Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Proposal: Anti-Akrasia Alliance

18 Post author: DanArmak 01 January 2011 09:52PM

Related to: Kicking Akrasia: now or never; Tsuioku  Naritai

The situation

I am greatly afficted by akrasia, and in all probability, so are you. Akrasia is a destroyer of worlds.1

I have come to the conclusion that akrasia is the single biggest problem I have in life. It is greater than my impending biological death, my imperfect enjoyment of life, or the danger of a car accident.

For if I could solve the problem of akrasia, I would work on these other problems, and I believe I would solve them too. Even a big problem like physical mortality can be meaningfully challenged if I spend a lifetime tackling it. But until I solve the problem of akrasia, I will sit around and do nothing about my mortality.

(Edited here) Without solving akrasia, we are relatively inefficient in attacking the other problems that matter to us. However, if LW readers - typically smart, rational, luminous, and relatively rich people - were to defeat akrasia and become highly productive, I think we would possess real world-changing power2.

Some people have either solved this problem or never had it. Thus, we know it is possible to vanquish akrasia. However, it is a unique problem that fights its own cure: because of akrasia, we don't spend as much effort as we'd like fighting akrasia.

I propose forming a community dedicated to fighting akrasia.

Existing efforts

There have been many posts about akrasia on LW. There are also many methods and workgroups in the world which are dedicated to it. I haven't tried very many myself, and no doubt there are many useful approaches I don't know about. I'm aware of other LW users who have more relevant knowledge and experience than me.

I do know that there are several common problems with all such efforts:

  1. Any given method, and even any well-defined compact combination of methods, works for some people but not for others, or works only some of the time.
  2. When a method does work, it almost always stops working for that person after a while, and can't be used again.
  3. Most methods have no clear theories of the mechanisms behind them. Those that do, almost always have bad theories, which don't predict why the method sometimes fails, or are untestable just-so stories.
  4. Most methods have no scientific backing of double-blind experiments, comparisons with other methods, ruling out other explanations, etc.
  5. Many methods perform no better than the placebo of doing something that doesn't actually work, feeling "pumped up", and expecting akrasia to disappear.
  6. There are many different methods out there, and a person can't test them all to find one that works for them.
  7. Most existing workshops and groups are formed around a method, rather than around the goal of fighting akrasia, and they apply that method like a hammer to the exclusion of all others.
  8. None of the methods I have tried so far have helped me, personally.

Many of the methods also share a problem of transparency. If a method works for some people, they may publish it widely, via books, websites, and workshops. But there is usually no-one collecting reports of cases where that method failed, investigating them, and publishing updates of the method's expected effectiveness. In other words, there is a large positive selection bias for publication, and third-party reports aren't reviewed and published.

Finally, there are few organized attempts to collate knowledge of many different methods and test them in combination.

Proposal

I suggest that the first step in the fight against akrasia should be to proclaim the establishment of a community dedicated to this fight: the Anti-Akrasia Alliance, or 3A for short. A public commitment will help us to keep attacking the problem. 

Commitments are hard to keep (due to akrasia). If we commit to trying specific methods and following various regiments, we will often fail. Therefore we should reserve our willpower for just one Big Commitment: that of fighting akrasia by participating in 3A. I'm not asking anyone to commit to any particular procedure; only to participation in a community effort to solve the problem of akrasia.

I do have some idea of what to do next, although we may well end up doing something different (and better) instead.

The danger of stopping all progress due to akrasia is bigger, in the initial stage, than the danger of failing to find good solutions. We need mechanisms for making and keeping commitments, and for giving these commitments a positive affect.

We should establish a website as a meeting-point. LW has the right format (group blog + wiki), but if this is judged to be off-topic in the Discussion section, I'll set up a similar site somewhere else.

Next, we should briefly examine existing methods and collect suggestions to determine the course of action. Ideally, we should organize the existing knowledge on the subject, analyze members' akrasia case-histories, identify likely theories, and get enough people to run the appropriate experiments. And then take over the universe, because we have some objections to the way it is currently being run.

I believe the application of rationality and the scientific method will, in itself, give us a head start over other groups. We should also be transparent and open to newcomers and to importing new techniques. We should make good use of data collection and analysis (naturally, allowing for anonymity). We should, in short, use all the LW techniques.

The next steps

I would like to hear your reactions in the comments. Do you think there is a better approach? Do you think we're bound to fail because I didn't take problem X into account? Is there a great, rational community fighting akrasia that we should join instead of starting our own? Would you like to join 3A?

