Accumulating Progress

Table of Contents

You have to keep track of what you learn. And the more you learn, the more you have to keep track of. You have to organize it, review it, remember stuff, be able to effectively search for stuff, etc. You want to have the most important and most used ideas be highly accessible (known offhand from memory). Rarely used, non-crucial stuff can be less convenient to access but still available.

Some rarely used things can be important to be able to remember offhand, like what to do in a natural disaster. But most infrequently used things don’t need to be remembered clearly. It’s generally fine for your memory quality to be roughly proportional to how much you use an idea. How much you use it is a rough indicator of importance.

What about remembering that something is wrong? It’s a myth, a superstition, a factual error, a scam, a crime, or any other sort of error. You might not use that often, but when a wrong idea comes up (maybe only every few years), it’s important to remember that it’s wrong. But there’s often no need to remember the details offhand. You want to remember enough to recognize that there’s a problem there. You want your memory to provide a brief reminder. You don’t want to forget entirely. Then, when it comes up and you remember just a little bit, you can be skeptical and look it up. You need to have a way to look it up. A lot of things can be found with a web search. Some can be looked up just by thinking about it more in order to bring more memories back to you. Some can be found by searching your email archives or notes. For some topics, you know which of your friends to ask – it’s the kind of thing they would either know or know where to look up. If none of those options work, and you don’t remember a specific other way to look it up, then you’ve got a problem.

Remembering things in full or remembering enough to look it up when needed are two different strategies. It’s important to use each strategy as appropriate.

It’s more or less impossible for people to get anywhere with philosophy if they forget most stuff when they sleep and then have to start over mostly fresh (from scratch, from zero, from the beginning) for each conversation or issue. That’s an unrealistic extreme; people aren’t that bad. But many people have important problems which are like that but less severe. The problems come from a mix of poor memory and poor organization. One of the main causes of poor memory is disinterest; a lot of people who can’t remember any math formulas are able to remember a ton of information about celebrities or remember song lyrics from over a decade ago.

Being able to retain and organize knowledge over time, and build on it, is crucial to making progress with philosophy and rationality.

I’ve talked sometimes about the importance of getting stuff right. Do easy enough things that you can succeed. Then you can build on those and expand to stuff that’s a bit harder but which you’re also able to succeed at. Keeping track of what you learned is needed, too. It’s implied by building or expanding on anything – the anything part has to be remembered/kept/retained/saved not forgotten/lost/discarded. Practicing stuff is partly about memory, not just about right answers. Building on some knowledge to more advanced knowledge involves memory and notes, not just figuring out right answers.

Memory and organizing information for reuse in the future has another point: it lets you work on things over time. That lets you work more slowly. If you have a short time window to think about something before you forget it or lose track of it, then you need to be clever to have some great thoughts quickly before you run out of time. If you can be more organized and remember things, then you can take your time. You can be a slower and less clever thinker and still succeed. Keeping track of knowledge well helps reduce the need to be some sort of “genius”.

Discussing More Slowly and Thoughtfully

To discuss slowly, especially asynchronously, requires remembering and keeping track of things over time. By contrast, a self-contained, synchronous, real-time discussion puts much lower requirements on people’s ability to remember information and refer to it later (but even then, people forget stuff from earlier in the same conversation, including sometimes from three minutes ago). Poor organizational skills is one of the reasons people like real-time chats instead of multi-day discussions (there are other reasons including some genuine advantages).

Tangentially, there’s the issue of talking in person compared with on the internet. In person conversations tend to be real-time: you’re expected to respond within a few seconds, and people wait for you instead of doing something else while you consider your reply. In person conversations have both advantages and disadvantages. An advantage is that it’s harder to lie to people or hide information in person. Facial expressions, tone, body language and gestures all provide information that isn’t available in text. A disadvantage in person is that it’s easier to socially pressure people. On internet forums, people feel less pressure towards conformity. Having records of what was said also allows rereading and quoting, which is helpful (but it has disadvantages too: people are less willing to say something that might be wrong, and sometimes statements from decades ago are politically weaponized).

