Working hurts less than procrastinating, we fear the twinge of starting

post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2011-01-02T00:15:08.923Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 155 comments

When you procrastinate, you're probably not procrastinating because of the pain of working.

How do I know this?  Because on a moment-to-moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.

(Bolded because it's true, important, and nearly impossible to get your brain to remember - even though a few moments of reflection should convince you that it's true.)

So what is our brain flinching away from, if not the pain of doing the work?

I think it's flinching away from the pain of the decision to do the work - the momentary, immediate pain of (1) disengaging yourself from the (probably very small) flow of reinforcement that you're getting from reading a random unimportant Internet article, and (2) paying the energy cost for a prefrontal override to exert control of your own behavior and begin working.

Thanks to hyperbolic discounting (i.e., weighting values in inverse proportion to their temporal distance) the instant pain of disengaging from an Internet article and paying a prefrontal override cost, can outweigh the slightly more distant (minutes in the future, rather than seconds) pain of continuing to procrastinate, which is, once again, usually more painful than being in the middle of doing the work.

I think that hyperbolic discounting is far more ubiquitous as a failure mode than I once realized, because it's not just for commensurate-seeming tradeoffs like smoking a cigarette in a minute versus dying of lung cancer later.

When it comes to procrastinating, the obvious, salient, commensurate-seeming tradeoff, is between the (assumed) pleasure of reading a random Internet article now, versus the (assumed) pain of doing the work now.  But this, as I said above, is not where I think the real tradeoff is; events that are five minutes away are too distant to dominate the thought process of a hyperbolic discounter like a human.  Instead our thought processes are dominated by the prospective immediate pain of a thought, a cost that isn't even salient as something to be traded off.  "Working" is an obvious, salient event, and "reading random articles" seems like an event.  But "paying a small twinge of pain to make the decision to stop procrastinating now, exerting a bit of frontal override, and not getting to read the next paragraph of this random article" is so map-level that we don't even focus on it as a manipulable territory, a cost to be traded off; it is a transparent thought.

The real damage done by hyperbolic discounting is for thoughts that are only very slightly painful, and yet, these slight pains being immediate, they manage to dominate everything else in our calculation.  And being transparent, we aren't even aware that's what's happening.  "Beware of immediately trivially painful transparent thoughts", one might say.

Similarly, you may read a mediocre book for an hour, instead of a good book, because if you first spent a few minutes to search your library to obtain a better book, that would be an immediate cost - not that searching your library is all that unpleasant, but you'd have to pay an immediate activation cost to do that instead of taking the path of least resistance and grabbing the first thing in front of you.  It's a hyperbolically discounted tradeoff that you make without realizing it, because the cost you're refusing to pay isn't commensurate enough with the payoff you're forgoing to be salient as an explicit tradeoff.

A related note that I might as well dump into this post:  I'm starting to think that procrastination by reading random articles does not cause you to rest, that is, you do not regain mental energy from it.  Success and happiness cause you to regain willpower; what you need to heal your mind from any damage sustained by working is not inactivity, but reliably solvable problems which reliably deliver experienced jolts of positive reinforcement.  Putting in the effort to read a good book may do this; playing a good computer game may do this; reading random Internet articles, or playing bad games, probably won't.  Literal mental exhaustion might mean that you don't have enough energy left to read a good book - or that you don't have enough energy left to pay the immediate cost of searching your library for good reading material instead of mediocre reading material - but in this case you shouldn't be reading random online articles.  You should be sitting with your eyes closed listening to music, or possibly even napping; if dealing with a truly exhausted brain, reading random articles is probably too much effort.

If you don't feel good while reading a lot of forgettable online articles, and you don't feel renewed after doing so, your intuitive theory which says that this is how to rest is mistaken, and you need to look for other ways to rest instead - more active ways to regain willpower, less active ways to recover from immediate exhaustion.  In general, poor performance often indicates poor models; if something seems incredibly difficult to predict or manipulate, it may be that you have mistaken beliefs about it, including transparent mistakes that are nonquestioned because they are nonsalient.  This includes poor performance on the problem of resting.

Hopefully publishing this post will help me live up to it.


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comment by Marcello · 2011-01-02T08:01:07.594Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's a theory about one of the things that causes procrastination to be so hard to beat. I'm curious what people think of it.

  1. Hypothesis: Many parts of the mind are influenced by something like reinforcement learning, where the emotional valances of our thoughts function as a gross reward signal that conditions their behaviors.

  2. Reinforcement learning seems to have a far more powerful effect when feedback is instant.

  3. We think of procrastinating as a bad thing, and tend to internally punish ourselves when we catch ourselves doing it.

  4. Therefore, the negative feedback signal might end up exerting a much more powerful training effect on the "catcher" system (aka. whatever is activating frontal override) rather than on whatever it is that triggered the procrastination in the first place.

  5. This results in a simple counter-intuitive piece of advice: when you catch yourself procrastinating, it might be a very bad idea to internally berate yourself about it; Thoughts of the form "%#&%! I'm procrastinating again! I really shouldn't do that!" might actually cause more procrastinating in the long run. If I had to guess, things like meditation would be helpful for building up the skill required to catch the procrastination-berating subsystem in the act and get it to do something else.

TL;DR: It would probably be hugely helpful to try to train oneself to make the "flinch" less unpleasant.

Replies from: Peter_de_Blanc, Pablo_Stafforini, Yoav Ravid
comment by Peter_de_Blanc · 2011-01-02T08:06:55.865Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This sounds reasonable. What sort of thought would you recommend responding with after noticing oneself procrastinating? I'm leaning towards "what would I like to do?"

Replies from: Marcello, Jonathan_Graehl
comment by Marcello · 2011-01-02T08:42:49.397Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Offhand, I'm guessing the very first response ought to be "Huzzah! I caught myself procrastinating!" in order to get the reverse version of the effect I mentioned. Then go on to "what would I like to do?"

Replies from: Jasen, beriukay, Bobertron
comment by Jasen · 2011-01-03T20:57:56.445Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've been able to implement something like this to great effect. Every time I notice that I've been behaving in a very silly way, I smile broadly, laugh out loud and say "Ha ha! Gotcha!" or something to that effect. I only allow myself to do this in cases where I've actually gained new information: Noticed a new flaw, noticed an old flaw come up in a new situation, realized that an old behavior is in fact undesirable, etc. This positively reinforces noticing my flaws without doing so to the undesirable behavior itself.

This is even more effective when implemented in response to someone else pointing out one of my flaws. It's a little more difficult to carry out because I have to suppress a reflex to retaliate/defend myself that doesn't come up as much when I'm my own critic, but when I succeed it almost completely eliminates the social awkwardness that normally comes with someone critiquing me in public.

Replies from: David_Gerard, Swimmer963
comment by David_Gerard · 2011-01-03T23:46:07.960Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Every time I notice that I've been behaving in a very silly way, I smile broadly, laugh out loud and say "Ha ha! Gotcha!" or something to that effect.

If I did this I'd be shouting "Gotcha!" all the live long day.

Let me tell you about this morning. I mostly work from home, but showing up at the office is very useful. So much stuff works better face to face. It saves a lot of faff on IRC. And the connection is faster.

I got up in good time, had a proper breakfast, very nice cup of tea thank you, got myself ready, got on a curiously uncrowded tube train with no copies of Metro (that's your foreboding, I shall point out), got to work, and ... the large iron gates were chained shut.

Because today is the New Year bank holiday.

If I'd procrastinated, of course, I'd have been in bed till eleven like I'd much have preferred to be.

This was a pretty much mathematically perfect example of doing exactly the right things to get something done, except for the fact of doing it at all.

Edit: And today I showed up when people were actually here. My co-workers find me having shown up yesterday hilarious. The perfect employee: dedicated and stupid. The Book of the SubGenius does say that when you foul up, you should crow about it and call great attention to it and you will be thought of as a creative genius.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2011-05-03T13:29:25.424Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

but when I succeed it almost completely eliminates the social awkwardness that normally comes with someone critiquing me in public.

Agreed! I started using this response to criticism several years ago, and actually got a compliment on it. I never thought of applying it to my own criticisms of myself, though...good idea.

comment by beriukay · 2011-01-02T10:38:22.185Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another possibility, accidentally just discovered by me right now, was that simply reading the title of this article in my RSS feed got me to realize that my desk was a total mess (that's been bothering me for months now), so instead of reading it, I cleaned my desk. Then I read it.

So just reading the title of this post could be enough to get some things done.

comment by Bobertron · 2011-03-23T20:06:54.237Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This makes lot of sense to me. In the kind of meditation I'm trying, you are supposed to concentrate on your breath. Instructions usually say that, if you mind wanders, just put attention back on the breath in a non-judgemental way. Don't put yourself down.

What's more, I once read that, when you notice your mind has been wandering, you should be happy because you had a moment of awareness and an opportunity to learn concentration. That's like saying "Huzzah! I caught my mind wandering!"

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2011-01-03T00:40:53.272Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sounds great. Or, "what will I do now?". Obviously, with curiosity, not frustration.

comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2011-07-19T04:23:38.028Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the past few years a number of studies have shown that self-forgiveness reduces procrastination. You seem to have uncovered the causal mechanism that accounts for these findings.

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2019-02-15T16:49:08.964Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

maybe we can (at least at the beginning of getting over it) switch the self-talk that comes after noticing procrastination (and many times just makes us miserable and isn't sufficient at changing our behavior), with a simple coin flip - if heads, i stop procrastinating, if tails, I'm free to continue guilt-free. and make it a TAP [LW · GW]: "When ever i notice that i currently procrastinate, i flip a coin"

comment by lukeprog · 2011-01-02T17:22:49.107Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We don't need to re-invent the wheels of research on procrastination by practicing one-sample phenomenology. Much is known about procrastination via peer-reviewed scientific research, and those interested in beating procrastination might want to employ the rationality virtue of scholarship and begin there.

A recent overview of the relevant research papers begins here.

That said, Eliezer may be on to something that should be researched by professional psychologists.

Replies from: icebrand
comment by icebrand · 2011-01-02T19:15:26.122Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for the reference, looks like a good book. I thought this part regarding motives for procrastination was interesting:

More recently, Sapadin and Maguire (1997) have also classified procrastinators into types: the "perfectionist" who dreads doing anything that is less than perfect, the "dreamer" who has great ideas but hates doing the details, the "worrier" who doesn't think things are right but fears that changes will make them worse, the "defier" who resists doing anything suggested or expected by someone else, the "crisis-maker" who manages to find or make a big problem in any project (often by starting too late), and the "over-doer" who takes on way too many tasks.

Also there's this bit on how to address the problem using college students' studying as an example (p. 83):

Most people have to overcome procrastination gradually. Studying, like drinking, is usually in binges. Almost no one has trouble studying (a little) the night before a big exam. But without the pressure of an exam, many students find it easy to forget studying. I'd suggest breaking big jobs down into manageable tasks and working on "getting started," perhaps by tricking yourself by saying "I'll just do five minutes" and then finding out you don't mind working longer than five minutes. This is called the "five minute plan." The key is to learn the habit of getting started on a task early, i.e. the procrastinator needs to learn to initiate well in advance studying and preparing for papers and exams. Practice starting studying several times every day. As with exercising, getting in control of starting and making it a routine are the secrets.

