There are many things I would like to do, or even to make a habit of doing… and yet I procrastinate a lot. 

Yeah, I know, pretty uncommon, right?

It’s pretty easy to find, either here or elsewhere, a lot of methods to fight procrastination, that work more or less well. Most of those will involve, at least as part of the process, things like making to-do lists, or generally some kind of writing down that [some specific thing] is what you want to be productive about, what you want to get done. Similarly (and sometimes even more so) with things that aren’t obviously to-do lists, like Beeminder, where you have to commit to having a look at your goal page every day and keep a log of how you’ve been doing.

In my case, it seems like most of what these things do is to create aversion and defeat their own purpose.

I’ve tried Beeminder, failed to keep up with my commitment once, read that post about how it was no reason to give up entirely… and gave up anyway. Beeminder was now something I could fail, so I started to avoid thinking of it, to avoid thinking of that commitment. I still have that goal there on the app, and have been dutifully adding a data point every day, but at this point I’m just making them up. I’ve similarly tried making to-do lists, but they just seem to drift away from me like stereotypical New Year resolutions, which I assume is again some kind of avoidance: do I want to be reminded every day that I won’t have the time to do everything I’ve got to do, after all? Do I want to see yesterday’s tasks pile up at the top of this morning’s list? No! And so, it starts with ‘finally, a convenient system to keep track of my goals!’, and I do it for a day, two days, a week… and then two weeks later I’ve forgotten about it entirely. (me suddenly remembering a cool new tool for making to-do list I was supposedly using may or may not have been what sparked the writing of this question…). 

As I’m writing this, I realise I’m talking about the phenomenon of avoidance in general much more than about to-do list and similar tools specifically. Maybe I’m just worse at avoidance than other people, and the goal-tracking systems at my disposal are already as good as those get? That’s very much a possibility. Yet, productivity issues and issues with achieving goals similar to what I’m describing seem both common and likely to be often caused by the same sort of avoidance mechanisms I’m talking about, so maybe people who design productivity and goal-tracking systems did find a way to solve that problem? 
Hence my question: is there a better way? Are there good goal-tracking systems that won’t create that kind of avoidance? Or other advice on how to minimise avoidance in goal-tracking?

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People mention Beeminder as if it is some golden standard of procrastination therapy. I'd like to push back on that a little. Beeminder is built on the assumption that the main thing that stops you from being productive is a lack of reminders. If that is true, then Beeminder is indeed the right tool for you. But if that it false, then Beeminder is a wrong tool for you, because it is trying to solve a problem that you do not have.

Possible problems other than lack of reminders:

  • maybe you are so scared of failure that it makes you freeze;
  • or you are unconsciously scared of success, because on some level you are aware that it will unset the social balance you currently have (e.g. some people like you because they feel that they are smarter that you; if you succeed, they may start feeling stupid compared to you, and they may start to hate you... which is what you are unconsciously trying to avoid all the time);
  • another reason to be afraid of success is that maybe then people will start expecting more from you, and you are afraid you will not be able to do that, but you will also no longer have the excuse that you are unable to do it;
  • or maybe it's just wrong conditioning, like every time you think about the work you need to do, you keep telling yourself "I am stupid, I am so stupid" (or "lazy", etc.), and thus your brain makes you forget about it, to protect you from bad feelings;
  • or maybe you actually don't want to do the thing - you only do it because of external pressure, and you are afraid to admit it because that would get you in conflict with the source of the external pressure, which you want to avoid;
  • maybe the task doesn't even make sense (or maybe it did in the past, but now the situation has changed or you got better information), but you can't give up, because you do not have an alternative plan;

...probably many more reasons.

Or maybe it is all biology, like ADHD wired your brain the wrong way, or the lack of potassium prevents your neurons from functioning properly.


What helps me, is some kind of social support. Either doing things together with someone (e.g. pair programming), or just having someone supportive stand next to me while I work, or willing to discuss my work plans with me.

But I know people who find this annoying, and who say that what helps them is some kind of pressure, like a deadline, or an "accountability buddy" who would express disapproval when the work is not done. (I find this annoying and unhelpful.)

Making notes is generally helpful, because sometimes the problem is forgetting or not paying attention. But there are also situations when I am perfectly aware of what needs to be done, or I am looking directly at the reminder, and I just... don't do it anyway.


Reading the article again, I think you might be similar to me in the sense that pressure only creates more aversion. I think it might be useful to re-frame the "to do" lists as a list of "inspirations what could be done". That is, don't treat putting something on the list as creating an obligation, but rather as a suggestion of one of many possible things that you could do if you found yourself in the right mood. That means, there is no "to-do list for today", but rather an eternally updating database of good ideas that could be done.

But if your problem is that you urgently need to do some of that and yet somehow you can't, that is not a problem of list-keeping. The to-do list may even do harm, in the sense that putting this super-urgent thing in a list of other less-urgent things allows you to stop focusing on that one thing, and instead just abstractly despair about the list as a whole. You can even pick the least important thing on the list, do it, and call it a day.

(Here again, people are different. Some people say that accomplishing an easy task first creates a "success spiral", when they gradually feel encouraged taking on more and more difficult tasks. For me it is often the other way round; after accomplishing a relatively simple task or two, I conclude that this is enough and I deserve a break.)

