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Working hurts less than procrastinating, we fear the twinge of starting

129 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 January 2011 12:15AM

When you procrastinate, you're probably not procrastinating because of the pain of working.

How do I know this?  Because on a moment-to-moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.

(Bolded because it's true, important, and nearly impossible to get your brain to remember - even though a few moments of reflection should convince you that it's true.)

So what is our brain flinching away from, if not the pain of doing the work?

I think it's flinching away from the pain of the decision to do the work - the momentary, immediate pain of (1) disengaging yourself from the (probably very small) flow of reinforcement that you're getting from reading a random unimportant Internet article, and (2) paying the energy cost for a prefrontal override to exert control of your own behavior and begin working.

Thanks to hyperbolic discounting (i.e., weighting values in inverse proportion to their temporal distance) the instant pain of disengaging from an Internet article and paying a prefrontal override cost, can outweigh the slightly more distant (minutes in the future, rather than seconds) pain of continuing to procrastinate, which is, once again, usually more painful than being in the middle of doing the work.

I think that hyperbolic discounting is far more ubiquitous as a failure mode than I once realized, because it's not just for commensurate-seeming tradeoffs like smoking a cigarette in a minute versus dying of lung cancer later.

When it comes to procrastinating, the obvious, salient, commensurate-seeming tradeoff, is between the (assumed) pleasure of reading a random Internet article now, versus the (assumed) pain of doing the work now.  But this, as I said above, is not where I think the real tradeoff is; events that are five minutes away are too distant to dominate the thought process of a hyperbolic discounter like a human.  Instead our thought processes are dominated by the prospective immediate pain of a thought, a cost that isn't even salient as something to be traded off.  "Working" is an obvious, salient event, and "reading random articles" seems like an event.  But "paying a small twinge of pain to make the decision to stop procrastinating now, exerting a bit of frontal override, and not getting to read the next paragraph of this random article" is so map-level that we don't even focus on it as a manipulable territory, a cost to be traded off; it is a transparent thought.

The real damage done by hyperbolic discounting is for thoughts that are only very slightly painful, and yet, these slight pains being immediate, they manage to dominate everything else in our calculation.  And being transparent, we aren't even aware that's what's happening.  "Beware of immediately trivially painful transparent thoughts", one might say.

Similarly, you may read a mediocre book for an hour, instead of a good book, because if you first spent a few minutes to search your library to obtain a better book, that would be an immediate cost - not that searching your library is all that unpleasant, but you'd have to pay an immediate activation cost to do that instead of taking the path of least resistance and grabbing the first thing in front of you.  It's a hyperbolically discounted tradeoff that you make without realizing it, because the cost you're refusing to pay isn't commensurate enough with the payoff you're forgoing to be salient as an explicit tradeoff.

A related note that I might as well dump into this post:  I'm starting to think that procrastination by reading random articles does not cause you to rest, that is, you do not regain mental energy from it.  Success and happiness cause you to regain willpower; what you need to heal your mind from any damage sustained by working is not inactivity, but reliably solvable problems which reliably deliver experienced jolts of positive reinforcement.  Putting in the effort to read a good book may do this; playing a good computer game may do this; reading random Internet articles, or playing bad games, probably won't.  Literal mental exhaustion might mean that you don't have enough energy left to read a good book - or that you don't have enough energy left to pay the immediate cost of searching your library for good reading material instead of mediocre reading material - but in this case you shouldn't be reading random online articles.  You should be sitting with your eyes closed listening to music, or possibly even napping; if dealing with a truly exhausted brain, reading random articles is probably too much effort.

If you don't feel good while reading a lot of forgettable online articles, and you don't feel renewed after doing so, your intuitive theory which says that this is how to rest is mistaken, and you need to look for other ways to rest instead - more active ways to regain willpower, less active ways to recover from immediate exhaustion.  In general, poor performance often indicates poor models; if something seems incredibly difficult to predict or manipulate, it may be that you have mistaken beliefs about it, including transparent mistakes that are nonquestioned because they are nonsalient.  This includes poor performance on the problem of resting.

Hopefully publishing this post will help me live up to it.

Comments (137)

Comment author: Marcello 02 January 2011 08:01:07AM 26 points [-]

Here's a theory about one of the things that causes procrastination to be so hard to beat. I'm curious what people think of it.

  1. Hypothesis: Many parts of the mind are influenced by something like reinforcement learning, where the emotional valances of our thoughts function as a gross reward signal that conditions their behaviors.

  2. Reinforcement learning seems to have a far more powerful effect when feedback is instant.

  3. We think of procrastinating as a bad thing, and tend to internally punish ourselves when we catch ourselves doing it.

  4. Therefore, the negative feedback signal might end up exerting a much more powerful training effect on the "catcher" system (aka. whatever is activating frontal override) rather than on whatever it is that triggered the procrastination in the first place.

  5. This results in a simple counter-intuitive piece of advice: when you catch yourself procrastinating, it might be a very bad idea to internally berate yourself about it; Thoughts of the form "%#&%! I'm procrastinating again! I really shouldn't do that!" might actually cause more procrastinating in the long run. If I had to guess, things like meditation would be helpful for building up the skill required to catch the procrastination-berating subsystem in the act and get it to do something else.

TL;DR: It would probably be hugely helpful to try to train oneself to make the "flinch" less unpleasant.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 02 January 2011 08:06:55AM 9 points [-]

This sounds reasonable. What sort of thought would you recommend responding with after noticing oneself procrastinating? I'm leaning towards "what would I like to do?"

Comment author: Marcello 02 January 2011 08:42:49AM 14 points [-]

Offhand, I'm guessing the very first response ought to be "Huzzah! I caught myself procrastinating!" in order to get the reverse version of the effect I mentioned. Then go on to "what would I like to do?"

Comment author: Jasen 03 January 2011 08:57:56PM 5 points [-]

I've been able to implement something like this to great effect. Every time I notice that I've been behaving in a very silly way, I smile broadly, laugh out loud and say "Ha ha! Gotcha!" or something to that effect. I only allow myself to do this in cases where I've actually gained new information: Noticed a new flaw, noticed an old flaw come up in a new situation, realized that an old behavior is in fact undesirable, etc. This positively reinforces noticing my flaws without doing so to the undesirable behavior itself.

This is even more effective when implemented in response to someone else pointing out one of my flaws. It's a little more difficult to carry out because I have to suppress a reflex to retaliate/defend myself that doesn't come up as much when I'm my own critic, but when I succeed it almost completely eliminates the social awkwardness that normally comes with someone critiquing me in public.

Comment author: David_Gerard 03 January 2011 11:46:07PM *  3 points [-]

Every time I notice that I've been behaving in a very silly way, I smile broadly, laugh out loud and say "Ha ha! Gotcha!" or something to that effect.

If I did this I'd be shouting "Gotcha!" all the live long day.

Let me tell you about this morning. I mostly work from home, but showing up at the office is very useful. So much stuff works better face to face. It saves a lot of faff on IRC. And the connection is faster.

I got up in good time, had a proper breakfast, very nice cup of tea thank you, got myself ready, got on a curiously uncrowded tube train with no copies of Metro (that's your foreboding, I shall point out), got to work, and ... the large iron gates were chained shut.

Because today is the New Year bank holiday.

If I'd procrastinated, of course, I'd have been in bed till eleven like I'd much have preferred to be.

This was a pretty much mathematically perfect example of doing exactly the right things to get something done, except for the fact of doing it at all.

Edit: And today I showed up when people were actually here. My co-workers find me having shown up yesterday hilarious. The perfect employee: dedicated and stupid. The Book of the SubGenius does say that when you foul up, you should crow about it and call great attention to it and you will be thought of as a creative genius.

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 May 2011 01:29:25PM 1 point [-]

but when I succeed it almost completely eliminates the social awkwardness that normally comes with someone critiquing me in public.

Agreed! I started using this response to criticism several years ago, and actually got a compliment on it. I never thought of applying it to my own criticisms of myself, though...good idea.

Comment author: beriukay 02 January 2011 10:38:22AM 5 points [-]

Another possibility, accidentally just discovered by me right now, was that simply reading the title of this article in my RSS feed got me to realize that my desk was a total mess (that's been bothering me for months now), so instead of reading it, I cleaned my desk. Then I read it.

So just reading the title of this post could be enough to get some things done.

