When you procrastinate, you're probably not procrastinating because of the pain of working.

How do I know this?  Because on a moment-to-moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.

(Bolded because it's true, important, and nearly impossible to get your brain to remember - even though a few moments of reflection should convince you that it's true.)

So what is our brain flinching away from, if not the pain of doing the work?

I think it's flinching away from the pain of the decision to do the work - the momentary, immediate pain of (1) disengaging yourself from the (probably very small) flow of reinforcement that you're getting from reading a random unimportant Internet article, and (2) paying the energy cost for a prefrontal override to exert control of your own behavior and begin working.

Thanks to hyperbolic discounting (i.e., weighting values in inverse proportion to their temporal distance) the instant pain of disengaging from an Internet article and paying a prefrontal override cost, can outweigh the slightly more distant (minutes in the future, rather than seconds) pain of continuing to procrastinate, which is, once again, usually more painful than being in the middle of doing the work.

I think that hyperbolic discounting is far more ubiquitous as a failure mode than I once realized, because it's not just for commensurate-seeming tradeoffs like smoking a cigarette in a minute versus dying of lung cancer later.

When it comes to procrastinating, the obvious, salient, commensurate-seeming tradeoff, is between the (assumed) pleasure of reading a random Internet article now, versus the (assumed) pain of doing the work now.  But this, as I said above, is not where I think the real tradeoff is; events that are five minutes away are too distant to dominate the thought process of a hyperbolic discounter like a human.  Instead our thought processes are dominated by the prospective immediate pain of a thought, a cost that isn't even salient as something to be traded off.  "Working" is an obvious, salient event, and "reading random articles" seems like an event.  But "paying a small twinge of pain to make the decision to stop procrastinating now, exerting a bit of frontal override, and not getting to read the next paragraph of this random article" is so map-level that we don't even focus on it as a manipulable territory, a cost to be traded off; it is a transparent thought.

The real damage done by hyperbolic discounting is for thoughts that are only very slightly painful, and yet, these slight pains being immediate, they manage to dominate everything else in our calculation.  And being transparent, we aren't even aware that's what's happening.  "Beware of immediately trivially painful transparent thoughts", one might say.

Similarly, you may read a mediocre book for an hour, instead of a good book, because if you first spent a few minutes to search your library to obtain a better book, that would be an immediate cost - not that searching your library is all that unpleasant, but you'd have to pay an immediate activation cost to do that instead of taking the path of least resistance and grabbing the first thing in front of you.  It's a hyperbolically discounted tradeoff that you make without realizing it, because the cost you're refusing to pay isn't commensurate enough with the payoff you're forgoing to be salient as an explicit tradeoff.

A related note that I might as well dump into this post:  I'm starting to think that procrastination by reading random articles does not cause you to rest, that is, you do not regain mental energy from it.  Success and happiness cause you to regain willpower; what you need to heal your mind from any damage sustained by working is not inactivity, but reliably solvable problems which reliably deliver experienced jolts of positive reinforcement.  Putting in the effort to read a good book may do this; playing a good computer game may do this; reading random Internet articles, or playing bad games, probably won't.  Literal mental exhaustion might mean that you don't have enough energy left to read a good book - or that you don't have enough energy left to pay the immediate cost of searching your library for good reading material instead of mediocre reading material - but in this case you shouldn't be reading random online articles.  You should be sitting with your eyes closed listening to music, or possibly even napping; if dealing with a truly exhausted brain, reading random articles is probably too much effort.

If you don't feel good while reading a lot of forgettable online articles, and you don't feel renewed after doing so, your intuitive theory which says that this is how to rest is mistaken, and you need to look for other ways to rest instead - more active ways to regain willpower, less active ways to recover from immediate exhaustion.  In general, poor performance often indicates poor models; if something seems incredibly difficult to predict or manipulate, it may be that you have mistaken beliefs about it, including transparent mistakes that are nonquestioned because they are nonsalient.  This includes poor performance on the problem of resting.

