A bit over a year ago, I attended CFAR’s May 2013 rationality workshop. Someone asked me recently whether I think it had any lasting effects. I think it has, in the following ways:1
I’ve vastly improved my organizational skills. I often used to forget about appointments, lose track of correspondence, and accidentally leave important tasks until the last minute (or beyond). I was also frequently stressed about these problems. This hardly ever happens to me anymore, thanks to the workshop’s advice on setting up a robust and stable organizational system. (This was harder for me than it might seem—it’s not like I hadn’t tried before!) After a fair amount of tinkering, I’ve created a combination of tools (currently org-mode, Beeminder, Boomerang) and routine daily and weekly reviews, that works easily and reliably. Together, these pretty much ensure that if I have something to remember or do, I remember or do it.
More broadly, I’m better at deciding what I choose to do. The most important part of this is doing things because I think they’ll be useful, rather than because they triggered some random unconscious “good thing to do” heuristic or feed me a good self-image. (For example, I realized that many of the classes I was required to take didn’t actually teach me anything, so rather than automatically trying to excel at them, I should be doing the bare minimum to get the grades I want. I felt uncomfortable with this because it conflicted with my self-image of “being awesome at academics,” until I reframed it as “being awesome at applying the 80/20 rule.")
I’m also more attuned to when I can “refactor” my activities to achieve the same goals more easily. For example, I realized that it doesn’t actually matter if it’s me running Harvard Effective Altruism as long as someone (who’s sufficiently engaged) does it, so I started trying to delegate more of the work. I was in a choir because I liked singing, but I realized that I could get all of the good parts (singing with people) and none of the bad parts (like rehearsing the same piece over and over, or giving too many concerts) by holding random singing parties.
I got better at noticing my mood, physical state, and other circumstantial factors that affect how I work. For instance, I realized that if I was sleep-deprived and ate a lot of starch or dessert at dinner, it pretty reliably ruined my focus for the next hour or two. By stopping doing this, I gained a significant amount of productive time. Similarly I noticed that lack of sleep was affecting my focus to the extent that I lost more time the very next day by being distracted than I gained by staying up late, which finally convinced me to take a hard line about getting 8.5 hours a day.
I think this change is an extension of the idea of modeling myself as a complex system, not just an ego-controlled agent that suffers from mysterious things like “lack of willpower.” (If I were being uncharitable I would say that I used to secretly alieve in Cartesian dualism.) This has led to a noticeable and continuing improvement in the amount of the day for which I’m able to do things.
I developed a bunch of strategies for successfully doing things that make me uncomfortable—managing my stress responses and body language, warming up with smaller things first, etc. I’ve used these successfully for lots of things, including cold-calling speakers for Harvard Effective Altruism; running the ensuing large events; having conversations with strangers; and negotiating for salary and funding.
The CFAR alumni network is totally awesome. So far it’s helped me find: a job; several speakers for Harvard Effective Altruism; a huge repository of interesting advice and discussion (on the mailing list); and of course lots and lots of great people to meet.
On the other hand, here’s some things that I wish had stuck with me more:
CFAR taught a number of explicit techniques for things like forming habits, building self-motivation, figuring out how to accomplish goals, etc. I felt like I learned a lot from absorbing the principles of these, but for some of them I’ve only rarely used the techniques. So I haven’t installed very many productive habits that I didn’t already have (just the organizational stuff), or substantially consciously change which things I’m intrinsically motivated to do.
I found the material on Bayes’ Theorem pretty unhelpful. (I also generally don’t think Bayes deserves the reverence it gets for some people, but that’s a topic for another post…) In general, I wish that there had been more material on habits of reasoning rather than habits of action (epistemic rationality as opposed to instrumental), but I also wish the stuff that was taught had been more useful. I don’t think I got very much better at reasoning as a result of the workshop (except maybe to the extent of having more time, motivation and energy to do difficult reasoning, which is admittedly important).
I wish there were better support for continuing to practice the material that CFAR teaches, and more opportunity to learn more of it. There are ways to do this (e.g. conversation over the mailing list, sporadic Google Hangouts, volunteering at workshops), but they’re informal and require a fair amount of figuring-out.
The last two seem to be improving: for instance, CFAR is holding their first alumni reunion in August, and working on developing more material, especially on the epistemic side.
Overall, if you’re wondering, I’m really glad I went (and if this sounds interesting to you, check out their upcoming workshops—the interview is short and fun2)!
Of course, although I’m sure that the CFAR workshop participated in the changes I list, I’m not sure about the counterfactual: some changes might have happened even if I hadn’t done the workshop, or had done a placebo instead (say, flying out to California for an unstructured hangout with a similar bunch of people). Please interpret these anecdata with caution. ↩︎
As a side note, don’t be discouraged by the high tuition; they have enough financial aid that I paid something well within my means as a student. ↩︎