Becoming More 'Rational': What I got out of attending a CFAR workshop

Last weekend, I attended a workshop run by the Center for Applied Rationality (also known as CFAR): a four-day immersive retreat/workshop aimed at helping people make better decisions, better able to achieve their goals and generally be more effective (for more on what CFAR does, see here.)

I think the four days I spent at the workshop were really high value. I thought I’d write up a summary of the key things I’ve taken away from those days - both to consolidate these things in my own mind, and to share them with others who might find them useful. 

(Some of this might be a bit brief/sketchy - I didn’t have lots of time to spend on this, but figured it was better to post something rough than nothing at all. Feel free to ask me to clarify things if they’re not clear!)

General insights I took Away

Possibly the most valuable thing I got from the weekend was simply the opportunity to really internalise a lot of useful ideas that I kind of already knew, but hadn’t really finished thinking about. I was initially unsure how much I’d get out of the workshop because I already knew quite a bit about CFAR and their ideas, but found having the time to really reflect on various ideas and how they applied to my life valuable.

Some of the general insights I managed to internalise more as a result of the workshop:

  • If you feel like you’re having to force yourself to do things you believe you should do, but don’t really feel like you want to do, something is going wrong - and it’s worth trying to fix it. In particular, it’s worth asking yourself: why don’t I feel motivated to do this thing? It might be that the thing actually isn’t worth doing after all - in which case you can stop wasting willpower to try and make yourself do the thing. Or it might be that it is worth doing, you just haven’t managed to internalise that on a gut level. Which brings me to...
  • It really is possible to change what you feel motivated to do, to make yourself want to do the things you know you “should” do - want to do them on a gut, visceral level. (What CFAR calles “propagating urges” - I won’t go into detail here but happy to explain to anyone who is interested.)
  • Attention is an incredibly valuable resource, and worth guarding very, very, carefully. Many things in our lives take up a lot of unnecessary attention and energy, and it’s worth eliminating or reducing those things if possible.
  • This may be the most useful and under-asked question ever:
    • “What are the most important problems in my life, and why am I not working on solving them?"
  • Expanding your comfort zone shouldn’t be a matter of identifying things you find uncomfortable and then pushing through the discomfort. The discomfort is probably telling you something useful, so just ignoring it may be a bad idea. What’s more useful is to identify things you find uncomfortable, and then try doing the thing whilst being mindful of your experience, with the aim of finding out why you’re uncomfortable.
  • Relatedly - your intuitions are never purely “wrong” - they are telling you something useful. This doesn’t mean you should always follow them, but you certainly shouldn’t ignore them.
  • Almost any problem can benefit from 5 minutes of focused time trying to solve it.

Specific things I plan to try or change

  • Having a regular time to reflect on what my most important problems are, and spending much more time doing explicit “debugging” sessions with friends: talking about these problems and trying to solve them.
  • Trying to notice every time there is a disparity between what I reflectively all-things-considered want to do (e.g. work on my PhD, go for a run) and what I feel motivated to do in the moment (e.g. go on reddit, stay in bed), and then spend some time trying to turn my reflective wanting into a gut-level, intrinsic motivation to do the thing.
  • Write a detailed list of all the things in my life that take up my attention, and start working my way through the list eliminating unnecessary attention-sappers.
  • Spending 5 minutes of focused time trying to solve a number of different problems I have - from small and concrete ones, to large and vague things.
  • Each time I plan to do something important, ask myself: “How surprised would I be if I ended up not managing to do this thing?”, followed by, “If I ended up failing to do this thing, why would that be? What obstacles could get in the way?” - and then try to make plans to avoid these obstacles.

Concrete ways I’ve already benefitted from the workshop

  • The morning after I got back from the workshop, I went for a run at 7am, for the first time in months. I also woke up feeling like I actually wanted to go running, for the first time in years. 
  • There’s an article I’ve been co-writing with a friend that’s been taking a lot longer to finish than I’d hoped. I really wanted to make sure I got a final draft done this week, but had some doubt. Whilst at the workshop I tried the “Murphyjitsu” technique of “how surprised would you be if you failed?”, followed by “what obstacles might prevent you from finishing it?” to come up with a plan for how I was going to actually finish the draft. In the end, I managed to finish the draft a day before I’d planned to.
  • I've started to eliminate (or automate) several things in my daily routine that take up time and attention, which I've found really helpful so far.
  • All that said, the highlight of the week for me may have been when I managed to use a prediction market game to get four other participants to between them donate £220 to GiveWell recommended charities...

Challenges and Charity

Last week I took the Live Below the Line challenge. The idea is that you challenge yourself to spend no more than £5 on all food and drink for 5 days, to raise money for global poverty charities. I chose to raise money for the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), who treat neglected tropical diseases in the developing world, as they've been been judged one of the most cost-effective giving opportunities out there by GiveWell.

