Abstract: This article proposes a hypothesis that effective anti-akrasia methods operate by reducing or eliminating the activation of conflicting voluntary motor programs at the time the user's desired action is to be carried out, or by reducing or eliminating the negative effects of managing the conflict.  This hypothesis is consistent with the notion of "ego depletion" (willpower burnout) being driven by the need to consciously manage conflicting motor programs.  It also supports a straightforward explanation of why different individuals will fare better with some anti-akrasia methods than others, and provides a framework for both classifying existing methods, and generating new ones.  Finally, it demonstrates why no single technique can be a panacea, and shows how the common problems of certain methods shape the form of both the self-help industry, and most people's experiences with it.

The Hypothesis

Recently, orthonormal posted an Akrasia Tactics Review, collecting data from LessWrong members on their results using different anti-akrasia techniques.  And although I couldn't quite put my finger on it at first, something about the review (and the discussion around it) was bothering me.

See, I've never been fond of the idea that "different things work for different people".  As a predictive hypothesis, after all, this is only slightly more useful than saying "a wizard did it".  It says nothing about how (or why) different things work, and therefore gives you no basis to select which different things might work for which different people.

For that reason, it kind of bugs me whenever I see discussion and advocacy of "different things", independent of any framework for classifying those things in a way that would help "different people" select or design the "different things" that would "work for" them.  (In fact, this is a pretty big factor in why I'm a self-help writer/speaker in the first place!)

So in this post, I want to share two slightly better working hypotheses for akrasia technique classification than "different things work for different people":

  1. Akrasia happens when there are conflicting active voluntary motor programs, and the opposite of akrasia is either the absence of such conflict, or a manageable quantity of it.

  2. The nature and source of the specific motor program conflicts are individual, so the effectiveness of a given anti-akrasia technique will be determined by an individual's specific sources of conflict

Accepting these as working hypotheses allows us to quickly develop a classification scheme for anti-akrasia techniques, based on what part of the problem they work on.

A Classification Scheme

For example, hygenic/systemic methods such as exercise, nutrition, drugs, and meditation, all act to improve one's ability to manage conflict, attempting to reduce or minimize ego depletion: either by improving one's capacity, or, in the case of meditation, by developing more efficient conflict-management capability (so that ego depletion occurs more slowly or not at all).  The effectiveness of these methods will then depend on the amount and type of conflict to be managed, and will most likely be effective in cases where the sources of conflict are many or frequent, but the intensity of any given conflict is low.

Focusing methods, such as Getting Things Done and the Pomodoro Technique, operate on a principle of helping people to let go of thinking about other tasks, even though they may vary widely in how they go about this.  Restricting internet access, taking vows, or simply "deciding not to do anything else" are also within this class.  The motor-program conflict hypothesis predicts that the effectiveness of each of these techniques will vary widely between individuals, depending on whether it addresses the actual source of their conflicts.

For example, blocking one's internet access is unlikely to provide lasting help someone who's procrastinating on finishing their thesis due to a fear of failure - they will likely find another way to procrastinate.  It also won't help someone who really wants to get on the internet, vs. someone who's just being distracted by its availability! (i.e., has relevant motor programs primed by its availability)

Meanwhile, Getting Things Done is unlikely to help someone whose conflict isn't because they have too many things to keep track of, and conversely the Pomodoro technique won't help someone who's having trouble deciding what to do in the first place.

Motivational methods, on the other hand, (such as the ones of mine that users mentioned, or Vladimir Golovin's version of "self-affirmation"), operate by attempting to prime or fill one's motor program buffers with exactly one program: the action to be taken.

And, to the extent that people actually fill their mind sufficiently to block out other programs from activating, these methods will definitely work.  However, in many cases, these methods ironically drop off in effectiveness over time, as their users get better at doing them.

The more often the technique is used, the easier it becomes to do it with only a part of their mental resources...  and so, unless care is taken to do the technique in precisely the same way each time (i.e., with full conscious attention/intention), it may not produce the same effect.

Another flaw in motivational methods is that they don't address any actual sources of conflict.  They are much more effective at overcoming simple inertia, and most useful when incorporated into something that you are trying to make into a habit anyway.

Which brings us to our final category (and my personal favorite/specialty), conflict-resolution methods.  These are techniques which seek to eliminate conflicts directly, either through manipulating the outside world (e.g. removing obstacles) or the inside world (getting rid of fears and doubts, clarifying priorities, etc.).

And the goal of these techniques is to bypass a potentially "fatal flaw" that exists with the other three classes of technique:

Most Akrasia Techniques Are Subject To "Meta"-Akrasia

If you procrastinate taking your pills or doing your exercises, your hygenic method is unstable: the more you delay, the more likely you are to delay some more.  The same is true for maintaining your "trusted system" in Getting Things Done, breaking your tasks into Pomodoros, or whatever other focusing method you use.  And of course, if you put off doing your motivation technique, it's not going to motivate you.

So the idea behind conflict-resolution methods is to permanently alter the situation so that a particular source of conflict can no longer arise.  For example, if you can never find a pair of scissors, buying a pair for each place where you might need them could forever eliminate the priming of the procrastination motor program titled, "but I don't know where the scissors are."  (This would be an example of resolving an external conflict, as opposed to an internal one.)

