Unquantified Self

Recently I did a CFAR workshop.  No one has settled on a good description of CFAR, but I think a good one would be “getting the different parts of your brain to coordinate with each other.”  The further I get from CFAR the more positively I view the experience, which suggests that I did the same thing with EA Global, which suggests I overestimated CFAR’s primary flaw (not being EA Global), which makes me view it even more positively.

CFAR suggests you go into the workshop with a problem to solve.  Fortunately but perhaps inconveniently, I went through a personal growth spurt right before CFAR.  It’s not that I was out of problems to solve, but the repercussions of the previous solutions had not yet worked their way through the system so it was hard to see what the next round would be.   Then I solved food.  For those of you who are just tuning in, I have/had lifelong medical issues that made food physically difficult, which made it psychologically difficult, which made the physical issues worse.  Clearing out all the anxiety around food in a weekend is not a small thing.  But to really achieve it’s full power I have to follow it up with things like “how do you choose food based on things other than terror?” and “stoves: how do they work?” So that’s a bunch more work.*

I left CFAR with some new things and some refinement on some old things.  I didn’t want to lose what I’d gotten at the workshop so I tried to do follow ups but I felt… full.  Defensive.  Like it was attempting to take up space in my brain and if it succeeded I would lose a lot of work.

My way of solving problems, which is either what CFAR teaches too or what I extracted from whatever CFAR actually does, is to understand them super well.  Eventually a solution just falls out and application is trivial.**  Some of this comes from focused thought, but there’s a lot of opportunistic noticing.  I store bits of information until suddenly they coalesce into a pattern.  As anyone who’s read Getting Things Done will tell you, storing information in your brain is expensive.  So I decided I needed a way to store all this opportunistic data, plus things from the conscious experiments I was running, to keep it all straight.

This is hard to do.  Take the comparatively simple “go to gym every day”.  There are 400 billion apps that will track this for me and I have never stuck with one of them, because they are boring and seeing the numbers go up doesn’t motivate me for more than a week.  More generally, I’ve never been able to get into quantified self because if I know what data to measure the problem is already solved.  I don’t really care how many calories I burned.  I do care what mental blocks inhibited me from going (bed so comfy, outside is cold, feeling like I stayed in bed too long and now I have to do Real Work) and how I maneuvered things so it didn’t take willpower to fight those (“remember how you feel much more productive after the gym and have an awesome job that doesn’t care when you work?”).  There is no app for that.

Then there are more difficult problems like “New information indicates I handled something 9 months ago really poorly, but I’m not sure what I’d do differently then with only the information I had at the time, without causing other problems.”  Or “My friend triggered an intense premortem that made me realize I’m ignoring information on project X just like I did with project Y last year, but I don’t know what that information is.”  I still don’t know what I’m going to do about the former, for the latter I tracked “things that feel like they’re hitting the same part of my brain” until a pattern emerged.  Tracking patterns for “things you are actively trying not to think about” is not cheap.

So I needed a system that could hold this information for me, that would show me information I didn’t realize was connected as I recorded it.  Without being cluttered.  The closest analogy I could come up with was an old timey naturalist.  They had a bunch of set things they knew they were looking for (what eats this flower), but also wanted to record cool things and then be able to connect to other cool things later (why are all these finches different yet similar?).    I don’t know how old timey naturalists did that with pen and paper because that did not work for me at all.  I tried workflowy and a google docs but just sat there frozen, unable to figure out how to sort the information.

My CFAR partner  Tilia Bell had a really good idea, which was to use a private wordpress blog.  I could give an entry as many tags as I wanted, and read tags when they felt relevant.  Or just the success tag, because winning feels nice.  This was a huge improvement, but wordpress is kind of clunky and annoying.  In particular, the tagging system does not flow at all.

I talked about it with Brian, who suggested a one person slack.  I could use channels for defined projects and tags for observations I wanted to connect later.  To be fair, this idea is three hours old.  On the other hand, in 20 minutes applying it I figured out what piece of information I was ignoring in that problem my brain didn’t want to look at.  I’m not saying it’s the sole cause, I’ve gathered a lot of information this past week.  But since “connecting things I already noticed” is pretty much its point, it seems promising.

*My nutritionist is finding me much easier to work with now.

**I’m exaggerating some but it’s more true than it has any right to be.

Improving Commuting

As a follow up to yesterday, I just want to say that having a thing I look forward to that I can only do on the bus is working out brilliantly as a device for making commuting less miserable and it was totally worth buying the Kindle Fire to make it happen.  If you want to try for yourself, I recommend getting the 16gb, the 8gb could barely hold three HD episodes. I also recommend an anti-glare screen, because its glare is awful and the screen picks up fingerprints like woah.

The next recommendation is a little weirder.  I bike to the bus, which means I’m in biking clothes and have to maneuver my bike onto the cow catcher.  This makes waiting for the bus a little tricky- anything I have in my hands will have to be put away really quickly so I can rack my bike and get on, but I have no pockets.  And for reasons that may not be entirely rational, the time it takes to unsling my backpack and put a toy away makes me really stressed out.  But if I don’t use a toy the time at the bus stop is wasted, and that’s stressful too.  What I wanted was a way to make the whole of commuting feel either productive or like an indulgence.

So I made myself a shirt, out of two shirts and some fabric glue.

Two shirts enter, one shirt leaves
I believe my cat may have been getting high off the fabric glue.


  1. Place desired toy on shirt, cut patch around it.  Leave space for depth.
  2. Put fabric glue on single edge of patch and apply to surviving shirt.
  3. Lock cat in other room.
  4. Reapply patch to surviving shirt.  Once you have it aligned, apply glue to other two edges and apply (you leave the top open so it’s a pocket).  Remember to apply it less than completely flat, so the pocket will have depth.
  5. I don’t know if this is a property of the fabric glue, my shirt, or this project in general, but some of the glue filtered down such that the base shirt was glued to itself and the patch ran free.  If you catch this early enough you can separate and try again.

This shirt is not aesthetically pleasing and is weirdly stiff where I overapplied fabric glue, but it gets the job done.

Rehighjacking the dopamine system

One of the contentions of The Willpower Instinct is that a lot of things (hyperpalatable foods, lottery tickets, facebook…) are hijacking the system that incentivizes you to be productive*, making you think feel that if you do this one more thing, you will achieve an important goal (nutrition, money, social connection). You can try to stare it down, but what you are really fighting is not the specific action, but the goal, and everything in you believes that goal is good, so it’s an expensive battle you will ultimately lose.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with hijacking back.  Let’s use food as an example.  I noticed that I would feel a very strong drive to eat candy, but eating it alleviated the urge for less than a second.  There was no amount of candy that would move me to a not-wanting-candy state.  Once I had that perspective, I could use higher brain powers to figure out what would  actually scratch that itch.  Moreover, I could use the urgency generated by the proximity of candy to power making real food with actual nutritional value.   And the dopamine system couldn’t really do anything about it, because it had sold candy to my body as a means to an end.

It works for video games too.  Sometimes I play video games because they are fun.  Sometimes I play them because I need the feeling of Doing a Thing, and doing actual things will involve an unpleasant intermediate steps.  Of course video games can’t actually make me feel productive, but the reward system tells me that means I need to play harder.


This is a difficult urge to fight.  But if I pull back and notice doing the thing is not making the urge to do the thing lessen, it becomes obvious I need to do the unpleasant intermediate steps in order to get what I want.

*This is identified only as “dopamine”, but dopamine is a neurotransmitter, so she must mean dopamine in a particular part of the brain.  For simplicity I’ll keep referring to it as the dopamine system.

The Kitten Pain Scale

I very briefly flirted with Quantified Self and then jumped off the bandwagon because it was making my personal signal:noise ratio worse.  But my neuroendodontist* has given me several drugs, and he wants to know how they work.  Allow me to give you a brief list of things that make measuring this difficult

  • Treatments are all on varying schedules- some daily, some daily with a build up in blood stream leading to cumulative effects, some as needed to treat acute pain, some on my own schedule but hopefully having longer running effects.  Some are topical and some are systemic.
  • I have several home treatments like tea and castor oil.  I’m not going to not take them in order to get more accurate assessments of the drugs, both because ow and because pain begets pain.
  • Taking treatments as needed + regression to the mean = overestimate of efficacy.
  • Pain is affected by a lot of non drug things: sleep, stress, temperature, how ambitious I got with food, amount of talking, number of times cat stepped on my face in the night, etc.
  • We are hoping some of these drugs will work by disrupting negative feedback loops (e.g. pain -> muscle tension -> pain), which means the effect could last days past when I take in.  In the particular case of doxepin it might have semi-permanent effects.
  • Or I could develop a tolerance to a drug and my response to a particular drug will attenuate.  That is in fact one reason I was given so many choices as to medication: to let me rotate them.
  • We have no idea how these drugs will interact with each other in me.  We barely have an idea how the interact in people in general.
  • If I believe something will help my pain will lessen as soon as I take it, long before it could actually be effective.  Not because I’m irrational, but because my brain reinforces the self-care with endorphins, which lessen pain.
  • At the same time, having more pain than I expected to feels worse than the exact same pain level if it was anticipated.
  • Side effects: also a thing.

“I think I feel better when I take this one” was not going to cut it.

Then there was the question of how to measure pain.  Ignoring the inherent subjectivity of pain, neuralgia is a weird beast.  I already hate the 1-10 pain scale because pain has threshold effects and is exponential.  I could create a single pain number at the end of the day, but my pain is not constant: it spikes and recedes, sometimes for reasons, sometimes not.  What I would ideally like to track is area under the curve of pain**, but that requires polling, which would create horrible observer effects.  If I ask myself if I’m in pain every 15 minutes, I will increase my total pain level.  I could poll less often, but the spikes are random and short enough that this was not going to be accurate enough to evaluate the treatments.  I could count pain spikes, but that ignores duration.  Determining duration requires polling, so we’re back where we started.  I could deliberately poke a sore spot and see how bad the resulting pain is, but

  1. Ow
  2. A treatment that doesn’t affect sensitivity but does keep me from spontaneously feeling pain because the nerve is bored is a success.  If we wanted me to be numb we would do that.

