12 Rules for Living

This is my contribution to the “write down twelve rules for life” game as brilliantly played by, among others, Tyler Cowen and Agnes Callard (whose contribution is no longer publicly available).

  1. Whenever possible, ask: “should I do this same thing again and again?” Getting compound returns is great. Getting diminishing returns is bad. Doing more and more of the same thing tends to get you one or the other, and figuring out which situation you’re in is often very tricky. Work at it.

  2. Write every day. For me, 1000 words of journaling, combined with other writing habits, works very well.

  3. Minimize the time you spend thinking about food. Have default meals, think twice before spending a lot of time cooking, and so on. Food is great, but the other stuff I can do with that time and energy is even better. And when it comes time to cook or dine with friends, it’s that much more enjoyable. (OK, maybe you really like food. In that case, is there something else you can cut ~80% of the time investment out of?)

  4. Whenever possible, ask: “Does the Coase Theorem apply here?”

  5. Just try to get a lot of high-quality stuff into your brain. Try to understand it, of course, but don’t worry too much about that, because getting whatever you can out of something really great is usually better than a fuller experience of something mediocre. So, for example, listen to a lot of great music even if you don’t understand music very well.

  6. Whenever possible, ask if the causal order of things is other than it appears to be. (Really try to do this. If I don’t ask myself such questions several times a day, it’s probably because I’m being sloppy.)

  7. Read a lot. Worry a lot about the quality of what you read, but not so much that it paralyzes you. Reread a lot (see (1), (5), and (8)).

  8. Divide your attention so that you get a little bit of exposure to a lot of things and very deep knowledge of a few things. (See (1).)

  9. Find some people whose thinking you appreciate, enjoy, and easily ingest. Consume everything they put out, several times if necessary, and think about it carefully. (See (1).)

  10. When you’re thinking about a belief someone else holds, ask whether it’s a “coherence belief,” believed because it flows naturally from other commitments, or a “portfolio belief,” believed because it somehow balances out other commitments (e.g., in being more politically palatable). This is often the key to really understanding what is being expressed and what the relevant commitments are.Relatedly: Get relatively much parenting advice from books and experts and relatively little from other parents.

  11. Have a lot of daily habits and maintain good to-do lists. Relatedly: for any length of time, have a productive default activity available for that length of time.

  12. About common behaviors, ask: “Is this mere orthodoxy, some sort of Chesterton’s fence, both, or neither?” It’s really important and really hard to figure out whether you have good reason to do what everyone else is doing. And these decisions come up all the time.