On Internal Monologue Modification

(Epistemic Status:  Endorsed, lightly tested, light kink cw)

My thoughts are most frequently words.  When I think about thinking, I see a stream of descriptions, explanations, sentence fragments, etc.  I ask my internal monologue how I feel about things.  Words are an extremely natural filter for me to see the world through.  It turns out, I can change that filter to some extent.

One night, I found myself looking at my partner – we were just chatting casually about something or other, but there was a sense in which she was positioning herself lower than me.  A lot of her body language was reading as wanting to move on to something that involved less talking.  Well, I wasn’t really in the mood – a lot of my internal monologue was thinking about the topic and about her as someone to look up to in terms of knowledge about the world.  Once I noticed this, I decided to try something – I switched my internal monologue to something more intimate.  I started cycling different words to describe her than I was before, as well as different words to describe myself.  Very shortly after, something strange happened – I started changing my position in my chair.  I seemed bigger, like I was taking up more physical and social space.  She got quieter, she found herself less able to look away from my eyes.  I felt myself getting more aligned with what she desired and my next actions started flowing much more smoothly.  Suffice it to say we had a very good night afterwards.

Now, this tool has uses outside the somewhat suggestive one above – essentially, any situation where you feel you’re not interacting with it in a way that serves your needs (or the needs of others), any situation that might feel uncomfortable, any situation that seems difficult can be changed depending on how you think about it.

The first step is deciding how you want the situation to be.  This is a fuzzy and difficult – the example was me wanting to respond in an aligned way to my partner and feel good about it.  However, sometimes it’s harder to tell – something going poorly makes it difficult get out of your internal perspective enough to see how a stance could change.  Essentially, it’s noticing that a situation would benefit from change and the thoughts that flow from there.

The second step is noticing your internal monologue – this might be nontrivial depending on how you think.  That’s ok.  For me, I ask myself what I’m thinking about a situation.  As I sit here writing, I’m hearing the words I’m typing in my head, but also rewriting and rephrasing, thinking about how the presentation looks (“Is this too personal?  Am I explaining the thing well?  Can this be adapted to people who don’t think like me?  Am I just reinventing NLP?”), thinking about how I feel about my blog (“I’ve kept this running for a year, huh.  I think my latest posts aren’t as good as some of my earlier posts.  I’m really happy people read the things I write.  I feel good right now”), etc.  That was slower than I would normally do it, so there’s some filtering going on, but that’s what you’re tapping into.

The third step is considering salient things to the situation.  Most frequently, this is a person you are with – it can also be an environment or an object.  Notice what you think about that object – an example of another time I used this technique was when I was extremely hungry and was completely impatient with everything, while in a restaurant.  I noticed both my hunger and the prospect of future food – I had a sense of anticipation for the food, but it had this entitlement attached to it.  The internal mantra was something like “I’m so hungry right now, why is this food taking so long, why is it so loud in here, why is this person talking about such stupid shit doesn’t she realize food should have happened a long time ago, ugh I can’t focus, I kind of hate everything.”  I’m sure this isn’t hard to emulate.

The fourth step is realizing the most natural way to shift the situation into something more desirable – in the case with the restaurant, the anticipation of food was important to keep; however, it could be treated positively.  Rather than “I’m so hungry it’s taking so long”, I could think “I ordered some really tasty food, I’m very curious about what it’s going to taste like.  I think they’re probably taking a lot of care in preparing it.”  Letting that line of thought perpetuate suddenly completely changed the mood at the table.  I was more interested in what my friend was saying, I felt a lot of compassion for the restaurant staff, I was just generally happy to be there.  In the first example with my partner, the shift to thinking about her in a way she wanted to be thought about echoed throughout my body language – my entire demeanor changed, naturally leading to a better situation for both of us.

