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Share Your Anti-Akrasia Tricks

20 Post author: Vladimir_Golovin 15 May 2009 07:06PM

People have been encouraging me to share my anti-akrasia tricks, but it feels inappropriate to dedicate a top-level post solely to unproven techniques that work for some person and may not work for others, so:

Go ahead and share your anti-akrasia tricks!

Let's make it an open thread where we just share what works and what doesn't, without worrying (yet) about having to explain tricks with deep theories, or designing proper experiments to verify them. However, if you happen to have a theory or a proposed experiment in mind, please share.

Bragging is fine, but please share the failures of your techniques as well – they are just as valuable, if not more.

Note to readers – before you read the comments and try the tricks, keep in mind that the techniques below are not yet proven supported or explained by proper experiments, and are not yet backed by theory. They may work for their authors, but are not guaranteed to work for you, so try them at your own risk. It would be even better to read the following posts before rushing to try the tricks:

Comments (117)

Comment author: synkarius 21 January 2012 03:31:29AM *  0 points [-]

I appear to be unable to delete my comment.

Comment author: beriukay 01 December 2010 01:29:12PM 1 point [-]

This trick, which I have been using for about 8 weeks now, was my way of borrowing from the motivational iPhone app, Epic Win, which rewards you for getting things done. Since I haven't jumped on the smart phone bandwagon just yet, I decided to take a plain old notebook and write down bullet points of the things that I have done. On days where I feel accomplished, I might only jot down the big ticket items (installed dishwasher); on the less satisfying days, I will include more mundane tasks (brushed teeth).

The point is, in contrast with the techniques that capitalize on cognitive dissonance and anxiety, to raise awareness of your actual accomplishments so as to reduce the activation cost of doing the things you want to get done. For me, the sheer magnitude of my To Do lists have on many occasion crippled my motivation to actually do anything. I might go so far as to say that it helped keep drinking booze as my #1 hobby for most of my 20s.

But having this pen-and-paper game of filling out as many entries in a day as possible has given me a tactile understanding of all the things I actually do get done, and allows me to move past my oft-crippling anxieties. It has also provided a good media for certain types of info-logging, like cataloging my sleep schedule (oh to have a stable schedule, like Rationalist Harry Potter), and noting the effects of caffeine, exercise and booze on the quality and duration of sleep.

Comment author: Document 19 February 2010 10:11:30PM 0 points [-]

Is there a program for Win XP that counts down a specified time, freezes the computer for a further specified time, then sets it to hibernate or sleep? I use a laptop, so I can sometimes use the battery as a timer, but it's not ideal.

Comment author: Shelby 20 May 2009 11:54:56AM 0 points [-]

Hi everyone. I'm reading the productivity articles and suggestions on this site with some fascination.

I can understand anti-akrasia tricks being applied to certain things like health-related goals, or maybe even just finishing university.

What I'm not sure about is using tricks like these for other purposes, especially career or art-related goals. I guess my question is, if you've got to use tricks like these, maybe its a good sign you're in the wrong field, and you need to reevaluate what to pursue? I mean maybe, just maybe, you really, really don't find any intrinsic enjoyment in your chosen field, and its time to move on to something else?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 20 May 2009 01:28:34PM *  2 points [-]

In which case that won't be akrasia, and treating the procrastination as akrasia was a mistake. But this is not universally so. In most cases, procrastination actually is akrasia. And it's usually a good idea to apply any method you know to everything you do, which refines both the method and your performance.

Comment author: XFrequentist 20 May 2009 03:56:20AM 5 points [-]

Surprised no one's mentioned it before. Structured Procrastination is a great productivity trick.

Basically, you can get lots of useful but secondary tasks done as a way of avoiding an undesirable primary task.

Comment author: nickk 15 April 2010 11:09:19PM *  0 points [-]

it's structured procrastination but it's still procrastination my friend. I think the most dangerous thing about procrastination is that you create new tasks for yourself that seem useful, when in fact they are completely unessential.

Comment author: XFrequentist 20 April 2010 01:58:21AM 1 point [-]

The point (as I took it) is that there are lots of valuable but non-urgent things one could do at any given time, and doing these as a way of avoiding something can make you quite accomplished. Doing "completely unessential" tasks wouldn't be Structured Procrastination, it would just be procrastination.

Clearly, this method would be inappropriate if you had one major task of such importance that doing anything else was a complete waste of time.

Comment author: MendelSchmiedekamp 19 May 2009 02:53:44PM 0 points [-]

I have several procrastination techniques as well as some meta-techniques I apply to other forms of akrasia as well.

First, I use flexibility to deal with procrastination, for example I maintain multiple different to-do lists to avoid the natural tendency to over-hierarchialize the tasks I need to do. I find my procrastination tends to be focused, so being able to out-flank that particular akrasia can be very helpful.

I extend this idea to anti-akrasia techniques, as a meta-technique, keeping a variety available at any time and being willing to jump between them - based on observation, and in the moment experimentation. Sometimes a focusing technique may be very helpful, sometimes a relaxation technique, sometimes a forced multi-task will shove the akrasic loop out of my mind, and sometimes nothing else will do except an extreme expenditure of will and adrenaline (in an emergency).

The point is our minds easily turn any consistently applied method into a habit, and as a habit it can become the impression of the method rather than what works. Of course the other side of the sword is that part of akrasia is that sometimes what you need won't even occur to you, habitual or otherwise. Remember, some crises of will happen not in decisions but in awareness.

A second technique I use in procrastination is to be a good loser. Procrastination can be an excellent opportunity if exploited appropriately. I can refresh my mental reserves. I can tap unused mental "cycles" to work on long term projects (even, if I'm careful, the very projects that I put off). I can even foreshorten my replacement task by embracing it, which if I'm are clever can be replaced by something else I've been procrastinating on.

This idea also generalizes to a meta-technique, I should gain some advantage even when I give in to akrasia. Even if its just the ability to overcome it better at a later time.

Comment author: Jonnan 19 May 2009 03:00:52AM 0 points [-]

I do not always agree with Kant, but his advice re (loose translation) "Act as if you were the leader of the world and everyone would copy their actions based on yours" has seemed to me to be good advice over the years.

Plus I get to pretend I run the world, instead of that cabal of unseen shadow-puppeteers secretly manipulating things from behind the scenes - I HATE them. HATE THEM HATE THEM HATE THEM . . . umm, have you read my resume yet?

Jonnan

Comment author: pwno 17 May 2009 09:05:21PM 0 points [-]

Here's a bit I wrote for my school paper:

In my opinion, the best way to combat akrasia is to put yourself in situations where the willpower necessary is minimized. Below, I've made a list of tricks you can use that allow you to minimize the willpower necessary to start doing schoolwork you're not motivated to do.

Give yourself artificial time pressure. Make plans to do something fun with friends about an hour from the time you want to start working. This way, your deadline is brought closer in time and you'll need less willpower to get started. Worst case, if you don't finish your work before your artificial deadline, you can cancel your plans with your friends: a better alternative than missing the real deadline.

Have your ego work for you. If you have a big ego, this tip is a good one for you. Tell your roommates or family that you're going to start studying by a certain time. You'll be pressured to act consistently with your word because now you will face looking like a liar or just lazy.

Drive somewhere far away to do work. Muster the willpower to drive somewhere far away to do work. Once you get there, you'll feel obligated to start working.

Eat almonds. Almonds give you energy, reduce your appetite and are healthy. Getting started with your work will be easier when your willpower isn't fighting hunger or sleepiness.

Study with hard-working friends. Many people get this one wrong. They study with people who are easily distracted and always want to play. If your willpower can barely get you working, it won't help if it's preoccupied suppressing desires to play. Instead, find friends that work hard in groups. They'll peer pressure you into focusing on your work.

Make a 5-minute commitment. Force yourself to commit to doing just 5 minutes of work and that's it. You may not have the willpower to complete the assignment, but maybe enough for 5 minutes. Even though you only commit to 5 minutes, it is better than nothing and plus there is a chance you'll surpass the 5-minute mark on your own.

Pay the price of procrastination. This one is for those who are chronic procrastinators. Give your trusted friend some amount of money and have him incrementally pay it back to you as you accomplish your goals. For instance, once you finish a page of your essay by a certain time, he'll give you a quarter of your money back. Being productive will never seem easier.