In my own work, however, I specialize in helping people get rid of chronic internal conflicts like not believing in themselves, fear of criticism, and all that sort of thing.  These kinds of conflicts tend to not be helped at all by techniques in the other three categories, since the feelings (motor programs) involved tend to be intense (i.e. less likely to respond to hygenic methods), and also tend to interfere with the mental prerequisites for performing focusing or motivational methods.

For example, a person who is afraid of doing things wrong can easily be just as afraid of doing GTD or Pomodoro wrong, as they are of doing whatever it is they're supposed to be doing!  And in the case of motivational methods, a person with a chronic fear will usually just transfer the fear to the motivational technique itself, since it's immediately followed by them doing whatever it is they're already afraid of.

Thus, as a general rule, the more chronic your akrasia, the less likely you will be helped by any kind of method that is not aimed at a "one time pays for all" elimination of your conflict source(s).

That being said, however, I have in recent months begun making more use of hygenic and focusing methods for myself personally.  But that's only because:

  1. Having gotten rid of most of the chronic conflicts that plagued me before, I now am more able to actually use those other methods, and

  2. Just getting rid of the chronic conflicts, doesn't get rid of  health problems and routine distractions

Which brings me to an important final point regarding these classifications:

No Anti-Akrasia Technique Can Be A Cure-All

...because no one technique can eliminate all conflicts.  And removing one source of conflict may expose another: if you haven't actually started work on your thesis, you might not yet know what conflicts will arise during the work!

Also, learning anti-akrasia techniques is itself often a source of conflict.  Not just in that a person who believes themselves stupid or "not good at this" may not apply themselves well, but also in that one's beliefs about a technique may interfere with the choice to use it in the first place.

For example, if you believe that the "law of attraction" is mumbo-jumbo (and it is), then you may choose not to learn the very effective motivational methods that are taught by "attraction" gurus.  (Many of the motivational methods LessWrongers reported success with are essentially identical to methods taught in various "law of attraction" programs.)

And, beyond such obstacles to learning, there is the further problem of teaching.  I have seen numerous self-help books describe essentially the same motivational method in utterly different ways, most of which were incomprehensible if you didn't already "get" (or hadn't already "clicked" on) what it was that you were supposed to do.

This is partly a problem of imprecise language for internal mental states and activities, and partly a problem of the authors focusing on whatever aspect of a method that they themselves most recently "clicked" on, ala Man With Hammer Syndrome.  (I have to fight this tendency constantly, myself.)  This is only useful to a reader if they are missing the same piece of the puzzle as the author was.

So, the net result is that problems with teaching and learning are the most common reason that "internal" anti-akrasia methods (within the focus, motivation, and conflict-resolution categories) vary so widely in apparent usefulness by individual.  If a method's explanation lacks a way for its user to determine whether they have done it correctly, there is a very high probability that the user will simply give up on it as "not working for me", without once having actually performed the actual technique!  (This was extremely common for me; I can now go back and read dozens of self-help books describing techniques that once appeared useless to me, when in fact I was never really doing them.)

Thus, a method can appear useless, even if it is not, and the same inner technique can appear to be dozens of different techniques, simply as a result of using different words or metaphors to describe it.  (For example, at least two "different" techniques of mine currently listed in the LessWrong survey are exactly the same thing, just described differently!)

Selection Pressures On The Self-Help Industry

This also explains why two rather frustrating phenomena occur in the self-help world: authors continually inventing "new" techniques, and writing books which do more listing or selling of techniques than actually teaching them.

If the author focuses on teaching to the exclusion of selling, it's statistically likely they will lose not only that customer (due to their lack of success), but also other customers, due to word of mouth.  And, if they are promoting the same technique as other authors, it is somewhat more likely that a customer who's already "tried" that technique will not buy the book in the first place.  (Unless, as with many "Secret" books, the author positions themselves as supplying a needed "missing piece".)

On the other hand, if the author invents a new name for a technique (or a new way to describe it) and focuses within their book on giving insight, entertainment, and persuading the customer that the technique is a good idea that they should learn, then they can get a happy-but-hungry customer: a customer who may go on to a seminar or coaching program, wherein the author can actually teach them something, in a situation where feedback is possible.

And before I tried to write a book of my own, I underestimated just how difficult it is to avoid these pressures.  Indeed, I thought many gurus were charlatans for writing their books in this way, while not grasping the unfortunate fact that this is also what you have to do, if your ultimate goal is to help people.

In practice, the industry can probably be divided into those whose intentions are good (but don't grasp that there's a problem), those who do grasp the problem, but can't really change it, and those who simply exploit the existence of the problem to hide their own lack of comprehension, competence, or compassion.  (Applying this classification is left as an exercise for the reader, although doing so accurately may well require more than just reading a given guru's book(s).)

Conclusions and Feedback Request

In summary:

  • Anti-akrasia methods may be classified by how they address the problem of conflicting motor programs; specifically, by whether they attempt to fix ego depletion, remove sources of priming, invoke monoidealism by priming, or attempt to remove conflicts permanently at their source (e.g. by changing procedures, tools, environment, or emotional responses).

