Facilitating Your Way across Everest

Ah, well-facilitated meetings. Despite (or perhaps because of) the plethora of meetings we must endure in our professional lives, few ever truly deserve that label.
Badly facilitated meetings are perhaps the greatest wasters of corporate time, a source of consistent frustration, and the bane of employees everywhere. Being asked to be a facilitator can feel akin to a request to be ritually sacrificed.

Nevertheless, when you ask people what they imagine under a ‘well-facilitated’ meeting and how to achieve it, few will be able to move beyond some clichéd descriptions. Ask what they consider to be bad facilitation though, and the resulting torrent of comments will make it seem like you’ve penetrated their deepest emotional reservoirs.
Thus the paradox of good facilitation: universally desired and exulted, yet very effete and hard to pin down.

During my time in student NGOs, project groups and at university, I spent thousands of hours in meetings of various kinds, and spent hundreds of hours facilitating meetings and events myself. As a result I feel like I’ve managed to break this hydra down into some clearly defined parts.

Let’s start with a broad perspective: facilitation is ultimately about reducing the time that goes into a discussion, while still making a high-quality decision that people feel ownership about. In this sense, the responsibilities of a facilitator are very broad, and not just restricted to avoiding the standard “time wasters” and keeping people from talking over each other.
The basics are important, sure, but a great facilitator must realise that any kind of talking takes time! Any sentence someone speaks in a discussion is either necessary or unnecessary, and one must plan to get as many of the former as possible and as few of the latter.
In other words, I submit that good facilitators eliminate time wasters and make people feel good about a meeting, but great facilitators proactively use methods to get people on the same page quicker and without losing anything of value.

dilbert30748-stripTime wasters come in many forms.

In my mind, there are five questions that a facilitator should constantly ask him- or herself. In order of importance:

  1. Does this need to be discussed at all? And does it need to be done now?
    The first step to making a discussion move faster is by cutting away the parts that aren’t actually required. The best way to do this is to have clearly defined the goals for the discussion, and ruthlessly (more or less) cut or redirect anything that doesn’t fall under that list.
    Also take special care to cut things which are either irrelevant or not actionable; various forms of complaining and bitching frequently masquerade as productivity…
  2. Do we have to discuss this with everyone?
    Being in a bigger group makes things last way longer. In a group of 20 people it takes at least twice as long for everyone to state their opinion than in a group of 10. Ditto for getting on the same page. Further, the amount of interjections and clarifications increases geometrically.The main tools to avoid excessively large discussions are:
    – Delegating a discussion to a smaller group (specialised team) or to another time (someone does research on it, comes back with a proposal; rather than everyone trying to analyse a basic situation)
    – Making use of time more efficiently by splitting into smaller groups, which means that multiple people get to speak. This is where facilitation methods like world café, open space technology, group homeworks, etc. can be very useful. Huge time gains can be made with these methods, but keep in mind that there needs to be a convergence of the groups at the end, and this will take time as well. 
  3. Do we have to discuss it in this way?
    Once we have established that this is a discussion worth having, and worth having with everyone, we can move on to wonder if any specific discussion method would make things more efficient. Here there is a very broad list of potential facilitation techniques, and it’s good to have a couple in your toolbox.Some of my personal favourites:
    – Using silent clustering instead of group discussions/brainstorming. This is a subtle way of basically keeping people quiet, and using everyone’s brains at the same time! Through the silence, it will become clear that many things are either already agreed upon by the group, or need just a minimum of thought.
    – Mindmapping. A complex discussion often needs on-the-spot visual tools, and a few minutes of mindmapping (or just writing down pros & cons) instantly improves clarity.
    – Posing specific questions that refocus the discussion. “We unfortunately can’t change the past, so what can we do right now to improve this problem?” is a classic move that avoids excessive complaining and hindsight bias.

    So far, our considerations were quite high-level, and entirely focused on the process of the discussion itself. These final two are more granular:

  4. Can I help the discussion along?
    At a more detailed level (of content): can you as a facilitator involve yourself in the content of the discussion to help out.Examples here would be:
    – Work out misunderstandings between members who are moving in a circle
    – Paraphrase things if they’re not clear
    – Involving other people when one person is dominating discussion
  5. Can I improve the atmosphere?
    This is about the room, energy, eliminating distractions and noise, etc. Be aware of the right time to call a break, perform a wake-up activity, give participants some glucose, or clear out tension.Because it is so continuous, an argument could be made that it should actually be the first consideration. However, I find that there’s no point in improving the atmosphere of a discussion before you’ve determined that it’s actually necessary and that it’s happening in the least frustrating way. (But checking the atmosphere should definitely be part of preparation)

shutterstock_151437512Oh and: don’t look down.

A final critical insight is that facilitation is primarily about trust, and this is why preparing for such a role should be taken exceptionally seriously. The very real (but unspoken) assumption is that the facilitator is like an experienced sherpa who will guide participants through a difficult discussion, avoiding the steepest hills of disagreement and the dullest valleys of boredom. He pays full attention to how the trip will go (process) while the participants trust him to guide them well, so they can focus on the view during the trip (content).

However, once participants start losing faith in the facilitator, all goes off the rails. Participants start thinking that maybe he or she isn’t quite up to the leadership task, and they start paying attention to the process as well. Soon they are offering their earnest suggestions to improve the process and begin to undermine the facilitator’s authority in subtle ways. As a result, less and less people are fully focused on the actual content, and we enter a downward spiral of mistrust, distraction, and progressively lower levels of discussion.

To avoid this, make sure you have prepared the path of discussion exceptionally well. This includes:

  • Thinking through all of the points where problems might arise
  • Question your assumptions about which parts of the meeting will go smoothly
  • Be prepared for worst-case scenarios and failed discussion techniques; have at least a plan B and C ready.

 

Keep all these pointers in mind, and you too can become a reliable facilitation sherpa.

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Intellectual Standard Bearers

The past few months in media and print have been like a slow mo version of the Red Wedding. In between Brexit, campus protests, conspiracy theories, and the election of God Emperor Donald Trump… every publication seems to have turned into a frontline. Trenches are being dug, hit pieces being deployed, slurs and various -isms unleashed on any and every opponent across the political spectrum. I must confess I can’t fully keep track of all the intellectuals and pundits who have supposedly been “SMASHED”, “ANNIHILATED”, “DESTROYED” by spokespersons and commenters; and vice versa.
The public space of ideas seems to have become much more tribal. With every passing week, scandal and Twitter outrage, the list of voices deemed acceptable by either side of the aisle seems to be shrinking.

Meanwhile, I seem to be following the opposite trajectory. If anything this year has been characterised for me by an interesting “dip” in (what I would have once described as) my intellectual standards.
It used to be that I listened mainly to commentators who (in my view) had things ‘right’. Experienced debaters and scientists who stuck to the facts and arrived at familiar conclusions. For instance, eager to establish my skeptic debating strategies and intellectual bona fides, I devoured anything by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the Hitch, Penn Jillette, James Randi, Bill Maher and so on. These were figures I had some intellectual real estate in common with (puny thought mine was) and the purpose of listening to them was as much to learn as it was to be preached to like a choir.