Comment author: olimay 20 May 2009 04:50:56AM 1 point [-]

Pay the price of procrastination. This one is for those who are chronic procrastinators. Give your trusted friend some amount of money and have him incrementally pay it back to you as you accomplish your goals. For instance, once you finish a page of your essay by a certain time, he'll give you a quarter of your money back. Being productive will never seem easier.

It sounds like a good idea, but it's never worked very well for me. I've tried monetary and other forms of incentives. Sometimes it would work, but over the longer term some part of me began to get more and more desensitized to failing. During some periods, it actually put me into a mode of learned helplessness, and even despair, where "akrasia" can describe nearly every aspect of life.

In general, I find that using negative incentives to motivate distracts me. Instead of taking action, the increasing salience of the possibility and consequences of failure makes it more likely to "hide" or just give up.

Comment author: pjeby 17 May 2009 11:27:50PM 3 points [-]

Give yourself artificial time pressure....

You'll be pressured to act...

you'll feel obligated

Pay the price of procrastination...

This sounds like a list of ways to make your life worse, not better, especially if you're a chronic procrastinator. If you're a chronic procrastinator, increasing pressure increases procrastination, rather than decreasing it.

These sorts of approaches are much more useful for optimists than pessimists, as optimists won't treat any failures as personal or devastating, and they won't experience risk paralysis.

But chronic procrastinators already assign so much personal blame and social shame to even trivial failures, that for them these approaches would be like recommending that alcoholics drink more as a way of getting sober. That is, it's more of precisely what they already have way too much of.

Comment author: pwno 17 May 2009 11:42:24PM 0 points [-]

Yea, I think you're right.

Dealing with chronic procrastinators is a completely different issue.

Comment author: Nominull 17 May 2009 07:41:44PM 27 points [-]

I read these tricks for avoiding procrastination and I find myself terrified at the idea of trying them at a gut level, because what if they work? What if I actually find myself playing fewer videogames and surfing the internet less? That doesn't actually sound better, now that I have to seriously consider the possibility of changing this state of affairs.

Based on this revelation, I have to say I am coming around to the point of view that a lot of what we call "akrasia" is just us not wanting to admit, to others or to ourselves, what our actual desires are, so we make up more socially acceptable desires and then when we pursue our actual desires instead we blame akrasia.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 18 May 2009 07:58:12PM *  12 points [-]

Another type of "fear of anti-akrasia techniques" that sometimes occurs, is fear/mistrust of what one's own conscious decision-making process might goof up, if that decision-making process is abruptly given increased power. (This differs from Nominull’s description, because in this scenario you don’t specifically fear surfing the internet less, or any other specific foreseen change; you fear the effects of suddenly removing a system of internal checks and balances, and handing your internal reins over to a new and untested cognitive subsystem.)

Even if your consciously claimed preferences are your “real” preferences (which is not at all obvious, given that claimed preferences may be chosen for the purpose of affecting your self-image or your external social image, rather than for the purpose of choosing between future outcomes)...

... even in this case, there’s the additional problem that your consciously claimed “beliefs” may not be your actual anticipations, and, even if they are your actual anticipations, may be a worse model of the world than is the model implicit in our cultural action-patterns. A person who “believes” her actions will determine whether she spends eternity in heaven or hell, but who has ordinary levels of akrasia and mostly just does what the people around her are doing, is less harmed by her beliefs than she would be if she could actually act take the actions that her stated beliefs and preferences imply. Ditto for a person who believes a strange and unhealthy diet would be beneficial (but can’t seem to fully stick to the new diet), or who believes overconfidently that a particular particular peak oil scenario is “99% likely” (but takes some of his actions in a more ordinary manner anyhow).

If people were easily able to act on their consciously claimed beliefs and preferences, present levels of irrational beliefs might lead to considerably more disruption than they do. Conversely, if people had more reason to trust their “beliefs” and “preferences”, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if akrasia decreased.

This connection is one reason that learning to actually form reasonable beliefs (epistemic rationality), and learning to act in a manner that actually makes sense given one’s beliefs and preferences (overcoming “akrasia”), strike me as linked aspects of a single art.

Comment author: David_Gerard 07 May 2011 12:31:01PM -1 points [-]

Another type of "fear of anti-akrasia techniques" that sometimes occurs, is fear/mistrust of what one's own conscious decision-making process might goof up, if that decision-making process is abruptly given increased power. (This differs from Nominull’s description, because in this scenario you don’t specifically fear surfing the internet less, or any other specific foreseen change; you fear the effects of suddenly removing a system of internal checks and balances, and handing your internal reins over to a new and untested cognitive subsystem.)

It strikes me that this is similar to theists' fear of taking God away and morality then being undetermined: they don't trust themselves, or the rest of us. (But we knew that.) It's interesting to consider it as a more general case of fear of thought about thought. The roots of anti-rationality get everywhere.

Comment author: steven0461 19 May 2009 10:07:51AM *  3 points [-]

Even in people whose conscious world models are basically sane (by our exacting LW standards), when they're considering doing or planning for some weird, uncomfortable, and out-of-the-ordinary action seemingly justified by weighing costs and benefits, it seems to me that akrasia can sometimes be a rational stand-in for some considerations they don't keep conscious track of, including but not limited to: reputation costs, willpower loss / ego depletion, other limits to worry, the inference that if one weird thing seems especially important now others are going to seem especially important in the future, the possibility that one might waste resources by not following through on a weird plan, the desirability of keeping one's mind "cleaner" by keeping fewer chunks in one's planning space, benefits of long-term happiness and of not associating unhappiness with rationality to oneself or to other people, benefits of having one's actions and motivations make sense to other people, various self-image issues. There are going to be many unmodeled considerations in the other direction too, but I suspect they will normally be fewer.

It's better to forego a 1-expected-util hare-brained scheme than let it distract you into a 20% chance of foregoing a 10-expected-util hare-brained scheme, or so Morgensternsai tells me.

On the other hand, I don't want to hand people tools for mediocrity here; many times akrasia in these situations really is just irrational. I wish I had a better idea of when.

Comment author: pjeby 17 May 2009 11:45:01PM 4 points [-]

Based on this revelation, I have to say I am coming around to the point of view that a lot of what we call "akrasia" is just us not wanting to admit, to others or to ourselves, what our actual desires are, so we make up more socially acceptable desires and then when we pursue our actual desires instead we blame akrasia.

Yep - akrasia is anosognosia of the will. That is, a comfortable explanation for why we do things, when we actually have no real idea why we do them.

That's why the only stable, life-enhancing anti-akrasia strategies are those that either include ways to satisfy all your existing desires, or that directly modify those existing desires. ("Unschedule"-type ideas fall into the former category, mindhacking techniques the latter.)

Comment author: [deleted] 20 May 2009 03:41:33PM *  0 points [-]

del

Comment author: pjeby 20 May 2009 05:11:54PM 0 points [-]

I would like to watch a video where you explain potentially successful "unschedule"-type ideas.

Not my area of specialty, really. People here have posted several, and have linked to explanations of Neil Fiore's concept. To the extent that I work with the "satisfy all desires" mode, I merely help people learn to find out what their desires are, and to find more fulfilling ways of satisfying them.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 18 May 2009 10:53:28AM 3 points [-]

One simple way to partially satisfy existing desires are just to affirm them as part of your volition. Literally tell the agents that are those desires that you don't intend to defect on them if they cooperate with you by using your ability to execute long-term efforts to stomp them out without giving them due consideration whatever that turns out, upon careful and caring reflection, to be.

Comment author: pjeby 18 May 2009 02:22:57PM 2 points [-]

Literally tell the agents that are those desires that you don't intend to defect on them

Well, that's a bit more anthropomorphic than necessary. More to the point, it continues the dissociation frame where you are disidentifying yourself from those desires. They are your desires, they don't belong to some sort of independent agent in your skin. If you don't take ownership of them, then you're not going to be in control of them, either.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 17 May 2009 11:29:22PM 4 points [-]

Interesting data point. I too have felt a strange fear of actually overcoming akrasia. However, I interpret it as a fear of inconsistency--like being afraid of waking up one day as a completely different person (albeit a better one by my own standards), and not being able to explain what happened. I try to tell myself that the part of myself that is so afraid is being silly: I don't need to fear winning too quickly, because that just doesn't happen, and if it did I should only be grateful--and if someone were to explicitly ask how the radical discontinuity came about, I could simply express my honest ignorance.

