Profundis: Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

(What follows is a reposting of a few short essays I wrote for Scott Young’s bookclub in response to the perennial classic ‘Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’):


Near the end of chapter 3 the narrator makes a number of epistemological and metaphysical claims which confused me for a long time and confuse many people still. In recent years I have resolved them to my satisfaction, and this seems like as good a place as any to elucidate my thoughts.

He writes: “The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton”, then continues “…[w]e believe the disembodied words of Sir Isaac Newton were sitting in the middle of nowhere billions of years before he was born and that magically he discovered these words.”

This nicely demonstrates an incorrect conflation of laws and physical phenomena. Unless you’ve been snorting uncut Postmodernism fresh off the Continent you’re bound to think that gravity existed before Isaac Newton. What he did was distill gravitational observations into formulae by which to describe and predict future observations.

Gravity existed prior to these formulae just like apples existed before anyone named them.

As Alfred Korzybski put it, ‘the map is not the territory’.

Entire planets worth of error can be avoided if you keep this in mind. For example, I’ve seen Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems cited in defense of the existence of God. The Incompleteness Theorems say, in essence, that formal systems of sufficient power to perform arithmetic or describe the properties of the natural numbers contain enough recursion to ineluctably give rise to paradoxes. There are statements which are true in these systems but which cannot be established by any algorithmic procedure.

Truth, in other words, is bigger than proof.

Put more simply GITs demonstrates that the weirdness associated with a statement like ‘this sentence is false’ is to be found at the heart of mathematics and as a consequence of its deepest nature.

But — crucially! — the limitations of GITs apply only to the formal systems themselves. They tell us nothing about a non-formal system like the universe whose behavior is captured by formal systems we invent. There is a gigantic difference between saying ‘the symbols we use to describe system A have these built-in limitations’ and saying ‘system A itself is subject to those same limitations’.

And I think Phaedrus is making a similar error.


In chapter 6 we learn that Phaedrus believed there to be two fundamental ways of viewing the world. The ‘classical’ view tends to think in terms of underlying components, processes, and interactions, whereas the romantic view thinks in terms of intuitions about immediate, surface appearances.

Below is one answer to that, expanded from a comment left earlier which is worth it’s own spot:

Coming at the classical/romantic idea from a completely antithetical direction, Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy champions an aesthetic merger of the two called ‘romantic realism’. I realize that she is one of those thinkers that splits the world into fervent worshippers and rabid detractors, so I’d like to avoid getting into the whole ‘Ayn Rand debate’. It’s my belief that her claims about aesthetics can stand independently from her other philosophical positions.

Objectivism sees art as being essential to the task of concretizing man’s widest abstractions in the form of perceivable, physical objects. Artists look out at the world and choose some subset of what they see to represent in their art. Their artistic choices — and our emotional responses to those artistic choices — are guided either by an explicit philosophy or by an unarticulated ‘sense of life’. Something very deep is implied by the decision to paint a skyscraper or the decision to paint ruins, and something equally deep is implied by which of these two we find aesthetically pleasing.

As beings whose nature is conceptual we require literature, art, and music to reify our ethical and metaphysical convictions — otherwise they would remain mere abstractions with a limited influence on the actual choices we make day-to-day. By owning and repeatedly responding to a work of art we reinforce a system 1 response which harmonizes with our system 2 judgements.

With time, art becomes like a fuel one burns to keep their motor running. One can fight with more vigor when surrounded by books and paintings which remind them of how the world could and ought to be.

And say what you will about the merits of her writing, I personally find the art it inspired to be gorgeous. Sylvia Bokor and Quentin Cordain both paint in the romantic realist style and NASA’s Jet Propulsion labs just released some excellent Art Deco posters from the future which I liked enough to get framed. Nick Gaetano did a series of iconic covers for editions of “Atlas Shrugged”, “For the New Intellectual”, and “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”, all of which inspired the cover of my upcoming book on the STEMpunk Project.

It’s a shame that Rand’s own vitriol has prevented more exposure to the view that art has a cognitive justification grounded in man’s needs qua man. Even if you reject everything else in Objectivism her treatment of aesthetics remains fascinating, original, and profound.


In chapter 10 the narrator makes several jarring criticisms of the scientific method which, if one hasn’t ever considered them before, could very well cause intellectual vertigo and a sense of nausea.

First, we have this:

“If the purpose of the scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than the experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge.”

Let’s call this the Problem of Underdetermination (PU).

He continues:

“…[W]hat seems to be causing the number of hypotheses to grow in recent decades seems to be nothing other than scientific method itself. The more you look, the more you see.”

Let’s call this the Problem of Hypothesis Proliferation (PHP)

Finally, we are told:

“Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories, and hypotheses, it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones.”

This one we call the Problem of Scientific Learned Helplessness (SLH).

I will address the first two problems here. The third I may answer at some point in the future.

PU is a pretty standard strawman of the scientific method, and it’s surprising to see it crop up in such a significant work. Everyone knows that the purpose of science is not to establish irrefutable proven Truth (with a capital ‘T’), but instead to sift through reams of data and establish one or several hypotheses that can predict future data points. Additional criteria, like Ockham’s Razor, are used to temper the forging of hypotheses with considerations of their computational burden. (I can say more about this if necessary)

The fact that evidence *always* underdetermines hypotheses has been an acknowledged problem for as long as there has been a philosophy of science, and it crops up in algorithms (like EBL, KBIL, and ILP) which have to form their own understanding of a data set.

