Perfecting The Motion

See also: Life can be bet­ter than you think.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

— An­nie Dillard

“To finish the mo­ment, to find the jour­ney’s end in ev­ery step of the road, to live the great­est num­ber of good hours, is wis­dom.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

The way I see it, the aim of life is to main­tain a sus­tain­able and pleas­ant mo­tion. The idea that hap­piness is not a des­ti­na­tion, but a jour­ney, al­though ad­mit­tedly rather trite and cliche, strikes me as some­thing to be taken very se­ri­ously, both at an in­di­vi­d­ual level and at a so­cietal level.

We lust for va­ca­tion, love, ac­com­plish­ments, etc., par­tially be­cause we’re driven by in­stinct to do so, and par­tially be­cause those were the things that have made us happy in the past. But one ma­jor is­sue with that is that there is more vari­abil­ity in hap­piness be­tween, rather than within, in­di­vi­d­u­als, and the set of hu­man ex­pe­riences that is pos­si­ble to­day is vastly larger than the set of what was pos­si­ble through­out hu­man evolu­tion. We learn what makes us happy based on our past ex­pe­riences — in­di­vi­d­u­ally and as a species — and those past ex­pe­riences are but a sliver of all pos­si­ble hu­man ex­pe­riences.

(On top of that, one of the find­ings of hap­piness re­search I have found most in­ter­est­ing is that some­one’s baseline mood cor­re­lates nega­tively with their vari­abil­ity in mood. Un­happy peo­ple have a bet­ter idea of what it is like to be happy than happy peo­ple have an idea of what it is like to be un­happy. For un­happy peo­ple, hap­piness is a fleet­ing ex­pe­rience, as­so­ci­ated with love, ac­com­plish­ments, etc., then quickly dis­si­pat­ing, whereas for happy peo­ple — in a cer­tain way for most of us — it is merely a way of life.)

This post is partly in­spired by an es­say Arthur Schopen­hauer wrote in the 19th cen­tury, The Empti­ness of Ex­is­tence. I was ab­solutely fas­ci­nated by it when I was a 15-year-old angsty teen, and now that I am older, hap­pier, and don’t see much point in read­ing philos­o­phy from the time when com­put­ers did not ex­ist, the text does not fas­ci­nate me nearly as much — but it still seems to me to be the case that Schopen­hauer, both in that es­say as well as in much of the rest of his work, points out a very cru­cial as­pect of life. Namely, the press­ing na­ture of en­tropy, and the ne­ces­sity for con­tin­u­ous mo­tion and restless striv­ing. Quot­ing from the es­say:

“Our ex­is­tence is based solely on the ever-fleet­ing pre­sent. Essen­tially, there­fore, it has to take the form of con­tinual mo­tion with­out there ever be­ing any pos­si­bil­ity of our find­ing the rest af­ter which we are always striv­ing. It is the same as a man run­ning down­hill, who falls if he tries to stop, and it is only by his con­tin­u­ing to run on that he keeps on his legs; it is like a pole bal­anced on one’s finger-tips, or like a planet that would fall into its sun as soon as it stopped hur­ry­ing on­wards. Hence un­rest is the type of ex­is­tence. [...]
“Look­ing at the mat­ter a lit­tle closer, we see at the very out­set that the ex­is­tence of in­or­ganic mat­ter is be­ing con­stantly at­tacked by chem­i­cal forces which even­tu­ally an­nihilates it. While or­ganic ex­is­tence is only made pos­si­ble by con­tinual change of mat­ter, to keep up a per­pet­ual sup­ply of which it must con­se­quently have help from with­out. There­fore or­ganic life is like bal­anc­ing a pole on one’s hand; it must be kept in con­tinual mo­tion, and have a con­stant sup­ply of mat­ter of which it is con­tinu­ally and end­lessly in need. Nev­er­the­less it is only by means of this or­ganic life that con­scious­ness is pos­si­ble.”