Strange that we would seem to describe similar experiences (fear of the outcome marked "Success" actually occurring), but that you should count it as evidence that akrasia is an excuse, whereas I don't. For myself, it still seems (more than ever, really) that I do want to change--for I have changed, however slowly. I don't play games anymore, and count myself happier for it.

Comment author: pwno 17 May 2009 09:00:52PM 0 points [-]

...is just us not wanting to admit, to others or to ourselves, what our actual desires are

That's definitely a possible mistake. Sort of reminds me of how people say, "everyone acts rationally because they always do what they want to do. It is impossible to be irrational!" This isn't true, however, if you're trying to maximize utility within your expected lifetime.

But I think most of us use the word to categories the the feeling that arises from wanting to (not) want something. Because, after all, we aren't just trying to maximize utility for the moment we are in.

Comment author: JamesCole 17 May 2009 11:36:49AM 5 points [-]

just some quick thoughts on some general principles...

Build habits. Habits have momentum, and they can suck you into a task without you trying.

Associating a place with a task (if you can). That's one good way to build a habit. I go to a local coffeeshop to do PhD writing. That's all I do there, and I don't go there otherwise. I find it quite useful. If it's a place you don't do any other tasks at, it's less likely to trigger habits associated with them.

Make the habits generic, so you can always invoke them. If you make the initial task "start writing" (start writing /anything/ - it doesn't matter what), then this applies regardless of what you are writing or what you are writing it for.

Minimised the (perceived) next task. Make it easy to start.

/Doing/ has momentum. Make the initial task very simple. Simply by continuing to work on it, it can gather momentum and snowball and if that happens you don't have to even think about trying to do next thing.

Impose non-negotiable constraints (where possible). The coffeeshop I do my PhD writing at doesn't have any internet access, so I can't stuff around on the net even if I wanted to. (I understand that many tasks require internet access - this is just an example of the general principle). I also don't have Freecell or Solitare etc installed on my computer.

Have other's around who can see you (as has been mentioned elsewhere in this thread). That's another thing I suspect is an benefit of writing in a public place... it feels harder to slack off.

Comment author: bentarm 17 May 2009 01:30:08AM 10 points [-]

I imagine this is a pretty well-known trick, I think I took it from an essay by Paul Halmos, but might be mistaken. It was originally suggested in the context of writing a mathematics paper, but would probably apply a lot more generally as well.

The trick is: always stop writing for the day in the middle of a sentence; preferably an important one.

For many people, the hardest part of writing is starting to write - if you've stopped in the middle of a sentence, you have an obvious starting point, and you can find it relatively easy to get into the rhythm.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 17 May 2009 04:09:40AM 3 points [-]

Writers seem to spend more time describing their tricks for avoiding procrastination than any other profession.

Comment author: bentarm 21 May 2009 10:26:29PM 6 points [-]

I think writers probably spend more time thinking about tricks for avoiding procrastination than, say, binmen. If you're a binman there isn't much procrastination you can do - you get up in the morning, drive your lorry, pick up the bins and take them back to wherever it is binmen take bins to. If you don't, you get fired. For a writer, the schedule of a days work is much less well-defined and, probably more importantly, the deadlines tend to be much longer. Whether writers spend more time thinking about procrastination than, say, freelance web-designers is a different question.

I certainly spend much more time procrastinating now that I'm trying to write a PhD than I did as an undergraduate when I had exercises to hand in each week - currently my only 'deadline' is to finish in about 3 years, which seems much too far away to worry about. Probably the fact that writing is a profession in which procrastination is an option combines with jimrandomh's point to produce the effect you're talking about.

Comment author: Joe 08 July 2009 02:28:11AM 1 point [-]

Yeah PhD/academia is the absolute worst, because the timespan is quite long, and many of the deadlines are soft. Miss a paper deadline? Just submit to the next one, with a slightly greater chance of being scooped. Not done your thesis on time? Just ask for an extension, and waste more months/years of your life. Grad school is truly the snooze button on the alarm clock of life.

Comment author: jimrandomh 17 May 2009 04:52:28AM 8 points [-]

They spend more time writing about their tricks for avoiding procrastination, but that's simply because they spend so much more time writing in general. Whether they actually spend more time thinking about and discussing procrastination is not so clear.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 17 May 2009 01:22:30AM *  2 points [-]

I don't know if I'm facing the same problem as most people. I'm usually working, but I spread my effort out among so many tasks that most go unfinished. I read so many books that I forget 99% of what I read before I ever get a chance to use it. It's ludicrous; when I have an hour to read, I find it difficult to take less than 4 books with me even though I know I can read only 1 of them. I keep buying more books even though I have literally hundreds of books in my stack of books-waiting-to-be-read.

I think my problem is too much curiousity, and too much ambition, and too much trying to do everything myself instead of hiring or allying with other people to get things done.

I tried hiring a guy to do some of my programming for me, but he could never give a firm answer as to whether he would get around to doing something today / this week / next week / never.

Comment author: aluchko 16 May 2009 10:45:12PM 12 points [-]

Just a personal observation that for me there seem to be two classes of akrasia.

1) Inertial akrasia: I should be doing task X, I could do task X well if I just got going, I just can't seem to make myself do task X.

2) Exhaustive akrasia: I want to do task X but I've exhausted my willpower reserve. It's hard to start task X and even when I start I generally drift off-task as I've expunged my willpower reserves.

Type 1) akrasia consists of things like getting out of bed and procrastinating, type 2) is more zoning out midday or being unproductive after getting home from work.

They have similar symptoms and a fair amount of overlap but different treatments. Type 1 seems to generally be tricks to get you started, ie counting to 10, setting deadlines, etc. For type 2 treatments are more removing distractions (don't challenge your depleted willpower reserves) and taking a real break to replenish (ie watch a movie or work every other day).

Personally I think a lot of my troubles come when I try treating type 2 as type 1 or vice versa.

For instance often in the morning I'll often take a while to get working despite the fact my willpower reserves should be near full. Instead of taking a break I should have a trick to start working. Conversely at the end of the day I'll sometimes spend the last half hour reading websites and intermittently poking at a project, unwilling to admit that I've run out of willpower and thinking I just need a trick to get going.

I suspect that my failure to correctly identify which kind of akrasia I'm experiencing so I can treat it accordingly is partially a form of akrasia itself.

Does anyone else have similar experiences?

Comment author: AshwinV 27 November 2013 11:30:26AM 0 points [-]

This may sound strange, but often closing my eyes and visualising random images helps in overcoming type 2 akrasia.

Comment author: AshwinV 27 November 2013 11:31:38AM 0 points [-]

This may sound strange, but often closing my eyes and visualising random images helps ME in overcoming type 2 akrasia.

Comment author: JamesCole 17 May 2009 10:54:43AM 3 points [-]

For instance often in the morning I'll often take a while to get working despite the fact my willpower reserves should be near full.

If you do a lot of work during the day you may end up getting exhausted and having little willpower left. But that in itself doesn't mean that you start off with a full tank in the morning and it gets slowly depleted as time goes on or as you do more work.

I suspect that you probably start off with a bit less willpower in the morning, and that it can go up and down in range throughout the day in response to what happens. For example, if you have a lot of frustration, that may make it go down, whereas if you have some wins that might make it go up. I'm not denying that eventually the work will start draining your willpower, though.

I also think that getting things done is less a matter of having sufficient willpower, and more one of structuring tasks so as to remove, as much as possible, the need for willpower.

I think that our bodies/brains are designed to take on smaller, more concrete tasks that are familiar to us, and of a sort that work towards the sorts of goals our brains are wired (by evolution) to work towards. The more a task (or our perception of a task, actually) grates with this, the more willpower is required to undertake it.

So the trick is to structure things so that they're more like what our brains are suited to.

Comment author: Jack 16 May 2009 09:37:36PM 2 points [-]

The firefox addon LeechBlock works pretty well for me and I often turn it on when I have a lot of work to do. It lets you set time limits for certain websites (or sets of websites). I usually like having access to the internet when I work (I often need the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, dictionary/thesaurus and a citation generator) but LeechBlock does a good job limiting the time I spend on procrastination sites. Now you can always deactivate it by restarting firefox but usually I can catch myself before I do that. The key is just setting up little barriers that keep me from clicking without thinking.

Comment author: luispedro 16 May 2009 06:48:41PM *  1 point [-]

I write a time journal of what I am doing throughout the day, counting productive times. Whenever I start doing something not productive (reading a not-strictly-work-related website, say), I write down that I stopped working. When I reach 5 hours of work, I go home (I often go home before that, though).

I thought I could accustom myself to being productive and drop the journal after a couple of months, but I never managed to. Whenever I try, I go back to procrastination.

Comment author: Jaffa_Cakes 16 May 2009 02:32:44PM 1 point [-]

Long time reader, first time poster.

What I want to know is just what such important tasks and projects everyone here believes they should be working on, which causes them to probe so deeply into the concept of Akrasia.

I'm assuming that most of us have steady sources of income, respectable (if humble) careers, and no shortage of curiosity to read books and enjoy sport/entertainment in our free times. So where does the Akrasia anxiety fit in? Looking at productivity-seekers from the outside it just seems like they're fantasising about a completely different life from the one they live, and weave increasing elaborate theories about how to generate a function taking them from reality to fantasy.

I'd like to think I'm wrong, and everyone weighing in about how they're spending their free time curing AIDs, running charity events to buy books for orphans, and building robots to help old ladies cross the street would clarify this. If it's just "boo hoo, I'm so useless, I can't find the willpower to finish writing that SuDoku solver I started in C++ and I still haven't got all the stars on Mario Galaxy" then who really gives the square root of a toss?

Comment author: pjeby 16 May 2009 03:01:30PM 1 point [-]

What I want to know is just what such important tasks and projects everyone here believes they should be working on, which causes them to probe so deeply into the concept of Akrasia. ... I'd like to think I'm wrong, and everyone weighing in about how they're spending their free time curing AIDs, running charity events to buy books for orphans, and building robots to help old ladies cross the street would clarify this. If it's just "boo hoo, I'm so useless, I can't find the willpower to finish writing that SuDoku solver I started in C++ and I still haven't got all the stars on Mario Galaxy" then who really gives the square root of a toss?

You've just committed the Mind Projection Fallacy with respect to the notion of "important". What is important to you and important to other people may be different, as reality does not contain any XML tags marking one goal "important", and another one "trivial".

Comment author: Jaffa_Cakes 16 May 2009 03:28:18PM 3 points [-]

My post didn't come out quite how I intended. It reads like an angry rhetorical question, when it's supposed to be a sincere request for context. I'm baffled by the depth that people go into probing self-help ideas, talking in abstract vaguenesses of "getting things done" without revealing and explaining the personal goals that the techniques are supposed to help them achieve.

Given your profession and obsessive interest in the field PJ, perhaps you can give some examples of the sorts of objectives people need Akrasia-fighting techniques to accomplish? The examples I gave were humorous and the tone provocative, designed to draw out real goals from real practitioners. It was misjudged and looks like MPF, but that wasn't the intention.

I realise my request for examples of people's goals isn't exactly on-topic, but I find it almost impossible to understand the "tricks" and "secrets" people talk about on this topic when it's so divorced from the context of their specific goals. Let's have some examples to help those like me get what you're talking about. You first.

Comment author: olimay 20 May 2009 12:41:13AM 4 points [-]

Here's my context:

I failed out of a prestigious university (rather, I threw myself out before they could) because I just couldn't get work done. (Underachieving, chronically disorganized, call me whatever.) In the process I also ran myself into a huge amount of debt (did I mention I'd been in and out of there for six years before I quit?)

I run into repeated difficulty doing things most people find easy: sitting down and getting work done, waking up in the morning, estimating the amount of time it will take to get somewhere. I want to change the present course of my life. I know how a reasonable person in general conducts himself. Why can't I be like that? I understand what I am supposed to do, but on certain critical, common tasks, I fail. It's getting harder for me to achieve positive net outcomes, as the bad consequences of previous mistakes stack.

Blah blah blah.

I'm concerned with akrasia for much more than just procrastination. And, of course I'm concerned with plain old rationality: in the conventional sense and the Eliezer "win" sense. (I obviously don't have much of a grip on either.) I have trouble remembering when the last time I really did "win" was.

In summary: my reasons for wanting to learn about and discuss ways to be more rational in thought and action? I'm very bad at both. And it matters to me a great deal to get much, much better.

Comment author: glenra 18 May 2009 03:04:58AM *  1 point [-]

Let's have some examples to help those like me get what you're talking about.

I'll bite.

"Get (back) in shape" is one of my big specific goals. If I can significantly improve (and then maintain!) my physical condition this year there is a good chance I will have the opportunity to perform in an off-Broadway show. Which would be a significant-to-me artistic achievement - and there's a looming deadline. One difficulty there is forcing myself to exercise as much as is appropriate to the situation.

"Create and publish my first iPhone application" is another goal. That one really tends to gets off track since it involves using a computer, which means it's easy to get sidetracked by email or reddit or stackoverflow or lesswrong. I know once I get "in the zone" on that sort of task it's hard to stop, but I'm not there yet - I'm at the early, frustrating stage of the project.

Also: keeping up and/or improving various artistic skills that might or might not culminate in future public performance... reading technical texts to keep up in my field...that's probably enough for a start.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 17 May 2009 11:59:43PM 4 points [-]

P. J. Eby nailed it: anything worth doing, is worth doing better. All the activities you mention in your first post qualify as examples, as does any other activity. If you've pledged your life towards curing AIDS, then you should strive to do ever better at that until the menace of the syndrome is utterly rid from this world. Or you mention having the curiosity to read books. But it is not enough simply that one reads books. We want to read more books, and the right books in the right order! A human life is so ridiculously short compared to the possibilities existence has to offer. I say it is a horrible tragedy that a person should die without finishing that sudoku solver, or getting all the stars in Super Mario Galaxy---if that's what she would have truly cared about on reflection. And if it isn't, then it's a horrible tragedy that she had spent time on the sudoku solver or the video game instead of working on what she would have cared most desperately about on reflection.

Comment author: Emily 16 May 2009 07:35:11PM 2 points [-]

Personally I'm not talking about anything important that I "believe I should be working on" except work for my university course. Obviously this is important to me and I do believe I should be working on it, but it doesn't seem like this is the type of thing you're looking for -- more like personal, aside-from-the-day-job tasks like the writing-a-novel example? Many people do have that sort of goal, I guess (I certainly do during breaks from uni), but there's nothing to stop the goals being more everyday ones. My guess is that most people are talking about any work that has to be mostly self-motivated -- that is, there's no one standing over you threatening to fire you if you don't get it done right now, or something similar.

Comment author: paukkumaissi 16 May 2009 12:03:16PM 18 points [-]

I use Adrafinil, which is a non-controlled version of Modafinil. Taking one pill makes me want to do intellectual work and gives me better focus. Taking two pills makes me so sharp I find it a bit difficult to "chill out", so I really feel like spending my energy on working.

The downside is it's difficult to wind down in the evening when I just want to relax, but that's what cannabis is for, I guess.

Comment author: gwern 20 May 2009 02:44:37AM *  7 points [-]

In the same vein of pharmaceutical solutions...

I used to, as a college student, have a terrible time getting to bed. I had 8 AM classes, and so I really needed to go to bed at a reasonable time like midnight (and not 2 or 3 AM); and in the morning I would regret tremendously staying up late. A classic case of akrasia - I could probably have even quantified it all in terms of grades.

My solution was to realize that the problem was that at any moment I was enjoying whatever more than I needed the sleep. I needed some way to induce a 'false' sleepiness. So I looked up the options and found melatonin. 3mg of melatonin would practically club me into sleepiness after 30 minutes - so it solved the issue of not wanting to go to bed.

Of course, this caused another problem: taking the melatonin at the right time! But this turned out to be much less of an issue, perhaps because taking a pill is so much easier than winding up for the night and going to bed.

EDIT: see my full length post on melatonin: http://lesswrong.com/lw/1lt/case_study_melatonin/

Comment author: Document 17 February 2010 07:48:08AM 0 points [-]

I'd be worried about "too tired to go to bed" syndrome, but that might work for me if I avoided doing things where the syndrome would apply.

