Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life

After three months of practice, I now use a single algorithm to beat procrastination most of the times I face it.1 It probably won't work for you quite like it did for me, but it's the best advice on motivation I've got, and it's a major reason I'm known for having the "gets shit done" property. There are reasons to hope that we can eventually break the chain of akrasia; maybe this post is one baby step in the right direction.

How to Beat Procrastination explained our best current general theory of procrastination, called "temporal motivation theory" (TMT). As an exercise in practical advice backed by deep theories, this post explains the process I use to beat procrastination — a process implied by TMT.

As a reminder, here's a rough sketch of how motivation works according to TMT:

Or, as Piers Steel summarizes:

Decrease the certainty or the size of a task's reward — its expectancy or its value — and you are unlikely to pursue its completion with any vigor. Increase the delay for the task's reward and our susceptibility to delay — impulsiveness — and motivation also dips.

Of course, my motivation system is more complex than that. P.J. Eby likens TMT (as a guide for beating procrastination) to the "fuel, air, ignition, and compression" plan for starting your car: it might be true, but a more useful theory would include details and mechanism.

That's a fair criticism. Just as an fMRI captures the "big picture" of brain function at low resolution, TMT captures the big picture of motivation. This big picture helps us see where we need to work at the gears-and-circuits level, so we can become the goal-directed consequentialists we'd like to be.

So, I'll share my four-step algorithm below, and tackle the gears-and-circuits level in later posts.


Step 1: Notice I'm procrastinating.

This part's easy. I know I should do the task, but I feel averse to doing it, or I just don't feel motivated enough to care. So I put it off, even though my prefrontal cortex keeps telling me I'll be better off if I do it now. When this happens, I proceed to step 2.


Step 2: Guess which unattacked part of the equation is causing me the most trouble.

Now I get to play detective. Which part of the equation is causing me trouble, here? Does the task have low value because it's boring or painful or too difficult, or because the reward isn't that great? Do I doubt that completing the task will pay off? Would I have to wait a long time for my reward if I succeeded? Am I particularly impatient or impulsive, either now or in general? Which part of this problem do I need to attack?

Actually, I lied. I like to play army sniper. I stare down my telescopic sight at the terms in the equation and interrogate them. "Is it you, Delay? Huh, motherfucker? Is it you? I've shot you before; don't think I won't do it again!"

But not everyone was raised on violent videogames. You may prefer a different role-play.

Anyway, I try to figure out where the main problem is. Here are some of the signs I look for:

When I imagine myself doing the task, do I see myself bored and distracted instead of engaged and interested? Is the task uncomfortable, onerous, or painful? Am I nervous about the task, or afraid of what might happen if I undertake it? Has the task's payoff lost its value to me? Perhaps it never had much value to me in the first place? If my answer to any of these questions is "Yes," I'm probably facing the motivation problem of low value.

Do I think I'm likely to succeed at the task? Do I think it's within my capabilities? Do I think I'll actually get the reward if I do succeed? If my answer to any of these questions is "No," I'm probably facing the problem of low expectancy.

How much of the reward only comes after a significant delay, and how long is that delay? If most of the reward comes after a big delay, I'm probably the facing the problem of, you guessed it, delay.

Do I feel particularly impatient? Am I easily distracted by other tasks, even ones for which I also face problems of low value, low expectancy, or delay? If so, I'm probably facing the problem of impulsiveness.

If the task is low value and low expectancy, and the reward is delayed, I run my expected value calculation again. Am I sure I should do the task, after all? Maybe I should drop it or delegate it. If after re-evaluation I still think I should do the task, then I move to step 3.


Step 3: Try several methods for attacking that specific problem.

Once I've got a plausible suspect in my sights, I fire away with the most suitable ammo I've got for that problem. Here's a quick review of some techniques described in How to Beat Procrastination:

For attacking the problem of low value: Get into a state of flow, perhaps by gamifying the task. Ensure the task has meaning by connecting it to what you value intrinsically. Get more energy. Use reward and punishment. Focus on what you love, wherever possible.

For attacking the problem of low expectancy: Give yourself a series of small, challenging but achieveable goals so that you get yourself into a "success spiral" and expect to succeed. Consume inspirational material. Surround yourself with others who are succeeding. Mentally contrast where you are now and where you want to be.

For attacking the problem of delay: Decrease the reward's delay if possible. Break the task into smaller chunks so you can get rewards each step of the way.

For attacking the problem of impulsiveness: Use precommitment. Set specific and meaningful goals and subgoal and sub-subgoals. Measure your behavior. Build useful habits.

Each of these skills must be learned and practiced first before you can use them. It took me only a few days to learn the mental habit of "mental contrasting," but I spent weeks practicing the skill of getting myself into success spirals. I've spent months trying various methods for having more energy, but I can do a lot better than I'm doing now. I'm not very good at goal-setting yet.


Step 4: If I'm still procrastinating, return to step 2.

If I've found some successful techniques for attacking the term in the motivation equation I thought was causing me the most trouble, but I'm still procrastinating, I return to step 2 and begin my assault on another term in the equation.

When I first began using this algorithm, though, I usually didn't get that far. By the time I had learned mental contrasting or success spirals or whatever tool made the difference, the task was either complete or abandoned. This algorithm only begins to shine, I suspect, once you've come to some level of mastery on most of the subroutines it employs. Then you can quickly employ them and, if you're still procrastinating, immediately employ others, until your procrastination is beaten.


Personal examples

Let me give you some idea of what it looks like for me to use this algorithm:

Building the large 5×5-unit Ikea "Expedit" bookshelf is boring and repetitive, so I made a game of it. I pounded each wooden peg 4 or 5 times, alternating between these two counts no matter how quickly each peg went into its hole, waiting to see if the girl I was with would notice the pattern. She didn't, so after every 10th peg I gave her a kiss, waiting to see if she'd catch that pattern. She didn't, so I started kissing her after every 5th peg.2 Apparently she thought I was just especially amorous that night.

