Feb 10, 2012
Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life
After three months of practice, I now use a single algorithm to beat procrastination most of the times I face it.1 It probably won't work for you quite like it did for me, but it's the best advice on motivation I've got, and it's a major reason I'm known for having the "gets shit done" property. There are reasons to hope that we can eventually break the chain of akrasia; maybe this post is one baby step in the right direction.
How to Beat Procrastination explained our best current general theory of procrastination, called "temporal motivation theory" (TMT). As an exercise in practical advice backed by deep theories, this post explains the process I use to beat procrastination — a process implied by TMT.
As a reminder, here's a rough sketch of how motivation works according to TMT:
Or, as Piers Steel summarizes:
Decrease the certainty or the size of a task's reward — its expectancy or its value — and you are unlikely to pursue its completion with any vigor. Increase the delay for the task's reward and our susceptibility to delay — impulsiveness — and motivation also dips.
Of course, my motivation system is more complex than that. P.J. Eby likens TMT (as a guide for beating procrastination) to the "fuel, air, ignition, and compression" plan for starting your car: it might be true, but a more useful theory would include details and mechanism.
That's a fair criticism. Just as an fMRI captures the "big picture" of brain function at low resolution, TMT captures the big picture of motivation. This big picture helps us see where we need to work at the gears-and-circuits level, so we can become the goal-directed consequentialists we'd like to be.
So, I'll share my four-step algorithm below, and tackle the gears-and-circuits level in later posts.
This part's easy. I know I should do the task, but I feel averse to doing it, or I just don't feel motivated enough to care. So I put it off, even though my prefrontal cortex keeps telling me I'll be better off if I do it now. When this happens, I proceed to step 2.
Now I get to play detective. Which part of the equation is causing me trouble, here? Does the task have low value because it's boring or painful or too difficult, or because the reward isn't that great? Do I doubt that completing the task will pay off? Would I have to wait a long time for my reward if I succeeded? Am I particularly impatient or impulsive, either now or in general? Which part of this problem do I need to attack?
Actually, I lied. I like to play army sniper. I stare down my telescopic sight at the terms in the equation and interrogate them. "Is it you, Delay? Huh, motherfucker? Is it you? I've shot you before; don't think I won't do it again!"
But not everyone was raised on violent videogames. You may prefer a different role-play.
Anyway, I try to figure out where the main problem is. Here are some of the signs I look for:
When I imagine myself doing the task, do I see myself bored and distracted instead of engaged and interested? Is the task uncomfortable, onerous, or painful? Am I nervous about the task, or afraid of what might happen if I undertake it? Has the task's payoff lost its value to me? Perhaps it never had much value to me in the first place? If my answer to any of these questions is "Yes," I'm probably facing the motivation problem of low value.
Do I think I'm likely to succeed at the task? Do I think it's within my capabilities? Do I think I'll actually get the reward if I do succeed? If my answer to any of these questions is "No," I'm probably facing the problem of low expectancy.
How much of the reward only comes after a significant delay, and how long is that delay? If most of the reward comes after a big delay, I'm probably the facing the problem of, you guessed it, delay.
Do I feel particularly impatient? Am I easily distracted by other tasks, even ones for which I also face problems of low value, low expectancy, or delay? If so, I'm probably facing the problem of impulsiveness.
If the task is low value and low expectancy, and the reward is delayed, I run my expected value calculation again. Am I sure I should do the task, after all? Maybe I should drop it or delegate it. If after re-evaluation I still think I should do the task, then I move to step 3.
Once I've got a plausible suspect in my sights, I fire away with the most suitable ammo I've got for that problem. Here's a quick review of some techniques described in How to Beat Procrastination:
For attacking the problem of low value: Get into a state of flow, perhaps by gamifying the task. Ensure the task has meaning by connecting it to what you value intrinsically. Get more energy. Use reward and punishment. Focus on what you love, wherever possible.
For attacking the problem of low expectancy: Give yourself a series of small, challenging but achieveable goals so that you get yourself into a "success spiral" and expect to succeed. Consume inspirational material. Surround yourself with others who are succeeding. Mentally contrast where you are now and where you want to be.
For attacking the problem of delay: Decrease the reward's delay if possible. Break the task into smaller chunks so you can get rewards each step of the way.
For attacking the problem of impulsiveness: Use precommitment. Set specific and meaningful goals and subgoal and sub-subgoals. Measure your behavior. Build useful habits.
Each of these skills must be learned and practiced first before you can use them. It took me only a few days to learn the mental habit of "mental contrasting," but I spent weeks practicing the skill of getting myself into success spirals. I've spent months trying various methods for having more energy, but I can do a lot better than I'm doing now. I'm not very good at goal-setting yet.