Comment author: Bobertron 23 March 2011 08:06:54PM 0 points [-]

This makes lot of sense to me. In the kind of meditation I'm trying, you are supposed to concentrate on your breath. Instructions usually say that, if you mind wanders, just put attention back on the breath in a non-judgemental way. Don't put yourself down.

What's more, I once read that, when you notice your mind has been wandering, you should be happy because you had a moment of awareness and an opportunity to learn concentration. That's like saying "Huzzah! I caught my mind wandering!"

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 03 January 2011 12:40:53AM 1 point [-]

Sounds great. Or, "what will I do now?". Obviously, with curiosity, not frustration.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 19 July 2011 04:23:38AM *  1 point [-]

In the past few years a number of studies have shown that self-forgiveness reduces procrastination. You seem to have uncovered the causal mechanism that accounts for these findings.

Comment author: lukeprog 02 January 2011 05:22:49PM *  20 points [-]

We don't need to re-invent the wheels of research on procrastination by practicing one-sample phenomenology. Much is known about procrastination via peer-reviewed scientific research, and those interested in beating procrastination might want to employ the rationality virtue of scholarship and begin there.

A recent overview of the relevant research papers begins here.

That said, Eliezer may be on to something that should be researched by professional psychologists.

Comment author: icebrand 02 January 2011 07:15:26PM 5 points [-]

Thank you for the reference, looks like a good book. I thought this part regarding motives for procrastination was interesting:

More recently, Sapadin and Maguire (1997) have also classified procrastinators into types: the "perfectionist" who dreads doing anything that is less than perfect, the "dreamer" who has great ideas but hates doing the details, the "worrier" who doesn't think things are right but fears that changes will make them worse, the "defier" who resists doing anything suggested or expected by someone else, the "crisis-maker" who manages to find or make a big problem in any project (often by starting too late), and the "over-doer" who takes on way too many tasks.

Also there's this bit on how to address the problem using college students' studying as an example (p. 83):

Most people have to overcome procrastination gradually. Studying, like drinking, is usually in binges. Almost no one has trouble studying (a little) the night before a big exam. But without the pressure of an exam, many students find it easy to forget studying. I'd suggest breaking big jobs down into manageable tasks and working on "getting started," perhaps by tricking yourself by saying "I'll just do five minutes" and then finding out you don't mind working longer than five minutes. This is called the "five minute plan." The key is to learn the habit of getting started on a task early, i.e. the procrastinator needs to learn to initiate well in advance studying and preparing for papers and exams. Practice starting studying several times every day. As with exercising, getting in control of starting and making it a routine are the secrets.

Comment author: pjeby 02 January 2011 11:57:36PM 18 points [-]

More recently, Sapadin and Maguire (1997) have also classified procrastinators into types

It would be more accurate to say that these are classifications of types of procrastination patterns; I have personally done every single one of the behaviors described in the quote!

Comment author: shokwave 03 January 2011 01:45:27PM *  0 points [-]

It would be more accurate to say that these are classifications of types of procrastination patterns;

Yes. I was going to point out that the concept that there is some fundamental behavior type that can be attributed to people seems, well, in error.

More likely to be patterns, as you said, and I would guess there are some underlying systems that have these these common patterns as effective solutions for procrastination - but how would you even measure "effective procrastination"? How completely you avoid something?

Comment author: [deleted] 06 March 2013 07:34:09PM 0 points [-]

The key is to learn the habit of getting started on a task early, i.e. the procrastinator needs to learn to initiate well in advance studying and preparing for papers and exams. Practice starting studying several times every day. As with exercising, getting in control of starting and making it a routine are the secrets.

I note that making things like studying and exercising habits is not necessary to get them done regularly. It is possible to get these done by setting reminders for yourself, instead of making them habits. Making them habits may, of course, be a good idea.

Comment author: pjeby 02 January 2011 06:53:45PM 14 points [-]

I think it's flinching away from the pain of the decision to do the work - the momentary, immediate pain of (1) disengaging yourself from the (probably very small) flow of reinforcement that you're getting from reading a random unimportant Internet article, and (2) paying the energy cost for a prefrontal override to exert control of your own behavior and begin working.

The second item seems like an unnecessary hypothesis. One can simply note that stopping an activity that is currently pleasurable is difficult, if the substitute is not as pleasurable. Getting out of a comfy bed, for example, or not jumping into the swimming pool.

Either way, though, it's such an utterly trivial form of procrastination that it seems like an insult to procrastinators to call it procrastination... which leads me to suspect that your formulation is omitting some other sort of pain in the decision making process, such as an "ugh field" surrounding the subject matter.

For example, if it's painful to decide to work on MoR, it might be because it primes thoughts of people clicking their refresh buttons like conditioned pigeons, or residual feelings of obligation from previous deadline commitments. Even an extremely mild unconscious "ugh" in response to such thoughts would be likely to occur when thinking about writing, but not during the actual writing, and would be more than sufficient to keep the inertia happening... possibly even after you become aware of the existence of the inertia.

tl;dr: The twinge we flinch away from is likely an ugh field associated with meta-level thoughts about the activity, rather than a generalized pain of deciding.

(Among other reasons, the first is easily implemented by evolution as a side-effect or simple bug in an adaptive behavior, while the latter is just weird from a purely adaptive POV. We already demonstrably have "ugh fields", so adding another entity for "decision pain" seems unnecessary)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 03 January 2011 11:28:51PM 4 points [-]

Either way, though, it's such an utterly trivial form of procrastination that it seems like an insult to procrastinators to call it procrastination... which leads me to suspect that your formulation is omitting some other sort of pain in the decision making process, such as an "ugh field" surrounding the subject matter.

I procrastinate paying my taxes, and other tasks that involve financial calculations. Just this morning I was wondering why it's so distasteful to me; and I remembered that in college, for 12 years, I usually managed most of the bills for me and 3-4 housemates; and every month, getting people to own up to and pay for their part of the phone bill was one of the most stressful things I had to do that month.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2011 02:12:24PM 14 points [-]

I also don't think all procrastination is "not restful" or "doesn't really make you happy." We'd like to believe that -- just as we'd like to believe that unhealthy food doesn't really taste that good. It would make it seem that there are no real sacrifices to be made. But I don't think that's the case.

My most time-consuming forms of procrastination are socializing (online or in person) and, oddly enough, learning. I had a period when I was obsessed with learning about economic policy, and then a period when I was obsessed with learning about computer vision. Spending time with your friends, and learning interesting things in a non-stressful context, are fun. They make you feel high on life. They even make you feel productive. They're only procrastination in the sense that they're not what you're paid to do -- "Work is whatever a body is obliged to do, and play is whatever a body is not obliged to do," in Mark Twain's words.

So there's some perverse impulse to do anything but the activity labeled "work," which carries the dread association of duty, and makes you think unpleasant thoughts like "am I worthy enough?" If my job were writing policy for a think tank, I'd probably spend all day on the web reading about algebraic topology.

Comment author: Polymeron 03 January 2011 12:53:53PM 11 points [-]

Thank you. This is exactly what I needed right now.

Eliezer, I hope you will take it as a form of high praise rather than insult that I stopped reading your article halfway through, typed this short comment, and am now going back to do some much-needed work.

(Hopefully I'll get back to reading the rest later.)

Comment author: Desrtopa 02 January 2011 12:44:19AM 11 points [-]

being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.

I've often heard people say things to the effect of work not being so unpleasant once you've actually gotten into the swing of it, but I've never found that to be the case. I generally only find the act of working less painful than procrastinating when I'm right up against a deadline. Otherwise, even a half hour or so into it, it still feels easier to stop than continue. I'm also quite terrible at creating self imposed deadlines.

In order to increase the pain of procrastination, and the reward of working, I find it extremely helpful to have someone else waiting on me to get it done. It's much harder for me to bear disappointing others than failing to meet my own goals.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2011 01:49:14AM 14 points [-]

I suspect that this is partly to do with the kind of work. When I'm working my current day job (computer programming), or writing, or composing music, then that's pretty enjoyable once I get started. When I was working my old job (as a nursing assistant on a psychiatric ward) or if I have to clean the toilet, or wash the dishes or something, then that's clearly less pleasant than procrastinating. I suspect that in Eliezer's case, given that he's engaged in work that is intellectually stimulating and which he considers the most important thing possible for him to be doing, that most of his work falls into the former category, rather than the latter...

