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“Self-Containedness” Principle

A common difficulty I see at CFAR workshops is for a participant to spend a lot of the time allocated for practicing techniques making plans for things that future-them “should” do, now that they understand [all about technique X]. “I’m going to goal factor all of my important life domains, so that I can figure out what improvements to make! I’ll start on Tuesday, right when I get home.” “I’m going to put all the CFAR techniques in an anki deck, along with two programming languages and a bunch of neuroscience, and start using anki every day.” They’ll report having made a bunch of useful progress on their problems, feeling like they’ve learned a lot and that it’s going to be very helpful… and also have a sense of lingering unease and dread in the back of their minds, with narrative content along the lines of “I’m worried I won’t follow through on any of this, and won’t get much benefit from the workshop.”

This sort of thing actually almost never happens to me, I think, and ironically it’s mostly a result of strategies I’ve developed for mitigating one of my major weaknesses.  I have fairly substantial mood swings, which come with significant changes in my beliefs and what I feel motivated by. I really struggle to have daily habits or to work on lots of kinds of longer term projects (for example, I think Brienne’s Tortoise Skills work is really neat, and also that I’d have to change a *bunch* of my psychology around before I’d be able to make progress in that way).

I live in a world where I pretty frequently don’t know who I’m going to wake up to be tomorrow. No matter how much I care about something right now, and feel motivated to work on it, I have the deep-seated, painfully-acquired knowledge that this often means very little about how I’ll feel about it in a year, a month, or even a day. I feel a fair bit of pain about this (probably to an unhelpful extent), and feel terrible about the thought of getting on the hook for things and not following through, or letting people down, or experiencing failure.

In order to make any progress at all on things, I often end up asking myself questions like “What can I do today that will bear fruit even if I then drop it like a rock?” In a conversation about my personal development, I’m looking to produce some useful effect by the end of the conversation, that doesn’t rely on a ‘part 2’ or an ongoing daily habit, or ideally any future effort at all. I’m looking for the types of progress that will feel like “ratcheting” (eg I can push on the crank now, and the hoist will lift up the load a little bit, and it will stay up that little bit even if I then stop pushing and never push on that crank again).

Sometimes this involves substantial tradeoffs – there are almost certainly some skills that are very difficult to acquire in this piecemeal manner, and it means I have to spend a lot more time in the initial/overhead phase of things, just getting my bearings.

But on the other hand, I’m much less likely to go to a workshop and not get anything out of it. Instead I’ll look for little bits of insight, cleverness, and habit improvements that I can compile into S1 right now.

I suspect that this should not be the only tool a person has, and that at some point I’ll need to get much better at doing things like tortoise skills. But I also think that most people will benefit from practicing the art of “self-contained” self-improvement to reduce the number of plans they make, don’t follow through on, and then feel guilty about. I suspect part of what’s helpful about the pomodoro method and scrum/agile methodology is that they implicitly encourage folks to think this way; it’s a huge part of the thinking style I’m trying to impart in my Focused Grit class.

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