Exported: UnTAPed Learning:

(Exported: Copying posts out from Lesserwrong, since I have totally lost confidence in it.)

(For this one, the content worth preserving is mainly the comment thread, so I have copied that as well.)

[Epistemic Status: Request for Proposal]

For anyone who is familiar with CFAR’s teaching program, the concept of the TAP will be very familiar. It’s an acronym that expands either to Trigger-Action Pattern (for naturally-occurring instances) or Trigger-Action Plan (for purposefully-implemented instances); the latter is known academically as “implementation intentions”. While there is room for contest for the title of “Most Important CFAR Skill” in terms of which one has the most impact of regular use, in terms of driving adoption of techniques, TAPs are the foundation of the entire curriculum. From simple skills to complex ones, the default flow of practicing a skill is “install a TAP to practice this”, and the default call to action of most CFAR classes is “spend five minutes brainstorming TAPs to install”.

They’re extremely useful…if they work at all.

For me, they don’t. I struggled to find any example at all of a trigger-action patterns in my own life, and even following the extreme repetition, hard-mode path to installing a TAP, found that it vanished as soon as I stopped consciously thinking about keeping it up.

I liked most of the techniques I learned at my workshop. Many seemed quite useful to apply. I remember approximately none of them, because, deprived of the core tool to maintain them, every piece of practice looked like

It’s a strong foundation, for most people. But it’s still a foundation; if it doesn’t hold, nothing else is any use. So:

What other things have people devised to turn a technique from a sketch of ideas to something used often enough that it’s a proper skill?

As a starting point, things that I use in my particular case:



Calendar reminders.

These are all reasonably good at their particular, time-based niches. But none of them work well for irregularly-occurring opportunities or for fuzzier, less specific types of practice.

An alternate question, which seems to me to be similar in applicability, is:
How would you build a daily or weekly routine 
from scratch, with literally no existing example to piggyback on?

Specifics, because otherwise I’ll be asked by people who doubt that my experiences are psychologically plausible.

I have no daily routine. Really. None. I don’t wake up at a consistent time, when I go into work is dictated by whether I’m thinking about it and varies back and forth by an hour without external stimulus. I have to remember to eat when there is not a defined schedule I have to stick to, and sometimes even then.

My hard-mode TAP attempt was as follows:
I had an en-suite bathroom in my apartment. I placed my water-flosser in a specific spot, visible from the doorway but not in direct line of sight walking in.
The TAP was “when I open the door, I will look toward the flosser.”
About a dozen times when initially conceiving of it, I rehearsed this. I did a few variations, such as swinging the door open different amounts and having it start open or closed.
Over the next month, approximately, I regularly went into the bathroom. When I did, I sometimes, more often toward the beginning, would remember that I had a plan to install this TAP. If I remembered, I would carry it out. If I had entered the bathroom without doing it and then remembered later, I would usually leave and re-enter to rehearse it.

This never became any more automatic. By the time I gave up, several weeks after I began, I still regularly entered the room without the TAP firing. I think it was still occasionally coming to mind when I moved out a few months later, but it definitely wasn’t affecting the regularity with which I was actually remembering to floss. (I have a chart of that in Beeminder so I’m quite sure.)

Curious, to flesh out my understanding of what this is like (apologies if this feels like it’s missing the point and happy to drop this line of inquiry if it’s not useful). I believe that you are having a different experience that most people but I’m not sure what life is like so don’t know what sort of things might be useful

When you go to the bathroom, and you fail to execute the “look at the waterflosser” thing, what do you do instead? Do you look somewhere else?

What happens when you put a sign on the door saying “remember the waterflosser?”

What happens if the waterflosser is right next to whatever it is you most frequently need to do in the bathroom? Do you use the sink regularly?

(My most successfully installed TAP was “put a jar of flosspicks near my toothbrush where they’re easily visible. When I brush my teeth, I will at least pick up a flosspick”)

Do you brush your teeth? (If so, then it seems like somehow somewhere you got a habit of doing that – how did that happen?)

What is “remembering to eat” like? (it seems like you must at least successfully do that most days)

>When you go to the bathroom, and you fail to execute the “look at the waterflosser” thing, what do you do instead? Do you look somewhere else?

I look whichever direction I’m moving. Or I stare blankly while I think of something else. Or I look at the clock, which technically requires turning to look past the waterflosser but did not involve the flosser registering to my attention. Whatever was in line with what I was doing/thinking about before walking in.

>What happens when you put a sign on the door saying “remember the waterflosser?”

Never tried. No longer live there, but I could attempt something like it.

