The BBC investigates Effective Altruism

A friend sent me a link to a BBC radio episode about Effective Altruism (28 min).

Interesting, though frustrating. There are valid critiques of EA, but the program didn’t present them well at all.

It’s Holly at the end (26:40) who best represents EA, I think, with balance and an acceptance that both heartfelt personal decisions and rational decision-making play a part in her actions. Holly’s EA is nothing like the monstrosity that the presenter has conjured up. Peter Singer too, of course, though he gives more attention to edgy philosophical dilemmas and is more easily misrepresented by presenter Giles Fraser and the philosopher John Gray (neither of whom showed much understanding of the movement as it actually is).

To address a few points, from the episode description:

“Giles discovers that, if you’re going to be an Effective Altruist, you have to toughen up and not allow sentiment to get in the way – you can’t prioritise causes close to your family or communities and your heart.”

Aaagh, this is annoying and I have no idea where he “discovers” this, which is in fact untrue. I reject the dichotomy, and was glad that Holly had the chance at the end to do the same.

John Gray: “If you’re a real effective altruist you should feel guilty about loving your children…”

Aaaagh, philosopher who hates effective altruism tells EAs what they “should” do (but don’t), then berates that strawman version of EA as monstrous. It’s appalling that the presenter let him get away with that garbage. Makes good radio, though, I guess, and that kind of sums up most of the episode.

And what’s with the guilt stuff as something that effective altruists are somehow supposed to feel? Guilt helps no one. Yes, it’s something that individuals have experienced, as in many other movements, and the responses that I’ve seen within the community (emphasizing balance, self-care, acceptance, seeing the big picture and trying to let go of personal guilt) have been healthy.

The presenter continues with this nonsense, implying that he is superior to EA because his straw version of EA “denies love”. I wanted to slap him. But I wouldn’t actually slap him because that wouldn’t be loving.

Natalie Quinn, the development economist, is more reasonable, pointing to the real challenge of hard-to-measure impacts which are nonetheless important. The short snippet included in the program overlooks the fact that the movement is well aware of this, gives attention to it, and certainly doesn’t demand that we ignore such impacts. That misrepresentation is on the programmers’ heads rather than Quinn’s.

(I gather that there are some in the movement who don’t think we should care about anything we can’t measure accurately – or at least give that impression – just like there are people elsewhere who, like Mr Spock, think that emotion is bad and leave it out of their calculations.)

The concept presented here, of some kind of imperative to be coldly calculating, doesn’t match my experience.  What I have experienced within EA is closer to its tagline of “head and heart”.

Procrastination self-prescription (that works for me every time)

I have work to do, but constant low-grade pain from a shoulder strain is killing my concentration and will to work these last 24 hours. I’ve distracted myself with social media and I’m letting people down because of it. If only I knew an anti-procrastination coach.

Oh, wait!

Okay, here’s my self-prescription:

  • 5 minutes of work by the timer (because I can bear almost anything for 5 minutes, even in this state). Of course I can do more, but I permit myself to break anytime after 5 minutes (and definitely before 15 minutes, because of the shoulder).
  • Then 5 minutes of something nice for my shoulder – a spiky ball on the scapula, gentle range-of-motion exercises, some tense-and-release or a pain meditation. (I’ve found all of these things helpful in the past, but neglected them in favour of short-term distraction.)
  • Repeat for one hour, then reassess.

I’ve used this before, and it works for me.

You may notice that there is no time allocated for social media. That is not an oversight.

Lessons from leaving the Westboro Baptist Church

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church (the church known for their bigotry and hateful protests) and left as a young adult. Here she talks about how she left and the light that sheds on how to best communicate with our opponents.

From her TED talk:

I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided.

We want good things—justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity—but the path we’ve chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies. No nuance, no complexity, no humanity.

Even when someone does call for empathy and understanding for the other side, the conversation nearly always devolves into a debate about who deserves more empathy. And just as I learned to do, we routinely refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions
or the merits in our opponent’s. Compromise is anathema. We even target people on our own side when they dare to question the party line.

This path has brought us cruel, sniping, deepening polarization, and even outbreaks of violence. I remember this path. It will not take us where we want to go.

What gives me hope is that we can do something about this. The good news is that it’s simple,
and the bad news is that it’s hard. We have to talk and listen to people we disagree with.

It’s hard because we often can’t fathom how the other side came to their positions. It’s hard because righteous indignation, that sense of certainty that ours is the right side, is so seductive. It’s hard because it means extending empathy and compassion to people who show us hostility and contempt. The impulse to respond in kind is so tempting, but that isn’t who we want to be.

We can resist. And I will always be inspired to do so by those people I encountered on Twitter,
apparent enemies who became my beloved friends. And in the case of one particularly understanding and generous guy, my husband. There was nothing special about the way I responded to him. What was special was their approach.

