Rationality is systematized winning.
In Hammers and Nails, I suggested that rationalists need to be more systematic in the practice of our craft. In this post, I will use the word Hammer for a single technique well-practiced and broadly applied.
Hammertime is a 30-day instrumental rationality sequence I am designing for myself to build competence with techniques. Its objective is to turn rationalists into systematic rationalists. By the end of this sequence, I hope to upgrade each Hammer from Bronze Mace to Vorpal Dragonscale Sledgehammer of the Whale. I invite you to join me on this journey.
The core concept: One Day, One Hammer.
In Hammertime, we will practice 10 Hammers over 30 days. Each exercise is scalable from a half hour to an entire day. The Hammers will be bootleg CFAR techniques:
Internal Double Crux
There will be three cycles of 10 days each, practicing each technique a total of three times. The first cycle will cover basics and solve bugs at the life-hack level. The second cycle will reinforce the technique, cover variations and generalizations, and solve tougher challenges. The third cycle will build fluid compound movements out of multiple core techniques.
Day 1: Bug Hunt
A bug is anything in life that needs improvement. Even if something is going well, if you can imagine it going better, there’s a bug.
On the first day of Hammertime, we will scour our lives with a fine-toothed comb to find as many bugs as possible. A comprehensive bug list will provide the raw material on which we practice every other rationality technique. For the first cycle of Bug Hunt, look for small, concrete bugs. The whole exercise should take a bit over an hour.
WARNINGS: Focus on finding bugs, not solving them. If you can solve the bug immediately, go for it. Otherwise, hold off on proposing solutions. Writing down a bug does not mean you commit to doing anything about it.
Find a notebook, phone app, spreadsheet, or Google Doc to record your bugs—preferably something you can bring with you throughout the day. We will refer back to it repeatedly in the coming days for bugs to solve.
During Bug Hunt, spend the next 30 minutes writing down as many bugs as you can. Following each of the six sets of prompts in the next section, set a timer for 5 minutes and list as many bugs as you notice.
A. Mindful Walkthrough
Walk through your daily routine in your head and look for places that need improvement. Do you get up on time? Do you have a morning routine? Do you waste mental effort deciding whether to or what to eat for breakfast? Do you take the most efficient commute, and make the most of time in transit?
Fast forward to work or school. Are there physical discomforts? Are you missing any tools? Are there particular people who bother you, or to whom you don’t speak enough? Do you ask for help when you need it? Do you know how to shut up? Is there unproductive dead time during meetings, classes, or builds? Do you take care of yourself during the day?
Think about the evening at home. Do you waste time deciding where or what to eat? Are there hobbies you want to try? Are there things you know will be more fun that you’re not doing? Do you progress consistently on your side projects? Do you sleep on time? How is your sleep quality?
B. Hobbies, Habits, and Skills
Walk through the things you do on a regular basis. Are there habits you mean to drop? Are there habits you mean to pick up but never seem to get around to?
For each hobby or habit, answer the following questions. Do you do it enough? Do you do it too much? Are there ways you could improve your experience? Do it in a different place and time? Do it with other people or alone?
Perhaps you have skills to practice. Are you as good as you want to be? Do you practice regularly? Have you plateaued by overtraining? Are there minor recurring discomforts keeping you from trying? Are there directions you haven’t tried which might indirectly improve your abilities?
Look around your living space, your workspace, or the interior of your vehicle. What would you change?
Space should be functional. Is there clutter you circumnavigate on a daily basis? Are your chairs and tables at the right height? Is your bed comfortable? Are there towels, pans, notebooks, or papers sitting out taunting you? Are there important things that deserve a more central position? Have you set up Schelling places for glasses, wallets, and phones?
Space should be aesthetically pleasing. Do pieces of furniture or equipment stick out comically? Do your walls feel drab and depressing? Are there carpet stains or dust mites that keep catching your eye and sucking out your happiness? Are you tired of the art on the walls?
Space on the monitor can be as important as physical space. Do you have enough screens? Do you find yourself repeating mechanical boot-up and shutdown sequences that can be automated? Do you use all the browser extensions and keyboard shortcuts? Is there a voice in the back of your head whispering at you to learn vim?
D. Time and Attention
People and things clamor for your attention. What’s missing from your life that would let you live as intentionally as possible?
Many activities are bottomless time sinks. Do you watch shows or play games you no longer enjoy? Do you get dragged into conversations that hold no value? Do you find yourself rolling the mouse wheel down endless Facebook or Reddit feeds? Are there classes, meetings, commutes, or projects that zombify you for the rest of the day? Do you set up ejector seats in advance to protect yourself from time sinks?
Focus on the things you don’t pay enough attention to. Do you often make mistakes on autopilot? Are there friends or family you’ve neglected or grown distant from? Are there conversations you zone out in that you could get more out of? Is there a childhood dream you’ve forgotten?
Sometimes trivial distractions lead to spectacular failures. Are there slight, recurring physical discomforts that drain your agency? Does the temperature outside prevent you from exercising? Is there something shiny that always draws your eye away from work?
E. Blind spots
Our biggest bugs can hide in cognitive blind spots.
Outside view your life. Are you sufficiently awesome? What is your biggest weakness? If there is one thing holding you back from achieving your goals, what would it be? Do you have mysterious attachments to pieces of your identity? Do you routinely over- or under-estimate your own ability?
Simulate your best friend in your head. What do they say about you that surprises you? What behaviors annoy them? What behaviors would they appreciate? Is there a piece of advice they keep giving you?
Summon your Dumbledore. What would he say to you? What deep wisdom are you blind to? If you were the protagonist, what genre would this life be?
Look to admiration and jealousy for insight. Are you the person you most admire? What skills and traits do others have that you want?
F. Fear and Trembling
The shadows we flinch away from can hide the most bountiful treasures.
What are your greatest fears and anxieties? Do you have the strength to be vulnerable? Are there necessary and proper actions you need to take? Are there truths you’re scared to say out loud? What do you lie to yourself about?
Look to your social circle. Are there good people you hide from? Are there conversation topics that cause you scramble away? What do people say that cause you to lose your composure?
Look to the past and future as far as your eyes allow. What deadlines cause you to avert your eyes? Is there a kind of person you are terrified of becoming? Or are you most afraid of stagnation? Do you trust your past and future selves?
Hopefully, you came up with at least 100 bugs; I came up with 142. Time for some housekeeping. Input your bugs into a spreadsheet to organize and coalesce similar ones. Using System 1, assign difficulty ratings from 1 to 10, where 1 is “I could solve it right now” and 10 is “Just thinking about it causes existential panic.” Sort them in increasing order of difficulty.
In the coming days, we will go down the list systematically, hitting as many nails as possible with each hammer.
To help others brainstorm, share your strangest bug-fix story. I’ll start:
The muscles on the left half of my face are more responsive, which caused me to smile asymmetrically for most of my life. Therefore, my usual smile wasn’t far from a contemptuous smirk, and caused me to feel dismissive of everyone I smiled at. I trained myself to smile on both sides and now feel warmer towards people.