Taking the first step

by Neel Nanda15 min read25th Jul 2020No comments

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MotivationsRationality
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(This is a post from a daily blogging experiment I did at neelnanda.io, which I thought might also fit the tastes of LessWrong. This is about my toolkit for getting started on hard things)

Introduction

A lot of my previous posts have been about prioritisation and planning - it’s easy to fall into the trap of taking actions that don’t lead to your goals, and extremely important to predict and avoid this. But another key skill is implementation - going from knowing the actions to take, to actually doing anything. It’s easy to feel inspired, and to feel as though you have direction, but for this to ultimately go nowhere. So it’s vital to cultivate the ability to get shit done.

I’m a massive procrastinator, and a perfectionist, so by default I’m pretty bad at this. I find it very easy to perpetually put things off, and feeling overwhelmed at the thought of starting. Or, feeling guilt centred around not getting started, but it never quite feels urgent enough to do anything about it. And to then either miss deadlines, or leave everything until the last minute, where the pressure builds up, and then I end up doing a half-assed job. This is an incredibly sub-optimal, but is essentially the default state of the world for me. In this post, I will attempt to outline some of my tools for getting past these failure modes, and especially focusing on getting started - the point where I most often fail.

My underlying model is outlined in my previous post on systems: willpower is a limited resource. When we have an unpleasant task to do, there’s a barrier to starting, an activation energy we need to spend. And we have a bunch of mental pressure from deadlines and obligations that eventually get us to spend the required willpower to get past this barrier. This motivates two obvious approaches which I’ll outline in the first half - increasing the mental pressure, and lowering the activation energy. And explains why I focus on getting started - activation energy isn’t the same thing as what it costs me to continue working on a task, there are significant switching costs, while if I’m already in the flow of a task I have inertia behind me.

I think it’s also easy to fall into the trap of just pushing the Try Harder button - trying harder and putting more effort in, but in the most obvious and accessible ways. The world is messy and complicated, and there are often creative solutions that achieve our goals without incurring these costs. But you need to zoom out, and sometimes move past your instincts to find them. So in the second half I’ll try to outline some of the more creative solutions, that don’t quite feel natural in the moment.

Trying Harder

Increasing pressure

I find deadlines are a powerful motivator - I’ll often procrastinate for a while until a deadline looms, and creates a sense of urgency. But this involves a ton of wasted motion along the way. Here are some tools for using this pressure more effectively

Health Warning: I think a motivation system built upon high mental pressure getting me to do things is pretty unhealthy - I dislike having guilt as the central basis of my motivation system, and I think this holds me back in significant ways. If this resonates with you, I highly recommend reading this series outlining an alternate approach. But this is a system that works for me, and it is useful learning how to use it well. And empirically some people thrive under pressure/guilt based systems! I recommend trying these ideas if they seem interesting, but stopping if it feels like something that isn’t working for you, or is making you unhappy.

  • Creating deadlines - deadlines are a pretty powerful form of pressure, so if you can create artificial deadlines, that’s an awesome skill!
    • The first thing to try is just deciding something is a deadline! Some people can make this work, though I struggle - it doesn’t feel real to me
    • Add structure to your work-day
      • I work in 50 minute pomodoros, and try to set myself a target for the pomodoro, and check in on how that went at the end - for unfocused pomodoros, I often feel a burst of deadline pressure in the second half.
      • Generally, good deadlines feel clear and concrete - it should be hard to weasel your way out of a deadline. Structure makes it easier to build these
    • I am a big fan of software to automatically lock my laptop - this stops me pulling all-nighters, by setting my laptop to lock at my bedtime, and makes that the deadline
  • Accountability: Make deadlines feel stickier - setting artificial deadlines is hard for me because it feels fake and insubstantial, another skill is making them feel real
    • Social commitment
      • Often just telling a commitment to a friend makes it feel more real!
    • Public accountability (hardcore) - post publicly about a deadline
      • This can feel aversive because it feels like you’re bothering people
    • Financial accountability (hardcore) - set a financial penalty if you don’t make the deadline
      • Websites like Stickk and Beeminder will automatically enforce the deadline, and have a bunch of tools to make it harder to weasel out of the deadline
      • This is strongly your mileage may vary - people tend to find these pretty stressful, some people hate them, while some people find them invaluable (I’ve never got it to work well for me)
  • Another approach, attaching meaningful consequences to artificial deadlines!
    • Arrange to peer-review a friend’s work in advance of the true deadline - this is now an artificial deadline with meaning
    • Whenever I’m writing a talk or workshop, I like to set a time a few days before when I’ll do a trial run with a friend - this is now a meaningful deadline!
  • Building intuition for the costs of wasted time
    • I find it easy to leave things beyond the last minute, and to justify all my procrastination as “it doesn’t matter, the deadline isn’t here yet”
    • The underlying error is that wasted time has opportunity costs - other things I value which I could have been doing there. And opportunity costs don’t feel concrete.
    • So, a solution is to build more concrete intuitions! I’ve found it useful to practice regular time estimates and calibrating myself, this makes things feel a lot more visceral, which is important for shaping my actions in the moment
  • It’s easy to put things off indefinitely - I’ve tried to build the mental habit of asking myself “am I surprised if I never do this?”
    • The resulting feeling is a lot more reliable than my procrastinating brain, and can focus me much more

