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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.
Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life
My own behavior baffles me. I find myself doing what I hate, and not doing what I really want to do!
- Saint Paul (Romans 7:15)
Once you're trained in BayesCraft, it may be tempting to tackle classic problems "from scratch" with your new Rationality Powers. But often, it's more effective to do a bit of scholarship first and at least start from the state of our scientific knowledge on the subject.
Today, I want to tackle procrastination by summarizing what we know about it, and how to overcome it.
Let me begin with three character vignettes...
Eddie attended the sales seminar, read all the books, and repeated the self-affirmations in the mirror this morning. But he has yet to make his first sale. Rejection after rejection has demoralized him. He organizes his desk, surfs the internet, and puts off his cold calls until potential clients are leaving for the day.
Three blocks away, Valerie stares at a blank document in Microsoft Word. Her essay assignment on municipal politics, due tomorrow, is mind-numbingly dull. She decides she needs a break, texts some friends, watches a show, and finds herself even less motivated to write the paper than before. At 10pm she dives in, but the result reflects the time she put into it: it's terrible.
In the next apartment down, Tom is ahead of the game. He got his visa, bought his plane tickets, and booked time off for his vacation to the Dominican Republic. He still needs to reserve a hotel room, but that can be done anytime. Tom keeps pushing the task forward a week as he has more urgent things to do, and then forgets about it altogether. As he's packing, he remembers to book the room, but by now there are none left by the beach. When he arrives, he finds his room is 10 blocks from the beach and decorated with dead mosquitos.
Eddie, Valerie, and Tom are all procrastinators, but in different ways.1
I just spent some time reading Thomas Schelling's "Choice and Consequences" and I heartily recommend it. Here's a Google books link to the chapter I was reading, "The Intimate Contest for Self Command."
It's fascinating, and if you like LessWrong, rationality, understanding things, decision theories, figuring people and the world out - well, then I think you'd like Schelling. Actually, you'll probably be amazed with how much of his stuff you're already familiar with - he really established a heck of a lot modern thinking on game theory.
Allow me to depart from Schelling a moment, and talk of Sam Snyder. He's a very intelligent guy who has lots of intelligent thoughts. Here's a link to his website - there's massive amounts of data and references there, so I'd recommend you just skim his site if you go visit until you find something interesting. You'll probably find something interesting pretty quickly.
I got a chance to have a conversation with him a while back, and we covered immense amounts of ground. He introduced me to a concept I've been thinking about nonstop since learning it from him - reference points.
Now, he explained it very eloquently, and I'm afraid I'm going to mangle and not do justice to his explanation. But to make a long story really short, your reference points affect your motivation a lot.
An example would help.
What does the average person think about he thinks of running? He thinks of huffing, puffing, being tired and sore, having a hard time getting going, looking fat in workout clothes and being embarrassed at being out of shape. A lot of people try running at some point in their life, and most people don't keep doing it.
On the other hand, what does a regular runner think of? He thinks of the "runner's high" and gliding across the pavement, enjoying a great run, and feeling like a million bucks afterwards.
Since that conversation, I've been trying to change my reference points. For instance, if I feel like I'd like some fried food, I try not to imagine/reference eating the salty greased food. Yes, eating french fries and a grilled chicken sandwich will be salty and fatty and delicious. It's a superstimulus, we're not really evolved to handle that stuff appropriately.
So when most people think of the McChicken Sandwich, large fry, large drink, they think about the grease and salt and sugar and how good it'll taste.
I still like that stuff. In fact, since I quit a lot of vices, sometimes I crave even harder for the few I have left. But I was able to cut my junk food consumption way down by changing my reference point. When I start to have a desire for that sort of food, I think about how my stomach and energy levels are going to feel 90 minutes after eating it. That answer is - not too good. So I go out to a local restaurant and order plain chicken, rice, and vegetables, and I feel good later.
In chemistry, activation energy is a term introduced in 1889 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, that is defined as the energy that must be overcome in order for a chemical reaction to occur.
In this article, I propose that:
- Every action you take has an activation cost (perhaps zero)
- These costs vary from person to person
- These costs can change over time
- Activation costs explain a lot of akrasia
After proposing that, I'd like to explore:
- Factors that increase activation costs
- Factors that decrease activation costs
Every action a person takes has an activation cost. The activation cost of a consistent, deeply embedded habit is zero. It happens almost automatically. The activation cost for most people in the United States to exercising is fairly high, and most people are inconsistent about exercising. However, there are people who - every single day - begin by putting their running shoes on and running. Their activation cost to running is effectively zero.
These costs vary from person to person. In the daily running example above, the activation cost to the runner is low. The runner simply starts running in the morning. For most people, it's higher for a variety of reasons we'll get to in a moment. The running example is fairly obvious, but you'll also see phenomenon like a neat person saying to a sloppy one, "Why don't you clean your desk? ... just f'ing do it, man." Assuming the messy person indeed wants to have a clean desk, then it's likely the messy person has a higher activation cost to cleaning his desk. (He could also have less energy/willpower)
Abstract: This article proposes a hypothesis that effective anti-akrasia methods operate by reducing or eliminating the activation of conflicting voluntary motor programs at the time the user's desired action is to be carried out, or by reducing or eliminating the negative effects of managing the conflict. This hypothesis is consistent with the notion of "ego depletion" (willpower burnout) being driven by the need to consciously manage conflicting motor programs. It also supports a straightforward explanation of why different individuals will fare better with some anti-akrasia methods than others, and provides a framework for both classifying existing methods, and generating new ones. Finally, it demonstrates why no single technique can be a panacea, and shows how the common problems of certain methods shape the form of both the self-help industry, and most people's experiences with it.
Recently, orthonormal posted an Akrasia Tactics Review, collecting data from LessWrong members on their results using different anti-akrasia techniques. And although I couldn't quite put my finger on it at first, something about the review (and the discussion around it) was bothering me.
See, I've never been fond of the idea that "different things work for different people". As a predictive hypothesis, after all, this is only slightly more useful than saying "a wizard did it". It says nothing about how (or why) different things work, and therefore gives you no basis to select which different things might work for which different people.
For that reason, it kind of bugs me whenever I see discussion and advocacy of "different things", independent of any framework for classifying those things in a way that would help "different people" select or design the "different things" that would "work for" them. (In fact, this is a pretty big factor in why I'm a self-help writer/speaker in the first place!)
So in this post, I want to share two slightly better working hypotheses for akrasia technique classification than "different things work for different people":
This idea has been mentioned in several comments, but it deserves a top-level post. From an ancient, ancient web article (1995!), Stanford philosophy professor John Perry writes:
I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time. All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.
The insightful observation that procrastinators fill their time with effort, not staring at the walls, gives rise to this form of akrasia aikido, where the urge to not do something is cleverly redirected into productivity. If you can "waste time" by doing useful things, while feeling like you are avoiding doing the "real work", then you avoid depleting your limited supply of willpower (which happens when you force yourself to do something).
In other words, structured procrastination (SP) is an efficient use of this limited resource, because doing A in order to avoid doing B is easier than making yourself do A. If A is something you want to get done, then the less willpower you can use to do it, the more you will be to accomplish. This only works if A is something that you do want to get done - that's how SP differs from normal procrastination, of course.
People have been encouraging me to share my anti-akrasia tricks, but it feels inappropriate to dedicate a top-level post solely to unproven techniques that work for some person and may not work for others, so:
Go ahead and share your anti-akrasia tricks!
Let's make it an open thread where we just share what works and what doesn't, without worrying (yet) about having to explain tricks with deep theories, or designing proper experiments to verify them. However, if you happen to have a theory or a proposed experiment in mind, please share.
Bragging is fine, but please share the failures of your techniques as well – they are just as valuable, if not more.
Note to readers – before you read the comments and try the tricks, keep in mind that the techniques below are not yet
proven supported or explained by proper experiments, and are not yet backed by theory. They may work for their authors, but are not guaranteed to work for you, so try them at your own risk. It would be even better to read the following posts before rushing to try the tricks:
I have a paper to write. Where do I start? The first time I asked this question, it was easy: just sit down and start typing. I wrote a few hundred words, then got stuck; I needed to think some more, so I took a break and did something else. Over the next few days, my thoughts on the subject settled, and I was ready to write again. So I sat down, and asked: What do I do next? Fortunately, my brain had a cached response ready to answer this question: Solitaire!
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