Unofficial Canon on Applied Rationality

I have been think­ing for a while that it would be use­ful if there was some­thing similar to the Less Wrong Canon on Ra­tion­al­ity for the CFAR ma­te­rial. Maybe, it could be called the ‘CFAR Canon on Ap­plied Ra­tion­al­ity’. To start on this I have com­piled a col­lec­tion of de­scrip­tions for the CFAR tech­niques that I could find. I have sep­a­rated the tech­niques into a few differ­ent sec­tions. The sec­tions and de­scrip­tions have mostly been writ­ten by me, with a lot of bor­row­ing from other ma­te­rial, which means that they may not ac­cu­rately re­flect what CFAR ac­tu­ally teaches.

Please note that I have not at­tended any CFAR work­shops, nor am I af­fili­ated with CFAR in any way. My un­der­stand­ing of these tech­niques comes from CFAR videos, blogs and other web­sites which I have pro­vided links to. If I have missed any im­por­tant tech­niques or if my un­der­stand­ing of any of the tech­niques is in­cor­rect or if you can provide links to the re­search that these tech­niques are based on, please let me know and I will up­date this post.


Learn­ing this ma­te­rial based solely on the de­scrip­tions writ­ten here may be un­helpful, ar­du­ous or even harm­ful. (See Dun­can_Sa­bien’s full com­ment for more in­for­ma­tion on this) It is be­cause the ma­te­rial is very hard to learn cor­rectly. Most of the tech­niques be­low in­volve in one way or an­other vo­li­tion­ally over­rid­ing your in­stinc­tual, in­tu­itive or in­grained be­havi­ours and thoughts. Th­ese are thoughts which not only of­ten feel en­tic­ing and al­lur­ing, but that also of­ten feel un­mis­tak­ably right. If you are any­thing like me, then you should be very care­ful if you are try­ing to learn this ma­te­rial alone. For you will be prone to ra­tio­nal­iza­tion, tak­ing short­cuts and mak­ing mis­takes.

My recom­men­da­tions for try­ing to learn this ma­te­rial are:

  • learn it deeply and be sure to put what you have learnt into prac­tice. It will of­ten help if you take notes on what works for you and what doesn’t. Also take note of the ‘Mind­sets and per­spec­tives that help you in dis­cov­er­ing po­ten­tial situ­a­tions that you could end up valu­ing’ sec­tion as these are very im­por­tant.

  • get the help of ex­perts or other peo­ple who have already ex­pended great amounts of effort in try­ing to im­ple­ment this ma­te­rial like the peo­ple at cfar. This will save you a great amount of stress and effort as it will al­low you to avoid a plethora of po­ten­tial mis­takes and in­effi­cien­cies. If you re­ally want to learn this ma­te­rial, then you should deeply con­sider at­tend­ing a CFAR work­shop.

  • get the help of or in­volve friends. As Dun­can_Sa­bien has said:

    It is bet­ter on al­most ev­ery axis with in­struc­tors, men­tors, friends, com­pan­ions—peo­ple to help you avoid the biggest pit­falls, help you un­der­stand the sub­tle points, tease apart the in­ter­est­ing im­pli­ca­tions, shore up your mo­ti­va­tion, as­sist you in see­ing your own mis­takes and weak­nesses. None of that is im­pos­si­ble on your own, but it’s some­where be­tween one and two or­ders of mag­ni­tude more effi­cient and more effi­ca­cious with guidance”.

  • be du­bi­ous of your men­tal mod­els. Be­ware thoughts and ideas that feel un­equiv­o­cally right es­pe­cially if they are solely lo­cated in­ter­nally rather than also be­ing ex­pressed or for­mu­lated ex­ter­nally.

  • You might want to book­mark this page in­stead of read­ing it all at once as it is quite long.



An im­por­tant con­cept that is re­quired to un­der­stand the CFAR ma­te­rial is the con­cept of ‘bugs’. Bugs gen­er­ally tend to be situ­a­tions that in­volve a feel­ing of “stuck­ness” and of­ten oc­cur when your sys­tem one and two wants are out of al­ign­ment. Some con­crete ex­am­ples of bugs in­clude:

  • things that aren’t work­ing and you don’t know why, e.g. re­peat­edly not get­ting things done on time or always hav­ing is­sues with your finished prod­ucts at work

  • things that just don’t feel right, e.g. your daily sched­ule or per­sonal relationships

  • things that you want to do, but also don’t want to do, e.g. ex­er­cise or do­ing your taxes

  • things you want to im­prove and don’t know how to, e.g. get­ting a good night’s sleep or so­cial skills

  • things that you want to do, but are afraid to do, e.g. pub­lic speaking

  • plans you think are go­ing to fail, e.g. get­ting your class as­sign­ment in on time

  • other dis­satis­fac­tions and inefficiencies

  • var­i­ous other in­ter­nal conflicts

CFAR would stress that ‘bugs’ are not things that should be ac­cepted with res­ig­na­tion. They are in­stead things that should be worked through and solved. They are prob­lems that de­serve your time, at­ten­tion and courage to solve. Due to our hu­man na­ture, it is of­ten best to get the help of oth­ers when you are try­ing to solve your bugs as we tend to ra­tio­nal­ize and jus­tify our bugs.

