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Willpower Hax #487: Execute by Default

47 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 May 2009 06:46AM

This is a trick that I use for getting out of bed in the morning - quite literally:  I count down from 10 and get out of bed after the "1".

It works because instead of deciding to get out of bed, I just have to decide to implement the plan to count down from 10 and then get out of bed.  Once the plan is in motion, the final action no longer requires an effortful decision - that's the theory, anyway.  And to start the plan doesn't require as much effort because I just have to think "10, 9..."

As usual with such things, there's no way to tell whether it works because it's based on any sort of realistic insight or if it works because I believe it works; and in fact this is one of those cases that blurs the boundary between the two.

The technique was originally inspired by reading some neurologist suggesting that what we have is not "free will" so much as "free won't": that is, frontal reflection is mainly good for suppressing the default mode of action, more than originating new actions.

Pondering that for a bit inspired the idea that - if the brain carries out certain plans by default - it might conserve willpower to first visualize a sequence of actions and try to 'mark' it as the default plan, and then lift the attention-of-decision that agonizes whether or not to do it, thus allowing that default to happen.

For the record, I can remember a time some years ago when I would have been all enthusiastic about this sort of thing, believing that I had discovered this incredible new technique that might revolutionize my whole daily life.  Today, while I know that there are discoverables with that kind of power, I also know that it usually requires beginning from firmer foundations - reports of controlled experiments, a standard theory in the field, and maybe even math.  On the scale of depth I now use, this sort of trick ranks as pretty shallow - and in fact I really do use it just for getting out of bed.

I offer this trick as an example of practical advice not backed by deep theories, of the sort that you can find on a hundred other productivity blogs.  At best it may work for some of you some of the time.  Consider yourself warned about the enthusiasm thing.

Comments (55)

Comment author: CWG 16 September 2012 01:40:09PM 1 point [-]

I read this, and some time later I started trying it.

I misremembered, so I've been counting from 1 to 10. Interesting thing is that I generally start getting up as I say the "1", or before. It seems that by the time I've decided to employ the technique, I'm actually ready to get up - I just need something to focus my mind and get out of the "monkey mind" thing that Buddhism talks about. The little bit of focus I get from deciding to count is enough to switch my brain into action.

Next: to try it for starting a work task I'm avoiding. I'll combine it with monoidealism (stopping everything else, and thinking about the task, but not doing it) then at some point deciding to do the countdown. Or the count up.

Comment author: persephonehazard 07 June 2011 11:26:32PM 12 points [-]

I was most amused to read this, as I've been doing it - or, rather, a somewhat sillier version - since I was a kid.

When I was in the first few years of secondary school, I had a marvellously flamboyant drama teacher who used to start off exercises by saying aloud "a-one, a-two, a-diddly-diddly-doo". And then we'd all start, immediately, no more faffing around.

And somehow the habit got lodged in my head, and I use it - usually only mentally rather than aloud! - for things like getting out of bed or making myself get up from my computer when I'm thirsty but have got stuck reading things online rather than going to the kitchen for a drink.

Like, er, right now, actually. A-one, a-two...

Comment author: Alex_Altair 07 April 2011 06:02:15PM 0 points [-]

This has worked a couple times. But the other morning, I realized that I wasn't using it because it would cause me to get up. Consciously, I hate sleep deeply and consider it temporary death.

Comment author: Alicorn 07 April 2011 06:08:50PM 1 point [-]

Consciously, I hate sleep deeply and consider it temporary death.

This sounds like the kind of aversion that could cause serious problems in your life. Does it? Do you want to hate sleep/consider it "temporary death"? (Temporary death isn't, or we wouldn't be so up on cryonics 'round these parts...)

Comment author: Alex_Altair 07 April 2011 07:03:39PM 2 points [-]

It doesn't cause serious problems in my life. I just have the standard aversion to going to bed. But I know that it robs me of 1/3 of my potential life, just as dying at age 53 robs someone of 1/3 their potential life span of 80 years. I have tried to transition to polyphasic sleep a few times, with no success.

