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Gamify your goals: How turning your life into a game can help help you make better decisions and be more productive

14 BayesianMind 03 February 2016 10:48PM

Self-motivated hard work is the primary source of the intense, optimistic engagement known as flow—one of the greatest forms of happiness that makes us come alive with purpose and potential (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Sadly, for most people work does not feel so rewarding most of the time. Instead we often have to persevere through long periods of hard, painful, and unrewarding work when we could be doing something much more enjoyable. When faced with this motivational challenge people often give up too easily, get sidetracked, or procrastinate (Steel, 2007). The problem is not that we are not willing or unable to work hard. To the contrary, we crave being productively engaged in challenging tasks. Thus, instead of blaming ourselves for our limited will-power, it may be more productive to take a critical look at the carrots and the sticks that are supposed to help us stay motivated. Who put them there and why? Are these incentives helpful, distracting, irrelevant, or out of sight? If you could place them differently and add new ones, where would they go? Often, the problem is that the rewards we experience in the short run are misaligned with what we want to accomplish. In the short run the extremely valuable work that brings us closer to our cherished goals can be aversive while activities that are irrelevant or even opposed to everything we want to accomplish can be pleasant and rewarding. Hence, when we struggle to be engaged with something that we care about, then perhaps we are not the problem but the incentives are, or as Jane McGonigal (2011) put it "Reality is broken".

So, if reality is broken, then what can we do to fix it?  One approach is to design better incentive structures that make the pursuit of our goals more engaging. If we want to go this way, then there is a lot to be learned from games, because their incentive structures are so well designed that they let people enjoy hard work for many hours on end (McGonigal, 2011). In the past five years, the success of video games has inspired the gamification of education, work, health, and business. Gamification is the use of game elements, like points, levels, badges, and quests to engage, motivate, and nudge people in non-game contexts. There are even tools like SuperBetter and Habitica that individuals like you and I can use to gamify our own lives. Previous studies have shown that gamification can have positive effects on motivation, engagement, behavior, learning outcomes, and health—but only when it is done right (Hamari, Koivisto, & Sarsa, 2014; Roepke, et al., 2015). But when gamification is done wrong it can have negative effects by incentivizing counter-productive behaviors. So far gamification has been an art, and there is very little science about how to do it right. This motivated my advisor and me to develop a practical theory of optimal gamification.

In this blog post I focus on how our theory could be applied in practice. If you would like to learn about the technical details or read more about our experiments, then please take look at our CogSci paper (Lieder & Griffiths, submitted). I will start with a very brief summary of our method, provide an intuitive explanation of what it does, and then dive into how you can implement it in your own life. I will close with an outlook on how our method could be applied to gamify our todo lists.

Level 1: Optimal Gamification

Our method for optimal gamification draws on the theory of Markov decision processes (MDPs; Sutton & Barto, 1998) and the shaping theorem (Ng, Harada, & Russell, 1999). The basic idea is to align each action's immediate reward with its value in the long run. Therefore the points should complement the immediate rewards of doing something (e.g., how painful it is) by the value that it generates in the long run. Concretely, the points awarded for an activity should be chosen such that the right thing to do looks best in the short run when you combine how many points it is worth with how it feels when you do it. Furthermore, the points have to be assigned in such a way that when you undo something you lose as many points as you earned when you did it. We evaluated the effectiveness of our method in two behavioral experiments. Our first experiment demonstrated that incentive structures designed by our method can indeed help people make better, less short-sighted decisions—especially when course of action that is best in the long run is unpleasant in the short run. We also found that less principled approaches to gamification can encourage ruthless rushing towards a goal that causes more harm than good, and we showed that our method is guaranteed to avoid these perils. In the second experiment we found that the optimal incentive structures designed with our method can be effectively implemented using game elements like points and badges. These results suggest that the proposed method provides a principled way to leverage gamification to help people make better decisions.

Our method proceeds in three steps:

1.    Model the situation and the decision-maker's goals and options as a MDP.

2.    Solve the MDP to obtain the optimal value function V* or approximate it.

3.    Set the number of points for progressing from stage s to stage s' to V*(s')-V*(s).  

Intuitively, this means that the number of points that is awarded for doing something should reflect how much better the resulting state (i.e., s') is than the previous one (i.e., s). For instance, achieving a goal is worth 1000 points then completing 10% of the work required to reach the goal should be rewarded with 100 points. So let's think about how you could apply this approach right now without having to solve MDPs.

Level 2: Practical Implications

In my day-to-day life I try to approximate optimal gamification as follows:

1.    Set a concrete goal that you would like to achieve and figure out how many points it is worth, e.g. writing this blog post was worth 1000 points to me.

2.    Set several milestones along the way to the goal to divide the path into small steps that feel very manageable.

3.    For each milestone, determine how far you will have come when you get there as a percentage of the total distance to the goal, e.g. 10%, 20%, 30%, ..., 100% for the first, second, third, ..., and the tenth milestone respectively.

4.    Assign each milestone the corresponding fraction of the total value of achieving the goal, e.g. 100 points, 200 points, 300 points, ..., and 1000 points for the first, second, third, ..., and tenth milestone respectively.

5.    Figure out what you have to do to get from one milestone to the next. If this is a simple activity, then its reward should be the difference between the value of next milestone and the value of the current milestone, e.g. 100 points. If it is a complex sequence of actions, then make it a subgoal and apply steps 1-3 figure out how to achieve it.

6.    Once you are done with step 5, you can add those points to your todo-list.

7.    Now it is time to get things done and reward yourself. You start at 0 points, but whenever you complete one of the steps, you earn as many points as you have assigned to it and can increment your (daily) score.

Earning these points can be very rewarding if you remind yourself what they stand for. If your goal was worth $1,000,000 to you and you assigned 1000 points to it, then 10 points should be worth $10,000 to you. But if this is not rewarding enough for you, you can think of ways that make the points more pleasurable. You could, for instance, make a high-score list that motivates you to beat your personal best day after day or start a high-score competition with your friends. You could also set yourself the goal to achieve a certain number of points by a certain time and promise yourself a treat if you achieve it.