Sometimes, being an executive director just ain't fun. I need to make lots of decisions with large but uncertain consequences — decisions that some people will love and others will hate. This is not as cozy as the quiet researcher's life to which I had been growing accustomed. In many cases, the task of coming to a decision on something is fraught with anxiety and fear, and I procrastinate. In these cases, I remind myself of how the decision is connected to what I care about. I also purposely stoke my passion for the organization's mission by playing epic world-saving music like "Butterflies and Hurricanes" by Muse: "Change everything you are... your number has been called... you've got to be the best, you've got to change the world... your time is now." Then I re-do my VoI and EV calculations again and I god damned try.

While researching How to Beat Procrastination, I hired a German tutor. I planned to apply to philosophy graduate schools, which meant I needed to speak Greek, Latin, French, or German, and German philosophy isn't quite as universally bad as the others (e.g. see Thomas Metzinger). But I procrastinated when studying, for my reward was very uncertain: would I actually go the route of philosophy grad school, and would my knowledge of German help? My reward was also extremely delayed, likely by several years. In the end, I did the expected value calculation more carefully than before, and concluded that I shouldn't keep trying to speak my Rs from my throat. It was the right call: I'm now pretty certain I'll never go to philosophy grad school.

Three times, I've started writing books. But each time, the rewards (appreciation, notoriety, money) were so delayed and uncertain that I gave up. Instead, I broke the books into chunks that I could publish as individual articles.3 Thus, I received some reward (appreciation, growing notoriety) after every article, and had relatively high expectancy for this reward (since my goal was no longer so lofty as to be picked up by a major publisher). Breaking it into chunks also allowed me to focus on writing the pieces for which I had the most passion. Along the way, I used many techniques to boost my energy.


The key is to be prepared to conquer procrastination by practicing the necessary sub-skills first. Build small skills in the right order. You can't play Philip Glass if you haven't first learned how to play scales, how to work the pedals, how to play arpeggios and ostinatos (lots of arpeggios and ostinatos), etc. And you can't beat procrastination if you don't have any ammo ready when you've caught the right causal factor in your sights.

The quest toward becoming a goal-directed consequentialist is long and challenging, much like that of becoming a truth-aiming rationalist. But the rewards are great, and the journey has perks. Remember: true agency is rare but powerful. As Michael Vassar says, "Evidence that people are crazy is evidence that things are easier than you think." Millions of projects fail not because they "can't be done" but because the first 5 people who tried them failed due to boring, pedestrian reasons like procrastination or the planning fallacy. People with just a bit more agency than normal — people like Benjamin Franklin and Tim Ferriss — have incredible power.

At the end of Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit notes that non-religious ethics is a young field, and thus we may entertain high hopes for what will be discovered and what is possible. But scientific self-help is even younger. We have only just begun our inquiry into procrastination's causes and cures. We don't yet know what is possible. All we can do is try. If you have something to protect, shut up and do the impossible. Things may not be so impossible as you once thought.


Next post: How to Be Happy

Previous post: How to Beat Procrastination



1 The main areas where I still usually succumb to procrastination are diet and exercise. Luckily, my metabolism is holding out pretty well so far.

2 Or, it was something like this. I can't remember the exact game I played, now.

3 My abandoned book Scientific Self Help turned into my ongoing blog post sequence The Science of Winning at Life. My abandoned book Ethics and Superintelligence was broken into chunks that morphed into Singularity FAQ, The Singularity and Machine Ethics, and many posts from No-Nonsense Metaethics and Facing the Singularity. My abandoned book Friendly AI: The Most Important Problem in the World was broken into pieces that resulted in Existential Risk and some posts of Facing the Singularity.

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Good stuff! My algorithm is essentially identical. I also made a poster that summarizes the key advice/methods for defeating procrastination. It's my version of Step 2, 3 and 4, but visually displayed. I put it up on my wall so I don't have to rely on my memory of the equation or the various anti-procrastination methods. I circle or note the things that tend to work well and focus on using those. When I notice I'm procrastinating, the solution is usually staring me right in the face.

In case anyone else finds it useful, here is the graphic I made from the advice in Steel's The Procrastination Equation and Luke's How to Beat Procrastination. Any suggestions of things to add/modify/remove are welcome. Update: the graphic (plus a pdf version) is explained in more detail here.

That is eerily similar to the content of this post, but I'm pretty sure I hadn't seen it before. Great work!
Thanks! I suppose that makes sense given we've both read The Procrastination Equation. You pretty much wrote the post I had just started writing. :)
The link to your poster is not working for me. I get a 404 error.
Nice idea and map. Just a note; Mental Contrasting doesn't (mightn't, use what works for you :) increase expectancy (immediately) but increases commitment in case you have high expectancy. It might actually hurt commitment in case of low expectancy, while in that case you could be better of with just fantasizing or looking at what bothers you right now. Interestingly, you get the same effect with MC when you contrast the "bad future" with the "good present" (e.g. smoking might kill me in future vs. enjoy it now) as vice versa. (See Oettinger et. al 2010 - Self-regulation to commitment to reduce cigarette consumption: Mental contrasting of future with reality)
I don't see the PDF version on your website, only .png files. Got a link?
I printed your poster! Thank you so much for making it. For anyone who plans to print it, I printed it at something like 22 in. by 37 in, and it was fairly pixelated. If it were much smaller, the print might not be readable, so you might want to wait until he has an svg version available.
Cool, hope you find it useful. A mostly-vectorized PDF is available from the last link on the original comment. It should look much better when printed 22x37!
That's a great graphic. Your website appears to be down right now.
Great poster! Now I just need to find a place where I can print it. "The website you were trying to reach is temporarily unavailable."
Looks like I had a very poorly timed server issue. Site is back up.
This is excellent work. These feel like greedy suggestions, but: you might add a Creative Commons license and a few non-rasterized (svg if you can, pdf at least) versions.
No, not greedy. :) The poster is meant to be Creative Commons BY-NC-SA, I need to add that somewhere on it. A non-rasterized format is also in the works.

None of this kind of shit ever works for me, because it seems to assume I'm a bright-eyed go-getter at heart, blundering about and playing video games when I know I should be writing my dissertation, and oh, if only there were an equation made of words that would show me the problem with my motivation pathways. (And if only the post title would change three times so it shows up thrice in my RSS feeds!)

Instead, it's more of an all-pervasive apathy that seems to go all the way to my terminal goals. I think "what do I really want to be doing right now? where do I want to be at the end of the day, or the end of the year?" and there's just nothing there.


Hi Postal_Scale,

I've had pervasive apathy before, and it sucks. I'm sorry you're so bored and frustrated. If you want to be less apathetic, some books I would recommend reading are What Color is Your Parachute?, Flow, and The Renaissance Soul. Parachute can help you identify tasks that you would enjoy working on, Flow can help you identify ways of enjoying otherwise boring experiences that don't require you to play Carnegie-esque self-cheerleading games, and Renaissance Soul can help you figure out how to balance a shifting array of temporary, conflicting, weakly held recreational interests.

As far as practical techniques, I sometimes fight intense apathy by going for a 60-90 minute walk in no particular direction. I'm able to power it using "anywhere but here" contempt, so it doesn't necessarily require any positive energy...but I find that after an hour or so I am usually able to identify at least one thing that I care about, and it tends to improve my mood. On the off chance that you really are in a dissertation program right now, you might want to find something concrete and immediate that you can work on for a few hours a week, like Habitat for Humanity, or a 500 piec... (read more)

Thanks for the tips. I actually used to do the "anywhere but here" walk in no particular direction thing myself, although in my case rather than a length of time I'd generally walk until i got lost. It never really improved my mood though, it just killed time. Once I walked for 11 hours and ended up at a venetian blind factory.
I'm considering buying Parachute and Flow, but I have a few questions about the latter. Its author has written more than one book on the topic, so I'd like to know: a) Is this the only book among his publications that I should read? b) ...and if not, which ones should I read and what's the appropriate order? c) Are you recommending this particular book over the others by Csíkszentmihályi because you've read them all and consider it the best, or because you've only read the one and found it worth the time even in isolation?
I'm sorry; of Csikzentmihalyi's books, I have only read Flow. However, I have read at least 40 self-help books, and I would put that book in the top 4.

Sounds to me like every task has low value for you. And given your description, I doubt the next best thing for you to do is to apply gamification or drink more water for energy. Your problem sounds like a particularly apathetic (rather than despairing) form of depression. Alas, I'm not well-informed on that topic. Can anyone else point Postal_Scale to useful resources?

The best way to rule out clinical depression is to inquire whether the apathy merely affects the capacity for looking forward to goal attainment or whether it extends to ongoing activities, so it becomes a pervasive deficit in pleasure ("anhedonia"). I wouldn't conclude there's a depression just from the information provided.
If I read you correctly, then I know this mental state well indeed. If it feels like nothing has any terminal value -- or, at least, not enough terminal value to be worth working towards -- then this is probably a function of your mood rather than your actual values. This is not, of course, what it feels like. From inside that state, blaming your mood for your apathy sounds like bullshit. That apathy is a possibly-sad, but reasonable, response to the frequent futility of action, or the sheer self-supporting shittiness of the world, or (at best) the absolute absurdity of all goals. During a solid year of college, I actually started taking notes about what seemed to affect my moment-to-moment mood most strongly. The stablest, strongest factors were whether or not I had exercised, socialized, or achieved a new goal in the past two days. I've since structured my mornings and evenings around doing these things regularly, and have been vastly happier. Now, I've seen these specific activities recommended by other people to improve mood, but among dozens of others. They're pretty good places to start, but I actually suggest finding what works for you. I do strongly suggest trying this, though: working towards ends I deeply care about is far more satisfying for me than practically anything else, but I don't actually care about those ends unless I'm in a good enough mood. I suspect most people are the same way.
I'm not sure I believe in actual values, except as revealed by actual actions. I do think of apathy as a mood, but it generally feels like moods are all that's... there. I'm not actually as unhappy as the way I wrote that post might be read to indicate. The swearing was meant in the tone of carelessness, not anger, though admittedly when I see other people swear in text I tend to read it as anger as well. Exercise makes me tired. Socialization elevates my mood while i'm socializing, but afterwards there's a feeling of revulsion, an intellectual emptiness (even after socializing with smart people) and a mental itchiness as I shed the sociable personality I chameleoned into. Achieving a new goal feels like water tastes. My mood improves when I find or think of something funny or interesting, but as a jaded internet addict this is a fairly high bar, and it doesn't really motivate me to do anything other than search more of the space that had the funny and interesting thing in it, which is procrastination most of the time. Recently i've found my productivity and mood are both significantly enhanced by amphetamines, though I cannot attest to the long-term effectiveness of this strategy.
I'm not actually treading as softly as I would if I thought you were. ;) Try not to read me as speaking softly as if to a sad child, but as someone who's sharing evidence that might be useful. This is pretty close what I meant by "the absolute absurdity of all goals"; if you hold no "actual", terminal values, than goals are silly. I identify more with myself-while-energetic than with myself-while-apathetic, even when I'm apathetic, and so I feel like I have some stable, difficult goals even when I don't feel like a care about them. Me too - but can you detect any effects about 6 hours later? Try and gauge it a few times. (At this point, I'm tempted to say "keep a diary of everything you do, and randomly sample your mood!" But I know quite well that only works when you've got enough baseline pathy to do it steadily.) I'm definitely made tired by socializing with other people, but usually happier - a lot like how most people describe being tired but feeling good right after exercise. What you describe sounds like needing to work hard to spent time with people you don't actually like, which is tiring and unpleasant in the short-term and long-term.
I think I'm the reverse, I identify more with myself-while-apathetic even while energetic. I can drug myself into a state where I enjoy working on difficult projects all day, and I even enjoy it, but it still doesn't feel like I have stable goals. Maybe that will change with time. Then again, in this new brain-state I can bring myself to care about almost anything that's put in front of me. Instead of caring about nothing, regardless of how important, I care about everything, regardless of how trivial. If nothing else presents itself as a task, I can easily spend the better part of an hour rewording a paragraph in hundreds of different permutations until I find the one that's best (regardless of what that paragraph is about). I don't feel like my apathy is abnormal in and of itself, but combined with being more aware of the big picture, and thinking more about the future, it seems more troubling. Most people have nothing but the life in front of their noses, working at a grocery store or whatever, and so their listlessness is entirely natural. I'm different. Like you, and like many people on this site, I have vision, I can see that the world is at a crossroads and that I have the potential to change its course. And yet, I still feel nothing, while it seems like the rest of you are enthusiastic. I do genuinely enjoy it while I'm doing it, there's just an unpleasant aftereffect. But maybe you're right, and I don't actually like any of these people. If that's the case, I'm not sure what to do, though. If I don't actually like anyone I've met, what does that mean? That I have a personality disorder? That everyone else sucks?
Excellent. Which ones do you use? This is valuable anecdotal information.
Adderall XR, currently 40 mg per day.
This is roughly how I feel as well.

