I think rationality techniques are pretty interesting and cool, but there aren’t that many that I recognize as “rationality techniques” that I find myself using all the time. One I can think of is “when you want clarity, ask for examples”. For example, if someone at work is arguing that our team shouldn’t use design X for a new project, and I see why clearly, I’ll ask them for examples of the kinds of problems they’re worried about. I started doing this during the CFAR camp I attended, and I don’t think I’ve stopped since.
The only other rationality technique I use regularly is brainstorming, and that’s the one I want to talk about.
My roommates and I brainstorm for each other pretty regularly, especially for things like thinking of gifts friends and family, meetup activities, dates, costumes, dinner or party themes, but some more important things. Brainstorming seems to give us more decent ideas than we would otherwise have for problems like these.
Official Brainstorming Protocol
- Get 1-4 people
- Name brainstorm goal
- Set timer for 5 minutes
- Silently write down as many ideas as you can think of till the timer goes off.
- Write down all ideas, even bad ones.
- Each person shares all the ideas they wrote down
- Don’t criticize the ideas
- Discuss promising ideas
Writing down all your ideas is hard; it’s difficult not to filter. Luckily, this skill seems to get easier with practice. The protocol seems to work best with other people, but I’ve used this frequently by myself too.
One particularly successful case came when last time I was looking for a job. I brainstormed for potential leads, people to talk to and companies to investigate. This led to an excellent list of leads that turned to a number of interviews. Many of these, I would have thought of naturally, but some seem like they only would have come out because of brainstorming and doing it at once allowed me to have them all up front.
We’ve also used this technique for more troubleshooting life issues, like getting to bed on time, trying to ignore my tasklist less, or how to have more organizational time in the morning. Brainstorming has helped on these bigger problems, but less dramatically. It often comes up with an extra idea or two to try and it usually helps me feel more excited about trying things, but doesn’t lead to something that works reliably.
Some domains, especially lower stakes ones, seem to benefit a lot more from simply having lots of ideas. And for these brainstorming seems very helpful.