This isn’t to say that I fully created my own bubble (as the neologism goes), but my interest was definitely geared towards a relatively small group of ‘brothers in thought’.

That’s changed recently. I feel that my horizons have broadened considerably, or at least the spectrum of people that I’m prepared to listen to. I’ve found myself engaged with the ideas of many controversial figures such as Scott Adams, Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, Douglas Murray, Larry Elder and many others (yes, they mostly lean right, sue me). I even listened to a discussion with Marine Le Pen recently (oh geez).
While I haven’t agreed with all what they have said, I now appreciate much more the sensation of being challenged, and being exposed to ideas which run counter to my way of thinking. Whether I wind up fully agreeing with their positions or methods, is entirely besides the point. Scott Adams has changed my perspective on communication and politics in a profound way, and Ben Shapiro has given me considerations of economy and society that I could not see before. Who cares that they both have severe intellectual flaws and short-comings? They can be valuable voices nonetheless.

And while the range of people who I listen to has expanded, the through-line between people I respect and admire is still the same. People who are intellectually honest. People who are willing to speak truth wherever and however they encounter it. Who are transmitting their thoughts in real time and honestly representing the contents of their own mind. This should be the true free-thinker alliance, and I fully expect this to be an extremely heterogeneous group. Standing shoulder to shoulder with a conservative Jew like Ben Shapiro, and an AI researcher like Eliezer Yudkowsky. And why not? As long as we can all chase truth in a moral and honest way, I could not think of finer company

intellectualhonesty– Never thought I’d debate next to a Republican
– How about next to a fellow Hitch fanboy?
– Aye… I could do that.

Weinstein put this all masterfully in a recent conversation with Sam Harris:

“We always talk about leadership but not follower-ship, and one of the things that I try to do as a a relatively strong voice, is to lend my voice to the support of others. Because I think that if we don’t teach people that there’s no shame in following others who are doing the noble work, then we have leaders but no followers, and nothing much gets done. And so, as you’ve heard, I am critical of some of the things you’ve said and done, I think it’s important to realise that there’s a really heroic aspect to this project, and one does not need to sign up for all aspects of it to see that the decency, and the attempted clarity and fairness is unmistakable. And so to all of these people who have come after you – I was really interested in Cenk Uygur’s worldview for a long time, I’ve held Greenwald in high respects – we are witnessing something very very strange, and it’s important that we check ourselves and figure out: Are these real conflicts? Or are they conflicts that have been scripted for us because we’ve gotten a postage-size stamp on which to stand on intellectually?

And I think there’s a coming together that is absolutely necessary. Because I don’t want a conversation dictated by Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. I have no use for either of these people. It’s a different generation, it’s a different worldview and it’s a different intellectual ante that has to be put up to talk about these most difficult topics; and it requires humility, it requires a willingness to learn, to camp/decamp, to change one’s mind and revise, and I think that’s really what your core message is. And I’m very angry at those who have hi-jacked it cynically, because there’s no question that someone with the skill and grace of a Reza Aszlan, could easily see your point if only he were striving to see it.

[…]

So I’m super excited to do that, to be here and lend my voice, whether or not I agree with the next podcast you do or not. I have great faith in the process. This is the group who can say, you know what, I made a mistake, I learned something new, I changed my mind. And these are the hallmarks (along with steelmanning and things like Rapaport’s rules) that should be the sina qua non of mature discussion. “

 

I agree entirely with all this, and it’s important enough to render in its entirety.
The more you look at the modern media and our current societal debate, the more it becomes crystal clear that the real fight is between those who think honestly and those who do not. There are far too many people who are interested in just making their side win, and making the other side look bad at all costs. Sometimes they’re politicans and regressives; but equally they can be the media outlets that write blistering articles about one politican in the morning, and contradict themselves by the evening.

Disagreement and spirited debate among honest adults are perfectly fine. In fact that’s to be sought out and relished in, because it means there are interesting conversations to be had.  But those who are intellectual toddlers with commensurate levels of ethics, they don’t get to play.

Centipedes and classical liberals: time to man the barricades.

 

Evolution versus Quantum Woo

There’s a new cognitive psychology article that’s been buzzing around the interwebs. It particularly seems to have struck a cord with the obfuscationist crowd; folks like Deepak Chopra and the salesman of healing crystals. However, even Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert, and recently baptized pundit) asserted that it would blow our collective minds about the context of reality.
The amazing article in question is titled “The Evolutionairy Argument against Reality” and consists of an interview with Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science. In it, Hoffman argues that a focus on truth could never have been selected for by evolutionairy processes, and the world of our perceptions must therefore be fundamentally different from reality.

It is a truly bizarre interview.

To start with a main disclaimer: I wasn’t able to track down any paper that would explain his position in-depth. But given the size of his claims, I think I’m justified in critizing based on the public arguments he’s come forward with.

Here’s the general gist of Hoffman’s thesis (printed in Quanta Magazine):

“The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions — mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction. The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.

Suppose in reality there’s a resource, like water, and you can quantify how much of it there is in an objective order — very little water, medium amount of water, a lot of water. Now suppose your fitness function is linear, so a little water gives you a little fitness, medium water gives you medium fitness, and lots of water gives you lots of fitness — in that case, the organism that sees the truth about the water in the world can win, but only because the fitness function happens to align with the true structure in reality. Generically, in the real world, that will never be the case. Something much more natural is a bell curve  — say, too little water you die of thirst, but too much water you drown, and only somewhere in between is good for survival. Now the fitness function doesn’t match the structure in the real world. And that’s enough to send truth to extinction. For example, an organism tuned to fitness might see small and large quantities of some resource as, say, red, to indicate low fitness, whereas they might see intermediate quantities as green, to indicate high fitness. Its perceptions will be tuned to fitness, but not to truth. It won’t see any distinction between small and large — it only sees red — even though such a distinction exists in reality.”

 

On its face, the structure of Hoffman’s thesis is actually not that ground-breaking. Greek philosophers already played with the idea that the ‘real world’ might not be what it seems. And more concretely we’ve known for over a century that the colours we see are visual representations of objects’ differing electromagnetic reflections; as such, colour mainly exists as a visual tool in our brain and there’s no reason to suspect it is ‘true’ in any deeper sense. And there are many other examples that make our hold on reality appear tenuous.

Still, Hoffman could either be making a modern restatement of this basic insight (that our experience doesn’t perfectly reflect reality), or a far more radical claim (that objective reality isn’t real at all). While he seems to skip back and forth between these throughout the interview, his most striking statements definitely fall in the second camp. For instance: “Neurons, brains, space… these are just symbols we use, they’re not real. It’s not that there’s a classical brain that does some quantum magic. It’s that there’s no brain!”

I see two massive problems with Hoffman’s thesis. The first is with the simulation-based “proof” he’s trying to add to the philosophical discussion; the second is a general objection to this class of worldviews.

1) Hoffman makes a big deal out of the fact that an organism that sees water concentrations based on their survival value (so that both too little and too much water would get rendered as red without distinction), will outcompete an organism that expends resources representing the amount of water exactly. Thus “truth is driven to extinction”.