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2011 01:54:02PM 9 points [-]

How unpleasant work is, I believe, depends a lot on what part of your work it is.

My work is math. Making progress on math -- learning a new concept, figuring out a proof -- is not only fun, but so addictive that I can't stand to stop it once I'm doing it. Being stuck on math -- incomprehension or being stumped -- is absolutely miserable. You can't do anything but sit and think about how pathetic you are. It is probably not as unpleasant as cleaning toilets (math doesn't literally make your back hurt) but it's up there.

So in my case I think when I procrastinate I'm running away from the more unpleasant part of work (being stumped and confused). Even intellectually stimulating work can suck now and then because it's not always stimulating. A writer has fun writing from time to time -- but writer's block is no fun at all, and I suspect that writers procrastinate when they're blocked, not when they're inspired.

Comment author: pjeby 02 January 2011 04:54:10PM 15 points [-]

You can't do anything but sit and think about how pathetic you are.

If you mean this statement literally, then it's a problem with your beliefs, not with math. Do you believe that you should be able to solve something that you're stuck on? If so, consider switching your thought to, "I don't like it that I haven't solved this yet". This is not the same as judging yourself pathetic based on a "should" thought.

I have been observing lately that many forms of chronic stress are a special case of "not noticing that I am confused", in that they can be traced to an "is/ought" confusion.

What we believe "should" be seems to push emotional buttons calling for social signaling and protest against reality, rather than actions to change reality.

Thus, when the facts come into conflict with shoulds about ourselves, we respond by defaming/punishing the transgressor (i.e., ourselves), rather than paying attention to what behavior change(s) we need to make.

This seems like a plausible explanation for why so many self-help materials talk about the need to accept one's self as-is, and claim it to be essential for making real behavior change. That is, it might be literally true!

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2011 06:41:20PM 2 points [-]

Yeah, it's the "should" part. Work is enjoyable -- spending time thinking "I should have been able to do this long ago" is not enjoyable.

Comment author: pjeby 02 January 2011 07:06:00PM 12 points [-]

Yeah, it's the "should" part. Work is enjoyable -- spending time thinking "I should have been able to do this long ago" is not enjoyable.

Right -- so drop the moral outrage of the idea.

Behind that "should" is a generalized moral principle, most likely in the form of a generalization over a class of people and an assigned moral status... which could be something like, "People who can't solve easy problems are stupid", carrying a further implication like, "stupid people are pathetic", or something of that sort.

If you realize that these "morals" are not the same thing as your "values" -- i.e., that you may value being smart or capable, but this is NOT the same thing as saying you're bad/pathetic/whatever if you don't achieve some particular thing, then you can drop the "ought" part of the belief, and turn off the self-punishment reflex.

While this takes conscious effort to do, you only need to do it once for each generalized "moral precept" that you carry in relation to the subject matter. The difficult part lies in that we also have a "punish the non-punishers" reflex, and so that reflex may have already told you that I'm a bad person for implying that stupid people shouldn't be considered pathetic, because then they'd get the wrong idea about their stupidity. ;-)

Once you realize, though, that any given moral judgment is inherently circular, and exists only to motivate our protest and punishment instincts, and that you will still value whatever you value, independent of the protest/punishment instinct, then that particular judgment will cease to drive self-punishment and other-punishment.

(Yeah: one interesting side-effect of doing this is that one becomes less self-righteous in one's interactions with others -- a terrific bonus, since our instinctual moral outrage only works well on others when they already share the relevant morals or recognize your authority to establish group norms. Not being distracted by subconscious outrage does wonders for your ability to actually communicate with or motivate other people, if you indeed decide that you actually care to do so, vs. just letting them be.)

Comment author: [deleted] 03 January 2011 12:23:05AM *  2 points [-]

I like this. I'll try to take the advice.

It reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend last year -- not about self-help but about moral judgments of other people. I thought it was very important that I be morally outraged about other people's wrongs, that I protest, get upset, and try to stop them. My friend disagreed; he had some complicated philosophy (which I can't do justice to) about moral relativism and tolerance. The crux was that I shouldn't try to exhort everyone to be good, and I shouldn't get angry when people are not good, according to my understanding of "good". It seemed very weird to me at the time, since I have the standard (religious?) intuitions that the good should be rewarded and the bad should be punished, and that the bad damn well deserve to suffer.

I take it you would agree with my friend?

Comment author: pjeby 03 January 2011 12:52:32AM 13 points [-]

I take it you would agree with my friend?

There are definitely similarities, but my point has nothing to do with relativism or tolerance. I have no problem with judging others to be doing the wrong thing by my values, or even by their values. ;-)

What I'm saying is, if I want someone else to actually follow my values, as opposed to merely scratching my protest-and-punishment itch, then I am better off eliminating the outrage part and focusing on what will actually convince them to follow my values... even if it might involve some sort of (consciously planned) display of outrage, protest, or punishment.

But the futility of using the punish-and-protest instinct in anything involving self-improvement becomes painfully obvious when you notice for the nine-jlllionth time that yelling at yourself doesn't actually produce any improvements, nor motivate you to do anything positive. (Somehow, we feel as if merely feeling guilty is the appropriate and sufficient response to our self-punishment!)

Comment author: ata 03 January 2011 05:42:13AM *  10 points [-]

Somehow, we feel as if merely feeling guilty is the appropriate and sufficient response to our self-punishment!

I think that's a special case of feeling as if feeling guilty is the appropriate and sufficient response to that kind of punishment (displays of disapproval or outrage, etc.) from anyone, and that comes about because feeling guilty often is taken as the appropriate and sufficient response to that kind of punishment.

Compare to, say, a politician who's been caught selling influence or having an affair, or a religious leader who's been caught using crystal meth and gay prostitutes, etc. They always seem so sincere in their public apologies and statements of regret and remorse... yet, suspiciously, all that tearful regret and all those acknowledgements of moral failing weren't enough to get them to actually stop doing the corrupt or hypocritical things in question until they got caught and publicly shamed, and even in their admissions of guilt they will still try to avoid giving up anything of substance (political office, religious leadership, etc.) if they can. I think that's pretty much what the emotion of guilt is — it's not a feeling of regret at actually having done something wrong, it's a response to the feeling of being judged negatively by someone whose opinion matters to you (whether for instrumental or terminal reasons). That's probably why self-inflicted guilt isn't useful for self-improvement: it's an emotion that's primarily about convincing people that you regret something and won't do it again, whether or not you really do regret it and plan to stop. More signaling than substance. In the social realm, this often balances out, because the things that provoke it — public displays of outrage, etc. — are often largely signaling as well, as there are plenty of reasons to appear outraged other than actually being outraged. It's a dynamic that's good for exerting power over people who care what you (appear to) think of them, but, for obvious reasons, not so good for self-control. Yet it's not surprising that we try to guilt-punish ourselves; we all have self-images we're trying to live up to, so in that sense we care about being judged negatively by ourselves, and if your 'thinker' and 'doer' have sufficiently out-of-sync preferences, such that they feel like different people to each other, then it is no surprise that they'll often invoke adaptations and habits that formed around interpersonal dynamics. So if I'm persistently doing something that I don't want myself to do, then the part of me that wants me to live up to some higher ideals will automatically execute the "display [and maybe feel] outrage" macro, and the part of me that wants to do something else will respond by executing by the "display and feel guilt" macro... the latter macro consisting not of necessarily changing the actual behaviour, but only changing it to the extent necessary to appear remorseful to a punisher assumed to be someone other than oneself.

(— or at least that's my guess as to what's going on, and I will now go off and worry about whether it's a just-so story and whether it's useful and whether it's testable.)

Edit: This reminds me of something parents often do. Punishment of children by parents often amounts to extracting apologies and displays of remorse from the child, with no particular expectation that the child should genuinely understand and regret what they did, or at least regret it for any reason other than the punishment itself. (Being asked/forced to apologize was always what confused me the most — usually parents say "Say you're sorry!" right away without actually convincing the child they did something wrong, so being told to apologize felt to me like being asked to lie.) Anyway, since people get used to being able to get away with things as long as they make a convincing show of looking sorry after getting caught (which, after enough time being a child, probably feels almost indistinguishable from actually feeling sorry), it makes sense that they'd generalize that rule and get into the habit of responding to their own self-punishment the same way, once they're broken enough that they start inflicting that kind of self-punishment at all.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 September 2012 02:54:20PM 1 point [-]

The amusing part is that then people worry that displays of remorse extracted under punishment might not be sincere.

