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Cached Procrastination

31 Post author: jimrandomh 25 April 2009 04:22PM

I have a paper to write. Where do I start? The first time I asked this question, it was easy: just sit down and start typing. I wrote a few hundred words, then got stuck; I needed to think some more, so I took a break and did something else. Over the next few days, my thoughts on the subject settled, and I was ready to write again. So I sat down, and asked: What do I do next? Fortunately, my brain had a cached response ready to answer this question: Solitaire!

So I procrastinated, and every time I asked my brain what to write, I got back an answer like "Don't bother!". Now a deadline's approaching, and I still don't have much written, so I sit down to write again. This time, I'm determined: using my willpower, I will not allow myself to think about anything except for the paper and its topic. So I ask again: Where do I start? (Solitaire!) What thoughts come to mind? I should've started a week ago. Every time I think about this topic I get stuck.  Maybe I shouldn't write this paper after all. These, too, are cached thoughts, generated during previous failed attempts to get started. These thoughts are much harder to clear, both because there are more of them, because of their emotional content, but I'm determined to do so anyways; I think through all the cached thoughts, return to the original question (Where do I start?), get my text editor open, start planning a section and... Ping! I have a new e-mail to read, I get distracted, and when I return half an hour later I have to clear those same cached thoughts again.

Many authors say to stop in the middle of a thought when you leave off, so that "Where do I start?" will always have an easy answer. This sounds like a solution, but it ignores the fact that you'll get stuck eventually, so that you have to stop, at a spot that won't be easy to come back to.

In order to stop procrastinating, there are two obstacles to overcome: A question to answer, and a cached answer to clear. The question is "What do I do first?" and the cached answer is "procrastinate more". Knowing that "procrastinate" was a cached answer makes it easier to get past, but the original question is still a problem. Why is deciding what to do first so often difficult?

When I'm programming, I make a long, unorded to-do list for each project, listing all of the features I plan to implement. When I finish one, I go back to the list to pick something to work on next. Sometimes, I can't decide; I just stare at the list for awhile, weighing the costs and benefits of each, until eventually something happens to distract me. Most of the items on that list are harmful options, which serve only to induce analysis paralysis. It's the same problem some people have ordering off restaurant menus, and the same solution works. Instead of considering a series of options and deciding for each whether it's good enough to settle on, choose one option as the current-best without considering it at all, and compare options against the current-best.

Usually, choosing where to start, or what to do next, requires generating options, not picking one off a menu. When choosing, say, the topic of the next chapter, it's easy to convince ourselves that we'll come up with the perfect answer, if only we think about it a little more. If we take the outside view, we can see that this is probably not the case; and if we let thinking about one decision crowd out everything else, and think about it long enough without reaching an answer, then eventually we will settle on Solitaire as the best choice. When deciding how much thought  to apply, remember: The utility we get from thinking about a decision is the cost of deciding incorrectly times the probability that we'll change our mind from incorrect to correct, minus the probability that we'll change our mind from correct to incorrect; and the longer we have gone without changing our mind, the less likely we are to do so in the future.

Procrastination is not a single problem, at least two: cached thought, and analysis paralysis, working together to stop us from getting work done. If we miss the distinction, then any attempts to find solutions will be doomed to confusion and failure; we must recognize and address each underlying problem, separately.

Comments (46)

Comment author: mathemajician 25 April 2009 08:58:50PM 26 points [-]

The following is the way I've approached the problem, and it seems to have worked for me. I've never tried to see if it would work with somebody else before, indeed I don't think I've ever explained this to anybody else before.

As I see it, these problems arise when what I think I should do, and what I feel like doing are in conflict with each other. Going with what you feel is easy, it's sort of like the automatic mode of operation. Overriding this and acting on what you think takes effort, and the stronger your feelings are wanting to do something else the harder it is.

The trick then, is to try to reconcile the two. The way most people do it is that they starting doing what they feel, and then rationalise it to the point that it's also what they think to some degree. Fortunately, you can also do it the other way as your feelings are trainable. Find what ever it is that you want to rationally do, and then keep on reminding yourself not just why you want to do this, but also try to feel it. Imagine how doing well in, say, some course of study is going to benefit and advance you in the future. How it will give you an edge against others who haven't studied the harder aspects of it, etc. Be creative, think of all sorts of positive reasons why doing this thing that you already know you should do is a great thing for you. And, most importantly, try to feel how you will benefit from this. Imagine yourself in the future having kicked butt in this course, or what ever, and imagine what that is going to feel like. Really try to feel it!