But the organism he describes in his simulation is clearly NOT an organism that is not aligned with truth, evidenced by the fact that the color red is still giving true information about objective reality. Granted, a ‘red’ environment would no longer be a true representation of the absolute amount of water in an environment, but it would still be a true (albeit binary) representation of whether the amount of water fit the fitness function of the organism.
Truth has been simplified, sure, but it is not extinct. Any actual move away from truth (e.g. starting to see a lethal water concentration as green rather than red) would still be swiftly selected against.

So yes, our sensory faculties are going to be heuristics at best and won’t get the world exactly right. But once you start looking at the concrete implications of that, it’s not all that different from what we knew all along: some aspects of our experience (like colors) are there as shortcuts for the brain but do not perfectly reflect their physical underpinnings (electromagnetic wavelengths). And often they may deceive us.

That complicates our search for truth, but by no means cancels it.

2) It’s always simple enough to make nonsensical claims about what you believe. As an example, it’s easy to say that you can imagine a round triangle or a square circle. But what’s much harder is to explain your view of the world in a way that makes any kind of sense. Hoffman takes a crack at it, and this is where the thesis shifts from locally insightful to slightly ridiculous:

“The idea that what we’re doing is measuring publicly accessible objects, the idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results — it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go. Physics tells us that there are no public physical objects. So what’s going on? Here’s how I think about it. I can talk to you about my headache and believe that I am communicating effectively with you, because you’ve had your own headaches. The same thing is true as apples and the moon and the sun and the universe. Just like you have your own headache, you have your own moon. But I assume it’s relevantly similar to mine. That’s an assumption that could be false, but that’s the source of my communication, and that’s the best we can do in terms of public physical objects and objective science.”

 

The thing is, we are not that dependent on our senses being perfect (or perfectly in sync) to learn things about the world. Partly because we now have machines which are able to reinforce our senses. We can argue all day whether my perception of your mom’s weight is accurate, but at the end of the day, we can now test that hypothesis with three weighing scales created by different laboratories. And they will provide us with functionally the same result. What does it then practically mean to say that “you see your own moon” (or mom)?

[There’s a tangential but useful insight here, which I first heard from Dawkins in the context of establishing the Earth’s age. In their desperation, Young Earth Creationists are often found insisting that the dozen radiometric dating estimates we have of the Earth (which all point to an age of roughly 4.5 billion years), do not qualify as convincing evidence. After all, radiometric dating works by calculating the extent to which a radioactive elements have decayed over time, and thus relies on the assumption that each element’s decay rate is constant. But how could we ever know that all these differing rates have stayed constant across these hundreds of millions of years? Checkmate, atheists!
Well, because the proof is in the pudding. The proof of the assumption is that different elements do in fact make estimates consistent with each other. If there was really some contaminating process changed decay rates, it’s extremely unlikely that it all affected them equally¹. It’s like telling your friends to come over at 9 over Whatsapp, and having a skeptic question whether Whatsapp can really be trusted to deliver that message. The retort to the skeptic is obvious: if everyone does show up at 9, the message must have been delivered correctly.]

So back to reality, and Hoffman’s denial of it. The proof that reality does exist (at least at the macro-level, regardless of whatever strangeness happens at the quantum level) is that all of us consistently manage to communicate correctly over the same objects, and that we are able to functionally navigate through an ever-changing world.
In fact, since the modern age we have invented machines that presumably do not share our evolutionary biases. We can use machines, computers and various contraptions to double-check our perception of reality. And it invariably turns out that our perceptions are largely accurate².

There are really only two explanations: per Hoffman we could imagine that all these devices and methods are somehow still contaminated by our evolutionary biases (e.g. in our tuning of weighing scales, we program them with the same faults that we have). And this must somehow be true across the board, with many cognitive biases colluding to make us see reality in the wrong way, and at the same time make us wrongly program all our varying tools and methods so as to not provide the correct results. Just as in the Truman show, collusion must be happening all around us but none of our experiments ever provide a hint.
This seems spectacularly unlikely to me.

Or perhaps. Perhaps reality isn’t that far from our grasp after all, and the real obfuscation happens when we buy into farfetched quantum theories…

When bringing the quantum world to the macroscopic level, there’s always a thin line between useful observations and overly ambitious drivel. For now, Hoffman’s thesis remains firmly in superposition between the two.

 

Footnotes:

[1] The mathematical reason here is that element decay is a logarithmic process, meaning that any linear difference in decay times (say 5%) would lead to very different estimation times. In order to all be , each particular element would have to be slowed down in a precise way (consistent with its logarithm).
[2] Again, ignoring the quantum level. Quantum effects have not been shown to occur in the macroscopic world that we mostly care about, and that Hoffman’s article wants to question.

The Financial I/O Bound

Lately I’ve been reading productivity blogs again, specifically those by James Clear and Tim Ferriss.
A frequent hobby horse of theirs is the concept of knowing the value of your time. The idea is that through an analysis of your current and/or future earnings, you come to a “per hour value of time”. And then you use this value as a decision rule for which activities are a productive use of your time.

As an example: suppose you have determined that you value one hour of your time at €20. Now you look at the flow of your day, and you notice it costs you one hour and €5 to go shopping and make dinner every day; whereas it would cost you just half an hour but €10 to go to a restaurant. In this case cooking for yourself has a combined cost of €25 whereas going out only has €15.
Thus the insight garnered from having a value of our time, is that the choice that would maximize our value vs. time trade-off would be to go the restaurant, and pump the extra half hour into a productive activity.
(Of course productivity gurus would say that it’s still fine to cook if there is some other purposes to it, such as relaxing. But a strategy for living in the most productive and efficient way possible, it is not.)

All of this is an intriguing idea, and valuing your time in this way can certainly lead to useful insights. Just as another example: travel is another case where it often makes sense to go for the more comfortable but expensive option; you can recoup the cost by working productively.
The model is doubly useful if your life is busy and you’re prone to losing track of your time allocation… I suppose that’s all of us.

There is a very important wrinkle to the value vs. time calculation though, and it’s a crucial insight for young adults.
The calculation relies on you actually being able to somehow monetize the time you’re saving. After all the assumption is that you will replace low- or zero-income time with high-income time.
Yet for most people with entry-level jobs, this is not at all a given. You may be able to free up 5 hours of time in your schedule by spending some more money, but that does not mean you can automatically work 5 hours more (or at least it doesn’t mean you’ll get paid for it).
Put simple: if you save 45 minutes by skipping cooking and going out to Thai, and you spend the time sitting on the couch or putting in more for the same pay… then you didn’t realise any value increase at all. You just spent more.

1c1l9q“Just teach ’em about value for time. Easy way to increase their hours”

We could say that gaining money is very input-bound for young people. Even if you magically got 10 hours more productive time in a week, there’s no clear way to invest that in a place with an obvious monetary reward. Finding a way to spend 45 hours at the office is a strange idea if you’ll only get paid for 40.
I see this as the productivity conversion problem that many of us face: we get better at planning our time in intricate ways, but we have no place to invest the benefits.

Therefore I see it as a major development project to find just that: profitable projects to put excess time into. Some of these can be extensions to what you’re already doing (working out a bit more, spending more time with your loved ones), others should be new initiatives that are intended to bring you benefits in the future.
Most of these initiatives will probably be quite creative in nature, so it’s going to be hard to put a specific value gain on them; e.g. if you’re setting up a business on the side, it might take you a year to see the first income from the hours you invested. That’s OK. Just make educated estimates on the expected return, and try to spend your time in a way that makes sense.

