Thursday, January 8, 2015

Tortoise Report 1: Growing the Roses Of Success

This post is part of a year-long project for learning to install habits of thought. For more about the tortoise skills project itself, see the Tortoise Skills Page.


Habit: Growing the Roses Of Success
Duration: 7 Days
Success: 7/10
Trigger: The very beginning of a trapped, sinking sensation in my stomach and chest associated with having failed.
Action: ???Magic unconscious hypnosis repair???
Result: Upon encountering the beginning of a slight sinking sensation associated with a failure, I no longer get dragged into counterproductive emotions. Instead, I feel nonchalant interest in what went wrong, an impulse to weigh whether it's worth trying to repair completely, and a motivation to make any cheap repairs that are available immediately.

Strategy Updates

Here's what I've learned over the past week about habits and installing them, and what I plan to do about it.

  1. The current version of the installation procedure works best for a narrower class of habits than I recognized at first.

    Next actions:
    1. Pin down more precisely what kinds of habits it's good for.
    2. Look for small tweaks to the procedure that might accommodate more kinds of habits.
    3. Consider investing in large changes or multiple procedures.

  2. I need to dig into Rule 1. ("Aim: I will endeavor for every habit I train to be the one I most desperately need at that time.") I meant for it to be an often unattainable ideal to strive for, something to keep my from getting distracted and losing my purpose, and not so much a "rule" that I must adhere to perfectly. My intuitive feel for what I need most isn't turning out to be quite as strong as I expected, and I'm experiencing some analysis paralysis.

    Next actions:
    1. Make a list of possible criteria for choosing the next habit.
    2. Write it up as a blog post if it goes well.

  3. Offline training should definitely be more streamlined. How best to use my offline training time will vary a lot by context and mood, but I found myself wishing I had a list of questions posted in front of me to guide me. (Terminology: "Offline training" comes from machine learning. Online learning updates mappings when each new data point comes in. It's good when data become available sequentially. Applied to humans, we call this "learning on the fly". Offline learning techniques are good when a large batch of data is available at once. Cramming for an exam is a human example. What I'm calling "offline training" in this context is whatever I decide to do when I sit down for a few minutes to look at all the relevant facts at once.)

    Next actions:
    1. Brainstorm a list of offline training questions
    2. Pick the best ones and make a list to post in the zendo
    3. Write a blog post about offline habit training (pending feedback from at least one more installation)

  4. Offline meta sessions (to reflect on and strategize about the overall procedure) aren't built into the current installation procedure. In retrospect, it's obvious they should be.

  5. Next actions:
    1. Decide what the schedule should be for meta strategy sessions
    2. Make a list of questions to guide meta strategy sessions



[This first entry is all prep work. It's probably more detailed than future reports on prep work will be.]

My best guess at the skill I most desperately need right now is resilience: the ability to recover rapidly, especially from failure; to bend without breaking.

  1. Be able to generate concrete examples of successes and failures to apply the skill.

    An example of successful application: Every time another approach to teaching epistemic rationality failed, CFAR adjusted and tried something else, rather than giving up on teaching epistemic rationality.

    An example of failure to apply the skill: I got a C on my very first logic test in college. Rather than correct my mistakes and study for the next test, I was crushed and spent several days agonizing over whether to drop the class. Complete failure would have been dropping the class at that point (which I didn't and went on to excel in highly advanced logic courses), but perfect resilience would have prevented any waste of time or energy.

  2. If a skill requires multiple habits, train them serially, and repeat step 1 for each individual habit.

    This skill seems to require several habits. It's difficult to pin them all down, but I have at least identified a few. I'll start with "growing the roses of success": feeling emotions in line with knowledge that my failure has been educational.

    For every big mistake you make be grateful!
    That mistake you'll never make again!
    Every shiny dream that fades and dies,
    Generates the steam for two more tries!
    So when it gets distressing it's a blessing!
    Onward and upward you must press!
    From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!

