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Follow-up To: Reinforcement and Short-Term Rewards as Anti-Akratic
I'm still working on cleaning up my scheduling system for release, like I mentioned in the comments to my last post. However, I managed to forget the end of my college semester, which is taking up a distressing amount of my time. So, although progress is being made, I'm not done quite yet and probably won't be until sometime after my final exams end on the 16th. In the meantime, I'm going to explain my scheduling system and some of the modifications I've made to it.
My system is derived from the Pomodoro Technique. In it, work is separated into individual 25-minute blocks also called "Pomodoros." To ensure that blocks last for the full 25 minutes, they're timed; once the timer has started, the block should not be uninterrupted until the timer runs out. There's a short break between each Pomodoro; after several Pomodoros, there's a longer break.
The biggest benefit I've noticed from using my system is in fixing my problems with task switching. When I was doing something I didn't much like, I used to think about doing something else almost constantly; it usually wasn't long before I stopped working to do something else. The original Pomodoro Method solved this problem by forcing me to wait until the timer had expired to stop working. However, I had another problem with task switching that the original Pomodoro System didn't touch. When I was slacking off, I could sit contented for hours without doing anything else; I found it hard to start working or stop slacking off. That's where my changes came in. These problems are both very similar; in this one, I change tasks too infrequently, where in the other, I changed tasks too often. It stands to reason, then, that they could both be solved the same way: by timing them. So, in my system, everything I do is treated like work is under the Pomodoro System, even slacking off.
That's the biggest change my system makes: everything is a block (or a Pomodoro), and I'm in a block all the time. However, my system is more than just a few rule tweaks. My system is computerized; I use a web application for my block timer, as well as for managing my task list and the various other add-ons my system has. I've also made a number of more subtle decisions that better adapt the system for computerization.
Like in the Pomodoro System, my system times each block of work I do. After the work period ends (usually 25 minutes), my system enters a 5-minute break period. During this break period, I preload my next task into the system so that I can start working as soon as the break ends, without having to futz with the timer. If I forget to preload a task, my system doesn't start anything automatically; I'm just left outside of a block, which I consider to be a failure state that I always try to avoid.
My system also integrates a task list; to start a block, I must choose my task from the list. This also helps to improve my productivity. Because I choose tasks from a list of all my potential activities, it's easier to find and select tasks with higher activation energy, instead of falling back on cached procrastination. Forcing me to select a task from a list also makes me explicitly consider what I ought to be doing with my time.
A web application is nice, but there are a lot of things about it that, on its own, make it a bit less useful than the traditional timer. It doesn't ring, for instance, and I have to open it up every time I want to check how much time I have left. So, I built an application that runs on another computer on my desk that handles all of those things. It rings a digital gong when the current timer ends. It shows me whether I'm in a break, in a task, or if my task has expired by changing the color of the screen. It displays in text the current task, some information about it, and how much time is left on the timer. Right now, this is a fairly bare-bones terminal application; one of the things I'm working on in my current revision is making it look a bit nicer.
Of course, my extrinsic motivator from my previous article is tied into this system as well. Simply put, it rewards me with candy for keeping on track with my schedule. The rules it follows are more precisely explained in its own article. I'm rewriting the rules, however; expect a new article about them in a few weeks.
Even the best scheduling system in the world would be of no use if I couldn't bring myself to follow it. That's what my browser plugin is for. When I don't have a block timer active, or if I'm trying to access a non-productive web site during a productive block, my browser plugin will block the site and tell me to go start a block. I can still override the plugin, but the plugin requires me to wait 10 seconds before I get the option. Since most of my procrastination time is spent on the Internet, the plugin is an effective way of reminding me to turn the system back on.
Since my goal is to keep the system on at all times, it's a bit problematic that many of real-world tasks don't divide neatly into Pomodoro-sized chunks. These are things like eating dinner, walking the dog, or sleeping. In order to track them, my system has a category of "real-world" tasks which run for an indefinite amount of time. However, such a task would seem open to abuse; in order to prevent that, my browser plugin blocks my access to the Internet during them, just as if I weren't in a block at all.
My original plans for the system included things like reports on time usage and a system to help me calibrate my expectations for the amount of time a task is likely to take. However, I've yet to implement any of these, and honestly I'm still not sure what the best way to implement these would be. Any interesting suggestions would be appreciated; I hope to write an article about building these systems sometime soon.
The Buddhists believe that one of the three keys to attaining true happiness is dissolving the illusion of the self. (The other two are dissolving the illusion of permanence, and ceasing the desire that leads to suffering.) I'm not really sure exactly what it means to say "the self is an illusion", and I'm not exactly sure how that will lead to enlightenment, but I do think one can easily take the first step on this long journey to happiness by beginning to dissolve the sense of one's identity.
Previously, in "Keep Your Identity Small", Paul Graham showed how a strong sense of identity can lead to epistemic irrationally, when someone refuses to accept evidence against x because "someone who believes x" is part of his or her identity. And in Kaj Sotala's "The Curse of Identity", he illustrated a human tendency to reinterpret a goal of "do x" as "give the impression of being someone who does x". These are both fantastic posts, and you should read them if you haven't already.
Here are three more ways in which identity can be a curse.
1. Don't be afraid to change
James March, professor of political science at Stanford University, says that when people make choices, they tend to use one of two basic models of decision making: the consequences model, or the identity model. In the consequences model, we weigh the costs and benefits of our options and make the choice that maximizes our satisfaction. In the identity model, we ask ourselves "What would a person like me do in this situation?"1
The author of the book I read this in didn't seem to take the obvious next step and acknowledge that the consequences model is clearly The Correct Way to Make Decisions and basically by definition, if you're using the identity model and it's giving you a different result then the consequences model would, you're being led astray. A heuristic I like to use is to limit my identity to the "observer" part of my brain, and make my only goal maximizing the amount of happiness and pleasure the observer experiences, and minimizing the amount of misfortune and pain. It sounds obvious when you lay it out in these terms, but let me give an example.
Alice is a incoming freshman in college trying to choose her major. In Hypothetical University, there are only two majors: English, and business. Alice absolutely adores literature, and thinks business is dreadfully boring. Becoming an English major would allow her to have a career working with something she's passionate about, which is worth 2 megautilons to her, but it would also make her poor (0 mu). Becoming a business major would mean working in a field she is not passionate about (0 mu), but it would also make her rich, which is worth 1 megautilon. So English, with 2 mu, wins out over business, with 1 mu.
However, Alice is very bright, and is the type of person who can adapt herself to many situations and learn skills quickly. If Alice were to spend the first six months of college deeply immersing herself in studying business, she would probably start developing a passion for business. If she purposefully exposed herself to certain pro-business memeplexes (e.g. watched a movie glamorizing the life of Wall Street bankers), then she could speed up this process even further. After a few years of taking business classes, she would probably begin to forget what about English literature was so appealing to her, and be extremely grateful that she made the decision she did. Therefore she would gain the same 2 mu from having a job she is passionate about, along with an additional 1 mu from being rich, meaning that the 3 mu choice of business wins out over the 2 mu choice of English.
However, the possibility of self-modifying to becoming someone who finds English literature boring and business interesting is very disturbing to Alice. She sees it as a betrayal of everything that she is, even though she's actually only been interested in English literature for a few years. Perhaps she thinks of choosing business as "selling out" or "giving in". Therefore she decides to major in English, and takes the 2 mu choice instead of the superior 3 mu.
(Obviously this is a hypothetical example/oversimplification and there are a lot of reasons why it might be rational to pursue a career path that doesn't make very much money.)
It seems to me like human beings have a bizarre tendency to want to keep certain attributes and character traits stagnant, even when doing so provides no advantage, or is actively harmful. In a world where business-passionate people systematically do better than English-passionate people, it makes sense to self-modify to become business-passionate. Yet this is often distasteful.
For example, until a few weeks ago when I started solidifying this thinking pattern, I had an extremely adverse reaction to the idea of ceasing to be a hip-hop fan and becoming a fan of more "sophisticated" musical genres like jazz and classical, eventually coming to look down on the music I currently listen to as primitive or silly. This doesn't really make sense - I'm sure if I were to become a jazz and classical fan I would enjoy those genres at least as much as I currently enjoy hip hop. And yet I had a very strong preference to remain the same, even in the trivial realm of music taste.
Probably the most extreme example is the common tendency for depressed people to not actually want to get better, because depression has become such a core part of their identity that the idea of becoming a healthy, happy person is disturbing to them. (I used to struggle with this myself, in fact.) Being depressed is probably the most obviously harmful characteristic that someone can have, and yet many people resist self-modification.
Of course, the obvious objection is there's no way to rationally object to people's preferences - if someone truly prioritizes keeping their identity stagnant over not being depressed then there's no way to tell them they're wrong, just like if someone prioritizes paperclips over happiness there's no way to tell them they're wrong. But if you're like me, and you are interested in being happy, then I recommend looking out for this cognitive bias.
The other objection is that this philosophy leads to extremely unsavory wireheading-esque scenarios if you take it to its logical conclusion. But holding the opposite belief - that it's always more important to keep your characteristics stagnant than to be happy - clearly leads to even more absurd conclusions. So there is probably some point on the spectrum where change is so distasteful that it's not worth a boost in happiness (e.g. a lobotomy or something similar). However, I think that in actual practical pre-Singularity life, most people set this point far, far too low.
2. The hidden meaning of "be yourself"
(This section is entirely my own speculation, so take it as you will.)
"Be yourself" is probably the most widely-repeated piece of social skills advice despite being pretty clearly useless - if it worked then no one would be socially awkward, because everyone has heard this advice.
However, there must be some sort of core grain of truth in this statement, or else it wouldn't be so widely repeated. I think that core grain is basically the point I just made, applied to social interaction. I.e, optimize always for social success and positive relationships (particularly in the moment), and not for signalling a certain identity.
