Improving The Akrasia Hypothesis


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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!