Comment author: pjeby 03 January 2011 12:29:11PM 1 point [-]

Yes, to all of the above. I think the mechanisms for learning and execution might be a bit simpler or more fundamental to the hardware than what you've just described, but that's a relatively minor detail.

Comment author: Desrtopa 02 January 2011 02:38:26PM 0 points [-]

It takes a lot more than inspiration to get me writing. As with things that I consider work, I find it extremely hard to get any writing done unless someone else is imposing a deadline on me. When it comes to inspiration, I experience it more or less perpetually, but it doesn't come easily to me to make use of it of my own initiative. One solution I've tried is to provide writing for people in collaborative works, but that only works so long as the other people stick with the project.

Comment author: gwern 02 January 2011 01:52:48AM 4 points [-]

I think you may be unusual in this respect. This post rings very true for me, especially given my relationship with exercise. In general, I do find actual work not so bad as my endless delaying would suggest it is, and this is true from important things like paying traffic tickets down to more minor ones like the daily Mnemosyne review or n-backing.

Comment author: Desrtopa 02 January 2011 01:59:48AM 1 point [-]

I probably am unusual in this respect, but I don't know if I'm unusual among the set of people who suffer from fairly severe ADD.

Comment author: Tiiba 02 January 2011 03:49:37AM *  1 point [-]

I have ADD, and I think that I'm somewhere between the two extremes. Although not working is always more fun than working, I find that I can get in the flow on occasion, and crank out a lot. But even my strongest flows are punctuated by many distractions.

Comment author: SRStarin 02 January 2011 03:11:47PM *  0 points [-]

Desrtopa: Most of the time, I feel pretty much exactly the way you do. I've been told that I probably would've been diagnosed with ADD when I was younger if that had been something doctor's in my neck of the woods did then. The OP did strike a chord with me for those times when the deadline is approaching and I'm trying to get myself to start working and avoid overtime.

In my engineering work, I rarely am able to complete a single task in one day. My analysis or design projects generally require some trial-and-error, or reading up on a subject to, sort of, load the right software into my brain, etc. It's always so easy to stop doing that long-term, open-ended task and start doing some short-term, close-ended task like reading an article or a webcomic. I think, when I complete that article or whatever, I build up a reward cycle for that kind of action.

Comment author: Yochanan 02 January 2011 03:44:51AM 2 points [-]

I under stand where you are coming from, as I have experienced the same thing. But only when it comes to certain kinds of work, school work or chores for example. When it is something I enjoy, like programming, I find Eliezer's observation to be spot on. If your feeling this way about your work, it might be time to consider switching career paths.

Comment author: Desrtopa 04 January 2011 05:11:48AM 0 points [-]

I actually am considering going to grad school for something unrelated to my undergraduate degree, but I'm not sure what my prospects are for getting into a good program.

Comment author: wedrifid 04 January 2011 06:00:22AM 0 points [-]

Who do you know?

Comment author: Desrtopa 04 January 2011 06:04:45PM 0 points [-]

Well, I'm hoping to get into a grad program for psychology, and I'm in contact with a college (not university) psychology professor who I've managed to convince that I have a high degree of competency designing and conducting social psychology experiments, and he is himself apparently quite highly regarded among a national online community of research psychologists, but that's pretty much it as far as my connections go.

Comment author: pushkin 15 August 2011 07:48:37PM 1 point [-]

For me procrastination is not as much related to unpleasantness of the task. I find it very easy do something for someone else, but if it is something needed by me I would immediately fall into deep procrastination. In extreme cases, when I am alone and on vacation, I procrastinate eating and lose weight very quickly or procrastinate sleeping, and end up going to bed in the morning. Now I try to cultivate my desires in order to overcome procrastination, listen to my feelings, in order to find the motivation to do something for myself.

Comment author: TobyBartels 02 January 2011 06:07:24AM 1 point [-]

I can relate to Desrtopa. I think that this may make me and Desrtopa members of a well-recognised, significant minority: the class of people who "work well under deadline pressure" (to put a positive spin on it).

Comment author: simplicio 02 January 2011 01:52:58AM *  0 points [-]

I generally only find the act of working less painful than procrastinating when I'm right up against a deadline... I'm also quite terrible at creating self imposed deadlines.

One method with which I have had some success is to employ a friend to blackmail me into completing work by a deadline. The blackmail may be monetary or otherwise. A crucial element is that for ongoing tasks, deadlines must also be ongoing. Cf this bunch of posts.

Comment author: Desrtopa 02 January 2011 02:01:34AM 0 points [-]

Blackmail in what sense? Do you reveal potentially harmful information to them and tell them to reveal it if you don't complete the task? Promise to give them money if you don't complete it?

Comment author: simplicio 02 January 2011 02:14:40AM *  4 points [-]

Blackmail in the sense of giving them money in an envelope with instructions to keep it (or donate it to your least favourite cause?) if you fail, or in the sense of an embarrassing story or picture.

Stakes shouldn't be too high, but they do need to be high enough that there is a strong preference in favour of not failing. Obviously this should be (1) someone you trust, (2) someone who would be hard to sweet-talk into non-action in the event of your failure.

2 months of regular exercise so far. :)

Comment author: stick 02 January 2011 04:52:19AM 3 points [-]

There is a web site that does that for you for those who don't have a nearby friend that fits the criteria. It's called http://stickk.com, created by a couple of Yale Professors. I have no connection except that I used it to start my exercise habit last year.

Comment author: dreeves 02 January 2011 05:52:05PM 2 points [-]

Don't forget http://beeminder.com -- still in private beta but Less Wrong folks interested in commitment contracts can jump the queue for a beta account with the invite code LESSWRONG.

I think Beeminder more directly addresses Eliezer's observation that the problem with procrastination/akrasia is having our decision-making distorted in the presence of immediate consequences. Cf http://lesswrong.com/lw/33s/antiakrasia_reprise/

Comment author: alasarod 02 January 2011 05:39:51PM 9 points [-]

I'm on board but frame it differently.

Here's my frame:

That twinge is something like anxiety. Consider this: for some the same task could be fun that for others is working. Why do you feel a twinge for a particular task? Because there's something at stake. So there's fear. And what's funny is the task itself doesn't even have to be the one you fear. It only has to be associatively related. For example, I might avoid the usually fun task of checking my e-mail because of a difficult one I keep putting off writing. (This is called Relational Frame Theory.) Or, put off an only slightly uncomfortable work task because it connects to a larger one that scares me.

"Reading internet articles" is avoidance.

There are many tricks. Fear is is a wall 1000 miles wide and a mile high, but only tissue paper thin. A la Harry Potter running through the brick wall to the train station.

The trouble can be even recognizing that you're doing it -- avoiding. Mindfulness & meditation have been helpful for me, but a lot of things can do it. Beating yourself up, making lists, and dopamine-fueled planning seem reasonable until they don't work for the 1000th time.

Comment author: bbleeker 03 January 2011 04:54:25PM 1 point [-]

"Fear is is a wall 1000 miles wide and a mile high, but only tissue paper thin."

Goes into my quotes file!

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 03 January 2011 01:08:44AM 1 point [-]

For example, I might avoid the usually fun task of checking my e-mail because of a difficult one I keep putting off writing. (This is called Relational Frame Theory.) Or, put off an only slightly uncomfortable work task because it connects to a larger one that scares me.

This seems like a consequence of the connectionist paradigm of the mind. According to this theory, we are literally hardwired to build associations in this manner.

Comment author: patrissimo 02 January 2011 06:26:17AM *  9 points [-]

I agree extremely on the issue of procrastination not being restful, this is a standard theme in modern productivity writing. Procrastination (like reading blogs / tweets / etc) is a sort of worst of both worlds, it is neither useful nor restful, it passes the time and avoids immediate pain without providing pleasure or renewal.

That's why The Energy Project, Pomodoro, Zen Habits, etc. recommend that you schedule renewal breaks into your day - at a minimum midmorning, lunch, and midafternoon. I think the deliberate practice literature recommends breaks every 90 minutes. Taking a walk outside & exercise are oft-recommended, but really, just being conscious of the goal of renewal and experimenting to find things that will work is all you need. It's helped me be more productive.

Social conversations with co-workers are also good, but it's important that they be relaxed & guilt-free. One of the secrets of renewal is that it works much better if accepted as a need, for some reason guilty renewal doesn't renew. Renewal requires relaxation while guilt prevents it, something like that.

Glad to hear that you're learning (and writing about) basic productivity hacks like this, LW will get its instrumental rationality black belt yet :).

References:

http://zenhabits.net/take-lots-of-breaks-to-get-more-done/ http://www.theenergyproject.com/search/node/renewal

Comment author: MBlume 02 January 2011 10:16:36AM 16 points [-]

Social conversations with co-workers are also good

Isn't this supposed to be a major dividing line in human personalities? That is, extroverts can recharge by talking to people, and introverts need to recharge after talking to people?

Comment author: sparkles 06 May 2013 10:13:33AM -1 points [-]

Eesh, there are certainly people like those two categories, but it's usually used as rather of a false dichotomy. http://www.succeedsocially.com/introversion

Comment author: Cyan 02 January 2011 03:32:37AM *  7 points [-]

I think my procrastination started this way years ago, but over time it turned into a vicious cycle of anxiety-inducing/induced procrastination that basically had nothing to do with the model described in the post. I was fully aware that websurfing was an anaesthetic that did nothing to recharge my mental batteries but simply kept me from thinking anxiety-provoking thoughts. Eventually I resorted to anxiolytics, and now I can say no to myself with relative ease.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 02 January 2011 03:37:54PM *  2 points [-]

Eventually I resorted to anxiolytics, and now I can say no to myself with relative ease.

Which anxiolytics? Benzodiazepines?

Comment author: Cyan 03 January 2011 03:01:48AM 1 point [-]

Yep. I was on lorazepam a while ago, and recently my doc switched me to clonazepam, which I find much less sedating without being ineffective.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 06 January 2011 06:51:37PM *  1 point [-]

Thanks. I might retry benzos since I had no particular reason to look for effects on my "motivation" (ability to resist the temptation to procrastinate) during past trials. During a particularly stressful few months a few years ago, I took lorazepam to stop my body from producing too much cortisol, and my girlfriend has observed that my motivation was particularly high at that time. Of course, that might be because the stakes were particularly high then, but it is easy enough for me to retry benzos.

When did you start the lorazepam? On a day picked at random since you started the L, what is the probability that you took a benzo?

I like that I am communicating with someone who will understand that last question. With most people in my life, I would feel a need to use a less precise question such as, How often do you take the C?

I am after an estimate of your total lifetime intake of benzos measured in units of "a dose high enough to control anxiety" -- which I can calculate from your answers to my 2 questions.

The reason I am after such an estimate is that I am a little worried about the cumulative effect of benzos. If you've taken a lot of them over the years, then that does a lot to take away my worries because I've known your online persona since the "Overcoming Bias" days and you've always come across as a fine rational person with no mental handicaps as far I can see.

Comment author: Cyan 09 January 2011 04:14:22AM 0 points [-]

Thanks! (I've replied to your query by PM.)

Comment author: Elizabeth 02 January 2011 03:50:13AM 2 points [-]

Thank you, I do exactly the same thing. I have anxiety about not having started the work but if I can't start the work because to do that I have to stop doing the things distracting me from my anxiety. Sometimes it gets bad enough that I can't even sit still long enough to do the distracting activities, much less anything productive.

Comment author: shokwave 02 January 2011 12:19:16AM *  7 points [-]

being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.

Upvoted for this. How had I not figured that out yet?

edit:

reliably solvable problems which reliably deliver experienced jolts of positive reinforcement ... playing a good computer game may do this

Ah. This goes some way towards clearing up my confusion regarding such matters. Whether I was rested after resting always seemed so chaotic to me.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 02 January 2011 01:38:51AM *  12 points [-]

Whether I was rested after resting always seemed so chaotic to me.

Also notable - at least if you're autistic, but this probably applies to neurotypical people as well - is that the kind of mental energy that you have available to spend on resting - and thus the kind of restful activity that will actually result in a gain in energy - can vary over time. For example, I may find music restful one day, and find the exact same music exhausting to listen to the next, even if I'm equally tired in a general sense on both days. My theory is that this correlates with what other tasks I've been doing recently (though not in the sense that doing a lot of auditory processing will lead me to 'run out' of that kind of energy - more in the sense that if I've been doing nothing that involves auditory processing, that brainbit turns off, and can't be effectively used for recreation), but I haven't tracked the relevant things well enough yet to do more than speculate.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 03 January 2011 12:16:31AM 1 point [-]

I take it from the upvotes that this is a way of thinking about mental abilities that resonates with people and is novel enough to be useful? Should I write more? I've been poking at the 'chaos' of my brain's variable usefulness at various tasks for a good few years now; if it's a topic of interest I can devote a bit more effort to that for a while and try to come up with a post on it.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2011 05:26:11AM 14 points [-]

The theory sounds good, but I think it important to test ideas before believing them. One way of testing your hypothesis—that it is really hard to over-ride the immediate discomfort of an unpleasant decision—is to look at whether aversions of comparable or greater magnitude are hard to override. I think the answer in general is 'no.' Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

One answer I'd anticipate is that the procrastination effect (for work but not swimming) is "nearly impossible to get your brain to remember." But what about the fact that when we do remember, it doesn't solve the problem. (If it solves yours, I'll concede this point.)

Another way of testing your hypothesis is to determine how adaptive or unadaptive if, as you suggest, the bare fact of making a decision is inherently very difficult. Much of the adaptive advantage of thought is insulating the organism from the effects of carrying out the act, including, one should think, from the emotional effects. An adaptive design would compensate for any hyperbolic discounting by making the decision much less aversive or, why not, even pleasurable—which is my experience of the deciding process.

A different explanation for procrastination—one which can help overcome it—is that when we procrastinate we're self-deceived about our preparedness for the task; we inarticulately perceive that doing the tasks out of order would harm the product. The solution, obviously, would then be to figure out what preparatory work you're neglecting and do it instead. I only claim validity for procrastination in writing: there's something to be said for starting small. Here's my series in defense, "On the irreversibility of writing: Procrastination and writer's block—Part 1. Premature composition limits thought and weakens style." It's in three parts, starting here: http://tinyurl.com/37skhks

Comment author: MBlume 02 January 2011 10:12:46AM *  20 points [-]

Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

I usually wind up standing by the pool for a good ten minutes, or until one of my brothers shoves me in...

Comment author: rwallace 02 January 2011 07:43:24AM 6 points [-]

A similar phenomenon can occur in programming. I've learned not to worry too much about procrastination in writing code, because when I think I should be coding and yet somehow can't motivate myself to get started, nine times out of ten I realize next day that my understanding of the problem was inadequate, and any code I had forced myself to write would have had to be thrown away and redone.

When I'm procrastinating about chores, by contrast, it is indeed a matter of flinching away from the small pain of getting started, and once I do manage to get moving, it's less painful to keep moving than it was to procrastinate.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 January 2011 07:11:39AM 18 points [-]

Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

...I just realized why I so rarely go swimming.

Comment author: [deleted] 17 January 2011 04:16:44AM 0 points [-]

I really don't think your brain predicts the momentary pain of entering cold water before you even leave the house.

Comment author: MBlume 11 March 2011 12:31:31AM 5 points [-]

Well, no, it predicts the momentary pain as you stand by the pool, and you stand by the pool hesitating for ages. Eventually your brain starts to predict standing by the pool feeling awkward before you leave the house.

Comment author: Jordan 07 January 2011 04:11:09AM 4 points [-]

A different explanation for procrastination—one which can help overcome it—is that when we procrastinate we're self-deceived about our preparedness for the task; we inarticulately perceive that doing the tasks out of order would harm the product.

Yes! Yes, yes, yes.

This is exactly what I've experienced myself. When I'm procrastinating on a major piece of code I need to write it's almost always because I am uncertain that the structure of the code I've decided on is correct, or, worse, that the subsystem the code is for is itself an unneeded or misguided component of the final project.

When I have a laundry list of things to code and I am confident that all the items are necessary and properly thought out I am more motivated the longer the list!

Comment author: PeterisP 03 January 2011 04:09:37AM 2 points [-]

hypothesis—that it is really hard to over-ride the immediate discomfort of an unpleasant decision—is to look at whether aversions of comparable or greater magnitude are hard to override. I think the answer in general is 'no.' Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

I can't agree with you - it most definitely does produce a problematic hesitation. If you're bringing this example, then I'd say that it is evidence that the general answer is 'yes', at least for a certain subpopulation of homo sapiens.

