Since we moved into Citadel House in Boston a year ago, we ran self-improvement and rationality sessions every week, for the housemates and some local LessWrongers. There were around 3 sessions running at a time, and some of them caught on much more than others. I will discuss the sessions in decreasing order of success.
Meta Mondays are self-improvement meetings with a theme – most meetings involved a particular activity announced (slightly) in advance, aimed at practicing a skill. Some example activities were:
- Feedback-a-thon. A large group of us got on Admonymous, and sent each other feedback messages simultaneously. We had a list of feedback categories on the board (social skills, hygiene, speech patterns, etc), and some people requested feedback in specific categories. We were sufficiently persistent and prolific to overwhelm the website’s email quota!
- Table Topics Against Rationality. We combined the idea of Table Topics from Toastmasters (1-2 minute impromptu speeches) with Cards Against Rationality. Everyone took turns drawing two cards from the deck, and then giving a speech that connected the concepts on the two cards to each other. This devolved into silliness at the end, when we threw in the Cards Against Humanity deck.
- WRAP decision framework. (“Widen your options, Reality test assumptions, Attain emotional distance, Prepare to be right/wrong.”) I taught this decision procedure, and people played around with applying it, but most of the people present didn’t have a major upcoming decision to practice on.
At times when we didn’t have a theme, we would have a general conversation about what people were optimizing in their lives these days. The themed meetings were generally better attended and more focused, but also required more preparation. In future, we should invite guest hosts for Meta Mondays, instead of coming up with all the topics ourselves.
Order of the Sphex
This is a habit building session, named after the carpenter wasp of CFAR fame, known for stalwartly adhering to its routines. We would go around the circle proposing habits to try for a week, and then on the second round everyone would commit to 1-2 habits to work on. These could be the same habits as last week, sometimes with modifications, or new habits. At the end of the session, I sent everyone involved an email with their commitments.
Due to fluctuating attendance, in practice people followed up on their habits every few weeks instead of weekly. Some found it helpful, others said that talking about a difficult habit without immediately doing something about them made the action more aversive. Depending on why someone is not sticking to habits, this session can be useful if their main failure mode is forgetting or indecision, and counterproductive if the underlying problem is aversion.
Since many people procrastinate on writing things, we decided to get together and write every week, optionally sharing the writing with others. This session was successful for a while – people wrote blog posts, LessWrong articles, stories, journal entries, emails, etc. Gradually, some regular attendees dropped out, and we started skipping the session on most weeks. Some said that it was hard to write on demand or to finish a piece of writing in a two-hour time block. The usefulness of this session depended on the ability to pick up and continue a previously started piece of writing, which was challenging for many of us.
We used the goal factoring technique from CFAR to analyze the motivations behind our actions, and alternative ways to achieve the same goals more cheaply. We also did some aversion factoring – analysis of potentially useful but unpleasant actions. (Here, “action” has a broad meaning that includes things like “thinking about X” or “having emotion X”.) We usually worked by ourselves for a while, and then (optionally) discussed our findings with each other.
One failure mode was people choosing more sharable actions to factor, which were usually less private or embarrassing, and thus likely less useful. We tried to remedy this by holding a “secret goal factoring” session, where people agreed not to share their results. In practice, most people said they didn’t factor anything particularly private or important in this session, so other barriers to analyzing important actions might be more significant than fear of sharing with a group.
After a few months, we ran out of low hanging fruit in terms of actions to factor, and this session was transformed into Meta Mondays.
For a month or so, I tried to run a weekly CFAR-style strategic review session. This didn’t catch on at all – it was difficult to explain, and since the benefit of the technique depends on regularity, inconsistent attendance made it useless to everyone except me. These days, I do strategic reviews on my own once every few weeks.
All the sessions had the difficulty of staying focused on the activity without devolving into unstructured conversation. This could be helped by running at most two sessions at a time, since there would be more evenings free for random conversation. Another general takeaway is that sessions need a clear purpose that people buy in to.
I am running a survey to see which sessions people found useful last year and/or want to happen this coming year. Stay tuned!