little things. This is especially useful for people who tend to clean as they go, rather than in one major effort, which contributes a hell of a lot over time, but is invisible as it goes. If one of you is manic-depressive, and the other is very consistent, this enables you to even out.

And you can track major and rare tasks. This tackles the typical scenario of “why do I get guilted for not doing the dishes when I changed the tires?”. By determining the exact point at which you will have to do dishes again, because the lead you got from the tires got used up. The changing of the tire is labour. Exactly like the damn cleaning. Someone needs to do it, it is household work. It counts. It cannot be discounted, but nor will it count indefinitely. (Can you tell that we have a lesbian household?) If your partner is frustrated by being alone with the dishes repeatedly cause you changed the tires, next time they can swap the tires instead, and leave you wish the dishes instead.

And it makes invisible work visible. I’m sure you’ve heard of the finding that if you ask two people how much of the household they run in %, the collective % is way over 100. Because you remember what you did, but do not see the other person doing things. A lot of reproductive work is only visible when it does not get done. We have had countless times where one of us came home and went “what the heck, where did 10 points go?!?”, and then you tell them what you did, and realise they would never have noticed it otherwise—you do not notice an empty trash, only an overflowing one. This way, you realise the many small ways the other person is supporting you throughout the day.

And if there is a thing that really needs to get done and which both of you are dreading, you can jointly propose a tempting wanted poster with excessive points. (“14 points for whoever fixes this infuriatingly malfunctioning device”/​”5 points for whoever forcefeeds the cat this pill she is not taking”/​”10 points for whoever finishes this gigantic Ikea furniture, it is ridiculous how long we have been using it after only assembling the bits we really need and leaving the rest lying around”.) Again, the idea is that the person doing the incredibly annoying/​gross/​dangerous/​time-consuming thing feels they have been well paid in points, for all the stuff they will in return not need to do. You tackle the shit thing, and in return, get to hand over other tasks later.

Obviously, this is a system that depends on you trusting each other, and both of you being willing to be fair. There is no surveillance, it would be easy to purposefully cheat. But the far bigger problem for rational, ethical actors—that we are biased to believe that we are doing more than we should, and our partner is doing less—is avoided. We started with very clear and specific task lists, but meanwhile, both have a pretty good feel for appropriate points, and usually just establish this with quick checks (“just had to do novel thing x, took this long and was bloody annoying—took x points, hope was okay) and we tend to agree. Among our circle, we are the only long-term couple I know who have gone through severe external stress and yet do not fight about housework.

That said, she is markedly in the lead, and now I am definitely the one who has to hoover and do the bathroom. Shitfuck.

• Wow! I appreciate the lengthy and detailed explanation (I’ve read it all). I think this could be its own top level post.

The system seems quite good. I wonder how would you include kids in it (as they would reasonably be expected to do less chores than their parents, when young.) Perhaps a bit like your bounties you could have things you want them to do (like practice) count as points. Or, now that I think of it, the way the system works the kids can just get more points for every task, and it would even make sense because they would probably “resent” the tasks more.

• If you think this sort of thing could be its own top level post, I think I have been severely abusing the the idea behind the shortform function with what I have poured in there in the last two days. (Mostly because I could not find the button for actual posts, and liked the low pressure scenario of not needing to edit, because I loathe loathe loathe editing text, to the degree where telling myself I need to first often means I publish nothing at all.) I feel my thoughts there on civil disobedience for AI safety, an open letter on AI funding, thoughts on recurrent feedback and sentience in AI vs. biological systems, and tactical concerns on recruiting AI researchers were more important than how I ensure that my girlfriend and I do fair shares of housework. - Can one retrospectively upgrade shortforms into posts without having to edit them?

• Haven’t read your other posts, but sure, if you think they’re in a fitting form for a top level post then just copy paste them and republish. I’d just add a note that it was previously published in shortform and link to that.

I think as you post you’ll intuitively get a feel for what fits where (and it would also depend on your own standards, not just the standards of LW readers).