  • The likely effectiveness of a given anti-akrasia method for a given person can be predicted both in a general way (class of technique vs. class of problems) and in a more specific way (specific technique vs. specific problems)

  • There is no "silver bullet" for akrasia, even for a single individual: no single technique can cure all akrasia all the time for all people; nor even for one person, unless they have only one conflict source...  which is ridiculously unlikely, given how many potential sources there are.

  • A virtually unlimited number of "new" anti-akrasia methods can be developed within all method classifications, given an understanding of the specific conflict sources one wishes to address, but creating entirely new categories of method is hard (which is why on some level, all self-help books must essentially teach the same things).

  • Teaching and learning are significant sources of problems with anti-akrasia methods that involve internal mental steps, and this exerts a powerful selection pressure on the way the self-help industry operates.

So...  that about does it for now.  I'd love to hear your feedback, whether it's in the form of supportive/confirming comments, or counterexamples and critical comments that might help improve the framework presented here. In particular, despite the length of this article, I still feel as if I've left out far more information than I've given.

For example, I've not shown the details of many of the cause-effect chains at work in the processes and effects described, nor have I included examples of internal conflict-resolution methods, in order to avoid completely exploding the length of the piece.  So, if you feel that something is left out, or that something included would be better left out, let me know!

Also, one other topic on which I'd like feedback: I've attempted here to modify here my usual writing style, to better fit readers of LessWrong; if it's an improvement -- or failed to be one -- I'd appreciate comments on that as well.

Thanks in advance for your input!


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70 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:00 AM

The positives first: In collecting the akrasia data, I've been impressed by the good reviews of your motivation techniques (as well as the lack of negative reviews for them, as contrasted with e.g. the Applied Picoeconomics technique). I found this post well-written and full of some good ideas. I like the classification proposed, I think the section on the self-help industry is particularly insightful, and most importantly, I think that the central hypothesis is a promising start, which may be valid.

The main concern I have is that this hypothesis is a fuzzy theory of the workings of the mind which appears to be more rigorous than it is: it seems to me that one could explain any experimental outcome by inventing more and more sources of conflict. What it needs to become less fuzzy is a mechanism for making specific testable predictions, preferably on topics that are feasible to test, where one doesn't already have the results to guide one's use of the theory, and preferably such that some of the experimental results it predicts are counterintuitive (the better to separate the hypothesis from other ones).

What you hypothesize here is interesting, it appears to be a useful framework... (read more)

Actually, I carefully avoided theorizing about the workings of the mind, in the sense of adding any theory that isn't already more-or-less accepted science. What I've stated is merely the near-tautological truth that the only reason you wouldn't do what you intend is if there's something stopping you - i.e., something in conflict. I then described many ways you can be in conflict. The purpose of this post was simply to show that thinking about akrasia as if it's a single thing is both suboptimal, and a logical confusion. Akrasia isn't a thing, it's a term for "something stopping you", where the "something" is unspecified. If you taboo "akrasia" and apply the same analysis as you are now doing, you will see that you end up right where I did. The only way you can remain confused is by thinking that "akrasia" is a real thing, rather than a labeled node in your neural network that lights up when certain other properties are present. Or, to put it another way, your objections to the hypothesis are roughly equivalent to asking for a test to prove whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound when there isn't anyone hearing it. The answer depends not on the state of reality, but on the state of your definitions. No, it was the discussion as a whole, and the apparent lack of deep thought that anybody was putting into the subject. It struck me as a bit like the blind men and the elephant parable, and I thought it might be good to enumerate the basic attributes of the elephant in the room. The various sorts of akrasia are about as dissimilar to one another as the different parts of an elephant are, or different sorts of cancer are to each other: the fact that we have only one word for a thing, doesn't make it one thing.
If you can describe "all instincts, thoughts and drives alligned in a common purpose but significant damage to the prefrontal cortex" as 'conflict' then it is probably too fuzzy.
I can only make sense out of your comment if I think of akrasia as if it exists. In other words, the fuzziness is coming from the fact that you're confused. Akrasia is a word we use when we don't do what we intend. However, we can only not do what we intend, if there is something between what we intend and what we do. The nature of this "something" is not specified by the term akrasia. It's sort of like saying "not dying" is your strategy for immortality. Akrasia is "not doing what you intend" - it's not a thing. That's why you think I'm being fuzzy - because I've expanded akrasia to show some of the terms that could be inserted for the "something" stopping you. But the fuzziness was there all along, in the word akrasia. Don't blame me for showing you the words you're using are fuzzy. ;-) [Edit to add: nothing I'm saying has anything to do with physiology or psychology. I'm just saying that saying you have "akrasia" is as vague as saying you have "Car-won't-startia" -- it tells you nothing about why the car won't start. Did somebody steal the engine? Is there no gas? This article is an attempt to list some of the causes of car-won't-startia, so of course it's all over the place.]
I have no confusion about the word 'akrasia'. I believe you are confused about just how general it is appropriate to apply your label 'conflict' as the cause of 'won't-startia'. If you apply it near-tautologically then it is too fuzzy to make any predictions. If you don't then you must acknowledge that there are reasons for 'won't-startia' that are not best described as 'conflict'. The obvious proof of concept example is "take a perfectly RMI (etc) hacked brain and consider what happens when an unfortunate blood clot occurs in the appropriate area in the prefrontal cortex". Your 'conflict' model becomes stronger and more useful once you can specify the boundaries of where it applies.
Of course. Note that the original post also addresses reducing the negative effects of conflict. But it probably would've been better to state at some point in there, "assuming correct hardware function". (On the other hand, I didn't say that for the same very good reason I discourage people from thinking about agency: in the common case, people use it to excuse their inability to do something, rather than understanding just how high a bar their evidence has to meet to qualify as either a true (and unworkaroundable) hardware problem or a true "agency".)
There is sometimes a conflict between 'optimal for people to believe' and 'most true'. The downside of presenting a model as a 'hypothesis' and 'near tautological truth' without specifying limits of what it is intended to model is that it validates objections such as the one Orthonormal has made here. Holding back the 'whole truth' from people who are actually rational also limits their options. If someone has no room in their 'map' to allow for actual hardware considerations then that prevents them from considering any options available to them for improving their hardware. And there are options for improving the function of the brain in some cases.
Remember that bit in HItchhiker's Guide where they gave the guy too much truth serum, and he started to tell The Whole Truth? That's what I felt like while trying to write this article, trying to figure out what NOT to include. (For example, I left out how this entire classification scheme is just a routine application of Goldratt's theory of constraints to troubleshooting any sort of problem, not just akrasia.) There is a LOT of truth, you have to pick some place to start. And that place depends on your purpose in the telling. In this case, the purpose of framing this idea as a hypothesis was to provide a stepping stone for people to grok something important, that's independent of the hypothesis itself. Specifically: that akrasia is not a thing, and that this lack-of-thingness has various real effects and consequences. The hypothesis itself is a throwaway: you could replace it with a variety of similar hypotheses, and the effect would still be the same in practical terms. (In retrospect, it probably might have been better called a "thought experiment" than a hypothesis.) Anyway, I had a few very narrow purposes for this post, and they would not have been served by adding too much information - the post is a bit long for LW as it is. Everything is a tradeoff. Yep, just like I listed in the very first category of methods: hygienic/systemic methods like meditation, exercise, etc. If your brain function is truly the constraint, then that's the thing to fix. (If I'd wanted to make a larger point about ToC -- and I do in the long run, just not in this post -- then I'd have explained that the categories I chose to group methods into are based on possible failure nodes in a causal chain... not unlike block-diagramming a car and classifying car-not-startia into problems of ignition, compression, air/fuel mix, etc. etc. These groupings are only partially dependent upon a notion of "conflict". Anyway, that's why there's a mention of causal chains in the article's epilo

