These posts were originally published on the Tempo book blog between 2011-14, and imported here in 2019 when that blog was shut down and replaced with a single page.

About Tempo

Colin Dickey: Tempo Shifts

Colin Dickey has a great article on Berfrois called Tempo Shifts on the Gregorian reform. Here’s an extract:

The Gregorian Reform was motivated initially by religious purposes: the slippage was moving Easter farther into summer, creating problems with the festival calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. The solution devised by the Church was first to remove Leap Days from three out of four centennial years (thus, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 would not by Leap Years, but 2000 would), bringing the calendar closer in line to the actual solar year. Additionally, ten days were to be dropped from the Calendar to bring Easter back in line with its date in the fourth century, when it was first established by the Council of Nicea. October 5-14, 1582, the Pope decreed, would disappear.

Read the whole thing. Great subplot on Guardian versus Trader uses of time (ecclesiastical versus commercial calendars have different needs).

HT: Alan Martin.

When Monitoring a Behavior Makes it Worse

I’ve been doing some idle life-logging experimentation for the past two months with a Google Form and some simple Matlab analysis (project repo here). It was partly motivated by trying to operationalize some of my thinking around habit formation and falling off the wagon/getting back on, and partly by the vague idea that I might in the future unbundle Tempo into small idea chunks and rebundle those into an app, instead of writing a second edition.

In the two months, I learned a few interesting lessons big and small. Some were about the right way to log and analyze behaviors, others were about the nature of behaviors and habits themselves. All very interesting.

But perhaps the most interesting thing I learned was about the very idea of monitoring behaviors (with anything from a diary to an app) is that if you measure a behavior, it generally gets worse before it gets better, if it gets better at all.

Kinda like if you think too much about how you work the brake and accelerator while driving, you’ll suddenly start fumbling/jerking awkwardly like a student driver.

I think there are two things going on here:

  1. When you bring up any habit for conscious inspection with a tool, you regress from unconscious competence to conscious incompetence (see shu-ha-ri). This happens because most of your later mastery is unconscious, and paying conscious attention to what you’re doing suspends the unconscious parts.
  2. When the habit is a creative habit, there is an additional factor. For an uncreative habit, feedback of error via inspection or monitoring triggers dumb corrective actions. If you’re drifting out of your lane and your fancy new car beeps, you just steer back in. But if your monitoring is telling you that your “hit rate” for successful blog posts as a fraction of all blog posts is falling, there is no obvious action you can take to fix it. So being sensitized to the gap just increases anxiety, which makes performance worse.

The first is a manageable problem in a thoughtfully designed tool that foregrounds and manages the trade-off by setting the right expectations: “warning: this logging/monitoring app will make things worse before it makes it better, like any skill-learning aid.”

The second is a much more serious one. When the right response to a feedback error is a creative action, the tradeoff is between knowing more about the “stuck” situation versus heightened anxiety that prevents you from doing much with the data. Arguably, in this regime, the right way to handle the tradeoff is to turn off the monitoring and go open-loop for a while, trusting creative play behaviors to generate an event that unsticks you.

I think this is why common self-improvement goals like weight loss run aground once you hit the existing homeostasis point.  If your body set-point is say 150 lb and you are at 155 lbs due to too much Thanksgiving and Christmas over-eating, the diet-and-exercise routine in response to what you see on the scale everyday is enough to get you back to 150 lb. But if you’re hovering in the noise zone around 150 lbs (say +/- 2 lbs) and want to move the setpoint itself to 140 lbs, you need a creative lifestyle shift.

Watching the scale daily is not helpful in achieving this goal. You need something else.

I am not entirely sure about how to approach this interesting problem, but for starters, I think it’s useful to segment tools and behavior modification projects into two kinds: sustaining projects (no set points need to move, no creativity needed) and disruptive projects (set points need to move, creative insights needed). They are two very different regimes of behavior modification, and inspection/feedback/monitoring tools work very differently in the two regimes.

I believe we fall off the wagon when we have to shift between these regimes.


