Neel Nanda


Become a person who Actually Does Things

I think the ideal here is to be able to reflexively notice in the moment "this is bad and I should fix it", and then actually doing something about it. But this is really hard to consistently pull off. For me, a major bottleneck is that it takes a lot of attention and willpower to do this reliably in the moment.

I've found that I can get a long way by systematising it - creating a regular time when I dwell on "what opportunities am I currently procrastinating about?" Or "what is a low level inconvenience that I'm not doing anything about?". I find a weekly review is a great time to go through questions like that.

I find this really, really helpful, because it's easy to make something like that a routine, and it takes much less willpower than being agenty in the moment. And it also makes it easier to track things when they happen, because I can notice and make a note, and put in the actual effort to fix it during the weekly review

Become a person who Actually Does Things

Ah, makes sense, thanks!

The intended nuance there was "this is an overly simplified and not-literally-true statement, but which I think can be a useful simplification for noticing a common mistake and overcoming it" (or, frankly, that part happened because this post was an experiment in speed-writing and didn't have much thought put into the exact wording. But that's my back-filled justification for why I like that line!)

Become a person who Actually Does Things

I'm making the empirical claim that people systematically don't take enough opportunities. Essentially that people fall too far on the exploit side of explore/exploit, thanks to a bunch of human biases that lead to paralysis. And empirically I've found that when I started taking opportunities more, some were meh, and others were really valuable. I don't think this claim is obviously true, but empirically it seems true for my experience and my observations of people.

I think there's also an important skill of prioritising and choosing the right opportunities. But people are bad at this, and I think that trying to do this often leads to excessive paralysis. I think you first need to develop the skill of taking opportunities, there will be enough good ones in there for this to feel motivating and sustainable, and then you develop the skill of selecting things and prioritising.

I'm also not arguing that you should take literally every opportunity - just that on the margin people should take opportunities more. I think it's really hard to give advice that leads someone paralysed to take too many opportunities, because their bias goes so far in the other direction. And so getting them to take the marginal opportunity naturally means they select good ones (on average).

I agree this can go wrong! Eg, somebody who signs up to a bunch of extra-curriculars, realises they don't have enough time and burns out. I'm not sure how to give advice that can help people to overcome paralysis and be good at filtering opportunities at the same time.

Become a person who Actually Does Things

Hmm, I'm wondering if the law of equal but opposite advice is applying here?

I completely agree that some people do too many things, and that moderation is important! Sky-diving without a parachute is an example of doing something, and obviously dumb.

I think the important question is, on the margin, are people better off doing things more? And in my personal life, and in the people I see around me, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. I see a lot of people paralysed by perfectionism, indecision, anxiety etc. Who always wait for the perfect opportunity, and never deviate from the path of least resistance. And I think those people have too much moderation and not enough agency, and that a post exhorting them to be more agenty is exactly what they need.

I think there are also people who are great at being agenty and really need to learn moderation. And it's approximately impossible to write a post catered to both at once.

My post is very much aimed at the people I have in mind. And I'm implicitly making the empirical claim that most people, on the margin, would benefit from being more agenty. Which is true in my experience, but I definitely live in a bubble.

I think "inherently false" is an extremely strong assertion against this post, and I'd be interested in hearing more justification for that.

How to have a happy quarantine

Thanks a lot for writing this! I read this a while ago, and discovered that "under-desk bike pedal things" exist, and have now successfully trained a TAP to idly cycle on mine every time I'm on a video call, which is surprisingly effective for ensuring I get some actual exercise done