Here’s a few ideas for the latter category:

  • Generating content: writing a book, blogging.
    For these activities it takes time to create an interesting enough “base” to attract interested readers (what do you think I’ve been doing?)
  • Networking.
    Use the extra time to join NGOs that can develop new or existing skills, or expand your network by spending more time in new social and business circles.
  • Learning marketable skills.
    Spending 10 hours per week learning data analysis which you will be able to use in your job later, is probably a very useful enterprise.
  • Side businesses, start-ups or working freelance.
    Bet I don’t need to explain how this can benefit you!

If I come across as the Wolf of Wall Street right about now, that’s not intended. Of course there’s plenty of time for un-analysed recreation time and chilling too. Not everything we do has to be coldly analysed for potential monetary gain.
But it is still good to have valuable projects on the backburner, which you can dump extra productive hours into. Otherwise striving for productivity improvements will benefit your quality of life in the present, but not bring you many benefits down the line.

Logic is Overrated

Yeah yeah, it took a while for me to write an article 🙂 Blame it on a conference and vacations, but also some laziness!
I also took some time typing this post because it was time to take on a bigger target. Conspiracy thinking proved too small targets for my rants, so I figured one of the building blocks of human rationality was a better target: this rant is about logic.

sunglasses-memeWhich is pretty illogical! Badum-tssschchkkchkkkkchkk *dropped my drumsticks*

Now, the colloquial meaning of “logic” is a blend of all the things that are good in the world: intellectual honesty, common sense, scientific reasoning and so on. This is actually an overly broad and not at all useful definition of logic, and so not what I’ll be writing about in this post.
In mathematics and philosophy, logic has a far more narrow definition: it is a way to study arguments and contrast the truth value of certain propositions.
Simple example: if A ⇒ B; and B ⇒ C; and if A is true; then C must also be true.
Or: ‘All humans are mortal. I am part of the set humans, therefore I am mortal.’

In real life we use logic very often¹ to analyse statements and figure out what they imply.
And in many debates simplistic forms of logic form the main arguments, as debaters seek to show that the propositions of the opposing camp either don’t follow or contradict. But I believe logic of this kind is far overused.
In fact, it seems that many people have a large set of logical propositions in their head, which they try very hard to not bring into conflict with each other (if this does happen, we get the spectacle of cognitive dissonance). They imagine that these propositions form their worldview, and they are only willing to accept other beliefs that are in full logical accordance with the ones already held.

This strong reliance on naive logic is actually a problem, because logic by itself is a tool that’s rather disconnected from reality.
‘Quayles are eaten at Easter; I am a quayle; therefore I will be eaten at Easter.’ This is a logically correct proposition (as in: the conclusion follows from the premises), despite the fact that all those propositions are false.

Far from being the central building logic of life for which it is often seen, logic is really just a kind of glue to connect some of the facts in our world, and compare the truth values of statements.
However just like glue doesn’t work equally well on all surfaces, logic is fully dependent on the accuracy of whatever it’s connecting, and it can’t be relied on by itself.


Try to make this with glue, and you’re gonna have a bad time.

One of my favourite examples involves how we might have discussed physics 150 years ago:
‘If you give an object in motion more energy, it will go faster. Some particles travel at close to the speed of light.
Thus if we give them extra energy: they will exceed the speed of light.’
Both statements above are pretty much true, the syllogism is valid, however in the real world, the conclusion is false. We know from experiments that the molecule will never exceed the speed of light (but only asymptotically approximate it).
What’s happening here is that because we don’t fully understand how physical rules work close to the speed of light, we are smuggling in extra assumptions without being aware of it (in this case: that there is nothing special about the speed of light; but there is). Yet the proposition certainly seems to be valid and would probably have been taken to be correct 150 years ago… until the point we were able to empirically check it and figure out we were wrong.²

Another simple example might be that the transitive property of logic (A ⇒ B) is generally not applicable to the real world. An alien viewing human sports for the first time, might very well theorize that if soccer team A beats team B, and team B beats team C; then team A will almost certainly beat team C. Yet sports is rarely that simple.
Now of course, sports fans know that there are many more variables that cause this syllogism to very often be incorrect (good counterplay, more knowledge about specific teams, self-confidence). But once again: we only notice that because we have an extensive, empirical and in-depth understanding of soccer.

As illustrated above, only using logic to guide our beliefs would lead us astray very often. In fact, our logical syllogisms only tend to be accurate when they are informed by a lot of empirical facts and closer understanding.
When we don’t have this, we go for extremely sloppy thinking. We imagine that the logical propositions we believe, work 100% of the time, and if something contradicts them, then that something must be 100% wrong. A recent example:

screenshot_1If real muslims never kill muslims; and terrorists kill muslims; then terrorists can’t be real muslims!

Compared to this strict demand for all-or-nothing, airtight logic, I find that thinking in terms of probability tends to be a far more accurate approach.
Rather than seeing the world as tightly connected causal chains (“Y always comes after X. So if Y happened, X must have happened too”) I find it more productive to think about probability curves.

tumblr_m0ikcotqnk1qbdydv

We should be slow to assume that any two variables X and Y are logically (causally) linked; but we might very quickly notice that X and Y are correlated and they often occur together. The first encourages one to create a massive spider-web of logical connections which must be brought in accordance; the other is more empirical.

For instance: let’s not analyse the relation between poverty and crime as a direct causal link, alleging that poor conditions lead to poor choices in life (which is then always open to the retort: “Well my uncle was poor and he never went into poverty!”). Instead we might think about the chance that someone becomes a criminal as a quasi-random process with a mean of 2%. And perhaps growing up in poverty means that the mean shifts from 2% to 5%. This immediately makes it clear that anecdotal evidence will not sway the decision either way, and it leads to both better informed questions and better solutions.

Or when we consider the impact of government help; the debate is typically framed around the opposing views that it is either an entirely corrupting influence (“giving people money for doing nothing”), or a necessary component of lifting people out of poverty. Perhaps the truth could be more nuanced: government support could help for the majority of people, but for the 25% or so in the most abject poverty, it no longer suffices and is actually taken advantage of. We could then visualise the overall effect as a kind of bimodal distribution where there’s few people in the center but lots on the edges. Once again, this would make it clear that we expect to find both a relatively large number of success stories, but also a significant number of very negative cases.

To be clear: both above views are examples and I am not attached to their truth value. But I do believe that they are more nuanced (and realistic) hypotheses than the ones based on simplistic logic.

So yeah, logic is overrated and purely logical beliefs are risky business.
Or perhaps I should say: in areas where we don’t have a detailed empirical understanding yet, the accuracy of purely logical beliefs drops to 50-50 😉

See you next time!

 

Footnotes

¹ Not as often as generally thought, but still often. It doesn’t really take ‘logic’ to hunt down mammoths, drive to work or determine that I am not a quayle.

