Sep 27, 2010
So we (Richard Hollerith and me) tried out my anti-akrasia idea. Actually we've been doing it for more than a week now. Turns out it works just like I thought it would: when you know an actual person is checking your screen at random intervals, and they will IM you whenever you start procrastinating online, and they expect the same from you... you become ashamed of procrastinating online. You get several "clean" hours every day, where you either do work or stay away from the computer - no willpower required. Magic.
The idea isn't new. I first got it this winter, Alicorn and AdeleneDawner are apparently doing similar things unilaterally, and even Eliezer has been using a watcher while writing his book. I don't know anyone who tried the Orwellian mutual screen capture thing before, but I won't be surprised if a lot of people are already quietly practicing it.
Being watched for the first time didn't make me feel as vulnerable as you'd think, because, realistically, what can the other person glean from my monitor while I work? Random screenfuls of source code? Headings of emails? We don't realize how normal the little details of our lives would look to strangers. In the words of McSweeney's, "chances are, people will understand. Most people are pretty understanding." The experiment did feel weird at first, but it was the expected kind of weird - the feeling you should get when you're genuinely trying something new for the first time, rather than just rehashing. It feels normal now. In fact, I'm already ever-so-slightly worried about becoming dependent on remote monitoring for getting work done. You decide whether that's a good sign.
Passing the microphone to Richard now:
I had to set a timer (for between 5 and 11 minutes depending on circumstances) to remind me to check Vladimir's screen (resetting the timer manually after every check). If I did not, I either spent too much time looking at his screen or let him go too long without monitoring.
I tend to think that if I continue to monitor people in this way, I will eventually come to use software (particularly software running on the monitored computer) to reduce the demands on my time and attention, but my more immediate concern is whether the technique will remain effective when it is continued for another month or so or whether, e.g., everyone who volunteers to be monitored comes to resent it.
Because of technical problems, Vladimir has not yet been able to monitor me in my "familiar software environment" and consequently the real test what it is like for me to be monitored has not yet been done. Vladimir has monitored my using a borrowed Windows machine, but I am unfamiliar with Windows, and in general, when I am taken out of my familiar environment, I usually gain temporary freedom from my usual patterns of procrastination. I did feel embarrassment at how ineffective my use of Windows probably seemed to Vladimir.
In conclusion, the technique seems to help me a lot, even though it's shifting my sleep pattern to somewhere in between Moscow and California. My current plan is to keep doing it as long as there are willing partners or until my akrasia dissolves by itself (unlikely). The offers I made to other LW users still stand. Richard is in talks with another prospective participant and would like more. We want this post to actually help people. Any questions are welcome.
UPDATE one month later: we're still doing it, and everyone's still welcome to join. Won't update again.