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...