June 27, 2021
How can you live your best life? What's a good definition of "wisdom"? What are some possible taxonomies of life outcomes? What are some low-hanging fruit in the realm of self-improvement? What are some useful behavior change frameworks and techniques?
All his life, James Norris has been searching for the best ways to change himself and change the world. He started as an entrepreneur at age 6 and since has co-founded or helped build 9 businesses and 16 organizations, including the premier conference for the effective altruism movement, the world's first global lifehacking event series, Southeast Asia's first social innovation hackathon series, and a university for today's Leonardo da Vincis. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin as a triple major / quadruple minor. Find more about him at jamesnorris.org and upgradable.org.
JOSH: Hello and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with James Norris about behavior change and applied rationality, evaluating effort against value, and strategies for developing rituals and maintaining focus.
SPENCER: James, welcome, it's really great to have you here.
JAMES: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
SPENCER: You have some really fascinating experiences when it comes to behavior change. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
JAMES: How long do you have? [laughs] Let's do the short version. As a kid, I was one of those young kids that was obsessed with behavior change, with self-development, with becoming more effective. I read my first book — I think it was "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," that was my favorite — and just kept on reading and kept on exploring. So over the years — this is more than 20 years ago — I have been experimenting on myself, on friends and family when they'll let me, and then on clients, both in startups, at labs, and my own life's work is now compressed in my small applied behavior change lab called Upgradable. So that's the short story, but we can get into any areas that you might want to explore.
SPENCER: Could you tell us a bit about what you do at Upgradable? What do you actually work on with your clients?
JAMES: We're trying to solve the problem of human flourishing (or the opportunity). Everyone wants to know how you can live your best life or an optimal life. I know you study this, and I know a lot of our peers have. Everyone's got different approaches to it. And for us, we've been taking this behavioral science approach heavily, with a healthy dose of technology and rationality, so if you put those together and try to tackle this directly, you come up with what we have. But more concretely we are helping altruistic ambitious people (which might be like an Elon Musk) set, plan and achieve their life goals and try to help the planet get off this planet. It could be like a Norman Borlaug trying to feed the world, or it could just be someone getting their life in order so they can make it to Bali (where I currently live), and have an extraordinary life, just a simple, peaceful life. So many different approaches there, but it doesn't seem like we've figured out as a society how to actually do that. Tell me if you disagree, but I haven't seen any lab or any intervention or any program out there that seemed to be reliably effective for the masses, the majority of people. Do you agree with that or do you think it's more optimistic than that?
SPENCER: I do agree, and I think you can trace the thread of this idea really far back, of how do we live our best life. You can look at the Greek philosophers talking about this. You can look at the Stoics and their approach to trying to prevent suffering in their experience. You could look at Buddhism and trying to free yourself from craving and aversion. In some sense, I think many of these are paths to a certain type of best life or an attempt at creating a certain type of best life with certain opinions about how to get there, but also opinions about what you're trying to get to. Any thoughts on that?
JAMES: Yeah, we have a similar path. So 'eudaimonia' might start — I can't say it in Greek, my Greek friends are mad at me — but all the way up until now, or even more recently, the Human Potential Movement, and now the Biohacking Movement, the self-help approaches, Transformative Technology, there's a whole slew of different theories and fields that have converged around this best life or optimal life question. I've done this for 20 plus years, and I still don't know. It still baffles me what are the right answers or the most plausibly ideal answers. [laughs] So I love that you're trying to solve some of those with Clearer Thinking and some of our peers are doing similar work, like CFAR tackling this from a heavily cognitive science perspective.
SPENCER: That's the Center for Applied Rationality, right?
JAMES: Yeah, that's right. And I think we need far more approaches, far more organizations and ambitious people just giving it a shot. Because if we don't try, most people are going to go through their lives and, typically, they're not going to be very successful from an objective perspective. They're not going to actually achieve their life goals, if that's what you care about. They're not going to just do basics like get their finances in order or their health, or their mental well-being, those are things that — unless you hit the genetic lottery, geographic lottery — it's really hard, it's really hard to make it. And I think we ought to change that because there's a lot of people out there that deserve better lives. Our institutions aren't really helping [laughs] to the highest level, and the individual researchers trying to make this happen, they're not quite getting there. So I won't be a pessimist; I think we've got a lot of stuff we've learned that does seem effective. Like goal attainment, you can set goals and hit them, and that does help. And we know a little bit about nutrition. We know a little bit about exercise. We know a little bit about relationships as a species. So we're getting there. I just want to put a few more trillion hours of time into it to see how far we can go.
SPENCER: It does seem like an incredibly important topic. I want to dig in a little bit with you on different perspectives on how to do this. How do you take a human and help them flourish and achieve their goals and live a good life basically? I'm not an expert in all these different ways of looking at this but I think it might be interesting to just summarize a few different perspectives on this. I can talk about a couple quickly and I'm curious to hear your summaries of a few different perspectives on this. But one way of looking at this is from the perspective of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. From that framework, basically we have our thoughts, we have our emotions, we have our behaviors, and sometimes our thoughts are not helpful to us, or they're not true about the world. We want to use cognitive techniques to try to find when those thoughts are unhelpful or false, and then we want to try to come up with more realistic versions of those thoughts. Our thoughts also feed into our emotions. So if you have a thought like, "I'm a loser," that's gonna make you feel bad. If you can tweak your thoughts, then you can start to feel better. Also, our emotions influence how we behave, so if you're feeling bad, you might be less likely to go see friends, you might be less likely to go do things that are meaningful to you, you might be less likely to be effective at doing your work. And then, of course, the behavior changes feedback on your thoughts because now you've been sitting at home all day playing video games, and you think, because you didn't feel like seeing your friends, and now you think, "Oh, I really am a loser," right? So that's one model for how we help humans flourish. Another model, the sort of Buddhism model (and there's a lot of different ways of looking at that, and a lot of disagreement on what exactly that is), but just to give one case of that, it's this idea that, as long as we are aversive to some states of the world, we will inevitably be forced to deal with things we are aversive to, and therefore will suffer. And at the same time, as long as we crave some states of the world over others, we will inevitably sometimes not get the things that we want, and therefore will suffer from the craving. So, from the Buddhist model of flourishing as I understand it, it relates to this idea of, if you could free yourself from being aversive to some states of the world, and you can free yourself from craving some sense of the world over others, that's a kind of internal way to free yourself from suffering altogether. These are just a couple of ways of looking at things like what it means to flourish. I'd love to hear some other ways that are on your radar.
JAMES: Well, piggybacking on that, just imagine a neuroscience edition to Buddhism (which has a lot of crossover now) using FMRI or some advanced technologies to actually identify different valence states — the positive and negative valence states — and try to adjust them in real time. Right now, meditation and mindfulness is powerful; that takes a long time for almost everyone to study and develop some mastery. And even then, is that really the state you want to be in? Perhaps becoming too mindful and too at peace with the world might reduce your goal attainment, desire, your motivational systems. So lots of things, we could dive into either, though CBT is fantastic. CBT and REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy), and Brief Solutions Focused Therapy are kind of my favorites in that space. Brief Solutions Focused Therapy, trying to be very pragmatic, very concrete, not usually getting into the past of a client or a patient, just going into where they are now, and where they want to go and trying to deduce, decode what's blocking them, and get them to where they would like to go.
SPENCER: I'd be happy to dig into any of these, but I'd love for you to just explain some of these models of how to help the human flourish that you find useful.
JAMES: That is a good question. We are developing our own theory and our own protocol, that's one thing to know. I'll caveat that or put that as an aside. We're learning from a huge slew of different people and approaches. Systems theory has been very influential. CBT has been very influential. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs has been very influential. So to explain some of these systems, you're just looking at humans as complex adaptive systems. And if you basically try to change one thing — so you're trying to adjust someone's smoking habits, and just take away the smoking — maybe use Pavlok which is a device that electrocutes you to shock yourself when you're smoking. Maybe that works, but it also might cause a problem with anxiety because you don't have that stress reduction from the cigarette or from the e-cigarette. And maybe you reduce your social activities because you're now not smoking so you're not talking to your friends. Maybe you go into a downward spiral. So just changing one thing in one area might cause some benefit, but it might cause some detriment in another area. And the more you do this, the more you muddle with this, the harder it can be sometimes to figure out what to do.
