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[Link] The Unyoga Manifesto

6 SquirrelInHell 04 August 2017 09:24PM

[Link] Bridging the Intention-Action Gap (aka Akrasia)

1 lifelonglearner 01 August 2017 10:31PM

There is No Akrasia

17 lifelonglearner 30 April 2017 03:33PM

I don’t think akrasia exists.

This is a fairly strong claim. I’m also not going to try and argue it.


What I’m really here to argue are the two weaker claims that:

a) Akrasia is often treated as a “thing” by people in the rationality community, and this can lead to problems, even though akrasia a sorta-coherent concept.

b) If we want to move forward and solve the problems that fall under the akrasia-umbrella, it’s better to taboo the term akrasia altogether and instead employ a more reductionist approach that favors specificity

But that’s a lot less catchy, and I think we can 80/20 it with the statement that “akrasia doesn’t exist”, hence the title and the opening sentence.

First off, I do think that akrasia is a term that resonates with a lot of people. When I’ve described this concept to friends (n = 3), they’ve all had varying degrees of reactions along the lines of “Aha! This term perfectly encapsulates something I feel!” On LW, it seems to have garnered acceptance as a concept, evidenced by the posts / wiki on it.

It does seem, then, that this concept of “want-want vs want” or “being unable to do what you ‘want’ to do” seems to point at a phenomenologically real group of things in the world.

However, I think that this is actually bad.

Once people learn the term akrasia and what it represents, they can now pattern-match it to their own associated experiences. I think that, once you’ve reified akrasia, i.e. turned it into a “thing” inside your ontology, problems occur:

First off, treating akrasia as a real thing gives it additional weight and power over you:

Once you start to notice the patterns, it’s harder to see things again as mere apparent chaos. In the case of akrasia, I think this means that people may try less hard because they suddenly realize they’re in the grip of this terrible monster called akrasia.

I think this sort of worldview ends up reinforcing some unhelpful attitudes towards solving the problems akrasia represents. As an example, here are two paraphrased things I’ve overheard about akrasia which I think illustrate this. (Happy to remove these if you would prefer not to be mentioned.)

“Akrasia has mutant healing powers…Thus you can’t fight it, you can only keep switching tactics for a time until they stop working…”

“I have massive akrasia…so if you could just give me some more high-powered tools to defeat it, that’d be great…”  


Both of these quotes seem to have taken the akrasia hypothesis a little too far. As I’ll later argue, “akrasia” seems to be dealt with better when you see the problem as a collection of more isolated disparate failures of different parts of your ability to get things done, rather than as an umbrella term.

I think that the current akrasia framing actually makes the problem more intractable.

I see potential failure modes where people come into the community, hear about akrasia (and all the related scary stories of how hard it is to defeat), and end up using it as an excuse (perhaps not an explicit belief, but as an alief) that impacts their ability to do work.

This was certainly the case for me, where improved introspection and metacognition on certain patterns in my mental behaviors actually removed a lot of my willpower which had served me well in the past. I may be getting slightly tangential here, but my point is that giving people models, useful as they might be for things like classification, may not always be net-positive.

Having new things in your ontology can harm you.

So just giving people some of these patterns and saying, “Hey, all these pieces represent a Thing called akrasia that’s hard to defeat,” doesn’t seem like the best idea.

How can we make the akrasia problem more tractable, then?

I claimed earlier that akrasia does seem to be a real thing, as it seems to be relatable to many people. I think this may actually because akrasia maps onto too many things. It’s an umbrella term for lots of different problems in motivation and efficacy that could be quite disparate problems. The typical akrasia framing lumps problems like temporal discounting with motivation problems like internal disagreements or ugh fields, and more.


Those are all very different problems with very different-looking solutions!

In the above quotes about akrasia, I think that they’re an example of having mixed up the class with its members. Instead of treating akrasia as an abstraction that unifies a class of self-imposed problems that share the property of acting as obstacles towards our goals, we treat it as a problem onto itself.

Saying you want to “solve akrasia” makes about as much sense as directly asking for ways to “solve cognitive bias”. Clearly, cognitive biases are merely a class for a wide range of errors our brains make in our thinking. The exercises you’d go through to solve overconfidence look very different than the ones you might use to solve scope neglect, for example.

Under this framing, I think we can be less surprised when there is no direct solution to fighting akrasia—because there isn’t one.

I think the solution here is to be specific about the problem you are currently facing. It’s easy to just say you “have akrasia” and feel the smooth comfort of a catch-all term that doesn’t provide much in the way of insight. It’s another thing to go deep into your ugly problem and actually, honestly say what the problem is.

The important thing here is to identify which subset of the huge akrasia-umbrella your individual problem falls under and try to solve that specific thing instead of throwing generalized “anti-akrasia” weapons at it.

Is your problem one of remembering to do tasks? Then set up a Getting Things Done system.

Is your problem one of hyperbolic discounting, of favoring short-term gains? Then figure out a way to recalibrate the way you weigh outcomes. Maybe look into precommitting to certain courses of action.

Is your problem one of insufficient motivation to pursue things in the first place? Then look into why you care in the first place. If it turns out you really don’t care, then don’t worry about it. Else, find ways to source more motivation.

The basic (and obvious) technique I propose, then, looks like:

  1. Identify the akratic thing.

  2. Figure out what’s happening when this thing happens. Break it down into moving parts and how you’re reacting to the situation.

  3. Think of ways to solve those individual parts.

  4. Try solving them. See what happens

  5. Iterate

Potential questions to be asking yourself throughout this process:

  • What is causing your problem? (EX: Do you have the desire but just aren’t remembering? Are you lacking motivation?)

  • How does this akratic problem feel? (EX: What parts of yourself is your current approach doing a good job of satisfying? Which parts are not being satisfied?)

  • Is this really a problem? (EX: Do you actually want to do better? How realistic would it be to see the improvements you’re expecting? How much better do you think could be doing?)

Here’s an example of a reductionist approach I did:

“I suffer from akrasia.

More specifically, though, I suffer from a problem where I end up not actually having planned things out in advance. This leads me to do things like browse the internet without having a concrete plan of what I’d like to do next. In some ways, this feels good because I actually like having the novelty of a little unpredictability in life.

However, at the end of the day when I’m looking back at what I’ve done, I have a lot of regret over having not taken key opportunities to actually act on my goals. So it looks like I do care (or meta-care) about the things I do everyday, but, in the moment, it can be hard to remember.”

Now that I’ve far more clearly laid out the problem above, it seems easier to see that the problem I need to deal with is a combination of:

  • Reminding myself the stuff I would like to do (maybe via a schedule or to-do list).

  • Finding a way to shift my in-the-moment preferences a little more towards the things I’ve laid out (perhaps with a break that allows for some meditation).

I think that once you apply a reductionist viewpoint and specifically say exactly what it is that is causing your problems, the problem is already half-solved. (Having well-specified problems seems to be half the battle.)


Remember, there is no akrasia! There are only problems that have yet to be unpacked and solved!

Akrasia Tactics Review 3: The Return of the Akrasia

14 malcolmocean 10 April 2017 03:05PM

About three and a half years ago, polutropon ran an akrasia tactics review, following the one orthonormal ran three and a half years prior to that: an open-ended survey asking Less Wrong posters to give numerical scores to productivity techniques that they'd tried, with the goal of getting a more objective picture of how well different techniques work (for the sort of people who post here). Since it's been years since the others and the rationality community has grown and developed significantly while retaining akrasia/motivation/etc as a major topic, I thought it'd be useful to have a new one!

(Malcolm notes: it seems particularly likely that this time there are likely to be some noteworthy individually-invented techniques this time, as people seem to be doing a lot of that sort of thing these days!)

