Hammertime Final Exam: Pledges, Activation Energy and Evaluating Productivity

by Simon Skade4 min read20th Jun 2021No comments

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This is my Hammertime Final Exam.

Instrumental Rationality Technique: Pledges

Pledges is a technique for setting deadlines that you actually meet.

In March (2021), my flatmate and I decided that we want to do a startup project together. We did not have much time back then and therefore pledged to have decided on an idea and pitched the idea to 3 people until the 19th of April. If we would not fulfill that pledge, we would need to go into the crowded pedestrian zone in Heidelberg with signs "We are incompetent".

We did everything the last week, but we definitely would not have done anything at all if we had not had the pledge.

We then renewed the pledge to set a date where we finish the beta version, with something even more embarrassing on the line, and it keeps us motivated.

When setting a pledge, make your goal specific and set a deadline. You might want to add sub-deadlines for sub-tasks, so you don't procrastinate everything until the deadline.

When choosing a penalty, do something that you really don't want to do. For me, embarrassing stuff works quite well, because my System 1 does not want to be embarrassed.

It is crucial that you tell other people of the pledge, to make yourself more responsible so that others can urge you to do the embarrassing action when you have not succeeded.

For other a bit smaller tasks (e.g. drawing an important decision or doing anything that you would like to procrastinate), pledging something is still powerful, though here I rather use smaller penalties. I sometimes write something like the following message to a friend:

"I pledge that I will do [*the task*] until [*the deadline*]. Otherwise, I [*will endorse the penalty I set myself*]."

For small tasks, I often use penalties like "don't watch Youtube for the next 3 days" or "don't listen to music for the next 2 days", but you can experiment and see what works best for you.

You can also try beeminder, but I think for me it may be less effective, though I must say I have not tested it yet.

To motivate yourself, even more, you can reward yourself after you have completed the task.

Rationality Framework: Activation energy

Activation energy is the term I use to describe that you often only need to get started with a task and then pretty much automatically continue on.

TAPs

One kind of using the principle of activation energy is using TAPs, especially the kind of trigger-action-sequences where you break down a task into small and easy steps to start with (see TAPs 3: Reductionism). For example when you want to go running:

  1. take a deep breath
  2. put on sportswear
  3. put on running shoes
  4. go outside
  5. go for a run

Pledges

Yup pledges are one of my favorite techniques. When you want to do something, but your lazy brain does not want to do it, just start by writing a pledge to a friend that you will do the task until a specific deadline and then your lazy brain will probably not resist so much, because it also does not want to endorse the embarrassing or otherwise harmful penalty.

Trick your lazy brain

The concept behind activation energy is that you want to reduce the willpower needed to do a task by focusing only on the first simple step and thereby tricking your lazy brain into resisting less. When you are feeling like you want to procrastinate something, just ask: "How can I trick my lazy brain?". For example:

  • When you need to make a call but don't like to call, just go to the contact on your phone and press the call button, the rest will happen automatically.

Sometimes you don't want to trick the "lazy" brain, but the "shy brain", the "afraid brain" or another intuitive non-rational part of yourself. The technique still works:

  • When you want to reach out to someone (for example as a comfort challenge), try to focus on saying: "Hi I'm Simon. What's your name?", instead of thinking too much about what you could say and how it could end up awkward.

The technique does not make everything easy and sometimes you cannot fool the bad parts of your brain that easily, so don't just think "Well, seems like the technique does not work for me, I will just go swimming now...". Use the techniques to lower the needed activation energy, but when it is still high, just shut up and put in the willpower.

Cognitive bias/blindspot: Evaluating productivity

I noticed that sometimes there are some activities that don't feel so productive, but when I actually think about it they are quite productive.

There are two main examples where my intuitive perception of productivity is wrong:

  1. A few days ago, I went hiking with a friend of mine. It was really fun and we talked a lot about philosophy, (meta-)physics, math, and ethics. I noticed that I would intuitively say that it was not that productive because I did not really "get things done", but when I think about it, I must say that it actually was quite productive, because I thought more about some concepts that I now understand better, and I probably nudged my friend a tiny step towards altruism.
  2. Sometimes when I have not completed all tasks of the day (which happens often), I feel like I need to do them in the late evening, but often it may be more productive to just say that I will do the tasks soon and just go to bed to get enough sleep to work effectively the next day.

So don't confuse productivity with doing hard stuff.

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