Lowering activation energy

An alternate naive approach is to lower the energy required to start.

For me there are a few common reasons it’s hard to start things:

  • It feels overwhelming - the task is big, and monolothic, and confusing, and I don’t know where to start
  • Analysis paralysis: I’m caught up in constantly prioritising and planning
    • The underlying point - planning and doing take different parts of my brain. When I try to do both at once, I freeze up and do neither well
  • A related idea: babble vs prune. If I want to be creative, I need to generate good ideas. But generating, with the filter of “this must good” in place, is hard - I fall into perfectionism. So the solution is to separate them!
    • Babble is the generation step - I generate ideas freely, with no concern for quality
    • Prune is the filtering step, I go through the generated ideas and select the good ones
    • Ultimately, babbling and pruning use different parts of my brain, and if I try to both at once, I get mired in switching costs

An extremely powerful tool for lowering the energy to get started on things is setting 5 minute timers. If I want to get started on a small piece of a task, I set a 5 minute timer and tell myself “I have the next 5 minutes to get this done”. I find this a very powerful tool, because it focuses me on doing. It’s such a short period of time, that I can remain focused on the specific task, and it short-circuits the “is this the best of my time” doubts. And it makes me a lot more creative - there’s strong enough time pressure that I don’t have time for proper planning and prioritisation, and so it’s easier to enter a more free-flow mode, and break out of whatever local maxima I’m stuck in.

Useful hack: Make it really low friction to set a 5 minute timer, so you can convert the fleeting impulse to action into action. For me, I just need to say “Alexa, 5 minute timer”.

How to use these?

  • Notice when a task feels overwhelming, and you feel stuck, and set a timer to “plan, and break the task down into concrete actions”
    • The timer focuses me on planning, rather than doing, so it’s less overwhelming. I don’t have enough time for option paralysis!
    • A lot of energy goes into overcoming option paralysis, and figuring out how to start. If I have a concrete starting point, it’s much easier to dig in and make progress
  • If I don’t know what to do, and feel stuck, set a timer to “brainstorm possible next steps”
    • It’s often good to have a timer for just babbling - generate as many creative ideas as I can, with no concern for quality
      • The timer is useful for focusing me on “the point is to generate in an unfiltered way”
    • Afterwards, I can prune - this step is normally easy
    • I find that doing this normally finds at least one creative solution that feels actually interesting - often it works to just run with that, rather than analysing whether it’s the best solution
  • Even when the task feels more concrete, it’s often still a bit overwhelming, and it can be useful to recurse

Zooming Out

Those ideas are the basic tools I try to keep in mind for making progress when stuck. But it’s important to remember that my goal is to get shit done. It’s extremely easy to substitute this for the proxy goal of “try hard”, but this is rarely the best way to achieve my goals. But feeling pressured and stressed makes me pretty short-sighted, and it’s hard to keep this distinction crisply in mind. So it’s useful to have systems in place that will force me to Zoom Out, because I struggle to make the right call in the moment

Take breaks

A mystery - when I’m procrastinating about something, and I know I’m procrastinating, I can spend hours on end doing low priority things and feeling a bit guilty about it. But it feels wrong to just give up and take a break, to go off and do something I’ll find properly rejuvenating. While, empirically, if I take half an hour to go for a walk, or read a good book, or chat with a friend, I can often return in a great headspace, and feel energised to make genuine progress - this is a win for all of my goals.