A lightly modified version of the instructions from the previous post:

  1. Note what technique you've tried. Techniques can be anything from productivity systems (Getting Things Done, Complice) to social incentives (precommitting in front of friends) to websites or computer programs (Beeminder, Leechblock) to chemical aids (Modafinil, Caffeine). If it's something that you can easily link to information about, please provide a link and I'll add it when I list the technique; if you don't have a link, describe it in your comment and I'll link that. It could also be a cognitive technique you developed or copied from a friend, which might not have a clear name but you can give it one if you like!
  2. Give your experience with it a score from -10 to +10 (0 if it didn't change the status quo, 10 if it ended your akrasia problems forever with no unwanted side effects, negative scores if it actually made your life worse, -10 if it nearly killed you). For simplicity's sake, I'll only include reviews that give numerical scores.
  3. Describe your experience with it, including any significant side effects. Please also say approximately how long you've been using it, or if you don't use it anymore how long you used it before giving up.

Every so often, I'll combine all the data back into the main post, listing every technique that's been reviewed at least twice with the number of reviews, average score, standard deviation and common effects. I'll do my best to combine similar techniques appropriately, but it'd be appreciated if you could try to organize it a bit by replying to people doing similar things and/or saying if you feel your technique is (dis)similar to another.

I'm not going to provide an initial list due to the massive number of possible techniques and concern of prejudicing answers, but you can look back on the list in the last post or the previous one one if you want. If you have any suggestions for how to organize this (that wouldn't require huge amounts of extra effort on my part), I'm open to hearing them.

Thanks for your data!

(There's a meta thread here for comments that aren't answers to the main prompt.)

[Link] Act into Fear and Abandon all Hope

1 gworley 01 January 2017 01:39AM

Notes on Actually Trying

14 AspiringRationalist 23 September 2015 02:53AM

These ideas came out of a recent discussion on actually trying at Citadel, Boston's Less Wrong house.

What does "Actually Trying" mean?

Actually Trying means applying the combination of effort and optimization power needed to accomplish a difficult but feasible goal. The effort and optimization power are both necessary.

Failure Modes that can Resemble Actually Trying

Pretending to try

Pretending to try means doing things that superficially resemble actually trying but are missing a key piece. You could, for example, make a plan related to your goal and diligently carry it out but never stop to notice that the plan was optimized for convenience or sounding good or gaming a measurement rather than achieving the goal. Alternatively, you could have a truly great plan and put effort into carrying it out until it gets difficult.

Trying to Try

Trying to try is when you throw a lot of time and perhaps mental anguish at a task but not actually do the task. Writer's block is the classic example of this.


Sphexing is the act of carrying out a plan or behavior repeatedly despite it not working.

The Two Modes Model of Actually Trying

Actually Trying requires a combination of optimization power and effort, but each of those is done with a very different way of thinking, so it's helpful to do the two separately. In the first way of thinking, Optimizing Mode, you think hard about the problem you are trying to solve, develop a plan, look carefully at whether it's actually well-suited to solving the problem (as opposed to pretending to try) and perhaps Murphy-jitsu it. In Executing Mode, you carry out the plan.

Executing Mode breaks down when you reach an obstacle that you either don't know how to overcome or where the solution is something you don't want to do. In my personal experience, this is where things tend to get derailed. There are a few ways to respond to this situation:

  • Return to Optimizing Mode to figure out how to overcome the obstacle / improve your plan (good),
  • Ask for help / consult a relevant expert (good),
  • Take a break, which could lead to a eureka moment, lead to Optimizing Mode or lead to derailing (ok),
  • Sphex (bad),
  • Derail / procrastinate (bad), or
  • Punt / give up (ok if the obstacle is insurmountable).

The key is to respond constructively to obstacles. This usually means getting back to Optimizing Mode, either directly or after a break.  The failure modes here are derailing immediately, a "break" that turns into a derailment, and sphexing.  In our discussion, we shared a few techniques we had used to get back to Optimizing Mode.  These techniques tended to focus on some combination of removing the temptation to derail, providing a reminder to optimize, and changing mental state.

Getting Back to Optimizing Mode

Context switches are often helpful here.  Because for many people, work and procrastination both tend to be computer-based activities, it is both easy and tempting to switch to a time-wasting activity immediately upon hitting an obstacle.  Stepping away from the computer takes away the immediate distraction and depending on what you do away from the computer, helps you either think about the problem or change your mental state.  Depending on what sort of mood I'm in, I sometimes step away from the computer with a pen and paper to write down my thoughts (thinking about the problem), or I may step away to replenish my supply of water and/or caffeine (changing my mental state).  Other people in the discussion said they found going for a walk or getting more strenuous exercise to be helpful when they needed a break.  Strenuous exercise has the additional advantage of having very low risk of turning into a longer-than-intended break.

The danger with breaks is that they can turn into derailment.  Open-ended breaks ("I'll just browse Reddit for five minutes") have a tendency to expand, so it's best to avoid them in favor of things with more definite endings.  The other common say for breaks to turn into derailment is to return from a break and go to something non-productive.  I have had some success with attaching a sticky-note to my monitor reminding me what to do when I return to my computer.  I have also found that if the note makes clear what problem I need to solve also makes me less likely to sphex when I return to my computer.

In the week or so since the discussion that inspired this post, I have found that asking myself "what would Actually Trying look like right now?" This has helped me stay on track when I have encountered difficult problems at work.

Make your bad habits the villains

1 AshwinV 06 September 2015 09:20AM

An often effective learning technique is the memory palace.  The reason it works is because humans are simply better at remembering long routes than they are at memorizing long lists of abstract words, numbers etc. We have evolved in this fashion.

Apparently, humans are just inherently better at some things than at others.

In[this link](http://lesswrong.com/lw/31i/have_no_heroes_and_no_villains/), PhilGoetz argues that making heroes and villains out of people is a natural tendency. He views it as one of the habits that can be de-programmed, but requires effort - "a conscious effort to shatter the good guy, bad guy narrative".

But can we do better than simply de-program this tendency? Can we put it to use the way, the memory palace has been subverted to our own end?

[Anthropomorphism](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropomorphism) to the rescue. 

Make that short-tempered habit of yours, the alcoholic wife-beater that you loath. Make your habit of procrastination, the lazy employee in the office who never gets things done and gets his whole team into trouble. Make your deepest insecurities, the most despicable version of Peter Pettigrew that you have come across.

See if it works. Let me know in the comments section.

Request for help: Android app to shut down a smartphone late at night

2 The_Jaded_One 02 April 2015 11:38AM

I have been playing around with life hacking ideas inspired by hyperbolic discounting.

One idea that seems to have worked reasonably well is was the idea that I could get to bed on time better if my computer simply switched itself off at a certain time, with absolutely no way (that I am capable of executing!) to make it work until the morning. I found and paid for a piece of software that does this - isurveillance shutdown timer. Unfortnately, this seems to have just shifted my late night computer use to my android mobile device, though gaming sessions that last till 5am are a thing of the past. 

So, I'd like an android app that shuts down your (rooted) android phone if it is ever detected on within a prespecified time window on a particular day - e.g. between 11pm and 6am, with no way for the user to circumvent the shutdown. If the user restarts the phone, it should shut down again immediately when it finds out that the time is not within the specified window. 

I have looked for something like this on Google Play, however most offerings will shut down the phone *once*, but it will stay on if you switch it on again. 

LW being a community of tech-savvy people, I was wondering whether anyone was interested in building such an app? It probably isn't hard to do if you are already an android developer, and I think it would really improve my life, and possibly the lives of other people. You could even make it a paid app - I'd pay. In fact I will commit to paying $50 for the app if someone develops this app and it works as described. If the community finds it useful, I'd expect there'd be some karma in it too. Alternatively if anyone can *find* such an app, I'd be extremely grateful. 