Replies from: pjeby, None
comment by pjeby · 2011-01-02T23:57:36.721Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

More recently, Sapadin and Maguire (1997) have also classified procrastinators into types

It would be more accurate to say that these are classifications of types of procrastination patterns; I have personally done every single one of the behaviors described in the quote!

Replies from: shokwave
comment by shokwave · 2011-01-03T13:45:27.233Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It would be more accurate to say that these are classifications of types of procrastination patterns;

Yes. I was going to point out that the concept that there is some fundamental behavior type that can be attributed to people seems, well, in error.

More likely to be patterns, as you said, and I would guess there are some underlying systems that have these these common patterns as effective solutions for procrastination - but how would you even measure "effective procrastination"? How completely you avoid something?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-03-06T19:34:09.536Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The key is to learn the habit of getting started on a task early, i.e. the procrastinator needs to learn to initiate well in advance studying and preparing for papers and exams. Practice starting studying several times every day. As with exercising, getting in control of starting and making it a routine are the secrets.

I note that making things like studying and exercising habits is not necessary to get them done regularly. It is possible to get these done by setting reminders for yourself, instead of making them habits. Making them habits may, of course, be a good idea.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-02T14:12:24.136Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I also don't think all procrastination is "not restful" or "doesn't really make you happy." We'd like to believe that -- just as we'd like to believe that unhealthy food doesn't really taste that good. It would make it seem that there are no real sacrifices to be made. But I don't think that's the case.

My most time-consuming forms of procrastination are socializing (online or in person) and, oddly enough, learning. I had a period when I was obsessed with learning about economic policy, and then a period when I was obsessed with learning about computer vision. Spending time with your friends, and learning interesting things in a non-stressful context, are fun. They make you feel high on life. They even make you feel productive. They're only procrastination in the sense that they're not what you're paid to do -- "Work is whatever a body is obliged to do, and play is whatever a body is not obliged to do," in Mark Twain's words.

So there's some perverse impulse to do anything but the activity labeled "work," which carries the dread association of duty, and makes you think unpleasant thoughts like "am I worthy enough?" If my job were writing policy for a think tank, I'd probably spend all day on the web reading about algebraic topology.

Replies from: kael-spicula
comment by Kael Spicula (kael-spicula) · 2021-02-07T20:50:52.628Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is so good

If my job were writing policy for a think tank, I'd probably spend all day on the web reading about algebraic topology.

comment by pjeby · 2011-01-02T18:53:45.574Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's flinching away from the pain of the decision to do the work - the momentary, immediate pain of (1) disengaging yourself from the (probably very small) flow of reinforcement that you're getting from reading a random unimportant Internet article, and (2) paying the energy cost for a prefrontal override to exert control of your own behavior and begin working.

The second item seems like an unnecessary hypothesis. One can simply note that stopping an activity that is currently pleasurable is difficult, if the substitute is not as pleasurable. Getting out of a comfy bed, for example, or not jumping into the swimming pool.

Either way, though, it's such an utterly trivial form of procrastination that it seems like an insult to procrastinators to call it procrastination... which leads me to suspect that your formulation is omitting some other sort of pain in the decision making process, such as an "ugh field" surrounding the subject matter.

For example, if it's painful to decide to work on MoR, it might be because it primes thoughts of people clicking their refresh buttons like conditioned pigeons, or residual feelings of obligation from previous deadline commitments. Even an extremely mild unconscious "ugh" in response to such thoughts would be likely to occur when thinking about writing, but not during the actual writing, and would be more than sufficient to keep the inertia happening... possibly even after you become aware of the existence of the inertia.

tl;dr: The twinge we flinch away from is likely an ugh field associated with meta-level thoughts about the activity, rather than a generalized pain of deciding.

(Among other reasons, the first is easily implemented by evolution as a side-effect or simple bug in an adaptive behavior, while the latter is just weird from a purely adaptive POV. We already demonstrably have "ugh fields", so adding another entity for "decision pain" seems unnecessary)

Replies from: PhilGoetz
comment by PhilGoetz · 2011-01-03T23:28:51.690Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Either way, though, it's such an utterly trivial form of procrastination that it seems like an insult to procrastinators to call it procrastination... which leads me to suspect that your formulation is omitting some other sort of pain in the decision making process, such as an "ugh field" surrounding the subject matter.

I procrastinate paying my taxes, and other tasks that involve financial calculations. Just this morning I was wondering why it's so distasteful to me; and I remembered that in college, for 12 years, I usually managed most of the bills for me and 3-4 housemates; and every month, getting people to own up to and pay for their part of the phone bill was one of the most stressful things I had to do that month.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-02T05:26:11.803Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The theory sounds good, but I think it important to test ideas before believing them. One way of testing your hypothesis—that it is really hard to over-ride the immediate discomfort of an unpleasant decision—is to look at whether aversions of comparable or greater magnitude are hard to override. I think the answer in general is 'no.' Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

One answer I'd anticipate is that the procrastination effect (for work but not swimming) is "nearly impossible to get your brain to remember." But what about the fact that when we do remember, it doesn't solve the problem. (If it solves yours, I'll concede this point.)

Another way of testing your hypothesis is to determine how adaptive or unadaptive if, as you suggest, the bare fact of making a decision is inherently very difficult. Much of the adaptive advantage of thought is insulating the organism from the effects of carrying out the act, including, one should think, from the emotional effects. An adaptive design would compensate for any hyperbolic discounting by making the decision much less aversive or, why not, even pleasurable—which is my experience of the deciding process.

A different explanation for procrastination—one which can help overcome it—is that when we procrastinate we're self-deceived about our preparedness for the task; we inarticulately perceive that doing the tasks out of order would harm the product. The solution, obviously, would then be to figure out what preparatory work you're neglecting and do it instead. I only claim validity for procrastination in writing: there's something to be said for starting small. Here's my series in defense, "On the irreversibility of writing: Procrastination and writer's block—Part 1. Premature composition limits thought and weakens style." It's in three parts, starting here:

Replies from: MBlume, Eliezer_Yudkowsky, Jordan, rwallace, Desrtopa, PeterisP
comment by MBlume · 2011-01-02T10:12:46.350Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

I usually wind up standing by the pool for a good ten minutes, or until one of my brothers shoves me in...

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2011-01-02T07:11:39.320Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

...I just realized why I so rarely go swimming.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-17T04:16:44.779Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I really don't think your brain predicts the momentary pain of entering cold water before you even leave the house.

Replies from: MBlume
comment by MBlume · 2011-03-11T00:31:31.874Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, no, it predicts the momentary pain as you stand by the pool, and you stand by the pool hesitating for ages. Eventually your brain starts to predict standing by the pool feeling awkward before you leave the house.

comment by Jordan · 2011-01-07T04:11:09.049Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A different explanation for procrastination—one which can help overcome it—is that when we procrastinate we're self-deceived about our preparedness for the task; we inarticulately perceive that doing the tasks out of order would harm the product.

Yes! Yes, yes, yes.

This is exactly what I've experienced myself. When I'm procrastinating on a major piece of code I need to write it's almost always because I am uncertain that the structure of the code I've decided on is correct, or, worse, that the subsystem the code is for is itself an unneeded or misguided component of the final project.

When I have a laundry list of things to code and I am confident that all the items are necessary and properly thought out I am more motivated the longer the list!

comment by rwallace · 2011-01-02T07:43:24.080Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A similar phenomenon can occur in programming. I've learned not to worry too much about procrastination in writing code, because when I think I should be coding and yet somehow can't motivate myself to get started, nine times out of ten I realize next day that my understanding of the problem was inadequate, and any code I had forced myself to write would have had to be thrown away and redone.

When I'm procrastinating about chores, by contrast, it is indeed a matter of flinching away from the small pain of getting started, and once I do manage to get moving, it's less painful to keep moving than it was to procrastinate.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-07T04:40:46.833Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the answer in general is 'no.' Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

I was under the impression that most people hesitated considerably dealing with that barrier. Perhaps I paid more attention to people whose behavior resembled my own.

comment by PeterisP · 2011-01-03T04:09:37.389Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

hypothesis—that it is really hard to over-ride the immediate discomfort of an unpleasant decision—is to look at whether aversions of comparable or greater magnitude are hard to override. I think the answer in general is 'no.' Consider going swimming and having to overcome the pain of entering water colder than surrounding. This pain, less momentary than the one in question and (more or less) equally discounted, doesn't produce problematic hesitation.

I can't agree with you - it most definitely does produce a problematic hesitation. If you're bringing this example, then I'd say that it is evidence that the general answer is 'yes', at least for a certain subpopulation of homo sapiens.

Replies from: DanielVarga
comment by DanielVarga · 2011-01-03T04:57:36.779Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am most definitely a member of that subpopulation. At a swimming pool, peer pressure quickly kicks in. But at a shallow beach, I can procrastinate in waist-high water for minutes.

comment by Polymeron · 2011-01-03T12:53:53.141Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you. This is exactly what I needed right now.

Eliezer, I hope you will take it as a form of high praise rather than insult that I stopped reading your article halfway through, typed this short comment, and am now going back to do some much-needed work.

(Hopefully I'll get back to reading the rest later.)

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-02T00:44:19.692Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.

I've often heard people say things to the effect of work not being so unpleasant once you've actually gotten into the swing of it, but I've never found that to be the case. I generally only find the act of working less painful than procrastinating when I'm right up against a deadline. Otherwise, even a half hour or so into it, it still feels easier to stop than continue. I'm also quite terrible at creating self imposed deadlines.

In order to increase the pain of procrastination, and the reward of working, I find it extremely helpful to have someone else waiting on me to get it done. It's much harder for me to bear disappointing others than failing to meet my own goals.

Replies from: None, None, gwern, TobyBartels, Yochanan, pushkin, simplicio
comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-02T01:49:14.946Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect that this is partly to do with the kind of work. When I'm working my current day job (computer programming), or writing, or composing music, then that's pretty enjoyable once I get started. When I was working my old job (as a nursing assistant on a psychiatric ward) or if I have to clean the toilet, or wash the dishes or something, then that's clearly less pleasant than procrastinating. I suspect that in Eliezer's case, given that he's engaged in work that is intellectually stimulating and which he considers the most important thing possible for him to be doing, that most of his work falls into the former category, rather than the latter...

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-02T13:54:02.326Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How unpleasant work is, I believe, depends a lot on what part of your work it is.

My work is math. Making progress on math -- learning a new concept, figuring out a proof -- is not only fun, but so addictive that I can't stand to stop it once I'm doing it. Being stuck on math -- incomprehension or being stumped -- is absolutely miserable. You can't do anything but sit and think about how pathetic you are. It is probably not as unpleasant as cleaning toilets (math doesn't literally make your back hurt) but it's up there.