This is just wrong: the remedy doesn't follow from the formula. A deficit in any of the four variables can be corrected, per the formula, by an increment in any of the four variables. It doesn't have to be the one that's unusually low (or high, in the denominator) and seen as "causing the trouble." Therefore, you may address any procrastination problem, regardless of how this typology classifies it, by any of the methods, regardless of the variable it addresses.

The information the self-helper needs regards which variable he is most able to raise (or lower, if the variable is in the denominator), not which one is particularly low. Is there a correlation? I don't know, but I'd guess it's negative. If a variable is low, that's probably because you have little control over it. If a project sucks, you can't do much about its value unless you're willing to lie to yourself, but you might modify the delay.

Lukeprog obviously wasn't a problem procrastinator before he started using his "algorithm," and his uptick in productivity is probably better explained as the natural result of getting a challenging job and, let's not omit, a placebo effect due to lukeprog's believing in his "algorithm."

Remember calculus? If you're multiplying four positive variables, the largest change in the product will come from incrementing the smallest variable.


Yes, if you add the same quantity to each variable, but often you can add to one of the variables that's already large more readily than one that's small—one general reason for this being that, functionally, the process of incrementing one of these variables is more like multiplication by the same constant (such as in psychophysics) than addition of the same constant.

Even the formula doesn't follow from the formula -- there is no actual multiplication going on. The pseudo-mathematics is just a way of presenting the idea that "motivation" isn't an unanalysable atomic blob that you can't do anything to change beyond giving yourself pep talks, watching Courage Wolf, and moaning about akrasia. The article is suggesting that one can break it down into these four components, examine them separately, and find ways of improving that one would not find if one merely labelled the problem "procrastination".

Maybe the Law of the Minimum applies ("growth is limited by the scarcest resource"). Or something else. It doesn't matter. This isn't mathematics. It isn't even science, it's self-help advice, and while I'm sure that lukeprog could have stuffed it as full of references as his review postings, its usefulness is as a generator of ideas for action, not as a discovery about how minds work.

Of course it matters. These theories prescribe different remedies. If the model requires assuming that some law applies, as you suggest, or that "incrementation" is functionally additive, as EY implies, these postulates should be explicit in the model, as they're crucial to deriving the remedy. But as the model stands—and as it was probably intended—it exemplifies a fallacy: failure to optimize at the margin, substituting the most "important" aspect of the scenario for the result of an analysis at the margin. A kind of law of the minimum presents a good analogy. The factors of production are classically said to be land, labor, and capital. A law of diminishing returns applies to investments in each, such that the most needy factor is the best target for investment. Now apply this law to the problems besetting a given country. Throughout most of U.S. history, labor was the factor in greatest shortage. There was always plenty of land. Yet, the U.S. embarked on a policy of expanding to the Pacific Ocean. Although it had tons of land, acquiring more land was so much easier than acquiring labor or capital, that it dominated the course of U.S. history. To evaluate this kind of situation, you can't look at which factor is low based simply on relative levels when you consider where to invest—or where to apply remedial efforts—because it can look much different when you make a marginal analysis. The framework here presented isn't a suitable basis for a marginal analysis. You need mechanisms, not a facet analysis of motivation, to tell you where you can effectively apply your attention. The formula's variables, by themselves, are a priori. They are a way of classifying facts about motivation, not distinct causes in any instance of procrastination. This is pjeby's point: at root is a reification of akrasia (or procrastination). When you say procrastination can be broken down into these four components, this would be a useful approach if procrastination were a single thi
I don't read postings like the original as asserting models, although lukeprog might disagree, and to the extent that he would, that's the sort of thing I generally just tune out. I regard them as being more like things such as MBTI or astrological types -- schemas for imputing structure to some Rohrschach blot of a phenomenon as a method of generating ideas about it. And it doesn't matter where such ideas come from (which is what I had in mind when saying "it doesn't matter") if one gets practical use out of them.

I decided to take this opportunity to apply your advice to my putting off registering and making my first post on this site.

Step 1 - Notice procrastination. I have noticed myself procrastinating when reading past articles that really intrigued me and to which I wanted to contribute. Tonight, after reading this article, I bookmarked it, told myself that I would need to read the linked material further, and reply later to either this article or perhaps a future one.

Step 2 - Evaluate procrastination. Evaluating what has caused me to procrastinate in the past and want to put off replying again tonight:

Value: Moderate to High. I do believe that taking part in the discussion and becoming a more active part of this community would be enjoyable for me. I would say this is of a moderately high value for me.

Expectancy: Low. My primary worry is posting a reply that is not worthy of the intelligent discussion being had by others on this site. I would often think that I didn't know enough about Bayes or logic yet to bring value to this thread. What if my post is either downvoted or ignored? Then the value to me would seem diminished.

Impulsiveness: Moderate. I typically have multiple tabs o... (read more)

Well done!

