Epistemic status : A decently thought out synthesis of a few books and other sources mixed together with my own thinking. This is not professional work, does not reflect personal knowledge of an expert consensus, and was not yet fully tested. For more on the limitations and flaws of this work, go to the "Flaws" section.
TLDR, if you only want a few insights
This post is (roughly) a summary of multiple sources on how to increase productivity and well being. If you dislike introductions skip the next section.
- Improving yourself is a long term background project. Think of it like doing constant maintenance and improvements on an ever changing machine.
- Have a system of notes and planning that avoids the need the remember to think about things. Make sure you can trust it will perform adequately (ie what is written in it counts as actually remembered).
- Review often your life, your goals, your mental state, and your systems and endeavors to change said mental state (see notion of self steering bellow).
- Shape your habits. It's a way to shape your identity.
- Identify the regular patterns that lead to your usual failure modes. Find reasonably easy to implement good patterns to replace them.
- The ontologies you use are important to your psychological state and overall abilities. Choose them well (more on this bellow).
- When planning, do immediately what can be done in 2 minutes. When you have trouble working, start for 5 minutes and see if it sticks.
A few months ago I asked a question asking for recommendations of books or other sources of advice on increasing productivity. The reason to ask for those was a small project that I had been meaning to start for some time. Like many students, I often feel that I waste I lot of time when I want to work. It is far too easy to let a vague background impression that I "should" work act as a poison that impedes all my endeavors, including work.
I want and have wanted for a long time to do many things. I have many projects and ideas that "sort of" are work. To improve both my overall well being and my total yield in terms of "stuff done" I decided it would be a good first approach to start by reading from several sources of advice on the topic and then make a synthesis. When I asked my question on lesswrong I promised that if I got good answers I would make a post with the results of my project. You are currently reading the result of that promise.
I have tried to make this post easy to split. The next three sections give vocabulary, a descriptive theory, and actionable ideas. The rest of the post gives some secondary advice, a commentary on the flaws and limitations of the project as undertaken, and a list of sources (including links to secondary posts for book reviews).
I often find that a quick and easy way to improve thinking on a topic is to have the right words for it. This is because these few words can help create and stabilize a paradigm, a way to think on a topic. It is certainly common knowledge among mathematicians that the quality of notations can make life easier or much harder.
Anyway, here are four words (or simply four concepts) that I find useful to have in mind.
I found that I was lacking a proper name for the kind of endeavor this project is part of. Thus I decided to introduce my own. Perhaps it is not at all needed and I am just ignorant of a similar word.
I introduce the notion of self steering, which I describe rather than define.
Self steering covers a category of attempts and efforts to exercise influence over the way we change and think. I intend the word to be mostly about endeavors that last at least a few days and projects of self modification rather than for short term attempts.
I call "bluckan limitations" the limitations on one's ability to think and act as one desires that take their roots in emotional and psychological effects. The word bluckan itself refers to all that is linked with bluckan limitations. One's bluckan state refers to one's mindstate insofar as bluckan effects are concerned.
I call "bluckan resilience" the property of not suffering from bluckan effects. Where "self steering" designate the kind of endeavor this post is about, bluckan resilience is its goal.
Note that the concept of "bluckan" is related but not equivalent to that of akrasia. One can suffer from akrasia and still exhibit some bluckan resilience by not letting it affect themselves too much afterward. One can also recognize their inability to avoid akrasia if they decide to do and -consequently- decide to avoid doing . In that case there is no akrasia but there is some loss of opportunity caused by a the potential for akrasia through bluckan effects.
Also, feel free to replace "suffering" with "negative utility". That ought to be good enough for all practical purposes
I am not entirely convinced that the best way to think about willpower for serious reflection is as a singular scalar resource (ie, as something you can measure with a number). Nevertheless, I think it is a simple and good enough view to adopt for those without a deep understanding of the notion, among which I count myself.
However, I also advise to keep in mind that properties of our mental state that decide our "local effective willpower" are multidimensional. This can be covered by the concepts of "energy" and "motivation".
There is a feeling that corresponds to the expectation that while one isn't wounded, one will experience suffering and damage himself if he attempts to push his body. I sometime experience a feeling that seems to be the analog for mental suffering. I call it mental strain.
I know the term is somewhat standard but it seems to me that different people use it with different meanings and I do not see a clear consensus.
Theory and descriptions
I cannot truly give a good description of my entire perspective on the topic of self steering and the issues one faces when attempting to improve bluckan resilience through self steering. But I can give a few points of descriptive theories, bits and pieces of models that ought to help with your own attempts to build for yourself a perspective suited to understanding the issues that concern you. The word self steering is understood bellow as "self steering with the purpose of improving bluckan resilience".