I think that there is im­mense value in ac­knowl­edg­ing that, in ac­knowl­edg­ing the restless­ness and con­tinual mo­tion of life, in ac­knowl­edg­ing that there isn’t re­ally a rest­ful end. You just need to re­place the hope­less­ness in the text with well-founded op­ti­mism, with a de­sire to bring about con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ment.


That is the rea­son why I am so in­ter­ested in op­ti­miz­ing rou­tine. Not only that, but also in do­ing the same at a broader time scale — op­ti­miz­ing the rhythm, the mo­tion of life, so to say, of not only my days my also of my weeks, months, and years. That strikes me as a very, very im­por­tant ques­tion in the search for hap­piness.

I am very far from be­ing a know-it-all when it comes to op­ti­mal schedul­ing, and in fact, I be­gan ex­am­in­ing this is­sue in-depth only rather re­cently, af­ter spend­ing a few weeks in panic un­der the over­whelming pres­sure of all the things that I wanted to do. But I am go­ing to share some of my pre­limi­nary thoughts.

In life, we face a cer­tain trade­off. The mod­ern world is sig­nifi­cantly differ­ent from the en­vi­ron­ment of evolu­tion­ary adapt­ed­ness, and so our in­stincts are no longer a guide for suc­cess. Hu­mans do not feel nat­u­rally in­clined to sit on a desk for eight hours a day, and yet many of us ought to do just that, apart from hav­ing to pay bills, make calls, think far into the fu­ture, make com­plex de­ci­sions, eat healthy, go to the doc­tor, visit rel­a­tives, etc.

Do­ing all of those things right can re­quire quite a lot of think­ing and plan­ning. Un­for­tu­nately, that can be detri­men­tal for our hap­piness. There’s of­ten more au­then­tic­ity, as well as more joy, in liv­ing mostly in ex­e­cu­tion-mode, in liv­ing in the pre­sent mo­ment with­out think­ing much about ei­ther the past or the fu­ture. Mind-wan­der­ing has a sub­stan­tially large nega­tive re­la­tion­ship with mood.

Thank­fully, I think we can use com­put­ers to out­source the schedul­ing we need to keep our lives in mo­tion, in such a way as to al­low our­selves to spent long stretches of time be­ing silly, fun and happy in the mo­ment, or in the won­der­ful flow of deep work — states as­so­ci­ated with good mood, and with get­ting things done — while si­mul­ta­neously know­ing that we don’t need to bother our­selves with the dis­trac­tion of the mil­lion of is­sues in our lives, know­ing that we are go­ing to deal with what­ever other is­sues that in­volve what we are not do­ing at the mo­ment at a later time.

That is pos­si­ble be­cause there is a cer­tain pre­dictabil­ity, a cer­tain cycli­cal­ity to life’s du­ties. At ap­prox­i­mately fixed in­ter­vals of time, you must perform the very same ac­tions, or analo­gous ac­tions. It is a good ex­er­cise to sum­ma­rize what all those ac­tions are and what is the op­ti­mal timing for their ex­e­cu­tion. Work­ing, study­ing, pay­ing rent, get­ting a hair­cut, go­ing to the doc­tor, talk­ing to your rel­a­tives, tak­ing your rel­a­tives to the doc­tor, etc. all fol­low a cer­tain pre­dictable reg­u­lar­ity. Fur­ther­more, al­though at differ­ent stages in your life the set of things you need to do in a fre­quent ba­sis will be differ­ent, there will be pat­terns, and the more clearly you no­tice those pat­terns, the less you risk be­ing caught off-guard by a bad life event.

I think it’s very im­por­tant to de­velop that trust in your­self — the trust that yes, you can just en­joy your­self now, or that you can just keep work­ing on this one thing for sev­eral hours, and not have worry about the mil­lion of other is­sues in your life. It’s im­por­tant to show to your­self that you de­serve that trust, more­over, by re­peat­edly suc­ceed­ing at such time man­age­ment.