Low expectancy can be a sign that you're doing things you might be better off not doing. The impulse to procrastinate can be a sign that you're absorbed in lost purposes or inefficient low-utility activities that come from cached habits. If that's true, you may be better off not doing them at all.

In my experience, delay is best reduced by other people. Committing to hard deadlines, working in an environment where people see when you're not doing anything. Sounds low status, but is actually effective.

I'm highly suspicious of approaches that only aim at changing your psychology or perception, without changing the practical context. You can't reduce impulsivity by choosing to be less impulsive, you can't reduce delay by internally committing to a deadline if no one else checks it, there's no realistic chance of increasing value of many productive activities to the point where they would naturally compete with the best leisure activities, etc. Be careful not to waste time and wellbeing by telling yourself stories that don't actually solve the problem.

How do you know all of that?
I tried. And it has cost me quality of life.
Be aware that having tried and failed at something does not mean it does not work. That's generalizing from a single example. Remember: “The apprentice laments 'My art has failed me', while the master says 'I have failed my art'”. This is not to say you're necessarily wrong, just that we need to take a data-based approach, rather than rely on anecdotes.
Fair enough. For me, the art is improving quality of life and the right kinds of productivity, not improving impulse control per se. It may be possible to train myself to commit to internal deadlines for less-than-pleasant activities without external control. But if I can set external deadlines instead, I don't need that training. The art consists in choosing the right approach while being honest about the costs and inefficiencies. It was the delay in switching to the more effective approach I perceived as lower status that cost me quality of life. You're right that this is anecdotal evidence; individual difference may account for a lot here.
I apply this perspective to writing in the series "On the irreversibility of writing: Procrastination and writer's block" In essence, procrastination in writing often means you're not ready. A related point—Recent research shows procrastination is promoted by the far mode. But what doesn't seem to have been understand is that this is in part because of far mode's advantages. The reason we go to far mode is that’s where our goal- and value-based thinking gains traction. What it comes up with are solutions implemented in the future because that’s the function far mode serves. Described in near mode, fine grain, these solutions are termed procrastination. In far mode, they are good example of solutions implemented in the future, at which far mode excels. To the extent we rely on our goals and values, we have few degrees of freedom with respect to the construal level at which we apprehend them. Which is to say, procrastination is often an attempted solution to a problem, and sometimes isn't so bad a solution, although it's derogated in near-mode thinking, which tends to value output, without the far mode's regard for genuine productivity. Procrastination is the price of the unregimented life, since habit, routine, and occasional acts of will power are the only near alternatives.

I do accept that the equation is a pretty accurate description of akrasia and has been proven empirically, but personally I've found that the type of strategy OP proposes is not effective for me.

First, the crucial steps of the algorithm require the exact same mental resources that are missing when I have the worst bouts of procrastination. When it's clear that I'm procrastinating because I haven't divided the task into smaller subtasks, the idea of doing this division is as difficult as it is to try to start the task itself.

Second, the attacking part of the algorithm seems to provoke far/abstract thinking mode, which makes me more prone to procrastination. Any algorithm or strategy that does not contain ridiculously concrete steps has failed me, sooner or later. Anything that lures me to thinking of, say, long term achievements of using the strategy has made it much more likely to just not use the strategy.

In general, I think it's useful to establish some baseline measurement for one's productivity. At the time of worst procrastination, it seems obvious that a successful strategy will cure whatever it is one is suffering from at the moment. But if you adopt a long-term strategy,... (read more)

It's been nearly a year since this post. I'm curious what your results are, if any.
Well, I didn't exactly state any particular experiments in the above post, but I did get some results. First, the system of measuring my time worked just fine. RescueTime and similar software products do this as well and I encourage anyone considering doing experiments on yourself to get one or arrange a system like I did and then just start measuring. You'll get a nice baseline to compare to. It's surprisingly difficult to notice a significant difference and if you don't have a quantitative approach and historical data, it might be impossible to say if some experiment made any difference. You might think that improving your productivity with some method will feel somehow different, but it won't. The only way you can say for sure is to have some kind of measuring system. The measurement system and subsequent noticing that I wasn't nearly as productive as I'd like to be didn't make much of a difference. I could clearly see how I spend my time and what kind of events hindered my productivity, but this alone didn't improve my overall efficiency. The experiment I did on myself was to start using the Pomodoro method. On average, I got roughly 20-25% more real work done per workday. (Say the baseline was 4 hours which improved to approx. 5 hours a day.) It sounds somewhat pathetic, but I could sustain this over long term. (Since then I've switched jobs and I have different kind of desktop setup and I don't have a similar measurement anymore.) I didn't become a productivity monster over-night and I do have difficulty motivating myself some days. Pomodoro doesn't help when I just don't have the motivation. But now I know that I can improve my efficiency when I am on the groove. I think the difference is that the normal way of chunking the workday drains some mental resource faster and sometimes that will result in the disability to re-focus after a longer pause. So, all in all, I recommend setting up a system of measuring what you really do during your computer time. Bu
The most exciting recent work on procrastination concerns the effect you mention. (

My algorithm for beating procrastination is:

1: procrastinate
2: goto 1

It doesn't work well at all.

I'd fix it, but I didn't leave space between the line numbers.

My first computer had a »renumber« command for that problem. It even fixed most references. Giving up is not recommended though.
What, no complaints that it doesn't terminate?

Shame spirals, the opposite of success spirals. Beat yourself up about putting off studying and you're more likely to put it off even more.

This is exactly the problem I have when studying anything I am not already good at. Instead of not letting minor failures (e.g. misplacing a number while calculating the determinant of a matrix and thus spoiling the whole thing by that minor mistake) demotivate me and having a healthy mindset like "Okay, I misplaced a number, but I'll do better next time and it was not a principal error." I immideatly get into the shame spiral and start thinking things like "I misplaced a number, I am worthless and stupid and everyone is so much smarter than me, I am a failure, etc.". It gets ever worse if I make mistaked repeatedly. This spiraling applies to anything, from subjects I desperately want to be good at to reading LW and not understanding things immideatly and spiraling into "I am stupid and everyone on here is so smart therefore I am a failure and less worthy of anything". (I'm fairly new here and probably younger than the average user, so I still have a lot to learn). If anyone has tips on escaping shame spirals, I'd greatly appreciate it!

