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An akrasia case study

31 [deleted] 10 December 2011 08:46PM

I just lost 3 weeks to a report that should have taken 2 days. My last job was an engineering research position; setting up an experiment, building prototypes, that sort of thing. After I left, I needed to write a report to brief my successor on what I'd done and what could go wrong, etc. I wasn't getting paid for this report, but it had to happen.

What exactly do I mean when I say I lost three weeks?

I have a lot of projects that I am working on. I am studying AI, thinking of starting a business, writing videogames, studying and working on various math things, writing a small sequence of posts for lesswrong, trying to restart the local rationality dojo, and I had to do that report. What I mean when I say that I lost three weeks is that I spent three weeks doing practically none of these things.

The report had to be done, but I wasn't really excited by it. It wasn't urgent, but it was urgent enough that it had to be done before any of my other projects. It turns out this is a killer combination.

Procrastination took over, manifesting itself as skyrim, 4chan, reddit, and lesswrong. If I tried procrastinating by doing my other projects, I would remember that I had to do the report first, and try to work on the report. When I tried to work on the report, I would hit some small bump and find myself waking up on 4chan three hours later. Somehow, my antiprocrastination hooks were catching my own projects, but not the properly unproductive stuff.

While I had that report to do, I was unable to do anything else productive. When I realized this in conjunction with how important my other projects were, the report suddenly took on a dire urgency. That was four days ago. It is done now. I could have done it in two, or even one, but procrastination is insidious.

One anti-akrasia method that seems to work is going cold turkey on some problematic activity. I call it my personal banhammer. The first thing I banned myself from and how I discovered I could was Alicorn's Twilight fanfic. It ate up a few days and disrupted my sleeping, so I stopped reading right in an exciting part. Haven't gone back. That was before the report. Once I had the report to do, my roommate got skyrim. I spent a few days on skyrim, then realized what I was doing and banned myself. For the next few weeks, I procrastinated on 4chan, lesswrong, reddit, and some game development websites. When I finally realized how important it was to finish that report, I got the power to ban myself from those (I had tried and failed before).

Even when I finally cared enough to actually do the report, I still found myself procrastinating. I read some essays by Paul Graham. They were so good that I explicitly put reading his stuff on my todo list. When I wasn't doing my report, I was reading Paul Graham. I don't feel so bad because it was actually productive for me on a personal development level, and his essays are at least finite so I was making actual progress on a todo item. It was still not what I wanted to be doing.

So what did I learn from this little excercise?

  1. An unappealing but semi-urgent project can sabotage you completely, because you don't procrastinate by doing the next project on your list; you procrastinate by doing the least productive activity you will allow yourself to do.

    It seems this can partially be beaten by just realizing what is happening and how much damage it is doing to you. Realizing what is happening promotes the project to "unappealing but direly urgent", which makes it easier to do.

  2. You can raise the quality of your procrastination into at least the semi-productive by wielding the righteous power of the banhammer against unproductive activities. This takes practice.

    It may be a good plan for rationality dojos to find ways of training this. One idea is to simply emulate what it took me to develop it; acquire a minor addiction, realize that it is consuming your life, and then go cold turkey. May not be so easy (or safe), but worth looking into.

This akrasia stuff seems to be inherently personal, so what worked for me may not work for anyone else, but I publish it here in the hope that we can pull some good ideas out of it. Maybe you have a project that is holding you back the way that damn report got me. Maybe this can help.

Comments (29)

Comment author: Mercurial 11 December 2011 04:50:15AM *  11 points [-]

I personally think this is a fantastic contribution. I don't know whether your techniques will work for anyone else, but this kind of specificity can give us some good directions to consider as we develop the "kicking" aspect of the Art.

I have to wonder if the ten thousand techniques for fighting akrasia and the general theory of motivation might be at too high a level of abstraction for where we are with understanding the phenomenon. It seems like understanding the science should let us create a consistent Akrasian Judo, but I'm under the impression that it doesn't work that way in practice. It seems more like individuals work out their own personal anti-akrasia techniques and then later can see how it fits into the procrastination equation.

I wonder if it would be helpful if many more people here followed your example and described the problem as a case study instead of proposing solutions. In your case, you did propose a solution, and I'll bet that it doesn't work for most people. Yet I think even your perspective on your solution is helpful as a case study because it gives us insight into both a specific manifestation of akrasia and what at least one solution to that specific form feels like. If we had a whole lot of case studies like that (with both successful and failed attempts to apply anti-akrasia techniques), I think we might be able to see patterns in a way that keeps us from thinking that our strategies work or fail for the reasons we think they do.