Even when I do take breaks, I often feel guilty, and like I’m not trying hard enough. You should never feel guilty for taking the optimal action! The purpose of guilt is to ensure you take better actions, within the constraints of your limits

Ultimately, life is a marathon, not a sprint. Taking breaks feels wrong, from the short-term, sprint focused perspective, which is how I feel when under pressure, but this is not meaningful for my true goals.

Thus, I want to live in worlds where I take more breaks. And my default algorithm is “take breaks when I feel like it’s a good idea”, which clearly is failing. So I need to change this default algorithm. My current approach is to have robust systems to ensure that I take rejuvenating breaks between pomodoros. And further, to train the habit of noticing when I’m going in circles, and feeling overwhelmed, and to reflexively step away from my desk and take a break. And if I feel resistance, to look at a post-it above my laptop, reminding me of why this is a good policy.

A useful framing: There are two possible worlds I can live in. In the relaxed world, I take breaks whenever things feel a bit overwhelming, or I notice that I’m not making progress. In the stressed world, I don’t take breaks, I just keep pushing myself until things eventually happen. Yet, there’s a third, fantasy world, the optimal world, where I immediately take the actions I’m putting off. And the optimal world does not exist, and striving for it just results in the stressed world. But it feels like it does, and it feels like I’m comparing the relaxed world and the optimal world. And I choose not to let pleasant fantasies hold me back from my goals.

Expanding working memory

Another reason things can feel overwhelming - humans have strongly limited working memory. Some experiments indicate we can only hold about 4 concepts in our head at once. And this means that if we’re trying to hold more in our head at once, things feel overwhelming, and stressful, and high energy. This is part of why planning and doing should not be done at the same time - this exceeds my working memory. And it’s easy to see this as weakness, and feel frustrated, but this clearly is not! This is a fundamental consequence of our brain’s architecture, and feeling frustration is like feeling frustrated at not being able to jump a metre into the air - this is not physically possible.

Instead, the correct response is to find ways to expand my working memory. Find ways to take thoughts outside my head, less overwhelming, and easier to process. I find these tricks highly useful any time that I’m stuck:

  • Brain-dump my thoughts into text
    • I have a reflex set up, so every time that I notice I am “Not Making Progress”, I start to brain-dump why I feel stuck, and what’s actually going on
      • Dynalist Pro lets me add text to my inbox by pressing CTRL+SHIFT+I from any window, I’ve found this valuable for keeping this low friction
      • You want your thoughts to feel free-flowing here. I find it useful to use a medium for writing that feels very easy to edit, and move ideas around in, so there’s no fear of making mistakes
        • This is another application of “separate planning & doing”
        • I find outlining software, like Roam, Workflowy or Dynalist are awesome for this purpose
  • Talk to a friend
    • This is another, less artificial way to force you to put your thoughts into words
      • Often obvious mistakes, or holes in your understanding become clear when put into words!
    • Another person’s perspective can be valuable for exposing holes in your thinking, blind spots, mistakes you’re making, etc
      • Often, the advice they think is obvious isn’t something that occured to me!
    • Note: There’s a significant skill on the other person’s end of helping you work through your problems effectively. I find most people are a lot better than nothing, but it’s useful to try to create good norms and a good environment!
      • Ensure it’s someone you feel comfortable talking about somewhat embarrassing and silly things to - somebody you’re comfortable being vulnerable around
      • Their goal is to help you understand the problem, not to solve it - your minds are different, and if they miss this, they may think a difficult problem has an obvious solution
  • Rubber duck debugging
    • Talking to a friend can be hard - human labour is expensive, and it’s often hard to get access to a friend when you need them. So why not replace the friend with a rubber duck!
    • A good chunk of the value from seeking advice is just putting thoughts into words - I find it valuable to keep a rubber duck on my desk, and speak to it when I feel confused about something. This is way more helpful than it has any right to be!

