Yet Another Parable On The Importance Of Controlling Your Experiments

This morning, I decide to finally try a certain productivity hack beginning with “M”, you know the one. As a test to see if it helped me increase my focus, I pick up a “Teach Yourself Calligraphy” book I had lying around but hadn’t looked at yet.

Seven hours of unbroken calligraphy-studying later, I finally start wondering if maybe I should do something else. I think maybe I used the bathroom once or twice during that time, it’s hard to tell? Anyway, I decide to count the experiment as a success.

Then I have a perfectly normal evening. After the rest of the house has gone to sleep I sit down to write a blog post or finish up some Dungeons and Discourse material or something. It’s tough going, I’m feeling a bit tired, and while looking for a distraction I notice the calligraphy book sitting on my desk and decided to tie up a lesson I didn’t finish.

Five hours of unbroken calligraphy studying later, I finally start wondering whether it might be several hours past my bedtime and whether that is a sufficiently important reason to interrupt a lesson on uncials.

So it turns out calligraphy is just really, really interesting. And I still don’t have the slightest idea whether or not M___ works.

(this is also why no more substantive blog post today)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Yet Another Parable On The Importance Of Controlling Your Experiments

  1. aretae says:

    Among my favorite blog posts by anyone ever.

  2. Intrism says:

    (this is also why no more substantive blog post today)

    So you’re saying M____L made you less productive? Hmm… product not as advertised, I’d say.

    • perlhaqr says:

      I guess it depends on one’s definition of “productive”.


      I actually had no idea M_L was useful for this purpose. I’ve only used it, honestly, for it’s intended use as recommended purpose; dealing with shift switch flopover, when I’d be at the internship doing an overnight and then have to be up and in class he next day and sleep the next night.

      Though, being depressive and ADHD, I have other tools at my disposal for assisting with focus.

      And for the commenter above who was going on about Americans obsessing over productivity and “dosing children with ritalin”, well, to steal from the leftist playbook, “your neurochemical privilege is showing”. Maybe others are going overboard, but it’s a particular sort of hell to be basically utterly incapable of just sitting still and thinking about one thing for three minutes straight.

  3. also tried says:

    Keep that to-do list or thing you want to work on front-and-center, or it is very easy to have an incredibly long and focused Wikipedia-surfing session.

    I have rigged my own blind, placebo-controlled tests because I wondered if perhaps my overwhelming diarrhea was psychosomatic. Sadly, no.

  4. crnigjuro says:

    Weirdly enough, japanese calligraphy (shodo) is all about achieving unbroken concentration throughout brushing the character/text. It can *only* be done properly when one has lost all sense of self and there exist brush,ink paper and three-dimensional movement of the whole body which becomes brushed character. great fun, takes years to achieve πŸ™‚

    • Doug S. says:

      In other words, it’s about getting “in the zone” when you’re drawing?

      • crnigjuro says:

        Very much so. The brush betrays any momentary deviation of the attention, and rice paper disolves under hestitation. For me, shodo was the fastest way to achieve zen (and I am very much not into religion or mysticism). Similar state of consciousness I achieved while fencing and also dancing, but shodo can be done solo, unlike the other two πŸ™‚ western calligraphy is also fun, but it does take a lot of planning and preparation so to me it doesn’t reflect spontaneity of the moment, like shodo does. nonetheless it is still great fun and wonderful practice for concentration.

  5. Deiseach says:

    Okay, here’s the proof of the pudding: Scott, did you actually do any calligraphy, after sitting and reading about it for seven hours straight? In other words, was your ‘hack’ really productive, or was it just a more complicated way of wasting time?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yeah, I did about twenty pages of it. It’s not very good, but I’m learning.

  6. gwern says:

    On the positive sides: 1) M-l is easy to blind; 2) even if it’s placebo, it’s apparently paying for itself?

  7. Deiseach says:

    I am amused, fascinated, and slightly appalled by the eagerness with which Americans happily dose themselves up with all kinds of chemicals to achieve some kind of perceived better or superior physical/mental state.

    It’s that whole Protestant Work Ethic, isn’t it? Makes me glad that I’m one of the lazy Catholics πŸ™‚

    I think I have a faint idea of the substance you mean. I remember the whole fuss about Prozac, and how some over-enthusiastic advocates were saying it should be piped into the water supply, it would do everyone so much good! And then fen-phen? Am I spelling it right? Women killing themselves to lose weight?

    Do you really need to focus for several hours at a time on something? Is American life so regimented that you need to dose your children with Ritalin to make them pay attention in school, dose your college students with this “productivity hack” so they can study for hours and hours, dose yourself when you are in your working life so you can work on a project for hours and hours… when do you, you know, live?

    • Max says:

      Some Americans’ lives are more regimented than others; when a person is working an eighty hour work week, their schedule is probably pretty full up. But for a person like Yvain, using the chemical isn’t reflective of some pathological need to fill up every hour with creditable projects. Many people would like to get certain things done, writing that novel, learning that language, etc., and will feel disappointed if they fail to do so, but in the short term are easily distracted from it. It doesn’t take away their time to “really live,” it helps them do so, in much the way that a person who wants to go on a trip around the world, but keeps blowing all their spare money on candy, is assisted in their desire to “really live” if they develop a hack to stop blowing all their money on candy and save it for something that will produce a lasting experience.

      • Deiseach says:

        Yes, but you see:

        American – I can’t sit and concentrate on one thing for several hours straight without getting distracted and/or bored!

        Rest of the world – Yeah, that’s normal.

        American – It is a design flaw and I will correct it by means of SCIENCE!!!!

        Rest of world – Oh boy, here we go again. You do realise that, in anything from five to twenty years, you will come back and say “Hey, it turns out that dosing oneself with strange chemicals is not the greatest idea in the world. Who knew?”

        I know that it’s not all about work in the sense of “working for a living”. But what is wrong with being unproductive? I think you all need a course of Jerome K. Jerome to settle your itch to be always doing.


        • Max says:

          “Rest of world – Oh boy, here we go again. You do realise that, in anything from five to twenty years, you will come back and say β€œHey, it turns out that dosing oneself with strange chemicals is not the greatest idea in the world. Who knew?””

          Rest of the world doesn’t seem to have drawn that conclusion yet with alcohol and caffeine.

    • Oligopsony says:

      Sometimes people’s brains really don’t work the way they’d like them to.

      In order to get anything done at all, I either need a prescription stimulant or the chemicals my body naturally produces when it goes into panic mode. I’m envious of high-conscientiousness types who can just function productively by default! And yet I’ve dodged the biggest bullets as far as brain problems go – I have definite tendencies towards rumination, too, but those are under control as long as pay attention to my diet and some other stuff. The outputs are determined by the inputs.

      That said, I think you’re right to point at least implicitly to a collective action problem here. Even if dosing to become more productive is individually rational, we don’t want to end up in a Protestant Work Ethic arms race, which is arguably where we are. Multiheaded’s comment that the Prussian education system may have been something of an unfriendly foom seems apposite here.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Life so regimented? I just woke up at 1:30 PM. I spent most of the past several days vaguely browsing Reddit and taking aimless walks. But every so often I feel a desire to learn something or become good at something, and although I have some small native ability in that area it never hurts to have more, in the same way that although I can walk having a car is also neat because it helps me transport myself better.

  8. Slow Learner says:

    For the uninitiated – M__L?

    • Nestor says:

      It’s probably a good idea not to spell it out fully, or you’ll be targetted by the most agressive spam bots and hacks as soon as you qualify on the search engines for the term…

      • Slow Learner says:

        Ah. Twigged, thank you, I now see why Scott wasn’t using the time explicitly.

      • Anonymous says:

        Surely it is possible to put down the name that is obvious to a human reader without being readable by machine. For example, a text string in which the key letters are in prime positions (12357). You can state your code in words. No algorithms will take an english sentence, parse it, turn it into a decryption algorithm, and then decrypt the preceding text.

  9. Sarah says:

    Sounds like it’s the M__L.

    I’ve found it makes me focus like all-get-out…but frequently it just makes me want to WRITE and write and write, which is not exactly productive.

  10. sixes_and_sevens says:

    I’ve tried this same hack five or six times over the past two months, and I’m still not entirely sure as to whether it’s having a genuine effect. Some days I just want to do a bunch of housework and meticulously annotate my microeconomics textbooks.

  11. Anonymous says:

    But you should try in a day or two, to see whether calligraphy is still fascinating when you’re not…

  12. Army1987 says:


    After reading the first paragraph and until reading the last, I had assumed that that was a book you had already picked up and put back down a couple times in the past.