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Related to: The Good News of Situationist Psychology
Perhaps the most significant teaching social psychology has to offer is that most of our behaviors are determined by situational factors inherent to our settings, not by our personal qualities.
Some consider this depressing-- for instance, the Milgram experiments in obedience to authority and Stanford prison experiment are often cited as examples of how settings can cause otherwise-good people to participate in and even support unethical and dangerous behavior. However, as lukeprog points out in The Good News of Situationist Psychology, this principle can also be considered uplifting. After all, if our settings have such an effect on our behavior, they are thus a powerful tool that we can employ to make ourselves more effective.
Changing Your Physical Settings
One relatively easy place to start making such changes is in your personal life. I have found that great productivity increases can be gained through relatively minor changes in lifestyle-- or even seemingly-trivial matters such as the position of physical (or sometimes digital) objects in your environment!
For instance, I recently noticed a tendency in myself to "wake up" and then waste the next twenty or thirty minutes aimlessly browsing the Internet on my laptop in bed before actually getting up and eating breakfast, showering, going to work, etc. Since I value time, especially morning time, substantially, I decided that action should be taken to avoid this.
At first, I figured that once I had noticed the problem I could simply apply willpower and avoid it, but this proved less than effective-- it turns out that my willpower is not at its strongest when I first wake up and am still a little groggy! I then decided to apply the principles of situational psychology to the situation. The most obvious setting contributing to the problem was that I was using an alarm app on my computer to wake up in the morning, and turning off this alarm caused me to interact with the computer.
So I picked up an IKEA alarm clock, turned off my alarm app, and moved my computer to the kitchen instead of my room-- problem solved. In my new settings, browsing in bed was outright ridiculous-- I'd have to wake up, go downstairs to the kitchen, pick up my computer, and bring it back up to my room with me. Not a likely course of events!
Changing Your Mental Settings
While physical environments can certainly produce changes in behavior, social and intellectual environments can too.
For instance, one of my friends from undergrad took an interesting approach when choosing what major to take. He knew that he wanted a solid private-sector income that would allow him to support a family, but didn't particularly care what field it was in. Overall, he wanted to ensure that whatever major he chose would have the highest possible chance of getting him a good job without unusual effort or circumstances.
Therefore, during winter term of his sophomore year, prior to declaring, he went around to all the seniors he could get to talk to him and asked them what their major was, what they were doing post-graduation, and how much money they anticipated making. He found that the CS majors tended to have more private-sector job prospects and higher average starting salaries than students in other fields, so he decided to declare a CS major.
While I don't think my friend's approach is necessarily the best possible option for determining what to do with your life, it certainly beats the sort of unstructured guessing that I've seen many others do. By considering academic majors as settings and examining what setting produced the best result on average, my friend managed to find a field and career that he's by all indications quite happy in-- and with a minimal amount of risk and stress involved.
Human psychology is greatly influenced by situational factors, and in more ways than a naive reasoner might expect. If you're looking to improve your life across any particular axis, one good way to start is by examining your current physical, social, and intellectual settings and paying close attention to how changes in those settings might help accomplish your goals.
 If you don't believe that this is true, I advise simulating that you do and going on anyway. I find this method effective enough for me and others and easy enough to implement that it seems well worth testing, even if you don't fully believe in the claims behind it. At worst, it might become a potential epistemic/instrumental tradeoff.
 See for instance Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson, Procrastination and the Extended Will (2009).
 In the course of researching and writing this post, I encountered some objections to the resource expenditure theory of willpower (many of which have already been summarized here by Jess_Riedel). I believe my beliefs regarding willpower loss while tired/just awakening may be limiting in the same sense that believing willpower is a limited resource appears limiting, but have yet to test at the time of this writing.
 If you're interested in seeing other examples of ways in which we can structure the physical objects around us in order to become more productive, you may wish to check out Alicorn's How to Have Things Correctly and fowlertm's related How to Have Space Correctly. Several of Alyssa Vance's Random Life Tips also relate to this matter.
 The friend in question is now employed as a software engineer at a tech company and by all indications loves his job. Note though that this post isn't saying "you should be a CS major." Things change over time, and what was a good choice for one person and one time may not be a good choice for another person or another time.
About three and a half years ago, orthonormal ran an akrasia tactics review: 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 original and Less Wrong has grown significantly while retaining akrasia as a major topic, I thought it'd be useful to have a new one!