In sum­mary, the CFAR per­spec­tive on bugs seems to be that when you no­tice one you should think: “Okay! Here is an op­por­tu­nity for me to get bet­ter at life. Where’s my pen and pa­per?” or “Where can I find some­one to talk this through with”.

    Dis­cov­er­ing bugs—the be­low tech­niques all deal, in one way or an­other, with im­prov­ing your abil­ity to be able to dis­cover your bugs.

    • Ham­ming ques­tions—the math­e­mat­i­cian Richard Ham­ming was known to ap­proach ex­perts from other fields and ask “what are the im­por­tant prob­lems in your field, and why aren’t you work­ing on them?”. The same ques­tion can be ap­plied to per­sonal life: “what are the im­por­tant prob­lems in your life and what is stop­ping you from work­ing on them?” This ques­tion is of­ten best asked in what for con­ve­nience is of­ten called a “ham­ming cir­cle”. This is a group of peo­ple who come to­gether and help each other ex­plore their ham­ming ques­tions. As a word of cau­tion, jim­ran­domh has ad­vised that:

      If you or­ga­nize a group into Ham­ming Cir­cles and they don’t know what they’re do­ing, aren’t in the right mindspace, or don’t have enough shared con­text and trust, it can back­fire pretty severely. Peo­ple’s Ham­ming prob­lems are of­ten things that are aver­sive to think about, and at­tempt­ing to dis­cuss them but hav­ing it go poorly can make the prob­lem worse.

    • The Sur­prise Jour­nal – is a sim­ple tech­nique which in­volves record­ing when and why you are sur­prised. Sur­prise is a cue that your ex­pec­ta­tions are and were wrong. Part of the use­ful­ness of this tech­nique may be that it primes the retic­u­lar ac­ti­va­tion sys­tem so that you are on the look­out for and no­tice the things that sur­prise you.

    • Com­fort Zone Ex­pan­sion (CoZE) - is ba­si­cally CFAR’s take on ex­po­sure ther­apy. Now, most peo­ple don’t have full on de­bil­i­tat­ing di­s­or­ders, but it is com­mon for peo­ple to ac­cu­mu­late some nega­tive, avoidant or es­cape-ori­ented strate­gies. Some ex­am­ple situ­a­tions in which these strate­gies tend to oc­cur can be found here. Th­ese strate­gies tend to form for a large num­ber of rea­sons, but the most com­mon is prob­a­bly due to our hu­man brains be­ing bad at eval­u­at­ing the nega­tive so­cial im­pacts and con­se­quences of our ac­tions. This is due to the nega­tivity bias, as well as other things. CoZE is a way to fix these strate­gies. It could be de­scribed as a long-term method to bet­ter cal­ibrate your eval­u­a­tions or also as ap­plied aver­sion fac­tor­ing. There are two main goals in­volved in it. The first is to train your­self to be able to do things that you find aver­sive, i.e. to be able to feel the fear and do it any­way. The sec­ond is to re­move or lessen your non helpful aver­sions. Th­ese two goals are en­twined as the idea of CoZE is to fre­quently ex­pose you to the aver­sive thing (in a safe way) and to make sure you do it de­spite the dis­com­fort. The idea is that this will help you to re­al­ize that it is not as bad as you pre­dict. Some tips if you are go­ing to try CoZE are: find some way to in­volve oth­ers ei­ther as an au­di­ence or as a way to provide ac­countabil­ity, care sim­ply about get­ting what you want to do done rather than get­ting it done well or with good re­sults and try to cul­ti­vate a cul­ture or sense of playful­ness as this leads to bet­ter cop­ing styles for deal­ing with stress. CoZE in­volves:

      • Creat­ing a list of doable, but also challeng­ing situ­a­tions that are out­side your com­fort zone, but not by so much that they are go­ing to cause trauma or any other long term nega­tive effects.

      • Not­ing down the difficulty of the task in ac­cor­dance with your com­fort zone. The difficulty of a task is de­pen­dent on the in­di­vi­d­ual. A lawyer might have no difficul­ties with so­cial situ­a­tions, but could find situ­a­tions in­volv­ing heights to be ex­tremely difficult. Another per­son might be the ex­act op­po­site.

      • Do­ing the aver­sive thing. It is good idea to view the dis­com­fort as a part of the growth ex­pe­rience. If it is un­com­fortable, then it means that you are ex­tend­ing your­self and what you are ca­pa­ble of. The dis­com­fort is the price you pay for ad­vanc­ing to­wards a goal.

      • Note down or think about whether the real con­se­quences matched up with your pre­dic­tions. Even if you do some­thing that turns out to gen­uinely dan­ger­ous or harm­ful, then this is good (as long as you are fine) as it has pro­vided you with some rea­son­ably trust­wor­thy in­for­ma­tion that you should avoid the thing you just did or at least adapt your strate­gies with en­gag­ing with it.

    • Directed graph­i­cal causal mod­els for our per­sonal lives—this mod­el­ling pro­cess, which prob­a­bly hap­pens more nat­u­rally for some of us than oth­ers, can help us fo­cus lo­cally on rele­vant causal re­la­tion­ships, and gen­er­ate queries about them that we might oth­er­wise for­get to se­ri­ously ask.