Hopefully publishing this post will help me live up to it.

Moderation Guidelines: Reign of Terror - I delete anything I judge to be annoying or counterproductiveexpand_more

Here's a theory about one of the things that causes procrastination to be so hard to beat. I'm curious what people think of it.

  1. Hypothesis: Many parts of the mind are influenced by something like reinforcement learning, where the emotional valances of our thoughts function as a gross reward signal that conditions their behaviors.

  2. Reinforcement learning seems to have a far more powerful effect when feedback is instant.

  3. We think of procrastinating as a bad thing, and tend to internally punish ourselves when we catch ourselves doing it.

  4. Therefore, the negative feedback signal might end up exerting a much more powerful training effect on the "catcher" system (aka. whatever is activating frontal override) rather than on whatever it is that triggered the procrastination in the first place.

  5. This results in a simple counter-intuitive piece of advice: when you catch yourself procrastinating, it might be a very bad idea to internally berate yourself about it; Thoughts of the form "%#&%! I'm procrastinating again! I really shouldn't do that!" might actually cause more procrastinating in the long run. If I had to guess, things like meditation would be helpful for building up the skill required to catch the procrastination-berating subsystem in the act and get it to do something else.

TL;DR: It would probably be hugely helpful to try to train oneself to make the "flinch" less unpleasant.

This sounds reasonable. What sort of thought would you recommend responding with after noticing oneself procrastinating? I'm leaning towards "what would I like to do?"

Offhand, I'm guessing the very first response ought to be "Huzzah! I caught myself procrastinating!" in order to get the reverse version of the effect I mentioned. Then go on to "what would I like to do?"

I've been able to implement something like this to great effect. Every time I notice that I've been behaving in a very silly way, I smile broadly, laugh out loud and say "Ha ha! Gotcha!" or something to that effect. I only allow myself to do this in cases where I've actually gained new information: Noticed a new flaw, noticed an old flaw come up in a new situation, realized that an old behavior is in fact undesirable, etc. This positively reinforces noticing my flaws without doing so to the undesirable behavior itself.

This is even more effective when implemented in response to someone else pointing out one of my flaws. It's a little more difficult to carry out because I have to suppress a reflex to retaliate/defend myself that doesn't come up as much when I'm my own critic, but when I succeed it almost completely eliminates the social awkwardness that normally comes with someone critiquing me in public.

Every time I notice that I've been behaving in a very silly way, I smile broadly, laugh out loud and say "Ha ha! Gotcha!" or something to that effect.

If I did this I'd be shouting "Gotcha!" all the live long day.

Let me tell you about this morning. I mostly work from home, but showing up at the office is very useful. So much stuff works better face to face. It saves a lot of faff on IRC. And the connection is faster.

I got up in good time, had a proper breakfast, very nice cup of tea thank you, got myself ready, got on a curiously uncrowded tube train with no copies of Metro (that's your foreboding, I shall point out), got to work, and ... the large iron gates were chained shut.

Because today is the New Year bank holiday.

If I'd procrastinated, of course, I'd have been in bed till eleven like I'd much have preferred to be.

This was a pretty much mathematically perfect example of doing exactly the right things to get something done, except for the fact of doing it at all.

Edit: And today I showed up when people were actually here. My co-workers find me having shown up yesterday hilarious. The perfect employee: dedicated and stupid. The Book of the SubGenius does say that when you foul up, you should crow about it and call great attention to it and you will be thought of as a creative genius.

but when I succeed it almost completely eliminates the social awkwardness that normally comes with someone critiquing me in public.

Agreed! I started using this response to criticism several years ago, and actually got a compliment on it. I never thought of applying it to my own criticisms of myself, though...good idea.

Another possibility, accidentally just discovered by me right now, was that simply reading the title of this article in my RSS feed got me to realize that my desk was a total mess (that's been bothering me for months now), so instead of reading it, I cleaned my desk. Then I read it.

So just reading the title of this post could be enough to get some things done.

