These ideas came out of a recent discussion on actually trying at Citadel, Boston's Less Wrong house.

What does "Actually Trying" mean?

Actually Trying means applying the combination of effort and optimization power needed to accomplish a difficult but feasible goal. The effort and optimization power are both necessary.

Failure Modes that can Resemble Actually Trying

Pretending to try

Pretending to try means doing things that superficially resemble actually trying but are missing a key piece. You could, for example, make a plan related to your goal and diligently carry it out but never stop to notice that the plan was optimized for convenience or sounding good or gaming a measurement rather than achieving the goal. Alternatively, you could have a truly great plan and put effort into carrying it out until it gets difficult.

Trying to Try

Trying to try is when you throw a lot of time and perhaps mental anguish at a task but not actually do the task. Writer's block is the classic example of this.


Sphexing is the act of carrying out a plan or behavior repeatedly despite it not working.

The Two Modes Model of Actually Trying

Actually Trying requires a combination of optimization power and effort, but each of those is done with a very different way of thinking, so it's helpful to do the two separately. In the first way of thinking, Optimizing Mode, you think hard about the problem you are trying to solve, develop a plan, look carefully at whether it's actually well-suited to solving the problem (as opposed to pretending to try) and perhaps Murphy-jitsu it. In Executing Mode, you carry out the plan.

Executing Mode breaks down when you reach an obstacle that you either don't know how to overcome or where the solution is something you don't want to do. In my personal experience, this is where things tend to get derailed. There are a few ways to respond to this situation:

  • Return to Optimizing Mode to figure out how to overcome the obstacle / improve your plan (good),
  • Ask for help / consult a relevant expert (good),
  • Take a break, which could lead to a eureka moment, lead to Optimizing Mode or lead to derailing (ok),
  • Sphex (bad),
  • Derail / procrastinate (bad), or
  • Punt / give up (ok if the obstacle is insurmountable).

The key is to respond constructively to obstacles. This usually means getting back to Optimizing Mode, either directly or after a break.  The failure modes here are derailing immediately, a "break" that turns into a derailment, and sphexing.  In our discussion, we shared a few techniques we had used to get back to Optimizing Mode.  These techniques tended to focus on some combination of removing the temptation to derail, providing a reminder to optimize, and changing mental state.

Getting Back to Optimizing Mode

Context switches are often helpful here.  Because for many people, work and procrastination both tend to be computer-based activities, it is both easy and tempting to switch to a time-wasting activity immediately upon hitting an obstacle.  Stepping away from the computer takes away the immediate distraction and depending on what you do away from the computer, helps you either think about the problem or change your mental state.  Depending on what sort of mood I'm in, I sometimes step away from the computer with a pen and paper to write down my thoughts (thinking about the problem), or I may step away to replenish my supply of water and/or caffeine (changing my mental state).  Other people in the discussion said they found going for a walk or getting more strenuous exercise to be helpful when they needed a break.  Strenuous exercise has the additional advantage of having very low risk of turning into a longer-than-intended break.

The danger with breaks is that they can turn into derailment.  Open-ended breaks ("I'll just browse Reddit for five minutes") have a tendency to expand, so it's best to avoid them in favor of things with more definite endings.  The other common say for breaks to turn into derailment is to return from a break and go to something non-productive.  I have had some success with attaching a sticky-note to my monitor reminding me what to do when I return to my computer.  I have also found that if the note makes clear what problem I need to solve also makes me less likely to sphex when I return to my computer.

In the week or so since the discussion that inspired this post, I have found that asking myself "what would Actually Trying look like right now?" This has helped me stay on track when I have encountered difficult problems at work.

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excellent post.

a suggestion for the sticky-note. write down the simplest step that you need to do when you get back to start solving the problem. i.e. I need to open the word doc and start writing about trying. start to ritualise the correct starting-steps for getting things done.

Heavily related (for me at least) is the concept of open and closed mode from creativity research.

It's not exactly related to this post but I just wondered why procrastination seems to be so much a problem of our time. Can it be that we are so comfortable and secure that when we hit minor obstacles that feel like not worth the effort our motivation immediately declines. Think of it as you sitting in a local maximum with all other (local) maxima being only slightly higher compared to the deep abyss of subsistence and the valleys between the peaks are also relatively deep (compared to the expected gain).

I seem to remember that studies show that you are more productive if you are hungry. Could confirm this idea.

It's not exactly related to this post but I just wondered why procrastination seems to be so much a problem of our time

For me, I find that part of the problem is that when I have problem or goal, I sometimes fantasize about finding a good solution. So that the prospect of rolling up my sleeves and getting to work makes me worry that I will fail which would ruin the fantasy.

So for example, if I were an engineer (which I am not), I might have an idea for an invention one day, and then daydream about the millions I would make if I successfully developed the invention and brought it to market. Not to mention the acclaim for having come up with some great idea.

Of course one of the first steps in developing my invention would be to do searches to see if anything similar had been invented previously. The prospect of this would make me nervous, because if somebody already came up with the idea, it would ruin the fantasy. So it's easy to procrastinate. Which makes the problem even worse, because I would have the additional worry that I would learn that during the time I was procrastinating, somebody else developed the idea, which would make me feel like a complete goofball.

You illustrate the key point: You don't need to follow up on your idea. You don't stay hungry or experience ridicule when you don't. Many earlier inventors did. The young edison sold many inventions to get money - and was force to do so. Later he fought other inventors.

Can it be that we are so comfortable and secure

That seems reasonable. Pain is an excellent incentive and "lean and hungry" is a common description of someone highly motivated.

“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” -- Samuel Johnson

What is the etymology for "sphexing" here? Its meaning is very close to the "Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results." idea.

When the time comes for egg laying, the wasp Sphex builds a burrow for the purpose and seeks out a cricket which she stings in such a way as to paralyze but not kill it. She drags the cricket into the burrow, lays her eggs alongside, closes the burrow, then flies away, never to return. In due course, the eggs hatch and the wasp grubs feed off the paralyzed cricket, which has not decayed, having been kept in the wasp equivalent of deep freeze. To the human mind, such an elaborately organized and seemingly purposeful routine conveys a convincing flavor of logic and thoughtfulness--until more details are examined. For example, the Wasp's routine is to bring the paralyzed cricket to the burrow, leave it on the threshold, go inside to see that all is well, emerge, and then drag the cricket in. If the cricket is moved a few inches away while the wasp is inside making her preliminary inspection, the wasp, on emerging from the burrow, will bring the cricket back to the threshold, but not inside, and will then repeat the preparatory procedure of entering the burrow to see that everything is all right. If again the cricket is removed a few inchies while the wasp is inside, once again she will move the cricket up to the threshold and re-enter the burrow for a final check. The wasp never thinks of pulling the cricket straight in. On one occasion this procedure was repeated forty times, always with the same result. (Woodridge, 1963, p. 82)

Dennett (1996), following Hofstadter (1982), calls this kind of very simply determined behavior sphexish, but believes that too much has been made of emblematic stories (or intuition pumps) like the one above, because human behavior is much more complexly determined.

As far as I know this is the origin of the term, but it is worth noting that Woodridge is a misleading tertiary source and actual sphex are not that spexish.

Insects will frequently carry out instinctual behaviors even in situations where they cannot accomplish anything useful.