² There are ways to argue against this example, for instance that we should have been more specific with the difference between “moving faster” and “moving faster than a specific speed”. But this is precisely the point: we would never pay close enough attention to notice these imprecise formulations, until experimental data forces us to do. We only notice these kinds of logical syllogisms to be false, once we observed them to be false.

³ During this post my criticisms will often overlap with the problem of “anecdotal thinking”, i.e. taking a limited amount of evidence as evidence for a belief. While the two are definitely very related, I believe the problem there is not necessarily that only a small amount of evidence is considered (we often have to make a decision based on little evidence) but that the decision is immediately formalised into a logical propositions (“X leads to Y, because I have experienced it”) which must then be brought into accordance with the whole web of other logical propositions someone has. If we just used our anecdotal evidence in a probablistic model (and assigned a low weight to anecdotal evidence) there wouldn’t be much of a problem.

Reconciling Determinism and Self-Improvement

From what I’ve written in a previous post, you already know that I consider myself a determinist, and I generally align with the idea that there is no free will.

Those who travel from this philosophical idea to the self-development arena, however, are in for a big surprise. The idea that we are free to choose our own destiny and that we can create our own mind, is central to almost all self-help.

This wouldn’t normally be very problematic: it’s a general truism that the majority are going to be wrong about almost everything, so why are we even surprised? The fact that the gurus of the coaching and self-development world insist on seeing themselves as conscious agents, should give us no more pause than the observation that many fundamentalist Christians take exception to the theory of evolution.

There is, however a deeper issue here. It is a very common refrain that the belief in our own primacy and self-control, is in fact a crucial component of psychological health. In other words it’s not simple a nice but backwards idea to have: it is claimed that the idea itself is doing significant work in improving our lives.
As an example: a recent article from the Atlantic convincingly argued that a belief in free will does not exist in a vacuum:
“The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, look the dark truth in the face.” — Smilansky, Israeli philosopher

Untitled.pngOr perhaps the truth must be locked in a meandering labyrinth few are destined to find?

I can see this argument being used to cut two different ways:

In the practical sense, a belief in free will can be good to have simply because it can make us feel good and be more motivated.
This is not particularly damning to the life of a determinist, actually. There are plenty of uncomfortable ideas which -albeit true- we would do well to keep it out of our minds most of the time. Whilst you execute your final deadlift rep, you are under no obligation to envision a tombstone being lowered onto eventual grave.

In fact I see no contradiction in occasionally ‘lying to yourself’ in a controlled fashion, as long as you are aware of it and periodically review it.
It’s really no different from tricking your body with hyperventilation before a deep dive, pumping yourself up with endorphines to outrun a chasing leopard, or whispering “I’m the boss I’m the boss I’m the boss I’m the boss” while going to do something incredible. ¹


Though I expect Ant-Man to bring up the old canards about quantum indeterminism.

But there’s a more incisive version of the argument: is it even a coherent idea that by thinking positive thoughts, you are influencing the chemistry of your brain? Broadly speaking this is a case where people try to turn determinist logic on its head.
If I can’t decide my own thoughts, then how can I ever improve myself? Even when I have ideas or a drive to better myself, that’s all just determined anyway! Notice the vicious circle: if our minds are determined, then any decision to alter our minds is not ours. So how can we claim to influence our future, by acting on our predetermined ideas?

In my view though, there’s a way to (at least pragmatically) manage this seeming catch-22. It actually goes back to a frequent misunderstanding about determinism: to believe that our mental lives are ultimately beyond our control and that our will is not free, doesn’t mean that we deny that we have a will and that decisions of that will can influence your mind.
It rather argues that the very decision to influence our mind in a specific way, is part of a causal clockwork of which we’re not fully aware. But our decision does have an influence, and it is a necessary part of the whole.

In this sense, there is no big mystery to initiating the feedback loop from thinking positive thoughts to achieving a positive mental life. It’s really no different from any of the other decisions we make to alter our life:
When I’m feeling exhausted, I decide to consume carbohydrates to feel more energy. When I feel tired, I decide to go to bed earlier.
These are ways of managing my future mental life by acting in certain ways. Sure, nothing fundamentally escapes the laws of nature, but nothing really restricts me either. Ditto for when I decide to periodically think about the power of my own mind.

In both cases, I’m taking a decision that influences my mind through a causal chain (one indirect via consuming carbs, one directly through directing my mental effort). But my initiation of a self-contained causal cycle which I control, doesn’t negate the existence of the larger causal cycle that has determined my mind and that I do not control; and determinism has no problem accommodating either.

My own synthesis of this problem has been pretty pragmatic; and this is also necessary, because few philosophers have paid attention to the practical reconciliations that the hoi polloi might have to perform.
One: it’s okay to prop yourself up with some measure of positive self-talk, as long as you can (in your soberest moments) analyse it, and objectively assess whether it’s still helpful or has shifted to dishonesty.
Two: everyone knows that as humans we’re a small part of the causal chain in the universe. But within this small part, we can do plenty of things; including setting up feedback loops to influence our future mental life. We don’t rise above causality, but we don’t become wizards either.

Hope you enjoyed reading this meander 🙂


Footnote:
¹ Actually believing your own lies might  confer the ultimate advantage still. In this sense, wishful thinking may be adaptive in an evolutionary sense.

Combatting Information Overflow: Books

Movies and documentaries about drug problems are common these days. They seek to create awareness for the afflicted, and rightfully so. It can be hard to make an empathic connection though: as the junkie goes for his next shot, you can’t help but wonder if he or she doesn’t realize what he’s doing.
Yet all of us have many negative patterns (and arguably addictions) that we often ignore.
Here’s a big drug for me: information. I frickin’ luuuv consuming information. Reddit, Twitter, Youtube, podcasts,… I take in a huge amount of them every day. An ongoing project for me is to limit this intake to what is actually useful and what I can retain -lest it become an actual addiction.

And today I want to talk about the information overload from an almost universally exalted source: books.

Old books

From childhood we are taught that reading books is a uniquely honorable activity: it develops our vocabulary, expands our world, can make us inhabit the experiences of others, and helps us learn from those who came before came before you. And who could disagree?
But still: think of a book you finished about 6 months ago. How much of it do you remember? What were your main learning points? Can you recall the main experiments and lines of argumentation? If your answer to these questions is a muffled silence, then your effort of reading all those pages (150 up to God knows what) seems to have yielded a paltry reward. That’s not to say that momentary recollection is everything; certainly some memes got stuck into your mind and will emerge once prompted. At the very least though, it seems you’re not getting as much out of your reading time as you could.

I should state upfront that this isn’t all that applicable to people who only read recreationally or therapeutically. If you mainly read romantic novels in order to relax and feel good, then OK, you’re probably not that interested in abilities of recall and reproducibility.
For me that doesn’t really apply. There are many things I enjoy much more than reading, and have greater recreational value to me. So when I choose to read, I’m looking for some intellectual value as well. And if you stumbled upon this blog, I’m going to assume you’re a bit of a productivity junkie, and that you do have some larger purpose behind a large chunk of your reading activity.

Reading versus Retention

When reading to learn and develop yourself, your reading goals should really be measured in terms of their impact on your life (whether mental or practical).
Ultimately we would prefer not to read copious amounts of increasingly obscure tomes, but rather read less and try to apply more learning points to our lives.
In this sense, I see three broad stages of lasting impact that a book can have:

Familiarity – this is the lowest form of lasting impact. It basically means that you remember having read about a topic, and would recognize the ideas if you saw them again, but you haven’t assimilated the points in any meaninful way.

