Here's my method: (+8 for me)

I have a 45 minute sand glass timer and a simple abacus on my desk. Each row on the abacus corresponds to one type of activity that I could be doing, e.g. writing, studying, coding, emails and surfing,... First, I decide what type of activity I'd like to do and then start the 45 minute sand glass. I then do that kind of activity until it ends. At which point I count it on my abacus and have at least a 5 minute break. There are no rules about what I have to do, I do what ever I want. But I always do it in focused 45 minute units.

If you try this, do it exactly as I describe, at least to start with, as there are reasons for each of the elements. Let me explain some of them. Firstly the use of a physical timer and abacus. Having them sitting on your desk in view makes them a lot more effective than using something like a digital timer and spreadsheet on your computer. When you look up you see the sand running out. When you take a break you see a colourful physical bar graph of your time allocation -- it's there looking at you.

45 minutes is important because it's long enough to get a reasonable amount done if you work in a focused way, but it's short enough not to be discouraging, unlike an hour. Even with something I don't particularly want to do, sitting down and doing just 45 minutes of it is a bearable concept, knowing that at the end I'll have a break and then do something else if I want to. Also if you look at human mental performance, it doesn't make much sense trying to do more than 45 minutes hard work at a time. Better to have a break for 5 to 15 minutes and then start again. As I think 15 minute breaks are essential, at the end of the week the total number of units counted on my abacus are my total number of at-work-activity hours for the week.

Having no rule about what you have to do is also important. If you put rules in place you will start avoiding using the system. The only thing is that when you start a unit of 45 minutes you have to go through with it. But you're free not to start one if you don't want to. You might then think that you'd always just do the kind of work that you like doing, rather than units of the stuff you avoid but should be doing. Interestingly, no, indeed often I find that the reverse starts to happen, even though I'm not really aiming for that. The reason is the principle that what you measure and keep in mind you naturally tend to control. Thus you don't actually need any rules, in fact they are harmful as they make you dislike and avoid the system.

Another force at work is that momentum often builds enthusiasm. Thus you think that you'll just do 45 minutes on some project due in a week that you'd rather not be doing at all, and after that unit of time you actually feel like doing another one just to finish some part of it off.

So yeah, the only real rule is that when the sand glass is running you have to stay hard at work on the task, which isn't too bad as it's only so many minutes more before you're taking a break and once again free.

UPDATE: So it seems that what I'm doing is a variant on the "Pomodoro technique" (and probably quite a few others). The differences being that I prefer 45 minutes, I think that's a better chunk of time to get things moving, and I like a physical aspects of a sand glass timer and an abacus. I perhaps should add that when I was doing intense memorisation study before an exam I'd use a 20 minutes on 10-20 minutes off cycle as that matches human memory performance better. But for general tasks 45 minutes seems good to me.

Akrasia Tactics Review

by orthonormal 2 min read21st Feb 2010150 comments

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I recently had occasion to review some of the akrasia tricks I've found on Less Wrong, and it occurred to me that there's probably quite a lot of others who've tried them as well.  Perhaps it's a good idea to organize the experiences of a couple dozen procrastinating rationalists?

Therefore, I'll aggregate any such data you provide in the comments, according to the following scheme:

  1. Note which trick you've tried.  If it's something that's not yet on the list below, please provide a link and I'll add it; if there's not a link for it anywhere, you can describe it in your comment and I'll link that.
  2. Give your experience with it a score from -10 to +10 (0 if it didn't change the status quo, 10 if it ended your akrasia problems forever with no side effects, negative scores if it actually made your life worse, -10 if it nearly killed you); if you don't do so, I'll suggest a score for you based on what else you say.
  3. Describe your experience with it, including any significant side effects.

Every so often, I'll combine all the data back into the main post, listing average scores, sample size and common effects for each technique.  Ready?

Here's the list of specific akrasia tactics I've found around LW (and also in outside links from here); again, if I'm missing one, let me know and I'll add it.  Special thanks to Vladimir Golovin for the Share Your Anti-Akrasia Tricks post.

