a meta-anti-akrasia strategy that might just work

by MartinB 9y19th Apr 201015 comments


For ages I've been trying to wrap my mind around meta thinking - not "what is the best way to do something", but "how do I find out which way is any good?" Meta thinking has many applications, and I am always surprised when I find a new context it can be applied to. Anti-akrasia might be such a context.

The idea I am about to present came to me a few month ago and I used it to finally overcome my own problem with procrastination. I'll try to present it here as well as I can, in the hope that it might be of use to someone. If so, I am really curious what other people come up with using this technique.

If akrasia is a struggle, continue reading.

Where I come from:
Procrastination was a big topic for me. I spent ages reading stuff, watching videos, thinking, collecting stuff and what not, but very little on actual action. One thing I did read was productivity blogs and books. I assume that some or even many of the posters here share that problem with me. I am familiar with the systems - I even gave a lecture once on GTD - but I struggled to get my own stuff out the door. It surely wasn't for a lack of knowledge, but simply for a lack of doing.

The method used consists of two layers.
(I) the meta concept used to develop a personal system
(II) the highly personalized system I came up with while applying (I)

The valuable part of this post is (I).

One of the major lessons I had to learn (and am still learning) is that everyone reacts differently to a set of stimuli. This doesn't just mean differently colored folders, or the famous 'paper' or 'digital' debate. It literally means that for every person the way to get productive is different - down to the point of specific ideas working fine for one person while being a stress-inducing thing for others.

So what did I do?

First I assumed that more reading wouldn't do me any good. I assumed that I knew everything there is to know on the topic of personal productivity and refrained from reading any more.

Instead I made up a meta concept.

(I) the meta concept

My big main idea was to treat the whole problem of personal productivity as an experiment using myself as guinea pig. I decided to find out what is needed to a) start working and b) what the best conditions would be to get myself to keep producing.

Now that was short. Let me expand on it.

I did a planning session, made up a bunch of rules and habits, worked with them for a while and then looked at how that worked out during the next planning session. If something worked I kept it, if not I tried something else. Planning the conditions and trying them are cleanly separated, so I can safely try and see what works.

To put it in slightly different words:
Junior research assistant Martin is now scheduled with the task of finding out what kind of system leads to good work results, via the work habit study guinea pig who is also appropriately named Martin.

My system now consists of a few rules, treats (small ones and bigger ones), my favorite time keeping method, my log files and anything else I want to consider a part of it.

All this is done in writing!

Writing is important, since it is super easy to forget what we figure out.
My notepad has a page for meta - insights, where I collect what I find out about myself, and a page for rules I try out.

When review time comes around I go to my favorite fast food restaurant and honestly review how it worked out so far.  A good startup value for meta-review is about once a week in the beginning.

Meta-review frequency is also subject to personal adaption.

Since you know yourself best, you have to make up your own system.

That's it.

So much for the meta insight. Now lets look a bit into what the results where for me so far:

(II) personal results so far

You can safely cut that section.

I now have a weird dilemma. On one hand I would like to extract a few universals from my own experience to give out good starting points. On the other, I noticed that there might be very few universals.

I explained the meta-idea to a friend, who promptly came up with her own system that violated pretty much everything I considered to be even remotely universal applicable. I have no idea what I can safely recommend, and what just works due to my own habits. Most of the results are generalized from one example.

I try to guess in an educated way and will update the article as more experiences comes in.

My own trial so far is:

- cutting out all of my favorite free time stimuli (blogs, games and movies) for a limited time (about 1.5 months).
- timing work units in 30 minute increments (i actually use a special timer for that)
- log them each on a nice sheet of paper that is glued right in sight next to my desk
- have a small treat after each work unit
- get into the habit of working a minimum amount each and everyday no matter what [this seems to be a key thing for me, possibly universal - installing this habit went pretty fast, and now I cant even sleep before I am done]

That allowed me to try harder on given problem sets. And its pretty amazing on how much can get done both in 30 minutes, and a fraction of it.
Starting often is a major point. No more reminiscing about lost time. Just experiencing the now, and the next half hour.
It seems like the bigger picture of a project disappears and I only notice what is right around me.
Its a lot easier to commit to the next unit of work when its only 30min, than to think about entire 8 hour days in front of me.
I also get over the start-up hump more easily. Since I had a time commitment I just did some work, even if I didn't want to. I noticed how I don't like mornings, but after getting started it soon becomes fun. So I had to devise a way to get me started regardless. One idea that works is separating preparing and doing the work. That seems to take the stress out of prepping.
I really seem to dig mini rituals. If the near/far concept can be applied here, then the whole secret seems to be, to do work in near mode, while doing the planning in far. Big time rewards don't do much for me. But a piece of chocolate after one segment is nice.

It's also a nice way to develop a dislike for some sweets. My former favorite candy lost this status after about one week.

I still try to find out the best attack patterns for specific tasks. For programming it seems to be to do it in a massive time block, as much as possible many days in a row. For more boring tasks I try to plug in a few units here and there, just plowing away without regards for the amount. Time of day might be important, but I didn't get so far as to track that yet.

And here are the project results:
- finished a 2 week programming project that I had procrastinated on for 2.5 years
- had 2 computers back in the store for repairs, and set them up nicely afterwards
- wrote a tool to sort through the files with my personal notes and
- sorted through my files with personal notes
- set up my work environment both digitally and physically so that it provides as little friction as possible
- lots of other nice things

I am far from being done, but it now all looks a lot neater than ever before. And for the first time in ages I feel good after doing my share of the day, even when not done.

Now a thing I tried that didn't work: putting all the relaxing activities in specific days, separated by full blown work days. That worked nicely for about two weeks, but then I fell of the wagon again.

In the spirit of the experiment it doesn't matter if an idea doesn't work out. Just track it, and discard.

Edit: spelling and language - thank to an anonymous friend for the help