For instance: several years ago I read Friedman’s “The World is Flat” as a task in a university course. I remember it as a great book, and remember the main topics of  globalization and outsourcing. I also vaguely recall some arguments related to the virtues of globalization in general, how terrorism takes hold among the malcontents in the world order… that’s about it.

If I read again about globalisation, I’ll surely remember reading similar sentences in Friedman (and I may feel comfortable discussing the topic in public), but the ideas haven’t permeated into my working memory. For a 450-page book, that’s really a pity.

Assimilation – this is when you have liked and studied a book to such an extent, that its learning points become part of your mental repertoire. You’re able to recall and use specific arguments, and overall its ideas are with you on a continuous basis.

For many people, their favorite novels and political treatises are on this level. People identify that these books “changed my beliefs” and see them as a cornerstone in their thought.

Application – The highest form of impact a book can have on you. If it’s a practical book, it means you really take time to apply each element to your life. If it’s a philosophical book, you research and check its ideas, and outline how it fits into the rest of your thoughts.

I’m in this stage now with Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done. During my consumption of it I continuously made notes and drafted notes, and afterwards I used my outcomes to fully remodel my workflow. The effort of reading repays itself daily.
(Not all favorite books get to this stage. There are many old books that I really liked and whose precepts I believe, but I’ve not gone through the effort of extracting specific actions or learning points.)

brain-on-books

Getting More out of your Reading

When preventing an informationoverflow of books, the name of the game is trying to get more books from mere familiarity to assimiliation -and ideally application.

I’m playing around with a few ideas to consistently do this.

1) One daily ‘application’

You need coffee break conversation topics every day anyway, so why not try to bring an idea from the book you’re reading, into daily conversation. This hugely helps retention and gets your brain more engaged in making the idea part of your mental network.

If you’re reading a more practical book, the application doesn’t have to be strictly conversational. For instance, a salesman can strive to use a small element of the marketing book he’s reading, or the manager can test a subtle leadership tip. And voila, application has started.

2) Creating summaries

Plenty of research now shows that even a single act of repetition after learning, has a significant effect on the extent to which information anchors itself into our subconscious.

The easiest way to do this is by creating a short summary for every book you read.
And this can be done incrementally: as I read my books before going to bed, I try to summarize what I read the next morning. The first instance of recollection hopefully encourages future ones.

And a summary doesn’t go to waste:

3) Scheduled Reflection

Perhaps those with eidetic memory are fine with a single reading session, but for us mere mortals, I’m convinced that repeating previously learned information is what makes or breaks retention.

My current plan is to review all my book summaries within a timespace of 6 months.
Doing a single revision per day isn’t much work, and this habit will scale all the way up to 180 books per halfyear (or about 6 years of reading at my current pace). At that point I hope to find something else 🙂

To faciliate this I’m testing an app called Reflect, which was originally designed as a flashcard learning app. However, you can also configure it to ask you to review x amount of notes every week or month.


Let me know if this works for you, or if you have any better system!

Setting up GTD Filters in Todoist

“Find a system that works with you, not against you.”

At the end of my latest review of ‘Getting Things Done’ I referenced the new set-up I made for Todoist, in accordance with GTD. As Todoist has a lot of functionality and using it all in unison is hard, I humbly present my personal GTD synthesis.
It relies pretty heavily on basic functionalities such as labels and filters, so you may have to read up on those to get up to speed.

Design Decisions

I should probably start with the particular design decisions that constrain my implementation. There are a few:

  • GTD recommends to create a single system that contains both your work and non-work tasks. Nevertheless, my day-to-day activites are currently nicely split between my work/PhD on one hand, and everything else on the other. I have thus found it useful to insert a basic distinction between what I want to do during work hours, versus my spare time.
  • I use Todoist not only as a task management system, but also as a general idea capturing and drafting tool -which is in line with GTD, actually. The particular way I’ve chosen to implement this in Todoist, is with the tag system. As long as something is untagged, it is treated as a placeholder/draft/idea that may need further refinement. Only when I give it a tag, does it show up in any concrete to-do list.

Example1Look away, this is classified!

Above you see an example of a folder in my Todoist. There are a lot of ideas and notes drifting about still. As long as these are not tagged, they don’t show up anywhere in my productivity pipeline; they’re ideas, not tasks.
Only tagging them under their specific area (@Blog, @PhD, etc.) makes them candidates for action.

From there, this is the detailed filter set-up I came up with:

Da Filters

Here you’ll see the set of filters that I currently use (actively) and the queries that make them work.

Overview

Projects PhD
@Project & (@PhD | @Work) & !@SD

Work-oriented project filter. It takes all my current (non-Someday) projects that are tagged with either of my work-specific tags: @PhD or @Work.

Projects Life
@Project  & !@PhD  & !@Work  & !@SD

Project filter for anything but work. It takes all current projects minus the one tagged for work.
This also means that I have freedom to create a variety of non-work tags, since I generally have quite some running: @Blog, @Perso, @Reading, @Shopping, and so on. Any project with a non-work tag will be assumed to be a Life Project, and show up in that list.

Actions PhD
(no due date | Today | Overdue)  & (@PhD | @Work) & !@Project & !@SD & !@WF

This one is more of a beauty 🙂
This should more accurately be called Next Actions PhD – but this is shorter. It is meant to find all work-related actions that are on the Next Actions list -i.e. have to be worked on imminently.
The filter selects: anything either due today, overdue, or without due date + with a work-related tag + NOT a project, someday, or waiting for.

Actions Life
(no due date | Today | Overdue) & !@PhD  & !@Work  & !@Project  & !@WF  & !@SD  & !no labels

The Next Actions for all the non-work projects: similar to the previous filter, but once again this is meant to catch all tags except @PhD or @Work.
The filter selects: anything either due today, overdue, or without due date + without a work-related tag + NOT a project, someday, or waiting for + EXCEPT anything that is not labeled.

The last point is important, because tagging is what transforms something from a note into a clear element of the productivity vortex. As above: I consider an untagged task as a “draft” task or idea, which may or may not be elaborated or cancelled -I don’t want these things showing up in my Next Actions list as if they’re fixed.

Actions Scheduled
(!no due date & !Today & !Overdue) & !@Project & !@WF & !p:Birthdays

Finally there’s a list of all scheduled actions. This list provides a good overview of what I have coming up, indefinitely into the future. It’s not split up into work and non-work, since for analysing your time horizon I find it’s better to have… well, overview.

Note that I keep everything in my “Birthdays” folder out of this list, just because I find that seeing all birthdays really clutters things up (and I’m not nice enough to use that information for anything).

Waiting for
@WF

Simple filter that keeps track of all actions for which you’re waiting on the input of others. Flagging something as @WF automatically removes it from any actions list.

Someday
@SD

Dave Allen advocates having not just a list of everything you have to do, but also actions that you don’t have time for now, but want to get around to at some point.
These actions are tagged with @SD, which also removes them from any next actions list.

