Attendees of our workshops give the specifics on how what they learned at a CFAR workshop caused them to make positive changes in their life and the world around them.
Fixing my plans
I went to the July workshop. I think it was probably the most useful week of my life in terms of exposure to things I could be doing to be more productive and effective. Since then, I’ve mainly been trying to incorporate the low-hanging fruit—the obviously good simple ideas—into my life.
At work, I realized I wasn’t doing anywhere near enough planning. My employees were spending time on the wrong things because I hadn’t planned things out in enough detail to make it clear what was the most important thing to do next. I fixed this immediately after the camp.
I’m training myself to no longer think things like “I should go to the gym tomorrow.” Instead I decide to go at X o’clock and set an alarm on my phone to remind me. (I apparently haven’t got this one completely down yet, because yesterday I thought “I should go to the gym tomorrow” and didn’t catch myself: it’s now 11pm and I never went.)
Making connections – between people and ideas
As a founder of a company with a similar mission to CFAR’s — making people more awesome — I think of myself as a connoisseur of this kind of thing and CFAR’s Rationality for Entrepreneurs workshop did not disappoint. In fact, my company helps people apply some of the lifehacks that CFAR teaches, and, at risk of meta-overload, my company would not have survived without having done so.
Not that there are magic secrets here. You can learn about everything CFAR teaches from books like Kahneman’s *Thinking Fast and Slow* (also recommended!). But, for one thing, you won’t. And most importantly, there’s huge value in doing it together with an amazing group of like-minded people. I was seriously impressed by the caliber of my
fellow attendees, not least of which being YCombinator’s Trevor Blackwell. And that extends beyond the workshop. There’s a great alumni community that I continue to participate in. These are great people to geek out with about lifehacks and productivity systems.
Much of CFAR’s curriculum I’ve been a long-time proponent of — commitment devices with Beeminder, dissecting cognitive biases on Messy Matters — but there were also new things I learned. To give a seemingly ridiculous but I think surprisingly profound example, I was inspired and convinced to build a Pavlovian Arduino jellybean dispenser to hack my email habits.
Putting Pedagogy into Practice
The material was almost completely new to me—speaking of college classes, volume-wise this was definitely at least a semester’s worth of material. I’ve been applying it gradually so as not to fall over myself and failing at everything, but so far all the stuff I’ve tried out has stuck. Subjectively, I’m much better at planning and staying on top of things, much better at introspection (especially noticing unconscious/emotional effects), and somewhat better at actually doing things that I want to do. Just from the better plans I’ve already made for the semester, I anticipate the workshop approximately doubling the effectiveness of Harvard High-Impact Philanthropy’s fall operations, which probably makes it worth it already.
It’s pretty clear that the CFAR staff have been applying what they teach to themselves with great effect. Throughout the weekend I kept having slow-burning realizations that the instructors were doing things in class that they were teaching us to do. For instance, a class on how to quickly train new skills was taught using exactly the techniques it described. Similarly, I realized during a class on self-reinforcement that the reason our instructor bounced around excitedly was that she was using excited body motions as a method of self-reinforcement.
Growing coherence over a year
The first few CFAR workshops felt sort of like a collection of the most consistently effective tricks and exercises that LessWrong had come up with – different ways that you could be aware of cognitive biases to work through, ways to frame your decisions so that you would ask questions that made more sense, and software tools that would probably make your life better. All of that was cool, but it felt disconnected. It might have been effective, but it felt a bit ad-hoc.
The current workshops are awesome. It feels like more of a framework, and like the staff has done an awesome job integrating the best of what worked before, and ditching or changing what didn’t. It feels more like a genuinely unique, psychologically, cognitively, and emotionally aware craft of how people can make decisions that make their life better.
Speeding up my work
It was worth going. Hard to describe exactly why (and yes, I am well aware how suspicious this sounds), because while it did not have one overwhelming impact in one area, it had multiple small-to-medium impacts in many smaller areas. Self-discipline and planning: I got rid of some bad habits (eating sugar, procrastinating on the internet every day until midnight), and it was surprisingly painless. Productivity: there is still much left to improve, but my blogging frequency has increased 10 times (still rather low), and I am working on a Java computer game.
Building a community of thinkers
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.
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.
Changing my thinking
Overall, I found the workshop to be a worthwhile experience, if an expensive one; and I recommend it to you if you have the opportunity and resources to attend. There are a lot of practical techniques to be learned, and you only need one or two of them to pay off to cover the cost and time. Even if the primary value is simply introducing you to books and techniques you explore further after the workshop such as Getting Things Done or Thinking Fast and Slow, that may be enough. Most knowledge workers are operating far below the level of which we’re capable, and expanding our effectiveness can pay for itself.
I’ve become quite fond of the question “Does future me have a comparative advantage?” Especially for small items, if the answer is “No” (and it’s no far more often than it’s yes) then just do it right now. The more trivial the task, the more useful it is. I’ve begun to notice my confusion and call it to conscious attention more often. And I now consider whether the sources of my information may be correlated and by how much.
Using all of my strength
The workshop is the first place I really understood, on a gut level, that I could use my brain to think about something other than math. It sounds silly when I phrase it like that, but at some point in the past I had incorporated into my identity that I was good at math but absentminded and silly about real-world matters, and I used it as an excuse not to fully engage intellectually with anything that wasn’t math, especially anything practical. One way or another the workshop helped me realize this, and I stopped thinking this way.
The result is that I constantly apply optimization power to situations I wouldn’t have even tried to apply optimization power to before.
I thought the May 2012 workshop was awesome. I thought the May 2013 workshop was about an order of magnitude more awesome. I would say that now is a great time to attend a CFAR workshop…except that the organization is financially stable and likely to still be around in a year and producing even better workshops. So I’m not sure. Then again, rationality skills have compound interest–the value of learning some new skills now, even if they amount more to vocab words and mental labels than superpowers, compounds over the year that you spend seeing all the books you read and all the opportunities you have in that framework.
I’m glad I went a year ago instead of this May. I’m even more glad I had the opportunity to see the new classes and meet the new participants a year later.
Creating a language, and process, for self-improvement
Here are a few highlights of what I’ve learned from CFAR:
- Having a standard vocabulary for self-improvement techniques has made it much easier to discuss them with my friends, teach/apply the techniques, and hold each other accountable. For example, I’ve had an ’emotional library’ for years, but being able to talk to other attendees about it meant I could add several great examples to my library very quickly.
- I had a goal of growing & consolidating the Effective Altruist community in New York, and connecting with several like-minded people at the CFAR workshop shaved at least 3 months off the timeline
- Explicitly writing down my process for how to learn new skills and discussing it with CFAR attendees & instructors has led to multiple cases saving me days or weeks of time. For example, the first step in my process is now “talk to experts about which details they use when solving this problem”. So if I’m leading a major code refactoring project or picking out a framework for a website, I start by reaching out to three experts and asking them which criteria they use to pick a solution. This has saved me days of research and prevented mistakes which would have cost weeks.