    An example of growing the roses of success is burning a batch of cookies and feeling happy to have learned that my new oven is hotter than my old oven. Failure to grow the roses of success in the same situation would be sulking about having burnt the cookies.

  3. Clearly define at least one high-quality trigger for the proposed action before beginning to train that habit.

    When I imagine burning the cookies, the deciding moment that splits the success worlds from the failure worlds is the moment when I'm surprised to find smoke and blackened cookies after opening the oven door and I feel a trapped, sinking sensation in my stomach and chest. In the failure worlds, I let that feeling drag me into an inescapable pit of negative emotions. In the success worlds, I respond to it in a way that shifts my focus from the badness of my mistake to the goodness of information. (Figuring out exactly what intervention will cause that shift comes later.)

    Imagining other concrete examples produces the same results, so my first guess at the right trigger is "the experience of unpleasant surprise at my mistake accompanied by a trapped sinking sensation in my stomach and chest". Therefore, if I encounter that experience, then I will activate reflective attention to reveal further details and inconsistencies with my prediction.

That's it for the prep work!


I'm not encountering enough instances of my trigger. It happened once yesterday, and I didn't catch it fast enough. That means it's time for...

  1. Seek opportunities to practice.

    I will now study the experience of realizing I've made a mistake by playing 2048.

    Results: Oh man, awesome side effects.

    1. I'm using my knitting counter, and since that's already a conditioned reinforcer, I'm automatically coming to associate noticing I've made a mistake with positive feelings. I didn't even notice before how much I direct my attention away from my own mistakes. I wonder if I could break that habit even faster using a primary reinforcer.
    2. This is quickly training me to notice the difference between an error of judgement and a random "shit happens", since I only get to click the counter for errors of judgement.

    This is the best game of 2048 ever. I'm rewarded in the natural way by the game when I don't fuck up, and I'm rewarded by the habit training every time I notice I've fucked up. I'm literally laughing out loud at my fuckups. This is so much fun. I love rule 4.

    My count for today is 38 so far, so I'm clearly in the middle of...

  2. Train triggers before actions.

    I actually updated my trigger partway though without being foveally aware of it. I think my first hypothesis for the trigger was wrong. The surprise at my mistake and the dread/sinking sensation are not simultaneous. In fact, the dread/sinking sensation isn't even my usual response to noticing I've made a mistake. My usual response actually seems to be to try to ignore the mistake. It's only when I fail to ignore it that I experience the dread.

    Trying to ignore a mistake feels like trying to avoid eye contact. I even seem to be more likely to make another mistake immediately afterward, because I act hastily. I think maybe I'm trying to distract myself from the first mistake, though it actually feels more like I'm trying to distract the world, like if I move fast enough the world won't notice I messed up and it won't count. Same as the five second rule when I dropped food on the floor as a kid.

    Updated trigger: The sensation of surprise directed at something I recognize as my mistake, independent of the sinking sensation or even the sensation of trying not to look at the mistake.

I feel like I'm doing something wrong, but I'm a bit sleep deprived and I'm having a lot of trouble concentrating enough to work out what it is.

It might be that I'm practicing the wrong thing. My current trigger is "the sensation of surprise directed at something I recognize as my mistake", but I updated to that in an attempt to not ignore my mistakes, which wasn't the original goal. The original goal was to cut back on despair in response to mistakes and promote something like satisfaction and curiosity. It's only the very tiny mistakes that I'm able to ignore anyway, so although not ignoring tiny mistakes is an important skill (one I'm adding to my wishlist), I don't think it's part of resilience, and I don't think it's The Most Important Thing for me to learn right now.

The times when I've made and noticed mistakes on my own so far this week, I've not felt the despair-type feelings that I flagged as problematic before. Like when I accidentally left my knitting counter upstairs this morning. I just felt "oops" and maybe a tiny bit of frustration, then I ran upstairs to retrieve it. That's all there was to it. That kind of feeling doesn't have the potential to get in my way.

