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Patrick Stevens

Former mathematics student at the University of Cambridge; now a software engineer.

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Lifehacks

If I ever become rich and famous, I’m sure I’ll be besieged with requests for “how to do better in life”. I hereby head such requests off at the pass, by providing a list of lifehacks I am either using or considering the use of.

  • For learning smallish but numerous facts (such as a list of theorems), I use Anki, which is a spaced-repetition learning system, allowing you to enter flashcards and have them shown to you regularly. The time between repetitions of a certain flashcard changes, depending on how well you’ve been doing on that flashcard - so marking your performance on a particular card as “easy” rather than “hard” tells Anki that you don’t want to see that card for a while. It’s a bit like the antithesis of cramming, where you see the material exactly once and use it a short time later; Anki is designed for reviewing the material many times (at an optimal spacing) for recall whenever you need it. The idea is to make use of the spacing effect - an extremely powerful memory technique that is currently ignored by almost all methods of formal teaching (Memrise is a notable exception; I used Memrise until I used Anki).
  • A surprisingly good way of making myself work when I’m feeling unmotivated is to gather a few like-minded friends and to work in absolute silence with them (possibly on completely unrelated topics). Oddly, I’d not thought of it until reading a LessWrong post on the subject. There’s a kind of “all in this together” feeling, as well as the public commitment effect.
  • I use f.lux, an application which dims and tints red the computer screen after dusk. I have no idea whether or not it has any effect on wakefulness at night (that is, whether or not being bathed in a standard blue glow keeps me awake), but it certainly feels nicer on the eye.
  • I am currently in the middle of learning Dvorak, which is a keyboard layout (QWERTY is the usual one) that is supposedly easier on the hands than QWERTY. It puts vowels all together in easy-to-reach places, and the most common consonants in easy places such that words tend to be made of letters which lie in different hands. (In QWERTY, for example, the word “the” is oddly hard to type, for such a common word - all the characters are away from the home row - but in Dvorak it’s just a simple flourish from right to left on the home row.) A friend tells me that Colemak is better than Dvorak, but I’d already half-learnt Dvorak by the time ey told me this, and Dvorak interfered heavily with my attempts to learn Colemak. It appears to be much of a muchness, anyway - both are considerably better than QWERTY.
  • I don’t know if it qualifies as a lifehack - more of a biohack or something - but lucid dreaming is really cool, and it doesn’t take an enormous amount of commitment to learn to do (it just requires the setting up of a few habits throughout the day).
  • Something I’m strongly considering when it’s set up and running properly is Soylent, a food substitute being developed by an engineer, which is nutritionally complete and satisfying. As of this writing, the creator has been on it for three and a half months without ill effects (once he’d sorted out the balance, anyway - he discovered a sulphur deficiency at the start of the third month, which is a very hard deficiency to give someone normally!) Currently, someone I know is using the Exante diet (the presence of a link is not necessarily an endorsement), which consists of similar but very low-calorie meal replacements; this person has been a very interesting source of information on replacing meals in this way. Eir main objection to the diet seems to be the monotony, but supposedly Soylent is bland enough not to suffer from this (I could eat bread until the cows came home, for instance, but not chocolate). The Soylent Corp. says that Soylent will get cheaper as the company is set up and grows. (Creator’s response to the most common objections.)
  • How to get up in the morning: because it’s really quite hard to motivate yourself to move, I count down from 10 to 1, with the resolution that on the count of 1 I will get up. It’s much easier to motivate yourself to count down from 10 than it is to move your entire body somewhere uncomfortable, and once I’m counting, consistency pressure is enough to make me follow through. I’m careful with this technique - I never use it on anything I’m not absolutely certain to do. It might pollute the technique irreparably if I had an excuse that “oh, once I did this and it didn’t work!”.

More to come.