Instrumental Rationality 1: Starting Advice
[This is the first post in the Instrumental Rationality Sequence. It’s a collection of four concepts that I think are central to instrumental rationality—caring about the obvious, looking for practical things, practicing in pieces, and realistic expectations.
Note that these essays are derivative of things I’ve written here before, so there may not be much new content in this post. (But I wanted to get something out as it’d been about a month since my last update.)
My main goal with this collection was to polish / crystallize past points I’ve made. If things here are worded poorly, unclear, or don’t seem useful, I’d really appreciate feedback to try and improve.]
In Defense of the Obvious:
A lot of the things I’m going to go over in this sequence are sometimes going to sound obvious, boring, redundant, or downright tautological. This essay is here to convince you that you should try to listen to the advice anyway, even if it sounds stupidly obvious.
First off, our brains don’t always see all the connections at once. Thus, even if some given advice is apparentlyobvious, you still might be learning things.
For example, say someone tells you, “If you want to exercise more, then you should probably exercise more. Once you do that, you’ll become the type of person who exercises more, and then you’ll likely exercise more.”
The above advice might sound pretty silly, but it may still be useful. Often, our mental categories for “exercise” and “personal identity” are in different places. Sure, it’s tautologically true that someone who exercises becomes a person who exercises more. But if you’re not explicitly thinking about how your actions change who you are, then there’s likely still something new to think about.
Humans are often weirdly inconsistent with our mental buckets—things that logically seem like they “should” be lumped together often aren’t. By paying attention to even tautological advice like this, you’re able to form new connections in your brain and link new mental categories together, perhaps discovering new insights that you “already knew”.
Secondly, obvious advice tends to be low-hanging fruit. If your brain is pattern-matching something as “boring advice” or “obvious”, you’ve likely heard it before many times before.
For example, you can probably guess the top 5 things on any “How to be Productive” list—make a schedule, remove distractions, take periodic breaks, etc. etc. You can almost feel your brain roll its metaphorical eyes at such dreary, well-worn advice.
But if you’ve heard these things repeated many times before, this is also good reason to suspect that, at least for a lot of people, it works. Meaning that if you aren’t taking such advice already, you can probably get a boost by doing so.
If you just did those top 5 things, you’d probably already be quite the productive person.
The trick, then, is to actually do them. That means doing the obvious thing.
Lastly, it can be easy to discount obvious advice when you’ve seen too much of it. When you’re bombarded with boring-seeming advice from all angles, it’s easy to become desensitized.
What I mean is that it’s possible to dismiss obvious advice outright because it sounds way too simple. “This can’t possibly work,” your brain might say, “The secret to getting things done must be more complex!”
There’s something akin to the hedonic treadmill happening here where, after having been exposed to all the “normal” advice, you start to seek out deeper and deeper ideas in search of some sort of mental high. What happens is that you become a kind of self-help junkie.
You can end up craving the bleeding edge of crazy ideas because literally nothing else seems worthwhile. You might end up dismissing normal helpful ideas simply because they’re not paradigm-crushing, mind-blowing, or mentally stimulating enough.
At which point, you’ve adopted quite the contrarian stance—you reject the typical idea of advice on grounds of its obviousness alone.
If this describes, might I tempt you with the meta-contrarian point of view?
Here’s the sell: One of the secrets to winning at life is looking at obvious advice, acknowledging that it’s obvious, and then doing it anyway.
(That’s right, you can join the elite group of people who scoff at those who scoff at the obvious!)
You can both say, “Hey, this is pretty simple stuff I’ve heard a thousand times before,” as well as say, “Hey, this is pretty useful stuff I should shut up and do anyway even if it sounds simple because I’m smart and I recognize the value here.”
At some point, being more sophisticated than the sophisticates means being able the grasp the idea that not all things have to be hyper complex. Oftentimes, the trick to getting something done is simply to get started and start doing it.
Because some things in life really are obvious.
Hunting for Practicality:
[This is about looking for ways to have any advice you read be actually useful, by having it apply to the real world. ]
Imagine someone trying to explain exactly what the mitochondria does in the cell, and contrast that to someone trying to score a point in a game of basketball.
There’s something clearly different about what each person is trying to do, even if we lumped both under the label of “learning” (one is learning about cells and the other is learning about basketball).
In learning, it turns out this divide is often separated into declarative and procedural knowledge.
Declarative knowledge is like the student trying to puzzle out the ATP question; it’s about what you know.
In contrast, procedural knowledge, like the fledgling basketball player, is about what you do.