Comment author: DanielVarga 03 January 2011 04:57:36AM 3 points [-]

I am most definitely a member of that subpopulation. At a swimming pool, peer pressure quickly kicks in. But at a shallow beach, I can procrastinate in waist-high water for minutes.

Comment author: Desrtopa 07 January 2011 04:40:46AM 1 point [-]

I think the answer in general is 'no.' Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

I was under the impression that most people hesitated considerably dealing with that barrier. Perhaps I paid more attention to people whose behavior resembled my own.

Comment author: IsPoLiN 05 January 2011 12:50:42PM *  5 points [-]

Hi, everybody. I'm a long time reader, first time poster.

After having read this article, and especially this part:

(Bolded because it's true, important, and nearly impossible to get your brain to remember - even though a few moments of reflection should convince you that it's true.)

I thought it would be great to have a mantra that I could recite to remind myself of Eliezer's insight, so I wrote one. If you find it useful, feel free to improve upon it or rewrite it completely.


With apologies to Frank Herbert:

Litany Against Procrastination

I must not procrastinate.

Procrastination is the fear of the pain of work.

And being in the middle of procrastinating is more painful than being in the middle of working.

I will begin my task now.

And as I work, I will turn the inter eye to observe how I feel.

Where the fear of working was, there will be nothing.

Only my goal will remain.

Comment author: rwallace 02 January 2011 08:05:11AM 5 points [-]

Often a good way to look at it. The most reliable technique for overcoming this kind of procrastination that I've yet discovered is, if I have several tasks (or a big one that can be broken down into several smaller ones), order them not by importance or even urgency but in increasing order of difficulty. Then expend a small amount of (scarce and valuable) willpower on doing the easiest task, use the morale boost from its completion as activation energy for the next one, and so on.

Caveat: beware this doesn't end up an excuse for cat-hoovering - tasks like cleaning up unused files on your hard disk, that feel like work but are in fact useless and shouldn't be on the to-do list at all.

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 02 January 2011 06:39:26AM 5 points [-]

So what is our brain flinching away from, if not the pain of doing the work?

I think it's flinching away from the pain of the decision to do the work - the momentary, immediate pain of (1) disengaging yourself from the (probably very small) flow of reinforcement that you're getting from reading a random unimportant Internet article, and (2) paying the energy cost for a prefrontal override to exert control of your own behavior and begin working.

I think our brains might also be flinching away from something else, at least in many cases.

Consider when you have a specific goal toward which to work. You usually have a fairly clear idea of the end product or result that you desire, whether the goal is about writing, weight loss, or anything in between. When you envision the end product, it's in an idealized form, and further, it exists in your mind not associated with the actual amount of work that will go into achieving it.

I think that we grow attached to this mental conception of the end product, both because of its idealized nature and because the image itself requires very little work to maintain. Having the plan to do something might actually feel better than we anticipate doing the work will feel. We know that having the accomplishment will feel much better than just thinking about it, once we put in the work; we also know that doing the work itself is likely to be rewarding, and even if not, it won't really be that bad. However, that shiny, work-free mental conception is a big enough immediate deterrent to make the twinge of starting seem much worse than it is.

Picture a particle in a potential well, with another much deeper well not too far over, but a large barrier in between. The particle will eventually tunnel over to the deeper well, and once it's there, it's much less likely to go back to the shallower well, but it still might take a long time to get there. In the scenario of procrastination, the height of the barrier is proportional to how good we've built up the shiny mental conception to be. We have to keep in mind that accomplishment really does feel better than the idea of accomplishment, even with the weight of work attached to the former and not to the latter.

Comment author: Clippy 02 January 2011 04:00:14AM *  5 points [-]

If you currently deem it optimal to defer work, and the factors you deem relevant to this decision do not change, you will also deem it optimal to defer work, at each decision point, for the rest of the future.

If you do not deem perpetual deferral of work to be optimal, then consistency requires that you similarly deem your current deferral of the work to be suboptimal, and any differential appraisal of these two outcomes indicates an exploitable dynamic inconsistency.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 02 January 2011 04:06:59AM 4 points [-]

Humans, and 'the factors we deem relevant to that decision', are complicated enough that such things change pretty regularly - sometimes on a moment to moment basis.

This post is, among other things, an attempt to make one of the causes of such changes apparent, so that a particular class of changes can be accurately predicted.

It's probably not useful to you, at least in the way that Eliezer intended it to be useful, because your mind probably doesn't work that way. It's still useful to some significant portion of the rest of us.

Comment author: Clippy 03 January 2011 03:55:27PM *  0 points [-]

A fair point, but:

  • To the extent that humans are complicated enough to change unexpectedly on a moment to moment basis in that manner, the changes are not regular.
  • To the extent that a human's decision theory or value change irregularly, any talk of optimization is moot, as irregularity necessarily leads to exploitable inconsistency at some level.
  • Humans change their minds less often than they think.
  • I rarely change my mind too, but estimate this frequency more accurately.
Comment author: gwern 02 January 2011 04:04:38AM *  1 point [-]

Hyperbolic discounting is easily exploited due to reversal of preferences, while exponential is not. This is not news, I think. So what new things are you trying to say here?

EDIT: I agree that exponential discounting is necessary but not sufficient, so I should've worded it as 'while exponential is not so easily exploited' or something like that.

Comment author: Clippy 03 January 2011 03:41:48PM *  1 point [-]

Exponential discounting is not sufficient to avoid exploitable dynamic inconsistencies.

For example, assume your decision theory's outputs are purely a function of:

  • the change in time available for performing the work, T,
  • the amplification of expected utility of the work being accomplished (upon moving to the next period), k, and
  • the disutility of performing the work, W

In this case, the second criterion corresponds to exponential discounting (for k>1), yet it still leads the agent to make the same decision each period, meaning that a decision to defer now implies a perpetual decision to defer.

So despite the agent using exponential discounting, an agent is inconsistent to prefer both deferral of the work during the current period, and accomplishment of the work at some point.

Comment author: Perplexed 03 January 2011 04:01:43PM 0 points [-]

But how would an unfriendly agent exploit that inconsistency?

Comment author: Clippy 03 January 2011 04:09:49PM 1 point [-]

Nice try, but that's a transparent attempt to reveal me to be an unfriendly agent who's thought through how to do that.

In general terms though, you follow the pattern of selling an agent things that favor working now whenever they decide they should work now, and the opposite trade at any moment they decide they should work later.

Or just do nothing and watch the agent never work and regret it.

Comment author: Perplexed 03 January 2011 04:46:51PM 0 points [-]

But that is not an exploit. You buy bucket and chamois from the agent who is procrastinating about washing his car. You plan to sell them back at a profit when the agent decides to work now, but that never happens.

I think that you are right that exponential discounting still allows the paradox of the agent who desires to do X someday, but will never get to the point where he desires to do X today. We need to add another "axiom of rationality" to forbid that. Exponential discounting is not enough. But that doesn't necessarily mean that there is an exploit there.

Or just do nothing and watch the agent never work and regret it.

I don't think the agent ever gets to the point of regretting never having worked, because the warm-and-fuzzy arising from the intention to work persists.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 03 January 2011 07:12:11PM 2 points [-]

If they don't know that they are irrational in this manner:

"I'll give you tools when you need them / money when you work if you pay me now"

"OK, I'll work tomorrow, so that's a good deal"

"You never worked, so I got free money.

If they know they are irrational:

"I'll act as a commitment mechanism. Sign this contract saying you'll pay me if you don't work."

"This benefits me. OK."

<next day>

"I'll relax your commitment for you so you don't have to work. You still have to pay me some, though."

"This benefits me, I really don't want to work right now."

There is ALWAYS a way.

Comment author: Perplexed 03 January 2011 08:07:34PM 2 points [-]

That exploit works against a hyperbolic discounter who today wants to work tomorrow, but tomorrow doesn't want to work today.

It doesn't work against Clippy's example of an exponential discounter who doesn't want to work today and knows that tomorrow he still won't want to work today, but still claims to want to work someday, even though he can't say when.

Our agent cannot reason from "I want to work someday" to "There exists a day in the finitely distant future when I will want to work". He is missing some kind of reverse induction axiom. We agree that there is something wrong with this agent's thinking.