    • Value of in­for­ma­tion and fermi-type es­ti­ma­tion in daily life—an ex­am­ple of this is ask­ing: “how many min­utes will I spend com­mut­ing over the next year and what’s the ex­pected sav­ings if I set a 5-minute timer to try to op­ti­mize that?” The ba­sic idea is that you are try­ing to find valuable in­for­ma­tion that would al­low you to es­ti­mate or im­prove the value of some large and ex­pen­sive (or fre­quent) task that you plan to do in the fu­ture. For ex­am­ple, many peo­ple com­mit to years of ed­u­ca­tion and tens of thou­sands of hours of work to “get a good job do­ing X” with­out even spend­ing as lit­tle as 40 hours job-shad­ow­ing to see if they’d ac­tu­ally en­joy do­ing X, or 10 hours clev­erly search­ing for al­ter­na­tive lines of work.

    Things that are prob­a­bly bugs and should be analysed—the be­low are not re­ally tech­niques, but are in­stead de­scrip­tions of par­tic­u­lar situ­a­tions that fre­quently turn out to be bugs.

    • Alie­nated birth rights – these are things that all hu­man be­ings should be ca­pa­ble of en­gag­ing in and en­joy­ing, but which peo­ple of­ten do not be­cause of in­ter­nal­ized be­liefs and iden­tities that say things like: ”I can­not do that” or ”I am bad at that”. (This is similar to learned blank­ness and learned hel­pless­ness)

    • Half-hearted try­ing of­ten in­duces failure and is rarely the op­ti­mal be­havi­our (this is my in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the ma­te­rial in this post) - ‘half-hearted try­ing’ could be de­scribed as ei­ther hand­i­cap­ping or self-limit­ing be­havi­our as well as when you are just go­ing through the mo­tions rather than fully ap­ply­ing your­self. Half-hearted try­ing is a com­mon re­sponse when some­one is ap­a­thetic or pre­dict­ing that failure is in­evitable, or at least highly prob­a­ble. It is differ­ent from cau­tious, ten­ta­tive and ex­plo­ra­tory be­havi­ours. Half-hearted try­ing isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing. It is of­ten to­tally fine to be do­ing it and you shouldn’t view it as any­thing more than an in­di­ca­tion that you don’t re­ally care about what you are do­ing. You shouldn’t feel guilty when you no­tice that you are half-heart­edly try­ing. In fact, find­ing this out should be a cause for cel­e­bra­tion as it means that you have just found a new re­li­able source of in­for­ma­tion into your true mo­ti­va­tions. This new in­for­ma­tion can then be used to de­bug why you are half-heart­edly try­ing. Suc­cess­ful de­bug­ging will gen­er­ally lead to four types of situ­a­tions. If you find out that what you are half-heart­edly try­ing to do is some­thing that you shouldn’t care about, then you should spend some time and effort to find out if it’s pos­si­ble to stop do­ing it. If you find out that it is some­thing that you should re­ally be car­ing about more, then you have found a bug that you should solve. If you find out that you are hand­i­cap­ping your­self be­cause you fear failure, then you should try to re­move these fears or aver­sions, see the ‘Tak­ing apart your aver­sions’ sec­tion for more on this. Fi­nally, if you find out that it is some­thing that you need to do, but shouldn’t care about, then you should try to ac­cept your half-hearted try­ing. You should not pun­ish your­self for half-heart­edly try­ing be­cause, at the end of the day, even if you are do­ing some­thing half-heart­edly at least you are do­ing it. As kurt Von­negut once wrote: “If you can do a half-assed job of any­thing, you’re a one-eyed man in a king­dom of the blind”. Per­haps, we should only con­cern our­selves over those tasks that we re­peat­edly find our­selves half-heart­edly try­ing to do. We should be­ware of the fact that cal­lous­ness and ap­a­thy of­ten come eas­ily. Con­sis­tently car­ing, on the other hand, can re­quire great amounts of char­ac­ter and courage. Some ex­am­ples of half-heart­edly try­ing in­clude when:

      • Your goal is just to get some­thing done rather than to get it done well. For ex­am­ple, some­one might be nag­ging you to do some­thing and so you re­luc­tantly and half-heart­edly do it.

      • You find some­thing to be pointless, but are un­able to stop do­ing it. For ex­am­ple, you might be in a re­la­tion­ship that you no longer want to be in, but you don’t have the courage to break it up, so you with­draw physcially/​emo­tion­ally and con­tinue the re­la­tion­ship, but are only half-com­mited to it.

      • You find that it makes failure more palat­able or less so­cially costly. For ex­am­ple, if you do end up failing you like the idea that you can always say: “Oh, yeh, but I wasn’t re­ally try­ing”

      • You highly value giv­ing up early in cer­tain con­texts. For ex­am­ple, be­gin­ner park­our stu­dents of­ten do not do cer­tain moves well be­cause it is easy to quit early in them.

      • You find some as­pect of the ac­tivity to be aver­sive, but you still want to do it. For ex­am­ple, you might feel guil­ity about do­ing some­thing, so you end up only half com­mit­ting to do­ing it.