 My food for the week

My food for the week

I took the challenge because it's a very easy way for me to raise money for an important cause that wouldn't otherwise happen. Limiting my diet for a week is a small step outside of my comfort zone that can do really quite a lot of good. I've raised over £300 in donations, which is enough to give 600 children a year of healthy life. Compared to that, my small sacrifice is completely negligible.

Despite the fact I think it's definitely a positive thing to do overall, there's something about this of challenge that still feels a bit weird to me. I wrote about this after I did the challenge last year. To quote myself: "I think it's important to realise that what we're not doing by taking this challenge is "simulating poverty" or getting any insight into what it's like to live below the poverty line in reality." The fact is that the "challenges" we undertake to raise money don't even get close to the challenges some people face every day. Reflecting on this makes me feel pretty uncomfortable.

This got me thinking more generally about this idea of "doing sponsored challenges for charity." Where exactly did this come from, and why does it work? It's kind of weird, when you think about it. Why is it that me restricting my diet for a week, or running a ridiculously long way, means that you should donate to a charity?

Perhaps it's because by undertaking a challenge, I'm demonstrating a level of commitment to the cause. I'm saying, "Look, I'm doing this really hard thing to demonstrate that I care about this cause. The least you can do is donate a few pounds." 

It can also help make the cause you're raising money for more salient and emotionally compelling in peoples' minds. Me posting pictures of my split peas and rice on facebook might make people feel more appreciative of the fact they can eat whatever they want, and so more motivated to help. Equally, if someone shaves their head to raise money for cancer research, the image of a chemotherapy patient is much more easily brought to mind.

All this makes sense given what we know about moral motivation - it's hard to be motivated to help people on the other side of the world even if we know we're suffering, when it's not right in front of us. It's just hard to connect to the cause on an emotional or gut level. Seeing someone we care about making a sacrifice, helps to evoke that emotional response, and so motivates more donations.

Part of me thinks it's great that this sponsored-challenges model works so well. Given that it can be hard to be motivated by the abstract idea of something like poverty, finding ways to motivate people to donate to important causes anyway is undeniably a good thing. What matters, at the end of the day, is that we're doing something.

At the same time, it feels like a shame if we need to run marathons and give things up to donate to charity. And sometimes it can detract from the real issue - all the focus ends up on the challenge or the person doing it, rather than the person really in need. It also seems unlikely that sponsored challenges are the most effective way to do good. If we were really focused on helping, rather than challenging ourselves, then we could probably do a lot more. 

Above all, it just strikes me as pretty ridiculous that I have such a privileged, easy life that I even have the option of "challenging myself." It's pretty amazing that I can even spend time thinking of ways to push myself outside of my comfort zone and to self-improve, whilst others are facing lives with serious challenges they can't opt out of.

I think Ben Clifford, who took the same challenge this week, puts it pretty nicely:

"What do I do with the realisation that I undervalue the experiences I have and that most of life involves a cost which is a luxury on a global scale? I'm not sure there is any completely appropriate way to respond. The most important thing for me is not to let this realisation result in inaction."


How Useful is Identity?

Identity. I've been thinking a lot lately about what this word means and how it affects our behaviour.

We all have a certain image of ourselves - beliefs about the kind of person we are. Having a strong sense of identity seems to be desirable, something that brings comfort and security . Many people seem to spend a lot of time trying to figure out who they are, what they want, and what they believe. 

And perhaps rightly so: having a strong identity certainly seems to have advantages. A clear sense of "who you are" makes it easier to connect with other similar people and groups. People with a strong identity often stand out more and are more memorable. I'd guess that the people who are most successful in life - especially people who become famous - all have pretty strong identities.

Identity also helps us to make decisions and to know how to behave. We're constantly faced with complex decisions and circumstances. With no prior beliefs about what we should do, weighing all the options and making a decision would be near impossible. Having a sense of what kind of person you are makes it much easier to decide how you should behave, and to have confidence in your choice between options. This makes decisions that would otherwise be agonising virtually effortless.

But strong identities can also be dangerous. The drive to protect your identity can be overpowering. Sometimes we can get so caught up in this that we neglect other important things: like being open-minded, truth-seeking, and kind to others. It's hard to think clearly and objectively about something that you identify strongly with, and I think this is the driving force behind a lot of conflict in the world. Paul Graham has a nice essay in which he advocates for "keeping your identity small" for this very reason - "If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible."