But about the shortform—it was kinda meant to be a LW twitter. So small things, unfully formed thoughts, etc. If you have something substantial, especially something that people might look for, link too, or that you’d want them to find through the frontpage or through tags, then regular posts are the way.

• There is unfortunately an inherent difficulty with the system as is in adding a third party. If I erase my girlfriend’s points because I did the same amount of stuff, the board is empty, because we are on equal terms; my labour counters hers. That is part of why I love this system—as you add points, you do minimal math on the fly in seconds (if the top column (1 point) reads KKKK, and the second (5 points) reads K, and you do four one point things, you erase on the top to KKK and add at the bottom to KK), but you always end up with a board which instantly establishes the status quo, there is no additional task where you need to sit down with a lengthy piece of paper with scribbles and interpret it too make sense of it.

But if you add a a third party—if she erases my point with hers, this looks equalised, but my girlfriend hasn’t contributed zilch.

If you find a hack that addresses that, I would be curious to hear it. We won’t be having kids, but we are poly, so we might end up having an application for it.

If you want to use this system as is with your significant other, you could still employ the essence of the point ideas for kids. E.g. say they have to contribute x household points per week (tracked separately on their own tracking system), but let them chose which tasks they take, and when they do them, respecting their own talents and time and trusting them to choose wisely and plan. If by the end of the week they have not done them, well, they did not choose wisely, and you get to pick the shitty tasks for them that everyone else carefully avoided, and your kids being lazy becomes the excellent scenario of them having to do the shit you don’t want to. (Within safe limits of course, but kids can take out the trash or clean the toilet.)

Another aspect I like about this system is that it encourages you to be proactive. Basically, if you slack, and end up with someone else needing to assess the todos and tell you what needs to be done, this is never in your interest. That is how end up having to pick up the packet from the crazy neighbour who wishes to tell you about our saviour Jesus Christ. Or to spend an hour listening to maximally infuriating jingles on the health insurance hotline while being routed in circles. Or to set up the solar panels on the roof. (Okay, I guess the kids will be spared that last two.) But this will inevitably happen if you are not proactive. If you play this right, it will have kids hopping into tasks they would like to do that would help you to avoid such a scenario later. My gf and I have literally had scenarios where we were trying to beat each other to the non-sucky chore.

There is an often untold but annoying amount of labour women in families often end up having to do, where they basically coordinate everything, tell people what needs to be done, keep in mind that the birthday presents for the kids party need to be bought and that the clean laundry is running out and that there is nearly no cat food and that someone needs to call the plumber, and where they want others to do tasks, having to remind them, nag them… constitutes mental load and is also just a shit job to have that everyone hates and which people loathe you for. This job effectively vanishes, or, in the rare scenarios where it is still needed, it becomes a rather gleeful activity because the person you are ordering around knows they have lost all right to complain or request delays, and you get to push a thing you really do not want to do onto them without any feeling bad on your end. Payback.

• Curated. I personally know two people who’ve done this (one of whom has commented here). It seems like a strategy more people should considering.

• At work, my supervisor sits directly behind me and can see my screen at all times. I’m pretty sure this was an accident; our office is arranged essentially randomly and he even asked if I wanted to move at some point. I’m pretty sure him sitting behind me is the only reason I still have a job though; my productivity is super poor in every other situation (including previous employment). The only frustrating part is that I don’t have such a supervisor for my side projects when I get home!

• Wait I’m pretty confident that this would have the exact opposite effect on me.

• Well it helps that he is super chill. It’s not like he’s micromanaging me, but if I start literally goofing off he’d probably notice, lol.

• How do you think it would compare to being on a constant screensharing call with a friend/​remote assistant, so they can always check your screen? Say you know for a fact that your screen is up at all times on their extra monitor? Been considering doing this.