    • Re­move waste­ful and/​or harm­ful re­peated thoughts (this is my in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the ma­te­rial in this post) - ru­mi­na­tion and dwelling is a very hu­man way of solv­ing com­plex prob­lems, but ru­mi­na­tions are ex­pen­sive and can also al­ter us in sig­nifi­cant ways. It is there­fore im­por­tant that you make sure that your ru­mi­na­tions are di­rected at wor­thy and solv­able prob­lems. Some differ­ent types of prob­lems that we ru­mi­nate about in­clude:

      • Prob­lems that Sys­tem 1 can solve by it­self : these are good leave them alone

      • Prob­lems that are worth solv­ing, but re­quire Sys­tem 2 in­put : this would in­clude re­peated be­havi­ours that you dis­like. For ex­am­ple, feel­ing stuck in a job or re­la­tion­ship, but do­ing noth­ing about it. The solu­tion here is to raise the prob­lem to con­scious at­ten­tion and then try to figure out what is both­er­ing sys­tem 1. You should then de­cide on what to do about it.

      • “Prob­lems” that should be ac­cepted : con­sider some­one who is mak­ing an an­noy­ing munch­ing sound. Most peo­ple would think in their heads: “will you shutup” or some­thing similar. Th­ese nega­tive thoughts do noth­ing to change the ac­tual situ­a­tion. The best thing to do in this situ­a­tion is to de­cide on a strat­egy to ei­ther stop the ag­gra­va­tion or to ac­cept it and stop dwelling nega­tively on it.

      • Prob­lems that should be del­e­gated ei­ther to oth­ers or to fu­ture you : sim­ply put, if dwelling on some­thing is not helpful in any­way then it should be stopped. For ex­am­ple, if on the way home af­ter an in­ter­view you are think­ing about all the things that you might have messed up then you are effec­tively caus­ing your­self stress for no rea­son. This is be­cause there is no way for you to take ac­tions on these thoughts. You can­not re­take the in­ter­view and so you shouldn’t worry about what might have gone wrong. It is ok to take notes on ar­eas to im­prove. It is a prob­lem, how­ever, when you dwell on these ar­eas out­side of situ­a­tions where you can take ac­tions to im­prove in them. In the same way if you are dwelling on some­thing that oth­ers must do or that you can only do in the fu­ture then these thoughts are effec­tively waste­ful.

      • Prob­lems that re­quire dwelling or ru­mi­na­tion to solve : ex­am­ples in­clude com­plex aca­demic prob­lems that you are try­ing to solve. Ru­mi­na­tion and dwelling in this case is use­ful and you should let it be.

    An­a­lyz­ing bugs—these tech­niques are all about helping you to bet­ter un­der­stand what you ac­tu­ally value or find aversive

    • Goal fac­tor­ing—this en­tails find­ing some al­ter­nate set of ac­tions through which you could get what you want cheaper. For in­stance, if you be­lieve that you are do­ing mar­tial arts solely for the ex­er­cise and self-defense benefits, but do not want to get these things by, for ex­am­ple, jog­ging to work and car­ry­ing mace, then it in­di­cates that there is some­thing more to your pos­i­tive eval­u­a­tion of mar­tial arts. You might, for ex­am­ple, want to do it be­cause you think it’s cool or be­cause your friends do it. By listen­ing to your emo­tional re­ac­tions and an­a­lyz­ing them you can find out how to bet­ter al­ign your eval­u­a­tions so that you end up cor­rectly valu­ing what you ac­tu­ally find valuable.

    • Refer­ence class hop­ping – while refer­ence class fore­cast­ing is about im­prov­ing your refer­ence class so that you can make more ac­cu­rate pre­dic­tions. Refer­ence class hop­ping is about dis­cov­er­ing the un­der­ly­ing cause of anx­iety or akra­sia. It does this by ex­plor­ing differ­ent refer­ence classes and tests them to find out if they arouse anx­iety or akra­sia. For ex­am­ple, imag­ine that you dis­like so­cial gath­er­ings. Refer­ence class hop­ping would tell you to look at your track record to con­sider whether you feel anx­ious at all par­ties or whether there are times when the anx­iety is diminished. By iden­ti­fy­ing the com­mon themes in the par­ties that you find un­com­fortable, you can de­velop a hy­poth­e­sis about the source of your anx­iety and then test the the­ory.

    Solv­ing bugs
    • Tak­ing apart your aver­sions or aver­sion fac­tor­ing—in­volves:

      • Find­ing a task that you find aver­sive, but think might be worth­while doing

      • At­tempt­ing to list the com­plete set of aver­sions, i.e. ev­ery­thing that is stop­ping you from do­ing the task

      • Mak­ing each aver­sion con­crete, i.e. find­ing out what ex­actly, at the small­est level pos­si­ble, is aver­sive. We of­ten think of aver­sions in the con­glomer­ate sense. We think “I don’t like so­cial gath­er­ings” in­stead of “I don’t like as­pect X of so­cial gath­er­ings”. The prob­lem with this is that it leads us to find things in their en­tirety to be aver­sive when it might re­ally only be one as­pect of it that we find to be aver­sive.

      • Solv­ing your aver­sions. The strat­egy that you take here will de­pend on the type of aver­sion that it is. We can think of aver­sions as be­ing one of two types: helpful and non helpful.

        • A helpful aver­sion is one where you would think: “Oh, thanks brain for helping me avoid that harm­ful situ­a­tion”. Aver­sions of this type should ei­ther be ac­cepted or solved by gen­er­at­ing pro­ce­dures or tech­niques that erad­i­cate the dan­ger or po­ten­tially harm­ful situ­a­tion. Once the aver­sion is solved it may still linger, which means it has turned into a non helpful aver­sion.

