I’m a perfectionist, and a pretty neurotic person, so a common experience for me is feeling dissatisfied and guilty. Some part of me is deeply convinced that everything should be easy, and fast. That if it’s not, I am failing. That I could have done better.
When I do an exam, no matter how well I actually did, this part is always drawn to the marks missed and the dumb screw ups. When I'm thinking about something hard and find an inspired idea, it always feels obvious in hindsight and I kick myself for missing it. When I'm tired and spend the first hour of a day procrastinating, even if I completely pull it around from there, I'll compare what I do to what could have been.
I think this is an extremely common pattern, and one that I see in many of my friends. And the crux of it is the word could have, the standards we hold ourselves to. This mix of guilt, insecurity and unrealistic standards is a major loss of productivity, and a major source of unhappiness. And this pisses me off.
I am going to spend this post trying to argue exactly why this is so terrible, and how I personally think about doing something about it. I expect that some lucky people reading this won't relate at all to these problems, and more power to you! But for those who resonate, I hope my thoughts can add a useful perspective!
The key framework I will argue for is as follows:
There is also a problem of having bad goals, and standards tying me to goals I no longer ultimately care about. This is a very real problem, but I won't focus on it here - my earlier post on prioritisation somewhat gives my thoughts there.
It's easy for these discussions to get somewhat abstract - to agree that realistic standards are good in principle, but that it would never work in practice. To counteract this, I recommend taking a moment right now, to identify a recent time where you didn't meet your standards and felt guilty about it. And to apply all of my ideas to that specific example, and see if they resonate.
I will personally mostly focus on the case of productivity and focus, since that is important to me and highly salient, but I think these ideas apply far beyond that - judging my talents and comparing myself to others, life satisfaction and a sense of progress, and more generally anything where insecurities dominate. And I hope these ideas are of value there too.
The crux here, is that the only thing I can change are my future actions - actions taken under uncertainty, where I must apply judgement and balance trade-offs. But my standards judge me by past data, with all of the benefits of hindsight.
And it is exceptionally hard to look past hindsight and judge the past from the perspective of how it seemed at the time - the concept of hindsight bias. This is a fundamentally difficult problem, and doing this well ever is a struggle. It is utterly unreasonable to expect our intuitions to be capable of doing this well on their own!
This is especially bad when looking back on any kind of conceptual progress, clever ideas where all of the work came from identifying the idea in the space of all possible ideas. I see this a lot in maths - group theory is a beautiful area of maths, that took decades of effort and iteration to distill into its modern form. Yet, when I think about the idea of how I'd characterise a symmetry, the framework of group theory feels obvious! And this problem recurs again and again when looking back on any intellectual work I've done - mistakes I've made, rabbit holes I've gone down, clever solutions I've found after a while of staring at a problem. This is a fundamentally hard problem, and to get anywhere I need to record how things felt in the past.
Further, this is actively damaging! There are mistakes I've made in the past, things I could have done better, ways I can learn and grow stronger. The guilt pushes me to flinch away from these, rather than examining my past shortcomings in detail, seeing what I can learn from them, and feeling motivated to put in effort to do better next time.
A further problem, is what I call the floating ball of rationality problem. I conceive of my actions and feelings as being under total conscious control. If I don't keep working until I drop, this is a failing. If somebody annoys me and I fail to utterly brush it off, this is weakness. And clearly it is psychologically impossible to just will myself into these states of mind - if they're even possible, it takes meaningful work and effort to get there. But my sense of what is easy is broken.
Another problem is the planning fallacy, and more generally far mode thinking. When I think on future projects and plans, I see them from a zoomed out view. I don't account for dumb mistakes, distractions, tiredness and procrastination, even though this always happens. I don't account for things being harder than expected. And this means I am consistently disappointed with what happens.
Worse, even when I do do something well, I rarely feel satisfied. I gave a talk last week, and I'm super happy with how it went and what I learned in making it. And, including background reading etc, it took about 20-40 hours to prepare and give. Extrapolating out, this would give me about a talk a week, which I feel super satisfied about. Yet, if I actually think about what I did in that time (and even now while writing this post about how this is dumb), it feels like it should have taken 10 hours tops. Guilt and perfectionism is trying to spur me to do awesome things, but sometimes I do things that I'm proud of, and I deserve to feel satisfied when that happens
At this point in this conversation, some part of me starts to feel concerned about complacency. I know that my standards are unrealistic. But they also serve as a big part of my motivation system. And I feel concerned that if I just removed them, that I'd be complacent, and never do anything. And that feels terrifying. I know that high standards make me feel less happy, and that it'd be awesome if I could be productive and feel awesome about everything, but that doesn't feel possible.