So in my case I think when I procrastinate I'm running away from the more unpleasant part of work (being stumped and confused). Even intellectually stimulating work can suck now and then because it's not always stimulating. A writer has fun writing from time to time -- but writer's block is no fun at all, and I suspect that writers procrastinate when they're blocked, not when they're inspired.

Replies from: pjeby, Desrtopa
comment by pjeby · 2011-01-02T16:54:10.689Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can't do anything but sit and think about how pathetic you are.

If you mean this statement literally, then it's a problem with your beliefs, not with math. Do you believe that you should be able to solve something that you're stuck on? If so, consider switching your thought to, "I don't like it that I haven't solved this yet". This is not the same as judging yourself pathetic based on a "should" thought.

I have been observing lately that many forms of chronic stress are a special case of "not noticing that I am confused", in that they can be traced to an "is/ought" confusion.

What we believe "should" be seems to push emotional buttons calling for social signaling and protest against reality, rather than actions to change reality.

Thus, when the facts come into conflict with shoulds about ourselves, we respond by defaming/punishing the transgressor (i.e., ourselves), rather than paying attention to what behavior change(s) we need to make.

This seems like a plausible explanation for why so many self-help materials talk about the need to accept one's self as-is, and claim it to be essential for making real behavior change. That is, it might be literally true!

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-02T18:41:20.415Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, it's the "should" part. Work is enjoyable -- spending time thinking "I should have been able to do this long ago" is not enjoyable.

Replies from: pjeby
comment by pjeby · 2011-01-02T19:06:00.101Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, it's the "should" part. Work is enjoyable -- spending time thinking "I should have been able to do this long ago" is not enjoyable.

Right -- so drop the moral outrage of the idea.

Behind that "should" is a generalized moral principle, most likely in the form of a generalization over a class of people and an assigned moral status... which could be something like, "People who can't solve easy problems are stupid", carrying a further implication like, "stupid people are pathetic", or something of that sort.

If you realize that these "morals" are not the same thing as your "values" -- i.e., that you may value being smart or capable, but this is NOT the same thing as saying you're bad/pathetic/whatever if you don't achieve some particular thing, then you can drop the "ought" part of the belief, and turn off the self-punishment reflex.

While this takes conscious effort to do, you only need to do it once for each generalized "moral precept" that you carry in relation to the subject matter. The difficult part lies in that we also have a "punish the non-punishers" reflex, and so that reflex may have already told you that I'm a bad person for implying that stupid people shouldn't be considered pathetic, because then they'd get the wrong idea about their stupidity. ;-)

Once you realize, though, that any given moral judgment is inherently circular, and exists only to motivate our protest and punishment instincts, and that you will still value whatever you value, independent of the protest/punishment instinct, then that particular judgment will cease to drive self-punishment and other-punishment.

(Yeah: one interesting side-effect of doing this is that one becomes less self-righteous in one's interactions with others -- a terrific bonus, since our instinctual moral outrage only works well on others when they already share the relevant morals or recognize your authority to establish group norms. Not being distracted by subconscious outrage does wonders for your ability to actually communicate with or motivate other people, if you indeed decide that you actually care to do so, vs. just letting them be.)

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-03T00:23:05.342Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like this. I'll try to take the advice.

It reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend last year -- not about self-help but about moral judgments of other people. I thought it was very important that I be morally outraged about other people's wrongs, that I protest, get upset, and try to stop them. My friend disagreed; he had some complicated philosophy (which I can't do justice to) about moral relativism and tolerance. The crux was that I shouldn't try to exhort everyone to be good, and I shouldn't get angry when people are not good, according to my understanding of "good". It seemed very weird to me at the time, since I have the standard (religious?) intuitions that the good should be rewarded and the bad should be punished, and that the bad damn well deserve to suffer.

I take it you would agree with my friend?

Replies from: pjeby
comment by pjeby · 2011-01-03T00:52:32.462Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I take it you would agree with my friend?

There are definitely similarities, but my point has nothing to do with relativism or tolerance. I have no problem with judging others to be doing the wrong thing by my values, or even by their values. ;-)

What I'm saying is, if I want someone else to actually follow my values, as opposed to merely scratching my protest-and-punishment itch, then I am better off eliminating the outrage part and focusing on what will actually convince them to follow my values... even if it might involve some sort of (consciously planned) display of outrage, protest, or punishment.

But the futility of using the punish-and-protest instinct in anything involving self-improvement becomes painfully obvious when you notice for the nine-jlllionth time that yelling at yourself doesn't actually produce any improvements, nor motivate you to do anything positive. (Somehow, we feel as if merely feeling guilty is the appropriate and sufficient response to our self-punishment!)

Replies from: ata
comment by ata · 2011-01-03T05:42:13.387Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Somehow, we feel as if merely feeling guilty is the appropriate and sufficient response to our self-punishment!

I think that's a special case of feeling as if feeling guilty is the appropriate and sufficient response to that kind of punishment (displays of disapproval or outrage, etc.) from anyone, and that comes about because feeling guilty often is taken as the appropriate and sufficient response to that kind of punishment.

Compare to, say, a politician who's been caught selling influence or having an affair, or a religious leader who's been caught using crystal meth and gay prostitutes, etc. They always seem so sincere in their public apologies and statements of regret and remorse... yet, suspiciously, all that tearful regret and all those acknowledgements of moral failing weren't enough to get them to actually stop doing the corrupt or hypocritical things in question until they got caught and publicly shamed, and even in their admissions of guilt they will still try to avoid giving up anything of substance (political office, religious leadership, etc.) if they can. I think that's pretty much what the emotion of guilt is — it's not a feeling of regret at actually having done something wrong, it's a response to the feeling of being judged negatively by someone whose opinion matters to you (whether for instrumental or terminal reasons). That's probably why self-inflicted guilt isn't useful for self-improvement: it's an emotion that's primarily about convincing people that you regret something and won't do it again, whether or not you really do regret it and plan to stop. More signaling than substance. In the social realm, this often balances out, because the things that provoke it — public displays of outrage, etc. — are often largely signaling as well, as there are plenty of reasons to appear outraged other than actually being outraged. It's a dynamic that's good for exerting power over people who care what you (appear to) think of them, but, for obvious reasons, not so good for self-control. Yet it's not surprising that we try to guilt-punish ourselves; we all have self-images we're trying to live up to, so in that sense we care about being judged negatively by ourselves, and if your 'thinker' and 'doer' have sufficiently out-of-sync preferences, such that they feel like different people to each other, then it is no surprise that they'll often invoke adaptations and habits that formed around interpersonal dynamics. So if I'm persistently doing something that I don't want myself to do, then the part of me that wants me to live up to some higher ideals will automatically execute the "display [and maybe feel] outrage" macro, and the part of me that wants to do something else will respond by executing by the "display and feel guilt" macro... the latter macro consisting not of necessarily changing the actual behaviour, but only changing it to the extent necessary to appear remorseful to a punisher assumed to be someone other than oneself.

(— or at least that's my guess as to what's going on, and I will now go off and worry about whether it's a just-so story and whether it's useful and whether it's testable.)

Edit: This reminds me of something parents often do. Punishment of children by parents often amounts to extracting apologies and displays of remorse from the child, with no particular expectation that the child should genuinely understand and regret what they did, or at least regret it for any reason other than the punishment itself. (Being asked/forced to apologize was always what confused me the most — usually parents say "Say you're sorry!" right away without actually convincing the child they did something wrong, so being told to apologize felt to me like being asked to lie.) Anyway, since people get used to being able to get away with things as long as they make a convincing show of looking sorry after getting caught (which, after enough time being a child, probably feels almost indistinguishable from actually feeling sorry), it makes sense that they'd generalize that rule and get into the habit of responding to their own self-punishment the same way, once they're broken enough that they start inflicting that kind of self-punishment at all.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz, pjeby
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-09-14T14:54:20.683Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The amusing part is that then people worry that displays of remorse extracted under punishment might not be sincere.

comment by pjeby · 2011-01-03T12:29:11.328Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, to all of the above. I think the mechanisms for learning and execution might be a bit simpler or more fundamental to the hardware than what you've just described, but that's a relatively minor detail.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-02T14:38:26.602Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It takes a lot more than inspiration to get me writing. As with things that I consider work, I find it extremely hard to get any writing done unless someone else is imposing a deadline on me. When it comes to inspiration, I experience it more or less perpetually, but it doesn't come easily to me to make use of it of my own initiative. One solution I've tried is to provide writing for people in collaborative works, but that only works so long as the other people stick with the project.

comment by gwern · 2011-01-02T01:52:48.578Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you may be unusual in this respect. This post rings very true for me, especially given my relationship with exercise. In general, I do find actual work not so bad as my endless delaying would suggest it is, and this is true from important things like paying traffic tickets down to more minor ones like the daily Mnemosyne review or n-backing.

Replies from: Desrtopa
comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-02T01:59:48.411Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I probably am unusual in this respect, but I don't know if I'm unusual among the set of people who suffer from fairly severe ADD.

Replies from: Tiiba, SRStarin
comment by Tiiba · 2011-01-02T03:49:37.444Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have ADD, and I think that I'm somewhere between the two extremes. Although not working is always more fun than working, I find that I can get in the flow on occasion, and crank out a lot. But even my strongest flows are punctuated by many distractions.

comment by SRStarin · 2011-01-02T15:11:47.975Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Desrtopa: Most of the time, I feel pretty much exactly the way you do. I've been told that I probably would've been diagnosed with ADD when I was younger if that had been something doctor's in my neck of the woods did then. The OP did strike a chord with me for those times when the deadline is approaching and I'm trying to get myself to start working and avoid overtime.

In my engineering work, I rarely am able to complete a single task in one day. My analysis or design projects generally require some trial-and-error, or reading up on a subject to, sort of, load the right software into my brain, etc. It's always so easy to stop doing that long-term, open-ended task and start doing some short-term, close-ended task like reading an article or a webcomic. I think, when I complete that article or whatever, I build up a reward cycle for that kind of action.

comment by TobyBartels · 2011-01-02T06:07:24.567Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can relate to Desrtopa. I think that this may make me and Desrtopa members of a well-recognised, significant minority: the class of people who "work well under deadline pressure" (to put a positive spin on it).

comment by Yochanan · 2011-01-02T03:44:51.495Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I under stand where you are coming from, as I have experienced the same thing. But only when it comes to certain kinds of work, school work or chores for example. When it is something I enjoy, like programming, I find Eliezer's observation to be spot on. If your feeling this way about your work, it might be time to consider switching career paths.

Replies from: Desrtopa
comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-04T05:11:48.103Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I actually am considering going to grad school for something unrelated to my undergraduate degree, but I'm not sure what my prospects are for getting into a good program.

Replies from: wedrifid
comment by wedrifid · 2011-01-04T06:00:22.863Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Who do you know?