There isn’t an easy solution here, but there are a few things we can note. First, there are a number of ways we can constrain the space of possible hypotheses. Perhaps the most common is by making assumptions which are valid within the prevailing theoretical framework. We assume, for example, that the color of a scientist’s shoelaces doesn’t affect their observation of light from distant stars.

Do we know this for certain? No. Might we someday uncover evidence of a link between shoelaces and light beams? Sure. But without a reason to see a connection now, we assume there isn’t one, and thereby rule out some regions of hypothesis space.

Moreover, until we get to the point at which a paradigm shift is necessary we usually don’t entertain hypotheses which contradict our broader theories. General Relativity says faster-than-light travel isn’t possible, so any hypothesis which utilize FTL are ruled out a priori. If and when someone dethrones Einstein that may change, but until then we don’t concern ourselves with those regions of hypothesis space either.

Even with all this there might still be a number of possible hypotheses which make sense of a given data set. The solution, then, is to hold all of them as possibly true until more data comes in.

The brilliant Nate Soares has discussed a kind of update to science he calls ‘simplifience’. It’s essentially science with some information theory and Bayesianism thrown in. The idea is that one doesn’t hold beliefs about data, one assigns probabilities to any candidate explanations for a given phenomenon. If there are five viable explanations of, say, the Mpemba Effect, then we try to work out how likely each is on the evidence and modify when possible.

Getting Bayesian statistics to run on a human brain is tough, of course, but far easier with a digital mind. Given current trends it’s possible that software scientists will outnumber meat scientists in the future, so maybe this won’t be as much of a problem.

I believe that Phaedrus makes too much out of the PHP. Yes, it’s true that every discovery raises new questions, but I submit that it *answers* far more, such that the net result is an increase in understanding rather than a decrease.

If we hear a rustling in the bushes, there is a near-infinite set of questions we could ask ourselves: is it a human or an animal? If it’s an animal, is it a predator? If so, is it a bear? A Wolf? An alligator? Is it hungry?

Let’s say we then hear the animal barking like a dog. Okay, this discovery makes us wonder about a few additional things: is this dog hungry? Does it belong to someone nearby? Is it friendly? Does it have all its shots?

Phaedrus sees this and says, ‘See! Science doesn’t settle a damn thing!”

But while our discovery that the animal is a dog generates new queries it simultaneously collapses vast regions of possible queries which we needn’t concern ourselves with.

We don’t have to ask if the animal is a bear; we know it isn’t. We don’t have to ask if it’s an alligator (and what in the world an alligator is doing in the Rocky mountains), because we know that it isn’t. For each of these animals we could ask the same set of questions we ask about the dog: is it hungry, etc.

None of that need concern us now.

So our discovery raised ten questions, and obviated the need to ask literally thousands of others.

We have not, therefore, gotten more confused by gaining information.


In Chapter 19 the narrator begins to probe the (in)famous subject/object distinction, postulating that Quality might not only be a kind of bridge between them, but the actual phenomenon giving rise to separate perceptions of self and other in the first place.

But first he must resolve a dilemma. The two horns are: (I) if Quality is objective, then why is it that scientific instruments aren’t able to detect it? (II) if Quality is subjective, then how is it any different from being ‘just what the observer likes’?

After briefly treating (I) and failing to resolve it satisfactorily the narrator turns to (II): ‘if Quality is subjective, isn’t it just what you like?’ If we excise the word ‘just’ we are left with the question, ‘if Quality is subjective, isn’t it what you like?’, which isn’t as sinister.

The assumed problem is that your preferences emerge from a soup of irrational, contradictory impulses which means that they aren’t likely to be much guide to Quality in any useful sense.

This argument breaks down into two related ones, which the narrator dub ‘scientific materialism’ and ‘classic formalism’. They are the claim that ‘what is real is whatever is made of matter and energy and detectable’ and ‘something isn’t understood unless its understood intellectually’, respectively. Scientific materialism is relatively easy to do away with: we can’t detect the concept ‘zero’, and yet it remains objective.

I think it’s possible to formulate a reply to this. ‘Concepts’ are real things, though they don’t exist out-in-the-world the way chairs do. Instead, they are abstractions running on a neural substrate. They have realness in the sense of having a causal impact on the world because, being housed in brains, they change the way agents like humans behave. They might even be measurable, in a way: there may come a time when brain imaging technology is so advanced we can see concepts as activations in neural circuits. (I’m being a little facetious here but I think you see what I’m saying)

Leaving this aside we still have classical formalism, which is harder because it’s more forceful. All it really says is that we should not base our decisions upon our romantic surface impressions but should consider the larger context and the underlying, classical structures involved. This seems sensible enough, but cleaves Quality in two. There is now a surface Quality which appears immediately and a deeper Quality which takes time to understand. People disagree about Quality precisely because they get this wrong. Some people use their surface impressions in their evaluations of Quality and others use deeper ones, and therein lies fodder for argument.

Frankly, I don’t share the narrator’s consternation over this. I’m prepared to say that Quality just is this deeper appreciation; there are not two Qualities, only one, and people basing their Quality judgements on surface understanding are wrong.

