An akrasia case study

I personally think this is a fantastic contribution. I don't know whether your techniques will work for anyone else, but this kind of specificity can give us some good directions to consider as we develop the "kicking" aspect of the Art.

I have to wonder if the ten thousand techniques for fighting akrasia and the general theory of motivation might be at too high a level of abstraction for where we are with understanding the phenomenon. It seems like understanding the science should let us create a consistent Akrasian Judo, but I'm under the impr... (read more)

The combination of mentioning Judo and asking for specific examples reminded me of a think I've noticed myself doing subconsciously. My introspection isn't clear enough to say if it works thou, or even if I'm really doing it as much as I think, but. Still here it is: Try to make your brain classify unproductive stuff as work, and productive stuff as play. Most important clues are if it's voluntary and if it's fun. So set up a schedule forcing yourself to do the kind of things usually procrastinate with in an optimised and work like way, then on your free t... (read more)

1[anonymous]8yHa! Thanks for appreciating. I've been really into the "kicking" idea since I read the craft and community sequence. I have some other posts in the works specifically targeting that, but I wasn't even thinking of this in those terms. Now that you say it tho, this does seem to be on that track. this is gold. I thought the same thing earlier today when I reread the procrastination eq stuff. It all suddenly made sense given this experience. I'm assuming your referring to the practicing the banhammer idea? I suppose I did. The idea was mostly to describe my interpretation of what happened, but the whole "kicking" idea has made me want to tie everything back to what rationality dojos should be teaching. It seems easy to get lost in the abstract if you don't focus on that. I'm glad you understood that the purpose of the post was as a specific datapoint.

An akrasia case study

by [anonymous] 2 min read10th Dec 201129 comments


I just lost 3 weeks to a report that should have taken 2 days. My last job was an engineering research position; setting up an experiment, building prototypes, that sort of thing. After I left, I needed to write a report to brief my successor on what I'd done and what could go wrong, etc. I wasn't getting paid for this report, but it had to happen.

What exactly do I mean when I say I lost three weeks?

I have a lot of projects that I am working on. I am studying AI, thinking of starting a business, writing videogames, studying and working on various math things, writing a small sequence of posts for lesswrong, trying to restart the local rationality dojo, and I had to do that report. What I mean when I say that I lost three weeks is that I spent three weeks doing practically none of these things.

The report had to be done, but I wasn't really excited by it. It wasn't urgent, but it was urgent enough that it had to be done before any of my other projects. It turns out this is a killer combination.

Procrastination took over, manifesting itself as skyrim, 4chan, reddit, and lesswrong. If I tried procrastinating by doing my other projects, I would remember that I had to do the report first, and try to work on the report. When I tried to work on the report, I would hit some small bump and find myself waking up on 4chan three hours later. Somehow, my antiprocrastination hooks were catching my own projects, but not the properly unproductive stuff.

While I had that report to do, I was unable to do anything else productive. When I realized this in conjunction with how important my other projects were, the report suddenly took on a dire urgency. That was four days ago. It is done now. I could have done it in two, or even one, but procrastination is insidious.

One anti-akrasia method that seems to work is going cold turkey on some problematic activity. I call it my personal banhammer. The first thing I banned myself from and how I discovered I could was Alicorn's Twilight fanfic. It ate up a few days and disrupted my sleeping, so I stopped reading right in an exciting part. Haven't gone back. That was before the report. Once I had the report to do, my roommate got skyrim. I spent a few days on skyrim, then realized what I was doing and banned myself. For the next few weeks, I procrastinated on 4chan, lesswrong, reddit, and some game development websites. When I finally realized how important it was to finish that report, I got the power to ban myself from those (I had tried and failed before).

Even when I finally cared enough to actually do the report, I still found myself procrastinating. I read some essays by Paul Graham. They were so good that I explicitly put reading his stuff on my todo list. When I wasn't doing my report, I was reading Paul Graham. I don't feel so bad because it was actually productive for me on a personal development level, and his essays are at least finite so I was making actual progress on a todo item. It was still not what I wanted to be doing.

So what did I learn from this little excercise?

  1. An unappealing but semi-urgent project can sabotage you completely, because you don't procrastinate by doing the next project on your list; you procrastinate by doing the least productive activity you will allow yourself to do.

    It seems this can partially be beaten by just realizing what is happening and how much damage it is doing to you. Realizing what is happening promotes the project to "unappealing but direly urgent", which makes it easier to do.

  2. You can raise the quality of your procrastination into at least the semi-productive by wielding the righteous power of the banhammer against unproductive activities. This takes practice.

    It may be a good plan for rationality dojos to find ways of training this. One idea is to simply emulate what it took me to develop it; acquire a minor addiction, realize that it is consuming your life, and then go cold turkey. May not be so easy (or safe), but worth looking into.

This akrasia stuff seems to be inherently personal, so what worked for me may not work for anyone else, but I publish it here in the hope that we can pull some good ideas out of it. Maybe you have a project that is holding you back the way that damn report got me. Maybe this can help.