It takes time, but you slowly build up positive emotions around these things that you should be doing. At first, it just doesn't take quite as much effort to do them. Then it comes quite naturally. And after a while you will find yourself actually wanting to do it, to the extent that it would take an act of will power to not do it. Really.

This process itself also becomes a habit. When you decide to do something, you will automatically start to build up positive emotions around what ever it is that you've decided to do. During my PhD writing it built up to such a degree that I'd have these dreams some nights about how amazingly happy and proud I was going to be when it was finished. Motivating myself to work on it wasn't a problem.

Comment author: Cyan 25 April 2009 09:27:42PM *  8 points [-]

Here's a link to a YouTube video by pjeby describing a very similar technique.

Comment author: mathemajician 25 April 2009 10:29:15PM 4 points [-]

I've never heard of this guy before, but yes, that's the same idea at work.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 26 April 2009 12:50:48PM 1 point [-]

He posts here all the time.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 27 April 2009 11:45:55PM *  2 points [-]

When I was younger and started thinking about something I wanted to do, like, say, asking out a girl, I never performed the necessary backward induction. I would always envision what the future would be like when the girl said yes and how great it would be. It was so bad that I would try to plan, but seemed to be incapable of actually doing it because I spent so much time thinking about how great the future was going to be. In reality, I didn't know what to say and the girl said no, so I concluded that envisioning the future was a bug, and tried to fight it.

I guess It's lucky that I never completely got rid of this tendency, and in the mean time I've become much better at planning, (though doing any planning is an improvement, so this means little). Now it's time to make a conscious effort at cultivating these positive emotions and see what happens.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 26 April 2009 01:04:15PM 2 points [-]

For me, it works for the things that I believe to continue being important. I can motivate myself to start intrinsically liking doing what I believe to be important to be obsessed over. This doesn't lock me in on specific subgoals, as when a subgoal is done, it's transformed into new opportunities for the continuation of a bigger project.

But I'm afraid of starting to like things in which I don't intrinsically believe, which I only need to get out of my way before a deadline.

From reading the above comment, I explicitly recognized that it's circular: on one hand, I have a power to control the low-level emotional response, to channel it where I deliberatively believe it should go. On the other hand, I'm afraid of the emotional response taking over, leading me away from the things I deliberatively prefer in the long term. Both effects must be real, but I expect one of them is stronger, if used with sufficient cunning.

Polarizing the activities on those which I identify with, and those I apply only instrumentally creates segregated zones, in one of which deliberation channels emotion, and in the other of which deliberation is afraid of channeling emotion, as it's expected that emotion will win there. So, on a surface level, it looks like what I identify with is the area of activities where the emotion is channeled. But one step deeper, it turns out that it's actually an area deliberatively marked as being safe to channel emotions into. Emotional acceptance is the effect of the Escher-brained justification to emotionally segregate the activity, not the defining signature of the self.

And thus, I resolve to try allowing motivation where I didn't before.

Comment author: Annoyance 25 April 2009 05:46:36PM 6 points [-]

I've found that I put things off whenever I can do so without immediately paying a price for it. When time pressure increases at the last minute, I have no problem motivating myself - but of course that's not ideal for a variety of reasons and sometimes results in a reduction in quality.

Creating artificial pressures that can't just be disarmed acts as a motivation amplifier for me. It's something like setting an alarm clock that's sufficiently loud and unpleasant as to make sleeping through it not worthwhile, and placing it out of reach so that it can't just be turned off without getting up.

Disciplining the undermind is difficult, but very important. Set up costs for not starting projects at the proper time and ensure that you'll pay them - either by enacting will or by enlisting external agents to help.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 25 April 2009 06:07:19PM *  8 points [-]

Whenever I set mental deadlines for myself I'm much more likely to get things done. It seems that when my brain queries TimeToGetThisDone(), if I set no mental deadline, it's apt to return "plenty of time" or the due date. Of course, for time management reasons, it's better to get stuff done well before the due date so you have enough time to get everything done (e.g., 3 papers due on the same day). If I set an earlier mental deadline, I'm less apt to procrastinate because "time pressure" is (artificially) increasing.