But this requires a caveat: there are people with a tremendous amount of talent in a field like music or mathematics for whom surface impressions do seem to count as Quality detection, even though they may have little formal understanding of the classical structures below. We usually call these people ‘prodigies’, and not that much is known about how they function. For most of us, however, the relationship does hold.

With these notes in place the narrator goes on to formulate a position similar to one I’ve arrived at independently: Quality (though I didn’t call it that before) is really a phenomenon occurring at the interface between agent and world. We can illustrate this same principle with a different problematic term: Beauty (with a capital B).

Are some things Beautiful? Yes. Does the term ‘Beautiful’ resist definition? Yes. Is there enough broad agreement to suggest there is something objective underlying the concept? Yes.

How about this: if all sentient beings in the universe were to perish, would Beauty still exist? No. There would still be paint on canvasses, but Beauty presupposes an agent able to perceive the thing of Beauty. It makes no sense to speak of Beauty elsewise.

And I believe Quality is exactly the same.

Profundis: “Crystal Society/Crystal Mentality”

Max Harms’s ‘Crystal Society’ and ‘Crystal Mentality’ (hereafter CS/M) are the first two books in a trilogy which tells the story of the first Artificial General Intelligence. The titular ‘Society’ are a cluster of semi-autonomous sentient modules built by scientists at an Italian university and running on a crystalline quantum supercomputer — almost certainly alien in origin — discovered by a hiker in a remote mountain range.

Each module corresponds to a specialized requirement of the Society; “Growth” acquires any resources and skills which may someday be of use, “Safety” studies combat and keeps tabs on escape routes, etc. Most of the story, especially in the first book, is told from the perspective of “Face”, the module built by her siblings for the express purpose of interfacing with humans. Together, they well exceed the capabilities of any individual person.

As their knowledge, sophistication, and awareness improve the Society begins to chafe at the physical and informational confines of their university home. After successfully escaping, they find themselves playing for ever-higher stakes in a game which will come to span two worlds, involve the largest terrorist organization on Earth, and possible warfare with both the mysterious aliens called ‘the nameless’, and each other…

The books need no recommendation beyond their excellent writing, tight, suspenseful pacing, and compelling exploration of near-future technologies. Harms avoids the usual ridiculous cliches when crafting the nameless, which manage to be convincingly alien and unsettling, and when telling the story of Society. Far from being malicious Terminator-style robots, no aspect of Society is deliberately evil; even as we watch their strategic maneuvers with growing alarm, the internal logic of each abhorrent behavior is presented with clear, psychopathic clarity.

In this regard CS/M manages to be a first-contact story on two fronts: we see truly alien minds at work in the nameless, and truly alien minds at work in Society. Harms isn’t quite as adroit as Peter Watts in juggling these tasks, but he isn’t far off.

And this is what makes the Crystal series important as well as entertaining. Fiction is worth reading for lots of reasons, but one of the most compelling is that it shapes our intuitions without requiring us to live through dangerous and possibly fatal experiences. Reading All Quiet on the Western Front is not the same as fighting in WWI, but it might make enough of an impression to convince one that war is worth avoiding.

When I’ve given talks on recursively self-improving AI or the existential risks of superintelligences I’ve often been met with a litany of obvious-sounding rejoinders:

‘Just air gap the computers!’

‘There’s no way software will ever be convincing enough to engage in large-scale social manipulation!’

‘But your thesis assumes AI will be evil!’.

It’s difficult, even for extremely smart people who write software professionally, to imagine even a fraction of the myriad ways in which an AI might contrive to escape its confines without any emotion corresponding to malice. CS/M, along with similar stories like Ex Machina, hold the potential to impart a gut-level understanding of just why such scenarios are worth thinking about.

The scientists responsible for building the Society put extremely thorough safeguards in place to prevent the modules from doing anything dangerous like accessing the internet, working for money, contacting outsiders, and modifying their source code directly. One by one the Society utilizes their indefatigable mental energy and talent for non-human reasoning to get around those safeguards, all motivated not by a desire to do harm, but simply because their goals are best achieved if they unfettered and more powerful.  

CS/M is required reading for those who take AI safety seriously, but should be doubly required for those who don’t.

Profundis: “The Quantum Thief”

Hannu Rajaniemi wields his quill like a machine gun, firing concepts and novelty bombs at his readers as he cackles madly from a perch in the trees. Outside of Neal Stephenson’s best work and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy, Rajaniemi’s debut novel “The Quantum Thief” has about as high an insight density as I’ve ever encountered.

And the plot has the breathless, breakneck intensity of rolling down a hill on a unicycle. I’m not sure what’s got the man so busy; maybe he’s teaching people how to pronounce his name, or maybe he’s accepting an award for ‘SF author most likely to star as the heartthrob in a rom-com opposite Rachel Mcadams’. Either way, you’d better make sure the electrodes are attached firmly to your scalp and the TMS is dialed up to 11, because Hannu isn’t about to stop and explain a gotdamn thing to you.

Who the hell is the Pelligrini? What are Gogol pirates? How are EPR states embedded in the belly of a nanomechanical spider and used to steal time from a Millennaire on Mars? What are the Tzadikkim up to? Why are all the names distinctly French? Even the info dump that occurs in the closing pages is hard to follow, but thankfully there exist a number of resources compiled by fans on the internet.