I've attempted here to modify here my usual writing style, to better fit readers of LessWrong; if it's an improvement -- or failed to be one -- I'd appreciate comments on that as well.

I think I was the first one to ding you for this, so let me be the first to say you're good. I'd already noticed that you changed your writing style in other posts, and that you had recognized non-productive arguing behavior in yourself and modified it; for me, these changes were early evidence that you were not crankishly locked on to an idée fixe.

Abstract - Body - Conclusions: yay! - tell me three times!

Other posters - if you have a tendency to start with stories and then ramble, please take note.

Well, sometimes there are downsides to this approach...
If you have a captive audience, yes. Having an abstract is useful when your audience is free to wander off - and probably will. That is often an accurate assumption in academic circles or on the internet.
Yes; although some people can do that and get away with it (i.e. their readers ends up remembering the take-away point). Writing with power and writing with clarity are two separate skills. You want to develop both, but clarity takes priority. If you write clearly, at least it will be obvious when what you write doesn't matter.
They won't "get away with it" with all readers. The abstract allows skimmers to get the gist quickly - and delve deeper if they are still interested. With no abstract, there is only the title as a guide to the contents - and the reader faces an "unfortunate" choice between risking wasting their time by delving in - or skipping the article entirely.
On a related note I actually took more from the abstract of Alicorn's recent post than I did from the main text. This is something that happens relatively often with posts in general.
Brin claims it doesn't work with fiction: "Don’t put a plot summary at the beginning. Plunge right into the story! Hook ‘em with your characters." * http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/brin20100312/

You keep using the adjective "motor" here, what do you mean by it?

Can I refer to "conflicting motor programs" as "conflicting subagents" instead?