There are many other ways that you could assign points to the items on you todo list. Feel free to do whatever works for you. But it may be useful to keep in mind that the way in which optimal gamification assigns points has several formal properties that are necessary to avoid negative side-effects:

a) Each item's score reflects how valuable is in the long run.

Optimal gamification works because it aligns each action's immediate reward with its long-term value. To help you make better decisions the points should be designed such that the course of action that is best in the long run looks best in the short run. This entails incentivizing unpleasant or unrewarding activities that will pay off later—especially when their less productive alternatives are very rewarding in the short run.

b) Beware of cycles!

The shaping theorem (Ng, et al., 1999) requires that going back and forth between two states receives a net pseudo-reward of zero. When your pseudo-rewards along a circle add up to a positive value, then you may be incentivizing yourself to create unnecessary problems for yourself. This can happen when the action for which you reward yourself can only be executed in an undesirable state, and you do not equally punish yourself for falling back into that state. For instance adding points for losing weight will inadvertently incentivize you to regain weight afterwards unless you subtract at least the same number of points for gaining weight. Similarly, if you reward yourself for solving interpersonal conflicts but don’t punish yourself for creating them, then you may be setting yourself up for trouble. To avoid such problems, creating a problem must be punished by at least as many points as you earn by solving it. 

c) Two ways to achieve the same goal should yield the same number of points.

The shaping theorem also requires that all paths that lead to the same final state (e.g., having submitted a paper by the deadline) should yield the same amount of reward. If this is not the case your pseudo-rewards may bias you towards a suboptimal path. For instance, if you reward your all-nighter on the last night before the deadline by the reward value of a month’s worth of work, you are incentivizing yourself to procrastinate. Similarly, if you reward one activity that leads towards your goal much more heavily than others, then you may be biasing yourself towards a reckless course of action that may achieve the goal at an unreasonably high cost. For instance, rewarding yourself 100 times as much for working 100% on a project than for working on it 50% might lead you to complete the project early at the expense of your health, your friendships, your education, and all your other projects. To avoid this problem, al paths that lead to the same state should yield the same amount of reward. 

d) Pseudo-rewards should be awarded for state-transitions instead of actions.

Many applications of gamification reward "good" actions with points regardless of when or how often these actions are taken. But according to the shaping theorem, the number of points must depend on the state in which the action is taken and the state that it leads to. If your pseudo-rewards were based only on what you do but not on when you do it, then you might keep rewarding yourself for something even when it is no longer valuable, because the underlying state has changed. For instance, at some point your reward for losing weight has to diminish or else you may be setting yourself up for anorexia.

Level 3: Todo-list gamification

Todo list gamification

My first practical application is to manually gamify my todo-list every morning. I find this very helpful and motivating: Assigning points to the items on my todo list makes me realize how much I value them. This is useful for prioritizing important task. Earning points allows me to perceive my progress more more accurately and more vividly. This helps me feel great about getting something important done even when it was only a single item on my todo list and took me a lot of time and effort to accomplish. Conversely, the point scheme also prevents me from feeling so good about checking off small things that I become tempted to neglect the big ones that are much more important. Gamification thereby remedies the todo list's shortcoming that it makes each item seem equally important. I highly recommend gamifying your todo lists. It can be highly motivating. Yet, adding the points manually takes some effort and my point scheme is often somewhat arbitrary and probably suboptimal.

To make todo list gamification easier and more effective, I am planning to develop an easy-to-use website or app that will do optimal gamification for you. Its graphical user interface would allow you to create hierarchical todo-lists, ask you 1 or 2 simple questions about each item on your list and then gamify your todo-list for you. To do this, it will translate your list and your answers into a MDP, compute its optimal value function, and use it to determine how valuable it is to complete each item. The tool could also help you set manageable subgoals and determine what is most important and should be done first. Last but not least, a website or app can also leverage additional game elements to make the points that you earn more rewarding: It can track your productivity and provide instant feedback that makes your progress more salient. It can send you on a quest that gives you a goals along with small actionable steps. The tool could allow you to realize that you are getting ever more productive by visualizing your progress over time. As you become more effective, you level up and your quests will become increasingly more challenging.  It might include a scoreboard that lets you compete with yourself and/or others and win prizes for your performance. Last but not least, if you need an extra push, you can tie your points to social rewards, your favorite treat, money, or access to your favorite music, apps, or websites. There are many more possibilities, and I invite you to think about it and share your ideas. In brief, there is wealth of opportunities to leverage game elements to make goal achievement fun and easy.

Join me on my quest! An adventure awaits. 

Gamification can be a useful tool to make achieving your goals easier and more engaging. However, gamification only works when it is done right. The theory of MDPs and pseudo-rewards provide the formal tools needed to do gamification right. With the help of these tools we can design incentive structures that help people overcome motivational obstacles, do the right thing and achieve their goals. But more research and development needs to be done to make optimal gamification practical.

If you have any thoughts or ideas for what to do next, noticed a problem with the approach, or would like to be part of our team and contribute to building a tool helps people achieve their goals, please send me an e-mail.

References and recommended readings

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety: the experience of play in work and games. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lieder, F., & Griffiths, T.L. (submitted). Helping people make better decisions using optimal gamification. CogSci 2016. [Manuscript]

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin.

McGonigal, J. (2015). SuperBetter: A revolutionary approach to getting stronger, happier, braver and more resilient–powered by the science of games. London, UK: Penguin Press.

Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014). Does gamification work?–A literature review of empirical studies on gamification. In 47th Hawaii international conference on system sciences (pp. 3025–3034).

Ng, A. Y., Harada, D., & Russell, S. (1999). Policy invariance under reward transformations: Theory and application to reward shaping. In I. Bratko & S. Dzeroski (Eds.), Proceedings of the 16th annual international conference on machine learning (Vol. 16, pp. 278–287). San Francisco, CA, USA: Morgan Kaufmann.

Roepke, A. M., Jaffee, S. R., Riffle, O. M., McGonigal, J., Broome, R., & Maxwell, B. (2015). Randomized controlled trial of SuperBetter, a smartphone-based/Internet-based self-help tool to reduce depressive symptoms. Games for health journal4(3), 235-246.

Sutton, R. S., & Barto, A. G. (1998). Reinforcement learning: An introduction. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT press.


Travel Through Time to Increase Your Effectiveness

38 tanagrabeast 23 August 2015 01:32AM

I am a time traveler.

I hold this belief not because it is true, but because it is useful. That it also happens to be true -- we are all time travelers, swept along by the looping chrono-currents of reality that only seem to flow in one direction -- is largely beside the point.

In the literature of instrumental rationality, I am struck by a pattern in which tips I find useful often involve reframing an issue from a different temporal perspective. For instance, when questioning whether it is worth continuing an ongoing commitment, we are advised to ask ourselves "Knowing what I know now, if I could go back in time, would I make the same choice?"Also, when embarking on a new venture, we are advised to perform a "pre-mortem", imagining ourselves in a future where it didn't pan out and identifying what went wrong.2 This type of thinking has a long tradition. Whenever we use visualization as a tool for achieving goals, or for steeling ourselves against the worst case scenarios,3 we are, in a sense, stepping outside the present.

To the degree that intelligence is the ability to model the universe and "search out paths through probability to any desired future" we should not be surprised that mental time travel comes naturally to us. And to the degree that playing to this strength has already produced so many useful tips, I think it is worth experimenting with it in search of other tools and exploits.

Below are a few techniques I've been developing over the last two years that capitalize on how easy it is to mentally travel through time. I fully admit that they simply "re-skin" existing advice and techniques. But it's possible that you, my fellow traveller, may find, as I do, that these skins easier to slip into.

continue reading »

How I Am Productive

39 peter_hurford 27 August 2013 01:04PM

I like to think that I get a lot of stuff done.  Other people have noticed this and asked me how I'm so productive.  This essay is where I try and "share my secrets", so to speak.

The real secret is that, in the past, I wasn't nearly as productive.  I struggled with procrastination, had issues completing assignments on time, and always felt like I never had enough time to do things.  But, starting in January and continuing for the past eight months, I have slowly implemented several systems and habits in my life that, taken together, have made me productive.  Productivity is not a talent I have -- I've learned to be productive over the past several months and I have habits in place where I basically cannot fail to be productive.

Hopefully these systems will work for you.  I've seen some people adopt them to some success, but I've never seen anyone do it exactly the way I do.  And perhaps it would even be bad to do it exactly the way I do, because everyone is just a little bit different.  I'm being aware of other-optimizing and letting you just know what's worked for me.  I make no claims that these systems will work for you.  Your mileage may vary.

So what are the systems?  To get you to be productive, we'll need to get you to organize, to prioritize, then to do and review.  Have those four things down and you'll have everything you need to be productive.



The first step to being productive is to be organized and remember things without memorizing them.  If we get these systems down, you won't forget your ideas, when and where events are, what tasks you need to complete, what papers you have, and what emails you have.


The Most Important Rule: Write Things Down

If you only take away one system from one category, I want it to be this one.  Whole essays can be written about these systems and this one is no different -- write things down.  Whenever you have a cool idea, an event invitation, a task, etc., write it down.  Always.  Constantly.  No excuses.

I've found in my life that stress has come in surprising part from trying to keep everything in my head.  When I write down everything I think is worth remembering, whether it be a concrete thing I need to do or just a cool yet unimportant idea I want to follow up on sometime later, I write it down.  That gets it out of my head, and I no longer feel the need to remember things (as long as I remember to look them up later), and I feel much better.

I've also found in my life that I constantly think I'll remember something and it's not worth writing down.  More than half the time, I've been wrong and forgotten the thing.  This has meant I've forgotten cool ideas and even forgotten events or to complete key items.  Always write things down, no matter how convinced you are that you'll remember them.

How do you do this?  I suggest getting something that will always be with you that you can write things down on.  For the vast majority of my readers, this can be a phone where you text yourself messages.  For a long time, I would use my smartphone to email myself notes, because I knew I'd always check my email later and then could record the note to a text document.  Later on, I moved to keeping track of ideas on Evernote and then later moved on to keeping track of ideas on Workflowy.  Workflowy costs $5 a month to use it to full potential (worth it, in my opinion), but there are free alternatives (that aren't as good, in my opinion).

However, don't shy away from the good old pen and paper if it gets the job done.  I got this notepad for $6 and it's been great.


Keep Track of Events: The Calendar

Of course, some of the things you want to write down will be particular things that need to be recorded in particularly useful places.  One of these things is events, or places you need to be at a particular time and place.  For this, you can use any calendar, but I like Google Calendar the best.  Whenever you get invited to an event, record it on your calendar.  (We'll include reviewing your calendar regularly in a bit, so you won't forget what's there.)

A common mistake I see people make is to rely on Facebook events to keep track of their events.  Perhaps this works for some people, but not all events are done through Facebook or can be done through Facebook, so you end up keeping track of events in multiple places, which causes confusion and missed events.  Wherever you record events, record all your events in one place.


Keep Track of Tasks: The To-Do List

The next thing you'll want to keep track of is tasks.  For this, you need a to-do list.  I spent a lot of my life just using a TextEdit document, but I recommend you use a dedicated app instead.  I personally use Workflowy here too, but others work great.  In the past I've used Trello to great success.  I've seen others succeed with Asana or even just a text document on the computer.

A common mistake I see people make here is using their email as their to-do list.  This might make some sense, but often emails contain information unnecessary to your tasks which slows you down, and sometimes emails contain multiple action points.  Worse, emails contain no easy way to prioritize tasks (which is really important and will be discussed in a bit).

Bottom line: Keep all your tasks in one crisp, clear place.  Don't spread out your to-do lists across multiple applications and don't put it in with a bunch of other stuff.


Action, Waiting, Reference: Stay Organized with Zones

Once you have your ideas written down, your events on your calendar, and your tasks on your to-do list, it's time to organize the materials you'll have to deal with.  Lots of physical papers and computer documents come at you throughout your day and it's time to organize them.