Note: With all of these techniques, it’s really useful to minimise friction between “noticing I’m stuck/things are exceeding my working memory” and applying the techniques - this makes you much more likely to use them. Keep paper and a rubber duck handy. If possible, do co-working with a friend and chat about problems during breaks - ensure seeking advice is easily accessible!

Reframe the question

A lot of resistance to starting something scary can be fear of failure, or fear of risks/costs. I find this super paralysing - the world is complex, and all actions have downsides. And by default, my mind overweights the costs. In an ideal world, I’d do a cost-benefit analysis, prioritise, and choose the best action. But my intuitions are a poor guide to this, and it’s too complicated to do a robust calculation.

The main tool I have for short-circuiting this is to change the question. I fundamentally cannot answer the question “is this the best choice in the short-term”. So if I want to be able to take such actions anyway, I need to change the question I’m answering. Make it about the action, not the consequences. Make it so that I’m happy no matter what the outcome is! Common ways I do this:

  • Make the task about changing my self-image - does doing this bring me closer to the kind of person I want to be? Is this the kind of thing someone competent, brave, kind, or interesting would do?
    • This kind of thing really works - taking actions that are a bit outside my comfort zone
  • Make the task about gaining a skill - if I start an ambitious programming project that I feel pumped about, it doesn’t matter if it works - at the end of the day I’m much better at programming. There’s no way to lose!
  • Make the task about gaining information. Explicitly frame it as an experiment.
    • A good mantra: Failure is just another data point
    • I find this an incredibly powerful technique to break out of local optima and try new things.
    • Eg, I’m currently writing a talk, and procrastinating on getting a rough version together ASAP. And I had the idea of trying to make the slides for each sub-chapter in 10 minutes each. And this didn’t seem long enough, and I felt a lot of resistance, but I decided to do it for the sake of experiment. And this turned out to be really useful for clarifying my thoughts on the structure, and making it concrete!
  • Do it for somebody else. I find it much easier to take the social initiative when I’m in a group, and can see everyone else feels too awkward to - my awkwardness feels like a background factor
  • I elaborate more on these kinds of tactics in my post on intrinsic motivation

Make uncertainty a background thought

One interesting approach is to imagine what it would like to master the art of getting shit done. And mastery often feels qualitatively different from when you start out. When I’m new to an area of maths, say, I feel very hesitant. I’m not sure what I’m doing, I constantly second-guess myself, check definitions, and feel uncertain about what to do. And I feel like the way to make progress is to try harder, and that one day I’ll have a big pool of knowledge and can properly tackle this uncertainty.

Yet, when I look at the areas of maths I am good at, like pre-requisite courses I did in first year, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like I just do the obvious thing. It’s not that I know everything - maths is complicated and messy, and I still run into edge cases. But this uncertainty and confusion feels like a background thought - it’s not something I’m paying attention to, I’m just doing the obvious thing, because I have good intuitions I’ve built up. It’s similar to the mindset of teaching a younger student - my mind isn’t focused on uncertainty and confusion, I’m focused on helping them, and answering their questions. My uncertainty is a background thought.

And I find this a valuable goal to aim for when I feel stuck! I know that my intuitions contain valuable information, though by default I feel pretty stuck, and my intuitions tell me to give up. But accessing intuitions well is a skill, not something that just happens by default. And I find here, that often the right way to access these intuitions is to explain the situation aloud, talk through it in detail, and say “what is the obvious next step?". And I find this is often what seeking advice, or rubber duck debugging is doing - it’s giving me another way to access these intuitions.

And mastery is, by definition, hard! These intuitions aren’t always accurate. But I find that having this goal in mind is helpful! And that sometimes, when I’ve got past the barrier of activation energy, I will start reflexively doing the obvious thing. I think this is much of what characterises flow states.

