The fundamental question I want to answer is: is reality better than fantasy? There are certainly times and places where fantasy is superior to real life. The real question is something like: how does one live in such a way that real life is better than fantasy?
The essential quality of reality is that reality is high resolution. I game on a 4k monitor and a GTX 1070, but video quality only goes so far towards what I mean by high resolution. In the end, you still have only one health bar, two companions, four dialogue options, eight playable classes, sixteen possible hairstyles.
If you want to live real life better than the best video game, you need to take full advantage of the high resolution of life. Real cars have more amazing gears, pistons, and fluids than any fantasy CyberPunk steam-helicopter. Real decisions have many more branching paths than any visual novel. Real people have much more personality than any anime girl.
All this is no use when people round off the details of life into story mode to make it easier to digest and interact with. But the details are everything! If you round them off, you destroy the principal advantage of life at the outset.
If you think the only options when you disagree with your partner are to stay silent or fight, your relationship is doomed. If you think depression is the same as anxiety is the same as being sad, then you’ll just keep trying that thing that worked that one time you were sad, and it won’t work again.
So, I will take a microscope to my life and take a single example all the way down to the atom. Although some of the specific details below may be interesting in themselves, pay attention to the spirit of the exercise: take a problem and dissect it as far as your imagination will allow.
We’ll construct a high-resolution picture of a big fuzzy mental problem – procrastination – and then to construct high-resolution micro-habits to beat it. There was (at least one) great LessWrong article aiming to do the exact same thing – I will give a description of three facets (think high-dimensional polytope) that are mostly orthogonal to the “Procrastination Equation” described there.
My brain hated context switches. As a child, my mother said it was impossible to drag me out of the house to go running, and then impossible to drag me back once we got started. Almost invariably, the hardest part of getting things done is getting started for five seconds. Even in Starcraft, a game built around multitasking, I’ve been practically incapable of increasing my APM, relying instead on macro and A-move to minimize context switches. Why does my brain hate context switches so much?
I used to speak one language at home and another at school, so I learned to be efficient with context switching. I speak Chinese automatically to one category of people (older Chinese people), and English automatically to everyone else. To this day, it takes three times as much mental effort to speak Chinese to my wife (the English category) than it does to my parents. And it wasn’t just language. I read books in both languages, I spoke to completely different sorts of people in them, I daydreamed about different things. And I developed two sets of aesthetics. In Chinese, I was romantic, I believed in honor, loyalty, and sacrifice. In English, I was cynical and intellectual, I believed in liberty and equality. Over the years I learned that context switching was more like rebooting the whole computer into a different OS, something costly to do twice a day and not more. Try writing an OS which needs to reboot every time you thread switch, and you’ll quickly learn the same lesson.
The other big factor I’ve written about before is accelerating returns: many activities get better as you get into them over a continuous session. This amounts to the power of caching. Everyone knows that tiny changes in how you write and compile code can improve execution time immensely by reducing cache misses. Thread-switching too frequently can be costly and slow down the whole system. The problem is even worse for the brain with its finicky and unreliable hard drive. You return to that book you put down yesterday, who the fuck are Stiva, Oblonsky, and Stepan Arkadyich?
So now I have a high-resolution picture of why my brain hates context switches, and we’re ready to actually figure out interventions that treat the illness instead of just the symptoms.
The first order of business to integrate my personalities together. There is no reason that I need a separate ethics and aesthetics for each language that I speak. Integrating high-level systems reduces the actual and perceived cost of context switching. To an extent I’m already working on this – many of my recent writings are a direct result of translating certain poetic ideas from Chinese to English. At some point I will describe the heights of romance achieved by Chinese writers that have no equal in Western fiction. I imagine there are a lot more burdensome “local personalities” I’ve built for specific interactions that I will want to integrate together for better efficiency.
The second order of business is to do targeted training of context switching. The main goal is to update my gut – context switching is not nearly as costly as my gut expects it to be, and if I just do it enough in isolation, my gut will update. Scheduling has been immensely useful for this, creating regular intervals where I am at least reminded to change what I’m currently doing.
There’s a classic mental trick that goes a long way towards solving the aversion to context switching: tell yourself to just start something for 5 seconds and give up if it still feels hard.
