a meta-anti-akrasia strategy that might just work

post by MartinB · 2010-04-19T02:21:15.080Z · score: 18 (25 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 15 comments

For ages I've been trying to wrap my mind around meta thinking - not "what is the best way to do something", but "how do I find out which way is any good?" Meta thinking has many applications, and I am always surprised when I find a new context it can be applied to. Anti-akrasia might be such a context.

The idea I am about to present came to me a few month ago and I used it to finally overcome my own problem with procrastination. I'll try to present it here as well as I can, in the hope that it might be of use to someone. If so, I am really curious what other people come up with using this technique.

If akrasia is a struggle, continue reading.

Where I come from:
Procrastination was a big topic for me. I spent ages reading stuff, watching videos, thinking, collecting stuff and what not, but very little on actual action. One thing I did read was productivity blogs and books. I assume that some or even many of the posters here share that problem with me. I am familiar with the systems - I even gave a lecture once on GTD - but I struggled to get my own stuff out the door. It surely wasn't for a lack of knowledge, but simply for a lack of doing.

The method used consists of two layers.
(I) the meta concept used to develop a personal system
(II) the highly personalized system I came up with while applying (I)

The valuable part of this post is (I).

One of the major lessons I had to learn (and am still learning) is that everyone reacts differently to a set of stimuli. This doesn't just mean differently colored folders, or the famous 'paper' or 'digital' debate. It literally means that for every person the way to get productive is different - down to the point of specific ideas working fine for one person while being a stress-inducing thing for others.

So what did I do?

First I assumed that more reading wouldn't do me any good. I assumed that I knew everything there is to know on the topic of personal productivity and refrained from reading any more.

Instead I made up a meta concept.

(I) the meta concept

My big main idea was to treat the whole problem of personal productivity as an experiment using myself as guinea pig. I decided to find out what is needed to a) start working and b) what the best conditions would be to get myself to keep producing.

Now that was short. Let me expand on it.

I did a planning session, made up a bunch of rules and habits, worked with them for a while and then looked at how that worked out during the next planning session. If something worked I kept it, if not I tried something else. Planning the conditions and trying them are cleanly separated, so I can safely try and see what works.

To put it in slightly different words:
Junior research assistant Martin is now scheduled with the task of finding out what kind of system leads to good work results, via the work habit study guinea pig who is also appropriately named Martin.

My system now consists of a few rules, treats (small ones and bigger ones), my favorite time keeping method, my log files and anything else I want to consider a part of it.

All this is done in writing!

Writing is important, since it is super easy to forget what we figure out.
My notepad has a page for meta - insights, where I collect what I find out about myself, and a page for rules I try out.

When review time comes around I go to my favorite fast food restaurant and honestly review how it worked out so far.  A good startup value for meta-review is about once a week in the beginning.

Meta-review frequency is also subject to personal adaption.

Since you know yourself best, you have to make up your own system.

That's it.

So much for the meta insight. Now lets look a bit into what the results where for me so far:

(II) personal results so far

You can safely cut that section.

I now have a weird dilemma. On one hand I would like to extract a few universals from my own experience to give out good starting points. On the other, I noticed that there might be very few universals.

I explained the meta-idea to a friend, who promptly came up with her own system that violated pretty much everything I considered to be even remotely universal applicable. I have no idea what I can safely recommend, and what just works due to my own habits. Most of the results are generalized from one example.

I try to guess in an educated way and will update the article as more experiences comes in.

My own trial so far is:

- cutting out all of my favorite free time stimuli (blogs, games and movies) for a limited time (about 1.5 months).
- timing work units in 30 minute increments (i actually use a special timer for that)
- log them each on a nice sheet of paper that is glued right in sight next to my desk
- have a small treat after each work unit
- get into the habit of working a minimum amount each and everyday no matter what [this seems to be a key thing for me, possibly universal - installing this habit went pretty fast, and now I cant even sleep before I am done]

That allowed me to try harder on given problem sets. And its pretty amazing on how much can get done both in 30 minutes, and a fraction of it.
Starting often is a major point. No more reminiscing about lost time. Just experiencing the now, and the next half hour.
It seems like the bigger picture of a project disappears and I only notice what is right around me.
Its a lot easier to commit to the next unit of work when its only 30min, than to think about entire 8 hour days in front of me.
I also get over the start-up hump more easily. Since I had a time commitment I just did some work, even if I didn't want to. I noticed how I don't like mornings, but after getting started it soon becomes fun. So I had to devise a way to get me started regardless. One idea that works is separating preparing and doing the work. That seems to take the stress out of prepping.
I really seem to dig mini rituals. If the near/far concept can be applied here, then the whole secret seems to be, to do work in near mode, while doing the planning in far. Big time rewards don't do much for me. But a piece of chocolate after one segment is nice.

It's also a nice way to develop a dislike for some sweets. My former favorite candy lost this status after about one week.

I still try to find out the best attack patterns for specific tasks. For programming it seems to be to do it in a massive time block, as much as possible many days in a row. For more boring tasks I try to plug in a few units here and there, just plowing away without regards for the amount. Time of day might be important, but I didn't get so far as to track that yet.

And here are the project results:
- finished a 2 week programming project that I had procrastinated on for 2.5 years
- had 2 computers back in the store for repairs, and set them up nicely afterwards
- wrote a tool to sort through the files with my personal notes and
- sorted through my files with personal notes
- set up my work environment both digitally and physically so that it provides as little friction as possible
- lots of other nice things

I am far from being done, but it now all looks a lot neater than ever before. And for the first time in ages I feel good after doing my share of the day, even when not done.

Now a thing I tried that didn't work: putting all the relaxing activities in specific days, separated by full blown work days. That worked nicely for about two weeks, but then I fell of the wagon again.


In the spirit of the experiment it doesn't matter if an idea doesn't work out. Just track it, and discard.

Edit: spelling and language - thank to an anonymous friend for the help

15 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by lukstafi · 2010-04-23T18:02:46.967Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have some questions regarding the application of the 30 minute rule. Do you time your breaks? How long a break do you take between the work sets? Is the 30min limit hard -- do you "logout" your activity in org-mode immediately, or does the alarm only mean that you are "free to stop now"? Are your break time limits hard? Do you focus only on the logged task during a work set, or do you let yourself wander to related tasks?

comment by MartinB · 2010-05-30T22:08:52.928Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Break time is unspecified, and might be subject for further optimization. So far i do not time my breaks, but I might try it at some point. I usually take a break after the 30min or continue with the next block. Sometimes I also continue without timing for a while. (To make up for interruptions during the segment, or to finish up some item that only needs a few minutes.) The alarm means 'you are free to stop now'.

I have the habit of avoiding the hard tasks, and going for the easier ones. So most sets are about one task or project exclusively. The research I am aware of indicates that multitasking is a bad idea. So I try to avoid that. For low brain activities like cleaning up, or doing paperwork i might mix them up. The whole thing is not meant as a prison guard, but as a set of rules to overcome my own failure modes.

comment by gwern · 2010-04-19T16:57:33.182Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

FWIW, this would be easier to read if your formatting was a little more consistent (eg. pick either 'I' or 'i' and stick with it).

comment by Alicorn · 2010-04-19T17:43:57.852Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Pick "I". Not "i". Please.

comment by MartinB · 2010-04-19T17:56:02.406Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I guess I'll have to correct my language checking workflow.

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2010-04-19T07:55:08.326Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Using a timer works for me too. I'm using Emacs org-mode for a timer, and it'll also produce nice time report charts.

Agree on the meta-system approach. Trying to find the single universal productivity system isn't probably going to work, at least unless the approach looks something very different from the ones we're currently seeing. But having some system and sticking with it might well be better than nothing, even if the system is somewhat arbitrary.