If you are one of the lucky few who have beaten akrasia, please join us too. You can probably further goals that we all care about by helping us understand how to do what you did.

I commit to posting an update by Jan 5th, which will take into account the comments here. If the consensus is to establish a website (and not use LW) I commit to setting one up by Jan 8th.

Edit: yeah, right. See update.

Notes

1. We choose to create possible future worlds. Akrasia destroys our choices. 

2. Personally, I might choose to invest effort in things other than FAI. Anti-akrasia is a necessary meta-tool for humans to achieve all hard goals.

Comments (34)

Comment author: DanArmak 02 January 2011 12:19:54PM 18 points [-]

Anyone who's interested in joining 3A, please upvote this comment, so I can gauge community interest. Downvote the child comment to balance karma.

If you have time to write about your reaction in comments to the post, it would also be very helpful.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2011 02:31:17PM 4 points [-]

I'd be uncertain about joining an anti-akrasia group because I'd want to make sure I'd be influenced by some people who were much better at managing their time than I am (the equivalent of people who've been sober for twenty years.) A group of current horrible procrastinators wouldn't necessarily be a good influence.

What I do find myself wanting is a blog or a forum where all the "hacks" for self-improvement are in one place, and where the LessWrong ethic reigns (claims aren't put forward without evidence, emotionally laden language is rare.) Paul Graham has some essays on time management, for instance, but they're heavy on the guilt trips and light on the useful tips for the currently unsuccessful -- a good style for him and his fans, perhaps, but not my preference.

I like LessWrong's own posts, but the thing is we duplicate a lot. My post was on my own experience, and other people have posted on their own experience, and many such posts have fallen down the memory hole. I'm not sure how we could reorganize this more neatly.

A separate blog just for akrasiacs is an obvious possibility but I'm not sure I want to divide communities and attention that much. A group diary would be a nice format if we did this, where each person described what progress he/she made each day, and, if relevant, imported stats from goal-tracking software or spreadsheets.

One other thing (which is more private) that we can borrow from AA is the idea of a "lifeline" -- someone you have to tell if you aren't meeting your goals, someone who can talk you into getting back on track. But I think that's best suited for people who know each other well in person.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 January 2011 07:39:46PM 2 points [-]

I agree with your suggestions.

Regarding this:

A group of current horrible procrastinators wouldn't necessarily be a good influence.

The intent of the group is to rationally evaluate anti-akrasia techniques. We wouldn't need to be anti-akrasia role models for one another. If you don't want to waste time testing uncertain methods, you're perfectly free to wait until others report that a methods works for them before trying it. Just publish what methods work for you so others can try them, too. With data from different people, we might be able to identify why a method only works for some people, etc.

A separate blog just for akrasiacs is an obvious possibility but I'm not sure I want to divide communities and attention that much.

I'd love to stay on LW, but I fear that e.g. frequent posts in the Discussion section with a common tag would still be offtopic and we would be requested to move offsite.

Comment author: JenniferRM 05 January 2011 03:23:53AM *  7 points [-]

I doubt that "akrasia" has a huge amount of construct validity. When I've gotten better at stuff it has generally been from domain optimizations that make sense in context, or by getting better at management processes like engaging in realistic goal setting and doing simple time motion studies on myself. I'm in reasonable agreement with PJ's article on this subject, except I think he wrote that before research came out suggesting that "willpower" was an actively harmful way to frame problems of motivation (like "thinking oneself to be intrinsically smart" is unhelpful).

I find the "Anti-Akrasia Alliance" to sound something like "Novice Programmers Against Software With High Bugginess" who propose that they will fight "bugginess" directly, rather than through the application of a series of small fixes to each new program that they write... with a realistic expectation of numerous bugs until any given program has been debugged.

In any case, I expect that an "Anti-Akrasia Alliance" would, if it succeeded at all, almost necessarily be on topic for the cultivation of theoretically-driven epistemically-sound personal efficacy. Perhaps something analogous to "test driven development" would bubble up? In any case, I would neither vote the content down nor request that people move somewhere else.

If I could make a suggestion, it might be good to use the wiki to store written intervention protocols that include before and after data collection and reporting back to a protocol's manager. Collect targeted volunteers in periodic discussion threads, have the volunteers try out the protocols, update on the evidence, talk about results, tweak or abandon the protocols. Repeat!

The general process outline could be used for other research with positive externalities that some people in the community are interested in, like intelligence amplification research and sleep management :-)

Comment author: Costanza 02 January 2011 04:40:22AM 4 points [-]

Okay, I've thought about this for a little bit. I'm interested, but confused. I've read the 'Proposal' section a couple of times now, and I'm still having a hard time understanding what I'd be committing to. The existing Less Wrong community seems to address at least some of the points here. This proposal seems to contemplate a tighter community-within-a-community which would:

... organize the existing knowledge on [akrasia], analyze members' akrasia case-histories, identify likely theories, and get enough people to run the appropriate experiments.

I gather that the "experiments" are more intended to find what works for the particular self-selected members as individuals for their own benefit, and the goal is not do rigorous research. Is that right?

Also, I see this topic specifically refers to SarahC's excellent recent post on kicking akrasia . Is this group intended to provide a permanent forum to replicate and extend what she did there?

Comment author: DanArmak 02 January 2011 12:14:39PM 1 point [-]

I've read the 'Proposal' section a couple of times now, and I'm still having a hard time understanding what I'd be committing to.

You'd be committing (if you like) to just one thing: fighting akrasia in a shared effort.

I'm not asking anyone to commit to any specific method, because we don't have one yet and may change methods in the future. The paragraph about "organize the existing knowledge, etc.", although it is quite meta, still describes a specific approach to the problem; if we find a better one, we'll do that instead.

As I wrote ("One Big Commitment"), I fear that it may be counterproductive to commit to specific things. We should commit to the goal itself alone, to conserve willpower. I'll edit the post to make it clearer.

I gather that the "experiments" are more intended to find what works for the particular self-selected members as individuals for their own benefit, and the goal is not do rigorous research. Is that right?

Yes. Of course rigorous research that produces results that would work for all people and not just the actual members would be a very valuable thing! But our goal should be first and foremost to alleviate our own akrasia, because then, if we choose, we can work on alleviating other people's akrasia much more efficiently.

Also, I see this topic specifically refers to SarahC's excellent recent post on kicking akrasia . Is this group intended to provide a permanent forum to replicate and extend what she did there?

Certainly posts like that one are useful. Ideally I'd like to have a knowledgebase and a community that can reliably help someone who comes, like SarahC, saying they're not effective enough and need advice.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 02 January 2011 02:15:42AM *  4 points [-]

Solving akrasia is necessary: without it, we cannot efficiently attack other problems, and have a high chance of losing the fight against disease, war, and UFAI.

Solving akrasia may also be sufficient: if a group of LW readers - smart, rational, luminous, and relatively rich people - was also unusually dedicated to a purpose, it would have a good chance of attacking Really Big Problems ranging from personal satisfaction to Friendly AI.

Downvoted for affective rhetoric getting the better of your argument. Less akrasia is better, but not a sufficient or necessary hack for getting difficult projects done.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 January 2011 02:32:16AM 3 points [-]

Fair point. Edited and thanks.

Comment author: DanArmak 17 January 2011 07:46:38PM 3 points [-]

I haven't done anything to further this project. Instead I've procrastinated about it (and other things I'd prefer to have done) for two weeks now.

My apologies to everyone who was expecting me to make some progress, and to anyone who might have benefited if I had.

I've finally forced myself to come back to this subject now, but I'm not sure anymore what to do next - how best to fight akrasia in cases like this, and what form of community project might be beneficial. If anyone has a clear sense of direction, I'd appreciate if you shared it.

I realize this comment is not very helpful. It's just better than if I kept silent.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 02 January 2011 02:19:55AM 2 points [-]

Intuitively, this feels like a great idea, and I want to participate. I just have to raise the question: what if I end up spending too much time on the internet reading about beating akrasia and not getting things done? Especially if I feel like I've done my good deed for the day.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 January 2011 02:38:18AM 1 point [-]

This is a possible failure mode. You have to decide for yourself:

  1. Participating costs some time. Reducing akrasia would effectively gain you some time (you'd spend more time doing what you want to be doing). How do the two amounts of time compare?
  2. If you participate, what is your estimate of success?

For me, participation seems very much worthwhile, but clearly this will differ for different people.

Note: since you can quit at any time, if you just try it and see what happens, the risk doesn't seem that great.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2011 11:49:57AM 0 points [-]

Note: since you can quit at any time, if you just try it and see what happens, the risk doesn't seem that great.