SPENCER: Yeah, that's great. It's really useful. It reminds me of this idea that I've been thinking about, which is that a lot of negative behaviors that we have, there is something positive we're getting out of it. And I think that there can be this attitude people take with behavior change like, "Oh, you're doing this bad thing. Just eliminate the bad thing." But I think what you're getting at here is probably the idea that, well, maybe there's something else going on that explains why you're doing the bad thing. And until you address that — like that social need of hanging out with the other smokers in front of the building, or that stress relief need that you're getting from the smoking — without identifying that there's positive aspects to this negative behavior, you might not actually be able to replace it successfully, or you might cause other downstream consequences that you didn't anticipate.
JAMES: Kegan with his Theory of Adult Development — which is really powerful, sort of a successor to Maslow's self-actualization theory, although you could say complement; part of his theory is getting into more and more complexity and we could get into if you want — but he has an immunity to change model there where, if you can't diagnose all the secondary, tertiary order effects of the change, if you can't see how they connect to one another, you might get stuck. There's a little worksheet that tries to help you tease through this. If you get really, really skilled at change for yourself or for others (maybe you're a practitioner working with clients or patients), then you start to see these as patterns, and you typically can anticipate them faster and more easily. I think that a lot of what we call wisdom is just seeing a ton of experiences from a wide range of people, and pattern-matching after that. It's fascinating. If you've ever tried to study wisdom and just get a definition for it — I've read one book on it, [laughs] and afterwards, I have no idea what it really means — but just good decision-making is [laughs] tough. If you look at decision science and decision theory, there are many different approaches there, too. It's mind-boggling — maybe for both of us studying this for a while — and just making good decisions on a day-to-day basis, well, which theory do you take and which approach? You're not an infinite computational machine and you can't look at every single possible outcome and every scenario and do expected value for every single thing. So you're doing these heuristics, these satisficing approaches to figuring out life, and depending if you're, in a sense, 'making camp,' maybe like the group of people that are doubling down on that sort of framing, and more intuitive, trying to study what might make sense is another group of people, maybe doubling down on that rationality frame (develop an explicit model and figure out what it is), and many, many others, which we could get into. But I just find it fascinating, and I love that society as a whole is trying to solve this, and we have so many different disparate beliefs and approaches. Maybe one of them won't be right.
SPENCER: Great. So let's talk more about those approaches, I think that's super interesting. When you talk about sense-making, what does that mean and what kind of angle are people taking there?
JAMES: This will be a hard one, like wisdom. If you're familiar with Game B...I just saw this Rebel Wisdom as one of the new entrants in the space there. I bring that up because I think a lot of people that might hear this conversation are very, very smart and are thinking hard about these rational models, which I personally love. And if you try to actually do the math on these things, it just gets really hard, really complex, because your models are sensitive to starting conditions and you really don't have time to make all these computations in your head. What we do [laughs] in my personal work, is we do a massive model that does try to do this — try to estimate someone's ROI for any possible project or any possible decision — but it does break down in lots of ways. So what we did — you might [laughs] really enjoy this — we put a few hundred hours into building a model of every single possible upgrade someone could do, every single project on communications or on fitness, on nutrition, on career. It was 39 different life areas that we came up with.
SPENCER: So the upgrade is like improving one area of your life like, "Oh, I'm going to eat better, I'm going to be more productive" or something like that?
JAMES: Yeah, we're using the metaphor — helping humans become as upgradable as machines — that's kind of in my head. I think the far future will be very different than we are today. But what we are today is like this human — a carbon-based life form — and we learn at a certain speed, we change behaviors at a certain speed. And to do this stuff, to figure out good decisions for your life is a hard challenge. One approach is to do the expected value, ROI (return of investment) cost-benefit analysis thinking, like an MBA might do when trying to decide on what kind of investments you make for a business. Or if you're trying to do your financial portfolio, you're gonna be thinking: how do you diversify, how do you ensure some assets are hedged and so on. What we did was for self-improvement, self-development with literally anything you could do, so from going to the gym, to working on communications — which I'm trying to do more of, hence why I'm talking to you — those things have to be traded off because you can't do everything all at once. You've got 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week, and it just doesn't really allow you to do everything you possibly want to do in life. You try to compute what the ROI is based on your own values, so fitness might be worth XYZ dollars, and communication might be worth XYZ dollars (a different number). And it might take you 200 hours and a year to get fit based on what your goals are, and communication might take 125 hours for practice. So do the math and see what comes from it.
SPENCER: Let me make sure I understand that, that's really interesting. So basically, you have, what did you say, 39 life areas?
JAMES: Yeah. I think everyone divvies up the world differently, so this is a different question. But what's your life taxonomy? So what is life? How do you codify the different parts? A lot of people might put it like money or finance, and some people might just put work and the money subsumed. Some people might put health; some people might put health and medicine and nutrition and dental and XYZ.
SPENCER: Sure, sure, but your taxonomy has these 39 categories, right? And then, as I understand it, you're having people assign a value to each of these outcomes, like, "Okay, if I were to exercise three more hours a week, how much is that worth?" You're putting it in a common currency of money so that it can be compared? Is that right? Or am I misdescribing this?
JAMES: Yeah, exactly right.
SPENCER: And then okay, so then you've got these values now to making these different upgrades in life. And then you can start to talk about the cost of making those upgrades like, "In order to get myself to do this thing, well, that's gonna take five hours a week." And also maybe there's (I assume) some kind of other costs, like maybe there's exhaustion costs, or emotional costs or things like that as well?
JAMES: Those are the hardest to actually quantify, the subjective things. So time and money, fairly easy. But how much agency does this give you? How much stress? How much hedons or warm fuzzies? So we try. This is kind of like exploring it into a mind. It's sort of like a personality assessment, like what do you value? You value impact or fitness or status. Trying to see what those numbers are is hard — it's context-dependent — but I think it's helpful if you do it, if you try to dive into yourself so deeply that you know your values more or less inside out. And I think the most principled people — the most high-integrity people I know — tend to live these so clearly, and have them so clear in their mind. Maybe it's subconscious, but they've got it. And they just react and their life is much more sensible. It's much clearer.
SPENCER: Can you give an example, like what do they have in their mind?
JAMES: For example, a lot of people just say, "I will not lie." That's a commitment. It might be integrity, might be personality, whatever area of their life they want to put it under. But they know that they don't want to lie because there's a very high-cost, just say it's like a $500,000 worth of lost integrity in their own mind, which they might do; if someone gave them $500,000, they might actually lie. But you can find the number and try to figure that out. And I think those who do this long enough, live long enough — maybe they have a mindfulness practice — they learn about themselves really clearly. They can develop those into heuristics or principles that seem to work across many different domains and that's exciting to me. I don't know if you feel like that. Do you feel like you have principles that somehow capture the computational structure of your mind when it's trying to figure out things?
SPENCER: I think about virtue ethics as a set of heuristics for living — like don't lie, keep your promises, do the honorable thing, these kinds of ideas of how to be a virtuous person — as very useful heuristics, and I try to just, on a day-to-day basis, apply those heuristics. But sometimes, when you get into a more complex situation, where either the stakes are a lot higher, or there's more uncertainty about things, then I find it useful to pop out of the heuristics and say, "Okay, do an analysis from more first principles on the thing." But, I do find it very useful to just have those default heuristics or principles (if you want to call them that), as like, "Okay, by default, I'm just not gonna lie. I'm gonna try to avoid lying." Not to say that there would never be a reasonable...like if someone comes to your door trying to murder someone (looking for them), of course, you're going to lie that the person's hiding in your basement. But that being said, 99% of the time, the right thing to do might be just don't lie. Right?
JAMES: Yeah, and that is right, with small 'r,' it's not definitely right, but helpful enough. And going into first principles or system two — this more logical analytical approach — which is what we're talking about when we talk about giant spreadsheets. That's fun and rewarding, but with the limited competition we have now as humans, it's tough to do. So I look to the next 30, 40, 50 years, when we have AIs (or we are AI), and it can do this immediately, plausibly split second. And so that'd be really interesting to see how much of virtue ethics might have actually held up, as globally optimal approaches in that new, more developed ethical system that an AI might actually build.
SPENCER: Right. I think you're making a pretty important point. I just want to elaborate on it and make sure that I'm understanding properly. So basically, theoretically, what we could do for all the things that we want to achieve is say, "How valuable would this be for us?" And then, "How much would this cost in terms of time, effort, money, etc?" And then we prioritize them using something like a priority matrix. Like you've got your low effort, high-value things; we want to do those first. I call those low-hanging fruit, that's one quadrant of this two-by-two axis system of value versus effort. The second quadrant is, you've got your low effort, low value things; I call those quick wins. Then you've got your third quadrant, which is your high effort, high-value things; I call those leaps. Finally, you've got your fourth quadrant, which is the low value, high effort — I call those traps — those are the things you want to basically avoid at all times. If you think about this broadly, the low-hanging stuff is the obvious stuff you should be doing. That's the low-hanging fruit and you should focus on that first because it's high-value and low effort. As soon as you run out of that, the way I think about that is, you want to start trying to find more low-hanging fruit. If you're out of low-hanging fruit, you should be trying to find more low-hanging fruit. But in the meantime, when you still don't have more low-hanging fruit to tackle, then you're going to be doing some combination of these quick wins (which are the low effort, low value things) and leaps (which are the high-value but high effort things) and so you're using those to fill it in. That's kind of my framework for thinking about this prioritization. But, of course, doing all this to your point is very computationally intensive. It's also hard to think about because there's so much uncertainty involved. It's not like we can truly do these calculations; a lot of this is very heuristic. In practice, what you might discover when you're doing this, is that some of these things are so high-cost, or so high-value, that you could basically program yourself with a simple heuristic or principle that says, "In these scenarios, I'm always just gonna do this." I don't have to do the full calculation because I know — for example, in the scenario you gave — that lying is usually so high-cost to me that I should just never lie when I can avoid it. So basically, you're taking this theoretical, very complex calculation, and you're trying to distill from it simple rules of thumb that work most of the time in most scenarios that prevent you from having to go back to this really complicated calculation. Is that how you think about it?
JAMES: Yeah, you can say it's bridging that utilitarian calculus with virtue ethics with the principle approach there.
SPENCER: Yeah, exactly. So the virtue ethics is the day-to-day heuristics, and then utilitarian calculus is definitely complicated — multiple values are in conflict with each other — let me go back to trying to calculate and figure out what to actually do in this scenario where my principles or my heuristics are failing me.
JAMES: Your model is helpful, and I love it when people find the low-hanging fruit. So if they've never invested before, they might finally do a robo-advisor (like Betterment or Wealthfront) and just put some money in, and then let it take money from you automatically every month and invest it for you. And if you don't have any plausible reason for thinking you're better than index funds — which is a very powerful way of investing — then yeah, that might actually be 15 minutes of your time right now (very low-cost), and it might yield you a substantial amount of assets over your lifetime. All because you're using automation and not using your brain, which is obviously limited.
SPENCER: Yeah, I love those two examples. One is just like, "Oh, if your savings are just sitting in cash, you could probably invest it and Betterment makes it easy," but then the other one is like, "Oh, if you're not saving that much money, why not just automate that process," so you don't have to reconsider how much you're gonna save each month, where you're likely to forget to do it. Just set it up so that it autosaves a certain part of your income, and then you'll end up with a lot more money for retirement. Those are, I think, great. What are some other common pieces of advice that are low-hanging fruit for a lot of people? Obviously, everyone's gonna be different so it's not gonna work for everyone, but just the kind of patterns that you've seen.
JAMES: Finances is one. Getting a daily mindfulness practice. Having a daily exercise practice or a regular practice. Those are maybe not so low-hanging fruit. You can start them just in a few minutes and the difficulty is training your mind to actually maintain that and build it as a habit, so those are fun. Tools like Modafinil — which some of you [laughs] probably know — and other nootropics, sometimes for some people, can be quite helpful, and psychedelics in the whole space of things. So I guess psychedelic-assisted therapeutic intervention might shortcut many, many years of emotional damage and suffering in just a few sessions. Two sessions, eight hours each might be enough to circumvent a lot of trauma. So it's hard to talk about this in the abstract, just for a generic person, because that might be a terrible idea for someone, as you mentioned. But if there was a single best path for any one person, and all the tools that we could possibly ever use, and all the actions we could possibly ever do, in a ranked order way, that's the dream of what I'm trying to figure out for individuals. And it turns out you can't...I mean, you can plan a little bit, you can do [laughs] some of these things. You can anticipate you're going to need some retirement savings when you're older, so yeah, having a retirement fund, setting up now, is pretty good. But anticipating what you should do in 50 years is a bit challenging, although it's still a fun opportunity. You can give it a shot to see how much of the things you can do now — and in what order — might actually improve that version of you. Your future self and your current self and your past self are all different entities. And also your current self is divided into your phone and your computer and maybe your clothes and your brand, so you're embodied in many different ways. The complexity of doing this behavior change isn't just figuring out what to do for you, because 'you' is a very abstract thing. It's like 'which version of you' and 'what time.' So I love this complexity but what I'm trying to figure out is just what to do on a day-to-day basis. And if you just knock your head against it for a long time — I don't know if this has worked for you — but just figuring out what works for you to optimize your own well-being, like what you are doing every single day? For me, honestly, I wake up (I didn't use an alarm for a long time, but I do sometimes), I meditate, then I go into a team huddle. Doing a team huddle means I gotta be up on time, gotta be energized, connect with my people and get that social stimulus. And then I work in cycles throughout the whole day, I get my food delivered for lunch — and I have this ketogenic shake, which, if you like, Keto Chow is a great all-you-can-eat kind of drink, like Soylent, which is one of the first ones that pioneered in the last few years, but Keto Chow is great for ketogenic diets — and eat, work in cycles, take breaks, go walk around whenever I want, do a lot of things that minimize the distractions, do a huddle in the evening, and I now move my gym to about noon after my first meal. It's all habitual, like all these things seem to be very... and I have a forced ranked to-do list that I use from my life goals down to my annual goals to monthly to weekly to now. So all that's already been done and optimized up and just feels good. It feels like, "Alright, I know there's stress. There are things that are unsure. I'm not absolutely sure what I should be doing." But as you've mentioned a few times in your startup speeches, you never know exactly what to do. And your life is even more complicated than a startup. So getting these habitual systematic ways of living seem to be pretty damn useful. I don't know. Do you do the same thing? Do you have rituals and systems and habits that just basically define your entire life, or much of your life?
SPENCER: Well, I think there's just incredible power in doing the same thing every day if the thing you're doing every day is beneficial.
SPENCER: So when I wake up, I have a little morning routine. I had a shoulder problem — for a long time, my shoulder was really immobile — and basically just adding a little morning routine where I just stretch my shoulder. It's only one minute a day, it totally solved the problem. And now it's just part of my every day, and then I start adding other things to that, like I drink a big glass of water, and now that's attached to that stretching routine. And then I do planks to work on my core strength. So now, I just have this little routine and it was just cool. Not only is it something that, because you do it every day, it becomes really automatic — you don't even think about it, you just start doing it — but it's very easy to attach new habits to it, so I can adjust it, and that's way easier to do than starting a new habit from scratch. I also had an eating habit where, every day, I would eat the same thing for lunch — which is just a salad with a diverse set of ingredients — and that removes this like, "Oh, what do I eat today?" and "How do I balance eating healthy with eating something that might be more pleasurable but junky?" So I enjoy eating the salad — it's not the most delicious thing in the world, but I enjoy eating it — and it removes the choice (so then I just make the healthy choice). The pandemic kind of screwed up my habit, [laughs] my salad routine, which is why I think we need to think about habit formation, not as a thing you do once, but it's a thing you have to get good at, because inevitably life will throw things at you, and you'll have to redo your habit, whether it's moving to a new city or having children or a global pandemic [laughs] or whatever. So that's how I think about it. You mentioned three other pieces of low-hanging fruit and I want to dig into them because I think that they are really valuable for certain people. One is exercise, the second is Modafinil, and the third is psychedelics you mentioned. So I'd love to just talk about each of those in turn briefly. In terms of exercise, what are some things you find tend to work with your clients to help them build an exercise routine?
JAMES: It's context-dependent. Individual differences matter. And the classic adage is, okay, you do whatever is going to work for you, right? You know this, you probably have a good fitness routine, and I think I got this 5, 10 years ago when it started to become a really core part of my life. And then when you get past it, it's just part of who you are because you get the benefits. You feel so good about it. Yeah, when you're first starting, doing a seven-minute workout, high intensity interval training on your phone, it's powerful, or just doing one minute of jumping jacks or something like that. A lot of folks find they sign-up for class — a dodgeball class or kickball class or rock-climbing class — that does a lot. And another classic, get a dog [laughs], so if you're in a position where you can have a dog that's going to remind you every day, looks at your face and nudges your hand towards the leash, well, that'll probably get you out and maybe get you to go walk with the dog. Those are some of the more obvious ones.
SPENCER: Yeah, I like all those, and just to elaborate on those for a moment, I think there are hidden techniques in each of the things you said. I want to make them explicit. The first is, can you break it down to something really small to start? So you don't have to immediately start exercising half an hour a day or an hour a day. You can start with like, what if you do two minutes a day? That's already better than doing zero minutes, and it's a lot easier to go from 2 minutes to 20 minutes than it is to go from nothing to 20 minutes. You can start building on that, so I think that was one of the things you mentioned. Another thing you were hinting at is using social pressure. If you sign up for a team — let's say you're on a dodgeball team — well, after a few games, you're probably going to feel like people expect you to be there. Maybe they're going to rely on you, and suddenly now you have a really good reason to never miss dodgeball. Or hiring a coach is similar because the coach wants to be with you, so if you could afford to pay someone to work out with you or to teach you, then yeah, you're gonna do it every week [laughs] because they're gonna make sure you do it. And the dog one, I love that. That's a really nice example, as well. I also appreciate that you talked about individual differences because, to me, this is one of the huge values in experimentation. There are some techniques that work much better on average than other techniques. One technique might work for 5% of people, another technique might work for 20% of people. So some techniques really are better than others in the sense that they work for a wider range of people — they're more effective on average — but even so, there's probably no technique that works for 90% of people. And so in order to be really good at behavior change, you have to actually just experiment with a bunch of things. Ideally, you're going to sample these techniques from ones that tend to work better, on average, for a greater number of people, but you still might have to try five different things to get your exercise routine going until you can really kick it off.
JAMES: Did you see the Behavior Change for Good meta-analysis on all these techniques that came out, oh, maybe last year, a few months ago?
SPENCER: Is that the one on getting people to go to the gym using various text message interventions.
JAMES: They've been doing that. There was like a meta one that was a nice visualization of every single named technique and approach, and you know most of these. So it was fun that they basically came up with nothing new. [laughs] They were trying to figure out ways of getting lasting change at the gym, for example. And all the things are working — the reminders, accountability, the standard stuff — works for short times, or incentives, financial incentives. But then if you do it for too long, it might stop. If you change the population, it might change the outcomes. But I think your point is important, and it's agency, human agency. Are you able to understand your own operating system, how your mind and your body work (which means, do you understand how to write your own software, and update your own hardware and your software), and that just takes practice. You should look at the literature and that does help. And then, at some point, I think you might get to a point of overall agency where you do know how your body or your mind work, at least to the extent of actually changing your behaviors. So you can install a habit around meditation, or you can install a predictions habit, or whatever it's going to take. Any of these changes, I like trying to typically do a one-week experiment with someone, and I'm asking them, "Well, what do you think will work?" We come up with a list of 5, 10, 15, 20 things (usually, there's more than they realize), then we might stack a few of them — two or three, or four or five, maybe just one — and then we try to overdetermine it and try to make sure as many of these things are embedded, so like doing the reminders, doing the accountability, doing the team effect, doing the dog, everything's necessary. I would try to adjust it until the client or the person thinks — with at least 70-80% probability — that they'll succeed for that one week.
SPENCER: You're actually having an estimate of "What do you think are the chances you're gonna succeed?"
JAMES: Yeah, almost always. And then we record estimates, the predictions beforehand, we look at afterwards and we see, over time, if you can get this sort of 'super-forecasting' is one of the terms, of how good are you at predicting your own changes. And then, if you're always above 70-80%, you actually know, then you adjust your changes to make them smaller so they're appropriate for your stress level or make them higher. If you just got an additional team member (like an assistant) or a lot of money, you can adjust your changes based on all the other factors.
SPENCER: Yeah, I really love that idea of having people predict whether they're going to succeed. Also the pre-mortem technique where you think about, "Okay, imagine that I fail at doing this thing. What's my first guess of what went wrong? Okay, what's my second guess of what went wrong?" You basically generate these scenarios in advance of what you think would derail you if you don't succeed, like, "Okay, I'm trying to go to the gym every day," let's say in the morning, and then I'm saying, "Okay, imagine that I fail to do this. What do I think the most likely reason will be? Well, maybe it's because in the morning, when I'm about to go to the gym, I'm going to think, 'I don't feel like going to the gym today. And oh, I have all this work to do,' and so I'm going to just do my work instead." So that's the idea and I think that is such a powerful way of helping preempt what could go wrong in advance, to increase our probability that we actually succeed in the long term.
JAMES: When you get to a point where you're not surprised by what you do and don't do, it's sort of this beautiful (some people might call it) god mode, just actually feel like, "Oh, you're in charge of yourself." And you know when someone's gonna ask you to do something like run a marathon and you're not able to do it, you say, "No, I'm just not gonna be able to do it now." And there are some people who just like, 'just do it, just do it' — that slogan makes me cringe, and I love it — Nike's famous slogan, 'just do it.' It does work for some people some of the time and it's a great motivational tool, but just do what and how? [laughs] And then okay, if you start, just do it over and over again? It doesn't entail all the complexity of what you're trying to accomplish with all your values. Just tell them to do it, and they might do it for a bit and then they say, "Alright, I don't want to do this anymore." [laughs] You have to keep on readjusting. So our version might be something like 'just plan it,' just do this deep, comprehensive plan that does a pre-mortem (like you mentioned) — that has your predictions built in, that has a step-by-step as well as resource allocation, has all the incentives and disincentives mapped out — that's a good plan. A written plan like that might make you substantially more successful at achieving anything, but most people don't do it. So it's shocking to me how little we plan in our lives for big things like career or finances or relationships. Tell any woman I date that, "I have to read more before I can actually think about marriage." Gotta really go deep down into literature — and John Gottman is one of the gurus here — study what they're finding and see what the predictors are of success before we do that. So find out all this stuff and then, of course, have a life plan. You want to do something with your life possibly. It's one of those things that we know we should do. You pretty much know you should have a will, an advance directive for when you die. Most people don't. Most people, when you think about it, might think, "Oh, yeah, I should have a life plan, or at least a career plan." But how many people whom you met that actually have a good one that they work on and update and use on a regular basis? [laughs] Estimate?
SPENCER: Yeah, I think not very many. [laughs]
JAMES: Yeah, 1% maybe? Elon Musk had a plan but very few do.
SPENCER: Okay, so let's go on to the second piece of low-hanging fruit you mentioned, which was Modafinil. And I just wanted to say right after that, if you're thinking of using something like Modafinil, you should definitely talk to a doctor. With any medicine, there are always risks that you should consider and potentially contraindications with other medicines and health problems. With that caveat in mind, tell us about Modafinil and how it can be valuable for people.
JAMES: I'm glad you mentioned the caveats, and these are things I don't like to throw out in the very beginning with folks. You gotta study the person. You have to know where they're coming from, what they need, what they don't need. I have one client, we're helping him taper off of benzos and a bunch of other things. I have other clients who have experimented with — when I'm not working with them — excessive amounts of drugs and so on. And it's a little scary, what they're doing. So I try to give them a systematic review or meta-analysis of safety if I can, if it's there. Modafinil has pretty good safety records. But yeah, this is, for those who haven't tried it, just a standard cognitive enhancer designed to help narcoleptic people, people that have delayed sleep phase syndrome, and other problems; it just keeps you awake. And so a lot of folks use this or other nootropics to try to maintain more focus so they can get more work done. On a short-term basis, it might be great, like a jet if you're about to go to battle. You've got like this F-16 fighter and you turn on the afterburners, so you're going much faster. You're also burning a lot more fuel much more inefficiently. So if you do it a lot, or if you do Adderall or any of these other tools, you can definitely get down to where you're using too much. I had a friend that did so much Adderall that she had a psychotic break, pretty disturbing. And no one in her family understood it, and I had to take her into the hospital. Modafinil is not as risky as Adderall, as far as I understand. I'm not a doctor. But that's just one you can do. The half-life will last all day for most people. If you start trying this stuff, you realize that batches might differ, so I've had different batches that have different effects on me. I have sleep problems. I don't actually use it, almost never. But there are other substances. Qualia has a pretty good stack, if you've seen them from Neurohacker. They have a bunch of other attempts at figuring out how to actually optimize the brain. And the short answer is we don't really know. There aren't enough studies, not longitudinal studies, for sure. But if you're willing to take some risks — like going outside during COVID, that's a risk you're taking — you have a certain amount of micromorts, units of death.
SPENCER: What? Oh, micromorts, one in a million chances of dying, right?
SPENCER: So for any given risk you take, you could think about how many micromorts are you taking? In other words, how many millionths of a chance of dying are you taking?
JAMES: [laughs] Have you ever sat down and looked at your own actions — what you do and what you don't do — and try to calculate?
SPENCER: I have. [laughs] I've written a blog post, where instead of using micromorts, I like to think about what is the average risk you're taking on a random day. Like if you're a 37-year-old male, what's your chance of dying just on a random day by default?
SPENCER:: And then how many times that are you taking? Are you taking two normal days of risk? Are you taking 10? Or 100? Or so on.
JAMES: Yeah, I love that. There's a couple of COVID calculators that have come out — I'm surprised it didn't come out earlier — which tried to calculate your actual risk of dying from this sort of thing just by pure action, like going to a small group or wearing a mask or not. The short story of this stuff...these models are amazing, they're just really hard to get. 'All models are wrong, some are useful,' that famous adage. But they're still fascinating [laughs] I live in Bali right now and motorbikes are prevalent here. And, oh dear, it's made me really rethink how much risk I can take, like do I even want to ride these things? And then you start doing the math and, "Alright, well, I do cliff-jump, or I do eat this, or I take plane rides," and all the different things you do in your life. "Well, I think that's okay, this isn't." It's pretty interesting to try to do this. In a very principled person that wants to live forever (plausibly reaches longevity escape velocity), you might really want to consider the micromorts or the levels of risk you're taking.
SPENCER: So just to make that concrete, these are some calculations I did quite a few years ago. But basically, let's say you're a 30-year-old male, and you can think about what's the chance that you just randomly die on a given day as a 30-year-old male, and let's compare that to some different activities. So if you fly 1000 miles in a commercial airplane, that's like taking 1.1 additional days of risk, so it's 1.1 days of risk beyond what you normally take in a normal day. Contrast that with base jumping, where a single jump doing base jumping, that's like taking 113 days of risk. So it's like you've just accelerated your risk 113 days forward compared to your normal daily and then there's some kind of in-between. For example, skydiving is about 3.6 days of risk according to this data. Participating in a triathlon might be about five days of risk. I think that's one nice way to look at it, or you can convert it to micromorts, but I find this a little bit more natural because it kind of converts it into days, which I find easier to work with.
JAMES: There's a really beautiful infographic called the "The Risk of Dying Doing What We Love," which is very well-researched, that just gets into all these specific things as well. I do that with clients, I'm trying to get them to actually take stock of what they're doing, because my job then (part of it), is to keep them alive. [laughs] I want to keep them alive as long as possible.
SPENCER: "Step one, don't die. Step two..." [laughs]
JAMES: It kind of is predicated on that first one. So yeah, it's a surprise for people when they realize that the world is actually these existential risks, and all their plans might be foiled in a second, when someone does a false first strike with a nuclear weapon and the world goes to hell. This is the stuff that you take really seriously and affect your life outcomes. And I've done a little bit of this with people where they have one path in life, and they think that that's the right one, then they just learn one concept — one crucial consideration, one really substantial shift in their thinking, like, "hey, existential risk is real" — then that changes their whole life path and all their life goals. So those things are important to identify. If you find yourself in a very restrictive environment as you're growing up — different culture, different country — then you might not really understand a lot of things that could be pertinent to your own goal attainment. On the low-hanging fruit thing, we were talking about nootropics, and it's kind of sad that we went to death right after that. [laughs] They don't have to be that dangerous, just gotta be smart with these things. And I like people that, if they do this, they do this rigorously. They have a spreadsheet, they have a partner, maybe you can do double blind — you can do these sort of blinded experiments, where your roommate or your spouse or your partner does the dose for you — and then you can see afterwards if it actually had an impact on you, because a lot of this might be placebo. It's really fun if you want to go down this path. But just scaling back, I think we need to really guide people towards the highest ROI things, things that have this return on investment that really makes sense. A nootropic might do it, investments might do it, but a lot of the stuff that's being touted now is...alright, let's do a cryofreeze. Cryofreeze is great. If you've never done it, you're negative 180 Fahrenheit or something very cold, you're in this giant tube, and you freeze yourself like nitrogen, liquid nitrogen. Definitely invigorates, probably has some health benefits.
SPENCER: You go to a center to do this, right? I assume that'd be incredibly dangerous to do at home.
JAMES: Probably not in your own bathroom. Although some people, if you've got a spare 20, 40 thousand dollars (I forget how much they cost), some people do buy these. And that's the point, like if you're trying to optimize, some people think, "Alright, gotta get that." And they might spend all this money or just do a regular membership at one of these places, because there are these centers around the world that have it now; even in Bali we have one. But you have to look at how much benefit you are getting. Try to think about the math. You might feel good for the day. You might get a slight benefit to the immune system, but are there better ways of achieving that? More efficient ways? Less costly ways? So I think all these things are interesting to explore. And they might be...if you're Batman, there are tools in your tool belt, utility belt, so these are things to consider. And you may or may not know, I've put together a database of over 1000 of these kinds of tools, and tried to rank them, at least from my own judgment. But I would love to see evidence and data for all of them. So for every app, and every treatment, every tool, everything you could buy or use, I'd love to see a master database of these things that just show you, in a forced ranked way, what's most valuable, and you probably have to do it based on someone who is a 30-year-old male in an urban center versus a 15-year-old woman and a rice farmer in Indonesia.
SPENCER: Where can people find your rank ordering of this?
JAMES: We tried to post this a few years ago, and then realized there's gonna be a major project for a previous startup, and we decided not to.
SPENCER: Okay, but you have the list somewhere?
JAMES: We'll think about publishing at some point.
SPENCER: Okay. [laughs]
JAMES: It's one of those things where, to do it well is really hard, because you don't want to mislead people, and you don't want to have a bunch of lawsuits from people. You know, one company says, "Oh, you disparaged our product here." Yeah, I can say I tried to...there's about 150 on that list that I use a lot with people. So they're all interesting, or they're all worth considering, but there's some that are just fun, you're almost certainly not going to do it. There's a flying suit called Gravity; if you ever wanted to fly like Ironman, you can do it. For a modest sum of $440,000 I think (last I checked), you can buy one of these flying suit jetpack things, and for eight minutes, you get to fly in the air at 50 miles an hour. It makes you superhuman technically, but it's not one that most people are going to actually need. You could spend that money in much better ways.
SPENCER: I wonder how many micromorts you're taking on. [laughs]
JAMES: Don't ask. If you have to ask the price or the risk, you probably aren't the right fit.
SPENCER: Just to finish up the Modafinil discussion, I just wanted to mention that I've gotten a prescription for Modafinil before and I've experimented with it based on that, and everyone's mileage is gonna vary. But I'll just mention that, from my point of view, one of the most useful things about it is, for people that sometimes wake up feeling really tired — and that tiredness might kind of hang with them through much of the day — I think that, to me, that's one of the best cases for using Modafinil. It can help some of those people feel less tired throughout the day. That being said, I found two interesting things about using it. The first was that the dosage that I found optimal for me was much lower than the dosage that was prescribed. So in general, when I'm trying to do a medicine, if it's something that can be easily broken into pieces, and the doctor says it's okay to do, I'll start with a much lower dosage than they originally suggest. That being said, I'll just add the caveat that you can't always break pills, so you do really have to ask your doctor whether it's okay to do that. But if it is okay, I find this really useful, starting with a much lower dosage and slowly building up. I like to actually...on my first day of trying something new like that is, actually just the first day, I just dab the tiniest bit of it to my tongue, make sure I don't have some weird reaction. And then the second day, maybe I'll take an eighth of the normal dose or something like that. And with Modafinil, I actually find that a fourth to an eighth of the normal dose is actually kind of the right place for me to be, which is super strange, because I actually told my doctor that and she'd said it was fine to try a tiny amount first. And she was shocked that I found that that was the optimal dose, like she probably couldn't believe it. But I've tried varying around that; I've tried half a dose, I've tried a full dose, I've tried a fourth of a dose, I've tried an eighth of a dose. And I really think that actually, the optimal for me is a fourth to an eighth. It was just bizarre. So that's the first thing I'll say. The second thing I'll say is that I do think, at least for me, there are some drawbacks — and there's a reason why I don't take it every day even when I feel tired — which is that, for me, it actually makes me overly talkative. It's just really obvious that I'm overly talkative on it. So I would just caution that, for any of these things, usually it's not up here when, usually it's like a bucket of pluses and minuses and you have to be mindful, do the pluses outweigh the minuses?
JAMES: Exactly. I think it was, for me, about a fourth to half, and one batch happened to not work for my sleep. It would actually make it really difficult for sleep onset at night, and I didn't usually have that problem. So lots of experimentation is the name of the game and this goes to one of my fundamental points. If you want to actually upgrade or become more effective, have that agency. You've got to do this for many 1000s of hours. You're gonna learn a lot, try a lot, and then see what works for you. Because for better or worse, we're really complex creatures. We're living in an incredibly insanely complex society. And if you want to do these major things — like make us interplanetary or cure cancer, or even 'just' building a billion dollar startup — whatever these things are...
SPENCER: Or maybe just being happy and having a [laughs] good life, yeah.
JAMES: Maybe just actually not hating yourself and not having so much stress every day. Those are really admirable things that I think everyone deserves. And I look, fast forward to 100, 200 years out or less, I think we'll solve all of this. I think we actually can have that sort of flourishing state at all times and that is, in a sense, our birthright, if you want to call it that. But in the meantime, what do we do? We experiment, we try a bunch of things. And if we're good, we track these systematically so we can save time and see what actually works. And all these tools (I like them), I like the tools approach, like the emerging technologies as a category of ways of looking at this. And I also like the rationality and behavioral science approaches, which we've talked about. They all together make you even more powerful. And I suspect there's more categories, there's more ways of slicing and dicing this whole puzzle, but if someone figures out optimal living, and can package that in a program or a pill, that's a trillion dollar [laughs] idea. I'm working on it. I don't know if it's one of your ambitions. What are you trying to do with Clearer Thinking and with all of your work?
SPENCER: With Clearer Thinking, our goal is essentially to help people think more clearly (as in the name), to better understand reality in ways that can help them improve their lives, and then also to apply better behavioral science methods to achieve their goals. For example, we've got a tool called Decision Advisor that's designed to help people make big life decisions. We've got a tool for helping people form new habits called Daily Ritual for if you want to form a daily exercise habit, or a daily habit of drinking water every morning, and things like that. But then we also have a lot of these programs more related to thinking, like we have a thing called the Common Misconceptions Test where we give you a bunch of statements, some of which seem like they are common misconceptions. Some of them are actually false, some of them are true, and you have to try to guess which are which, and we actually have you bet points and then through the betting, we can actually analyze whether you're overconfident or underconfident. So we have a lot of things like that, that analyze the way you think and try to help you think more accurately. So the way that I'm framing what we're trying to do in Clearer Thinking is we're trying to create completely scalable interventions to help people in these ways — whether it's ten people using it, or a million people using it, or a billion people using it — it's the same tool and anyone can just go on our website and access it. I think you're almost at the opposite end of the spectrum where you're working incredibly intensively one-on-one trying to totally radically improve someone's life; whereas, we're trying to say, "Can we create things that can reach huge numbers of people and anyone can use them?"
JAMES: I love your approach, and we use a bunch of other tools built into our protocol, so we're kind of meta, in that, everything that's good we subsume and link. We want them to do that so we don't have to build it ourselves. That's fantastic. But we did build 50 separate tools to do things (because they didn't seem to exist) around understanding yourself and goal attainments and time optimizer and a whole bunch of these things. But what we want to do is develop this protocol, which is now [laughs] over 1000 steps and takes about 1200 hours, and it takes a couple of 100 hours with the coach or the person to do it — so it's a pretty intensive intervention — and make that automated, so wish us luck. [laughs] But it's one of those things, if we can do things that don't scale, the Y Combinator approach, and make it work at this incredibly high effect size — not allowing people to fail essentially — and working with them day-to-day, week-to-week with this massive team. So you're doing this approach where you can reach millions or billions right now. Brilliant. Not everyone can afford to have a personal trainer, personal assistant, coach, or psychologist, nutritionist, the gamut. That's what we do for clients right now; that's what they need — and it's all bespoke — to figure it out. Because we're trying to build those people that go and do substantial amounts of value for the world, and investing in them has a perfectly high ROI. Because Norman Borlaug led the Green Revolution (or was one of the leaders of it), and that whole effort is just helping wheat and other foodstuff become more resilient and more able to grow across the world, and that helps save hundreds of millions to a billion lives. Not one person, a set of people, but they were able to galvanize that sort of effort. So yeah, upgrading a person like that would be an honor. And that's part of what we're trying to do. We have done a few people, and they're all exciting, interesting people; they all feature Elon Musks and the like. So I'm excited to see if they...it'll take a few years, maybe a few decades, to see [laughs] how effective we are. But we have pretty good outcome data already.
SPENCER: That's really great. It also speaks to this idea that, if you're trying to improve the world through accelerating others, there's two diametric strategies. One is to say, "Okay, there's a power law in how much impact people have on the world." So if you can help accelerate the work, or improve the work, of those that are all the way at the far outlier tail of having a large impact, that's one way to have an enormous outsized effect you're creating in the world, if you can help the Norman Borlaugs and Elon Musks and so on. On the flip side, there's the scalable solutions like we're trying to work on. If you can help really, really large numbers of people, that can also give you an outsized impact, and I think both of those are, in my view, totally viable approaches. There might be a bit of a middle region that doesn't work as well but those two extremes of helping lots and lots and lots of people do things a little bit better, or help a small number of people — that are the most impactful people — do things a lot better, then these can each lead to potential impact.
JAMES: Yeah, I put 9000 hours of my life into a middle-of-the-road kind of intervention before.
SPENCER: Tell us about that, yeah.
JAMES: I was proud of it. It was a mistake, Self Spark. We built the first global life hacking event series, which is like trying to make a TEDx of life hacking, but it was more bootcamp than just talks. Each talk was designed to change your life. You might speak for us, and you might encourage the audience to do the Common Misconceptions Test or to do one of those programs, and then we would actually follow up with the people after 30 days and see if they did that action that was recommended by the speaker. And if they did (for example, if they did your test, or they started sleeping better, or exercise more), then we'd pay them, we'd actually give them cash. So I liked that. It was fun. It was like 100, 150 people at a time, and it's a two-day intervention in person, so it's like a higher effect size than like an online course maybe, or an online test, but doesn't scale. We were trying to scale to maybe 10 cities with 100-ish events. But definitely not...the scale you're at already is fantastically higher than that. So I say it was a mistake. It was a fun learning experience. But if I could go back and tell my younger self, "Hey, your theory of change might need some updating," then I might have saved my younger self 9000 hours.
SPENCER: But that must also have been very informative in terms of thinking about behavior change. Surely you must have learned a lot about how to change human behavior. What do you think about that?
JAMES: Yeah. But when you do startups, you can spend a hell of a lot of time just building, building, building and doing the infrastructure, which is useful, but it's not the highest potential learning. So this is the divide. I think a lot of our friends either do the research or they do the application. And I love doing both, but it's hard to do both [laughs] and to do really pioneering work and behavior change, I could spend another 100 years of my life just doing that and trying to come up with theories and test them, or I could just do a startup completely and play that game and don't have time for much pioneering work. So it's a little difficult, and I think [inaudible] speaking, just going back, if I could tell myself, "Hey, you want to do this kind of work, great. You want to upgrade change agents to make them more effective, great. Think about all the possible ways of doing that. Let's try to estimate ahead of time which is most plausibly the highest impact, and do that kind of math before getting into the startup and getting into this on costs of it and into the identity merger of it." And you've done a lot of these, I've done a lot. I've been doing business since I was six years old, selling candy during recess, one of the best business models I ever had. Kids are addictive, and it's pretty easy to double the margins, but not the most valuable for the world. So I spent so much of my life that I consider less optimal use, or to put it bluntly, a waste. And I wish I could go back and teach that younger self to not do all these startups and not do a million things I did. And I think if I had that conversation with my past self — I can't change the past — but I can have the conversation with my future self now. And he and I dialogue a lot to try to figure out what makes the most sense, given what we expect, and what we have to try to predict.
SPENCER: I can totally relate to that. I feel like I wasted a lot of time as well. Two of the big time-wasters for me: one of them was that I would often get excited by a new project, start it, work on it for a few months, and then it would start to feel more tedious and less exciting, and then some other exciting projects that I come up with come to mind, and I would switch to that. And I think I wasted a ton of time flipping between projects because of this phenomenon. I eventually solved it in a very simple way. Basically, I realized that if I involve another person in the project who was counting on me, then I won't stop. And so that just radically improved that part of my life where I wasted so much effort on projects I didn't finish. The second big one for me is really thinking about who you want to work with. I think when I was younger, I had an attitude of like, "Oh, if an opportunity comes my way, I should really take it seriously and consider working with that person." But now I think of it as like, there's actually very few people that I would want to partner with. And it's more likely that they are people I would seek out than I would randomly happen to meet or that would seek me out or something like that. Not to say that there aren't some good opportunities like that. There are, but there are maybe many fewer than I thought. And I'm much more careful about who I'm willing to work with, and really trying to optimize. Because I think choosing the wrong person to do a big project with, is absolutely devastating. I think that's another major lesson I've learned. So I would love to hear what are some lessons or pieces of advice you'd give to your younger self to help you be more efficient or to avoid some of the problems you had?
JAMES: [laughs] I love these questions. I would say, "All right, let's sit down. Let's do a focus workday, a focus day." This is an intervention we developed for maximizing productivity. It's called personalhackathon.com. I just like the term focus day. So you go to that, do a full day — nonstop 12-hour push — to actually sit down and write your life plan, which I had in my head and had different versions of. The first version was when I was a teenager and I didn't update it for years. So I would have made my younger self, 10 years back or 20 years back, do this really intensively and then actually put it into my calendar and into my task management system, simple things like that. And to your point about being effective with a partner or a team member — the team effect — yeah, absolutely ensure that I have the accountability partner to do all that, to do the plan. I would have hired a coach. I would have built a small personal advisory team. I've done this a few times. You build masterminds or juntos, small groups of people that come together to help each other with their own goal attainment. I would definitely have done that and systematically approached these things. Beyond that, those plans have to change; you have to do it and then update it, so putting an annual review at least, would have been very, very powerful. I could also get into details about whom to date, whom not to date, what to do with family, where to live, things like that, but they're not quite as interesting, I think, the talk there.
SPENCER: Okay, so for the final topic, I'd love to chat with you about behavior change techniques and what you would advise people around them.
JAMES: This is gonna sound a little bit odd since you're chatting with me but you should probably go to Spark Wave's [laughs] behavior change model or framework.
SPENCER: Oh, The 10 Conditions for Change?
JAMES: I'm glad you wrote that because otherwise I would have had to do it. [laughs] So that was probably the best resource on the internet I've seen for summarizing how behavior change might work from different theoretical perspectives.
SPENCER: I'm really glad you found that useful. Literally, our goal was to make the best behavior change resource in existence. Obviously, I'm biased, but I think we have at least taken a shot at that, if not achieved that.
JAMES: Yeah, my approach with Upgradable is the same. Everything we do is trying to be the world's best, or the single best tool or framework, given the particular problem we're trying to solve for a particular client or person. It's very hard to do that, but otherwise, why should it exist? So I'm not really aiming to just get famous or something like that, and just put a bunch of stuff that might be useful for me, but not for the world. On the margin, we don't really need 1000 more blog posts about the same thing. I don't know if you feel the same.
SPENCER: I can completely relate to that. But I would just add to that a caveat, which is that to make something that's the best in the world for what it is, you often have to narrow the scope. And I think that's important. It sounds like, "Oh, my gosh, how could I ever make something that's the best in the world?" Well, okay, if it's not the best in the world in its current class, narrow the scope and make it the best in the world at that. So if it's not the 'best in the world' resource for skateboarders, could it be the 'best in the world' resource for left-handed skateboarders? You know what I'm saying? I think that's a critical aspect of this. But yeah, why should someone use your thing if it's the third best in the world? That doesn't really make sense. [laughs] They should go use the second or first then.
JAMES: Now, if you look at the world as a collaborative approach, we're all multiplayer agents trying to solve the optimization problem of individuals and society. Everyone ought to benefit. If you're doing all this time just to make yourself look good — which is what a lot of practitioners in the space do, and you're not really trying to support the best in class that's already out there, and you're taking value from them, putting it into your head, to your lap — that's a choice you gotta make. I do think it's great to do stuff that maybe isn't the most valuable if you're using it to learn to get better, and to create, to iterate to that thing.
JAMES: The concept you're mentioning, I learned it from BJ Fogg, who actually had a lab. He's one of the researchers that has helped with tiny habits and habit formation and his lab was right above mine. And I was like, "Okay, I'm finally getting to meet BJ." I never got to meet him in person. It was sort of frustrating. [laughs] He did speak for me for one of my events. So hyperfocus — just choosing the one thing you can be best at in the world — you can do that today. You can literally pick something that only you know, and you're the best in the world at not trying to expand that so it's the most useful. That's a different story. But I think what you do want to do is try to figure out the best in class for the particular target. So we're trying to be the best intervention in the world for anyone trying to reach world-class levels of agency and flourish like you've never flourished before. It's an audacious attempt, but that's what we're trying.
SPENCER: That's the goal. I'll just elaborate a little bit on being the best, because I want to make sure I'm clear about that because I think that's really important. I think that can be incredibly intimidating, someone would say, "Well, why should I even try? There's no way I can do that thing the best?" But if we unpack that a little bit, first of all, there's a question of audience. So let's say you're making a new resource on habit formation. You don't have to have it be the best resource on all things, to have information for all people. But maybe there's a specific target audience, let's say mothers. Maybe you're gonna help mothers form new habits around childcare, just as an example. And maybe you can be the best resource for a new mother to form new habits, and that can be excellent, that can really add value to the world. So one way to limit the scope is to limit the audience of who you're targeting. Another thing you can do to be the best in the world at something is to apply something that's known in one area to another area. So maybe there's a technique that's used in one domain, and sure, in theory, people could go read the materials from that domain. But in practice, actually, they need something written in the language that they're used to, so they can apply it in their own field. So an example of that would be, if you're trying to help people in, let's say psychology, use techniques for machine learning. Maybe there's really good primers on machine learning, but they're written for machine learning people. And the psychologists don't know what they're saying, and they're not used to terminology or something like that. So that's another...this cross-domain thing could be another way to be the best in the world at something. And a third way to do it...you can change your audience, you can change your domain, but a third way to do it is just to limit what exactly it's focused on, make it narrower and narrower. So instead of being like a primer on how to use machine learning psychology — which is still really, really broad — maybe you just want to talk about applying machine learning to one specific aspect of psychology, let's say measuring whether people are lying or something like that. And then maybe you can make the best primer ever written on that very narrow topic. Anyway, I just want to say that because I do think people can get intimidated. By changing the scope and narrowing and so on, it actually maybe is less crazy than it sounds that you can make the best thing in the world for a particular purpose. Also, I just wanna mention quickly for anyone interested in our behavior change framework, just go to our website, sparkwave.tech. It's called "The Ten Conditions for Change" and basically, what we have on that website is a new behavior change framework. We also provide concise summaries of 16 other existing behavior change frameworks. You can learn really quickly about how they work and — one of the things I'm most excited for — we created a behavior change strategy search engine so you can search for behaviors and strategies and learn about them and then see how they fit the framework. So that's what we provide there, and it's all free. So now I want to hear your advice on behavior change, and what would you want to leave people with?
