Summary: 

Given how impactful the long-term benefits from immersive experiences like retreats and conferences can be (e.g. potential career plan changes), losing significant long-term value is a big deal. 

Yet this is the default outcome. Motivation is fickle, work/school/normal life and its many distractions return, and the magic of the immersion fades (along with the inspiring ideas, plans and next steps it generated). 

A good way to avoid this failure mode is for event attendees and organizers to keep this in mind, and learn tips/prepare mechanisms to ensure long term benefits are maintained. My favourites are collected in this post. Though this post is written with events in mind, all of the tips/advice should be generally useful outside the context of retreats/conferences. 

One good concrete option is to make sure (as an organizer or attendee!) that events have sessions on “Maintaining the benefits of this event long-term”, and time for planning and relevant advice near the beginning so attendees make the most of events. 

  • Here is a template you can use for a session towards the end of events you are running, or suggest to organizers if you’re an attendee.
  • Here is a document with ideas that might be good to mention at the beginning of events (e.g. during an opening session/when talking about how to get the most out of the event). Most of the ideas/techniques covered in this document are quite useful to implement more generally outside of these contexts.

I tried to get this post + accompanying documents out quickly since many events are happening soon, but hopefully with more time they will be more polished and there will be better resources (e.g. slides for sessions, worksheets, etc). Please share relevant resources if you have/make them!

Context and Importance

The EA and adjacent communities have been ramping up the number of immersive experiences retreats, camps, workshops, conferences and other immersive experiences that occur. This is for good reason. There are many significant and unique benefits that tend to come from such experiences:

  • Quick, efficient, and unique communication of ideas and information, communicated through a variety of media (presentations, memo sessions, interactive workshops, 1-on-1 and group conversations, etc)
  • A lot of social information that significantly influences decision-making and thinking is hard to learn (and more importantly internalize) outside of environments immersive experiences offer.
    • E.g. “Huh, a lot of these really friendly smart people seem to think that this idea might be true/might be a big deal/has benefited them a lot”
    • E.g. “Oh cool, there are lots of people who work full-time on this (seemingly wild) thing who I like and don’t seem crazy.”
  • Shared context and understanding that often leads to professional connections and partnerships, friendship, social bonding, a sense of community, memorable stories, and more
  • A significant change of environment, a space for extended focus on/engagement with specific topics and communities, and with many others with similar interests, backgrounds, etc - that are hard to create or find in everyday life.
  • Other things I’m forgetting to mention (feel free to make suggestions in the comments)

Unfortunately, a common experience for many participants in immersive experiences is that a lot of the excitement/motivation, insights, plans, connections, and other benefits that these experiences provide don’t translate into long-term benefit. Motivation is fickle, work/school/normal life and its many distractions return, and the magic of the immersion fades (along with the inspiring ideas, plans and next steps it generated). 

Given how impactful these benefits can be (e.g. potential career plan changes), losing significant long-term value is a big deal. 

But this doesn’t have to be the case (yEAy!). 
 

Solution

Organizers and attendees of such events (and non-organizers!) can proactively address this problem with programming - ideally during the experience while these benefits and insights are most salient. 

Since many relevant events are coming up, I thought now would be a good time to write up resources on how to effectively translate the many unique and important benefits that come from immersive experiences like retreats, conferences and workshops into long-term benefit.

Here is a Google Doc with a session plan for an hour-long session on “Maintaining benefits of this event long-term.”, intended to be run towards the end of an event. 

Here is a Google Doc with suggested content to include during opening/an early session about making the most of the upcoming event. A separate session dedicated to this could be useful.

(Listed in non-inuitive order since I think the advice for the end-of-event session is more important/useful according to me). 

Content from the above documents that seems most generally relevant (including outside the context of immersive experiences) is below. 

 

End-of-Event advice (focused on collecting, executing on and making plans for action items, and forming/maintaining habits):

Collect and prioritize action items

Remember your top priorities. Decide which things are actually important to you to follow-up on. Reflect on the event and what you found valuable. Collect action items you’ve already noted down (and ones you forgot to write down but still remember). Decide what next steps/action items you really want to follow up on (as opposed to things you think you’re supposed to want to follow up on but don’t), and ideally rank them (e.g. if I’m only going to do 1/3/5 things after this event, it’s these).

Just do the thing (Use timers to get over inertia)

The best way to make sure you do something is to do it right now. It is surprising how much you can get done, and how quickly you can get things done with your full attention and a time limit. Setting 5-minute timers to do specific things is a great way to do them (or at least get past the inertia of starting, and making a surprising amount of progress for really hard things). I heard at a CFAR workshop that someone decided to get a job in 5 minutes, and actually succeeded. This was an outlier, but the effectiveness of 5-minute timers is anecdotally pretty strong.  Experiment with different lengths. I have a document of things I want to do/think about with 5-minute timers which I check during my weekly review and do 1-3 5-minute timers. 

See here for a much better CFAR post on five-minute-timers and resolve cycles.


Making Watertight Plans

Sometimes things can’t be solved in five minutes (dang), and we need to make plans for them. I often have the problem of having the intention to do something, and then not doing it. I think I’ve gotten significantly better at making plans for the future that don’t fail, and for intentions I care about, deciding + setting aside time to make plans in the first place,  using a few techniques. 

Inner Simulator - Iterating plans to increase surprise from failure

One is to simulate how I expect the future to go, based on previous experiences and my understanding of the world, and then make plans that I’d be extremely surprised to see fail. 

Consider two plans to floss my teeth every night when I haven’t been doing so previously. 

  • Plan A: I mentally remind myself that I want to floss my teeth and read up on dental hygiene and why it’s important again (even though I’ve done this in the past but it hasn’t gotten me to floss my teeth at night). How surprised would you be if in a week it’s been 7 days and I haven’t flossed my teeth at all, or only once?

Score it from 0 (not surprised at all, or expected) to 10 (insanely surprised, like only a heart-attack could’ve prevented this plan from working.

  • Plan B: I set a daily alarm for 11pm, since I’m always home then and not asleep, to go to the bathroom and floss my teeth. I’ve also agreed to pay my friend $10 for every day in the next month that I don’t floss my teeth, and send them a picture of me in the bathroom with my floss. I also ask them to check in with me each month to see if I’m still flossing, and set up a new system if I’ve stopped.  I want to make it manageable, so I only have to floss 5 teeth per day instead of all of them, but I can keep going if I feel like it. I also have a housemate who wants to floss regularly, so we agree to do it together at 11pm. I also order extra floss to put it in my backpack for when I’m traveling, and on my desk at my office. If I go a whole month flossing each day, I’ll treat myself to a meal at a fancy restaurant (and floss afterward).


Now score this plan from 0 (not surprised at all, or expected) to 10 (insanely surprised, like only a heart-attack could’ve prevented this plan from working).

There are lots of ways we can make ourselves more surprised about a plan not working. For example, I’d be less likely to fail if I made the penalty $100/day instead of $10. 

Caveat: Be reasonable/judicious about when and how you stack and ramp up accountability mechanisms. For example, I think the above plan is way too extrEAm/not worth the effort for flossing (for me), but there are other more important things. I want tired me to trust that when energetic planning me is making plans that involve expending willpower, it’s actually worth it. This was meant to be an illustrative example. 

Keep improving plans, and keep checking how surprised you’d be if the deadline to do your task (or a lot of time if there is no deadline) has passed and you didn’t do it. Think of reasons why your plan might have failed and fix these problems. Keep improving/iterating until you’d be sufficiently surprised. 

 

Mindset and Reliability 

* The content in this section can be good to cover at the beginning of events as well.

Before discussing specific ways to make plans better, what’s probably most important to making the most of events is approaching them with the right mindset - about following up on your intentions/plans, and being reliable, to yourself and others. 

Remind yourself about the benefits of sticking to plans, the benefits of sticking to plans and knowing you will stick to them, and the costs of not doing so. 

  • Based on how habit-formation happens in the brain, everytime you make (or don’t make) a certain decision, you reinforce that decision/behavior so it becomes more likely and easier for your brain to execute in future similar scenarios. So it’s better to think about how I want and expect to act in general moving forward and in all similar future scenarios, rather than considering an individual decision in isolation.
    • What do I want my general policy to be when I hear an idea that has big implications if true? What do I want my general policy to be when deciding among career options, or other hard, important, complicated decisions? What do I want my general policy to be when there’s a really valuable action to take, but I have to take a lot of initiative to make it happen? What do I want my general policy to be when I notice a problem or think of an action item? What do I want my policy around breaking policies I’ve set to be?
    • There are also interesting decision-theoretic reasons for implementing policies that you think would be good if others sufficiently similar to you also implemented.
  • Excerpt from Superman by Habit (which I got from this Lesswrong post I really like):
    • Habits can only be thought of rationally when looked at from a perspective of years or decades. The benefit of a habit isn't the magnitude of each individual action you take, but the cumulative impact it will have on your life in the long term. It's through that lens that you must evaluate which habits to pick up, which to drop, and which are worth fighting for when the going gets tough.

      Just as it would be better to make 5% interest per year on your financial investments for the rest of your life than 50% interest for one year.... it's better to maintain a modest life-long habit than to start an extreme habit that can't be sustained for a single year.

      The practical implications of this are twofold.

      First, be conservative when sizing your new habits. Rather than say you will run every single day, agree to jog home from the train station every day instead of walk, and do one long run every week.

      Second, you should be very scared to fail to execute a habit, even once.

      By failing to execute, potentially you're not just losing a minor bit of progress, but rather threatening the cumulative benefits you've accrued by establishing a habit. This is a huge deal and should not be treated lightly. So make your habits relatively easy, but never miss doing them.

      Absolutely never skip twice.


How to improve plans/increase surprise from plans failing

The aforementioned Plan B for flossing had a lot of mechanisms that can help make your plans more likely to succeed. 

Here are other suggestions to more reliably achieve your goals and make better plans:

  • Doing things with others instead of alone, and having others help keep you accountable
    • It’s much harder to flake on people/waste others’ time than your own
    • Schedule things you really want to do with others on your calendar.
    • Schedule a check-in at some (specific) point in the future.
    • Have someone schedule-send you a reminder for the future (e.g. over email or text)
    • Schedule recurring meetings for things you want to turn into routines/habits
    • Effort exchanges - I help you with your problem/task, then vice versa
    • Require yourself to show proof of completion of a task you want yourself to do (e.g. send a picture, Google doc, email forward, etc) - have your accountability partner to prompt you if you don’t
  • Penalties (with external accountability) for not doing the thing:
    • Paying someone (a lot of) money if you don’t do a thing (or some other alternative to money as makes sense)
      • You can use a website such as Beeminder or stickK if you don’t want to pay a friend/someone you know
      • You can also spend on something you hate/blatantly waste it
    • Forcing yourself to do something unpleasant if you don’t do the thing (e.g. by making an agreement with a friend to enforce you doing the unpleasant thing)
    • E.g. Committing to posting on social media if you don’t do a thing, or having someone else do it on your behalf
  • Have others enforce penalties (e.g. pay someone money, and then have them give it back to you once you do the task and show proof, rather than agreeing to pay if you don’t do a task by a certain time if you’re prone to forgetting/lying)
  • Caveat: be careful about associating tasks with strong aversion/fear - this can definitely backfire
  • Reward yourself for doing the thing
    • Often doing the thing is rewarding enough
    • Treat yourself (e.g. do something really fun with friends (only) if you accomplish your goal)
  • Find a concrete time to do a thing and give yourself enough time to do it, accounting for the planning fallacy (things often take ~3-10x as long as we expect them to). Actually set aside time in your calendar, ideally with another person expecting you at the time. Make a plan for what to do if you aren’t free to do a task when you initially scheduled it.
  • Track what works for you: Track how often different accountability mechanisms work for you to get a better sense over time and make better plans.
  • Stack multiple techniques/commitment mechanisms together when appropriate (like in the floss example).

Pre-event and Beginning-of-Event advice (focused on setting goals, and creating systems to generate long-term value from events):

Planning, Goal Setting and Prioritizing

Planning and Goal Setting:

If you have an hour to do something, it’s often good to spend the first few minutes making a plan for how to strategically spend the rest of the hour. The same applies for events. There are lots of shiny distractions at events - tons of sessions to attend, tons of conversations to potentially join, tons of people to have 1:1s with. Without a plan it can be easy to go from shiny thing to new shiny thing before all of a sudden the event is over.

Setting aside time to reflect on (and ideally write down) what your top priorities are for an event, what an (un)ideal outcome would look like, and how to make it (not) happen can help make sure you make the most of the event, and don’t repeat previous mistakes (e.g. not following up on any of the cool things that happened during the event).

A helpful framework is to think of a goal, concrete success conditions for the goal, creating a plan to achieve these success conditions, and implementing the plan.

Prioritizing:

Be selective about which goals you actually want to achieve, and action items you want to follow up on.

  • I’ve noticed feeling aversive to going through all my action items from conversations at an event in the past due to the sheer number.
  • One way to reduce this aversion is by being more selective about which things I actually want to make sure I do. Do I really want to (make good plans to) read all 5 books recommended to me in this conversation? Would it really be better to connect the person I’m chatting to with ten other people instead of two?
    • The same applies to aversion around noting down every action item that comes to mind. It’s easier to stick to an action-item collection system if I’m only writing down things that I’m pretty likely to actually want to follow up on later.
  • That being said, it can be easier to collect a bunch of things that you don’t want to evaluate in the moment (e.g. potential action items during a 1:1), and prioritize them later.

Systematizing 

There are many systems you can set up to increase the likelihood that you follow up on your intentions, and reduce the willpower/effort/memory/other scarce resources you need to achieve your goals. Here are a few examples that seem especially relevant for this context of immersive experiences. 

  • "If it takes less than 1 minute to do something, do it immediately. Otherwise, write it down in one place you'll know to check later, for instance in your notebook, notes app on your phone, etc."
    • During a conversation, if a quick action item comes up, if the other person(s) in the conversation are OK with it, do the thing right then. In conversations, this mostly tends to look like making an introduction to someone I think they should chat with, sending a recommended resource, or noting something to follow up on (e.g. a topic for a future conversation).
  • Create a (minimally low friction) system for noting all action items that you will definitely revisit later to make sure you follow-up on the action items you want to.
    • E.g. have a quick way and specific place (e.g. your to-do list, or one document) to note down all action items (e.g. notebook/phone/laptop), and schedule a time after the event in your calendar (with another event attendee/friend if that helps with accountability) ahead of time (e.g. perhaps if you’re reading this you could schedule a time for EAG follow-ups right now :O) to gather all your action-items and execute on them/make plans for them.
    • My memory has taught me not to rely on it. Yours probably has too.
  • Create systems to regularly notice/brainstorm things that could be better (e.g. past mistakes), and improve them (e.g. a system for improving existing and making new systems - yay abstraction!).
    • I find weekly reviews very helpful for this. Some people also like daily reviews. 
       

Trigger-Action Planning (Implementation Intentions)

I highly recommend reading the CFAR post on this topic instead of mine/don’t think I have interesting new framings that might be useful yet. Most of the content here is from the post with some event-specific additions. 

Trigger-action plans (CFAR term for implementation intentions): Trigger-action patterns that you notice (for existing ones),  tweak, and train (new TAPs) yourself to implement in the moment have a strong track record in inducing long-term behavioral change. 

Examples of common existing trigger-action patterns:

  • Trigger: Someone sneezes? → Action: Say "bless you" or "gesundheit."
  • Trigger: Hear a notification sound → Action: Pick up phone
  • Trigger: Think of something you might want to remember → Action: NOT write it down and forget about it (rip)

Which brings us to thoughts more directly relevant to immersive events in particular.

Common unideal trigger-action patterns at events that you might be interested in changing:

  • Trigger: Think of something you might want to remember/an action item → Action: NOT write it down and forget about it
  • Trigger: See event on schedule  → Action: Go to session (instead of considering if there’s something more valuable to do instead, like a 1:1 chat with an attendee)
  • Trigger: Notice a conversation isn’t exciting  → Action: Don’t do anything to change that

Tips for tweaking and making new trigger-action patterns/plans:

  • Look for high leverage—places where you’ll have the opportunity to get significant value out of very little effort (e.g. blocking a site you never want to use is much easier than stopping usage once you’re tired and on an addicting site).
  • Look for triggers that are noticeable and concrete
  • Choose actions that are simple, atomic, and very fast/easy to do
  • Make one or two changes at a time, rather than making 20 TAPs and failing to maintain any of them.

You can also chain TAPs together/combine TAPs with systematization. Example below for a system of TAPs relating to thinking of and executing on action items (e.g. “check out X job opportunity recommended to me”,  or “connect A and B”).

  • Trigger/stimulus: You think of an action to take, Action/response: Ask yourself: “Is this action worth taking?”
  • Trigger/stimulus: You answer “yes” to the question “Is this action worth taking?” Action/response: Ask yourself “Can I take this action in <1 minute?”
  • Trigger/stimulus: You answer “yes” to the question “Can I take this action in <1 minute?” Action/response: Solve it. OR Trigger/stimulus: You answer “no” to the question “Can I solve this problem in <1 minute?” Action/response: Note it down to solve later (e.g. during an end-of-event follow up on next-steps session, or weekly review in non-event contexts).

Conclusion + Feedback:

I hope some of these documents and the ideas/techniques are helpful for you as you organize/attend events moving forward, and hopefully in general. Better write-ups written by CFAR instructor Duncan Sabien for many of the concepts/techniques brought up in this post can be found here.

This post and the above documents are currently first-draft, rushed-to-publish-to-the-forum-since-all-the-events-are-starting-or-have-already-started-AAAAH-panic versions. Feedback on how to improve them in the forum comment section or comments on the documents themselves would be appreciated. Additionally, other suggestions/techniques, critiques of ideas/their presentation in this post/the documents, and supplementary resources would also be appreciated. 

As mentioned earlier, hopefully with more time these resources/this post will be more polished and there will be better resources (e.g. slides for sessions, worksheets, etc). Please share relevant resources if you have/make them!

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to Peter Wallich for inspiring this post, and Mauricio and Angelina Li for feedback!
 

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