Projects Someday
@project & @sd

I created this filter to separate the someday actions (generally small, chore-like tasks; clean out my clothing drawer, catch up with high school friend) from the larger someday projects (which may be vacation trips or career decisions).
This distinction is not strictly necessary, but I like this distinction between macro-Someday and micro-Someday.

Automation

Adapt whatever you need, but don’t forget to try it out before theorizing too much.

Making it work for you.

With regards to adding tasks, there are not many much changes compared to traditional Todoist: choose a task title, and choose a specific due date (or not). The only extra decision with this system is: deciding (which) tag to add.
If you add neither tag tag or due date, the item is treated as a note/draft.
If you add a tag but no due date, it goes directly to your Next Action list.
And if you add a scheduled date, then it will simply show up in your Next Actions on the specified date (regardless of tag).

So that’s pretty similar. The real difference of this kind of system, is that instead of spending most of your time on the Today/Overdue screen, you’ll spend it in the filters area: cycling through projects and action lists, and periodically reviewing the others.

Your workflow:

  1. Spend most of your time in the Next Actions list – it will feature your most urgent tasks (things scheduled today or overdue) as well as your next actions on each particular project.
  2. Frequently go through the projects lists, and check that each project has a next action under it (particularly if some projects are urgent).
  3. During your weekly review (yes, that’s still a crucial component of any productivity system) you can go over all lists, and put things “into your pipeline” by tagging them and making them show up in one of the actions-lists.

Possible Extensions

1) Time-specific and context-specific lists

Purists will have noticed the lack of these right away 🙂

Time-specific lists are a way of distinguishing the expected length of your next actions. Some tasks take only 5 minutes, others 30 minutes, others take 2 hours. It can be useful to create a seperate filter category so you can pick actions appropriate to the working time you have left.
Context-specific lists are meant to seperate different types of tasks: all tasks you have to do online in @Online, all phone calls under @Calls, errands under @Shopping, and so on.

Personally, I haven’t found that much use for these extensions yet. I do anticipate adding a few of them in the future, but in general I think you’re better off splitting off work in contexts on a needs-basis only.
If I settle on some choices that really work for me, I’ll let you know.

2) Specified tag list

Note also that the no-labels command used in Life Actions is a rather ugly method of coding queries, and it can lead to problems if you try building other label-based extensions (such as time-specific lists) onto the model.

In this case it’s definitely better to agree on a set of tags you’re going to use and simply set Projects Life and Actions Life to filter on these specifically; rather than filtering anything that’s not a specific label.
As long as you’re playing around with different tags though, give this implementation a shot.


The above system has been working pretty well for me over the last weeks. It’s exhaustive enough to feel safe, fun enough to be engaging, and most importantly: easy and relatively friction-less to use.

Did you get it to work? Do you use a better system?
Let me know in the comments!

Your Will Ain’t Free

“Every politican wants every voter to believe that he was born in the log cabin he built himself.” — Robert Strauss

The philosophical debate on free will is one of the most interesting and consequential topics around. It lies at the center of many discussions on religion, the nature of right and wrong, and it may even have implications on how we practically treat others.
Most people on Earth are walking around with an intuitive sense that they are the conscious authors of their thoughts and actions, and they assume the same of others. If we do the right thing in a difficult situation, we are proud for having triumphed over our instincts. If others commit immoral acts, we may think them evil for not taking a better path.
These judgements are all underpinned by the concept of free will: the idea that we are all free to make our own choices, and that whatever our actions, we were free to do otherwise.

I don’t believe in free will.
Just like many philosophers and scientists, I believe that our thoughts and actions are ultimately constrained by factors beyond our own control. That does’t mean we don’t have a will or a mental life; clearly we do. But the mental life we have, is ultimately not of our own choosing; it is the product of unconscious factors that lie beyond our control.
The short-hand definition for this view on the brain is determinism.
(An important note here is that the universe must not be ultimately deterministic, for the deterministic view of the brain to be true. ¹)

My own views on determinism and free will were mostly formed by the old Reasonable Doubts Podcast, and more recently by Sam Harris’ treatises on the subject.
Sam Harris in particular has made interesting contributions in his short 2012 book on the topic. Notably: we often think that what’s weird about free will is that we strongly feel that we have it, but yet we can’t make sense of it in the real world. So it must be an illusion.
But Harris contends that once you pay close attention to this supposed “feeling of free will”, you notice that it’s not even there. In any particular moment, it’s clear that your thoughts are constrained by all kinds of preceding factors and traits, and you’re not capable of freely thinking at all.
Thus the idea that we feel a sense of free will, is itself an illusion.

I want to zoom in on a what for me is the crux of (the confusion in) the free will debate. It came up in a Q&A during the Bon Mot Club in 2012. Harris was asked to “explain” Oprah from the perspective of determinism.
And in my opinion, Oprah is indeed the answer to everything (these are words to live by). Funny as it may seem, she actually hits the centerpiece of what most of us imagine under the concept of free will.

ImageNever thought I’d research Oprah for my blog, but there you go.

Oprah was born in 1954 to an unmarried teenage mother, who worked as a housemaid. Soon after her birth, Oprah’s mother left her to live in rural poverty with her grandmother for six years.
One of her early memories is wearing a potato bag to school, as her grandmother couldn’t afford any actual clothing. She ran away from home at age 13, got pregnant and had a miscarriage at age 14.
But finally, after some hard high school years and jobs at the local grocery store, she was noticed by a local radio station who hired to do part-time news. With her media career slowly taking off, things would finally begin looking up for her.
Putting it mildly: Oprah grew up extremely underprivileged, in a bad family, with bad role models. It would seem that all the forces in the universe conspired to deliver her to a life of poverty, unhappiness, and potentially crime. Yet against all odds, she went on to become the first (and still only) black multi-billionaire in the US, and many regard her as the most influential woman in the world.

The attempted moral behind these and many other ‘self-made’ stories, is that external factors ultimately don’t matter. A horrible upbringing, a toxic environment, a lack of opportunities; these are no excuses for behaving badly. You could have done otherwise. Oprah did!
Yet from a logical perspective, this clearly can’t not true. Oprah ultimately made her choices for a reason; and whatever reason it was, it must have been strong enough to counteract the negative influences. Ultimately, she was lucky.
Most of us strongly push back here: surely this is the one situation where it can’t be luck? Everything around her went wrong,… If Oprah succeeded, it must be because of her own merits.

But here’s the crucial point: even if her choices were innately hers, remained uninfluenced by any and all outside pressures, and she simply woke up one day with the innate drive to improve herself… she didn’t pick that either. Even in the case where a choice was completely yours, you can take no more credit for the initial state of your brain and the way outside influences misfired their potential for impact, than for anything else.
If we are going to claim that Oprah woke up one day with the unbreakable motivation to build herself a better life -then that is where she got lucky.
There is no escape from the iron rule of determinism, and common sense: your decisions are the product of either your natural impulses and desires (whom you did not construct) or the outside influences that shaped you (whose success in shaping, you did not control). Neither is something you can truly claim responsibility for, and no combination of them offers respite.

dilbert-free-willHearing people defend free will is rather amusing though.

There are many stories we can tell about the decisions at the core of our life, and about how we changed our destiny and what our environment was molding us to become. These stories are always filled with many details and emotions, and delivered as if they fundamentally change the deterministic arithmetic. They don’t.
Perhaps the defining moment in your life was when at 16, when your naturally rebellious tendency prompted you to reject the conditioning from your parents and environment. You did not create your rebellious tendency.
Perhaps you were in a store and your gaze fell upon a self-improvement book that you knew instantly you had to read, and it became the center of your life. You did not direct your gaze, nor the certainty you felt in wanting to read it.
Perhaps the shift in your life came when you decided to try to build your own mind, using the tools you had picked up on Dr. Phil.  You didn’t chooose that this impetus popped up for you, or that you were impressed by some TV techniques.

We do not ultimately control the things that influence us. And we don’t control why influence sometimes works and sometimes fails. And even when we do make conscious decisions, these conscious decisions are themselves influenced by prior factors.
Despite our pretenses, we are at the mercy of what our deterministic brain has cooking for us.

This philosophy (and this fact, really) is not about negating the importance of effort, or about becoming a fatalist (that’s also a choice).
It is about humility.
We must be more aware of the role that luck plays in our own life, and the potential lack of it in others.

Seeing people not as individual agents but as inextricably linked to their environment, makes you far more compassionate and understanding in dealing with your fellow humans. And it also happens to be true.

 


 

¹ Determinism in the free will context mostly just means “brain determinism”, i.e. what happens in the brain, can be explained based on the laws of nature and previous states of the universe.
It’s possible that there are in fact many places in nature where chance and quantum states play a significant role; rendering the universe indeterministic. But for the deterministic view on free will, all that is required is that the states of the brain are constrained by nature and not by ourselves -to what extent nature consists of deterministic vs indeterministic components, is a moot point.

Getting Things Done: A Review

Few books have more street cred within the productivity community than David Allen’s 2001 best-seller “Getting Things Done”. The book has spawned many offshoots, as well as a highly enthusiastic (and hopefully productive) fan community.Over the years I picked up various of Allen’s recommendation here and there. I tried applying his 2-minute rule, and in a previous blog post I detailed how my method of processing e-mail is modelled on the GTD approach.

That being said, I never actually got around to reading the book! In fact I sort of assumed that by reading widely on productivity, I would have assimilated most of his philosophy through osmosis.
I was wrong. I read and finished Getting Things Done a few weeks ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I recommend it to anyone who wants to think in a clear way about their task management.

What I particularly enjoyed is the principles that Allen offers, such as:
– A single productivity system for your entire life
– A reference system that you can reference and edit in 60 seconds
– “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them”
He alleges that principles as these are in fact timeless, and this is why he no longer recommends specific apps or products -just general methods.
I understand that this sounds a lot like cheap marketing talk, but I do see the logic in Allen’s proclamations. He offers general principles that can be used to keep your mind at ease and focus on the next valuable action at any given time. As long as the human mind remains as chaotic and chronically busy, it seems his advice will apply.

In the rest of this post, I’ll give my main take-aways from the book.

https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/time_management.pngMy game plan for this Sunday.

1) Put everything in the system.

The GTD recommendation is to create a single system that contains all the projects and tasks that need work in your life; all your dreams, desires, shopping lists, areas of responsibility, and so on. The system you use to construct your next company training should not be fundamentally different from the one you plan your vacation to Aruba with.

My sense is that most of us intuitively figure this out, but we still find some criteria to not put everything in our system.
In my case, I had most of my dreams and projects there, but I made an exception for tasks around the house: cleaning drawers, shopping for utilities. Similarly, I included my active projects but not so much my wishful projects (bucket list, vacation trips), and generally didn’t record my recreational activities (movies or music that I want to see).

The GTD way is clear: you will only truly be able to focus on your work if you have a place to put everything that consumes your conscious attention. Your mind can only be calm once you fully trust that all your open loops are recorded somewhere.

2) An alphabetical reference list. 

A reference system is a place where you can store all the information you need in your life: thoughts on your projects, commands for writing code, restaurants you want to go to, medical and financial records. This pretty rapidly expands to your general information management system.

It’s common to use a set of drawers and folders of some kind to organise your materials. Personally I use Evernote, as most of my records are electronic anyway.
Simple as can be, but there is an innate drive in me to build complex systems. Thus it was natural for me to try to cluster all kinds of material into discrete categories. Where’s my list of running stretches? Probably Areas 2016/Projects/Increase stamina… Or wait, maybe Personal/Health?

Enter David Allen: “the more places you create to search, the more places where what you search won’t be”. This is another brutally simple idea, and it caused me to simply keep an alphabetical reference system with plenty of main folders. You should be able to find any information you want in one or two keywords, tops.
Where are the running stretches? In /Running. Where are my list of French blogs? In /Languages. Computer troubleshooting steps? /Computer.

https://i2.wp.com/imgs.xkcd.com/comics/home_organization.pngI also learned to avoid the dreaded “Varia” category.

3) You have more projects than you think.

Dealing with singular tasks is generally easy, but the test of any productivity method is of course how to deal with large projects -consisting of multiple components, some of it planning, others thinking, some dependent on others… Anything really worth doing.

Allen proposes another really simple system. You should have a full list of all projects, ready for constant review. And a project is: anything that needs two or more different actions to complete.
Bringing your car in for repairs is a project. You need to look up dealerships, decide on one, make an appointment, and drive there.
Writing a blog post, is a project (drafting concept, writing bulk, reviewing, posting). Doing a surprise for your girlfriend, is a project (brainstorming, planning, executing)

The power of defining projects in this broad sense, is that you get a much better sense of all your open loops. (Remember: it’s a full list, including recreation and household tasks.)
Further, you force yourself to think about what each project actually entails. If you don’t break things down, it’s easy to get stuck at ‘bringing car in for repairs’, because you sense that it’s composed of multiple things. You start seeing it as just “stuff”.

Being clear about your projects frees up a lot of mental energy, and sets yourself up for truly treating all your projects the same.

3) Planning and executing has to be seperate.

What really hit home for me was the distinction between your “task management materials” and your project reference materials. On one hand there’s all this information you need to keep and use to actually progress on your tasks: deadlines, code commands, meeting notes, articles.
On the other, there’s different thoughts and ideas that you’re thinking to execute at some point.

It’s tempting to let these two categories coalesce over time. It’s easy to write down “think about x and y” on one of your meeting notes, and trust you’ll get to it when you next work on the project.
If you’re committed to actually executing your ideas though, they have to become part of your future tasklist (even if it’s as a “someday” item).

My solution has been a radical apartheid regime for support materials and (potential) tasks. Support materials can stay in Evernote.
But whenever I’m in planning mode and deciding what to do next, it’s critical that I have a full overview of tasks, ideas and actionable thoughts.
This way your system stays nicely centered. And then when you select an action to work on, you can trust that all your project materials -and only your project materials- are waiting for you..

4) The Importance of Reviewing.

It’s an art, and it really lies at the center of the making any productivity system work. But I already wrote a post about that  🙂


Next week I’ll outline how I set up Todoist for taking advantage of this system, but in the spirit of GTD, I’ll keep principles seperate from tools. Till then, cheerio!