Note: Experimental, trying to repost a Twitter thread as a Lesswrong post to see if people like it (so if you like it, or don't, tell me).

Let's talk a little bit about oscillating motivation, shadow values, non-coercion, and the problem of revolving productivity systems.

We've all had the feeling that new productivity system is working! Only to find that days, weeks, or months later it falls off, and we fall back into a period of being unproductive. Hell, I was stuck inside this revolving door for more than a decade.

I tried every planner, app, book, coach, journal, todo list, calendar, and retreat under the sun. But always, would find myself back in the revolving door, back to where I started.

Robert Fritz calls this "Oscillating Tension." in order to discover the root of it, we need to look at what procrastination actually is.

What is Procrastination?

It's trendy these days to say that "We procrastinate to avoid negative emotions." That's true, but what does that make procrastination? It's a defense mechanism against taking actions that hurt psychologically. Procrastination is a tool to prevent psychological self-harm.

So along comes this tool that we can use to get ourselves to act! It charges us money, or it gets us really excited about our todo list, or it gives us social pressure to take that action anyway.

But the underlying emotion is still (often) there. Every time we trick ourselves into doing the task without resolving that negative emotion, we're confirming to our defense mechanisms that they were right to worry.

And then, when our environment changes, or we miss that call, or we misplace that planner... guess what happens? Our procrastination knows using that tool leads directly to self-harm, so it causes you to procrastinate from ever using that tool again. Oscillating tension.

The Need for Autonomy

There's another problem here too. It's not just the task itself that felt bad - the very fact that you felt you had to force yourself (instead of acknowledging and processing the negative emotions) leads the task to be even MORE AVERSIVE!

According to self-determination theory, humans have an innate need for autonomy. When we feel coerced into action, we resent this need not being met. That resentment builds over time. This leads to the second pattern of oscillating tension.

The pattern: We find a new coercive method that gets us to do things through "self-discipline". As we use this method, resentment builds. Until finally the resentment for the method is stronger than the coercion it provides. Onto the next method. Oscillating tension.

(As a side note, when you learn about this, it's easy to then decide to coerce yourself into non-coercion. This is just a signpost that that method doesn't work).

Self-Loathing

Of all the coercive methods of self-discipline we use, the most common is also one of the most damaging: Self-loathing. This is a method that society has trained into us so thoroughly we don't even recognize that most of us use it as our primary motivation tool.

The way it goes is this: We feel negative emotions related to a task, so fail to do it. In response to this, we begin to start feeding the "self-loathing monster" trying to pile on enough shame and guilt that they outweigh the other negative emotions.

So we pile on this shame, guilt, and loathing, until finally we buck up and do our task. But what happens then? We feel less shameful, and less guilty. The self-loathing monster shrinks. And suddenly, our fear of the task is stronger, we stop acting. Oscillating tension.

Value Tensions

Another way to frame this is tension between two values. One that we acknowledge (doing our task) and another that we refuse to acknowledge (e.g. not wanting to fail). Each one is constantly building as we're living through the other.

This brings me to the fourth pattern of oscillating tension: Shadow values.

The pattern goes something like this: We have two values that (without proper planning) tend to be in tension with each other. One of them, we acknowledge, as right and good and ok. One of them we repress, because we think it's bad or weak or evil.

Safety vs. Adventure

Independence vs. Love 

Revenge vs. Acceptance 

All common examples of value tensions, where one of the values is often in shadow (which one depends on the person).

So we end up optimizing for the value we acknowledge. We see adventure as "good", so we optimize for it, hiding from ourselves the fact we care about safety. And man, do we get a lot of adventure. Our adventure meter goes up to 11.

But all the while, there's that little safety voice, the one we try ignore. Telling us that there's something we value that we're ignoring. And the more we ignore it, the louder it gets.

And meanwhile, because we've gotten so much of it, our adventure voice is getting quieter. It's already up to 11, not a worry right now. Until suddenly, things shift. And where we were going on many adventures, now we just want to stay home, safe. Oscillating tension.

There's a 5th common pattern of oscillating tension called the Identity Snapback Effect, related to our actions and identities getting out of sync. Further exploration is left to the reader.

