Tracking Flow State

I would like to spend more time in flow state.  There’s a number of possible interventions, but I don’t have a good way to measure the effects of any of them besides “that felt more flow-ey”.  That’s not going to hold up.  So I’m turning to you, the internet, for advice.  What app or plugin will let me designate block of time to be “serious work time” and record the number of times I initiate interrupty things during that block (including checking my work email for projects unrelated to my current one, but excluding checking FB because there was a critical piece of information in a chat)?

The low tech solution here is a post it with tally marks, but for obvious reasons I’d prefer something that didn’t require intervention on my part.

The ideal solution would be for Toggl to track how often I interrupt myself, because I already track my time using Toggl and it’s already both a phone and browser app, it would just need to notice interruptions.

Things that will not work:

  • Measuring how much time I spend on facebook/tumblr/email/candycrush/ in a day.  I don’t care how much time I spend on any of those.   I care how many distinct instances of going to them occur while I want to be concentrating on something.  AFAIK, This rules out RescueTime and TagTime.
  • Measuring how often I check in a day.
  • Things that require more intervention than turning the “concentrating now” button on and off. There are tally counter phone and presumably web apps, but the last thing I want to do is require more executive function and willpower of myself to count the number of failures of EF and willpower. 

Bonus features:

  • Let me designate specific facebook or e-mail visits as work-related.
  • Work on all of: my OS X laptop, my windows laptop, my android phone.

Any suggestions?

Things I Have Gotten Wrong

Originally I trusted Animal Charity Evaluators and recommended them to others (although apparently I never wrote this down in public).  Later I realized they were making up numbers.

I used to think Raising for Effective Giving was a cost effective way to raise money for good charities.  I still think that, but now I know they’re negative utilitarians and what they’re doing now is maybe a wedge to nuking the entire world so no one can suffer more.

I thought Charity Science was a mess that would never do anything, until they produced a new charity that at least has the potential to be hugely effective.  At a minimum it is actually doing something, in a subculture that seems to respond to every problem by going meta.

[In an ideal world I would have said this publicly before I started doing contract work for them, but I do have witnesses as to my mind change before then.]

I thought Tostan had nearly ended female genital cutting in Senegal.  I was wrong, and I could have learned I was wrong at any time by checking wikipedia.  They may still be making good strides and have been very cooperative in answering my questions, but I should not be being caught by surprise by wikipedia.  And I don’t even know if I still think poverty is important relative to existential risk.  Although I’m not sure how much I care about future humans either.

I thought epistemic spot checks would be really easy, but it turns out it doesn’t correlate much with how useful people find things.

I’m making this public so that “saving public faith in my judgement” or “present coherent position” stop being goals I can reasonably have, so I can focus on actually fixing the problem.   Everything on here is epistemic status: exploratory until further notice.


ETA: I’ve gotten some positive response to this, which is great, but not unexpected.  I would like to give props to my subculture/readership for being so consistently good about rewarding people for admitting big mistakes that even highly anxious me feels able to count on it.


What do I do now?

I used to think poverty/global health was the most important cause, because it focused on the worst off people.  Being around effective altruism exposed me to the argument that existential risk- things that might wipe out the entire planet- and catastrophic risk- things that leave life but destroy civilization- are more important.  I never had a good argument against them, but it was basically impossible to have a good argument against them, and I’m weirdly easy to talk into things.  Late in my tenure at my last (poverty-focused) job, I was no longer certain that poverty was most important, but I was sure that I was in a uniquely good position to work on it, and that finishing the third best thing was better than half finishing the first best.

When I lost my job, I lost that excuse.  I had to decide what was actually most important (modulo what was tractable to me personally).  I was hoping the recent Effective Altruism Global conference would provide clarity on this, but mostly it did not.  I’ve been exposed to the EA arguments a lot; paying more attention and hearing slightly better versions was not going to change anything.  What I need to do is find other sources of information and investigate what they think is most important, so I’m looking at genuinely new information.  I don’t think I can be confident in my decision without that.

I’m currently in the market for cause areas to investigate, but more importantly potential sources of new cause areas.  What are the equivalents of EAG that would expose me to dramatically different ideas about what is most important?

Potential cause areas, gathered from who knows:

  • Racism in America
  • Aging
  • Nutrition
  • Make people socially smarter
  • Education
    • Gifted education
    • Low-achiever education
  • Medicine
  • Mental/emotional health
  • Stupid government regulations
    • Housing
    • Medicine
    • Regulatory capture
    • Criminal justice reform
  • X-risk
    • Artificial intelligence
    • Disease
    • Nuclear war
  • Getting us off the planet
  • Universal Basic Income
  • Baumol’s cost disease
  • Conventional warfare
  • FDA’s cranial-rectal insertion
  • Sleep deprivation

Potential EA-equivalents, gathered from a week of paying attention and looking for such things:

  • Startup Societies Foundation
  • Long Now Foundation
  • Foresight Institute

What I am looking for now:

  • Suggestions on other cause areas, especially if they come with lots of information on said cause area.
  • Suggestions of other groups to investigate.
  • People to listen and help me work out my thoughts on particular cause areas.
  • Tools that will help me think about this more clearly.


Daniel asks: “It might be useful to turn the question around. Assume your fellow EAs are doing their calculations well, and ask what your comparative advantages are, then look for high-impact ways to apply those.

It’s the same search problem, just starting from the opposite end, where the branching factor is lower.”


This is what I’ve been doing, I feel very strongly that now is top-down time.
Additionally, I don’t trust EA calculations.  There is no way that 3 + meta is the correct number of causes.

More Brain Lies

[Follow up to this post]

I had a friend who once dated a 44 year old woman with the abs of a young Britney Spears.  She hated her body.  At first I was confused by this.  How could you not love having a stomach like that?  Eventually I realized that I had the causality reversed.  She was stuck on “hates her body” and that gave her the energy to starve and work out until she had that perfect stomach.

Similarly, anyone who has $100,000,000 and thinks they need more.  No, they don’t.  But if they were capable of feeling satisfied with the amount of money they had, they would have stopped at $10,000,000.  Or $1,000,000.  Or couch surfing and dumpster diving.

The particularly deficiency in my social circle is “I’m not good enough/smart enough/productive enough”.  As Justis Devan points out, this is a among a group that by and large makes six figures and a lot of whom are directly working on important things.  I have a friend who feels bad for not being Elon Musk.

Now, people are not always wrong that something is holding them back from being everything they could be, and to be frustrated by it.  But sometimes it helps to take the gap between is and ought as a sign of how high your standards are, rather than how bad you are at a thing.

Your Brain is an Unreliable Narrator

Recently I went down a tube slide at a water park.  Tube slide means you go down on an innertube, which you adhere to with only your hands.  After 30 minutes of waiting in line watching people bank on the slide I am convinced that letting go means I fly into the air and die.  So you’d think I would grip the tube really really tightly.  But when I finally got on, I found I couldn’t.  No matter how hard I tried, my grip felt weak and tenuous.

One possibility is that my wrists have a death wish.  Another is that my brain was trying to keep me alive, and attempted to increase my grip strength by lying to me about it.  After all, when my wrists felt weak I gripped the handles tighter.  And empirically, I did not fly off the tube and die.

I think a similar thing happens when I rock climb.  When I started bouldering (climbing without a rope), I always felt like I was about to lose my grip, and afterwords my forearms were absolutely throbbing.  When I switched to top roping (climbing attached to a rope, limiting the distance you can fall), that eased up a lot.  Although I still get very strong “you can’t do this, you should get down” signals, and then go on to climb several more routes, indicating I did in fact have the strength available to climb the first thing.

I think this is what Todd Hargrove was describing in A Guide To Better Movement– the information your unconscious brain feeds your conscious brain is not unbiased, it is motivated, primarily by a desire to be safe.  If you have other motivations, such as climbing to the top of a fake rock being awesome, you may need to correct- but gently enough that your unconscious brain doesn’t simply further bias itself in response.

I experienced a similar thing with stretching.  When I tried to stretch I would hit what felt like a physical limit, but the muscle didn’t feel stretched afterwords and I never got any more flexible.  I tried doing the same stretches on a muscle relaxant (which I occasionally take for my jaw pain), and without any effort or thought dropped much deeper into the stretches.  I was able to remember these new limits passed when the the medication wore off (probably thanks in part to doing the Guide to Better Movement exercises for weeks beforehand), and most retained the gains.

I am extremely curious where else my brain is underestimating me.