In regards to "Do you want to hate sleep?", I assume you're asking a "desire to desire" analogue of "belief in belief". My hatred of sleep simply comes from the recognition of the fact that it robs any conscious experience from me, and therefore robs me of all value receivable during that time. I could just ignore it and get used to it, but I think a conscious recognition of the true value of things is the optimal way to feel (is there some decision theory theorem about this?). It's certainly not the kind of futile, life-degrading hatred that some people have have against, say, the state, their parents, or society.

Comment author: Alicorn 07 April 2011 07:15:50PM 4 points [-]

If it's that important to you, you could consider investing some hours in training yourself to lucid dream.

Comment author: Alex_Altair 08 April 2011 12:11:42AM 1 point [-]

After some research, this looks feasible! Thanks! My only concern is that there really won't be much value in the lucid dreams. For instance, I'm pretty sure I can't work on AGI or anything mathy during a dream.

Comment author: Alicorn 08 April 2011 01:00:33AM *  1 point [-]

You can probably do purely cognitive work in a lucid dream, although its portability will be limited by your memory. It's probably more efficient to have your daily diet of fun while you sleep, and then need less entertainment while you're awake so you get more work done.

Comment author: CuSithBell 07 April 2011 07:27:56PM 1 point [-]

Y'know, I'm really interested in hearing about lesswrong posters' experiences with and methods of inducing lucid dreaming (and if these diverge from the norm). Have you mentioned this topic before? Do you have any peculiar insights?

Comment author: wedrifid 07 April 2011 07:46:30PM 1 point [-]

I've played with them a tad. They seem more likely if I fiddle with my brain chemistry in some way (the precise change doesn't seem to be important.) Just moderately high doses of melatonin can do it (for me, that is). Practicing specifically remembering dreams when waking up also makes a difference, prompting more awareness of the dream experience in general.

The biggest downside I have experienced is that these days my dreams are too damn realistic. Many of the dreams are just as credible as everyday experiences. Which means I have to spend effort at times remembering whether a conversation or experience was real or dreamed of.

Comment author: Tripitaka 07 April 2011 07:39:41PM *  0 points [-]

I`ve invested some time to learn it, (consciously looking into mirrors, feeling walls, holding ones nose+breath, pinching the arm) but the results were somewhat depressing: I notice that I am dreaming, but get paraplegic when I want to move, and wake up, or panic due to being unable to tell dream/reality apart (only when dreaming), so I gave up.

Comment author: Alicorn 07 April 2011 07:30:23PM 1 point [-]

I've occasionally had lucid dreams, but always by accident just as a matter of normal sleeping. I tend to like my regular dreams well enough that it's never seemed worth the bother to mess with them. However, I've heard it's possible to train oneself to lucid dream, and it seemed like a good solution to Alex_Altair's predicament.

Comment author: Document 20 February 2010 06:56:24PM 2 points [-]

Slightly OT: Counting out loud rather than mentally seems to help for me.

Comment author: RobinZ 27 January 2010 12:39:00PM 0 points [-]

I remembered this anecdote this morning, as I lay abed - it worked. Upvote.

Comment author: freyley 16 May 2009 05:10:00AM *  0 points [-]

A similar trick once worked for hiccups. A friend of mine pointed at me and said "there's a trick to not hiccuping. You want to know what it is?"

I, of course, asked to know.

"Don't hiccup."

And it worked for a couple of years.

Comment author: Jach 16 May 2009 04:31:29AM -1 points [-]

Interesting, I used to do almost the exact same thing a few years ago. Except I counted down from 15, and physically tapped my foot against the bed on each count.

If memory serves, I stopped this practice after messing up enough times that I realized I could sleep in a little longer with my schedule, and now I get up a full 30 minutes after actually "waking up". I think I'll reimplement this and see if it affects my sleep-in habits. (Publicly announcing something also seems to work about 60% of the time for me.)

