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muflax comments on How to Beat Procrastination - Less Wrong

156 Post author: lukeprog 05 February 2011 06:49PM

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Comment author: [deleted] 06 February 2011 01:10:44PM *  31 points [-]

Awesome article as always. I really like your recent high-quality posts, Luke.

A few additional notes.

1) I was already more or less aware of this research through the language learning community, mostly the Japanese one. For example, Khatzumoto has been advocating this for some time now, see this article for an explanation or this trilogy in 9 parts for practical advice how to fix it. (Because LW isn't really about learning languages, I'll just leave it at this.)

These techniques try not to fix your own attitude (like, giving you lower Impulsiveness, changing the Value you assign or affecting your optimism), but instead change the learning strategies in such a way that they work regardless of these problems. So instead of learning how to tackle larger goals, they instead choose really tiny ones. Khatz for example strongly advocates timeboxes of 90 seconds or less, or changing the learning material to intrinsically fun stuff (manga instead of textbooks). This is something that the traditional procrastination literature doesn't really address very much. It has helped me a lot, in addition to all the approaches you already described.

2) I strongly agree with this model, but I'm not sure that this covers all of procrastination. I have seen additional (albeit not nearly as common) failure modes where all 4 variables given seem to be just fine, but still nothing got done. For example, I know quite a few experienced meditators that were horrible procrastinators in certain domains (e.g. Shinzen Young, see part 2 of this interview). (This includes myself, too, but I'm not nearly as experienced as I wish I was.) Through strong concentration meditation, you can easily make any task fun by going into Flow at will (or even stronger states than that), through variants of metta meditation, failure becomes no big deal and someone that can sit an hour or more paying detailed attention to pain (physical or emotional) doesn't really have a problem with Impulsiveness per se. I'm not sure that these factors are really the main cause here.

To give a personal example (a fairly common one among advanced vipassana practitioners) of such a failure mode, there's all-consuming nihilism, where you still have high concentration, lots of pleasure and so on, but find every possible action intrinsically empty, so you can't be bothered at all to do anything. In the extreme case, people simply lie around all day, doing nothing. (This is distinct from depression in that pleasure and motivation still exist as sensations, but are rejected, although from the outside it looks very similar.) The fix to this is not to try to arbitrarily assign Value to activities again, as the equation would predict (because activities are already enjoyable, but that doesn't help at all), but instead to turn this nihilism on itself and realize that "wanting meaning" is just as meaningless as everything else. So in that case, more specific insight and the uprooting of beliefs is necessary, not a better technique. (PJ Eby provides plenty of practical examples and great fixes for related situations, imo.)

3) Rewards can backfire horribly if done wrong. I have tried to use operant conditioning for not-so-pleasant, but necessary tasks. (Similar to taw's point system and strongly influenced by Don't Shoot The Dog.) The problem is that I came to replace my intrinsic (albeit limited) motivation entirely with an external one. Now once I either found a way to game the system (get the same reinforcements in an easier fashion) or skipped the rewards for some reason, all my motivation was gone completely. (Gabe Zichermann in his talk on gamification gives another example of this replacement.) So I'd highly advice against using reward systems except maybe for short, one-off goals.

(However, I have successfully exploited this to stop behavior. Don't Shoot The Dog explains this in detail. Essentially, you practice the behavior you don't want to do, put it on a reward system, give it an explicit cue and then you don't give the cue, ever. It's a bit tricky and dark-artsy, but works.)

Comment author: Procrastinus 06 February 2011 11:11:38PM 12 points [-]

What a wonderful post!

I considered the benefits of meditation as a procrastination control technique and you will find it in the notes section of the book. I have practiced mindfulness meditation but no longer keep up with it. Though the mindfulness part does give you an option to reduce the power of temptations, you are quite right that it also can expand to eliminate value in general (nihilism). However, the reason I rejected it as viable solution is that it takes so long to master and this is the exact type of discipline that procrastinators will put off aquiring. Good in theory but of little practical value because people won't take the time to put it into practice. Maybe this is why the Pali Cannon calls procrastination "moral defilement."