        • A non helpful aver­sion is one that is pre­sent when there is no dan­ger or rea­son for its ex­is­tence. Aver­sions tend to be sticky and resi­d­ual which means that peo­ple’s aver­sions of­ten prompted helpful be­hav­iors in the past, but since their en­vi­ron­ment has changed they have now be­come un­helpful. The goal in this step is to sim­ply de­velop a plan that will help to re­move these aver­sions. Often this will in­volve ac­cli­ma­tion or ex­po­sure. Refram­ing can also help. Also, see the sec­tion: “op­ti­mis­ing your abil­ity to fol­low through with your plans”

      • Do­ing a mind­ful walk through of the ac­tivity that was origi­nally aver­sive to see if it is still aver­sive. If it is, then re­peat this pro­cess from step 2.

    • Refram­ing – when mak­ing de­ci­sions the un­der­ly­ing val­u­a­tion of a solu­tion or prob­lem de­pends on the per­spec­tive or way in which you are fram­ing the solu­tion or prob­lem. For ex­am­ple, in­stead of think­ing “Do I want to go the gym?” you can think “If I was already at the gym, would I want to leave and wish that I hadn’t gone?”

    • Pit­ting your de­sire to look good against your de­sire to im­prove—if you are go­ing to im­prove fast, then you will prob­a­bly also need to fail fast and fail fre­quently, at least at first. You will need to be do­ing things like: ask­ing ‘silly’ ques­tions or try­ing stuff out even when you’re not ready. This can be hard to do be­cause no one likes to look like a fool. One tech­nique that some­times helps in mak­ing this eas­ier is to to com­pare your de­sire to not look like a fool now vs. your de­sire to be­come bet­ter.

      While one per­son hes­i­tates be­cause he feels in­fe­rior, the other is busy mak­ing mis­takes and be­com­ing superior

    • Fo­cused Grit—this ba­si­cally in­volves sit­ting down, fo­cus­ing and giv­ing a prob­lem your full at­ten­tion for at least five min­utes. A sur­pris­ing num­ber of prob­lems can be solved in just five min­utes. The whole pro­cess is:

      • Take a piece of pa­per, a pen and a timer

      • Iden­tify a large prob­lem, e.g. ter­rible job, fam­ily feud

      • Think about the prob­lem for five whole min­utes, by the clock

      • If the prob­lem has not been re­solved and you know of an­other 5 minute ex­er­cise that you could try, restart this pro­cess from step 1 with this ex­er­cise.

      • If the prob­lem has not been re­solved and you do not know of an­other 5 minute ex­er­cise you could try, spend 5 min­utes brain­storm­ing po­ten­tial 5 minute ex­er­cises that could po­ten­tially solve the prob­lem. If you come up with an ex­er­cise, restart this pro­cess from step 1.

    Mind­sets and per­spec­tives that help you in dis­cov­er­ing po­ten­tial situ­a­tions that you could end up valuing
    • Self effi­cacy—this is the sense that you can tackle any given prob­lem. It is the idea that there is always a way in which to do some­thing and that you just need to find it

    • Growth mind­set—this is the be­lief that you are always ca­pa­ble of be­ing more than you cur­rently are. A growth mind­set does not nec­es­sar­ily in­volve pos­i­tive think­ing. For ex­am­ple, if you re­peat the af­fir­ma­tion ‘I am a great singer’. This can ac­tu­ally have a nega­tive effect. Be­cause the af­fir­ma­tion re­lates to a fixed at­tribute and if your brain doesn’t feel it to be true, then it is likely to ac­ti­vate the ex­act op­po­site con­cept, i.e. that you are a bad singer. Another po­ten­tial nega­tive effect of pos­i­tive think­ing is the “goal-turnoff effect” which means that once a pur­suit at­tempt has been com­pleted the goal de­ac­ti­vates and in­hibits the men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions used to at­tain the goal.

    • Men­tal con­trast­ing—is a tech­nique can be used as an al­ter­na­tive to pos­i­tive think­ing and has been shown to be use­ful. Men­tal con­trast­ing is a vi­su­al­iza­tion tech­nique where you imag­ine sev­eral pos­i­tive as­pects of com­plet­ing your goal and then look at your cur­rent situ­a­tion and the ob­sta­cles that are stop­ping you from com­plet­ing the goal. To work well men­tal con­trast­ing re­quires a growth mind­set and a rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tion of suc­cess. This is be­cause if you do it with a fixed or nega­tive as­sess­ment of your­self then it will only deepen and re­in­force this as­sess­ment.

    • A feel­ing that you should keep try­ing new things—a big part of this is be­ing will­ing to em­brace the new and un­cer­tain in the hope that it will lead to some­thing use­ful. This in­volves tak­ing on a new per­spec­tive where you don’t think of planned ac­tions in terms of their po­ten­tially aver­sive or pleas­ant out­comes, but in­stead as po­ten­tial sources of use­ful in­for­ma­tion. You view them in a similar way to how you would view an ex­per­i­ment. If an ex­per­i­ment does not give you the ex­pected re­sult, it still gives you a range of other use­ful in­for­ma­tion like what doesn’t work or that your be­liefs may be some­how faulty. This type of think­ing is not that in­tu­itive be­cause, by and large, the mind en­courages us to be­have in ways that have worked be­fore. Though this is use­ful from a sur­vival per­spec­tive, it does not of­ten lead us to try things that are com­pletely differ­ent from what we have done be­fore.