Another problem with identity is that once established, it  can be very hard to change. If you believe that you are a certain kind of person, you'll generally be more likely to (a) act accordingly and (b) interpret your behaviour in accordance with this belief. And of course, this just acts to strengthen your sense of identity further. So, for example, if you think of yourself as an altruistic person, you're probably more likely to seek out opportunities to help people, and to interpret your behaviour as altruistically driven. Whereas if you think of yourself as a lazy person, you're probably more likely to spend whole days watching TV in bed, and to think of times that you struggle with work as being down to laziness. 

This self-reinforcing nature of identity is a double-edged sword. For positive aspects of your identity, it can be helpful - if you believe that you're altruistic, this belief is likely to make you more altruistic. But if you have parts of your identity that aren't so rosy (and don't we all?) this kind of circularity can be quite damaging, because it makes identity very difficult to change. It's hard for the person who thinks they are lazy to change this belief, because to do so he needs to change his behaviour - which is difficult to do if you identify as lazy. This loop seems pretty tough to break out of.

So what should we do about this? Simply making your identity as small as possible doesn't seem to be the solution - what you really want to do is only keep those parts of your identity that are helpful, and discard any that hold you back.

Can we clearly distinguish between "helpful" and "unhelpful" identities? Probably not. There are some clear cases - having as part of your identity things like "being open-minded", "having a growth mindset", and "being a kind and considerate person" seem to be pretty straightforwardly useful. Identifying as someone lazy or boring or stupid seem pretty uncontroversially harmful. 

But there's a lot of middle ground - especially when it comes to identities that are tied to certain groups or ideologies - identifying as right-wing or left-wing, utilitarian or deontologist, religious or atheist. Whilst these kinds of identities can be good for connecting with those similar and help with success, they can also polarize groups and cause conflict. One solution here would be to stop using identity labels, and instead just talk about beliefs - instead of asking someone "Are you Tory/Lib Dem/Labour?", we could simply ask "Do you agree with policy x?". I personally feel quite uncomfortable labelling myself as "a" anything. I tend to shy away from these kind of identity questions when asked, and focus more on what I believe. 

The approach of focusing more on beliefs seems likely to be more time consuming. It's much easier to simply attach a rough label to someone than to discern all of their different beliefs. Perhaps this is ultimately what it comes down to - identity labels make it much easier for us to model both ourselves and other people. And whilst we can try to be careful with the identities we attach to ourselves and others, it's near impossible to abandon them altogether. 


After writing this, I also discovered two nice posts making very similar points on LessWrong that are worth reading if this seems interesting to you: Use Your Identity Carefully  and Strategic Choice of Identity.

Putting yourself out there

This week, a post I wrote on getting outside of your comfort zone was published on the blog Tiny Buddha - woo!

This in itself was a significant step outside of my comfort zone. One of the reasons I started this blog in the first place was that I wanted to get better at "putting stuff out there", but felt pretty uncomfortable doing it.

There’s a certain vulnerability that comes with knowing something your ideas, thoughts or writing are available for anyone to see. Every time I publish a post, I notice a slight feeling of discomfort, verging on fear - what if no-one reads it, what if they find it boring, what if I get criticised? I also tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, and have been known to spend hours or even days agonising over whether something is good enough to publish. Sometimes this ends up being at the expense of actually publishing anything at all. This discomfort mostly seems to stem from a fear of being judged by others - and knowing that the more of yourself you make publicly available, the more opportunity to judge you others have.

I’ve come to realise lately that my discomfort here may be mostly unwarranted, and even more - that I’m probably missing out on a lot by holding back in this way. I was pretty hesitant when I first started writing, worrying that noone would be that interested in what I had to say. But I’ve had some overwhelmingly positive responses, which have led to many interesting conversations and interactions I wouldn't have had otherwise. Now every time I post something, although the same discomfort does still arise, I think about what I’m getting out of it: sharing my ideas and connecting with people, and getting more and more comfortable doing so.

I’ve gradually got more comfortable writing for my own blog, for an audience that mostly consists of people I know. The next step in putting stuff out there was then to start trying to reach out elsewhere to larger venues. This carries with it an added layer of discomfort: there’s the possibility of rejection, and an increased chance of getting a negative response. But there’s also a bigger potential upside: the potential to get a wider readership beyond my existing network and so connect with new people, and the potential new opportunities that come with that.

Putting yourself out there can be scary. But it can also be exhilarating, and it can be a great way to prompt conversations and open up new doors. So far none of my worst fears of rejection or criticism have been realised - but even if they were, I'm pretty sure I could learn from that too. I’d be interested in hearing others’ experiences with this - do you think discomfort holds you back from "putting yourself out there" - in terms of sharing things you've written, thought about, or made? What are the best ways to deal with this?

Talking to strangers

There’s something I’ve been struggling with recently: getting more comfortable talking to strangers and asking strangers questions. Reflecting on why I’ve found this so difficult made me think about whether there’s a better way to approach this whole comfort zone expansion thing. So far I've mostly been focusing on fairly big, individual challenges but it seems like at least sometimes, taking small steps might work better.