I'd like to start a new discussion to get this started, but I'll wait a bit first to see what others think in case I'm missing something.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 12 December 2011 11:14:21AM *  1 point [-]

The combination of mentioning Judo and asking for specific examples reminded me of a think I've noticed myself doing subconsciously. My introspection isn't clear enough to say if it works thou, or even if I'm really doing it as much as I think, but. Still here it is: Try to make your brain classify unproductive stuff as work, and productive stuff as play. Most important clues are if it's voluntary and if it's fun. So set up a schedule forcing yourself to do the kind of things usually procrastinate with in an optimised and work like way, then on your free time from that play around with things that also have productive side effects and you learn from.

If you're doing it RIGHT you'll always be doing things that are both fun and productive. If you do it wrong you'll never have fun and do totally unproductive stuff half the time and productive stuff but inefficiently the rest.

More concrete example: "Ok, I have to finish these LW articles I'm behind with THEN I'm allowed to take a break and do some programming.", then proceed to procrastinate the articles by doing writing exercises. source: all of the last few weeks. This is also why I haven't been commenting on stuff in the discussion section lately.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 December 2011 08:48:44AM 1 point [-]

Ha! Thanks for appreciating.

I've been really into the "kicking" idea since I read the craft and community sequence. I have some other posts in the works specifically targeting that, but I wasn't even thinking of this in those terms. Now that you say it tho, this does seem to be on that track.

then later can see how it fits into the procrastination equation.

this is gold. I thought the same thing earlier today when I reread the procrastination eq stuff. It all suddenly made sense given this experience.

you did propose a solution, and I'll bet that it doesn't work for most people

I'm assuming your referring to the practicing the banhammer idea? I suppose I did. The idea was mostly to describe my interpretation of what happened, but the whole "kicking" idea has made me want to tie everything back to what rationality dojos should be teaching. It seems easy to get lost in the abstract if you don't focus on that.

I'm glad you understood that the purpose of the post was as a specific datapoint.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 11 December 2011 12:02:10AM 10 points [-]

My reaction: 1) Sees these techniques are highly unpleasant and/or dangerous. 2) Starts coming up with a suggestion on what to do instead. 3) Sees the thing I were going to suggest was highly unpleasant and/or dangerous. 4) Tries to come up with something else. 5) repeat 3 and 4 like 5 times. 6) Largeish futility-related emotional reaction. 7) Establish ugh field and leaves you with just this post.

Comment author: Louie 11 December 2011 04:10:54PM *  6 points [-]

It sounds like you've almost hit upon the same solution that I eventually found to procrastination: Structured Procrastination

Comment author: [deleted] 11 December 2011 07:34:55PM 4 points [-]

That's hilarious. I love it! I'm going to modify my techniques to take that into account.

Occasionally, the top item does catch up to me and become so important that it must be done now. Which is actually a terribly stressful feeling in most cases. I feel like quitting at life after those times. Maybe this structured procrastination thing can avoid that.

Comment author: Dorikka 11 December 2011 11:45:50PM 3 points [-]

Oh, I can procrastinate all the time? Awesome.

Comment author: Dorikka 12 December 2011 02:59:03AM 5 points [-]

I think that I would rather people wait a bit before suggesting new akrasia-killing techniques. If you do, you will be able to tell whether this was something that just worked for you in the short term or is actually a long term solution, which is probably going to be very important information.

Comment author: J_Taylor 12 December 2011 03:16:05AM 2 points [-]

Joke: But wouldn't someone not waiting to reveal an akrasia-killing technique be evidence for the technique's effectiveness?

Comment author: Dorikka 12 December 2011 06:07:28AM 2 points [-]

I didn't get the joke. :(

I mainly made the comment because I get a huge number of false starts with things like that -- I confuse a short term solution (something worth noting, but not an actual cure) with a long term one and then am glad that I didn't post about it.

Let's say that I won't post a technique until a week has passed. If it's day 6 and I haven't posted it, it may mean the technique failed or simply be a symptom that the week didn't pass yet. If someone didn't operate by this restriction, I think that them not posting the technique would just be evidence that it failed -- why hold it back?

