Concretize Your Task List

 Posted by on 10 July 2013 at 2:00 pm  Productivity, Psycho-Epistemology, Psychology
Jul 102013

Ever since interviewing Andrew Miner on Getting Things Done last year, I’ve been working on improving my own personal method of “Getting Things Done.” (If you don’t know what “Getting Things Done” is… go read the book, Getting Things Done, pronto!) I’ve pared down my projects to focus on what’s most important to me, and I’ve also made excellent progress on a slew of long-delayed mini-projects.

In the process, I’ve learned that I usually need to be very, very concrete about my task list. Every item in my task list must be a single, clear, delimited action — otherwise, when I have time to make progress on some project, I won’t know what I need to do next. So I don’t register “update archive generation script” or “clean and oil tack” or “post The Paleo Rodeo” as single tasks any more. Instead, they’re projects, each containing four to six tasks.

I was worried that doing that would make my GTD system more complicated, even unmanageable. Instead, it seems simpler because I don’t need to repeatedly re-think what I need to do to advance my goals. Instead, I can just chip away at the next action, again and again.

So if the tasks required to accomplish some goal aren’t crystal clear to you, then perhaps try taking a few minutes to figure out what actions you need to do to make progress. If you’re too busy for that, just add “plan project” as your first task! That seems to make a huge dent in my tendency to procrastination.

In case you’ve not heard my interview with Andrew Miner about “Getting Things Done,” you can listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Note: I published a version of the above commentary in Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter a while back. Subscribe today!


Lifehacker has an excellent article on how “Clearing to Neutral” can help you avoid procrastination. I’d recommend reading the whole article, but here’s the critical idea:

The main idea behind [Clearing to Neutral] is that you set yourself up for success. What that means is that any time you finish your activity, you do a little routine where you set it up so that the next time you start there is no friction. In other words, you setup your environment for next time.

Our friend … uses the analogy of cleaning a grill. In restaurants, the process of cleaning the grill is very important. It ensures the grill will last longer, the food will taste better, and you prevent any bacteria from growing. Before the restaurant closes, the cooks always clean the grill so the next day when they come in it is ready for use.

This is exactly the idea behind Clearing To Neutral and how you need to set yourself up. The reason we call it CTN is because whenever you finish an activity, you need to move everything so everything is in neutral position. When something is neutral, it is stale and you can do anything you want to it.

Now this is why the habit of clearing to neutral is so important: it prevents you from procrastinating in the future. By making sure you clean up your environment and toolkit, you ensure that the next time you need to use them there will be no friction at all. In other words, you make it easy for your “future self” to get started.

I’m not a neat and tidy person by nature, and I almost always prefer to move on to the next bit of fun rather than spend a few minutes “clearing to neutral.” Yet… it makes such a difference! I should, for example:

  • always clear out collected papers and other items from my bag when I return home
  • always put away tools and implements (scissors, superglue, pens) after using them
  • always put away books into their proper place after using them

Now that I think about it, I’m pretty fanatical about “clearing to neutral” in dealing with the horses — whether feeding, riding, or trailering. In those cases, I have a clear routine, and I feel like I’m cutting corners and burdening my future self unless every step is done. Developing those kinds of routines in the messier areas of my life could make a huge difference, I think!

Where do you need to work on “Clearing to Neutral”? Remember, if you clearly identify what counts as “Clearing to Neutral” in a given domain — perhaps even writing it down and posting it somewhere visible — you’ll be much more willing and able to do it when tired, distracted, or eager to move on to the next task. Make “Clearing to Neutral” easy, so that you can do it on autopilot.

Note: I published a version of the above commentary in Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter a while back. Subscribe today!


It’s often difficult to challenge your own entrenched beliefs. Habits of thought die hard, particularly when your values or way of life seems to depend on those beliefs. (“But but but… XYZ must be true!”)

When confronted with challenging new ideas, I try to approach them carefully, so as to avoid any knee-jerk emotional reaction in favor of my existing beliefs.

Ideally, here’s what I do: I remind myself that I don’t need to agree or disagree right away. Instead, I focus on understanding the ideas and arguments fully. Then, once that’s done, I take some time to mull over those ideas — perhaps days, weeks, or months. I gather empirical evidence for and against the idea. I consider new angles, arguments, and implications. I discuss those ideas with smart people, as they often have fresh insights. Finally, I come to a judgment about the truth of those new ideas.

If I take that time, I’m far less likely to err in my evaluation — meaning, to dismiss right ideas or embrace wrong ideas. That’s a win!

