I’m excited to read and follow this sequence! Eliezer’s Be Specific post is one of my favorites. And I just find myself thinking about specificity all the time. Yesterday I was at a poker meetup and my friend was giving a presentation. I was trying to take notes and come up with useful feedback. The big thing that kept coming up was, you guessed it—be specific! Same with if I’m ever giving someone feedback on writing or something.
My initial thoughts are that the two big difficulties with specificity are:
1) Often times if can be weirdly difficult to come up with examples. Me personally, there are many times where I want to communicate some good examples, and I feel like it should be reasonably easy to come up with some, but my brain just draws blanks and doesn’t cooperate. And I feel like I see this in others as well.
2) Illusion of transparency. We think our non-specific statement was good enough, and don’t realize that the other person is really wanting some specific examples. I feel like this usually doesn’t happen at the conscious level. We don’t actually think: “Hm, did I explain that well enough? Should I stop and try to get more specific? Nah, I don’t think so, I think it was fine. Let’s move on then.” We just… sort of… keep… going.
3) I’m a huge fan of providing some sort of visual along with text. Picture, video, animation, whatever. I think a big reason for this is because the visual helps with specificity.
I liked this a lot, thank you! My understanding of Bayes’ Theorem has always been a little shaky, and I think that this sured things up for me.
One thing that I think would improve this post would be to have used a practical example.
This reminds me of Cal Newport and his book Deep Work. He argues for something similar. He talks about how “thinking hard” allows you to perform wildly better than those who don’t, and also that it is increasingly rare and valuable in our world.
Personally, here are two things that prevent me from participating as much as I’d like that I suspect might apply to others:
1) Internet addiction
Whenever I post or comment, I can’t help but start checking in to see if I get any responses rather obsessively. But I don’t want to be in that state, so sometimes I withhold from posting or commenting. And more generally, being on LW means being on the internet, and for me, being on the internet tempts me to procrastinate and do things I don’t actually want to be doing.
2. Relatively high bar for participation
If I’m going to comment or post, I want to say something useful. Which often means spending time and effort. a) I have a limited capacity for this, and b) if I’m going to be spending time and effort, I find that I often see it as more useful to apply it elsewhere, like reading a textbook.
With (b), not always though. There’s a lot of other times where I do feel that applying my time/effort here on LW is the most useful place to apply it.
Gotcha. Maybe it could make sense to apply it to diabetics then.
Thanks for chiming in. I was hoping to hear from a practicing doctor.
That all does make sense. A doctor requiring appointments for refills seems understandable now. The system that forces them to do so doesn’t, but that’s a separate issue.
I would not be surprised if the doctor adopted a rule of “always discuss treatment in person” as health issues often are very emotional and patients may be ill-informed
Ah, that does seem plausible. Along with the hypotheses that he sloppily applies this to diabetics who need insulin, and it subsequently became an ego contest.
I wonder how the doctor would react if Zvi’s friend would point out his motivation for keeping his schedule while actively endorsing the importance of his doctor’s opinion.
I too suspect that the doctor would have responded much better. I’ve been learning more and more that when you give people an out that lets them maintain their ego, they often are happy to take it. The places where people get really stubborn is when giving in would compromise their ego.
But of course, it’s 100% not acceptable for a doctor to let their ego get in the way of life saving medicine, and it is extremely understandable for someone being denied life saving medicine to overlook all of this.
Why is it that they are like that?
I thought that was a possibility but I didn’t think it was too likely.
Don’t they have enough money already? I’ve always been confused about people who are already extremely wealthy acting so greedily. Eg. CEOs. You already have a ton of money, the extra money can’t mean that much to you because of diminishing marginal utility stuff, why hurt other people in pursuit of more? Is it that they compare themselves to others around them and want to have more than their friends? Is the pursuit of more just a habit?
Yeah, that all makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the reply.
So now I’m finding myself very curious as to what possibly could have been this doctors motivation for acting this way. Why would he have such a strong preference to see the patient so soon? And why would he be so reluctant to give the patient insulin in the meantime?
True maliciousness and desire to cause harm seems unlikely, so what could it be?
My first thought is some sort of twisted ego. “You don’t say no to me! I’m the doctor! I am the one who knows when I do and don’t need to see you!”
That seems somewhat plausible, but also seems to introduce other questions. Why would the doctor want to see the patient in the first place? More revenue? I guess that’s possible but doesn’t seem likely to me. Maybe the patient has other complications and the doctor cares about the patient and wants to see the patient more frequently to make sure they’re alright. That seems to contradict the subsequent “you don’t get your lifesaving medicine unless you listen to me” attitude, but I guess it could just be that ego is his stronger drive, or just that he’s inconsistent.
Now that I think about it more, the thing that seems most likely to me actually is that the doctor may have come across a good(seeming) reason to have this policy in the past, and just follows it blindly now. Idk though, what would that good reason even be?
I’m trying to steelman and see if there’s a way for this situation to make some amount of sense.
What happens if you let patients buy refills without a prescription? Would they consume too much of it? Would there be any sort of risk of them selling the excess to others? I wouldn’t think so for either of those questions, but I know very little about this domain.
Is there a medical reason why the doctor might not prescribe more insulin if he examines the patient and finds something new? I know you’re saying that the answer is “no” and that he’ll need insulin regardless, but perhaps there is some edge case. The medical system seems pretty obsessed with edge cases and covering their asses. “Have a headache? Ok. Let’s just make sure that you don’t have a brain tumor or anything first.”
On that note, I wonder if the doctor is coming from a place of worrying about covering his ass and getting sued if he prescribes more insulin without the exam. Maybe he also knows that he’s going to prescribe it regardless, but legally, he needs to say that he examined the patient first in case the patient has a weird reaction or something and ends up suing him.
Of course, this isn’t to excuse the behavior. When we’re talking about life and death, the system needs to have protocols in place to reallyreallyreallyreallyreally make sure that the death part doesn’t happen.
The doctor accuses my friend of having a gun to his head. My friend points out this is a rather interesting choice of metaphor. One could say that the doctor has a gun to his head, in the form of denying him access to life saving medicine. And that the two do not seem remotely comparable.
What an amazing reply.
Cool! I’d love to hear what you find!
Note: I’m going to be talking about productivity in the sense of hard work. Eg. Anders Ericsson’s idea of deliberate practice.
It seems self-evident that if you’re performing busywork like data entry or cleaning, you could be productive for way longer than four hours/day.
It also seems self-evident that in doing something in between busywork and hard work, you can still be productive for more than four hours/day. For example, a calculus student doing tons of practice problems, or an experienced web developer building a simple sign up form.
So then, it seems to make sense to me to deal with the question of hard work. Pushing yourself to the edge of your comfort zone, or perhaps slightly beyond it. For example, mastering a difficult new concept or skill.
Of course, when we talk about hard vs easy work, we’re talking about a spectrum, so “hard work” really refers to a general area in that spectrum, not a single point. The answer to the question of how many productive hours you have in a day probably depends a little bit on where exactly you are on that spectrum, but getting into that nuance seems like something more appropriate for a different question. Here, it seems like it’s worth just grouping “hard work” together and treating it as a single thing.
Note: As jimrandomh mentions, things like age, physical health and motivation probably matter, as do things like performance enhancing substances or techniques. It seems to me like it’d make sense to address those things in different question though. Eg. here I think we can ask the question of how many productive hours a healthy individual who isn’t doing any performance enhancing stuff has in a day. Then in a separate question, we can ask how things like age and physical health impact this number. And in another separate question, we can ask how things like performance enhancing substances impact the number.
After about an hour of googling around, I haven’t been able to find any of those high quality studies either. My impression is that the “people are only productive for four hours/day” idea largely comes from interviewing successful people, as opposed to rigorously measuring their performance. If there were high quality studies that really measured performance, I’d expect that they would be talked about more and easier to find, so I take the fact that they’re hard to find as reasonably strong evidence that they don’t really exist.
It is interesting to note that across a wide range of experts, including athletes, novelists, and musicians, very few appear to be able to engage in more than four or five hours of high concentration and deliberate practice at a time.
This quote comes from a Harvard Business Review article titled The Making of an Expert. The authors are K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely. I know that Ericsson is known as an authority in the study of expert performance; not sure about the other authors.
The article Why you should work 4 hours a day, according to science also had some relevant excerpts. The author mentions various examples of experts reporting that four hours/day is their limit, and that in interviewing people, this is the strong pattern.
After his morning walk and breakfast, Charles Darwin was in his study by 8 a.m. and worked a steady hour and a half. At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary or greenhouse to conduct experiments. By noon, he would declare, “I’ve done a good day’s work,” and set out on a long walk. When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters. At 3 p.m. he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife and family for dinner.
Toulouse noted that Poincaré kept very regular hours. He did his hardest thinking between 10 a.m. and noon, and again between 5 and 7 in the afternoon. The 19th century’s most towering mathematical genius worked just enough to get his mind around a problem — about four hours a day.
G.H. Hardy, one of Britain’s leading mathematicians in the first half of the 20th century, would start his day with a leisurely breakfast and close reading of the cricket scores, then from 9 to 1 would be immersed in mathematics. After lunch he would be out again, walking and playing tennis. “Four hours’ creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician,” he told his friend and fellow Oxford professor C.P. Snow.
John Edensor Littlewood:
Hardy’s longtime collaborator John Edensor Littlewood believed that the “close concentration” required to do serious work meant that a mathematician could work “four hours a day or at most five, with breaks about every hour (for walks perhaps).”
Ericsson’s study of violin students:
Add these several practices up, and what do you get? About four hours a day. About the same amount of time Darwin spent every day doing his hardest work and Hardy and Littlewood spent doing math.
This upper limit, Ericsson concluded, is defined “not by available time, but by available [mental and physical] resources for effortful practice.”
The article also makes some more general statements about the four hours/day idea:
Darwin is not the only famous scientist who combined a lifelong dedication to science with apparently short working hours. We can see similar patterns in many others’ careers
In particular, it mentions the following study:
A survey of scientists’ working lives conducted in the early 1950s yielded results in a similar range. Illinois Institute of Technology psychology professors Raymond Van Zelst and Willard Kerr surveyed their colleagues about their work habits and schedules, then graphed the number of hours spent in the office against the number of articles they produced. You might expect that the result would be a straight line showing that the more hours scientists worked, the more articles they published. But it wasn’t.
The data revealed an M-shaped curve. The curve rose steeply at first and peaked at between 10 to 20 hours per week. The curve then turned downward. Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as their 20-hours-a-week colleagues.
If you search through Cal Newport’s blog, you’ll find lots of other examples of expert performers only being able to manage four hours/day of hard work. John Grisham’s 15-Hour Workweek is one:
Grisham primarily writes his novels during the winter months on his farm in Oxford, Mississippi. During this period he works five days a week, starting at 7 am and typically ending by 10 am.
There is something important that I’d like to emphasize. From what I can tell, all of these examples of expert performers who can only perform about four hours of hard work per day, these people all seem to be getting the other parts of the productivity equation right. They’re sleeping enough, taking naps, taking walks, eliminating distractions, quitting Facebook, etc. So four hours/day seems like it is conditional on those things. I think that this is worth noting because many of us are not getting those things right. I know I’m not.
It seems worth clarifying what you mean by “productive”. As Raemon and waveman mention, the answer will depend on whether you are talking about “hard” work a la Anders Ericsson’s idea of deliberate practice, or about more routine type of work. I suspect that you are talking about the former and that people will interpret it as the former, but it still seems worth clarifying.
It also might be worth mentioning that you are referring to “standard” cases of healthy individuals who aren’t using any performance enhancing drugs or anything like that. I took that as a given, as the question of how unnatural things like that could change the default seems like a different question, as does the question of how things like anxiety or lack of sleep reduce your capacity.
I’m someone who is really worried about addictiveness. I find myself doing the compulsive refreshing, and hate myself more and more every time I find myself doing it. This coupled with my just having finished reading Digital Minimalism made me feel really worried as I first started reading this post. But once I reached the point where I realized the team was aware of the problem of addictiveness and gives users a way around it… I just felt a strong feeling of warmth towards LessWrong. hearts
I definitely see what you’re saying about how we make comparisons when we process information, and that there is a strong evolutionary pressure for us to be concerned about social status. The thing that makes me feel hopeful is that when you look at humans, there’s a pretty decent range of how much different people care about social status. Some care a lot, some only care a little. I wouldn’t argue if someone were to claim that you can never 100% get rid of the concern for social status, but it does really seem to me that there is room for growth in terms of how much you care about it. Otherwise, what explains the fact that there is a spectrum of how much people care. Unless it is all genetic, it seems that there is a lot of room for people to improve.
I think that’s a really cool idea about society moving towards healthier comparisons. Without having thought deeply about it, my impression is that it’d be extremely difficult because of equilibrium stuff. If an individual actor starts to prioritize something like effort instead of accomplishment, no one is going to praise them, and they won’t get social status points. It seems like something where you’d need to get a sizable group to all make a change at the same time, which is always tricky to do. Not to say that it isn’t worth pursuing though.
There’s something that I’ve always been curious about but never had the chance to ask: as a psychiatrist and psychologist, to what extent has your training helped you avoid or solve your own mental health problems? How helpful has it been?
My guess is that it is only somewhat helpful. Many doctors smoke and eat unhealthy foods even though they’ve spent years studying just how harmful that stuff is. It seems to me that this is an area where “incremental improvements in rationality don’t always lead to incremental improvements in winning” is true.
I’ve been meaning to think more about ego and identity. I also sense that a lot of people have problems where they don’t feel accomplished enough, and where they compare themselves with other people. I know that I have those sorts of problems.
On the one hand, it seems silly to compare yourself to other people like that. Especially when it is taken to such an extreme. But on the other hand, it seems like something that is deeply ingrained in us, and that is very hard to avoid. In reality, that sort of thinking is probably establishing a false dichotomy. Clearly there are some people who are more invested in how accomplished they are than others.
The question that I’m interested in is how to change your mindset, such that you retain your ambition, but aren’t caught up in it, if that makes sense. Where you pursue improvement and accomplishment either because you are intrinsically motivated to do so, or because you want to do good for the world, but not because you want social status points. And where you see the accomplishment as a “nice to have”, rather than an “I’m happy if I get it, and sad if I don’t”. And especially not where you see it as a “I feel normal if I get it, and depressed if I don’t”. I find for myself, and sense that the same is true for many others, that a “logical” understanding often isn’t enough, that your brain still may act as if it’s a necessity rather than a nice to have, even though you logically understand that this mindset is silly. I suppose that this is a much more general problem, and a very important one.
In the example of TV vs. novels, no, but there are other examples where I do think so:
Live-like-the-locals vacation vs. tourist vacation
Doing home improvement stuff yourself vs. paying someone to do it for you
Biking everywhere vs. having a car
On balance, I’m actually not sure of what I think about whether “high class” things tend to provide more happiness than “low class” things, so I spoke too soon in the previous comment.