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2010-04-20T08:09:51.843Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another thing that's not discussed that much is whether the various behavior adjustment systems that initially work keep working over time. I'd guess that the brain reacts differently to a system it's become quite familiar with than a new one.

On one hand, a system might just turn from explicitly followed behavior into an unconscious habit that keeps working against akrasia. This would be a good thing. On the other hand, there could be tricks that work while the brain isn't very familiar with them, but once they become known, the brain just figures out a way around them and they end up not being much use.

comment by MartinB · 2010-04-21T09:44:38.938Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good point.

I think its super important to install habits you like and want. And i think that can be done. Regarding dealing with familiarity i have little conscious experience so far. Scott Adams has trouble with drawing and has to trick his brain all the time http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/05/09/AR2005050901066.html It might turn out that permanent creativity, change and new projects are the way to go. Time shall tell.

comment by ABranco · 2010-04-20T02:18:26.141Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Starting often is a major point. No more reminiscing about lost time. Just experiencing the now, and the next half hour. It seems like the bigger picture of a project disappears and I only notice what is right around me. Its a lot easier to commit to the next unit of work when its only 30min, than to think about entire 8 hour days in front of me.

Your impressions here match mine (see Eluding Attention Hijacks).

I have also noticed that the anxiety that arises from having too many things to do, distributed in lots of hours ahead, might be closely related to Schwartz's Paradox of Choice -- whenever you chose to do something now, you know you are choosing not to do hundreds of other possible tasks, and it seems that the only way around is to put blinders and forget you have other stuff. And then, looking back, you'll have accomplished a lot.

comment by taw · 2010-04-21T04:42:41.568Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What kind of treats are you using? I'm the kind of person who would just eat that damn marshmallow, and in my experience having a treat available but not taking advantage of it is simply very distracting, but this is interesting. (as a matter of fact this post reminded me I have some delicious chocolate left, and I'm in mood for some, so I just went on and ate it)

comment by MartinB · 2010-04-21T09:39:27.636Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I started with having some I would eat only during work (salt sticks and peanuts), but later switched to take a treat only once after 30minutes. For that I went to my favorite chocolate - which I started to dislike after some time. For a while I actually just moved pieces around. Then i went for olives, and now i use some chocolate beans. The treat itself doesn't seam to matter that much to me, but the ritual does. Ask me again in a year. The marshmallow experiment indicates that the kid that waits does better in life, so i wanna be that kid. But you have to figure out on your own, what works for you.

comment by roland · 2010-04-19T23:56:15.540Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One universal rule seems to be priming the pump for action. A lot of advice like: work only for 10 minutes, 30 minutes or whatever seems to address the same common underlying cause.

comment by MartinB · 2010-04-20T00:31:34.220Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I used to think that too, but now disagree. (The timing rule does work fine over here.) Generalizing one solution doesn't work all the time. For example there are people that really hate to get interrupted - which a n minute timer does. Or people with an aversion to being timed in any way. I would like to read some setups people use successfully at some point.

comment by MartinB · 2010-05-30T22:19:04.886Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On reading again this comment might have missed some pieces. Background thought was, that my second tester does some very complicated programming, and tends to get thrown out of flow by a alarm going of. So for her a upward counter (a countup?) would work better.

When someone has an aversion to being times, he might be able to find a different way to quantify success. Two ideas are: a) getting the habit of starting n number of times till it feels like something has been done or b) getting a certain number of items done, without timing them.

I experience a) when for some reason my timer does not work. There is a rule I have against checking it - to prevent getting anxious about how little time has passed. But when it does not ring after an hour I notice that.

comment by apophenia · 2010-04-19T03:45:35.844Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is interesting in that you waited to post it as an article, since we were discussing the 20 karma requirement to post in another thread. I would have just posted it to the akrasia thread as a comment. Did you post it as an article due to length? Is there some built-in assumption about article length vs. comment length on this blog?