If I've found some successful techniques for attacking the term in the motivation equation I thought was causing me the most trouble, but I'm still procrastinating, I return to step 2 and begin my assault on another term in the equation.
When I first began using this algorithm, though, I usually didn't get that far. By the time I had learned mental contrasting or success spirals or whatever tool made the difference, the task was either complete or abandoned. This algorithm only begins to shine, I suspect, once you've come to some level of mastery on most of the subroutines it employs. Then you can quickly employ them and, if you're still procrastinating, immediately employ others, until your procrastination is beaten.
Let me give you some idea of what it looks like for me to use this algorithm:
Building the large 5×5-unit Ikea "Expedit" bookshelf is boring and repetitive, so I made a game of it. I pounded each wooden peg 4 or 5 times, alternating between these two counts no matter how quickly each peg went into its hole, waiting to see if the girl I was with would notice the pattern. She didn't, so after every 10th peg I gave her a kiss, waiting to see if she'd catch that pattern. She didn't, so I started kissing her after every 5th peg.2 Apparently she thought I was just especially amorous that night.
Sometimes, being an executive director just ain't fun. I need to make lots of decisions with large but uncertain consequences — decisions that some people will love and others will hate. This is not as cozy as the quiet researcher's life to which I had been growing accustomed. In many cases, the task of coming to a decision on something is fraught with anxiety and fear, and I procrastinate. In these cases, I remind myself of how the decision is connected to what I care about. I also purposely stoke my passion for the organization's mission by playing epic world-saving music like "Butterflies and Hurricanes" by Muse: "Change everything you are... your number has been called... you've got to be the best, you've got to change the world... your time is now." Then I re-do my VoI and EV calculations again and I god damned try.
While researching How to Beat Procrastination, I hired a German tutor. I planned to apply to philosophy graduate schools, which meant I needed to speak Greek, Latin, French, or German, and German philosophy isn't quite as universally bad as the others (e.g. see Thomas Metzinger). But I procrastinated when studying, for my reward was very uncertain: would I actually go the route of philosophy grad school, and would my knowledge of German help? My reward was also extremely delayed, likely by several years. In the end, I did the expected value calculation more carefully than before, and concluded that I shouldn't keep trying to speak my Rs from my throat. It was the right call: I'm now pretty certain I'll never go to philosophy grad school.
Three times, I've started writing books. But each time, the rewards (appreciation, notoriety, money) were so delayed and uncertain that I gave up. Instead, I broke the books into chunks that I could publish as individual articles.3 Thus, I received some reward (appreciation, growing notoriety) after every article, and had relatively high expectancy for this reward (since my goal was no longer so lofty as to be picked up by a major publisher). Breaking it into chunks also allowed me to focus on writing the pieces for which I had the most passion. Along the way, I used many techniques to boost my energy.
The key is to be prepared to conquer procrastination by practicing the necessary sub-skills first. Build small skills in the right order. You can't play Philip Glass if you haven't first learned how to play scales, how to work the pedals, how to play arpeggios and ostinatos (lots of arpeggios and ostinatos), etc. And you can't beat procrastination if you don't have any ammo ready when you've caught the right causal factor in your sights.
The quest toward becoming a goal-directed consequentialist is long and challenging, much like that of becoming a truth-aiming rationalist. But the rewards are great, and the journey has perks. Remember: true agency is rare but powerful. As Michael Vassar says, "Evidence that people are crazy is evidence that things are easier than you think." Millions of projects fail not because they "can't be done" but because the first 5 people who tried them failed due to boring, pedestrian reasons like procrastination or the planning fallacy. People with just a bit more agency than normal — people like Benjamin Franklin and Tim Ferriss — have incredible power.
At the end of Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit notes that non-religious ethics is a young field, and thus we may entertain high hopes for what will be discovered and what is possible. But scientific self-help is even younger. We have only just begun our inquiry into procrastination's causes and cures. We don't yet know what is possible. All we can do is try. If you have something to protect, shut up and do the impossible. Things may not be so impossible as you once thought.
Next post: How to Be Happy
Previous post: How to Beat Procrastination
1 The main areas where I still usually succumb to procrastination are diet and exercise. Luckily, my metabolism is holding out pretty well so far.
2 Or, it was something like this. I can't remember the exact game I played, now.
3 My abandoned book Scientific Self Help turned into my ongoing blog post sequence The Science of Winning at Life. My abandoned book Ethics and Superintelligence was broken into chunks that morphed into Singularity FAQ, The Singularity and Machine Ethics, and many posts from No-Nonsense Metaethics and Facing the Singularity. My abandoned book Friendly AI: The Most Important Problem in the World was broken into pieces that resulted in Existential Risk and some posts of Facing the Singularity.