Overall, changing the internal monologue in some senses is holding an intention to make things better on some metric – from emotions come thoughts, from thoughts come mannerism, from mannerism come behavior and script.  It’s something that is not only helpful to internally try to notice and apply, but to give to other people – sometimes being externally asked what your internal monologue is doing can be the trigger you need to shift into a mode that feels better.  I will caution that the point isn’t always to feel better though – sometimes, you want to change your internal monologue to create negative affect around something.  The point isn’t to be a Stepford wife happybot through system 2 coercion, the point is to make more options in action space available.  When the internal monologue becomes modifiable, so too does your level of abstraction from a situation.

Discussion questions:  Do you have an internal monologue?  Have you ever used the internal monologue to redefine a situation or your role in a situation?  What mental motions do the steps above suggest?  What other ways do you interact with your internal monologue?

On Ritual and Reorientation

(Epistemic Status:  A continuation of the Todo List concept)

I’ve discovered that todo lists are like snowballs.  As you use them, they start to accumulate more and more mass until they are too big to really manage.  This is a problem – if you have a lot of tasks on your todo list that keep getting pushed forward, you end up creating downstream distortion of your outcomes.  Your weekly todo list starts getting bigger as you push things off.  Your monthly todo list gets bigger because the weekly lists are harder to manage.  You only get some part of the way to who you want to be by the time you reach the deadline you set yourself.  This isn’t ideal.  Fortunately, there are ways to correct this.

My rituals are mostly on the daily and weekly level – every night, I have a short 15 minute wind down ritual where I recount the day.  I write down what I managed to accomplish, and I write down the thing I was proudest of accomplishing that day.  I also consider what items are left from my todo list for the day and if propagating them forward is worth it.  Sometimes things get stuck on there that you have no intention of doing – other times, it’s a sign that you find a task aversive and need to find another strategy for accomplishing it.  The key here is being able to honestly look at what is happening with your approach and reorient to reality.  The last thing I do is write my todo list for the next day, and then review it over breakfast to make sure that I’m linking together temporal version of myself.

On the weekly level, I do a more involved ritual that takes roughly an hour.  I put on music that I associate with slowing down, closing things out, and debriefing.  I review what I accomplished over the week, sometimes consulting my daily lists.  I then consider what three lessons I learned from the week – about myself, about others, about accomplishing things, etc.  After that, I determine if I developed any new techniques over the week – any refinements to things I already do or new ideas to make my future weeks better.  After that, I figure out my proudest moment for the week and make a note of that, spending a couple moments to relive the feeling a bit – it’s important to avoid being constantly critical of yourself.  I then assess what didn’t get done in the past week and why that didn’t happen, and then I plan out the next week.  I try to make sure I’m adding a novel goal each week – a lot of my week level things are “go further with this thing you’re already doing”, which is useful but can lead to getting in ruts where I’m not exploring enough.  From here, I go into my wind down ritual for the day, moving from the higher level of the week to the lower level of the day.  The last part of the ritual is spending some time doing something fun – mostly to separate out the ritual time from the rest of the week and keep me fresh for the next week.

Overall, it’s important to be able to reorient – it’s easy to plan out more tasks than you realistically want to accomplish, and the only way to develop good heuristics for this is practice.  Practice becomes much harder if you keep pushing things downstream – the systems start feeling ineffective and a little bit aversive.  Preventing this from happening is an exercise in consistently updating your approach – it can be a little hard at first, but in the long run increases your effectiveness exponentially and makes your productivity systems more robust.  Being able to use ritual effectively is a way to organize the mind – and an organized mind leads to a more organized life.

Discussion questions – What rituals do you use in your daily life?  How often do you find you need to change your approaches to things?  How do you reward yourself for accomplishments?  What sorts of productivity systems do you use?

On Value and Lifespan

(Epistemic status:  A reframe of how one prioritizes their time – if you understand how long 2 hours out of a day is in the macro sense already and find bigger numbers don’t have as much impact, this probably isn’t going to be helpful.)

How do you decide how you spend your time?  Think about that problem for a minute.