 This started a while ago after I noticed I felt pretty uncomfortable asking stupid questions. In an attempt to overcome this fear, I spoke to a friend who suggested going into shops and asking stupid questions of shopkeepers. I found this incredibly difficult to motivate myself to do, and ended up making a lot of excuses and putting it off. I did eventually have some success: the highlight being going into Poundland and asking a shop assistant how much different items cost. She was not amused and gave me a very dismissive reaction - "Everything's a pound. We're in Poundland" - perhaps my joke wasn’t as original as I’d hoped, or my naivety wasn’t as convincing as I thought. Despite this small success, I haven’t done much since then, and the thought of asking deliberately stupid questions of strangers still fills me with discomfort and dread.

I tried various different ways of increasing my motivation to do this. I tried making explicit commitments to other people to do it. This didn’t work: it seemed I was happier admitting I’d failed than actually doing the uncomfortable thing. I tried taking this commitment a step further and started using Beeminder to track asking stupid questions (I've mentioned it before, but ifyou don’t know what Beeminder is, it’s basically a motivational tool which allows you to track your progress towards a goal whilst charging you money if you go off track. For what it’s worth, I’m currently writing this blog post because Beeminder is forcing me to :) ). But this didn’t work, either: I derailed. It seemed I’d rather lose a small amount of money than actually have to do the uncomfortable thing.

I realised that if my attempts were repeatedly failing even when I increased the odds, maybe I needed to rethink what I was aiming to do. Why did this thing actually make me uncomfortable?  When I thought about it, there were actually a number of smaller things underlying my aversion to asking stupid questions. There was a fear of being perceived as stupid, sure. But there was also some discomfort in talking to or approaching strangers full-stop. An additional worry about annoying people. Plus generally feeling uncomfortable doing things that aren’t socially normal or expected. If I felt uncomfortable even approaching a stranger and asking them a normal question, or asking them how they were, it’s no wonder I felt uncomfortable asking a question that might be perceived as weird or annoying or stupid. Maybe it was a mistake trying to run before I could even walk.

I think there are two pretty good reasons in favour of taking small steps when it comes to expanding your comfort zone:

1. Small steps build success spirals

One thing that I’ve learnt from my attempts to expand my comfort zone so far is that it’s very like any other motivational problem. There’s some long-term goal you want to achieve, but it requires you to do something you don’t want to in the short term. And one thing that seems really important for motivation in general is having a sense of self-efficacy: believing that you can do it. If you’re feeling demotivated, one suggestion I’ve heard a lot and personally found really useful is to set yourself a really small task that you can’t possibly fail at. This gives you a sense of achievement, no matter how small, which helps you to continue - a strategy known as success spirals which is a really useful way to achieve your goals or build habits.

Although I know that this is a really useful motivational tool in general, until recently I hadn’t thought about applying it in this context. Instead, I’ve been doing what any expert in motivation would immediately tell me is a bad idea: setting big goals, which I then often fail to achieve, and feeling demotivated. I don’t think I’ve really started building success spirals, and as a result I think my sense of self-efficacy is still pretty low: despite the fact I’ve successfully done some uncomfortable things, in general I don’t feel that confident in my ability to do more. Focusing more on doing small out-of-my-comfort-zone things on a daily basis that I know are achievable might be a much better tactic than trying to do something big every couple of weeks.

2. Small steps might actually help more in the long run

Another problem I’ve found is that I’ll set myself a large(ish) challenge - like going into the free weights room or eating out alone - manage it once, but then never do it again. And although this gives me a sense of achievement (and something to write a blog post about!), in the long run I’m not sure my comfort zone has actually expanded that much. I might feel slightly less uncomfortable about eating out alone having done it once, but I still feel a pretty strong aversion towards doing it. What’s actually helped more than that one meal out has been the small things I’ve been doing to get more comfortable being alone - when I’m out with a friend and they go to the bathroom, or I’m waiting for someone, I’ve been trying out just sitting there without checking my phone or reading anything. Because I’ve repeated this small thing a number of times, I think it’s actually contributed a lot more to changing my discomfort levels than that one big challenge has.


These, to me, seem like pretty compelling reasons to try the “small steps, not massive leaps” approach to getting outside of my comfort zone. So I’ve just started beeminding my “asking questions” challenge again, but relaxed the conditions somewhat - any kind of question-asking or conversation-making with a stranger that I wouldn’t normally do counts. I’m already feeling more positive about my progress, and once this gets easy, I’ll move on to more challenging things.

Don’t get me wrong: the big challenges can definitely help too - especially when it comes to proving to yourself that something isn’t as bad or scary as you think. In some circumstances, throwing yourself in the deep end might be a good idea. But only if you can do it. If it’s a horrible experience or you drown, you’re not going to learn to swim and you’re going to be put off further attempts.

Why Give Things Up?

For the past two weeks, I decided to stop wearing makeup.

A friend recently suggested that this might be a good way to push myself out of my comfort zone. Wearing makeup is something I normally do without thinking about it much, a part of my routine I don’t really question. I do it because it makes me feel good, and on the whole I think there’s nothing wrong with putting effort into your appearance. But it was when I realised that I felt like I needed to be made up to feel attractive, that I realised it might be a good idea to try going without it.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried giving something up that I normally take for granted - over the past few years I’ve experimented with giving various things up, mostly dietary changes. I’ve (temporarily) given up alcohol, caffeine, sugar and gone fully vegan.

Reflecting on these different experiences made me think about the benefits of “going without” something in general. It struck me that by pure coincidence this week marks the start of Lent - a time during which Christians typically fast or give up luxury items. But I also know many non-Christians who have, at one point or another, decided to give something up for Lent - who clearly are doing it for some reason other than out of respect for religious tradition. So why do we give things up, and what can we gain from doing so?

What’s the benefit of giving things up?

Often when we think about giving things up we think of trying to eliminate harmful activities from our lives - drinking, smoking, eating things that are bad for us. But I don’t think this needs to be the only motivation for going without. In every case where I have given something up, I have ended up reintroducing it into my life in one way or another. I don’t see this as a failure, so clearly my aim was something other than to completely avoid it.

So if giving things up doesn’t necessarily always mean eliminating harmful activities from our life, what’s the benefit?

Giving things up helps us to reflect on things we normally do without thinking. In doing so, this gives us the space to ask why we do that thing at all, whether we want to continue doing it, and under what circumstances.

Often it’s helpful to give something up not as a means to eliminating it from our life, but because it is something we do mindlessly and so we want to reassess our usage of it. Things that we do without thinking needn’t necessarily be bad for us - in most cases, they at least have some benefits to our lives - or we wouldn’t have started doing them in the first place! But by giving these things up for a period, we get the opportunity to think about why we started doing them at all, what downsides we might be unaware of, and how much we want to continue doing them in the future.

I didn’t stop wearing makeup because I thought it was bad for me and I wanted to stop doing it forever. I stopped because I realised that I was doing it without really thinking about whether I wanted to, why I was doing it, and when I wanted to wear makeup. At the end of the two weeks, I don’t feel like I never want to wear makeup again, but I feel like I have a better understanding of why I wear it when I do. This definitely makes me likely to wear less makeup and wear it less often, because I’ve realised that in many contexts I don’t really have the reason to wear it that I thought I did.

A similar thing happened when I gave up alcohol. I realised that I’d often been drinking at social events without even thinking about whether I wanted a drink - it had just become a default, a habitual action. Sometimes I’d have a few drinks and afterwards think - I didn’t even enjoy that, why did I do it? After not touching alcohol for 6 months during my undergraduate degree, I didn’t feel like I never wanted to drink again - but I did start to much more consciously reflect on whether I actually wanted a drink in any given situation, and why I was doing it overall.

Giving things up helps make us aware of any possible benefits of not having the thing, that we might have been oblivious to otherwise. When I gave up drinking, I was suddenly more aware of how great not feeling tired and hungover the day after a night out was - and how much money I saved. Not wearing makeup encouraged me to take even better care of my skin because I couldn’t hide spots or blemishes. Without caffeine my energy levels felt much more constant throughout the day. If I hadn’t thought about these things, I’d definitely have thought about these benefits less.

Giving things up tends to make us appreciate them more. This, I think, is related to the fact that when we give something up we reflect more on why we do it - and so reflect more on what benefits it brings us. It’s surprisingly easy to habituate to things, even those that bring us a lot of pleasure, to the extent that they become quite neutral. Because I was so used to putting makeup on every day, it had stopped feeling like a nice thing to do to make an effort. Equally, if you drink caffeine or alcohol more regularly, you quite literally adjust to their effects more. One of the nicest things about giving something up, I find, is how much more you appreciate it when you choose to have it again. Absence really does (tend to) make the heart grow fonder.

Giving things up often forces us to change our routine or habits in a way that opens us up to new possibilities. This is something I really like about experimenting with my diet, for example - I quite enjoy restricting my diet in various ways because it makes me think more imaginatively about what to cook, rather than sticking to the same recipes.