I my­self use Wun­derlist in or­der to sched­ule ac­tions to be taken at cer­tain times in the fu­ture; that al­lows me to do won­der­ful su­per­hu­man things like sign­ing up for 7-day free tri­als of soft­ware and can­cel­ling the sub­scrip­tion in time and re­mem­ber­ing to can­cel be­fore be­ing billed. (Re­cently I’ve been slowly but steadily de­vel­op­ing the ne­ces­sity for some­thing more com­plex than that, so I hope to work more closely on this is­sue later in the fu­ture.)

I think the Com­puter Science con­cept of batch pro­cess­ing is an im­por­tant com­po­nent of an ideal mo­tion for life. Brian Chris­tian and Tom Griffiths de­scribes that and the closely re­lated con­cept of in­ter­rupt co­a­lesc­ing in Al­gorithms to Live By (won­der­ful book, I recom­mend read­ing it, or at least check­ing out the 80000hours pod­cast epi­sode with the au­thors and Robert Wiblin.). Batch pro­cess­ing and in­ter­rupt co­a­lesc­ing ba­si­cally come down to schedul­ing the things you have to do in a reg­u­lar ba­sis in a man­ner so as to min­i­mize the in­stances of con­text-switch­ing, so as to max­i­mize the amount of time spent on one task un­in­ter­rupt­edly. I re­ally like that idea, as it seems to make it much more easy to achieve a state of flow, and to be fully im­mersed in what one is do­ing. Brian Chris­tian’s prac­ti­cal ad­vice is syn­the­sized well in this para­graph:

“The moral is that you should try to stay on a sin­gle task as long as pos­si­ble with­out de­creas­ing your re­spon­sive­ness be­low the min­i­mum ac­cept­able limit. De­cide how re­spon­sive you need to be—and then, if you want to get things done, be no more re­spon­sive than that.”

That, per­haps, may also help make work and study more en­joy­able. I don’t know if this would work as well for oth­ers, but I my­self have grown to deeply en­joy quite a few tasks that I used to find irk­some merely by im­mers­ing my­self deeply in them. It’s much more fun to be­come the Calcu­lus Queen for six­teen hours at a time than to be­grudg­ingly study a lit­tle bit per day be­cause I have to.

Re­lat­edly, when I lived with my par­ents I re­mem­ber I rou­tinely had to leave home for a few hours, and it always kil­led me in­side. Spend­ing three hours out­side of home means way more than three hours of work lost. Tel­lingly, I learned to code very quickly one month af­ter I started liv­ing on my own and spend­ing more time alone than I had ever been able to be­fore. Find­ing joy in work and im­mers­ing your­self in it seems to be a wise way of deal­ing with the end­less striv­ing that char­ac­ter­izes life, both in effi­ciency and in valence and batch pro­cess­ing seems to help with that.


“Life pre­sents it­self next as a task, the task, that is, of sub­sist­ing.”

— Arthur Schopenhauer

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the run­ning you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get some­where else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

— Lewis Carrol

“There is only one law of Na­ture — the sec­ond law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics.”

—Arthur Ed­ding­ton, in The Na­ture of The Phys­i­cal World

I don’t know what a max­i­mally good world would look like. What I do know, how­ever, is that stil­l­ness is not an op­tion.

Con­tin­u­ous work is nec­es­sary in or­der to avert en­tropy. That’s largely why I like the sen­tence “the mead­ows of heaven await har­vest,” and have it as my per­sonal web­site’s sub­ti­tle. It en­courages op­ti­mism, but si­mul­ta­neously em­pha­sizes that heaven is not static, that it is not an idle, rest­ful state, but rather some­thing that is to be con­tin­u­ously har­vested: it en­courages a definite op­ti­mism. Due to the na­ture of en­tropy, that seems to me very much ap­pro­pri­ate.

Just like while build­ing our rou­tine we need to un­der­stand that the very pro­cess is in a cer­tain way an end-in-it­self, and there’s no such thing as a per­ma­nent des­ti­na­tion, the same con­cept ap­plies to ax­iol­ogy.

