How to measure procrastination?

post by rlp10 · 2012-02-15T14:02:01.356Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 22 comments

I want to test different techniques for decreasing personal procrastination.  What would be an easy way to measure procrastination so that I can do the comparison?

I would also like to hear suggestions for measuring the inverse i.e. how can I measure getting-things-done-ness.


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comment by Raemon · 2012-02-15T15:57:08.121Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I use Rescue Time, which automatically tracks all the time you spend on the computer (in a creepily accurate way). By default it guesses whether certain things are productive or unproductive, and you can change settings for individual activities.

comment by grouchymusicologist · 2012-02-15T15:42:58.858Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If both your work and your procrastination are computer-based (and isn't that a concise description of all my problems!), Beeminder plus TagTime looks like a pretty promising combination. Beeminder keeps track of personal goal-related data for you, and TagTime is a random sampling-based way of seeing how you spend your computer time. They're put out by (at least some of) the same people, and TagTime can automatically send your data to the relevant Beeminder graph.

NB: TagTime is only available in a developer version right now, which means that I haven't tried it because I don't know how to clone a git repository (not a skill much needed among musicologists). So this is just going from the description on their website of how it works. They say it will be available in a user-friendly version eventually. Beeminder, on the other hand, I've been using for a few things, and it's cool.

Replies from: dreeves, Manax
comment by dreeves · 2012-02-16T19:07:13.747Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the plug for Beeminder and TagTime! They are indeed by exactly the same people, me and Bethany Soule.

In case anyone missed our big pre-launch thing here on LessWrong:

And, yes, TagTime+Beeminder is an amazing combination, IMHO. We'd love to get a friendlier version of TagTime out the door. There is an Android app that Bethany wrote that's friendlier than the desktop version, but I think there's a lot less value for it on a phone than on your main work computer.

comment by Manax · 2012-02-16T18:40:31.546Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interestingly I wrote something very similar to tagtime a number of years ago, and am still using it. I don't do random sampling (didn't think of it at the time), but at 15 minute intervals. I've got short cuts and defaults to remember the last thing I was working on, automatic (and manual) time division when I've worked on multiple projects in the interval. Over the last year, I've gotten it the point where it automatically fills in timesheets for me. Mine too is Perl.

Of course, this sort of thing only works as long as you're honest about what you're working on. Sometimes I'm very good about being honest when I've gone off-task, sometimes less so. But it's easy to go back through my logs and find out how much time I've wasted when I intended to be working.

Replies from: dreeves
comment by dreeves · 2012-02-16T19:11:30.450Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ooh, you should check out tagtime on github -- -- and see if we can join forces on this. I think it's important to have Poisson-distributed sampling because otherwise you can anticipate the next ping and insert a bias into the tracking (even if you're trying to be perfectly honest -- in fact, you might try too hard and overcompensate, inserting the opposite bias). If the pings are Poisson then that's impossible.

Replies from: Manax
comment by Manax · 2012-02-17T13:12:57.333Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The original reason for the 15 minutes sampling was due to how we do billing, but I've never tried to "game" it, and if I'm distracted enough to be able to anticipate the next ping, there is something seriously wrong with me since I'm clearly not focused at all. :) If I work on two projects during an interval, and am not sure (roughly) how I split my time, I'll split it even. It's worked out pretty well.

I'll take a look at tagtime at some point next week. I'd guess that there's a way to tune lambda based on the minimum feature size you're trying to capture, right? It's been a while since I've dealt much with Poisson distributions, and never had to generate them.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2012-02-15T14:32:30.187Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At work I take a screenshot every 3 minutes, so when I come to do my timesheets I have a pretty accurate idea of what I was doing.

Replies from: rhollerith_dot_com, rlp10
comment by rhollerith_dot_com · 2012-02-18T10:08:40.502Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I take a screenshot every 3 minutes, so when I come to do my timesheets I have a pretty accurate idea of what I was doing.

If anyone would like a way to do that on OS X, get in touch.

Although the way I do it relies on Emacs, a suitable Emacs is included in all recent versions of OS X, and I can provide instructions that require no knowledge of Emacs.

However, you will need to run a command from the "command line" (from that is) every time you restart your Mac since I have not mastered the part of OS X (namely, "launchd") that would allow me to instruct you on how to have Emacs and my code start automatically on restart and I have not mastered the parts of OS X that would allow me to create a proper app (as opposed to a "command line").

Still, if you do not mind mucking with, my solution is fairly robust. For example, you do not have to use every time your computer wakes from sleep because my code survives the Mac's sleeping and waking. (For the Mac to sleep when you are away from it is helpful because then you do not have to review a monotonous series screen shots of when you were away from the Mac.)

comment by rlp10 · 2012-02-15T15:01:46.055Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is there any software you would recommend for this?

My own research points to AutoScreenShot.

Replies from: ciphergoth
comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2012-02-16T17:46:10.115Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I run Ubuntu; a colleage wrote this.

comment by gwern · 2012-02-15T14:19:54.317Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A daily checklist, percentage done; turn on something like Leechblock, but only the recording options and not the block options and measure time spent on 'procrastinating' websites; use arbtt to gather statistics to measure interventions; calculate average longevity of items on your TODO list; ...

Not seeing any suggestions from you - did you spend 5 minutes thinking about it before asking here?

Replies from: rlp10
comment by rlp10 · 2012-02-15T14:55:30.794Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for your thoughts.