I Will Not Rest Until…

It recently struck me that only one sort of person makes statements of the form I will not rest until X: politicians. Usually in the context of some sort of holy-warrior mission like reforming healthcare, killing all infidels or exacting revenge. It’s a mark of a pursuit motivated by priceless values.

For the rest of us, there are what engineers call duty cycles: patterns of work and rest, uptime and downtime. It’s a pattern of work that doesn’t really include a sense of deadlines at all.

We get to an uptime/downtime understanding of how we’re working by lying to ourselves about the messy nature of effort and relaxation. We do this by marking out arbitrary thresholds that we can consciously detect. Then we lie a little more to club different effort levels together under “work” (in the worst case, calling all effort levels 1 and all relaxation levels 0). In the final stages of habit formation, we ritualize the threshold crossings into start/quit rituals (with warm-up/wind-down rituals before/after that we may or may not count as work).  Once the ritual scaffolding is in place, we allow ourselves to relax, letting the effort range shrink and smoothen into the comfort zone. The approximation created for understanding turns into the legible reality used for managing work . Here’s a picture:


Through such quantization, binary-ization, ritualization and comfort-ization, we get to an approximate and tractable understanding of how we’re working, and when it hardens into a prescription, we get to a passably effective approach to sustaining effort over indefinite periods of times, with predictable outcomes. This is what a habit really is: a ritualized way to sustain work that is not optimal with respect to the work itself, but with respect to the overheads of effort monitoring, feedback, etc. This is why habits have inertia: they are defined in terms of behaviors optimized for minimal meta-work.

When it’s really entrenched, the politician’s lie becomes a sort of truth. When we say something like “I will not rest until,” we really mean “the steady duty cycle will be focused without interruption on this objective.” We don’t really mean we won’t take downtime off. We mean, “this will be top priority within the duty cycle” or possibly “the only priority.” We don’t (and can’t) mean no weekends or evenings.

It’s a fairly harmless, if rather hypocritical/postury little lie.

But this understanding falls apart as we get closer to a deadline. There are times we actually cannot-rest-until something happens because our duty cycle unravels and our mind won’t let us relax until either a new one is in place OR an objective is achieved. Duty cycles are really the mind protecting itself against its own obsessive-compulsive demons. Or to put it another way, your mind is fundamentally atemporal: if time is nature’s way of ensuring everything doesn’t happen at once, OCD is our mind’s way of ignoring time and trying to force everything to happen at once. Duty cycles are how we artificially import a sense of time into our fundamentally atemporal brains. Possibly we are this way because we are fundamentally visual creatures and visual perception is an all-at-once kind of deal. When failure looms, it looms in an all-at-once way. When success is visualized, it springs relatively fully-formed into our minds, with no real hints of how to get there. We try to get around this at an intellectual level by translating time into space (otherwise known as a “having a plan all at once”) but that doesn’t actually work. It merely moves our OCD desire for an all-at-once anxiety-relief pill to a meta-level. Now we can’t rest until the plan is perfect.

As our sense of having a functional duty cycle unravels near a deadline, we are forced to reverse the quantization and binary-ization in order to understand what we’re doing, give up the rituals, and allow anxiety to creep back in, taking us out of our comfort zone. To those with low self-awareness and low tolerance for anxiety, this feels like the world falling apart. To more stoic people, with a more gritty, sisu temperament, this is just a period of learning and leveling-up to a more effective habit.

Perhaps this is why the advice smart people give for this sort of situation is just breathe, take it one day at a time. They key is to get back to living in actual time rather than the horror of spatialized time.

This is sort of an addendum note to this piece and this piece. I’m moving that line of writing from ribbonfarm to the tempo blog.

When is a Year not a Year?

Why do some people seem to achieve so much more than others in the same amount of time? I think it has to do with continuously developing a capacity for operating in narrative time. An easy way to understand this is to translate the effects into clock-time units. Since narratives evolve on multiple time scales at once, you can do the translation by using time scales. I made up this handy guide to thinking on single time scales versus multiple time-scales:

First, clock time is lost when you get more abstract in time, so you get this kind of outcome for clock-time thinking.