This is not related to the main topic of the post, but here is a nitpick:

As Michael Vassar says, "Evidence that people are crazy is evidence that things are easier than you think."

Evidence that people are crazy is also evidence that you are crazy. So for this to work, we need to have ways of avoiding craziness that others lack. (Without such confidence, I fear the persuasiveness of this thought can be chalked up to the tendency to think that others are more affected by biases and such than oneself.)

This post makes me feel like an idiot for not trying harder after your first post on procrastination. Of course each of your recommendations are actual skills that take actual practice before getting returns. Thank you so much for posting a follow up. I will now proceed to try harder.

"Is it you, Delay? Huh, motherfucker? Is it you? I've shot you before; don't think I won't do it again!"

I had to work to contain myself so that my laughter didn't disturb my office mates....

it might be true, but a more useful theory would include details and mechanism.

Actually, I was saying that a reasonably-accurate mechanic's handbook is more often useful for fixing your car than the most perfect theory of internal combustion engines. Occasionally, you might need to know the theory if you pass beyond what the manual can show you, but the manual alone will get you far further than a theory and no manual.

I have a problem with step 1. It's rare that I sit there reading something boring just to put off getting to work (or if I do it's another problem); I genuinely do enjoy slacking off more than working. Procrastination is tempting me with things I want. So even when I've noticed it, I'm not really motivated to beat it.

Interesting article, and your formula definitely caught my problem, unfortunately, there isn't a lot I can do about it. My "expectancy" is as close to zero as it can be. I am seriously Aspergian, and know from long experience that I am not going to be able to put much of what I do to use. So I actually only do three categories of actions: 1) things I need to do now, 2) things other people are paying me to do, that I know will be rewarded, and 3) things that satisfy my personal curiosity. Interestingly, in any of these three situations I can w... (read more)

Sounds to me like the first tactic to investigate would be finding a way to deliberately pique your curiosity. What makes a topic interesting for you?
Unfortunately, almost everything is interesting. Which makes it really hard to maintain focus on any one thing for an extended period without an outside prod.

I circumvent this algorithim with Ritalin. Takes care of all the steps simoultaneously.

So, for boot-strapping purposes (i.e. learning as you go), perhaps the algorithm would look like this?


  • A1. Read about the four "factors" of procrastination (expectancy, value, impulsiveness and delay)
  • A2. Notice that you're procrastinating
  • A3. Consider which factor is most relevant
  • A4. Are you confident you have identified the most relevant factor?
  • If YES, go to A5
  • If NO, go to A1
  • A5. Considering your recorded results so far (if any), have you learned a subskill which can address the relevant factor?
  • If NO, goto B1
  • If YES, goto C1

Lear... (read more)

Yes, except that you want the algorithm to give you the opportunity to learn and implement more than one subskill.
My intention was that the algorithm would lead to your learning as many subskills as were necessary until the procrastination was beat, but no more.

The really interesting thing here is that for once your head is doing something rational - deciding not to do a task that is not worthwhile to do (factoring into account the decreasing-over-time ability to predict future rewards) - using a fairly good equation as far as you can see - and you're trying to fight that.

We really are weird creatures.

(Not that procrastination is always rational. Often it is not. But in those cases I find it very easy not to procrastinate)

Seconded. The text describing the method just assumes that one should respond to low Value or low Expectancy by fighting to raise these. But around half the time (in my experience), it's the "devil" on your shoulder whispering how pointless the task is, who actually has the right idea. In Luke's examples, sometimes a low Value or low Expectancy judgment is accepted. It looks like Luke listens to the "devil" about as often as I do. Good - now modify the description of the method accordingly.
Of course, another problem (and that's a huge one) is that our head does not really care much about our goals. The wicked organ will happily do anything that benefits our genes, even if it leaves us completely miserable.
Actually, the wicked organ often does things harmful for both our goals and genes, based on heuristics for an ancient environment that no longer exists. Or I am just too stupid to see how exactly does not living healthy, not expanding my social skills, and not making lot of money contribute to survival of my genes.
The "lot of money" is biologically unnecessary unless you are in third world, the healthier living is splitting hairs as far as reproduction is concerned. The 'there is a room for improving social skills as an adult' issue is circa when-we-stopped-having-big-families (and stopped getting experience as children), i.e. very novel. Our current notion of 'social skills' revolves around being able to smoothly talk with strangers, which was entirely unnecessary (living in small tribes) until very very recently. What was important in small tribes, is being nice and avoiding escalating confrontations, perhaps by not talking at all when you're not sure if it makes the other person mad. Not banging other people's wives, either. Picture evolving as a member of crew of spaceship (tribe in frozen land), with crew of 20 where anyone initiates first contacts as a little child, and where you have to stick together for generations. Here you go, shyness. The lack of any effort to reproduce is more interesting though. We just lack that particular goal. Sex, a bit of a goal, reproduction, not at all.
A bunch of people say they want to be parents and go to great lengths to do so. That might be cultural - any culture where people don't dies by contraception.
Well, yea. Passed-down culture can substitute for the instincts quite well (provided that it is taken up without questioning) Passed-laterally culture is different, everyone is trying to talk anyone who's not a direct descendant into non-reproducing, for quite good reasons too. I wouldn't want to live in the biologically sensible world, though - in which an animal as intelligent as human would perhaps have their drive to reproduce (not to be confused with sex drive) be as strong as fear of death, with the obvious outcome - extreme overpopulation followed by the population crash.
One problem with this equation is that it dooms us to use hyperbolic discounting (which is dynamically inconsistent), not exponential discounting, which would be rational (given rationally calibrated coefficients).
Well, the heuristic has to encompass the decreasing ability to predict the future for larger times, which needs not be exponential if the risks do not stay constant.