Schopen­hauer is far from be­ing the only per­son to have no­ticed the im­por­tance of en­tropy. Steven Pinker does a great job at de­scribing the im­por­tance of en­tropy in En­light­en­ment Now:

“How is en­tropy rele­vant to hu­man af­fairs? Life and hap­piness de­pend on an in­finites­i­mal sliver of or­derly ar­range­ments of mat­ter amid the as­tro­nom­i­cal num­ber of pos­si­bil­ities. Our bod­ies are im­prob­a­ble as­sem­blies of molecules, and they main­tain that or­der with the help of other im­prob­a­bil­ities: the few sub­stances that can nour­ish us, the few ma­te­ri­als in the few shapes that can clothe us, shelter us, and move things around to our lik­ing. Far more of the ar­range­ments of mat­ter found on Earth are of no wor­ldly use to us, so when things change with­out a hu­man agent di­rect­ing the change, they are likely to change for the worse.

“Not only does the uni­verse not care about our de­sires, but in the nat­u­ral course of events it will ap­pear to thwart them, be­cause there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, bat­tles are lost for want of a horse­shoe nail. […]
“Poverty, too, needs no ex­pla­na­tion. In a world gov­erned by en­tropy and evolu­tion, it is the de­fault state of hu­mankind. Mat­ter does not ar­range it­self into shelter or cloth­ing, and liv­ing things do ev­ery­thing they can to avoid be­com­ing our food. As Adam Smith pointed out, what needs to be ex­plained is wealth.”

(I’ll pre­emp­tively apol­o­gize for cit­ing Pinker; I am fully aware and up­set with his re­fusal to ac­knowl­edge ex­is­ten­tial risk, but it still seems to me that 95%+ of his con­tri­bu­tions are valuable.)

There is a rea­son why, de­spite be­ing so fun­da­men­tal, en­tropy seems to be un­der­rated. As Peter Thiel de­scribes in Zero to One, tech­nolog­i­cal progress has made peo­ple as­sume that things get bet­ter by de­fault:

“In­definite op­ti­mism has dom­i­nated Amer­i­can think­ing ever since 1982, when a long bull mar­ket be­gan and fi­nance eclipsed en­g­ineer­ing as the way to ap­proach the fu­ture. To an in­definite op­ti­mist, the fu­ture will be bet­ter, but he doesn’t know how ex­actly, so he won’t make any spe­cific plans. He ex­pects to profit from the fu­ture but sees no rea­son to de­sign it con­cretely.
“The strange his­tory of the Baby Boom pro­duced a gen­er­a­tion of in­definite op­ti­mists so used to effortless progress that they feel en­ti­tled to it. Whether you were born in 1945 or 1950 or 1955, things got bet­ter ev­ery year for the first 18 years of your life, and it had noth­ing to do with you. Tech­nolog­i­cal ad­vance seemed to ac­cel­er­ate au­to­mat­i­cally, so the Boomers grew up with great ex­pec­ta­tions but few spe­cific plans for how to fulfill them.”

(I thank Scott Alexan­der for hav­ing re­cently re­viewed the book; it made me read it, and I re­ally en­joyed it. in ret­ro­spect I should’ve read it much sooner.)

One is­sue with this view, which Peter Thiel pointed out, is that it is in­her­ently un­sus­tain­able. “How can the fu­ture get bet­ter if no one plans for it?” he asks in the book. “To a definite op­ti­mist,” on the other hand, “the fu­ture will be bet­ter than the pre­sent if he plans and works to make it bet­ter,” which to me makes more sense. As Steven Pinker pointed out, things don’t get bet­ter by de­fault. Definite op­ti­mism sounds to me like com­bin­ing Schopen­hauer’s harsh re­al­ism with a fruit­ful can-do at­ti­tude.

Another is­sue with un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the rele­vance of en­tropy is that do­ing so severely taints our moral in­tu­itions.


