On Procrastination - The art of shaping your future actions

by Neel Nanda7 min read1st Aug 2020No comments

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AkrasiaProcrastinationPlanning & Decision-MakingRationality
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(This is a post from a daily blogging experiment I did at neelnanda.io, which I thought might also fit the tastes of LessWrong)

(Also relevant: A post I made on systems & willpower and notes for a workshop I taught on Murphyjitsu, a technique for better using your intuitions to plan)

Introduction

By default, I’m an excellent procrastinator. Worse, I’m a mathematician, and trained to be excited by existence proofs and theory, and to ignore the implementation details. As a result, by default, I am really bad at actually taking actions, or acting on my desires.

I often have cool ideas, but rarely act on them. I might hear about a cool book that sounds super worth reading, an article I want to check out, think about a friend I should message, or hear about an awesome idea to try solving one of my problems with. And this flashes in my mind in the moment, and it sounds worthwhile! It’s something I genuinely want to do. But, empirically, I often forget about these, and very, very rarely act upon them. And this is a really big problem! It’s so easy to fall into the classic trap of being academically minded - always thinking, never doing. Having a bunch of things I want to do, but never get round to. This post is about my tools for solving these.

And this is a problem I very commonly observe in others! If you resonate with this problem, I strongly urge you to actually try the ideas I’ll outline here, this is really common. To make it a bit more visceral, I recommend that you set a 5 minute timer right now, and list things you’re currently putting off, and never get round to - if you’re anything like me, that’s an uncomfortably long list.

Further, I think there’s a kind of person who’s been reading and enjoying my blog, who thinks I have some interesting ideas that might be worth acting upon. Yet, empirically, they have yet to do anything, and are unlikely to ever get round to it. This post is aimed at you.

The mindset of planning

I think the root cause of all these failure modes is a failure of planning. It’s easy to conceive of planning as sitting down and coming up with a careful, meticulous strategy for how to approach something. But I define planning as the art of shaping your future actions to achieve your goals. Making a careful, detailed strategy is just a means to an end.

I find this mindset helpful because, when I have an idea and never get round to doing anything about it, this is a failure of planning. It’s not that I never made a plan, it’s that my implicit plan was “assume it would happen by default”. The worst plan is the one you never make. And, unfortunately, this is by far the most common failure of planning. Because the default state of the world is that you forget, and never achieve your goals. Thus, the first skill of good planning is learning how to make a plan in the first place - how to have a fleeting idea feel like something worth making a plan about.

The underlying problem here is one of willpower and attention - remembering to do something consumes attention. And doing it is not the default action, so it takes effort and willpower. Further, your intuitions are highly misleading - it’s easy to be optimistic, and commit the planning fallacy. To think I’ll definitely get round to it someday. Yet, empirically, this is not true! There are a lot of things on your mind, if it doesn’t happen now, it’s likely to be put off forever or forgotten about. As a consequence, your one intervention point is to notice in the moment and do something about it. You need to cultivate the skill of noticing and reacting. And the reaction needs to happen in the moment, because this is the only intervention point - if you fail now, you’ve lost.

Upon hearing all this, a natural reaction is one of guilt and obligation. You might manage to notice in the moment, feel guilty, and resolve to make sure you do it this time! This is pressing the Try Harder button. Planning isn’t about trying it’s about doing. You don’t want to be spending willpower on this - any strategy that involves spending willpower in the longterm is not robust. This is a problem that needs to be solved with systems thinking - reacting in the moment means changing the default actions you will take.

In general, this is a difficult problem because the failure mode happens on the five second level - it’s not something you can solve by just thinking or trying harder. The difference between doing and not doing is one of reflexes and mental habits, and developing the right mental habits is a very different skill from understanding what they should be. This is not a problem you can solve by just trying harder, you need to be deliberate and careful!

Noticing

The first step is noticing when you fail to plan! I have written my thoughts previously on how to notice things, this is an excellent time to apply that! Noticing breaks down into two parts - being aware that you’re failing to plan, and feeling a sense of urgency. One trigger I’ve found useful here, is pegging the noticing to the word “I should …” - I very rarely say “I should do ___ some time” and then actually do it.

I find awareness tends to be easier here - it often manifests as a sense of unease when I say “I’ll do that later” - I know this isn’t quite true, but don’t want to confront that. Or I feel a bit guilty, but don’t have the energy to act upon it.