I thought about it a lot over the past few years and I found four things they did differently
that made real conversation possible. These four steps were small but powerful, and I do everything I can to employ them in difficult conversations today.

The first is don’t assume bad intent. My friends on Twitter realized that even when my words were aggressive and offensive, I sincerely believed I was doing the right thing. Assuming ill motives almost instantly cuts us off from truly understanding why someone does and believes as they do. We forget that they’re a human being with a lifetime of experience that shaped their mind, and we get stuck on that first wave of anger, and the conversation has a very hard time ever moving beyond it. But when we assume good or neutral intent, we give our minds a much stronger framework for dialogue.

The second is ask questions. When we engage people across ideological divides, asking questions helps us map the disconnect between our differing points of view. That’s important because we can’t present effective arguments if we don’t understand where the other side is actually coming from and because it gives them an opportunity to point out flaws in our positions. But asking questions serves another purpose; it signals to someone that they’re being heard. When my friends on Twitter stopped accusing and started asking questions,
I almost automatically mirrored them.  Their questions gave me room to speak, but they also gave me permission to ask them questions and to truly hear their responses. It fundamentally changed the dynamic of our conversation.

The third is stay calm. This takes practice and patience, but it’s powerful. At Westboro, I learned not to care how my manner of speaking affected others. I thought my rightness justified my rudeness—harsh tones, raised voices, insults, interruptions—but that strategy is ultimately counterproductive. Dialing up the volume and the snark is natural in stressful situations, but it tends to bring the conversation to an unsatisfactory, explosive end. When my husband was still just an anonymous Twitter acquaintance, our discussions frequently became hard and pointed, but we always refused to escalate. Instead, he would change the subject. He would tell a joke or recommend a book or gently excuse himself from the conversation. We knew the discussion wasn’t over, just paused for a time to bring us back to an even keel. People often lament that digital communication makes us less civil, but this is one advantage that online conversations have over in-person ones. We have a buffer of time and space between us and the people whose ideas we find so frustrating. We can use that buffer. Instead of lashing out, we can pause, breathe, change the subject or walk away, and then come back to it when we’re ready.

And finally… make the argument. This might seem obvious, but one side effect of having strong beliefs is that we sometimes assume that the value of our position is or should be obvious and self-evident, that we shouldn’t have to defend our positions because they’re so clearly right and good that if someone doesn’t get it, it’s their problem—that it’s not my job to educate them. But if it were that simple, we would all see things the same way. As kind as my friends on Twitter were, if they hadn’t actually made their arguments, it would’ve been so much harder for me to see the world in a different way. We are all a product of our upbringing, and our beliefs reflect our experiences. We can’t expect others to spontaneously change their own minds. If we want change, we have to make the case for it. My friends on Twitter didn’t abandon their beliefs or their principles, only their scorn. They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being, and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain and violence.

I know that some might not have the time or the energy or the patience for extensive engagement, but as difficult as it can be, reaching out to someone we disagree with is an option that is available to all of us.
And I sincerely believe that we can do hard things, not just for them but for us and our future.

The end of this spiral of rage and blame begins with one person who refuses to indulge these destructive, seductive impulses. We just have to decide that it’s going to start with us.

Why I offer free anti-procrastination coaching every week

If you could have a free 20 min consultation with an experienced anti-procrastination coach, to identify usable strategies to break through procrastination, and there were no obligation and no hard sell, would you take it?

If there’s any hesitation, it might be this: Why would a good coach offer services for free? And you ask yourself, if a coach has me on a call, won’t they try to pressure me to buy? If you’re like me you’ve found that free offers usually (though not always) come with strings attached.

This is genuinely no pressure and no strings attached. Why? Allow me to explain.

I love what I do

I love what I do, because:

  • I work with people around the world via Skype or phone.
  • I get to see the changes they make in their own lives and the lives of others.
  • My clients are people who invest in their own growth.
  • My clients are doing great things, including finding their passion, improving their communication with colleagues and loved ones, improving their effectiveness at work, carrying out important social research, running a charity, bringing the joy of literature to students, finishing a PhD, and managing their own well-being. All of these make the world a better place,
  • Each of my clients, whatever path they are on, is my inspiration.

Hard selling? Not so much

Now let me tell you all the reasons I love hard sell:

Sorry, I got nothing.

Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about my work if the other person is asking about it. Marketing is good when it connects you to what you need. But the hard sell doesn’t suit my personality or my ethics. So I will never try to trap anyone with a sense of obligation over a free call that’s actually a sales call, pressure you to make a faster decision than is in your interest, or engage in any other kind of deliberate manipulation.

What’s in it for me?

So why the free offer?

