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Memory Repository 🧠

@MemoryRepository | Pharmacy Student 💊 Digital Garden | Productivity & Personal Development | Health & Psychology | PKM | I deposit bits of knowledge, learnings, and memories into this memory repository.

Realising How Tired We Are

Reading time: 1 min

I distinctly remember once partaking in a mindfulness session with fellow students.

We breathed, meditated, and did some simple yoga (by which I mean we just lazed around on fancy mats and cushions).

I’ve briefly fallen asleep several times in this highly relaxed and calm state.

The instructor pointed out that quite a few of us were falling asleep and noted that it was good that we were relaxed and becoming aware of our own sleepiness.

The whole idea of mindfulness is to be aware of what your mind and body are feeling.

We are often more exhausted than we realise. Try this:

  1. Fill your room with soft light (not full bright light nor darkness; curtains half drawn in the afternoon works).
  2. Lie or sit down and just breathe while focusing on how your body is feeling.
  3. See if you doze off.

Footnote:

  • I considered saying, “set a dim room” for the experiment. But that’s unfair- your body will release melatonin (a hormone that encourages sleep). To make my experiment have a borderline 100% success rate for most people, just set the room to complete darkness and preserve silence. You’ll more than likely want to fall asleep.

Why You Should Make Purchase Decisions Slowly

Why I'm slow with making purchase decisions

I'm told that I take ages to make purchase decisions when it's something I don't immediately need. Need, as in it would not seriously affect my ability to live reasonably.

I would stand there for a few seconds, contemplating, or come back to it after walking around elsewhere (or after a week in case of online shopping). I might note it down on a temporary wish list.

During that time, I evaluate the following:

  • the 'utility' (satisfaction, happiness, usefulness, improvement to my quality of life) the purchase would bring to my immediate and future self,
  • the opportunity cost- what I could have done with the money instead, and
  • the equivalent time cost- how much 'time' I would have spent to acquire it (see this post)

If I still want to purchase the item after one week, I will either make the purchase or place it on my permanent wish list and make the purchase when appropriate.

Why is this beneficial?

  • Every purchase you make will have gone through your lengthy deliberation process on whether it truly benefits you, i.e. purchases that make it out alive will be much more likely to have a true benefit to your current and future self
  • This stops impulse purchases
  • This significantly reduces the likelihood of regretful purchases
  • If you reject a purchase after one week, the money is retained for something that can bring higher 'utility'.

Scheduling Leisure Activities Dampens Enjoyment (and the Solution to This)

Reading time: 1.5 min

In my downtime after returning home today, I played a game that involved moving my body. (It's Switch Sports). It's my way of keeping myself somewhat active while having fun on rest days from regular workouts.

I set myself a start and end time (totalling 30 minutes) for this leisurely activity to be productive and save time for other things.

However, setting start and end times for leisure activities dampens enjoyment of the activity.

This phenomenon is supported by a paper that discusses how:

  • scheduling leisure activities makes them feel like work,
  • and doing so reduces the excitement in anticipation of the activity and enjoyment during the activity.

One example is how scheduling a time to watch a video results in less enjoyment (and makes it feel more like work) versus watching a video impromptu.

Another example is how a scheduled coffee break (i.e. at a specific time) results in less enjoyment than assigning a window of time (i.e. any time during the window) for a coffee break.

There is a solution to this. According to study 3 in the paper, "roughly" scheduling an activity (without setting specific start or end times) does not dampen the enjoyment of leisurely activities.


Other thoughts:

  • This is even better than habit stacking. It's habit/value merging (for lack of a better term). Playing a video game while doing some minor exercise during workout downtime.

Getting Started Takes Just Two Minutes

Reading time: 0.5 min

I dreaded working on a paper today, and I've been putting it off all morning and noon.

By the afternoon, I told myself to use the two-minute method.

I told myself that I'd work on the paper for two minutes. If I really wanted to stop by the end of those two minutes, then I may stop. All I have to do now is open the documents and read the highlighted paragraph (that my past self highlighted for easy continuation).

I had successfully put my foot in the door and started working on my paper.

Ended up working on this paper for over an hour. I can't count how many times this strategy has been helpful.

