by Brian Tomasik

This page collects some random thoughts from 2018 that are too short or too unimportant to deserve their own essays.

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Finishing long projects

16 Jan. 2018

Working on a long-term project can be difficult because your initial passion for the work may fade over time. It can also be stressful to feel like you're never going to finish the task.

There's a famous quote about finishing long projects: "When eating an elephant take one bite at a time." I find this advice can sometimes be helpful. In particular, if I get stressed about how far I am from completing something, I stop thinking about completion and just enjoy biting off whatever tiny chunk I can today. (This is similar to "living in the moment" as an approach to life.) I also allow myself to take breaks from a project, as long as the breaks aren't so long that I later forget what I was doing when I pick it back up.

A possible downside with the "one bite at a time" approach is that it may cause the project to take a long time, because you're not taking shortcuts or cutting off new possible todo items in order to make sure you finish soon. Whether this is in fact a downside depends on your personality and how important the project is. I highly value the feeling of not being stressed or pressured to finish something by a fixed deadline, and I would feel less positively about my work if I tried to force myself to finish it by a given date.

Painfulness as a heuristic for unhealthiness

9 Jan. 2018

Particularly when I was a teenager, I sometimes had an attitude that I didn't mind enduring discomfort, such as being cold, because I was mentally strong and could tolerate such inconveniences. Similarly, I thought schoolwork was more important than relaxation, so I stayed up as late as needed to finish my assignments.

Over time, I came to realize that caring about discomfort is not merely "wimping out", but there's often a good reason to avoid discomfort. Evolution usually made things painful on purpose. For example, being too cold can lead to frostbite, inadequate sleep leads to a variety of health issues, and stress is bad for life expectancy. In the absence of strong scientific evidence to the contrary, following the heuristic of "avoid painful things" seems like reasonable advice for not damaging yourself or shortening your lifespan. (Maybe this is obvious to most people, but it took me a while to learn it.)

There seem to be some exceptions to this heuristic. For example, it seems like some degree of fasting on occasion is plausibly healthy, even though it's uncomfortable. And of course, getting shots or having your teeth cleaned are counterexamples in the modern world. (That said, I personally sort of enjoy getting shots.)

Signals of comfort or discomfort from one's body are often far more available and precise than scientific findings. For this reason, I think you should usually trust what your body is telling you rather than advice on what you're "supposed" to do. For example, standard wisdom says that you shouldn't eat a lot of saturated fats, but I find anecdotally that I feel happier, healthier, and more ready to exercise when I have a nontrivial amount of saturated fats in my diet. In general, I think eating based on what makes you feel good is superior to eating based on "what science says", both because scientific findings in this area are so mercurial and because a generic finding about what the average American should do may not apply in your particular case. Of course, I don't have data to suggest that eating based on bodily signals leads to longer lifespans, but at least it does seem to lead to improved vigor in the short run, which is also important.

It's interesting to remember that all non-human animals, and many humans, have almost no "book learning" about how they're supposed to behave. Many animals don't even have social instruction. Yet these animals act appropriately in most situations. While one can argue that humans' modern environments are different from ancestral environments, so that adaptive instincts and reward signals no longer apply, I think it's still generally safest to err on the side of assuming that inborn reward signals do still apply unless you have very strong evidence to the contrary.