In order to stop rushing and take your time thinking, you have to be able to follow up on projects over time. You need to store and retrieve information successfully, which requires some reasonable level of organization. You need to engage with information over time – if you aren’t going to return and think about something later, then there’s no advantage to saving it for later. If you aren’t going to revisit something, then it’s actually harmful to pretend you will. If you know that right now is your last chance to think about or respond to an idea, then you’ll probably put more effort in than if you tell yourself that you’ll put in a lot of effort later (but you really won’t).

Staying Organized

People are generally pretty bad at staying organized. A common problem is they keep a todo list, or queue, of things to revisit. But the list gets too big and they can’t revisit all of them. They add new things to the list faster than they finish things and remove them from the list. The basic solution to this is to intend to do less stuff. Recognize how much you can actually get done and don’t plan to do more than that. Some people manage to go through their whole lives with unrealistic expectations about how much they’ll do, even though it never works. Don’t do that.

There are also some reasons people purposefully plan to do too much stuff. If you plan to write a book, you can feel like an author without the work of actually writing a book. If you say you’ll give a counter-argument later, you can feel like you didn’t lose the argument, without having to ever think of a counter-argument. If you say “yes” to everything and then just don’t do some of the things, you can avoid saying “no” to stuff . It can be awkward to tell other people “no” or to admit to yourself that you won’t do things that sound good or important to you (such as learning to be more rational). Some people prefer that stuff doesn’t happen because their schedule is packed rather than saying “no” to stuff. This lets them pretend that they really want to study while they party – they never said “no” to studying; they just ran out of time. What people want to do, and what they think they should want to do, are usually different, so it’s hard to be honest with themselves about what they spend their time on. At some other times, they do know what they want to spend time on, but they don’t want to admit it to others.

People aren’t totally disorganized or forgetful. They remember some things. But they do a lot of it by intuition. They often have good memory for some interests like social status, TV shows, sports stats, cooking recipes, song lyrics, Pokémon names/stats/details, movie quotes, celeb names and gossip, etc. Lots of this stuff is related to the social world in some way or to a job or hobby. And everyone remembers the names of their family members and close friends (and their own name!), which proves they can remember stuff when it’s important enough to them. People can remember numbers if they care enough, too, such as their birthdate. In the past, I think pretty much everyone memorized their phone number (many still do, but there’s less need with a smartphone in your pocket). Because you are in fact capable of remembering things, you could remember philosophy stuff, math stuff, or whatever else, if you were organized, approached it in a good way, put in effort, and wanted to enough.

Lots of stuff for people is now or never. They don’t organize their life over time and keep track of stuff to do. They don’t reliably follow the plans they make. Sometimes planning and organizing work, but sometimes they don’t. Results are inconsistent. Their life is partially out of their control. So if they don’t deal with something right away, they might never revisit it later.

A good life involves coming back to lots of stuff the next day or the next month and building on it. Even if you start with projects you can finish in one day (good idea! start there!), you should sometimes do projects that build on previous projects. So you have to remember finished projects in a useful, effective way. A good life involves progression over time, towards some goals that take time to accomplish, instead of losing track of things and starting over.

Don’t Accumulate Miseries

The stuff you do and keep track of needs to be good in order to build up to good results. If you accumulate hateful compromises, you’re going to be unhappy, and you’ll have an incentive to become disorganized or forgetful so that you can ignore some of your past ideas.

You need success – win-win solutions – in order to accumulate towards more success later. Don’t have (mild) pain and misery in the present then expect that to somehow accumulate to something good. Don’t expect that someday a switch will flip and suddenly it’ll become useful, nice or enjoyable. If you dislike steps 1-10, you won’t suddenly be happy, or like the previous steps, at step 11 or 15.

Children and students are pressured to put up with unpleasantness in order to build up to good results. “It’ll be better later.” “Invest in the future.” “You’ll thank me later.” “Once you get to the end, you’ll see the value in the earlier parts and it’ll be worth it.”

That doesn’t work well. If you hate arithmetic, you aren’t going to like algebra either. Doing algebra involves using lots of those arithmetic skills that you still hate. Also, the more advanced math like algebra has lots of similarities to the earlier math. Instead, it’s important to figure out a positive perspective on arithmetic now, while you’re learning it. If you can’t see the value in it now, and don’t want it, then you shouldn’t be learning it now. Or if you see the value in the subject matter but the teacher or textbook isn’t working for you, then you shouldn’t be learning it now in this specific way. Look for some other educational resources that make more sense to you. (I know schools are inflexible and you may not have much of a choice. Sorry. I’m trying to discuss the philosophical issue of what’s rational, not the practical issue of what present day schools allow.)


To invest in your future properly, you need success now, win/win solutions now, good things now which you can build on and grow. You don’t need compromises and pain now. Whatever you accumulate is what you’re going to end up with, whether it’s progress and knowledge or mixed feelings, partial confusion and other negatives.

It’s OK to give something a chance if it seems OK but not awesome. If it’s neutral and you think there will be a payoff pretty soon, you can keep going. That’s taking a calculated risk that you want to take. There’s a risk because the payoff may not materialize later. It might not be as good as people told you. If you think it’s worth the risk, then you’ll be happy and content to do it; overall you think this plan is a good idea. If you feel very negatively about it, then that isn’t working and you should reconsider or abort.

What people often want is the results (like the paychecks or fame) but not any of the actions to get those results. They want unearned rewards because all the ways they know of to get rewards are compromises with bad parts. People are encouraged to compromise instead of to figure out good, non-compromise stuff each step of the way. The downsides of compromises don’t just magically go away later. Instead of accepting those downsides and building on them, you should look for better solutions in the first place.

If you base your life on a bunch of compromises and plan to improve them later, that will be difficult. It’s hard to redesign your life. You can fix some stuff if you need to, but try to make it good in the first place. Aim for stuff you’ll actually be happy with in the long term.

If you’re building a house, should you rush through the foundation, and ignore a bunch of cracks, because you’re eager to build the top floor with some big windows and a nice view? No. When you’re learning, take your time to understand things clearly before being done with them. (You can explore a few steps ahead, before you’re done, as long as you really will go back and practice the earlier thing more.) When you’re choosing what to fill your life with, take the time you need to be pretty confident and satisfied before taking on commitments.

Keeping Track

People need to start with doing stuff and succeeding. Don’t do advanced stuff where you have an overwhelming error rate. Then, step two, after some success, is not to move on to more advanced stuff. That’s leaving out a key step. Step two is actually to find ways to keep track of what you did. You need to organize and save it, so it can be part of your accumulated progress that you can use in the future. Practice helps. Then step three is to build on the earlier successes that you’re keeping track of successfully.

Keeping track of stuff is also very important for outstanding questions, criticisms and problems. Lots of people want to resolve every problem today because their only options are to actively deal with it or forget it. They rush for any sort of resolution. They can’t work on it gradually over a few weeks.

If you lose track of outstanding issues during discussions, it’s like wasting what people said. It’s worse than nothing, since they might think you remember when you don’t (so they might try to refer to or build on some idea that you’ve forgotten). And you took the time to read it, but you don’t remember it, so you wasted your time. Keeping track of your discussions is more time-efficient than losing track, even though it takes more time and effort initially. Take notes. Make outlines. Tree diagrams are great. But don’t do that as a hateful chore because you want the result of being less forgetful. Try to see the value while you’re doing it and enjoy the process.

Philosophy and rationality have lots of interconnected topics that individually take many days to learn. To get anywhere with them, you’ll need to get good at organizing, accumulating and keeping track of knowledge. You need to be able to succeed at individual issues like learning one small sub-topic well (getting the right answer; understanding it correctly), and also be able to remember what you learned and use it as a building block to connect with other ideas.