This doesn't always work though, primarily because it's hard to get the mental deadlines set. It seems that my procrastinate mode won't let my planning mode take over and think about when things should be finished. In fact, I often catch myself thinking "but if I think about when to do stuff, I won't be able to procrastinate..."

I do this with other things too. For example, when I'm about to make an impulse buy, I'll start to think "is this really worth $20 to me?" but then I'll think "I better not do the cost-benefit calculation, because then I won't buy it."

It's as if there are 2 agents battling for control of my brain. Is there a term for this? Does anyone else have this problem? What about a solution?

Comment author: pjeby 25 April 2009 09:00:12PM 1 point [-]

It's as if there are 2 agents battling for control of my brain. Is there a term for this? Does anyone else have this problem? What about a solution?

An excellent beginning. The next step is to ask why you want to buy the thing anyway. What's bad about not buying it? What's good about buying it?

Comment author: pwno 25 April 2009 07:06:58PM 1 point [-]

You realize that there is a cost to making a cost-benefit analysis, but not sure if that cost is worth it (meta-cost-benefit analysis?). Faced with alternatives that have more or less equal outcomes, I choose not to do a CB analysis and pick an option at random. The expected benefit of choosing the best alternative minus the benefit of choosing the worst alternative is smaller than the cost of a CB analysis. Choosing between eating a hot dog, hamburger, or burrito are a good example for when I am best off just choosing something at random immediately.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 25 April 2009 07:42:41PM 0 points [-]

You realize that there is a cost to making a cost-benefit analysis, but not sure if that cost is worth it (meta-cost-benefit analysis?).

Of course, though I still run into analysis paralysis for inconsequential choices like your example. Another thing to work on.

However, the choices I was referring to above are choices where my decision is overdetermined, and it's quite likely that I've already performed (a good approximation of) the cost-benefit calculation beforehand and only need to call the answer. I.e., I don't play MtG enough to justify spending $4 on another booster pack. The only reason to ignore this calculation would be to show that the approximation is bad in this case, i.e., do the calculation for this specific case. However, I end up neither doing the calculation or using the approximation to determine my decision.

Comment author: Nanani 27 April 2009 01:00:11AM 0 points [-]

For example, when I'm about to make an impulse buy, I'll start to think "is this really worth $20 to me?" but then I'll think "I better not do the cost-benefit calculation, because then I won't buy it."

So don't buy it! If you are thinking that doing the calculation will cause you not to buy it, you have already concluded on some level that you are better off not buying it. Listen to that side of yourself. It will only be hard the first few times, then you'll see yourself rejecting the impulse buy before you have to agonize.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 27 April 2009 11:35:11PM *  0 points [-]

So don't buy it! ...

You do see the difficulty though, don't you? When I'm about to make that impulse buy, I'm in impulse mode, and this mode seems to be sabotaging any attempts by calculating mode to take control. Saying "don't buy it" is just like telling someone with a weight problem "stop eating so much." It's extremely difficult to muster the willpower to pull that off, and my efforts are probably better spent elsewhere anyway, like studying for finals.

There are methods that work, of course, and they all seem to involve preventing impulse mode from taking control in the first place. If I don't go to the video game aisle, I won't be tempted to buy the latest incarnation of Civilization. If I don't go into Wal-Mart, I won't be tempted to buy a lot of things. However, these only go so far, and sometimes I just want to look... then I just want to touch... then, dammit, impulse mode has taken control again and I walk out $50 poorer with a game I don't have enough time to play anyway.

Comment author: pwno 25 April 2009 06:14:04PM 0 points [-]

Agreed,

We have a very limited and weak amount of willpower. If we have a big project to finish, counting solely on willpower is futile. Instead, we should put ourselves in a position where the amount of willpower necessary is dropped. Like what Annoyance described, with time pressure, suddenly it is easier to get working (would make a nice discussion to see what tricks others use to minimize their required willpower).

Of course, it takes a bit of willpower to set up artificial pressures, but is worth it for chronic procrastinators.

Comment author: stcredzero 25 April 2009 05:21:17PM 8 points [-]

My solution -- take breaks only as 15 minute "naps" where I rest and do nothing. I'll just go and lie down and do nothing. This either refreshes me enough that I can work, or it increases my guilt enough that I can't help but start working.