Comment author: joelgarnier 14 May 2009 07:11:31PM 0 points [-]

off topic;

is there any real action in seed AI today?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 May 2009 07:17:53PM 2 points [-]

Correct, off-topic. Try the off-topic thread instead.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 13 May 2009 08:29:07PM *  4 points [-]

I'd like some trick to get my body onto a 24-hour cycle instead of a 25-hour cycle. I only have trouble getting up in the morning because I had trouble getting to sleep the night before. If Earth had a 25-hour day, I could go to sleep when I was tired, and get up when I wasn't.

Comment author: Gurkenglas 17 October 2014 12:32:58PM 1 point [-]

Have you tried melatonin?

Comment author: freyley 16 May 2009 05:11:50AM 1 point [-]

I doubt it's the circadian rhythm that's messing you up as much as it is the indoor light. Indoor lights are strong enough to affect cycle, and it is a common suggestion of sleep doctors to spend a half an hour with low light before going to sleep.

Comment author: Cyan 13 May 2009 08:51:47PM 4 points [-]

Spend some time in the morning out in the sun or looking at a bright light. It resets the circadian rhythms.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 14 May 2009 10:04:37PM 2 points [-]

Should I also sit in the dark before bed?

Comment author: andrewc 15 May 2009 04:03:44AM 0 points [-]

Yes. Or you can sit in a lit room wearing Blue Blockers.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melatonin#Light_dependence

Comment author: Cyan 14 May 2009 10:15:37PM 2 points [-]

I don't know. Maybe -- light is the most important zeitgeber. Incidentally, it looks like the natural circadian rhythm for hormones and core temperature is 24 hours and 11 minutes, not 25 hours.

Comment author: hrishimittal 13 May 2009 10:59:28AM 1 point [-]

I get up most easily when I've slept enough. If I get 8 hours of sleep, I don't even have to try getting up. I feel refreshed and am happy to get up. I'm not sure if the number of hours is 8, but from memory it seems to be around that much.

Does anyone else have the same experience?

Comment author: Swimmer963 07 April 2011 08:08:29PM 0 points [-]

Right now, no, but that's probably because I permanently have a sleep debt of who-knows-how-many-hours. If I have to get up early in the morning (which is usually), I'll aim to go to bed 8 hours before I have to get up, which is never enough because I don't fall asleep instantaneously. If I don't have to get up early, I'll usually stay up later (where "later" is midnight or so) and drag myself out of bed at some ridiculous-for-me hour of 9 or 9:30 am, because if I get up later than that I feel like I'm wasting my whole day. But there have been times in my life where getting up was easy EVERY day. Getting up at the same time every day helps, especially if that time is 7:30 or so...getting up at 5:00 always feels horrible, probably because it's really hard to reliably be in bed by 9 pm when most people my age are night owls and want to socialize in the evenings. Maybe I could adjust to a schedule where I slept 9 pm to 5 am, but it would mean seeing people less.

Comment author: rhollerith 13 May 2009 05:16:45PM 4 points [-]

"I get up most easily when I've slept enough. . . Does anyone else have the same experience?"

I am going to go out on a limb and say that most of us have that experience.

Comment author: Emily 13 May 2009 08:25:21AM 1 point [-]

I've also done this frequently. A similar alternative is to decide that I'm going to get out of bed when the time on my digital alarm clock flips to the next minute. That's also turning over the decision to an automated process, but in this case I'm not even in control of the automated process -- I can abort the countdown from 10 if I'm really lazy, but not stop the clock. I think I find this latter method slightly more successful, though I certainly don't have any numbers on it.

Comment author: billswift 13 May 2009 05:34:54AM 1 point [-]

"incredible new technique that might revolutionize my whole daily life. Today, while I know that there are discoverables with that kind of power, I also know that it usually requires beginning from firmer foundations - reports of controlled experiments, a standard theory in the field, and maybe even math."

How do you know and what are these discoverables? Evolution has produced such a kludge in the brain that I suspect, until I can get reliable evidence, that all we are going to be able to do is a bunch of useful little techniques. Until we can start doing some serious redesign.