Even in context, this sets off some serious alarm bells for me.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 January 2011 12:03:39PM 0 points [-]

Why? The danger Normal_Anomaly talked about is in loss of time invested without any return on it. "Try it for a little while, see what happens, you're only investing a little time so the risk isn't great" is a reasonable approach.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2011 12:27:57PM *  0 points [-]

It does indeed seem reasonable to me... but I don't think I've ever seen the expression "you can quit at any time" used in a context where it turned out to be totally accurate. I should have been more specific about my alarm bells: many things seem like they would be easy to stop "whenever you want", but then it turns out to be hard to want to stop in the first place. I.e. "I can quite whenever I want to... I just don't want to."

Specifically: participating in an activity that ostensibly fights akrasia as a distraction or a form of procrastination seems like it's very much opening up the door to the Good Deed failure mode. Maybe those alarm bells aren't applicable to people in general, but I'm confident that such a failure mode would be likely for me.

But I really do like the idea of an Anti-Akrasia Alliance, and I do think such an endeavor could benefit many people, including myself. I just think that Normal Anomaly's point is important, and we should consider ways of avoiding that failure mode. I'll edit this post with some ideas for how to do that if I think of any - sorry to have offered such non-constructive criticism, I just wanted to make it clear that Normal Anomaly wasn't the only person worried about this particular problem.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 January 2011 12:44:06PM 0 points [-]

I should have been more specific about my alarm bells: many things seem like they would be easy to stop

I understand this potential problem, but it doesn't seem to be exactly the same as the Good Deed potential problem. Are you talking about one failure more or two?

Specifically: participating in an activity that ostensibly fights akrasia as a distraction or a form of procrastination seems like it's very much opening up the door to the Good Deed failure mode.

I see the problem. If we can do something about it, that would be great - I await your suggestions.

But notice that it's only a real problem if 3A is ineffective! Otherwise it will be worth it, even if initially we forgo other Good Deeds as we work on the problem of akrasia.

Certainly, in the case that 3A is ultimately ineffective, participating in it will be a net loss of time, willpower, Good Deeds, etc.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2011 01:49:58PM 0 points [-]

You're right, I was first making a point about the general propensity of humans to become addicted to activities ("I want to want to stop, but I don't want to stop"), and then I moved on to discussing the other failure mode. I've been up all night reading; looks like my brains got a little scrambled.

An idea for preventing the Good Deed problem: have a points system based on actually getting work done - you post your goals on a profile of sorts, as well as your progress on them, and other members (or I guess you could do this for yourself) have a way to assign you points based on your work; you have to spend some points to use the site, though (e.g. it costs points to view other peoples' profiles, to make posts, etc.). That way, you have to actually get stuff done to participate in the first place, and keep getting stuff done to keep participating. This is just a suggestion; I haven't fully thought it through yet.

I also wanted to note that I was taking the Outside View when I noted the Addiction failure mode (spending so much time on 3A that it prevented real work from getting done). I've wasted a lot of time on points systems and lists, instead of just getting stuff done.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 January 2011 03:01:43PM *  2 points [-]

I've wasted a lot of time on points systems and lists, instead of just getting stuff done.

The problem (akrasia) is that you can't just get stuff done. That's why you can't directly compare "just getting things done" to other things. Of course if you could just get things done, that would be far better than using lists; the reason you use lists is because you can't get things done otherwise!

The fact that lists didn't work well for you, and you still didn't get stuff done even though you used lists a lot, means you need to search for a different way. But if lists did work, and you spent e.g. 40% of your time managing lists and the other 60% doing actual work, that would be a great improvement over 30% just getting things done without lists and 70% procrastination.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 02 January 2011 02:45:02AM *  0 points [-]

Your point is good, and I'm going to try it. I just thought the possibility of this failure mode should be mentioned in hope of preventing it.

Comment author: dreeves 06 October 2011 08:21:03PM 0 points [-]

Sorry to be late to this party! We actually have a google group called Akratics Anonymous, described at http://blog.beeminder.com/akratics which has some Less Wrong folks already. We'd love to have more.

Also, thanks so much for the patience with Beeminder! I've been getting tons of encouragement and enthusiasm from the LessWrong community ever since this post in 2009: http://lesswrong.com/lw/am/how_a_pathological_procrastinor_can_lose_weight/

I've now added everyone who got on the waitlist with invite code LESSWRONG. We're getting close to public launch so I wanted to invite any other LessWrong folks to get a beta account first: http://beeminder.com/secretsignup (no wait this time!)