If I desperately needed to do one thing, I would probably ask a competent friend to hold my hand and help me overcome the aversion until the task is completed. That might require a lot of their time, and possibly a lot of trust on my side.

David Gross


FWIW, some tips on how to improve your resolve here: Notes on Resolve

Gesild Muka


Could you perhaps share your to-do lists with other people who have a stake in your productivity? Would that give you more motivation to follow through with the items on the list?

Could be. But there’s a lot of things I mostly want to do for myself, so I don’t know

well this might be an issue right there. you might have too many ideas for goals and habits to track and manage easily. thus, you might have issues with prioritization. good way to solve this is to start small. select one goal, then you don't even need any goal tracking, it's hard to forget one thing ) there are so many articles pointing to this idea of single-tasking, then after you will learn to manage one goal well, you can do two at a time, etc... for a to-do list (for achieving that one selected goal) just carry a small notebook on your pocket. for tracking habits use the same notebook, and I would also recommend this spreadsheet: As you are writing about conflicted feelings and avoidance, I wold also recommend a mental health checkup and trying therapy, that never hurts anyways )
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Do you also tend to avoid confrontations and social opportunities?

Well… erm…

Yes. Definitely.

I can see how it can sort of be related to avoidance behaviours in general, but I’m still somewhat curious why you’d ask that question.

Your complaint is that you do not take obvious steps to move your life forward. There are many possible reasons for that: ADHD, chronic depression, chronic lack of motivation caused by playing video games too much or pursuing another safe easy superstimulus (e.g., LW and other opportunities to learn all the time) too much, being physically tired all the time and not even realizing you are tired all the time, frontal-lobe brain deficits.

What you've written here and in 1 or 2 of your previous questions on this site (not even counting the comment I am replying to) increases my likelihood by about a factor of 4 that a main cause is that you have an avoidant attachment style (which is a persistent effect of childhood experiences). An example of something that went into that update is your "As I’m writing this, I realise I’m talking about the phenomenon of avoidance in general much more than about to-do list and similar tools specifically".

How a condition or "personality style" which is mainly about how you relate to other people can interfere with your ability to do even solitary work is explained here specifically in the 9 or so paragraphs starting at the heading "Inner World" and ending in "The coping strategies that sabotage the information flow from other people also sabotage the information flow inside a single mind."

I have an avoidant attachment style, and have been helped by Heidi Priebe's Youtube channel.

Very interesting comment, thanks! What you say about attachment styles is really quite possible, but what you say above that definitely rings a bell. I can’t tell if the causation goes "ADHD/depression/whatever =>> watching YT videos and binge-reading LW and doomscrolling X" or more simply "superstimuli =>> can’t get anythings else done", but superstimuli are definitely a part of the equation.

Which is an issue: given that I have to spend a significant fraction of my day browsing online reports and things, and given that I seem to have relatively little self-control with that sort of things… how do I stop pursuing safe easy superstimuli all the time, if I can’t just go live in a cave and completely cut my access to it?

I know I’m far from the only one to have this problem, and that many have been trying to solve it, but I’ve never met a solution that worked really well.

Most of the harm in superstimuli comes from the lack of a need for personal effort to obtain the gratification (and the lack of a need to run any risk). Life for a person is supposed to be rewarding and gratifying (or at least to hold out a realistic chance of becoming rewarding and gratifying), but obtaining those rewards is supposed to take effort (and patience, discomfort and some risk or danger).

I personally have found that if I impose on myself the rule that I am not allowed any superstimuli till I've done at least a few hours of work that day, what superstimuli I do use seems to prove less harmful to me even though my brain knows that the only reason the reward consistently follows the effort is because of a bullshit rule I've imposed on myself as opposed to being an unavoidable property of the environment.

Also, if you can manage (e.g., during a vacation) to avoid superstimuli for a month, your motivation should return to almost-normal or almost-healthy levels if the superstimuli were the cause of the motivational problem because 30 days is about how long it takes for the "dopaminergic" circuits in the brain to return to their normal levels of sensitivity. I.e., a "dopamine fast" can be a good diagnostic tool if you can sustain the fast for a month or at least most of a month.

ADDED. For a while I was keeping my cable modem unplugged till 11 AM every day (and I don't have any games or porn on my computer). That is not possible in some jobs I realize.

This seems like a particularly actionable version of common-sense advice! Thanks a lot, will try

If we define when you usually wake up as 06:00 (regardless of what time everyone else thinks it is) getting light in your eyes between 23:00 and 05:00 tends to sap motivation (the next day and the days after that) via a mechanism well-explored by neuroscientists involving signals sent from the eye to the habenula and then on to the "motivational circuits" -- especially blue light and especially especially UV light, which incandescents and fluorescents emit a little of, but LED lights emit none of (so if you might shine a light in the middle of the night, make sure it is an LED light, preferably a yellowish or orange-ish one).

The same exposure to light also makes it harder to get to sleep at normal or healthy hour the next night, which tempts you to keep a light on because lying awake in the dark when you should be sleeping but cannot is boring, which of course perpetuates the cycle.

Avoiding superstimuli and avoiding light in the middle of the night are the first interventions most people should try for increasing "dopamine and consequently motivation and drive", but there are many other levers you could pull, and Andrew Huberman seems to be an expert on the subject.

I am also curious about this association. Is it just that in your experience these traits are correlated?