Comment author: gwern 18 February 2010 03:05:03AM 1 point [-]

I've had that on occasion with modafinil, but melatonin doesn't seem to suffer from that; which makes sense, given its role in sleep - it can't make you need to sleep and not make you need to sleep, if you follow me. (The real danger is the dual to your syndrome: 'too tired to wake up', when you overdose heavily and feel like shite in the morning.)

Comment author: patrissimo 20 May 2009 02:42:39AM 3 points [-]

Me too, except I use Modafinil b/c it has a shorter half-life so it doesn't keep me up at night. I use it 1-3x/week.

Comment author: Emile 16 May 2009 08:23:38AM 8 points [-]

For my personal programming projects, I keep a small text file of "Next Action" - small, concrete tasks that can be done in little time. That means I don't spend much time agonizing over what to do next, and can start get back to work relatively quickly after a pause. I regularly purge the list of stuff I don't really want to do, or of stuff that's too complex.

I also avoid IM, and turn off email notifications.

Comment author: Emily 16 May 2009 08:08:20AM 12 points [-]

Really really simple procrastination trick that works wonders for me: don't just minimise the browser when trying to work, close it. If I need to use it for something work-related, one tab only and close it again immediately afterwards. The trick here, I think, is that flipping to the browser window is an automatic reaction when I get stuck on my work. If my mouse goes to the taskbar and it isn't there, the extra moment required to think: "Oh, I'll have to relaunch it" is just about enough to override the automatic reaction with: "No, I'm working".

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 19 May 2009 06:59:48AM *  1 point [-]

don't just minimise the browser when trying to work, close it.

There are a couple of other trivial inconveniences that can be installed on the path between you and the browser:

  1. Remove the browser shortcut from the quick launch / taskbar and the desktop, so that every time you feel the urge to browse the interwebz, you have to actually navigate the Program Menu (or its equivalent in your OS).

  2. If you use Firefox, turn off your bookmarks toolbar via the right-click menu, so that you have to actually type URLs.

Comment author: Document 17 February 2010 07:44:55AM *  0 points [-]

Under Windows XP, I noticed that if I disabled my WLAN adapter while logged in as Administrator, I couldn't re-enable it while logged in as Home. So I decided to generally work as Home with the adapter disabled, and when I needed to go online, temporarily plug in an external adapter (possibly limiting my online time using my laptop's battery and/or my bladder). I should note that I'm not doing any of that now, though.

Occasionally I've driven to somewhere where I don't have access to the Internet at all, and sometimes left my laptop home too, but I haven't adopted that as a regular thing; for one thing, I need a separate motivation to get me in the car to begin with.

Comment author: matt 18 May 2009 11:51:55PM 3 points [-]

And generally, reduce the availability of distractions. If you notice something attractive that you could be doing instead of what you think you should be doing, you'll need to spend willpower to suppress doing it.

Comment author: Emily 16 May 2009 08:00:39AM *  4 points [-]

I'm quite a good morning-worker, but I tend to have a major slump after I've accomplished my first one or two tasks of the day. I need to take a break at this point, but sometimes this break turns into never actually managing to get started again that day at all.

So on days when I can, I trick myself into getting two morning-fresh-starts by doing my first task or two before my usual morning routine (shower, get dressed, etc. Breakfast is exempt from this because I don't work well at all when I'm hungry). When I run out of steam, I go and have the shower etc. That's a nice bit of a break, and when I come back my mind seems to be tricked into thinking it's just beginning the morning again. I can get at least a couple more hours' work done before the slump kicks in again.

Now I need another trick that I can use to get re-started after that... and I also need to work out how I can apply a similar trick on days when I have to go out somewhere first thing and therefore can't use the not-showering trick...

Comment author: Liron 16 May 2009 05:10:06AM *  8 points [-]

The best motivator for me is meeting other people's expectations, or trying to impress them.

Anecdote 1: A few summers ago, my friend paid me $100 to make a website for his babysitting business. I started working on it at his house and he saw me and realized it was going to take significantly more than the 8 hours I predicted. So every day he would come over to my house to watch me work on the site. It went at a steady pace and I finished after 25 hours of work. Meanwhile I had another, more important programming project that I was being unproductive at.

Anecdote 2: At work, when I'm feeling unmotivated, I think "What's the quickest way I can show my boss a demo of something to prove I've been working?"

Anecdote 3: If I work out at the gym by myself, I never do the exercises that feel awkward unless someone is watching, and I don't make quite the impossible effort to strain my muscle more after it already feels dead.

Side note: When I'm at work, I always think "This is so tedious. I'm looking forward to getting on with my workout later." Then when I'm working out, I think "This is so damn painful. I'm looking forward to just sitting at work and writing code."

Comment author: freyley 16 May 2009 05:07:18AM 4 points [-]

Very few tricks have worked for me for the long term. Exercise helps, as does eating well. Most tricks I've tried, including scheduling tasks, taking days off, changes of location and taskcard systems, have only given me the benefit of any change -- a few days of productivity, followed by return of akrasia.

Comment author: haig 16 May 2009 04:45:07AM *  9 points [-]

Well, from reading the comments it seems the most popular type of akrasia that hinders this group is procrastination. I'm sure other weaknesses of will are common, but procrastination seems to be an overwhelmingly common nuisance. This paper http://www.uni-konstanz.de/FuF/SozWiss/fg-psy/gollwitzer/PUBLICATIONS/McCreaetal.PsychSci09.pdf might hint at why this is so. The gist is that the more abstract the tasks/projects/goals are, the more you will procrastinate. As the tasks become more concrete, the procrastination is eliminated. An example is the abstract concept of 'write that essay' vs. 'pick up pen & paper and begin mind-mapping' or whatever.

It is probably fair to assume that most people here are more abstract thinkers compared with the average population and thus might be extra sensitive to procrastination.

Comment author: pwno 16 May 2009 05:00:56PM *  1 point [-]

What about the concrete task of cleaning my room which I always procrastinate about.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 17 May 2009 02:42:05PM *  2 points [-]

Try P.J. Eby's pull motivation video -- should work for this kind of tasks.
http://thinkingthingsdone.com/2008/07/thoughts-into-action.html

Comment author: pwno 17 May 2009 07:29:11PM 0 points [-]

I actually watched that sometime between my previous post and your reply. And, it works! I always thought I should focus on making the processes of cleaning my room more fun (e.g., playing music or talking to friend). Turns out I am better off if I just focus on the good feeling I get from the end product.

Comment author: haig 16 May 2009 06:03:05PM 6 points [-]

'cleaning my room' is still abstract. If you decompose that into 'pick up clothes off floor, then make my bed, then vacuum the carpet, .....', then those are concrete tasks.

Comment author: pwno 16 May 2009 07:20:28PM 3 points [-]

You can decompose all those things into smaller steps too.

You cannot determine whether a task is concrete or abstract without considering the person's perception of the task. Making the bed or picking up clothes can be an abstract task for some. I consider cleaning my room a pretty concrete task (same with washing the dishes, another task I procrastinate about) so the theory can't explain my procrastination.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 16 May 2009 03:59:57AM 12 points [-]

This is probably a standard tactic, but maybe I phrase it in helpful words.

My akrasia problems have gotten significantly better since I stopped thinking so much in terms of discipline and more in terms of not-being-stupid. One imagines that a race of expected utility maximizers would use the same word for I should and I want. If I think that I ought to to X, then I can just---do X, because I've decided that X is the right thing to do. It's not a matter of forcing myself to do things that I don't want to do (that would just be stupid; the entire point of instrumental rationality is to get us more of what we want); it's a matter of wanting to do good things. Don't raise the pressure; lower the resistance! Cf. "Inner Goodness."

Of course I'm a human and it doesn't really work that way, but I am doing ever so much better than I was this time last year. Because of this community, I've just been continually obsessing about rationality for the last year and a half, and I think I've finally just passed the threshold where it starts to yield practical benefits. However, I'm an unusual person along several dimensions and I've faced very strange personal circumstances in the past year and a half, so I don't expect my experiences to generalize too much, in this domain or others.

Comment author: AnlamK 16 May 2009 03:05:10AM *  5 points [-]

Here is something that I want to try:

Whenever I want to work on something, I'm just burdened by the fact that all my efforts will be useless, that the stuff won't be done and that I'll toil and toil and toil without accomplishing anything. Now, this sort of thing is pretty common for me -- worries about my confidence and intelligence not withstanding.

Sometimes this pressure is really discouraging and overburdening that I want to avoid work just to avoid that horrible feeling of having made no progress.

So I want to have "work" days in which I'll specifically experiment fruitlessly - I'll just do what I want without any pressure about productivity.

Maybe I might have an explicit rule about not being productive.

This hopefully will allow me to experiment more and enjoy my work more...

But with strict deadlines looming, it seems difficult but we'll see...

Comment author: bentarm 16 May 2009 12:38:33AM *  8 points [-]

I'm not sure if this strategy is too straightforward to bother mentioning here, but it has made a signficant difference to my productivity in the time since I decided to employ it.

I'm attempting to write up some awkward-to-write-up technical stuff to go in my PhD thesis, and have been putting off getting to the hard part for weeks. About a week ago, I decided on the insanely straightforward hack 'start writing at 10.00 every day, and write until 12.00, during that time, do nothing else'. This has had massive effects. I've written more than I had managed in nearly a month previously - despite that fact that I thought I had spent most of most days attempting to write for the whole of the past month.

I think this is probably related to much of the stuff already posted - it's a less extreme version of Alicorn's suggestion, and it's implied by some of PJEby's earlier writing - it's probably also completely useless to people who have some outside pressure/deadlines which make this sort of 'I really can't even be bothered to start' motivation problem unthinkable, but it is an anti-akrasia tactic that I have been using successfully for at least a short amount of time: tell yourself you're going to do X during a certain time period, and completely ban yourself from doing anything else. Seems silly/obvious, but it appears to work.

Comment author: 0sn 16 May 2009 12:15:57AM 8 points [-]

Having someone watch me. Works four out of five times. From talking to other people it has a much higher success rate, but I'm still trying to figure out what's akrasia and what's an executive functioning deficit resulting from minor frontal lobe damage.

I have a friend who hires people to sit across from her at work. Pays for itself with the extra work she can get done.

Stepping back and watching the meat-I-am start to do stuff helps too, but not nearly as often, and I only learned that trick a few weeks ago -- from this site.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 16 May 2009 07:40:00AM *  3 points [-]

I wonder if sticking a poster of a person looking at you to a nearby wall would help to trick the mind into believing that it's being watched.

I vaguely remember reading an article (or a book chapter? Freakonomics?) about a bagel experiment like this one, where putting a picture of a face on the bagel box has reduced the theft rate.

Comment author: scotherns 18 May 2009 09:02:10AM 5 points [-]

This certainly works for me. I find I can get a significant increase in performance at the gym when I use the machines that are facing towards the posters of attractive women, compared to the otherwise identical machines facing the windows. I know its a trick, and I know why it works, but that doesn't stop it from working :-)

Comment author: JGWeissman 16 May 2009 01:08:12AM 1 point [-]

Having someone watch me.

I find I can achieve this effect by publicly committing to a goal. Which is good, because having someone watch me would likely be counterproductive, as I need to feel free to explore an idea that might turn out not to work.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 May 2009 12:36:54AM *  3 points [-]

del

Comment author: Jack 16 May 2009 09:24:49PM 8 points [-]

Shouldn't this mean theists suffer less akrasia? (Not that that is impossible, it is just a very interesting conclusion!)

Comment author: [deleted] 17 May 2009 01:16:28PM *  0 points [-]

del

Comment author: roland 15 May 2009 11:32:00PM *  8 points [-]

Tried at least once when I had something important to do:

Go to the bathroom, stare at the wall and don't let anythig distract you until you muster the willpower to start the task you are procrastinating on. Then go and do it.

The key is not to let yourself become distracted with anything, that's why I went to the bathroom and stared at the wall(yes, my face was literally one inch away from it), any tactic with the same effect should work also.

Comment author: pjeby 16 May 2009 02:52:47AM *  5 points [-]

The key is not to let yourself become distracted with anything

I find it very interesting that so many of these methods sound like varying paths to monoidealism - i.e., the hidden meaning of "just do it", i.e.:

The trick is in the meaning of the word "just". When somebody says "just do it", they are trying to communicate that you should not do anything else. It might better be phrased as, "Only do it, without thinking about anything, not even about what you're doing. In fact, don't even do it, just watch yourself doing it, but don't actually try to do anything."

(Ironically, I myself got this in 2006 but didn't connect it to the bigger picture until recent discussions here.)

In essence, we can assume that the key to seizing control is to clear any "current state" out of the machinery, either by restricting external stimuli or simply refusing to follow up on distracting thoughts that arise, until the desired internal state is achieved.

Comment author: pjeby 15 May 2009 09:23:34PM 6 points [-]

{This is actually a reply to this comment, but for some reason it doesn't have a Reply button.}

I first started to pay attention to the relationship of social factors and akrasia after PJ Eby mentioned it in our earlier discussion. His term (psychosomatic marker, if I remember correctly) didn't stick with me, but I noticed that when I procrastinate, I almost always find that a social pressure is involved.

The term is "somatic marker" as in the "somatic marker hypothesis". The somatic marker hypothesis in neurobiology basically says that our brains use remembered body states as markers (think XML tags) to categorize and rank our thoughts, as a decision-making shortcut. (This idea is supported by such things as microexpressions, tics, and the like.)

I don't consider procrastination to be chronic if it's something you could easily get yourself to do if you decided to/wanted to, but just never get around to. That might be akrasia, but it's not procrastination in my book.

To me, procrastination is when you have something you know you ought to be doing, but you find yourself doing other things in a specific effort to avoid thinking about the thing you're procrastinating.

In such cases, there is always an aversive somatic marker associated with the task, and the critical one is nearly always associated with the social consequences of task failure.

It's actually pretty rare for the aversive marker to be associated with the difficulty or time involved in task performance itself. And even then, it's likely to be social in nature. For example, a belief that working hard means you're dumb, because if you're really good at something it should be easy. In other words, an unconscious emotional concern about one's social image, rather than a practical concern about the task.

My use of the term "somatic markers" is just referring to the idea that our aversive responses can be observed as bodily reflexes. If you think about something you don't like, you may unconsciously frown, flinch, tense, or otherwise physically respond without any conscious intent to do so.

The relevance to fixing problems such as procrastination, then, is that the repeatable evocation of a somatic marker can be used as the basis for testing an attempt at changing your response. If you reliably flinch every time you think of the thing, and then after applying a belief-change or deconditioning technique, you no longer flinch, then it's a good indication that the intervention has been successful.

I use this approach because traditional self-help techniques don't have any way for you to know (for example) whether you've said an affirmation enough times or adequately visualized, or whatever the heck else the technique is supposed to be. And people routinely assume that just because they intellectually understand that nothing bad is going to happen or that they have to do something, this somehow should update the unconscious bit where the somatic markers are stored... and that's mostly not the case.

It also doesn't hurt that somatic markers are part of the mechanism by which our unconscious desires take effect: the physical response of flinching or other aversive behaviors are just the outward effect of whatever neuropeptide or other reactions are actually changing our inner states. So if we change the mental representations that trigger the outer markers, it's an excellent bet that the neurochemical changes in between aren't happening anymore, either.

And in practice, the usual result of realizing you no longer have an automatic aversive response in a certain context, is to laugh with surprise as you realize you could actually just do something else in that situation... something that didn't occur to you before, because the aversive response kept you from even thinking that far ahead.

A wide variety of self-help techniques out there will work for removing various types of somatic markers; The Work of Byron Katie, Sedona, and the Decision-Maker Process are among the ones I've used with myself or clients, but all are far more effective when you add in testing based on somatic markers. Otherwise, there is no real way to know whether you are doing a technique correctly, or just "thinking" you've fixed something.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 18 May 2009 01:38:34AM 1 point [-]

I'll bet the reason Vladimir Golovin's post has no Reply button is that he added it before sharing the article with Less Wrong in general. (or, if you prefer, he posted it to the post before posting it.)

Comment author: Cyan 18 May 2009 03:03:45AM 0 points [-]

Yup, that's it. I did the same thing here. I never noticed because I have a reply button for my own comments whether I make them to posts on LW proper or in my drafts.

Comment author: dariusp 19 May 2009 06:35:57AM 0 points [-]

This has now been fixed.

Comments now correctly follow the Post they belong to and you can reply to them :)

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 19 May 2009 06:54:38AM 0 points [-]

Great! That was annoying. Also, it would be a good idea to replace the "Post to" dropdown list on the article submit page with an equivalent set of radiobuttons -- should make things easier to figure out for first-time top-level article posters.

Comment author: Alicorn 15 May 2009 09:00:01PM 1 point [-]

I'm posting this separately from my other trick because they aren't related. I recently found a Mac shareware app called Freedom which turns off the Internet. In an Internet-needing emergency, you can reboot, but otherwise, it's off until the time is up.

Comment author: nickk 15 April 2010 11:07:11PM *  0 points [-]

I've been using something called iFocus http://www.ifocusonwork.com/ You can 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.). You can also make it force you to work on a specific application for a fixed period of time. Basically a tool for procrastinators or people who are mindful of how they spend their computer time.

Comment author: Antisuji 16 May 2009 01:06:54AM *  2 points [-]

Somewhat related: I've been having a lot more success keeping myself focused since I started using the fullscreen mode of iTerm to do my writing. There's no clock in the upper right corner of the screen to draw constant glances and I find myself less likely to randomly switch to other apps to check on my feeds, emails, etc.

It's even slightly helpful for getting myself started, since all I have to do is switch to iTerm and take a look at my notes, at which point I often just pick up where I left off and can continue undistracted. (E.g. this morning a quick app switch to remind myself where I was became a solid 40-minute session -- I was putting off breakfast to get stuff done!)

Along the same lines, earplugs (or in-ear phones if you work well with music) help too.

Comment author: Alicorn 15 May 2009 08:11:24PM *  33 points [-]

Mine is a weird one: I started taking every other day off. Even as deadlines loom, I am committed to doing no work today. I can cook and read and surf the Internet and hang out on Less Wrong and chat with friends and take a nap and do art (but not art for my webcomic), but at all costs I will do no work. Tomorrow, I will do work (in my case, papers for school and art for my webcomic and editing some fiction), and unless something breaks the trend that's been working nicely for a week and a half now, I will do more work than I could have expected to do in three or four days before I started this. (I make exceptions for time-dependent things like class meetings.)

I have a few hypotheses for why this works for me:

  • It prevents the low-level burnout that used to plague me. I can decompress from whatever heavy mental lifting I do regularly and for a large chunk of time.
  • I actually enjoy most of my work when I actually do it, so obliging myself not to do it lets me get through the akratic aversion during my downtime. By the time I wake up on my work day, I've worked up a fair amount of antsiness about wanting to do something productive. Also, my creative ideas accumulate over time, not over effort; I have more interesting work-related ideas by the time I fire up Word when I've set the project aside for a day.
  • I can goof off more efficiently. Instead of spending all day on Stumbleupon because I can keep telling myself "one more site and then really, I'll do something", I can read an entire novel or bake a cheesecake or watch half a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These things require significant time commitments, so if I feel like I ought to be working I don't do them, but when I do them, they are more relaxing than the same amount of time in two-minute bursts spent obsessively refreshing Google Reader or checking my website stats or bothering people on IM.
Comment author: Document 21 February 2010 04:58:12AM 0 points [-]

When you first tried it, did you start with an on day or an off day?

Comment author: Alicorn 21 February 2010 05:09:46AM 1 point [-]

I don't remember. Probably an on day.

Comment author: orthonormal 17 February 2010 06:25:12AM 5 points [-]

By the way, are you still practicing this? What was the long-term dynamic of it?

Comment author: Alicorn 17 February 2010 06:58:22AM 9 points [-]

I stopped after several months. Juggling it with a class schedule became intractable, and new techniques have a tendency to stop working for me after a while even if they start working very well. It was really useful while it lasted, though, and I still try to take time off in day-long chunks when feasible.

Comment author: orthonormal 17 February 2010 07:01:59AM 0 points [-]

Good to know!

Comment author: patrissimo 20 May 2009 02:38:02AM 0 points [-]

Fascinating, I so want to try this. I do alternate-day calorie restriction, so this is basically what I do with my diet, except w/ willpower.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 17 May 2009 01:06:14AM 4 points [-]

Mine is a weird one: I started taking every other day off.

Can you tell my boss about that one?

Comment author: hrishimittal 17 May 2009 01:07:39PM *  4 points [-]

I'm seriously thinking about asking my boss about that one. With a pro-rata decrease in salary, of course.

The extra money just doesn't seem to be worth the constant struggle with myself. Plus I think it would be good to start at a level I'm comfortable with and build on that. By forcing myself to work at a rate I'm clearly incapable of, I'm losing out on all the positive feedback that comes from small successes.

To draw a crude analogy, air pollution modelling is as hard a problem for me as say, AI is for EY. And if he needed to take every other day off once upon a time,...

EDIT: PS I have been reading OB/LW for a while but have started commenting here only recently. Hello everyone!

Comment author: MrShaggy 18 May 2009 08:33:42PM 4 points [-]

You would probably like Ferris's Four hour workweek, has an example of how to get your boss to let you work from home and stuff like that. Not the same as above, but similar enough to help you.

Comment author: hrishimittal 19 May 2009 11:28:11AM 0 points [-]

Thanks. I'll check it out.

Comment author: CronoDAS 16 May 2009 10:08:03PM 1 point [-]

Incidentally, is http://htht.comicgenesis.com/ your webcomic?

Comment author: Alicorn 16 May 2009 10:14:29PM 0 points [-]

Yes, that's my current one.

Comment author: hrishimittal 15 May 2009 10:00:17PM 2 points [-]

Thanks Alicorn. This sounds like a brilliant idea. I have been thinking of something along these lines but hadn't quite thought of day chunks - makes a lot of sense to me too.

I'll give it a try. And yes, I'll be careful.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 May 2009 08:57:49PM 3 points [-]

I had to take every other day off during the year I was able to work on AI with Marcello.

Comment author: Alicorn 15 May 2009 09:00:51PM 2 points [-]

Had to? Why had to?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 May 2009 11:29:11PM 6 points [-]

My actual AI work is extremely hard mental work, harder even than writing, which Harlan Ellison once called the toughest labor he ever performed (way harder than being e.g. a truck driver, which I myself have never done). There was no way I could do it two days in a row - though you'll note that I say 'was' not 'is' since it's important to keep in mind that these things often change over time.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 May 2009 12:15:01AM 3 points [-]

I can attest to that; programming is complex because you formalize solving a problem over just solving it. AI is doubly complex because you're formalizing how to do that.

Comment author: JGWeissman 16 May 2009 01:02:31AM 2 points [-]

AI is way more than twice as complex as ordinary programming. I have written plenty of programs that write programs, dealing with two layers of formalizing solutions, that is not anywhere near AGI. For one thing these programs only generate a certain class of programs. And much more importantly, they are not more powerful than I am so I can actually detect mistakes and fix them after I execute them.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 17 May 2009 01:15:43AM 8 points [-]

Meh. AI conceptual work can be hard. But in reality, on any programming project where you're both the brains and the brawn, you're going to spend 90% of your time doing stupid stuff like writing hundreds of boring little subroutines; investigating different libraries, data sources, and data standards; figuring out which database software gives you the best performance; profiling and optimizing SQL queries; and of course DEBUGGING.

Not that my programs ever have bugs, of course.

Comment author: matt 19 May 2009 11:07:37AM 4 points [-]

If I had to guess, I'd guess that you're spending your time in Java or C (++|#) :)

Comment deleted 16 May 2009 02:34:06AM [-]
Comment author: JGWeissman 16 May 2009 04:20:07AM 17 points [-]

That does not really mean anything.

"Exponential" refers to how a quantity relates to another. For example, we would say that (until environmental limits are encountered) a population's size is exponential with respect to time, and mean, that there is an initial population size P0 at a time t0, and a doubling time T, such that the population at a given time, P(t) = P0 * 2^((t - t0)/T). In computer science, we might say that the time or memory requirement of an algorithm is exponential with respect to the size of a list, or the number of nodes or edges in a graph, which could be represented by a similar equation, assigning different meanings to the variables. (Often, we really the mean the equation to be an approximation, or an upper or lower bound on the actual quantity.)

But if you say that designing and programming an AI is exponentially hard, you have not identified a variable of the problem that is analogous to the time in population growth. "Exponential" is not a vague superlative, it has a precise meaning. If all you mean to say is that AI is much harder than conventional programming, then just say that. Yes it is vague, but that is better than having your communication be more precise than your understanding.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 May 2009 10:06:18PM 14 points [-]

Targeted commenter doesn't really deserve being hit that hard, but voted up anyway.

The thing I really despise is when people use "exponential" as a superlative to describe fast-growing quantifiable processes that are not known to be exponential.

Comment author: pjeby 15 May 2009 08:56:44PM 2 points [-]

I've effectively used a variation of this: setting a daily deadline for when all work must be finished, following which I will do something (specifically planned in advance) that I enjoy. It's like being about to go on vacation.

These ideas could both be considered variations on Neil Fiore's concept of the "unschedule", and there are other authors/speakers who've promoted the idea of clearly separating work/non-work days, e.g. Eben Pagan's "Altitude" and "Wake Up Productive" programs.

Comment author: Cyan 15 May 2009 09:20:30PM *  0 points [-]

These techniques seem to be related to the idea of an "unschedule".

Comment author: Alicorn 15 May 2009 09:02:51PM 2 points [-]

For some reason, I find it hard to negotiate with myself over chunks of time shorter than a day. If I tell myself I'll goof off after dinner, I'll have dinner early; if I tell myself I'll goof off after six p.m., I'll dither until six p.m. But a day begins when I wake up and ends when I go to bed. Conveniently, my desire to stay up late persists even if I'm staying up late doing work.

Comment author: pjeby 15 May 2009 09:31:50PM 7 points [-]

If I tell myself I'll goof off after dinner, I'll have dinner early; if I tell myself I'll goof off after six p.m., I'll dither until six p.m.

Two important distinctions:

  1. I frame it as, "I have to stop working at X pm", not "I'll goof off at X pm". This presupposes that I'm going to be working and what's more, that I don't want to stop working (otherwise, I wouldn't "have to").

  2. I don't "goof off" (an unspecified activity), I have a book that I've planned to read, a show to watch, etc. -- thus it is a specific thing that I "have to stop work" for at that time.

This is a good example, btw, of how self-help techniques easily go awry, as there are often many subtleties to why/how something works.

That's not to say that these changes will definitely make it work for you; as I've commented before, it's trivial to defeat a technique simply by expecting something else to happen or thinking that it's probably not going to work!

But you'll notice that what makes it work (or not work) in both our cases has a lot to do with what we expect our behavior to be, and how we frame those expectations. And those expectations tend to hinge on fine details, rather than abstract concepts.

Comment author: thomblake 15 May 2009 08:33:47PM 0 points [-]

I don't normally have problems with akrasia, but this idea seems awesome. I'll have to try to implement it next time I can consider taking a day off.

Comment author: Alicorn 15 May 2009 08:42:49PM 4 points [-]

I'm a little concerned about other people adopting my idea, because it doesn't seem that it would work for everyone. I recommend trying it for the first time when you're on vacation for a week and you want to use part of that vacation to work on a nonessential personal project you're being akratic about, like writing a novel or something.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 May 2009 07:55:27PM 3 points [-]

Tricks aren't "proven" by experiment; they're supported or explained by experiment. The lack of this support and explanation makes a difference, but it's not proof we're talking about.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 15 May 2009 08:29:49PM 0 points [-]

Thanks -- I fixed the post.

Comment author: Annoyance 15 May 2009 07:31:46PM 3 points [-]

I try to determine if my means have failed in some unexpected way, or whether my means aren't capable of producing the desired outcome.

If neither applies, I conclude that I didn't really want the outcome in the first place and that my desires are rejecting the imposition that my consciousness is trying to force on them. I update my understanding of what I want and move on.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 15 May 2009 07:01:03PM *  11 points [-]

My results:

  1. Elimination of two my primary addictions -- PC gaming, mostly TF2 and WoW AH moneymaking (100% elimination for both so far), and aimless internet surfing (now reduced to about 10% of its former glory.)

  2. Significant reduction of procrastination time in general (ironically, I'm procrastinating right now -- I'm posting at LessWrong :)

  3. Being able to actually act according to my current better judgement, with verifiable results in the real world. This is an addiction in itself.

My tricks:

(Obligatory note of caution -- these are tricks, they are not supported by experimental results, I've been using them for just about 3 months, they aren't tested under serious stress / pressure, I have no deep theories to explain why they work, and the evidence I offer is purely anecdotal.)

  • Determine what is your current better judgment. This is critical -- I noticed that I hesitate to trick myself into doing anything I don't consider to be relevant to my goal.

  • Regularly asking yourself: "is what I'm doing at the moment advancing me toward the desired state of reality"? If the answer is "no", you're procrastinating. The danger here is the possibility of rationalizing yourself into believing that your current activity does advance you.

  • 80/20 elimination, Tim Ferris / Pareto style (I'm skeptical about the rest of Tim's book, but his Elimination chapter is pure gold).

  • Parkinson's law (work expands to fill the time allotted). Again, Tim Ferris has some advice on it -- basically, it boils down to scheduling the most important things (in the 80/20 sense) first, with aggressive deadlines.

  • PJ Eby's hidden meaning of "just do it". He considers the article to be outdated, but its key paragraph worked wonders for me. Basically, "just do it" = "don't do anything else". In its pure form, "not doing anything else" is too macho for me, so I leave a line of retreat for myself -- I permit myself to eat, think about anything (not just the task), walk, have sex, but no Internet surfing unless it's on-topic, no doodling on paper unless it's on-topic, etc.

  • Self-priming -- I try to expose myself to stimuli related to my current task, and to shield myself from irrelevant stimuli, no matter how pleasant (e.g. I run away from my toddler daughter, because prolonged exposure to cuteness tends to totally ruin my ability to work efficiently :)

  • Begin now. For example, if you need to do some stuff in Excel, just open an empty spreadsheet and type in the table header. Just staring at this makes you better at spreadsheets and your task -- your mind pulls linked concepts to the fast-access cache, without your consent, and you don't need to do anything. Probably related to Joel Spolsky's Fire and Motion.

  • Mindless repetition of things like "I want to make the best X in the world" (where X stands for my current goal). I always correct myself when I say "must' instead of "want". I've been doing this for at least a decade, and it seems to work (possibly it's related to cached selves, monoidealism and self-affirmation.)

  • No multitasking. Tim Ferris advises not to assign more than two mission-critical items per day. Joel Spolsky has a good article on this -- Human Task Switches Considered Harmful.

  • Allowing myself to procrastinate up to a certain time. For example, I look at the clock, it shows 10:24. I tell myself, "I'll procrastinate up to 10:30, and then open a spreadsheet and type the header into it". The technique seems to be similar to the willpower hax that Eliezer uses for getting out of bed.

Failures:

I've been using the most of these techniques for just 3 months, but I've already observed some cases when they cease working. The number one cause of my procrastination (and acting against my better judgment in general) turns out to be social pressure (my established relations with co-workers, friends, etc.)

Example: I determined that my current best judgment is to remain at my home office and spend the entire day researching X, but then I start to worry that my business partner will think that I don't dedicate enough time to our company, so I feel forced to go to the "work" office and spend all day there on less important stuff.

I first started to pay attention to the relationship of social factors and akrasia after PJ Eby mentioned it in our earlier discussion. His term (psychosomatic marker, if I remember correctly) didn't stick with me, but I noticed that when I procrastinate, I almost always find that a social pressure is involved.

Also, the tricks are far less effective when I'm tired, but this seems to be far less important than the social pressures.

Remains to be seen:

  • I've been using most of the tricks for just 3 months. Will they continue working?
  • I wasn't under serious stress. Will they continue to work when I'm under a serious pressure?
  • And finally: will they continue to work if I install a copy of TF2 back and try to get that shiny new bat for my Scout? I uninstalled TF2 a week ago (it sat on my HDD untouched for 3 months), but perhaps I should reinstall it and test my techniques the hard way :)