The ostensible purpose of identity/signalling is to appear to be a certain type of person, so that people will like and respect you, which is in turn so that people will want to be around you and be more likely to do stuff for you. However, oftentimes this goes horribly wrong, and people become very devoted to cultivating certain identities that are actively harmful for this purpose, e.g. goth, juggalo, "cool reserved aloof loner", guy that won't shut up about politics, etc. A more subtle example is Fred, who holds the wall and refuses to dance at a nightclub because he is a serious, dignified sort of guy, and doesn't want to look silly. However, the reason why "looking silly" is generally a bad thing is because it makes people lose respect for you, and therefore make them less likely to associate with you. In the situation Fred is in, holding the wall and looking serious will cause no one to associate with him, but if he dances and mingles with strangers and looks silly, people will be likely to associate with him. So unless he's afraid of looking silly in the eyes of God, this seems to be irrational.
Probably more common is the tendency to go to great care to cultivate identities that are neither harmful nor beneficial. E.g. "deep philosophical thinker", "Grateful Dead fan", "tough guy", "nature lover", "rationalist", etc. Boring Bob is a guy who wears a blue polo shirt and khakis every day, works as hard as expected but no harder in his job as an accountant, holds no political views, and when he goes home he relaxes by watching whatever's on TV and reading the paper. Boring Bob would probably improve his chances of social success by cultivating a more interesting identity, perhaps by changing his wardrobe, hobbies, and viewpoints, and then liberally signalling this new identity. However, most of us are not Boring Bob, and a much better social success strategy for most of us is probably to smile more, improve our posture and body language, be more open and accepting of other people, learn how to make better small talk, etc. But most people fail to realize this and instead play elaborate signalling games in order to improve their status, sometimes even at the expense of lots of time and money.
Some ways by which people can fail to "be themselves" in individual social interactions: liberally sprinkle references to certain attributes that they want to emphasize, say nonsensical and surreal things in order to seem quirky, be afraid to give obvious responses to questions in order to seem more interesting, insert forced "cool" actions into their mannerisms, act underwhelmed by what the other person is saying in order to seem jaded and superior, etc. Whereas someone who is "being herself" is more interested in creating rapport with the other person than giving off a certain impression of herself.
Additionally, optimizing for a particular identity might not only be counterproductive - it might actually be a quick way to get people to despise you.
I used to not understand why certain "types" of people, such as "hipsters"2 or Ed Hardy and Affliction-wearing "douchebags" are so universally loathed (especially on the internet). Yes, these people are adopting certain styles in order to be cool and interesting, but isn't everyone doing the same? No one looks through their wardrobe and says "hmm, I'll wear this sweater because it makes me uncool, and it'll make people not like me". Perhaps hipsters and Ed Hardy Guys fail in their mission to be cool, but should we really hate them for this? If being a hipster was cool two years ago, and being someone who wears normal clothes, acts normal, and doesn't do anything "ironically" is cool today, then we're really just hating people for failing to keep up with the trends. And if being a hipster actually is cool, then, well, who can fault them for choosing to be one?
That was my old thought process. Now it is clear to me that what makes hipsters and Ed Hardy Guys hated is that they aren't "being themselves" - they are much more interested in cultivating an identity of interestingness and masculinity, respectively, than connecting with other people. The same thing goes for pretty much every other collectively hated stereotype I can think of3 - people who loudly express political opinions, stoners who won't stop talking about smoking weed, attention seeking teenage girls on facebook, extremely flamboyantly gay guys, "weeaboos", hippies and new age types, 2005 "emo kids", overly politically correct people, tumblr SJA weirdos who identify as otherkin and whatnot, overly patriotic "rednecks", the list goes on and on.
This also clears up a confusion that occurred to me when reading How to Win Friends and Influence People. I know people who have a Dale Carnegie mindset of being optimistic and nice to everyone they meet and are adored for it, but I also know people who have the same attitude and yet are considered irritatingly saccharine and would probably do better to "keep it real" a little. So what's the difference? I think the difference is that the former group are genuinely interested in being nice to people and building rapport, while members of the second group have made an error like the one described in Kaj Sotala's post and are merely trying to give off the impression of being a nice and friendly person. The distinction is obviously very subtle, but it's one that humans are apparently very good at perceiving.
I'm not exactly sure what it is that causes humans to have this tendency of hating people who are clearly optimizing for identity - it's not as if they harm anyone. It probably has to do with tribal status. But what is clear is that you should definitely not be one of them.
3. The worst mistake you can possibly make in combating akrasia
The main thesis of PJ Eby's Thinking Things Done is that the primary reason why people are incapable of being productive is that they use negative motivation ("if I don't do x, some negative y will happen") as opposed to positive motivation ("if i do x, some positive y will happen"). He has the following evo-psych explanation for this: in the ancestral environment, personal failure meant that you could possibly be kicked out of your tribe, which would be fatal. A lot of depressed people make statements like "I'm worthless", or "I'm scum" or "No one could ever love me", which are illogically dramatic and overly black and white, until you realize that these statements are merely interpretations of a feeling of "I'm about to get kicked out of the tribe, and therefore die." Animals have a freezing response to imminent death, so if you are fearing failure you will go into do-nothing mode and not be able to work at all.4
In Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, Phd psychologist Heidi Halvorson takes a different view and describes positive motivation and negative motivation as having pros and cons. However, she has her own dichotomy of Good Motivation and Bad Motivation: "Be good" goals are performance goals, and are directed at achieving a particular outcome, like getting an A on a test, reaching a sales target, getting your attractive neighbor to go out with you, or getting into law school. They are very often tied closely to a sense of self-worth. "Get better" goals are mastery goals, and people who pick these goals judge themselves instead in terms of the progress they are making, asking questions like "Am I improving? Am I learning? Am I moving forward at a good pace?" Halvorson argues that "get better" goals are almost always drastically better than "be good" goals5. An example quote (from page 60) is:
When my goal is to get an A in a class and prove that I'm smart, and I take the first exam and I don't get an A... well, then I really can't help but think that maybe I'm not so smart, right? Concluding "maybe I'm not smart" has several consequences and none of them are good. First, I'm going to feel terrible - probably anxious and depressed, possibly embarrassed or ashamed. My sense of self-worth and self-esteem are going to suffer. My confidence will be shaken, if not completely shattered. And if I'm not smart enough, there's really no point in continuing to try to do well, so I'll probably just give up and not bother working so hard on the remaining exams.
And finally, in Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns describes a destructive side effect of depression he calls "do-nothingism":
One of the most destructive aspects of depression is the way it paralyzes your willpower. In its mildest form you may simply procrastinate about doing a few odious chores. As your lack of motivation increases, virtually any activity appears so difficult that you become overwhelmed by the urge to do nothing. Because you accomplish very little, you feel worse and worse. Not only do you cut yourself off from your normal sources of stimulation and pleasure, but your lack of productivity aggravates your self-hatred, resulting in further isolation and incapacitation.
Synthesizing these three pieces of information leads me to believe that the worst thing you can possibly do for your akrasia is to tie your success and productivity to your sense of identity/self-worth, especially if you're using negative motivation to do so, and especially if you suffer or have recently suffered from depression or low-self esteem. The thought of having a negative self-image is scary and unpleasant, perhaps for the evo-psych reasons PJ Eby outlines. If you tie your productivity to your fear of a negative self-image, working will become scary and unpleasant as well, and you won't want to do it.
I feel like this might be the single number one reason why people are akratic. It might be a little premature to say that, and I might be biased by how large of a factor this mistake was in my own akrasia. But unfortunately, this trap seems like a very easy one to fall into. If you're someone who is lazy and isn't accomplishing much in life, perhaps depressed, then it makes intuitive sense to motivate yourself by saying "Come on, self! Do you want to be a useless failure in life? No? Well get going then!" But doing so will accomplish the exact opposite and make you feel miserable.
So there you have it. In addition to making you a bad rationalist and causing you to lose sight of your goals, a strong sense of identity will cause you to make poor decisions that lead to unhappiness, be unpopular, and be unsuccessful. I think the Buddhists were onto something with this one, personally, and I try to limit my sense of identity as much as possible. A trick you can use in addition to the "be the observer" trick I mentioned, is to whenever you find yourself thinking in identity terms, swap out that identity for the identity of "person who takes over the world by transcending the need for a sense of identity".
This is my first LessWrong discussion post, so constructive criticism is greatly appreciated. Was this informative? Or was what I said obvious, and I'm retreading old ground? Was this well written? Should this have been posted to Main? Should this not have been posted at all? Thank you.
1. Paraphrased from page 153 of Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard
2. Actually, while it works for this example, I think the stereotypical "hipster" is a bizarre caricature that doesn't match anyone who actually exists in real life, and the degree to which people will rabidly espouse hatred for this stereotypical figure (or used to two or three years ago) is one of the most bizarre tendencies people have.
3. Other than groups that arguably hurt people (religious fundamentalists, PUAs), the only exception I can think of is frat boy/jock types. They talk about drinking and partying a lot, sure, but not really any more than people who drink and party a lot would be expected to. Possibilities for their hated status include that they do in fact engage in obnoxious signalling and I'm not aware of it, jealousy, or stigmatization as hazers and date rapists. Also, a lot of people hate stereotypical "ghetto" black people who sag their jeans and notoriously type in a broken, difficult-to-read form of English. This could either be a weak example of the trend (I'm not really sure what it is they would be signalling, maybe dangerous-ness?), or just a manifestation of racism.
4. I'm not sure if this is valid science that he pulled from some other source, or if he just made this up.
I built a robot that feeds me candy when I get work done, to try to solve my akrasia problem. And, so far, it seems like it might actually work.
