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Breaking the chain of akrasia

25 Post author: lukeprog 20 January 2012 04:12AM

I'd like to share my specific motivation for writing Can the Chain Still Hold You?

I agree with Yvain that akrasia is probably a major reason that rationality alone doesn't create superheroes. You might be much better than average at making good decisions based on an accurate model of reality, but that doesn't mean you can follow through with them.

Many people report that their thinking is clearer and better as a result of Less Wrong. But despite our many, many attempts to hack away at the problem of akrasia (more: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10), I haven't heard of many LWers conquering akrasia.

But I still have hope that this is possible. In 2006, we finally got a decent psychological theory of procrastination, much better than the old decisional-avoidant-arousal theory. On the timescale of progress in psychology, 2006 is basically yesterday. The first book on how to apply this new theory to daily life was published in late 2010. There is no community of people systematically practicing these techniques and reporting their results.

So it seems to me there is a lot of low-hanging fruit to be scooped up in the field of procrastination research. If we try and test enough things, and especially if our tests our theory-guided, we may be able to learn new things and flip a few causal factors such that the chain of akrasia no longer holds us — at least, not as tightly as before.

Comments (44)

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 20 January 2012 10:24:59AM *  19 points [-]

So who are the people who are hugely productive and what are they like? One guess I have is that they are less likely to hang around much on forums or in IRC. And we have forums and IRCs where there's this endless cycle of talking about akrasia and proposing fixes that never seem to stick. Maybe being on the forum to begin with is where things start going wrong. You get absorbed in procrastination, go read random forums and get to form a community with other folk who can't hack being productive for whatever reason and start picking up on their thought patterns and identifying with them. And then all of you wonder together on the forum why akrasia seems insurmountable.

This isn't just a "get to work instead of reading about productivity on the internet" joke. I really do want to know what seriously productive people are like. I don't get to know much about them since they are always being productive instead of wasting time writing in detail about what they are doing on blogs and forums.

Comment author: Lachouette 10 January 2014 09:24:32AM 3 points [-]

Incidentally, I know a place where a lot of productive people spend their time and that is a good setting to discuss akrasia while already tackling the problem: the Lesswrong Study Hall. The password is "lw".

It is a tinychat room made in March 2013 as a 24/7 surrounding for co-working and we get pretty good coverage by now, so there should be someone around at most times of time zone. It is for people who struggle with procrastination, but obviously the regulars who are around most are productive people themselves.

How it works: We do pomodoros together, each on their own project, and spend the breaks chatting. A more elaborate explanation can be found here. It's not only a great way to get to work, but also a social space that allows to exchange advice (on procrastination, but also a variety of other topics) and build friendships.

Comment author: APMason 20 January 2012 04:26:50AM 13 points [-]

I find that my problem with anti-procrastination techniques is that when I read about them I tend to think, "Okay, maybe I'll try it later". And then I mentally register the irony of that. And then I go on procrastinating.

Comment author: Giles 22 January 2012 05:22:33AM 2 points [-]

On the few recent occasions that I've tried deliberate changes to my workflow in order to avoid procrastination or be more productive, I tend to just give up or forget about them after a few days. No idea what the implications of this are or whether it's typical.

Comment author: pjeby 23 January 2012 06:34:41PM *  8 points [-]

In 2006, we finally got a decent psychological theory of procrastination,

Unfortunately, that's about as good a theory of procrastination as "you need fuel, air, ignition, and compression" is a theory of getting your car to start!

That is, it may be true, and an okay way to organize the elements involved in the problem, but it is utterly lacking in the details required to actually solve the problem in any given instance. You may need to know about spark plugs, fuel injectors, pumps, lines, filters, and so many other elements, along with the ways they can fail.

The first book on how to apply this new theory to daily life was published in late 2010.

I read that book, and found it to be mostly rubbish from a practical perspective. The equation presented consists mostly of fudge factors; at best, it's "air, fuel, compression, ignition", only not that specific. It overlooks really basic things about procrastination, if you have any experience at all in fixing it.

To put it another way, it's an outside-view equation, rather than an inside-view parts list and circuit diagram. I was hoping that it would provide a better organizing framework for my own practices, but really, plain old fashioned prospect theory is a better container. AFAICT, adding the fudge factor of "impulsivity" is just an "elan vital" or "dormative principle" thrown in to cover what the equation can't otherwise explain.

Prospect theory by itself is still just an explanation rather than a fix-it guide, but it constrains expectations better than the "procrastination equation". For example, plain old prospect theory predicts:

  • task-switching inertia as a special case of status quo bias
  • decreased motivation over the course of a project that was initially exciting due to an idealistic vision
  • avoiding actions which you know you need to do to reach a goal, but which conflict with your ideals or expectations about what you "should" do or should have done already

Even prospect theory doesn't address where your baseline and future expectations come from, or how to change them. But at least it's focused on the right elements of the problem space. The vast majority of procrastination elimination in practice comes down to identifying and updating your System 1 expectations and predictions about the present, the future, and the actions in between.

(That statement's still close to the "air, fuel, compression, ignition" level of abstraction, but it's more suited to the needs of an actual mechanic.)

Comment author: Procrastinus 08 February 2012 06:05:09PM *  5 points [-]

This is interesting. Actually, you are quite right in that TMT is an overall integrative model. It was actually designed to be a Roseatta stone, allowing us to draw findings and applications from different fields into a coherent whole. It was at one level of detail and has it uses, just as a map of the city is useful but not equivalent to a blueprint of a house (though neither are wrong). For example, it excluded nonsense solutions, which the field is rife with.

You have a naturally critical mind, which is useful, but you are taking a few short cognitive shortcuts. By what you write, it doesn't seem like you actually read the book or the article. The article formally integrates prospect theory, under the section CPT. CPT is actually the next update to prospect theory by Kahneman and Tversky, see pages 894-895 (e.g., "Consequently, other researchers have already proposed various integrations of prospect theory with some hyperbolic time-discounting function"). Chapter three of the book is an extended review of system one and system two, including a historical review of it going back to Plato. The last three chapters then, using TMT as an organizing model, reviews all the applied science on this, ones that has been successfully used to increase self-regulaton.

What would be useful is this. What precise techniques do you take issue with? Are there any you think ineffective or too vague to be applied? Though everything was already scientifically vetted, maybe I could have been clearer in sections. Given other feedback, I found that many people needed a better walkthrough of how to apply these techniques. In the paperback version, I added a step-by-step guide. So is it the techniques or the explanation?

Alternatively, you might have some insight into specific techniques that the book neglected. This is quite possible as I didn't want to include less developed techniques, ones without proven value. Developing a full package of self-regulatory techniques is exactly where science needs to go and why what Lesswrong is doing is quite remarkable. We don't have this. Instead, the area of motivation is splintered into competing theories and practices, other redundant to one another or simply isolated. What we get marketed to us from the self-help arena is often out of date or even wrong. Aside from Lesswrong, I don't know of another concerted effort to change this.

Think of the book as version 1.0. What do you want in the next upgrade? You like the basic model, which is a start. It can help direct people towards broad areas of weakness (e.g., the diagnostic test in the book; which notably accounts for about 70% of the variance in people's procrastination scores). Then, we have a series of techniques to address these weaknesses, outlined in chapters 7, 8, and 9. What's next? Can we expand on them? Can we refine or improve their implementation? Can we express them in ways that helps people adopt them? Can we combine them into something more powerful? These are questions worth asking.

To some extent, I can contribute to Lesswrong on a positive venture like this. It is serious, useful and noble.

Comment author: pjeby 09 February 2012 12:55:33AM 4 points [-]

The article formally integrates prospect theory, under the section CPT. CPT is actually the next update to prospect theory by Kahneman and Tversky, see pages 894-895 (e.g., "Consequently, other researchers have already proposed various integrations of prospect theory with some hyperbolic time-discounting function").

Yes, I'm aware of that. I was pointing out that the additional complication of hyperbolic discounting isn't necessary; in helping dozens of people work through procrastination difficulties, and myself through many more dozens of specific instances, hyperbolic discounting hasn't been particularly relevant to the process. Frankly, it's never come up. In virtually all cases, any discounting effects have been dominated by more fundamental factors like negative value perceptions, and getting rid of those perceptions means the discount on the positive value is irrelevant.

(Note that plain old prospect theory is enough to predict this: if losses count double relative to gains, you get bigger wins by reducing losses than you do increasing expected value gains.)

What precise techniques do you take issue with?

I don't recall seeing anything in The Procrastination Equation that qualified in my mind as a "technique"; it looked more like "advice" to me, and I try not to deal in advice, if I can avoid it.

The distinction for me is that a technique would involve cognitive steps that would repeatably bring about a change in behavior, without requiring the steps themselves to be repeated for that particular instance of procrastination. (Or if some repetition were required, it should be an extremely simple technique!)

To my recollection, there was nothing in the book that claimed to be such, or provided claims of better results, repeatability, ease-of-training, or ease-of-use than techniques I already used or taught. That's the criterion I use when reading self-help materials: if a technique or method isn't claimed to be at least as good as something I've already tested and found useful, I don't bother testing it.

Generally speaking, the absence of sufficiently-specific mental steps and the absence of a claim of repeatability means there's no "technique" there, in the sense of "here are the steps to break down and clean a model 36X carburetor". There's just "advice" as in, "you might want to check the carburetor if your car isn't starting". It was this latter type of advice that I recall having found in TPE; if there was an actual technique in the book, it was quite well-hidden.

Think of the book as version 1.0. What do you want in the next upgrade?

Er, nothing? ;-) I don't care about the book. I guess from the hints you're dropping that you're the author? I'm not interested in having an improved set of techniques in the book, unless they claim greater ease or effectiveness along the criteria I mentioned above. I have and teach plenty of techniques that work quite well.

What my comment was saying is simply that science has not actually caught up to the in-field knowledge of people like myself who actually fix people's procrastination. When I read books on procrastination, I use them to harvest the knowledge of other practitioners, and of course knowing about the science is nice if it leads to new ideas for practical techniques.

The reason I said your book was rubbish from a practical perspective is because it contained nothing I wasn't teaching people in 2006, except an added fudge factor called "impulsivity". And it ignores virtually every piece of brain mechanics that's actually involved in fixing the types of chronic procrastination problems I help people with, such as fear of failure, stereotype threats, mis-set expectations, "should" beliefs, and so on.

Again, I could be in error on this point, it's been a long time since I read the book, but I seem to recall it basically offered advice at the level of, "don't think that way" or "think something else". And in my experience, that detail level is useless for teaching someone to actually think in a particular way that resolves a problem.

It sounds to me like our goals differ in any case; note for example:

ones that has been successfully used to increase self-regulaton.

If I understand this statement correctly, our goals are actually opposed: I do not want to increase anybody's self-regulation; I want them to naturally do the right thing, without any conscious self-regulation required. A technique I use or teach has to have the effect of altering ongoing motivation with respect to a task, preferably after a single application of the technique, and without requiring someone to change their environment or alter their incentives externally. (e.g. rewards, environment changes, etc.)

Did your book even claim to offer anything like that? If so, I missed it.

Comment author: Procrastinus 09 February 2012 04:37:54AM 6 points [-]

Given our difference on opinions, I think we managed to conduct this dialogue with a fair amount of decorum. However, I don't we are going to have any agreement. I have to go with the science.

You give any group of people a perfectionism or fear of failure test along with almost any procrastination scale and you get pretty much anywhere from a negative to at best a very weak positive correlation. And if you control for self-efficacy or self-confidence, that weak correlation disappears. Science does not back you up.

Similarly, characterizing impulsiveness as a fudge factor, well that is just being silly. A simple Google Scholar search will show over 45,000 citations on the term, including the ground breaking work by George Ainslie. It really is a measure of system 1 heavy decision making, something that you yourself accept. In fact, there is enough science on it that I'm conducting a meta-analytic review. And, unlike fear of failure, you find a very strong correlation between impulsiveness and procrastination.

Now characterizing every technique that science has produced as not up to your standards is a little harsh. The book is a review of the literature. Essentially, researchers in peer-reviewed studies have conducted a variety of treatments, like stimulus control (which activates the cue sensitive system 1), and found them very effective at reducing procrastination. I organize and report what works. Since there is a thousands ways to implement stimlus control, you can describe the general methodology, report its effectiveness and give a few examples of how it can be used. If you know a better way to convery this information, I'm all ears. Of note, this is indeed an environmental fix to procrastination, one of several and not what you characterize as "don't think that way or think something else." Again, you come across as not having read the book.

On the other hand, I think you have been given pretty much a free ride up to this point. You make a lot of suggestions that are inconsistent with our present knowledge of the field (e.g., fear of failure). You make a quite bold claim that you have techniques that with one application will cure procrastinators, presumably by focusing solely on the expectancy or self-efficacy aspect of motivation. We can all make claims. Show me some peer-reviewed research (please, not clincial case studies).

On the longshot you might be right and have all the magic bullets, do some experimental research on it and publish it in a respectable journal. I would welcome the correction. I have a lot of research interests and would be happy to be able to focus on other things. Personally, I don't think you actually are going to do it. Right now, you have the warm belief that the rest of us studying this field are effectively a bunch of second rates as "science has not actually caught up to the in-field knowledge of people like myself." If you actually do the research (with proper controls, like accounting for the placebo effect which runs rampant through self-efficacy type clinical interventions), you run the risk of having a very self-satisfying set of beliefs turned into flimsy illusions. Do you really think you are willing to take that risk? Given human nature, I'm sceptical but would love to be proven wrong.

Comment author: Matti 09 February 2012 07:40:44PM 1 point [-]

You give any group of people a perfectionism or fear of failure test along with almost any procrastination scale and you get pretty much anywhere from a negative to at best a very weak positive correlation. And if you control for self-efficacy or self-confidence, that weak correlation disappears. Science does not back you up.

The above made me think of a paragraph that caught my eye while I was skimming through Robert Boice's Procrastination and Blocking: A Novel, Practical Approach:

Second, [Procrastination and Blocking] seems hard to define and study. Its practical understanding will require direct observation of PBers acting as problematically dilatory and self-conscious individuals. As a rule, psychologists avoid the time and inconvenience of lengthy field studies. Instead, they prefer to draw occasional conclusions about PBing based on quick personality tests administered to college freshmen. In that way, they can feel like scientists, testing students in laboratory conditions and linking the results, statistically, to other test outcomes such as the seeming inclination of PBers to admit perfectionism or demanding parents (Ferrari and Olivette, 1994). A problem is that researchers lose sight of PBing as a real, costly, and treatable problem.

(Note: This was just an association I made. I haven't read your book and I don't mean to imply that you belong to the category of researchers described by Boice.)

Comment author: [deleted] 09 February 2012 02:55:08PM 0 points [-]

Show me some peer-reviewed research (please, not clinical case studies).

This seems like an unreasonable thing to ask of a non-academic. Based on what I hear of academia, pjeby doesn't have a good chance of obtaining funding for a controlled study nor of publishing his results in a respectable journal even if they are as good as he claims. Or am I wrong? It would be nice if I were incorrect on either of those things.

Comment author: Procrastinus 09 February 2012 07:11:18PM *  1 point [-]

You are probably right. It was an overly onerous requirement on my part. However, peer-reviewed is our best stamp of quality research we have and a meta-analysis is even better, comprised of hundreds of peer-reviewed research. I am passionate about science, well aware of the limitations of clincial expert opinion, and was probably too strident.

In truth, it is almost impossible for a sole practitioner to discern whether the efficaciousness of their treatment is due to the treatment itself or other apparently non-relevant aspects, such as the placebo effect or the personality of the clinician. There are some really effective clinicians out there who are successful through their innate ability to inspire. You need to do or rely on research to determine what is really going on (i.e., evidence based treatment). There really isn't any other way (really, really, really), and unless he gets this, there is nothing he will personally experience that will make him change his mind. This isn't new though. Research has repeated shown statistical analysis beats clinical opinion pretty much everytime (here's one from Paul Meehl, who I studied under and was both a clinician and statistican: http://www.psych.umn.edu/faculty/grove/114meehlscontributiontoclinical.pdf).

This type of issue is never going go away though. We have everything from homeopathy to applied kinesiology, all of which where appears to work because people believe it works. The only way to separate out whether the motivational treatment is inherently effective is through research. If it is the placebo effect and you are happy with that being the source of whatever change you are seeing, then add a lot more pomp and ceremony -- it ups the effect.

Comment author: pjeby 09 February 2012 10:01:29PM 1 point [-]

There are some really effective clinicians out there who are successful through their innate ability to inspire.

Heh. Doesn't apply in my case, unless mere text on a screen qualifies as innate ability to inspire. (Most of my client work is done in text format, and I mostly try to teach people techniques which they can apply themselves.)

Really, if these clinicians are successful for this reason, then why isn't there any research identifiying what this "innate ability" consists of, so that other clinicians can be taught to be inspiring, or conversely, there can be some sort of inspirational ability test made a qualification of licensing?

A phrase like "innate abiliity to inspire" is bad science and bad reductionism.

You need to do or rely on research to determine what is really going on (i.e., evidence based treatment).

Ah, that's why auto mechanics have peer-reviewed journals in order to notice whether they can really fix cars, or just have an innate ability to inspire the cars. ;-)

Can a mechanic be wrong about why a car started working, or how it was broken? Absolutely. Does it matter to the mechanic? To the car's owner? Not very much.

I wrote a response to your post above, but the site sits and spins for several minutes every time I submit it; I guess perhaps it's too long. I referred back to various other postings on this site, so you could get an idea of how strict LessWrong's standards of reductionism and word usage actually are, and showing why individual falsifiability is a higher standard than peer-reviewed research, if you want a car that starts.

The type of research-based advice you're touting, doesn't rise to the level of individual falsifiability, because you can still say "it's proven science" even when it doesn't work for that particular individual. I don't have that retreat, because I only accept as "technique" processes which can be unequivocally stated as having worked or not worked for a particular application.

My longer post also detailed the likely areas where placebo effects could exist in my work, and described some of the difficulties in formulating an appropriate control placebo for same.

So, I do understand the difference between chemistry and auto mechanics, and I'm not claiming to be a good chemist, or that you're a bad one. But I am saying that chemists who haven't actually opened the hood and gotten their hands dirty might not be the best people to write owners' manuals, even if they might be a good technical reviewer for such a manual.

Conversely, auto mechanics shouldn't write chemistry textbooks, and I don't have any delusions in that regard.

(Hopefully, this comment is short enough to actually get posted.)

Comment author: scientism 20 January 2012 04:17:37PM 8 points [-]

I have a hypothesis I'd like to test. I think the ability to formulate realistically long-term goals and act on them is derivative of certain types of social skills. Specifically the types of social skills that come from engaging in formal social activities where one works in a group of people towards a particular goal. Anecdotally, most of the people I've met who are very good planners have conservative and often religious backgrounds, which I think correlates strongly with participation in formal social activities, whereas most people I meet afflicted with poor motivational skills are also adverse to (at least) formal social activities.

The idea is just that planning is derivative of delegation. You can think of planning as delegation to future selves. Learning how to delegate tasks involves learning how to break tasks up, how to judge their difficulty, how to judge how long they'll take, how to fairly divide them, how to judge when they're complete, etc. All of these things are useful skills to have for planning alone but in the social context there is much greater feedback to use when developing them. Self-motivation is, in turn, derivative of group motivation; learning how to lead and motivate a group (or even observing others do so) is prior to learning how to motivate oneself over the long-term. Working in a group might, for example, give you a better idea of reward frequency, how long a person can go without a break, what sort of situations will reduce motivation, how much guidance is needed, etc, that you can then apply to planning your own activities. People without this kind of experience might tend to make unrealistic appraisals of their own abilities (I know this is a major part of my own procrastination; I get 3 months to do something but convince myself it can be done in a month, then when I have a month, I convince myself I can do it in a week, then when the week comes, I'm thinking in terms of days and, finally, I'm some sort of superhuman who can do 3 months work overnight).

I'd like to know if anyone has any contrary data points, thoughts, anecdotes, etc.

Comment author: atucker 20 January 2012 04:56:28PM 0 points [-]

To the extent that I had agency, it came from applying my robotics management strategies to myself.

Recently though, I've started to acquire agency from other sources. This seems to be largely the result of having concrete experience in which I succeed at doing something I expected to be impossible (even if I could verbally tell you that it makes sense that I should be able to do something, that doesn't mean my anticipations are such that I would act as if I were able to).

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 20 January 2012 01:20:03PM *  8 points [-]

Luke, I want to thank you for writing the articles on procrastination and happines. Somehow you managed to write a text that appears both scientific and legible. And short enough. And actionable. This weekend I am going to make a short translated version in a more "to do"-like form, which I will print and periodically read to remind myself.

For me so far the best tool to overcome acrasia is the Beeminder. Most other strategies I have tried before failed after a week or sooner (the biggest exception was the exercise plan 5BX that I used for three months). Also some lessons from P.J.Eby that I found online helped me a lot. One important idea I found in his lessons is that our attention to external things is more persistent than our attention to things in our heads; so if there is an important idea, it helps to place it into the environment by writing it on paper. I guess it also helps that my Beeminder data exist somewhere outside my head, even outside my own computer.

Beeminder is very useful because it measures and records progress. Too bad I use it only since December 2011, so I don't have historical data to compare. I am ashamed to admit that my goals are very humble nowadays -- a small daily exercise, running once a week, writing one blog article per week, sleeping before midnight -- but even these goals were hardly attainable for me months ago, when my laziness fully exploded. And by the way reading LW helped me to set realistic goals. When setting a goal, I try to use outside view and ask myself what is the probability that I will actually do it, and what evidence exists. If I feel the probability is less than 80-90%, I don't set the goal, because I prefer smaller goals with higher probability than greater goals with less probability; I want reliable progress, not random success. (I can still try to reach more ambitious goals without writing them to Beeminder.)

So these days I am very certain that LW helps me to overcome my procrastination. (Without LW I wouldn't have found Beeminder nor P.J.Eby, so I include this to LW's value too.) And the only cost is time, which I would have spent on other web sites anyway. I am starting from almost level zero, so even if my progress means much to me, it is probably not impressive to anyone else (unless they are in a similar situation like I was half year ago). My point is -- Beeminder is useful not only to overcome acrasia, but also to measure your progress.

So if anyone wants to be sure that their "becoming stronger" is not just a placebo effect, here is a tool. It is not good for everything; it can measure how many articles I write on my blog, but not their quality, so optimizing too much could result in writing a lot of rubbish; also it can be used only on repeated activities... but it's better than nothing.

Comment author: dreeves 21 January 2012 12:14:57AM *  2 points [-]

Viliam, thanks so much! What's surprising to me is that you're getting that much motivational power out of Beeminder even without pledging money to stay on your yellow brick roads. Theoretically, that's where the real motivational power comes from -- setting up a commitment device.

If you agree that hyperbolic discounting is at the heart of akrasia then you should, I believe, agree that commitment devices are fundamental to the solution. But tracking and visualizing your progress on a graph of course goes a long way by itself.

As I've argued on LessWrong before it's the combination of data visualization and commitment devices that's going to make Beeminder take over the world. I figure by solving akrasia we can easily double world GDP, for example, right? :)

[Disclosure, if it wasn't obvious: I'm part of Beeminder. Viliam's gushing, on the other hand, is thoroughly untainted -- we don't know him(?) in real life even.]

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 21 January 2012 09:17:10AM *  3 points [-]

I guess for me the power of Beeminder is in visualization and planning. For example now it is very calming to see that my exercise plan for previous 20 days progresses flawlessly. It also helps that some of my plans are decided in advance, so I don't waste mental energy and time deciding whether I should do something now or later.

Another useful technique, less reliable but more simple -- each evening I take a small piece of paper and write a "to do" list for tomorrow. I don't always follow the list, but at least I have a "default option" what to do next when I am undecisive. I would summarize both techniques as: "Make decisions in your brightest moments, and then follow them obediently." I guess my brightest moments are when I am going to sleep, because then the strongest temptation to procrastinate (continue web browsing) is over.

I don't pledge money or anything like this, because I want a motivational device, not a punishment device. (Sorry I am ruining your income model, but you made the rules.) As P.J.Eby says: "What pushes you forward, holds you back." The emotion I want is reassurance (I did it in the past, I can do it today and tomorrow), not pressure of fear. Because if I associate positive feelings with Beeminder, I will want to use it more; if I associate negative feelings, I will try to avoid using it.

Measuring goals in only half of the solution -- and you did it perfectly. Thanks! The other half is setting reasonable goals. This may depend on user's personality: my preferred method is to set humble goals, measure that I can achieve them, and then slowly increase them based on already collected data.

Comment author: pjeby 25 January 2012 05:27:00AM 1 point [-]

What's surprising to me is that you're getting that much motivational power out of Beeminder even without pledging money to stay on your yellow brick roads. Theoretically, that's where the real motivational power comes from -- setting up a commitment device.

Well, you'll eventually have some suggestive data one way or the other; my guess, though, is that there won't be a strong correlation between precommitment amounts and success.

Rather, I expect you'll mostly see people who 1) keep running off roads or giving up, or 2) who succeed after a small number of failures. People who crank up to a midrange and then stay on their road(s) forever after seem unlikely to me. (This is why I think private branding or flat-fee approaches are your best bet for stable and sustainable funding in the long term.)

I could be wrong, of course. An awful lot depends on what population you end up being a cross-section of.

I figure by solving akrasia

That's not going to happen, trust me. ;-) There is no silver bullet for that (i.e., no universal solution that doesn't require extensive individual customization), and I've worked with plenty of people for whom Beeminder would be a curse rather than a blessing.

Part of the point is that humans are not homo economicus: not all values are fungible, and some values are in conflict within a given individual.

Comment author: shminux 20 January 2012 06:11:47AM *  21 points [-]

I know exactly what works for me: having someone else depend on me doing my work on time. If I'm the only interested party, very little ever gets done, unless the consequences of doing nothing are pretty grave.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 January 2012 07:13:45AM 7 points [-]

This is so true and so tragic. Why is it that we feel totally ok about flaking out completely on ourselves when we wouldn't dare to flake out on someone else? Fixing this would be huge for raising the 'value' factor in the procrastination equation.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 20 January 2012 09:54:17AM 4 points [-]

I have the same, and find it particularly mysterious given my ideological affinity for egoistic/individualistic philosophy. An egoist who can only motivate himself to do things for others? What the hell is that about?

Comment author: fubarobfusco 20 January 2012 02:51:56PM 4 points [-]

Why is it that we feel totally ok about flaking out completely on ourselves when we wouldn't dare to flake out on someone else?

If nobody else cares about me accomplishing a goal, then that goal clearly isn't very important to my tribe's survival and success.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 January 2012 06:43:08PM 9 points [-]

What a piece of shit motivational architecture we have to deal with.

Comment author: [deleted] 21 January 2012 01:29:46AM *  2 points [-]

It's the circumstances, not the architecture. You wouldn't blame a Ferrari for its inability to climb trees.

Comment author: [deleted] 21 January 2012 02:10:44AM 2 points [-]

it still sucks for climbing trees. You're right tho; this is a problem to be worked around, not bitched about.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 January 2012 06:59:49AM 4 points [-]

Seen through an evo psych lens, this makes a certain kind of sense. I wonder how much far-mode individual achievement was actually going on in our evolutionary history. Probably very little, if any. It seems like we freeze up in the face of some types of procrastination-inspiring tasks in the same way that we might've previously been averse to banishment -- in both cases the threat is a marked dropoff in being "held" by the group.

Comment author: faul_sname 20 January 2012 06:22:13AM 4 points [-]

I'm in very much the same situation. Lesswrong has given me a huge arsenal of anti-procrastination techniques, which I find myself using only when the stakes are high.

Comment author: moridinamael 20 January 2012 06:27:15AM 7 points [-]

Ditto for me. The most incredible motivational tool I've used is a two-man creative project with relatively strict rules and penalties for lateness.

Nothing else works reliably because I don't listen to myself.

Comment author: Alexei 20 January 2012 04:49:12PM 3 points [-]

When I work on my own projects, I fake this sort of setup by pretending one of my friends is my boss, and I have to account to them for everything I am planning to do each day, and then everything I've accomplished that day.
Not only do I feel responsibility to them, it's a lot easier to answer the question "what do I do now?" when you've already written the answer down.

Comment author: fburnaby 22 January 2012 05:11:19PM 2 points [-]

I'm weaker still, I think. I need the person who's depending on me to be close by.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 20 January 2012 09:31:17AM 2 points [-]

Even being in the same room as someone else seems to help.

Comment author: Karmakaiser 20 January 2012 03:55:27PM 3 points [-]

The people I know are too lazy for that. I end up using them to procrastinate instead of doing work, and if they are in the room, they try to distract me.

Comment author: [deleted] 21 January 2012 04:24:24AM *  7 points [-]

Replace the "procrastination" in procrastination research with "basketball." How far would basketball research get if it didn't notice or recognize the benefit of tallness? What is the "tallness" of highly productive individuals? Is "tallness" actually very rare in populations? Does "tallness" account for an a highly productive individual's ability to be highly productive without the feeling of being held by the group?

If we don't happen to possess high levels of "tallness" -- it being a freakishly rare genetic commodity -- is it therefore stupid for us to fret so much about akrasia? Wouldn't the next step be to use our rationalist powers to assign higher status to stuff like productivity support groups? I'm talking about a real campaign to dethrone solo effort as a superior way of getting things done (unless solo effort is indisputably the best thing for that person).

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 20 January 2012 07:48:34AM 3 points [-]

I haven't heard of many LWers conquering akrasia.

FWIW, here's a data point for you: improved instrumental rationality / less akrasia is definitely the most tangible benefit I've gotten from reading LessWrong (though I feel I may be underestimating its effects on my epistemic rationality.)

Comment author: David_Gerard 20 January 2012 01:07:29PM 1 point [-]

I still procrastinate ridiculously, but I can picture the goals better, and the sequence of actions needed to get to them. (It's doing them that gets tricky and prone to bogging down.)

Comment author: Giles 22 January 2012 05:26:13AM 5 points [-]

LW has made me realize that there's really important stuff I should be doing. So now it feels like akrasia when before it just felt like having nothing better to do.

Comment author: David_Gerard 22 January 2012 09:42:25AM *  -1 points [-]

Mine is mostly quotidian middle-aged suburban dad/stepdad stuff. But crikey, when it's finally your turn to turn the crank that makes the world go round ... it's more work than it ever looked from the outside when you were a kid. I'm suddenly appreciating my parents a lot more. Good thing they're still around to tell this.

Comment author: Alicorn 20 January 2012 04:34:02AM 2 points [-]

(more: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)

7 is not a link, and 8 and 9 are duplicates.

Comment author: shminux 20 January 2012 06:05:01AM 2 points [-]

It was a test, to see if we are paying attention and clicking the links, or procrastinating. You passed, I failed.

Comment author: orthonormal 21 January 2012 06:33:49PM 9 points [-]

How is it not procrastinating to click through 12 unmarked links on Less Wrong?

Comment author: Alicorn 20 January 2012 06:16:38AM 5 points [-]

I didn't actually click them, I moused over.

Comment author: lukeprog 02 February 2012 05:23:01PM 0 points [-]

Fixed.

Comment author: Giles 22 January 2012 05:32:26AM 1 point [-]

I've been thinking of arranging "productivity" meetings with the Toronto LW group. The idea is that the face-to-face aspect should help us to use the social obligation trick, and we can try and put into practice whatever it is that LW knows about anti-akrasia and productivity.

Have any other local LW groups tried anything similar?

Comment author: [deleted] 21 January 2012 01:00:43PM 1 point [-]

Why doesn't the “7” in the list of posts link to anywhere? :-/