(I don’t know how screensharing works for ultra-wide displays like yours though, and which I also want, to whatever possibly-crappy extra monitor a friend might have. Fingers crossed it would display the whole thing, rather than cropping it. I suppose you could always buy a big screen for the remote assistant though)

• I’ve found simply having a video call where they see me at my desk already helps to keep me accountable, and the researcher I do this with has also said it helps her a lot. Is also strangely helpful for anxiety-inducing tasks, as you feel less alone. And like I said above, we combine it with telling each other what we intend to do today, why we are doing that and not something else, and how we will start, which is inherently helpful. Personally, someone actually seeing my screen would stress me out and give me writer’s block and make me feel insecure when calculating, I think.

Even if you do want to share screen, I do not think you would need to share the whole huge screen, depending on what you are working on. If there is a core program you should be using a lot, and in which you should be making visible progress, sharing that might suffice to make it transparent that you are stalling. Or just a particular monitor? When I work with multiple virtual monitors, I often have one that is basically an overview, where I have e.g. my todo app, in which I track what I am working on, and notes on how to break it down into substeps, so seeing that would give a birdseye view of whether I have gotten further, and let them see what I should be working on and whether I have officially task switched when I said I was not going to. And one monitor that essentially has the result on it, e.g. a particular writing project, with other monitors for materials and background search. If you shared the background search monitor, that is plausibly the only one where you are likely to get sucked into online crap.

• With all these things, I think perfect is the enemy of good.

You want the surveillance as a support, as a reminder of your own values by seeing yourself mirrored in the eyes of another person, and reminding yourself who you want them to see. You do not want to set up an inescapable system. Else, you are making your mind think that you do not want to work, that you are trapped, and that if only you can find a trick out, you can read crap. That is not a good subconscious message.

E.g. I would see worrying implications from OP setting up such comprehensive surveillance over such long time periods, and then noticing his behaviour drastically changed when surveillance failed. That sounds like he was not training intrinsic behaviour, but establishing that the motivation for his work is extrinsic, only.

I also doubt if 16 h workdays in the long run are productive or healthy.

• I would totally do this if anyone in Cambridge needs a “productivity assistant”. Would it be alright if I spent all day reading lesswrong etc?

• This link was posted by someone else but initially downvoted; I opened it, read it, and in my view, it has lots of good commentary, despite that it is too harsh for lesswrong. I’d suggest others read it thoughtfully. While it’s not friendly, and people should go in with the understanding that it’s kinda thunderdome and generated by people’s emotive responses, a lot of it is pretty reasonable thunderdome commentary. If you’re the type who can strip thunderdome feedback from its emotive content, these criticisms contain some things I think OP could benefit from at least pondering seriously, even if they ultimately disagree. Keep in mind that most people focus on a mix of simulacrum 1, 2, 3 per word, with very little 4. No comment 100% meant literally but neither is it meant entirely emotively/​socially. All those warnings and framings aside, I agree somewhat with several posts there—I will not say which, and I do not mean to imply that I agree with the simulacrum 3 emotional message of rejectability, as I consider simulacrum 3 fundamentally invalid and always ignorable (though I often fail).

I also would like to do something like this myself; so I’ll be pondering how to integrate the critiques and avoid pitfalls they see.

• My impression was that the reddit thread didn’t bring up anything that people don’t already know, but one of the strengths of LessWrong is that it’s socially permissible not to sneer at weird things if they actually make sense.

Like, obviously hiring someone to do nothing but side behind you gives off bad vibes. (The post even acknowledged this briefly, sort of.) But it could also genuinely be a really good idea. So if we can’t do it because of the vibes, that’s a bad thing!

• I think the hackernews comment section, though still somewhat emotionally charged, is of substantially better quality.

Also, I responded to some comments/​questions there.

• I clicked the link and thought it was a bad idea ex post. I think that my attempted charitable reading of the Reddit comments revealed significantly less constructive data than what would have been provided by ChatGPT.

I suspect that rationalists engaging with this form of content harms the community a non-trivial amount.

• Interesting, if the same could be done with chatgpt I’d be curious to hear how you’d frame the question. If the same analysis can be done with chatgpt I’d do it consistently.

Can you say more about how it causes harm? I’d like to find a way to reduce that harm, because there’s a lot of good stuff in this sort of analysis, but you’re right that there’s a tendency to use extremely spiky words. A favorite internet poster of mine has some really interesting takes on how it’s important to use soft language and not demand people agree, which folks on that subreddit are in fact pretty bad at doing. It’s hard to avoid it at times, though, when one is impassioned.

• You can give ChatGPT the job posting and a brief description of Simon’s experiment, and then just ask them to provide critiques from a given perspective (eg. “What are some potential moral problems with this plan?”)

• ah, I see, yeah, solid and makes sense.

• I have never clicked on a link to sneerclub and then been glad I did so, so I’ll pass.

• Hmm. I’d like to change that via attempting to make tools or skills for extracting value from potentially high-conflict contexts like that subreddit; I am consistently glad to have read it, though unhappy in the moment until I can get their attitude out of my head. It does often take me a while meditating to integrate what I think of their takes. Eg, I think their critique here is expressing worry about worker treatment.

They are consistently negative in ways that mean you can only rely on them to give direction (edit: as in, relative direction of their critique on a given post compared to their other critiques), not magnitude. But those directions are very often insight that was missing from the LW perspective, and I think that that’s the case here.

• Sounds good, I love this as lesswrong content!

I would worry about it not being effective after ~2 months. There’s a lot of productivity techniques that you pick up and that work really well for a time, but then you get used to them and their effectiveness breaks down. Could still be very valuable to do for awhile, if your time is that valuable, but would caution about planning to do this for a year and expecting it to hold.

• I’ve now tried this out, in a not-too-structured way. (I’ve tried two assistants, not 100% of the time for weeks on end, but for a couple individual days of work). It basically seems to be working so far and I’m hoping to try for longer periods soon. (It’s a bit tricky because I work on the LW team which has existing structure to work around)

I’m trying this out with an aim for “thinking-assistant” more than “personal assistant /​ productivity hack”. I’m hiring people who take notes about what I’m doing, see where I seem to get stuck, talk through problems, and hopefully help improve the quality of my cognition as well as just make me work harder.

Mostly so far it’s having the effect of keeping me in “strategic” mode all the time. I’m trying to have part of their job be to track my big picture and notice when I’m getting tunnel vision.

I don’t know how this’ll hold up over weeks. It also sure is fairly expensive.

• I’m confused—why did you care that Rachel was watching porn?

• because it makes the situation awkward for people with normal social instincts.

• On the other hand, people with normal social instincts do not hire people to sit behind them all day at home while they’re working.

• I don’t think this is true. Part of your strength as a rationalist is the ability to try things despite them being socially awkward.

• And people with normal social instincts don’t know why it makes the situation awkward to them?

• Depends on the person, but also seems irrelevant. Knowing why you feel a certain emotion doesn’t make it go away, certainly not if it’s awkwardness.

• Because it is inappropriate to intentionally be doing things that bring you sexual arousal at work:

• To be in a sexually aroused state is very distracting, and she intentionally chose to boost that state at lease somewhat. Not good for workplace productivity

• It is also a bit threatening given he can statistically assume she has sexual interest toward men and is sitting right behind him in an aroused state which she in some sense intentionally chose to be in. Whether or not she would plausibly do anything sexual, it’s totally normal that it would raise the hairs on the back of your neck somewhat, because the person who watches porn at work has also already sorted themself into cohort of “person who does weird and unpredictable sexual things like it’s normal, likely on impulse”.

• Even if still there is no chance of them doing something sexual and they are able to get back on task with zero distraction, it doesn’t bode well for employment choice that you chose someone so impulsive and socially strange. Like “What else is in store today..? I feel kinda unsettled” is a totally normal gut instinct to have after that

• It kept the burden on him to follow social convention, and forced him to (with-no-help) navigate her defection socially, while she herself defected from following convention. In a workplace if you want to break social convention, you give a heads up at least. While watching porn at work was still too egregious for that, I’m just saying this more neutral workplace rudeness still applies. A more neutral example of this is an employee goes to office job in burner clothing, which is highly abnormal. Now the boss has to wonder “Should I address this? Or is this a one time thing? How do I address it if I want to? Is it actually morally okay and I’m being a prick and out of touch? Damn IDK but why did [employee] even put me in this weird position, we are both supposed to be here for the company’s productivity after all...”