    • Use cu­ri­os­ity or closed vs open ways of think­ing—for com­plex prob­lems, your time is some­times bet­ter spent, not in try­ing to solve the prob­lem, but in­stead in search­ing for solu­tions to the prob­lem. That is, it can be use­ful to jump out of your prob­lem solv­ing mode or your cached rou­tine mode and to start ques­tion­ing. This is es­pe­cially true for prob­lems that you have been try­ing to solve for a long time. It is im­por­tant to note that search­ing for solu­tions isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a wholly con­scious pro­cess. It is of­ten the case that the cor­rect solu­tion has already been ac­ti­vated by your brain, but is not be­ing brought to your con­scious at­ten­tion be­cause of other cached re­sponses that are tak­ing pri­or­ity. If you can find some way to re­lax, get dis­tracted or do some­thing else for a while the cor­rect solu­tion will some­times, seem­ingly out of nowhere, pop into your head.

    Op­ti­miz­ing your abil­ity to fol­low through with your plans
    • Be­ing Strate­gic – teaches you how to make a to-do sys­tem. This in­cludes go­ing through tools like things like: Get­ting Things Done (GTD), Re­mem­ber the Milk, Work­flowy, BeeMin­der, Anki, Po­modoro Technique

    • Next ac­tions – our mo­ti­va­tion is nor­mally de­pen­dent on our pre­dic­tions, which can be prob­le­matic. A way to avoid these prob­lems is to just know the next phys­i­cal ac­tion that would get you closer to com­ple­tion. In­stead of hav­ing an item ‘do my taxes’ you can have an item of ‘find tax forms and put them on desk’ which is both a con­crete and small ac­tion.

    • Trig­ger Ac­tion Plans (TAP)s—is a sim­ple al­gorithm that goes, “if I do x, then I will do y.” See this post.

    • Struc­tured Pro­cras­ti­na­tion—in­volves ac­knowl­edg­ing that pro­cras­ti­na­tion is some­what in­evitable which means that it can be benefi­cial if you spend some time try­ing to op­ti­mis­ing what you will do when you are pro­cras­ti­nat­ing. If you are prob­a­bly go­ing to end up pro­cras­ti­nat­ing, you might as well get the most out of it. For ex­am­ple, you might de­cide to pro­cras­ti­nate on start­ing an as­sign­ment by go­ing on a walk or clean­ing the house. By us­ing struc­tured pro­cras­ti­na­tion you can also make your plans more pli­able and ca­pa­ble of be­ing com­pleted.

    • Does fu­ture me have a com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage?if you are think­ing of pro­cras­ti­nat­ing and putting some­thing off till later, try ask­ing your­self if the fu­ture ver­sion of you will be bet­ter off or more eas­ily able to han­dle the task. If the an­swer is no, then you should prob­a­bly just do it now. This ques­tion is prob­a­bly more helpful for small items than large ones.

    • Mur­phyjitsu – is es­sen­tially imag­in­ing ev­ery­thing that could pos­si­bly go wrong and would stop you in reach­ing that goal. Then out­plan­ning these po­ten­tial­ities so that they never oc­cur. They is referred to as out­plan­ning Mur­phy. The “Mur­phyjitsu” tech­nique can be used by ask­ing “how sur­prised would I be if I failed?”, fol­lowed by “what ob­sta­cles might pre­vent me from finish­ing?” For ex­am­ple, “I’m go­ing to do CrossFit three times a week and I would only be mildly sur­prised if I failed” should im­me­di­ately lead to prob­lems and solu­tions like:

      • “Which days?” → “Mon­days, Wed­nes­days, and Fri­days, at 5:30 PM, af­ter work, with an alarm set, and with my work­out clothes always in my car.”

      • “What if I can’t go dur­ing gym hours?” → “If I can’t make CrossFit, then any ex­er­cise of equal or greater in­ten­sity and du­ra­tion will suffice.”

      • “What if I’m sick?” → “I don’t go if I’m too sick to go to work, oth­er­wise I go.”

      • “What if I’m, like, re­ally re­ally tired though?” → “I go any­way but take it easy if I need to.”

      • “What if I’m in­jured in a car ac­ci­dent?” → “Ob­vi­ously don’t worry about it. Also, I need a first aid kit in my car.”

    • Habit prac­tic­ing – Imag­ine that you wanted to stop sleep­ing in when your alarm goes off in the morn­ing. One way to train this habit is to prac­tice wak­ing up when your alarm goes off. You would do this by turn­ing off the lights in your room, set­ting your alarm for five min­utes, get­ting into bed, re­lax­ing and then mind­fully get­ting up straight away when the alarm goes off.

    • (I have been told that this is no longer up to date) Urge prop­a­ga­tion—is a mo­ti­va­tion hack which traces the causal link be­tween a larger goal you re­ally care about and the ac­tion you don’t feel mo­ti­vated to take, and ex­plains that link to sys­tem 1 in a lan­guage it can un­der­stand. It in­volves find­ing out what your Sys­tem two wants you to do and how you can al­ign your sys­tem one to want the same thing. This is nor­mally done with op­er­ant con­di­tion­ing or re­in­force­ment. What makes things like try­ing to lose weight or to learn the vi­o­lin difficult, is that it of­ten causes con­flicts with sys­tem one driven urges, e.g. want­ing a nap or crav­ing a cookie, and be­cause long-term goals typ­i­cally re­quire stick­ing it out through a se­ries of un­pleas­ant in­ter­me­di­ate steps, e.g. eat­ing less and prac­tic­ing the vi­o­lin, it can be easy to lose the origi­nal mo­ti­va­tion. This loss of mo­ti­va­tion tends to not oc­cur so fre­quently for things that we feel re­warded by. This is pri­mar­ily be­cause we do these things au­to­mat­i­cally. When I want Thai food, I don’t need to vo­li­tion­ally force my­self to drive there, look at the menu, go in­side, or­der etc. I don’t have to con­vince my­self to take those steps. They hap­pen au­to­mat­i­cally. The point of urge prop­a­ga­tion is to make long-term goals feel more like short-term urges which es­sen­tially means rewiring the brain to as­so­ci­ate ac­tions with re­wards for the par­tic­u­lar task that you want to do. You can use a similar idea to dis­cour­age bad habits. You do this by stretch­ing out the time be­tween an ac­tion and its re­ward. For ex­am­ple, if you want to stop read­ing stuff on­line then you can have the pages load more slowly for non work re­lated ma­te­rial. Think­ing about urge prop­a­ga­tion leads us to re­al­ise that small aver­sive mo­ments can have a dras­tic im­pact on our choices and mo­ti­va­tions. The aver­sive mo­ment of get­ting into a cold swim­ming pool can over­whelm the de­layed re­wards of do­ing morn­ing laps even though you might re­ally like or want the re­wards, e.g. be­ing fit­ter. In sum­mary the pro­cess in urge prop­a­ga­tion is:

      • Find a situ­a­tion where the re­wards are dis­tanced from the actions

      • As­so­ci­ate the ac­tivity with a pow­er­ful feel­ing of re­ward, one with a stronger neu­ro­chem­i­cal kick than the vir­tu­ous goals, e.g. ’be­ing healthier, that we nor­mally as­pire to.

      • Come up with a men­tal image that vividly cap­tures that feel­ing and that you can sum­mon in mo­ments of weak­ness. It should be a very sticky image be­cause if it isn’t then you won’t ex­pe­rience that gut-level surge of mo­ti­va­tion that the image is meant to cause. For ex­am­ple, one per­son was able to over­come their aver­sion to push-ups, which made them feel un­pleas­antly hot and sweaty, by tap­ping into their ob­ses­sion with longevity. They now vividly imag­ine the heat from the ex­er­cise as if it was a fire that burned away cell-dam­ag­ing free rad­i­cals.

    Learn­ing optimization
    • Turbo Charged train­ing – this is best for the types of skills that you re­peat over and over again to get your ner­vous sys­tem to change in or­der to get bet­ter at it. The un­der­ly­ing idea is the rule of in­ten­sity which states that the ex­pe­rience of in­ten­sity or effort that you are ex­pend­ing to learn some­thing cor­re­sponds with the rate at which you are learn­ing it. For ex­am­ple, 10 min­utes of in­tense time spent try­ing to learn a pi­ano piece may be just as helpful as 1 hour of less in­tense effort. Turbo charged train­ing has two main prin­ci­ples: max­imise the en­gage­ment with the learn­ing pro­cess and min­i­mize er­ror. This means that if you are mak­ing lots of er­rors then you need to slow down or make what­ever you are do­ing eas­ier. If what you are do­ing is too easy, then you need to find some method to ramp it up and make it more difficult. It is also im­por­tant that you are learn­ing the right skills and are get­ting good feed­back which is not noisy, but is fast enough to sig­nal to the re­ward cen­ters of the brain that you are ac­tu­ally mak­ing progress. This en­sures that the neu­ral pat­terns that were just ac­ti­vated get re­in­forced. Turbo charged train­ing is based on tak­ing an out­side view of learn­ing, i.e. look­ing at the peo­ple who learn re­ally fast and what they are do­ing.

    Plan­ning optimization
    • Sur­prise-o-Meter – this tech­nique in­volves pic­tur­ing an event and ob­serv­ing how sur­prised you would be to be in that situ­a­tion. Sur­prise is a clue that you were im­plic­itly ex­pect­ing some­thing else to hap­pen. The more sur­prised you are, the less prob­a­ble your sub­con­scious thought of that event was. Also called, pre-Hind­sight which in­volves us­ing emo­tions to eval­u­ate how likely you are to suc­ceed at a goal. Imag­ine that, six months from now, you have not achieved your goal. The level of sur­prise you feel at this out­come is a good pre­dic­tor of whether you will ac­tu­ally suc­ceed. You can then use this in­for­ma­tion as in­put that can be used to build plans that will ac­tu­ally work.

    • Your in­ner simu­la­tor—Your “in­ner simu­la­tor” is CFAR’s ver­sion of the dis­tinc­tion be­tween pro­fes­sion and an­ti­ci­pa­tion. Ba­si­cally, your “in­ner simu­la­tor” is the part of you that can play movies for­ward to de­ter­mine what to an­ti­ci­pate: “Do I have time to turn left be­fore that car reaches me?”; “What will she do, if I ap­proach and say ‘hi’?” You can use your in­ner simu­la­tor to de­velop high qual­ity plans. An ex­am­ple of this pro­cess would be ask­ing:
      • What you pre­dict will hap­pen if you take some course of ac­tion?

