This is an annual post reviewing the last year and making resolutions and predictions for next year. 2020 brought a combination of challenges from living in a pandemic and becoming a parent. Other highlights include not getting sick, getting a broader perspective on my life through decluttering, and going back to Ukraine for the first time. (This post was written in bits and pieces over the past two months.)
Janos and I had a son, Daniel, on Nov 11. He arrived almost 3 weeks later than expected (apparently he was waiting to be born on my late grandfather’s birthday), and has been a great source of cuddles, sound effects and fragmented sleep ever since.
Some work things also went well this year – I had a paper accepted at NeurIPS, and was promoted to senior research scientist. Also, I did not get covid, and survived half a year of working from home (much credit goes to the great company of my housemates). Overall, a lot of things to be grateful for.
This is an annual post reviewing the last year and making resolutions and predictions for next year. This year’s edition features sleep tracking, intermittent fasting, overcommitment busting, and evaluating calibration for all annual predictions since 2014.
AI safety research:
Wrote an updated version of the relative reachability paper, including an ablation study on design choices.
Co-ran a subteam of the safety team focusing on agent incentive design (ongoing).
AI safety outreach:
Co-organized FLI’s Beneficial AGI conference in Puerto Rico, a more long-term focused sequel to the original Puerto Rico conference and the Asilomar conference. This year I was the program chair for the technical safety track of the conference.
Attended the CFAR mentoring workshop in Prague, and started running rationality training sessions with Janos at our group house.
Started using work cycles – focused work blocks (e.g. pomodoros) with built-in reflection prompts. I think this has increased my productivity and focus to some degree. The prompt “how will I get started?” has been surprisingly helpful given its simplicity.
Stopped eating processed sugar for health reasons at the end of 2017 and have been avoiding it ever since.
This has been surprisingly easy, especially compared to my earlier attempts to eat less sugar. I think there are two factors behind this: avoiding sugar made everything taste sweeter (so many things that used to taste good now seem inedibly sweet), and the mindset shift from “this is a luxury that I shouldn’t indulge in” to “this is not food”.
Unfortunately, I can’t make any conclusions about the effects on my mood variables because of some issues with my data recording process :(.
Declining levels of insomnia (excluding jetlag):
22% of nights in the first half of 2017, 16% in the second half of 2017, 16% in the first half of 2018, 10% in the second half of 2018.
This is probably an effect of the sleep CBT program I did in 2017, though avoiding sugar might be a factor as well.
Made some progress on reducing non-research commitments (talks, reviewing, organizing, etc).
Set up some systems for this: a spreadsheet to keep track of requests to do things (with 0-3 ratings for workload and 0-2 ratings for regret) and a form to fill out whenever I’m thinking of accepting a commitment.
My overall acceptance rate for commitments has gone down a bit from 29% in 2017 to 24% in 2018. The average regret per commitment went down from 0.66 in 2017 to 0.53 in 2018.
However, since the number of requests has gone up, I ended up with more things to do overall: 12 commitments with a total of 23 units of workload in 2017 vs 19 commitments with a total of 33 units of workload in 2018. (1 unit of workload ~ 5 hours)
I’ve been collecting data about myself on a daily basis for the past 3 years. Half a year ago, I switched from using 42goals (which I only remembered to fill out once every few days) to a Google form emailed to me daily (which I fill out consistently because I check email often). Now for the moment of truth – a correlation matrix!
The data consists of “mood variables” (anxiety, tiredness, and “zoneout” – how distracted / spacey I’m feeling), “action variables” (exercise and meditation) and sleep variables (hours of sleep, sleep start/end time, insomnia). There are 5 binary variables (meditation, exercise, evening/morning insomnia, headache) and the rest are ordinal or continuous. Almost all the variables have 6 months of data, except that I started tracking anxiety 5 months ago and zoneout 2 months ago.
“Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.”
Uncle Iroh, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”
Shame is one of the trickiest emotions to deal with. It is difficult to think about, not to mention discuss with others, and gives rise to insidious ugh fields and negative spirals. Shame often underlies other negative emotions without making itself apparent – anxiety or anger at yourself can be caused by unacknowledged shame about the possibility of failure. It can stack on top of other emotions – e.g. you start out feeling upset with someone, and end up being ashamed of yourself for feeling upset, and maybe even ashamed of feeling ashamed if meta-shame is your cup of tea. The most useful approach I have found against shame is invoking humility.
I have used various organization and productivity systems in the past few years – this is an overview of what worked and what didn’t.
Main systems I currently use:
Follow Up Then: Sends an email to a future self, with the date and time specified in the email address, e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org. I use it for delaying tasks, recurring reminders, and following up on email threads. This reduces clutter in my todo list, calendar and inbox, and frees my working memory. Lately, I noticed myself remembering a thing shortly before receiving a follow up about it – probably due to the same mechanism that sometimes wakes me up a few minutes before the morning alarm.
Complice: Daily to-do list organized according to goals, with archives and regular reviews. Helpful for specifying the next action to take at a given time, and for tracking progress on individual goals. Downside: I sometimes hesitate to enter tasks into the list, because entered tasks cannot be erased, and leaving a task unfinished is aversive, so often end up entering tasks after they are done instead.
Workflowy: Nested list structure – searchable, with collapsible and sharable sublists. I keep my ongoing todo list (in GTD form) and most of my notes here. Downside: doesn’t work for goal factoring, since it only supports tree structures.
Google Calendar: Self-explanatory. I have recently started adding tentative meeting slots, indicated by a question mark, e.g. “dinner with Janos?”. This has been helpful for keeping track of which time slots I’ve offered to someone. I also added a calendar that shows Facebook events that I’ve been invited to, which is handy.
42 Goals: Goal tracking with summary graphs and cute symbols. I use this for tracking habits (like exercise and meditation) and other random things (like insomnia occurrences). The graphs are useful – this is how I know that I have the most insomnia on Mondays! Downsides: doesn’t allow non-binary categories, and the phone app is so unreliable that I never use it – if you know good alternative tracking systems, let me know!
The CFAR alumni workshop on the first weekend of May was focused on the Hamming question. Mathematician Richard Hamming was known to approach experts from other fields and ask “what are the important problems in your field, and why aren’t you working on them?”. The same question can be applied to personal life: “what are the important problems in your life, and what is stopping you from working on them?”.
Over the course of the weekend, the twelve of us asked this question of ourselves and each other, in many forms and guises: “if Vika isn’t making a major impact on the world in 5 years, what would have stopped her?”, “what are your greatest bottlenecks?”, “how can we actually try?”, etc. The intense focus on mental pain points was interspersed with naps and silly games to let off steam. On the last day, we did a group brainstorm, where everyone who wanted to receive feedback took a turn in the center of the circle, and everyone else speculated on what they thought were the biggest bottlenecks of the person in the center. By this time, we had mostly gotten to know each other, and even the impressions from those who knew me less well were surprisingly accurate. I am very grateful to everyone at the workshop for being so insightful and supportive of each other (and actually caring).