Jan 01, 2020

2019 reflections & 2020 aspirations

Other part of the 2019 review: state of the blog.
2018 review: state of the blog, analytic, reflections.
2017 review: analytic, narrative.
2016 review: analytic, narrative.

2019 aspirations... how'd those go?

At the beginning of last year I laid out three aspirational themes:

  • Everything compounds
  • Don't rush (rushing isn't a speed)
  • Beware the counterwill force

You can read more about them at the bottom of last year's review. How'd they play out in actuality?

Everything compounds. This continues to feel very true, and very relevant. (Probably my feeling here is helped along by reading a lot of history.) Everything really does flow from what came before – good things, bad things, neutral things.

I'm not quite sure how this cashes out. I think a focus on compounding has made my working style more perfectionist / more culture of excellence. It feels more important to do things right when you're doing things with an eye 500 years down the line (moreso than when you're just thinking about the rest of the day or the rest of the week). Obviously there are tradeoffs here.

Don't rush (rushing isn't a speed). Last year I wrote:

Rushing is a state of mind.

Sometimes right after I wake up in the morning, my mind feels very rushed. It's a constrained feeling, and it demands immediate action (it doesn't really matter what the action is; it just wants to be doing something). I've noticed that this rushed headspace can arise even when I'm on vacation or on retreat, when there really isn't anything I need to get done.

I've also noticed that the feeling doesn't correlate strongly with my productivity. Sometimes when my mindset is very open & spacious (i.e. unrushed) I get an enormous amount done. And sometimes when my mind is rushed, tight, and urgent, I accomplish little.


At the margin, I think feeling less of this rushed-ness would be good for me. So I'm aspiring to keep in mind that this feeling is orthogonal to my productivity, and that it's not something I'm looking to cultivate.

I continue to think that feeling less rushed would be good for me. I didn't notice a big change here over the course of the year – maybe I loosened up a bit, but it feels like the foundational building blocks of this thought-pattern are still in place.

It feels important to keep making progress on this.

Beware the counterwill force. Last year I wrote:

Developmental psychology sometimes talks about the counterwill force (a) as something present in toddlers.

I'm not sure why the concept hasn't permeated into adult psychology – it feels very relevant to my own mind. Basically, whenever I firmly assert that I have to do something, it's pretty likely that a strong countervailing force arises arguing that no, in fact I do not.


Something in that direction feels right. In 2019, I aspire to keep an eye on my counterwill tendencies. When I take on self-improvement projects, I'll try to not force the improvements.

As with the "don't rush" aspiration, this still feels important and I probably loosened up some over the last year, but I think the foundational patterns remain in place.

Other stuff that happened in 2019

A bunch of other stuff happened –

Stopped tracking daily statistics. For the last few years I had been keeping a daily log of my life satisfaction & life events (2016, 2017, 2018).

I stopped doing this in 2019:

(1) I stopped believing that "life satisfaction" was tracking anything objective. It felt like the goal posts were moving, e.g. I'd always denote "exceptionally good days" with a life-satisfaction score of "5" (0-to-5 scale), but this wouldn't pick up on secular trends – if my life was actually improving over time but some days were still "exceptionally" good compared to the days around them, the daily life-satisfaction measure wouldn't detect the overall improvement.

(2) I felt also that I was in danger of extraneous data collection. Daily logging often felt fun & virtuous to do, but few actionable insights came of it (and some of the insights that did come probably would have occurred in the no-logging counterfactual).

I also grew more skeptical of other subjective-wellbeing measurement projects.

That said, I continued to use the Reporter app to make estimates of my mood at random points throughout the day. In past years this measure was highly correlated with my overall life satisfaction.

In 2019, my average mood was 4.1 out of 5.0 (175 observations). This is quite close to past years (2018: 4.0/5.0, 2017: 3.9/5.0; data here).

