Macro-Procrastination

by Neel Nanda13 min read28th Sep 2020No comments

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The Problem

As readers of this blog will know, I massively procrastinate. And this is a pretty big problem in my life. But it’s a problem I’m aware of, that mostly resolves itself. I have deadlines, accountability mechanisms, and the latent, creeping guilt of something I know I’m putting off. And all of my solutions centre around noticing this creeping guilt and converting into action. And generally, the thing will get done! There are costs - it’s often done late, or to a lower standard. There’s often a lot of wasted motion, time spent on mindless busywork with opportunity costs for what I actually care about. But the costs are bounded, and I can force myself to get things done in the end.

But, when I actually think about it, this system is weird. There’s a major disconnect here. I get over procrastination because I feel guilty about it. But I care about procrastination as an issue because on some level I want to do these tasks. These tasks are important to my long-term goals and procrastination is bad because it holds me back from my goals. I am allocating my time badly, and this is sad. The guilt is a useful incidental property of the fact that there are deadlines, but the fact that it’s a problem is nothing to do with the deadlines. Procrastination is fundamentally a problem of prioritisation, and bad allocation of time.

And this is an important disconnect, because there are worthwhile tasks I procrastinate on that don’t have deadlines. And these are often really important! Things that will help me towards becoming a happier person, helpful to my career, and generally improving the world. It is a really big deal if I never do them. But nobody is holding me accountable, there is no urgency, and so nothing ever happens. I call this problem macro-procrastination.

Macro-procrastination was recently made salient to me, because I realised it was happening in a lot of areas of my life. Some of the most noticeable:

  • Exercise is obviously important to my lifespan, healthspan, general happiness, mental energy and appearance. And is obviously an insanely good use of time. But I just wasn’t in the habit of doing any
    • I’ve since started Couch to 5K, which I’d highly recommend
  • Careers: I’m pretty seriously considering a career in AI Safety. But I’d put approximately 0 effort into just reading about the field, getting an awareness of what people work on, and what my personal views on it are.
    • I’ve done low effort things like signing up for the Alignment Newsletter, but currently still mostly suck at this.
  • Having long-term goals: Often my life feels a bit aimless, because there are a lot of things I care about, but I don’t know how to prioritise between them. And I don’t have a clear sense of my long-term goals. This felt important enough to be a contender for my current Hamming Problem, yet I’d never even sat down for an afternoon and tried to write down my high-level goals.
    • I then spent that afternoon and it was time well spent!
    • I’m currently trying to spend an hour a week thinking about this and how well what I’m doing meets my goals
  • Pursuing ambitious personal projects: Something where there’s no need to do it, but I’d feel sad if I never do it
    • Blogging was this for a while, but I think I’ve decisively solved that!
    • Getting good at human forecasting is something I’m still procrastinating on
  • Romance: I’ve been single for a while, and expect it’d significantly increase my life happiness, but have done approximately nothing about fixing this
    • Turns out I find doing anything about this deeply aversive for reasons I’m still trying to debug :( (Note: If you know me in real life, and know anyone you think I might be romantically compatible with, hit me up <3 )
      • Though this blog post was surprisingly inspiring (especially the aside on the Gale-Shapley algorithm!)

These are just my personal examples, but I think this is a really common failure mode. And I think this is one of the major root causes behind people who complain about problems without ever really doing anything about them. Ultimately, this is a failure to prioritise long-term goals over short-term goals, and this is exactly what you’d expect to happen. People do hyperbolic discounting, respond to deadlines and accountability mechanisms, and don’t think about their futures. Short-term things feel urgent, you always feel busy, and it is hard and painful to realise you need to prioritise longer term things.

Exercise: Set a 5 minute timer, and list the things you are macro-procrastinating about. What is wrong with your life at the moment? What are the long-term goals you’re neglecting? What do you always put off, that you know you really should get round to some day? What’s something awesome you’ve always wanted to do, but never got round to?

Noticing

So this is obviously a problem, and it’s obviously something worth trying to fix. But what can you actually do about it?

The core to my solutions to normal procrastination is the act of noticing that I’m procrastinating. The creeping deadlines, accountability mechanisms, etc all make the task feel obvious and hard to forget about. And eventually something flips - procrastination goes from something I’m aware of in the background, to something that feels urgent. And this is the hook that I can convert into action - remind myself of why I really care about the problem and flipping the guilt into intrinsic motivation, making concrete plans for what I’ll do about it, and committing my future self to this!

So the obvious solution to macro-procrastination is trying to ensure that this moment of noticing happens!

The obvious first way to do this is to be as sensitive as possible to any time I do notice I’m macro-procrastinating. I find it helpful to associate a strong feeling to the word “should” - if you ever say “I should do that someday” this is a really big deal and you should pay attention. When you hear a good idea, with no deadline attached, do something about it in the moment. The things without deadlines don’t feel as strong or as urgent but these feelings are still there, and can be fed.

But this isn’t a very robust solution - a large part of the problem with macro-procrastination is that you often don’t notice by default. And, as with all problems in life, this can be systematised! So, how can you systematise the process of noticing? I have a few tips here:

  • Make regular time to reflect, and check for this kind of thing
    • Do a monthly review, where you go through your long-term goals, and notice the ones you’re neglecting
      • In this review, set a 5 minute timer, and list the things you’re macro-procrastinating about
    • Make time once a week to check your long-term goals, and see how well your actions this week achieved them
    • More generally, have systems for prioritisation!
  • Set a clear norm that your friends should call you on your BS if they notice you macro-procrastinating, and explicitly point this out to you
    • Note: If you make this request and they actually do it, I think you have a moral obligation to take them seriously - it’s easy to reflexively brush off criticism, but I think this is being a bad friend.
    • I’ve had a fair amount of success with friends doing this for me! (Eg, this triggered me realising I was being an idiot about romance)
  • Make doing something the default
    • Make regular time where you have to work towards long-term goals. Carve out an afternoon a week for side-projects, or debugging, or long-term goals. Have a clear part of this where you think about what you’re putting off and what it’d be valuable to do
      • It’s important to make this feel sacrosanct, not something you’re willing to give up for short-term important things. The entire point is that you can’t trust yourself to trade-off short-term against long-term goals
    • In a weekly review, record what you have achieved towards your long-term goals. Make it feel the default that you put something down each week. And if you consistently don’t, this is a big deal.
  • Another framing: Imagine you had a year of free time, and make a list of at least 20 things you’d do with that time - projects you’d work on, new things you’d try, problems in a life you could try to resolve, something you’d always wanted to learn. Then, at the end, go back through that list and ask yourself which of those you could do now.
    • 20 is a deliberately ambitious number, set yourself a 20 minute timer while generating these. It’s easy to confuse the feeling of “this is hard to generate” with “this is impossible to generate”
    • I find this framing valuable, because it’s simulating a life where I have a lot of Slack. Some of the ideas will be too ambitious, but some are small enough that I could do them around my day-to-day life! It just takes a reframing to realise I care enough to make time for them.

Resolving

If the above steps worked, and you catch macro-procrastination, then this reduces to the problem of normal procrastination. And you can use whatever your standard toolkit is for that. But you need to take actually doing something about it seriously! Unlike for tasks with deadlines, if you let it slip, it’s much less likely that you’ll pick it up again.

I think a key step here is ensuring that you have slack in your life. Have enough spare capacity that you can make time for important and non-urgent things. If it feels like you need to sacrifice something else important in your life to make time for your long-term goals, maybe you have too much stuff in your life? Working towards your long-term goals is good, and virtuous, and what matters. And if it feels like a sacrifice, I think something is going wrong.

Another thing I find valuable is having scaffold systems. Existing systems that make it very easy to commit my future self to tasks. Some of my favourite scaffold systems:

  • Having a calendar, and sticking to what’s in it. So to ensure something gets done, I just need to make time for it
  • Using friends for accountability - telling them I intend to do something, and asking them to remind me
    • Or even public commitments, if you’re feeling bold!
  • Financial accountability - making commitment, and losing money if I break it
    • My favourite method here is to ask a friend to hold me accountable, and to pay them if I fail

When I notice myself procrastinating on something, step one is to come up with a concrete idea of the first step, and then to use a scaffold system to ensure I actually do it.