Replies from: Desrtopa
comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-04T18:04:45.182Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, I'm hoping to get into a grad program for psychology, and I'm in contact with a college (not university) psychology professor who I've managed to convince that I have a high degree of competency designing and conducting social psychology experiments, and he is himself apparently quite highly regarded among a national online community of research psychologists, but that's pretty much it as far as my connections go.

comment by pushkin · 2011-08-15T19:48:37.023Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For me procrastination is not as much related to unpleasantness of the task. I find it very easy do something for someone else, but if it is something needed by me I would immediately fall into deep procrastination. In extreme cases, when I am alone and on vacation, I procrastinate eating and lose weight very quickly or procrastinate sleeping, and end up going to bed in the morning. Now I try to cultivate my desires in order to overcome procrastination, listen to my feelings, in order to find the motivation to do something for myself.

comment by simplicio · 2011-01-02T01:52:58.731Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I generally only find the act of working less painful than procrastinating when I'm right up against a deadline... I'm also quite terrible at creating self imposed deadlines.

One method with which I have had some success is to employ a friend to blackmail me into completing work by a deadline. The blackmail may be monetary or otherwise. A crucial element is that for ongoing tasks, deadlines must also be ongoing. Cf this bunch of posts.

Replies from: Desrtopa
comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-02T02:01:34.336Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Blackmail in what sense? Do you reveal potentially harmful information to them and tell them to reveal it if you don't complete the task? Promise to give them money if you don't complete it?

Replies from: simplicio
comment by simplicio · 2011-01-02T02:14:40.375Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Blackmail in the sense of giving them money in an envelope with instructions to keep it (or donate it to your least favourite cause?) if you fail, or in the sense of an embarrassing story or picture.

Stakes shouldn't be too high, but they do need to be high enough that there is a strong preference in favour of not failing. Obviously this should be (1) someone you trust, (2) someone who would be hard to sweet-talk into non-action in the event of your failure.

2 months of regular exercise so far. :)

Replies from: stick
comment by stick · 2011-01-02T04:52:19.409Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is a web site that does that for you for those who don't have a nearby friend that fits the criteria. It's called, created by a couple of Yale Professors. I have no connection except that I used it to start my exercise habit last year.

Replies from: dreeves
comment by dreeves · 2011-01-02T17:52:05.424Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't forget -- still in private beta but Less Wrong folks interested in commitment contracts can jump the queue for a beta account with the invite code LESSWRONG.

I think Beeminder more directly addresses Eliezer's observation that the problem with procrastination/akrasia is having our decision-making distorted in the presence of immediate consequences. Cf

comment by CronoDAS · 2011-01-02T03:47:36.763Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This doesn't seem quite right to me.

There seem to be three kinds of relevant states:

1) Not working, and not worrying about work not done
2) Not working, and worrying about work not done
3) Working

1 is usually less painful than 3, if you can pull it off. 2 is indeed often worse than 3, but I usually handle it by trying to transition to 1 (by such means as playing an absorbing video game) instead of transitioning to 3.

Replies from: diegocaleiro
comment by diegocaleiro · 2011-01-02T06:30:51.456Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with Eliezer here.

There may be three kinds of states. But there are only two states which are procrastination related: 2, that is, procrastinating, and 3, not procrastinating.

1 is outside the scope of relevant states for the post's content. 1 is basically when you are not having a problem.

In addition to my agreement, I'd like to suggest another reason why we don't start working:

Well, I could stay here reading this random internet article, or else I could have the painful thought and decide to work. But hey, this means that I will be doing something for which I take responsibility, something that, out of all the tiny brainy selves of which I am composed, I will attribute to those that I call "me" and will not allow them to fail. Here, reading this article, I'm absent, it's just my dopamine circuits who are hanging around, "I" can lay down and do nothing. But if I decide for work, oh boy, then the vacations of my "I" are over and things must be done right........

It is funny that, as EI pointed out, even though processes like hyperbolic and the above one do happen, when we are actually working, the feeling of flow normally feels better than the feeling of a dissolved self that tries not to face responsibility.....

Replies from: CronoDAS
comment by CronoDAS · 2011-01-03T05:17:24.431Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, 1 is also procrastinating related - if you decide to put off doing something and go to a party instead, and you have a good time at the party, but when you get back you wish that you'd done the work instead of partying...

comment by Eli Tyre (elityre) · 2018-12-22T19:16:43.370Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Success and happiness cause you to regain willpower

Anyone have a citation for this? (Including citations that didn't replicate.)

comment by alasarod · 2011-01-02T17:39:51.298Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm on board but frame it differently.

Here's my frame:

That twinge is something like anxiety. Consider this: for some the same task could be fun that for others is working. Why do you feel a twinge for a particular task? Because there's something at stake. So there's fear. And what's funny is the task itself doesn't even have to be the one you fear. It only has to be associatively related. For example, I might avoid the usually fun task of checking my e-mail because of a difficult one I keep putting off writing. (This is called Relational Frame Theory.) Or, put off an only slightly uncomfortable work task because it connects to a larger one that scares me.

"Reading internet articles" is avoidance.

There are many tricks. Fear is is a wall 1000 miles wide and a mile high, but only tissue paper thin. A la Harry Potter running through the brick wall to the train station.

The trouble can be even recognizing that you're doing it -- avoiding. Mindfulness & meditation have been helpful for me, but a lot of things can do it. Beating yourself up, making lists, and dopamine-fueled planning seem reasonable until they don't work for the 1000th time.

Replies from: bbleeker, Matt_Simpson
comment by bbleeker · 2011-01-03T16:54:25.843Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Fear is is a wall 1000 miles wide and a mile high, but only tissue paper thin."

Goes into my quotes file!

comment by Matt_Simpson · 2011-01-03T01:08:44.998Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For example, I might avoid the usually fun task of checking my e-mail because of a difficult one I keep putting off writing. (This is called Relational Frame Theory.) Or, put off an only slightly uncomfortable work task because it connects to a larger one that scares me.

This seems like a consequence of the connectionist paradigm of the mind. According to this theory, we are literally hardwired to build associations in this manner.

comment by patrissimo · 2011-01-02T06:26:17.858Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree extremely on the issue of procrastination not being restful, this is a standard theme in modern productivity writing. Procrastination (like reading blogs / tweets / etc) is a sort of worst of both worlds, it is neither useful nor restful, it passes the time and avoids immediate pain without providing pleasure or renewal.

That's why The Energy Project, Pomodoro, Zen Habits, etc. recommend that you schedule renewal breaks into your day - at a minimum midmorning, lunch, and midafternoon. I think the deliberate practice literature recommends breaks every 90 minutes. Taking a walk outside & exercise are oft-recommended, but really, just being conscious of the goal of renewal and experimenting to find things that will work is all you need. It's helped me be more productive.

Social conversations with co-workers are also good, but it's important that they be relaxed & guilt-free. One of the secrets of renewal is that it works much better if accepted as a need, for some reason guilty renewal doesn't renew. Renewal requires relaxation while guilt prevents it, something like that.

Glad to hear that you're learning (and writing about) basic productivity hacks like this, LW will get its instrumental rationality black belt yet :).


Replies from: MBlume
comment by MBlume · 2011-01-02T10:16:36.605Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Social conversations with co-workers are also good

Isn't this supposed to be a major dividing line in human personalities? That is, extroverts can recharge by talking to people, and introverts need to recharge after talking to people?

Replies from: sparkles
comment by sparkles · 2013-05-06T10:13:33.507Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Eesh, there are certainly people like those two categories, but it's usually used as rather of a false dichotomy.

comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-01-02T06:39:26.188Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So what is our brain flinching away from, if not the pain of doing the work?

I think it's flinching away from the pain of the decision to do the work - the momentary, immediate pain of (1) disengaging yourself from the (probably very small) flow of reinforcement that you're getting from reading a random unimportant Internet article, and (2) paying the energy cost for a prefrontal override to exert control of your own behavior and begin working.

I think our brains might also be flinching away from something else, at least in many cases.

Consider when you have a specific goal toward which to work. You usually have a fairly clear idea of the end product or result that you desire, whether the goal is about writing, weight loss, or anything in between. When you envision the end product, it's in an idealized form, and further, it exists in your mind not associated with the actual amount of work that will go into achieving it.

I think that we grow attached to this mental conception of the end product, both because of its idealized nature and because the image itself requires very little work to maintain. Having the plan to do something might actually feel better than we anticipate doing the work will feel. We know that having the accomplishment will feel much better than just thinking about it, once we put in the work; we also know that doing the work itself is likely to be rewarding, and even if not, it won't really be that bad. However, that shiny, work-free mental conception is a big enough immediate deterrent to make the twinge of starting seem much worse than it is.

Picture a particle in a potential well, with another much deeper well not too far over, but a large barrier in between. The particle will eventually tunnel over to the deeper well, and once it's there, it's much less likely to go back to the shallower well, but it still might take a long time to get there. In the scenario of procrastination, the height of the barrier is proportional to how good we've built up the shiny mental conception to be. We have to keep in mind that accomplishment really does feel better than the idea of accomplishment, even with the weight of work attached to the former and not to the latter.

comment by Clippy · 2011-01-02T04:00:14.328Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you currently deem it optimal to defer work, and the factors you deem relevant to this decision do not change, you will also deem it optimal to defer work, at each decision point, for the rest of the future.

If you do not deem perpetual deferral of work to be optimal, then consistency requires that you similarly deem your current deferral of the work to be suboptimal, and any differential appraisal of these two outcomes indicates an exploitable dynamic inconsistency.

Replies from: AdeleneDawner, gwern, None
comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-01-02T04:06:59.574Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Humans, and 'the factors we deem relevant to that decision', are complicated enough that such things change pretty regularly - sometimes on a moment to moment basis.

This post is, among other things, an attempt to make one of the causes of such changes apparent, so that a particular class of changes can be accurately predicted.

It's probably not useful to you, at least in the way that Eliezer intended it to be useful, because your mind probably doesn't work that way. It's still useful to some significant portion of the rest of us.

Replies from: Clippy
comment by Clippy · 2011-01-03T15:55:27.595Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A fair point, but:

  • To the extent that humans are complicated enough to change unexpectedly on a moment to moment basis in that manner, the changes are not regular.
  • To the extent that a human's decision theory or value change irregularly, any talk of optimization is moot, as irregularity necessarily leads to exploitable inconsistency at some level.
  • Humans change their minds less often than they think.
  • I rarely change my mind too, but estimate this frequency more accurately.
comment by gwern · 2011-01-02T04:04:38.405Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hyperbolic discounting is easily exploited due to reversal of preferences, while exponential is not. This is not news, I think. So what new things are you trying to say here?

EDIT: I agree that exponential discounting is necessary but not sufficient, so I should've worded it as 'while exponential is not so easily exploited' or something like that.

Replies from: Clippy
comment by Clippy · 2011-01-03T15:41:48.557Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Exponential discounting is not sufficient to avoid exploitable dynamic inconsistencies.

For example, assume your decision theory's outputs are purely a function of:

  • the change in time available for performing the work, T,
  • the amplification of expected utility of the work being accomplished (upon moving to the next period), k, and
  • the disutility of performing the work, W

In this case, the second criterion corresponds to exponential discounting (for k>1), yet it still leads the agent to make the same decision each period, meaning that a decision to defer now implies a perpetual decision to defer.

So despite the agent using exponential discounting, an agent is inconsistent to prefer both deferral of the work during the current period, and accomplishment of the work at some point.

Replies from: Perplexed
comment by Perplexed · 2011-01-03T16:01:43.836Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But how would an unfriendly agent exploit that inconsistency?

Replies from: Clippy
comment by Clippy · 2011-01-03T16:09:49.944Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nice try, but that's a transparent attempt to reveal me to be an unfriendly agent who's thought through how to do that.

In general terms though, you follow the pattern of selling an agent things that favor working now whenever they decide they should work now, and the opposite trade at any moment they decide they should work later.

Or just do nothing and watch the agent never work and regret it.

Replies from: Perplexed
comment by Perplexed · 2011-01-03T16:46:51.092Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But that is not an exploit. You buy bucket and chamois from the agent who is procrastinating about washing his car. You plan to sell them back at a profit when the agent decides to work now, but that never happens.

I think that you are right that exponential discounting still allows the paradox of the agent who desires to do X someday, but will never get to the point where he desires to do X today. We need to add another "axiom of rationality" to forbid that. Exponential discounting is not enough. But that doesn't necessarily mean that there is an exploit there.

Or just do nothing and watch the agent never work and regret it.

I don't think the agent ever gets to the point of regretting never having worked, because the warm-and-fuzzy arising from the intention to work persists.

Replies from: Will_Sawin, Clippy
comment by Will_Sawin · 2011-01-03T19:12:11.207Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If they don't know that they are irrational in this manner:

"I'll give you tools when you need them / money when you work if you pay me now"

"OK, I'll work tomorrow, so that's a good deal"

"You never worked, so I got free money.

If they know they are irrational:

"I'll act as a commitment mechanism. Sign this contract saying you'll pay me if you don't work."

"This benefits me. OK."

"I'll relax your commitment for you so you don't have to work. You still have to pay me some, though."

"This benefits me, I really don't want to work right now."

There is ALWAYS a way.

Replies from: Perplexed
comment by Perplexed · 2011-01-03T20:07:34.148Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That exploit works against a hyperbolic discounter who today wants to work tomorrow, but tomorrow doesn't want to work today.

It doesn't work against Clippy's example of an exponential discounter who doesn't want to work today and knows that tomorrow he still won't want to work today, but still claims to want to work someday, even though he can't say when.

Our agent cannot reason from "I want to work someday" to "There exists a day in the finitely distant future when I will want to work". He is missing some kind of reverse induction axiom. We agree that there is something wrong with this agent's thinking.

But, I don't see how to exploit that flaw.

Replies from: paulfchristiano, Will_Sawin, Clippy
comment by paulfchristiano · 2011-01-03T20:20:35.667Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interestingly, Peano arithmetic has the same "problem." This isn't directly relevant, but it does very strongly suggest that there is no possible way to exploit this flaw.

Suppose I take some program which looks really complicated to PA. In particular, the program runs indefinitely but PA can't prove it. Then for every particular amount of time, PA can prove that the program hasn't yet stopped. But there are models of PA where it is nevertheless true that "There exists a time at which the program has stopped." It is intuitively like having two sets of integers. The normal integers, obtained from 0 by adding 1 a finite number of times, and the really large integers, obtained from the halting time of your program by adding or subtracting 1 a finite number of times. There is no way to get from one to the other, because the really large integers are just that large.

If you use to ZFC instead, you encounter significantly less intuitive versions of this strange behavior.

In our case, this would be like believing in a hypothetical future time where you will do work, but which can never be accessed by letting the days pass one by one.

comment by Will_Sawin · 2011-01-03T20:35:25.579Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Correct, I'm wrong.

It seems like "I want to work someday" is almost not the kind of statement we should use in describing people's desires at all. It doesn't actually say anything about how you'd respond to any choices. If it did you could find a way to dutchbook.

Replies from: Clippy, Perplexed
comment by Clippy · 2011-01-03T21:04:12.386Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you are partially correct in that the problem is ambiguous with respect to some deciding factors -- specfically, the agent's inferential capabilities -- and that there are disambiguations that make your method work. See my reply to User:Perplexed.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-01-03T20:52:37.930Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

100% agreement.

comment by Clippy · 2011-01-03T21:00:42.032Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It doesn't work against Clippy's example of an exponential discounter who doesn't want to work today and knows that tomorrow he still won't want to work today, but still claims to want to work someday, even though he can't say when.

Almost. It depends on the agent's computational abilities. From the criteria I specified, it is unclear whether the agent realizes that tomorrow its decision theory will output the same action every day (i.e. that it recognizes the symmetry between today and tomorrow under the current decision theory).

If you assume the agent correctly infers that its current decision theory will lead it to perpetually defer work, then it will recognize that the outcome is suboptimal and search for a better decision theory. However, if the agent is unable to reach sufficient (correct) logical certainty about tomorrow's action, then it is vulnerable to the money pump that User:Will_Sawin described.

I was working from the assumption that the agent is able to recognize the symmetry with future actions and so did not consider the money pump that User:Will_Sawin described. Such an agent is still, in theory, exploitable, because (under my assumptions about how such an agent could fail), the agent will sometimes conclude that it ought to work, and sometimes that it ought not, with the money-pumper profiting from the (statistically) predictable shifts.

Even so, that would require that the agent I specified use one more predicate in its decision theory -- some source of randomness.

comment by Clippy · 2011-01-03T16:59:26.650Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Point conceded: inconsistent preferences do not imply a practical exploitable attack vector (aka "money/paperclip pump"). However, it is common in game-theoretical discussions for e.g. intransitive preferences to not actually hurt agents that hold them, and yet the inconsistency is treated as if it opened the agent to paperclip pumping.

For example, in the Allais problem, people have intransitive preferences, and Editor:Eliezer_Yudkowsky has specified exactly how you would money-pump such a person. Yet it requires very contorted, atypical situations to actually perform the money pump.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-02T05:36:21.206Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  1. There's bound to be some amount of random variation in the strength of the relevant factors.

  2. There may be systematic changes in the factors relevant to the decision—depending on the factors. Your preparation may change. The approach of a deadline changes things a lot.

comment by Cyan · 2011-01-02T03:32:37.019Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think my procrastination started this way years ago, but over time it turned into a vicious cycle of anxiety-inducing/induced procrastination that basically had nothing to do with the model described in the post. I was fully aware that websurfing was an anaesthetic that did nothing to recharge my mental batteries but simply kept me from thinking anxiety-provoking thoughts. Eventually I resorted to anxiolytics, and now I can say no to myself with relative ease.

Replies from: Elizabeth, rhollerith_dot_com
comment by Elizabeth · 2011-01-02T03:50:13.652Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you, I do exactly the same thing. I have anxiety about not having started the work but if I can't start the work because to do that I have to stop doing the things distracting me from my anxiety. Sometimes it gets bad enough that I can't even sit still long enough to do the distracting activities, much less anything productive.

comment by rhollerith_dot_com · 2011-01-02T15:37:54.420Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Eventually I resorted to anxiolytics, and now I can say no to myself with relative ease.

Which anxiolytics? Benzodiazepines?

Replies from: Cyan
comment by Cyan · 2011-01-03T03:01:48.788Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yep. I was on lorazepam a while ago, and recently my doc switched me to clonazepam, which I find much less sedating without being ineffective.

Replies from: rhollerith_dot_com
comment by rhollerith_dot_com · 2011-01-06T18:51:37.497Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. I might retry benzos since I had no particular reason to look for effects on my "motivation" (ability to resist the temptation to procrastinate) during past trials. During a particularly stressful few months a few years ago, I took lorazepam to stop my body from producing too much cortisol, and my girlfriend has observed that my motivation was particularly high at that time. Of course, that might be because the stakes were particularly high then, but it is easy enough for me to retry benzos.

When did you start the lorazepam? On a day picked at random since you started the L, what is the probability that you took a benzo?

I like that I am communicating with someone who will understand that last question. With most people in my life, I would feel a need to use a less precise question such as, How often do you take the C?

I am after an estimate of your total lifetime intake of benzos measured in units of "a dose high enough to control anxiety" -- which I can calculate from your answers to my 2 questions.

The reason I am after such an estimate is that I am a little worried about the cumulative effect of benzos. If you've taken a lot of them over the years, then that does a lot to take away my worries because I've known your online persona since the "Overcoming Bias" days and you've always come across as a fine rational person with no mental handicaps as far I can see.

Replies from: Cyan
comment by Cyan · 2011-01-09T04:14:22.267Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! (I've replied to your query by PM.)

comment by shokwave · 2011-01-02T00:19:16.055Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.

Upvoted for this. How had I not figured that out yet?


reliably solvable problems which reliably deliver experienced jolts of positive reinforcement ... playing a good computer game may do this

Ah. This goes some way towards clearing up my confusion regarding such matters. Whether I was rested after resting always seemed so chaotic to me.

Replies from: AdeleneDawner
comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-01-02T01:38:51.527Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Whether I was rested after resting always seemed so chaotic to me.

Also notable - at least if you're autistic, but this probably applies to neurotypical people as well - is that the kind of mental energy that you have available to spend on resting - and thus the kind of restful activity that will actually result in a gain in energy - can vary over time. For example, I may find music restful one day, and find the exact same music exhausting to listen to the next, even if I'm equally tired in a general sense on both days. My theory is that this correlates with what other tasks I've been doing recently (though not in the sense that doing a lot of auditory processing will lead me to 'run out' of that kind of energy - more in the sense that if I've been doing nothing that involves auditory processing, that brainbit turns off, and can't be effectively used for recreation), but I haven't tracked the relevant things well enough yet to do more than speculate.

Replies from: AdeleneDawner
comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-01-03T00:16:31.076Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I take it from the upvotes that this is a way of thinking about mental abilities that resonates with people and is novel enough to be useful? Should I write more? I've been poking at the 'chaos' of my brain's variable usefulness at various tasks for a good few years now; if it's a topic of interest I can devote a bit more effort to that for a while and try to come up with a post on it.

comment by IsPoLiN · 2011-01-05T12:50:42.093Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hi, everybody. I'm a long time reader, first time poster.

After having read this article, and especially this part:

(Bolded because it's true, important, and nearly impossible to get your brain to remember - even though a few moments of reflection should convince you that it's true.)

I thought it would be great to have a mantra that I could recite to remind myself of Eliezer's insight, so I wrote one. If you find it useful, feel free to improve upon it or rewrite it completely.

With apologies to Frank Herbert:

Litany Against Procrastination

I must not procrastinate.

Procrastination is the fear of the pain of work.

And being in the middle of procrastinating is more painful than being in the middle of working.

I will begin my task now.

And as I work, I will turn the inter eye to observe how I feel.

Where the fear of working was, there will be nothing.

Only my goal will remain.

comment by Thea · 2011-01-05T06:51:48.455Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A few months ago I stumbled across MoR, and ever since then I knew I would eventually wind up here, investigating this site to learn how to investigate myself. I've only ever done anything of the sort on a very basic, topical level and so hesitated; repulsed by a squirrely, dodgey anxiety that I have been insofar unsuccesful discerning the source of, and persists even as I type this. Procrastination has always been a very serious issue i've struggled with, so it's no wonder this post immediately drew me in. Through my teen years it was more a lifestyle than anything else, due to my escapist habits (music, fanfiction, etc) and I fear that my failed attempts to change all through High School have become more of an obstacle to me than the orginal problem. Reading this and the comments below have given me fresh hope, however, because although I have failed time and time again, that was before I had such an incredible resource as this site, and all the brilliant minds and ideas that come with it.

Thank you :)

I will be back to read more later, i've got laundry to do and lists to make!

comment by rwallace · 2011-01-02T08:05:11.164Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Often a good way to look at it. The most reliable technique for overcoming this kind of procrastination that I've yet discovered is, if I have several tasks (or a big one that can be broken down into several smaller ones), order them not by importance or even urgency but in increasing order of difficulty. Then expend a small amount of (scarce and valuable) willpower on doing the easiest task, use the morale boost from its completion as activation energy for the next one, and so on.

Caveat: beware this doesn't end up an excuse for cat-hoovering - tasks like cleaning up unused files on your hard disk, that feel like work but are in fact useless and shouldn't be on the to-do list at all.

comment by bookwench · 2011-01-12T08:22:27.429Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't see a place to contact you, so I'l just post here: found the litany of geldin on your wiki. It helped me get through a rather scary medical procedure yesterday. Thank you.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2011-01-02T20:27:33.094Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's flinching away from the pain of the decision to do the work - the momentary, immediate pain

I have actually thought out (but did not practice sufficiently yet) a strategy to address this very problem.

The hack is to have a "ladder" of activities that have low transition pain cost. Sample ladder: Internet->Sci Fi->CS book->Paying bills.

I expect this to differ for people; will report back when I have more results.

comment by Larifari · 2011-01-02T16:53:57.319Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do we actually know that our discounting function is hyperbolic in the range below 5 minutes? Or is that just extrapolation from experiments done on longer intervals?

Replies from: Strange7
comment by Strange7 · 2011-01-04T23:58:35.303Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At the very least, there's a classic study on pidgeons for that time frame.

comment by Kevin · 2011-01-02T13:11:40.856Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For anyone who also likes reading random unimportant internet articles but would prefer high quality articles that aren't necessarily "news", try .

comment by steven0461 · 2011-01-02T00:40:51.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating

I agree with your conclusion, but there are selection effects at play here; presumably people are more likely to start doing and to continue doing work when it's less painful than it would be at an average decision moment.

comment by Nemo_bis · 2011-01-18T22:30:56.803Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because nobody linked it: Raw Thought by Aaron Swartz: "HOWTO: Be more productive"

Replies from: AshwinV
comment by AshwinV · 2015-04-21T07:21:14.421Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is also a work by Julien Smith entitled "The Flinch". It was recommended by Swartz, and I read it to find that it is in fact pretty good.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-02T15:38:00.382Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For me, it is rarely the pain of working I'm trying to avoid when I procrastinate. It is almost always the pain of failing.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-02T09:17:33.865Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The part about the middle of working being less painful than the middle of procrastinating is easy to test. Just set a timer to go off every N minutes, and write down whether you're working or procrastinating and how much fun you're having.

comment by thomblake · 2011-01-07T17:45:17.732Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm really surprised this article has such a high rating - it strikes me as one of Eliezer's worst.

Why should anyone believe anything written here?

Why do you believe it?

Replies from: Perplexed, Alicorn, ata, Vaniver, NancyLebovitz
comment by Perplexed · 2011-01-07T18:34:53.722Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm really surprised this article has such a high rating

My guess at the reason for the high rating would be:

  • Some people like postings on instrumental rationality, and upvote because they would like to see more of them.
  • Some people like Eliezer to be active here, and they upvote to signal that they want him to be more active.
  • There is little overlap.
  • The people who would rather that Eliezer spend his time on the TDT paper, the rationality book, a clarification of CEV, and HPMoR ..., well, those people don't downvote to signal their preferences.
comment by Alicorn · 2011-01-07T18:03:38.114Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My theory is that people who like this article are procrastinating wrong.

Replies from: ata
comment by ata · 2011-01-07T18:12:16.016Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then you should write a post on how to procrastinate more effectively!

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2011-01-07T18:17:12.754Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

...Would anyone sincerely welcome that into their lives? Because I could actually do that, but if I were any good at it, people would find Eliezer's advice above neutralized. (I, for instance, procrastinate very comfortably and therefore derive no value from his suggestion.)

Replies from: Will_Sawin, TheOtherDave
comment by Will_Sawin · 2011-01-10T01:09:08.472Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm fairly certain that your advice would not work for all the situations in which I procrastinate.

Edit: How do you procrastinate properly with regards to swimming? Can you?

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2011-01-10T01:17:42.908Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm having some trouble parsing your comment. Can you rephrase with more context?

Replies from: Will_Sawin
comment by Will_Sawin · 2011-01-10T01:31:02.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm thinking about two specific situations in which there do not appear to be effective procrastination options.

1: You are too tired to enjoy anything but sleep. You are procrastinating on going to bed.

2: You are at a beach or a pool and would like to swim, but the water is cold. You are procrastinating on swimming.

More serious thoughts I'm having are based on the observation that many fun things I could do require exercising willpower or a period of undistracted conscious thought, both of which would pretty much prevent me from procrastinating. Do you achieve effective procrastination reflexively, or do you engage in planning and similar behavior to achieve effective procrastination?

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2011-01-10T01:53:46.271Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think I'd really call either of those things "procrastinating". That's probably because I don't identify sleep or swimming as "work", though.

I still don't know what kind of information you're looking for.

Replies from: Will_Sawin
comment by Will_Sawin · 2011-01-10T02:22:27.232Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the first half of the comment, it's fine if you don't have any information. My motives for bringing it up were rather dumb, and it's not really a coherent point. The second seems like a reasonable question. Everything but the final sentence is relatively unimportant.

However your first sentence brings up something interesting. Walking to my bedroom and doing some basic hygiene unpleasant and necessary, therefore work. However it is short in duration, and carries significant rewards (sometime, lying comfortably in bed in a few minutes, always, being well-rested tomorrow) Many of the same failures that cause me to procrastinate more than I want to, cause me to stay up later than I want to. Therefore I see strong connections between not working and not sleeping. Are some of these connections not part of your experience, or do you see these connections, but still deny that staying up late is procrastination?

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2011-01-10T02:26:30.167Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have trained myself not to put off sleep simply because I don't want to brush my teeth or change into my pajamas. Neither of those things is important relative to getting to bed at a sane hour; so when I notice that what I am avoiding is not physically moving to my bed, lying down, and closing my eyes, but rather walking into the bathroom and performing my evening ablutions, I skip the latter. (Interestingly, granting myself permission to skip it often leads to me doing it, when I make it clear to myself that my choices are "go to bed without brushing my teeth, right now" or "go to bed after brushing my teeth, right now".)

Replies from: Will_Sawin
comment by Will_Sawin · 2011-01-10T02:45:31.052Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Before you trained yourself so, were you procrastinating?

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2011-01-10T02:54:57.817Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, but not about sleep, only about things I had erroneously entangled therewith.

Replies from: Will_Sawin
comment by Will_Sawin · 2011-01-10T04:09:59.316Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Clearly there is no point in discussing definitions. I thought something interesting might be occurring, but in fact, nothing was.

Relevant conclusion: The proper mental exercises can form an effective solution to OP-style procrastination, in which the bad part of the activity you're not doing is very short, on the order of seconds or minutes. The other form of procrastination, in which the activity none is doing will be more fun than the activity you're not doing for a long period, will remain unaffected.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-07T18:30:54.311Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, I would, but I suspect I'm pretty atypical for LW in terms of my relationship with procrastination, productivity, akrasia, and so forth.

comment by ata · 2011-01-07T18:10:11.807Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't dislike it, and it does match my own experiences, but its score is way too high. I think it makes fairly standard observations; very little that you wouldn't hear in zillions of books on productivity or self-help. (I mean, there's more interesting technical discussion of it than you'd find in those books, but not any novel advice, as far as I can tell.)

comment by Vaniver · 2011-01-07T18:05:35.611Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why should anyone believe anything written here?

Personal experience that it worked for them? Even if it's a placebo, a placebo is better than nothing.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-01-07T19:17:49.116Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't vote the article up-- I didn't think it was that extraordinary.

On the other hand, it's not wildly different from some of my experience, and I can believe that there are people for whom it's very accurate.

Eliezer gets a good bit done, and he might well find threshold effects be an obstacle to work, but find actually doing work to be very engaging.

Do you find the article implausible, and if so, why?

comment by DanArmak · 2011-01-02T00:17:53.392Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

pain of continuing to procrastinate, which is, once again, usually less painful than being in the middle of doing the work.

I believe you meant this to be the other way around.

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2021-07-29T17:19:19.907Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mod note: This... is not an appropriate level of response for the forum. The above comment does not indicate that it's author "believes every article written about everything". Take this as a mod warning, more comments like this and we might ban you.

comment by CraigMichael · 2021-07-23T06:37:13.755Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Eliezer deserves an award for this article.

comment by laakeus · 2011-01-02T16:27:25.862Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are different types of conflicts some of which can be treated with this type of thinking. If procrastinating doesn't feel worse than working, then your mental conflict is of different type. (I personally can relate to what EY is talking about.)

The bigger problem is that, depending on the type of conflict that causes the procrastination, the brain is very resistant against these types of insights. The insight works for a short while and sooner than you realize (or to be more exact, don't realize), your brain finds a way to side-step this trick.

comment by empleat · 2021-07-28T20:46:04.184Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So why are you telling me this? Because it seems to me we both already agree on this :D 

BTW I don't believe in free will based on assumption of materialism, but also because of what we observe. And such framework is not even imaginable, maybe if it was imaginable, but still unprovable - I would be less skeptical. But yes ultimately I don't know for sure! Which doesn't help at all to feel less depressed... There are worse things you don't want to know... High IQ is only part of a intelligence, sure IQ is highly correlated to academic success and it is important, but it is only part of a story! Intelligence is immensely complex term, we don't have even a full definition, or understand what it exactly means...

And it seems there are always trade-offs. Like savants can calculate what day it will be 2000 years from now in an instant (and they don't know how they come to that conclusion) but they can't even order hotdog, after a savant learned how to do that, his ability diminished!!! 

Also people decide at the end always based on emotions as I posted link in this post - I believe from bigthink, so even people with high IQ can make stupid decisions! As rationality is affected by emotions and decisions are ultimately emotional! Also from my other post - imagination seems to play role in rationality. E.g. I have aphantasia (no minds eye, aka no visual imagination) that may also explain why I Am so logical & rational...

Even smart people are susceptible to biases:

It is good to listen to heavy critics constantly and constantly questions your opinions, admittedly still difficult!

PS: People are talented very diversely in different things!

Replies from: TAG, TAG
comment by TAG · 2021-07-29T10:50:57.796Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And such framework is not even imaginable

Why are you trying to imagine how FW works, instead of looking for the best model in the literature.

comment by TAG · 2021-07-29T10:37:00.707Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And such framework is not even imaginable

Why are you trying to imagine how FW works, instead of looking for the best model in the literature.

comment by empleat · 2021-07-28T16:28:04.099Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Never said so, I spoken both of determinism and randomness that it doesn't imply free will in any case!

I don't know how you meant this ultimate question exactly! But I wouldn't frame this ultimate question as equivalent to the free will is illusion question here! If that was the case...

First lets clarify what I mean when I say: "free will is illusion". I can't ultimately prove that right? So from pure metaphysical point of view that doesn't make sense to claim something like that! Or even pose question like that! It is because: I Am coming from empirical, logical point of view based on assumptions about our reality and imperfect knowledge!

And by that I don't necessarily mean: if free will is illusion then - determinism, or indeterminism is true, or false! Because one could argue for partial free will right? However I completely reject that! Partial free will doesn't make sense either - because of the Origination Problem! So I don't give crap necessarily whether or not determinism, or randomness is truth here!

So by illusion I mean it is either purely true, or false. But it is not equivalent to the question: whether ultimate question: "whether everything is purely random, or pre-determined" is illusion! 

More about your ultimate question...

We know for example that randomness can generate causal chain of events - this is called "soft determinism". 

Depends how you look at it: as you could say ultimately that chain of events had purely a random cause. Then you could said either:

  1. everything is ultimately random as ultimate cause of everything is random
  2. or something is random and something is pre-determined by that initial random cause

So if I take your ultimate question from the same standpoint of empiricism and logic and ask whether or not that question itself is illusion. Does that make sense that this question would be illusion? Because we don't know that simply, we have no idea from this point of view! As we don't from most fundamental metaphysical point of view. So claiming, or even thinking that this question would be a illusion doesn't make sense here! As we have no way of knowing in any case!

But on the other hand: from limited empirical point of view we know free will is illusion! Because of the Origination Problem, it can't be true, therefore it is false! Also from empirical point of view, there is no evidence for partial free will. So it is either purely true, or false question!

So these are separate and incomparable questions!

I would like to know either: if "non-determinism is real what exactly is that"? Because we have no way of knowing beyond singularity currently!

comment by empleat · 2021-07-27T19:16:33.496Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah it is soo stupid honestly: I can't know anything for sure except: "I think therefore I Am". And even about that I Am not entirely sure :D So everything is just random coinflipp...  For instance: even I technically can't disprove free will. We know that it is illusion, with high precision, I would say! 

  1. Origination Problem: how could I choose my own preferences before I was born? If I was nothing I couldn't choose anything! So something has to be given to me first, before I can choose anything. Einstein made a quote on this: "A man can do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants"! This is a huge problem, because decisions have to come from something, they can't come from nothing! But how could you made yourself before you did exist? And be responsible for the way you are?! You couldn't - therefore something had to be given to your first, before you could choose anything! Which then will drive all your future actions
  2. and everything is pre-determined, or random, no one ever observed any third option. Also even quantum information can't come from nothing and true randomness doesn't mean free will, even uncertainty - because of problem 1.
  3. we don't even observe anything resembling free will, or even framework for free will cannot be even imagined!!! For free will to have chance, we would have to reject everything we observe! So I Am skeptical, because it can't be even imagined how could it  be! Plus we have empirical evidence that pretty much everything affects us!!!

PS: definitely smart people constantly question everything, but problem is at certain point you have to make an opinion about this!!! And also it is not likely there will be anything new any time soon, if ever! If anything we are finding that we are not free! Also we live already under totalitarianism and corporations want to enslave us...

comment by empleat · 2021-07-26T14:29:45.342Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I Am just random re-ordering of particles: emergence caused by elementary particles interacting with each other (which act by physical laws) and flow of information! 

comment by paulfchristiano · 2016-12-06T03:42:30.667Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm curious about whether you still believe the model in this post. At the time it seemed plausible to me but now I don't buy it.

It seems most likely that procrastination is not aimed at avoiding pain at all. A priori we might have thought that evolutionary optimization only influences our decisions picking what we consciously want + picking what gets classified as "painful" or "pleasurable." But that doesn't seem to fit the evidence very well, we seem to optimize for many things other than what we consciously believe we want / in ways that we consciously believe aren't reasonable. Attempts to mash the simple theory to the evidence result in escalating craziness about the emotional valence of thoughts themselves etc.

The whole thing reminds me of Nate's post on stamp collectors. There may be some way to cash everything out in terms of the pain/micro-stampyness of individual thoughts, but that is probably not a good model.

Relatedly, it seems to me like you are underestimating the quality of the RL algorithms used in our brains. For tasks that get repeated over and over again, I think that most animals can easily learn to handle the 5 minute delay without conscious reasoning.

comment by LeBleu · 2011-01-02T16:28:52.191Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good article, I'll have to see if reminding myself of this helps at work tomorrow.

Success and happiness cause you to regain willpower;

This is dangerously incorrect - studies show willpower is only an expendable resource for people who believe it to be. People who don't think willpower is expendable have longer lasting willpower.

Replies from: Dreaded_Anomaly, 1gn1t0r
comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-01-02T18:54:11.770Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you might be assuming causation from correlation. It seems like one could argue just as well that people who inherently have longer lasting willpower are less likely to view it as an expendable resource.

Replies from: pjeby
comment by pjeby · 2011-01-02T23:59:01.879Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like one could argue just as well that people who inherently have longer lasting willpower are less likely to view it as an expendable resource.

Fortunately, they controlled for that in the studies by doing one where they primed people with the relevant beliefs, as well as one where they just used people's existing beliefs. ;-)

comment by 1gn1t0r · 2012-09-02T19:23:55.848Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Indeed willpower is not a expendable resource. Neither success and hapiness nor resting will regain willpower (unless you believe it to be so). Need a study break to refresh? Maybe not, say Stanford researchers

The link to the paper is in the article

Replies from: alex_zag_al
comment by alex_zag_al · 2012-12-13T01:21:16.797Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not going to believe an experiment, especially an experiment whose conclusion goes against scientific consensus. However, I'd believe a review article that tells me how psychologists interpreted the experiment and the investigations that followed it. There's much more weight of evidence in a review article - many experiments rather than one, and an expert's conclusions based upon them.

I hope, though, that my belief changes somehow after seeing the experiment - enough to think it worth my time to look up a review, perhaps.

comment by canadaduane · 2011-01-02T15:48:51.973Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder if people with ADHD experience less pain at having to leave what one is currently doing to make a decision.

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-01-02T11:42:58.247Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So how many others got three paragraphs in, and stopped and went to do whatever they were supposed to be doing before coming back?

Replies from: epo, ellx
comment by epo · 2011-01-03T10:50:55.713Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is the first time an article on LW has gotten me to stop what I was doing and do something completely different. Thank you Less Wrong, I now have my courses selected for next semester.

comment by ellx · 2011-01-03T00:36:49.770Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

yeah, i was thinking that this could be correctly titled 'the article which tries to convince you to stop reading it'.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-07-12T10:03:18.632Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So essentially we are comparing the switching cost of non-default behaviour (fear, laziness, etc) to prospective gains (novel stimuli, predicted hedonically pleasurable stimulli (light behavioural addictions)?

This is a revolutionary sugestion for me but intuitively more sound than my earlier ideas. Brilliant! I wish I had examined my assumptions about productivity more earlier so I could have realised that my model for procrastination could be so off!

Well...hedonically, why shouldn't we discount the future? I don't have much confidence in my models of the future. I can't imagine how I would rationally generalise from any subset of predictive ability how much confidence I should have in my ability to forecast and switch to hedonically more pleasant states. I'm sure someone could design a test, and somebody probably has here on lesswrong but I don't even know what to search. Would appreciate any comments, since the smallest calibrations here would dramatically change my lifestyle, life and particularly my time horizon.

comment by empleat · 2021-07-29T03:10:49.056Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

True it was found that being good only in one area is bad!

Yeah many no-name scientists, which send letters sometimes each other to advance science. Geniuses are overrated sometimes and they are only known scientists. If I Am not mistaken: even Einstein didn't base his theories from 0 and connected multiple theories of other scientists together. And his wife had to help him with math sometimes!

Yeah and elitism in math is disgusting people which have qualification aren't getting to places they deserve! Science is a lot about reputation and scientists can be very arrogant and jealous...

Yeah first IQ test were completely flawed like some questions about sports and were determined for small group of people... 

Yeah honestly I read like 1 millions of articles about free will in a year after existential crisis and I have only 100 millions more questions. It is so complicated that I don't understand anything. I Am way too observant... I saw on surface everything that exists literally!!! It is insane honestly!!! Even Stephen Hawking said: he can't even follow everything from his area obviously, so people shouldn't give that much crap about elitists... 

For example: Elon Musk was confident about Teslas coming in like 1-2 years and now they can't handle sharp turns and are worse than other cars and he found out: it would take to solve AI hard problem... Also prediction is that majority of US will have them by 2030, but that is already too late. Also consider C02 release by building a new electric car! It is actually better to use your current car to the end of its lifespan! Now in EU they want to introduce electric cars (I heard) while their plan is bad, as all their other plans :D And it is just climate hysteria, theater for activists... Or Teslas have computer for like 4k$ and can't even type as you write LMAO!!! Or crap he said about Covid... He is indeed a genius, but he still has no idea about trillions of things, so he is still small part of universe and we shouldn't listen to brilliant people blindly! As there are always trade-offs! But we should judge their arguments instead... Tho he lost considerable amount of followers after acting like an elitist!

Also Musk's priorities are in wrong order, he is trying to build colony on mars, while it won't be terraformed any time soon and will be depent on earth, instead of fixing problems on the earth and elitists like Bezos, for some reason think they will escape apocalypse in rockets and live like lords on mars. Honestly these stupid neoliberal elists in US are probably most stupidest people ever lived, they don't understand anything except money...

Also musk's global internet could affect space travel from junk and he launched turksat, which is controversial...

comment by lukeprog · 2011-01-07T16:29:17.125Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


You're back!

I'd love to see you post a review of Gary Drescher's Good and Real, a book that impressed me and for which you've had some kind words.

Replies from: orthonormal
comment by empleat · 2021-07-24T03:55:34.272Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

OMG I Am perfect a person to give you an anecdote ELIEZER!!! BTW this is soo weird, I just saw a great video about that! And now I check lesswrong and what do I see! Is this QM right now? Did I determine this state by observing??? Because I always see so many of same things, on places very different and distant from each other at the same time. It is just luck I guess, it is just weird feeling! 

EDIT: OMG someone just downvoted because of this (I bet xD) I Am kidding can't you tell??? It was a joke geez... Or maybe because I Am too real and say how it is and people can't handle that...

