What's the mental burden of trying to do something? What's it cost? What price are you going to pay if you try to do something out in the world.

I think that by figuring out what the usual costs to doing things are, we can reduce the costs and otherwise structure our lives so that it's easier to reach our goals.

When I sat down to identify cognitive costs, I found seven. There might be more. Let's get started -

Activation Energy - As covered in more detail in this post, starting an activity seems to take a larger of willpower and other resources than keeping going with it. Required activation energy can be adjusted over time - making something into a routine lowers the activation energy to do it. Things like having poorly defined next steps increases activation energy required to get started. This is a major hurdle for a lot of people in a lot of disciplines - just getting started.

Opportunity cost - We're all familiar with general opportunity cost. When you're doing one thing, you're not doing something else. You have limited time. But there also seems to be a cognitive cost to this - a natural second guessing of choices by taking one path and not another. This is the sort of thing covered by Barry Schwartz in his Paradox of Choice work (there's some faulty thought/omissions in PoC, but it's overall valuable). It's also why basically every significant military work ever has said you don't want to put the enemy in a position where their only way out is through you - Sun Tzu argued always leaving a way for the enemy to escape, which splits their focus and options. Hernan Cortes famously burned the boats behind him. When you're doing something, your mind is subtly aware and bothered by the other things you're not doing. This is a significant cost.

Inertia - Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote that humans are "Adaptation-Executers, not Fitness-Maximizers." He was speaking in terms of large scale evolution, but this is also true of our day to day affairs. Whatever personal adaptations and routines we've gotten into, we tend to perpetuate. Usually people do not break these routines unless a drastic event happens. Very few people self-scrutinize and do drastic things without an external event happening.

The difference between activation energy and inertia is that you can want to do something, but be having a hard time getting started - that's activation energy. Whereas inertia suggests you'll keep doing what you've been doing, and largely turn your mind off. Breaking out of inertia takes serious energy and tends to make people uncomfortable. They usually only do it if something else makes them more uncomfortable (or, very rarely, when they get incredibly inspired).

Ego/willpower depletion - The Wikipedia article on ego depletion is pretty good. Basically, a lot of recent research shows that by doing something that takes significant willpower your "battery" of willpower gets drained some, and it becomes harder to do other high-will-required tasks. From Wikipedia: " In an illustrative experiment on ego depletion, participants who controlled themselves by trying not to laugh while watching a comedian did worse on a later task that required self-control compared to participants who did not have to control their laughter while watching the video." I'd strongly recommend you do some reading on this topic if you haven't - Roy Baumeister has written some excellent papers on it. The pattern holds pretty firm - when someone resists, say, eating a snack they want, it makes it harder for them to focus and persist doing rote work later.

Neurosis/fear/etc - Almost all humans are naturally more risk averse than gain-inclined. This seems to have been selected for evolutionarily. We also tend to become afraid far in excess of what we should for certain kinds of activities - especially ones that risk social embarrassment.

I never realized how strong these forces were until I tried to break free of them - whenever I got a strong negative reaction from someone to my writing, it made it considerably harder to write pieces that I thought would be popular later. Basic things like writing titles that would make a post spread, or polishing the first paragraph and last sentence - it's like my mind was weighing on the "con" side of pro/con that it would generate criticism, and it was... frightening's not quite the right word, but something like that.

Some tasks can be legitimately said to be "neurosis-inducing" - that means, you start getting more neurotic when you ponder and start doing them. Things that are almost guaranteed to generate criticism or risk rejection frequently do this. Anything that risks compromising a person's self image can be neurosis inducing too.

Altering of hormonal balance - A far too frequently ignored cost. A lot of activities will change your hormonal balance for the better or worse. Entering into conflict-like situations can and does increase adrenalin and cortisol and other stress hormones. Then you face adrenalin withdrawal and crash later. Of course, we basically are biochemistry, so significant changing of hormonal balance affects a lot of our body - immune system, respiration, digestion, etc. A lot of people are aware of this kind of peripherally, but there hasn't been much discussion about the hormonal-altering costs of a lot of activities.

Maintenance costs from the idea re-emerging in your thoughts - Another under-appreciated cognitive cost is maintenance costs in your thoughts from an idea recurring, especially when the full cycle isn't complete. In Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about how "open loops" are "anything that's not where it's supposed to be." These re-emerge in our thoughts periodically, often at inopportune times, consuming thought and energy. That's fine if the topic is exceedingly pleasant, but if it's not, it can wear you out. Completing an activity seems to reduce the maintenance cost (though not completely). An example would be not having filled your taxes out yet - it emerges in your thoughts at random times, derailing other thought. And it's usually not pleasant.