A more advanced version of this would be to lock the phone into "emergency calls only" mode within a specific time window. I don't know how hard that would be to pull off. 

This idea might even be good enough to turn into a business - millions of people around the world have the same problem. The requirement to root the device obviously puts something of a dampener on the viability of a business, there may be legal issues with rooting devices as part of a business. 

If You Like This Orange...

-27 [deleted] 01 April 2015 02:42AM

If you like this orange you must like that orange.  Well, maybe.  Tastes change, and maybe I already had an orange a little while ago, and maybe I'm not in the mood while someone else would be glad to have it, so it doesn't follow that because I liked this orange I must like that orange.

Comparing oranges and oranges seems like a set of two objects, but it's really four.  There's you, there's the orange, there's the other orange, and there's the perceived relation between you and the two oranges.  When it's just you and the oranges, things usually find a simple way work themselves out.

But when someone else comes into the room it's seldom oranges and oranges.   Other people are ever ready to tell you what you like.  If you like this orange you must like that apple, because they're both fruit.  Nah, can't stand apples unless they are baked.  It doesn't matter that they are both fruit, I don't care for apples.  Then the helping helpers will infer the inverse.  If you like this orange you can't like that apple.  Watch me - I'll like an apple just to spite you, or choke it down because there aren't any oranges to be had.

The nonsense comparisons just get more nonsensical.  If you like this orange you must like that color orange, you must!  That's the way it's always gone!  Well, I say if you like this orange you must like that porcupine.  See how silly it sounds?  As long as someone sees that fourth object in the set, a connection between the two things and you, they will hard-sell you that the orange and the very-not-orange are fully fungible.

That fourth object in the set, the perceived relation between the other three, gets its power from being invisible and assumed.  The assumption of relations in the set overpowers all the other objects in the set.  If you like this orange you are an orange-ist, because there's (a) you (b) the orange (c) your liking of the orange and (d) anybody that likes that orange is an orange-ist, that's the relation between you and the orange caused by your liking it.  The invisible fourth object in the set, the assumption of a relation, is now a stand-in for you.  You are no longer a person who in one place, in one time, in one way, liked an orange.  You are are an orange-ist.

If you are friends with that guy / read that book, and that guy / book exposed that idea, and that whole other guy with that idea did that thing, then you did that thing!  The four step process of replacing the man with a mannequin is the start of superstition.  Religion is realized in the replacement of the representation for the real.  Hard to believe that belief is so beleaguered but right here on this very planet in this very year there are nations where if you draw the wrong cartoon, read the wrong poem, or question the wrong answer, you go to prison.  Or worse.

Here's how they make the rotten trolly run.  If you said this one thing this one time then you believe - no, you are - this other thing.  A clergyman is not only a clergyman, they are a Good Person.  Good People do Good Deeds, and if the clergyman doesn't do good deeds, or if he does bad deeds, well, he's still a Good Person.  All four stations of Goodnessity are there: the clergyman, the Good Deeds clergymen are associated with, Good Deeds associated with Good People, and halleluia! clergymen are Good People.  And oh my but the four stations of Badnessism are there as well.  If you tell that one joke then you're a Bad Person.  That joke has the Bad Word in it, Bad People use that Bad Word, Bad People do Bad Deeds, so you did a Bad Deed!

It's four things. You, that thing you like, another thing and the proposed connection between the things. That connection is presented as more important than you.  The evidence shows that nothing is more to me than myself.  I'd not be here to tell you if this was not the case.  What other people think and do about me has its influences, but I don't confuse that with right or wrong or especially not Rights and Sins.  Egoism is the school of thought closest to my own, and that association draws from my own luster.

The pressure to be packed in a package deal comes in many forms.  Don't like too many kinds of art or music, be part of a scene.  Don't hold political or philosophical views, be a member of a party or a school.  Don't be online, be in a social network.  And most of all don't have a yen for truth, beauty and strength - be spiritual.

When the crowd crowns you with a trait, you're trapped.  To be identified as a whole by one of your parts is cutting.  Oh you're a massage therapist?  I have this pinch in my back.  You're a car mechanic?  You know, my car is just outside.  You do stand-up?  Tell me a joke, funny guy.  I heard you're a porn star, is that right?  Let's see those tits.  So you're a professional wrestler, eh?  I like that other wrestler better, the nice guy.  In every variation we are made out to be not ourselves but the thing other people think you are.  Man, that dude's a racist.  Heil hitler, you cartoon-drawer!  Her over there, she has a suicidal level of self-hatred and is an active enemy of all women.  She quit her job to be a mom when she was in her 20s.  There's something just creepy about that family down the hall, they're always happy.  Yeah, they're Mormons.  Fake vegan meat supports the aesthetic of carnivore culture.  No one more intolerant than the loud champions of toleration, no one more ready to divide than the unifiers of diversity.

In the United States, a slave knew he had a place: that of a slave.  In India, an Untouchable knew he had a place: that of an Untouchable.  The modern moral minders, starting with Stalin onward, developed a different delineator.  If you are seen to stray too far from the approved set of beliefs, you have no place.  You are to be stripped of your job, your career, your credentials, your home and your money.  The Good Guys in the White Hats are ever vigilant for any infraction.  Call them the improperatzzi.  What a remarkable coincidence that the virtue they advocate is the same as the group they are a member of.

I can't say I judge all men in all moments anew.  I've also decided to not ask you to do so.  That sounds too much like work.  I don't have the time or energy, much less the inclination, to always cast aside generalities, stereotypes, and biases.  In this very essay I may lump a whole spectrum of people I disagree with into the base categories of liars and fools.  But you and I both know some people are just jerks, and some people are solid citizens.  I'm a member of some groups, a friend of others.  Everyone I don't like has me in common.  If it suits me I'll give you a chance, but maybe I'm busy or angry that day and you're just going be hidden behind what I think of you based on some other thing at some other time.  You'll live.  My opinion isn't even all that important to me.

The troubles come when people decide that those who are different aren't to live.  Except for liars and fools, everyone on the planet knows that the Religion of Peace currently holds the title belt for murdering those who think or act differently than they do.  I keep hearing that there's a majority of Muslims who aren't like that, but I also keep not hearing about what they are doing to enlighten their brothers and sisters who keep misunderstanding Islam in the same way, century after century.  Maybe the numbers are there for the majority to reform the minority, but let's see some action.  A sound public shaming is a good start, and in this regard I do my part.  But again - I limit myself to that most pathetic and un-magical of all activities, writing, when I disagree.  The beheaders, the child-rapers, the enslavers, the kidnappers, the hijackers, the perpetually grieved - the Muslims - not so much.

There's no controversy, only a nontroversy.  A man can like music by ADULT. and Mildred Bailey.  A man can know a great deal about far right politics without being of the far right.  A man can be interested in beliefs about UFOs without believing in UFOs.  The scolds and the bullies secretly know this but don't want you in on their game.  They know what is bad for other people because they've seen the evidence - but somehow, they saw the evidence and didn't suffer from the exposure.  They are good enough to tell you what's good for you, but you aren't.  No thank you, you pinch-faced busybodies, I'll decide for myself what I like and do and think and believe.  I'll even take my lumps for the luxury.