But, I don't see how to exploit that flaw.

Comment author: paulfchristiano 03 January 2011 08:20:35PM 3 points [-]

Interestingly, Peano arithmetic has the same "problem." This isn't directly relevant, but it does very strongly suggest that there is no possible way to exploit this flaw.

Suppose I take some program which looks really complicated to PA. In particular, the program runs indefinitely but PA can't prove it. Then for every particular amount of time, PA can prove that the program hasn't yet stopped. But there are models of PA where it is nevertheless true that "There exists a time at which the program has stopped." It is intuitively like having two sets of integers. The normal integers, obtained from 0 by adding 1 a finite number of times, and the really large integers, obtained from the halting time of your program by adding or subtracting 1 a finite number of times. There is no way to get from one to the other, because the really large integers are just that large.

If you use to ZFC instead, you encounter significantly less intuitive versions of this strange behavior.

In our case, this would be like believing in a hypothetical future time where you will do work, but which can never be accessed by letting the days pass one by one.

Comment author: Clippy 03 January 2011 09:00:42PM *  1 point [-]

It doesn't work against Clippy's example of an exponential discounter who doesn't want to work today and knows that tomorrow he still won't want to work today, but still claims to want to work someday, even though he can't say when.

Almost. It depends on the agent's computational abilities. From the criteria I specified, it is unclear whether the agent realizes that tomorrow its decision theory will output the same action every day (i.e. that it recognizes the symmetry between today and tomorrow under the current decision theory).

If you assume the agent correctly infers that its current decision theory will lead it to perpetually defer work, then it will recognize that the outcome is suboptimal and search for a better decision theory. However, if the agent is unable to reach sufficient (correct) logical certainty about tomorrow's action, then it is vulnerable to the money pump that User:Will_Sawin described.

I was working from the assumption that the agent is able to recognize the symmetry with future actions and so did not consider the money pump that User:Will_Sawin described. Such an agent is still, in theory, exploitable, because (under my assumptions about how such an agent could fail), the agent will sometimes conclude that it ought to work, and sometimes that it ought not, with the money-pumper profiting from the (statistically) predictable shifts.

Even so, that would require that the agent I specified use one more predicate in its decision theory -- some source of randomness.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 03 January 2011 08:35:25PM 1 point [-]

Correct, I'm wrong.

It seems like "I want to work someday" is almost not the kind of statement we should use in describing people's desires at all. It doesn't actually say anything about how you'd respond to any choices. If it did you could find a way to dutchbook.

Comment author: Clippy 03 January 2011 09:04:12PM 0 points [-]

I think you are partially correct in that the problem is ambiguous with respect to some deciding factors -- specfically, the agent's inferential capabilities -- and that there are disambiguations that make your method work. See my reply to User:Perplexed.

Comment author: Perplexed 03 January 2011 08:52:37PM 0 points [-]

100% agreement.

Comment author: Clippy 03 January 2011 04:59:26PM *  2 points [-]

Point conceded: inconsistent preferences do not imply a practical exploitable attack vector (aka "money/paperclip pump"). However, it is common in game-theoretical discussions for e.g. intransitive preferences to not actually hurt agents that hold them, and yet the inconsistency is treated as if it opened the agent to paperclip pumping.

For example, in the Allais problem, people have intransitive preferences, and Editor:Eliezer_Yudkowsky has specified exactly how you would money-pump such a person. Yet it requires very contorted, atypical situations to actually perform the money pump.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2011 05:36:21AM 0 points [-]
  1. There's bound to be some amount of random variation in the strength of the relevant factors.

  2. There may be systematic changes in the factors relevant to the decision—depending on the factors. Your preparation may change. The approach of a deadline changes things a lot.

Comment author: Thea 05 January 2011 06:51:48AM 4 points [-]

A few months ago I stumbled across MoR, and ever since then I knew I would eventually wind up here, investigating this site to learn how to investigate myself. I've only ever done anything of the sort on a very basic, topical level and so hesitated; repulsed by a squirrely, dodgey anxiety that I have been insofar unsuccesful discerning the source of, and persists even as I type this. Procrastination has always been a very serious issue i've struggled with, so it's no wonder this post immediately drew me in. Through my teen years it was more a lifestyle than anything else, due to my escapist habits (music, fanfiction, etc) and I fear that my failed attempts to change all through High School have become more of an obstacle to me than the orginal problem. Reading this and the comments below have given me fresh hope, however, because although I have failed time and time again, that was before I had such an incredible resource as this site, and all the brilliant minds and ideas that come with it.

Thank you :)

I will be back to read more later, i've got laundry to do and lists to make!

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 02 January 2011 08:27:33PM *  4 points [-]

I think it's flinching away from the pain of the decision to do the work - the momentary, immediate pain

I have actually thought out (but did not practice sufficiently yet) a strategy to address this very problem.

The hack is to have a "ladder" of activities that have low transition pain cost. Sample ladder: Internet->Sci Fi->CS book->Paying bills.

I expect this to differ for people; will report back when I have more results.

Comment author: Larifari 02 January 2011 04:53:57PM 4 points [-]

Do we actually know that our discounting function is hyperbolic in the range below 5 minutes? Or is that just extrapolation from experiments done on longer intervals?

Comment author: Strange7 04 January 2011 11:58:35PM 0 points [-]

At the very least, there's a classic study on pidgeons for that time frame.

Comment author: steven0461 02 January 2011 12:40:51AM *  4 points [-]

being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating

I agree with your conclusion, but there are selection effects at play here; presumably people are more likely to start doing and to continue doing work when it's less painful than it would be at an average decision moment.

Comment author: CronoDAS 02 January 2011 03:47:36AM *  10 points [-]

This doesn't seem quite right to me.

There seem to be three kinds of relevant states:

1) Not working, and not worrying about work not done
2) Not working, and worrying about work not done
3) Working

1 is usually less painful than 3, if you can pull it off. 2 is indeed often worse than 3, but I usually handle it by trying to transition to 1 (by such means as playing an absorbing video game) instead of transitioning to 3.

Comment author: diegocaleiro 02 January 2011 06:30:51AM 6 points [-]

I agree with Eliezer here.

There may be three kinds of states. But there are only two states which are procrastination related: 2, that is, procrastinating, and 3, not procrastinating.

1 is outside the scope of relevant states for the post's content. 1 is basically when you are not having a problem.

In addition to my agreement, I'd like to suggest another reason why we don't start working:

Well, I could stay here reading this random internet article, or else I could have the painful thought and decide to work. But hey, this means that I will be doing something for which I take responsibility, something that, out of all the tiny brainy selves of which I am composed, I will attribute to those that I call "me" and will not allow them to fail. Here, reading this article, I'm absent, it's just my dopamine circuits who are hanging around, "I" can lay down and do nothing. But if I decide for work, oh boy, then the vacations of my "I" are over and things must be done right........

It is funny that, as EI pointed out, even though processes like hyperbolic and the above one do happen, when we are actually working, the feeling of flow normally feels better than the feeling of a dissolved self that tries not to face responsibility.....

Comment author: CronoDAS 03 January 2011 05:17:24AM 1 point [-]

Well, 1 is also procrastinating related - if you decide to put off doing something and go to a party instead, and you have a good time at the party, but when you get back you wish that you'd done the work instead of partying...

Comment author: bookwench 12 January 2011 08:22:27AM 3 points [-]

Don't see a place to contact you, so I'l just post here: found the litany of geldin on your wiki. It helped me get through a rather scary medical procedure yesterday. Thank you.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 02 January 2011 03:38:00PM 3 points [-]

For me, it is rarely the pain of working I'm trying to avoid when I procrastinate. It is almost always the pain of failing.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 January 2011 09:17:33AM 3 points [-]

The part about the middle of working being less painful than the middle of procrastinating is easy to test. Just set a timer to go off every N minutes, and write down whether you're working or procrastinating and how much fun you're having.

Comment author: Nemo_bis 18 January 2011 10:30:56PM 2 points [-]

Because nobody linked it: Raw Thought by Aaron Swartz: "HOWTO: Be more productive" http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/productivity

Comment author: thomblake 07 January 2011 05:45:17PM 2 points [-]

I'm really surprised this article has such a high rating - it strikes me as one of Eliezer's worst.

Why should anyone believe anything written here?

Why do you believe it?