Comment author: hrishimittal 25 April 2009 08:30:53PM 3 points [-]

I'm not sure about the refreshing part but the guilt does build up for me. In fact, I can't nap at all so I just lie there trying to rest and exactly the opposite happens - I start getting thoughts of how I should be doing my work and how I could go about it. I try to resist thinking and ideas come up. Eventually, I get too restless and can't help but get up and work. I have noticed the same thing happen when I used to meditate.

Comment author: CronoDAS 25 April 2009 05:58:10PM *  3 points [-]

I've found that the hard work of writing is what happens between deciding to write and when words first start appearing on the page. In general, by the time I can write even one paragraph, it seems like I've already computed the essence of the entire essay (or whatever).

Programming is similar: the essence of programming is not writing code, it's understanding "requirements" well enough that you can actually turn them into code.

Comment author: pjeby 25 April 2009 04:44:11PM 7 points [-]

The question is "What do I do first?" and the cached answer is "procrastinate more".

That's not the cached thought; the cached thought is what you think in between thinking about the question and deciding you'd rather procrastinate.

For example:

I should've started a week ago

What does it say about you that you didn't?

IOW, the question isn't "what do I do first?" the question is, what bad thing will happen if you DON'T?

Most of the rest of your post is just the anosognosiac ramblings of your conscious mind, making things much more complicated than they are. We don't procrastinate for complex reasons; everything boils down to a thought that you're avoiding.

Sometimes -- rarely -- the thought you're avoiding is about the task itself. But when it's chronic, the thought is nearly always something about you, and what it "means" about you if you don't do it.

So ask and answer that question first.

Comment author: jscn 27 April 2009 07:34:08PM 2 points [-]

What do you do with the answer, though? I have a fair idea of why most of my procrastination occurs (if I leave something til the last minute and make a hash of it, I have a convenient excuse to protect my ego) but that has never seemed to help me actually overcome it.

Comment author: pjeby 27 April 2009 08:07:33PM *  4 points [-]

What do you do with the answer, though? I have a fair idea of why most of my procrastination occurs (if I leave something til the last minute and make a hash of it, I have a convenient excuse to protect my ego) but that has never seemed to help me actually overcome it.

What you've just described is a "far" explanation of the system of your procrastination, not the "near" process by which you actually perform the behavior of procrastination.

The system description may or may not be accurate, but it is in either event useless for actually changing the behavior, since it does not reflect the level of abstraction where the behavior is performed.

To put it another way, your actual decision to procrastinate is not based on "a convenient excuse to protect my ego" -- it's based on some experience you get at the moment in time where you make the decision. That experience is not the same thing as the words you use to describe the experience, or to rationalize your decision with.

If you know what the actual experience is, though, then you have the possibility of questioning the evidence behind the belief that produces the experience, similar to Eliezer's example of questioning and revising his mental model of the serial killer behind the door. Intellectually knowing there's no killer behind the door is not the same as experientially knowing there's no killer.

A "far" description of a problem can't directly fix the problem, because it's not on the same logical level as the problem itself -- i.e., merely knowing that it is mathematically improbable for a lurking killer to exist, doesn't get rid of the fear. It has to be translated to a sensory experience.

In your particular case, you don't actually know how you procrastinate, you only have an explanation for why you procrastinate, and these are two radically different things.

Once you know how you do it, such that you can deliberately repeat it, you can then try different standard belief-change or other self-help interventions to actually change it, and you can rigorously test whether a given technique works or not.

Asking about self-help techniques, however, is like asking about opening lines in pickup: it's what everybody wants, but not what you NEED. As in software debugging, what you need is to know how to reliably reproduce the problem, so you can test whether you've fixed it!

Without that, you can't get reliable results, no matter what techniques you use. With it, you can use any technique, or make up new ones.

Comment author: jimrandomh 25 April 2009 07:55:01PM *  2 points [-]

We don't procrastinate for complex reasons; everything boils down to a thought that you're avoiding.

Sometimes -- rarely -- the thought you're avoiding is about the task itself. But when it's chronic, the thought is nearly always something about you, and what it "means" about you if you don't do it.

I actually wrote part of another article about procrastination, before this one, following a theory much closer to yours. I ended up determining that it wasn't going anywhere, but I think what I do have clarifies your theory immensely. So at the risk of putting words into your mouth, here it is:

In the 1950s, B.F. Skinner conducted a series of experiments which established the principle of Operant Conditioning. The canonical example of this sort of experiment is a rat in a box, which receives either a reward (food pellet) or a punishment (electric shock) when it presses a button. There is a lot of research on the effect of varying the conditions - species, target behavior, feedback type and schedule, etc - but in general, behaviors that produce rewards are promoted, and behaviors that produce punishment are inhibited.