JAMES: One, I applaud anyone trying to do it. Kudos, keep going. I think there is a point when you do figure this stuff out, and you have a highly reliable set of tactics and systems that work for you. You do have to adjust as you go. But I look at this from a mindfulness lens, where it's really like paying attention to what is working, what's not, on a moment-to-moment, day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year, decade-to-decade and lifetime-to- (maybe) lifetime focus. So it's just encompassing all of that, and noticing what's working and adjusting when it's not. To rephrase, notice an update, just notice what's going on and update your actions, trying to merge mindfulness and rationality, lots of ways. When you do this over time, you get better at it, like any skill, and then we can get into tiny little approaches. So I mentioned a couple that just seemed to be a little interesting that you might experiment with. I just love incentive design. This is a category of things so you can incentivize yourself to achieve something or to not achieve something, to stop. And one of the things that Spencer and I, we've both already talked about, is the team, the other person effect. If you, for example, commit to exercise every day, you're gonna go run at seven in the morning, not easy to do. But it could be the best thing for you, and you do it with, say two other people. So one, you have that team cohort. But two, if you put some money on the line, such that all three of you commit $1,000 or $500 or $1 — whatever the number you want to put down — to a charity or an anti-charity (which has kind of been a joke for 10 or 11 years. An anti-charity might be a political party you really hate). So if you don't run, then your money gets donated to that anti-charity. But more importantly, if your teammates don't run, too — if two to three of you don't run — then you all lose, you all have to donate to whatever charity the three of you dislike, the separate ones for each of you.
SPENCER: Oh, so you're actually punishing the other people by not showing up? [laughs]
JAMES: Yeah, this is an example of incentive design. I'm not saying you should do this. But if now Spencer, James and John all have to run, and Spencer and John are both successful, but James is not, then you all get punished, too. It's a way of tying your success to other people. It's definitely because we're tribal animals, we're social animals, it's much easier to do these things in a pack, a group. And we usually treat self-development — self — too much just like, "I've got to do it, I've got to figure it out all myself." And that is tough, because you don't have all that knowledge in your head when you're born. It takes a long time to accumulate it. And then adjusting the knowledge, the techniques to yourself like I just said, might be terrible for some people, might not be the right fit. I don't know. This is why this is too generic. But incentives like that can be fun, donating to a charity you really love, that sort of thing. I also like the tiny habits, the really incremental, small things.
SPENCER: Can you talk about tiny habits a little bit? This is the BJ Fogg method, right?
JAMES: He labeled it as just chunking down what you're trying to do to the smallest possible unit. So the classic example is flossing your teeth. If you don't floss right now...some people don't, perfectly understandable. It's hard, it's not normal. You and your ancestral environment didn't have to floss so why are you doing this now? But you probably should. So, he talks about just using floss, and usually getting a pick or something that's not as painful as wrapping it around your fingers and just doing one — one tooth, or one space in between — and celebrating that actual habit, that little action that you did. And then doing the same thing the next day and celebrating, the same thing the next day, and maybe getting up to two or three, just slowly iterating up.
SPENCER: And celebrating might be just being like, "Yeah, I did it!" or something like that that feels great.
JAMES: Yup, quick victory, pat yourself on the back, just be happy. And then literally let yourself be happy for just taking the one tiny action because it's not just the action you're taking. It's like writing the software of your mind, it's like changing the code. And if you do enough of it, it might be a recursive loop. It might get into something that, "Oh, it finally built the habit," which I think you've seen in Dr. Lally's paper (2009 or 2012 or something). She found it took something like 66 days as a median to change a habit, to the range of 18 to 254 days, depending on the type of habit and type of person. But she also found that some people are non-responders, so there is a huge variation in this sort of thing.
SPENCER: I think a lot of the things that we value doing will never be true habits in the very technical sense of the word. Technically, a lot of times a habit is meant to be something that's subconscious. It's triggered by our environment, and we do it without even thinking, like how you sometimes find you brush your teeth, and then you won't even remember whether you did (like, "Did I brush my teeth?") because it's so automatic. And sometimes the things we care about are like that, but sometimes they will never be like that. They'll be more like a routine, like going to the gym every day. It's probably not like you're gonna automatically just go to the gym without even thinking about it. You probably are going to be aware that you're doing it and with some conscious involvement. So I just want to point out that I think that getting into the level of the subconscious, it can be useful but it's not always necessary. It's more about creating something that's sustainable that you do every time than literally forming a subconscious habit. Do you agree with that?
JAMES: Yeah. And you can step it up to like a ritual to put some effort in, but it's still mostly systematized.
SPENCER: That's why we call our habit tool 'Daily Ritual' [laughs] because it's not actually...it doesn't technically have to be a habit.
JAMES: And then going up, you have a system level. So all the different things you might do — including using willpower, including using these painful things — it's a toolbelt which you've got to pull from, and the tiny approaches (like going really small), that seems to work for a lot of people. And some people don't get motivated by that because it's too small, so then, maybe within, you do this massive intervention, a big thing like a flooding, or you do a lot of it at once. But usually if you're stuck, or if you're not finding it too easy, you start small, and then iterate out, and so that goes to I guess the last point on that...grit, just persistence, just trying over and over and over again. And it does work, life does get better. I wish we had this all encoded Matrix style. We could just have that upload directly, and just tell you how to live and tell you how to work your own body. But unfortunately, it takes some time. And then you've got to keep on adjusting, as you said. So I think the planning is good, but especially if it includes regular updates, where you just look at yourself again and assess yourself on all of your life areas, for example, and how are you doing each one — something as simple as a one to five rating — just seeing the trend can be really helpful, because then you might say, "Ah, everything's going well, except I'm really putting off my finances or my taxes" or something. Okay, that's dropping, you can see it. And then you have to readjust to ask yourself mindfully, "Alright, what do I do now?" This is kind of a p.s. or additional. If you can't figure it out yourself, then just pay someone to do it for you. [laughs] A lot of this can be circumvented if you have some resources or you can trade your time, but one of these approaches is like, 'I will do your work for you. You do my work for me." You can just do a work exchange. Some people can do it, and it works in some contexts. But in most cases, you're gonna pay someone just to go and sit down and do this stuff for you. So with our approach with this big intervention, yeah, we're doing as much as we can outside of you, because you've only got 2500 hours per year to disburse. And if you have a few people to help you, you might get that to 10,000 hours per year or more. But that's the magic [laughs] secret: work a ton and do it strategically.
SPENCER: Awesome. James, thanks for coming out. This was great.
JAMES: It's my pleasure. And if I could ask the audience to do a bit of an experiment, if anyone is listening to this, and actually, I don't know if you find it useful or not, hopefully you did. But if you wanna make it very useful, take the moment to commit to doing some action, — some high impact action, or even a simple thing — to improve your life. And if you do that, and you want, tell us about it, go to upgradeable.org/impact and let us know if this conversation actually impacted you, or did something that might have changed your life. And I'll put you in this monthly drawing [laughs] for a secret prize. I can't tell you what it is, I don't want to give extrinsic motivations here. But yeah, we'll do something nice for a random sample every month for anyone that does tell us what they did. Because I don't want this just to be a listen-and-learn kind of thing. I'd rather you take a tool, you take a framework, you do something with your life. That way, both Spencer and I would have more value from this besides just talking about fun stuff.
SPENCER: Fantastic. Thanks, James.
JAMES: Thank you.
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