Or maybe it'll be clearer in the morning... :)

Comment author: J_Taylor 15 December 2011 01:27:28AM 1 point [-]

Apologies, the joke was that someone who was particularly filled with akrasia would procrastinate and never actually post the akrasia-killing technique.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 December 2011 04:51:30PM 0 points [-]

I generally agree, but this post was mainly about what happened, with a bit of attempted general solution on the side.

The banhammer thing has been working for me for a while now, so it's not totally fresh.

The other idea (realizing what the stupid project did to my productivity) worked immediately and helped me get something done. Even if it only works once, it's worth it to post, I think.

Again, the techniques aren't really the point, that was just to give a bit more perspective on how the akrasia felt and how it felt when soved. The real point was a case study of the productivity blocking phenomenon (which I have seen before).

Comment author: EphemeralNight 15 December 2011 10:24:39AM 3 points [-]

This happens to me all the time, and I find that banning myself from the semi-productive or unproductive stuff just puts me even further down into uselessness.

I once caught myself laying on my couch, counting the stitches on the sleeve of my t-shirt because I'd promised myself that I wouldn't do anything else until I'd finished the thing I was procrastinating over. I recently started playing World of Warcraft again when I realized that, after deciding to take a break from the game, all the time I had previously spent on the game was not going into something more productive, but towards reading increasingly worthless fanfiction and unnecessary snacking.

When there's just one thing on the to-do list that's blocking you up like that, it is really just a matter of noticing what's going on and realizing the effective urgency of the thing being procrastinated over. I think it's actually harder when there are several not-actually-unpleasant-but-equally-appealing things on one's to-do list. I still have trouble with that. Several equally-productive, equally-urgent things I want or need to do, and I find myself doing none of those things, and banning myself from really-nonproductive time-killers doesn't seem to help; I just start counting threads, so to speak.

I think maybe I have trouble establishing subjective priorities when my objective priorities are not obvious. I usually don't have a problem with procrastination (anymore) when I feel sure of any one task or project being more important than the other things that are competing for a given chunk of my time. But that's just a guess, and if correct I'm still not sure where the line between that and my general (extreme)reluctance to start anything that might be interrupted before being finished, is.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 16 December 2011 12:10:04PM 0 points [-]

tried dice?

Comment author: fiddlemath 11 December 2011 02:50:59AM 3 points [-]

From Defeating Ugh Fields in Practice:

As one person in the article describes it, using a low-reward lottery made taking his meds "like a game;" he couldn't wait to check the dispenser to see if he'd won (and take his meds again). Instead of thinking about how they have some terrible condition, they get excited thinking about how they could be winning money. The Ugh field has been demolished, with the once-feared procedure now associated with a tried-and-true intermittent reward system.

The personal banhammer scares me a little, because it seems likely to build up that ugh field. I totally understand the need to solidly trim away strong, unproductive attractors -- and if you can do it rigorously, you might achieve the extinction) of that attraction, and no longer suffer it. For things that you want, but do not like or approve of (like here), extinction of that desire is actually a great goal.

But actual extinction takes longer than a few days tha tyou stay blocked on a project. Moreover, you don't want to stop being motivated to do things that you enjoy -- you should occasionally do enjoyable things!

Did you try any of these techniques? Tricks from there that have helped me include several things to improve energy, and making tasks harder to engage flow. (Just before writing this reply, I finished a kitchen full of dishes that had been sitting for three days -- and enjoyed it -- because I set a timer for 25 minutes, and then tried to beat the timer. (I did, but only barely.))

For me, the most important trick on that page - I don't think it's emphasized enough on that page - is to set explicit goals and then "granularize" them: spend 10 minutes to break each goal into tiny pieces. Luke recommends breaking them into "daily" goals, but he's a highly energetic person. Where possible, I set goals that I think will take about 2 hours to meet.

So, next time you notice that you're dreading some task on that scale, can you breaking it down into subgoals, see if it helps, and report back here?

Comment author: [deleted] 11 December 2011 08:30:33AM *  0 points [-]

Breaking it down helped a bit, but ultimately wasn't enough, because I'd finish the goal and then go procrastinate more. Maybe I need bigger goals. I'll read that stuff, I hadn't seen it before.

People seem afraid of the banhammer, maybe I described it wrong. I wasn't using it on things that were enjoyable and good but not productive, it was for stuff that I realized was just sucking time and not really giving me anything.

I don't see how the banhammer is related to ugh fields. I'll check out the stuff you linked, but you might have to explain more. The ugh field is stuff that is unpleasant to think about and do, the banhammer is to do with stuff that is addictive.