There’s also just something empowering about proving to yourself that you don’t need something. A big incentive for me giving up alcohol was that I wanted to prove to myself that I could still have fun and be sociable without drinking. I gave up caffeine because I wanted to know that I could get through the day with enough energy without a cup of coffee. I stopped wearing makeup because I wanted to show myself that I could feel attractive and good about myself without having to paint a face on every morning. None of this means that these things don’t still have benefits and I’m not going to use them sometimes. But I like knowing that I am choosing to use these things rather than feeling that I need them. Now if I have to drive to a party I know I can still have a great time without drinking. If I don’t have time for a coffee in the morning I’m not worried that the whole morning is going to be a struggle. If I stay at a friend’s house and forget my makeup it’s no big deal.


Giving something up that you ordinarily take for granted, or feel like you need, is actually a really good way to step outside of your comfort zone. Although it might not be the kind of thing you first think of when “going outside your comfort zone” is mentioned - it’s not public speaking, or bungee jumping, or embarrassing in any way - it means changing some part of your routine or life in a way that can feel a bit scary or uncomfortable. This can help you to rethink why you do the things you usually do without thinking, make more conscious decisions in future, and open you up to new possibilities.


Eating Out Alone

Last week, I went to a restaurant in the evening and ate dinner alone.

Different people I’ve spoken to have had different reactions to this as a challenge. To some, it’s nothing - “I’ve done that loads!”. But to others, it’s a pretty daunting idea, and I was definitely in this latter camp. Eating out alone has been on my list of things to do ever since I started this blog. But it wasn’t until a friend told me that she wanted to try this challenge too, and we both committed to one another to doing it, that it actually happened.


The hardest part was probably walking into the restaurant and asking the waitress for a “table for one, please.” But I did it with a smile in my face and what was hopefully a confident air - rather than a “I’m really sad to be alone and I want you to take pity on me” one. When she asked me if I’d rather sit at a table “out of the way around the corner” (is it just me or was this blatantly implying I might be ashamed and so want to hide myself?!) or in the middle of the main part of the restaurant, I told her the main part of the restaurant was just fine, thank you. Sitting in a corner where no-one could see me felt like a bit of a cop-out.

I’d brought a book and a notepad with me as a kind of safety blanket, in case I felt really uncomfortable and wanted something to do. It’s amazing how difficult it can to just be alone - to just sit or stand in the presence of other people, and not do anything. I’ve become more aware recently of how even when I’m waiting for a friend, or I’m out with someone and they go to the bathroom, I feel a compulsion to get my phone out and play with it. I’ve been trying to get out of this habit, by letting myself simply sit and look around, or think, whilst I’m waiting - and as I do it more, finding it becomes less and less uncomfortable. So when it came to having dinner, even though I had my book in my bag, I decided to leave it there, and just sit. I had a nice view close to the window, and I sat and watched the street. I sat and I paid much closer attention to both my thoughts and to my food than I normally ever would. I realised how rare it was that I just sat for any reasonable period of time doing nothing, and resolved to do this more often in future.

One of the best things about just sitting there with no distractions was that it gave me the opportunity to pay more attention and explore any feelings of discomfort as they arose.

Sitting there and focusing on my feelings of discomfort, I realised that a lot of them were associated with thoughts of the form “What are the people around me thinking of me?”. I felt discomfort asking the waitress for a table because my mind was predicting her feeling sorry for me, thinking I must have no-one else to eat with. The discomfort arose again when someone new would come into the restaurant and sit near to me, anticipating that they must be thinking similar thoughts. It was only as I started to consider alternative ways in which people might interpret my dining alone - they might think I was visiting town alone, and meeting someone later, or that I was simply a confident person who enjoyed dining alone - that my discomfort lessened.

“It doesn’t matter what other people think of you”

It’s much easier said than done for most of us to simply “stop caring what other people think.” We probably don’t want to completely stop thinking about how others might perceive us, anyway, as there are plenty of situations in which an awareness of this is useful. If you’re preparing for a job interview, or a first date, it’s probably well worth considering how you’re going to come across. Caring what others think makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: for our ancestors, being accepted into a group was probably crucial for survival.  Thinking about how others perceive us also goes hand in hand with thinking how the things we do might make others feel, and being sensitive to those feelings.

Rather than simply stopping caring what others think, we want to be able to identify when worrying too much about what others think is causing us undue discomfort or holding us back, and stop doing it in those cases.

So how do we do this? There are two problems here: first separating the worth-caring cases from the not-worth-caring cases, and then figuring out how to not-care in the not-worth-caring cases. Here are my two cents on both, but would love to hear others’!

1. Figuring out when it’s not worth caring

The first step is just noticing when you’re worrying what other people, or someone else, thinks of you. Often these kinds of thoughts arise and pass without us properly acknowledging them, manifesting themselves as a vague feeling of discomfort.

If you can begin to notice yourself having these thoughts, the next step is to subject it to some investigation.

First try to break down exactly what you’re worried about: who exactly are you worrying about thinking badly of you, and what exactly are you worried they might be thinking?

Next ask if this specific person thinking this specific thing is actually likely to cause anything bad to happen. Imagine the scenario in which the person thinks the thing you’re scared of, and then try to imagine all the possible bad consequences of that thought.

  • Is this someone with whom you have an important relationship that could be affected?

  • Is this someone with whom you’d like to have a relationship, which might be threatened?

  • Could this person thinking this thing spread to other people thinking the same thing, in a way that might end up harming your reputation, opportunities, or relationships?

If the answer to all of the above questions is no, and there are no other bad immediate consequences you can think of, as a rule of thumb it seems pretty unlikely that you should worry much what that person thinks.

2. Managing to not care

Ok, but as I acknowledged before, it’s all very well saying you shouldn’t care what someone thinks - much harder to actually stop yourself from caring. The best remedy I can think of this is something similar to exposure therapy for overcoming fears. The problem is that even though you know rationally that it makes no difference what this person thinks, your gut still thinks it does. So what you need to do is convince your gut that nothing bad is going to happen - and the best way to do that is by repeatedly doing things that make you worry what others think, and proving to your gut that nothing bad ever happens. (And if something bad does, you’ve learned that your gut was actually right, which is also useful!)

In my case, I was worried about a waitress and some other people dining in a restaurant thinking I was a weirdo who had no friends. When I thought about it, I realised that even if they did think this nothing bad would happen - these people were unlikely to be people I was going to have important relationships with, nor were they likely to influence others with these thoughts. I still intuitively felt myself wondering if they were judging me, but the longer I sat there with no-one looking at me weirdly or saying anything to me at all, the less I worried about this. I’m pretty sure if I started going to restaurants alone on a weekly basis I’d quickly become vastly more comfortable than I am now.

Make Yourself Accountable

Back in September, I said I was going to try and do something outside of my comfort zone once a week and write about it. I hoped that by making this commitment online, and promising to share my experiences, this would be enough to motivate me to try challenges I’d back away from otherwise. And whilst it certainly has pushed me to do more of these things, it hasn’t quite done so as much as I’d hoped, yet. It turns out that my incentives not to do really uncomfortable things are just really strong - and the incentives I’d tried to build in the opposite direction weren’t strong enough to combat this.

I realised what I really needed was someone holding me personally accountable. There’s a huge difference between vaguely writing on the internet that you plan to do something, and committing to a specific individual to do a specific thing at a certain time, and having them check up on you that you did it. The second is just vastly more motivating, because there are actual consequences if you fail to do the thing you said you would.

So I’ve started asking friends to hold me accountable for doing specific challenges I want to do, and so far it’s definitely increased my motivation. Things I’ve promised so far including asking weird or stupid questions in shops, and eating out alone, which I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks.

I’ve also realised that involving other people in my challenges has more benefits than increasing my motivation. First, it’s allowed me to start discussing what makes me uncomfortable, and brainstorming ideas for challenges with other people - which is both fun and incredibly useful. I’ve been surprised at how difficult it is to figure out exactly what things make me uncomfortable and why, and how to design appropriate challenges - bouncing ideas around with other people about this really helps.

Second, I’ve also started trying out doing some joint challenges - where I not only commit to someone else, but we in fact commit to one another to do something we both find uncomfortable. This is really great because (a) I’m encouraging my friends to face the things they find uncomfortable, too - so two people benefit rather than one, and (b) we can then share our experiences with one another and find out more about what makes different people uncomfortable. If I want to really understand the limitations of staying within our comfort zones, it seems really useful to collect data on other peoples’ experiences, not just my own!

I’m also now beeminding the number of blog posts I write as an added commitment device - at the moment this means I have to write a post every other week or I lose money. (For those who don’t know beeminder, it’s an awesome website that allows you to track your progress towards a goal visually whilst also motivating you by charging you money if you go off track - highly recommend it!). If this isn’t enough to motivate me, another option would be to start committing larger sums of money to individuals - last week I almost ended up paying my boyfriend £100 for failing a challenge...

Want to help or join me? If you’re reading this and you either:

1. Have a challenge you think would be good for me to do, you’d like to hear about me doing, and can hold me accountable to actually doing, or

2. Have a challenge you would like to do yourself, but struggle to motivate yourself to do, and would like to do together, us holding one another accountable,

then please get in touch!

Noticing progress - helpful or harmful?

This post was originally going to be about how noticing that you've made progress is a really useful motivational habit when it comes to expanding your comfort zone (and of course more generally). But whilst awareness of progress can sometimes be motivating, sometimes it seems that progress can have the opposite effect: we take it as an excuse to lie back and relax, often for longer than is beneficial. This made me think about how achievement and progress affect our motivation generally, and how this has applied to my own experiences challenging myself over the past few months. When is tracking progress helpful, and when might it actually be counterproductive?