Is it entirely legible to you?  Can you define all the variables that go into deciding how each block of time in your life is spent?  Likely not – you’re doing a lot of illegible automatic calculation based on habits, values, and other factors to eventually decide on a course of action.  This is generally reasonable – you might have some dissonance between what you believe you prioritize and what you actually prioritize, but you can extrapolate useful information about yourself by how you actually spend your days.

Still, that autocalculation sometimes isn’t as outcome oriented as we might like – in the cases where you desire outcomes that your system 1 may not necessarily be on board for, it can be helpful to recontextualize the problem.  In that vein, I propose a ritual:

Take a moment to breathe.  Focus yourself for this task, breathing slowly, relaxing, getting comfortable for deep consideration.

Now, consider an activity you enjoy doing.  Imagine doing that activity, the benefits you get from it, the costs it imposes – see the activity in full.  If it helps, write down these benefits and drawbacks, both immediate and downstream.  For example, if I enjoyed  going to the gym for an hour daily – I might write how it’s good for my attractiveness, discipline, health, etc.  I’d write down how it might be too much stress on my joints, or maybe it’s inconvenient and stressful to get to my gym.

Now, consider how long you spend doing that – and consider how long (on average) you are going to live.  Use actuarial tables if you must.  Figure out how much time you would be investing in an activity if you had a habit of doing it every day for the rest of your life – in this case, I’d be going to the gym, 1 hour a day, for the rest of my life.  I’m probably going to live about 50 years longer – that’s 18,250 hours, or around 761 days.  A little over two years.

Now, consider how you’d feel if your life just were that amount of time shorter.  Instead of living 50 years, I live 48 years in the gym example.  This is life with the activity.

Lastly, compare your regular lifespan without the activity to your implicitly shortened lifespan with the activity – does that seem like a worthwhile trade?  Even if the activity itself might not seem worth it, the benefits might be.

If you do this calculus and find yourself shocked at how much of your life would be spent on a habit that never changes, then it might be a good time to change how you allocate your time with regard to that habit.

Now, the point of all this is to reframe how you prioritize your time.  Another, likely common example:  If 8 hours of work daily (and all the benefits and drawbacks thereof) is not with 8+ hours of your life daily (technically, a 40 hour work week is roughly 5.7 hours a day but you probably have a commute too – do the math!)…

You might want to quit your job.

Now, that’s an extreme example of how this analysis might change your life – more likely, it’ll shift around a few habits that don’t seem as aligned with your values – or at least, what you perceive your values to be.  The risk with this approach is that it is using S2 to warp an S1 calculation, and S2 tends not to be the most informed on what your monkeybrain really wants out of life.  Sometimes this is fine, S2 can guide you to being a better person for some value of better – but sometimes you end up breaking something vital to yourself in pursuit of externally imposed goals.

Overall, this technique is a way of recasting the way you prioritize the things you do.  For me, it really brings home how much time I might be wasting on something that I don’t really want, like, or need – 1 hour a day might seem trivial, but 2 years of my remaining life is much bigger and sobering.  For some people, the big number doesn’t have as much weight as just realizing that they spent one of their 24 hours in a day on something that wasn’t serving them.  There are a lot of ways to cast this – you can also pick a time horizon that’s much shorter than your life, for more time limited activities.  The point is to slow down how you are processing your prioritizing and inject new information.

Discussion questions:  How did the ritual affect your perspective on how you spend your life?  What values do you consciously try to optimize for?  What is the meaning of an hour for you?  A day?  A year?



On Human Behavior

(Epistemic status: Probably not universal, maybe not fully endorsed. Incomplete model.)

If you know me in real life, you know I have several catchphrases, especially when I’m talking about how to get what you want. One of those catchphrases is particularly salient when it comes to predicting how people will act. Quite simple, “Humans will generally do what is easiest.” This statement seems simple, trivial even. It also doesn’t seem quite 100% accurate. However, within those 7 words a deep secret is held. Habits can be changed with condition manipulation.