>What happens if the waterflosser is right next to whatever it is you most frequently need to do in the bathroom? Do you use the sink regularly?

It was and I did, and so I usually had my gaze wander to it while I was in the bathroom at some point. Probably 80% of the time. This usually meant that I’d remember to use it if I hadn’t already that day.

>Do you brush your teeth? (If so, then it seems like somehow somewhere you got a habit of doing that – how did that happen?)

Yes. I have a Beeminder goal for it (this is my “anchor” goal that I need to update almost every day, which will ping me with a phone notification if I miss more than a couple days, or more often forget to enter my data for a couple days). Most mornings I remember before I leave the house. I also keep a travel brush in my backpack and another at work, for the mornings when I don’t. (Somewhere between 1/3-1/4 of weekday mornings. Weekends it’s more like 80%.) Evenings I almost always think of it while I’m winding down for the night, probably 90% of the time, unless there is a distraction like a visiting guest.
I think I had it as part of a routine when I was a kid, and definitely had an ironclad morning routine during my first internship, during high school, which included a shower and brushing my teeth. Before having this goal I think I remembered to brush my teeth about once every two days.
>What is “remembering to eat” like? (it seems like you must at least successfully do that most days)

You’d think! But no, not really. (If I rated the problems in my life right now by (tractability x impact) this would win.) I generally will not think about eating until my stomach hurts from hunger. Sometimes that passes and I forget about it before I have pulled myself away from whatever mildly interesting activity I’m doing. If that happens, and it doesn’t reoccur, then I will probably not think of it again until I notice my movements and thoughts becoming sluggish from lack of energy. (On one occasion, now years ago and thankfully unrepeated, I continued this for about 48 hours over a Thanksgiving Weekend, consuming only water and half a bag of stale Chex Mix. It was a bad time.)
To mitigate this problem I try to keep a lot of extremely low-effort food around – yogurt drinks in the fridge, large cans of cashews on my bedside shelves, and when I noticed myself losing energy, eating some of those and then trying to get up to make something slightly more substantial like a couple PB&Js. Despite this accommodations and willingness to order takeout, I think I’ve averaged about 1.8 meals a day over the last two months of weekends, much of them taken as grazing just enough to keep me not collapsing.
Luckily food at Google comes free and pre-cooked into convenient forms that require only walking, no thinking. And I am doing enough attention-intensive activities that I notice much sooner that my function is impaired, so I intervene before I start losing the ability to move or act like a person.

Thanks, this is interesting/helpful.

Maybe a next question: are there things you like doing that are moderately complicated?

If you work at Google, I’m guessing you can program. Programming is pretty complicated, and involves a lot of “if I am trying to Do X, I must Do Y” or “if I notice this sort of problem, it means I must do Z”, which I’d normally assume is trigger-action-y.

And at some level, even things like “decide to go to the bathroom -> get up and start walking” (walking being pretty complicated).

Basically, if you’re able to hold a job at Google (even as a non-programmer) it seems like you must have some acquired skills. How did you acquire those skills?

I do program, and besides that play lots of strategy board games, occasionally design board games, and (theoretically) also design holidays.

I’d say the subjective experience of programming for me is much more “hmm, where have I seen this before?”, doing a big, fuzzy database lookup through my memories of past code and relevant communications. This is limited mostly by how much of the program design I can hold in my head at once; I’m not sure if that’s the same as other programmers.

(For an example, this morning I was looking at a metrics dashboard which spiked a percentile metric to 100 and then stopped getting any more data. I’d recently made a change to the metric, so I thought of the change, then other discussion related to it, then noticed it looked similar to the pattern the metric had when it was first getting turned on – very jumpy, started at 100% – and that the discussion had included migrating the metric to a different name, and concluded that this was a problem of having very little data coming in and should be fixed by changing the named data source. )

Could you say more about designing holidays? That sounds interesting!

I am pretty curious about why you have some Trigger Action Patterns and not others.

I would classify, “Notice stomach hurts from hunger” -> “Think about eating” to be a TAP
As well as “Think about eating” -> “Get up to get a yogurt”
Including all the steps involved between this and actually getting and eating a yogurt

Maybe you’re “holding the intention” to go get something to eat basically the entire time, as you walk toward the yogurt. IF this were happening, I’d expect that (pretty frequently) you’d get up to grab a yogurt and then forget what you were doing and end up doing something else. Does this happen to you?

I agree that I have the hunger pains -> thinking about food TAP. This seems like a lizard-brain instinct. I think classifying the series of actions to get the yogurt as a TAP would be misleading, since it suggests it’s much more automatic than reality. My modal response to “thinking about eating” is “disregard it”.

Not nearly as often as it does to my friends with ADD, but sometimes. (I’ve considered the possibility that I have ADD, but no therapist/psychiatrist to date has seriously considered it; my probability mass on that possibility is centered on “this was masked by depression and confused for anxiety”.)

Possibly-relevant wrinkles: I have a tendency to plan a discrete sequence of actions in advance and then execute them all at once. I find it significantly more difficult to go grab food when it involves passing through common areas (i.e. may contain other humans).

Also, in Malcolm Ocean’s Routines vs Reflexes, do you find yourself unable to gain either routines or reflexes, or just one of them?

I have no routines and have no idea how to gain any. All advice I’ve ever found is about modifying or extending routines.

Reflexes, I have some, but weak ones. I have never deliberately inculcated a reflex AFAICT. My attempts look like the waterflosser thing when they sorta work, and like nothing at all the rest of the time.

How well does your life function at the moment? Do you get things done even without routines?

Acceptably well, much improved with the assistance of depression medication and having enough money to solve minor problems with money.
Yes. My best working hypothesis is that, while awake, I am continuously in a state of what Anna Salamon calls “Summon Sapience”. Nearly everything requires attention and conscious processing, but I have enough of it to run my life without backup.

I have encountered a person who could not do TAPs before. I may be misremembering exactly. But my impression was they had to consciously do everything. They’d consciously, deliberately move their hand in order to open a door or move their head to look at something. I think they basically couldn’t do things that required muscle memory? Like sports, dancing, juggling, etc.

Is it like this for you?

That sounds somewhat more extreme than my case. But despite a fair amount of practice I can’t do juggling without focusing my attention on my movements, and never keep it up for more than about 30 seconds. I don’t have to pay close attention to the details of turning a door handle, but it definitely feels more like a consciously activated subroutine than a muscle-memory action.

I have not tried to dance partially but not mainly because of fears I would fail in that way. Though I did do fire-dance performance for a while. Notably, when I was on stage and focusing on executing my routine well, I would accidentally hold my breath for two-three minutes.

I’ve used Anki-like things to periodically remind myself of periodically-recurring opportunities. This might be useful to you.

Like, say that I want to Notice That I’m Feeling Defensive. This doesn’t come at a regular schedule. But, periodically I will get an email with an Anki-esque approach to Trigger-Actions.

This will include something like:

Trigger: Notice that I’m in a conversation that’s getting heated
Action: Check if I’m feeling defensive

(I might include bodily introspection like “notice that the hairs on my arms are sticking up”)

I’m not sure I fully grok what it’d be like for TAPs to fundamentally not work, so not sure if this translates, but if I periodically receive reminders to look out for THING X, then I’m more likely to notice that THING X is happening.

(I’m worried, writing this comment, that it’s going to come off very other-optimizing/”this solution is for a problem different than the one I have.” I am sorry if that is the case but figured it might at least inspire your own thoughts. I can make habits but I am unusually bad at it.)

The vast majority of the time, I do the default action for my environment. This means it’s worth it for me to put a lot of effort into setting up my environment to “expect” me to do things I want to do. For example, if I put my meds near my computer, the environment “expects” me to take my meds in the morning, and then this is easy for me to do. Pomodoros work really well for me because it makes working the default action and not working the thing I have to choose to do. Leaving the house at a specific time is easier if another person is leaving too. If that sounds like you it might help to look for more ways to cause the default behavior to be the thing you want to do.

I find that anything that can be transformed into a checklist (“in situation X, do steps 1, 2, 3”) or a menu (“in situation Q, your choices are X, Y, and Z”) works well if made into a list and put on my wall. You can get big post-it notes that help with this. I build the habit to check my lists, which obviously won’t work for you. But IME one tends to notice any change to one’s environment for a month or so, so changing up the lists regularly might help. (Different colors, pictures, etc.)

If I want to break a habit, I find that putting trivial inconveniences in the way of doing it works really well, because then I have an extra three minutes to go “hey, wait, is this really what I want to be doing?” For example, I don’t generally keep sweets in the house and I log out of Facebook and Tumblr.

Outsourcing habits to other people can be really helpful. Works best if it is something they will generally notice (“hey, you’re getting angry at me, I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to go take deep breaths now”), if they’re invested in you succeeding at a particular goal too (i.e. they’re not doing it as a favor to you), and if you will respond to the reminder with gratitude rather than through feeling angry and resentful.

The post-it wall thing seems promising.

The default action/trivial inconvenience judo thing I am already doing and is a good tool for harm reduction. I do not think I could hold down a job without it.


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