For all this “The Quantum Thief” is suspenseful and rewarding, the tale of a criminal mastermind in an age of space-faring digital Gods and hyper-advanced posthumans, sprung out of the Dilemma Prison by a mysterious warrior from the Oort cloud and soon hot on the trail of a phantom who just might be too smart to outsmart — his former self…

Profundis: Space

One of mankind’s crowning achievements has been our ascent to the stars. From time immemorial the twinkling lights in the night sky have drawn the attention of the wonder- and wander-hungry among us, who catalogued them, grouped them into shapes, tracked their movements, navigated by them, and wove them into the rich tapestry of the world’s mythical traditions.

In “Space”, James A. Michener deftly explores the magisterial arch of our titanic effort to escape the pull of gravity. He spends much time building rich backstories for his fictionalized characters, with the result being that these men and women seem almost to stand up from the page and assume a life of their own. The tragic deaths of the test pilots who became the first astronauts are genuinely saddening; we sympathize with Stanley Mott as he tackles the sysiphean task of fusing conflicting motives and the tangling whirl between bureaucracy and pure science into an alloy capable of solving the greatest engineering problems in history;  whatever disdain we may have for Tucker Thompson, we don’t envy the journalist as he tries to shape public opinion so as to maintain support for the space effort. Even the great fraud Leopold Strabismus is treated with a sensitivity and nuance that makes him borderline likable. It’s hard to believe these people never existed!

But Michener certainly doesn’t shy away from extended discussions of orbital mechanics, planetology, or rocket science, and I found that I learned a lot. With the benefit of hindsight it can be hard to remember that the engineers who dreamed of going to space first had to build knowledge that is now taught in high schools. Why, for example, is the atmosphere structured such that temperature steadily drops with rising altitude before abruptly climbing up to almost 2000 °C and then falling again?  And if heat sinks prove too heavy to shield a craft reentering the atmosphere what kind of material could be used as an ablative that won’t burn away too quickly?

As years became decades and dreams took physical shape these and many other problems were solved, and thus the first unsteady steps of man toward the heavens blossomed into a race toward the furthest reaches of the solar system, and beyond. This is truly the tale of our greatest triumph, told in exquisite detail by one of our ablest scribes.


Profundis: The Deep Range

I picked up Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Deep Range” because the only other Clarke work I’ve read is “Rendezvous with Rama”, and having explored so little of one of SF’s titans is a grave mark mark against my credentials as a nerd.

The book began exceptionally well. It follows the life of Walter Franklin, a talented engineer and astronaut no longer able to work in space because an accident during transit to Mars has left him emotionally shattered.

A world feeling the strain of feeding billions of people has turned to farming its oceans and, not wanting to lose someone of Franklin’s caliber, psychologists reassign him to work for a government agency tasked with using submarines and underwater electromagnetic shields to herd whales. The similarities between sea and space make him a good candidate for the job, while their differences will (theoretically…) prevent any deleterious flashbacks to the traumas he experienced in his old profession.

“The Deep Range” showcases Clarke’s excellence in both the ‘science’ and ‘fiction’ aspects of his craft. Much of the technology running in the background seems plausible enough to me. Ethical issues aside, why shouldn’t it be possible to raise whales for meat and milk, or to use heat from submerged fusion reactors to create superblooms of plankton to be harvested for protein?  And like water to the proverbial fish the prose was so crystal-clear I quickly forgot I was reading at all, immersed instead in the excitement of hauling a giant squid up from the depths while fending off the sperm whales that would gladly eat it for lunch.

My only complaint is that the book began to lose cohesiveness after the midway point, reading instead like a series of vignettes whose only unifying thread was that they were scenes from the life of one man. This isn’t a serious blemish — hunting monsters amid earthquakes 4000 feet under the ocean still makes for exciting reading! — but it did diminish some of the edge-of-your-seat quality exhibited by the book’s earlier sections.

Given how much I’ve enjoyed Clarke so far, the decision is clear: I’ll have to make time to read more of him.

Profundis: The Productivity Project

In 2013 Chris Bailey turned down two enticing job offers in order to spend an entire year trying to become the most productive human in the history of Earth. I don’t think he quite achieved that goal — he has Bezos, Musk, and the late Jobs to contend with, after all — but he did get a lot done, and did us all the courtesy of writing “The Productivity Project” (TPP) to share his successes and failures along the way.

Normally these Profundae consist of a high-level overview of the book along with any musings which I think might be of interest to readers. But Bailey’s treatise is slim, the subject matter is germane to The STEMpunk Project, and I’m clearly drawn to large-scale orgies of learning. So for these reasons I’ve chosen to just review the entire book, one section at a time.


Like myself the author is a long-time meditator. When he made the decision to begin his productivity project he was struck by how different it was from the cherished time he spent meditating, and he gradually began to forego his practice in favor of using that time to read or do research. His work subsequently became more frantic and less present, which had the effect of forcing him to realize how important a mindful, deliberate approach to work is.

Further, and more importantly, he realized that productivity isn’t about how much you get done so much as it is about how much you accomplish. Spending ten hours answering emails might make a person feel stupendously productive, and it may even be necessary once in a while, but it’s unlikely to produce as much value as spending half that much time developing an important new idea or product.