Comment author: joschu 12 May 2009 08:23:09PM 7 points [-]

This phenomenon--that it takes less much less will-power to carry out a predefined plan than to continually make decisions while acting--is well-known to athletes, especially runners. I think most people who train would agree that the hardest part of a workout is getting started, and it takes surprisingly little will-power to finish. There have been some interesting studies showing that an experienced runner maintains a constant pace on a long run--he has an nonconscious sense of the pace he will be able to maintain, which is largely independent of his current motivational state. Training books never say "run as far as you can at this pace"--this would be mentally and physically exhausting. Runners are often urged to set a pace and distance for themselves before starting the run.

From my experience there's also a long-term feedback process that affects how hard it is to start the activity. If I set myself a workout plan that is too strenuous and leaves me exhausted after each workout, then it becomes harder and harder to start, and after a while, I'm not putting my running shoes on.

So if we can generalize these lessons to other activities that normally require will-power, they would be 1.) set a plan (on whatever timescale is sensible) and follow it so you're not exerting will-power constantly, and 2.) set yourself a pace so that if you follow your plan, you don't feel exhausted afterwards--that way it will be possible to sustain the plan in the long term. Regarding (2), people have suggested enforcing a schedule like "45 minutes work, 15 minutes break", though I haven't tried this myself.

I think that by far most-powerful willpower hack of all is making oneself accountable to other people, but that's a topic for another day.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 12 May 2009 06:44:52PM *  0 points [-]

Once the plan is in motion, the final action no longer requires an effortful decision - that's the theory, anyway. And to start the plan doesn't require as much effort because I just have to think "10, 9..."

This seems to be related to Fire and Motion: once you start coding/writing, it's relatively easy to continue for the rest of the day, the only problem is to actually start.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, code!

Comment author: humanerror 12 May 2009 07:32:42PM 0 points [-]

I guess that's what Marry Poppins was on about.

Comment author: jimmy 12 May 2009 05:59:54PM 1 point [-]

This trick is commonly used for scary things that don't take much time (eg jumping off a cliff). I tend to use a 3 count for this because 10 seconds gives too long to change ones mind.

Comment author: Jordan 13 May 2009 04:43:54PM *  3 points [-]

For jumping off cliffs and other nerve racking things my technique usually goes like this:

1) Start counting back from 3

2) Immediately and involuntarily have an image in my mind of a version of myself looking at me in disgust that I have to use a count-backwards-from-three technique

3) Choice expletive

4) Jump

I find that this technique works just as well for initializing actions that aren't short. Unfortunately the technique usually doesn't put me in a very eloquent state of mind. I usually avoid using this in awkward social situations... because I end up looking like I have the mindset that I'm about to jump off a cliff.

Comment author: jimmy 13 May 2009 11:38:13PM 0 points [-]

"I find that this technique works just as well for initializing actions that aren't short."

I should have been more clear. It'll get you started, but that's all it does. If it takes more than a momentary act of will power, you need new tricks.

For example, when you're jumping off a cliff, as soon as you start pushing off, you're committed. If, however, you're trying to trying to do a 1 1/2 off a diving board the 3 count won't help much since you can always bail part way through

Comment author: Cosmos 12 May 2009 05:22:58PM 3 points [-]

As far as I can tell, the trick is to remove willpower from the situation one way or the other. Brains are very good at doing things habitually, executing unconscious subroutines and freeing up willpower to do something else. If our supply of willpower is limited, then we should attempt to encode one or two good habits at a time, and once they are encoded we can move on to the next problem.

Comment author: pjeby 12 May 2009 05:03:34PM 25 points [-]

This trick works for almost the reason you gave, and it will work for some people/things and not for others. It will work better for getting up because it's something you do every day. And belief is a factor (or more precisely, suspension of disbelief), because it will not work for a person who spends the 10-count thinking about it not working, or how tired they are, or anything else but imagining they'll get up at the end of the count.