Inner Conflict

So what do all 5 of these oscillation patterns have in common? A lack of congruency. The tendency to ignore some needs in order to focus on others. A sense of inner conflict, instead of alignment.

In each and every case, the solution involves welcoming and acknowledging all parts of yourself, before plotting a way forward. Transitioning from forcing yourself to choosing what you want to do.

Honestly, I could do another 100 tweets on what this looks like in each case. The delicate dance of beliefs, emotions, strategies, behaviors, and tools that can be combined to internalize a new way of being.

But the start is just self acknowledgement. Letting all your feelings, values, desires in, and going from there.


 

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I'm biased against Twitter and Twitter threads, but I found this post readable and useful.

My own current take on resolving my inner conflict is to see my complex identity as the result of multiple simpler and focused identities, and to try to address the need of each while keeping my priorities. Something vaguely like IFS, but not exactly.

The pattern: We find a new coercive method that gets us to do things through "self-discipline". As we use this method, resentment builds. Until finally the resentment for the method is stronger than the coercion it provides.

And then there's a ridiculous binge period when you do nothing productive whatsoever.

Has this new congruency-based approach led to less, the same, or more productivity than what you were doing before and how long have you been doing it?

It has led to more consistent productivity and more productivity overall.  It has been consistent for about two and a half years now.

I also think that this approach will likely make some people less productive.  I have another twitter thread about it I may post if this one does well.

I for one would like to read that

I liked this post a lot.

My experience with ideas related to this (e.g. Replacing Guilt, IFS) has been that I tend not to be able to muster compassion and understanding for whatever part of myself is putting up resistance. Rather, I just get frustrated with it for being so obviously wrong and irrational. I just can't see how those parts of myself could possibly be correct (e.g. How could it possibly be correct to not do my paper, that would get me kicked out of my PhD program). And when I remind myself of these sorts of techniques and that I'm supposed to be trying to have compassion and understanding for those parts of myself and leave room for the possibility that they might have a point, this just creates another iteration of the same problem: I get frustrated with myself for not being able to understand myself.

Reading this post helped me see, at least a little bit, how some of those motivations of mine might be based on things that are valuable.

(Actually, writing this comment was helpful as well: writing out the above made me realize that I don't have to acknowledge that there's even a chance that those parts of myself might be totally correct. Rather, I have to acknowledge that there's a chance they might be at least partially correct. E.g., if part of me doesn't want to do my paper, I don't have to acknowledge that there's a possibility that the best thing to do is to not do it ever. Rather, perhaps there's some reason not to do it now - perhaps I just need a rest, or perhaps there's some way that doing it now would harm me and I need to fix that first.)

My experience with ideas related to this (e.g. Replacing Guilt, IFS) has been that I tend not to be able to muster compassion and understanding for whatever part of myself is putting up resistance. Rather, I just get frustrated with it for being so obviously wrong and irrational.

I think this is one of the situations where it really helps to have someone else facilitate your IFS session. What you describe often happens because you are blended with the part that wants to just "get rid" of the part creating the resistance, and it might be the anti-procrastination part which created your motivation to sit down for an IFS session in the fist place. Then you get an arguments are soldiers thing - if you were to actually listen to the procrastinating part, then it might turn out to have some good reason for procrastinating, and the anti-procrastinating part doesn't want to hear that. It doesn't want you to get kicked out of your PhD program, so it certainly doesn't want to consider an argument for something that might get you kicked out!

So then you are trying to unblend from the anti-procrastinating part in order to have empathy for the procrastinating part. But the anti-procrastinating part is also the one which is trying to drive the session forward, and it can't unblend from you while still driving the session! So the need to unblend and the desire to fix the procrastinating part get in conflict, and the process gets stuck.

Effectively, the anti-procrastination part would need to turn itself off, and it doesn't know how to do that. But what you can do, is give control of the session to somebody else, and let them tell you what to do. Once the anti-procrastinating part no longer needs to drive the session, it becomes possible for it to move to the side, and then for you to listen to both parts with empathy.

This is a "get out of the car" problem:

Suppose that one day, you happen to run into a complete stranger. You don’t think very much about needing to impress them, and as a result, you come off as relaxed and charming.