Without further ado, here are the results so far as I've recorded them, with average score, number of reviews, standard deviation and recurring comments.

 

3 or More Reviews:

Collaboration with Others: Average +7.7 (3 reviews) (SD 0.6)

No Multitasking: Average +6.0 (3 reviews) (SD 2.0); note variants

P.J. Eby's Motivation Trilogy: Average +5.8 (6 reviews) (SD 3.3)

Monoidealism: Average +8.0 (3 reviews) (SD 2.0)

"Just Do It": Average +4 (2 reviews) (SD 4.2)

Irresistible Instant Motivation: +3 (1 review)

Getting Things Done: Average +4.9 (7 reviews) (SD 2.6)

Regular Exercise: Average +4.4 (5 reviews) (SD 2.3)

Cripple your Internet: Average +4.2 (11 reviews) (SD 3.0)

LeechBlock: Average +5.4 (5 reviews) (SD 2.9); basically everyone who's tried has found it helpful.

PageAddict: +3 (1 review)

Freedom (Mac)

Melatonin: Average +4.0 (5 reviews) (SD 5.4); works well for some, others feel groggy the next day; might help to vary the dosage

Execute by Default: Average +3.7 (7 reviews) (SD 2.4); all sorts of variants; universally helpful, not typically a life-changer.

Pomodoro Technique: Average +3.3 (3 reviews) (SD 4.2); mathemajician suggests a 45-minute variant

Being Watched: Average +3.2 (6 reviews) (SD 4.1); variations like co-working seem more effective; see "collaboration" below

Utility Function Experiment: Average +2.8 (4 reviews) (SD 2.8)

Meditation: Average +2.8 (5 reviews) (SD 2.8)

Modafinil and Equivalents: Average -0.8 (5 reviews) (SD 8.5); fantastic for some, terrible for others.  Seriously, look at that standard deviation!

Structured Procrastination: Average -1.0 (3 reviews) (SD 4.4); polarized opinion

Resolutions (Applied Picoeconomics): Average -3.2 (5 reviews) (SD 3.3); easy to fail & get even more demotivated

 

1 or 2 Reviews:

Dual n-back: Average +6.5 (2 reviews) (SD 2.1)

Think It, Do It: Average +6 (2 reviews) (SD 1.4)

Self-Affirmation: Average +4 (2 reviews) (SD 2.8)

Create Trivial Inconveniences to Procrastination

Close the Dang Browser: Average +3.5 (2 reviews) (SD 3.5)

Get More Sleep: Average +3 (2 reviews) (SD 1.4)

Every Other Day Off: Average +0.5 (2 reviews) (SD 0.7)

Strict Scheduling: Average -9 (2 reviews) (SD 1.4)

 

Elimination (80/20 Rule): +8 (1 review)

Methylphenidate: +8 (1 review)

Begin Now: +8 (1 review)

Learning to Say No: +8 (1 review)

Caffeine Nap: +8 (1 review)

Write While Doing: +8 (1 review)

Leave Some Tasty Bits: +7 (1 review)

Preserve the Mental State: +6 (1 review)

Acedia and Me: +5 (1 review)

Third Person Perspective: +5 (1 review)

Watching Others: +5 (1 review)

Multiple Selves Theory: +5 (1 review)

Getting Back to the Music: +5 (1 review)

Remove Trivial Inconveniences: +4 (1 review)

Accountability: +2 (1 review)

Scheduling Aggressively...: +2 (1 review)

Autofocus: 0 (1 review)

Take Every Other 20 to 40 Minutes Off: -4 (1 review)

 

Not Yet Reviewed:

Fire and Motion

Stare at the Wall

Kibotzer

 

Thanks for your data!

EDIT: People seem to enjoy throwing really low scores out there for things that just didn't work, had some negative side effects and annoyed them.  I added "-10 if it nearly killed you" to give a sense of perspective on this bounded scale... although, looking at the comments, it looks like the -10 and -8 were pretty much justified after all.  Anyway, here's your anchor for the negative side!

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