  1. If you prepare for a day at a time, you get 365 days in a year
  2. If you prepare for a week at a time, you get 182 days in a year
  3. If you prepare for a month at a time, you get 91 days in a year
  4. If you prepare for a year at a time, you get 45 days in a year

On the other hand, narrative time gains with such temporal abstraction, so long as you layer on the time scales bottom up instead of switching.

  1. If you prepare for a day at a time, you get 365 days in a year
  2. If you prepare fora day and a week at a time, you get 730 days in a year
  3. If you prepare for a day and a week and a month at a time, you get 1460 days in a year
  4. If you prepare for a day and a week and a month and a year at a time, you get 2920 days in a year

This is just an approximation of course, and you can abstract much more smoothly, without arbitrary calendar boundaries. You can add in intermediate layers and get similar doubling effects.

I am not kidding or exaggerating. I really do think there’s almost a Moore’s Law like exponential potential in how much narrative time you can unpack out of a given unit of clock-time. It’s like the fractal length of Norway’s boundary gets bigger and bigger as your ruler gets smaller and smaller.

Notice, I said prepare not plan. Planning at any time scale is more often harmful than helpful: planning activity subtracts in a zero-sum way from clock-time. Preparation adds in a non-zero-sum way to narrative time. The specifics of what preparation entails differ from person to person and context to context, but they all involve being more mindful of multiple time-scales at once.

What I called narrative time in Tempo is really what one might call mindfulness time. While clock time is something you look up on a clock, mindfulness time is something you develop like a muscle. For most people, the dynamic range of the muscle goes from a day to a year in clock time. Attempts to expand the range beyond a year tend to fail. Attempts to expand the range downwards into hours and minutes tends to work better, down to perhaps 25 minutes (the Pomodoro technique), but below that, it takes serious effort.

So if you find yourself running out of clock-time, don’t add more clock-time. Deepen the narrative time somehow.


Why Sleeping-In Makes You More Tired

There’s a good article in Wired about why oversleeping doesn’t help.

We’ve all been there: It’s been a long week at work, so Friday night, you reward yourself by going to bed early and sleeping in. But when you wake up the next morning (or afternoon), light scathes your eyes, and your limbs feel like they’re filled with sand. Your brain is still lying down and you even have faint headache. If too little sleep is a problem, then why is extra sleep a terrible solution?

Oversleeping feels so much like a hangover that scientists call it sleep drunkenness. But, unlike the brute force neurological damage caused by alcohol, your misguided attempt to stock up on rest makes you feel sluggish by confusing the part of your brain that controls your body’s daily cycle.

The Four Seasons of Lifehacking

Seattle is the farthest north I’ve ever lived, at 47.61 degrees. At this latitude, the longest day is about 16 hours and the shortest is about 8.5 hours, a range of 7.5 hours. Late summer months can get quite hot. Previously, the farthest north I’d lived was Rochester, NY (43 degrees). There, the day length varied from 15.5 to 9 hours, a range of 6.5 hours.

The extreme variation in day length makes it hard to stick to a single routine through the whole year. That extra hour in the variation range, coupled with my completely flexible schedule, make it significantly harder than even Rochester, where having a regular job made it much easier. Global warming hasn’t helped either, since that seems to have added to the unpredictability of the weather variations around seasonal norms.

I am sure it’s even worse further north in Canada and Alaska. A routine adapted for a harshly lit 16 hour day, with several hours of blazing heat simply does not work six months later for a gloomy eight hour day.

So one of the adaptations I’ve had to make, since moving to Seattle, is becoming a very seasonal creature.

Surprisingly, being forced to adopt a routine that varies through the year has made me much better at lifestyle hacking overall. High day-length variations force you to actually think and solve your routine problems. Fumbling through with an unchanging all-year routine might work at lower latitudes, especially if you have a fixed paycheck job schedule. But sufficiently far from the equator, with a sufficiently flexible schedule, life becomes impossible if you don’t go consciously and intelligently seasonal.

Over the last year, I’ve been making a special effort to go consciously seasonal in my lifestyle (or rather, consciously recognize and fine tune my instinctive adaptations), so I figured I’d share what I’ve learned so far.