      • What could go wrong?

      • How can you change your plans to pre­vent that thing from go­ing wrong?

      • This pro­cess is re­peated from the first step with your pre­dic­tions up­dated to take into ac­count your pre­ven­ti­tive mea­sures.

    Im­prov­ing the ac­cu­racy of your cre­dence levels

    • The cre­dence cal­ibra­tion game—when you hear some­one say “I’m 90% sure…”, that “90%” figure is called a cre­dence level. Most peo­ple tend to be over-con­fi­dent by de­fault, in the sense that when we say “90% sure”, we tend to be right much less than 90% of the time. This game is ba­si­cally get­ting you to prac­tice the men­tal ac­tion of con­vert­ing your in­ter­nal sense of “sure­ness” into a cre­dence level that you can re­port to your­self and oth­ers. The goal is to train this over time so that your cre­dence lev­els more closely re­flect the ac­tual suc­cess rates.

    Mind­ful­ness of how your in­ter­nal state is af­fect­ing how you per­ceive the world

    • Again­st­ness – is the feel­ing of be­ing op­posed to some­thing. An ex­am­ple is when you get an­gry dur­ing a heated ar­gu­ment. This feel­ing typ­i­cally man­i­fests in sym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem re­sponses in the body. Some of these symp­toms could in­clude: hunched shoulders, rub­bing the neck, po­si­tion­ing arms to pro­tect the belly, rais­ing heart rate and tensed mus­cles. By be­ing mind­ful of your again­st­ness you can calm your­self and en­gage in a shift to the parasym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem, so from a men­tal point of view you might: try to ap­pre­ci­ate it as an op­por­tu­nity in prac­tic­ing re­leas­ing again­st­ness, try to in­crease your em­pa­thy for the other per­son by mod­el­ling them in enough de­tail that you un­der­stand why the thing that is caus­ing your again­st­ness seems right to them or try to em­pha­sise your sense of tribal to­geth­er­ness. This means that you should at­tempt to see the other per­son as a fel­low hu­man be­ing and wish to help them re­al­ize their full po­ten­tial. From a purely phys­i­cal per­spec­tive you could:

      • open your pos­ture, i.e. have shoulders back, spine straight & up­right, head bal­anced on spine, belly exposed

      • breathe deeply, smoothly, gen­tly and low in the diaphragm

      • re­lax the hands, arms, shoulders and eyes

      • try smil­ing/​laughing

    • Per­cep­tual edit­ing—is the abil­ity:

      • to rec­og­nize when you’re mak­ing a per­sonal con­tri­bu­tion to experience

      • to de­cide whether it’s a con­tri­bu­tion you ac­tu­ally want to make

      • to lev­er­age the op­por­tu­nity and de­liber­ately choose what con­tri­bu­tion you’d rather make, if any.

    • Co­or­di­na­tiz­ing emo­tion-space (and feel­ing it) - es­sen­tially emo­tional aware­ness, i.e. un­der­stand­ing what it feels like when you are feel­ing a par­tic­u­lar emo­tion or set of emo­tions.

    • Keep your iden­tity fluid – our wor­ld­views and be­liefs af­fect our val­u­a­tion pro­cesses. If there is some­thing that you con­sider staunchly to be part of our iden­tity then you will be more likely to be­lieve claims re­lated to it and to defend them. Now, this isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a nega­tive thing. If you want to do some­thing, then mak­ing it part of your iden­tity can be a great way to mo­ti­vate your­self to achieve it. But, it can also lead you to be­come bi­ased and to ra­tio­nal­ize when you find things that are in op­po­si­tion to your iden­tity. A fluid iden­tity has the dis­cussed benefits and also avoids the nega­tives. A fluid iden­tity is one that you can mind­fully al­ter for your own benefit. Some­times you might want to make it smaller to im­prove your rea­son­ing and other times you might want to make it big­ger so that it primes you to be mo­ti­vated and to care.

    • Stop ra­tio­nal­iz­ing: The what fool­ing your­self feels like game – we are prone to ra­tio­nal­iza­tion. By prac­tic­ing what it feels like when we are ra­tio­nal­iz­ing we can be­come more likely to no­tice when we are ra­tio­nal­iz­ing.

    • CFAR sees emo­tional states as cues or in­di­ca­tors which tell you that you should dou­ble-check your rea­son­ing or coax your­self into an­other emo­tional state. Chang­ing your emo­tional state can be a po­ten­tially use­ful mechanism for mak­ing ra­tio­nal­ity eas­ier. For ex­am­ple, get­ting your­self into a “playful” mode can make it eas­ier to ex­plore a wider set of pos­si­ble ac­tions.

    Re­solv­ing Disagreements

    • Dou­ble Crux game—dou­ble Crux is a struc­tured for­mat for col­lab­o­ra­tively find­ing the truth in cases where two peo­ple dis­agree. In­stead of non-in­ter­ac­tively offer­ing pieces of their re­spec­tive plat­forms, peo­ple jointly seek the ac­tual ques­tion at the crux of the dis­agree­ment—the root un­cer­tainty that has the po­ten­tial to af­fect both of their be­liefs. See this post

      Other stuff which has already been cov­ered in LessWrong