Naturally, the story starts with procrastination. I finish things the night before they're due. Or, sometimes, I don't. I'd like to fix that. One theory explains procrastination as a result of discounting, the idea that human brains discount long-term rewards in favor of short-term ones. For instance, my brain prefers watching Neon Genesis Evangelion now over nearly missing my project deadline in a few days. The same principle applies to consequences, and there are already tools like BeeMinder that are built to combat it. Its tagline, "bring long-term consequences near," is a very concise description of a clever way to short-circuit discounting. It's very interesting, but I'm not really comfortable with paying money as a consequence. Instead, I'm going to try a similar technique: bringing long-term rewards near.
There are already a lot of techniques about bringing long-term rewards near. Generally, they're called reinforcement learning. The classic reward in reinforcement is candy, which seems like a good idea: I like it, and I'm more than willing to abuse my youthful metabolism for productivity. And, in fact, there are a wide variety of folk solutions of that sort - advice to reward yourself with some candy once your work is done. I've tried those already, but they never seem to work out for me - I always seem to wind up cheating. I need to do something trickier.
CFAR describes reinforcement in a very striking way in some of their course materials: they call it "training your inner pigeon." Not only is that a nice, snappy turn of phrase, it illustrates the problem with attempting to self-administer rewards very nicely. Did Skinner's pigeons self-administer their rewards? No, of course they didn't. I shouldn't expect my inner pigeon to, either. So, my next step is to build a robot that gives me candy when I get stuff done.
Why do I think I can keep from cheating on the machine, when I couldn't restrain myself from cheating on regular old bags of candy? Well, I'm far from certain; it's my biggest worry with the project, in fact. But I am reasonably confident, because the machine will give me an easy way to establish a Schelling fence. Where taking a handful of candy out of the bag is sometimes right and sometimes wrong, taking a handful of candy out of the hopper is always wrong, since the machine will dispense the candy when I deserve it. Precommitting to never take candy out of the machine seems like it'll be a lot easier than precommitting to only sometimes take candy out of the bag.
Now, the description "robot" for my machine is a bit fanciful. It's actually an automatic dog feeder, modified and connected to the Internet. It has a small screen mounted on the front, which tells me how many rewards I've earned. If I've got any, I can press a button on the screen to dispense them. Not counting parts I already owned, the device cost me around $50 to build. To provide the data, I linked the device to an earlier productivity hack that I already had around, a custom webapp integrating a task list with a Pomodoro timer.
Rewards are given based on a few simple rules. When I finish a task early, it gives me the number of days early in rewards; if I finish tasks out of order, it gives me the nearer task's number of rewards, so I've got an incentive to finish tasks in order. I also get an extra reward for my first Pomodoro in a week for each of my projects, so that I have an incentive not to forget old projects. The system can also take away rewards. If I get distracted during a Pomodoro, I lose a reward. I'm blocked from redeeming rewards if I have a task within a day of its deadline. If I finish a task more than a day late, I lose any rewards in the system.
Results have been mixed so far. My greatest concern seems to have been unjustified: I haven't cheated on the machine once. However, it seems like the rules need some more work. The system has definitely helped some, but there are a lot of problems that could be improved.
The system doesn't account for the difficulty of tasks, meaning that I get more reward for less effort if I do easier work. As a result, I've done all of the reading up to next Tuesday for my literature class, but my Computer Science assignment due on Friday is unfinished, and my "research" for an exceptionally abhorrent humanities course is languishing on the vine.
The point of the system was to bring long-term rewards near, but there are a lot of circumstances in which it doesn't seem to bring them quite near enough. For deadlined tasks, I get no rewards until I've actually completed the task; if I think a task will take me more than a day to finish, that's more than a day of work which earns me no short-term rewards. This gets even worse if I happen to have a long task (or, many short tasks) that have reached the day before their deadline. Then, I don't get any rewards until I finish all of those tasks. While this is quite motivating, it's still a long-term motivation, i.e. it doesn't work very well.
I deliberately built the system to encourage doing tasks in order, but this seems to have backfired a little bit. Since I would be giving up rewards, I don't want to work on a task that's due later if there's another that's due sooner. However, if I really don't want to do the nearer task, I'll end up wasting time, since I get no rewards for that either way. Nyan_sandwich describes a similar failure mode in his Akrasia Case Study: if I know I have something more urgent to do, but I don't want to do it, I wind up procrastinating instead of doing less urgent things.
I get sick of candy more quickly than I expected. The portion my machine emits (about a small handful) tends to stop motivating me after about 4 in a day. Additionally, I seem to be entirely incapable of pacing myself; if the reward is in the system, I tend not to wait very long before using it. This has crippled all of the rules about involving taking away rewards - unless the rewards are blocked, they don't stick around in the system long enough to be taken away.
Not all of the things I want to change are a result of problems, though. There are a wide variety of interesting improvements I could make. Many of these are expansions: aside from my task list, what else can I connect to? Can I track note-taking in class? Can I set it up to reward continuing effort towards a task, like writing a few hundred words a day? Can I use it to create new, more rational habits? There are all kinds of possibilities to consider. If you've got anything you'd like to suggest, let me know - I'm open to anything interesting.
There are also a lot of techniques to research; I'm sure the program isn't nearly as effective as it could be. Operant conditioning techniques like variable-ratio schedules might help improve performance per candy. Or, I could look into gamification, basically a form of applied human operant conditioning; it's not a standard tool on the site, but if you've ever watched an experience bar rise, you know what I'm talking about. Again, if you happen to have some relevant ideas, let me know.
Obviously, I'm going to be making some rule changes in the near future. Expect another post in a few weeks about what's changed and how the changes have worked out for me.
Also, does anyone want to help me think of a good name for the system? Right now it's called the "extrinsic motivator." While descriptive, this name isn't snappy at all.
My idea is software which automatically implements productivity strategies, measures the effectiveness of those strategies, and analyses which strategies work best for you. Hopefully, using the software would result in a sustained increase in your productivity over time.
By "productivity strategies" I mean things like: the recommendations in the the anti-procrastination algorithm, the pomodoro technique, exercising regularly, pre-commitment, experimenting with sleep patterns, gamifying your tasks and so forth.
In practical terms, what I'm envisioning is an extensible software framework. The core program would be a simple task list manager: add tasks to be done in the future, check off items as done when completed and send notifications to the user.
This core framework would then be extended by plugins, which represented different productivity strategies. For example, the pomodoro plugin might make your first task at 9am each morning to review your task list and choose the most important three tasks (MITs), your second task to set and begin a timer for 30 minutes and your third task to complete that top MIT you chose. After 30 minutes, it would add a new task of taking a five minute relaxation break and send you a notification to let you know. Five minutes later, it would notify you again to finish your relaxation break task, with a fresh task to re-start the timer and then back to your MITs for a further 30 minutes.
The software could independently activate and deactivate the plugins in order to collect sufficient data to suggest which strategies were most effective for you. Over time, more plugins would be written as people made further suggestions. Existing plugins could be potentially improved and automatically reviewed using A/B testing.
When deciding whether a strategy is "effective", I mean that a large number of tasks are completed, that the remaining number of tasks on the list is small and that the age of those tasks is not too great. However, the criteria could be extended to ask for an indication of mood from the user, to allow for low stress optimisation, for example. Perhaps stochastic self sampling would work well here.
If users were willing to opt into providing anonymous data, the software could automate a community review of the strategies: which strategies seem to be most commonly effective? Affinity analysis could even be used to recommend plugins that were helpful to other people who responded to similar strategies as you.
What are your comments, and specifically criticisms, of this idea? Would you try using software like this if it existed? Would you like to assist in writing software like this?
Some of you guys have been a little down on philosophy articles lately. This article by Roy Sorensen appeared in Mind in 1997, and it is awesome, therefore all philosophy papers are awesome.
Published in Mind 106/424 (October 1997) 743
A CURE FOR INCONTINENCE!
Tired of being weak-willed? Do you want to end procrastination and back-sliding? Are you envious of those paragons of self-control who always do what they consider best?
Thanks to a breakthrough in therapeutic philosophy, you too can now close the gap between what you think you ought to do and what you actually do. Just send $1000 to the address below and you will never again succumb to temptation. This is a MONEY-BACK GUARANTEE. The first time you do something that you know to be irrational, your money will be refunded, no questions asked. Of course, you might nevertheless have some questions. How can you act incontinently when you know that the "irrational" act will earn you a $1000 refund? Well, that's what's revolutionary in this new cure for incontinence.
Old approaches focus on punishing the weak willed. This follows the antiquated behaviorist principle that negative reinforcement extinguishes bad behavior. The new humanitarian approach rewards incontinence -- and lavishly at that. The key is to make the reward so strongly motivating that an otherwise irrational act becomes rational.
Some may seek a refund on the grounds that the reward for incontinence played no role in their (apparently) incontinent act; although aware of the reward, they would have performed the act anyway. These folks should distinguish between actual and hypothetical incontinence. If you act in accordance with your judgement as to what is best overall, then you did nothing irrational.
True, the hypothetical incontinent act is a sign that you have a weak will. But the presence of this disposition gives you all the more reason to block its manifestation -- by sending $1000. Granted, there are people who cannot be swayed from temptation by a mere $1000. These recalcitrant individuals are advised to send in more than $1000. Give until it hurts.
Rush your cheque to:
Dr. Roy Sorensen
Department of Philosophy
New York University
503 Main Building
100 Washington Square East
New York, New York 10003-6688
(Note, address is not current)
This post is about two Anki plugins I just wrote. I've been using them for a few months as monkey patches, but I thought it might help people here (or at least the 20% that are awesome enough to use SRSs) to have them as plugins. They're ugly and you may have to fiddle for a while to get them to work.
To use this, play music while doing Anki revs. (I also recommend that you try playing music only while doing Anki, as a way of making Anki more pleasant.) While you're reviewing a card, the music volume will gradually decrease. As soon as you pass or fail the card, the volume will go back up, then start gradually decreasing again. So whenever you stop paying attention and instead start thinking about all the awesome things you could do if only you were able to sit down and work, the program punishes you by stopping the music. And whenever you concentrate fully on your work and so go through cards quickly, you have a personal soundtrack!
To use this plugin:
- If you do not have Linux, you'll need to modify the code somehow.
- Ensure that the "amixer" command works on your computer. If it doesn't, you're going to need to modify the code somehow.
- Make sure you have the new Anki 2.0.
- Change all lines (in the plugin source) marked with "CHANGEME" according to your preferences.
- You might want to disable convenient ways of increasing the volume, like keyboard shortcuts.
This plugin provides psychological reinforcement, but is not proper intermittent reinforcement, because it is predictable and regular instead of intermittent. I'm not sure whether this should be fixed; I haven't yet gotten around to trying it with only intermittent volume increases.
After answering a card, this plugin selects, with some probability, a random image from a folder and flashes it onto your screen briefly. This gives intermittent reinforcement.
To use this plugin:
- I haven't tested it on non-Linux operating systems, but I can't see any obvious places it'll fail.
- Make sure you have the new Anki 2.0.
- Get pictures from someplace; see below.
- Change all lines (in the plugin source) marked with "CHANGEME" according to your preferences. Be sure especially to put in your picture directory and the number of pictures you have.
To get pictures, I downloaded high-scoring pictures off of reddit. This script can do that automatically. You can use pictures of cute animals, funny captioned pictures of cats, or more questionable things.
The plugin could be made a lot more awesome by having it automatically pull pictures from the internet so you're not reusing them. I'm not planning on doing this anytime soon (because I have no internet on my main computer for productivity reasons), but if somebody else does that and posts it, they are awesome and they should feel awesome.
Update 4 Dec: Emanuel Rylke has created a patch for this plugin which removes the requirement to rename the pictures. It also moves the configuration options to the top of the plugin, making them easier to find. The new version is at the same download link.
Humans have a value function which is inconsistent over time, discounting roughly with proportion to distance in the future, so that we discount more steeply as an event approaches. This is why we stay up late, ignore the alarm, put off work until close to a deadline, et cetera et cetera.
Yet hyperbolic discounting appears to go away as we mature. I believe this is a result of cognitive mechanisms for maintaining consistency. Cognitive dissonance is painful for us. The consistency mechanism seems to explain some of our irrational behaviour, such as the sunk cost fallacy. It provides a way for us to stick with plans which we previously made, avoiding preference changes due to hyperbolic discounting.
If a hyperbolically discounting agent could perfectly self-modify, it would fix its hyperbola to a specific point in time, resulting in an agent whose discounting would flatten out over the remainder of its life. Perhaps our consistency mechanism approximates this result; but far from perfectly. We can also resolve the inconsistency in a different way, by accepting a specific discount rate. Rather than forcing our future selves to conform to our present preferences, resulting in a gradually flattening function, our present selves may instead accept our future preferences in order to resolve the inconsistency.
Given the difficulty of forcing our future selves to accept a flat distribution, we accept that we will steeply discount in the future as we do in the present. This resolution is popular in some circles; we are often told to "live in the present" or "seize the day". In the extreme case, there is the belief (often associated with mystics) that the present moment is infinitely more important than anything else; the discount factor has collapsed to 0. While this view is intellectually coherent, it seems to be biologically impossible; we will keep taking actions based on future consequences even if we think we are only doing what we desire in the moment. Nonetheless, I suppose we can approach very high discount factors.
Based on this model, my suspicion is that we can approach any discount factor as a self-consistent equilibrium-- it is possible that we learn to make and keep very long-term plans, approximating a very low discount, but it is also possible that we learn to live in the present, or learn anything between these two. The consistency mechanism will want to find a fixed point, but which fixed-point we reach will depend on factors outside these mechanisms.
Kaj Sotala said:
[I]f you punish yourself for trying and failing, you stop wanting to try in the first place, as it becomes associated with the negative emotions. Also, accepting and being okay with the occasional failure makes you treat it as a genuine choice where you have agency, not something that you're forced to do against your will.
So maybe we should celebrate failed attempts more often ... I for one can't think of anything I've failed at recently, which is probably a sign that I'm not trying enough new things.
So, what specific things have you failed at recently?
Author and Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, talks about strategies from her new book "The WillPower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It" as part of the Authors@Google series. Topics include dieting/weight loss, health, addiction, quitting smoking, temptation, procrastination, mindfulness, stress, sleep, cravings, exercise, self-control, self-compassion, guilt, and shame.
I'm posting this because akrasia, procrastination and willpower are often discussed on LW. I haven't read the book, but for those that are interested "The Willpower Instinct" and "Maximum Willpower" are, from what I can tell, exactly the same books.
NOTE: The general model of willpower (as a finite resource consumed with use) used in this book does not seem to represent a scientific consensus -- see the comments for more detail.
- Glucose acts as willpower fuel. As willpower levels drop, so do glucose levels. Willpower can be restored by raising your blood sugar. (pp. 44-48)
- You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it, and you use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks. (p. 35)
- Willpower depletion amplifies emotions, desires, and cravings[i]. (pp. 30-31)
- Controlling emotional reactions depletes willpower. (p. 25)
- Attempting to control thoughts (say, trying not to think of a white bear) depletes willpower. (pp. 26-27)
- Chronic pain causes ongoing willpower depletion. (p. 36)
- Being sick depletes glucose, which negatively affects willpower. Related note: Driving a car with a bad cold has been found to be even more dangerous than driving when mildly intoxicated. (pp. 59-60)
- Making decisions (even trivial ones) costs willpower, and making decisions for other people costs less than making them for yourself. Making decisions that you enjoy costs less willpower than those which you do not. (pp. 94-95)
- Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind – this is called the Zeigarnik effect. Completing the task (or making a plan to do so, the more specific the better) will cause your unconscious to stop nagging you with reminders.[ii] (p. 81)
- Eating foods like white bread, potatoes, white rice, and sugary snacks produce boom-and-bust cycles because they are converted into glucose so quickly. Foods which are converted more slowly (providing fuel more steadily) include most veggies, nuts (like peanuts and cashews), many raw fruits (like apples, blueberries, and pears), cheese, fish, meat, and olive oil. (These foods are said to have a low glycemic index.) (pp. 59-60)
- Sleep helps to restore willpower – in particular, sleep deprivation causes impaired processing of glucose (and, over time, a higher risk of diabetes). (pp. 59-60)
- Being in a clean room appears to increase self-control, and being in a messy room appears to reduce self-control.[iii] (p. 156)
- Focusing on a single self-improvement goal increases your chances of success, as each simultaneous goal increases the demands on your willpower. (pp. 37-38)
- Conflicting goals cause increased worrying/rumination, decreased motivation, greater amount of physical sickness, and more depression and anxiety. (p. 67)
- Reluctance to give up options increases when willpower is low.[iv](p. 99)
- Focusing on past achievements seems to increase contentment with one’s current situation, while focusing on the road ahead increases motivation and ambition. (p. 120)
- People are often not very good at predicting how they will behave in an excited emotional state while in an unexcited state – this is often referred to as the hot-cold empathy gap. (p. 148)
- Precommitment can make it more likely that you will not succumb to temptation during times of low willpower.[v] (pp. 151-153)
I declare Crocker's Rules.
[i] I didn’t see enough evidence to conclude whether the cravings are actually stronger, or people are simply less able to resist them, or both. The book claims that both are true.
[ii] The book seems to imply this mental nagging costs willpower, but I don’t recall it being explicitly stated. GTD is also mentioned, and the lack of Next Actions which one has the materials to execute being included in plans causing people to procrastinate. (p. 79)
[iii] The relevant experiment was conducted in a laboratory, so there is no possibility of the experimental results being affected by the fact that people with more self-control may keep their house cleaner. Self-control was measured in ways like being willing/unwilling to week for a larger sum of money instead of receiving a smaller sum immediately, and choosing healthier foods over sugary snacks.
[iv] I wonder if this means that people are more likely to ignore opportunity costs.
[v] ‘Conserving willpower’ is also mentioned around here, which seemed to imply that effective precommitment helped reduce the willpower costs of overcoming constant temptation by making the decision easier.
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. :)
I was wondering if anyone has ever had the feeling, like I get sometimes, that they were addicted to 'meta-level' optimizing rather than low-level acting? As in, I'd rather think about how to encourage myself to brush my teeth more than brush my teeth. I'm guessing there's something about this under the akrasia threads?
The motivations to remain in meta and thinking about things rather than acting on them seems to be that it takes less effort to think about doing things than to do them, and there is potentially more long-term benefit in making an overall improvement than in engaging in a specific action. The drawback is that if you remain thinking about meta all the time, you won't get anything done.
I'm going to steal Anna's idea and change it to the instrumental side of rationality. In Luke's algorithm for beating procrastination, Step 1 is to Notice You Are Procrastinating. I'm not so sure this is easy. For me, the knowledge sort of fades in and out without being explicitly grabbed by my consciousness. If I actually held onto that fact, the moment that I was evading a task, and made it clear to myself that I was doing the sub-optimal, and the consequences involved, I think it would go a long way towards getting me to actually get things done.
What do you use to catch it? How do you notice you're procrastinating? Leave your ideas below (one idea per comment), and upvote the comments that you either: (a) use; or (b) will now try using.
The New York Times just published this article on how companies use data mining and the psychology of habit formation to effectively target ads.
The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges.
It has some decent depth of discussion, including an example of the author actually using the concepts to stop a bad habit. The article is based on an upcoming book by the same author titled The Power of Habit.
I haven't seen emphasis of this particular phenomenon—habits consisting of a cue, routine, and reward—on Lesswrong. Do people think it's a valid, scientifically supported phenomenon? The article gives this impression but, of course, doesn't cite specific academic work on it. It ties in to the System 1/System 2 theory easily as a System 1 process. How much of the whole System 1 can be explained as an implementation of this cue, routine, reward process?
And most importantly, how can this fit into the procrastination equation as a tool to subvert akrasia and establish good habits?
Let's look at each of the four factors. If you've formed a habit, it means that the reward happened consistently, which means you have high expectancy. Given that it is a reward, the value is at least positive, but probably not large. Since habits mostly work on small time scales, delay is probably very small. And maybe increased habit formation means your impulsiveness is low. Each of these effects would increase motivation. In addition, because it's part of System 1, there is little energy cost to performing the habit, like there would be with many other conscious actions.
Does this explanation sound legitimate, or like an argument for the bottom line?
Personally, I can tell that context is a strong cue for behavior at work, school, and home. When I go into work, I'm automatically motivated to perform well, and that motivation remains for several hours. When I go into class, I'm automatically ready to focus on difficult material, or even enthusiastically take a test. Yet when I go home, something about the context switches that off, and I can't seem to get anything done at all. It might be worth significant experimentation to find out what cues trigger both modes, and change my contexts to induce what I want.
What do you think?
Edit: this phenomenon has been covered on LW in the form of operant conditioning in posts by Yvain.
I have started the Tel Aviv Self-Improvement Meetup Group. It is not about rationality or LessWrong per se, but it is heavily influenced by rationality dojos and LW posts in the applied rationality, personal optimization and anti-akrasia cluster. As the description says, it is
A group of people helping each other apply rationality to our everyday lives, in order to improve our skills, make the best decisions, become productive and achieve our goals.
If you're interested and in the area, you're welcome to join. If you have any comments or suggestions, based perhaps on experience with similar groups, please share.
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.
So here's the plan:
- In a comment reply to this, describe a specific instance of akrasia in your own life. Place an emphasis on the specificity. Focus on a specific task, either positive (i.e., that you judge to be good to do but self-sabotage from doing, like writing a paper) or negative (i.e., that you know you shouldn't do but do anyway, like buying more Frosted Flakes for breakfast and continuing to eat them). The more specific, the better.
- You can share multiple instances, but please create new comments for each.
- If you tried an anti-akrasia technique in this specific context, explain what you did and what effect it had. If you have some way in which you measured its effects objectively, please share that. If not, though, that's okay; we can still learn something from what various attempts to tackle different manifestations of akrasia feel like from the inside. The goal here is not to propose solutions; instead, it's to see what different things that feel like solutions seem to do to different kinds of akrasia. So even failed attempts are useful.
- If you tried multiple approaches or if your approach requires some explanation, you might consider describing it and its effects in a reply to your description of the instance of akrasia you applied it to.
Let me emphasize one more time that we are not looking for solutions in this thread. Please don't give each other suggestions! If you think you're on to something hot in terms of the "kicking" aspect of the Art, please show us with a description of how the technique worked for you on a specific instance - but share the instance first. The goal here is not to demonstrate that you have a clever anti-akrasia technique. The goal instead is to see what different instances of akrasia and attempts to tackle it actually look like.
If at all possible, please share both successes and failures. This is especially helpful if we can see successes and failures of the same technique. This helps to balance out positive bias and gives us a better idea of the parameters within which different techniques work. Be especially wary if you have a favorite anti-akrasia technique because of the subconscious desire to attempt to change reality by pretending your favorite technique is actually perfect. If you do have a favorite technique, please actively seek out its true weak points.
Let's crack this thing!
In a comment elsewhere, BrandonReinhart asked:
Why is it not acceptable to appeal to emotion while at the same time back it with well evidenced research? Or rather, why are we suspicious of the findings of those who appeal to emotion while at the same time uninterested in turning an ear to those who do not?
[...] Emotional appeals would seem to have more of an urgency, requiring our attention while the scientific view's far-mode appeal would seem less immediate. In that case, we might simply ignore the far mode story because of all the other urgent-seeming vacuous emotional appeals fighting for our attention and time. Even if we politically agreed on a course of action given a far mode analysis, we might choose to spend our time on the near-mode emotional problem set.
I suspect that we percieve a dichotomy between emotional appeal and a well-reasoned, well-evidenced argument.
I have a just-so story for why our kind can't cooperate: We've learned to distrust emotional appeal. This is understandable: the strength of an emotional appeal to believe X and do Y doesn't correlate with the truth of X or the consequences of Y. In fact, we are surrounded by emotional appeals to believe nonsense and do useless things. The production and delivery of emotional appeal is politics, policy, and several major industries. So, in our environment, emotional appeal is a strong indicator against rational argument.
In order to defend against irrationality, I have a habit of shutting out emotional appeals. I tune out emotive religious talk. I remain carefully aloof from political speeches. I put emotional distance between myself and any enthusiastic crowd. In general, my immediate response to emotional appeal is to ignore the message it bears. It's automatic now, subverbal -- I have an aversion to naked emotional appeal.
I strongly suspect that I'm not only describing myself, but many of you as well. (Is this true? This is a testable hypothesis.)
If we largely manage to broadly ignore emotional appeal, then we shut out not only harmful manipulations, but worthwhile rallying cries. We are motivated only by the motivation we can muster ourselves, rather than what motivation we can borrow from our peers and leaders. This may go some way towards explaining not just why Our Kind Can't Cooperate, but why we seem to so often report that Our Kind Can't Get Much Done.
On the other hand, if this is a real problem, it suggests a solution. We could try to learn an alternative response to emotional appeal. Upon noticing near-mode emotional appeal, instead of rejecting the message outright, go to far mode and consider the evidence. If the argument is sound under careful, critical consideration, and you approve of its motivation, then allow the emotional appeal to move you. On the other hand, I don't know if this is psychologically realistic.
I hypothesize that we are much more averse to emotional appeals than the normal population. Does this stike you as true? Do you have examples or counterexamples?
How might we test this hypothesis?
I further hypothesize that, if we are averse to emotional appeals, that this is a strong factor in both our widely-reported akrasia and our sometimes-noted inability to work well together. How could we test this hypothesis?
Can you postpone being moved by an emotional appeal until after making a calm decision about it?
Can you somehow otherwise filter for emotional appeals that are highly likely to have positive effects?
“Beware of WEIRD psychological samples” because results derived from them may reflect the specific sample more than any kind of generalized truth. And LessWrong has generalized hyperbolic discounting out the wazoo. (See the tags akrasia and discounting.) Hyperbolic discounting is bad, of course, because among other things it leaves on vulnerable to preference reversals and inconsistencies and hence money-pumping.
But isn’t it odd that for a fundamental fact of human psychology, a huge bias we have spent a ton of collective time discussing and fighting, that it doesn’t seem to lead to much actual money-pumping? The obvious examples like the dieting or gambling industries are pretty small, all things considered. And online services like BeeMinder specifically devised on a hyperbolic discounting/picoeconomics basis are, as far as I know, useful but no dramatic breakthrough or silver bullet; again, not quite what one would expect. Like many other heuristics and biases, perhaps hyperbolic discounting isn’t so bad after all, in practice.
Ainslie mentions in Breakdown of Will somewhere that financial incentives can cause people to begin discounting exponentially. What if… hyperbolic discounting doesn’t really exist, in practice? If it may reflect a failure of self-control, a kind of teenager trait, one we find in younger (but not older) populations - like university students?
We investigated the ability of people to retrieve information about objects as they moved through rooms in a virtual space. People were probed with object names that were either associated with the person (i.e., carried) or dissociated from the person (i.e., just set down). Also, people either did or did not shift spatial regions (i.e., go to a new room). Information about objects was less accessible when the objects were dissociated from the person. Furthermore, information about an object was also less available when there was a spatial shift. However, the spatial shift had a larger effect on memory for the currently associated object. These data are interpreted as being more supportive of a situation model explanation, following on work using narratives and film. Simpler memory-based accounts that do not take into account the context in which a person is embedded cannot adequately account for the results.
There's probably some deep implications to this I'm not qualified to plumb. But next time I'm concentrating on something, and need to get up from the computer and walk around a bit, I'm going to try avoiding doorways.
... or "How to Operate Your Limbic System", or "A Practical Guide to Superstimulus". That's how I see it, anyway.
Your Brain on Porn is a website mainly dedicated to exposing the addictive aspects of pornography; interpreting this in light of the blind idiot god; and then forming a community around "rebooting", or prolonged abstinence that allows the brain to re-sensitize itself to, at the least, non-fetishistic sexual pleasure. By consistently NOT accessing whatever circuit is driving one's, well, drive, one sends this loop into atrophy. Eventually, one becomes able to quit. And then one finds alternatives.
Here is why I find this site so valuable: frequently during the arguments the site owner sets up, he doesn't just bring up pornography as the culprit here. To form his clauses he draws upon research on addictions to junk food, or video games, and then tries to draw parallels to porn's effects: the escalating need of novelty due to rapidly declining pleasure response.
So I don't think it stops with porn. For me, any superstimulus is a bad superstimulus, despite the fact that some sirens are more necessary to listen to than others. It could be worth reflecting on what would actually count as a superstimulus; and then asking if one would benefit from a long hiatus from that stimulus. I'm not sure how long that cycle would be, but many "rebooters" proclaim seeing effects after three weeks, up to three months. It might not be enough to simply manage akrasia, as there could still be a chronic sensitivity problem in place. That would require time.
Here's what I thought of, so far.
- Tab explosions and social networks -- the online kind. (This could be the most challenging one: More often than not, a computer is needed for productivity. Who can afford taking a three-month break?)
- Video games.
- Disorganizations, mess, and clutter.
- Junk food. (I'm tentative about this one, because I'm still trying to figure out what counts as "junk". As far as I've seen, this word usually gets ascribed to high calorie, high fat foods... but that possibly doesn't matter, as I see proportionally high-fat content paleo diets. Or it's a combination of fat and sugar that becomes addictive, but either/or is manageable.)
- Loud music. (Shameless speculation.)
- Much of advertising today seems to focus on getting our attention with superstimulus. Thus, being mindful when one is exposed could minimize possible effects.
- Touch. If you really need to show some love, Karezza is popular amongst those who have rebooted.
- Meditation and N-Back. Since this really does require mental discipline, it would be worth practising these attention-management strategies.
- Fasting. (In small doses, it's probably healthier than you think and, broadly speaking, also results in some sort of re-sensitization. [scroll down])
- Reduction of social anxiety. (Socially dominant monkeys have a greater density of dopamine receptors in the striatum than their less-dominant counterparts. I'm not saying that abstaining from porn will turn you into the CEO of a corporation with three girlfriends and a gimp -- I wish! -- but it sure as hell wouldn't hurt.)
- Clearer focus. (This may come from lack of wont than an actual greater ability to focus, which is fine.)
- Greater motivation.
- In the case of porn, in males, the amounts of testosterone could significantly change, if not normalize. That could feature a host of changes by itself.
I was reading the NY Times article on Decision Fatigue, when I came upon a hypothesis I would like everyone's feedback on.
I take as a premise that there seems to be a high prevalence of akrasia in the lesswrong community.
I also take as a premise that the sequences give us a more-than-usual detailed model of the world, one that presents us with more possible trade-offs we could be making in every day life.
So the conjecture that by trying to reduce bias and perform a lot of cognitive calculation, we effectively spend large parts of our days in a decision fatigued state, leading to akrasia problems.
Does this sound (un)reasonable? Why? How would you go about turning this into a testable proposition?
UPDATE: Anna Salamon has put up a detailed poll here that may shed some light on the situation. Please take some time to fill it in.
This post is in a constant state of revision, similar to this post. This is mainly because I do not have a beta and this is based on many personal experiences that are unclear at times.
This subject has been touched on many times throughout LessWrong because Akrasia is the most dangerous foe of any true follower of Rationality. When you know you could be amazing but you find yourself unable to change due to the havoc that feelings can play with your thoughts you feel helpless and I want to help you surpass that. I am beginning a Journey to fight Akrasia directly in all its forms and in the past such Journey's have been abandoned without much progress. In this mini-sequence of posts I plan to not only document my fight to push past the depressing weight of Akrasia as a tool to keep me on the path, I will also provide some anti-Akrasia reports on my progress with different techniques that fellow LessWrongians can look back on and draw strength from in times of despair and laziness.
My name is Matthew Baker and I want to save the world.
I think most people share the feeling that the world should be saved and that only true sociopaths can discount the value of all sentient life. This is so important because the majority of people aren't able to defeat their innate Akrasic reasoning, ugh fields, and other factors that prevent them from functioning in a way that aligns with their beliefs. I think that if you believe in something, and you wish to be more rational towards the world then you should either push your beliefs towards the current state of reality or push reality towards your current state of beliefs.
When I was younger and sought something that I could devote effort to that would change the world for the better, I was quite disillusioned by the fact that nearly every cause relied on their innate biases to deal with the problems facing them. From political struggles to moral tribulation humanity is very good at ignoring things that don't coincide with their worldview. I always sought to surpass that but for a long time I failed to find anything to believe in that coincided with reality. Now that my skepticism is satisfied I have to logically take a look at what things are preventing me from promoting my beliefs. Akrasia is the most dangerous foe of any true follower of rationality. I've personally experienced Akrasia as the feeling when you know you could be amazing but you find yourself unable to change due to the havoc that feelings can play with your thoughts. I am beginning a journey to fight Akrasia directly in all its forms. I've attempted this in the past without making much progress; I'm hoping a different approach will help me succeed (or at least make new and different mistakes). In this mini-sequence of posts I plan to document my fight to push past the depressing weight of Akrasia. As a tool to keep me on the path, I will also provide some anti-Akrasia reports on my progress with different techniques.
My goals for this quest are varied yet connected. I don't intend to take them all on at once, but instead phase them in over the upcoming month and see if i can find the limit of my ability to avoid wasting time.
My goal to make myself more fit and transition to eating healthier food, right now I'm fairly skinny and I want to build some muscle to match with my height(6'1"). Enough so that I dont have trouble picking up things and carrying them without much out-word signalling of effort, but I'm not looking to become a bodybuilder or anything I just wanna optimize the vessel carrying my consciousnesses with better food and habits.
My goal is to become more skilled socially, I rested on my social laurels for a long time and focused on associating with people that fit my views on set issues. For maximum success I will focus on general social group construction as I advance into my second year of college. I wanna see how much fun and rationality I can spread if I focus on being skilled at gathering smart and interesting people into the fun vortex I can create around me.
My goal is to get a substantially higher GPA then I did last semester. I spent very little time on school but managed to pull off a 3.1 which was lower than my first semester GPA and I want this trend to reverse as I spend more focused time on school and actually study for the first time in my life.
Things that prevent me from achieving my goals are mostly random web browsing and gaming, lots of ugh fields I've only recently been able to write down and start purging from my thought process, negative emotions that sap my willpower and currently unknown other factors. Hopefully I will be able to surpass these problems with the power of self reflection and sharing, classical conditioning and positive substance use.
My goals for the upcoming week involve some social and fitness goals until school starts on the 20th. Hopefully I can get these partially phased in and be able to focus more on academia once I'm back up at school. For specific milestones I want to dance closely with at least 1 girl at a rave I'm going to tonight up in LA and I want to start working on pull-ups so I can get back up to my previous total(3) and start building from there.
I expect I'll have to deal with some social anxiety at the rave and some ugh field's towards the fitness, but hopefully this form of specific goal setting and reflection will work well. I will also have substances available for backup in case I fail to perform to my personal expectations. Combined, this should allow me to surpass my Akrasic Reasoning of the past for the sake of our combined future.
What can you gain from my efforts as fellow rationalists? Hopefully, once I've competed my journey I'll be able to explain my mind state well enough that you can learn from it and apply it to your own goals. When my mental state is low reading about how someone else was able to push back up from a similarly bad state can be amazingly helpful and I hope that I can provide that to others.
Tsuyoku Naritai! My Friends
P.S. If luck exists, I wish to gain more of it and believe in it so wish me luck with my first top level post. :) Edit: Its now in discussion until I see a surge of excitement towards the idea of this mini-sequence.
Quick report on an anti-akrasia method NMJablonski and I tried out: Competitive Essay Writing. Two (or more) people have something they need to write (but may not particularly want to)- everyone gets on a IM client and every thirty minutes reports how many words they've written so far.
I didn't have an essay to write, but I did have a wiki to update for the D&D campaign I'm running, and I so did that while NMJablonski wrote an essay for school due the next day. I won handily, but that may have been the style of writing I was doing. I found it useful to have the pressure to not waste time chasing rabbit trails (hmm, I ought to name this professor after the guy who discovered the circulation of blood. Why, hello wikipedia!), and he found it useful to have pressure to report a number- instead of staring at the screen wondering what to write, he would just pick something and go with it.
The next step, I think, is to write a program so that, instead of having to manually report progress every 30 minutes, the word count automatically updates for everyone you're competing with. I don't know if that would be distracting or not- I imagine having immediate feedback, instead of delayed feedback, would be superior.
Minicamp made me take the notion of an Ugh Field seriously, and I've found Ugh Fields a fairly useful model for understanding how my brain works. I have/had lots of topics that have been unpleasant to think about and the cause of that unpleasantness seems to be strongly correlated with previous negative experiences.
More generally, animals, including humans, seem to use something like Temporal Difference learning very frequently (one source of that impression). If that's so, then understanding TD and related psychological research should give me a more accurate model of myself. I would expect it to help me understand when my dispositions and habits are likely to be useful (by knowing how they developed) and understand how to change my dispositions and habits. Thus I have a couple of questions:
- Are my impressions accurate?
- What books, papers, posts are the best for understanding these topics? I'd like material that addresses any of the following:
- How TD or related algorithms work
- What evidence says about whether human and/or animal brains frequently use TD or related algorithms and what situations brains use it for
- Practical consequences of the research (e.g. Ugh Fields, doing X is a good way to build habit Y, smiling is a reinforcement, etc.)
Accepting determinism and the insuing dissolution of free will is often feared as something that would lead to loss of will and fatalism. Gary Drescher and Eliezer spend considerable effort explaining this as a fallacy.
The one thing I don't remember mentioned is the opposite effect (but maybe I missed it) - if you experienced a failure to accomplish something, the free will explanation is likely to make you stop investigating the root cause, leaving it as a mystery. Once you accept determinism you know that a failure is determined by your mental algorithms, and should be much more motivated to push the investigation further, making yourself stronger.
Followup to Recovering Insufferable Genius
So, we've been talking a mighty amount on avoiding and understanding the common pitfalls and mistakes that plague most human minds for various biological, evolutionary and social reasons. This knowledge is supposed to be used for the sake of learning how to think proprely and clearly about the world, and for the sake of making the right choices, and making them quickly. Both blades of the weapon can have a dramatic effect on how we interact with people. Behaviors that would appear absurd and annoying to us would suddenly gain a history, reasons for their existence until now and even for their continued existence. The incomprehensible people around us suddenly become fairly simple and predictable, to the point that you might, every now and then, understand them better than they do themselves. They also become all that much more interesting. You find yourself observing them, gently pushing their buttons as you eagerly wait for what they are going to do next. Of course, this applies just as much to you yourself. You see your own past in a very different light, and Akrasia remains difficult to escape. But at least now you know what you're doing wrong.
Anyway, you've discovered the pleasures of socializing, and you've even acquired an "edge" over those who relied on intuition ever since they were young. What I want us to discuss here is how to reach not just some "proficiency" in social navigation, but actual social excellence. We've collected research on how to be happy, on how to confront organizational problems, etc. I think it would be nice if we also collected data on how to be polite. How to make one's company agreeable and interesting. How to make oneself elegant and glamorous. How to get people to do what you want, and then thank you for it.
Some slight bits of this are approached by PUA methods, but those are very specific in goal and scope, and require a set of skills that can be far from adequate in other contexts (that, and flirting with any and everybody all the time is just creepy and makes you look like a supervillain).
Of course, at its core, social grace is nothing but "intelligent application of the Golden Rule". So, with insight and purpose, everything should be possible... But that's a pretty huge ideaspace, and in day-to-day interaction you often don't have that much time to figure our what to do. Of course, there's rote behavior, protocol, that allows you to free brainspace for what's actually important, but too much of that and it can become blatant.
So... anyone know any actual research on the subject? We can also use some armchair philosophy, it's not like we eschew creative individual thinking here, but some backed-by-evidence stuff is very nice to have.
During lunch today, I had a conversation with my mother about the lives of my younger brothers. She mentioned to me that my brother, who is taking an SAT class, found the practice test he took to be extremely boring. I replied that I was sorry for my brother and that I felt very privileged not to find standardized tests boring. I went on to express my sorrow that I do not know how to inculcate in others the sublime joy I take in solving particularly interesting problems. Much later, I decided to spend an hour exercising, something that I very rarely do. It wasn't until about 45 minutes in that I realized the proper implication of what I had said to my mother - I have the natural advantage in test taking, but my brother has the natural advantage in exercise. The obvious solution was to find a way to find a similar sense of sublime joy in exercise, and make myself remember that I can find it in exercise. I played around with a few things I could do while on the treadmill, and found that rolling my head while walking felt awesome. I'm definitely going to do more of that in the future. It took me far too long to realize it, but when ever you wish you could help someone in some way, ask yourself if you could benefit from the same sort of thing.
There are people out there who want to do good in the world, but don't know how.
Maybe you are one of them.
Maybe you kind of feel that you should be into the "saving the world" stuff but aren't quite sure if it's for you. You'd have to be some kind of saint, right? That doesn't sound like you.
Maybe you really do feel it's you, but don't know where to start. You've read the "How to Save the World" guide and your reaction is, ok, I get it, now where do I start? A plan that starts "first, change your entire life" somehow doesn't sound like a very good plan.
All the guides on how to save the world, all the advice, all the essays on why cooperation is so hard, everything I've read so far, has missed one fundamental point.
If I could put it into words, it would be this:
AAAAAAAAAAAGGGHH WTF CRAP WHERE DO I START EEK BLURFBL
If that's your reaction then you're half way there. That's what you get when you finally grasp how much pointless pain, misery, risk, death there is in the world; just how much good could be done if everyone would get their act together; just how little anyone seems to care.
If you're still reading, then maybe this is you. A little bit.
And I want to help you.
How will I help you? That's the easy part. I'll start a community of aspiring rationalist do-gooders. If I can, I'll start it right here in the comments section of this post. If anything about this post speaks to you, let me know. At this point I just want to know whether there's anybody out there.
And what then? I'll listen to people's opinions, feelings and concerns. I'll post about my worldview and invite people to criticize, attack, tear it apart. Because it's not my worldview I care about. I care about making the world better. I have something to protect.
The posts will mainly be about what I don't see enough of on Less Wrong. About reconciling being rational with being human. Posts that encourage doing rather than thinking. I've had enough ideas that I can commit to writing 20 discussion posts over a reasonable timescale, although some might be quite short - just single ideas.
Someone mentioned there should be a "saving the world wiki". That sounds like a great idea and I'm sure that setting one up would be well within my power if someone else doesn't get around to it first.
But how I intend to help you is not the important part. The important part is why.
To answer that I'll need to take a couple of steps back.
Since basically forever, I've had vague, guilt-motivated feelings that I ought to be good. I ought to work towards making the world the place I wished it would be. I knew that others appeared to do good for greedy or selfish reasons; I wasn't like that. I wasn't going to do it for personal gain.
If everyone did their bit, then things would be great. So I wanted to do my bit.
I wanted to privately, secretively, give a hell of a lot of money to a good charity. So that I would be doing good and that I would know I wasn't doing it for status or glory.
I started small. I gave small amounts to some big-name charities, charities I could be fairly sure would be doing something right. That went on for about a year, with not much given in total - I was still building up confidence.
And then I heard about GiveWell. And I stopped giving. Entirely.
WHY??? I can't really give a reason. But something just didn't seem right to me. People who talked about GiveWell also tended to mention that the best policy was to give only to the charity listed at the top. And that didn't seem right either. I couldn't argue with the maths, but it went against what I'd been doing up until that point and something about that didn't seem right.
Also, I hadn't heard of GiveWell or any of the charities they listed. How could I trust any of them? And yet how could I give to anyone else if these charities were so much more effective? Big akrasia time.
It took a while to sink in. But when it did, I realised that my life so far had mostly been a waste of time. I'd earned some money, but I had no real goals or ambitions. And yet, why should I care if my life so far had been wasted? What I had done in the past was irrelevant to what I intended to do in the future. I knew what my goal was now and from that a whole lot became clear.
One thing mattered most of all. If I was to be truly virtuous, altruistic, world-changing then I shouldn't deny myself status or make financial sacrifices. I should be completely indifferent to those things. And from that the plan became clear: the best way to save the world would be to persuade other people to do it for me. I'm still not entirely sure why they're not already doing it, but I will use the typical mind prior and assume that for some at least, it's for the same reasons as me. They're confused. And that to carry out my plan I won't need to manipulate anyone into carrying out my wishes, but simply help them carry out their own.
I could say a lot more and I will, but for now I just want to know. Who will be my ally?
During a discussion today about the bizarre "can't get crap done" phenomenon that afflicts large fractions of our community, the suggestion came up that most people can't do anything where there is a perceived choice that includes the null option / "do nothing" as an option. Of which Michael Vassar made the following observation:
In a monkey tribe, there's no verbal communication - they can't discuss where to go using language. So if you get up and start going anywhere, you must be the leader.
And if you're not the leader, it is not good for your reproductive fitness to act like one. In modern times the penalties for standing up are much lower, but our instincts haven't updated.
Interesting to reconsider the events of "To lead, you must stand up" in this light. It makes more sense if you read it as "None of those people had instincts saying it was a good idea to declare themselves the leader of the monkey tribe, in order to solve this particular coordination problem where 'do nothing' felt like a viable option" instead of "nobody had the initiative".
The alt text of today's xkcd reads:
After years of trying various methods, I broke [the habit of clicking on my favorite distractions every 5 minutes] 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.
Anyone have ideas about how to implement this? On Firefox one can always use LeechBlock. On *nix systems there would be a number of ways of implementing this, but not all of us use that OS or have the necessary savvy.
(I'm kind of surprised no one's made a discussion post on this yet.)
This has been bothering me ever since I started trying to use rationalist techniques to make better decisions (like anti-akrasia ones). The only field related to rationality I knew much about was game theory, but to my disappointment basic game theory has only increased my problems due to a certain formulation I can't abandon.
The Volunteer's Dilemma (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volunteer's_dilemma) is in essence the Prisoner's Dilemma with more players - which means that defection is an even more dominant strategy. The problem is that the decision whether to do unpleasant tasks becomes a Volunteer's Dilemma with multiple future selves as my competition - 4:00 tenshiko, 4:15 tenshiko, 4:30 tenshiko, and so on. Although the incentive to defect should decrease as time goes on, there's the problem of how 9:00 tenshiko can easily defect in an even more effective fashion and bring in 11:00 tenshiko and 11:15 tenshiko to further level the playing field. There is the further problem that, given how many of my current hobbies convert time to reward in an approximately cubic function, the incentive is high for 6:00 tenshiko, 7:00 tenshiko, and 8:00 tenshiko to form coalitions.
I guess what I'm really asking for is a more advanced matrix that represents the diminishing returns of bringing in other future selves, such as went-to-bed-at-1:00 tenshiko and completely-bombed-that-test-at-10:00 tenshiko, or at least the diminishing probability over time that "it doesn't matter, 9:45 tenshiko can take care of it".
If this goes well, I will probably try to flesh out the material received in responses with what I already know and produce a post in main discussing time management and its relation to game theory.
Related to the recurring topic of akrasia and anticipated near-mode losses, here's an article about "Gym-Pact," an arrangement whereby people precommit to pay penalty fees if they don't stick to their planned workout schedules.
In other words, they aren't charging customers money in exchange for a service, nor for violating an agreement associated with a service... rather, they are charging money as a service.
Had I encountered this in fiction, I would have considered it satire.
(I'm being somewhat glib here, admittedly: in this "experimental" phase, they are giving people free gym memberships as part of the deal, and using the penalty fees to pay for the memberships. But that doesn't sound like the ultimate business model.)
The Less Wrong community has discussed negotiating with one's conflicting sub-agents as a method to defeat akrasia and other forms of dynamic inconsistency, with some mix of reactions about how possible or effective that strategy can be. This article presents a successful example in my life, though it is probably an extreme outlier for a number of reasons.
I have been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. It is one of the most significant challenges in my life, and certainly the one with the most dire implications. I can be fairly well modeled as three major sub-agents1:
- Neutral: asymptomatic. Attempting to control mood swings has resulted in me spending the vast majority of my time as "neutral".
- Hypomanic: anxious and energetic. I have some trouble focusing, but can be extremely productive. I often exercise several hours a day and sleep an average of two hours a night (often six hours every three days). I've written a 70 page paper in three days, and a 12 KLOC compiler in five days.
- Depressed: listless, and suicidal. I have serious insomnia, but stay in bed all day. I can't stand other people and would really sincerely prefer not to exist. Ironically, I can credit my inability to motivate myself to do anything with not having killed myself in this state. Sometimes I'm very emotional (crying, etc.), sometimes I'm emotionally dead.
- Hypomanic loves being who he is and doing what he wants. The main difficulty of transitioning back to Neutral is unwillingness, rather than inability.
- Hypomanic despises Depressed, and thinks that Neutral is boring. He recognizes that staying Hypomanic for too long will likely result in a crash followed by Depressed taking over, but still wants "one more day".
- Depressed loathes all of us. He doesn't like the others more than himself, but is usually willing to trade knowledge and pain for ignorance and happiness. However, he's unmotivated to bother taking the steps to make that happen. Again, the difficulty in forcing a transition is not really about inability, although difficulty and self-discipline are an issue.
- Depressed doesn't really want to kill himself, but he's very desirous of nonexistence.
- Neutral is scared of and pained by Depressed. He is wary of Hypomanic but recognizes his usefulness. He spends much more time thinking of the other two than they think of him, and actively prevents transitions to the other two, which are fairly easy to accidentally trigger otherwise.
- Neutral is somewhat careful for his own sake, but all are motivated by other's concern for him. The latter is the only other significant reason Depressed hasn't gone through with a suicide attempt.
Neutral feels it necessary to let Hypomanic take control more often to ensure that the compromise has weight to Depressed, but has started using Hypomanic to accomplish goals that are otherwise too exhausting to attain (a several-day code crunch or a need to meet and make a good impression on dozens of people). Meanwhile, Hypomanic has been more responsible lately in relinquishing control within days rather than weeks, partially because of these negotiations, but mostly because of other people in my life who have been conscripted to help monitor and rein me in.
I do not have a great deal of proven success with this strategy. I started doing this less than a year ago, and have not dealt with a full-blown major depressive episode since then. During that time I have also been more successful than ever at preventing myself from slipping into depression in the first place and treating early depression aggressively. In the end, that makes a much more significant difference, but on the two occasions when I became depressed enough to start feeling suicidal I was positively influenced by this agreement.
It seems unlikely that this approach will help many people with anything, but I feel like it is interesting in the debate about dynamic inconsistency, and I encourage others to find mutually-beneficial agreements they can make with themselves if they also feel like they deal with mutually incompatible agents from time to time. Also, this is my first post that is more than a link, so please be constructive.
1 I've never used names to refer to myself in different states, and don't think of my major sub-agents as individuals, but I felt that it was useful for didactic purposes to refer to myself in different states as different proper nouns.
2 I don't race cars, do drugs, or get in fights (except at the dojo). I do push my physical limits farther than I should (do parkour that I'm not be ready for, run 20km when I usually run 5, etc.), and I have injured myself this way, but just pulled muscles, sprains and once a broken finger.
3 I haven't heard this argument before, but this is the reason I haven't signed up for cryonics.
If it's not obvious, I was in a neutral state when I wrote this. It would have been impossible for me to do while depressed, and unlikely for me to try while hypomanic. I tried to de-bias myself, but no matter what state I'm in, I prefer my own viewpoint, and speak less highly of the others that diverge.
A topic often discussed here is how to avoid akrasia/procrastination in order to get on with work. I suggest another possible "workaround" for akrasia is to find work that doesn't feel like work. From personal experience, I know this is possible, because many of my efforts did not feel like work, in the sense that my motivation on those projects was so high that procrastination simply wasn't a factor at all. (I remember, for example, designing parts of my open-source cryptography library every day while walking to and from class, and then coding as soon as I got back to my apartment, or later, thinking about multiverses and anthropic reasoning in much of my spare time.)
Why do some kinds of work feel like work, while others don't? (Is there any existing literature on this topic? I tried some searches, but don't really know what keywords to use, so I'll just generalize a bit from my own experience, and open the question for discussion.) Among the projects that I've done, the ones that didn't feel like work seem to have the following in common:
- It was in a field that I found interesting and exciting. (What determines this seems to be another interesting mystery.)
- There was no payment or other form of obligation to complete it.
- There were no negative consequences for failure, other than time spent.
- It fit my idealized self-image (e.g., cypherpunk or amateur philosopher).
- There was an implicit prospect of status reward if successful.
- I hadn't done it for so long that I started to get bored.
Unfortunately I don't have enough data to conclude which of these factors were necessary or sufficient, or their relative weights in contributing to the "not work-like" feeling. Do others have similar, or perhaps different, experiences?
Recently I asked myself, what do I want? My immediate response was that I wanted to be less stressed, particularly for financial reasons. So I started to affirm to myself that my goal was to become wealthy, and also to become less stressed. But then in a fit of cognitive dissonance, I realized that both money and relaxation are most easily considered in terms of being rewards, not goals. I was oddly surprised by the fact that there is a distinction between the two concepts to begin with.
It later occurred to me to wonder if some things work better when framed as goals and not as rewards. Freedom, long life, good relationships, and productivity seemed some likely candidates. I can't quite see them as rewards because a) I feel everyone innately deserves and should have them (even though they might have to work for them), and b) they don't quite give the kind of fuzzies that motivate immediate action.
These two kinds of positive motivation seem to work in psychologically dissimilar ways. Money for example is more like chocolate, something one has immediate instinctive motive to obtain and consume. Freedom of speech is more along the lines of having enough air to breathe. A person needs and perhaps inherently deserves to have at least a little bit of it all the time, and as a general rule will have a constant background motive to ensure that it stays available. It's a longer-term form of motivation.
A reward seems to be something where you receive immediate fuzzies when you achieve it. Getting paid, getting a pat on the back, getting your posts and comments upvoted... Things where you might consider them more or less optional in the grander scheme of things, yet they tend to trigger an immediate sense of positive anticipation before the event which is reinforced by a sense of satisfaction after. Actually writing a good post or comment, actually doing a good job, being a good spouse or friend -- these are surely related, but are goals in and of themselves. The mental picture for a goal is one of achieving, as opposed to receiving.
One thing that seems likely to me is that the presence of shared goals (and the communication thereof) tends to a good way to generate long term social bonds. Rewards seem to be more of a good way to deliberately steer behavior in more specific aspects. Both are thus important elements of social signaling within a tribe, but serve different underlying purposes.
As an example I have the transhumanist goal of eliminating the current limitations of the human lifespan, and tend to have an affinity for people who also internalize that goal. But someone who does not embrace that goal on a deep level may still display specific behavior that I consider helpful for that goal, e.g. displaying comprehension of its internal logic or having a tolerant attitude towards actions I think need to be taken. I'm probably somewhat less likely to form a long-term relationship with that person than if they were identifiable as a fellow transhumanist, but I am still likely to upvote their comments or otherwise signal approval in ways that don't demand too much long term commitment.
The distinctions I've drawn here between a goal and a reward might not apply directly to non-human intelligences. In fact it might be misleading in the more generalized context to call a reward something other than a goal (it is at least an implicit goal or value). However the distinction still seems like something that could be relevant for instrumental rationality and personal development. Our brains process the two forms of motivational anticipation in different ways. It may be that a part of the akrasia problem -- failure to take action towards a goal -- actually relates to a failure to properly categorize a given motive, and hence failure to process it usefully.
Thanks to the early commenters for their feedback: TheOtherDave, nornagest, endoself, David Gerard, nazgulnarsil, and Normal Anomaly. Hopefully this expanded version is more clear.
I am greatly afficted by akrasia, and in all probability, so are you. Akrasia is a destroyer of worlds.1
I have come to the conclusion that akrasia is the single biggest problem I have in life. It is greater than my impending biological death, my imperfect enjoyment of life, or the danger of a car accident.
For if I could solve the problem of akrasia, I would work on these other problems, and I believe I would solve them too. Even a big problem like physical mortality can be meaningfully challenged if I spend a lifetime tackling it. But until I solve the problem of akrasia, I will sit around and do nothing about my mortality.
(Edited here) Without solving akrasia, we are relatively inefficient in attacking the other problems that matter to us. However, if LW readers - typically smart, rational, luminous, and relatively rich people - were to defeat akrasia and become highly productive, I think we would possess real world-changing power2.
Some people have either solved this problem or never had it. Thus, we know it is possible to vanquish akrasia. However, it is a unique problem that fights its own cure: because of akrasia, we don't spend as much effort as we'd like fighting akrasia.
I propose forming a community dedicated to fighting akrasia.
This idea is so obvious I can't believe we haven't done it before. Many people here have posts they would like to write but keep procrastinating on. Many people also have other work to do but keep procrastinating on Less Wrong. Making akrasia cost you money is often a good way to motivate yourself. But that can be enough of a hassle to deter the lazy, the ADD addled and the executive dysfunctional. So here is a low transaction cost alternative that takes advantage of the addictive properties of Less Wrong karma. Post a comment here with a task and a deadline- pick tasks that can be confirmed by posters; so either Less Wrong posts or projects that can be linked to or photographed. When the deadline comes edit your comment to include a link to the completed task. If you complete the task, expect upvotes. If you fail to complete the task by the deadline, expect your comment to be downvoted into oblivion. If you see completed tasks, vote those comments up. If you see past deadlines vote those comments down. At least one person should reply to the comment, noting the deadline has passed-- this way it will come up in the recent comments and more eyes will see it.
Edit: DanArmak makes a great suggestion.
I just finished my application for android devices, LifeTracking, which has been motivated by the discussions here; primarily discussions about akrasia and measuring/tracking your own actions. I don't want to make this sound like an advertisement (the application is completely free anyway), but I would really really like to get feedback from you and hear your comments, criticism, and suggestions. If there are enough LessWrong-specific feature requests, I will make a separate application just for that.
Here is a brief description of the app:
LifeTracking application allows you to track any value (like your weight or your lesswrong karma), as well as any time-consuming activities (like sleeping, working, reading Harry Potter fanfic, etc). You can see the data visually, edit it, and analyze it.
The goal of the application is to help you know yourself and your schedule better. Hopefully, when you graph various aspects of your life side-by-side you will come to a better understanding of yourself. Also, this way you will not have to rely on your faulty memory to remember all that data.
Edit: LifeTracking website
And while we are on topic of mobile apps, what other applications would you like to see made? (For example, another useful application would be "your personal prediction tracker", where you enter various short-term predictions, your confidence interval, and then enter the actual result. You can classify each prediction and then see if you are over- or under-confident in certain areas. (I remember seeing a website that does something similar, but can't find it now.))
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