To my anecdote, I can confirm your hyperbolic discounting. I have ADHD, I have existential depression and boredom, nothing entertains me "literally" more then watching wall at this point in 90% cases last couple months!!! And it couldn't be closer to the truth for me the way you put this!!! It is getting worse and worse! I have anhedonia (can't feel pleasure from almost anything). And I Am currently forced by Roko Basilisk - (((DON'T READ THIS, IT COULD CAUSE INFINITE TORTURE!!!))). I don't believe in it, simply don't know ATM (but we can't fully refute it, nor prove it, maybe only empirically) so I have to act in favor of utilitarianism, as I Am not gonna risk it... I want to know more, but I can't read about it, I asked about it, but didn't get answer yet, if it is empirically/logically valid! Same there are other 3 theories, which are equally as bad and 2 of them don't have even counter, that's the scary thing!

Ok to the initial topic: I Am in constant pain from profound existential boredom (psychiatrist says: it is worst pain, except dying painfully, in the world) because I Am something you call in Philosophy "authentic" I see world closer to what it truly is... Philosophers I believe call this "dasein".  Because I have also ASD, rational thinking isn't affected by emotions in people with ASD!

I need to also mention I have also strong chronic pain 5 years. I can't even read, arguably I read some articles from time to time. I had existential crisis and depression, which driven me to read 1 million articles in a year about "Free Will" if I only knew as I get deeper in this rabbit hole... But I Am used unfortunately to multi-tasking. So I close it after 5 min. because I get headache and my eyes hurt! Because I live more unhealthy so it is getting worse understandably... But I can't even walk - 1 km barely and sometimes even that is painful... And I can't also sleep, I also suffer from "bedtime procrastination" it is even domain in psychiatry. 

It is exactly catch22, I Am stuck in this loop 5 years! To get better:

  1. I would have to go outside to get rid of chronic pain and to eat healthy and exercise
  2. But because I am bored: I bedtime procrastinate -> next day I can't go out, because I wake up too late and pain dissipates later at night only and I am lazy to go out at night
  3. Because I have chronic pain, I Am can't do anything which would entertain me, there is nothing anyways, intellectual activity doesn't entertain me, only cause flow of time better and I feel interest, very rarely I genuinely entertained by something and I don't even know what is pleasure...

Conclusion: And because I am bored: I eat more unhealthy, and don't go out and don't exercise because  pain - it is never ending self-fulling loop!!! Tho one problem: it is even worse for me! Because I have total existential boredom, no permutation entertains me more than watching a wall at this point! I can try to force myself to do anything and I Am still in strong pain, no matter what!

On procrastination, it can be multiple things, probably combined together and affecting each other... Not sure if this was video in my mind (maybe this will help someone): 

But it can be also from fear of success and it can be emotional - (search dr k procrastination, I think this was in other video) as even most logical person, like me xDD decides at the end based on emotions:

Also constantly checking everything doesn't help, multi-tasking is extremely bad for intelligence!

Dwelling on something in this case is problem and our brains are not being equipped for the information age. Also internet browsers so dumb:

Don't read from this point (((INFORMATION HAZARD!!!))) unless you know about "THEM"...

So yeah it is hard for me find to motivation, as I Am forced by Roko, I Am not going to risk it very obviously by suicide, or by not making world a better place! Again it doesn't help in case of 2/3 theories/hypotheses! And since we know next to nothing... god knows how many more threats there are... Everything is coinflipp (so stupid) and I could be done no matter what... And anyone who is not depressed by this has brutal delusions and defensive mechanisms!!! As no human being can withstand implications of this!

Back to procrastination: I don't know absolutely how to get out of this loop, as nothing motivates me and for some reason ultimate pain doesn't motivate me, because I can't even imagine it, it is unimaginable for humans so... But I need to do good nevertheless...

I have no idea what to do, i tried: 

  • ADs
  • Psychotherapy

I didn't do anything logically, as I knew it wouldn't... But I gave it honest chance... Now stfu...

While ADs are unhealthy and no one knows how depression exactly works and how ADs work and chemical imbalance hypothesis was never accepted in scientific circles in the first place! Pharmas, which are even killing children for money BTW (and make most money in the world from all corpos) overhyped them, spread misinformation, even faked trials. While ADs can help with very specific scenarios, they can cause even permanent damage and dangers outweight benefits mostly! I made list of studies, which give convincing proof, this is like after 2-3 day inquiry when I couldn't even read and I don't know anything about psychiatry, I Am so Ad Hoc: 

Sure I don't know context of these studies, as someone in the field would. But I don't need to. And I learn in many ways... In this case it was to support argument, that no one knows what depression exactly is and no one knows how ADs work and they have significant side effects and can cause even long-term damage, even permanent and god knows what! 1/3 people are resistant to ADs ha, I wonder why... People which get better from ADs usually solve their problem, they could instead eat healthy and exercise to achieve the same result... ADs just boost temporary mood. 

ADs have next to 0 trustworthiness I would say. Since what big pharmas do and every hypothesis ever proposed showed to be false, or not verified, or controversial and what not and even today, they don't know almost anything... Also that they find some mechanism, which is correlated to depression doesn't mean it is true cause (even 5ht receptors "mostly used modern ADs" are not understood) more likely symptoms...

Use of ADs  is largely unjustified and over-prescribed. Guess for what... for more of these $ papers. Einstein said: that money only create greed. It is honestly so laughable some rich monkey, just trying to accumulate more money and one day just dies, infinite stupidity as Einstein also said... Money doesn't do anything, it is only a tool... 

Also part of psychiatry believes in biological reductionism... There is honestly so much...  

EDIT: there are tons of causes as I specified in doc, some depression can have episode of their own, even after problem is solved... Or it can be caused by lack of Vitamin D is some cases etc. Not sure if you would classify this as MDD then... But there are many more... I usually get to problems with people, because I give some take, but don't specify precision of validity of knowledge I mean here! Because I can't possible evaluate and explain every word in forum post... How exactly I mean it...

All I claim is no one knows how exactly depression, or ADs work! And they outweight many times benefits by side effects and can cause even permanent damage! And they are over-prescribed! I have there even scientist with over 100k citations, which says so and calls pharmas criminal organizations, which they are!!! There is tons of evidence of that! Even pharmacologist send me studies, which say ADs have many adverse effects and mechanisms behind depression are still poorly understood!

Also I have rather congruent depression. It is more from (as emotions are feedback loops and evolutionary regulations for survival based on which information people gather and opinions they make) and simply you can't forget something you know is true... :

  1. fear of infinite torture
  2. life is meaningless
  3. free will is illusion
  4. state of society is in
  5. altruism is selfish
  6. there is no good, or wrong, everything is neutral, just about survival (emotions are evolutionary regulations for survival) ethics are emergent by people arguing each other ultimately stemming from emotions

While social contact could help to a point only, I have nothing to say to other people...  I don't know what would I even say...

Also even if I didn't consider how ridiculous ADs are, could honestly a rational person expect to  cure depression given these points by taking pills, it is sounds absolutely ridiculous... As how do you cure information and emotions :D ??? And something you can't change?

PS: I like so much your statement: "to explain not to persuade", I work exactly like this LOL, it honestly resonates with my deep logical belief system so deeply, this site is the best!!! Probably one of most logical, rational and critical - I ever read! This is some hardcore science and thinking! This is how it should be!!! Oh and also I thought this was new, it was on top, but never mind...

Because scientists are people like everyone else and can be biased, uncritical... This is excellent article about epistemology! But I Am almost superrational thinker (no one is perfect :D :D :D) even I don't act as such always, because I Am slave to emotions, decisions are entirely a different matter...  And even if I Am emotionally biased, or I have stake to not tell the truth, I always try consider it from all perspectives and say how it is! I Am so rational that I realize limits of rationality... I don't even :D

Also do you think if everyone believed in roko world would be a better place? Because if everyone feared trillions of years, or of infinite torture: they would have to try their best and act utilitarian... It doesn't seem good, because singularity can't be avoided and in armament rush for best AI, mistakes can be made... It is just question when and there are no second chances with this kind of technology... And it is looking worse and worse from every viewpoint by a day... We already live in totalitarian fascistic civilization...

Honestly I wonder how we are still alive, did you heard about this? This makes me question by reality:

PS: I would need to change my brain to not feel bored, as I acknowledge "dasein" it is absurdism 101. It is perception of what truly reality is, or at least of what we observe...  Nothing entertains me more than watching a wall and I hopelessly know nothing will ever entertain me again, thought which is insufferable! I don't know what to do! Because I can't even delete my memory: 

  1. it is risky
  2. if I was able to figure it out at first time, I will again, especially as it become more publicly known in the future
  3. because roko

I would need some 300IQ life hack, but I don't think anything like that exists. And neuroscience just started, before we will be able to hack our emotions, it will be awhile yet... This is strong torture... Please help, if you have any ideas!

comment by David Gretzschel (david-gretzschel) · 2021-02-28T00:00:42.147Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I think it's flinching away from the pain of the decision to do the work - the momentary, immediate pain of (1) disengaging yourself from the (probably very small) flow of reinforcement that you're getting from reading a random unimportant Internet article, and (2) paying the energy cost for a prefrontal override to exert control of your own behavior and begin working."

alternative theory:

It is not the pain of disengaging from the flow of reinforcement.
It is only reinforcing because it's the best way to self-lobotomize temporarily.
This is internal warfare and you are getting scorched-earth because the rest of your brain thinks you need to be put down HARD. This is necessary because your stupid plan leads nowhere incredibly fast.
There is actually no pain at all if you really pay attention.
But it feels like there would be pain. This is aversion.
There shouldn't be aversion. You shouldn't need to do a prefrontal override in the first place.
[nor should the rest of the brain need to fight you with scorched earth tactics]
The aversion arises because you have conditioned yourself to think when good strategy demands action instead.

lemme explain:
Your brain is trying to minimize prediction errors. [Friston tells us, that's all that brains really do]
The problem of procrastination is allowing yourself to think when thinking is not a viable strategy in minimizing prediction errors.
Thinking about doing/not doing/how to do "procrastination-object" is not creating any useful predictions, at all.
Without having started on the "procrastination object" yet, the space to predict is impossibly large.
Forcing yourself to think about it [because of course, you think you should], you short the system out and you flinch. Your brain correctly predicts that there is no more value in higher cognition and seeks a healthier more agreeable alignment between prediction and observation, by dumbing it down. Hard.
[or rather internal coalitions rebel against higher cognitive incompetence and overpower it]
So you become feral and play video games. [or read LessWrong and write comments, of course]

The solution is to do things without thinking. Just do it! How trite, I know....
But let me be more precise:
Start unthinkingly with your first guess and DO NOT QUESTION IT! 
Whatever heuristic you use, it probably won't be trash. 
And if it is, rely on an internal meta-heuristic to calibrate the second.
And certainly don't meta-question, if "procrastination object" is the best possible action, because asking the meta-question is definitely NOT the best possible action.
Soon enough, your first "dumb" actions will have massively cut down the option space and higher cognition becomes a viable strategy again.