A common counter-point is the idea of self-compassion. I find it most compelling to think about this in terms of how I'd advise a friend in the same situation. I feel very confident I'd think the friend was being way too hard on themselves. I'd encourage them to zoom out, relax a bit, and try again a bit later. That guilt, pushing and forcing yourself is rarely effective or sustainable. This discrepancy is clearly an inconsistency. And, on reflection, I feel pretty satisfied with the advice I'd give to the friend.
Here, I find it helpful to disentangle the guilt & standards from the desire to do something awesome and well. The standards are purely instrumental, and I have no attachment to it for its own sake. And it generally feels pretty clear that if I can get intrinsically motivated, this is a massive upgrade! The times when I have felt excited about what I'm working on and in flow have been some of the most productive times of my life. So the question is whether it's possible to move from this. (And if the idea of intrinsic motivation resonates with you, this post gives my thoughts on how to cultivate it).
As for the fear that relaxed standards will lead to complacency - I strongly relate to the deep, neurotic desire to always be in control of things. And a fear that relaxing will lead to a loss of control. But I don't think this is actually true. A thought experiment: You have a big red button in front of you. If you press it, it'll remove all of these feelings of guilt. You won't work on the task any more, but will feel totally fine about this. Do you want to press it? I certainly don't - there are much deeper reasons I care about what I'm doing! And those deeper reasons will still be there, and can still keep me focused, without the blunt hammer of guilt. Guilt is a tool, not the only tool. (And if you would press the button, are your perceived goals your true goals?)
Another framing: Guilt is a form of negative reinforcement, and satisfaction is positive reinforcement. Over time, we learn to avoid negative reinforcement, and to seek positive reinforcement - at our heart, we're all reinforcement learning agents seeking reward. And getting a constant negative reward prompting us to keep striving and becoming better can work, if enough work would actually help us become awesome and worthy. But it's much easier with a shaped reward - where sometimes we feel satisfied and happy with things. This creates much tighter feedback loops, and makes it much easier to point yourself in the right direction, measure progress, and keep motivated.
Another thought experiment: Suppose you woke up tomorrow, and you were consistently twice as productive as you have been up to today. Try to really imagine it. How surprised do you feel at this picture?
I'd feel pretty surprised at this - progress tends to be continuous, not discrete! It's much more likely that I get slowly better, day by day. And so, to motivate this, it suffices to motivate marginally better performance. If I set my standard of satisfaction at, say, the 60th percentile of days, this is great! It's a shaped reward, pushes me in the right direction. But also, the only way it could feel too low is if I consistently hit it. And that's an awesome outcome. The progress of becoming great is for every day to be marginally better than the last. This is exactly what the kind of realistic and helpful standards that genuinely push me to better would look like - accurately tracking my progress and how good I currently am, and pushing myself to be marginally better than that.
This has two important takeaways:
Think back on the last 2 weeks, and how often you felt satisfied with what you got done that day. If you're anything like me, the number is way less than half. Is this the kind of reward that's going to best help you learn and become stronger?
(I'd highly recommend Nate Soares' Not Yet Gods, for another perspective on the same theme)
So, the underlying goal is to become better, to be motivated, and to slowly, incrementally improve. And this needs standards that are accurate. That are well-calibrated to my true abilities. I have a few thoughts about how to achieve this:
Further, I think that poorly calibrated standards are much easier to fix when you directly notice them, but harder to fix when you're tired or paying less attention. And so I've found this extremely valuable to systematise, to aim for useful standards to be a default. My current system:
This system is somewhat overengineered, and has moderate overheads. But I've found it valuable - the tiered system creates a lot of tight feedback loops for predictions, and I've become much better calibrated about how long things actually take me. If your calibration also sucks, I'd highly recommend trying a similar strategy yourself, at least for a few weeks!
Exercise: What would you do as part of an ideal calibration and standard setting system? Where could these fit into a routine, such that it feels like the default action to follow? What feels most missing from how you currently do things? And what could you do right now, to implement such a system?
(I'd highly recommend Lynette Bye's Measuring Progress, for another perspective on the same theme)
Even if I can perfectly calibrate my standards, this doesn't solve everything. Sometimes I'll have an off-day, where I just fall short of a reasonable standard. Sometimes I'll spend my first pomodoro procrastinating and get nothing done. And often, this throws off my entire rest of the day. I feel obliged to make up for the lost time, to recover the time lost. And this is obviously ridiculous! If my standards are well-calibrated, it's unreasonable to expect my future self to now exceed them.
The fundamental problem here is that the goal of standards is to shape my future actions for the better. Yet, my standards are anchored to my past actions.
And this can often be terrible! I feel off, I know there's no way I'll feel happy with the day, and so I just give up. I wanted to be in bed by 10pm, it's now midnight, so I've already stayed up too late - what's a few hours more? This is the phenomena Nate Soares called failing with abandon, and it is both insidious and extremely unhelpful.
