Live a life you feel excited about

by Neel Nanda7 min read21st Aug 20203 comments



(This is a post from a personal daily blogging project on finding and cultivating intrinsic motivation, that I thought might be of interest to LessWrong readers)

I find that my motivation for tasks tends to divide into two very different kinds, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is something outside myself, a feeling of guilt or obligation, something I need to do. An expectation I need to meet, a deadline I can’t miss. While intrinsic motivation comes from within, and is mostly characterised by a feeling of excitement. I really care about what I’m doing, it feels important to me, and I want to do it. With extrinsic motivation, I’m always pushing myself to keep up with it, while with intrinsic motivation it’s driving me forwards.

And I find tasks driven by excitement are awesome. I can spend far longer on them without feeling drained, I procrastinate less, I feel less guilt and anxiety. It’s far easier to focus. I feel joy and passion at what I’m doing, and the insecurities and doubt feel far distant.

And yet, when I look at my life, most of my motivation is extrinsic. Occasionally I have awesome tasks that I feel excited about, but it mostly feels like this is just something that happens to me, that finding excitement is not something I have any agency in. And, if I’m not paying attention, this will be true. But this is crazy. I’m still doing tasks either way, motivation is a property of my mind and how I approach things. And I refuse to spend most of my life in a shitty local optima, just because my mind is framing things badly. As with all things that matter in life, excitement can be optimised, and this post is about my best tools for doing so.

Building excitement is hard, and the approach will vary a lot between people. And it probably doesn’t seem obvious that it can be done at all. Excitement is a difficult and delicate equilibrium - once it’s gotten going it can have a lot of momentum behind it, but it’s rarely the kind of thing you can trivially make happen. And seeing this, it’s easy to conclude that it “can’t be forced” and move on. But this is just a failure of inner optimisation, trying harder in the moment. There are a lot of properties that can make a task more or less exciting, and a key skill is to notice these, and to shape your life about them.

If you enjoy physics analogies - being excited and not being excited are both stable equilibria, and our intuitions think only about the local shifts we can achieve, where moving between equilibria is hard. But this is something you can achieve, you'll just need to be creative about it!

In practice, I find that these break down into 3 areas: finding new projects that I feel excited about, reframing tasks I need to do anyway into ones I feel excited about, and feeling excited about self-improvement - fixing a particular problem in my life.

Self-improvement is a particularly powerful use: I know that problems are for fixing, but it’s easy to just feel helpless on any particular problem. That it’s utterly intractable, and that there’s no way to change things. And, if I’m not actually convinced that I can solve the problem, and am just going through the motions, this is often true! And intuitively, it can often seem like the solution is either giving up, or trying really hard to force through. But this is pressing the Try Harder button. When things are hard, the solution is rarely to just try harder, you need to get creative. And if I can get excited about a solution, then often this will just work! A lot of problems are ultimately tied to my self-image, and with excitement comes the belief that this problem can actually be fixed.

The first step is to identify examples of things that have excited you in the past. Things that don’t feel like work, things that you did because you wanted to, things that give you a warm glow of achievement looking back. For me, many of the examples in my last post qualify - writing up intuition-focused notes, giving talks, teaching workshops, organising events. Self-improvement projects, like trying to form strong friendships, develop social skills, or become more adventurous. But these are just my examples. I recommend setting yourself a 5 minute timer now, and trying to generate a list of your own - different things will excite different people!

Next, you want to look at these tasks and extract out common trends, things that worked well. For me, these trends are:

  • Doing things because I wanted to, not because I had to. Knowing that there was nothing making me do it, and doing it anyway.
  • Something that helped people
  • The feeling of progress and growth - seeing myself improve, having tangible markers of skill, having skills in mind I was getting better at, eg becoming visibly better at giving talks
  • Tangible results - eg producing resources, and producing blog posts
  • Social excitement - something I could share with people, something I could get excited with friends about
  • Something that made me smile - a subtle blend of fun, silly, appealing to my sense of humour
  • Novelty - something new, unexpected, with a lot of room to learn
  • Learning - feeling like I was gaining knowledge and skills
  • Fixing things - noticing things that were broken, and nobody was doing anything about, eg the complete lack of information for Part II course choices

I’ve found these all excellent trends to look for in future projects - they helped me come up with the mini blog project, which I think satisfies all 9 of those to some degree, and is the most fun I’ve had in a while! It can be hard to look for projects with so many constraints, but I find it useful to see this as an opportunity. The space of all possible projects is large, and the true constraint is my time, and the probability of giving up on a project. Investing some extra time to find a project I find truly exciting and getting a higher chance of following through is absolutely worth it.

I find this process useful for finding traits to look for in new projects, but this is also excellently suited to reframing tasks I already need to be doing. I have less control over this, but a lot of excitement comes from my mindset and from the process, the narrative I tell myself about what I’m doing. And even if my end goal is fixed, I have a lot of control over the process. Here are my most powerful tools for doing this:

  • Having autonomy
    • I’ve heard the standard advice of “autonomy is a key component of job satisfaction” for a while, but I only realised what this means to me in practice recently. I define autonomy as doing something to my own standards, not somebody else’s.
      • I can be doing exactly the same task, in similar ways. But the question is - am I blindly doing what I’m told, doing things that seem meaningless and arbitrary, just because I’m told to? Or am I doing things my way?
    • Last year, I had to a series of notoriously dull computing coursework projects. And I found the first one pretty uninspiring, in part because I was trying to figure out what the markers wanted. I had way more fun with the second project, because I decided to scrap that and do it all to my own standards. To write elegant, well-structured code just because I could. To go down a rabbit hole of LaTeX table commands, in order to make things exactly as pretty as I wanted them to be. To write down what I thought mattered in the explanations, not what I thought the marker wanted.
  • Finding social connections
    • This can mean finding ways to help others - publishing resources you create, teaching the ideas you learn to somebody else, helping somebody working on a similar task, writing up a blog post detailing your experiences and what you learned
    • Or it can just be finding peers - people doing the same task. People to connect with, complain about to, joke about with.
      • Some people find that coworking with someone doing the same task can be extremely motivating, though this doesn’t do it as much for me
  • Make progress visceral
    • Gamify it: create tickboxes for yourself, track streaks, give yourself points
    • Track data, eg words typed per day, and try to get your speed as high as you can
    • Publish things, create a record of what you’ve done that you can look back on and feel pride
    • Make a physical representation of the task - you can go wild here! If you need to send 100 annoying emails, get 100 scraps of paper, and burn one after each email
  • Reframe the purpose
    • Make it about gaining a skill, like better writing, communication skills, focus
      • This can be super narrow! If you have a tedious text processing task, could this be a good excuse to learn how to use Regular Expressions.
      • Focus your effort on that skill, not the task - this will serve you better in the longterm
      • Try to gather data to track your abilities at that skill - qualitative if need be! Make the progress visceral.
      • Create tight feedback loops. Ask people for advice on how to improve. Notice problems, and the things holding you back, and iterate upon them
    • Make it about meta-skills! The ability to notice problems and correct them. The ability to hear feedback and take it well and learn from it. The ability to intentionally make yourself excited about a task.
      • A useful one: I am running this experiment to get better at running experiments, at actually acting on problems.
    • Focus on your self-image. The task is not the important part, the important part is how the decisions you make now affect your self-image and your future decisions. Does this task make you the kind of person who Actually Does Things? Does it make me the kind of person who’ll make other people’s lives better?
      • This can resolve issues with self-doubt and insecurity, because it’s no longer about whether the task is the right idea - you’re now answering a different question. Sometimes paralysing doubt can’t be solved directly, no matter how much you think about it.
    • This is awesome, because it can often completely short-circuit fear of failure - it’s no longer about the task, it’s about what you learn in the process
  • Couple it with a reward!
    • This is often framed as, eg, give yourself some chocolate when you do the task. I find this doesn’t work well on me, because it feels arbitrary
    • I find it more valuable to make the task intrinsically rewarding.
      • I’ve recently managed to build a good sleep ritual, and keep to a consistent bedtime. And this includes spending half an hour not looking at screens before bed. And this is something I’ve known would be a good idea for ages, but always felt high-cost.
      • My solution was to get some physical books I’d always meant to read, set my lights to slowly dim, and spend that half hour reading. And this is now something I feel excited about, because I’m making progress through my to read list for the first time in forever!
  • Looking for the clever hack, the efficient solution that everybody is missing
    • This is easier said than done, but these often do exist!
    • For example - you need to learn a complex topic. Can you find a friend, learn half each, and help each other learn the other half?
    • Alternately, continuing with the same task, but making efficiency the goal.
  • Creating tight feedback loops
    • Often a lack of excitement comes from insecurity, and paralysing uncertainty. Tight, regular feedback loops can help address this and reduce the insecurity, by giving it something to ground to
    • Ask for regular feedback! Run experiments! Make a minimum viable product!
    • Produce things in as small a unit as possible - if you’re writing a book, write and publish a page a day

I’ve mostly focused on tasks here, but much of these transfer to self-improvement too. But it’s harder, because you start with a problem, not a task. There, the goal is to be creative, try to find an experiment, solution idea, or way to make progress. It doesn’t have to be perfect, any kind of experiment or starting idea will do. This is now a task, and these techniques can be applied!

Next time you notice something unpleasant in your life: a task you’re putting off, a project you don’t want to start or an intractable problem, don’t just try harder at it. Take a step back, and ask yourself “how can I make this something I’d feel excited about”. This is hard, and will require actual effort and creativity. But is possible, and it is absolutely worth it.