comment by gothgirl420666 ·
2013-04-27T01:25:11.870Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
To be honest, it's really hard to say exactly what lead to my change in willpower/productivity. Now that I actually try to write down concrete things I do that I didn't do two months ago, it's hard, and my probability that my recent success is a fluke has gone up a little.
I feel like what happened is that after reading a few self-help books and thinking a lot about the problem, I ended up completely changing the way I think about working in a difficult-to-describe way. It's kind of like how when I first found LessWrong, read through all the sequences, and did some musings on my own, I completely changed the way I form beliefs. Now I say to myself stuff like "How would the world look differently if x were true?" and "Of all the people who believe x will happen to them, how many are correct?", even without consciously thinking about it. Perhaps more importantly, I also stopped thinking certain thoughts, like "all the evidence might point to x, but it's morally right to believe y, so I believe y", etc.
Similarly, now, I now have a bunch of mental habits related to getting myself to work harder and snap out of pessimistic mindstates, but since I wasn't handed them all in one nicely arranged body of information like I was with LessWrong, and had to instead draw from this source and that source and make my own inferences, I find it really hard to think in concrete terms about my new mental habits. Writing down these habits and making them explicit is one of my goals, and if I end up doing that, I'll probably post it somewhere here. But until then, what I can do is point you in the direction of what I read, and outline a few of what I think are the biggest things that helped me.
The material I read was
- various LessWrong writings
- PJ Eby's Thinking Things Done
- Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Halvorson
- Switch: How to Change When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath
- Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns
- The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel
- Getting Things Done by David Allen
Out of all of these, I most recommend Succeed and Switch. PJ Eby is a weird example because he is One Of Us, but he has no credentials, the book is actually unfinished, and he now admits on his website that writing it was one of the worst periods in his life and he was procrastinating every day. So it makes sense to be very skeptical. However, I actually really enjoyed Thinking Things Done and I think that it's probably the best book out of all of these to get you into the "mind hacking" mindset that I attributed my success to, even if its contents aren't literally true. So you can make your own decision on that. Feeling Good isn't a productivity book at all, but I found it really helpful in dealing with akrasia for reasons that I'll sort of explain later. I wouldn't bother to read the Procrastination Equation because there's a summary by lukeprog on this site that basically says everything the book says. And Getting Things Done just describes an organizational system that seems tailored for very busy white collar professionals, so if that doesn't describe you I don't think it's worth it.
Obviously if your akrasia extends to reading these books then this isn't very helpful, but perhaps you could make it your goal to read just one of them (I recommend Succeed) over a period of two months or so. I think this would go a long way.
And then here are the things that most helped me, and can actually be written down at this time. I have the impression that there isn't a singular "key to success" - instead, success requires a whole bunch of attributes to all be in place, and most people have many but not all. So the insights that you need might be very different than the ones I needed, but perhaps not.
1: Not tying my self-worth to my success
The thesis of PJ Eby's Thinking Things Done is that the main reason why people are unsuccessful is that they use negative motivation ("if I don't do x, some negative y will happen") as opposed to positive motivation ("if i do x, some positive y will happen"). He has the following evo-psych explanation for this: in the ancestral environment, personal failure meant that you could possibly be kicked out of your tribe, which would be fatal, and animals have a freezing response to imminent death, so if you are fearing failure you will freeze up.
In Succeed, Heidi Halverson portrays positive motivation and negative motivation as having pros and cons, but has her own dichotomy of unhealthy motivation and healthy motivation: "Be good" motivation, which is tied to identity and status and focuses on proving oneself and high levels of performance, and "get better" motivation, which is what it sounds like. According to her and several empirical studies, "get better" is better than "be good" in almost every way.
In Feeling Good, David Burns describes a tendency of behavior he calls "do-nothingism" where depressed people will lie in bed all day, then feel terrible for doing so, leading them to keep lying in bed, leading them to feel even worse, etc. etc.
It seems like a pretty intuitive for a depressed, lazy person to motivate themselves by saying "Okay, self, gotta stop being lazy. Do you want to be a worthless, lazy failure in life? No you don't. So get moving!" But it seems like synthesizing these three pieces of information informs us that this is basically the worst thing you can possibly do. I definitely fell into this trap, and climbing out of it was probably one of the biggest things that helped me.
2: Being realistic
I feel like something a lot of people tend to do is tell themselves "From this day now on, I'll be perfect!" and then try to spend six hours a day working on personal projects, along with doing 100 push ups and meditating. This is obviously stupid, but for some reason at least for me was a really hard trap to get out of.
For example, I've always been a person who is really easily inspired i.e. if I read a good book, I'll want to write a book, if I listen to a good rap album, I'll want to become a rapper. Due to this tendency, I've done a fair bit of exploration in visual art, music, and video game programming. When I initially attempted my akrasia intervention, I tried to get myself to work on all three of these areas and achieve meaningful results in all of them. I held onto the naive belief that this was possible for far too long, and eventually had a mini-crisis of faith where I decided that I would cut my losses and from then on exclusively work on video game programming. Since then, things have been going much better.
This also goes with the get better mindset from the last point. If you are the worst procrastinator you know, your initial goal should be to be a merely below average procrastinator, then to be an average procrastinator, and on and on until you cure akrasia.
3: Realistic optimism
All the studies show that optimists are more successful in almost every domain. So how is that compatible with my "being realistic" point? The key is that the best, most healthy kind of optimism is the belief that you can eventually succeed in your goals (and will if you are persistent), but that it will take a lot of effort and setbacks along the way to do so. This is usually a valid belief, and combines the motivation of optimism and the cautiousness of pessimism. (This is straight from Succeed, by the way.)
4: Elephant / Rider analogy
I'm not going to go into detail about this because this post is getting long as fuck, but if this idea is unfamiliar to you, search for it on Google and LessWrong, it's been written about extensively and is a very very useful (and liberating)metaphor for how your brain works.
5: Willpower is like a muscle
Willpower is like a muscle and if you give it regular workouts it gets stronger. People who quit smoking often also start exercising or stop drinking, depressed people who are given a pet to care for often become much happier because the responsibility encourages them to enact changes in their own life, etc.
This implies that once you start changing a little, it will be easier to change more and more. But you can also artificially jump start this process by exercising your willpower. Probably the best willpower exercises are physical exercise and meditation (and they both of course have numerous other benefits), but if you lack the energy/time/desire to do either of those, you could always do something very simple and gradually build. If you have a bad habit like biting your nails, that could be a good starting point.
So yeah, this post is long as fuck, didn't really mean to write that much. Hope it helped, though. Maybe I'll revise this and turn it into a discussion post.