Applying this

I think it’s very easy to think about this kind of problem in the abstract, conceive of it as mostly something that happens to other people, and move on. But I expect this is something that applies to your life (unless you are an unusually exceptional person, in which case kudos!). And there are no deadlines attached to this problem. This will continue to be a problem, until and unless you do something about it.

I gave an exercise in the introduction, and I’ll repeat it here: “Set a 5 minute timer, and list the things you are macro-procrastinating about”. We often know what we’re neglecting on some level, and framing the question right can make this clear. If you skipped over this step earlier, I would highly recommend actually taking five minutes to think about it now.

Some prompts:

  • What would you like to get round to some day?
  • What’s currently missing in your life?
  • What is your biggest bottleneck?
  • What are your long-term goals, and which haven’t you made progress on recently?
  • What do you keep putting off?

Some things I think should be on almost everyone’s long-term goal list:

  • Careers - thinking about options, skill-building, thinking long-term and seeking advice
  • Learning new things, exploring, and finding new things
  • Finding a stable, loving romantic relationship
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating healthily
  • Working on your mental health
  • Sleeping well
  • Having a good social network, emotional support and friends you value
  • Building good meta-skills - being reflective, good at introspecting, good at fixing problems in your life

Are there any of those that you value and are neglecting?

At this stage, it’s easy to make excuses. I’m busy! Time is scarce! I can’t do everything! Sometimes this is just BS and a desire to put off effort, and sometimes these are legitimate. So how can you tell the difference?

I find the following litmus test useful:

  • Would I be sad if, one year from now, I still hadn’t got round to it?
    • If you wouldn’t be sad, this probably isn’t that important!
  • And if so, imagine it’s one year from now and you haven’t gotten round to it. Are you surprised by this?

If it passes both tests, this is important. And I think often, the right next step is to do something right now! But if you still feel like you’re too busy, ask when you will next not be busy. If there’s no good time, then you’re macro-procrastinating, and should do it now rather than never. And if there is a better time, what can you do right now to ensure that the default action is that you actually do it when you’re less busy?

Often you will need to give up something in the short-term to resolve macro-procrastination! We all have limited time, energy, and capacity to get shit done. Everything is a trade-off. And trade-offs are painful to think about! But trade-offs are bad, not because of this pain, but because you have to lose something! And this loss is unavoidable. If you don’t think about it, you don’t avoid a loss, you just give up your ability to choose.

Conclusion

Macro-procrastination is an important and universal problem. And it matters. There is nobody forcing you to solve it. There are no deadlines. There are no obvious negative consequences. Just the creeping opportunity cost of slowly missing out on some goals, and not being as awesome and actualised as I could be. Not being as happy as I could be.

And it’s easy to orient towards this with guilt, and I am deliberately trying to build pressure to do something about this. But I also think this is an opportunity to become the kind of person I want to be. Somebody who is active, not passive. Somebody who can prioritise well, be an agent. Somebody who actually does things. And if macro-procrastination is a problem you suffer from, this is an opportunity for you to do something about it.

So if the ideas in this post resonated with you, do something about it! Notice what you are currently macro-procrastinating about, and take steps to resolve it. And systematise it, so this will be less of a problem when it inevitably bites your future self. Make the default state of the world that you won’t macro-procrastinate. Build systems and backstops. Any particular goal isn’t urgent, but it won’t be resolved by itself. You’ll need to do something about it.

It’s easy to read a post like this, agree, but ultimately change nothing. I expect most people reading this post will do so. The default state of the world is that you’ll do nothing about it, and your problems will continue to be problems. And so now you have a choice, about the kind of person you want to be. And you can’t avoid this choice, just abdicate your capacity to choose and run with the default.

So, what are you putting off? And what are you going to do about it? Which choice brings you closer to the person you want to be?

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