“Many peo­ple imag­ine some fu­ture that won’t be much fun—and it doesn’t even seem to oc­cur to them to try and change it.”

Eliezer Yudkowsky

As Ozy de­scribes it,

“One very com­mon cri­tique of he­do­nic util­i­tar­i­anism is the wire­head­ing ob­jec­tion. If you try to fill the uni­verse with be­ings ex­pe­rienc­ing as much plea­sure as pos­si­ble, then the perfect world would con­sist of noth­ing but rats– a larger or more in­tel­li­gent an­i­mal would use up re­sources bet­ter spent on new morally rele­vant be­ings– with a steady drip of heroin into their sys­tems, and the in­fras­truc­ture nec­es­sary to keep them al­ive and drugged. (If you don’t hap­pen to think an­i­mals are morally rele­vant, feel free to re­place “rats’ with “hu­mans.’) This seems, to put it lightly, coun­ter­in­tu­itive.”

The rats on heroin meme is noth­ing new to EAs, ev­ery once in a while show­ing up in the Dank EA Memes Face­book group. Last year Scott Alexan­der wrote:

“Utili­tar­i­anism agrees that we should give to char­ity and shouldn’t steal from the poor, be­cause Utility, but take it far enough to the tails and we should tile the uni­verse with rats on heroin. [...]
“This is why I feel like figur­ing out a moral­ity that can sur­vive tran­shu­man sce­nar­ios is harder than just find­ing the Real Mo­ral Sys­tem That We Ac­tu­ally Use. There’s a po­ten­tially im­pos­si­ble con­cep­tual prob­lem here, of figur­ing out what to do with the fact that any moral rule fol­lowed to in­finity will di­verge from large parts of what we mean by moral­ity.

The post in­cludes this lovely chart:

But it seems to me that in large part, such di­ver­gence is an illu­sion; it seems to me that there isn’t a dis­agree­ment there. In­tel­li­gence, as well as lu­cidity and self-aware­ness, seem to me al­to­gether nec­es­sary for in­finite bliss, in a world where it takes all the run­ning you can do to keep in the same place, in a world where life is only made pos­si­ble by con­tinual change of mat­ter and must be kept in con­tinual mo­tion. Per­haps in­tel­li­gence wouldn’t be used to its ful­lest 100% of the time in 100% of the lo­ca­tions of the uni­verse, but con­tin­gent on the Se­cond Law of Ther­mo­dy­nam­ics, its availa­bil­ity and readi­ness would be nec­es­sary. The in­fras­truc­ture needed to main­tain be­ings ex­pe­rienc­ing in­finite eu­pho­ria through­out the en­tire uni­verse which Ozy briefly men­tioned would need to be ex­tremely com­plex.

So the us­age of that phrase might gra­tu­itously and ac­tively harm the image of util­i­tar­i­anism (es­pe­cially he­do­nic util­i­tar­i­anism) by mak­ing it re­pul­sive to the most well-mean­ing and al­tru­is­tic of peo­ple want­ing to make the world a bet­ter place, and by mak­ing many peo­ple con­fused about what it is that they truly value.

Granted, it could be that a su­per­in­tel­li­gence would even­tu­ally com­pletely beat en­tropy (and there­fore time it­self(?)), thereby ren­der­ing that con­straint un­nec­es­sary. But it seems to me that a world de­void of en­tropy would be so uni­mag­in­ably differ­ent from ours that there is a bur­den of proof to claiming that the con­cept of “rats on heroin” would even make any sense at all. What would it mean for en­tropy not to ex­ist? Would valence even be pos­si­ble in such a world?

And, granted, I guess you could say that that phrase is just a metaphor, or a the­o­ret­i­cal ideal. But at some point some­one will have to in­ves­ti­gate the minute en­g­ineer­ing de­tails. At some point some­one will have to take the definite op­ti­mism ap­proach to this whole “mak­ing the world a bet­ter place” thing.