The next day, you’re going on a date with someone you’re really strongly attracted to. You feel that it’s really really important for you to make a good impression, and because you keep obsessing about this thought, you can’t relax, act normal, and actually make a good impression.

Suppose that you remember all that stuff about cognitive fusion. You might (correctly) think that if you managed to defuse from the thought of this being an important encounter, then all of this would be less stressful and you might actually make a good impression.

But this brings up a particular difficulty: it can be relatively easy to defuse from a thought that you on some level believe is, or at least may be, false. But it’s a lot harder to defuse from a thought which you believe on a deep level to actually be true, but which it’s just counterproductive to think about.

After all, if you really are strongly interested in this person, but might not have an opportunity to meet with them again if you make a bad impression... then it is important for you to make a good impression on them now. Defusing from the thought of this being important, would mean that you believed less in this being important, meaning that you might do something that actually left a bad impression on them!

You can’t defuse from the content of a belief, if your motivation for wanting to defuse from it is the belief itself. In trying to reject the belief that making a good impression is important, and trying to do this with the motive of making a good impression, you just reinforce the belief that this is important. If you want to actually defuse from the belief, your motive for doing so has to come from somewhere else than the belief itself.

You are suggesting a productivity system. You have systematically tried various productivity systems over the years, and you've finally found one that works for you. Suggesting that someone think a certain way, or not think a certain way to increase their productivity is a productivity system. 

Good summary! I might further clarify by saying something like "You have been relating to your productivity systems in a certain way (a meta-productivity system if you will) and this post suggests you relate to your productivity systems in a new way (replaces your meta-productivity system."

A meta-productivity system would be using a productivity system to find and explore productivity systems. I don't think that works by the nature of what a productivity system is. Fundamentally, you're always trying to be more productive. That is your ultimate goal. Trying out new methods and ways of thinking is beneficial to your future productivity, because you may find something that works better for you, and so you implement it. But you never really lose the "trying out new methods and ways of thinking" part; that's just necessary for progress. 

A meta-productivity system would be using a productivity system to find and explore productivity systems.

That's one way to go meta, another would be to "Change the way you approach, think about, and frame productivity systems" which this is.

On the format: Since you asked for feedback, I found this format a little harder to follow than other LessWrong posts. For me, short paragraphs are great when used sparingly to make a particular point punchier. But an entire post like that feels like someone is talking too quickly and not giving me time to think. (I also don't read Twitter, so perhaps it's just not well-suited for me.)

On the content: Robert Kegan's "Immunity to Change" framework addresses some of this, especially the "shadow values" (which he calls hidden commitments). I learned the framework from this book, which was very helpful for me last year in uncovering some of my own hidden commitments (as well as for a few other reasons): https://www.amazon.com/How-Talk-Change-Work-Transformation-ebook/dp/B003AU4DX2/.

I hadn't thought of applying this to productivity systems, though. That's very insightful, and definitely an area where I still experience tension. So I think this will be helpful, thanks!

Yeah, I think Immunity to Change is another way to get at this same framework, and definitely recommend it.

I'll try to combine sentences into longer paragraphs in the next post and see if it helps.

human's

humans

(Ignoring synonyms like 'people' in favor of the smallest change.)


another 100 tweets

Is that how you drafted this? (Or is it a mindset?)

Thanks, fixed!

Yes, this was originally a tweetstorm.

Honestly, I could do another 100 tweets on what this looks like in each case. The delicate dance of beliefs, emotions, strategies, behaviors, and tools that can be combined to internalize a new way of being.

I would love to see further discussion of what the solution looks like. Is there any writing out there that discusses this?

How does one uncover shadow values?

On format: a little bit of editing might improve reading experience. Just joining some paragraphs might be a great improvement.

Here's one way:

  1. Make a list of all your values.
  2. Imagine a life that fulfills all those values.
  3. Project that life into the future, a day, then a week, then a month, then a year, then a decade of living that life
  4. As your timescale gets bigger, notice any resistance or unease.
  5. Introspect on that unease. What's missing from this life that you actually value.

I will definitely try to make paragraphs next time, and see if it helps!