The only times in the past few days when I've felt the problematic thing I flagged have been while interacting with other people. And I don't think I clicked the knitting counter for any of those, because they weren't straightforwardly mistakes. In retrospect, some of them actually were things I perceived as evidence of mistakes, but I didn't notice that at the time: for example, when I made a Facebook update and people responded with apparently off-topic comments, indicating I hadn't made my point clearly.

I'm thinking the problem is closely related to inadequacy in the eyes of other people, not so much myself. It definitely feels like every time I've felt big anti-resilience emotions, it has been because other people have not responded the way I hoped for them to. It's a little confusing, because if I perceive a failure myself that I don't believe others perceive as a failure, I still feel the despair thing, but only if other people are somehow involved. If I write a blog post that includes a mistake people criticize, I feel it, and if I write a blog post that people like but don't interpret as I intended, I also feel the thing. I mostly don't feel the thing if I make a private mistake that nobody else finds out about.

Updated trigger: I think I'll go back to noticing the trapped, sinking sensation in my stomach and chest, and I'll seek opportunities to practice by reading critiques of things I've written.

  1. Test a variety of actions if required.

    This sometimes happens. It's a little inconvenient given that I wanted to use this first habit to demonstrate in quite a bit of detail how the habit installation process works. But for me, at least, it happens at least half the time.

    Sometimes, without my conscious direction, my brain skips the "test a variety of actions" part. I jump from "ok, I mostly have a handle on my default response to the trigger, and I can notice it reliably" to "have the preferred response to the trigger instead", with no purposeful intervention at all beyond simply learning to notice the trigger. In this case, it's happening even without me having become consciously aware of what exactly my preferred response to the trigger is.

    The new response isn't exactly like I predicted. What I imagined originally was more of a focused curiosity and maybe a triumphant feeling similar in intensity to the sinking sensation from before. Instead, I've replaced the trapped feeling and sinking sensation with a nonchalant interest in what went wrong, an impulse to weigh whether it's worth trying to repair completely, and a motivation to make any cheap repairs that are available immediately. In retrospect, that does seem like the best emotional response for producing the most desirable behavioral responses. I suppose I was imagining overpowering the negative reaction with a positive one. This seems better.

I still need to stick with it for a few days before starting on another habit to make sure I don't lose the ability to notice the trigger, but at the moment it looks like the problem has mostly been fixed, and the new habit mostly installed.

The main problem when I perform an unconscious intervention like this is that if in the future it fails to work, I won't know what levers to manipulate to get it working again. Since I don't know that that issue will actually arise and I can just take a few days to implement step six if it does, I declare this habit 80/20d. I'll move on to my next habit on Thursday (a week from the start date) if I don't encounter more problems.


I'm not entirely satisfied with the installation of this habit because the intervention (whatever it is) hasn't been tested harshly enough for me to feel confident that the problem's mostly fixed. But I also have a feeling it's not quite the right kind of habit for this process. Instances of the trigger that are high enough intensity to thoroughly test my progress are quite context dependent, and aren't happening frequently enough for training on the scale of one week to a month. I suspect I either need habits with more frequent triggers, I need to be more opportunistic by picking habits with triggers that will be frequent in contexts I predict will occur in the near future, or I need to change the procedure to accommodate less frequent triggers, perhaps by training more than once habit at a time. Or perhaps I should have a tiered system, where at any given time I'm training one high-frequency habit, one mid-frequency habit, and one low-frequency habit. I'll think on it.

The meta stuff is really important, especially this early on, so I'm going to hold off on choosing a new habit for a few days while I work out how to respond to problems that have arisen so far.


One month since this post, and things seem to be holding steady with Growing the Roses. I fairly rarely notice the trigger consciously (maybe once a week), but my experience of small failures has been awfully smooth sailing. (Performing the desired action without noticing the trigger consciously is part of the goal. Noticing is essential for training, but mastery of a habit means completely effortless, automatic performance.) My failures are notable for their lack of salience, so the change isn't obvious when I'm not reflecting on it, but my memory of the past month is not punctuated by failures, and that's definitely new. I still haven't encountered anything I consider a really big failure. I'll update again with a full report on my experience of it as soon as one happens.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Reflective Recording

Related Posts: Mindfulness, How To Train Noticing, Feeling Clearly, Tathatā: Why Be Here Now?, Simulating Confusion, What It's Like To Notice Things

What is a reflective record?

A reflective record is anything you write down while in reflective attention.

What does a reflective record look like?

Here's a typical example of one of my reflective records from a couple months ago.

The sound of cars on the road, and a fly flitting through a beam of sunlight. I’m sleepy and my head feels fuzzy. The laptop is uncomfortably warm on my legs, and I think I should move it. The room smells like empanadas from lunch. A moment of blankness, which gives way as I realize I’ve simply lost direction for a moment. I gently nudge it back to the flow of my stream of consciousness. I notice that I have a Facebook notification, wonder what it is, and now I’m deciding to close all my tabs but this one. A feeling of familiarity like an openness in my chest, and as I watch that, memories of having performed this exercise many times. Through my inner monologue, the words “What will my readers think of the chapter I'm working on?”, accompanied by a very dull and mild pang of anxiety. I take a deep breath, and I’m enjoying the sensation of the air rushing out of my nostrils as I exhale. The words “categories of experience”, and I imagine circling phrases with colored pencils. A feeling of sufficiency and completion, part of my experience of the belief that I should stop writing now.

And here's what happens if I make a reflective record right now.

Cars passing by on the road making a swooshing noise. I'm imagining the scene out the window, though I'm looking at my computer screen. I'm imagining the visuals of a sunset over the ocean framed by hills and buildings, though it's actually morning and the sky is cloudy and gray. A pang of hunger rising in my stomach, feeling sharp and insistent. Words in my head: "what should I eat?", and a little frustration. Stopping work to eat feels at once aversive and enticing. The thought of eating causes relief and happiness, but the thought of cooking causes gumbly dark denial and I want to ignore the thought. My socks are gray-blue and fuzzy, and they make me content and comfortable. A memory of the way my attention suddenly retreated from the thought of food to grasp the nearest non-food-related sensation. Sleepiness, a constant temptation for my attention to wander away and forget itself, and apparently I'm more willing to describe my experience in imprecise metaphor than I feel I remember having been in past reflective records. My mind wants to focus on the difference between reflective recording and free writing. The locking-in-place-resolution of a decision not to bother writing about free writing in this post, but to reconsider after I eat.

What is reflective recording good for?

I use reflective recording for three things.

  1. Habit training. Suppose you're trying to learn a more productive psychological response to confusion than the one you usually have. If you want to respond with curiosity, you'll need an intervention that inputs the beginning of your default response and outputs curiosity. To figure out what that intervention should be, it helps to have a detailed model of the input. Human memory isn't designed to store most of the sorts of things that go on in moment-to-moment awareness, so if you don't capture the details right away, you'll probably forget something important. If gather several reflective records after the same trigger over time, you'll get a better idea of how widely your default responses to the trigger vary.

    The same goes for testing the output: To know quickly if the intervention reliably causes the desired mental state, you need to know what mental state it causes, and you need to keep track of the results over time.
  2. Responsible introspection. Responsible introspection is a way to gain self-knowledge while bypassing the introspection illusion. It means paying attention to immediate experience first, and reasoning abstractly about that data later.

    We do not have direct access to the origins of our mental states, but we do have mental states, and the contents of those mental states aren't arbitrary. Our experiences provide data about our patterns of thought. To introspect responsibly, collect that data by activating reflective attention in the presence of whatever stimulus interests you (a thought about a new job offer, for instance), and then writing down what you experience. You can repeat that a few times to find out how your reactions to the thought vary over time.

    Once you have detailed first-person data that isn't contaminated by inference and belief about belief, you can add it to third-person observations about your past behaviors. From there, it's relatively safe to reason abstractly about problems that depend on predictions about how you'll think and feel.

  3. Predicting experience. Most of immediate experience is forgotten. Most of it doesn't matter, isn't vivid, isn't unusual, and doesn't make a lasting impression. It takes an extra reflective effort of become aware that your mind's doing whatever it's doing. A lot of the truth of what it is to be a mind slips through the cracks, so our default models of immediate experience lack crucial information. For example, we tend to hold onto beliefs we form and dispense with memories of what observations led us to form those beliefs, and what emotions colored our perceptions as we integrated those observations.

    When you have a better model of immediate experience, you can make better predictions about how you'll think and feel on a moment-to-moment basis in the future. Practicing reflective attention regularly can't bring back information you've already lost, but it can reduce illusions about experience that result from biases of memory.

    Making a reflective record now and then is even better than reflective attention alone, since it lets you review data taken from many time slices all at once.

Reflective recording is inspired by free writing and (my problems with) Gendlin's focusing, but it's a practice I developed myself. To my knowledge, nobody else has tried it yet, so I'll be very interested to hear about how it works, or doesn't work, for you.

Here's a conversation in response to this post from Facebook. I'll incorporate what I learned from it into the post soon (probably), but for now, I'm putting it here because it might clear some things up.

Malcolm: I would expect the act of writing stuff down to be way too slow and I wouldn't be able to think things in time. Might try this with speaking aloud and recording it as audio (which is actually what I expected it would be, based on the name).

Jamie:I found that attempting this slowed me right down. I can't write, type or speak even close to the speed I notice thoughts. Converting impressions and awareness into words and then into movement instructions for recording them is almost uselessly slow for stream-of-consciousness stuff. I can sort of 'buffer' because I can sustain two mental streams at once, but even so it's the mental equivalent of trying to run in knee-deep water. By the time I've finished writing something I lost awareness of 90% of the other things I was experiencing at the same moment as whatever it was I was writing down, and almost have to pick the next thing to write at random.

On the plus side, it did make me aware of just how MUCH I notice and immediately throw away without acting on, including stuff I probably ought to record or remember.

Me: You're both probably trying to catch a whole lot more than I am. I wait for a particular kind of thought when I'm actually using this for specific things. When I'm not I pick sort of at random with a huge bias toward stuff it's easy to put into words.

Malcolm: Hmmm... oh! Okay, yeah, I think I have a better sense of the structure. I think the examples you give are kind of misleading about this, as they imply just the random version.

Jamie: Right, so it's not a logfile, it's either a listener or a random activity sample. That feels a lot less close to 'awesome superpower', but a great deal closer to 'physically possible for unaugmented humans'. Your examples felt pretty much stream-of-consciousness, so I had interpreted it as 'log everything that seems important about a given moment'.

Me: Yeah, I was erring on the side of not including enough because I'm trying to learn to only say precisely what is needed. But when I designed a series of exercises on reflective attention, most of the point was to get to "partial reflection", which means keeping your attention fixed on a single category of thought (like physical sensations, emotional sensations, reactions to another person).

But I expect different people to parse their experiences differently, and I found that even for myself sans communication with others, it helped to have identified the most natural system of categorization for my moment-to-moment experiences. The random-ish sampling was originally just for finding those categories. It turns out that it's also great for moving into partial reflective recording if you're having a hard time getting a particular category in focus at first. Also, beginning with partial reflective recording and moving out of it only when it feels right tends to make my free writing sessions a lot more productive a lot more quickly.

Here's my categorization of the first example in the post. (It was edited a little to make more sense in context.)