But… uh… of course, that’s not always what happens. Yet even when I have that dreaded knee-jerk reaction against some new idea, I can exert my better judgment: I can choose to evaluate it objectively. If I have to eat crow at the end of that process, that’s better than persisting in dogmatic commitment to falsehoods.

Note: I published a version of the above commentary in Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter a while back. Subscribe today!

Make More Progress

 Posted by on 9 May 2013 at 11:00 am  Advice, Productivity, Psycho-Epistemology, Psychology, Purpose, Sports
May 092013

(I wrote this for Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter back in September 2012, but it’s still relevant today… and I’m still using the same technique!)

Just this week, I had my third horseback riding lesson with my new three-day eventing trainer. Lila (my horse) and I have made remarkable progress in just these three lessons, and my trainer has definitely noticed that. Hooray!

The main reason for my progress is that I’ve been ruthlessly purposeful about my training. After each lesson, I’ve taken notes on the main problems and exercises that we covered. (It’s a bit hard to take notes while on horseback!) Then I deliberately work on some of those issues every time I ride. Lila and I aren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we are making very speedy progress. That steady progress makes my riding and my lessons so much more enjoyable and satisfying. (Ideally, I’d like to find a way to video record my lessons, as that would be even better than notes.)

So if you’re spending your valuable time and money on learning any kind of skill — whether via dance class, dog training, or a sports clinic — make the most of it! Take good notes as soon as you can. Then practice the advice in those notes as often as you can. You’ll likely notice vastly better results in very short order.

Oct 102012

Ah, my poor horse Elsie. If you put her under the slightest bit of pressure, she just falls apart in a panic. The good news is that she’s willing to try and learn. So by exerting just slightly increasing pressure over time, waiting for her to adjust to it at each stage, she makes good — but very slow — progress.

For example, last Monday morning, I locked her in the barn — via a chain across each door and with Lila in the stall next door — for about an hour with her food. For any other horse, that’s a lovely opportunity to eat and snooze. Not for Elsie!

Mind you, locking her in a stall used to be completely impossible: she’d burst through the chains in less than a minute. She’s gotten much better over the last few weeks of consistent work, such that she’s used to being locked in her stall for 15 or 30 minutes at a stretch. I’ve been working on this behavior in particular because winter is coming, and I need to be able to lock Elsie and Lila in the barn with the doors closed overnight during snowstorms.

On Monday, she was in the stall for longer than ever before. Alas, she felt the difference. She was clearly in a bit of a panic when I went back down to the barn after that hour. (But hooray, she’d not burst out of the stall!)

I didn’t release her right away: I wanted her to calm down a bit, then reward her by releasing her. So I told her to settle down, I got a few treats from the tack room, and then I let Lila out of her stall. At that point, Elsie was agitated, but not wild. So dropped the chain, then I did our usual routine of a few steps forward and then a few steps back coming out of the door.

I’ve been doing that because she has a habit of running out the stall door. The moment that she realizes that she’s free, her brain screams “GEMME OUTTA HERE”! She bursts through the stall door, sometimes banging into posts or people. Then, the moment that she’s free, she returns to being her calm self. Obviously, that’s not just rude but dangerous for everyone. So I’ve been working on that via this back-and-forth movement out of the stall: she’s required to be consistently under control, and she’s rewarded for that. It’s made a big difference.

In this case, she did that “two steps forward, two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back, and so on” pretty well, given her state of agitation. Then she was released, and she relaxed immediately.

So… good girl, Elsie. You try hard, and your progress has been remarkable. But wow, these are such 1st grade skills for a horse. Okay, maybe 2nd grade now, but still.

Happily, I’ve learned a whole lot by training Elsie — and not just about training methods. She’s a horse that requires the utmost in patience, calmness, and self-discipline. I must be firm with her, but any expression of frustration is hugely counter-productive, and perhaps even dangerous. That means that I’m training my own character as I’m training her character.

For me, that need for psychological self-awareness and self-improvement — as well as the bond of trust with this half-ton beast that could kill me with ease, if so inclined — is what I love so much about training horses. The challenge is mostly psychological and intellectual, not physical.

Sep 122012

I found this image on Facebook, and um, well, I can’t help but relate to it.

As it happens, however, I discussed “The Problem of Procrastination” in an early webcast, back in 2010. In case you missed it:

Tags: Emotions, Procrastination, Productivity, Psycho-Epistemology, Psychology

Now that I think about it, I wonder: Is procrastination related to a person’s DiSC personality type? I googled, and found this interesting article discussing how and why each of the four types tend to procrastinate:

High D

The person with a high D DISC profile is associated with adjectives like decisive, strong-willed, goal-oriented, and bold. Many things that others might allow to become subjects of procrastination, the high D won’t because of a behavioral bias toward decisive action. If something is not moving toward a goal it is likely to be dismissed, or delegated to another to accomplish. If it is moving a goal forward then it will probably be acted on immediately – the fear and doubt which may cause others to stall on a task isn’t usually a problem for the bold D. However, if a high D is avoiding something due to an emotional conflict or a misalignment with personal motivations, he or she is more likely to displace the task with other activities than to stall out and do nothing.

High I

A person whose DISC profile indicates a high I is associated with words like flamboyant, gregarious, pleasing, political, enthusiastic and superficial. Distraction is often more the cause of lapses in productivity for this individual rather than procrastination, however, if a task requires working alone, in seclusion, or is something that is perceived of as not fun or popular, then it is far more likely to be avoided by the high I. When confronted with an undesirable activity the high I will often seek comfort through interaction with others, which can cause a losing track of time – a form of unintentional avoidance. The high I will almost always procrastinate when it comes to chores like giving people bad news or disciplining others – they avoid things that might cause the other person to have a negative reaction to them.

High S

Words like persistent, patient, modest, predictable and resistant to change are associated with the high S DISC profile. That means an S is more likely to resist activities that disrupt familiar routines or threaten the balance of established relationships. The high S person can be very productive if the routine of activities aren’t prone to rapid change or disruption, she thrives on steadiness not chaos. Procrastination brought on by emotional stress or intimidation may not be outwardly obvious – the high S can have a relaxed, even phlegmatic demeanor – they are unlikely to rebel vocally against an undesirable task, so a manager may not realize they have given the high S an assignment that is distasteful. Of the four categories, the high S is the most susceptible to procrastination – slipping into the mindset of hoping that the situation will go away if ignored, or that “time will solve the problem.”

High C

The high C DISC profile is associated with perfectionism, meticulousness, and being strict about rules and procedures. The high C is typically very disciplined and detail oriented – tasks that other DISC styles might avoid because they seem dry, procedural or tedious, may actually be well-suited to the high C. Additionally the high C may have a lower empathy for procrastination by others because it can threaten processes and carefully architected systems. When the high C falls off in productivity it is more likely to be because they have let perfectionism get in the way than because they are avoiding a step in the process. Unlike the high S, when faced with a task that breaks compliance with procedure, the high C is likely to express the displeasure.

My tendency is definitely a mixture of the High D and High I. I procrastinate by doing a bunch of other tasks, usually not of any particular importance at that very moment, rather than do the task that I’m uncertain or conflicted about — or the task that I find boring.

Are these descriptions apt for your DiSC type? Tell us in the comments!

The Conspiracies of Ron Paul

 Posted by on 2 February 2012 at 8:00 am  Election, Epistemology, Ethics, Politics, Psycho-Epistemology, Religion, Ron Paul
Feb 022012

A few weeks ago, an unknown Ron Paul’s supporter (or supporters) created a stir with a video attacking John Huntsman. Reuters reports:

Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman and members of his family expressed outrage on Friday at an advertisement targeted at his adopted daughters by a group supporting rival Ron Paul.

An online ad authored by “NHLiberty4Paul” shows footage of Huntsman with daughters Gracie, who was adopted from China, and Asha, adopted from India, when they were infants.

“American values. Or Chinese,” the ad asks to a soundtrack of Chinese music. It calls Huntsman “the Manchurian Candidate” and ends with an image of Huntsman dressed as China’s former communist leader Mao Zedong, and the words “Vote Ron Paul.”

Here’s the video, and I definitely recommend watching it:

So what is Ron Paul’s response?

Paul, a Texas congressman, disavowed the ad during an interview on Friday on CNN, but said he could not control the actions of all his supporters.

“I couldn’t even hear it, haven’t looked at it, but people do that, and they do it in all campaigns,” Paul said.

(Update: Apparently, Ron Paul’s campaign did attempt to sue to discover the author of the video, but they were rebuffed by the courts.)

Unfortunately, Ron Paul has a long history of tolerating these and other varieties of racist, homophobic, and otherwise disreputable supporters. He distances himself in tepid terms, and refuses to condemn them in anything remotely like the strong language that they deserve. That’s why he’s got problem after problem with downright frightening supporters.

Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign had such problems in spades, particularly for refusing reject donations from neo-Nazis. In this 2010 campaign, Ron Paul’s campaign welcomed the endorsement of a Christian dominionist pastor in Iowa who — consistent with his overall theology — advocates the death penalty (!!!) for homosexuality. (Please go read the whole story, because it’s quite remarkable.) The announcement on Ron Paul’s web site welcoming this fothermucker’s endorsement was deleted, but as far as I can tell, Ron Paul never repudiated the endorsement.

