Parenthood and Procrastination

Having a newborn has been good for cutting through some of the thought patterns I tend to have that lead to procrastination. So, while I’m definitely getting less non-baby-related work done these days, I’ve also gotten more efficient at using the time I do have. Specifically, I’ve gotten considerably better at effectively using small blocks of time.

Here are some of the things I can’t really tell myself these days:

  • “I’ll wait until I have a block of time so I can really concentrate.” I may not get a big block of time that day. And when I do have a longer stretch because Lydia’s taking a long nap, I don’t usually know ahead of time. Sometimes I think I’ll have longer, maybe because she just ate and Will’s taking care of her, but I’m wrong because she needs to eat again.
  • “I’ll just read this article/email/book first.” It’s been pretty hard to type while nursing, but reading is easy enough, so it’s hard to justify using time where I actually have access to my hands to read. I have plenty of time for reading.
  • “I can just do it later.” This is the most fundamental thought, procrastinationwise. There’s a very good chance that later, Lydia will need to feed. Or, if she won’t, then I’ll want to eat myself, or take a shower, or do some laundry. I can’t pretend that time “later” is abundant.

And I think that’s the key thing. Time to work on the things I care about actually does feel scarce now, in a way that it never has before, which has its upsides. I get excited about having time to work on the things I care about and I want to use it efficiently. I also feel much more motivated to figure out what’s actually of greatest importance and start with that, since I know I’m not going to get through everything on my list.

Of course, sometimes I end up deciding to sleep, because I’m tired, or play (these days it’s usually Skyrim), because I want to recharge. But more often than not, those decisions feel like conscious choices that I’ve made for good reason.

As a bonus, it seems like I’ve managed to carry over some of the mindset I internalized during labor about taking things I’m worried about minute by minute, and not dreading the future. That helps too.

Sticky claims and surprise meters

I’ve been rereading the early posts of Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions, and will now, as an exercise for myself, try summarize my best understanding of the relevant concepts and how I relate to them using my own jargon:

I will describe two natural clusters of mental representations “sticky claims” and “surprise meters” and their respective underlying meanings.

Sticky Claims

“Sticky claims” aren’t by default truth-tracking: they don’t get updated whenever new data comes in. Rather, they exercise their (limited) agency to preserve their existence by directing my focus away from counter-evidence. The standard function of a “sticky claim” in my mind is to act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I can refer to my “sticky claims” verbally, and they have attached sensory representations. “Sticky claims” I’ve uncovered in my brain have ranged from “It’s dangerous to have money because someone will take it away from me” to “I can’t find the cheese anywhere in the refrigerator” to “I love my brother”. When these are active in my brain I will de disinclined to acquire money, cast my eyes on every shelf in the fridge, and dwell on the positive qualities of a world where my brother doesn’t exist.

I’m sure you can think of “sticky claims” of your own. Think of one now.

Surprise Meters

Together, my “surprise meters” imply my best working model of reality. The rough function of surprise is to alert me when I encounter input that causes an update: data that render an aspect of my model of reality improbable. I do not shy away from disproving them.

I can refer to my “surprise meters” in words, and they have attached models underlying them. Typical examples of “surprise meters” are: “I have very little money in my savings account,” “I recently opened the refrigerator and stared inside without moving my eyes much for about 30 seconds, thinking of cheese,” and “I have a strong intuition that loving my brother is virtuous“, none of which seeks to prevent me from invalidating it by constraining my actions.

Steps for Turning Sticky Claims into Surprise Meters

“Sticky claims” and “surprise meters” behave differently, and I find distinguishing the two is instrumental. More specifically, the ability to reliably access my surprise meters enables me to update my map on demand towards consistently picture of the world I exist in.

When I notice myself shying away from reality, cultivating my curiosity allows me to seek truth. Some go-to questions for when I feel stuck are:

  1. What is the probability the claim is true? What bets would I make about it? (20% chance the cheese has been eaten or moved.  80% chance I haven’t checked the shelf or drawer where it is.)
  2. What is my evidence for the claim? (It’s not on the shelf I’m looking at right now.  I’ve been looking in the fridge for 30 seconds and I haven’t seen it.)
  3. What is my evidence against the claim? (I remember putting the cheese in the fridge when I bought it.  I cannot recall my roommates ever having finished or moved my cheese without informing me.  I haven’t checked every shelf and drawer.)
  4. Imagine, in as much sensory detail as possible, that I will open an envelope with the truth about the claim inside. How do my emotions respond to the prospect of finding out the real answer?  (Imagining opening the envelope containing a note informing me whether the cheese is in there I start to doubt my claim that it isn’t. I feel myself not wanting to look–I’m afraid to be wrong.)

Try those questions out on the claims you picked before and see how your perspective shifts.

If following the steps described above does not bring about my desired level of clarity (as evidenced by my contentment), I can tease out the models underlying my “surprise meters” by employing longer-form techniques.

I strive not only to recognize that “sticky claims” and “surprise meters” exist as categories and are distinguishable, but also to develop the habit of tagging my verbal statements (spoken either out loud or in my head) as one or the other in real-time.

Less Wrong Sequences decks

I read Eliezer’s Sequences back when he was posting them to Overcoming Bias, and both enjoyed them and thought they were full of lots of good rules about how to think. Just as with communication advice, the hardest time for me to remember rationality advice has been when I most needed it. So far I’ve made Anki decks of the first two of Eliezer’s core Sequences, and that does seem to have helped the material sink in.

Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

One piece of wisdom I’ve gotten from the self-help literature is that by default, the function of a belief in the human mind is to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We tend to look for confirming evidence, reject (or fail to notice) counter-evidence, and take actions which confirm our world view. There are also truth-tracking beliefs. These are beliefs that we’d bet on, and that we update as new information comes in. The posts in Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions helped classify and categorize a bunch of important rules for filling my mind with the latter types of belief, not the former. My best one-sentence summary of the sequence is: “Don’t ask what to believe, ask what to anticipate.”

Here’s the deck:

Download this file

A Human’s Guide to Words

I used to spend a lot of time nitpicking and arguing about words. I didn’t realize that I was doing so at the time–I would have said I was arguing about ideas–and that’s why I kept doing it. Having learned tons of Anki cards about the ways humans slip into doing this without noticing, I’m aware of at least many of the failure modes. I often find myself saying, “wait–it seems like we’re arguing about words” and changing course, which I take to be a good sign.

The deck I made for myself probably goes into more detail than most people would want, so I recommend suspending any cards that don’t seem interesting or relevant.

The deck:

Download this file