Comment author: Perplexed 07 January 2011 06:34:53PM *  5 points [-]

I'm really surprised this article has such a high rating

My guess at the reason for the high rating would be:
* Some people like postings on instrumental rationality, and upvote because they would like to see more of them.
* Some people like Eliezer to be active here, and they upvote to signal that they want him to be more active.
* There is little overlap.
* The people who would rather that Eliezer spend his time on the TDT paper, the rationality book, a clarification of CEV, and HPMoR ..., well, those people don't downvote to signal their preferences.

Comment author: Alicorn 07 January 2011 06:03:38PM 4 points [-]

My theory is that people who like this article are procrastinating wrong.

Comment author: ata 07 January 2011 06:12:16PM 4 points [-]

Then you should write a post on how to procrastinate more effectively!

Comment author: Alicorn 07 January 2011 06:17:12PM 4 points [-]

...Would anyone sincerely welcome that into their lives? Because I could actually do that, but if I were any good at it, people would find Eliezer's advice above neutralized. (I, for instance, procrastinate very comfortably and therefore derive no value from his suggestion.)

Comment author: Will_Sawin 10 January 2011 01:09:08AM *  0 points [-]

I'm fairly certain that your advice would not work for all the situations in which I procrastinate.

Edit: How do you procrastinate properly with regards to swimming? Can you?

Comment author: Alicorn 10 January 2011 01:17:42AM 0 points [-]

I'm having some trouble parsing your comment. Can you rephrase with more context?

Comment author: Will_Sawin 10 January 2011 01:31:02AM 1 point [-]

I'm thinking about two specific situations in which there do not appear to be effective procrastination options.

1: You are too tired to enjoy anything but sleep. You are procrastinating on going to bed.

2: You are at a beach or a pool and would like to swim, but the water is cold. You are procrastinating on swimming.

More serious thoughts I'm having are based on the observation that many fun things I could do require exercising willpower or a period of undistracted conscious thought, both of which would pretty much prevent me from procrastinating. Do you achieve effective procrastination reflexively, or do you engage in planning and similar behavior to achieve effective procrastination?

Comment author: Alicorn 10 January 2011 01:53:46AM 0 points [-]

I don't think I'd really call either of those things "procrastinating". That's probably because I don't identify sleep or swimming as "work", though.

I still don't know what kind of information you're looking for.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 10 January 2011 02:22:27AM 1 point [-]

In the first half of the comment, it's fine if you don't have any information. My motives for bringing it up were rather dumb, and it's not really a coherent point. The second seems like a reasonable question. Everything but the final sentence is relatively unimportant.

However your first sentence brings up something interesting. Walking to my bedroom and doing some basic hygiene unpleasant and necessary, therefore work. However it is short in duration, and carries significant rewards (sometime, lying comfortably in bed in a few minutes, always, being well-rested tomorrow) Many of the same failures that cause me to procrastinate more than I want to, cause me to stay up later than I want to. Therefore I see strong connections between not working and not sleeping. Are some of these connections not part of your experience, or do you see these connections, but still deny that staying up late is procrastination?

Comment author: Alicorn 10 January 2011 02:26:30AM 7 points [-]

I have trained myself not to put off sleep simply because I don't want to brush my teeth or change into my pajamas. Neither of those things is important relative to getting to bed at a sane hour; so when I notice that what I am avoiding is not physically moving to my bed, lying down, and closing my eyes, but rather walking into the bathroom and performing my evening ablutions, I skip the latter. (Interestingly, granting myself permission to skip it often leads to me doing it, when I make it clear to myself that my choices are "go to bed without brushing my teeth, right now" or "go to bed after brushing my teeth, right now".)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 07 January 2011 06:30:54PM 0 points [-]

Well, I would, but I suspect I'm pretty atypical for LW in terms of my relationship with procrastination, productivity, akrasia, and so forth.

Comment author: ata 07 January 2011 06:10:11PM *  2 points [-]

I don't dislike it, and it does match my own experiences, but its score is way too high. I think it makes fairly standard observations; very little that you wouldn't hear in zillions of books on productivity or self-help. (I mean, there's more interesting technical discussion of it than you'd find in those books, but not any novel advice, as far as I can tell.)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 07 January 2011 07:17:49PM 1 point [-]

I didn't vote the article up-- I didn't think it was that extraordinary.

On the other hand, it's not wildly different from some of my experience, and I can believe that there are people for whom it's very accurate.

Eliezer gets a good bit done, and he might well find threshold effects be an obstacle to work, but find actually doing work to be very engaging.

Do you find the article implausible, and if so, why?

Comment author: Vaniver 07 January 2011 06:05:35PM 1 point [-]

Why should anyone believe anything written here?

Personal experience that it worked for them? Even if it's a placebo, a placebo is better than nothing.

Comment author: DanArmak 02 January 2011 12:17:53AM 2 points [-]

pain of continuing to procrastinate, which is, once again, usually less painful than being in the middle of doing the work.

I believe you meant this to be the other way around.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 January 2011 02:52:46AM 1 point [-]

Fixed.

Comment author: Kevin 02 January 2011 01:11:40PM *  3 points [-]

For anyone who also likes reading random unimportant internet articles but would prefer high quality articles that aren't necessarily "news", try http://longform.org/ .

Comment author: LeBleu 02 January 2011 04:28:52PM 1 point [-]

Good article, I'll have to see if reminding myself of this helps at work tomorrow.

Success and happiness cause you to regain willpower;

This is dangerously incorrect - studies show willpower is only an expendable resource for people who believe it to be. People who don't think willpower is expendable have longer lasting willpower.

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 02 January 2011 06:54:11PM 4 points [-]

I think you might be assuming causation from correlation. It seems like one could argue just as well that people who inherently have longer lasting willpower are less likely to view it as an expendable resource.

Comment author: pjeby 02 January 2011 11:59:01PM 7 points [-]

It seems like one could argue just as well that people who inherently have longer lasting willpower are less likely to view it as an expendable resource.

Fortunately, they controlled for that in the studies by doing one where they primed people with the relevant beliefs, as well as one where they just used people's existing beliefs. ;-)

Comment author: 1gn1t0r 02 September 2012 07:23:55PM 0 points [-]

Indeed willpower is not a expendable resource. Neither success and hapiness nor resting will regain willpower (unless you believe it to be so). Need a study break to refresh? Maybe not, say Stanford researchers

The link to the paper is in the article

Comment author: alex_zag_al 13 December 2012 01:21:16AM 0 points [-]

I'm not going to believe an experiment, especially an experiment whose conclusion goes against scientific consensus. However, I'd believe a review article that tells me how psychologists interpreted the experiment and the investigations that followed it. There's much more weight of evidence in a review article - many experiments rather than one, and an expert's conclusions based upon them.

I hope, though, that my belief changes somehow after seeing the experiment - enough to think it worth my time to look up a review, perhaps.

Comment author: laakeus 02 January 2011 04:27:25PM *  1 point [-]

There are different types of conflicts some of which can be treated with this type of thinking. If procrastinating doesn't feel worse than working, then your mental conflict is of different type. (I personally can relate to what EY is talking about.)

The bigger problem is that, depending on the type of conflict that causes the procrastination, the brain is very resistant against these types of insights. The insight works for a short while and sooner than you realize (or to be more exact, don't realize), your brain finds a way to side-step this trick.

Comment author: canadaduane 02 January 2011 03:48:51PM 1 point [-]

I wonder if people with ADHD experience less pain at having to leave what one is currently doing to make a decision.

Comment author: David_Gerard 02 January 2011 11:42:58AM 1 point [-]

So how many others got three paragraphs in, and stopped and went to do whatever they were supposed to be doing before coming back?

Comment author: epo 03 January 2011 10:50:55AM 3 points [-]

This is the first time an article on LW has gotten me to stop what I was doing and do something completely different. Thank you Less Wrong, I now have my courses selected for next semester.

Comment author: ellx 03 January 2011 12:36:49AM 2 points [-]

yeah, i was thinking that this could be correctly titled 'the article which tries to convince you to stop reading it'.

Comment author: lukeprog 07 January 2011 04:29:17PM 0 points [-]

Eliezer,

You're back!

I'd love to see you post a review of Gary Drescher's Good and Real, a book that impressed me and for which you've had some kind words.

Comment author: orthonormal 07 January 2011 06:19:49PM 1 point [-]

By the way, Gary's posted here on decision theory.