Trivial inconveniences as an antidote to akrasia


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adamzerner

1.

I was taking an five hour bus back to LA from Vegas. We were stopped at a rest stop about midway through, and I got out to stretch my legs. I figured it would be a good time to call my mom and catch up.

While chatting with her, she started to tell me about a business idea she has. She started off telling me how she loves chocolate, but has zero willpower to not overindulge. She could just not buy it at the store, but she really doesn't want to give it up outright. So her idea is to have a safe with some sort of timer on it that feed her a piece of chocolate once per day, but that's it.

My very first impression was to role my eyes. There is this small part of me that still instinctively just wants to disagree with whatever my mom says. But that only lasted a brief moment. After thinking about it some more, I kinda love the idea! The problem is real, and it's important to solve. The solution should be pretty foolproof, and shouldn't be too expensive.

I'm an entrepreneur, and I think about startup ideas all the time. I end up forgetting about most of them. This ten minute chat with my mom happened almost three years ago, and it still holds a place in my mind.

2.

I think her original idea is fine, but I always like to think about how ideas can be improved on. One problem I see with her idea is that it might be too strict. What if you truly do have a good reason for deviating and want to be fed chocolate now?

What if, instead of feeding you a piece of chocolate once every 24 hours (or whatever you configure it to), what if it just required you to stand there for five minutes before feeding you the chocolate? And you can't just step away and watch TV while you wait out the five minutes - what if the safe made you actually stand there and do something boring for five minutes (eg. by making you type in the letter that appears on the screen every ten seconds)?

I feel like that approach would still be pretty damn effective. Who is going to actually stand there for five whole minutes typing letters in to a screen while they wait for a piece of chocolate?

3.

But why, exactly, does that second approach actually work? I may be guilty of explaining by labeling here, but... "trivial inconveniences" is my answer.

Trivial inconveniences are a thing. Even though standing for five minutes (or even 60 seconds) is a relatively trivial inconvenience (think about how much time you invest to be able to eat other foods), I suspect that it would be powerful enough to prevent people from overeating chocolate. There are many other times where a trivial inconvenience is similarly powerful.

I googled around for 30 minutes or so, looking for a real answer to the question of why trivial inconveniences are powerful. I didn't really find anything. So then, I'd like to take a stab at thinking it through myself. How could a trivial inconvenience be so powerful? What is going on here?

To answer that question, I'd like to start off trying to introspect and put myself inside my mind when I am akratic. Eg. when I start snacking on chocolate when I feel that I shouldn't be.

a) In that situation, my mind feels like it's on autopilot. Sure, there are some intervening thoughts like, "wait, you aren't supposed to be doing this", but they're immediately shot down with thoughts like, "it's not that big a deal, you'll only have a few pieces, it'll make you feel good, and then you'll get right back to work". More importantly, all of these thoughts are pretty faint, and I mostly just feel like I'm on autopilot.

b) I feel a pretty strong impulse to eat chocolate. "It would taste so good. It would be so satisfying. It's right there. I want it!"

I sense that trivial inconveniences reduce both of those problems. I think they snap you out of the autopilot mode, and I think they provide you with a sort of buffer time period for the initial impulse to go away.

Epistemic status = not very strong, just me musing.

4.

Perhaps a more useful question than how trivial inconveniences work is how we can make them work for us. I sense that ideas similar to the safe that feeds you chocolate bars could be used to fight akrasia. I'm going to spend one Yoda Timer coming up with as many as I can. I encourage you to give it a shot also and post what you've got in the comments!

1. If you're trying not to be tempted to eat chocolate on impulse, keep it in a difficult to reach place, like the back of your cabinet, or in a top drawer that requires you to get a ladder.

2. If you live in an apartment complex and have a mail room, and you don't want to use your phone too much, lock your phone in your mail box. If you really need it, you can take five minutes to walk downstairs, open your mailbox and use it. But otherwise that trivial inconvenience of walking downstairs and opening your mailbox will probably keep you from mindlessly browsing Facebook. You can try the same thing with your internet modem, or anything else.

3. If you want to spend more time walking and biking and less time driving, park your car a few blocks away from your house/apartment. Or keep your car keys somewhere inaccessible, like your attic. (Even something like your attic is only minutes away from being accessed, not too big a deal in an objective sense.)

4. Delete apps from your phone, and when you actually need them, re-install them. Taking the time to reinstall them seems like a trivial inconvenience that should be pretty powerful.