Related:

Gym Motivation: Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym

Reading time: 2.5 min

In a previous post, How to stick to a habit, I detailed how I managed to initiate and concrete a habit of working out to improve my health. It involved stacking my workout time with video watching time (something I consider pleasant), and aligning exercise with my goals (maintaining good health and converting unproductive time into productive time).

One study placed something similar to the test.

The researchers surveyed university students for books that were “difficult to put down once you had begun reading. Specifically ...... ‘addictive’ fiction books.” The most popular choices were The Hunger Games trilogy.

Then, 226 study participants (consisting of university students and staff) were divided into groups. The full treatment and intermediate treatment group were asked to pick four novels from the addictive book list.

For 10 weeks, they are allowed the following:

  • Full treatment: enforced to only be able to listen to audiobooks of their chosen novels at the gym (with regular checking that the participant left the listening device in the gym lockers when not at the gym)

  • Intermediate treatment: encouraged to only listen to audiobooks of their chosen novels at the gym

  • Control: given a reminder of the importance of exercise for health, and a one-off gift card (of perceived equivalent value to access to four audiobooks for 10 weeks) when they first went to the gym

The full treatment group and intermediate treatment group went to the gym 51% and 29% more than the control group, respectively, although the effect decreased over time and dropped around a major holiday (consistent with other research).

The research authors also noted that audiobooks may not have been the strongest gym temptation device. Instead, “individual television monitors attached to each machine offering members access to personalized entertainment during their workout” may be more effective.

The authors also noted, amusingly, the probable success of “Gymflix” entertainment streaming accounts that only allow some content to be streamed at the gym.

See the original study here: Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling, by Milkman et al., 2014 (PubMed has an openly accessible version).


Related:

The Markdown Visual note type on Standard Notes is spectacular.

When Can Shiny Object Syndrome be Helpful?

Reading time: 3 min

Shiny object syndrome is when one continually chases new or trendy things.

I faced this phenomenon last year when I came across RemNote. RemNote was a relatively new piece of software that offers a new way of taking notes, outlining, and making flash cards that follow a spaced-repetition algorithm.

RemNote seemingly solved all problems I had with Anki, an old but trusty open source spaced-repetition flash card software.

One major issue I had with Anki is that it's difficult to get an overview of everything you are learning. Each flash card is atomic (unless specifically designed to be “overlapping” cards that test different sections of the same concept or idea). This atomic nature makes it difficult to see relationships between cards and get the bigger picture.

As I was saying, shiny new RemNote solved this major issue by allowing flash cards to be created from your notes and outlines. This allows faster production of cards (saving time), and clear overviews of the card's relationship to other things in the whole topic.

So for a brief period of my life, I religiously used RemNote for all of my learning needs. Shiny new tools like this give significant (temporary) motivation to use the tool to move towards your goals. In my case, for one semester, I was highly motivated to use it for writing class notes, making flash cards, and studying those flash cards. Every day. Just because it was shiny and new.

It's okay to switch apps, as long as you like the tool, you actually use it, it fits in your workflow, and it helps you be consistent in achieving your goals. The most important thing is that you are consistent with whatever you are using the tool for, whether planning, writing, studying, or some other endeavour.

The key is to minimize the time spent on switching and not try to design the perfect system before using it. The minor delight that comes with using a shiny new tool can motivate you to continue with your tasks and habits.


Footnotes:

A likely outdated review of RemNote based on my experience using it in late 2020: I would not recommend using RemNote for "heavy study" purposes. Cards disappeared from the study queue upon syncing across different devices- a serious issue if one were to use it to study for exams. Perhaps it was too immature a software for heavy use back then. It may have improved now. I still use Anki today.

Slightly past self, drafting this note: I'm trying out a new app for tracking workouts (rather than just a clumsy spreadsheet in my note database), and it made the recording process quite pleasant.

Current self, updating this piece: I briefly fell for shiny new object syndrome again. Back to spreadsheets due to higher utility and convenience in my use case. The good thing is that I learned how to better organize and format the spreadsheet based on the app layout.


Related:

Humans Are Terrible Estimators – How To Make Better Time Estimates

Reading time: 2 min

How often do you underestimate the time required to complete something?

Our ability to make time estimations is terrible.

From how much time we require to complete a task, to how much energy we consume, we tend to be way off from reality.