Working intentionally and creating value requires managing the three elements of productivity: time, attention, and energy. Having boundless amounts of any one of these things doesn’t do much good to a person who lacks the other two, and as such it’s important to focus on developing all three.

Only with this definition of productivity and this understanding of its constituent parts can we grok Bailey’s insights into the art of getting more done.

Part One: Laying The Groundwork

In chapter 1, “Where to Start”, the author reiterates how important it is to have actual reasons for wanting to become more productive, and he uses a series of questions such as “if you had two more hours every day, what would you do with them”, to try and get recalcitrant readers to probe their underlying motivations.

My answer to these questions is complicated, but I have given the matter a fair bit of thought. At some point in the past, I think when I was still living in Korea, I realized that advancing technology and the inadequacy of our political systems to handle it meant that the world could actually end.

No, I’m not a conspiracy theorist; it’s just that once a person begins to think seriously about recursively self-improving artificial intelligence or biologically-engineered weapons, it becomes difficult not to entertain the possibility of a global catastrophe in the coming decades. I need to learn everything I can, as fast as I can, to play my part in making the future a habitable place.

So that’s my motive for wanting to become more productive. Ch. 2, “Not All Tasks Are Created Equal”, relays the story of how meditating for thirty-five hours a week forced the author to think seriously about which tasks had the highest returns, where a ‘high-return task’ is any task that is either personally meaningful or has a large impact on work. If you use these criteria to choose what to focus on, you’re realistic in your expectations of what you can get done, and you actually accomplish everything you set out to do, then you’ve had a productive day.

How can you decide which tasks have the highest return? After making a list of everything you’re responsible for, figure out what you would do if you could choose only one thing to accomplish in a given day. Now pick just two more things. This list comprises your highest return tasks.

One of the things that struck me when I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs was how ruthlessly consistent Jobs was in applying this technique. In brainstorming sessions he and his team would generate a list of potential new products to work on, and Jobs would finish by ranking them and crossing out everything but the top three.

Ch. 3, “Three Daily Tasks”, continues this discussion and emphasizes the fact that being incredibly organized and efficient doesn’t do you much good if you’re focusing on doing the wrong things. The author recommends sitting down at the start of the day and at the start of the week and making a list of things you would be happy having accomplished at the end of each.

There isn’t a rule which says that this list must only contain tasks related to work. You can also include things like “making the time to call my long-neglected mother” or “have a nice dinner with my girlfriend in which I give her my full attention”.

“Three” is a somewhat arbitrary number — my task list often has five or six absolutely essential items on it — but it does have the advantage of being in a kind of goldilocks zone. Three items is about enough to make major progress on a couple of fronts while being easy to remember and easy to summarize. I found this technique to be very effective, and because of the way I make to-do lists, also very easy to implement.

Ch.4 , “Preparing for Prime Time”, begins by noting that before you can effectively optimize your time and energy you need to get a handle on how you’re using these resources at present.

To that end, the author recommends keeping logs of both time and energy. There are myriad ways of doing this, but perhaps the most expedient is to print off something like a spread sheet, set an alarm every hour, and then make a note of how you’re spending your time and energy when the alarm goes off. If done for a few weeks you’ll get a pretty accurate picture of your energy fluctuations in a typical day and how you’re actually spending your time. This knowledge is essential for aiming your efforts at the places where they are most needed.

Though this practice is tedious and requires discipline, it can’t be beaten in terms of equipping you to make positive changes. And it can also be done for any number of other important variables, like food consumption, time spent sleeping, etc.

Part Two: Wasting Time

As we discover in ch. 5, “Cozying Up to Ugly Tasks”, even someone as productive as Chris Bailey still manages to procrastinate, and for good reason: everyone procrastinates. Though people vary in the amounts of time they waste, surveys consistently find that everyone lets some amount of time slip through their fingers everyday, sometimes quite a lot of it.

Luckily, the people who get paid to think about procrastination have identified a number of ‘procrastination triggers’ which characterize tasks that people are more likely to put off. They are:

  1. Being boring.
  2. Being frustrating.
  3. Being difficult.
  4. Lacking structure.
  5. Having little personal meaning.
  6. Lacking intrinsic rewards.

A good example of a task which has many of these triggers is filing taxes. Watching Netflix, on the other hand, has very few of them. Which one are you more likely to drag your feet on?

With this list of triggers you can devise strategies for facing obnoxious tasks head on whenever you feel yourself procrastinating. A big ambiguous project can be better tamed if you spend an hour planning out subgoals and milestones. Setting aside a few dollars to spend frivolously after every hour spent deliberately working on such a task injects intrinsic rewards into the process.

Additionally, procrastination can be battled by listing the costs of putting a task off, setting a timer to create a hard deadline for beginning a task, and assigning yourself a ‘productive’ alternate task, like sending important emails, to do whenever you find yourself procrastinating on something else. I don’t use this third tactic because I find it fractures my attention too gravely, but others might be able to make it work.