Moreover, Ron Paul has never adequately explained or repudiated the viciously racist and homophobic comments in his newsletters.

How should the lunatic fringe be handled in a campaign? Consider the reaction of Bob Barr’s campaign to a racist endorsement when he ran for president in 2008 on the Libertarian Party ticket:

The Barr campaign is not going to be a vehicle for every fringe and hate group to promote itself. We do not want and will not accept the support of haters. Anyone with love in their heart for our country and for every resident of our country regardless of race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation is welcome with open arms.

Tell the haters I said don’t let the door hit you on the backside on your way out!

I’m not a fan of Bob Barr, but *pow* *pow* *pow* — that’s how it’s done!

Instead of doing that — or anything like it — Ron Paul tolerates dangerous idiots, only setting them at arm’s length when exposed by the media. This pattern of actions reveals something amiss with Ron Paul’s character and judgment, I fear. He’s not a racist, I don’t think: he’s said and done too much too clearly against that. So is he just willing to tolerate and pander to dangerous nonsense in the hope of a few more votes? I don’t think that explains the pattern, not when he sticks to his guns on economics.

I suspect that a major cause of these problems is that he’s got a serious but mostly hidden penchant for conspiracy theories. This fascinating NY Times article explores that in some detail. For example:

In a 1990 C-Span appearance, taped between Congressional stints, Paul was asked by a caller to comment on the “treasonous, Marxist, alcoholic dictators that pull the strings in our country.” Rather than roll his eyes, Paul responded, “there’s pretty good evidence that those who are involved in the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations usually end up in positions of power. And I believe this is true.”

Paul then went on to stress the negligible differences between various “Rockefeller Trilateralists.” The notion that these three specific groups — the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rockefeller family — run the world has been at the center of far-right conspiracy theorizing for a long time, promoted especially by the extremist John Birch Society, whose 50th anniversary gala dinner Paul keynoted in 2008.

Wow, just wow. By all means, go watch the video for yourself. He just smooth talks right in and out of the conspiracies.

Judged by the standards of a rational epistemology, conspiracy-theorism is nearly at the bottom of the barrel. The mind of the conspiracy theorist is in complete disarray, utterly unable to evaluate evidence or stick to facts. It’s engaging in a constant process of invention, and then confusing those inventions with facts.

For that to be the basic psycho-epistemology of the US President… well, that would be frightening.


In Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast, I discussed rationality in face of overwhelming emotions. The question was:

How can a person regain his rationality in the face of overwhelming emotions? On occasion, I find my rational judgment swamped by strong emotions like anger and anxiety. In such cases, my thinking seems distorted by my emotions. While in the grip of such emotions, what can I do to re-establish my powers of rational thought? Also, how can I prevent myself from saying or doing things that I’ll later regret?

My answer, in brief:

You need not be at the mercy of your emotions: you can take charge of own mind in friendly way. So when your emotions rage out of control, you should (1) notice them, (2) analyze them, (3) work to defuse them, and (4) later, prevent the same from happening again.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

If you enjoy the video, please “like” it on YouTube and share it with friends in e-mail and social media! You can also throw a bit of extra love in our tip jar.

All posted webcast videos can be found in the Webcast Archives and on my YouTube channel.

My Brain Versus Particulars

 Posted by on 14 October 2011 at 7:00 am  Epistemology, Funny, Personal, Psycho-Epistemology
Oct 142011

This Oatmeal comic segment — part of the brilliant “if my brain was an imaginary friend” strip — perfectly captures how my brain works. (Click here or on the image to view it.)

I have the same problem with all particulars, such as dates and places. When taking notes on a history lecture by Eric Daniels, I’ve had to replay what he said in my head, to get down the notes properly. I can hear it perfectly word-for-word — almost. Inevitably, it sound something like, “The soldiers were despondent after General BUUZZZZZ moved his troops to BUUZZZZZ in the year BUUZZZZZ.”

Apparently, after seven years of graduate school in philosophy, my brain decided that particulars were unimportant. Or maybe the causation runs in the other direction. Either way: DOH!


In Sunday’s Rationally Selfish Webcast, I discussed introspection — particularly focused on these questions:

  • What is introspection?
  • Why should a person introspect?
  • What should a person introspect about — or not?
  • How can a person introspect effectively?

Here’s the 20-minute video, now posted to YouTube:

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha