Thinking Toys

My mind seems to mostly act as an emotional problem-solving machine. It’s trying to find paths to get to pleasure and avoid pain. Of course, this often requires solving abstract problems, as well. Watching myself, and others, identify and solve problems suggests the existence of underlying patterns. There seem to be recurring strategies. Some simple and some compound. Some that an individual may use almost every time and others that rarely come up. There are strategies that seem obvious to one person and remain unheard of to others. Sometimes we deploy these strategies consciously but often they seem to run unconsciously.

I call these strategies Thinking Toys. Little tricks we can pick up, play with for a moment, and then throw aside as we move on. Using a toy more often seems to make it more accessible. We also learn more of its nuances — we improve at using it. I’m trying to explicate as many of these as I can. Eventually, I want to categorize them and try to understand how they relate to each other.

See if any of these are interesting to you. Some will be familiar and obvious, whereas others may feel strange and alien.


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Simulating what success would look like in order to identify possible prerequisitives you’ve missed.



Exploring affordances to find out more about what’s possible rather than starting off with a narrowly specified goal.



Simulating actions to anticipate failure modes and improve plans.



Interrupting habitual patterns of action by bringing awareness to the present moment.


Implementation Intentions

Refactoring your habits to take new actions. Setting an intention to act with a cue-response template.


Miracle Question

A simple question that often generates surprising answers.



Finding a way to make progress without planning the entire path to success. Choosing next actions.



Learning to stand back from distracting or overwhelming thoughts and feelings to examine them more easily. Finding more situations where you can do this.



Useful and not-so-useful ways of bargaining with yourself — between parts of you that desire different things. Bargaining as a mechanism to reduce anxiety, guilt, and distraction, freeing up the energy to focus on one strategy at a time.



Practicing the skill of identifying potential false dichotomies and generating alternatives. I find this to be one of the most common problems people run into without realizing.



How to build the skill of empathizing with ideas that rub you the wrong way. Being curious in order to improve our models of the world and thereby be able to act more effectively.


Action Echoes

Framing of action patterns as bundles of future actions as a way to overcome short-term urges. Based on Ainslie’s work in Breakdown of Will.



Technique for the transformation of one mental state into another. Breathing in what you are avoiding and breathing out what you seek. Based on the tantric meditation practice of the same name.



Gendlin’s technique for making explicit the complex implicit thoughts and feelings around issues. This allows you to learn more about what you believe and what parts of you are demanding. You can take advantage of this to reduce confusions and anxieties.



Creating falsifiable claims in order to reduce feelings of anxiety and distraction coming from vague beliefs. The other good uses for seeking falsifiability and why these are useful: exposing crony beliefs and improving models of ourselves.


Construal Levels

Moving up in construal by asking “why?” and moving down by asking “how?”. Triggers for when to change construal and how construal affects your perception.


Opportunity Pointers

A few techniques for when you’re having trouble finding areas for self-improvement. Sentence stem completion, retrospective, and diffing against other people.



Reframing objectives in terms of what you want to avoid and then solving for that.