Trivia, Social Connection, and Meta-Information

Attention conservation notice: development of the idea that trivia and current events have value as a way to connect with people, and connecting this with the Covey model of tasks.

I attempt to eschew trivia, to avoid learning things that have little value. By definition, trivia is trivial, so it is desirable to know as little of it as possible. Anything that I have knowledge of that is not useful represents an opportunity cost of foregone useful knowledge. Perhaps winning trivia night should be considered a mark of shame.

I don’t really keep up with the news all that much. Most things are outside of my locus of control. Does it really matter what celebrity did something, or that a tornado just hit a midwest town? Tornadoes will be hitting towns and celebrities will be doing things until the world ends. But knowing this fact allows me to mostly safely abstract away the news. Every now and then I don’t hear about something, but then people are able to fill me in on the details. Following news on a daily, or worse, hourly, basis is a recipe for wasting time and getting little value.

But I think there are times when knowing relatively useless things can be useful. When you know every word to R. Kelly’s Remix to Ignition, or all of the state capitals, or what happened in a small town in Siberia, it can be a way to connect with other people. I think with division of labor there can be a disconnect between the things that we do during the majority of our lives. Trivia and current events are one way of understanding what goes on in the lives of most of the rest of the world. So this is something to keep in mind.

Obviously there are the incidental benefits of having some background knowledge on broader topics. Thinking of knowledge might be similar to tasks in the Covey model. Covey classifies tasks as a 2x2 matrix of valuable / not valuable, and urgent / non-urgent:

Covey's model

We may think of knowledge in the same terms. Seeking to acquire only as much urgent information as is necessary, and trying to lean toward useful information as much as possible. Avoiding non-urgent and non-useful information at all costs. This seems like a good heuristic for evaluting knowledge and the opportunity cost.

I suppose some sort of meta-news would be useful. Various magazines and articles purport to do this, but are typically biased on some way. Basically I just want relatively unadorned and important facts that are presented when a subject is stable enough to write in detail about.

Turning Away From Ruminations

There are some thoughts that are negative and self-reinforcing, and it is useful to catch these and stop thinking about them. A few years ago I shared my thoughts and techniques with someone else and they found it valuable, so I am going to share it here.

My personal example was playing conversations in my head about or with a certain person. I would imagine them saying something and what my responses would be. The conversations would typically be of an argumentative nature. Sometimes the thoughts would arise from me doing something and wondering what the other person would think. I think it was my brain’s defense mechanisms trying to prepare me for conflict.

When I realize these kinds of conversations in my head, I try to see if they have value, and if not, to let them go. It is especially useful to realize when the “conversations” are unprompted, when I am not interacting or going to interact with the person. I’m not sure if the correct term is rumination, but that is the term that I internally use. Basically recurring thoughts or themes of thoughts.

A useful shortcut is saying: “Whenever I think about X, my head is not in the right shape and I need to get it better.” X could be an old job, a former relationship, or anything else that is not serving me to think about. Mere presence of X in my thought patterns is early warning that I am in a low or vulnerable state, and need to be vigilant.

There are times when it is valuable to think about undesirable past or future events. But it is best done with a clear head and an empty text editor, and then to be done with it unless some epiphany or major new event happens. In this way, I can get the benefits of learning from mistakes without continually revisiting them and wasting time and mental energy. There are some classes of thoughts that are wholly unproductive and feed on themselves, and so are best avoided. Awareness of them and their true nature weakens them and puts me back in control.

Attention Conservation Notices

I have followed Cosma Shalizi’s blog / site for a long time, and there is a wealth of information on various technical fields such as statistics, computer science, economics, psychology, and much more. Really, his notebooks are a good index of interesting things. Every time I look through it I see new references to dense readings. Cosma also publishes blog posts, and these are often centered around books (he likely reads more hard books in a year than most people do in a lifetime) and classes that he is teaching.

One of the things I like about his blog is that the articles are long but often have an Attention Conservation Notice at the top. This is a longer version of tl;dr (too long; didn’t read), a summary or editor’s note on what is important. Some of my favorites are “I have no taste” (when he is talking about “books to read while algae grow in your fur”) or “7800 words about the intricacies of [some specific controversy in a subset of some specific field]”.

I think that this is a useful way to deliver value without wasting your audience’s time. Readers can quickly ascertain whether the article is likely to give them value now or in the future. Authors can publish things without quite as much self-filtering. I’d like it if more sites did the same thing.

How To Overcome Negative Thoughts

People generally think that I am a pretty calm person, someone not prone to get angry. I have heard some people say that they have never seen me be angry. But I have also had my share of mistakes. This post covers some of the tips that I try to use to avoid losing my cool and to avoid encouraging negative emotions. I will go from practical strategies to more abstract thoughts about how negative thoughts work.

Many of these ideas accord with what Stoic philosophers and practitioners thought and wrote about. Similarly, there is a lot of overlap with Buddhism, and there are probably some Christian influences in there as well.

Taking The Long View

A mentality that I find helpful is to consider whether my actions or the events that happen to me will matter an arbitrarily long time from now. For example, will this experience matter later today? Tomorrow? In a month? In a year? In five years? In twenty years? In a century?

Most “bad” things don’t really matter that much on a long enough time scale. There are very few one-off events that have a level of significance of even one week, let alone one year. This is probably most the case when it is something that affects me personally. People hundreds of years from now will not care whether I was a little cold or felt a bit tired on one day unless it results in something extremely significant. Just taking a breath and looking at my situation more broadly puts things in a better perspective.

In fact, it helps modulate positive emotions as well. Will this thing that I think is so fantastic really appear so ten years from now?

Having this perspective helps me respond to situations in a more appropriate manner. It encourages me to let go of things that are not important.

Managing Internal State

It’s easy to want to snap if I am very tired or stressed or hungry. I have a few unpleasant memories of times when I was very hungry or tired and was not polite to others. These memories remind me that it is important to make sure that my basic needs are taken care of to be in an emotionally secure state. It is my responsibility to manage my needs to ensure that I can handle the ups and downs of life effectively.

If I could pick one area of improvement, it would be this area. I would say the most mistakes that I have made have been when some needs were not fulfilled and I was not sufficiently aware of it.

I always refer back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Combat Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a fairly common mental bias. When someone cuts you off in traffic, it may be tempting to think or say negative thoughts about that person. A healthier approach might be to think of several reasons why the person may have done that:

  • maybe they did not see you
  • maybe they were distracted by something else in the car
  • maybe they have something really important to get to
  • maybe they are a beginner driver
  • they may be lost and confused
  • their car might not be operating properly

I find that thinking through plausible explanations for other people’s behavior is a good way to distance myself emotionally from the event at hand and to put myself in their shoes. It helps me to ascribe ignorance rather than malice. At this point it is reflexive enough that when people explain situations to me, I think what the other person might have been going through that caused them to act how they did.

Locus of Control

Some people get angry at events like sporting events or other things that are not in their control. It is important to realize what things are in our control, what things we somewhat control, and what things are wholly outside of our control. For things that are out of our control (like the outcome of sporting events on television), consider why we are invested in the outcome and how to distance ourselves from it. For things that are not entirely in our control, either create ways to control it more or have the understanding that it will not always go our way.

Forgiveness

Humans make mistakes. When someone makes a mistake and sincerely tries to mend their ways, the best thing to do is to offer full forgiveness. It is water under the bridge. “I understand what you were thinking or going through, and hope that it will not happen in the future. I completely forgive you for X.” This allows you to let the event go, and allows the other person to feel better as well. If there is a trend in the future, you might discuss how to prevent the issue from happening again, but it is not valuable to hold onto the event emotionally at this time.

Like Water on a Duck

When we think, neurons fire. When neurons fire, the connections between them are strengthened accordingly. There is a saying that “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

If I can prevent a less desirable chain of neurons from firing when a certain stimulus is presented, or cause a more desirable chain of neurons to fire when that same stimulus is presented, then I have succeeded in weakening the negative connection. If I give the negative thoughts energy, I strengthen their connection and make them more likely to happen in the future.

My strategy is to let negative thoughts roll over and off like water on a duck. Water droplets hits the duck, but the duck does not pay attention to them, and just keeps on swimming. The oil from the duck causes the water to dribble off and the duck stays dry. By having the composure of the duck and not giving certain thoughts more energy, you make it less likely that they will arise in the future.

Conversely, thoughts that we want to think about should be thought of more to make it more likely that those neuronal pathways stay active.

Nothing, Thinking, Saying, Acting

Along these same lines, the ultimate in non-negative emotions is to not feel negative emotions. They don’t arise in the first place, and so there is nothing to deal with.

If negative thoughts arise, being accepting of them is a good first step. Often they will go away on their own. Finding positive perspectives or taking the long view is a good next step for persistent thoughts (see combating fundamental attribution bias above, for instance.) These thoughts are generally an indicator of some kind of attachment or misunderstanding of the world. Continuing to think the thoughts strengthens them.

Choosing to say something about the thoughts lends them even more energy. It activates the brain’s speech centers and makes a memory of saying what we were previously only thinking. Other people now have similar thoughts in their heads, so it perpetuates the thoughts. Sometimes I then feel an attachment, like I need to stay with that thought to seem consistent. It turns a fleeting neuronal firing into something much more lasting. So I try to be careful with saying things that I don’t want to give more energy to.

Finally, doing gives even more energy than saying. Talking about doing something is different from actually doing it. It makes an impression in the external world. So I need to make sure that the things that I am doing are in line with how I want my environment to be shaped. If I change my environment, it impacts my future thinking.

Summary

So there are the things that I think about. How to avoid getting upset or overly excited about events. How to make sure we are in a good emotional state. How to avoid thinking negative thoughts about others. How to focus on the things that are actually in our control. How to forgive.

Work Through Meeting Times To Gain Time

Today’s post is about a little mantra that I created that helps me deal with meetings that start late or not at all. It probably increases my work ability by half an hour a week.

The mantra developed when scheduled remote meetings kept getting forgotten by the other party and severely delayed or postponed. I would typically be ready five minutes ahead of time, and then fritter away twenty minutes or so, not wanting to get deep into any work. Then I would be a little demotivated for another few minutes when I realized the meeting wasn’t going to happen and that I wasted a lot of time.

When I realized that this kept happening, I needed to tell myself that it was OK to work through the scheduled meeting time, and if I was interrupted, that it was not a big deal. I made a post card saying: “Work Through Meeting Times To Gain Time” I have found that thinking about this card has helped me be much more productive in this uncertain time.

At first I worried that I would come into the meeting cold and appear dazed if I was in the middle of working on something or thinking about something. While this is somewhat true, by the time pleasantries are exchanged and I get a chance to review my notes or the project backlog, I have a good sense of what I need to bring up and have composure.

While the interruption may seem like a bit of a stress, I am going to get interrupted one way or another. But if I can get fifteen more minutes of useful things done, then it is a win.

Catching up on email or something else that needs to be done that can be interrupted might be good, but staying in the flow of difficult tasks may be better. Even better, I can write out that context. Alternately, taking low hanging fruit like cleaning up project management or continuing researching are solid approaches. If I have a physical meeting, bringing a few pages of reading might be a good time filler.

This approach is like chopping a board in karate. If you try to just chop the board, you will often not break it. But if you focus on chopping through the board, you will strike with a lot more force. In the same way, working only until the scheduled meeting start time leaves a lot of energy or time that could be used well instead.

If you have a meeting scheduled, consider whether this strategy would help you save time and get more work done.