Controlled actions

[Note: I learned this concept directly from John Salvatier. All credit for the ideas goes to him. All blame for the incoherence of this post goes to me.]


This post doesn’t have a payoff. It’s just laying out some ideas.

Controlled actions

Some actions are “controlled”, which is to say their consequences are very precisely determined by the actor.

The term is in reference to, for instance, a controlled demolition. A controlled demolition occurs when a building collapses in a specific pattern, compared to an uncontrolled demolition, which would just be knocking over a building, without any particular concern for how or where the pieces go.

The following are some axis that influence how controlled an action is.

How precisely predictable the effects of the action are

Rocket launches are highly controlled, in that the one can precisely predict the trajectory of the rocket. Successfully changing the social norms around dating, sex, and marriage (or anything really) is uncontrolled because human society is a complicated knot of causal influences, and it is very hard to know in advance what the down-stream impacts will be.

(In general, actions that involve physical deterministic systems are more controlled than actions that involve human minds.)

How reversible the results of an action are

But you don’t need to be able to predict the results of your actions, to have controlled actions, if your actions are reversible.

Dynamiting a mountain (even via a controlled demolition), is less controlled than cutting down a forest, which is less controlled than turning on a light.

How much you “own” the results of your actions

Inventing and then open-sourcing a new technology is uncontrolled. Developing proprietary software is more controlled, because you have more ability to dictate how the software is used (though the possibility of copycats creating can create similar software mitigates your control). Developing software that is only used within one’s own organization is more controlled still.

Processes that are self perpetuating or which take on a life of their own (for instance, sharing an infectious idea, which then spreads and mutates) are extremely uncontrolled.

How large or small the step-size of the action is and how frequent the feedback is

It is more controlled to cut down a tree at a time, and check the ecological impact after each felling, than it is to only check the ecological impact after the whole forest has been removed. Careful gradual change is more controlled.

(Unfortunately, many actions have different effects at large scales than at small scales, and so one doesn’t get information about their impacts until the action is mostly completed.)


In general, there’s a pretty strong tradeoff between the effect sizes of one’s actions, and how controlled they can be. It’s easy to keep many small actions controlled, and nigh-impossible to keep many large actions controlled.

Problems requiring high control

Some problems inherently require high control solutions. Most construction projects are high control problems, for instance. Building a sky scraper depends on hundreds of high precision steps, with the later steps depending on the earlier one. Building a watch is a similarly high control problem.

In contrast, there are some problems for which low control solutions are good enough. In particular, when only a single variable of the system being optimized needs to be modified, low control solutions that move that variable (in the right direction), are sufficient.

For instance, removing lead from the environment is a moderately low control action (hard to reverse, hard to predict all the downstream consequences, the actor doesn’t own the effects) but it turns out that adjusting that one variable is very good move. (Probably. The world is actually more confusing than that.)


The seed of a theory of triggeredness

[epistemic status: not even really a theory, just some observations, and self-observations at that.


Related: “Flinching away from truth” is often about *protecting* the epistemology

“Triggered” seems to be a pretty specific state, that has something of rage, something of panic, and a general sort of “closing in” of experience. I think it might be a pointer to something important (I postulate a related triad of triggeredness, trauma, and blindspots, and blindspots seem like a crucial thing to have a better grasp on.) So I’ve been paying attention to my own triggeredness.

I’ve noticed that I feel triggered in only two situations.

Adversarial forces

The first is when there’s something that I think is important, but I anticipate adversarial forces, either in me or external to me, that are threatening to erode my commitment to that important thing.

For instance, if I have a standard that I’m trying to hold to, but I expect (or project) that someone is about to try and argue me out of, or social pressure me out of it. (Probably, it is necessary that I be unsteady in my commitment to that standard, in such a way that some part of me expects me to be improperly argued out of it, and something important will be lost? If I were confident in my view, or confident in my ability to respond and update sensibly, there wouldn’t be an issue.)