Edit: Yeah, for the longer banished stuff like the twilight fanfic and skyrim, i don't feel the need anymore. That's called extinction?

Comment author: Alicorn 12 December 2011 01:54:53AM 4 points [-]

Yeah, for the longer banished stuff like the twilight fanfic and skyrim, i don't feel the need anymore. That's called extinction?

Are... are you not going to go back to the fic ever?

Comment author: [deleted] 12 December 2011 04:52:27PM *  3 points [-]

that's the idea

edit: sorry it was really good, but it literally ate a few days and disrupted my sleep. It wasn't helping me become stronger so I cut it. It might be nice to go back, but I wont, because I need to have that test of myself.

Comment author: gwern 12 December 2011 02:14:52AM 2 points [-]

Forget it, Ali. It's Akrasiatown.

Comment author: CronoDAS 11 December 2011 01:23:28AM 2 points [-]

Ah, the old "I want this to be done, but I don't want to be doing it" conundrum...

I find that such things get less painful to do when done with a partner. (See also: pair programming.)

Comment author: [deleted] 11 December 2011 01:26:30AM 1 point [-]

Yes, collaboration makes a lot of things much easier. The trick is finding a co-collaborator.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 December 2011 11:27:43AM 1 point [-]

Ugh. Thank you for writing this article. On Monday I have a report due which I should have already finished by now. So I am hereby banning myself from Less Wrong, Wikipedia, TV Tropes, and Nintendo until the report is completely finished.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 December 2011 11:40:27AM 3 points [-]

Its done.

Comment author: [deleted] 19 December 2011 06:35:54AM 0 points [-]

congratulations!

Comment author: Icehawk78 12 December 2011 02:01:45PM 1 point [-]

Were you taking sort of ADD-type of medication (Ritalin/Adderall/Strattera) during this time or during the "lost" three weeks? This sounds very similar to a situation I was in earlier this year, and while medication was helpful for me, I'm curious if this is the sort of issue that can "creep" back in if you're not starting fresh (and thus getting the "full kick" due to tolerance or something similar)?

Comment author: [deleted] 12 December 2011 04:54:32PM 2 points [-]

I used to take ritalin when I was younger, but I stopped. So no, I had not developed a ritalin-immunity during this time.

Comment author: Icehawk78 19 December 2011 01:17:13PM 0 points [-]

Good to know, thanks.

And as a follow up, in the spirit of "what worked for me may not work for anyone else, but I publish it here in the hope that we can pull some good ideas out of it", as mid-20s adult who has dealt with similar situations with undesirable projects and the like, I would add that it may be helpful to consider talking to a psychiatrist to see if it could be helpful for you again.

Comment author: adamisom 18 December 2011 11:36:03PM *  0 points [-]

"It wasn't urgent, but it was urgent enough that it had to be done before any of my other projects. It turns out this is a killer combination."

You're not the only one--I've been having this exact problem for the last few days. Even the Paul Graham essays part is spot on. Like EphemeralNight, I've been finding that banning myself from semi-productive tasks has only made it worse--which is consistent with "Structured Procrastination" (loved that essay).

You know, a lot of the frustration in these comments is exactly what might interest someone in "personal development" i.e. "instrumental rationality" in LessWrong-lingo. I'm not sure what to make of that. And although it's perfectly acceptable--in fact, necessary--to point out the lack of evidence for most self-help suggestions, there is a point--and I do not think it is very difficult to reach--a point at which abstaining from the subtly damaging actions and subtly damaging attitude of acceptance characterized by 'being into personal development' is no longer worth it.

Maybe a (temporarily?) venturesome--even self-deceptive--attitude is more likely to lead to a higher 'local maximum' in terms of effectiveness in life (namely what you value). After all, if we're only "kluges", and rationality is not what drives us naturally (beyond the sub-optimal rationality of heuristics), then maybe we need to follow actions based more on what does drive us, such as emotions, or.... something like that....

Comment author: [deleted] 22 December 2011 06:50:52PM -1 points [-]

Situations similar to this one happen to me all the time... But, as they say, it's not a question of laziness but of priorities. I often procrastinate on things that I think are worthless, and do more interesting personal things first. Perhaps doing the thing you need to do /first/ is impossible. Maybe by purposely selecting a /short/ subject to procrastinate with in advance, you will eventually get to your goal of starting and finishing the needed project? For example, if you make a contract with yourself and say that "once I finish reading X book, then I will immediately start my project, with Y hours maximum in between." Hmm...