This session was very long and split into several parts. It was given by a math researcher who practiced self-modification hacks for at least ten years. His stories were mostly about hacks which he had applied to himself, but he presented them in a generally applicable way.

For this lecture I highly recommend you go to Mega-Camp or Mini-Camp next year, where he will probably show up and teach these tricks. However, I’ll give a brief overview. Basic rationality skills are needed: specifically recognizing rationalization vs. genuine curiosity.

The first example was that he found that grading was annoying and he never wanted to do it. To change this and enjoy it more, he constructed a desire to grade student homework in himself. This he achieved by breaking down this “want to desire to grade” into several steps. Basically, in order to desire to grade, he had to fan tiny sparks of random desire to grade into strong desires. He did this using reinforcement learning, by rewarding himself every time he noticed a desire to grade. In order to produce more sparks of desire, he also rewarded certain forms of thinking which could lead to desires to grade: thinking about grading, and noticing other desires (like desires for ice cream).

And yes, this process apparently worked. I’m going to apply this to taking actions which achieve my goals, and discourage actions which are procrastinatory.

The next thing which he presented which seemed useful is a “goal sheet”: a worksheet you should fill out often, in order to review your current short, medium, and long-term goals, and evaluate whether you are working on them in a sensible and progress-making way.

Here are the questions on a goal sheet:

  • Long-term goals (10 years)
  • Mid-term goals (6 months-1 year)
  • Short-term goals (this month)
  • What's most important? List 3 most important, then pick 1 to plan on the rest of this sheet.
  • What specific actions can I take? List some things you can do to bring you closer to the goal.
  • How will I measure my progress/achievement? This measurement need not replace your true purpose.
  • What unintended effects will this plan have for me and my time?
  • What obstacles could get in my way? Consider internal and external obstacles.
  • How can I overcome obstacles? Be creative!
  • What resources will I need / can I use? Don't procrastinate surrounding yourself with helpful things.
  • Who can help me? Be creative in thinking of how friends, family, and colleagues can help.
  • Where do I start? What actions can you take right away?
  • When do I start? Fix a date to start your plan. The sooner the better!
  • When do I stop to reevaluate? Commit to the plan at least until a certain specific time.

There was another especially useful exercise, the failure-mode inoculation exercise. Failure-mode inoculation involves placing yourself into a failure mode you anticipate running into for a given goal, which would typically make you abandon the goal.. For me it was running out of steam on my coding project. I run out of steam when I find that there’s nothing “fun” left, only bugfixing, and there are no users who actually want to use the product.

I imagined myself into this failure mode, which wasn’t very hard. Then I imagined how someone might try to talk me out of it. In this case it was imagining a lot of people using my product, and visualizing what kinds of people they were, and how they would find out about the product, and so on. It appears to be possible to talk oneself out of a hypothetical failure mode a lot more easily than with a real one. Now, the assertion that the speaker made was that you can actually practice getting in and out of failure modes by using Anki. Essentially, you create flashcards which prompt with a project and a failure mode, and when it comes up, you succeed at the card if you were able to think yourself into the failure mode, then think yourself out of it successfully. In theory, and if your success strategies are accurate, you will be able to quickly apply the strategy you figured out for getting rid of the failure mode.

The last part of the talk was where the speaker presented a method he executed in order to deal with a bunch of personal life issues: sick parents, breakups, mental health and so on. It would be a spoiler to present the method here, but it involved going away for three days without contact with anyone – no family or friends – and letting his unconscious mind do the work of identifying and learning to solve the problems. And no mind-altering drugs were used either! :)