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 01 January 2011 10:54:30PM 0 points [-]

How about calling the group "Akrasiacs Anonymous"? It might not be a bad idea to explicitly model the group on AA. They seem to have a pretty powerful set of mind hacks: a 12-step program, group support meetings, and sponsorship (where an experienced member takes a younger member under his/her wing).

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2011 12:11:44AM 3 points [-]

Alcoholics Anonymous does no better than placebo. Can't find the original source where I saw this, but http://www.astrocyte-design.com/pseudoscience/ has some links to various sources.

Comment author: Vaniver 02 January 2011 02:24:51AM 1 point [-]

Alcoholics Anonymous does no better than placebo.

I am skeptical of this, particularly without a definition of "placebo," as I've seen studies breaking down the various significant parts of AA membership (sponsoring someone else was the most significant), so the whole deal being placebo would be odd.

Comment author: Costanza 02 January 2011 03:27:44AM *  3 points [-]

Wikipedia has an article about the efficacy of AA. I gather it's just really hard to pin down because it's so informal and participation is hugely variable. I'm sure it works for the people it works for.

For me, the problem with the AA model, even if it works, is that many of their particular brand of "mind hacks" seem opposed to the rationalist approach, perhaps a bit cultish. Not a good fit for Less Wrong.

Comment author: Jack 03 January 2011 10:31:35AM 0 points [-]

Presumably being a sponsor requires you to have had some previous success at not-drinking so that isn't really evidence that AA causes people to keep sober.

Comment author: Vaniver 03 January 2011 06:46:58PM 0 points [-]

Very possible- I don't have the study on hand, so I can't check how careful they were with their statistical analysis. (Ideally, you would have enough information to separate out the successful people who sponsored and the successful people who didn't, then compare them, but assuming a study is ideal is rarely a good idea.)

I do consider it likely that having someone depend on you makes people more likely to stay sober, but causality the other direction is also strongly likely.

Comment author: Alicorn 01 January 2011 11:13:14PM 4 points [-]

Akrasiacs

"Akratics", I think.

Comment author: JenniferRM 05 January 2011 03:41:36AM 3 points [-]

If I read things correctly, "a-krasia", "hypo-crisy", and "demo-cracy" are all etymologically related via some sort of root word that has something to do with "ruling".

The absence of rule (in a person). Weak rule (in a person). Rule (of a polity) by the people. This reading suggests terms like "hyperkrasia" which I guess would cash out to something like obsessive compulsive personality disorder from too much ruling?

It would be funny to name the group "Hypocrites Anonymous" :-P

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 05 January 2011 05:55:24AM 0 points [-]

Your etymology of hypocrisy is false.

Comment author: JenniferRM 05 January 2011 03:12:03PM 0 points [-]

Thanks. What is the correct one?

Comment author: ata 05 January 2011 05:25:41AM 0 points [-]

If I read things correctly, "a-krasia", "hypo-crisy", and "demo-cracy" are all etymologically related via some sort of root word that has something to do with "ruling".

"Akrasia" and "democracy" (etc.) are indeed related through that root, but not "hypocrisy".

Comment author: Jack 03 January 2011 10:34:58AM 0 points [-]

In addition to the other replies: do we have any reason to be anonymous? Is there an akrasia equivalent of the drunk airline pilot?

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 03 January 2011 02:23:24PM 0 points [-]

In addition to the other replies: do we have any reason to be anonymous? Is there an akrasia equivalent of the drunk airline pilot?

Well, the OP said akrasia was the biggest problem in his life. Some people might be reluctant to talk about their big problems in public without the shroud of anonymity. AA involves people getting up in front of a crowd and telling stories about how alcohol ruined their lives. An analogous akrasia-focussed group might involve, say, a person telling stories about how he spent hours playing WoW instead of writing his master's thesis. Not quite as bad, but still bad.

Comment author: DanArmak 01 January 2011 11:06:00PM 0 points [-]

How about calling the group "Akrasiacs Anonymous"?

Having the same abbreviation as AA might be a problem. I'm wary of explicitly associating too closely with AA, because the problems we're tackling don't seem very similar. But I have no personal experience with AA, so would defer to those who do.

Of course we should adopt any good mind hacks whatever the source :-)