Design 2

by radimentary

This is part 14 of 30 of Hammertime. Click here for the intro.

I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.

Rationalists drone on and on about how our fake our models are, how we gesture at and point to deep inarticulate truths, and – to shoulder some of the blame – the importance of circumambulating the truth rather than honing in on it directly. We spend all too much time insisting we’re fingers pointing at the moon.

Hammertime says: Fuck the moon.

There are trillions of indistinguishable giant space rocks floating around in the universe. But a human finger contains a trillion copies of the source code for the most power intelligence to walk the known universe. If I had to choose, I’d rather spend my days studying fingers than moons, and it’s not even close.

Hammertime is a set of fingers pointing at the moon. Occasionally, it may prove useful to sit back, cross your eyes, and look for the moon: that grand overarching cognitive strategy behind these techniques. But if you miss the moon, fingers are awesome too. So don’t worry. Relax. Just do exactly as I say.

Day 14: Design

Previously: Day 4.

Design is the practice of seeing all the tiny incentive gradients in the environment, and shifting them in your favor. Last time, we took environment to mean physical space, but Design principles apply across domains.

Today I will apply Design principles to the design of Schedules, Social Groups, and Screen Space. As budding self-help guru I dub these (together with Space) the Four S’s of Design.

Keep in mind the three principles of Design:

  1. Intentionality: notice all the knobs you can turn. Turn them the way you intend.
  2. Amortization: pay up-front costs to save attention in the long run.
  3. Reflexive Towel Theory: the aesthetics of your environment determine your self-image.


I am no expert on using calendars; this section is about the basics.

What’s the single most important incentive gradient to fix about a calendar? The incentive to use it at all.

Knowing where you’ll be, what you’ll be doing, how much of your project will be done days, weeks, and months in advance is great. Unbelievably great. It would seem as if the incentives are already there. So why don’t people plan everything all the time?

Everyone has different aversions, but I think the biggest one against calendars is categorizing them as productivity tools. My emotions when I first started filling in tasks on the page were those of an unwilling serf hauling his fall harvest to the landowner. That despot wanted my time, all of it, to grind into “productivity.” He would give me nothing in return.

Open your calendar now. It is just a tool. Whatever it is that you really want, it’s here to help you achieve it. If you truly want to produce productivity, block that off on your calendar. But if you want to binge-watch Death Note this weekend, block that off. If you want guilt-free evenings to lay in bed and cry, block those off too. And treat your calendar reminders as the gentle urging of a well-meaning friend.

Never let your calendar become your tyrant.

Exercise: set a Yoda Timer to plan as densely and as far into the future as you can.

Social Groups

Jordan Peterson likes to say that in the evolution of homo sapiens, the Nature that selects in natural selection is three parts natural environment and seven parts other human beings. For the last million years, social, and especially sexual, pressures far outweighed the pressures of survival. The social environment is for us as unchanging and unyielding as the Antarctic winter, and it’s hidden incentive slopes have been shaping our lives since millions of years before we were born.

You have the power to shape your social incentives. Reinforcement learning is the primary mechanism by which human beings learn, and we receive so much of our feedback from the social environment, so engineering your social feedback loops is vitally important.

Rule Three in Twelve Rules for Life is: make friends with people who want the best for you. Not everyone shares your values. Not everyone who does can recognize your progress. Not everyone who recognizes knows how to reward. Make friends who reward you for your virtues and punish you for your vices. Ask your friends to hold you accountable, and receive feedback warmly.

Nothing heals the soul like a good smacking from a close friend.

Exercise: set a Yoda Timer to engineer your social environment. Perhaps you want to install a TAP for thanking people for good advice. Perhaps you can teach by example and praise the good you see in people. Perhaps you need to show people you can take criticism. Perhaps you simply need more and better friends.

Screen Space

A mathematician is bound to make a fool of himself teaching macros and keyboard shortcuts to an audience of mostly programmers, but every so often I run into the odd Windows programmer who doesn’t use AdBlock. This post is for you.

I have two general principles for the Design of my experience on the computer.

First, never do with a mouse what you can accomplish more efficiently with a keyboard. There are keyboard shortcuts for everything. Set a Yoda Timer in Chrome by typing “Ctrl-T timer 5 minutes.” Archive selected emails with the e key. Jump back to Today in Calendar with the t key. Did I mentioned vim?

Second, build gentle incentive slopes. Remove Netflix from your bookmarks to push it one more click away. Set your LaTeX editor to run on startup to make it slightly easier to start writing your next paper. Take full advantage of the taskbar to visibly place the applications you value most.

Things you didn’t know you needed: LyX, vim, AdBlock, HoverZoom, RES, RSS Reader, EXTRA MONITORS.

Exercise: set a Yoda Timer to optimize your Screen Space. Keyboard shortcuts you’d like to practice. Aliases you need to set. Icons you’d like to move around. Look for and eradicate all repetitive actions. There’s a little thing called a computer designed to do that for you.

Daily Challenge

Contribute your vastly superior knowledge of computers to the Design of Screen Space.