That's because the actual mechanism that makes this work is something called monoidealism: having one and only one thought absorbing your nonverbal imagination. It's foundational to hypnosis, auto-suggestion and a variety of other things, including the "law of attraction". It's even used in my "clean your desk" video, although I didn't grok the theory at the time. (It's a side-effect of the set of directions I use, actually. But it can still easily fail if somebody is busy thinking "this is all bullshit" or something like that, while doing it.)

Since figuring out monoidealism (first through discussions about "suspension of disbelief" here on LW, then supplemented with client experiments and finally doing enough hypnosis research to find that there's already a word for it), I've found that I can get myself to do all sorts of things this way, with a much higher degree of consistency, even for things I used to have more trouble with.

(I have noticed one side-effect, though, which is that I sometimes hesitate to apply the trick -- which makes me realize at that point that I haven't really decided whether or not doing the thing in question is a good idea. So at that point I just fall back to my usual troubleshooting techniques to get rid of the conflicts before proceeding.)

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 13 May 2009 06:47:01AM 2 points [-]

you've just obviated tons of approaches to procrastination. I can't believe how obvious this is in retrospect. thanks, you may very well have significantly changed my life.

Comment author: pjeby 13 May 2009 06:37:31PM 2 points [-]

you've just obviated tons of approaches to procrastination. I can't believe how obvious this is in retrospect. thanks, you may very well have significantly changed my life.

I'm not quite so positive about that. Despite Eliezer's enthusiasm for having a deep theory that explains everything, it can be a lot less useful in practice. In this particular case, all I've explained is the difference between what works and what doesn't, not how to get from one to the other!

There is a little bit more that I wrote about this in a recent blog article, How We Get Stuck. But probably more to the point is that you need to know how not to believe your "meta" thoughts, which can easily trick you into imagining something else.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 14 May 2009 07:32:26AM 2 points [-]

right, but the x factor is what i was missing. before i wasn't aware of what exactly was the difference between the times when I managed to get things done and not.

Comment author: komponisto 12 May 2009 04:26:55PM 3 points [-]

Speaking as someone who (literally as I type) is vainly struggling to get out of bed, I appreciate this post -- but do you happen to have any meta-willpower tricks? The techinque you described won't quite work for me, because I've realized I don't actually want to get out of bed; at best I want to want.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 12 May 2009 06:30:00PM 8 points [-]

Personally, I've had all of my difficulties with getting up early solved by the quick caffeine trick. In short: have an alarm clock sound an hour or so before you should actually get up, when you reset it spend 10 seconds grabbing a caffeine pill and swallowing it, set the clock to repeat the alarm in an 30-60 minutes, and go back to sleep. By the time your clock will sound again, it's likely that the caffeine will have made you want to get up.

Comment author: pjeby 12 May 2009 05:36:02PM 8 points [-]

I don't actually want to get out of bed; at best I want to want.

Try imagining that you want to get out of bed. ;-)

Really, there's no such thing as meta-willpower. Our brains don't really have meta-responses, they have sequential responses, where the "meta" thought is simply "about" the preceding thought.

However, we're as easily fooled and distracted by these "meta" thoughts as by any other thought, and following/believing in them drops you out of monoidealism just as easily. In Coue's words, when the imagination and will are in conflict, the imagination always wins. You need to only imagine getting out of bed, to the exclusion of any thoughts about whether you want to. And you need to either imagine it already happening, or about it happening after a countdown... as long as you imagine and expect that it will actually happen.

Comment author: sparrowsfall 12 May 2009 03:05:41PM 1 point [-]

Given the various research suggesting that our back brains make decisions before "we" know about them (admittedly rather nicely challenged by Daniel Dennett in Freedom Evolves), here's to suggest that the only real influence we have on decisions is the processed information we feed into that back brain.

In other words, we formulate a problem, feed it back, and ask, "how do I feel about this?" Back comes the decision, with no take-it-or-leave-it options. It's a done deal.