It’s just really hard to measure something when your goal is for it to be unnoticeable, and measuring it creates it.

So I came at it from the other side.  What happens when pain is unnoticeable?  I enjoy life more and I get more things done.  Could I measure that?  Probably.  They have the bonus of being what I actually care about- if something left me technically in pain but it no longer affected my ability to enjoy or accomplish things, that would be a huge success.  If something took away the pain but left me miserable or asleep, it is not solving my actual problem.**

So one metric is “how much I get done in a day”.  Initially this will be the first number between 1 and 10 that I think of when I ask the question at the end of the day, but I’m hoping to develop a more rigorous metric later.  You’d think enjoyment of life couldn’t ever be rigorously measured, since it’s so heavily influenced by what is available to me in a given day, but I say that brave men can make it so.  And so I introduce to you: the kitten pain scale.  Kitten videos vary a little in quality, but I think my enjoyment of any single video reflects my internal state more than it does the video. Three times a day (shortly after waking up, shortly before screen bed time, and sometime mid-day that can vary with my schedule but must be selected ahead of time to avoid biasing the data), I will watch a cute kittens video and record how much I enjoy it.  The less pain I am in the more I should enjoy the video.  This will give me a (relatively) standardized measure of pain without risking inducing it.

This is still not what you would call a rigorous study.  An individual choosing what to take among known options never will be.  But I seriously think the kitten pain scale could be a contender to replace the stupid frowny faces.  My first draft is available here.  Right now it’s set to measure over the course of a day, because that’s the scale I expect from these meds, but you can add bonus measurements at set times after taking meds if you like.

Possible additions: cups of tea drunk in day.  Right now that seems like too much work to measure, but when tea is available it’s a pretty good indicator of how much pain I’m in.

*I am still angry that I know what that is, much refer to one using possessive case.  But given that, I am extremely grateful I live within biking distance of a world class research facility in the discipline.  Even if the physical facility could be a case study in how economic insulation leads to bad user experience.

**This is why none of my treatment options are opioids.  Strong ones technically reduce pain, but they also leave me miserable.  The fact that some people take them for fun is all the proof of human variability I could ever need.

Problems in need of generalizable solutions

What to do if you have some intrinsic motivation but not enough?

Sometimes I spontaneously feel like exercising.  Sometimes I don’t, but I prod myself a bit and am really glad I did.  Sometimes I prod myself a bit and am not glad I did.  Sometimes I didn’t want to be because of important but subconscious reasons, and doing the Healthy Thing makes me feel actively worse.  I worry that every time I push without getting a reward at the end I’m making myself ultimately worse off by eroding my intrinsic motivation.  That worry is itself a negative reinforcement that makes the outcome more likely.  If someone could send me a general solution that works for regular exercise, physical therapy exercise, cooking, eating well, cleaning, work, and extroverting I would super appreciate it.

What to do with an initial burst of enthusiasm?

I assume we’ve all had the experience of getting an initial burst of enthusiasm for something (e.g. clean all the things), only to overdo it and burn out.  Then we are sad, because our hopes have been dashed.  I assume many of us have learned from this to scale back our initial efforts and channel that enthusiasm into long term sustainable action, only to discover the enthusiasm has an expiration date either way, so now our hopes are dashed *and* we had the unpleasant feeling of bridling ourselves *and* we accomplished strictly less than we would have if we’d run with the initial enthusiasm.  Is there a third way that would let me accomplish all the things without every feeling burnt out or overextended several of the things with a minimal amount of overextension or artificially holding myself back?

Reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last

This has been a hard year, and I thought it would be done by now, but it’s not.  Objectively I’m in a much better state than I was in June, but I got really bad news at the surgeon’s yesterday.  I’m not dying, it’s fixable, but my new projections fr when it is fixed are much worse than my old projections and that feels terrible.

One good thing about this year is that my observer-self has gotten much stronger, especially when measured in real time.  This translates to being more aware and more able to acknowledge outside events and how I feel about them.  I would like to do more of this in the coming year.

This isn’t a New Years Resolution so much as the type of experiment I try all the time, and now happens to be New Years.  But: I’ve had trouble getting to sleep.  Could be pain, could be low exertion during the day, could be screen usage (h/t: Iodine).  I don’t find a study of 12 that had people read for 4 hours before bed particularly compelling, nor do I consider a 10 minute delay in sleep statistically significant, but…  I’m going to try no screens after midnight.  Even if the blue light effect is bullshit, I think there’s a good chance limiting myself to a few modes of entertainment, as opposed to infinite and instantaneous variety, will lead to more thoughtfulness and more sleep. If it goes well I may push the deadline up or put a cap on total screen time.

Complication: I’m not sure reading counts as a calming activity if you read things like The Child Catchers and The New Jim Crow.  I have trouble finding books that are both interesting and calming.  That may also be a thing to work on.