The trick here?  Get a surface area you can keep clear and divide it into three zones: action, waiting, and reference.


The action zone is for things that need to be done.  Have a form you need to fill out?  Something you need to read?  Even more outlandish things like a necklace you need to repair or something?  Keep everything needed for a task together in folders or with paperclips as necessary, put it in the action zone, and record the task on your to-do list.

The waiting zone is for things that eventually need to be done, but which cannot be done yet because you're waiting on something.  Perhaps you need feedback from someone, a package still needs to arrive, or the task only can be done on a certain day.  For this, keep everything grouped together in the waiting zone, and record on your to-do list what the task is and what you're waiting for.  (We'll revisit implementing zones in the to-do list in a little bit.)  Move things to action and update your to-do list when what you're waiting for arrives.

The reference zone is for things you might need to look at and need to be kept around, but are not associated with any task.  For examples, things I have had in my reference zone are passwords, details about tasks from people, items that are relevant but not necessary to the work that I'm doing, etc.


Always Inbox Zero: Apply the Folders to Your Email

Email is really messy for most people, but it doesn't have to be.  The solution here is to implement the zones in your email too.  I use Gmail, but nearly every email system includes folders these days.  Use that system to create three folders -- action, waiting, and reference -- in your email, then sort your email according to the folders and record on your to-do list.

There is no reason to have any email in your inbox.  You should be at "inbox zero" constantly.  Whenever an email comes in, process it and file it.  Got an email from Nancy that you need to reply to?  Put it in "Action" and put "Reply to Nancy's email" on your to-do list.  Got a long email from your boss that you don't even have time to read yet?  Put it in "Action" and put "Read boss's email" on your to-do list.  Then when you go back to read it, you can determine the next action item.

Emails also make sense to be put in waiting.  If it's important I get a reply from the email, I'll put it in waiting to remind myself to follow up later if necessary (more on that later).  I'll also put emails in waiting if I'm expecting a reply from someone else first, or if it's information for an action item I can't act on yet, or if I want to reply later on.

Lastly, reference is very important for emails that you need to keep around to read, but don't need to reply to.  Lots of notes that people send me get processed into my relevant Workflowy document and then kept in reference for as long as they're relevant.



Now that you're all organized, it's time to get in a position to do the things you need to do.  But watch out, because unless you have time to complete your entire to-do list in one sitting, it's a poor use of time to just go from the top to the bottom.  Instead, we need to go from the most important to the least important.


Eisenhower Matrix: Do What's Important

How do you prioritize?  The best tactic I've seen here is called The Eisenhower Matrix.  It comes from Steven Covey's book First Things First but is credited to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Here, you take your to-do list and organize everything into four quadrants: important and urgent, important and not urgent, unimportant and urgent, and unimportant and not urgent.  This is very easy to do on Workflowy, and still possible on something like Trello.

There's pretty universal agreement that you complete all the "important and urgent" tasks first and the "unimportant and not urgent" tasks last.  But the real trick is that after you complete the important and urgent tasks, you should move to complete the important and not urgent tasks.  Ignore the not important and urgent tasks until you've completed all important tasks and even be comfortable with skipping unimportant tasks if necessary.  Why?  Because they're not important.

If you get this matrix down, you'll soon get ahead on your tasks, because you'll be completing important tasks before they become urgent.

Also, note the inclusion of "waiting" here as one of the tabs in my to-do list.  This is where I put tasks I can't complete yet with a note of what I'm waiting on.  Something like talking to my Dad three days from now would be tagged as "#30aug :: Talk to Dad" (using Workflowy hashtags), but I'd also do things with unclear dates, like "Brian responds to email :: Forward response to Seth".  Beware that being able to manage unclear deadlines (where you don't know what day the task will be) is something that most to-do list apps struggle with.

Timeboxing: Plan Your Day in Advance

The next prioritization thing to master is planning your day in advance.  You do this through making "time boxes" for things, or periods of time where you'll do something predefined.  For example, I'll set aside some time to work through my to-do list or to work on particular projects.  For bigger projects, I'll decide how much I want to work on them in any particular day or week and set them aside from my to-do list.  I'll then block out time for them on my calendar and end up with days like this.

Since I plan my days in advance using this timebox method, I just plan every minute of the calendar in advance and have a plan so I always know what to be doing and never miss a beat.  Of course, things come up and you'll have to change your plan for the day, but that's better than having no plan at all.

Two Minute Rule

It's important to be mindful of how much time it takes to record a task, put it in your to-do list, and prioritize it, however.  For most people, including me, it's about two minutes for any given task.  This gives rise to the "two minute rule": if doing somethign would take less than two minutes, just do it now.  Likewise, if it would take over two minutes, put it in your to-do list and do it at the best time.



Now that you have your to-do list set and timeboxes for when you're going to work and on what, it's time to actually do the work.


The Pomodoro Technique

The ideal timebox should be a length that is a multiple of thirty minutes so you can do the most powerful productivity thing there is: The Pomodoro Technique.  Beware that it doesn't work for some, but I do urge you to give it a fair shake and a few tries, because for those whom the Pomodoro works, the Pomodoro Technique works wonders.

Here's how you do it.  Set a timer for 25 minutes.  During those 25 minutes (a) work only on your task at hand; (b) do not do anything else, even for a second; (c) be completely focused; (d) be free from distractions; (e) and do not multi-task. There are some acceptable things to do during a Pomodoro, however: go to the bathroom, drink, listen to music.  But there are tons more things not to do during a Pomodoro: check Facebook, read your email, etc.  The list will go on.

After the timer expires, take a five minute break.  During these five minutes, do anything you'd like except the task on hand.  Even if you feel like the break is boring and you're itching to get back on task, don't.  You're only hurting yourself in the long-run.  This five minute break will restore your focus, keep you grounded, provide a way to think through your ideas in a different setting, and prevent you from needing longer breaks later in the day.

It should be noted, however, that the Pomodoro can be a bit difficult to get in the habit of, though.  To solve this, I've found it useful to work my way up to the full Pomodoro by spending a month getting used to "15 minutes of work, 5 minutes break", then another month doing "20 minutes of work, 5 minutes break", and then finally "25 minutes of work, 5 minutes break".

Different people have tried other multiples besides 25 and 5, but I'm still convinced that 25-5 is the ideal split.  Perhaps 27-3 could work better for advanced Pomodoro users, but I wouldn't push it further.  I've seen things like 90-30 or 30-10, and all of these seem to involve working just a little too long (losing focus) and then taking a lot more break than is necessary.  Of course, if it works for you, then it works.

Here's the 25-5 stopwatch I use and my 20-5 stopwatch.  I've also liked Tomato Timer.com, but any timer can work.


Be Comfortable with Breaks

The important lesson of working a lot is to be comfortable with taking a break.  The novice productive person will think it virtuous to work clear through a break and onward, thinking that he or she is making even better use of their time, defeating all those sissy workers who need breaks!  But really, this person is just setting up their own downfall, because they'll crash and burn.

Burnout is real and one of the most dangerous things you can do is train yourself to feel guilty about not working.  So you need to remember to take breaks.  The break in a Pomodoro is a good one, but I also recommend taking a larger break (like 30 minutes) after completing three or four Pomodoros.

One particularly good break I'd like to give a shout-out to is to take a nap.  Taking a nap at a fairly regular time has health benefits (see also here, here, and here) and doesn't harm your night sleep if you nap for 20 minutes and don't nap too late in the afternoon or evening.  In fact, I've actually found naps to be a time saver instead of time "wasted" for a break, because I can sleep less at night and still feel rested and be focused throughout the day.


Keep Your Energy Up

Another thing to prevent your chance of crashing and needing a long break to restore your energy is to keep your energy up.  I recommend drinking something that is somewhat sugary but not too sugary (I drink water-diluted lemonade in a 25%-75% mix) and remembering to exercise on a regular basis.  Also, eating healthy and sleeping right works wonders for keeping your attention on your work.



Of course, it's not enough to do if you're not going to learn from how you're doing and improve.  I suggest you review your life on multiple levels -- daily, weekly, monthly, and once every six months.

For the daily review, I keep track of whether I've succeeded at certain habits like exercising and eating right, and log the amount of time I've spent on various things so I can keep track of my time usage.  I also complete other relevant logs, and then spend a bit of time reflecting how things have gone for the day and think of ways to repeat successes and avoid mistakes.  I then check the plan for the next day and tweak it if necessary.  This process takes me about 15 to 20 minutes.

For the weekly review, I go through my action-waiting-reference zones wherever they exist (physical piles, email, and computer folders) and process them -- make sure everything there is still relevant and still belongs in the same place.  I'll remove whatever needs to be removed at this stage and remind myself what I'm working on.  I'll organize and clean anything that isn't organized at this stage and get everything together.  I'll then quickly re-read my strategic plan and plan out the week in accordance with my goals.  Recently, I've set amounts of time per week I want to be spending on certain projects, so it's now a matter of making a schedule that works.  This process usually takes me 45 minutes to an hour.

For the monthly review, I reflect on the habits I've been trying to build for the month and decide what habits I want to keep, what habits I want to add, and what habits I want to subtract.  I review how the month as a whole went and think about what I can do to repeat successes and avert future failures.  I then write up a reflection and publish it on my blog.  This process usually takes me two hours.

For the six month review, I return to my goals and think about how my life trajectory as a whole is going.  What are my life goals?  What am I doing to accomplish them?  Am I closer to my goals than I was six months ago?  Should I be working toward new goals?  What common mistakes did I make through the past six months that I want to avoid?  I then write a documentwith my personal mission and goals for the next six months and skim it every week to constantly remind myself of what I want to be doing.  This process usually takes me three hours.


Yes, there will be an unlucky day where you do all four reviews and spend like six and a half hours reviewing your life at different levels.  Perhaps this is a bit much for people, but I've found tremendous benefit from it.  I've found that spending this day reviewing my life has saved me from not just days, but even months, of wasted time that doesn't accomplish what I really want to do.  Reviewing is another way of saving you time.

Additional Tips

Now I've given you all my main advice, but I have some additional tips if you want to keep reading.

Carefully form these habits over time.  This is a lot to do at once, so do it in stages.  Build the habit of writing things down first, and then slowly get the apps you like in place for ideas, events, and tasks.  After you have that down, spend the time necessary to get your email in order and implement the zones wherever possible.  Then begin to move into prioritizing your tasks with the Eisenhower Matrix.  After you have this down, begin planning your days in advance with timeboxes and start doing your reviews.  While you're building that habit, simultaneously start building up the Pomodoro habit, slowly approaching 25-5 over a few months.

Find a way to reliably stay on habit.  Don't make the common failure of sticking to something for a month or two and abandoning it.  Spend a lot of energy thinking through how you'll stay on habit and how you'll not be like all the other people who think they'll stay on habit then fail.  Make a bet with a friend, start up Beeminder, or create some other kind of commitment device.

Form the productivity mindset. I had a lot of trouble implementing this plan until I was able to think of myself as an important person who does important things and should personally value my time.  I had to really want to be productive before I could start being productive.  Success at this will follow from the right mindset.  It's time to start thinking of yourself as important.  If you can't fool yourself, maybe it's time to look at your goals and decide what goals would make you feel important and then do those goals instead.

Behold the power of routines. I find it a lot easier to exercise if I have a routine of "every other day, right after waking up" or "every other day, right before dinner".  Your routine can be built from here.  It's a lot easier to stick to timeboxes if they're regularly occurring.  Use a calendar and build yourself something nice.

Put everything in a particular place.  People lose a lot of time just hunting around for things.  Solve this by spending some time ahead of time organizing things in your life and getting them into particular places.  Then always make sure things return to their places.

Declutter your life.  You'll work better if you have less stuff to keep track of and less commitments to worry about.  Get rid of everything and delegate anything you can.

Make a productivity place. This works especially well in colleges where there is a large variety of places you could be working.  Find a place to work, set up your Pomodoros, and follow them to the letter.  Don't mess up.  Take your longer breaks somewhere else.  If you do mess up, find a new productivity place and start again.  I found this really helpful for my mindset, but others have found it silly.

Don't neglect friends and family.  This is a big one.  Remember, the goal of being more productive is to free time to do the things you want and be with the people you want.  It's not to spend 100 hour workweeks neglecting those who are important to you.  Make sure to take some time off to spend with friends and family.  Schedule it in your calendar if you have to.  This will matter most in the long-run for your life.

Productivity ≠ Busy and Busy ≠ Productivity.  If you do productivity right, you shouldn't feel busy all that often.  Being busy is a sign of having poor productivity and/or having taken on too many commitments, and is rarely ever a sign of doing things correctly.



These tips are really a result of me experimenting for eight months.  I'd expect you to take a similar amount of time to go from zero to productive and end up with different systems that work for you and your environment.  But I think there are a lot of power in these systems and I'm interested to see what other people do and how other people run with them.  After all, they work for me.


Further reading:

* The Secret Weapon

* David Allen's Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

* Scott Young's The Little Book of Productivity

* Paul Christiano's Workflow

* 10 Step Anti-Procrostination Checklist

* Zenhabits



(Also cross-posted on my blog.)

How I Became More Ambitious

60 Swimmer963 04 July 2013 11:34PM

Follow-up to How I Ended Up Non-Ambitious

Living with yourself is a bit like having a preteen and watching them get taller; the changes happen so slowly that it's almost impossible to notice them, until you stumble across an old point of comparison and it becomes blindingly obvious. I hit that point a few days ago, while planning what I might want to talk about during an OkCupid date. My brain produced the following thought: "well, if this topic comes up, it might sound like I'm trying to take over the world, and that's intimidating- Wait. What?"

I'm not trying to take over the world. It sounds like a lot of work, and not my comparative advantage. If it seemed necessary, I would point out the problems that needed solving and delegate them to CFAR alumni with more domain-specific expertise than me.

However, I went back and reread the post linked at the beginning, and I no longer feel much kinship with that person. This is a change that happened maybe 25-50% deliberately, and the rest by drift, but I still changed my mind, so I will try to detail the particular changes, and what I think led to them. Introspection is unreliable, so I'll probably be at least 50% wrong, but what can you do?

1. Idealism versus practicality

I would still call myself practical, but I no longer think that this comes at the expense of idealism. Idealism is absolutely essential, if you want to have a world that changes because someone wanted it to, as opposed to just by drift. Lately in the rationalist/CFAR/LW community, there's been a lot of emphasis on agency and agentiness, which basically mean the ability to change the world and/or yourself deliberately, on purpose, through planned actions. This is hard. The first step is idealism-being able to imagine a state of affairs that is different and better. Then comes practicality, the part where you sit down and work hard and actually get something done.

It's still true that idealism without practicality doesn't get much done, and practicality without idealism can get a lot done, but it matters what problems you're working on, too. Are you being strategic? Are you even thinking, at all, about whether your actions are helping to accomplish your goals? One of the big things I've learned, a year and a half and two CFAR workshops later, is how automatic and easy this lack of strategy really is.

I had a limited sort of idealism in high school; I wanted to do work that was important and relevant; but I was lazy about it. I wanted someone to tell me what was important to be doing right now. Nursing seemed like an awesome solution. It still seems like a solution, but recently I've admitted to myself, with a painful twinge, that it might not be the best way for me, personally, to help the greatest number of people using my current and potential skill set. It's worth spending a few minutes or hours looking for interesting and important problems to work on.

I don't think I had the mental vocabulary to think that thought a year and a half ago. Some of the change comes from having dated an economics student. Come to think of it, I expect some of his general ambition rubbed off on me, too. The rest of the change comes from hanging out with the effective altruism and similar communities.

I'm still practical. I exercise, eat well, go to bed on time, work lots of hours, spend my money wisely, and maintain my social circle mostly on autopilot; it requires effort but not deliberate effort. I'm lucky to have this skill. But I no longer think it's a virtue over and above idealism. Practical idealists make the biggest difference, and they're pretty cool to hang out with. I want to be one when I grow up.

2. Fear of failure

Don't get me wrong. If there's one deep, gripping, soul-crushing terror in my life, one thing that gives me literal nightmares, it's failure. Making mistakes. Not being good enough. Et cetera.

In the past few years, the main change has been admitting to myself that this terror doesn't make a lot of sense. First of all, it's completely miscalibrated. As Eliezer pointed out during a conversation on this, I don't fail at things very often. Far from being a success, this is likely a sign that the things I'm trying aren't nearly challenging enough.

My threshold for what constitutes failure is also fairly low. I made a couple of embarrassing mistakes during my spring clinical. Some part of my brain is convinced that this equals permanent failure; I wasn't perfect during the placement, and I can't go back and change the past, thus I have failed. Forever.

I passed the clinical, wrote the provincial exam (results aren't in but I'm >99% confident I passed) (EDIT: Passed! YEAAHHH!!!), and I'm currently working in the intensive care unit, which has been my dream since I was about fifteen. The part of my brain that keeps telling me I failed permanently obviously isn't saying anything useful.

I think 'embarrassing' is a keyword here. The first thing I thought, on the several occasions that I made mistakes, was "oh my god did I just kill someone... Phew, no, no harm done." The second thought was "oh my god, my preceptor will think I'm stupid forever and she'll never respect me and no one wants me around, I'm not good enough..." This line of thought never goes anywhere good. It says something about me, though, that "I'm not good enough" is very directly connected to people wanting me around, to belonging somewhere. For several personality-formative years of my life, people didn't want me around. Probably for good reason; my ten-year-old self was prickly and socially inept and miserable. I think a lot of my determination not to seek status comes from the "uncool kids trying to be cool are pathetic" meme that was so rampant when I was in sixth grade.

Oh, and then there's the traumatic swim team experience. Somewhere, in a part of my brain where I don't go very often nowadays, there a bottomless whirlpool of powerless rage and despair around the phrase "no matter how hard I try, I'll never be good enough." So when I make an embarrassing mistake, my ten-year-old self is screaming at me "no wonder everyone hates you!" and my fourteen-year-old self is sadly muttering that "you know, maybe you just don't have enough natural talent," and none of it is at all useful.

The thing about those phrases is that they refer to complex and value-laden concepts, in a way that makes them seem like innate attributes, à la Fundamental Attribution Error. "Not good enough" isn't a yes-or-no attribute of a person; it's a magical category that only sounds simple because it's a three-word phrase. I've gotten somewhat better at propagating this to my emotional self. Slightly. It's a work in progress.

During a conversation about this with Anna Salamon, she noted that she likes to approach her own emotions and ask them what they want. It sounds weird, but it's helpful. "Dear crushing sense of despair and unworthiness, what do you want? ...Oh, you're worried that you're going to end up an outcast from your tribe and starve to death in the wilderness because you accidentally gave an extra dose of digoxin? You want to signal remorse and regret and make sure everyone knows you're taking your failure seriously so that maybe they'll forgive you? Thank you for trying to protect me. But really, you don't need to worry about the starving-outcast thing. No one was harmed and no one is mad at you personally. Your friends and family couldn't care less. This mistake is data, but it's just as much data about the environment as it is about your attributes. These hand-copied medication records are the perfect medium for human error. Instead of signalling remorse, let's put some mental energy into getting rid of the environmental conditions that led to this mistake."

Rejection therapy and having a general CoZE [Comfort Zone Expansion] mindset helped remove some of the sting of "but I'll look stupid if I try something too hard and fail at it!" I still worry about the pain of future embarrassment, but I'm more likely to point out to myself that it's not a valid objection and I should do X anyway. Making "I want to become stronger" an explicit motto is new to the last year and a half, too, and helps by giving me ammunition for why potential embarrassment isn't a reason not to do something.

In conclusion: failure still sucks. I'm a perfectionist. But I failed in a lot of small ways during my spring clinical, and passed/got a job anyway, which seems to have helped me propagate to my emotional self that it's okay to try hard things, where I'm almost certain to make mistakes, because mistakes don't equal instant damnation and hatred from all of my friends.

3. The morality of ambition

While I was in San Francisco a month ago, volunteering at the CFAR workshop and generally spending my time surrounded by smart, passionate, and ambitious people (thus convincing my emotional system that this is normal and okay), I had a conversation with Eliezer. He asked me to list ten areas in which I was above average.

This was a lot more painful than it had any reason to be. After bouncing off various poorly-formed objections in my mind, I said to myself "you know, having trouble admitting what you're good at doesn't make you virtuous." This was painful; losing a source of feeling-virtuous always is. But it was helpful. Yeah, talking all the time about how awesome you are at X, Y, Z makes you a bit of a bore. People might even avoid you (oh! the horror!). However, this doesn't mean that blocking even the thought of being above average makes you a good person. In fact, it's counterproductive. How are you supposed to know what problems you're capable of solving in the world if you can't be honest with yourself about your capabilities?

This conversation helped. (Even if some of the effect was "high status person says X -> I believe X," who cares? I endorsed myself changing my mind about this a year and a half ago. It's about time.)

HPMOR helped, too; specifically, the idea that there are four houses which have different positive qualities. Slytherins are demonized in canon, but in HPMOR their skills are recognized as essential. I can easily recognize the Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff and even the Gryffindor in myself, but not much of Slytherin. Having a word for the ambition-cunning-strategic concept cluster is helpful. I can ask myself "now what would a Slytherin do with this information:?" I can think thoughts that feel very un-virtuous. "I'm young and prettier than average. What's a Slytherin way to use this... Oh, I suppose I can leverage it to get high-status men to pay attention to me long enough for me to explain the merits of an idea I have." This thought feels yuck, but the universe doesn't explode.

Probably the biggest factor was going to the CFAR workshops in the first place. Not from any of the curriculum, particularly, although the mindset of goal factoring helped me to realize that the mental action of "feeling unvirtuous for thinking in ambitious or calculating ways" wasn't accomplishing anything I wanted. Mostly the change came from social normalization, from hanging out with people who talked openly about their strengths and weaknesses, and no one got shunned.

[Silly plan for taking over the world: Arrange to meet high status-people and offer to give their children swimming lessons. Gain their trust. Proceed from there.]

4. Laziness

Nope. Still lazy. If anything, akrasia and procrastination are more of a problem now that I'm trying to do harder things more deliberately.

I've been keeping written goals for about a year now. This means I actually notice when I don't accomplish them.

I use Remember the Milk as a GTD system, and some other productivity/organization software (rescuetime, Mint.com, etc). I finally switched to Gmail, where I can use Boomerang and other useful tools. My current openness to trying new organization methods is high.

My general interest in trying things is higher, mainly because I have lots of community-endorsed-warm-fuzzies positive affect around that phrase. I want to be someone who's open to new experiences; I've had enough new experiences to realize how exhilarating they can be. 


I now have a wider range of potentially high-value personal projects ongoing. I now have an explicit goal of being well-known for non-fiction writing, probably in a blog form, in the next five years. (Do I have enough interesting things to say to make this a reality? We'll see. Is this goal vague? Yes. Working on it. I used to reject goals if they weren't utterly concrete, but even vague goals are something to build on).

I'm more explicit with myself about what I want from CFAR curriculum skills. (The general problem of critical thinking in nursing? Solvable! Why not?)

I think I've finally admitted to myself that "well, I'll just live in a cozy little house near my parents and work in the ICU and raise kids for the next forty years" might not be particularly virtuous or fun. There are things I would prefer to be different in the world, even if I can only completely specify a few of them. There are exciting scary opportunities happening all the time. I'm lucky enough to belong to a community of people that can help me find them.

I don't have plans for much beyond the next year. But here's to the next decade being interesting!

Nov 16-18: Rationality for Entrepreneurs

25 AnnaSalamon 08 November 2012 06:15PM

CFAR is taking LW-style rationality into the world, this month, with a new kind of rationality camp: Rationality for Entrepreneurs.  It is aimed at ambitious, relatively successful folk (regardless of whether they are familiar with LW), who like analytic thinking and care about making practical real-world projects work.  Some will be paying for themselves; others will be covered by their companies.  

If you'd like to learn rationality in a more practical context, consider applying.  Also, if you were hoping to introduce rationality and related ideas to a friend/acquaintance who fits the bill, please talk to them about the workshop, both for their sake and to strengthen the rationality community.

The price will be out of reach for some: the workshop costs $3.9k.  But there is a money-back guarantee.  Some partial scholarships may be available. This fee buys participants:

  • Four nights and three days at a retreat center, with small classes, interactive exercises, and much opportunity for unstructured conversation that applies the material at meals and during the evenings (room and board is included);
  • One instructor for every three participants; 
  • Six weeks of Skype/phone and email follow-up, to help participants make the material into regular habits, and navigate real-life business and personal situations with these tools.

CFAR is planning future camps which are more directly targeted at a Less Wrong audience (like our previous camps), so don’t worry if this camp doesn’t seem like the right fit for you (because of cost, interests, etc.).  There will be others.  But if you or someone you know does have an entrepreneurial bent[1], then we strongly recommend applying to this camp rather than waiting.  Attendees will be surrounded by other ambitious, successful, practically-minded folks, learn from materials that have been tailored to entrepreneurial issues, and receive extensive follow-up to help apply what they’ve learned to their businesses and personal lives.

Our schedule is below.

(See also the thread about the camp on Hacker News.)

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Checklist of Rationality Habits

117 AnnaSalamon 07 November 2012 09:19PM
As you may know, the Center for Applied Rationality has run several workshops, each teaching content similar to that in the core sequences, but made more practical, and more into fine-grained habits.

Below is the checklist of rationality habits we have been using in the minicamps' opening session.  It was co-written by Eliezer, myself, and a number of others at CFAR.  As mentioned below, the goal is not to assess how "rational" you are, but, rather, to develop a personal shopping list of habits to consider developing.  We generated it by asking ourselves, not what rationality content it's useful to understand, but what rationality-related actions (or thinking habits) it's useful to actually do.

I hope you find it useful; I certainly have.  Comments and suggestions are most welcome; it remains a work in progress. (It's also available as a pdf.) 
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Knowing what you want is a prerequisite to getting what you want

-3 nwthomas 12 July 2011 11:19PM

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.

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The True Rejection Challenge

43 Alicorn 27 June 2011 07:18AM

An exercise:

Name something that you do not do but should/wish you did/are told you ought, or that you do less than is normally recommended.  (For instance, "exercise" or "eat vegetables".)

Make an exhaustive list of your sufficient conditions for avoiding this thing.  (If you suspect that your list may be non-exhaustive, mention that in your comment.)

Precommit that: If someone comes up with a way to do the thing which doesn't have any of your listed problems, you will at least try it.  It counts if you come up with this response yourself upon making your list.

(Based on: Is That Your True Rejection?)

Edit to add: Kindly stick to the spirit of the exercise; if you have no advice in line with the exercise, this is not the place to offer it.  Do not drift into confrontational or abusive demands that people adjust their restrictions to suit your cached suggestion, and do not offer unsolicited other-optimizing.

To alleviate crowding, Armok_GoB has created a second thread for this challenge.

Rational Reading: Thoughts On Prioritizing Books

27 patrissimo 27 March 2011 07:54PM

A large element of instrumental rationality consists of filtering, prioritizing, and focusing.  It's true for tasks, for emails, for blogs, and for the multitude of other inputs that many of us are drowning in these days[1].  Doing everything, reading everything, commenting on everything is simply not an option - it would take infinite time.  We could simply limit time and do what happens to catch our attention in that limited time, but that's clearly not optimal.  Spending some time prioritizing rather than executing will always improve results if items can be prioritized and vary widely in benefit.  So maximizing the results we get from our finite time requires, for a variety of domains:

  1. Filtering: a quick first-pass to get input down to a manageable size for the higher-cost effort of prioritizing.
  2. Prioritizing: briefly evaluating the impact each item will have towards your goals.
  3. Focusing: on the highest-priority items.

I have some thoughts, and am looking for more advice on how to do this for non-fiction reading.  I've stopped buying books that catch my attention, because I have an inpile of about 3-4 shelves of unread books that have been unread for years.  Instead, I put them on my Amazon Wishlists, which as a result have swelled to a total of 254 books - obviously un-manageable, and growing much faster than I read.

One obvious question to ask when optimizing is: what is the goal of reading?  Let me suggest a few possibilities:

  • Improve performance at a current job/role.  For example, as Executive Director of a nonprofit, I could read books on fundraising or management.
  • Relatedly, work towards a current goal.  Here is where it helps to have identified your goals, perhaps in an Annual Review.  As a parent, for example, there are an infinitude of parenting books that I could read, but I chose for this year to work specifically on positive psychology parenting, as it seemed like a potentially high-impact skill to learn.  This massively filters the set of possible parenting books.  Essentially, goal-setting ("learn positive psychology parenting habits") was a conscious prioritization step based on considering what new parenting skills would best advance my goals (in this case, to benefit my kids while making parenting more pleasant along the way).
  • Improve core skills or attributes relevant to many areas of life - productivity, happiness, social skills, diet, etc.
  • Expand your worldview (improve your map).  Myopically focusing only on immediate needs would eliminate some of the greatest benefit I feel I've gotten from non-fiction in my life, which is a richer and more accurate understanding of the world.
  • Be able to converse intelligently on currently popular books.  (Much as one might watch the news in order to facilitate social bonding by being able to discuss current events).  Note that I don't actually recommend this as a goal - I think you can find other things to bond over, plus you will sometimes read currently popular books because they serve other goals - but it may be important for some people.
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How to Beat Procrastination

156 lukeprog 05 February 2011 06:49PM

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

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