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Hi, I’m Tom North

I’m from Manchester, UK. You can find me on Twitter @TheTomNorth.

The two – arguably incompatible – things that get me most fired up are Effective Altruism and (English) football โšฝ๏ธ.

I’ve always been interested in ways to: get better at doing stuff; make myself happier; use my money more effectively; work more productively; and be healthier. To that end, I’ve consumed a lot of what you can broadly call ‘self-improvement advice’ ๐Ÿ“š.

In 2021, the pandemic gave me the opportunity to take these self-improvement ideas more seriously ๐Ÿ™‡. But the more I scrutinized most advice, the more it fell to pieces.

Even the bits that claim to be based in scientific literature tend not to have done any analysis of that literature ๐Ÿšฎ. Either they link to it in order to look more ‘evidence-based’, or they write as if the literature is conclusive, despite the fact much of it subsequently fails to replicate.

Even worse is the variety that goes: “this great [usually white male] person did this really cool thing, and here’s how you can easily do the same”. Or just re-hashes ancient ‘wisdom’ or tech bro clichรฉ into quotes that are supposed to completely change the way you see the world, but don’t actually give you any guidance for action ๐Ÿ’ฉ.

So I started this website to do two things: give myself a prompt to take my own self-improvement efforts more seriously, and to share that information such that others could also benefit ๐Ÿ“ˆ. A mainly selfish motivation, admittedly, but also hopefully with some benefits for other people.

How Effective Living differs from most self-improvement advice

Scale

I try to take on big questions. Whilst I’m a supporter of marginal gains, I won’t be writing about how to get the most out of an empty jam jar, or the intricate differences between different bits of tech๐Ÿ“ฑ. If the effect size is tiny – even if there’s solid evidence for something – I’m not that excited. I like to think of things in terms of expected value1, roughly:

The value of the thing if it happens X the probability it happens = expected value2

If something’s got a 99% chance of making my life 0.01% better, I’m not arsed. But if it’s got a 30% chance of making it 10% better3, I’ll go for it.

Generalizability

I also try to consider how generalizable something is. I’m less interested in things that make a big difference to a handful of people, than things which would make a small difference to tonnes of people ๐Ÿ“Š. That said, the things I write about are somewhat tailored to problems I want to solve for myself.

Tractability

This site is about self-improvement. As such, it’s not just about slightly better information, but changing behaviour.

It’s no good having an idea with huge expected value that would apply to everyone if no one could actually do it. Imagine drinking dragon blood ๐Ÿ‰4 had huge benefits for everyone – it would be mainly useless information, because you couldn’t get hold of any.

I try to stick things people have a reasonable chance of actually doing, and sometimes share ideas on how to do them.

Deeper analysis of evidence

Rather than taking the result of a single study and writing a quick article about how the finding will change your life, I try to investigate a number of sources on a question, and evaluate how likely they are to be true ๐Ÿค”.

I’ll typically evaluate a range of sources – everything from peer-reviewed meta-analyses to YouTube videos – but try to show what weight I’ve accorded to each bit of evidence, and why. If something relies on another source, I try to find the original.

I aspire to correct for my biases, analyse things impartially, take on board feedback, and consider evidence with something approaching Bayesian reasoning – but I accept I will often fall short ๐Ÿ˜ฉ. Hopefully by showing how I’ve reached conclusions, it at least makes it easier for others to draw their own.

I also try to consider downsides and counterfactuals. It’s all well and good saying, for example, that yoga makes you stronger and more relaxed, but if you already do strength training and meditation, is it really going to move the needle?

As for how much evidence I consider, I’m just one person doing this part-time. I try to devote time commensurate with the scale of the issue, accounting for how difficult it is to draw reasonable conclusions. I’ll signpost ๐Ÿชง how much evidence I’ve considered with each conclusion. Some stuff – like elements of philosophy, or speculative theories – won’t have evidence, so I’ll try to make that clear.

Honesty about uncertainty – but still acting

Tied into the above, I try to give an indication of the epistemic status of things I write i.e. how confident I am that the thing is true. Of course, that in itself is subject to plenty of guesswork.

But on most things I write about, you have to take some sort of action, even when that’s choosing not to do something. So I usually say how I’m acting under that uncertainty, based on how the costs, benefits and probabilities shake out for me. Whether it’s worth it for you may or may not be the same โš–๏ธ.

No unnecessary narrative

Every self-improvement writer and their dog likes to write a story about the thing they’re communicating. I get it – people like stories, and probably remember them better. But it’s a bit silly, isn’t it. So I’m not going to waste your time by doing that. Unless a story is crucial to understanding the material, I won’t waste your time with it. I’ll just give you the information, straight up.

What makes you qualified to write about this?

Nothing in particular. I’m not going to claim that I have some unique insight into personal development that no one else has, nor that my pretty face or shining credentials mean you should believe everything I say.

I’m hoping that by being open, and showing you how I reach the conclusions I do, you’ll be able to evaluate the work on its merits. I don’t pretend to have all the answers – only to help you find them for yourself ๐Ÿ”Ž.

In case you’re interested, my professional background is in communications, data analysis, and recruitment, and I have a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics ๐Ÿง‘โ€๐ŸŽ“. I’m definitely not a doctor, therapist, financial adviser, psychologist, lawyer, scientist, or anything else really, so please don’t come here for professional advice โš ๏ธ.

How the site is run

This is a part-time endeavour, so I won’t commit to producing on a regular schedule. But if you subscribe to the newsletter ๐Ÿ“ฐ, you won’t miss anything. It also includes some of what I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to.

I kind of wish there were no such thing as advertising, so I don’t have adverts on my site. I’m not trying to make money from it for now. But I reserve the right to introduce some sort of paid model in future.

Interested?

If the ideas above appeal to you, then subscribe to the newsletter for updates.

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Footnotes

  1. I don’t promise to put actual numbers to everything I write about – most of it is far too uncertain – but I at least try to think of it in terms of this framework
  2. Expected value should also account for the size and probability of the downsides of an intervention, but I’ve chosen to keep it simple here.
  3. assuming no downside
  4. I googled, and it turns out ‘dragon’s blood’ is actually the name of a resin from a plant. I meant the mythical creature.