Taking on any project, initiative, business, or change can generate these maintenance costs from thoughts re-emerging.

Conclusion I identified these seven as the mental/cognitive costs to trying to do something -


  1. Activation Energy
  2. Opportunity cost
  3. Inertia
  4. Ego/willpower depletion
  5. Neurosis/fear/etc
  6. Altering of hormonal balance
  7. Maintenance costs from the idea re-emerging in your thoughts


I think we can reduce some of these costs by planning our tasks, work lives, social lives, and environment intelligently. Others of them it's good to just be aware of so we know when we start to drag or are having a hard time. Thoughts on other costs, or ways to reduce these are very welcome.

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This is a great list. I think it's too easy to focus on will power alone.

I've been training myself for years to be able to work longer hours. I've built up to the point where I can work for 12-16 hours straight, everyday. Unfortunately I'm only now realizing the extent of other costs. During weeks or months when I'm working hard, I have begun to notice many things:

  • I find it much harder to remain completely calm and respectful while interacting with people close to me. (I used to pride myself on my levelheadedness in interpersonal relationships)
  • I find myself physically tense. I have to consciously relax muscles, especially facial muscles. (I used to pride myself on being very relaxed, physically and emotionally)
  • I'm much more neurotic, and frequently lose sleep analyzing whatever problem I'm working on.
  • Thoughts of opportunity cost are ever prevalent, and wear me out emotionally.

I've been trying to develop a personal philosophy in contrast to Eliezer's Extraordinary Effort idea that stresses not having an emotional stake in what I work on, especially if I work on it 12 hours a day (I call it Directed Apathy). I've had some mild success but in the end it may be that I just need to work less in order to stay sane.

I find it much harder to remain completely calm and respectful while interacting with people close to me.

I've noticed that too: I'm much less agreeable if I'm sleep-deprived or if I've been studying hard for a while, even when I'm not actually feeling tired.

Do you feel like your productivity has gone up significantly thanks to these extra hours? Do you have any objective, external metrics that might confirm that?

With regard to ego depletion: I had the experience of running out of "executive function juice" a few days ago when I spent all day forcing myself to do things that didn't come naturally. By the end of the day, I was not walking in a stable way and I kept making typos and acting impulsively. It was actually kind of fun, very similar to being drunk.

Note that most of these are more like muscles. You deplete in the short term but build in the long term.

I would say that the circuits that generate the neuroticism reaction are deep seated and pretty resistant to training. We can probably develop conscious methodology to understand and work around them, but not train them directly. I think in general it's one of those evolutionary circuits who's design is a bit outdated. Mostly I think it was tuned for an environment where angering people higher in the social order had much higher stakes for your survival, not for an environment with police and 401k's.

Rejection therapy seems to be designed for training the neuroticism reaction. I haven't used it myself, so I might be getting some specifics wrong (including about the efficacy of it) but one of the methods I've seen is a box of cards with instructions on them. "Before purchasing something, ask for a discount." In my part of the US, at least, haggling is more or less not done. Following the instruction will break the standard social mold, and I'd expect in most cases, you won't get the discount. You would, however, be taking a risk, having it not pay off, and having the end result be underwhelming compared to the social cost anticipated by your neuroticism circuits. I'd imagine having an instruction on a card would apply pressure to conform to it, as well, a la Milgram. If nothing else, in the long term I'd expect it to give you a lot more evidence to draw from when anticipating the social cost of any given action.

Sounds like something that could be useful for rationality boot camp.

I'd love to do some rejection therapy. There might need to be some caution in applying it in a group setting though. I know for me it would be much easier (and hence much less useful) to do things like asking for a discount if there is a social group behind me to back me up (even if they are out of sight).

Anecdotally, I've found that having a social group behind you is actually really helpful.

My church actually had us go to a sex shop and purchase safe sex supplies, so that we'd learn to overcome our social anxiety around it. Given I was asexual and probably around 14, it was a pretty embarrassing thing to do. Knowing that all of my youth group peers would make fun of me for failing outweighed that social anxiety, though.

Going through that really did seem to help disarm a lot of the anxiety, if only by having an actual positive interaction I could point to and say "See? Nothing bad happened!"