Nate Soares outlines this point excellently here

Switching motivation source

One of the underlying problems with motivating myself with deadlines and pressure is that this is guilt-based motivation. I have a bunch of cached rules in my mind, obligations that I must follow. And this does work, but makes me feel unhappy. And takes a while, feels like I’m using mental force on myself, and is generally bad for me. And the fact that it feels bad for me is important evidence, and shouldn’t be ignored!

In contrast, it’s difficult but possible to do tasks by intrinsic motivation - feeling super excited about them! I outline my rough thoughts on this here, and Nate Soares has a genuinely excellent series on what to do about this. And shifting motivation sources is difficult, and doesn’t always work, but I have a few techniques that help here:

  • Make it social! I, personally, find it much easier to be excited about a task when talking to somebody else about it (note: your mileage may vary on this one)
    • When coworking, I find it useful to begin by describing to the other person why I’m pumped about this task
    • For longer projects, I try to make a point of geeking out about it when chatting to friends about it
  • Introspect - “why am I excited about this?” “What will happen if I don’t do this?”
    • An underlying problem with guilt-based motivation is that it stores “things I need to do” as obligations. I’m not reasoning about it, or prioritising, it’s now something I need to get done. For me, this often comes from a place of needing to be in control, and not trusting myself to get things done otherwise.
    • But this is dumb, because often the task is genuinely the best thing I can be doing right now! (And if it isn’t, are you prioritising correctly?)
    • To unlock intrinsic motivation, I need to remain grounded in how this action will achieve my goals!
    • I find it valuable to set a timer for, say, 2 minutes, and try to really visualise how this action will achieve my goals. Why will doing this make me happier, and bring me closer to a world I want to live in?
      • Or, visualise a world where I don’t do it, and ask “why is this world bad?”
    • Often doing this can give me a burst of motivation, that hours of guilt don’t!
      • Often this is directed at a specific part of the project, I find it’s useful to follow this curiosity and excitement wherever it leads, rather than getting caught up in prioritising

This can also help with procrastination. Especially for tasks with no actual deadline, eg messaging a friend I haven’t spoken to in a while, it’s easy to perpetually put it off. I call this the myth of doing it later - empirically, when I do this, I often never get round to the task in question!

This is another case where I’m reasoning about fantasy worlds:

  • World 1: I do it right now
  • World 2: I never do it
  • World 3: I do it at the optimal time (which is always later!)

Empirically, World 3 does not exist. And choosing world 3 is really choosing world 2. And maybe that is the right call! But it is bad to just go with the default decision - I should look past world 3, and ask myself “is this something I want to do right now, or never”.

And often this reframing is enough to unlock some intrinsic motivation - I realise that I genuinely do care about whether the task is done! And doing it no longer feels like work.

Conclusion

I think that getting shit done is a really valuable skill. I’ve outlined a pretty scattershot set of tools in this post - they’re all pretty personal and subjective, but I hope that at least one stood out as interesting, and worth trying out! In practice, I find setting 5 minute timers, decoupling planning and doing, dumping my thoughts into text, and reframing the question are the most valuable for me. And are now pretty core parts of my workflow.

A sad truth of the skill of getting shit done is that this skill is most useful when you’re least able to use it. On the days when you’re a bit tired, the work feels overwhelming and you feel stuck, it’s hard to remember to apply an unfamiliar technique. It never feels necessary. The times I most need a break are the times when I’m least willing to take one, because I’ve spent an entire day being slow and behind.

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it means that you need to learn it in a different way. If these techniques will be truly useful to you, they need to become reflexive parts of your mental toolkit, not just interesting ideas. Something that can override your old intuitions in the moment.

And this is something that takes time, and practice. Try these techniques out, even when it doesn’t feel necessary, and see what works for you. Minimise friction, and set up your workflow so you can use them with minimal effort. Make a point of trying them out, even if getting started is just a bit effortful, to see if they work for you. And if they do work for you, try to use them everywhere, until it can become a reflex!

And if that feels a bit too high effort and unnecessary, and something that wouldn’t really help, well - that sounds like a hard task you’re struggling to get started on. I recommend reframing the question - make this an experiment, try a new technique, and see what you can learn from it. And from that point of view, failure ceases to be a meaningful idea in the first place.

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