Interestingly, when I retrospectively compare 2019 to past years, it certainly feels like I was happier / more satisfied in 2019 than in the past. But the data doesn't bear that out. This could either be because of the measurement error discussed in (1) above, or because of a rose-tinted / "story of progress" bias. Probably some of both are going on.

Blogging less. I posted less in 2019 than in 2018 (2019: 65 posts, 2018: 141 posts). Happily, more people visited in 2019 than in past years.

The lower posting frequency is in part because I spent a lot of time on the EA Forum in 2019, which substitutes for making blog posts. I also dedicated time to other projects which are probably substitutes.

I expect I'll continue to blog less going forward, as things are generally busy and will likely keep trending that way.

(a). In 2019, a couple friends started using the (a) standard to include archived versions of links in their posts. This made me happy, as it's a small step towards the continued spread of Long Content memes.

See also this discussion with Gwern about which archival approach is best.

Jukai. In June 2019, I participated in a Jukai ceremony at Ocean Sangha, the meditation group I practice with.

This means I'm a card-carrying Buddhist now! (From what I can tell so far, being a card-carrying Buddhist boils down to regularly recognizing how much farther there is to go.)

Grad school. I applied to PhD programs again this fall, having been inspired by a program at Stanford led by Dr. John Ioannidis, who among other things kicked off the replication crisis.

I remain conflicted about whether or not grad school is a good idea. On the one hand, it's absolutely terrible. On the other, it's a platform from which to learn a lot of interesting things and contribute to one of humanity's most beautiful projects. I don't know how that all nets out.

Aspirations for 2020

Better to talk about aspirations & orientations, rather than object-level goals –

Keep sharpening my axe. I think a lot of my habits are working well, but there's always room for improvement.

I've been getting a lot out of doing daily affirmations, a la The Wealthy Gardener and How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, so I'll keep those up.

Lightweight weekly reviews are good for keeping me oriented towards what's important, so I'll keep doing those as well.

Muay Thai has been very good for me, but in the long run it's hard on the body, so I'd eventually like to switch to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or another low-impact martial art. It'll take a while to get over the hump – ideally by the end of 2020 I will have taken several BJJ classes and will be regularly training both Muay Thai and BJJ.

Periodically stepping back from everyday workflows to ask "How could this be better? What would this look like in the ideal case?" can be hugely impactful. I've started doing this at Ought and it's been going well. I'd like to do it more frequently.

Oh, and continuing to maintain my computer so that it's working for me and I'm not working for it, of course.

Exobrain. 2019 had a lot of talk about "tools for thought," spearheaded by Matuschak & Nielsen's How can we develop transformative tools for thought?

Personally I've been experimenting with Notion, Trello, Roam, Simplenote, and Anki (in addition to the standard techno-corporate roster of Gmail, Asana, Google Drive, and so on).

I feel like over the last year I've honed in on the right set of tools for my current work-style:

  • Notion for structured data and anything I want to share publicly
  • Spreadsheets in Google Sheets (it's the best!)
  • Trello for my to-do list (a rolling list of daily-weekly-monthly to-do's)
  • Simplenote as a scratchpad for anything I need to jot down while out-and-about (Simplenote's smooth phone-to-computer syncing is awesome)
  • Roam for clustered, associative, quick-and-dirty notes on things I'm reading, and for weekly reviews
  • Anki for concepts I want to remember years from now

I'll keep finessing this allocation in 2020. I might drop Roam & Anki – Roam I only started using recently so it hasn't proven its value yet, and I go back-and-forth about Anki & spaced repetition in general (aren't we already tuned to remember the important stuff & forget the irrelevant?)

Improve my models of how things work. I know how some things work, and I'd like to learn about how more things work.

I'm expecting 2020 to be infrastructure-heavy: improving my tools, processes, and habits more than actual learning on the object-level. But going 100% meta is a mistake – it's important to learn specific things alongside the infrastructure improvements, if only to keep the dialectic going.

Deepen. In multitudinous ways, particularly: