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Training Yourself

To train any animal, you follow a simple process. You somehow indicate what you want it to do, and then when it does it, you give it a reward. Maybe in some cases you punish it if it doesn't do what it's supposed to do. Then you repeat until the animal is trained. When it comes to training ourselves, though, we come up with a million weird and ineffective ways to do it.

Why is that? Maybe it's because we don't want to face the truth about what it takes to train ourselves, so we hunt and hunt for shortcuts. As someone who has trained himself to do all sorts of things, I think that the solution is much easier.

The first fix is to drop this idea of looking for a shortcut. Often times people will spend years trying to find that shortcut to losing weight, learning a new language, or developing a sense of optimism. Maybe they save a month or two, but they would have been a lot better off just doing it the hard way to begin with.

When people tell me that they're going to change, the number one indicator I've found to predict whether or not they'll succeed is how quickly they start. If they start right now they have a much better chance of succeeding than if they start, "after this pack" or "on January first" or "as soon as I'm settled in". If you don't want something bad enough to start immediately, you may as well give up and not waste your time on it. Obvious exceptions are when there's a concrete logistical reason to start later like, "I'll start training for skiing in the winter, because that's when there's snow".

The Tetris Effect and Markov Paul Graham

On nickwinter.net

My head obsesses. I get songs stuck in my head so badly that I have to leave the room when "I'm On A Boat" comes on, and anyone who tries to troll me by singing "Party in the USA" gets warned and then ferociously tickled. (It's self-defense.) I don't like watching TV shows and have to limit movies because the scenes and plots continue to play in my head for days afterward, displacing the top idea in my mind.

The most interesting case of this is the Tetris effect. This where you do a repetitive activity so much that it takes over your subconscious, visually superimposing its patterns over your life. It's most noticeable when you're falling asleep. Tetris addicts would turn things they see into tetrominos, and their brains would be playing Tetris as they slept.

I have it bad. I've had the Tetris effect not only with all sorts of video games, but with things like coding, typing Dvorak, fixing grammar mistakes, responding to emails, hiking, tweaking CSS, and designing particle effects. Up until this week, though, it had only been visual, perhaps with some motor component.

It turns out I can get auditory Tetris effect, too. I had just spent the entire day strategizing about CodeCombat with George and Scott, talking startups with other Y Combinator companies, and listening to the YC partners dispense wisdom. As I was falling asleep, I heard a perfect Markov chain generator produce a conversation between Paul Graham, George, and Generic Startup Founder, complete with voices and appropriate verbal mannerisms, that went something like this:

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