To see how this works, we must first break down what easiest means. Easy tends to exist on several dimensions. Broadly speaking, you have physical impediments, social impediments, value impediments, mental impediments, and temporal impediments. Physical impediments are the easiest to understand – it’s unlikely you will find the easiest path to work to be driving in a straight line – you’ll run into walls and all sorts of mischief if you do that. By designing a system of roads, the state makes it easiest for you to get to work by following a somewhat confusing series of twists and turns.   After that series of twists and turns, though, you make it to work!

Let’s keep going through this hypothetical day – it’s unlikely you’ll find it easiest to sit down and play video games all day at work (depending on the workplace). What’s stopping you though? If you’re working at a computer, it should be trivial to find something interesting to do, better than whatever irrelevant thing you’re typing away to accomplish for some distant boss. In this case, several impediments raise the cost of the “play video games” action – social impediments are highly salient – you can’t be seen slacking off so overtly by your coworkers because you’ll be sold out. It’s easier to work than to navigate being backstabbed. Value impediments also come into play here – it’s wrong to take money and not provide value (for most value systems); value is an illegible metric, but something having Wrong valence increases the difficulty of the task by a surprising amount.

Well, I guess you actually worked at work today. Easier than doing something useful or fun, right? Speaking of fun, though, it’s time to head home – you’ve been meaning to try the new Stellaris expansion, right? Oh, no? It’s too hard? We run into a mental impediment – it turns out, a hard day typing away at work takes a lot of concentration. Something that should be very easy, such as playing a video game, has increased cost due to the mental impediment of having spent the day concentrating. Much easier to sit back and watch something passively, so you do that. Mental impediments can also take the form of anxiety or other mental illness – something that should be very easy can sometimes be almost impossible if you’re anxious about it, or feel guilty about what you’ve done with your day thus far.

It’s getting late, you start to think maybe you’ve watched enough Netflix – but then the call comes. Sounds like your partner is feeling lonely! Sounds like something very easy to do, doesn’t it? Oh, but it’s 2300, and you’re getting up for work at 0600 the next day. You’ve run into a temporal impediment – the time it takes to…visit your partner is not time you have available. It’s easier to go to bed so you’re fresh for the next day. This one’s a bit tricky – some people might well choose their partner because their temporal impediment is more against going to bed.

Now, that was a very quick illustration of how you might choose things that aren’t aligned with what you want to do due to various impediments making the “easiest” thing harder – the issue is it mostly goes in broad strokes. The real importance of the maxim is that your day’s flow is largely overdetermined by easiness on the moment to moment level – and as such, if you want to change your habits, you need to change the calculation for your moment to moment. This can take many forms – maybe you discover a new macro at work that lets you automate things such that your moment to moment flow is easier to handle, which reduces the mental impediment of playing video games later. Maybe you get rid of your video games so you aren’t thinking about them so much and do something else you value more – take up parkour or something. Maybe you decide the company you work for is getting way more value than it should out of you, and shift your values so that you steal a few moments checking on a browser game or doing your shopping or peeking at social media. There are a lot of ways to reframe or change things so that a previously existing impediment no longer holds for you, and a desirable action becomes easiest.

The real question is what actions do you want to make easiest? This requires you to work from outcomes – what outcomes do you want in your life? If you want to get enough money to retire early, maybe you shouldn’t hack your values to reduce the impediment to slacking off. If you want to reserve your mental energy for living a full life outside of work and have a lot of good experiences, making some social deals at work to cover each other’s slacking might be easiest, even if it seems harder in the moment (you’re countering a social impediment with a value impediment towards other actions.) If you don’t start from outcomes, however, any intervention you do to adjust your “easy action” calculus is effectively noise.

Overall, I try to live by the assumption in myself that I will do whatever is easiest – my productivity workflow depends on this being true. There are implications for how this can affect your behavior towards other people and setting up situations such that desirable outcomes for you are easiest for them – I will likely visit this in a future post.

Discussion Questions: Does this way of viewing behavior make sense to you? What sorts of impediments do you notice in your life that get in the way of your desired outcomes? How would you rearrange impediments such that you are more aligned with the person you want to be?