This makes lot of sense to me. In the kind of meditation I'm trying, you are supposed to concentrate on your breath. Instructions usually say that, if you mind wanders, just put attention back on the breath in a non-judgemental way. Don't put yourself down.

What's more, I once read that, when you notice your mind has been wandering, you should be happy because you had a moment of awareness and an opportunity to learn concentration. That's like saying "Huzzah! I caught my mind wandering!"

In the past few years a number of studies have shown that self-forgiveness reduces procrastination. You seem to have uncovered the causal mechanism that accounts for these findings.

We don't need to re-invent the wheels of research on procrastination by practicing one-sample phenomenology. Much is known about procrastination via peer-reviewed scientific research, and those interested in beating procrastination might want to employ the rationality virtue of scholarship and begin there.

A recent overview of the relevant research papers begins here.

That said, Eliezer may be on to something that should be researched by professional psychologists.

Thank you for the reference, looks like a good book. I thought this part regarding motives for procrastination was interesting:

More recently, Sapadin and Maguire (1997) have also classified procrastinators into types: the "perfectionist" who dreads doing anything that is less than perfect, the "dreamer" who has great ideas but hates doing the details, the "worrier" who doesn't think things are right but fears that changes will make them worse, the "defier" who resists doing anything suggested or expected by someone else, the "crisis-maker" who manages to find or make a big problem in any project (often by starting too late), and the "over-doer" who takes on way too many tasks.

Also there's this bit on how to address the problem using college students' studying as an example (p. 83):

Most people have to overcome procrastination gradually. Studying, like drinking, is usually in binges. Almost no one has trouble studying (a little) the night before a big exam. But without the pressure of an exam, many students find it easy to forget studying. I'd suggest breaking big jobs down into manageable tasks and working on "getting started," perhaps by tricking yourself by saying "I'll just do five minutes" and then finding out you don't mind working longer than five minutes. This is called the "five minute plan." The key is to learn the habit of getting started on a task early, i.e. the procrastinator needs to learn to initiate well in advance studying and preparing for papers and exams. Practice starting studying several times every day. As with exercising, getting in control of starting and making it a routine are the secrets.

More recently, Sapadin and Maguire (1997) have also classified procrastinators into types

It would be more accurate to say that these are classifications of types of procrastination patterns; I have personally done every single one of the behaviors described in the quote!

It would be more accurate to say that these are classifications of types of procrastination patterns;

Yes. I was going to point out that the concept that there is some fundamental behavior type that can be attributed to people seems, well, in error.

More likely to be patterns, as you said, and I would guess there are some underlying systems that have these these common patterns as effective solutions for procrastination - but how would you even measure "effective procrastination"? How completely you avoid something?

The key is to learn the habit of getting started on a task early, i.e. the procrastinator needs to learn to initiate well in advance studying and preparing for papers and exams. Practice starting studying several times every day. As with exercising, getting in control of starting and making it a routine are the secrets.

I note that making things like studying and exercising habits is not necessary to get them done regularly. It is possible to get these done by setting reminders for yourself, instead of making them habits. Making them habits may, of course, be a good idea.

I also don't think all procrastination is "not restful" or "doesn't really make you happy." We'd like to believe that -- just as we'd like to believe that unhealthy food doesn't really taste that good. It would make it seem that there are no real sacrifices to be made. But I don't think that's the case.

My most time-consuming forms of procrastination are socializing (online or in person) and, oddly enough, learning. I had a period when I was obsessed with learning about economic policy, and then a period when I was obsessed with learning about computer vision. Spending time with your friends, and learning interesting things in a non-stressful context, are fun. They make you feel high on life. They even make you feel productive. They're only procrastination in the sense that they're not what you're paid to do -- "Work is whatever a body is obliged to do, and play is whatever a body is not obliged to do," in Mark Twain's words.

So there's some perverse impulse to do anything but the activity labeled "work," which carries the dread association of duty, and makes you think unpleasant thoughts like "am I worthy enough?" If my job were writing policy for a think tank, I'd probably spend all day on the web reading about algebraic topology.

