Productivity Hacks Part 2: Increasing Willpower and Promoting Clear Thinking

A follow-up to Productivity Hacks I’ve Discovered Since College Part 1: Commitment Devices. Here are habits that have helped me make better decisions.

Setting budgets to make trade-offs more intuitive.

It’s hard to decide what is a worthwhile expense and what isn’t. Is eating out tonight worth spending an extra $10? What’s $10 worth, anyway? One reason this sort of question is so hard to answer, as suggested in Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s book  Scarcity, is that it’s unclear what exactly I’ll have to give up if I spend $10 today. It will chip into my savings and mean that I’ll have less to spend in the future, or maybe it will increase the risk that if a health catastrophe hits, I won’t be able to pay for the medical care I need. These costs are abstract and far away, so it’s hard to make smart tradeoffs. [2]

After graduating college, I figured out how much I would need to spend on rent and taxes, allocated 10% of my income to charity and $5,000 a year to savings, and subtracted how much I estimated I would spend on food and necessary home and school supplies. What was left over was for “fun”. I initially allocated myself a “fun budget” of $100 per month, and dropped this number to $70. [3] Up to $70, I spend money as if it doesn’t cost me anything except using up my “fun budget”, and over $70 I’m done.

Over time, it became much more clear which activities have high funness per dollar. I now know what I would do with a marginal fun-directed dollar, which helps realistically evaluate the costs of the tradeoffs I face. Seeing a $5 comedy show? That is much better than spending $5 on anything else I can think of. $18 for a few hours of rock climbing? That’s a few delicious meals. A trip to visit my cousin in Providence… now that buys a lot of falafel!

Costs and cognitive constraints

The main drawback of this policy is that I can’t budget optimally. Some months I don’t have much use for spending money on fun, but I spend it anyway. Some months I could use a lot more fun money, but I don’t have it. Large expenses are nearly impossible. I do permit myself to borrow and save between months, but I try to avoid it: $70 per month is much easier to think about than $8,400 decade, so I think about it on a monthly basis.

Planning in advance and writing everything in a place I look at frequently

I put everything on my Google Calendar on Sunday nights, print the calendar, and carry it around with me for the rest of the week. Now I almost never miss appointments; in the past I missed at least half of the appointments I scheduled that didn’t happen repeatedly.

I also keep a to-do list, which I have been doing for years. However, it’s not very helpful because I haven’t been able to get into the habit of frequently looking at my list the way I frequently check my calendar. When I need to remember something really important I write it on my hand, but it’s amazing how often I don’t notice that something is written on my hand. It’s more amazing how long I can walk around without anyone going “Hey, Liz, what’s that on your hand?”

Setting exercise goals to increase motivation

I exercise because it usually enjoyable, makes me feel better, and will extend my life. Accordingly, I used to exercise however and whenever I felt like it. I was a competitive athlete in high school and was on several teams in college, but for the last few years I’ve avoided taking exercise too seriously, constantly reminding myself that it is only useful insofar as it makes me happier or more productive.

This year, I signed up for a difficult trail race (May 10!) and started training for it. At the beginning of January, I had only been running ten or fifteen miles a week since I was recovering from an injury, so I made a plan to slowly build up to the 40 miles a week I wanted to be at a couple weeks before the race. I planned how how my weekly mileage and long run distances should increase, and I planned to periodically run intervals, hill repeats, sprints up Harvard Stadium, and lift weights in the gym. I wrote down what I did and how I felt every day. I started out motivated, and having a plan to follow and data to track has kept me motivated. On the rare days that I’d rather stay inside, thinking about placing well in the race gets me out the door.

The moral of this story is, pretending that sports is important makes me feel like it’s important, and feeling like it’s important makes it more fun.

(Aside: I’m eight weeks into slowly and reasonably increasing my running mileage. I’m not injured, I’m up to 25 miles a week with a 12 mile long run, and I barely notice hills that used to feel hard. I’m four weeks into lifting weights twice a week. I’m a lot stronger and can do thirty-five consecutive nose-to-the-ground push-ups. You serious athletes can snicker, but I’m proud of myself.)

Failures and Unsolved Problems

These are discussed at greater length above, but I think it’s worth pointing out that “life hacks” have costs and that not everything I try works.

  • I don’t remember to look at my to-do list. I write things on it and then don’t do them.
  • When I initially started setting a “go home and go to bed” alarm, I set it too late by about 40 minutes. Once I got home, I wouldn’t have time to hang out with my boyfriend or even chat with him while getting ready for bed, and I would leave dishes unwashed. Setting the alarm earlier fixed this, but neither the problem nor the solution was immediately obvious.
  • My monthly “fun budget” is inflexible and means that I will basically never go on an airplane for anything other than work or a family emergency.
  • My apartment is usually messier than I want it to be. I feel like I clean it all the time, but I guess that doesn’t happen as fast as it gets messier.

And a final caveat:

  • The fact that everything has been going well for me at once makes me worry that some other variable than good organizing is driving all this.

[2] This is an example of the absence of scarcity and is not really what the book is about.

[3] For people on the same stipend as me following along at home, I overestimated my taxes by a lot. This number could be higher and I’m going to rebudget after I find out exactly how much I’ll pay in taxes this year.

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Productivity Hacks I’ve Discovered Since Graduating College Part 1: Commitment Devices

I maintain a regular sleep schedule and almost never procrastinate. This is a huge improvement. I struggled for years to make this happen with willpower (hey, self, get off Reddit! go to sleep!) and was mostly unsuccessful. Over the past year, I’ve used external tools to turn me in the right direction. Sometimes they work by making the “right thing” much easier to do than the “wrong thing”, and sometimes they block me entirely from doing the “wrong thing”.

A theoretical framework: Discounting and time inconsistency.

Say that you have to choose between getting a marshmallow today and two marshmallows a year from now, and you choose the marshmallow today. Then say you have a choice between one marshmallow in five years and two in six years, and you choose two. If I wait five years and again ask you the “now or a year from now” question and you say you want one today, you’re being inconsistent: That decision reverses your choice from the initial “one in five years or two in six” question. This is the quick version of David Laibson’s model of quasi-hyperbolic discounting, which describes a person who treats the present as if it is special, but doesn’t value the future dramatically higher than the slightly-farther future.

I used to think about problems like procrastination as if I have two different preferences at the same time. I want to look at funny pictures of cats, but what I really want is to get my essay done early, and then have free time to look at funny pictures of cats. [1] The quasi-hyperbolic discounting model proposes something different: I only have one preference at a time. In the future, I want myself to be a good student and get essays done early. But right now, the benefits of another five minutes goofing off seem well worth the costs of cutting out five minutes somewhere else.

This way of looking at inconsistent behavior suggests a natural solution: If I know that I and my future self won’t agree on what she can do, I should try to constrain her actions. A way of constraining my future actions is a “commitment device”. Here are a few commitment devices that help me.

Leaving my laptop at school overnight.

I used to spend way too much time on my laptop in the evenings: In between tasks I would get distracted by a New York Times article that looked really important, checking the weather, or answering emails. I would get to bed much later than intended and was much less efficient than if I had tackled necessary tasks earlier and left unnecessary ones to a time when would be more alert.

Now, before I leave for home at the end of the day, I check the next day’s weather, print anything I need to, and jot down a plan for the next day. Then I leave my laptop in my locker and go home. This hasn’t just saved me from inefficient end-of-day laptop use; I also get cooking and cleaning done more quickly once I’m home.

Setting an alarm to remind me to go to bed.

This one is a reminder, not a rule. I figured out what time I would need to leave work in order to be able to get up at 7 am each day and set an alarm for that time. Then I head home once I wrap up what I’m working on and get everything organized for the next day.

Melatonin for healthy sleep habits.

The best way to be alert in an 8:30 am class is to regularly go to bed eight hours before the time I need to get up for my 8:30 class. If I go to bed early but am not used to going to bed that early, I will sleep poorly and feel groggy in the morning. When I need to be alert in the morning but haven’t been maintaining an early sleep schedule, I take 1 mg of melatonin, the hormone your body makes at night, about half an hour before bed. I will wake up about seven or eight hours later feeling quite peppy. It is also helpful for the first few days of shifting to an earlier sleep cycle. The drawback is that if I take melatonin and am woken up too early, I will feel bad until I can go to sleep again.

This one goes under “commitment devices” because once I’ve taken melatonin, I will become very sleepy and dysfunctional within an hour, so I have to head to bed without procrastinating or trying to get more work done. However, aside from the transition off Daylight Savings Time, I haven’t needed to use melatonin as a commitment device since I’ve started leaving my laptop at home.

Blocking distracting websites.

I block Reddit and Facebook using the Firefox add-on LeechBlock. It allows these sites only between 9 pm and 9:30 pm. I customized it so that I can’t easily disable the app, and uninstalled Chrome since, last time I checked, Chrome doesn’t have a productivity app that is difficult to disable.

CSA share as a vegetable commitment device.

I get lots of vegetables from Enterprise Farm every week. In addition to being fun and teaching me about what grows in my area in different seasons, this forces me to eat vegetables since I’ve paid for them ahead of time and would have to pay a lot more to eat something else.

Using friends to stay on task

I make a point of telling people my plans: “I’m going to go for a run and then work on the micro p-set, so let me know if you want to talk about that. I’ll be here tomorrow afternoon by 1 pm.” This is usually enough by itself to get me to follow the plan, since I don’t want to look like a flake or let someone down. I’ve also told some of my friends that they should feel free to chastise me when I don’t look like I’m using my time well. Most of them are too polite, but feeling like the productivity police are nearby helps me anyway.

[1] I think that the model of having two preferences at once has some truth to it, but it hasn’t been useful for me in generating suggestions to improve my behavior. But here’s a technique from Paul Graham that implicitly uses the “multiple preferences model”: “If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you’re trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you’re even considering the other is laziness. You know in the back of your mind what’s the right thing to do, and this trick merely forces you to acknowledge it.”

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Results from one month of collecting data on myself

Summary: I started collecting data on my habits. This will help me design control phases when I start experimenting with changing my habits. I learned some interesting things about myself, but the largest benefit was that I have learned more about the best ways to measure my life.


On December 19, during my last final of the semester, I started developing a list of health- and happiness-related questions that I could answer better after experimenting on myself. (I also found a few questions that I could answer better by reading more, and did a lot of reading.) Here are a few questions where research is too thin or personal experience too variable for me to answer without collecting personalized data:

  1. How much should I sleep? How do mild amounts of sleep deprivation, like sleeping seven hours a night, affect me?
  2. Would consuming mostly Soylent make me feel worse?
  3. How does the amount of exercise I get affect my mood and energy level? Does it matter what type of exercise it is?
  4. Is polyphasic sleep a good idea?
  5. Would stimulants like caffeine or Modafinil enhance my mood or productivity?

As I wrote these questions down, I noticed two big difficulties for constructing good experiments. Changing any of my habits might be beneficial in the short term but harmful in the long term. If I start sleeping seven hours a night and feel good for a month then start getting frequent headaches, can I really blame the sleep change? Surely many other things will have changed in that month. I think the experiments should follow the pattern “control phase – intervention phase – control phase” and, ideally, repeat several times. Due to the time this will take, I think that producing reliable data using self-experimentation is possible but would be incredibly costly, and I should probably just study interventions that will have an immediate effect with little risk of long-term harm.

In addition, in order to run a good experiment I need a control that is similar to the treatment phase in every respect except the variable I am studying. Take the question, “How much should I sleep?” I could collect baseline data on variables like my mood, start forcing myself to sleep from midnight to 7 am every day, and see how my mood changes. But having such a regular sleep schedule is quite different from what I do now. The regularity itself could be helpful or harmful. I wouldn’t be answering “How much should I sleep?”, but rather “How does sleeping from midnight to 7 am compare to whatever I was doing before?”  I should instead compare consistently sleeping 7 hours per night to consistently sleeping as much as I tend to sleep now. The problem is, I don’t know how much I sleep now.

I realized that wanting to start experimenting on myself was jumping the gun. I needed good baseline data, just to set up the control phase of an experiment. In addition, I know little enough about my usual habits that I wouldn’t know if they were far out of line with standard medical recommendations. So I kept track of what I ate, what I did, when I slept, how I exercised, my mood, and my mental functioning for most of a month. This had unanticipated benefits: I found out new information about my habits, and I learned what methods of tracking my own data are useful and what need improvement. Except for a couple of online tests, I collected most of my data by writing down what I remembered about my day before I went to bed, which took less than five minutes. Here’s a category-by-category account of what worked, what didn’t, and what I learned.


Tracking the amount of sleep I got was easiest of the measurements I made. I wrote down what time I got into bed, what time I turned the light off after reading, when I woke up, and when I got out of bed. I used an alarm clock on four out of thirty-one nights, but excluding those nights doesn’t change the results much. I spent an average of 7.69 (with a standard deviation of 0.97) hours asleep, and, on the nights that I read before going to sleep, 29 minutes reading (with a standard deviation of 17 minutes).

Surprise one: How much I sleep varies hugely. I wonder whether I actually need more sleep on the nights that I naturally sleep more; would allotting myself eight hours of sleep a night be harmful?

Yeah, the frequencies don't add up right.

Yeah, the frequencies don’t add up right.

The other surprise: I’m in the habit of reading in bed until I feel very sleepy, than turning the light off and dropping right to sleep. I thought this took five or ten minutes . In reality, it took about thirty. This would be justified if reading were displacing time I spent lying awake in bed. If that were true, I would have a longer “lights-out to wake-up” time on nights that I didn’t read. There was actually no difference on that measure between nights I read and nights I didn’t, but the amount I sleep is so variable that this doesn’t mean much.

Where to go from here: There are lots of questions I would like to answer about my sleep, mostly involving sleep quality. The main problem in running sleep experiments is how to measure sleep quality. Possibilities for measuring sleep quality:

  1. Write down how well-rested I feel when I get up in the morning. Unfortunately, something that makes me sleep more lightly (like leaving my curtain open) might also make me feel less groggy when I wake up.
  2. Track the variables that I actually care about that I think sleep affects, like working memory, mood, sleepiness, productivity, or running speed. Unfortunately, I would expect these variables to be a very noisy measure of sleep quality since they are affected by so much else. In addition, they probably drift over the the time span that I would need to run an experiment: If I try sleeping while wearing ear plugs for two months and find that my mood is consistently brighter at the end of the month, couldn’t that be because it is warmer and sunnier outside?
  3. Use something like a Fitbit to track how much I move in my sleep. This would be expensive, but seems like the best option.

Tasks and Food

I wrote down what I got done and what I ate every day in a very rough way. Unsurprisingly, this did not produce data I could analyze. An example entry in “Tasks” is “Ran, delivered veggies, dropped off and picked up prescription, bought groceries, interviewed MIT applicant, wrote interview report.” Two consecutive days of food data are “Oatmeal, frozen mango, sambar, quinoa, lots of bread, sauerkraut, vegan sausage, Ben vegetables, buttered toast” and “Tofu scramble with peppers, frozen strawberries, jar of kimchi, egg drop soup, Ben veggies, Buffalo Brussels sprouts, fruit cake”.  I think I will stop tracking food data until I find a better way to do it. As for tasks, I will go back to my old method of keeping a to-do list and crossing off completed tasks.


I wrote down how far I walked, how far I ran, and which Pop Pilates videos I did. I walked for transportation, ran infrequently since my IT band has been bothering me, and spent about as much time on Pop Pilates videos as I did running. I didn’t find any surprises, but now that my IT band is feeling better I’m glad to have an estimate of how much I’ve been running (about 14 miles a week) so that I can increase my mileage slowly and regularly as I resume more regular running.

I meant to do regular tests of my physical ability but didn’t really get around to it. I have some idea of how many consecutive pull-ups or push-ups I can do and how fast I can run a mile, but no time series data.

MoodEvery day before bed, I wrote down how I felt over the day and what I thought influenced my mood. I meant to record my mood using a little game on every day, but I only remembered to do so twelve times. Moodscope was somewhat helpful in identifying what affects my mood; since my mood affects my actions, I don’t want to read much into any correlations. The only variable that I don’t control is whether my boyfriend around, and I think I’m happier and more productive when he is.

Moodscope consistently surprised me; almost every time I evaluated questions like “How enthusiastic do I feel?” I would think “But this is how I always feel, right?” I was wrong. My mood fluctuates moderately, and without data I can’t tell when I’m having a worse-than-average day.

Cognitive Functioning
I took cognitive tests on These tests involved simple but difficult tasks like memorization of words and numbers, judging whether two patterns are the same, and quickly responding to stimuli. I liked them, but the manner in which I took them didn’t generate usable data.

On Quantified Mind you can’t just sign in and start taking tests; you need to either join an experiment that will give you a new battery of tests every session or create your own experiment. I joined the experiment “Time of Day” and had a set of tests that varied every day. Each test (such as number memorization) ocurred about three times over the twelve times I used Quantified Mind. Unfortunately, since the tests were different each time, it’s really hard to analyze this data to find out how different variables affected my mental abilities.

I think that in the future I will keep using Quantified Mind, but I will use the “design your own experiment” feature to construct a set of tests that is the same every day.

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Strength Training and Running

In which I turn to the evidence to ponder why my IT band hurts, whether all the Pop Pilates videos I’ve been doing are helping, and whether I should start lifting. I mostly used as a sort of review of review articles in order to find links.

IT Band Syndrome

I thought there was good evidence that runners with iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) had weaker hip abduction, meaning that they had weaker muscles of the sort that help you lift up your top leg when  you’re lying on your side. I now think this is unlikely. Some studies on ITBS and strength:

  1. “Hip Abductor Weakness in Distance Runners with Iliotibial Band Syndrome”, Fredericson et. al. 2000. This study is the most widely cited. It compares a group of 24 club and collegiate distance runners with IT Band Syndrome to 30 distance runners from the Stanford cross-country and track teams. The injured runners had slightly weaker hip abductors than super-elite Stanford athletes on their non-injured legs and had significantly weaker hip abductors on their injured legs. All of the injured runners (no real control group!) spent six weeks rehabilitating their injuries. They strengthened their hip abducion, stretched, took anti-inflammatories, and stopped running. After six weeks, their hips were stronger and 22 of 24 were pain free. I think it’s obvious why this study is not convincing evidence for “weak hip abductors cause ITBS and strengthening hip abductors fixes it.”
  2. “Hip Abductor Weakness is not the Cause for Iliotibial Band Syndrome,” Grau et. al., 2008. I can only access the abstract, but it basically says that runners with ITBS don’t have weaker hip abduction.
  3.  “Prospective study of the biomechanical factors associated with iliotibial band syndrome,” Noehren et. al. 2006. This one doesn’t have to do with strength, but its methodological soundness is so unusual that I included it anyway. Runners with ITBS seem to run slightly differently, but it’s hard to tell whether this is the cause of or a symptom of their IT band problems. So Noehren et. al. found 400 healthy runners, took data on their running mechanics, and watched to see which ones developed ITBS. The eighteen who developed ITBS did have different running mechanics, even while they were healthy.
  4. I had ITBS a few summers ago and spent about two months doing hip abduction exercises regularly. This didn’t seem to help. I developed ITBS again recently when I had been doing a much higher ratio of strength training to running than I usually do, including some hip abduction exercises. I know n=1 doesn’t count for much, but there is a meme that fixing weak hip abductors fixes ITBS and this worked for 22 of 24 in Fredericson et. al., so my experience leads me to doubt that claim.

Other Injuries

In “Prevention of running injuries,” Fields et. al. identify two innate anatomical factors that contribute to running injury, cavus feet and leg length inequality, and also review “strength, biomechanics, stretching, warm-up, nutrition, psychological factors, and shoes.” They write that “Many factors influence running injuries, but strong evidence for prevention only exists for training modification by reducing weekly mileage.” In general, “I’m going to fix my injury by strengthening my X” doesn’t seem to work, or, more charitably, we don’t know which exercises will help  yet. This includes core strength exercises.


In “The Impact of Resistance Training on Distance Running Performance”, Alan Jung reviews the effect of resistance training (moving heavy objects) on the general biological factors that are known to improve running performance. These factors are VO2 max, which is “the highest rate at which the body can consume and utilize oxygen” and is a general measure of ability to do endurance exercise; lactate threshold, “the point at which blood lactate accumulates above resting values”; and running economy, which is a measure of efficiency describing how much oxygen is needed to run at a given speed.

Looking at the studies in Jung’s review, resistance training seems to improve VO2 max only in sedentary people, although I would guess that anything would improve VO2 max in sedentary people. There are few studies on lactate threshold. The three studies that measured running economy, however, found big gains of 4%, 8.1%, and 22% in efficiency. In “Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power”, Paavolainen et. al. study a treatment group of ten elite male runners and a control group of eight elite male runners. For nine weeks, he treatment group replaced 32% of their training with “explosive-type strength training”, and the control group replaced 3%. These exercises included sprints and various jumping exercises. The treatment groups’ 5k times decreased by about 40 seconds, and this is statistically significant, while the control participants’ 5k times increased slightly (it was the off season).

The other study that measured running economy is “Strength Training in Female Distance Runners: Impact on Running Economy.”, by Johnston et. al. Over ten weeks, six female distance runners who had been running 20 to 30 miles a week and had not engaged in regular weight training for at least three months participated in “traditional strength training” in addition to their usual running, while a similar control group continued doing what they had been. They did these free weight exercises: parallel squat, seated press, hammer curl, weighted sit-up, lunge, bent-leg heel raise, and bench press.

Both of the studies on running economy look legit to me, but it’s not possible to say which exercises are the most helpful.


I expected to have more suggestions, but the research is pretty thin. If you want to get faster, do some squats and plyometrics, I guess. If you don’t want to get hurt, run less.

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Annual physicals for healthy adults, and tests that are bad for you

Some studies and experts say that getting a standard physical as frequently as once a year is, on average, bad for healthy adults. The New York Times writes:

Some experts note that when something seemingly abnormal is picked up during a routine exam, the result is psychological distress for the patient, further testing that may do more harm than good, and increased medical expenses.

It’s not the physical that is harmful. Incorrect reactions to new information are harmful. This isn’t a good reason for a well-informed and critical patient to skip an exam: If the doctor finds something wrong with me and recommends a test or procedure, I can read up on my options and then decide what to do. If you’re acting optimally, more information can’t make you worse off.* But perhaps almost everyone overreacts to health information, and I am just as bad as the average person. Perhaps, if some test were to come up positive, I would be better off not knowing about it. But I’m skeptical.

I don’t think a physical will hurt me. Will it help? This study reviews randomized trials that gave routine physical exams to healthy adults and finds that they don’t seem to help survival, illness, or hospitalization rates. The standard errors are large enough and the variables are important enough that I still want more information.

The NIH recommends that healthy women aged 18-39 get a physical for the following reasons:

  • Blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes screening.

I’ve had my blood pressure checked, and given my diet and general good health I think it’s extremely unlikely that I have cholesterol or diabetes problems. Besides, the CVS Minute Clinic can check for those things without an appointment (except in Massachusetts).

  • Dental exam

I went to the dentist this year, since I was concerned about my wisdom teeth.

  • Immunizations

I have these. In addition, if my doctor recommends an immunization, I will need to make a few insurance-related phone calls before getting the immunization, so it won’t happen on the same visit anyway. So for me, there’s no point bundling these into the standard physical.

  • Height, weight, and BMI

You can easily check your height and weight at the gym. If they are unhealthy a doctor may help you with a diet an exercise plan, or she may just frown at you and tell you to lose weight. Anyway, my height and weight are healthy and are the same as they have been.

  • Your doctor or nurse may ask you about depression, diet and exercise, alcohol and tobacco use, and safety such as seat belts and smoke detectors.”

Thanks to the NIH, I just considered all of these things and confirmed that I am okay.

  • Complete breast exam every three years
  • Pelvic exam and Pap smear every two years for women over 21.

I can’t reliably detect breast cancer or cervical cancer on my own. This seems worthwhile.

* In game theory, if you have more information and other people know you have more information, you may be worse off.

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Blogging my troubles

I’m in my first year of grad school. Everything is awesome. I am vaguely displeased with my life and am going to try something I haven’t tried before: blogging about it in the hope of getting fresh perspectives. As always, analysis and blunt criticism are welcome.

Tl;dr: After graduating college, my boyfriend is the only close friend that I see regularly. If you are upset that we talk all the time but I haven’t counted you as a close friend, read on, because I think you’re great and this is in your power to fix!

The friends I made as an undergraduate were terrific people. MIT students, especially the people I knew in a residential context, were incredibly warm and open. In the co-op I lived in, almost anything was acceptable fodder for discussion. I later moved into a dorm, and my unit of the dorm was full of very friendly, open, and caring people. On a typical evening of p-setting in the lounge, I might hear a discussion about people’s families, their medical issues, foreign policy, metaethics, optimal dating strategies, religion, how to balance ethics and personal satisfaction when choosing a career, their sex lives, or their lack of a sex life. People felt free to berate someone who had skipped too many meals or nights of sleep, but would rush to aid a distressed suitemate with a cup of tea, a movie, or a packet of microwave popcorn. Someone might pop into my room with a question about an injured ankle or a random thought about optimal study strategies. In return, I felt like I could ask for help, pull a friend into a discussion about whatever was on my mind, and offer advice. If I hadn’t seen someone in a while, I could knock on their door or offer them a snack without feeling too intrusive. One summer, I shared an apartment with two wonderful people I almost never saw, but we had invaluable conversations on the rare occasions we were all home. I vaguely remember one argument that started with “Is it important to date someone who shares the same axioms as you?” and metastasized, with arguments generating rapidly shifting two-against-one alliances.

I’m probably exaggerating the differences between the places I lived and a more typical community. Someone who visited for a short time wouldn’t notice a difference. But there are subtly different norms about what behaviors are acceptable. If I’m not around anyone who ever voices complaints about anything other than work, I don’t feel like I can talk about whatever’s on my mind, unless it’s work. In addition, the range of interesting and open friends from MIT may have given me unreasonably high standards about what it means to know someone well. If I don’t know how someone feels about their parents, their girlfriend, their religion, or their self-confidence, I feel like I don’t know them at all. Even if I see talk to them every day. And without the sort of friend who regularly says, “You know what? You’re awesome!”, that little voice in the back of my head starts to get a little louder: “You know what, no one really likes you…”

So… grad school. I don’t really see my old friends. Attempts to do so, mainly driven by me, haven’t usually worked. I have a lot of new friends, mainly from my program. They are really interesting people and are mostly really nice, but I’m not sure if I’ve made many close friends. Approximately one of them is a pretty open person. People mainly talk about economics, or about the weather, or about what they like and don’t like about grad school. I’ve met a small number of people from my university outside my department, and even in brief interactions like a one-hour run I feel like I know them better than I know most people I see every day. This leads to a few hypotheses about my failure to socially thrive:

  • They’re economists. Maybe economists actually only care about economics and the weather. This seems unlikely, but fits the data.
  • It’s the semi-professional grad school environment. We all need a job at the end of this. We’re all forming professional connections. Who wants to make themself look less competent by saying “I used to struggle with depression and I’m afraid it’ll come back” or “I miss my boyfriend”? This explanation is most intuitive to me, but the fact that people regularly say things like “I am bad at macro” does not fit the hypothesis.
  • It’s me, explanation 1. I am giving off unfriendly or overly businesslike vibes, so people are willing to talk to me about work but not much else. I don’t think I’m doing this, but I’ve heard it proposed as an explanation for why people don’t hug me (which I appreciate!), so maybe something similar is going on.
  • It’s me, explanation 2. Economics grad students just don’t like me very much, but are still willing to work with me.
  • Equilibrium with incorrect beliefs. Everyone, or at least the people I talk to, thinks that other people don’t want to talk about much other than economics. So they don’t talk about much other than economics. This is the most optimistic hypothesis, since this equilibrium can be broken by someone walking up to me and ranting about a personal issue.

So, why all this focus on the people I see every day? What about my old friends who live in the same city, or very close old friends who moved away, or making new friends? Trying to get in touch with old friends who live in the same city has so far been a high-effort activity with low payoffs, but I’m optimistic that some regular gathering will get off the ground. I should resume being a pan pal with a few old friends. (Let me know if you want a pen pal!) As for making new friends, presumably through some shared hobby, I wouldn’t expect this to lead to forming close friendships, since in my experience these groups usually revolve around talking about the hobby, but this depends on the specific group so it might be worth a try.

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What I wish I knew in high school

  • Math is awesome. I thought I knew what math was. After all, I’d been taking it for my whole life. But there’s so much more math than what you learn in high school! Number theory, game theory, probability, algorithms, topology…

In high school, I liked math and wanted to learn more math, but the guidance department told me that if I learned anything on my own I’d just be required to repeat it in school. But you can learn math that’s different from your curriculum, and it’s usually more interesting. Check out the Art of Problem Solving books, which help you prepare for math competitions. You can take an online math course from a great university (see here), such as Stanford’s “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking”. You can apply to go to Math Camp, which I’ve heard is awesome.

  • Yes, you can learn to program! I heard my high school doesn’t offer AP Computer Science anymore. That’s too bad. However, most of the people I know at MIT who knew how to program before college taught themselves because they wanted to create a specific project. All of the ones who are good at it learned a lot outside school. Most languages have great online documentation. Think of something you want to create, pick a language (I suggest Python), and do it!
  • Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors have a much easier time getting a job and make more money. But they generally have to work harder.
  • The liberal arts scam. When I was applying to college, I heard over and over that a “liberal arts education” gives you a broad education in almost everything, develops your thinking skills, and makes you an appealing job candidate. Your critical thinking skills will improve if you push yourself hard, but I’m not sure about the job: check out this Forbes article on unemployment rates for different majors. And remember that if you follow your heart and do one of those high-unemployment-rate majors, you’re more likely to have to take a job that has nothing to do with your major.

Liberal arts advocates draw a dichotomy between “developing specific skills for a specific job” and “gaining broad problem-solving abilities”, and claim that a liberal arts education develops the latter (and implicitly, other programs don’t). However, it’s not true that a liberal arts education always makes you a better problem-solver, and it’s definitely not true that technical programs just prepare you for some specific job. It depends on the college and, mostly, it depends on you.

Take MIT, for example. Students must take eight humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS) classes, distributed over different subject areas. Two of these must be writing-intensive, and they’re all hard. In addition, we need to take two communication-intensive courses in our majors. And our majors don’t just prepare us for a single job, but rather give us problem-solving techniques that are widely applicable. For example, learning to express yourself in the language of mathematics or programming forces you to be clear, logical, and consistent. No bullshitting allowed. On the other hand, many liberal arts programs demand that you take a wide variety of subjects, but it’s possible to take classes that are really easy, or so narrow as to be irrelevant. The “science for non-science majors” classes that students often take to fulfill requirements are generally a joke. In general, STEM majors have to know much more about the humanities than humanities majors have to know about math and science.

Basically, whether you learn to reason and communicate about a wide variety of subjects has more to do with what classes you choose to take than with what college you go to. But for goodness’ sake, take classes that will make you smarter and help you get a job, or you’ll regret it senior year. And unless you’re at a school like Harvard, don’t believe anyone who tells you that if you pursue your passion and major in creative writing or theater or anthropology, a job will surely follow.

  • Take time to pick your major. Many people think they know what they want to major in, then change their minds when they discover something cooler. This can often result in graduating late. I recommend exploring many different classes in different majors early, then specializing only once you’re sure about want to major in. Some colleges require you to declare a major much earlier than others, and some require students to take so many classes in their major that they can’t afford to explore. Look into this before you decide where to go.

A lot of people pick a major that just continues what they did in high school. I made that mistake when I declared a physics major, then later discovered that I was much more interested in computer science and economics.

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