Agreed, though I think a lot of that has to do with building the habit of doing something (or of doing new things). If you do one new thing a day that scares you and requires significant activation energy, after a while you'll expect it, and require less activation energy to make yourself do it.

Evidence that willpower can be trained - see also a comment by Unnamed.

You hear a lot of advice from high-willpower people that you should just try harder and you'd be like them. I think it's hard to support a claim bigger than "you'll get better at doing this type of task more efficiently" (something a lot more specific than "things requiring willpower"). I know that studies attempt to use a different post-intervention test, but they're usually so similar that the interpretations of the studies can be narrowed if you're not feeling generous.

I just noticed that this article is now on Lifehacker

Cool article.

Altering of hormonal balance - A far too frequently ignored cost. A lot of activities will change your hormonal balance for the better or worse. Entering into conflict-like situations can and does increase adrenalin and cortisol and other stress hormones. Then you face adrenalin withdrawal and crash later.

Could you go into more detail, or recommend a place to go to read about more on this? I don't see this factor mentioned much elsewhere.

I'd also love to read more about this.

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers is okay if you want evidence on the harms of stress. Wikipedia on adrenaline. I'm not sure what's meant by "adrenalin withdrawal", but adrenalin and stress pretty much always go together.

For me, item #7 "Maintenance costs from the idea re-emerging in your thoughts" is the most significant cost.

A 'train of thought' does seem to be like a 'train', requiring energy to get going and then requiring energy to slow down. I know that at a given time, I'll be thinking about whatever I've recently worked on thinking about, heavily weighted by how recently I've done this work.

I frequently consider this cost, especially in connection with opportunity cost, because even though occasionally I know it may not take me much time or energy to get started thinking about something -- for example, on a topic I'm naturally interested in -- I know it will be difficult to focus on something else later. It will also cause me undue anxiety if I have time to get started but don't have time to complete it.


Conversely, one can use an adrenaline rush from a really disconcerting event to up and do something "merely disturbing" afterwards.

I once had to check whether a habitat we monitored was completely turned into a construction site. It was unpleasant, and I kept postponing it, because 1) the place I remembered of old was rather wild, considering it lied at the edge of a city, and the difference was stark - I literally felt my feet burn, 2) the wardens had dogs, and 3) there was a slight time cost.

However, one day I was coming home from college and there was a red-faced man of middle age lying on the sidewalk with an unfocused leer on his face and a cut on his wrist, with a blob of drying blood on it. People walked around him, and kioskers threw him rather angry glances. I thought then that perhaps he had tried to cut himself to bleed to death, but was too drunk for it, and that I probably should do something about it. So I bought two cups of cocoa and bothered him into going to sit on a bench nearby, and then, well, had the most objectively hilarious conversation with a man in my whole life, thinking all the time fifty meters to the underground - hit him with my bag - gotta scream really loud - why aren't we drinking etc. Then, thankfully, he rambled off to the underground, and I went on to my bus stop. I could fly. Checking out that blasted construction site was a lark.

I've found that making an effort to minimize Maintenance Costs has greatly improved my ability to deal with inertia. For me, it's easy to ignore something once; it's much harder to ignore it when I'm aware that I'll be suffering a small cost for the duration of the delay.

One thing that has helped a lot in some ways is carrying a journal: writing something down tends to "close the loop" for me. The consequence is that unless I make a habit of checking my journal, it actually makes me slightly more forgetful, since I no longer have that "open loop" reminder.

The difference between activation energy and inertia is that you can want to do something, but be having a hard time getting started - that's activation energy. Whereas inertia suggests you'll keep doing what you've been doing, and largely turn your mind off. Breaking out of inertia takes serious energy and tends to make people uncomfortable.

I don't mean to nitpick, but this distinction isn't obvious to me. It seems like inertia is just a component of activation energy.

Great post regardless.

Activation energy: It takes me about 15 minutes to get ready for exercise: I need to close down what I'm doing, change in to exercise clothes, and find a good spot for it.

Inertia: Once I'm jogging, it's really easy to keep jogging. Especially when jogging is the fastest way to get back home =)

End result: I find it much easier to do a single 30 minute jog, compared to three 10 minute jogs. If there were just activation costs, I'd probably want to do a single 10 minute jog. If there was just inertia, I'd probably want to do three 30 minute jogs.