Now, suppose an experimenter hooked you up to a mind-reading machine for a week, and every time you thought about elephants, he came and gave you $20, up to some rate limit. You would quickly become obsessed with elephants, and years later you'd still be patronizing the zoo. Reinforcement, it would seem, works for thoughts much like it does for behaviors. Now consider the opposite experiment, where every time you think about elephants, you receive negative feedback. This experiment can't be done with electric shocks (at least, not ethically), but it has been done. The Game is a mind game which some people play, with one rule: if you think of The Game, you have lost, and must annouce it to those around you. Insofar as operant conditioning applies to humans, and thought is a behavior, and embarrassment is punishment, The Game should be very easy: it conditions players to stop thinking about it. In fact, the opposite is true: players of The Game end up in a spiral where they can't think of anything else.

Clearly, the theory of operant conditioning does not apply straightforwardly to thoughts, and we shouldn't expect it to. After all, if thinking about something causes a strong reaction, positive or negative, then it's probably important enough to think about more. However, we still need a mechanism for choosing topics to think about, which means that some things will reinforce a topic and others will inhibit it. Reward and punishment can't fill these roles.

Where I got stuck was on trying to figure out just what does condition us to think more or less on a topic, and I don't think that can be answered accurately without much better instruments and experiments than are currently possible. Clearly, when people enter procrastination spirals there is some sort of conditioning going on, but negative affect alone can't be the cause; The Game seems like a strong refutation to that.

Comment author: Alicorn 25 April 2009 07:57:44PM 1 point [-]

You do realize you've just made everyone lose The Game.

Comment author: MBlume 25 April 2009 08:14:49PM 1 point [-]

No, we all won! Randall said so!

Comment author: pjeby 25 April 2009 08:56:00PM 1 point [-]

Insofar as operant conditioning applies to humans, and thought is a behavior, and embarrassment is punishment, The Game should be very easy: it conditions players to stop thinking about it. In fact, the opposite is true: players of The Game end up in a spiral where they can't think of anything else.

There's a different explanation for this phenomenon that I believe is a part of ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy). The idea is that, in order for you to achieve a negative goal, you have to set up a portion of your mind to watch out for that condition. But when the condition to avoid is a thought, just setting up that portion of your mind to watch for the condition, means that you're already having the thought. In other words, trying to avoid a thought primes you for that thought.

This really isn't related to procrastination, except insofar as you try to keep yourself from being distracted, or try to keep yourself from thinking about work while you're procrastinating. Neither one has much bearing on the actual issue making you procrastinate, though.

Comment author: jimrandomh 25 April 2009 09:41:22PM 0 points [-]

That explains where the initial positive reinforcement comes from, but it doesn't explain the lack of negative reinforcement. And I can show the absence of negative reinforcement by another example: post-traumatic stress disorder. Replaying the memory of a traumatic event causes a great deal of stress and negative emotion, which, if stress and negative emotion were enough to inhibit thought patterns, would cause traumatic events to repress themselves quickly. They usually don't. In this case, there is no portion of the mind set up to watch for anything, so that explanation doesn't work.

Comment author: pjeby 25 April 2009 10:00:52PM 1 point [-]

That explains where the initial positive reinforcement comes from, but it doesn't explain the lack of negative reinforcement.

The act of avoidance is what causes a loop. No "reinforcement" is involved, positive or negative.

Replaying the memory of a traumatic event causes a great deal of stress and negative emotion, which, if stress and negative emotion were enough to inhibit thought patterns, would cause traumatic events to repress themselves quickly.

Exactly, which is why tying this to "reinforcement" in this way is a bad model. We don't get reinforcement for our output thoughts, only our input thoughts: you're confusing the reinforcer with the reinforcee.

In the case of the traumatic memory, you will avoid whatever reminds you of the memory, not the memory itself. Why would we ever have evolved a way to positively or negatively reinforce our own internal thoughts? That makes no sense. What we have is a memory mechanism that allows us to replay reinforcement in order to let us evaluate external things, including ones we're just thinking about.

IOW, the negative memory is the reinforcement! The question is, what is it negatively reinforcing?