A modified version of the instructions from the previous post:
- Note what technique you've tried. Techniques can be anything from productivity systems (Getting Things Done) to social incentives (precommitting in front of friends) to websites or computer programs (Beeminder, Leechblock) to chemical aids (Modafinil). 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.
- 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 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.
- 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, as well as links to the relevant reviews <edit: mostly canceling the last two parts part because I think it'd be too much work for me for too little benefit for the reader>. 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 fear of prejudicing answers, but you can look back on the list in the last post 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!
Updated through 7/23/13. Organizing these turned out to be a lot harder than I expected and involved a lot of subjective categorization, so consult the primary sources.
Beeminder: +5.3 (SD 1.8). Details of how it's used vary a lot.
Getting Things Done (GTD): +2.8 (SD 4.0). A very broad and modular system, with opinions differing on different parts.
Remember The Milk:+5.5 (SD 3.0). Frequently mentioned in conjunction with GTD.
Pomodoros: +4.5 (SD 2.5).
Scheduling: +4.7 (SD 3.7)
Leechblock: +3.0 (SD 0.8)
Social precommitment: +0.7 (SD 2.6)
Unaided self-reinforcement: +0.7 (SD 0.9)
Trello: +5.0 (SD 3.0)
HabitRPG: +4.5 (SD 0.5)
LW Study Hall: +4 (SD 3.0)
Before I was very involved in the Less Wrong community, I heard that Eliezer was looking for people to sit with him while he worked, to increase writing productivity. I knew that he was doing important work in the world, and figured that this was the sort of contribution to improving humanity that I would like to make, which was within the set of things that would be easy and enjoyable for me.
So I got a hold of him and offered to come and sit with him, and did that once/week for about a year. As anticipated, it worked marvelously. I found it easy to sit and not talk, just getting my own work done. Eventually I became a beta reader for his "Bayes for Everyone Else" which is really great and helped me in my ability to estimate probabilities a ton. (Eliezer is still perfecting this work and has not yet released it, but you can find the older version here.)
In addition to learning the basics of Bayes from doing this, I also learned how powerful it is to have someone just to sit quietly with you to co-work on a regular schedule.
I’ve experimented with similar things since then, such as making skype dates with a friend to watch informational videos together. This worked for awhile until my friend got busy. I have two other recurring chat dates with friends to do dual n-back together, and those have worked quite well and are still going.
A client of mine, Mqrius, is working on his Master’s thesis and has found that the only way he has been able to overcome his akrasia so far is by co-working with a friend. Unfortunately, his friend does not have as much time to co-work as he’d like, so we decided to spend Mqrius’s counseling session today writing this Less Wrong post to see if we can help him and other people in the community who want to co-work over skype connect, since this will probably be much higher value to him as well as others with similar difficulties than the next best thing we could do with the time.
I encourage anyone who is interested in co-working, watching informational videos together, or any other social productivity experiments that can be done over skype or chat, to coordinate in the comments. For this to work best, I recommend being as specific as possible about the ideal co-working partner for you, in addition to noting if you are open to general co-working.
If you are specific, you are much more likely to succeed in finding a good co-working partner for you. While its possible you might screen someone out, its more likely that you will get the attention of your ideal co-working partner who otherwise would have glossed over your comment.
Here is my specific pitch for Mqrius:
If you are working on a thesis, especially if it’s related to nanotechnology like his thesis, and think that you are likely to be similarly motivated by co-working, please comment or contact him about setting up an initial skype trial run. His ideal scenario is to find 2-3 people to co-work with him for about 20 hours co-working/week time for him in total. He would like to find people who are dependable about showing up for appointments they have made and will create a recurring schedule with him at least until he gets his thesis done. He’d like to try an initial 4 hour co-working block as an experiment with interested parties. Please comment below if you are interested.
[Mqrius and I have predictions going about whether or not he will actually get a co-working partner who is working on a nanotech paper out of this, if others want to post predictions in the comments, this is encouraged. Its a good practice for reducing hindsight bias.]
An virtual co-working space has been created and is currently live, discussion and link to the room here.
Note: This was originally written in relation to this rather scary comment of lukeprog's on value drift. I'm now less certain that operant conditioning is a significant cause of value drift (leaning towards near/far type explanations), but I decided to share my thoughts on the topic of policy design anyway.