I think it's flinching away from the pain of the decision to do the work - the momentary, immediate pain of (1) disengaging yourself from the (probably very small) flow of reinforcement that you're getting from reading a random unimportant Internet article, and (2) paying the energy cost for a prefrontal override to exert control of your own behavior and begin working.

The second item seems like an unnecessary hypothesis. One can simply note that stopping an activity that is currently pleasurable is difficult, if the substitute is not as pleasurable. Getting out of a comfy bed, for example, or not jumping into the swimming pool.

Either way, though, it's such an utterly trivial form of procrastination that it seems like an insult to procrastinators to call it procrastination... which leads me to suspect that your formulation is omitting some other sort of pain in the decision making process, such as an "ugh field" surrounding the subject matter.

For example, if it's painful to decide to work on MoR, it might be because it primes thoughts of people clicking their refresh buttons like conditioned pigeons, or residual feelings of obligation from previous deadline commitments. Even an extremely mild unconscious "ugh" in response to such thoughts would be likely to occur when thinking about writing, but not during the actual writing, and would be more than sufficient to keep the inertia happening... possibly even after you become aware of the existence of the inertia.

tl;dr: The twinge we flinch away from is likely an ugh field associated with meta-level thoughts about the activity, rather than a generalized pain of deciding.

(Among other reasons, the first is easily implemented by evolution as a side-effect or simple bug in an adaptive behavior, while the latter is just weird from a purely adaptive POV. We already demonstrably have "ugh fields", so adding another entity for "decision pain" seems unnecessary)

Either way, though, it's such an utterly trivial form of procrastination that it seems like an insult to procrastinators to call it procrastination... which leads me to suspect that your formulation is omitting some other sort of pain in the decision making process, such as an "ugh field" surrounding the subject matter.

I procrastinate paying my taxes, and other tasks that involve financial calculations. Just this morning I was wondering why it's so distasteful to me; and I remembered that in college, for 12 years, I usually managed most of the bills for me and 3-4 housemates; and every month, getting people to own up to and pay for their part of the phone bill was one of the most stressful things I had to do that month.

The theory sounds good, but I think it important to test ideas before believing them. One way of testing your hypothesis—that it is really hard to over-ride the immediate discomfort of an unpleasant decision—is to look at whether aversions of comparable or greater magnitude are hard to override. I think the answer in general is 'no.' Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

One answer I'd anticipate is that the procrastination effect (for work but not swimming) is "nearly impossible to get your brain to remember." But what about the fact that when we do remember, it doesn't solve the problem. (If it solves yours, I'll concede this point.)

Another way of testing your hypothesis is to determine how adaptive or unadaptive if, as you suggest, the bare fact of making a decision is inherently very difficult. Much of the adaptive advantage of thought is insulating the organism from the effects of carrying out the act, including, one should think, from the emotional effects. An adaptive design would compensate for any hyperbolic discounting by making the decision much less aversive or, why not, even pleasurable—which is my experience of the deciding process.

A different explanation for procrastination—one which can help overcome it—is that when we procrastinate we're self-deceived about our preparedness for the task; we inarticulately perceive that doing the tasks out of order would harm the product. The solution, obviously, would then be to figure out what preparatory work you're neglecting and do it instead. I only claim validity for procrastination in writing: there's something to be said for starting small. Here's my series in defense, "On the irreversibility of writing: Procrastination and writer's block—Part 1. Premature composition limits thought and weakens style." It's in three parts, starting here: http://tinyurl.com/37skhks

Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

I usually wind up standing by the pool for a good ten minutes, or until one of my brothers shoves me in...

Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

...I just realized why I so rarely go swimming.

I really don't think your brain predicts the momentary pain of entering cold water before you even leave the house.

Well, no, it predicts the momentary pain as you stand by the pool, and you stand by the pool hesitating for ages. Eventually your brain starts to predict standing by the pool feeling awkward before you leave the house.