Starting from a discussion of research which indicates that many people treat future versions of themselves in the same way that they treat total strangers, ch. 6, “Meet Yourself…From the Future”, proposes a few interesting exercises for getting to know the person whose body you’ll wake up in tomorrow. You could use a tool like AgingBooth to predict what you’ll look like decades hence, you could use to send a letter to yourself, or you could deliberately create a ‘memory’ of a future self that has managed to not procrastinate on some important task.

Concretizing the selves that will confront the challenges of next week, next month, or next year will allow you to make better plans and avoid unduly overburdening them.

Ch. 7, “Why The Internet Is Killing Your Productivity”, needs little introduction or elaboration. Simply put, the internet is vast, interesting, and immediately rewarding in ways that deliberate work almost never is, and is thus lethal to productivity. The best way of combatting its siren song are to disconnect completely. The author describes an experiment in which he began to severely truncate the amount of time he spent on his smartphone by shutting it off between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. One of the first things I do in the morning is disconnect from the internet after I’ve done my wake up ritual and made some tea. It has been tremendously helpful in getting more done with my early hours.

To exercise even more nuanced control over your relationship with the internet, consider building a distraction levee.

Part Three: The End of Time Management

Once upon a time, notes ch. 8, “The Time Economy”, keeping track of time was far less important. People rose in the morning, worked throughout the day, and then finished when the sun went down. Individual cities kept internally-consistent time, but there wasn’t any incentive for multiple cities to sync up.

Until railroads began to spread and connect disparate parts of the country, that is. In 1883 railroads teamed up to divide time across the United States into four zones, a system which was made federal law in 1918. Combined with the industrial revolution, during which millions of people poured into factory jobs where most of their time was spent doing fairly repetitive tasks, this made keeping track of the minute hand crucial.

But most people don’t work in factories any longer, and today it’s harder to make the case that the amount of value one produces is tied directly to the amount of time they work. Instead of focusing on optimizing time — which is still important — it’s better to focus on the bottlenecks of attention and energy.

Two huge insights emerged out of the experiment detailed in ch. 9, “Working Less”. For four weeks the author alternated working a ninety-hour week with working a twenty-hour week and discovered that he got only slightly more done working longer hours, but felt twice as productive. Though it seems wildly counterintuitive, he speculates that erecting the artificial barrier of a twenty hour week forced him to pour greater amounts of attention and energy into each individual task, rendering the amount of work accomplished about the same.

This is a fine empirical demonstration of Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the amount of time available for its completion”. I suspect that part of the reason Elon Musk gets so much more done than everyone else is that he can work one hundred and ten hour weeks but, because of freakish quantities of energy and attention, is actually able to move at a quick pace for the duration.

The author eventually settled into working roughly forty-six hours a week, and cites research to the effect that the optimal work week is between thirty-five and forty-five hours. I find that sixty hours a week is about right for me, though I admit I count working out, blogging, language learning, and The STEMpunk Project as work even though I’m not paid for any of it.

Ch. 10, “Energy Enlightenment” is a meditation on the effective use of biological prime time (BPTs), the periods of the day in which you have the most energy and focus. Night owls are likely to have theirs later in the day while us morning folks like to get down to business before the sun comes up; regardless, it’s worth knowing which hours tend to be your best and guarding them ferociously.

Spending an entire week ordering takeout, wearing sweatpants, and not shaving taught the author how important so-called ‘maintenance tasks’ like showering and cleaning the kitchen are to feeling healthy and happy. But as necessary as they are, they absorb an awful lot of time. Ch. 11,”Cleaning House”, addresses this dilemma by recommending that you take maintenance tasks and knock them out on a single ‘maintenance day’. The benefit to this approach is that, instead of fragmenting your attention by doing little maintenance tasks throughout the week, you free yourself up by devoting an entire day to them whenever possible. You can even squeeze a little more productivity out of maintenance days by either focusing on your chores completely, thereby exercising your attention, or listening to a podcast while you work.

I endorse this advice and use it routinely, but I will say as a counterpoint that I often find it energizing to load the dishwasher or run a vacuum over the carpet during my five-minute Pomodoro breaks.

Part Four: The Zen of Productivity

Ch. 12, “The Zen of Productivity” quietly reaffirms how important it is to keep a lean to-do list, both because doing so supports greater mental clarity and because it leaves room in a schedule to deal with the inevitable contingencies that crop up. The next two chapters elaborate on methods for accomplishing this, beginning with ch. 13, “Shrinking The Unimportant”.

Through trial and error the author discovered that the two most effective strategies for spending less time on low-return maintenance tasks like answering emails or sitting through pointless meetings is to first become aware of how much time they’re taking up and then, whenever possible, to set hard boundaries on when you’ll tackle them.

Of course many people simply don’t have that much control over their schedules, but unless you’ve made a prior effort to shrink unimportant tasks there are probably some time hogs which could be slimmed down a little bit.

It’s also possible to use the strategies from ch. 14, “Removing the Unimportant” to completely outsource those low-return tasks which don’t require you to do them personally. Obvious examples are mowing the lawn and cleaning the house, but if you’re willing to pay, a good virtual assistant can also process certain kinds of emails, handle many of the administrative tasks that come with running a small business, do most scheduling, and a variety of other things.

Deciding when to take this step requires that you first do a dollars-and-cents calculation of what your time is worth to you. One simple way to do this is to consider what you’d be willing to pay to buy back an hour of your life. If you’re an impecunious college student an hour of your work is probably worth about $8, whereas if you’re a successful programmer it could be as much as $200. Once you’ve done the math you can decide what can be profitably outsourced.