Each of these skills must be learned and practiced first before you can use them.

This is so important! Those who are serious about decreasing their procrastination - and who have enough motivation to bootstrap the process - should only work on a few skills at a time. As Luke mentions, mental contrasting was quick and easy, but goal setting is still a challenge. Trying to do everything at once will likely fail.

Personally, I've been focusing on clear goal-setting, making those goals visible, and cutting out distractions while working. Now, the moment I n... (read more)

I think any article proposing a solution to procrastion would do well to relate to pjeby's Improving The Akrasia Hypothesis. I'm not saying that the hypothesis there is necessarily the right one, but what seems to be lacking in these types of systems is exactly what pjeby's article is describing. Namely, how the system is going to help to resolve particular conflicts. I don't think this algorithm proposes any novel approaches to conflict resolutions. (Note that I'm not saying that the article itself isn't useful.)

Of course, you could claim that the hypothesis is not useful. But if so, it might be worth mentioning explicitly.

I noticed that if I'm apathetic about doing a task, then I also tend to be apathetic about thinking about doing the task, whereas tasks that I get done I tend to be so enthusiastic about that I have planned them and done them in my head long before I do them in physicality. My conclusion: apathy starts in the mind and the cure for it starts in the mind too.

You mention trying techniques for getting more energy. Can you elaborate?

See 'How to Beat Procrastination' for details on that and the other subskills mentioned here.

Any practical advice for how to get into flow? My work does not lend itself well to gamification, and I find rewarding myself pretty stupid.

My algorithm for beating procrastination:

echo >> /etc/hosts

[repeat for other forums you frequent]

Note: it is meant as a joke.

Maybe a joke, but it works for some people,

Thank you for sharing. This seems so obvious, and yet, it has helped me and works wonderfully. I've been able to get started and quite far along the way already (in just a day or so) writing reports that were due months ago and I couldn't have brought myself to work on them even though I find the topic interesting.

My Algorithm:

  • Step 1: Notice I'm procrastinating.
  • Step 2: Say "I'm procrastinating" out loud (to myself).

On the one hand, it is easier to remember and takes less mental resources to execute. On the other hand, my track record of "getting stuff done" isn't nearly as impressive as Luke's, which is evidence that my algorithm is less effective.

Hey Luke, what is your opinion on symbols/rituals? If we pick a simple example, the gym, what if you put a Under Armour compression shirt...Would that put you in the 'athletic' mindset? In the compression shirt scenario, you either 1) really unhappy how you look (immediate contrasting with your ideal state + competing with yourself/fit guy advertising compression shirt) 2) just ok, but you probably want to look better, hence the desire to go the gym (same as one) 3) looking great -> success spiral -> continue.

Millions of projects fail not because they "can't be done" but because the first 5 people who tried them failed due to boring, pedestrian reasons like procrastination or the planning fallacy.

Hmm. AFAIUI, the planning fallacy is mainly a form of self-promotion. You probably don't want to get rid of the planning fallacy - or people are less likely to want to employ you.

You should try to estimate as good as possible (i.e. without falling into fallacies) for yourself. Then you can still decide it's best to lie (a.k.a. self-promote). But getting false information won't do you any good.
I just read the planning fallacy wiki article and was surprised to NOT see proposed what I have thought was a good reason for the persistence of the error. It is something like this: Tell a manager and group they will get the task done in 3 months and they will get it done in 5 months. Tell the same manager and group they will get it done in 5 months and they will get it done in 6 months. I sorta guessed that the "fallacy" persisted because it increased productivity. My anecdotal evidence on myself is good for this: I HATE having deadlines where I will have to work hard to meet them, but I do work much harder when I have them. This kind of thinking about the fallacy seems related to Steve Jobs' "Reality Distortion Field." What happens is tremendously altered by what management says will happen. In my theory, planning is less for the purpose of planning and more for the purpose of creating an outcome, of distorting reality from what it would have been otherwise.
It might be true that lying about the amount of time it will take you to do something will get you a job; there are lots of things you can lie about that might get you a job. Is your concern that doing away with the fallacy will make you a worse liar?
I am councilling exercising caution before broadcasting downgraded estimations of personal competence - in the hope of avoiding failures caused by the planning fallacy. This could very easily be one of the cases where evolution is smarter than you are. If the finding that "when people made their predictions anonymously, they do not show the optimistic bias" is correct then, this isn't really much of a "fallacy" in the first place. It would then be more of a signalling strategy - broadly similar to putting in low dollar initial estimates in the hope of getting hired.
It might also be true that telling the truth about how long it will take me to do something will cause a planner who is using my inputs to estimate the overall project, and is accustomed to compensating for the planning fallacy in others, to miscalculate estimated time. Of course, if they do that, there's a sense in which it's their fault rather than mine, which can matter when what we care about is assigning blame. My usual way of splitting the difference is to give low, high, and most likely estimates. Pretty much uniformly, I'm then asked for a single number, and I ask which one they want and give it to them.
Depends on how these people evaluate you. If by your plans, then big plans help. If by your finished projects, then it helps to plan realistically. But you may use a filter: tell them only about your successful projects and don't tell about failed ones; a combination of big plans and list of successful projects should impress most. (This places some limits on the planning fallacy, because if it is too big, there may be no successful projects.) When you are already employed, planning fallacy will help to impress your boss... but how impressed will they be when you miss the deadline? But this may disappear in team work -- the boss will remember your optimism and team failure, so you still appear more competent than your colleagues.
Of course, publicly overestimating your own abilities is not a strategy for every occasion. However, it seems pretty reasonable to assume that such behaviours are prevalent mainly because they have proved themselves to be effective in the past. If you axe such behaviours you may well face employers who are expecting them - and so incur a double downgrading of your percieved abilities. Eliminating the planning fallacy may not necessarily help to avoid failure - and it could easily have personal negative consequences. Prospective avoiders of this "fallacy" should be aware of the potential costs they may incur.
The fallacy does seem to occur in contexts inconsistent with signalling however - e.g. when I plan how long it will take me to cook a meal, or work out.
Something typically only has to be beneficial on average for reinforcement learning to favour it. That is how many heuristics arise. Similarly, traits only need to be adaptive on average for them to be favoured by natural selection. Indeed: adaptation and learning are closely related.
Even that is not required. See: gambling addiction. Our ability to learn from reinforcement is not calibrated according to the ideal.
Sure: I should have used a different term in place of "beneficial".
Very true. Although in this case I think it becomes justifiable to call it a 'fallacy', since it's outside conscious control
What about that the planning fallacy is demonstrated even when there's no financial benefit or even public announcement? The planning fallacy derives from the availability heuristic: the events that hold you up are different each time, whereas the ones that take you forward are routine.
The "planning fallacy" page on Wikipedia offers quite a range of explanations - though not the one you mention, AFAICS. I don't pretend to know enough about the relative importance of these explanations to comment much on the topic - except to say that the "signalling" explanation I mentioned seems as though it is a pretty important one to me.
There's a standard debiasing approach for the planning fallacy. I don't know if the availability heuristic has been cited, but it seems to have been described: "When you want to get something done, you have to plan out where, when, how; figure out how much time and how much resource is required; visualize the steps from beginning to successful conclusion. All this is the "inside view", and it doesn't take into account unexpected delays and unforeseen catastrophes."