No. ;-) More precisely, I would say that agency is an unnecessary hypothesis, and postulating agency seems to lead people to certain predictable failure patterns (like treating parts of the self as an enemy, or one's self as the victim of these agents, trying to negotiate with them, and other anthropomorphic overkill). I only restricted the present discussion to "motor" programs to limit distracting digressions on the topic of higher-level cognitive architecture. For modeling akrasia, it's simply sufficient to assume that various programs can be activated in parallel, and that one of consciousness's functions is to manage conflict between activated programs. For a specific example of motor programs, see this other comment.
I like this way of putting it. It maybe more useful in practice too, but like Rodolfo Llinás hypothesizes: all we can do, as humans, is to activate motor neurons. So thinking is fundamentally just internalized movement.
On the other hand, it forms the basis of entire forms of therapy (eg. Voice Dialog) that seem to work by reducing conflicts by raising self awareness acceptance of both sides of the conflict. Some people just find it a useful way to approach doing what you would call RMI.
At this point, we're veering into stuff that gets terribly technical. You can get the brain to act as if it contains more than one "agent"... but if you allow this to confuse you into thinking there are multiple agents, you are headed for trouble. For example, Esther Hicks thinks she's channeling a being from another dimension, but that doesn't mean it's actually there. Think, "agency simulation", if you must, but it's really more like we all have an ultra-sophisticated chatbot that can parrot speech and thought patterns of real or imagined characters. All this has very little to do with actual agency or the workings of akrasia, though, and tends to interfere with the process of a person owning up to the goals that they want to dissociate from. By pretending it's another agency that wants to surf the net, you get to maintain moral superiority... and still hang onto your problem. The goal of virtually any therapy that involves multiple agencies, is to integrate them, but the typical person on getting hold of the metaphor uses is to maintain the separation. That's why I say thinking that way leads to predicatable failure patterns. (You'll notice I never said it was untrue, just unnecessary).
The situations in which the 'selves' metaphor seem to be most useful when people have already (without being aware of it) dissociated from the goals that they don't want to acknowledge and, as you say, are trying to integrate them. Describing it more technically they would be going through a process of rewiring what you may refer to as gauges in a PCT network. Some people find it easier to use 'RMI' by harnessing their preexisting skills with compassion, empathy and acknowledgement of shared purpose using the 'selves' metaphor. This is not dissimilar with the way you talk about 'monkeys and horses' and 'giants and tricksters' as a teaching mechanism. I can see why using an 'agent' metaphor would be a recipe for disaster, given the connotations that term has in the minds of many people. As for myself, I just imagine myself to be a complex multipart brain that lives in a body with further complex glands.
Of course. And in that context, I also teach self-empathy (ala Vladimir's example of dialog in other comments on this post). But I frame that in terms of behavior and metaphor, not stating that there "really are" such entities as giants and tricksters and monkeys and horses. The stories of the Giant and the Trickster, and the Planet of the Horse-Monkeys, were couched in fairy-tale language precisely because they are metaphor, not fact. But I've mostly found that the flip side to the benefits of these metaphors is that the people who have the most problems are also the ones most likely to abuse these metaphors in a way that keeps them stuck. So, I am really conservative in what I want to say in a context where somebody is asking me (implicitly so here on LessWrong) about what is "true". Because what is true is that I don't know what goes on in brains. I only know how to describe experience and behavior metaphorically, "as if" the brain had these parts. I also know from experience that virtually any model you imagine the brain to behave "as if", you can get people to make it come true, by thinking and acting "as if" it were true. This means you want to be exceptionally careful in the models you propose to people you are trying to help, and make sure that you define models that will help them, rather than ones that will keep them stuck.
Agree, and find it mildly distracting. I'm sure there is a better phrase we could use.

Nicely done, well summarized. I definitely agree with your point that there are almost always multiple conflict sources behind any given instance of akrasia. It's often an exercise in peeling the onion.

My other key takeway from this article was your reminder that it's an important, perhaps core, rationalist skill to learn to look past philosophical differences (law of attraction, religious belief, etc) with experts in any given field, not just self-help or anti-akrasia techniques. Apply your own filter and look for the underlying value. Don't just dismiss the source because some portion of their content is irrational.


My other key takeway from this article was your reminder that it's an important, perhaps core, rationalist skill to learn to look past philosophical differences (law of attraction, religious belief, etc) with experts in any given field, not just self-help or anti-akrasia techniques. Apply your own filter and look for the underlying value. Don't just dismiss the source because some portion of their content is irrational.

Indeed. Or more precisely, distrust people's theories, but listen to their experiences and try to understand their methods, because there's often hidden gold. Ironically enough, just because somebody thinks that they're channelling a being from another dimension, doesn't mean that everything out of their mouth is nonsense.

But if you focus on what experiences they're saying you should get, in response to which inner attitudes or actions, then you can reduce what is said to something testable, and see for yourself if it performs as described. After that, you can always work on a better theory!

(At any rate, that's what I do... and I do it the same with bestselling books written by prestigious psychologists: ignore the theory, test the predictions.)

I think the next time I hear about a productivity technique, I'll think about which of these categories it fits in. Consider that a compliment.

Regarding the writing style, I thought the abstract went a with overboard with academic formality, though that might have been because I was contrasting it to previous writing I have seen from you. The rest of the article was well written. The biggest improvement is only using emphases when they count.

I will, but I do hope you'll also think about which of the categories your particular situation fits, so you can look for techniques in the appropriate categories and subcategories. ;-)

conflict-resolution methods

Article request: how to find, identify, and remove those conflicts.

the unfortunate fact that this is also what you have to do, if your ultimate goal is to help people

Are you saying that self-help books are but advertisement for workshops and that it's impossible to be any other way? That is, that an akrasia technique cannot be encoded as a string of symbols?

It doesn't deserve a top-level post, but I do have a method for locating conflicts that works for me -- a written self-interview. I open an empty Word document, and imagine that I'm being interviewed by someone (or something?) smarter, more confident or higher-status than me.

I won't quote my existing interview documents -- they're too context-dependent, and sometimes too personal -- but here's an example of how it usually looks like:

Alpha: You look depleted. What's bothering you?
Me: I feel that the work I'm doing isn't leading me anywhere.
Alpha: What do you mean by 'anywhere'? Money? Fame? Personal satisfaction?
Me: Money.
Alpha: So, you think that the work you're doing isn't going to make you rich, right?
Me: Right.
Alpha: Then why are you doing it?