As for self-rewards, I did debate whether to include them. In my original doctoral dissertation, I wrote this "However, it is uncertain whether rewards will be as effective when self-administered. Ainslie (1992) indicates that self-rewards are very susceptible to corruption, where the rules are bent to the extent that they are no longer effective. I suspect that the use of self-rewards will be negatively correlated with procrastination, but weakly."

Consequently, I tried to express self-rewards in the book in a way that will actually work, which is called "Impulse Pairing, " as well as acknowledge its inherent limitations, that is"But this method has its risks as well. Engaging a partner to help you finish a report or prep for an exam, for example, can degenerate into an evening-long bull-session with little learning to show for it."

I really appreciate the level of thought that is being shown here. Impressive.

Comment author: jsalvatier 09 July 2011 01:44:51AM 6 points [-]

for others reference, I believe this is Piers Steel.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 February 2011 01:16:42PM 2 points [-]

However, the reason I rejected [mindfulness meditation] as viable solution is that it takes so long to master and this is the exact type of discipline that procrastinators will put off aquiring.

I'd tend to agree with you here. For me, the same applies to (strength-based) exercise. I loved it when I do it, it improves my work, but when I'm trapped in massive procrastination, I can't use it at all to get me out of it. I'd consider both more advanced techniques, or maybe maintenance.

However, personally, I don't have any choice about meditation. Once you get past a certain threshold (aka stream entry), you will continue, if you like it or not. People keep on cycling through multiple stages and progress regardless of their actions, although continued practice makes this much more pleasant and efficient.

Therefore, I would not recommend anyone working on their motivation that hasn't (in some form or another) crossed stream entry to pick up meditation (at least not primarily), but if you're already there, more practice helps and is kinda inevitable.

Comment author: avalot 07 February 2011 06:17:42AM 5 points [-]

Thank you! You have no idea just how helpful this comment is to me right now. Your answer to all-consuming nihilism is exactly what i needed!

Comment author: MondSemmel 30 December 2013 01:06:27PM 0 points [-]

(It's hardly relevant to the parent comment, but the Shinzen Young interview linked above is behind a paywall nowadays. But it can still be read here.)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 08 February 2012 07:06:59PM 0 points [-]

What happens when people decide that wanting meaning is also meaningless?

Comment author: BeatProcrastination 26 August 2013 01:05:04AM -2 points [-]

Well done on the article. I have something to add that may or may not help. I have found that the first step to solving any problem is discovering why the problem occurs or what causes it. For over 19 years I have found this to be the case for Australians anyway. There are 4 major reasons why people procrastinate. One of the 4 reasons comes under the category of "Wrong Goals" there is a valuable article written, in easy to understand terms and It can be found at http://bit.ly/wronggoals. (Relax, there is nothing to buy or sign up to) Hope it helps people Sam

Comment author: Chriswaterguy 22 February 2017 05:21:07AM 0 points [-]

Dead link, FWIW.

Comment author: accolade 24 May 2017 02:49:06AM *  0 points [-]

Pretty much deader than disco, but my inet-fu was able to dig up the following excerpts of the original article (from http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/25019/overcoming-procrastination):

“Too many people set goals that are simply unrealistic. Too big, they want it too soon, and they wonder why they don’t have any results in their life. What happens to a person who is consistently setting big goals that are outside of their scope, outside of their belief system, and they keep coming short of them? What kind of pattern does it set up in their mind? That sort of person starts to say, ‘Why do I bother with this goal setting stuff—I don’t ever achieve anything.’

“Set yourself a goal that is realistic, something you can see that isn’t too far and isn’t overpowering, not too far away, but at the same time, giving you a bit of a stretch, getting you out of your comfort zone. And once you’ve done that, and you’ve built your belief, you’ve built your power, then you set yourself another realistic goal, with another stretch factor. And once you’ve done that, another one. So it’s like a series of stepping stones, still getting you in the same direction, but having a staggered approach. Also, the wrong goal is something that’s too low. It doesn’t stimulate you, drive you, because you’ve done it before or you can do it or it’s simple. It doesn’t give you that drive, to give you that ‘take action step,’ to beat procrastination and help you as well.”

Also since I have evidently no life, I mini-doxed Sam in case someone would like to ask him whether he still has a copy of the whole article, lol: