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Kaj_Sotala comments on Habitual Productivity - Less Wrong

44 Post author: So8res 09 January 2014 06:44AM

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Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 09 January 2014 08:12:18AM 46 points [-]

Furthermore, I imagine that this can backfire reaaaly hard: if you manage to develop a strong revulsion for unproductive activities but still can't force yourself to stop browsing reddit (or whatever your vice) then you run a big risk of hitting a willpower-draining death spiral.

That's basically what happened to me: I taught myself to feel guilty whenever I was relaxing and not working, but just the fact that I was feeling guilty about not-working didn't make me any more motivated to actually work. So I would repeatedly get into situations where absolutely nothing felt like worth doing, so I accomplished basically nothing and felt miserable for the whole day. Cue an extended burnout that took me several years to properly recover from.

Oddly, it feels like one key part of my recovery has been to train myself to feel as unguilty as possible about any recreational activity. That way, if I really need a break I can take one, but if I'm on a break I can also honestly ask myself whether my break has gone on long enough and whether I'd want to resume doing something more productive now. Though I'm sure if that's quite right either - it's more like I'm more able to trust that my motivation to do something relaxing will naturally fade after a while, to be replaced with a motivation to be productive again, without me necessarily even needing to watch myself. And of course, since I don't need to actively watch myself, the relaxation may happen faster since I can focus on it more fully. (Of course, sometimes it does take longer, and the key is to be completely fine with that possibility, too.)

The main mechanism here seems to be that guilt not only blocks the relaxation, it also creates negative associations around the productive things - the productivity becomes that nasty uncomfortable reason why you don't get to do fun things, and you flinch away from even thinking about the productive tasks, since thinking about them makes you feel more guilty about not already doing them. Which in turn blocks you from developing a natural motivation to do them.

So if someone did go by this mindhacking route, they should be very careful to avoid developing guilt. The guest who had developed a dislike for fritos didn't dislike them because eating them made her feel guilty: she disliked them because she had started noticing features in them that she felt were repulsive. Also, I suspect that "actively pay attention to the features in productive tasks that are desirable" is just as important an component as noticing the displeasing things in non-productive tasks. If we assume the opportunity cost model of willpower, then your motivation to do something is proportional to the difference in estimated value between that thing and the second most highly ranked thing, implying that increasing the perceived value of the productive things can be even more efficient than decreasing the value of other things. (Guilt in this model would act as a negative modifier to the values.)

Also closely related posts: Pain and gain motivation, It's okay to be (at least a little) irrational.

Comment author: CAE_Jones 09 January 2014 08:49:23AM 7 points [-]

I'm pretty sure this is a large part of what ruined my first two years at college. Of course, when I noticed the death spiral and tried to reverse it, it looked even more like I didn't care to everyone who had interest in my success, which compounded the difficulty (I could not talk my way across inferential gaps at all).

Comment author: So8res 09 January 2014 04:16:13PM *  4 points [-]

Thanks for the detailed reply! I should note that my current outlook seems very similar to your own: I no longer attach guilt to "unproductive" activities. I still find them fundamentally unsatisfying, and get restless if I can't do something constructive for extended periods, but I give myself license to engage in leisure as necessary and trust myself not to abuse that license. My next post covers this transition, but your second paragraph captures much of what I was planing to say.

In particular, I'd like to reinforce one of your points: Tying negative emotions to the things I didn't want to do was not enough to motivate me to do the things I did want to do. None of the above has been a driving force, it is mainly context that will help the next part make sense.

Comment author: whales 10 January 2014 01:26:08AM *  3 points [-]

Yeah, I just want to chime in as another person who got burned (out) by this early on, and who keeps seeing it happen to other people. I've since practiced better motivation hygiene and it's served me well.

Comment author: Emile 10 January 2014 06:37:18PM 2 points [-]

Cool, any specific tips on good motivation hygiene you'd recommend?

Comment author: whales 11 January 2014 08:00:50AM *  7 points [-]

I agree with the gist of what others have said here. There are lots of ways to contaminate productive tasks with aversiveness that isn't intrinsic to the task. Unpleasant work environment is pretty obvious. I spent one undergrad summer commuting by bike, and I'd always get to work sweaty and tired in a bad way. Because that's what I thought of when I thought about going to work, I spent a lot of days unproductively working from home. For the next job that had a bike commute, I took active measures to avoid the same problems, and now I look forward to biking to work.

I agree especially strongly with what Kaj_Sotala says about using guilt (or other negative emotions). Boredom and frustration can also be problems. When I notice them, it's usually not because my task is itself boring or frustrating; I've just become disengaged or I feel stuck. So I remind myself of this, think of all the reasons my work is actually cool and worthwhile or of the progress I've made, and then take a break, switch tasks, or carry on.

Or sometimes I notice that I strongly don't feel like working and am unlikely to get much done. In these cases I've found it's better to simply set things down for a while and to do some mental work to make sure I don't feel guilty about quitting, rather than try to force myself through it. (Of course, it's even better to make myself feel like working again. But that's quite a trick itself.)

Conversely, I spend leisure time doing things I enjoy and endorse. The taste I've cultivated means that a lot of cheap and addictive entertainment doesn't especially appeal to me, and it gives me a sense that my enjoyment of things is a little more meaningful than it was before. I've spent some serious thought concerning blocked-out leisure time and endorsed activities, so that I can trust my past self's strategic planning and not worry about wastefulness.

I guess I haven't been too specific. These ideas depend on more fundamental skills like mindfulness, or noticing and dealing with negative thoughts. Those are big topics themselves and the specific implementations tend to be idiosyncratic. Still, I hope this is helpful.

Comment author: Kindin_pleagrat 28 December 2014 12:58:33AM *  2 points [-]

"The main mechanism here seems to be that guilt not only blocks the relaxation, it also creates negative associations around the productive things - the productivity becomes that nasty uncomfortable reason why you don't get to do fun things, and you flinch away from even thinking about the productive tasks, since thinking about them makes you feel more guilty about not already doing them. Which in turn blocks you from developing a natural motivation to do them."

I'll add that this an example of a pretty common description of the ruminations that people experience when suffering from depression. As someone who has just come out of a fairly severe depression*, I can say that purposefully cultivating this type of thinking can be dangerous in a way beyond just developing guilt, which would be bad enough in of itself.

When you're trying to bail out of depression, you learn a lot about different schools of therapy to deal with it. One is cognitive therapy, which involves learning how to quickly identify "automatic thoughts," or instantaneous, destructive, and often irrational thoughts that further drive the ruminative cycle preventing you from thinking clearly. A common automatic thought described by people suffering from different types of depression includes "guilt for feeling guilt," or guilty for feeling guilty about not doing something that you feel like you should be doing. In other words, nearly exactly what was described in this "mindhack." Once this cycle of thinking develops, I cannot begin to describe how difficult it is to break, except to say that it took me nearly half a decade (obviously a bit of an oversimplification - this is just one of many symptoms to try to break).

Point being, I would strongly recommend against trying this mindhack. It may have worked for the OP, but it can also be a catalyst towards something more severe than "a willpower-draining death spiral."

  • For context, just to know I'm not throwing the word "depression" around lightly, my illness lasted approximately 5 years, had to see 4 therapists, several psychiatrists and try a couple of antidepressents. Tried several different schools of therapy from cognitive therapy to psychodynamic. Finally a combination the right antidepressent, cognitive therapy, meditating and a lot of exercise helped me break out of it. Not to mention significantly changing my life course.
Comment author: AnnaSalamon 23 June 2014 04:31:07AM *  2 points [-]

While I wouldn't recommend either route, I suspect that learning to feel bored when not-working (by noticing the ways in which e.g. card games have less cognitive structure to learn from than does [work task X that you could return to]) is a lot better than learning to feel guilty when not-working.

Comment author: JackV 09 January 2014 05:11:17PM 1 point [-]

FWIW I think of activities that cost time like activities that cost money: I decide how much money/time I want to spend on leisure, and then insist I spend that much, hopefully choosing the best way possible. But I don't know if that would help other people.

Comment author: badtheatre 09 January 2014 05:02:27PM 0 points [-]

I've been living like that for a long time, but just recently started noticing it.

Oddly, it feels like one key part of my recovery has been to train myself to feel as unguilty as possible about any >recreational activity.

Do you have any specific advice for how to do this?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 09 January 2014 05:46:11PM *  5 points [-]

The one trick that comes to mind is that if I notice myself feeling guilty about not doing X, then I instantly tell myself that I'm not allowed to do X for the rest of the day, and am indeed obligated to do something else. I think that the mechanism behind that is that it allows me to think about X without feeling guilty about not doing it, which makes it more likely that I'll have natural motivation for doing it the next day.

Of course this trick doesn't work on things that you really do need to have done by the end of the day. But if it is not absolutely urgent, and the outside view suggests that you wouldn't get the thing done today anyway, then you might as well take the rest of the day off with a clean conscience. It also helps to remind yourself that by managing to successfully take a guilt-free day/evening off, you're making an investment to your future productivity, so you have full reason to enjoy it without feeling guilty. (I guess this could lead you to feeling guilty about feeling guilty. Fortunately that has never happened to me.)

Having a generally good mental health also helps, so all the basic advice about that also applies: eat well, get enough sleep and exercise, maintain your social life, etc.

Comment author: JeffFisher 16 January 2014 12:00:54AM *  1 point [-]

The two things I've found to work here are not to use negative emotions to keep me from doing things that I want to avoid, but rather to intellectually deconstruct those things until they cease to have power over me. For example, I once tried a low fat, low carb diet. Not fun, and naturally I had intense cravings for things that were sweet and fatty. So when I went to the grocery store, I didn't avoid the bakery. I went straight there and analyzed the artistic value of the cakes--examining how the frosting had been applied, the colors that had been used and such. It cut the instinctive urge to eat them and reinforced that my diet was a mental process--whether or not it was an optimal diet was another question entirely!

The other thing is that the only way I can be optimally productive is when my productive activity is also my passion. I can find passion in many things, though some are more closely aligned with my abilities than others, some are more closely aligned with maximizing my long-term income than others, and some are more closely aligned with the greater good of humanity than others. Finding a passion that has a significant degree of alignment in all three areas has taken a while, but the results are worth it. The bottom line is, if I am doing something "productive" that I am not passionate about, it isn't productivity that is truly meaningful to me on a basic level, so I don't get as much emotional reward for my effort and it becomes just a form of work. I can only continue the process by distracting myself with side interests, and if I try too hard to focus on the activity eventually I will burn out. But now that my productivity has become aligned with my passion the two feelings of accomplishment and joy reinforce each other powerfully and productivity becomes rather addictive.

There is a definite argument for maintaining a degree of social engagement, but I am trying to reach out through trade organizations and find local meet-ups with others in my industry so that I get a win-win here too.