The heart wants what the heart wants.  So does the groin.  I've made up a name for those who think otherwise: quantisexual.  A quantisexual is deeply invested in quantifying sex.  Who can have sex with who, what the arrangement is named, who shares that name and who doesn't.  Who is doing it right, who is doing it right but for the wrong reasons, who is doing it all wrong.  Not satisfied with the real-life cooties you can get from sex, a quantisexual invents forms of ritual contamination and cleanliness.  If you have even one stray thought about your own sex, you're bisexual.  If you're bisexual then you're queer.  If you're queer then you have to support all the other queers in all their queeriosities.  Even if you don't have sex at all there's a whole slew of cooties you can accessorize yourself with like 'cis' and 'demisexual' and 'asexual.'  The name for a thing becomes more important than the thing itself, like sheets being more sexy than what goes on between them.  The alphabet soup of alt-sex has more rules and restrictions than the Roman Catholic Church.  Quantisexuality is a fetish.  Hip hip hooray if you were born that way or if, by pretending it's your thing, you get to join the right in-groups.  Sex will go on without your names for it.

Standing at the rich banquet of life, far too many go with a cuisine they've been gifted by someone not even alive to share the meal.  Only these foods go together, and only in this order, and in this amount.  Not because to do otherwise leads to sickness or death, but because, well, other people might... see...  See what?  Me getting a few of these and a few of those, concerned less than they, enjoying more than they.  You do go on if you must keep kosher, hold halal and avoid fish on Friday.  All the more for me, pal, or maybe I'll just have a bite and be done.  What we do and like isn't limited to one item from column A and two items from column B.  Life is not a family meal or a package deal.  Beliefs and interests are all a big mess and probably not very important, so pull them together in a way that makes sense to you.  Just don't insist I sign on to your supper club.

The thing you like is the thing you like.  You didn't used to like it, and maybe you won't like it later.  You don't have to explain or understand it.  You don't have to get my approval for it.  If it stops working for you, you stop working for it.  Move on, and I'll be doing the same.

- Trevor Blake is the author of Confessions of a Failed Egoist.

Where can I go to exploit social influence to fight akrasia?

9 [deleted] 26 March 2015 03:39PM

Briefly: I'm looking for a person (or group) with whom I can mutually discuss self improvement and personal goals (and nothing else) on a regular basis.

Also, note, this post is an example of asking a personally important question on LW. The following idea is not meant as a general mindhack, but just as something I want to try out myself.

We are unconsciously motivated by those around us. The Milgram experiment and the Asch conformity experiment are the two best examples of social influence that come to my mind, though I'm sure there are plenty more (if you haven't heard of them, I really suggest spending a minute).

I've tended to see this drive to conform to the expectations of others as a weakness of the human mind, and yes, it can be destructive. However, as long as its there, I should exploit it. Specifically, I want to exploit it to fight akrasia.

Utilizing positive social influence is a pretty common tactic for fighting drug addictions (like in AA), but I haven't really heard of it being used to fight unproductivity. Sharing your personal work/improvement goals with someone in the same position as yourself, along with reflecting on previous attempts, could potentially be powerful. Humans simply feel more responsible for the things they tell other people about, and less responsible for the things they bottle up and don't tell anyone (like all of my productivity strategies).

The setup that I envision would be something like this:

  • On a chat room, or some system like skype.1
  • Meet weekly at a very specific time for a set amount of time.
  • Your partner has a list of the productivity goals you set during the previous session. They ask you about your performance, forcing you to explain either your success or your failure.
  • Your partner tries to articulate what went wrong or what went right from your explanation (giving you a second perspective).
  • Once both parties have shared and evaluated, you set your new goals in light of your new experience (and with your partner's input, hopefully being more effective).
  • The partnership continues as long as it is useful for all parties.

I've tried doing something similar to this with my friends, but it just didn't work. We already knew each other too well, and there wasn't that air of dispassionate professionality. We were friends, but not partners (in this sense of the word).

If something close to what I describe already exists, or at least serves the same purpose, I would love to hear about it (I already tried the LW study hall, but it wasn't really the structure or atmosphere I was going for). Otherwise, I'd be thrilled to find someone here to try doing this with. You can PM me if you don't want to post here.



1. After explaining this whole idea to someone IRL, they remarked that there would be little social influence because we would only be meeting online in a pseudo-anonymous way. However, I don't find this to be the case personally when I talk with people online, so a virtual environment would be no detriment (hopefully this isn't just unique to me).

Edit (29/3/2015): Just for the record, I wanted to say that I was able to make the connection I wanted, via a PM. Thanks LW!

Personal Notes On Productivity (A categorization of various resources)

5 CurtisSerVaas 25 March 2015 01:35AM

For each topic, I’ve curated a few links that I’ve found to be pretty high quality. 

  • Meta:(Epiphany Addiction, Reversing Advice, Excellence Porn)
  • @Learning: 
  • Success People: (Mastery),(ChoosingTopics: Osci,PG)
  • Thinking: (Ikigai, Stoicism, Rationality)
  • HabitChange: (!ShootDog)
  • Productivity.Principles/Energy/Relaxation:(FullEngagement, ArtOfLearning)
  • Productivity.Systems/Hacks: (Autofocus, GTD/ZTD, EatFrog),(Scott Young)
  • Depression/Anxiety: 
  • Social: 
  • Meditation 


Full List: https://workflowy.com/s/zUTEaY0ZcJ


I'd like feedback on: 


  • What other categories/links would you include (I'm sure there's lots of interesting stuff I'm missing.)? What do you think of the categorization ("Thinking" is a pretty large category.)? 
  • Whether you think I should make cross-posts about sub-topics here. The main benefit of making more cross posts is that the discussion/comments would be more focused on those topics. In particular, I think that looking at SuccessfulPeople.Startups, SuccessfulPeople.Science, and the Meditation document are the most original parts of this post. 
    • SuccessfulPeople.Startups contains a categorization of some of Paul Graham's essays (e.g. Having ideas, fund-raising, executing, etc). 
    • The SuccessfulPeople.Science link contains a separate categorization of advice specifically for scientists (e.g. Picking ideas, the importance of being persistent, the importance of reading widely, etc). 
    • The meditation document lists a few high quality meditation resources that I've found (and I've read ~10 books on meditation. Most of it is crap. Some of the stuff I list is orders of magnitude better than the median meditation book I've read.). 
  • Whatever seems salient to you. 



[LINK] Lectures on Self-Control and the myth of Willpower

8 joaolkf 13 March 2015 12:34AM

Last week Professor Neil Levy, a neuroethicist,  gave three lectures on Self-Control at the Oxford Martin School. Roughly, the first lecture targeted philosophical issues, the second empirical issues and the third bridged the two. Neil's summaries and audio are at the bottom. In the next two paragraphs I will briefly summarize the take-home message of the lectures.

Over the three lectures, he offered a new approach to self-control. He argues that will-power is of little relevance to self-control, that the self-control character-trait which correlates with success is not will-power and that relying on will-power alone leads to low levels of self-control. He defends that self-control is mainly the ability of self-management, of managing the environment so that temptations become more costly, less salient or inaccessible - he mentions Facebook nanny, Beeminder, commitment devices and so on. Self-management is the ability of not having to use will-power. Will-power is only relevant insofar as it enables these techniques to be deployed, but once in place the techniques themselves consist in avoiding to use will-power altogether. Will-power is an extremely scarce resource, and we should use the little we have so we don't have to depend on it anymore. He cites numerous evidence in support for his view. To mention a few, people with high self-control character-trait are less able to resist temptations, exert less effortful self-control, but are nonetheless more likely to pick environments with few temptations/distractions and better at developing techniques to ignore temptations (e.g. little children sung, slept, etc.). He contends that glucose role in increasing self-control is exerted by signalling high short-term resource availability, a stable environment, and thus low opportunity costs - but he doesn't expect this effect to hold in the long-term. He predicts that unconscious signals of a stable environment will increase self-control, which helps explains why high social-economic status correlates strongly with self-control. Neil has a blog post discussing how the myth that willpower equals Self-Control prevents the prescription of policies that would use these managerial techniques to increase people's Self-Control. By the end, he hinted his view could perhaps be seen as the extended will view, mirroring the extended mind view.

I believe the first lecture is not especially helpful for LessWrongers as it mainly focuses on contrasting his view with the rationalist view within philosophy, which is not pretty rational and likely false. Those interested in the empirical side will find the second lecture more attractive and should check this blog post summarizing it. I think the take-home message is more extensively spelled out in the third lecture. On the first lecture, there is this post by Professor Julian Savulescu, which particularly addresses the objective stance towards oneself present on Neil's view and opposed by the (philosophical) rationalists. There's some disagreement about to what extend these rationalists would really disagree with this view.


Lecture One: Self-Control: A problem of self-management

In this lecture I argue that self-control problems typical arise from conflicts between smaller sooner and larger later rewards. I suggest that we often fail successfully to navigate these problems because of our commitment to a conception of ourselves as rational agents who answer questions about ourselves by looking to the world. Despite the attractions of this conception, I argue that it undermines efforts at self-control and thereby our capacity to pursue the ends we value. I suggest we think of self-control as a problem of self-management, whereby we manipulate ourselves.

Lecture One Audio.

Blog post by Professor Julian Savulescu on the objectifying view defended in the first Lecture.


Lecture Two: The Science of Self-Control

In this lecture I outline some of the main perspectives on self-control and its loss stemming from recent work in psychology. I focus in particular on the puzzle arising from the role of glucose in successful self-control. Glucose ingestion seems to boost self-control but there is good evidence that it doesn't do this by providing fuel for the relevant mechanisms. I suggest that glucose functions as a cue of resource availability rather than fuel.

Lecture Two Audio.

Blog post by Dr. Joshua Shepherd summarizing the second Lecture.


Lecture Three: Marshmallows and Moderation

There is evidence that self-control is a character trait. This evidence seems inconsistent with the management approach I advocate, since that approach urges that we look to external props for self-control, not to states of the agent. In this lecture I argue, that contrary to appearances, we should hesitate to think that people high in what is known as trait self-control have any such character trait. In fact, properly understood the evidence concerning trait self-control supports the management. 

Lecture Three Audio.


EDIT: Changed the title from willpower's relative irrelevancy to the myth of Willpower. Added a link to another blog post.

The Danger of Invisible Problems

14 [deleted] 06 November 2014 10:28PM

TL;DR: There is probably some costly problem in your life right now that you are not even aware of. It is not that you are procrastinating on solving it. Rather, this problem has gradually blended into your environment, sinking beneath your conscious awareness to the degree that you fail to recognize it as a problem in the first place.

This post is partially an elaboration on Ugh fields, but there are some decisive differences I want to develop. Let me begin with an anecdote:

For about two years I've had a periodic pain in my right thigh. Gradually, it became worse. At one point I actually had a sort of spasm. Then the pain went away for a few weeks, then it came back, and so forth. All the while I rationalized it as something harmless: "It will probably just go away soon," I would think, or "It only inhibits my mobility sometimes." Occasionally I would consider seeking medical help, but I couldn't muster the energy, as though some activation threshold wasn't being reached. In fact, the very promise that I could get medical help whenever convenient served to further diminish any sense of urgency. Even if the pain was sometimes debilitating, I did not perceive it as a problem needing to be solved. Gradually, I came to view it as just an unfortunate and inevitable part of existence.

Last Monday, after hardly being able to walk due to crippling pain, I finally became aware that "Wow, this really sucks and I should fix it." That evening I finally visited a chiropractor, who proceeded to get medieval on my femur (imagine having a sprained ankle, then imagine a grown man jumping on top of it). Had I classified this as a problem-needing-to-be-solved a few months earlier, my treatment period would probably be days instead of weeks.

Simply, I think this situation is of a more general form:

You have some inefficiency or agitation in your life. This could be solved very easily, but because it is perceived as harmless, no such attempt is made. Over time your tolerance for it increases, even if the problem is worsening (Bonus points for attempts at rationalizing it). This may be due to something like the peak-end rule, as the problem doesn't cause any dramatic peaks that stick out in your memory, just a dull pain underlying your experience. Even if the problem substantially lowers utility, your satisficing lizard brain remains apathetic, until the last moment, when the damage passes a certain threshold and you're jolted into action.

While similar to procrastination and akrasia, this does not involve you going against your better judgement. Instead, you don't have a better judgement, due to the blinding effects of the problem.

Possible Solutions:

I didn't solve my problem in a clever way, but I've begun employing some "early warning" techniques to prevent future incidents. The key is to become aware of the worsening inefficiency before you're forced to resort to damage control.

  • Do a daily/weekly/monthly reflection. Just for a few minutes, try writing out in plain text what you currently think of your life and how you're doing. This forces you to articulate your situation in a concrete way, bypassing the shadowy ambiguity of your thoughts. If you find yourself writing things about your life that you did not previously know, keep writing, as you could be uncovering something that you'd been flinching from acknowledging (e.g. "Obligation X isn't as rewarding as I thought it would be"). A more elaborate formulation of this practice can be found here.
  • I kind of feel that "mindfulness" has become a mangled buzzword, but the exercises associated with it are quite powerful when applied correctly. I've found that following my breath does indeed induce a certain clarity of mind, where acknowledging problems and shortcomings becomes easier. Using your own thought process as an object of meditation is another excellent method.
  • While the previous two examples have been personal activities, other people can also be a valuable resource due to their uncanny ability to be different from you, thus offering multiple perspectives. However, I doubt expensive talk-therapy is necessary; some of my most useful realizations have been from IRC chats.

[Link] Learning how to exert self-control

8 pinyaka 14 September 2014 11:07PM

Here's a link to a short op-ed about some tips to develop self-control. The author get them from talking with Walter Mischel, a researcher who correlated impulsiveness as a child (measured by ability to delay eating sweets) and various metrics as an adult (education attainment/cocaine use/weight). Mischel has a new book coming out, but this is not a review of the book. I thought this might be of interest because it talks a little about how self-control is a skill that can be developed and even gave some specific things to do.

1. If possible remove unhelpful triggers from your environment. If not possible, try to reduce the emotional appeal of the trigger by mentally associating it with something unpleasant. One example he gives is imagining a cockroach crawling on the chocolate mousse that a server at a restaurant offers.

2. Develop specific if-then plans such as "if it is before noon, I won't check email" or "If I feel angry, I will count backward from ten." The goal of these kinds of checks is to introduce a delay between impulse and action during which you are reminded of your goal and have a chance to consider the impact of following the impulse on that goal.

3. Link the behavior that you want to modify to a "burning goal" so that you have emotional impetus to actually make the desired change.

Akrasia and Immunity to change

5 terasinube 03 March 2014 04:04PM

Does any of you has any relevant experience that you can share with Immunity to change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey?

I'm currently reading their book and I find it fascinating.

Here is a HBR article titled The Real Reason People Won’t Change that describes the work. 

Kurzban et al. on opportunity cost models of mental fatigue and resource-based models of willpower

20 Kaj_Sotala 06 December 2013 09:54AM

An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance (h/t lukeprog) is a very interesting paper on why we accumulate mental fatigue: Kurzban et al. suggest an opportunity cost model, where intense focus on a single task means that we become less capable of using our mental resources for anything else, and accumulating mental fatigue is part of a cost-benefit calculation that encourages us to shift our attention instead of monomaniacally concentrating on just one task which may not be the most rewarding possible. Correspondingly, the amount of boredom or mental fatigue we experience with a task should correspond with the perceived rewards from other tasks available at the moment. A task will feel more boring/effortful if there's something more rewarding that you could be doing instead (i.e. if the opportunity costs for pursuing your current task are higher), and if it requires exclusive use of cognitive resources that could also be used for something else.

This seems to make an amount of intuitive/introspective sense - I had a much easier time doing stuff without getting bored as a kid, when there simply wasn't much else that I could be doing instead. And it does roughly feel like I would get more quickly bored with things in situations where more engaging pursuits were available. I'm also reminded of the thing I noticed as a kid where, if I borrowed a single book from the library, I would likely get quickly engrossed in it, whereas if I had several alternatives it would be more likely that I'd end up looking at each for a bit but never really get around reading any of them.

An opportunity cost model also makes more sense than resource models of willpower which, as Kurzban quite persuasively argued in his earlier book, don't really fit together with the fact that the brain is an information-processing system. My computer doesn't need to use any more electricity in situations where it "decides" to do something as opposed to not doing something, but resource models of willpower have tried to postulate that we would need more of e.g. glucose in order to maintain willpower. (Rather, it makes more sense to presume that a low level of blood sugar would shift the cost-benefit calculations in a way that led to e.g. conservation of resources.)

This isn't just Kurzban et al's opinion - the paper was published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, which invites diverse comments to all the papers that they publish. In this particular case, it was surprising how muted the defenses of the resource model were. As Kurzban et al point out in their response to responses:

As context for our expectations, consider the impact of one of the central ideas with which we were taking issue, the claim that “willpower” is a resource that is consumed when self-control is exerted. To give a sense of the reach of this idea, in the same month that our target article was accepted for publication Michael Lewis reported in Vanity Fair that no less a figure than President Barack Obama was aware of, endorsed, and based his decision- making process on the general idea that “the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions,” with Obama explaining: “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make ” (Lewis 2012 ).

Add to this the fact that a book based on this idea became a New York Times bestseller (Baumeister & Tierney 2011 ), the fact that a central paper articulating the idea (Baumeister et al. 1998 ) has been cited more than 1,400 times, and, more broadly, the vast number of research programs using this idea as a foundation, and we can be forgiven for thinking that we would have kicked up something of a hornet’s nest in suggesting that the willpower-as-resource model was wrong. So we anticipated no small amount of stings from the large number of scholars involved in this research enterprise. These were our expectations before receiving the commentaries.

Our expectations were not met. Take, for example, the reaction to our claim that the glucose version of the resource argument is false (Kurzban 2010a ). Inzlicht & Schmeichel, scholars who have published widely in the willpower-as-resource literature, more or less casually bury the model with the remark in their commentary that the “mounting evidence points to the conclusion that blood glucose is not the proximate mechanism of depletion.” ( Malecek & Poldrack express a similar view.) Not a single voice has been raised to defend the glucose model, and, given the evidence that we advanced to support our view that this model is unlikely to be correct, we hope that researchers will take the fact that none of the impressive array of scholars submitting comments defended the view to be a good indication that perhaps the model is, in fact, indefensible. Even if the opportunity cost account of effort turns out not to be correct, we are pleased that the evidence from the commentaries – or the absence of evidence – will stand as an indication to audiences that it might be time to move to more profitable explanations of subjective effort.

While the silence on the glucose model is perhaps most obvious, we are similarly surprised by the remarkably light defense of the resource view more generally. As Kool & Botvinick put it, quite correctly in our perception: “Research on the dynamics of cognitive effort have been dominated, over recent decades, by accounts centering on the notion of a limited and depletable ‘resource’” (italics ours). It would seem to be quite surprising, then, that in the context of our critique of the dominant view, arguably the strongest pertinent remarks come from Carter & McCullough, who imply that the strength of the key phenomenon that underlies the resource model – two-task “ego-depletion” studies – might be considerably less than previously thought or perhaps even nonexistent. Despite the confidence voiced by Inzlicht & Schmeichel about the two-task findings, the strongest voices surrounding the model, then, are raised against it, rather than for it. (See also Monterosso & Luo , who are similarly skeptical of the resource account.)

Indeed, what defenses there are of the resource account are not nearly as adamant as we had expected. Hagger wonders if there is “still room for a ‘resource’ account,” given the evidence that cuts against it, conceding that “[t]he ego-depletion literature is problematic.” Further, he relies largely on the argument that the opportunity cost model we offer might be incomplete, thus “leaving room” for other ideas.

(I'm leaving out discussion of some commentaries which do attempt to defend resource models.)

Though the model still seems to be missing pieces - as one of the commentaries points out, it doesn't really address the fact that some tasks are more inherently boring than others. Some of it might be explained by the argument given in Shouts, Whispers, and the Myth of Willpower: A Recursive Guide to Efficacy (I quote the most relevant bit here), where the author suggests that "self-discipline" in some domain is really about sensitivity for feedback in that domain: a novice in some task doesn't really manage to notice the small nuances that have become so significant for an expert, so they receive little feedback for their actions and it ends up being a boring vigilance task. Whereas an expert will instantly notice the effects that their actions have on the system and get feedback of their progress, which in the opportunity cost model could be interpreted as raising the worthwhileness of the task they're working on. If we go with Kurzban et al.'s notion of us acquiring further information about the expected utility of the task we're working on as we continue working on it, then getting feedback from the task could possibly be read as a sign of the task being one in which we can expect to succeed in.

Another missing piece with the model is that it doesn't really seem to explain the way that one can come home after a long day at work and then feel too exhausted to do anything at all - it can't really be about opportunity costs if you end up so tired that you can't come up with ~any activity that you'd want to do.

[LINK] Productivity Ninja: 5 Powerful Tips For Getting More Stuff Done

-2 JQuinton 16 October 2013 04:45PM

From the blog [Bakadesuyo](http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2013/10/productivity-ninja/):

>1) Know When You’re At Your Best

>And plan accordingly. To be a productivity ninja focus less on time management, and more on managing your energy.

>Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, used a system like this to make sure he was always growing.

>He identified the hours when he was at his best — and then routinely stole one of those peak hours for learning.

>>Charlie Munger hit upon one strategy when he was a young lawyer. He decided that whenever his legal work was not as intellectually stimulating as he’d like, “I would sell the best hour of the day to myself.” He would take otherwise billable time at the peak of his day and dedicate it to his own thinking and learning. “And only after improving my mind — only after I’d used my best hour improving myself — would I sell my time to my professional clients.”


There are four more entries, but posting them here would probably violate copyright. Anyone implement any of the suggestions listed?

Fixing akrasia: damnation to acausal hell

2 joaolkf 03 October 2013 10:34PM

DISCLAIMER: This topic is related to a potentially harmful memetic hazard, that has been rightly banned from Less Wrong. If you don't know what is, it is more likely you will be fine than not, but be advised. If do know, do not mention it in the comments.


Abstract: The fact that humans cannot precommit very well might be one of our defences against acausal trades. If transhumanists figure out how to beat akrasia by some sort of drug or brain tweaks, that might make them much better at precommitment, and thus more vulnerable. That means solving akrasia might be dangerous, at least until we solve blackmail. If the danger is bad enough, even small steps should be considered carefully.

Strong precommitment and building detailed simulations of other agents are two relevant capabilities humans currently don't have. These capabilities have some unusual consequences for games. Most relevant games only arise when there is a chance of monitoring, commitment and multiple interactions. Hence being in a relevant game often implies cohabiting casual connected space-time regions with other agents. Nevertheless, being able to build detailed simulations of agents allows one to vastly increase the subjective probably this particular agent will have that his next observational moment will be under one's control iff the agent have access to some relevant areas of the logical game theoretic space. This doesn't seem desirable from this agent's perspective, it is extremely asymmetrical and allows more advanced agents to enslave less advanced ones even if they don't cohabit casual connected regions of the universe. Being able to be acausally reached by powerful agent who can simulate 3^^^3 copies of you, but against which you cannot do much is extremely undesirable.

However, and more generally, regions of the block universe can only be in a game with non-cohabiting regions if they are both agents and if they can strong precommit. Any acausal trade depends on precommitment, this is the only way an agreement can go across space-time, it is done on the game-theoretical possibilities space - as I am calling it. In the case I am discussing, a powerful agent would only have reason to even consider acausal trading with an agent if that agent can precommit. Otherwise, there is no other way of ensuring acausal cooperation. If the other agent cannot, beforehand, understand that due to the peculiarities of the set of possible strategies, it is better to always precommit to those strategies that will have higher payoff when considering all other strategies, then there's no trade to be made. Would be like trying to threaten a spider with a calm verbal sentence. If the other agent cannot precommit, there is no reason for the powerful agent to punish him for anything, he wouldn't be able to cooperate anyway, he wouldn't understand the game and, more importantly in my argument, he wouldn't be able to follow his precommitment, it would break down eventually, specially since the evidence for it is so abstract and complex. The powerful agent might want to simulate the minor agent suffering anyway, but it would solely amount to sadism. Acausal trades can only reach strong precommitable areas of the universe.

Moreover, an agent also needs reasonable epistemic access to the regions of logical space (certain areas of game theory, or, TDT if you will) that indicates both the possibility of acausal trades and some estimative on the type-distribution of superintelligences willing to trade with him (most likely, future ones that the agent can help create). Forever deterring the advance of knowledge on that area seems unfeasible, or - at best - complicated and undesirable for other reasons.

It is clear that we (humans) don't want to be in an enslavable position. I believe we are not. One of the things excluding us from this position is complete incapability to precommit. This is a psychological constrain, a neurochemical constrain. We do not have the ability of even having stable long term goals, strong precommitment is neurochemical impossible. However, it seems we can change this with human enhancement, we could develop drugs which could cure akrasia, we could overcome breakdown of will with some amazing psychological technique discovered by CFAR. It seems, however desirable on other grounds, getting rid of akrasia presents severe risks. Even if somehow we only slightly decrease akrasia, this would increase the probability that individuals with access to the relevant regions of logical space could precommit and become slaves. They might then proceed to cure akrasia for the rest of humanity.

Therefore, we should avoid trying to fundamentally fix akrasia for now, until we have a better understanding of those matters and perhaps solve the blackmail problem, or maybe only after FAI. My point here is merely arguing everyone should not endorse technologies (or psychological techniques) proposing to fundamentally fix a problem that would, otherwise, seems desirable of fixing. It would seem like a clear optimization process, but it could actually open the gates of acausal hell and damn humanity to eternal slavery.


(Thank cousin_it for the abstract. All mistakes are my responsibility.)

(EDIT: Added an explanation to back up the premise the acausal trade entails precommitment.)

Confidence In Opinions, Intensity In Opinion

0 lionhearted 04 September 2013 04:56PM

On a scale of 1 to 100, how sure are you?

It's a good thing to ask yourself from time to time about intense beliefs, especially if you're having a disagreement with someone else smart.

Just putting a number on something is good. If you're in business, putting any number in the high 90's is dangerous and shouldn't happen too often.

Yet, you still have to aggressively and intensely pursue your plans.

You can be only 80% sure you're correct, and still intensely pursue a course of action.

Most people make a mistake: they only go intensely after things they have a very high certainty will work.

But this is backwards. It's absolutely right to say "I'm only 80% sure that going and making a great talk to this group will help develop my business," and to still aggressively pursue giving a great talk.

The same is true with having ridiculously exceptionally good service. You can say, "I'm only 60% sure that doing this is going to lead to more customer loyalty... this might just be a time sink and cost more than it returns. But let's kill it on it, and find it."

You don't need to be highly confident to intensely pursue something.

In fact, intensely pursuing not-certain things seems to be how the world develops.

Daily Schedules in Combating Akrasia

7 sentientplatypus 22 July 2013 07:41PM

For the last several months I've had increasing troubles with motivation to work. Reading dense technical papers, writing, and exercise were all much more difficult to prompt myself into starting and completing. I decided to try making a plan for my day the night before about two weeks back to see if it would help me get the things I wanted to do done. So every night before I go to bed I've been writing up a schedule for the next day, detailing what exactly I want to accomplish for the day and when I intend to go do it. 

This has actually worked incredibly well for me in helping with my motivation problems, in fact in a couple days I felt more motivated to work than I can ever remember being before. I'm trying to change up my schedule and leave time for spontaneity to avoid having the plan become monotonous and it doesn't feel that way so far. And the results I'm getting are great: I find I get about 95% of what I plan done when I have a specific time written down for when I'm supposed to do it as opposed to what I'd roughly estimate at 60% completion when I just have some general idea in my head of what to work on over the course of the day. 

My theory for why this is working is that when I have a specific time to do something I feel as though I have to do it now or I've failed some test of willpower. If I just have general work to be done, it's far too easy for me to defer to later, so that a lot of what was planned for doesn't get done. I also feel like if I expect to brace my mind for dense technical learning I have a much easier time finishing the material instead of giving up and procrastinating on it halfway through. 

I feel like this solution will work mainly for people who have more flexible schedules (as I do at the moment) but could still serve a purpose for anyone with a more rigid schedule who wants to be more productive in their free time. 

Has anyone else has tried this type of thing and if so, how did it work out for you over a longer period of time? Also what are people's thoughts on the general idea?

[LINK] Accepting my Present Chocolate Addiction

-3 malcolmocean 14 July 2013 11:09AM

I wrote a blog post this week about another kind of akrasia: unhealthy addiction. Most uses of "akrasia" here use it as a synonym for (real) procrastination (as opposed to structured procrastination which is actually just an effective way to fight Parkinson's Law: "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion")... but the actual term refers more broadly to "acting against one's better judgement", a concept which obviously includes most addictions. When the addiction is time-consuming (e.g. internet addiction) then it can also be procrastination. Mine, on the other hand, is chocolate.

LINK: Accepting my Present Chocolate Addiction - MalcolmM.cC

The article integrates a wide range of topics, making it hard to find an obvious pull-quote, but I will offer that it links mindfulness to rationality by means of the Litany of Gendlin (which I've gained a lot of value from memorizing, as I find a chance to refer to it in thought or conversation about once/week):

Presence also implies a kind of acceptance: that reality is as it is, right now. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.

For anyone looking for a rationalist introduction to mindfulness, you might appreciate A Less Mysterious Mindfulness Exercise, in a comment of which I offer a longer exploration of the word "accepting":

I would like to offer a distinction between two different kinds of accepting. One is the opposite of denial (which is being called "fighting" in this case). The other is the opposite of changing. Obviously, as rationalists, we want to move to do as much of the first kind of accepting as possible: this is what the Litany of Gendlin is all about: "what is true is already so" so we might as well accept that it is presently true, regardless of whether or not we'd like to change it long-term. This is true of our thoughts as well. Am I thinking of a pink elephant? Very well, I'm thinking of a pink elephant. Fighting the thought doesn't work, so why do it?


"Accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, and have the wisdom to know the difference." A rather obvious axiom of mindfulness is that it's too late to change the present. So you might as well accept it.*

*unless you have a time-turner, in which case subtract six hours.

While there are a number of strategies for going from addiction to abstinence (aka "quitting") it appears to be much more complicated to go from addiction to periodic, non-compulsive use. This is of huge importance for addictions to things like food and internet, that one can't give up entirely. Or chocolate, where the first bite has a huge actual positive coefficient in my utility function, but the marginal benefit drops steeper than my present ability to stop eating it. So, my post is an attempt to find a way to transform the addiction so it's no longer harmful, without ceasing chocolate consumption altogether.

(While working on the post on the LW Study Hall, I had some people review drafts of the blog post, and one suggested posting it to LW. Initially we thought it would make sense to actually cross-post it, but I felt that didn't make sense for this post which is more personal and contains lots of references to earlier blog posts. I'm curious to know if anyone has an opinion on whether or not that makes sense. Also, I intend to do some full cross-posts in the future!)

Personal Library Management

3 Ritalin 05 July 2013 10:14PM

I've just finished my finals, and, after six years of college, I am faced with this fact: I have accumulated one heck of a lot of books, most of which I haven't read yet.

An app, or at the very least an algorythm, on how to manage them, make a reading list, and go about reading them, is something I really wish for, but I have no idea how to approach this problem in a time-efficient, productive way, and I wouldn't want to reinvent the wheel.

Do any of you have the same problem? What are your solutions?

The main post will be gradually updated and amended as the discussion progresses.

EDIT: For Mac Users, it appears that Delicious Library is a great solution. While looking for alternatives, I found this web app, libib, which seems very promising.

EDIT 2: I've spent most of the day cataloguing all of my stuff on libib, which is incredibly efficient... as long as the ISBN is readily-recognized. This doesn't work so well with rarer books and older books, but they're a small enough minority that I can delcare a smashing success.

  1. Step 1 was making a list of all available books.
  2. Step 2 is going to be applying the Universal Decimal System,
  3. Step 3 will be Establishing a
  • Reading List and a
  • List of What's Already Read and a
  • List of What Will Probably Never Be Read

Beeminding Sin

13 [deleted] 05 July 2013 04:32PM

(This is something that I originally posted to the CFAR Alumni list, and then fleshed out a bit and posted to the Beeminder blog. It has been well received and there have been suggestions that I post it here, so here it is.)

For a long time I found that I was spending too much time on certain unproductive things and struggled with getting myself to do what I actually wanted to do with my time. The big break came one morning when I noticed that there was a very tight correlation between the things I wanted to stop doing and the traditional Christian concept of Sin.

Once I noticed this, I went straight to the Wikipedia page for the Seven Deadly Sins, and mapped them onto my own vices:

Lust: Porn, flirting, etc.

Gluttony: Junk food like cookies and chocolate. I might add "more than two bowls of spaghetti" here; the stuff is just too easy to eat.

Sloth: Wasting time on stuff that isn't goal directed or self-improving. Being non-industrious. Failing to strive. Useless news/discussion websites, etc.

Wrath: Acting irrationally out of anger, pain, or frustration. Chewing someone out, violence, slamming doors, etc.

Envy: Not reading, using, or appreciating someone else's work because solving a problem is caught up in my identity.

I'm too much of a cheapskate to have trouble with material excess (Greed), and haven't been burned by Pride yet, so I wouldn't know what to avoid. Maybe I'll figure these out soon.

The nice thing about traditional concepts like Sin is that they come bundled with some guarantees of relative completeness for very little cognitive investment on my part. Someone has tested and developed this thing very extensively; even if it's not perfect, all I have to do is use it. Further, concepts like Sin come with a rich aesthetic heritage that lends them some emotional weight and solidness that fresh concepts just don't have. A culture that's been going for >1500 years will leave behind some impressive artifacts. We would be fools not to take advantage of them.

While I figured all of this out, I had also been looking for a way to beemind my way out of these harmful behaviors. I'd considered a number of schemes, but none were satisfactory. Armed with the concept of Sin, I had a comprehensive and reasonably clear-cut list of things to avoid. When I read how Bethany beeminds sugar-free days, I knew exactly what I had to do.

How it works is this: if I do something that I judge to be sinful, I don't get to report a Sin-Free Day to Beeminder, otherwise, I do. I need 5 Sin-Free Days per week. Simple as that, and Sin is gone. It's glorious.

At work, we joke that the accountants are trying to kill us. They leave donuts and chocolate and cookies out for everyone, and we eat them, whether we like it or not. Well not anymore; it's just not worth it to eat that cookie when it means that I immediately fail the whole day, so I don't. The only reason I didn't eat like 20 tasty cookies today is because I beemind Sin.

The traditional solution to akrasia and especially Sin is Willpower and self-loathing. As an akratic, I don't have Magical Free Will, but I don't have to hate myself either, because I have the next best thing: Beeminder!

Unlimited Pomodoro Works: My Scheduling System

11 Intrism 13 May 2013 12:36AM

Related: The Power of PomodorosWorking Hurts Less Than Procrastinating, Cached Procrastination

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.

Three more ways identity can be a curse

40 gothgirl420666 28 April 2013 02:53AM

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.

5. The exception is that "be good" goals can lead to a very high level of performance when the task is easy. 


Reinforcement and Short-Term Rewards as Anti-Akratic

24 Intrism 13 April 2013 08:47PM

Related: Time and Effort Discounting, Akrasia, Hyperbolic Discounting, and PicoeconomicsThe Power of Reinforcement, Basics of Animal Reinforcement, Basics of Human Reinforcement

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.

Idea: Self-Improving Task Management Software

15 rlp10 27 February 2013 01:04PM

So what the world needs is yet another task management program, right?

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?

A cure for akrasia

-2 [deleted] 28 December 2012 07:11PM

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


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)

Two Anki plugins to reinforce reviewing (updated)

11 D_Malik 03 December 2012 10:04PM

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.


1. Music-Fiddler

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.

- Download the plugin.

- 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.


2. Picture-Flasher

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.

- Download the plugin.

- 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

Update 16 June 2015: The plugins were deleted from the official list where they previously were, apparently because my AnkiWeb account was deleted due to disuse. So I've uploaded the two plugins on GitHub here: https://github.com/StephenBarnes/AnkiPlugins. I also re-uploaded the plugins to the official list. Links on this post have been updated.

A hypothesis concerning discounting.

2 abramdemski 12 November 2012 09:51PM

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.

What have you recently tried, and failed at?

20 Emile 05 July 2012 09:52AM

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?

[video] Kelly McGonigal on willpower

6 Bobertron 17 June 2012 10:39AM

the video

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.

Book Summary: Willpower by Baumeister, Tierney

22 Dorikka 24 May 2012 11:34PM

I recently read this book. I've tried to summarize the main points below -- you can read my notes here (MSWord doc). You might also find Derek Sivers' notes useful, which can be found here.

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.

General Claims

  • 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)

Willpower Depletion

  • 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)

Restoring Willpower

  • 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.


A thought about Internet procrastination

21 RolfAndreassen 15 May 2012 09:46PM

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

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

Meta Addiction

17 Voltairina 15 March 2012 04:58AM

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.

How do you notice when you're procrastinating?

4 Alex_Altair 02 March 2012 09:25AM

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.

[LINK] The NYT on Everyday Habits

6 Alex_Altair 18 February 2012 08:23AM

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.

Tel Aviv Self-Improvement Meetup Group

3 Meni_Rosenfeld 16 February 2012 03:37PM

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.

Breaking the chain of akrasia

25 lukeprog 20 January 2012 04:12AM

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

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

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

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

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

Building case-studies of akrasia

14 Mercurial 14 December 2011 06:42PM

The idea for this came to me when reading nyan_sandwich's "An akrasia case study." I outlined the idea itself in my comment in that thread.

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!

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