I bring up this divide because many of the techniques in instrumental rationality will feel like declarative knowledge, but they’ll really be procedural in nature.
For example, say you’re reading something on motivation, and you learn that “Motivation = Energy to do the thing + a Reminder to do the thing + Time to do the thing = E+R+T”.
What’ll likely happen is that your brain will form a new set of mental nodes that connects “motivation” to “E+R+T”. This would be great if I ended up quizzing you “What does motivation equal?” whereupon you’d correctly answer “E+R+T”.
But that’s not the point here! The point is to have the equation actually cash out into the real world and positively affect your actions. If information isn’t changing you view or act, then you’re probably not extracting all the value you can.
What that means is figuring out the answer to this question: “How do I see myself acting differently in the future as a result of this question?”
With that in mind, say you generate some examples and make a list.
Your list of real-world actions might end up looking like:
1) Remembering to stay hydrated more often (Energy)
2) Using more Post-It notes as memos (Reminder)
3) Start using Google Calendar to block out chunks of time (Time).
The point is to be always on the lookout for ways to see how you can use what you’re learning to inform your actions. Learning about all these things is only useful if you can find ways to apply them. You want to do more than have empty boxes that link concepts together. It’s important to have those boxes linked up to ways you can do better in the real world.
You want to actually put in some effort trying to answer question of practicality.
[This is about knowing the nuances of little steps behind any sort of self-improvement skill you learn, and how those little steps are important when learning the whole.]
So on one level, using knowledge from instrumental rationality is about how you take declarative-seeming information and find ways to actually get real-world actions out of it. That’s important.
But it’s also important to note that the very skill of “Generating Examples”—the thing you did in the above essay to even figure out which actions can fit in the above equation to fill in the blanks of E, R, and T—is itself a mental habit that requires procedural knowledge.
What I mean is that there’s a subtler thing that’s happening inside your head when you try to come up with examples—your brain is doing something—and this “something” is important.
It’s important, I claim, because if we peer a little more deeply at what it means for your brain to generate examples, we’ll come away with a list of steps that will feel a lot like something a brain can do, a prime example of procedural knowledge.
For example, we can imagine a magician trying to learn a card trick. They go through the steps. First they need to spread the cards. Then comes the secret move. Finally comes the final reveal of the selected card in the magician’s pocket.
What the audience member sees is the full finished product. And indeed, the magician who’s practiced enough will also see the same thing. But it’s not until the magician goes through all the steps and understands how all the steps flow together to form the whole card trick that they’re ready to perform.
The idea here is to describe any mental skill with enough granularity and detail, at the 5 second level, such that you’d both be able to go through the same steps a second time and teach someone else. So being able to take skills and chunk them into smaller pieces is also forms another core part of learning.
[An essay about having realistic expectations and looking past potentially harmful framing effects.]
There’s this tendency to get frustrated with learning mental techniques after just a few days. I think this is because people miss the declarative vs procedural distinction. (But you hopefully won’t fall prey to it because we’ve covered the distinction now!)
Once we liken the analogy to be more like that playing a sport, it becomes much easier to see that any expectation of immediately learning a mental habit is rather silly—no one expects to master tennis in just a week.
So, when it comes to trying to configure your expectations, I suggest that you try to renormalize your expectations by treating learning mental habits more like learning a sport.
Keep that as an analogy, and you’ll likely get fairly well-calibrated expectations for learning all this stuff.
Still, what, then, might be a realistic time frame for learning?
We’ll go over habits in far more detail in a later section, but a rough number for now is approximately two months. You can expect that, on average, it’ll take you about 66 days to ingrain a new habit.
Similarly, instrumental rationality (probably) won’t make you a god. In my experience, studying these areas has been super useful, which is why I’m writing at all. But I would guess that, optimistically, I only about doubled my work output.
Of course your own mileage may vary depending where you are right now, but this serves as the general disclaimer to keep your expectations within the bound of reality.
Here, the main point is that, even though mental habits don’t seem like they should be more similar to playing a sport, they really are. There’s something here about how first impressions can be rather deceiving.
For example, a typical trap I might fall into is missing the distinction between “theoretically possible” and “realistic”. I end up looking at the supposed 24 hours available to me everyday and then beating myself up for not being able to harness all 24 hours to do productive work.
But such a framing of the situation is inaccurate; things like sleep and eating are often very essential to maximizing productivity for the rest of the hours! So when diving in and practicing, try to look a little deeper when setting your expectations.