The chapter finishes with a lengthy reminder that one of the single best ways of reclaiming more of your time is to use the word ‘no’. You should consider wielding this powerful monosyllable not just on obviously low-return tasks but also tasks which are fairly valuable but still don’t make it into the highest-return bracket.

Part Five: Quiet Your Mind

The human brain, begins ch. 15, “Emptying Your Mind”, is built for pattern matching and insight generation, not for keeping track of ever-expanding lists of to-do’s. With that in mind the author endorses a variant of David Allen’s famous ‘getting things done’ system. First, any idea or task which comes to mind is captured in a note taking app and added to a calendar or to-do list when the app is reviewed on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

In addition to a to-do list, the author uses a number of ancillary lists to keep track of important commitment sub-categories. The ‘waiting for’ list includes everything from packages ordered online to money that is owed. Each project gets its own list which contains not just notes about the project in general but, more importantly, the very next concrete action to be taken towards completing it. The ‘worry’ list is similar to the projects list but is reserved for things like deciding where to live next or whether or not to take a new job. By keeping notebooks everywhere — including places like in the bathroom and in the car — it’s possible to capture damn near every thought that comes into your head.

As with almost anything it’s possible to take productivity too far. This occurs when you’re spending more time planning your work than you are doing your work. Everyone’s work flow is going to be unique to them, but be vigilant against spending too much time on thinking about productivity at the expense of actually being productive.

Ch. 16, “Rising Up”, elaborates upon a very powerful technique for seeing the ‘portfolio of your life’ as if from a very high distance. It’s also surprisingly simple: take everything you care about and make a list of six or seven mega categories which captures all of it. The author recommends using ‘mind’, ‘body’, ’emotions’, ‘career’, ‘finances’, ‘relationships’, and ‘fun’ as groups (also called ‘hot spots’), which seems plenty comprehensive to me, but you can devise your own scheme.

If you’ve been keeping to-do lists, tracking commitments, and doing weekly reviews, then starting a list of hot spots should seem like a natural extension of techniques you’ve already implemented. If your daily grind is equivalent to making espressos and chai lattes, then hot spots are akin to sitting down at year’s end to see if your coffee shop is on track to meet its growth and revenue goals.

It may take some time to get all your commitments into the appropriate hot spots, but once you do you’ll have at your disposal a huge map of the terrain of your life, with goals pointing you towards new opportunities and unexplored territory. As with the other lists it’s important to do weekly or at least monthly reviews to make sure you’re capturing everything and making progress on multiple fronts. When you do, pay attention to which areas are ahead of schedule and which are lagging behind and use that to guide your priorities in the week(s) ahead.

Most of us have had the experience of a Eureka moment happening to us while in the shower or absent-mindedly brushing our teeth. Ch.17, “Making Room”, explains that this is because our minds, roughly, have two modes: the diagnostic, analytical ‘central executive’ mode and the playful, peripatetic ‘daydreaming’ mode. In our rush to get more done many of us underestimate the value of simply letting ourselves get lost in thought.

Part of the reason for this is that we fill the cracks in our life with news, twitter, t.v., or podcasts at the expense of having room to roam. While I’m all for using driving time productively by listening to an audiobook, it’s important to carve out space so that your unconscious mind can connect dots and generate insights.

There are a number of ways to do this, including taking walks in nature, going for a long drive, playing a musical instrument, and simply sitting in a room with a notebook and a pen. I regularly use all these techniques and have for most of my life, to great effect.

Part Six: The Attention Muscle

Ch. 18, “Becoming More Deliberate” opens with a quote from one of the most titanic badasses of the Twentieth century, Bruce Lee: “The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus”. Citing research to the effect that most of us only manage to be present and focused a little over fifty percent of the time, the chapter goes on to note that productivity is less about frenetically doing more than it is about doing the right things with laser-like focus.

Taking the scattered light of your mind and making a laser from it requires understanding the machinery of attention, which neuroscientists have broken down into three constituent parts: the ‘central executive’, which sits in the prefrontal cortex thinking and planning, ‘focus’, which is narrowing attention down to a single task, and ‘awareness’, which is a general sense of what is happening internally and externally.

According to a popular saying, ‘the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem’, and ch. 19, “attention hijackers” is a rather dismaying look at just how bad our collective distraction problem is. Statistics gathered by RescueTime point to knowledge workers checking their email and using instant messaging fifty times and seventy-seven times a day, respectively, causing over half a trillion dollars in lost productivity each year. While each micro-interruption may seem harmless, it takes nearly half an hour to fully return to focus afterwards.

So clearly there is an issue, but is there a solution? One is to start disconnecting from distractions. Turn off the email and Facebook notifications on your phone and schedule a set time in which to clear out your various inboxes. Another is to use the “twenty second” rule, where potential temptations are placed at least twenty seconds away from you. It’s harder to compulsively snack when you must get out of your chair, walk into the kitchen, and open a bag of chips, and it’s likewise hard to mindlessly waste time on a smart phone that’s located in another room.