Not seeing any suggestions from you - did you spend 5 minutes thinking about it before asking here?

Yes, I've spent some time thinking and researching this question, including looking at this research paper and this survey.

Because I didn't want ideas similar to my own, I didn't initially list my own ideas for fear of priming the responses.

I recognise with hindsight that my post gives the impression that I was unwilling to help myself - I could have been clearer.

Finally, given all the discussion on anti-akrasia and procrastination, I thought that others may have actual experience to share.

comment by MartinB · 2012-02-16T09:43:27.254Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Measure the complement. Your productivity.

Replies from: Viliam_Bur
comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-02-16T12:47:22.368Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Recently I have come to the same conclusion.

When I think about what should I not do, I only focus my mind on it. But if I need to get rid of something, the goal is to stop doing it and stop thinking about it. The best solution would be to forget it competely -- I often don't know how to get there, but "remind myself periodically that I should not do this" seems wrong. Also I am creative in my procrastination. Should I do less X? Sure, but I will find some new Y to do instead.

By measuring what needs to be done, my attention is drawn to things that need to be done. The reminding is probably more useful than measuring. I am not sure about it, but it seems to me that it could be useful to just make a diary for each project, where every day you have to write what have you done about the project. (No excuses allowed. If you didn't do anything, just write "Nothing", but you are not allowed to explain why.) This could be useful at least for projects that are difficult to quantify. Put the diaries on your table, so they are the first thing you see when you wake up, and when do come home from work; and don't put them away until you have wrote today's line. Also if you self-report useful work done, you cannot cheat by "forgetting".

And when all the useful work is done, and there is some time left, you deserve to spend it in the most pleasant way.

comment by djcb · 2012-02-15T19:24:21.990Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I doubt there is any easy way; maybe after a long time you could say that technique A or B seems to work for you, but I think there are huge placebo effects at work here. For example, I often feel a bit of a [short-lived] burst of energy after reading one of the self-help books -- almost any of such books (Getting Things Done, The 7 Habits, even Tony Robbins' books), which does not really say much about the efficacy of the specific techniques.

Maybe you have a twin brother or sister who could be the control group?

Replies from: Viliam_Bur, rlp10
comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-02-16T11:47:30.237Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think there are huge placebo effects at work here. For example, I often feel a bit of a [short-lived] burst of energy after reading one of the self-help books

Even placebo can be measured. And if the placebo works even when you know it is a placebo... then why not use it?

Suggested experiment: Does reading the same self-help book again increase your productivity again? How much? Are the results different if you read it gain after one week, after one month, after one year?

If the book effect is repeatable, then just buy a sequence of books and make a habit to read them one hour each week, or whatever the experiment shows is the amount that brings the best "productivity increase : time spent reading" ratio. Problem basically solved; now you only improve details like which books work best, what is the best time of day for reading them, comparing reading a paper book with listening to audio version, etc.

Replies from: djcb
comment by djcb · 2012-02-16T14:40:36.834Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The practical use of placebos is an interesting subject in itself; although research suggests the effect is not very strong (see e.g. Is the Placebo Powerless? , as cited in the wikipedia entry.

Anyway, I'm getting off-topic :)

The original poster of the article seems to be interested in comparing various techniques - and to do a good comparison, one should really try to avoid placebo noise from the comparison.

comment by rlp10 · 2012-02-15T22:24:10.669Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I have had the same experience, although it always seems short-lived.

Perhaps it says more about the technique of consuming motivational self-help books, more than the techniques described inside.

Replies from: djcb, NancyLebovitz
comment by djcb · 2012-02-16T08:15:43.830Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Indeed, they're short-lived for me as well, added it to my comment. As per Sturgeon's law, most 'self-help' books are not very good, but just about any are a good refresher of some of the basics - like Focus on the goal or Make goals measurable, and track the progress etc.

In daily use, probably Getting things done has been the most influential for me - maybe because it's mostly about a number of useful techniques, rather than thinking too much about them.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-02-16T12:01:57.126Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And I've seen people who work on self-improvement say that the motivation needs to be refreshed and maintained, so reading (or rereading) self-help books might be a standard approach.

comment by D_Malik · 2012-02-16T13:36:43.159Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing I've been trying for a while is tracking how often I scratch itches. When my ear is itchy I try my best to resist scratching it; if I fail, I record that, then I graph how many itches were scratched each day. You can also use this to kick other small habits like lip-biting.

Perhaps you should give yourself a grace period, say right before you fall asleep, to make sure you don't develop skin problems or something from accumulation of dead skin flakes.

Here's another idea: Lie on the floor on your stomach. Put your hands on your head and your elbows on the floor. Now lift yourself up using your elbows and your toes. No other parts of your body should touch the floor; your back and legs should form a straight line. Hold this position as long as your willpower permits. Time yourself, but without time-elapsed visible to you while you're holding the position.

Your time will gradually increase over time due to muscles strengthening, but perhaps you could adjust for that. I suppose you could substitute any other exercise for this, but this one seems better to me.

These measure willpower, which I think is pretty much the same as not-procrastinate-ability.

You could just measure how motivated you feel every hour, or how prone you seemed to be to procrastinating that hour. I think your self-evaluations would be accurate enough about this.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-03-16T15:00:35.742Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your time will gradually increase over time due to muscles strengthening, but perhaps you could adjust for that.

I'd expect that after the first dozen times you do that, any further improvements will be due to muscles strengthening to a far greater extent than to more willpower.