One study asked students to estimate how long it would take them to finish a paper under:

  1. realistic conditions (the best realistic estimate),
  2. perfect conditions (“everything went as well as it possibly could”), and
  3. worst possible conditions (“everything went as poorly as it possibly could”).

Their realistic condition estimates are much closer to “perfect condition” estimates than their “worst possible condition” estimates.

Moreover, not even half of the students finished their papers under their worst possible condition time estimates.

See the original study here, by Buehler, R., Griffin, D., & Ross, M. (1994).


What can we do about this, and how can we use this to our advantage?

Well, limiting time allocation in estimates does have benefits; this leverages Parkinson's Law (work expands to fill the time allocated). We tend to be more efficient when given less time to complete a task.

What we can do is:

  1. Estimate with the worst possible conditions (given that this is the closest to the real amount of time required).
  2. Add a (generous) buffer time before the next event or task.

The buffer time will prevent us from overrunning into the next task or event, and gives a reward for finishing early (rest or no-guilt leisure time).


Getting accurate time predictions:

Interestingly, the same study notes that we're much better at estimating how long it would take someone else to complete a task than if we were to complete it ourselves.

If we require an accurate estimation, we can ask others to provide a time estimate for us.

Alternatively, we can start marking down our time requirement predictions and actual time requirements down. Divide the actual time requirement by our prediction to get a “prediction to reality ratio” to multiply our future predictions with.

For example, if I estimate that this post will take me 1 hour to write but took 1.5 hours in reality, my “prediction to reality ratio” is:

Hours in Reality / Hours in Prediction = 1.5/1 = 1.5

I should multiply my future time estimations with this ratio to get a more accurate estimate. Get an average of multiple ratios for even better results.


Related:

Importance of Pleasantness and Convenience in Formulating Habits – Pancakes for Lower Cholesterol

Reading time: 2 min

Photo by nikldn on Unsplash

Pleasantness and convenience are important aspects of maintaining habits.

Both of these are what makes a habit easy to follow. One makes you want to do it, and the other makes it easy to start.

One recent medical study on foods demonstrated how ready-to-eat, nice tasting snacks can help individuals add healthy food items into their lives.

Lifestyle modification (such as diet and exercise) comes before medication when it comes to healthcare. However, not all lifestyle interventions are pleasant for all. Some may be unwilling or unable to take drastic changes in their lifestyle.

Here is where ready-to-eat, “hedonically acceptable snacks” (as the study puts it) helps individuals fulfil their diet recommendations.

The study offered participants “oatmeal, pancakes, cranberry bars, chocolate bars, smoothies, and a granola-type offering” (indeed, sounds very pleasant and hedonically acceptable) that were formulated specifically to be healthy.

The base wholefood ingredients (walnuts, almonds, oats, berries, etc.) are noted to be beneficial to cardiovascular health, and must deliver a set amount of fibre, alpha-lipoic acid, phytosterols, antioxidants, and a limited number of calories.

The foods were formulated to be shelf-stable, and in single-serve formats requiring minimal to no preparation (indeed, very convenient).

When the participants (consisting of hyperlipidaemic, high blood cholesterol adults) were asked to eat the foods, almost all of them (95%) stuck with the diet for the duration of the study.

By the end of the study, their LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) levels decreased by an average of 8.8% (13 mg/dL).

That's huge. That'll reduce risk of heart attack and strokes in the next 5 years by approximately the same percent (8-9%)*.

I think this is a great example of how pleasantness and convenience makes habits easy to start and easy to stick with. It's these small habits that compound over time to change our lives for the better.


See the original study here, by Kopecky et al. on The Journal of Nutrition.

*As an extrapolation from the conclusions of this meta-analysis by Silverman et al. on JAMA.


Related post:

Align Undesirable Actions with Your Goals – Reasons to Sleep Earlier

Reading time: 4 min

I really don't like sleeping early. This is something I seriously struggle with. Time before bed is time that I have complete freedom over how to spend, whether I use it to socialize, exercise, catch up with work or study, consume entertainment, or rest.

Work and study are particularly dangerous for me. Whenever I re-establish healthy, early sleeping hours, I eventually push my sleep schedule later and later into the night to finish my studies, assignments, or other commitments.

I found that aligning sleep as a contributor to my other goals and values and regularly reminding myself of this discourages me from pushing too late into the night.

For example:

  • Effective and efficient work and learning is important to me. Earlier sleep produces higher sleep efficiency, making me feel more rested in less time, giving me more time in the day. Sleep also raises work and learning efficiency, raising productivity.
  • I want to achieve a high grade in my courses. Sleep will help with understanding and remembering the high volume of knowledge I must go through in pharmacy courses.
  • I aim to maintain a reasonable degree of health. Sleep is a low-effort, high-result way of reducing risk factors for many chronic diseases that come with age.
  • I'm working out and trying to get the most out of minimal time investment. Getting sufficient sleep (7-8 hours a day) has positive effects on muscle development.
  • I want to be positive around others and be mindful of others. Sleep can help with this by making me feel more positive throughout the day, and this affects how I interact with others, affecting their mood as well.

Sleep then becomes a part of the steps required to reach my goals, or increase the time and energy efficiency at which I reach my goals.


Here is a list of things (early and sufficient quality) sleep can help with. Take these and align them with your goals if you struggle with maintaining a good sleep schedule. I'm certain at least some points will align with the values of anyone who reads this.

Productivity

  • Better sleep quality at proper times following a natural circadian rhythm (i.e., sleeping at reasonable hours) results in higher sleep quality and efficiency, making you feel more refreshed in less time
  • Sufficient quality sleep results in better cognitive function and cognitive speed and accuracy
  • The above helps with memory and learning functions
  • Better decision-making as sleep 'processes' the information you consumed throughout the day, clearing your head for when you wake up
  • The above helps result with improving working memory
  • Sleepiness inherently makes you less motivated to act on anything except rest

Health

  • Lower stress via lower release of cortisol, a stress hormone
  • Inadequate sleep has known or suspected relationships to future degenerative diseases including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, neurodegeneration and dementia, and loneliness
  • Possibly lower risk of cancer (incidence and recurrence), with long-term (night) shift work as a probable carcinogen in humans
  • There's a possible link between inadequate sleep and depression
  • Sufficient sleep has positive effects on muscle growth
  • Linked to a stronger immune system; one mechanism is the lower release of cortisol (which has suppressive effects on the immune system),
  • May help suppress appetite to help maintain a healthy weight

Finance

  • Better health and reduced risk factors for disease has knock-on effects of saving healthcare expenditure later down the line
  • Better health results in less lost days of work or study due to sickness
  • The extra time and productivity gained can be used to earn more money to give you the freedom to spend your time however you like earlier in your life
  • The longer health span and life span you gain (for the reasons under the health section) will allow you more time to do whatever you like in life

Social

  • Better communication and reasoning skills
  • A positive mood has knock-on effects on other people around you
  • Lower tendency to react very negatively in response to mild stressors
  • Insufficient sleep makes us more likely to remember negative memories

I may update this list as I find more reasons to sleep earlier and to get enough sleep.

Related:

Some sources that helped with producing this list:

Time Budgeting - Becoming aware of how we spend our time

Reading time: 2 min

The envelope budgeting method is a where we place our available money for budgeting that month into physical or theoretical separate envelopes for different types of spending or areas of life.

When we have to spend in that area of life, we take money out of that envelope. Once that envelop is depleted and emptied, no more money is to be spent in that area of life, until that month ends, and we renew the budget.

When we budget our money, we become conscious of how we spend our money. We become well-aware of where our plans and priorities are, in terms of our ideal (the budget) and the reality (our true spending).

We should take a similar approach to how we use our time, to be conscious of how many hours we are spending in each task or area of life across every day, week, and month. Once we are conscious of it, we should compare how we planned or wanted to spend our time with how we actually spent our time. Then, evaluate whether it fits with what we want in life, and make (realistic) changes if not.

Changing your environment is a way of prompting us to spend more or less time on something. Giving yourself rewards and punishments is another way of doing so.

By being aware of our plans and priorities via how we spend our time, we can be intentional with our actions. This can prevent us from being swept up by the pace of life or feeling guilty about how we spend our time. We only have so many hours in a day, and our lifespans are limited (with current technology).


Related:

Designing Good Passwords in 2022

Reading time: 5 min

What makes a good password?

  1. It should be a chain of characters unknown to and not readily guessable by other humans, and
  2. It should have sufficient randomness and length such that it's not one of the trillions of guesses per second modern computers can make, and
  3. It should be easily memorable, ONLY to you.

It's hard to balance the first two with the third condition.

Implications:

  1. No common words or phrases should be used. Nothing publicly related to you should be used.
  2. In the current year, 2022, to sufficiently counter the maximum guessing potential (brute force capability) of computers given the state of technological development, 14 character passwords should be a minimum. This length should be sufficient for quite a few years to come. Each additional character exponentially increases the number of guesses required (on average) to get the correct password. Adding more length increases randomness more than replacing alphabetic characters with numbers or symbols.*
  3. A chain of only alphabetic characters or only numbers is easier to remember than a mix of alphabetic characters, numbers, and symbols. There are more alphabetic characters than there are single digit numbers, so we should focus on alphabetic characters (which are likely easier to remember regardless).

*Illustration of implication 2 and 3:

This:

myheartdropswhenthewalltakesbetablockerswhatagooduseoftime

is more random (more difficult to guess by a computer) and easier to remember than this:

mYh34r7Dr0P2


Given the above conditions, these are reasonable password solutions:

Option 1: First-letter mnemonic

Come up with a random 14-word (or longer) sentence that makes sense only to you and no one else. Take the first letters of each word, and chain it together into a password. This becomes a mnemonic. The result is a 14 character password. Example:

My heart drops when the wall takes beta blockers; what a good use of time.

The result is:

"mhdwtwtbbwaguot".

The longer, the better, as long as you can easily remember it. That sentence makes no sense to anyone, but it's readily memorable to me.

Stick an underscore in the middle as a bonus.

"mh_dwtwtbbwaguot"

The strength of this is that it's highly memorable and easy to type in. This option is more reasonable than the below alternatives when you don't have a nice keyboard to enter it in, e.g., when you're on a small mobile device. Word-based dictionary attacks by computers should not work on this. 14 characters should be a sufficient length to counter completely random brute force guessing by computers.

The weakness of this is that the first letter we use in words do not follow uniform distribution, i.e., we don't start words with each letter equally often. This makes it easier to guess by a sophisticated algorithm. See letter frequency (Wikipedia). The resulting mnemonic is also not completely random. You can overcome this weakness by making the sentence even longer.

Option 2: Long nonsensical sentence

Just use the sentence you came up with in option 1:

myheartdropswhenthewalltakesbetablockerswhatagooduseoftime

The strength of this is that it's highly memorable and very long. The longer, the better. With a completely random brute force method, it's unlikely this will be guessed any time soon.

The weakness of this is that it's impossible to type in on a mobile device. It's too long to make no mistakes on a tiny keyboard. It's also a sentence with mostly proper grammar; it's possible someone else or a very sophisticated algorithm can come up with a similar sentence. Make it even more random and nonsensical to anyone but yourself to overcome this. Stick symbols in the middle to break up words to throw off dictionary attacks:

myheartdropswhenthewalltakesbetablo_ckerswhatagooduseoftime

Option 3: Diceware words

Use Diceware words. Check this out (resource by Electronic Frontier Foundation) for a guide.

Diceware passwords are passphrases, a chain of words used as a password. The words are uncommon and the phrases random. 6 words are reasonable for most purposes now. 8 words should be reasonable for quite a few years to come. The longer, the better.

This is still reasonably memorable as long as you envision the words in your head.

An example is:

"panoramic-nectar-precut-smith-banana-handclap"

Add dashes in the middle if necessary. Stick an underscore in the middle of a word (without creating more real words) to further throw off computer guesses based off a word list:

"panoramic-nectar-precut-sm_ith-banana-handclap"

This option is more useable when you have a nice keyboard to enter it.

Option 4: Completely random password from a password manager

Use a password manager (consider Bitwarden, it's open source) to generate and securely store for you a password with a mix of alphabetic characters, numbers, and symbols, at a length that most people cannot reasonably memorize or type in:

Te4@w28@sF8GPu!M%YYFKKJGZaP&NjWzajgv&dk$@MAFro4af7Sve2YpMem%ksXA4x7rAU3x6PF$cmE%%6wHoHwAHF&b6NZwCAh"

Copy the password from your password manager whenever you need it.