A similar phenomenon can occur in programming. I've learned not to worry too much about procrastination in writing code, because when I think I should be coding and yet somehow can't motivate myself to get started, nine times out of ten I realize next day that my understanding of the problem was inadequate, and any code I had forced myself to write would have had to be thrown away and redone.

When I'm procrastinating about chores, by contrast, it is indeed a matter of flinching away from the small pain of getting started, and once I do manage to get moving, it's less painful to keep moving than it was to procrastinate.

A different explanation for procrastination—one which can help overcome it—is that when we procrastinate we're self-deceived about our preparedness for the task; we inarticulately perceive that doing the tasks out of order would harm the product.

Yes! Yes, yes, yes.

This is exactly what I've experienced myself. When I'm procrastinating on a major piece of code I need to write it's almost always because I am uncertain that the structure of the code I've decided on is correct, or, worse, that the subsystem the code is for is itself an unneeded or misguided component of the final project.

When I have a laundry list of things to code and I am confident that all the items are necessary and properly thought out I am more motivated the longer the list!

hypothesis—that it is really hard to over-ride the immediate discomfort of an unpleasant decision—is to look at whether aversions of comparable or greater magnitude are hard to override. I think the answer in general is 'no.' Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

I can't agree with you - it most definitely does produce a problematic hesitation. If you're bringing this example, then I'd say that it is evidence that the general answer is 'yes', at least for a certain subpopulation of homo sapiens.

I am most definitely a member of that subpopulation. At a swimming pool, peer pressure quickly kicks in. But at a shallow beach, I can procrastinate in waist-high water for minutes.

I think the answer in general is 'no.' Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

I was under the impression that most people hesitated considerably dealing with that barrier. Perhaps I paid more attention to people whose behavior resembled my own.

Thank you. This is exactly what I needed right now.

Eliezer, I hope you will take it as a form of high praise rather than insult that I stopped reading your article halfway through, typed this short comment, and am now going back to do some much-needed work.

(Hopefully I'll get back to reading the rest later.)

being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.

I've often heard people say things to the effect of work not being so unpleasant once you've actually gotten into the swing of it, but I've never found that to be the case. I generally only find the act of working less painful than procrastinating when I'm right up against a deadline. Otherwise, even a half hour or so into it, it still feels easier to stop than continue. I'm also quite terrible at creating self imposed deadlines.

In order to increase the pain of procrastination, and the reward of working, I find it extremely helpful to have someone else waiting on me to get it done. It's much harder for me to bear disappointing others than failing to meet my own goals.

I suspect that this is partly to do with the kind of work. When I'm working my current day job (computer programming), or writing, or composing music, then that's pretty enjoyable once I get started. When I was working my old job (as a nursing assistant on a psychiatric ward) or if I have to clean the toilet, or wash the dishes or something, then that's clearly less pleasant than procrastinating. I suspect that in Eliezer's case, given that he's engaged in work that is intellectually stimulating and which he considers the most important thing possible for him to be doing, that most of his work falls into the former category, rather than the latter...

How unpleasant work is, I believe, depends a lot on what part of your work it is.

My work is math. Making progress on math -- learning a new concept, figuring out a proof -- is not only fun, but so addictive that I can't stand to stop it once I'm doing it. Being stuck on math -- incomprehension or being stumped -- is absolutely miserable. You can't do anything but sit and think about how pathetic you are. It is probably not as unpleasant as cleaning toilets (math doesn't literally make your back hurt) but it's up there.

So in my case I think when I procrastinate I'm running away from the more unpleasant part of work (being stumped and confused). Even intellectually stimulating work can suck now and then because it's not always stimulating. A writer has fun writing from time to time -- but writer's block is no fun at all, and I suspect that writers procrastinate when they're blocked, not when they're inspired.

You can't do anything but sit and think about how pathetic you are.

If you mean this statement literally, then it's a problem with your beliefs, not with math. Do you believe that you should be able to solve something that you're stuck on? If so, consider switching your thought to, "I don't like it that I haven't solved this yet". This is not the same as judging yourself pathetic based on a "should" thought.

I have been observing lately that many forms of chronic stress are a special case of "not noticing that I am confused", in that they can be traced to an "is/ought" confusion.

What we believe "should" be seems to push emotional buttons calling for social signaling and protest against reality, rather than actions to change reality.

Thus, when the facts come into conflict with shoulds about ourselves, we respond by defaming/punishing the transgressor (i.e., ourselves), rather than paying attention to what behavior change(s) we need to make.

This seems like a plausible explanation for why so many self-help materials talk about the need to accept one's self as-is, and claim it to be essential for making real behavior change. That is, it might be literally true!

Yeah, it's the "should" part. Work is enjoyable -- spending time thinking "I should have been able to do this long ago" is not enjoyable.

Yeah, it's the "should" part. Work is enjoyable -- spending time thinking "I should have been able to do this long ago" is not enjoyable.

Right -- so drop the moral outrage of the idea.

Behind that "should" is a generalized moral principle, most likely in the form of a generalization over a class of people and an assigned moral status... which could be something like, "People who can't solve easy problems are stupid", carrying a further implication like, "stupid people are pathetic", or something of that sort.

If you realize that these "morals" are not the same thing as your "values" -- i.e., that you may value being smart or capable, but this is NOT the same thing as saying you're bad/pathetic/whatever if you don't achieve some particular thing, then you can drop the "ought" part of the belief, and turn off the self-punishment reflex.

While this takes conscious effort to do, you only need to do it once for each generalized "moral precept" that you carry in relation to the subject matter. The difficult part lies in that we also have a "punish the non-punishers" reflex, and so that reflex may have already told you that I'm a bad person for implying that stupid people shouldn't be considered pathetic, because then they'd get the wrong idea about their stupidity. ;-)

Once you realize, though, that any given moral judgment is inherently circular, and exists only to motivate our protest and punishment instincts, and that you will still value whatever you value, independent of the protest/punishment instinct, then that particular judgment will cease to drive self-punishment and other-punishment.

(Yeah: one interesting side-effect of doing this is that one becomes less self-righteous in one's interactions with others -- a terrific bonus, since our instinctual moral outrage only works well on others when they already share the relevant morals or recognize your authority to establish group norms. Not being distracted by subconscious outrage does wonders for your ability to actually communicate with or motivate other people, if you indeed decide that you actually care to do so, vs. just letting them be.)

I like this. I'll try to take the advice.

It reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend last year -- not about self-help but about moral judgments of other people. I thought it was very important that I be morally outraged about other people's wrongs, that I protest, get upset, and try to stop them. My friend disagreed; he had some complicated philosophy (which I can't do justice to) about moral relativism and tolerance. The crux was that I shouldn't try to exhort everyone to be good, and I shouldn't get angry when people are not good, according to my understanding of "good". It seemed very weird to me at the time, since I have the standard (religious?) intuitions that the good should be rewarded and the bad should be punished, and that the bad damn well deserve to suffer.

I take it you would agree with my friend?

I take it you would agree with my friend?

There are definitely similarities, but my point has nothing to do with relativism or tolerance. I have no problem with judging others to be doing the wrong thing by my values, or even by their values. ;-)

What I'm saying is, if I want someone else to actually follow my values, as opposed to merely scratching my protest-and-punishment itch, then I am better off eliminating the outrage part and focusing on what will actually convince them to follow my values... even if it might involve some sort of (consciously planned) display of outrage, protest, or punishment.

But the futility of using the punish-and-protest instinct in anything involving self-improvement becomes painfully obvious when you notice for the nine-jlllionth time that yelling at yourself doesn't actually produce any improvements, nor motivate you to do anything positive. (Somehow, we feel as if merely feeling guilty is the appropriate and sufficient response to our self-punishment!)

Somehow, we feel as if merely feeling guilty is the appropriate and sufficient response to our self-punishment!

I think that's a special case of feeling as if feeling guilty is the appropriate and sufficient response to that kind of punishment (displays of disapproval or outrage, etc.) from anyone, and that comes about because feeling guilty often is taken as the appropriate and sufficient response to that kind of punishment.

Compare to, say, a politician who's been caught selling influence or having an affair, or a religious leader who's been caught using crystal meth and gay prostitutes, etc. They always seem so sincere in their public apologies and statements of regret and remorse... yet, suspiciously, all that tearful regret and all those acknowledgements of moral failing weren't enough to get them to actually stop doing the corrupt or hypocritical things in question until they got caught and publicly shamed, and even in their admissions of guilt they will still try to avoid giving up anything of substance (political office, religious leadership, etc.) if they can. I think that's pretty much what the emotion of guilt is — it's not a feeling of regret at actually having done something wrong, it's a response to the feeling of being judged negatively by someone whose opinion matters to you (whether for instrumental or terminal reasons). That's probably why self-inflicted guilt isn't useful for self-improvement: it's an emotion that's primarily about convincing people that you regret something and won't do it again, whether or not you really do regret it and plan to stop. More signaling than substance. In the social realm, this often balances out, because the things that provoke it — public displays of outrage, etc. — are often largely signaling as well, as there are plenty of reasons to appear outraged other than actually being outraged. It's a dynamic that's good for exerting power over people who care what you (appear to) think of them, but, for obvious reasons, not so good for self-control. Yet it's not surprising that we try to guilt-punish ourselves; we all have self-images we're trying to live up to, so in that sense we care about being judged negatively by ourselves, and if your 'thinker' and 'doer' have sufficiently out-of-sync preferences, such that they feel like different people to each other, then it is no surprise that they'll often invoke adaptations and habits that formed around interpersonal dynamics. So if I'm persistently doing something that I don't want myself to do, then the part of me that wants me to live up to some higher ideals will automatically execute the "display [and maybe feel] outrage" macro, and the part of me that wants to do something else will respond by executing by the "display and feel guilt" macro... the latter macro consisting not of necessarily changing the actual behaviour, but only changing it to the extent necessary to appear remorseful to a punisher assumed to be someone other than oneself.

(— or at least that's my guess as to what's going on, and I will now go off and worry about whether it's a just-so story and whether it's useful and whether it's testable.)

Edit: This reminds me of something parents often do. Punishment of children by parents often amounts to extracting apologies and displays of remorse from the child, with no particular expectation that the child should genuinely understand and regret what they did, or at least regret it for any reason other than the punishment itself. (Being asked/forced to apologize was always what confused me the most — usually parents say "Say you're sorry!" right away without actually convincing the child they did something wrong, so being told to apologize felt to me like being asked to lie.) Anyway, since people get used to being able to get away with things as long as they make a convincing show of looking sorry after getting caught (which, after enough time being a child, probably feels almost indistinguishable from actually feeling sorry), it makes sense that they'd generalize that rule and get into the habit of responding to their own self-punishment the same way, once they're broken enough that they start inflicting that kind of self-punishment at all.

The amusing part is that then people worry that displays of remorse extracted under punishment might not be sincere.

Yes, to all of the above. I think the mechanisms for learning and execution might be a bit simpler or more fundamental to the hardware than what you've just described, but that's a relatively minor detail.

It takes a lot more than inspiration to get me writing. As with things that I consider work, I find it extremely hard to get any writing done unless someone else is imposing a deadline on me. When it comes to inspiration, I experience it more or less perpetually, but it doesn't come easily to me to make use of it of my own initiative. One solution I've tried is to provide writing for people in collaborative works, but that only works so long as the other people stick with the project.

I think you may be unusual in this respect. This post rings very true for me, especially given my relationship with exercise. In general, I do find actual work not so bad as my endless delaying would suggest it is, and this is true from important things like paying traffic tickets down to more minor ones like the daily Mnemosyne review or n-backing.

I probably am unusual in this respect, but I don't know if I'm unusual among the set of people who suffer from fairly severe ADD.