An example: If someone makes even mild, good-natured attempts to convince me that I should impair my cognition, or drink alcohol to relax, I might become filled with triggered rage.

[This is not quite a real example for me, but it is very close to a real example. I in fact, have trouble writing a real example, because my every attempt to fill in the what they are suggesting I do are obvious strawmen that don’t come close to passing the ITT. I get things like “meld with the crowd”, or “surrender my independence” and start feeling slightly triggered. I think I can’t currently see the real thing clearly.]

Another example: I think that I should only use CFAR units that I personally use. I agreed to teach Aversion Factoring, explicitly with the condition that I say clearly that I used to use it, but now use Focusing with a dash of IDC for processing aversions. Someone who wasn’t aware of that, asked (in a way that I guess felt presure-y to me?) if they “could convince me not to tell the participants that I use Focusing/IDC instead?” I got slightly triggered and snapped back, “absolutely not” (in a kind of mean way).

Impossibilities of crucial communication

The other is when there’s something important to protect, but I don’t expect to be able to comunicate what it is to the relevant actors, perhaps because the true reasons don’t seem defensible.

For instance, if I’m on a team and we’re considering bringing on a new member. Most people on the team feel excited about the new guy. I don’t want him to join, but despair of compelling them. (It feels to me like the excited people are being reckless with our team and I’m going to end up leaving it.) I feel a triggered panic.

This impossibility of communication is often due to some conflation of separate things, or bucket error, either in me, or in others.

Example: a person is considering taking some action, X. I think X is doomed to fail, but it is nearby to action Y, which I think is important or valuable. I’m afraid that the person will try X and it will go poorly, and onlookers will not be able to distinguish X and Y, so and so everyone gives up on Y as untenable. If I could convey that X and Y were meaningfully distinct, then there wouldn’t be an issue, and I wouldn’t need to be triggerd about it.

Common thread

There’s a thread in both of these of “something important to me is threatened because I can’t articulate what it is or name it right.”

Why does outlining my day in advance help so much?

[epistemic status: Hypothesizing. Pretty stream of consciousness. I’m rereading Thinking, Fast and Slow right now, and that has clearly been influencing my thinking.]

Advance outlines

More than a year ago, I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rule’s for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Overall, I wasn’t that impressed with it: it seemed to be mostly fluff. There was one practice that I picked up from that book however, that made the time cost of reading it (actually, listening to the audiobook) worthwhile.

Newport recommends outlining your day, hour by hour, before the day starts. This outline is not intended to be a ridged schedule however: you’re allowed to deviate from the plan. However, if you do decide to change what you do in a given time block, you have to put that on the outline, and also reschedule the rest of your day in light of that change.

(It’s possible that I’m misremembering the actual procedure that Newport recommends. I think that his version has two side by side columns, one with a pre-made outline and the other to be filled in with how you actually spend your time? What I do, at least, is fill out a new column every time I make a decision to deviate from my schedule outline. It looks something like this:


In practice, I often don’t keep this up for the whole day. For the day shown above, “writing” ended up turning into a debugging meeting with a friend/collaborator, alternating with writing, and then going home to pack. [2] )

Outlining my day in advance like this has a pretty large effect on “how well my day goes” overall, my subjective sense of my own focus and productivity. The effect is not as large as waking up early and doing Deep work [3], but it is larger than the effect of a 20 minute meditation. My guess is that the effect is larger than regular exercise, but I’m much less sure of that. (All of these are eyeball’ed subjective estimates. It’s quite possible that my affect heuristic is failing me here, if my subjective sense of wellbeing does not correlate well with my actually getting things done and moving towards my goals. I really need to figure out some better metrics for my own effectiveness.)

A priori, it’s a bit surprising that writing a schedule that I’m not even going to stick to would have such a large effect. Why would this be?

I don’t know. But here are some hypotheses. These aren’t mutually exclusive. For all I know they all apply. I think at least some of these point at interesting psychological phenomena.