The key part is the urgency - the feeling that this is important - something worth acting upon, something I care about. A flash of actually caring, that’s enough to break the inertia and get me to spend some willpower on it. The default state of the world is that I won’t act on the awareness, so I need a trigger to break from that default. Some tips:

  • Remind myself that I probably will never get round to it - it’s not now or later, it’s now or never.
  • Notice the reflex to ignore the thought, and challenge that
  • Try to make “overcoming procrastination” part of your self-image - something you feel proud of, and to do for its own sake
  • Try to hack in to intrinsic motivation - say “I can do something about this now, or never get round to it, and this is my free choice. And I choose to never do it”. Does anything feel wrong here? If so, listen to that part of you, and try to channel it into something stronger
  • After practicing Murphyjitsu - imagine a world where I do nothing now yet eventually get round to it. And ask “am I surprised by this world?”
    • This accesses a more accurate layer of my intuitions, and having it as intuitive knowledge makes it more powerful - surprise is a pretty visceral emotion, and is good at hacking into my motivation system
  • An ideal end goal - every time you notice wanting your future self to do something, ask yourself “am I surprised if this doesn’t happen?” - I’m partway to this point, and have found it super powerful

Note that the urgency doesn’t have to be very strong - just enough to get you to do something rather than nothing.

Reacting

Once you’ve pulled off the temporary feeling of urgency, what can you do about it? This is an impulse that can get you to spend some willpower. But spending willpower sucks. Your goal is to achieve goals, not to “try hard” in some abstract sense - results are all that matters. And your goal is to change the default future action. And the right tool for this problems are systems! You want to have ways to use a minimal amount of effort to change this default - a great investment of time is setting up scaffold systems to help with this like a to-do system or calendar.

My go-tos:

  • Add it to my to-do list, and do it in my weekly “clearing my to-do list time”
    • Note: If you don’t regularly clear the list, this is not a plan. That is by far the most common mistake made with to-do lists
  • Message a friend committing doing it, or asking them to remind me
    • Note - try to make it concrete. “I will do ___ by ___ time”. This makes it far harder to weasel out of.
  • If it’s time/location sensitive, setting myself a reminder
    • Even better, I have a Trello board called Waiting which is nothing but reminders. This is excellent, because even if I miss the reminder, I can still get it when I clear out my to-do list
  • Financial commitments
    • I get a lot of mileage out of committing to pay a friend if I don’t do something, or giving them money and telling them to only give it back if I do something.
      • This was strong enough to once get me to rap terribly in front of 100-odd people
    • Websites like Beeminder and Stickk let you do this without needing a friend, if that part feels weird.
  • Make it concrete. Figure out exactly what I need to do, when I need to do, what the first step will be, what barriers make this hard and what I can do about them.
    • This is a really powerful technique - fuzzy ideas are much harder to do, and take a lot more willpower.
    • This applies especially to more ambitious things! If you want to, say, start a daily writing project, there are a lot of decisions involved in that. It’s much easier to do if you can decide when to do it, where you’ll do it, how you’ll do it, what you’ll write about. This makes it more likely to actually happen!
    • I find this is often good to combine with messaging a friend, or chatting to a friend about - it’s much easier to clarify my thoughts when talking to somebody else, and takes less energy
  • Find a good time in my calendar for it, and schedule it in
    • Note - this only works if you stick to your schedule

Finally, if at all possible, do it right now. If an action can be done in <5 minutes, train the habit of just doing it. The first step is always the hardest step, so if you can just make a start in 5 minutes, do it now! Set a 5 minute timer, and see how far you can get.

A common failure mode is being OK at these things, but being in a conversation and feeling too awkward to do it. “Let me just set a reminder to do that” is totally socially acceptable! (At least, among the people I hang out with). Hell, if you want to follow advice or a recommendation somebody has given you, it’s pretty flattering if you say “huh, that’s an excellent idea, and I will inevitably forget about it, let me make sure I do it now”

A fun variant on this: When giving advice to somebody else, it’s pretty easy to recognise this failure mode. And explicitly calling them on it, by asking “are you surprised if this doesn’t happen?” is pretty effective for creating a sense of urgency. I think one of the most valuable parts of giving advice isn’t the information transferred, it’s shifting somebody from thinking to doing. Offering accountability, helping them make it concrete, and helping them make “actually doing it” become the default. And as a bonus, if they genuinely are surprised if it doesn’t happen, you can back off with no harm done! Good social skills should fail gracefully.

Conclusion

Overall, I’m still pretty bad at procrastination. But I have gotten much better at reacting in the moment over time, and I consider this a really valuable skill. And I strongly urge you to try cultivating it yourself, especially if you relate to these problems. And especially if you’ve been enjoying this blog, and want to act upon the ideas, but have yet to actually do anything - ideas you never act upon are worse than useless. They consume time and energy, with no results.

This is hard, because it’s not always the best idea to do the idea - prioritisation matters and is hard. I think it’s important to build the skill of reacting in the moment first, and solve prioritisation second - it’s much harder the other way round. Have systems to add the task to a to-do list, and prioritise then. Prioritising and doing take very different parts of your brain, and you cannot do both at the same time.

Ultimately, procrastination is a really hard habit to kick. In part because, even if you know what to do about it, it’s easy to procrastinate about that. And you get stuck in a catch-22. And the only way to break out is to feel that sense of urgency. Do you procrastinate about everything? And are you surprised if you never do anything about this?

Is that a life you’re happy with? What could you do, right now, that would be a first step towards the kind of person you want to be?

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