[Read more…]

How Different Cultures Understand Time

There’s an interesting article in Business Insider about how different cultures understand time (ht Nikolay Bezhko). It includes this neat graphic.




The article is rather limited (does not mention the very relevant books by Robert Levine, Jay Griffiths and Jeremy Rifkin on the subject), but does make several interesting observations.

Effort Shock and Reward Shock

One of the most useful concepts I’ve come across in recent times is the idea of effort shock. It’s in a great post by David Wong of Cracked, How ‘The Karate Kid’ Ruined The Modern World.  

It seems so obvious that it actually feels insulting to point it out. But it’s not obvious. Every adult I know–or at least the ones who are depressed–continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock.

We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.

Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s 10 or 20 times harder. Like losing weight. You make yourself miserable for six months and find yourself down a whopping four pounds. Let yourself go at a single all-you-can-eat buffet and you’ve gained it all back.

Effort shock captures the nature of what I called the The Valley in Tempo, which roughly corresponds to the montage phase of many movies built around the character learning somethingThe insight Wong adds to the party is the tendency to actually think of the phase as a five-minute montage set to music, instead of the long, arduous phase with no music. Due to this tendency, we vastly underestimate the effort involved even in modest projects, to the point that when we actually understand what’s involved, we wonder whether the reward is worth it at all.

The good news is what I’ve started calling reward shock. In some (not all) domains, it is more than enough to offset effort shock.

When you overcome effort shock for a non-trivial learning project and get through it anyway, despite  doubts about whether it is worth it, you can end up with very unexpected rewards that go far beyond what you initially thought you were earning. This is because so few people get through effort shock to somewhere worthwhile that when you do it, you end up in sparsely populated territory where further gains through continued application from the earned skill can be very high.

Programming, writing and math are among the skills where there you get both significant effort shock and significant reward shock.

Language and Strategy

This fascinating article (HT: Mark Maxham) explores a Star Trek: TNG episode where Picard and crew meet a species that communicates entirely through metaphor and narrative. The article draws a smart (and in my opinion, correct) lesson from the episode:

“Strategy” is perhaps the best metaphor of all for the Tamarian phenomenon the Federation misnames metaphor. A strategy is a plan of action, an approach or even, at the most abstract, a logic. Such a name reveals what’s lacking in both metaphor and allegory alike as accounts for Tamarian culture. To be truly allegorical, Tamarian speech would have to represent something other than what it says. But for the Children of Tama, there is nothing left over in each speech act. The logic of Darmok or Shaka or Uzani is not depicted as image, but invoked or instantiated as logic in specific situations. In some cases, apparently, this invocation takes place with limited transformation, such as in the application of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra depicted in the episode’s main plotline. In other cases, those logics are used in situations with more play, as when Dathon reassures Picard after the former’s injury, “Kiazi’s children. Their faces wet.” 

Incidentally, such languages might not be as alien as they sound to English speakers. It seems like Chinese might actually have some of the characteristics of Tamarian, especially in written form.

Time, Money and Bandwidth

The NYT has an interesting piece on the psychology of poverty, No Money, No Time:

My experience is the time equivalent of a high-interest loan cycle, except instead of money, I borrow time. But this kind of borrowing comes with an interest rate of its own: By focusing on one immediate deadline, I neglect not only future deadlines but the mundane tasks of daily life that would normally take up next to no time or mental energy. It’s the same type of problem poor people encounter every day, multiple times: The demands of the moment override the demands of the future, making that future harder to reach.

When we think of poverty, we tend to think about money in isolation: How much does she earn? Is that above or below the poverty line? But the financial part of the equation may not be the single most important factor. “The biggest mistake we make about scarcity,” Sendhil Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard who is a co-author of the book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,” tells me, “is we view it as a physical phenomenon. It’s not.”

“There are three types of poverty,” he says. “There’s money poverty, there’s time poverty, and there’s bandwidth poverty.” The first is the type we typically associate with the word. The second occurs when the time debt of the sort I incurred starts to pile up.

Worthwhile perspective on time, decision-making and scarcity of cognitive resources. Similar in spirit to the research on decision fatigue I reblogged a while back.