This is as secure as you can reasonably get with a password.

And then use options 1-3 as your password to the password manager. Use an even longer password/passphrase (16 characters or above, or 8 words or above) for this purpose.

Keep in mind that if the password to your password manager is correctly guessed and can be associated with your other accounts and usernames, your passwords and accounts become compromised.

Option 5: Completely random mnemonic from a password manager

Since we're at password managers, a stronger alternative to option 1 (albeit harder to execute):

Use a password manager to generate a completely random password. Then fit the letters/numbers/symbols of each into a sentence to form a mnemonic that is easily memorable to you.

Taking “Te4@w28@sF8GPu!M”:

Take elephant 4 at west 28 at street Faber 8...

You get the idea. This is completely unmemorable to me; come up with something that is memorable to you.

This can be the password to your password manager. The longer, the better, as long as it's easily memorable to you.


Other good practices:

  • (Depending on who you are protecting your stuff against,) remember that you are not defending against one person typing in passwords manually. You are potentially defending against any number of computers anywhere in the world.
  • Don't reuse passwords. Use a password manager to help solve the memory problem.
  • Use multi-factor authentication, regardless of how strong your password is.
  • Multi-factor authentication is not a reason to weaken your password. If your door is locked with both a key and a digital combination lock, you don't leave the key in the door, or leave a hint to the combination right on the door.

Other things:

  • Password strength can be measured as “bits of entropy”, a measure of how much randomness a password has.
  • Not sure to what degree quantum computing in the future affects passwords. One source reasons that 15+ Diceware passwords to be secure post-quantum, with certain assumptions. Uncertain how valid those assumptions are in practice.

The Five Balls of Life

Reading time: 1 min

The former CEO of Coca-Cola Brian Dyson once gave a speech detailing an analogy of how our life is a game of juggling five balls. Four balls are made of glass and represent family, health, friends, and soul. One ball is made of rubber and represents work.

Once we drop one of the glass areas of life, it won't return to its original form.* However, in work, we can readily rebound.

The older I grow, the more I agree with this sentiment.

I now think of these two things when I feel overwhelmed with work and study:

  • There are other important things to value and balance in life than just work and study.
  • We run forever on the hedonic treadmill. Achievements only bring temporary happiness. It’s sometimes important to dial back and be aware of your present self, how you are feeling, and whether you are happy with your current life.

*Well, one can melt glass to mend it back to its prior state. But that takes a lot more time and energy when compared to not dropping it to begin with. Plus, glass formulations are getting pretty strong nowadays. The analogy may have to change in the future.


A couple of years ago, I remember seeing multiple pages attributing this speech to the CEO of Google. Upon checking this, I found that it was a misattribution committed by multiple pages.

I was so certain I wrote a note detailing the misattribution. I seem to have lost it. Although, in the process of digging through my note database, I found some old, lost gold. Praise rediscovery.

Your Attention Span is Shorter Than That of a Goldfish. Or is it?

Reading time: 3 min

The human vs goldfish attention span claim

A claim you may have heard is that human attention span is decreasing, to the point where goldfish now have a longer attention span than humans.

After conducting extensive research (read: looking at the first page results of a Google search), I generally got the following from many sources (with more or less similar wording):

“Humans now have an attention span shorter than that of a goldfish”. This is based on a “recent study” which found that we “now have an attention span of 8 seconds”, whereas it was “12 seconds in 2000”. It is now shorter than the "9 second attention span of goldfish".

Most sources follow up with describing parts of the experiment (i.e., it was based on surveys conducted on 2,000 Canadians, and electroencephalograph (EEG) experiments conducted on another 112 Canadian respondents), and other findings that came out of it.

Article after article after article after article after article (there are more, too many to link) cites Microsoft as the source of the study and goldfish claim.

Really?

I traced down what, I believe, is the originating research report by Microsoft.

Microsoft seems to have indeed conducted a study related to attention span based on gamified surveys conducted on 2,000 Canadians and EEG experiments on 112 Canadians.

Yet, what they've done seems to have nothing to do with the “8 second” claim. Microsoft included the 8 seconds, 12 seconds, and goldfish attention span claim in their report, but cited “Statistic Brain” as the source on the same page. This indicates that this claim is not an insight from Microsoft's experiment. The insights from Microsoft's experiment are on pages following.

Well, I'm gated from checking Statistic Brain's attention span statistics due to not having a subscription.

Upon further research, it appears that BBC picked up on this too, and delved even deeper than I did.

“The Statistic Brain website looks pretty trustworthy too. It even says they "love numbers, their purity, and what they represent" - just the kind of people with whom we, at More or Less, can get along.

As if to prove it, the number-lovers at Statistic Brain source all their figures. But the sources are infuriatingly vague.

And when I contact the listed sources - the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the US National Library of Medicine, and the Associated Press - neither can find any record of research that backs up the stats.

My attempts to contact Statistic Brain came to nothing too.

I have spoken to various people who dedicate their working lives to studying human attention and they have no idea where the numbers come from either.”

(Source. Simon Maybin, BBC)

Brilliant. And this claim is still perpetuated today.


External validity

Regardless of the originating source, think about the external validity of the “8 second attention span” claim.

External validity is how much you can generalize and apply a claim/statistic/study to a different situation.

Our attention span is task-dependent.

My attention span per article might drop to 8 seconds when I'm attempting to skim through 20 sources to find any source claiming something contrary to the others, or when I'm scrolling for a video to watch on YouTube.

I don't suppose human attention span drops to 8 seconds when we're writing an exam, conducting surgery, chopping onions, or operating a sewing machine. That would be a problem.

Note your daily goals in your task manager

Reading time: 1 min

This is what got me more productive lately.

I applied this method not only to old commitments, but my current commitments as well. A daily goal to do the bare minimum every day to reach an end goal, noted as a daily repeating task in my task manager. Reminds you that you only have to do 5 minutes of a task before crossing it off.

It's not overwhelming (underwhelming, really), and takes an insignificant amount of time to fulfil, giving you a sense of readiness and perception that it's easy to complete.

I'd do the task as soon as possible just to fulfil that daily 5 min goal for each major project or habit. Often, I end up not stopping after time is up, since getting started is the hardest part, and it's effortless to continue. Switching tasks and getting your mind into a different environment for another task is friction in itself.

It's not uncommon that I end up working for 2 hours, finishing an entire task in one sitting.

There's a certain joy associated with crossing something off a task, perhaps a sense of relief, accomplishment, or excitement that I can do whatever I want afterwards. It's arguably a small reward. Placing daily 'bare minimum' goals in a task manager is leveraging that to the maximum.

How to easily finish up old projects

Reading time: 2.5 min

I wrote this to share a way to easily finish up old projects. Old projects here refer to commitments that are 'completable' and do not have a strict, external deadline.

  1. Assess if the commitment now aligns with your priorities, and you are willing to invest time and effort into completing it.
  2. If yes, divide the goal or habit up into the smallest possible microtask, one requiring minimal time and effort.
  3. Set a goal to do the bare minimum of the microtask every day (e.g., write ANYTHING, watch ANY amount, etc.).
  4. Make it as easy as possible for yourself to get started (e.g., keep the links or relevant equipment on easy access).
  5. Systematize it by adding it to your daily reminders, task manager, or calendar.
  6. Remind yourself in that reminder/task/calendar event this task is contributing to your goal, and all you have to invest is a minute of your time a day.

This is not the fastest method, but will ensure steady progress towards completion.

It'll work especially well for commitments that are:

  1. not inherently enjoyable, and,
  2. difficult to make enjoyable.

With minimal commitment and minimal friction, you'll find it easy to get started, and that's the hardest part. With minimal commitment, you'll find it easy to continue.


An old commitment bugged my mind recently. It's a self-learning course I put a halt to last year as it didn't align with my immediate priorities, and I wasn't willing to diverge time away from more important and urgent tasks.

My recent review narrowed my focuses down to a few high-priority goals, and changes related to COVID-19 freed up a good portion of my time.

I found it appropriate for me to finish the course.

To prevent myself from burning out or stopping because I can't be bothered:

  • I've set a daily goal to watch a single section of the course every day (with each just being a few minutes), and for no more than 10 minutes a day in case it's a longer section, minimizing the commitment. (This translates to just ~2-3 minutes a day if I watch it on x2-3 speed.) This made it easy to get started and to quickly get it out of the way every day.
  • I've added it as a recurring task in my task manager, systematizing it and removing the need to consider whether I want to do it or not, reducing decision fatigue.
  • I left the link to the videos in the task description, just a click away, making it easy to get started, reducing friction.

This daily task is borderline impossible for me to miss or want to miss. It's too easy to complete and check off my task manager. And that's a good thing.

Writing something that lasts forever

Reading time: 5 min


Landscape of Thorns. Concept: Mike Brill, Drawing: Safdar Abidi, Image courtesy of BOSTI. Image retrieved from here.


Conveying messages across time

A thought experiment, if you will:
Imagine we are octopus, beings with no vertical transfer of knowledge. How can we prepare something that can pass knowledge onto the next generation, with no altered meaning, while having no direct communication between generations?

It's impossible to write or draw something to convey a message across vast periods of time.

Without the interference of life, the material you inscribe your writing on can change and disintegrate. You might be able to overcome this by using a highly stable element such as gold.

With the interference of life, and generations of humans to pass on the message, the meaning of the words and symbols change across time. The skull and crossbones symbol is now used to indicate poison. Except, you can readily see it on kids pirate costumes. Before its use to indicate poison, it represented funerary and piracy, among other meanings. It's possible that the fear connotation associated with funerary and piracy helps people understand the significance of poison, but it's not a universal symbol.

"The Skull and Crossbones symbol has not always proved effective. Prior to the War on Terror, widely distributed bags of corn seed infected with arsenic were labeled with skull and crossbones symbols. Many residents were unaware of the symbol’s connotations, leading to a number of fatalities."
Source.

Reproductions of a message can also change over time (think broken telephone).

Without human intermediaries to directly pass on the knowledge across generations, future humans (or other intelligent lifeforms) cannot interpret the message to mean the same thing. This is a criticism of the Pioneer plaque, a message for intelligent alien lifeforms, featuring an arrow to show the trajectory of the Pioneer spacecraft leaving Earth. How would other lifeforms know that an arrow signified direction towards the arrowed tip? It might make sense to hunter-gatherer societies due to the use of bows and arrows, but not all civilizations will have such a heritage.

(Although, taking the Dark Forest theory, aggressive, expansionist civilizations are the ones that become the dominant lifeform on habitable planets. Consequently, perhaps more often than not, any other civilizations that do exist out there might also readily come to understand how pointy weapons work.)


Conveying the danger of radioactive waste

One attempt to make a message with the same overall meaning last for 10,000 years is this project, to prevent future human activity from affecting radioactive waste storage areas. How can we make humans up to 10,000 years from now actively avoid a particular area on Earth?

  • Text in major languages are considered. However, language as we know it in the current day would not stay unchanged in meaning, spelling, or pronunciation.
  • Symbols and pictographs are considered, but how can we know that cultures of the future read in the same direction we do now, and interpret symbols the same way we do now?
  • Hostile architecture (spikes, pillars, and markers akin to Stonehenge, and unnatural blocks) are considered, but just like Stonehenge (what has originally been a monument to the ancestral dead, or at least proposed to be) can become an architectural attraction.

See the image at the top of this post as an example of the spiked landscape.


The biological hazard symbol

The standard biological hazard symbol (☣) was chosen as, based on a survey, it had the highest memorability and least meaning among a number of proposed symbols.

Its meaning had to be taught, to mean a biological hazard. One issue with this is that the meaning had to be perpetuated artificially across generations. It means nothing on its own.

Post-2017, I'm certain some could mistake it for a fidget spinner.

Side note:

  • I remember as a child, the biological hazard symbol, without understanding its meaning, gave me an uneasy feeling.
  • Anecdotal evidence online suggests that others also experienced something similar, that the biological hazard symbol gave off a scary, creepy feeling, both for children (according to memory) and current adults.
  • Something about the design must have done well in producing both fear and memorability, instinctually, in modern humans. Perhaps how unnatural and unfamiliar the design is.

Other thoughts:

  • (Depending on where you live,) a physician could technically write a prescription on toilet paper, and it would pass as a legally valid prescription. Pharmacies won't take it, however, as the toilet paper prescription may or may not disintegrate before the number of years required before a pharmacy can dispose of a prescription passes.