The interview continues until I find the source of the conflict and decide how to resolve it. If I can't locate it on the first session, I get back to the saved document later to continue the interview. I included the names 'Alpha' and 'Me' for readability -- I don't type any names when recording the interview.

I have at least three occasions when this technique helped me pinpoint conflicts that paralyzed me (one of them was a cause of a 6-month procrastination streak.)

Some programmers do something like this when they're stuck on a problem - they call it Rubber Ducking. Googling it I just found 4 separate stories about students having to explain their programming problems out loud to teddy bears before they get to ask a teacher.


I prefer the teddy bear, because then you can refer to it as the "bug bear".


Interesting technique, I'll need to remember that.

Reminds me of the several times I've thought I've disagreed with Eliezer on various issues here, spent a while understanding my objections so I could detail it in a reply, and ended up convincing myself of his orignal position by the time I finished writing.

Would be better if you didn't say whom you ended up agreeing with. Most people here have either a halo or horns on Eliezer, and discounting that is distracting.
+1 mind change
Yes, I confirm that this works -- because I myself serve as a Rubber Duck / Teddy Bear. I lead a team of programmers, and they come to me to talk about their current problems. I always welcome this, and I often initiate these rubber-ducking sessions myself. However, I didn't realize that I'm essentially rubber-ducking myself (heh!) during my self-interviews. Interesting.
This is a definitely a tool that I use, and teach other people to use. Self-inquiry doesn't have to be written, but it does have to be done, and it's generally best to do it in a way that involves an external sense - hearing yourself say it, or seeing it written. I don't know why exactly it's helpful, but it definitely is. The biggest challenges most people have to conducting self-inquiry, though, are that: 1. They don't know how to separate the two "voices", and stay stuck in only one side of the conversation, 2. They engage in self-defeating behaviors, like criticizing the other voice instead of being relatively helpful/inquisitive/nurturing as you are in the dialog example you gave, and 3. They have trouble staying focused and knowing how to take the inquiry somewhere without either letting their emotional side run on, or trying to overwhelm it with logic. It has taken me a long time to learn how to teach around these points, some more so than others.
When you keep it in your head, you don't have to form words; you can just think about what's bothering you as a vague concept. When you verbalize it externally, it forces you to clarify those ideas and pinpoint exactly what you're thinking; as far as I can tell, that's where the utility of the technique comes from. I recently rediscovered this as a means, not of solving technical problems, but of overcoming strong negative emotions. Even when I already understood the facts and causes, "talking it out" on the page helped me vent the stress and calm down. Perhaps in situations where your emotions are inhibiting your thinking, writing the useful parts (what you think, want, and can do) but not the useless parts ("oh god oh god everything is terrible") gives the former more weight.

Are you saying that self-help books are but advertisement for workshops and that it's impossible to be any other way? That is, that an akrasia technique cannot be encoded as a string of symbols?

You can encode them as strings of symbols all you want -- the authors do encode them, and many try hard to do it well.

What you can't do is guarantee that the coding will be interpreted correctly by the recipient, precisely because you're telling them to do something that they can't currently do.

Let's say your problem is that you motivate yourself negatively - by worrying about what you can't do, or haven't done yet. So you read a book that tries to teach you how to motivate yourself positively.

Well, the entire time you're reading that, you're probably going to be negatively motivating yourself, by noticing how everything in the book is something you don't do, even though you know you should. Now, by the time you're done, you feel even worse than when you started, and you haven't learned anything, either!

Alicorn's "Mental Crystallography" post is thematically relevant here, although I know for a fact that one's personal architecture is not quite so immutable as the crystal met... (read more)

RMI. Now that would be a fascinating follow up post! Either that or a direct description of another one of your mind hacking techniques in this same lesswrong-targetted style. (Your writing style was spot on by the way.)

RMI. Now that would be a fascinating follow up post!

The irony is that RMI is absolutely the simplest, most natural thing in the world, and it's utterly fucking insane that it needs a three-letter acronym at all.

In fact, I only gave it a name in order to be able to tell people that they're doing it wrong.

Or more precisely, that they're not doing it at all. Until I recently got to the improved metaphor of "mental muscles", I didn't know how to say, "you're using the analysis muscle, you need to use the curiosity muscle instead". So I coined RMI - relaxed mental inquiry - as a name for the state of mind of genuine curiosity.

You know, that same kind of genuine curiosity that Eliezer likes to rant about, where you need to genuinely not know the answer, and instead sincerely ask the question.

Except that Eliezer would also have more luck at teaching it if he gave it a funny technical name, too. You call it "curiosity", and everybody thinks they already know what it means.

And then they don't learn.

To learn, you have to be ignorant. To discover something new, you have to be surprised.

I could continue going on in pseudo-Zen about it, but the point is that... (read more)

Brilliant Point. Sad, but true, for most humans.
FTFY. ;-)
I wish I could vote this entire thread up more than once.
Think of it like learning to play an instrument. Sure, you can describe good technique in writing, but it's hard to correct someone's technique in writing. Odds are the next part of the book they're going to read won't have the piece of information that would prove most useful in improving their technique. That's why people take music lessons.
This. Exactly this. Awesomely this. I am totally going to steal this metaphor. ;-) I've talked about feedback and riding bicycles and such before, but this is a much better way of explaining what the exact problem is. In fact, on a related note (no pun intended), the specific problem people usually have is that their "pitch" is off - they can't "hear" when their thinking is going astray, and so don't even know there's anything to correct in the first place... a bit like the really bad singers on American Idol, who think that if they just sing the same way some more, or the same way but louder, it's going to make a difference. The most important piece of learning to mindhack without assistance is being able to listen to your own thinking and "hear" what "key" it's in, or perhaps what "instrument" you're playing your current thought with at that moment. If you can't do that basic bit of metacognition, you won't know whether you're actually doing RMI or just confabulating at any given moment, and your ability to apply any specific questioning technique will be sporadic at best.
Akrasia has various strengths; so too would a meta-akrasia. An akrasia strong enough to defeat GTD or Pomodoro techniques may not be strong enough to defeat a guy you've paid a lot staring at you and waiting for you to do the next easy step. The people who would feel the need to go to such workshops are a self-selected group.
This is very true, but the simpler explanation for GTD/Pomodoro failure (or any other technique failure) is simply that it isn't addressing the right part of the problem. If you don't want to be focused (as opposed to "wanting to want to"), a focusing technique simply isn't going to help. IOW, although self-selection occurs, postulating strengths of akrasia or meta-akrasia is an unnecessary hypothesis. In particular, it emphasizes the idea that akrasia is a thing, when in fact it is a conflict between things. Conceptualizing akrasia as a real thing is both an epistemic error and an instrumental inefficiency. You will treat it as a thing to be fought or cured, rather than as an emergent property of conflict. Heck, even the name, meaning "failure of will" is wrong. It directs one's attention to willpower-based solutions, instead of focusing on that which causes you to need "will" in the first place.
IIRC, GTD specifically says it's not for people who have a problem with procrastination.

My guess is the perineuronal net makes akrasia common. Since the perineuronal net is poorly expressed in our conscious identity center (see wiki article below) changing our identity may be a good way to overcome akrasia.

My hypothesis is much of our behavior and lack of behavior is identity dependent with our identity a function of subconscious elements stabilized by perineuronal nets and conscious elements not so well stabilized. A first stab at lowering akrasia would be to consciously change our identity. There are various ways of doing this with the bas... (read more)

I wonder how many Akrasia or other self-help techniques could benefit from a little prediction and data gathering on the part of the participants. I imagine it would be productive for someone to say 'well... I tried Getting Things Done back in August for three weeks, and by September I wasn't remembering to enter anything in my GTD log, so for whatever reason it didn't mesh with the way of doing things I'd already had.' More productive, at least, than trying GTD for three weeks every year because 'i recall it sort of worked out last time. For a while.'

It s... (read more)

Not every methodologist is like this; I'm insistent upon tests, because I don't want people wasting time on stuff that doesn't work. It's too discouraging - for me as well as them! I have observed that there are different types of processes people use that require different means to change. If you use the wrong tool for the job, the thing simply won't change, no matter how many times you do it. So, as long as I know that somebody has successfully used a given tool at least once, then I take the failure of that technique to mean that it is not the right one for the problem at hand. This fixes the threshold issue: a guru with only one technique must assert that his students are lacking in faith or not doing it right. One with a toolbox can say, "well, I've seen you use the screwdriver successfully before, and you're doing all the steps correctly now, so it must not be the right tool for the job. Let's find something else." Faster feedback improves things faster. If you want to know if something's changed, you want to know right away. I've always found this quote from "Using Your Brain For A Change" quite insipring: The problem is that both self-help and psychology fail to aim this high. And I'm as frustrated with it in my way, as Eliezer is in his about the harder sciences failing to aim equally high. I agree with "you should be able to have an insight in fifteen minutes", and say, you should be able to test your insight in fifteen minutes, if it's your own behavior you're talking about. If you can't, you're probably just confabulating.
I agree with what you are saying except would suggest a qualifier for: I think in particular of insights involving, say, the influence of programs that targeting the development of the cerebellum and the effect they could have on akrasia problems. Theories that require changing the brain can not all be tested in 15 minutes.
Which is why I prefer not to investigate such things, when there are so many things that do work in such a time frame, once you've defined what you're trying to do, and identified what to apply them to. But I'm referring here to things that involve creating a "click" to learn or unlearn something, rather than developing skill.
Would you, perchance, have any data to share? The post is still open.

I wonder how many of those visiting self-help seminars or reading books actually improve their akrasia. Are there any studies on this? The more I think and read about this problem the more I get the impression that you can not considerably improve on it. I.e. you are born with a certain amount of self-control which is dictated by your genes and maybe very early environment. The famous Marshmallow experiment seems to confirm this.

EDIT: Oooops I guess I was wrong, I just followed a bit on my own links and noticed that in fact there seems to be hope, some tec... (read more)

Debunking the marshmallow test

This is an amazing article that I wish I read earlier.

Stumbled upon an article that uses construal level theory to explain self control (or lack thereof). The abstract:

Self-control failure is a ubiquitous and troubling problem people face. This article reviews psychological models of self-control and describes a new integrative approach based on construal level theory (e.g., Trope & Liberman, 2003). This construal-level perspective proposes that people's subjective mental construals or representations of events impacts self-control. Specifically, more abstract, global (high-level) construals promote sel

... (read more)
You need to escape the close parenthesis with a backslash, as so: http://www.psych.nyu.edu/trope/(2006\)%20construal%20levels%20and%20self%20control.pdf%20construal%20levels%20and%20self%20control.pdf)

I'm going to write a top level post about two intelligence improving techniques from my favorite internet crackpot, Win Wenger. The techniques require you to confront akrasia head-on in rather intense ways. The first technique, underwater held breath swimming, is obviously very good exercise if nothing else, and if any exercise helps akrasia, it is one that so intensely exercises the metaphorical willpower muscle.

The second technique, image streaming, sounds like very good training in visual thinking.



The first technique, underwater held breath swimming, is obviously very good exercise if nothing else, and if any exercise helps akrasia, it is one that so intensely exercises the metaphorical willpower muscle.

Interestingly, an experience I'm currently going through seems to lend some support to his breath = attention hypothesis.

The last few days I've been on an antibiotic for a tooth infection, and I've been rather "out of it" a lot... tending to trail off midsentence when talking to my wife, not being able to remember what I just said, and sometimes seeming to forget how to think at all.

A little bit ago, I noticed that this was happening when I was out of breath. Specifically, when I spoke (or thought) in sentences of normal length (for me) for any period of time, I'd get somewhat winded, and then start to get a little lightheaded and lose track of things. (It also seemed to take me much longer than usual yesterday to compose emails, but at least I could go back and read what I already wrote.)

Crap. While writing that add-on sentence, I completely forgot where I was going with this. Oh, yeah, I'm on an antibiotic whose side effects include shortness of breath, but not adverse effect on IQ, attention, etc.

Double crap. I just noticed that shortness of breath is listed under side effects in the "contact your doctor and stop taking this at once" category. (Done and done.)

I am currently a yoga instructor in training and am sick of the new-age, self-help, ideas I see regularly (the worst are "quantum consciousness", "law of attraction", etc). Basically what "spiritual teachers" try to teach is anti-akrasia techniques, to overcome addictions, low self-esteem or whatever your problem might be that they think they can help. Their suggestions are a mix of exercise, sharing stories of their personal emotional experiences and "tools that work for them" (usually superstitious, e.g. "conn... (read more)

(For example, at least two "different" techniques of mine currently listed in the LessWrong survey are exactly the same thing, just described differently!)

Which two methods are these?

In general I think your post is good but could benefit from more specific examples.

Edit: I see you left examples out in order to keep things short. That's certainly understandable. It'd be awesome if you had a follow-up post where you discussed the stuff you left out. I suggest a quiz format, e.g. instead of just giving us the two techniques on the Less Wrong s... (read more)

See this comment - writing it was what inspired me to do this post, as I realized the ideas in it needed to be worked out further/on a larger scale.

It doesn't deserve a top-level post, but I have a method for this -- a written self-interview. I open an empty Word document, and imagine that I'm being interviewed by someone (or something?) smarter, more confident and higher-status than me.

I won't quote my existing interview documents -- they're too context-dependent, and sometimes too personal -- but here's an example of how it usually looks like:

Alpha: You look depleted. What's bothering you? Me: I feel that the work I'm doing isn't leading me anywhere. Alpha: What do you mean by 'anywhere'? Money? F

... (read more)

I liked this post and welcome your revised writing style too.

Just getting rid of the chronic conflicts, doesn't get rid of health problems and routine distractions

Being a life extension enthusiast I'm curious about your opinions on health topics.

I personally feel that there are many huge low-hanging fruits in life extension. However, I'm a bit reluctant to present my points because of my past experience that health discussions are prone to become very convoluted and flame-ish, with citations of contradicting studies flying around - even if those inv... (read more)

I like your classification of anti-akrasia techniques. Here's a slightly different way of phrasing the same classification: All anti-akrasia techniques either

  • Improve your ability to do things despite having conflicting crap in your working memory,
  • Prevent your working memory from getting filled with crap, or
  • Increase the amount of space taken by your current task so there's no room for conflicting crap in your working memory.

Looking at that third category... suddenly, dual N-back training doesn't seem like such a good idea anymore.


Looking at that third category... suddenly, dual N-back training doesn't seem like such a good idea anymore.

We need to distinguish "working memory" from "active motor programs". There is a difference.

Here's an example: hold your hand out, pointing your index finger away from you. Now imagine that your finger is slowly bending back towards you. Don't think about anything else, just see the finger bending. After a while, you may notice that your finger "wants" to bend to match your mental image... and that you are also exerting some effort to prevent it from doing so.

This is what I mean by "priming a motor program", and as you can see, it's very different from abstract ideation (e.g. "thinking about" bending your finger).

In fact, it's a very good example of "near vs. far" thinking. "Far" thinking doesn't do much to prime motor programs, by comparison.

Now, motor programs conflict when they both need to use the same resources. For example, if you want to both bend your finger and keep it straight, then that's a conflicting pair of motor programs.

So, dual N-back isn't going to make this worse, because it isn... (read more)

I don't think you're anywhere near running into Amdahl's law here.