The underlying problem, is that guilt and obligation are blunt, unnuanced tools. They can be useful, but don't automatically adapt to new situations - I call this phenomena being anchored. This is very much worth watching out for and trying to resolve - if you're feeling miserable in a way that isn't helping you to become stronger, that's just obviously terrible.
My main tool for resolving this specific case, is to un-anchor - zooming out, reflecting, becoming centred and re-orienting to a new plan for the new situation. This can often feel aversive, because I'm already behind and can't afford to waste any more time! But this is clearly dumb. If I'm being unproductive and meandering, this is now the default path. Pressing the Try Harder button isn't going to pull me from that path. While doing something different, zooming out and adapting can change that path. True competence isn't avoiding problems, it's being able to recover when they inevitably arise.
A similar phenomena occurs when your goals are wrong. You feel obliged to go to lectures and learn, because that's what a student does, even though you're learning poorly and don't care about the material. You feel obliged to stick with your current project and work through it, even though it's ceased to be fun or meaningful to you - there's the drive to not leave things unfinished. The drive to finish the book that became dull at chapter 5. This is fundamentally a problem of your standards being anchored at the wrong points.
It is valuable to notice this and be aware of this, though difficult to fix, and I won't dig into it too deeply in this post. I've gotten some mileage out of internalising that the world is fundamentally full of trade-offs, and that I need to learn how to prioritise. And by cultivating a sense of outrage at standard programming cached in my head. That I've absorbed these thoughts and obligations, they are not under my conscious control, and that this leads to bullshit aversions holding me back from my true goals. And this helps motivate me to do something about it.
Sometimes the solution is to calibrate your standards better, as I've outlined here. But sometimes the solution is to scrap your standards entirely, and re-orient to your true goals! And it's worthwhile not to confuse the two.
In conclusion, I think a ton of unhappiness, akrasia and lost productivity comes from poorly applied guilt and poorly calibrated standards. This is extremely common, and terrible.
We have a lot of biases that mean our standards are badly calibrated, unrealistic and dominated by hindsight bias. It is valuable to have realistic standards - intrinsic motivation is far more effective than guilt, and tight feedback loops are far more motivating and better at pointing us in the right direction. This is obvious if we imagine advising another on overcoming these problems.
The goal isn't to have unrealistic standards, it's to have standards slightly above what I typically achieve - the drive to improve and be better is a valuable one and to be cherished, but my default approach is ineffective and can be improved. Ultimately, the goal of standards is to improve our future actions - the past is just training data. And this is the true goal to be grounded in.
And getting well-calibrated standards is a tractable problem. Progress can be made here by making predictions about how long things will take, recording data, taking the outside view and building this in as a systematic part of my workflow. And it is possible to become better calibrated over time. You have a bias, and being aware of a bias doesn’t dissolve it. But it can be overcome.
I've mostly focused on productivity and workflow here, as that's the aspect I've thought about the most, but I think badly calibrated standards are everywhere in my life. And these techniques of collecting data, seeking advice, being grounded are powerful parts of my general toolkit for dealing with guilt and insecurity. I find it hard to suppress instincts like that, since the desire to do well and seek excellence is precious to me. So I strongly resonate with a solution centred on digging deeper into that desire.
And if the ideas in this post have resonated with you, I'd urge you to do something about it? When was the last time you felt really satisfied with what you've gotten done? How often do you feel guilty? And, if you were designing your mind to help you become awesome, what would those answers look like? Are you happy with your mind working like this? And if not, what can you do about it?
(If this framing of guilt and obligation as things holding me back resonated, I'd very highly recommend the Replacing Guilt series by Nate Soares - they're some of the most valuable things I've ever read about guilt and mental health)
Yes. A lot of "akrasia" is actually people trying to do the impossible and their mind and body telling them no. Like "runkrasia", an affliction that stops people running 42 km a day. I suspect a lot of weight gain is driven by similar factors. People who expect that they can work at 100% intellectual effort for 12 hours a day and if they can't, something is wrong: something like I need more food due to poor metabolism.Looking at the biographies of very productive people, very few of them seem to actually work (mentally) at maximum effort for much more than 4-5 hours a day.
Best advice I've seen on this topic: Give up hope for a better past. You're absolutely right that focus on future action is correct.
And (based on clear similarity with me and people I know well), I also suspect that your standards are too high in how much you can change by yourself, on a purely intellectual first-principles basis. Getting professional psychological (or psychiatric, depending on severity of impact on your life) help can accelerate the changes you'd like to make by an order of magnitude. I'm a fan of CBT and Trigger Action Plans, but there are lots of different mechanisms that may help.