Several years ago, I had a reddit problem. I'd check reddit instead of working on important stuff. The more I browsed the site, the shorter my attention span got. The shorter my attention span got, the harder it was for me to find things that were enjoyable to read. Instead of being rejuvenating, I found reddit to be addictive, unsatisfying, and frustrating. Every time I thought to myself that I really should stop, there was always just one more thing to click on.
So I installed LeechBlock and blocked reddit at all hours. That worked really well... for a while.
Occasionally I wanted to dig up something I remembered seeing on reddit. (This wasn't always bad--in some cases I was looking up something related to stuff I was working on.) I tried a few different policies for dealing with this. All of them basically amounted to inconveniencing myself in some way or another whenever I wanted to dig something up.
After a few weeks, I no longer felt the urge to check reddit compulsively. And after a few months, I hardly even remembered what it was like to be an addict.
However, my inconvenience barriers were still present, and they were, well, inconvenient. It really was pretty annoying to make an entry in my notebook describing what I was visiting for and start up a different browser just to check something. I figured I could always turn LeechBlock on again if necessary, so I removed my self-imposed barriers. And slid back in to addiction.
After a while, I got sick of being addicted again and decided to do something about it (again). Interestingly, I forgot my earlier thought that I could just turn LeechBlock on again easily. Instead, thinking about LeechBlock made me feel hopeless because it seemed like it ultimately hadn't worked. But I did try it again, and the entire cycle then finished repeating itself: I got un-addicted, I removed LeechBlock, I got re-addicted.
This may seem like a surprising lack of self-awareness. All I can say is: Every second my brain gathers tons of sensory data and discards the vast majority of it. Narratives like the one you're reading right now don't get constructed on the fly automatically. Maybe if I had been following orthonormal's advice of keeping and monitoring a record of life changes attempted, I would've thought to try something different.
Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life
After three months of practice, I now use a single algorithm to beat procrastination most of the times I face it.1 It probably won't work for you quite like it did for me, but it's the best advice on motivation I've got, and it's a major reason I'm known for having the "gets shit done" property. There are reasons to hope that we can eventually break the chain of akrasia; maybe this post is one baby step in the right direction.
How to Beat Procrastination explained our best current general theory of procrastination, called "temporal motivation theory" (TMT). As an exercise in practical advice backed by deep theories, this post explains the process I use to beat procrastination — a process implied by TMT.
As a reminder, here's a rough sketch of how motivation works according to TMT:
Or, as Piers Steel summarizes:
Decrease the certainty or the size of a task's reward — its expectancy or its value — and you are unlikely to pursue its completion with any vigor. Increase the delay for the task's reward and our susceptibility to delay — impulsiveness — and motivation also dips.
Of course, my motivation system is more complex than that. P.J. Eby likens TMT (as a guide for beating procrastination) to the "fuel, air, ignition, and compression" plan for starting your car: it might be true, but a more useful theory would include details and mechanism.
That's a fair criticism. Just as an fMRI captures the "big picture" of brain function at low resolution, TMT captures the big picture of motivation. This big picture helps us see where we need to work at the gears-and-circuits level, so we can become the goal-directed consequentialists we'd like to be.
So, I'll share my four-step algorithm below, and tackle the gears-and-circuits level in later posts.
So what you probably mean is, "I intend to do school to improve my chances on the market". But this statement is still false, unless it is also true that "I intend to improve my chances on the market". Do you, in actual fact, intend to improve your chances on the market?
I expect not. Rather, I expect that your motivation is to appear to be the sort of person who you think you would be if you were ambitiously attempting to improve your chances on the market... which is not really motivating enough to actually DO the work. However, by persistently trying to do so, and presenting yourself with enough suffering at your failure to do it, you get to feel as if you are that sort of person without having to actually do the work. This is actually a pretty optimal solution to the problem, if you think about it. (Or rather, if you DON'T think about it!) -- PJ Eby
I have become convinced that problems of this kind are the number one problem humanity has. I'm also pretty sure that most people here, no matter how much they've been reading about signaling, still fail to appreciate the magnitude of the problem.
Here are two major screw-ups and one narrowly averted screw-up that I've been guilty of. See if you can find the pattern.
- When I began my university studies back in 2006, I felt strongly motivated to do something about Singularity matters. I genuinely believed that this was the most important thing facing humanity, and that it needed to be urgently taken care of. So in order to become able to contribute, I tried to study as much as possible. I had had troubles with procrastination, and so, in what has to be one of the most idiotic and ill-thought-out acts of self-sabotage possible, I taught myself to feel guilty whenever I was relaxing and not working. Combine an inability to properly relax with an attempted course load that was twice the university's recommended pace, and you can guess the results: after a year or two, I had an extended burnout that I still haven't fully recovered from. I ended up completing my Bachelor's degree in five years, which is the official target time for doing both your Bachelor's and your Master's.
- A few years later, I became one of the founding members of the Finnish Pirate Party, and on the basis of some writings the others thought were pretty good, got myself elected as the spokesman. Unfortunately – and as I should have known before taking up the post – I was a pretty bad choice for this job. I'm good at expressing myself in writing, and when I have the time to think. I hate talking with strangers on the phone, find it distracting to look people in the eyes when I'm talking with them, and have a tendency to start a sentence over two or three times before hitting on a formulation I like. I'm also bad at thinking quickly on my feet and coming up with snappy answers in live conversation. The spokesman task involved things like giving quick statements to reporters ten seconds after I'd been woken up by their phone call, and live interviews where I had to reply to criticisms so foreign to my thinking that they would never have occurred to me naturally. I was pretty terrible at the job, and finally delegated most of it to other people until my term ran out – though not before I'd already done noticeable damage to our cause.
- Last year, I was a Visiting Fellow at the Singularity Institute. At one point, I ended up helping Eliezer in writing his book. Mostly this involved me just sitting next to him and making sure he did get writing done while I surfed the Internet or played a computer game. Occasionally I would offer some suggestion if asked. Although I did not actually do much, the multitasking required still made me unable to spend this time productively myself, and for some reason it always left me tired the next day. I felt somewhat unhappy with this, in that I felt I was doing something that anyone could do. Eventually Anna Salamon pointed out to me that maybe this was something that I was more capable of doing than others, exactly because so many people would feel that ”anyone” could do this and thus would prefer to do something else.
It may not be immediately obvious, but all three examples have something in common. In each case, I thought I was working for a particular goal (become capable of doing useful Singularity work, advance the cause of a political party, do useful Singularity work). But as soon as I set that goal, my brain automatically and invisibly re-interpreted it as the goal of doing something that gave the impression of doing prestigious work for a cause (spending all my waking time working, being the spokesman of a political party, writing papers or doing something else few others could do). "Prestigious work" could also be translated as "work that really convinces others that you are doing something valuable for a cause".
Shortly before the Summit, Alexandros posted a short discussion post wondering whether rationality training might cause akrasia by prompting folks to make more decisions using deliberate, conscious, "system II" reasoning (instead of rapid, automatic, "system I" heuristics) and, thereby, causing decision fatigue.
This conjecture sounded interesting to me, and I'd wondered similar things myself, so I put up a poll to gather data.
In 2009 I first described here on LessWrong a tool that Bethany Soule and I made to force ourselves to do things that otherwise fell victim to akrasia ("How a pathological procrastinator can lose weight"). We got an outpouring of encouragement and enthusiasm from the LessWrong community, which helped inspire us to quit our day jobs and turn this into a real startup: Beeminder (the me-binder!).
We've added everyone who got on the waitlist with invite code LESSWRONG and we're getting close to public launch so I wanted to invite any other LessWrong folks to get a beta account first: http://beeminder.com/secretsignup (no wait this time!)
(UPDATE: Beeminder is open to the public.)
It's definitely not for everyone since a big part of it is commitment contracts. But if you like the concept of stickK.com (forcing yourself to reach a goal via a monetary commitment contract) then we think you'll adore Beeminder.
StickK is just about the contracts -- Beeminder links it to your data. That has some big advantages:
1. You don't have to know what you're committing to when you commit, which sounds completely (oxy)moronic but what we mean is that you're committing to keeping your datapoints on a "yellow brick road" which you have control over as you go. You commit to something general like "work out more" or "lose weight" and then decide as you go what that means based on your data.
Frequently, we decide on a goal, and then we are ineffective in working towards this goal, due to factors wholly within our control. Failure modes include giving up, losing interest, procrastination, akrasia, and failure to evaluate return on time. In all these cases it seems that if our motivation were higher, the problem would not exist. Call the problem of finding the motivation to effectively pursue one's goals, the problem of motivation. This is a common failure of instrumental rationality which has been discussed from numerous different angles on LessWrong.
I wish to introduce another approach to the problem of motivation, which to my knowledge has not yet been discussed on LessWrong. This approach is summarized in the following paragraph:
We do not know what we value. Therefore, we choose goals that are not in harmony with our values. The problem of motivation is often caused by our goals not being in harmony with our values. Therefore, many cases of the problem of motivation can be solved by discovering what you value, and carrying out goals that conform to your values.
B.F. Skinner called thoughts "mental behavior". He believed they could be rewarded and punished just like physical behavior, and that they increased or declined in frequency accordingly.
Sadly, psychology has not yet advanced to the point where we can give people electric shocks for thinking things, so the sort of rewards and punishments that reinforce thoughts must be purely internal reinforcement. A thought or intention that causes good feelings gets reinforced and prospers; one that causes bad feelings gets punished and dies out.
(Roko has already discussed this in Ugh Fields; so much as thinking about an unpleasant task is unpleasant; therefore most people do not think about unpleasant tasks and end up delaying them or avoiding them completely. If you haven't already read that post, it does a very good job of making reinforcement of thoughts make sense.)
A while back, D_Malik published a great big List Of Things One Could Do To Become Awesome. As David_Gerard replied, the list was itself a small feat of awesome. I expect a couple of people started on some of the more awesome-sounding entries, then gave up after a few minutes and never thought about it again. Why?
When I was younger, I used to come up with plans to become awesome in some unlikely way. Maybe I'd hear someone speaking Swahili, and I would think "I should learn Swahili," and then I would segue into daydreams of being with a group of friends, and someone would ask if any of us spoke any foreign languages, and I would say I was fluent in Swahili, and they would all react with shock and tell me I must be lying, and then a Kenyan person would wander by, and I'd have a conversation with them in Swahili, and they'd say that I was the first American they'd ever met who was really fluent in Swahili, and then all my friends would be awed and decide I was the best person ever, and...
...and the point is that the thought of learning Swahili is pleasant, in the same easy-to-visualize but useless way that an extra bedroom for Grandma is pleasant. And the intention to learn Swahili is also pleasant, because it will lead to all those pleasant things. And so, by reinforcement of mental behavior, I continue thinking about and intending to learn Swahili.
Now consider the behavior of studying Swahili. I've never done so, but I imagine it involves a lot of long nights hunched over books of Swahili grammar. Since I am not one of the lucky people who enjoys learning languages for their own sake, this will be an unpleasant task. And rewards will be few and far between: outside my fantasies, my friends don't just get together and ask what languages we know while random Kenyans are walking by.
In fact, it's even worse than this, because I don't exactly make the decision to study Swahili in aggregate, but only in the form of whether to study Swahili each time I get the chance. If I have the opportunity to study Swahili for an hour, this provides no clear reward - an hour's studying or not isn't going to make much difference to whether I can impress my friends by chatting with a Kenyan - but it will still be unpleasant to spend an hour of going over boring Swahili grammar. And time discounting makes me value my hour today much more than I value some hypothetical opportunity to impress people months down the line; Ainslie shows quite clearly I will always be better off postponing my study until later.
So the behavior of actually learning Swahili is thankless and unpleasant and very likely doesn't happen at all.
Thinking about studying Swahili is positively reinforced, actually studying Swahili is negatively reinforced. The natural and obvious result is that I intend to study Swahili, but don't.
The problem is that for some reason, some crazy people expect for the reinforcement of thoughts to correspond to the reinforcement of the object of those thoughts. Maybe it's that old idea of "preference": I have a preference for studying Swahili, so I should satisfy that preference, right? But there's nothing in my brain automatically connecting this node over here called "intend to study Swahili" to this node over here called "study Swahili"; any association between them has to be learned the hard way.
We can describe this hard way in terms of reinforcement learning: after intending to learn Swahili but not doing so, I feel stupid. This unpleasant feeling propagates back to its cause, the behavior of intending to learn Swahili, and negatively reinforces it. Later, when I start thinking it might be neat to learn Mongolian on a whim, this generalizes to behavior that has previously been negatively reinforced, so I avoid it (in anthropomorphic terms, I "expect" to fail at learning Mongolian and to feel stupid later, so I avoid doing so).
I didn't learn this the first time, and I doubt most other people do either. And it's a tough problem to call, because if you overdo the negative reinforcement, then you never try to do anything difficult ever again.
In any case, the lesson is that thoughts and intentions get reinforced separately from actions, and although you can eventually learn to connect intentions to actions, you should never take the connection for granted.
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