If everything reminds you of it, the answer is: everything. That's how people get in fear/depression spirals that take over their entire lives: everything now negatively reinforces them.

Comment author: jimrandomh 25 April 2009 11:15:15PM *  1 point [-]

There appears to be some confusion here due to a poor choice of terminology on my part; I was using positive reinforcement of a thought to mean that which causes someone to think it more, and negative reinforcement to mean that which causes someone to think it less. These terms conflict with common psych. terminology and brought in a bunch of statements about what sorts of things have that effect, which I did not intend.

We don't get reinforcement for our output thoughts, only our input thoughts: you're confusing the reinforcer with the reinforcee.

The brain knows no such distinction. However, this could be rephrased in terms of a time-offset - something along the lines of "a thought with strong negative affect inhibits whatever thoughts were active 3-5 seconds before". That's something biology could implement; and, interestingly, the time window suggests possible experiments.

But I don't believe that thoughts with negative affect are the only things which trigger avoidance, or even the most common ones, and that is where our positions diverge. The early stages of my procrastination spirals do not include guilt, self-hate or any detectable emotion at all; those only appear later, well after the pattern has been firmly established. Avoidance is also triggered by getting stuck. In fact, I would say that thirty seconds of writer's block will do more to induce procrastination than any amount of guilt can. This makes sense, because a lack of forward progress would normally be a sign that a line of thought isn't worth pursuing further; it's only when outside factors force us to continue that it becomes a problem. For me at least, this is the dominant factor, not guilt.

Comment author: pjeby 25 April 2009 11:37:17PM 9 points [-]

The brain knows no such distinction.

Of course it does. Otherwise, remembering something would be the same as experiencing it. And remembering a thought would be indistinguishable from having the thought.

But I don't believe that thoughts with negative affect are the only things which trigger avoidance, or even the most common ones, and that is where our positions diverge. The early stages of my procrastination spirals do not include guilt, self-hate or any detectable emotion at all;

Have you actually tested that? Here's how you can test:

At the first moment you put something off, ask yourself, "What happens if I don't do this?" And observe your immediate, unconscious, non-verbal or pre-verbal response.

If you get nothing negative from that, try, "What happens if I do do this?".

My guess: you will rarely need to go to the second question to find a negative response, but if you go to the second one anyway, you will find it surprisingly similar.

The catch of course is that in order to do this you have to be able to catch your non-verbal thoughts as they go by, which can be a tough skill to learn, because everybody thinks they already know the answers, so they never really listen to themselves after they ask the question: they jump straight to making up explanations.

As I said in another recent comment: here are some clues that you're making something up instead of actually listening:

  • you're using complex sentence structure or abstract/non-sensory words
  • the answer is something you "already knew" or expected to find
  • the answer makes you look good in some way (either by deflecting blame or trying to sound humble "i.e. poor stupid me" explanations)
  • any verbal portion of the answer is longer than a slogan or proverb shouted in anger or other intense emotional state
  • the answer is unemotional

The degree to which each of these suggests a made-up answer varies, but if you're hitting two or more of these points, you're almost certainly fooling yourself. The real machinery that runs your brain is non-verbal (feelings, images, and sounds), emotional, and fast (brief flickers of images, short sounds, and somewhat longer flinches and feelings). Most of the rest of our thought process is just verbalizing about those other bits, other verbalizations, or just making shit up.

Mostly making shit up.

Comment author: patrissimo 21 May 2009 06:45:48AM 1 point [-]

I so want an anti-confabulation patch for my wetware.

Comment author: jimrandomh 26 April 2009 01:48:58AM 1 point [-]

Have you actually tested that? Here's how you can test

Yes, I have. Right now, there are two things I am procrastinating on. One of them produces a clear mental and physical response when I think about it. That one fits your model of procrastination perfectly. The other one doesn't. When I think about it, I get no physical response whatsoever, and the only thoughts that come to mind are directly relevant details of the task. I'm completely unable to begin working on it. In general, if a task * Is internally generated * Can be ignored or abandoned without consequence, * Provides just enough upside if completed to prevent abandoning it, and * Requires a difficult or time consuming first step to start working on, which can't be subdivided Then it can trigger a procrastination spiral without generating an unconscious response. This combination of conditions is certainly atypical, which makes it a corner case, but I think it sheds some light on the general case as well.

Remember, all of your data comes from people who have sought help with their procrastination. That filters out people still in the early stages of a procrastination spiral, where it has not yet become a problem. And if the answer to "What happens if I do/don't do this" is "not much", then there is no reason to seek help, which filters out more cases. You only see the end result of procrastination spirals on important tasks; you don't see the early stages, or procrastination on unimportant things.

Comment author: pjeby 26 April 2009 01:52:19AM 1 point [-]

When I think about it, I get no physical response whatsoever, and the only thoughts that come to mind are directly relevant details of the task. I'm completely unable to begin working on it.

Those two statements are, AFAICT, incompatible. How do you know you're completely unable to begin working on it? What stops you? What would happen if you DID begin working on it?

Comment author: jimrandomh 26 April 2009 02:51:48AM 1 point [-]

Those two statements are, AFAICT, incompatible. How do you know you're completely unable to begin working on it? What stops you?

Apathy. According to the attention-allocating part of my brain, it's of lower priority than games and blogs, even though my conscious mind disagrees.

What would happen if you DID begin working on it?

Knowing what I know now, I'd make some progress. A week ago, I would've stared at my to-do list for awhile, unable to decide which item to start with, until the phone rang or something else diverted my attention.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 26 April 2009 12:23:52PM *  0 points [-]

Punishment presumably doesn't work for thoughts, because it rewards the negative of the thought in the same movement. I expect that it's rather switching to procrastination that is rewarded, not continuing on the task that's punished. The behavior here is not static "thinking a thought", but rather a transition between possible thoughts.

The longer you try to concentrate on the task, the more willpower you apply to it, the more rewarding the behavior of switching the attention to procrastination becomes. And so, you learn to do it automatically, thinking of nothing else whenever you start thinking of getting the work done.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 26 April 2009 08:10:31AM 2 points [-]

Funny thing: my preferred way of procrastination these days is reading LessWrong posts and comments about procrastination -- which is precisely what I'm doing right now, instead of finishing the last remaining 10% of a project I've been working on for about a month with no procrastination at all.

Comment author: Alicorn 25 April 2009 06:40:03PM *  2 points [-]

This happens to me all the time. With any luck, I'll be able to use this new spin on the topic of procrastination to get some homework done today.

Edit: I'm back, with results. I've got my Ethics paper open and I'm revising it. (As is my custom, born of a short attention span, I am taking frequent short breaks, and I'm using this one to report here.) Thanks!

Comment author: PhilGoetz 25 April 2009 11:14:51PM 0 points [-]

Did you have to mention solitaire?

Comment author: JamesCole 26 April 2009 03:31:29AM 1 point [-]

So the tasks are: making a choice to sit down and work, and then deciding what to start working on next.

I think that, rather than consciously forcing yourself to do these things it's better to replace the explicit decision process with a habitual process that you can more easily begin, and which results in producing the same outcomes.

To do my PhD writing I take my laptop down to a local coffeeshop and sit there for one to two hours of solid writing. It's become habit. I go to the coffeeshop, I write. My body/brain knows that's what I do there, so there's nothing to fight.

If I try to write when I'm at home, it's much harder. (It also helps that I don't have internet access while I'm at the coffeeshop). Now, instead of making a conscious decision to "start writing" I make a conscious decision to "go to the coffeeshop". Much easier.

To choose what to write about next, I don't sit there and think, "hmmm, what should I write about next? what are my options?". I just start writing. Essentially whatever I'm thinking I write down. I'll have a lot what what I've written last time and write down whatever comes to mind as I'm reading it. What to do next soon suggests itself.

If it doesn't, I just continue to think on paper (or in the text editor), and I always find I end up working on something sutiable. I don't have to explicitly make the effort to think "what should I do next?". I just start writing (which is a lot easier to do), and it soon works itself out.

There is some initial effort to build the habit but I don't think this is any harder than motivating yourself in the first place, and you only have to pay the cost a fixed number of times.

Comment author: Alicorn 26 April 2009 03:33:33AM 2 points [-]

Committing to a small, preliminary action is often very helpful to me. When I have to write something, I tell myself, "I'm going to open Word. That's all. I don't have to write if I don't feel like writing after I open Word." The act of starting the program gets me into the appropriate mood most of the time.

Comment author: nickk 15 April 2010 11:13:23PM 0 points [-]

You are absolutely right that what it takes is just making a habit. The beginning is the hardest part. I actually created a small piece of software for myself to do just that: start working on something. It's called iFocus http://www.ifocusonwork.com/ and I posted it online for everyone to use. You can make it force you to work on a specific application for a fixed period of time. You can also use it to track how you spend your computer time, and set goals for how much you can use certain things (email, chat, games etc.). Basically a tool for people who want to get something done or for those who are mindful of how they spend their computer time.

Comment author: mattnewport 15 April 2010 11:20:12PM 2 points [-]

Might I suggest you edit your previous post to make it clear that you are talking about your own site and that you limit further posts promoting it. One post is fine given the software is relevant to topics discussed here, two is raising spammer warning flags.

Comment author: MrShaggy 25 April 2009 05:13:11PM 1 point [-]

Sometimes we just have to force through something. One way to do that is to connect with your goal (and recursively up through your goal's goal). I assume this is for class. That's probably part of the problem: you aren't motivated to write the paper. But what's your goal? To pass, get a good grade, so you can go on in your education so you have a degree that might have some value on the job market. There are also various tricks you can google, such as writing by freehand non-stop for 15 minutes (even if it's "I don't know what to write.").

But for a slightly different take than pjeby, or maybe just a different presentation. You write: "These thoughts are much harder to clear, both because there are more of them, because of their emotional content." At least in the medium/long term, not "clearing" them but instead "listening" to the resistance, asking the resistance questions, will be more effective. Why is your emotional content blocking you (pjeby: "when it's chronic, the thought is nearly always something about you, and what it "means" about you if you don't do it"). So I don't know if it's always about you, I think maybe it could be arbitrary emotional impressions from earlier life, but I agree what one could call an emotionally intelligent approach is what is needed here.

Comment author: pjeby 25 April 2009 09:01:57PM 0 points [-]

So I don't know if it's always about you, I think maybe it could be arbitrary emotional impressions from earlier life,

When you're a kid, everything is about you, even stuff that's really about other people. ;-)

Comment author: MrShaggy 25 April 2009 10:22:42PM 0 points [-]

Ha, fair enough. On a serious note though, I guess I'd say then that I don't know if trying to find out what it means about you might less effective than just finding out what it means in general, because looking for the piece connected to you might lead you down the wrong path if it's a few steps removed?

Comment author: pjeby 25 April 2009 10:57:48PM 5 points [-]

I don't know if trying to find out what it means about you might less effective than just finding out what it means in general, because looking for the piece connected to you might lead you down the wrong path if it's a few steps removed?

If you actually have the ability to openmindedly inquire and observe your automatic thoughts (as opposed to your consciously-intended ones), then you certainly can just look at them.

However, if you don't have that skill -- and it's hard to realize that you don't! -- then you'll go less astray if you ask that question.

What I usually ask people is, "what's bad about that?" (and I already know, from their voice tone, whether I should be asking "what's bad" or "what's good"). If a person starts going in circles and complex explanations after a couple askings of "what's bad about that?", I shift to, "What does it say about you that X? What kind of person does that make you?" and usually get a better answer.

My critierion for knowing whether their answer is correct is partly by length and partly by how "rational" it sounds. When it comes to irrational behavior, the more rational your reasoning is, the more likely it is to be false.

Correct answers have a tendency to sound stupid, irrelevant, or at the very least, highly emotional and personal. They're also brief: any sentence structure more complex or lengthy than a proverb or slogan your parents shouted at you is also unlikely to be relevant.

IOW, if your answer to the question doesn't surprise you, you're probably just making it up. If it involves reasoning and logic, or lacks any non-implied emotional content, you're definitely making it up.

The part of your brain that actually runs things is not a deep thinker: it's a massively-parallel, ultra-cached machine for jumping to emotional conclusions based on expected survival and status impacts. If you're doing something that doesn't make sense, it's for a reason that doesn't make sense. So don't try to make sense out of it - try to see what nonsense you actually believe.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 25 April 2009 11:14:59PM 0 points [-]

I don't suffer from procrastination once I've decided to finish a project. I may have a long list of things to do, but I don't waste a lot of time thinking about what to do next. I don't have to choose the "optimal" thing to do; I just have to choose something from the top half.

Where I suffer from procrastination is in putting off entire projects. There, analysis paralysis is much worse; it's much more important to pick one of the top 3 or 4 projects. I see that as a different problem.