Hypothesis 1: It causes me to load up my goals and priorities in some kind of short term memory or background awareness. 

This might be subtle; I don’t know. There’s a thing about having my goals “loaded up”, or at hand to me, not far from my thoughts. Sometimes (like after a workshop, and before I have had time to orient) I don’t have my goals loaded up. I’m not taking actions to hit them, and I’m not experiencing any anxiety about them. I might spend the morning (or the day) doing whatever random thing, because I’m something like not tracking / not paying attention to / not primed to pay attention to / not remembering the things that I care about and want to accomplish? [I should probably study this experience more, so that I have a better sense of what’s going on.]

I think that one of the things that’s happening is that the outlining activity causes me to “load up” my goals in short term memory.

Hypothesis 3: It clarifies time scarcity and tradeoffs

There’s a temptation (for me at least) to act as if there’s infinite time. “I do want to write today, but I’ll do it later.” That kind of postponement feels costless, but it really isn’t. Something has to give. The procedure outlined above gives me a much more visceral sense of the scarcity of the time resource, and forces me to confront the tradeoffs. (For instance, I didn’t do math on July 1, I met with Diva instead. But that was a conscious choice.)

Being aware of the limits on my time supports me in spending it well. I’m less apt to waste time if I’m viscerally aware of what that actually costs.

Hypothesis 3: It allows me to rehearse my day / set TAPs / biases later decision moments

There’s something magical about walking through my day in some detail that, for instance, just making a todo list of three or four priorities, doesn’t do.

In order to schedule in blocks like that I have to visualize how my day will go in at least a little detail. And I think that future-pacing my day like that makes it easier to execute.

I’m not quite sure why this is. It might be something like that walkthrough lightly sets some TAPs, and particular, TAPs for transitioning between tasks.  For instance

TAP: Finish meeting with Ben -> walk over to my desk, take out “How to Prove It” and start reading the introduction).

Note that my current procedure does not have me visualizing the scene in detail like that, or explicitly setting TAPs. But maybe something like that is happening subliminally, as I think about how long I need to do a task and where I’ll be at that time of day, etc.

Another model in this vein (or maybe another frame on the same model) is that scheduling introduces a bias or directional tendency to my decision points. Throughout the day, I have a small hundreds number of moments when I need to determine my next action. Those moments include when I feel like getting up from writing to pace, or if I should go make food right now, or if I’m going to sit down to work on that python script I was writing, or if I should do Focusing on that thing in my belly.

Such decision points inherently entail ambiguity. Furthermore, there are really a large number of factors to take into account: my energy levels, what I feel like doing, if I have enough time to make progress on a thing, the nature of the tradeoffs between the various good things that I could do etc. I have policies and TAPs for making some of these decisions (one wants to live a choice minimal life-style), but most of these moments still entail some level of ambiguity and cognitive effort. And the more of the decision that falls to my current less reflective self, the more likely I am to follow a path of least resistance: taking a break instead of finishing this post, or doing something good but not crucial.

I think having rehearsed the decision in advance takes some of the load off, there’s a sort of echo of having already chosen, I’ve carved a shallow rut, so that the thing that my more reflective self decided was best to do at this time is the path of least (or less) resistance.

Interestingly, this maybe the same mechanism as hypothesis 1, except where Hyp 1 is about loading up goals, Hyp 3 is about loading up task-transitions. And the mechanism in question is starting to look suspiciously like priming.

Let’s clarify that claim explicitly: the main reason why prescheduling works is that it briefly puts my attention on my goals and the tasks to achieving them. This leaves a kind of mental “residue” [4], those goals and actions are more cognitively available. And therefore, those actions are given higher decision weightings at ambiguous decision points. [Plus, it makes time scarcity feel real. (Hyp. 3)]

Next steps

I’m not sure if any of that was even coherent, or if it is, if I’ll think that this is correct in a week.

After writing this, it seems like the natural next thing to do is goal-factor. Is there a way that I can get all the benefits of this procedure more cheaply? If I find a strictly better procedure, that’s a win. If I find a procedure that hits some but not all of the benefits, that would give me more data about the physiological structure in this area.



[1] I was nocturnal for this day because I was transitioning in advance for a Europe trip.

[1] I can easily check, because I separately track all my time in Toggl.

[3] I find that my day goes better the earlier I wake up, and that this trend is robust all the way up to as early as 3:00 AM. It’s really amazing to have long blocks of uninterrupted work time, while it’s dark and the rest of the world is sleeping. Unfortunately, this has the obvious tradeoff of making it hard to  meet with / spend time with other humans.

[4] I believe this is a technical term used for the cost of attention switching?

_Why_ do we fear the twinge of starting?

[epistemic status: As always, I’m not claiming that I’m saying anything new. This might “just” be hyperbolic discounting.

Also I don’t know if this is true. I didn’t apply my regular level of skepticism to these ideas yet, and some of them are probably wrong or meaningless. Work in progress.]

Followup to: Working hurts less than procrastinating, we fear the twinge of starting

Here’s a puzzle:

I, like most people I think, am happiest when I am working hard on something: solving a problem, learning something, or otherwise exerting myself. But even though I subjectively enjoy working, and enjoy it more than not working, I do occasionally procrastinate on doing those things. Which is kind of weird: if my work time is more enjoyable than my not work time, you’d think that I would always be glad to move into working (and to be fair, most of the time, I am).

Here’s what a think is happening:

Starting to work pretty much always entails an increase in cognitive effort [1]. Humans are at some fundamental level lazy, and tend to flinch away from cognitive effort. It has a bit of of a sting to it [does it always?].

Now this effort is rapidly compensated, as one gets into the flow of working. However, I think that there are different subsystems in the brain that are tracking reward at different timescales. For the subsystem that is tracking reward in the next 30 seconds, working represents only the cost of cognitive effort, and none of the benefit of flow. The subsystem that is tracking reward on a timescale of hours, however; is nearly indifferent between getting into flow right now, and five minutes from now. So there’s a constant incentive do delay, just a bit, even to your detriment.

I bet there’s a math of this. In fact, I think that this might be just entirely be what the the book Breakdown of Will is about.

Some implications and related thoughts

I think this might explain something about “productivity momentum“: if it is shifts in the level of cognitive effort that are hard, then you just stay at a particular level of cognitive effort (or something like that? It seems like the level of cognitive effort must very throughout your working). or maybe you’re more willing to exert cognitive effort when it looks like it’s paying off. Similarly, think this might explain why outlining my day in advance is so useful and I think this might have something to do with why getting up and working first thing is so good for me.

Habits: I think that in many cases, habits are smoothing over this effect, by making exerting effort the down-stream thing to do. For instance, I find it much easier to exercise when I’m at home, than when I’m traveling. I think this is due to a number of reasons, but at least one of them is that at home I have a chain of familiar TAPs that guide me into exerting myself. When traveling, I don’t have those TAPs and need to force myself to do it much more. [I’m not sure if this makes any sense.]

I think a similar dynamic occurs with a more frequent kind of procrastination: avoiding looking at something true and bad. For a simple example: Your project is behind schedule. Once you consciously acknowledge that fact you’ll feel better and be able to respond more effectively. But first there is the pain of the situation, before one acclimates to a new setpoint of the way the world is. So the same dynamic occurs.

When I adopt this frame, I am inclined to adopt a policy / habit of noticing flinches, and doing the thing anyway, for just a bit (5 minutes). I can then get more data about if it is actually a good idea, or if I actually want to. Unfortunately, this policy trades off against making more deliberate choices: the space in which I would procrastinate is the same space in which I would pause to consider what the best corse of action is.


[1] Sometimes I’m thinking about something and energized about it, and am bursting to sit down to write. In this case it seems that physiological arousal is turned on, and cognitive effort is already recruited.