Prepare for Your Sphexishness

Previously I wrote about the constant slide into sphexishness which one must work vigilantly to avoid. Of late I’ve noticed that even when I’m generally achieving a high level of agency – and I’m using the term today to mean a high energy, high willpower state enabling me to be effective at goal pursuit – I don’t maintain it at a constant level. Instead, my agency level fluctuates periodically. Drops occur after a point daily with tiredness, and also for stretches of a few days with the ups and downs of life.

These states of decreased energy and increased akrasia don’t need to be unproductive though, nor I am forced to wait passively for their end. In the case of tiredness, there are plenty of tasks I can do with reduced energy levels, even if it’s just taking a restorative break – or  I can just actually go to sleep. Yet once I’m tired and my willpower is down I’ll get stuck staying up late, doing something which isn’t even that fun – wasting time now and sabotaging tomorrow by not going to bed.

The same goes for when I’m in a more enduring rut. Every now and then I’ll get stuck in a period of low productivity where my morale goes down, I start to leave the house less, socialise a bit less, exercise less, and generally feel less good. There are actions I can take to break out of these states too – get on top of my sleep, exercise, success spirals – but more often than not I wait for a natural return to normality rather than short circuiting it. I generally don’t have the willpower to both think of what I need to do and to do it.

In both these cases I’m being sphexish, but I struggle to get out of it due to low willpower and energy. Noticing that this happens recurrently, I realised that I needed to prepare for sphexish states while I still have cognitive resources to do so. I’ve started installing routines and habits which let me still work towards my goals even while in a “sphexish” state. I’m guessing that doing this hadn’t occurred earlier because sphexish-me never has the energy to do so, and agentic me never remembered sphexish-me’s predicament once it was over.

So far I’ve got a few short checklists for when I’m feeling tired or in an ongoing rut. Nothing fancy, just something like:

Tired? Try the following.

  • Is it due to lack of sleep? -> Go get more sleep
  • Start working and see if the tiredness goes away
  • Sunlight
  • Light exercise
  • Stimulants: caffeine, nicotine, modafinil
  • Sugar

Similarly, I’m experimenting with incorporating this into my GTD system. Part of a GTD system is a list of next actions to take, and it’s recommended that these are sorted by context: at home, with a computer, with a telephone, etc. Since the strongest determiner of which action I should take seems to be how much energy and alertness I have, I’m now sorting my next actions list by energy-level. This way, when I get tired there’s already prepared list of things I can do that I’m up to doing. I save my high-energy periods for reading textbooks and call my bank when I’m fading. So not only do I still get some stuff done while tired, but I’m also not wasting high-energy periods on tasks that don’t need it.

As a bonus, checklists and routines have the added benefit of saving attention. I have an evening routine and in the past I’d always have to stop for a few seconds and think what next despite doing it day after day (inconsistent order might contribute) which distracts me from thinking about other more interesting things. I’ve now got those five steps written down, and I imagine that after a few repetitions they’ll stick and require no conscious attention all. Checklist Rationality will be the topic of my next post.

Checklist for Noticing Sphexishness

Yesterday I wrote how noticing when your behaviours are failing to make progress on your goals is a fundamental skill or rationality. How do you detect when failure to make progress achieve goals is occurring? That’s a difficult, open problem. Still, the following is a list of possible cues to detect sphexishness. A shout out to the LessWrong Copenhagen group who helped me compile it.

This list isn’t supposed to be revolutionary, but to serve as useful checklist in periodic strategy reviews. I’ll test this and will report if it was at all useful. In future post I hope to explore my thoughts on “Checklist Rationality” – the use of well designed lists in productivity, introspection, decision-making, and truth-seeking.

The Checklist

  • Look for areas where you aren’t making progress towards desired goals.
  • Look for areas in your life where you feel frustrated, but haven’t yet examined.
  • Examine recent failures, is there a meta-failure common to them all?
  • Review anything which consumes large amounts of your resources for potential savings.
  • Review areas in which you notice other people are outperforming you.
  • Look for things you consider fixed or immutable about yourself or your behaviour.
  • Catch instances of learned helplessness, whereby you expect that fail at self-improvement attempts.
  • Examine sources of intense feelings: anxiety, fear, or aversion.
  • Catch times when your revise your goals to be less ambitious in order to avoid registering a failure.
  • Catch behaviours which are short-term pleasurable, but long-term detrimental to goal achievement.

Additions greatly appreciated!

Agency and Sphexishness: A Second Glance

New blog! First post! See my About page for what this is all about.

This is the first in a series on Agency and Sphexishness

Agency is the property of agents. An agent has explicit goals which they strive to accomplish by planning and executing appropriate actions. Non-agents unreflectively act out default behaviours without considering whether these actions achieve their goals. 

Coined by Douglas Hofstader in reference to the sphex wasp, sphexishness is the execution of seemingly intelligent behaviour by following a rigid algorithm. Sphexish behaviours are repeated automatically, out of habit, without checking for their effectiveness at achieving desired goals. 

When I first learnt the concepts of agency and sphexishness, I didn’t give them much thought. I unreflectively assumed that you were either an agent or you weren’t; you were either sphexish or you weren’t. If you were the kind of person who thought about their goals, read Less Wrong, went to CFAR workshops, then clearly you were an agent – you actually cared about your goals. I, of course, was such as person. It’s the general population that is sphexish, they don’t notice when things don’t get them what they wanted. And it all maps well on the controversial metaphor of PCs and NPCs.

But you don’t just get agent status and that’s it. Rather, as I have learnt, there is a constant slide into sphexishness which you must work damn hard to avoid.

Looking at definition given, sphexishness has two components:

  1. Unreflective, automatic, default behaviours.
  2. These behaviours fail to achieve goals.

Really, it’s 2) which matters. Firstly, not only can you have unreflective, automatic behaviours which are not sphexish, you absolutely need unreflective, automatic behaviours. Attention and cognitive resources are limited and you cannot be constantly using System 2 to examine how you do things to achieve your goals. Instead you must have put in place default behaviours which do the job. It works for walking, for what I eat for breakfast, and for how I go about writing code.

Secondly, there is no level of deliberateness or complexity or meta which guarantees that you are not being sphexish. Suppose I do goal factoring weekly, or I set lots of five minute timers, etc., but using these techniques isn’t improving my life that much – then my use of these techniques is sphexish. Even if I periodically review my rationality practices for effectiveness, I could be sphexish is my review routine doesn’t get results.

So wherein lies agency? How does one avoid sphexishness? Noticing. My current hypothesis is that Noticing is a fundamental skill of rationality. One must learn to notice when one’s actions are failing to get the desired result, and then take corrective action. And “failure” is loosely defined here: one could be making progress towards a goal, but at a much slower rate than one could, and this too I would deem sphexish to some extent. And this Noticing goes infinitely meta – you need to be able to notice when your first-order optimisations aren’t working or are too slow, take corrective action on them, and so on.

To avoid sphexishness one needs to notice that the ways one has always done things unthinkingly aren’t great; one needs to notice that unreflective, automatic behaviours which were optimal when one originally implanted them are no longer so, now that circumstances have changed; one needs to notice when one is stuck in a rut and needs to pull themselves out; one needs to notice that they just aren’t making progress and need to do something different.

On this I will say more.