Firstly, I would rather introduce you to my coaching for 20 minutes than pitch it to you. And I work in a way that I enjoy (a great anti-procrastination strategy, by the way), so I’m genuinely happy to give you this.

Also, a good proportion of people who get the free session do end up paying for coaching. Not all do and that’s the way it should be because I’m not the right coach for every person on the planet.

But enough do sign up that I get to give people something of value, make the world a little better, and call it “marketing”. Win-win!

Where do I get it, you ask?

Want your free 20 min consultation? Sign up here. I can only do a certain number each week, but I’ll do my best to talk to everyone who requests a 20 minute session.

Before they ever met you

The person who treated you hurtfully, who judged you, who disappointed you… Their responses to you were set in motion long before they ever met you. This is not about you.

You? Now? Your influence and power lie in stopping for a moment and choosing your response.

Note: This is not analytic philosophy or epistemology. It is not “The Truth”. It is just my attempt to point to a truth about human interaction. 

Return to the desired behavior without judgment

Perfectly expressed:

Getting organized (or establishing new habits) is like following your breath when learning to meditate. We are taught that, when you notice your mind wandering off and straying from the intention of following the breath, you simply notice having done so, without judgment, and return to following your breath. What if we could apply the same technique to habits, following routines and using strategies? What if the habit was not the new desired behavior, but the habit was returning to the desired behavior without judgment? If you solidify the habit of return, you will worry less about leaving the path. You will always have a way back.

– A listener’s letter to an ADHD-themed podcast. Link.

Find your audience

If you listen to advice for speakers, bloggers and other writers, you’ll often hear this: Pick one or two specific people who represent your target audience, and imagine you’re speaking to them. I’ve found this somewhat useful advice. but still abstract and difficult to keep in mind.

This changed once I had an actual audience of specific people – those I coach on antiprocrastination and focus through a text-based platform. This way of coaching is too cheap to be a major source of income, but I enjoy helping people in this way, and it’s an excellent audience.

Sometimes I’m writing for a specific client, and sometimes I send a message out to all. Either way, I have a strong sense for what they need and how they need to hear things, and so the words flow. It’s an amazing difference, and so this is where I’ve concentrated my writing energy recently.

Obviously your mileage may vary, but this might suggest to writers and speakers struggling to find your voice that you’d benefit from finding actual specific people that you have a commitment to, whose needs or interests you know something about. Then speak to them.

A blogging exercise – creating a writing habit

So much I’m excited about, that I want to write about, and yet I rarely post. I’m changing that now. 

Last year I set up a separate blog for my new life-coaching business, to describe my relatively analytical approach, and to blog on specific topics. I then set up  yet another blog (Procrastination Ambulance) focused on procrastination – which is my main focus in life coaching.

But having multiple blogs to manage became a distraction and a mental barrier, with maintenance on each, and decisions to make (which blog should I post to on topic X?) So I’ve used my own coaching processes on myself and come to four main decisions:

  • I’m running with Chris Waterguy as my business name, for now. People who know me in person remember my name, and know what I do.
  • One blog. I don’t love web admin work, and I don’t need to do it. It may not be perfect to mix posts on environmental and social issues with coaching and self-improvement topics, but I’m aiming for done and fun.
  • I give myself permission to share less-than-perfect blog posts, here on this site. My seminars are also imperfect, but people get value from them. And it’s my way of walking the talk that I talk with my clients. I’m not just telling you to embrace imperfection, I’m doing it.

And now, pardon any typos or other imperfections while I press “publish” – and what a great feeling this is!

Easily set meeting times across time zones

One thing we did not evolve to do was convert time zones. It can be surprisingly easy to get wrong even for people with good arithmetic skills. I’ve gotten times mixed up repeatedly when setting up international online meetings, or else used a lot of mental energy getting it arranged, energy that I’d rather use for the content of the meetings.

So if you set up meetings across time zones, you may like World Time Buddy – my favourite tool for timezone conversions. Clear and simple interface, and really quick and intuitive to use. The select/slide tool makes it easy to adjust times, and easy to know you’ve got the actual correct times.

Once you’ve decided on a time, use a timezone-friendly tool such as Google Calendar to send the invites. Or else arrange the whole thing with a scheduler that syncs with your calendar (e.g. Calendly or SetMore – or Doodle for something super simple that doesn’t sync with your calendar), but start with World Time Buddy to work out the range of suitable times.

I have no connection to World Time Buddy (apart from finding it an awesome headache saver), nor to the schedulers.

Want freedom? Maybe quit fleeing

When we feel pressure, a common instinct is to flee. Sometimes fleeting is wise (e.g. from an abusive relationship) but oftentimes it is not.