One's general perspective (or rather perspectives) are important to self steering abilities and tactics. It is not obvious that we can cut clear lines between self steering efforts and other parts of our lives. If you want to avoid certain negative mental effects and are unwilling so think false things or to commit to certain ways of thought, you are likely increasing the difficulty of the task. Likewise, learning and improving can make the task more difficult.Which does not mean it is wrong to do so.
As an easy example, you can think of people gaining a lot of mental fortitude from their faith in nonexistent gods.
Almost a corollary to the previous point; the way to improve one's self steering ability is dependent on one's profile, even though plenty of advice applies to many people.
Small bits of error and "bad" thought can create huge negative effects. Hence, spotting our blind spots is important and can reap large benefits. This does not mean what we spot is easy to mend.
--> Another formulation might be that failure mode that occupy a small fraction of our time and attention can be responsible for a lot of damage in our lives.
Small features of our environment can shape our habits and indirectly a large part of our lives. Reducing the time it takes to start working by 5 minutes can lead to a large boost in productivity in the long run. For example, this can mean organizing your tools and cleaning up before you "actually start working".
Making decisions and hesitating consume willpower. This is one of the important ways perfectionist tendencies can be counterproductive.
As we live we create "shortcuts" in memory, this include shortcuts related to what makes us afraid or ill at ease. Hence the connection between a stimuli and a reaction can in time grow to become independent of the mental patterns that created it. When we remain broken over time, we keep breaking ourselves further, making repair work more difficult.
Judging ourselves on every action to see if we did what we "should" can quickly become quite deleterious. Warning : this doesn't mean removing the notion of "good"/"should"/"ought" from one's practical decision-making is by default a positive improvement, even where morality is not concerned. Indeed, I suspect most people cannot devise for themselves better ways to think that have no notions equivalent to these.
Advice, systems, and methods
Consider self steering, both for bluckan resilience and for other purposes, to be a background project in your life. This calls for building a main system and some subsystems devoted to changing yourself.
Have a task management system.
Same as above with more words. --> Have a system to take notes and organize your tasks and actions. Ideally, you should never trust you own mind to "think of " except in the very short term. The trick is that you need to be able to trust the system. To know that if something is written in it you can be sure it will not be forgotten. Much of the benefit is lost if you need to remember that you wrote something in the system.
Use various methods to shape your habits over time and move you in the directions you deem right. Shaping your habits can be useful on timescales as short as a few days. See my review of the book "Atomic Habits" for more on how to shape habits.
Do regular reviews of your life, notes, and endeavors (weekly reviews seem intuitive). Produce written accounts of your reviews but avoid turning them into chores. A big reason to have these review is to allow your self steering efforts to keep existing despite difficult times. Hence you need the reviews themselves to keep existing through these times. Not every review needs to account for everything but it is good to think of the followings somewhat regularly.
- The ways in which you failed .
- Self steering goals, tools, ideas, and systems. Your attempts to better yourself.
- Check out what notes you left yourself for later.
- Habit shaping goals and progress.
Reviews are also there to help decide when to think more about self steering theory and tools and when to try new things. It is normal and expected that your ideas on the topic change through time.
When organizing your work, do immediately what can be done in 2 minutes.
When you have trouble getting to work, start for 5 minutes. More often than not you won't want to stop after just 5 minutes.
Be quick to plan the next action of a given project. Write it down.
Identify your important failure modes and the patterns that go with them. Try to think of better patterns you could use to replace them.
Health, exercise, happiness, and a feeling of social integration (or especially no feeling of social frustration). Yes, you already heard most or all of those a thousand times. But it is true, quite simply, that a minimal amount of each is almost always important to productivity and well being.
Many ideas vie for your attention and waste it. Ignore a lot of things. Warning : do not let this make you unwilling to face all ideas that are difficult, unpleasant, or seemingly obviously false. The balance is hard to find and most people get it wrong.
If you end a task / project under a lot of stress it can be worth it to come back to it a few days later to check if something is wrong or if you missed something. Schedule the task when you end the project.
It should be easy to store a file / some information and be sure it will be easy to find later (or indexed / thought of later).
I consider it almost certain that meditation can be useful in several ways.
I suspect that it is many things that are grouped under a vague umbrella term. A bit like one might speak of "the stuff done by the computer whiz" to covers many things that all look the same from the outside (typing on a keyboard).
Yet more advice and small tricks
Here are a few other ideas and tricks you might find useful to improve your bluckan resilience. Do feel free to skip this section. I expect that it is almost entirely pointless for most people but contains ideas that can be important to some.
Yet another useful notion is that of degrees of planning. When planning, not everything has to be described with the same precision or decided with the same rigidity. Know how precise you are. A scale with three grades seems adequate.
- vague ideas
- a normal plan that doesn't describe well what will happen
- a precise plan
Consider self steering as a never ending side project. Most ideas and tools that are important at some point are bound to be discarded at a later point.
Be careful of the bad effects of the tendency to attribute a "grade" to yourself. Often, one keeps trying to prove oneself that one is "good" and keeps fearing being found out as "bad". Think about what you fear and what kind of failure is and isn't acceptable
Accept the degree of precision / rigidity of your self steering system will vary with time. Also, the system is bound to evolve. The reviews are part of an effort not to lose it entirely. Do not let the flame die.
Do not let work be associated with suffering in your mind.
Try to break the association between productivity and unpleasant things. Especially try to avoid you framing something as productive make it sound more unpleasant than before.
Fight against aimlessness (in those times it is obviously the enemy).
Friction (small difficulties and needs for efforts) shapes a lot of your habits and small actions. Use this to your advantage.
If one has perfectionist tendencies it can be used to shape habits and make oneself productive. Do not, however, forget the potential negative side effects.
Reinforcement learning is a good tool.
If you have emotional tendencies for endless hesitation, you can train to avoid hesitating by taking quick decisions whenever you are facing low stakes.
When it feels appropriate, stop and think about your goals and values and how they relate to the current action/project. An issue with this is that sometimes our akrasia is useful to our own benefit. Hence, you need a high degree of lucidity to avoid doing negative changes.
You are not a perfectly rational system with perfect self control / modification abilities. Do not try to emulate the characteristics of one. Especially not out of a sense of duty.
Use automatic timers to count the time since you last did something you want to make a habit. It should be impossible not to see the counter regularly. This can be used to create habits.
Flaws and future plans
Important unexplored areas
There are quite a few ideas and questions that I consider very relevant to bluckan resilience and that I have not explored. They are left for when I find the time (ha ha). Most notably :
- How motivation is created and how to increase it.
- The notion of "drive". Perhaps the distinction with the previous point isn't warranted.
- Likewise for willpower.
- Learning about real life examples of high achievers (or more generally of people with successful self steering endeavors with comparable goals and contexts). Autobiographies are probably a good way to do this, especially those that are at least indirectly focused on self steering.
Contrary to my initial plan, I didn't get to read many conflicting views. Instead, I read different views dealing with different subparts of self steering.
My advice contains some untested speculation on my part which is not clearly set apart from the rest of the content of this post. As a result, I cannot advise that you use this post as a source for factual claims.
More generally, I did not specify the sources and arguments for most of the ideas and advice given in this post. This leaves you, my dear reader, to sort what you find salient and to conduct your own thinking. I realize including justifications would have had positive effects but it also would make the post much longer and required a lot of work on my part. Hopefully the book reviews can help you with the "source" part.
I am unclear on the degree of universality of each point. I suppose some are quite specific to my own flaws while others apply to most people? Still and for example, I believe that most of the advice presented here would be pointless to a middle age shepherd.
What is this good for ?
So what good do I think this post can do ? I believe the ideas presented here to be potentially useful to quite many people of our society, especially intellectual creative professions and those who attempt to refine their ideas. I would say the lack of study of motivation and drive means the advice presented here is mostly about creating good supporting systems and tools and about solving some important problems that might "get in the way" of certain personality types. Hence, the advice here is more to help with foundational work that can help, or even be somewhat necessary, to future successes. Is it fit to help by itself ? Probably, but only to a point and under a rather limited and fuzzy set of assumptions.
References and resources
There were four main books that I read as the core sources of this project and I wrote a book review for each of them (see bellow). I received some recommendations of literature as answers to the this question I asked a few months ago. My thanks to n_murra, kyle, and jimv for their recommendations, as I used at least one from each.
The following links lead to my reviews of these books.
- Book summary : willpower by Baumeister Tierney
- Not useless advice for dealing with things you don't want to do
- Working hurts less than procrastinating, we fear the twinge of starting
- Non coercive motivation
My own past writing
A bit over a year ago I took a sabbatical to think about many topics that weighted on my mind for quite some time. I started by trying to understand a bit more what and idea or an argument is and went from there. I consider both the sabbatical and that way to start it to be among the best decisions I took. I am still very glad I did it, though I would change a great many things if I were to do it again.
Productivity and motivation were among the topics I studied and the word "bluckan" is a leftover from that time. Reading my notes from this sabbatical brought me several interesting ideas I had forgotten.
- Zen philosophy. This was done through conversations and a few random web pages.
- Stoic philosophy. Like above.
- GCP grey's theme system
- Time management, the importance of self monitoring
What I never got around to reading in this project. Should you be interested.
- https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/fri4HdDkwhayCYFaE/do-a-cost-benefit-analysis-of-your-technology-usage --> This one is probably quite good if you have issues with wasting time on computers / phones.