• Minor, cheaper hack that gets part of this same effect:

Stick an image of eyes looking at you next to your desktop (kid you not, there are studies on the impact this has on ethical behaviour; if you don’t want it to look as ridiculous as just a picture of two eyes, pick a picture of a person who you admire and who has a strong work ethic, looking at you sternly, with zoom in on the eyes)

and place a mirror near you so you see your reflection. (Bonus: Helps you notice when you are slouching.) I hate seeing myself laze around. It completely clashes with my self-image.

I’ve also been meeting a lot with colleagues for virtual coworking sessions. You meet up at a specific time (no delaying), you tell the person what you goal is today, why it is the most important goal, and how you intend to approach it (forcing you to make that explicit yourself), you make them tell you also, you set a pomodoro (to take regular breaks together), and then mute the keyboard so you can type, but leave the camera on. Leave the zoom window in a corner of your desktop or second screen. Watch your colleague being productive, and seeing you if you are not. Works surprisingly well. Also, does not cost a penny and helps the other person.

• I wonder if having a significant other work by you so you can see each others’ screens would have a similar effect—I assume the effect is diminished because it’s a more familiar relationship, but it might work out? Has anyone tried this?

• Yes. The effect is diminished, despite the fact that my girlfriend is my colleague, and I value her immensely, and she is a workaholic.

I suspect because it is impossible to keep up a 100 % productivity facade in front of her, so there is basically precedent for being lazy in front of her. I also know she loves me and is understanding, so she will be supportive if I reschedule sessions. And finally, she is a potential distraction herself—she’s hot, and that comes with the definite alternative of sex or snuggles to this work task I do not know how to approach.

For us, it worked when we both had offices in the same university building. I do not laze around at university. I never use my workspace or laptop there for anything not work related. There are no available offline distractions beyond us playing ping pong in the breaks. And the whole work context feels like a scenario where you have to be put together. I can’t just be in my yoga clothes or my snuggly bathrobe, but I am dressed professionally, my hair doesn’t look crazy, and this physical presentation affects how I hold myself, and what I expect to do. So in that context, we are colleagues only, and hence, also only see each other being either productive, or taking genuinely necessary and rejuvenating breaks.

• [ ]
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• I’ve posted this with more framing and warning, and a clickable link. I hope to see my version of the comment hover around zero; we’ll see. I don’t imagine it will be highly upvoted, but I do hope voters see it as a worthy framing of the link such that the comments on the other side of the link can be useful.

• You’re wildly underestimating how dishonest the people in that subreddit are. I ran the alt-accounts check on the one you’re replying to, there, and found the IP address matches an account that was banned for… writing low-quality overtly racist content, in a How Do You Do, Fellow Kids costume, presumably for the purpose of submitting it to SneerClub and sneering at it (though it wound up getting downvoted and deleted too fast for that to work, afaict).

• oh. dang.

• Thanks for this. I also pictured ‘5 people sitting behind you’.

One useful thing I’ve implemented in my own life is ‘if my productive time is more valuable than what it would take to hire someone to do a task, hire someone’.

For example, if you can make X per hour, and hiring a chef costs x-n per hour, hire the chef. They’ll be more efficient, you’ll eat better, and you’ll do less task switching.

Yes it’s true, there can be a lot of idleness and feelings of uselessness when you don’t have regular routine tasks to wake you up and get you moving...but as long as you don’t put addictions in the newly created time, it’s a good problem.

• The most efficient way to do this would be a panopticon-style structure where one guard (‘assistant’) could oversee dozens or hundreds of workers.

• I created a simple Drill Sergeant app which will periodically tell you to do pushups (configurable) if you’re not working. Try it here: https://​​ubyjvovk.github.io/​​sarge/​​

Also, your GitHub integration looks broken.

• You’ve reinvented God. Imagine if you could delude yourself into always thinking that someone was watching you. In you believed in God irrationally on rational grounds you might be able get the same effect.