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A thought about Internet procrastination

21 Post author: RolfAndreassen 15 May 2012 09:46PM

Perhaps this is already well known, but it occurred to me yesterday and I thought I'd share it. The Internet seems particularly virulent as a form of procrastination; indeed, if, say, chatting at watercoolers took up as much time in the average office worker's day, we wouldn't make jokes about it. What is the feature that makes it so deadly? I suggest that it is the random reinforcement schedule: Every five minutes you "press the lever", that is, check forum X or site Y. And every six or seven checks you get the reward: Someone posted something interesting! This random reinforcement is ideal for creating addiction; thus, for example, slot machines.

As a way to avoid this effect, I'm going to strive not to do anything on the interwebs except at precisely defined times, or unless I have a specific goal in mind, say "Look up this method signature". Wish me luck, or better still, wish me willpower. :)

Comments (30)

Comment author: private_messaging 16 May 2012 05:52:40AM *  17 points [-]

I propose a meta theory: the popular sites are those that induce the procrastination the best, and there is a lot of people working hard to make their software popular.

Comment author: ghf 17 May 2012 09:34:18AM 3 points [-]

Some are specifically focused in at the level of prompting addiction. Zynga, for example, has put a lot of work into optimizing the rate of rewards for just this effect.

Comment author: private_messaging 17 May 2012 10:14:52AM 3 points [-]

Yep. Other model is to set up mechanism that trains at least some people to produce addictive content for people within your system (Reddit does this).

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 16 May 2012 08:15:17AM *  13 points [-]

Internet procrastination can have multiple causes, which aligned with each other provide the disastrous results.

  • random reinforcement schedule -- I have found also many valuable things online; the problem is I get them randomly

  • social activity superstimulus -- internet is to human interaction like sugar is to food

  • trivial inconveniences -- clicking another link in browser is easier than standing up and doing something else

  • instant feedback loop -- loading a webpage takes a second on average, many our activities are a few magnitudes of order slower

...and this is just for websites not optimized for being addictive. For example blogs are more addictive, because their timeline creates a sense of urgency. Blog comments create a lot of noise attached to the interesting content. Wikis contain too many links.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 18 May 2012 06:17:13AM 0 points [-]

Now where's the scientific research on how to counter these effects?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 18 May 2012 10:44:57AM 1 point [-]

There are some tools that can make web browsing less convenient and slower (addressing the trivial convenience and instant feedback), and there is an article by Luke "How to Beat Procrastination". I guess the critical part is not only to read the article but actually to do the suggested things.

Comment author: moridinamael 15 May 2012 11:55:09PM *  13 points [-]

This post inspired me to look up this xkcd comic because I wanted to recall the mouseover text: http://xkcd.com/862/

After years of trying various methods, I broke this habit by pitting my impatience against my laziness. I decoupled the action and the neurological reward by setting up a simple 30-second delay I had to wait through, in which I couldn't do anything else, before any new page or chat client would load (and only allowed one to run at once). The urge to check all those sites magically vanished--and my 'productive' computer use was unaffected.

Then it led me to find this Chrome plugin which executes the proposed hack:


So, I'll be putting LessWrong on timed-block (at least at work!), and I'll try to report my results.

Comment author: Pfft 16 May 2012 01:55:59AM *  5 points [-]

This comment made me decide to try it too. Firefox users can use the Leechblock extension.

For now I'll experiment with adding a 30-second delay to all domains, with a few exceptions (so the blocklist might be *, +google.com, +haskell.org) This doesn't quite match the xkcd setup, since there might be spurious delays if a single task spans multiple domains, but it seems close enough to start with.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 16 May 2012 06:55:58AM 3 points [-]

Thank you! I did not notice Leechblock has this option.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 May 2012 12:32:22AM 2 points [-]

I think concepts like akrasia and hyperbolic discounting contribute somewhere in this approach too. If you can just make it through the initial rush of pleasure seeking behaviour and desire for distraction without acting on it, it seems to be much easier to re-focus on an less stimulating task.

Comment author: moridinamael 21 May 2012 04:28:11PM 1 point [-]

After about a week, here are my results.

Using this plugin has forced me to notice that I have a bad work algorithm: when I hit a roadblock in coding or writing or whatever and I can't immediately see my way through it, I go to the Internet. The plugin basically halts this particular algorithm - when I try to use the Internet I get bored of waiting after about five seconds and go back to working, and usually figure out whatever the problem was.

I quickly realized that some discipline is still required. I have a smartphone, so I have to force myself not to simply use the smartphone for internet distraction. Additionally I convince myself that it would be shameful to find some other workaround like using my remote machine or one of my virtual machines.

Overall, I believe this made my workweek more productive. We'll see if I manage to work around my own convictions and find other ways of distracting myself.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 18 May 2012 06:17:56AM 0 points [-]

Thank you! I did not know this plugin existed.

Comment author: radical_negative_one 15 May 2012 11:05:20PM *  41 points [-]

Who else is reading this page because they visited LessWrong to procrastinate?

And the first thing i see when i get here is a discussion post on internet procrastination. I feel so ridiculous now that i have no choice but to get back to work!

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 16 May 2012 12:42:09PM 6 points [-]

I'm not procrastinating, I'm taking a break from work.

Comment author: Nisan 15 May 2012 11:11:35PM 5 points [-]

On my first reading I thought you meant you'd help out Less Wrong users by only making interesting posts at regular intervals.

Comment author: shminux 15 May 2012 10:28:18PM 5 points [-]

Good luck! (You'll need it.)

The following strategy worked for me for a while, though not anymore: I resolved that, before interrupting a productive activity, I would write down what I was about to do and note the start and end times, thus keeping an accurate log of interruptions.

Comment author: Raemon 15 May 2012 10:31:34PM 1 point [-]

This works for me (ish) when I bother to stick to it.

Works less well when my goal is less clearly defined and will take more than an hour.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 16 May 2012 11:26:37PM 4 points [-]

I'm finding myself habitually Alt-tabbing to my browser whenever I finish something, no matter how trivial; whenever I run into a problem requiring more than five seconds' thought; and every five minutes, whatever. So far I seem to be able to catch myself and remember that, hey, that's not what I'm supposed to be doing. Unfortunately this particular day was consumed by administrivia, so I still wasn't actually productive; but at least I wasn't just surfing the web.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 16 May 2012 06:09:24AM *  2 points [-]

What is the feature that makes it so deadly? I suggest that it is the random reinforcement schedule: Every five minutes you "press the lever", that is, check forum X or site Y. And every six or seven checks you get the reward: Someone posted something interesting!

What I want to know is whether a random reinforcement schedule becomes more addictive when we add the possibility that pressing the lever will lead to something aversive (e.g., a particularly stupid comment or one in which someone expresses enthusiasm for a course of action I think will cause more harm that good). I kind of suspect that such a schedule is better at hooking me than a random reinforcement schedule without the possibility of aversive outcome.

ADDED. For example, I note that reading internet forums open to all comers like LW causes aversive reactions in me much more frequently than does reading professionally authored and edited publications, e.g., The Atlantic or Smithsonian magazine, and I note that I get more hooked on the former than on the latter.

Comment author: khafra 16 May 2012 12:35:42PM 2 points [-]

I can't locate the study right now, but a gamble did, indeed, become more attractive when the researchers added a losing option.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 16 May 2012 06:50:39PM 0 points [-]

When you say "more attractive", do you mean more attractive to people who have not gambled yet or more habit-forming?

Comment author: [deleted] 15 May 2012 10:52:59PM 1 point [-]

If willpower fails you, you may find a tool like LeechBlock helpful. Best of luck!

Comment author: borntowin 16 May 2012 07:17:06AM 0 points [-]

May the Force be with you! :)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 25 May 2012 09:35:25AM 1 point [-]

I decided to stop reading LW for a week. Not now; when I am writing these words, the week is over, successfully. This decision included other websites too, but recently I spent most of my online time on LW.

Why? Discussing this topic on LW was among the latest ingredients. LW primes one to think about their own biases. Procrastination includes a lot of self-deception; even the name is already deceptive. -- If someone would spend most of their time drunk, and never follow their plans, would you call it procrastination or alcohol addiction? The choice seems obvious. Then why don't we make the same obvious choice when speaking about people who spend most of their time online, and call it internet addiction? Well, because we are speaking about us, and that's when we are most biased. (I am sure the drunks would also explain that their problem is not in alcohol per se, but something else, something external to them. Yeah, right.) So this is the first lesson: If you have a problem with "procrastination", you really have a problem with addiction. And the fact that you use the word "procrastination" anyway, just shows how deep in denial you are. Accepting that you have a problem (and accepting that you have a very specific problem, not just some abstract mysterious "procrastination") is the first step. It also helps you to distinguish what might and what might not help. (Hint: if the solution does not include a huge reduction of intake of the substance you are addicted to, it will not help. All the successful solutions are focused on how to make this reduction successful and long-term.)

Two problems here. First, people are not automatically strategic; they don't immediately see what is best for them. Actually, people are even not completely rational; knowing what is best does not make you do it; we must also align our emotions with our plan. Second, it is not possible to avoid internet completely, at least for an IT person like me.

I use internet in two modes: Search mode: I need a specific information and I find it (by using google and reading a few relevant articles). Exploration and fun mode: I read something for curiosity and amusement; my favorite sites, then my less favorite sites, and then generally anything, the possibilities are without limits. It is important to see the difference between these two modes, and not deceive oneself when the original search turns to exploration or fun.

So I decided to use only one day a week for the exploration and fun mode. I don't think I could give it up completely; but this way I will save 6 days of 7. This day is Friday. (It is not a coincidence that this comment is written on Friday, and my previous comments were also written on Friday.) During the rest of the week, I will try to avoid web use completely, but if it is necessary, I will use in only in the search mode. Before doing a search, I will ask myself whether this is really necessary.

I have to admit that my first week was not a 100% success. But it was mostly successful anyway. Sometimes my search mode changed to exploration mode (for example I used Facebook to turn off sending e-mail notifications, and saw something on my friend's profile, and clicked there), but after a while I realized what happend, and closed the web browser. I think it is important not to punish oneself for small mistakes, but rather stop doing doing them, and congratulate oneself for noticing the mistake. -- Human brain is mostly based on conditioning, not logic, whether we like it or not. Be careful about what exactly are you conditioning. If you decide to punish yourself for doing something wrong, are you really punishing yourself for doing the wrong thing, or for noticing that you did the wrong thing?

Don't make "I am trying to be perfect" an excuse for self-sabotage. Yes, you want to be perfect. No, you are not. Imagining that you are, building your plans on this assumptions, is just plain stupid. Don't say "if I break my rules once, I have failed forever". That just gives you a convenient excuse to quit after you fail the first time. Instead say "I will do it, and even if I fail I will do it again, and again, and again".

But there is also a second part of the puzzle -- if you "procrastinate" or generally do stupid things, you probably don't have anything better to do. This seems absurd; there are usually better things to do. Sure, but do you feel they are better? If your emotions are not alligned with your goals, you will do stupid things instead. -- What is your goal? What is your plan to reach it? Do you feel the importance of the goal, and does the plan feel realistic? If the answer is negative, then fix your emotions right now. I had to think about my goals and plans (and after turning off the web browser I had also the necessary time and attention), I have noticed that most of my plans are not realistic or not doable right now, and then I noticed there are a few things I could do now, and that they contribute to a goal I feel good about... and then I did it. (First I was writing texts for my own web page; at least it had some similarity with idle web browsing, so it was easier to do. Then I studied some new software. Then I wrote some programs. Then I met a few friends I've been ignoring. Actually I was rather busy this week, so I did not have too much free time to protect from procrastination.)

Sorry if this is chaotic. I just wanted to share. I will not edit this comment for better legibility, because there is too much new content on LW, and I have only one day to catch up. Just wanted to give you courage and share some advice if you are perhaps thinking what I was thinking a week ago. Try it!

Experiment summary: For 6 days a week, avoid web use (except for necessary "search mode"). On the seventh day, enjoy the web; you deserve it. If you fail, start again; don't punish yourself for failing, reward yourself for noticing. Don't tell anyone about it, especially not online; you goal is to do it, not to discuss it. Think about your goals, how you feel about them? Think about your plans, do they feel realistic? Then follow your plans.

Comment author: HoverHell 17 May 2012 10:12:44AM *  1 point [-]

It will probably take you few months to a year of constant internet browsing (probably will have to do it read-only) to get to the point where you don't find most of the stuff interesting and, thus, stop getting “rewards” from that. (Although, I suspect, having some misanthropy helps with that, even if generally not recommended).

Also, a reminder: willpower is a stream-limited (and capped too) resource.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 18 May 2012 10:38:45AM *  2 points [-]

I am not sure my "rewards" are decreasing in a long term. First, I learn where to find the more interesting stuff (my filters improve). Second, more interesting stuff is created (the internet expands). For example recently my "rewards" were pretty low and I felt like I will stop procrastinating online... and then I found LW.

I agree with the "read-only" mode, because being a part of community gives its own "rewards". This is how I reduced my addiction to the website I spent a lot of time previously -- I have noticed that I spend more time writing than reading (and that my estimates of the writing time are even worse than my estimates of reading time), so I decided to stop writing. After a few weaks, reading felt much less interesting.

Comment author: HoverHell 20 May 2012 09:37:46PM 0 points [-]

It's possible (not guaranteed, though) that “waterline” for minimal quality of things that you find interesting (rewarding) will rise (note that LW/sequences is relatively high quality already, though wouldn't yet try to define “quality” here), up to the point when approximately all (with more and more rare exceptions) things on the internet can be seen as boring-because-unoriginal (i.e. they start to become repetitive if seen sufficiently generally).

The idea is based on a very small (<4) and very selective sample, of course, and general extrapolation wouldn't be very helpful (though if you don't find sufficiently interesting some simple reading of fixed set of newssites with no search for additional materials — “morning newspaper”-like, that's already some suggesting indicator).

The “community participation” is a case where such rewards-decrease is almost guaranteed to not happen (though it's also a stable need anyway).

Comment author: wonderpup 16 May 2012 09:06:24PM 1 point [-]

I've wondered about this as well, since wrote an essay on reinforcement schedules inherent in pinball games. I use the pomodoro technique, which fancy as it sounds, is just a timer that lets you check email and blogs after doing 'work' for 20/25 minutes. If you use a bit of software to manage it, it provides its own reinforcement to continue. ("you have completed x number of chunkc of work today/this week...").

Comment author: RomeoStevens 15 May 2012 11:59:36PM 1 point [-]

I have the general heuristic of doing all things in larger chunks for efficiency. I don't wash the clothes I need the next day each night.

WRT to the internet, I wait long enough that each of my usual haunts has updates then consume them all at once. Then I know that there won't be anything productive to check for at least a day.