Me and M&Ms

by coyotespike 1 min read2nd Aug 201412 comments


Ah, delicious dark chocolate M&Ms, colorfully filling a glass jar with your goodness. How do I love thee? About four of you an hour. Here's a brief rundown of my most recent motivation hacking experiment. 

1. Gwern has an interesting article arguing that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may shift the learning advantage from intelligence toward conscientiousness (actually he's not sure about the intelligence part). This shift occurs because MOOCs select for higher-quality instruction and better feedback, broadly speaking and over time, but it's much harder to stay on task without a malevolent instructor and bad grades breathing down your neck. This thesis jives with my own experience; if I get stuck on a math problem, I just google "an intuitive approach to x," and I usually find a couple of people begging to teach me the concept. But it's harder to get started and to stay focused than in a classroom.

2. Given that knowledge compounds and grants increasing advantages, I'd really like to keep taking advantage of MOOCs. Some MOOCs are better than others, but many are better than your standard college course - and they're free. For a non-technical guy getting technical, like me, it's a golden age of education. So, it would be great if I were highly conscientious. Gwern points out that conscientiousness is a relatively stable Big Five personality trait.

3. The question then becomes, can conscientiousness be developed? Well, I'm not a Cartesian agent, so wouldn't it make sense to reward myself for conscientiousness? Enter the M&Ms. I set a daily target for pomodoros. When I finish a pomodoro, I get a big peanut M&M or two small ones. If I finish two in a row, I get two servings, and so on. In this way, I encourage myself to get started, and then to keep going to build Deep Focus. Each pomodoro becomes cause for celebration, and I find my rapid progress through pomodoros (and chocolate) energizing, where long periods of distraction were tiring.

This has worked fantastically well for the last two weeks. I hit my pomodoro target for paid work, then switch to educational work. I plan to keep it up, and maybe I'll use chocolate as motivation somewhere else as well. Now back to my M&Ms, green, yellow, blue, orange, brown, red . . .