Comment author: hegemonicon 12 May 2009 02:24:37PM 1 point [-]

I'd be willing to bet that ANY routine, no matter what it was, makes it easier to get out of bed if you stick to it. The trick is to do something enough times (I've heard that you need to do something 11 times in a row to make it a habit) to where it becomes the default behavior, so it actually requires a small amount of work to break the habit.

It's establishing a local minimum of effort you need to apply. The absolute minimum would be staying in bed - no effort required whatsoever. But to get there you need to break the habit you've established, which requires SLIGHTLY more effort than just getting out of bed. The result being you'll stick to the habits you've set up unless you interrupt the subconscious processes that carry them out with your "free won't" (conscious thought).

Comment author: Lawliet 12 May 2009 10:31:46AM 2 points [-]

While we're talking about getting out of bed, try telling yourself to wiggle your toe rather than to get up completely, gets easier from there.

Comment author: Document 19 February 2010 07:23:19PM 0 points [-]

I usually go with lifting my arms or something like that - basically the simplest motion that still moves me towards my goal, or I think about what I want to do until I can identify the first motion I'm going to make. I use it for other things too.

Comment author: Jordan 13 May 2009 04:51:08PM 1 point [-]

I do this. I find the hardest thing to do when getting up is raising my head above my body. Anything that doesn't involve that is easy, even up to rolling out of bed, hitting the floor, and doing push ups.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 12 May 2009 10:01:27AM *  1 point [-]

Hypothesis: Do this for long enough and eventually you will start feeling noticeably more awake before finishing the count.

The difficulty in this is, of course, ensuring that one actually does get up after finishing the count. In my experience, these kinds of cheap hacks work up until the point where some other impulse just gets too strong (maybe you're really exhausted), after which the illusion is dispelled because now the "subconscious" knows that you're trying to "trick it", and won't play along in the future.

Disclaimer: Scare quotes used because of loaded terms that I don't necessarily endorse fully.

Comment author: ciphergoth 27 January 2010 12:57:46PM 0 points [-]

It stops working because the trick depends on the credibility of your resolutions; if they lose their credibility they stop working. Breakdown of Will explains why your resolutions need credibility, but in short, at the moment the countdown finishes, your reversed preferences mean that staying in bed seems to carry a higher payoff than getting up, but sticking to the resolution still seems to have a higher payoff than abandoning it because of all the future mornings it will work for. If the resolution doesn't have credibility, you can't believe in those future mornings.

Comment author: hrishimittal 12 May 2009 09:28:57AM *  0 points [-]

This reminds of this probably well known Steve Pavlina blog post, where he suggests rote learning the act of getting up as fast as possible when the alarm goes off.

The solution is to delegate the problem. Turn the whole thing over to your subconscious mind. Cut your conscious mind out of the loop.

Now how do you do this? The same way you learned any other repeatable skill. You practice until it becomes rote. Eventually your subconscious will take over and run the script on autopilot.

Now I just need to fight my akrasia to do that damn practice.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 12 May 2009 10:05:39AM *  6 points [-]

Now I just need to fight my akrasia to do that damn practice.

Alas, problems of motivating action tend to be turtles all the way down.

Comment author: marianasoffer 12 May 2009 08:31:06AM 0 points [-]

That mechanism was known long time ago. It is in part to habituation, when you have a neural circuit that works in a certain way, one action will trigger another forever until you change the circuit. Neuroplasticity allows us to create this circuits, and also to change them. Also there is the fact that the mind responds to an internal generated scenario as well as it responds to an external one, although in a lower degree. Finally, it has been demonstrated that the belief that something will cause something else in our mental state usually becomes true; it works like a placebo for mental states.

Comment author: AngryParsley 12 May 2009 09:38:47AM 5 points [-]

If I ain't read it, it's news to me.

Eliezer doesn't claim much besides the fact that it works for him. You're trafficking in terms such as "fact" and "demonstrated" and "mechanism." It would be nice if you could share your knowledge. Can you link to some articles or studies or something? In other words, {{Citation needed}}.