When noticing progress helps

Last week, I gave two talks about work I did last year with 80,000 Hours (one at Warwick University introducing the organisation, the second at Cambridge University talking about some research I did on job satisfaction.)

I realised afterwards that I’ve really improved at public speaking - both in terms of my actual performance and my confidence. Less than a year ago the thought of giving these talks would have made me nervous weeks in advance, but now I’m really only nervous just beforehand. My mind used to freeze and I used to rush through talks at lightning speed, but now I know I’m managing to speak more naturally and clearly. The positive feedback I got - from other people, but even more my sense of accomplishment and achievement - felt great, and really encouraging. I now feel more motivated to push myself to speak publicly and improve further than I did before.

Intuitively it makes sense that realising you’ve progressed would be motivating. Achievement, quite simply, feels good, so we’d expect a feeling of progress to reinforce the behaviour that led to it in the first place - i.e. motivate you to progress further. If you have some large goal in mind (say, being comfortable talking in front of large audiences!), realising you’re closer to that goal than you were before also acts as evidence that you can improve, and so progress even further, which can also be motivating. This is supported by a body of research into the psychology of motivation, which suggests that making progress or “small wins” is the single most important factor for motivation, and that a sense of self-efficacy is also crucial.

When noticing progress harms  

On the other hand, it seems like sometimes we also use progress as an excuse to lie back and relax. I’ve got a bit of a confession to make here. I haven’t been back into the free weights room since that first time I wrote about it, even though I’ve been back to the gym multiple times. The first time I went back I had a sense of “well I went last time, so I can let myself off this time - it’s *really* busy today and I’m very tired...” (notice the excuses creeping back in?!) Then the next time it was even harder to go in, because I hadn’t gone the last time... the “progress” I made by going into the free weights room in the first place doesn’t seem to have helped motivate me to do it again.  

Studies support the idea that sometimes noticing progress can be discouraging, not encouraging. A group of dieters who were reminded of their progress were more likely to choose a chocolate bar over an apple than those who hadn’t been given positive feedback. Students who felt they’d spent a lot of time studying comparatively were much more likely to take the night off and go out partying (reference).

So which is it? Helpful or harmful?

There seem to be two directly conflicting ideas about the effect of noticing progress on motivation. In some cases, realising you’ve moved closer to your goal can motivate you to progress yet further - but in others, it seems that it might be used as an excuse to take a break or indulge ourselves. Which is the correct account of the relationship between progress and motivation?

I expect both are partially correct - progress can sometimes be motivating, but also risks being viewed as an excuse if we’re not careful. One explanation for the difference (suggested by the researchers who conducted the study with dieters and students) is that it depends on how we view progress. If we view progress as evidence that we’re really committed to our goal, and that we can achieve it, it’s likely to increase motivation to pursue the goal. On the other hand, if we’re simultaneously pursuing multiple goals, progress might be seen as evidence that one goal is being “taken care of”, and so as justification for then pursuing other, perhaps less important, goals at the expense of the main goal. This seems to be a nice alternative way of thinking about a lot of issues of self-control and motivation - often there is a bigger, more long-term goal (e.g. losing weight, getting a degree) and smaller short-term conflicting goals (enjoying food, having a fun social life.) Progress on the long-term goal might in some contexts be seen as evidence of commitment, so inspire further progress - but other times be used as an excuse for indulgences.

In my case, it seems like I do certainly have two very clearly conflicting goals: a long-term goal of expanding my comfort zone, and a short-term goal of not doing things that make me uncomfortable. The difficulty is staying focused on the long-term goal when it explicitly requires me to do things that go against my goals in the short term. The nice thing about progress is that it helps to reinforce the importance of the long-term goal over the short-term goal, but there have definitely been times where I’ve used it as an excuse to retreat back to what’s comfortable. This idea of framing progress as evidence of commitment to a goal, and the ability to achieve it, certainly seems like one that could be helpful here.

How can you use progress as motivation, not an excuse?

  • Make sure you’re clear what goal you’re aiming for. I think part of the reason progress was motivating for me in the case of public speaking, but not the gym, was that in the former case I had a clearer goal: get *really* good at public speaking. Feeling I’d improved was evidence that I’d moved closer to my goal, but I knew I wasn’t there yet. When it came to the free weights room, my goal was really “go into the free weights room once” - which, once I’d achieved, I didn’t feel the need to do again. But what my goal should really have been was “be comfortable enough to go in regularly.”
  • Each time you notice yourself progressing towards a goal, view it as evidence that:
    • (a) You’re committed to that goal
    • (b) You have the ability to reach that goal

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t ever allow yourself small rewards or breaks for your progress. But try to view these explicitly as rewards, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can relax because your main goal is “taken care of.”