State of the Paul

In July, along with two dozen other people, I attended a CFAR 8-day minicamp in the Bay Area of California. CFAR plan to test in various ways whether minicamp has made people more effective over the course of one year; this is salient to me because I played a role in the baseline assessments that took place before minicamp. As we approach the half-way mark, am I more effective, and what role does minicamp play in that?

The most valuable lasting thing I got out of attending, I think, is a renewed determination to continually up my game. A big part of that is that the minicamp creates a lasting community of fellow alumni who are also trying for the biggest bite of increased utility they can get, and that’s no accident; CFAR president Julia Galef’s 2012 Singularity Summit talk makes explicit her goal of encouraging rationality by fostering a community where it is practiced and valued. I met a lot of really amazing people while I was there, and I’m encouraged by their example.

The most valuable single class for me was Valentine’s introduction to Getting Things Done. I don’t think I could have adopted it given only the resolutely paper-based description in David Allen’s book; Valentine’s description of how he makes it work for him using Remember The Milk and his smartphone was essential to breathe life into those bones.

What changes have I made since minicamp? Somewhere inbetween the infinitely expanding superpowers I’d hoped for when the camp was coming to a close, and the zero change I’d feared. I’m 41, so a big change in habits is less likely for me than for the mostly much younger bulk of the participants. In addition, I’d already been part of the OB/LW community for over four years and read all of the Sequences more than once, so a little less of what was taught was new to me – though to my surprise I’d say a clear majority of it was new, or at least things I hadn’t considered in the depth they deserved. Still, any change that lasts over six months is a surprise compared to what seems to be the normal pattern for things like this, where a burst of enthusiasm lasting a month or two peters out by the three month mark. Here’s what I’ve changed:

  • I’ve adopted some of Getting Things Done. I have done only very few weekly reviews, but I have adopted the habit of putting all TODO items into the Inbox, and reviewing the inbox to turn items into first actions.  As part of that change, I’ve switched from trying to be my own mail provider to using Google Mail, which I’m very glad of having done, and I try to keep an empty inbox on Google Mail.  I’ve also installed Netmemo as an easy way of recording TODO items as I think of them. In GTD you’re supposed to empty your inbox daily; I sometimes do this, and sometimes go through long periods where I can’t look at it, followed by big clearups.  Still, I manage to review everything in Remember the Milk on a pretty regular basis, and I don’t have any “oh yes, mustn’t forget that” worries stored in my head; it’s all in the system. I definitely feel as though I’m getting more things done, but it’s hard to know for sure when I didn’t have a system for measuring it before!
  • That last link reveals a second pattern; if I want to achieve something, I want to measure how I’m doing. A minicamp workshop used tooth flossing as an example of something we sometimes don’t have the willpower to do; I decided to floss nightly.  There is now a jar in the bathroom containing floss picks; every time I refill it, I count how many picks I add and put it in Beeminder. Without going into gory details, I can say that there is an unmistakable improvement in my oral health.
  • I have taken several other measures to improve my health. I got fillings where I needed fillings and been to the doctor for my longstanding nose and knee issues, getting physiotherapy for my knees and a treatment program for my nose. Using Med Helper I can actually keep track of whether I’m following the program; I usually do most of it but it’s the lunchtime saline rinse that I find hardest to keep up, especially when not at work, thus the poor performance over the holidays!
  • Finally I have been getting regular exercise, nearly daily.  I wanted something that wouldn’t strain my knees, so I went with a mashup of programs from One Hundred Pushups and Two Hundred Situps, mixed in with some chin-ups so my muscles don’t get too unbalanced, and some barbell excises with 2kg barbells to make sure that my rotator cuffs are strong enough that I won’t damage myself with chin-ups! All of that is tracked on Fitocracy.  It’s making a noticeable, and pleasing, difference to the way my chest looks, but it doesn’t seem to have resulted in dramatically greater energy levels yet.

I’m applying other ideas from minicamp to my daily life, using ideas like fungibility more consistently in my decision making than I did prior to minicamp. In addition of course, minicamp was a great chance to talk to and make friends with uncountable numbers of incredibly smart and fascinating people in very pleasant surroundings!

CFAR have announced workshops in January and March. Attend, become more effective, and make a bigger difference.

Published by Paul Crowley

I'm Paul Crowley aka "ciphergoth", a cryptographer and programmer living in Mountain View, California. See also my Twitter feed, my webpages, my blogs on Dreamwidth and Livejournal, and my previous proper blog. Or mail me: paul at

13 thoughts on “State of the Paul

  1. It’s really good to see that you’re getting practical postive results from this. Do you know if there’s anything in the pipeline for camps in the UK? Unsurprisingly I’d be very keen, but I’m unlikely to be in a position to prioritise the cost of a trip to SF in the forseeable future.

    1. *strikes out the “sadly there doesn’t seem to be an easy way for me to link to my ciphergoth profile from here”* bit* Thanks – fixed!

  2. Top stuff: more power to your arm. And to your other muscles, literal and metaphorical.

    And many useful links, thanks. (Though a few are accidentally broken, e.g. the exercise ones, which appear to be acting as relative not absolute links.)

    For others: if you’re interested in Beeminder, but not quite convinced, they have an excellent and very honest overview of their competitors.

    The floss thing reminds me of how I successfully acquired a flossing habit while totally poleaxed by sleep deprivation when my kids were badly-sleeping infants. I turned it in to the one thing about me that was definitely getting better. No matter how chaotic everything got with my sleep, food, sleep, exercise, all other look-after-yourself stuff shot to hell, and sleep, I’d still floss every day. I dimly remember something from David Brin’s The Postman where a daily toothbrushing performed a similar self-sustaining psychological role in a not-entirely-dissimilar post-apocalyptic environment.

    I’m not sure that I’d recommend having badly-sleeping infants in order to help develop a minor new habit, though.

    1. Oops – think the links are fixed now. I love Bethany and Daniel from Beeminder – they are really smart and thoughtful and as you say honest!

  3. I think we’ve both benefited from your trip, as I’ve taken on things like net memo you’ve been using, and can join up with you on things like morning exercise. My getting stuff done has vastly improved too, but I think that’s more coincidence of better mental and physical health. Sure you doing more has helped though!

  4. If you want to increase energy levels through exercise, the most effective routine I have found is sprint intervals… though this is probably too rough on the knees. You could also do something similar with cycling if that helps more, or better yet swimming (less research on this but would probably work).

    The objective is to go at 100% effort. The Tabata interval is highly regarded: 20 seconds of work, 10 seconds of rest, for 8 intervals. Personally I like to take a longer recovery period to allow for more strenuous intervals.


      Thanks! Hmm, trouble is that running is exactly what causes my knee troubles (the physiotherapist thinks it’s ), while swimming is incredibly inconvenient – got to dress and go to a particular place, do the exercise, then it takes forever to wash my hair afterwards. I wonder if there’s another CV exercise I could do at home that would have the same effect without these disadvantages? Maybe if I bought the right bit of equipment?

      1. Elliptical trainer is the traditional ‘zero impact’ cardio device, but the ones you can buy for the home tend to be a bit flimsy, which won’t combine well with HIIT.

      2. Hmm – about now is when people are enthusiastically buying new rowing machines. What time of year do they get disillusioned and sell them for cheap on eBay?

  5. A very interesting and thought provoking post. I’ve been bumping into some work related motivation challenges, and following with some reading about Tsuyoku naritai has given me a good kick in the bum.


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