It's funny that you advocate something you haven't yet managed to practice (becoming less impulsive by making and sticking to goals/plans). In light of your super-normal overall progress, this almost discourages me from even trying to work directly along that tack.

How to beat procastination, by Luke, on the CFAR blog.


Am I nervous about the task, or afraid of what might happen if I undertake it?

I think this facet is closest to why it's taken me a year to read this post. If I successfully learn to stop procrastinating, then I will be compelled to complete all those tasks I've been putting off. Since I don't want to do all those horrible tasks, I didn't want to learn to stop procrastinating.

The way I ended up reading (most) of the post was through game-making: I was trying to close as many tabs in my web browser as possible without bookmarking them (i.e. reading webpages or discarding them) and getting a fuzzy feeling of success as the number of tabs dropped. And now I have better tools than that. Thanks.


I try to avoid pure cheerleading comments, but this post was extremely helpful. Thank you!


Can you believe that I've been procrastinating reading this article for the past two weeks? It's been open as a tab ever since, but I can't muster the courage to learn what I could do that would actually stop me from procrastinating. I haven't even read it yet past the 2. header!

In terms of precomittment and sub-goals, this is something you can use all sorts of hacks to try to bind yourself: but often people don't use the easier route of using other people. Possibly I'm just slow on the uptake, but I've been working in the same environment for about 2 and a half years, and it's only in the last six months or so that I've started dealing with procrastinatey tasks simply by committing to do them to others (particularly managers, but peers as well). Suddenly, the whole 'I suppose I could do this at another point' diversion gets overw... (read more)

Use reward and punishment.

Is it effective to try and increase the value of a task by setting unrelated, external goals? For example, if I acheive a goal of doing a certain number of hours of work in the week, I'll buy myself a pint after college or I'll put aside money for an album or book?

My worry is that this perhaps doesn't do much to increase the value of the task itself: I want to work because I know I enjoy the satisfaction of completing work, but gamifying it by associating it with unrelated goals doesn't increase that. In thinking about implemen... (read more)


How do you know motivation is multiplicative?


Its odd that so many approve of productivity advice from someone who seems not particularly productive.

Look at Luke's examples of defeating akrasia:

  1. He managed to put together an Ikea bookshelf.

  2. He is able to perform the basic functions of his job.

  3. He gave up on going to grad school.

  4. He has so far given up on writing a book and instead stuck some essays on the internet.

None of these things are actually impressive and the last 2 show a lower ability to get shit done than many people possess. I think the average person I know gets more done withou... (read more)

Calling lukeprog "not productive"...

Seems so wrong I cannot even come up with a simple explanation of how wrong it is.

I usually describe Luke with phrases like "insanely prolific". I had preordered Robot Ethics and he managed to write this article before I managed to crack the book open - and I'm doing a dissertation on the subject...

I said 5 years ago that this Singularity business seems pretty important and so I should maybe think about moving to Silicon Valley to work on it... years later, Luke learned about the problem, did probably more research than I've done yet, moved out there, and became SIAI's Executive Director...

I think I'll go sputter incredulously elsewhere for a while.

I was there when someone was inviting Luke to watch the SuperBowl at a sports bar. Luke did not know SuperBowl was that day. He then politely turned down the invitation and went to work on a paper or some SIAI business. Anyone I know would feel it was his right as a full-blooded American to not do work on Superbowl Sunday. I'm pretty convinced we're dealing with a significant outlier as far as productivity is concerned.

I don't think that's all that impressive.... shunning pro sports is almost a shibboleth among geeks and nerds. I imagine quite a few American LWers ignored the Super Bowl to do other stuff (for non-Americans, ignoring World Cup stuff) - I know I did, and I don't consider myself productive at all.

Evidence to the contrary.
Both, as usual. That's the IRC channel. Of course, most of that comes from his tendency to paste walls of text at random intervals.
squints not sure if sarcastic or serious...
Well, to be fair, forgoing participation in Superbowl Sunday to work doesn't require extraordinary productivity. It could simply be a result of not giving a rat's ass about football. I know I don't.
Even though other people have weighed in on this, I felt I needed to go back and comment. I couldn't tell at first whether you were serious, and then I remembered the Super Bowl seems really important to great big masses of Americans. My D&D group was meeting as normal. Someone suggested watching the Super Bowl commercials on Hulu, and several others didn't know the Super Bowl was happening that day. (Personally, I had to skip D&D to work on my dissertation). For a funny example of the shunning-pro-sports-as-shibboleth on Twitter, see this conversation.

Well done, you've rephrased S.M.A.R.T.E.R goal setting into you're own language... and that's cool, cause that's a part of learning.