The Amorphous Chaos
Context switching alone doesn’t account for the enormous anxiety I get about doing certain things. There’s something Jordan Peterson calls “chaos,” which is essentially the unknown unknown beyond your comfort zone (“order”). Chaos is the stuff that fills the shadows behind creaking wooden furniture. Chaos is the Cthulhu you meet when the lights flicker off and the door slams shut behind you. It is no accident that the monsters of mythology are amalgamations of two or more scary things, every fucking time. That’s your imagination filling in the chaos with everything that could possibly go wrong.
There is a very clear gradation between order and chaos, and it directly predicts how much anxiety I am in. If I take my normal walk to my office, but instead walk just one street over, everything is different and new. I look around continually for recognizable landmarks like the top of the Hoover tower. The oncoming bikers seem more menacing. Every so often I have the urge to pull out my phone and check Google Maps, even though I know I’m just a thousand feet away from the same old path I walk every day. These anxieties amplify the farther away I go, the stranger the time of day. Chaos is the place where you have to actually look at things and people to figure out what they are, instead of automatically mentally replacing them with simplifying stereotypes.
Chaos isn’t just the gradation between physical locations you have and haven’t been. When it comes to procrastination, chaos is the looming, amorphous chasm between who you are and what you could be. Have you ever wondered how they ever built that long wooden bridge between two far-away cliffs? Chaos is the space between those cliffs – it’s as if the only way to build the bridge is to will it into existence all at once. Chaos is the irreducible complexity that’s the enemy of incremental progress.
There’s a Bayesian saying: “probability is in the mind.” Chaos is the bigger badder brother of probability, but chaos is also in the mind. Reality is high-resolution and oddly susceptible to incremental progress.
The key to beating the amorphous chaos is to outline. If you’re working on a year-long project, break it into 5 phases, and each of those into 5 more, and so on until the first thing that you have to do is so easy you get up and just do it right now. For this post, I wrote down all the headings before I got started. Then, I wrote an introduction to specify the frame of mind I wanted to be in. The rest of it fell into place immediately.
Jordan Peterson says Satan is an intellectual figure, and this idea has fermented in my imagination. Satan is the cynical and nihilistic intellectual whose thesis is “things are so bad they do not deserve to exist.” For the most articulate manifestation of this, look no further than Ivan Karamazov:
“Here is another scene that I thought very
interesting. Imagine a trembling mother with her baby in her
arms, a circle of invading Turks around her. They’ve planned
a diversion: they pet the baby, laugh to make it laugh. They
succeed, the baby laughs. At that moment a Turk points a pistol
four inches from the baby’s face. The baby laughs with glee,
holds out its little hands to the pistol, and he pulls the trigger in
the baby’s face and blows out its brains. Artistic, wasn’t it? By
the way, Turks are particularly fond of sweet things, they say.”
“Brother, what are you driving at?” asked Alyosha.
“I think if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he
has created him in his own image and likeness.”
I would propose an embellishment of the figure of Satan as the nihilistic intellectual: Satan as the critic. One of the (many) disturbing things I have noticed about my high school curriculum is that English classes are factories for creating critics out of artists. At least in my experience, we wrote short stories, poems, and other free form essays in elementary and middle school, but turned exclusively to the analytical essay by the time high school rolled around.
How frightening is that? Take a generation of teenagers, present them with the greatest literature of our civilization. Then, instead of teaching them to do the obvious thing – imitate – we teach them to analyze – the derivative work of a critic. The work of Satan: the intellectual whose ability to criticize far exceeds his ability to create. And so we find that the best students to come out of our high schools are created in the image of Satan. For every one budding novelist, we have a dozen teenage journalists, lawyers, and activists.
Satan is the voice in your ear who says, “You will never do this well enough for it to be worth doing.” This is the burrowing anxiety that puts me off writing for weeks at at time, the anxiety that anything I produce will not justify its own existence. The subroutine in your head constantly constructing impossibly high standards and handing them to you to use as excuses to do nothing. Satan is characterized by inaction, the inaction caused by paralyzing perfectionism.
Shut Satan down. There are very few things in life not worth doing, if you do them properly and humbly. Making my bed every day has changed my whole worldview. Starting conversations with old friends has proved almost unbelievably positive and fruitful.
The antidote to Satan is wholesomeness – the quality of being low-class and not bragworthy but fulfilling to the soul. This is my favorite wholesome song to ward off that dread spirit.