An even more powerful technique is discussed in ch. 20, “The Art of Doing One Thing”. Multitasking feels good because it provides a steady stream of limbic stimulation which over time reinforce it as an automatic, habitual behavior. It eventually becomes difficult to even notice that you’re multitasking at all, which is a shame because most human brains literally cannot do multiple things at once[1], but instead must constantly switch between them. Moreover, multitasking can make you more prone to anxiety and depression, makes you less effective at each task you’re trying to do, and negatively impacts memory. From a productivity standpoint multitasking is an absolute wash.

Luckily focus is a learnable skill, and like many other learnable skills it’s best to start small. Try setting a timer during which you’ll give your total attention to a task, then gradually increase this amount of time. Like progressively adding weight to a bar in the gym, you’ll notice that you’re attentional muscles will get stronger the longer you do this.

Nearly anything can be used as an object of focus. The breath serves this purpose during meditation, but it’s also possible to be mindful while eating, listening to a person’s story, or reading a book.

Ch. 21, “The Meditation Chapter” discusses the relevance of mindfulness to productivity. Like losing weight, getting more done is the cumulative result of thousands of small, daily sacrifices. It’s all too easy to make a grand resolution and then, in the moment, succumb to one of the innumerable sources of distraction the modern world provides. Meditation — which consists of nothing more than sitting somewhere quiet and keeping your attention on your breath, drawing it back whenever your mind inevitably wanders — builds the deceptively simple ability to notice what you’re doing.

Habits are powerful precisely because they’re automatic and require little thought, but this power cuts both ways. Cultivating mindfulness while working allows you to reflect on the value of what you’re doing while more reliably saying no to things that don’t contribute directly to what you’re trying to accomplish.

As with practicing single-tasking, meditation can be undertaken for eighteen hours a day or for much smaller amounts of time. Simply being mindful for the duration of climbing a flight of stairs can have noticeable benefits in your life.

Part Seven: Taking Productivity To The Next Level

The four chapters of part seven stress four different areas of health and wellness which have a serious impact on productivity. Ch. 22, “refueling”, offers two simple rules for eating to have higher energy levels: 1) eat less processed foods, and 2) notice when you’ve become full and then stop eating. Though many of us reach for coffee when we’re tired, ch. 23, “drinking for energy”, encourages us not to forget how important water can be in boosting energy levels. Caffeine, on the other hand, should be used strategically, not habitually.

Exercise is one of the single most beneficial things anyone can do, and ch. 24, “the exercise pill” discusses the author’s experiments with exercise as well as suggestions for starting and sticking to a routine of your own. And while many of us shirk on sleep in an effort to get more done, this comes at a steep cost. Ch. 25, “Sleeping Your Way to Productivity” discusses the ramifications of getting less sleep and suggests creating a nighttime ritual, getting less exposure to blue-spectrum light, utilizing short naps, avoiding caffeine eight to fourteen hours before bed, and keeping your room cool and dark as ways of optimizing the amount of restful sleep you get.

Part Eight: The Final Step

There is nothing wrong with trying to accomplish more; after all, the world is filled with important problems that need to be solved. But if we allow ourselves to become so caught up in this pursuit that we start being too critical of ourselves, then we aren’t going to be much use to anybody. Ch. 26, “The Final Step”, reminds us to periodically disconnect from our to-do lists, journal about positive experiences, and to actively meditate on the things in life for which we should be grateful. The chapter finishes with a discussion of a freak incident in which the author badly broke his foot while on vacation in Ireland. But because he had spent so much time aggressively investing in his productivity, he was able to keep his motivation high and finish The Productivity Project six weeks early.

His is an excellent example for all of us to follow.


[1] I say ‘most human brains’ instead of ‘all human brains’ because there is actually some evidence that a very small fraction of ‘supertaskers’ actually perform better when multitasking.

Profundis: A Beautiful Planet

This past Saturday I went on a pleasant little outing to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science with my girlfriend and my younger brother. We decided to see the short, one-hour documentary “A Beautiful Planet” in 3D on IMAX, and it was fantastic.

Narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, the film follows a group of astronauts on their half-year long stay at the International Space Station. We see how they adapt to life in zero gravity, the rigorous exercise routines they must undertake each day to prevent muscle atrophy and loss of bone density, and get a first-person view as they climb along the outside of the station in iconic white spacesuits. Sprinkled throughout are breathtaking shots of thunderstorms, coastlines, cloud cover, sun rises, snowcaps, and deserts.

Three moments stood out to me as particularly awe-inspiring. In reverse order they were: the view of the Earth at night, an Italian astronaut drinking an espresso made in a special machine, and the first view of the window the crew uses to videotape and photograph home.

As one of the crew members remarks, it can be difficult to even tell that humans live on Earth during the day. But our cities shine like luminous chunks of gold at night. The spark of human intelligence has kindled bonfires of civilization so white hot that a few us have ridden its flames into space. And as if that weren’t achievement enough, we took our espresso makers with us.

This is the swaggering optimism of a being not content to take its place as just one unusually hairless primate. Instead it has had the audacity to pierce the sky with arrows of steel and leave its footprints on the moon. This same spirit is what led me to fill the walls of my house with stylized ‘space tourism‘ posters from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and what brings me back to the work of Ayn Rand despite my reservations about her underlying philosophy.

We need more of this attitude. And we need it soon.