There is no universal law here. Facing the pressure and taking it on (yet again taking on more responsibility, and complaining about it) may be terrible advice. On the other hand, you may know yourself as one who has avoided responsibility, who has failed to follow through, who has allowed opportunities to slip away. If so, then consciously and choosing to take responsibility is likely to give you power in your life.

Not taking responsibility randomly, for the first thing that pops into your worried brain, or that someone asks you to do. Not for something that you’ve had guilt feelings about since childhood. Rather, for something that will turn you into a better person, something that might involve uncomfortable changes, that you’ve been avoiding for months or years. No universal law and no simple rule for choosing when to face and went to flee, but these may be signs of a responsibility that will give you freedom.

Freedom is the ability to set your schedule, to decide on the work you do, to make decisions.
…When in doubt, when you’re stuck, when you’re seeking more freedom, the surest long-term route is to take more responsibility to make something happen may be your wisest option.

– Seth Godin’s blog

Making Success More Likely When Changing Habits

What are the warning signs when making resolutions? And how can you do it better? We’re talking New Year resolutions or any decision to change for the better.

  1. A strategy that consists of “I mean it this time!”
  2. Any strategy that is based more on willpower than on triggers and routines. (A milder form of point 1.)
  3. A goal that sounds good – when I think “I really should do this” rather than really thinking through the most likely paths to achieve my goal.
  4. A vague goal, without a clear target, such as like “eat healthier”, “exercise more” or “blog”.

What can work better? First, let me emphasise: Find what works for you, and be willing to experiment.

Below are some insights which have helped me to create good habits:
– Expect that you’ll need to improve your strategy, as you find things that aren’t working, and try new approaches, until you have it working just right.
– Goals to “get X done” haven’t been the most effective for me. Goals to “Make it easier for myself to do X”, or “Work out a routine to do X” have given better results.
– Make it easy. Put effort into minimising any obstacles.
– If what I need for my habit is within reach and within sight, so I can start on my habit in seconds, it’s much more likely that I’ll do it. E.g. my yoga/exercise mat lives on my bedroom floor. It’s not the only place I exercise, but it makes starting that much easier.
– A good routine is awesomely powerful, making your new habit easier and much more consistent.
– The energy I have for life determines the energy I have for achieving my goals. For this reason, exercise and good sleep are key for me, and I’ve persisted in getting these right. (These habits are much improved, and my energy levels are better for it.)
– If your new habit requires focus, create time when you won’t be distracted. E.g. getting up early is by far the best way for me to write. (Staying up late to write can work for me in the short term, but ruins my energy and productivity in following days.)

What are you doing to make success more likely in 2015?

How To Use Rewards to Defeat Procrastination

Procrastination is our bias towards the present, controlling our behaviour. A small pain or loss now looms more than a much more serious gain, pain or loss in the future. Understanding how this works can let us turn procrastination around.

Procrastination is basically a simple term for a deep problem with human nature and the problem has to do with time. We live in the here and now but what’s good for us is often long in the future. And we have plans in the future. We will save money, and we would eat healthily, and we would exercise and we would do this and we would do that and we will do all that. Today I just don’t feel like it. Today the chocolate cake is tempting, and the gym is far away, it’s oh too humid outside, and I really saw a new bike and I don’t feel like saving.

These are the words of Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics, and the author of the highly regarded “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions“. Ariely suggests associating undesirable tasks with pleasurable activities, and tells a enlightening personal anecdote.

As a student, Dan Ariely faced a powerful reason for procrastination – a far away loss versus a short-term, intense pain. He contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion. Without proper treatment the disease could be deadly, but not for perhaps 30 years. (A very serious loss, very far away.) The treatment was to inject himself three times a week for 18 months. The medication made him feel terribly ill for hours, with vomiting and fever, beginning within an hour of the injection. (Immediate pain.) He followed the regimen without fail for the full period – but according to his doctors, he was their only patient to do so.

Amazing self-control? More self-control than other patients? No, he has the same struggles as the rest of us. Instead, he created a connection in his mind between the task and something he loved and wanted: movies. He did this in a very deliberate, planned way. Three days per week, he rented videos in the morning and carried them all day in his backpack, anticipating them. When he came home, he got everything he needed to watch the movies, gave himself the injection, and began watching.

His strategy imported new benefits for the present, making them even more immediate than the suffering. Rather than bemoan his lack of foresight, he subverted it.

What about us? Look for ways to use this principle to turn your own procrastination challenges around. This might be through a reward. It might be through creating a strong, “gut-level” association between the action you need to take and the results you want. This is something you can work on yourself, as well as something I do in my coaching, using reframing and NLP; I also use another approach called “propagating urges”, taught in the excellent CFAR workshops.

 

In this short video, Ariely tells his story. If you want more detail and some introductory neuroscience, skip to the second video, further down the page.

 

(Source and transcript)

And with more detail and neuroscience: