Exercises for Overcoming Akrasia and Procrastination

post by mr-hire · 2019-09-16T11:53:10.362Z · score: 21 (8 votes) · LW · GW · 6 comments

In order to enter the "Rationality Exercises" competition, I've decided to create this cliffnotes version of my upcoming sequence on overcoming akrasia and procrastination.

Please enter any meta comments, or comments not pertaining to a particular exercise here. [LW · GW]

The structure of the sequence is a set of exercises and mental models that help you notice

  1. Triggers that lead to Akrasia,
  2. Mental Moves (a series of mental steps) you can do with those triggers to get yourself an a more intentional state..

Together these Triggers and mental movements make up **Mental Reflexes. **These mental reflexes then combine together into Cognitive Strategies, which are groups of mental reflexes that help you with different areas of Akrasia.

Each cognitive strategy is its' own comment, so they can be voted on and discussed separately.

The epistemic status of all these exercises is still highly experimental. I am confident that some of them will help some people, but expect them to evolve significantly over time. I also won't be giving sources, motivation, or inspiration for these techniques in the post, so if you notice something that feels like it came from somewhere else, just know that in the eventual sequence I'll do my best to make my sources clear.

I'm also skipping over all the prerequisite material on how to notice triggers, cognitively rehearse items, etc.

The proper thing to choose what exercises will help you is to look at the Symptoms for each cognitive strategy. Find the symptoms that seem to match your symptoms for Akrasia, and then go through the exercises for that strategy.


I had originally planned to include all 10 cognitive strategies in this post, but then my computer died and I got accepted last minute to a 10 day silent retreat, so I'm publishing as is with only 3 of the cognitive strategies complete. I'll likely update this post with new strategies as the sequence gets published, and may add a couple more over the coming days before the deadline.

6 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-10T20:03:10.192Z · score: 11 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Cognitive Strategy: Concrete Outcome

    • Symptoms: You frequently find yourself overwhelmed, or you often flinch away from the ambiguity of not knowing what to do next.
    • Mental Reflex: Next Action Simulator
      • Trigger: Ambiguity
        • Exercise: (Haven't yet found the perfect exercise for this one, but this is the best we have) Go to brilliant.org and find a problem that's too hard for you. As your brain starts to think of easy solutions, think of concrete reasons why those solutions might not work. Repeat this until you feel a sense of not knowing what to do next. That's the ambiguity trigger.
        • Exercise 2: Now that you have a sense of ambiguity, go through actions in your own head to see what has a sense of ambiguity attached. Get to the point where you can predict what ambiguity feels like before you feel it.
      • Trigger: Overwhelm
        • Exercise: Start making a list of all the things you'd like to do. Long term, short term, things that you already plan to do but haven't done yet. As you make this list, resolve to complete the list, without allowing yourself to choose any item on the list to start with. You should feel a growing sense of overwhelm as the list grows.
        • Exercise 2: Now that you have a sense of overwhelm, look at individual items at the list that contain that sense of overwhelm. Get to the point where you can predict what the overwhelm feels like before you feel it.
      • Action: The Next Action Simulator.
        • Description: First, ask yourself "What's the next action?", then in as vivid detail as possible, imagine yourself taking that next action.
        • Form: When you ask "What's the next action?" you want to ask in such a way that you get back a single concrete answer. When you're imagining yourself taking the next action, you want it to be in 1st person with as many senses and as vividly as possible. Now that you've run through the action, you find yourself automatically imagining the outcome of that action. This is a perfect time to implement Desire Contrasting (But now on this individual action, instead of some broader outcome)
        • Exercise: Take your list of items you found that are ambiguous or overhwhelming and practice the next action simulator. The qualia shift you're going for is to shift from overwhelm or ambiguity to clarity and concreteness.
    • Mental Reflex: The 3 Minute Brainstorm
      • Trigger: You ask "What's the next action?" and don't get a clear answer.
      • Action: You choose the default option, which is a 3 minute brainstorm in which you decide the next action.
        • Exercise: Same as the exercise above, just add in this step if you get back uncertainty about the next actino.
    • Mental Reflex: Future Action Simulator
      • Trigger: You go to simulate the next action, but you get ambiguity about when or where the next action could be enacted.
      • Action: Three steps
        • Ask yourself "In what context can I enact this action?"
        • Simulate, in vivid detail, yourself enacting that next action in that context (this acts as a memory trigger for when you're in that context)
        • Loving snooze this action for when you're in that context.
      • Exercise: Same as the exercise above, just add this step if there's ambiguity about context.
    • Meditation Exercise
      • For 10 minutes, you'll ask yourself "What's ambiguous or overwhelming
      • You'll notice what comes up for you and do your desire check.
      • If you feel ambiguity or overwhelm you'll use your concrete outcome cognitive strategies to make it ambiguious.
      • If you know desire contrasting, you'll then do desire contrasting on that outcome.
      • If you know loving snooze, you'll then loving snooze and circle back to the beginning.
    • Each time, make micro-corrections, how can you make your form better on the next go around?
    • Deliberate Work Session Exercise
      • Make a list of items that have ambiguity or overwhelm
      • You'll work on each for 5 minutes, taking the time to use your concrete outcomes cognitive strategies each time.
      • At the end of five minutes, you'll notice how you did, and start on your next item, using your concrete outcome cognitive strategies.
    • Conscious Work Session Exercise
      • Go through a normal work session, using pomodoros.
      • At the end of each work session, ask yourself if you succesfully used this cognitive strategy when you needed it. Ask yourself what was good about your form, and what needed to be improved.
      • Try to remain a bit more conscious of these items in your next pomodoro.
comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-10T18:54:00.944Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW
  • Cognitive Strategy: Desire Contrasting
    • Symptoms: You frequently find yourself unmotivated to work on your most important tasks. You feel that you have to force yourself to do basic tasks like laundry that are important for basic functioning.
    • Mental Reflex: Check Desire
      • Trigger: You've thought about doing something that would feel valuable to you.
      • Action 1: Imagine Vivid Outcome
        • Description: The goal of this mental to move is to, in as vivid detail as possible, imagine what it would be like for this task to be complete.
        • Form: Two important things when you're imagining the outcome. Firstly, you should be imagining the state where there are no more outcomes to do. If imagining taking out the trash, don't imagine the moment when you've put it on the curb, imagine the trash is already on the curb and you're back inside, looking at it. Secondly, imagine as vividly as possible. You want sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. You want to be viewing the scene in first person. The goal is to imagine it so vividly you can get a sense of how it will feel when complete.
        • Exercise: List 3-5 things you'd like to do, that feel a bit aversive and you can complete in 15 minutes or less. For each of them, imagine your vivid outcome, get to where you can instantly do the move with good form.
      • Action 2: Desire Check
        • Description: The goal of this mental move is to get a broad gestalt of how you'll feel once you complete a task, its' done on the vivid outcome that you imagine.
        • Form: It can be very easy to get caught up in all of the subtle feelings around a specific outcome. You want to get good at chunking those feelings together to get the gestalt. You should get a broad sense of whether all of you desires to create this outcome (Unqualified Desire), All of you desires not to create this outcome, you don't have any feelings one way or the other, or you have mixed feelings about the outcome.
        • Exercise: For each of your items in your list, take your vivid outcome, and do a Desire Check, until you feel like you can do it with good form.
      • Reflex: If you think of an item that feels valuable to you, then Imagine Vivid Outcome and Desire Check
        • Exercise: Imagine a version of yourself that finds this mental reflex easy, fun, and intrinsically rewarding. In your head, as that person, rehearse 5 times a situation in the recent past or the future, and how you would react as that person.
    • Mental Reflex: Install Resolve
      • Trigger: Unqualified Desire
      • Mental Move: Desire Contrasting
        • Prerequisite: You've already checked desire and have unqualified desire for your vivid outcome. If you don't have unqualified desire, you'll need another mental reflex designed to create unqualified desire.
        • Description: The idea here is that you're going to, in your mind, create a tension between what is and what could be. Your mind will then move to close that gap, creating resolve for your task.
          • Step 1: Make the imagine of your vivid outcome and the feeling of unqualified desire strong and stable in your mind.
          • Step 2: Bring up the imagine of the current state of your project, and any feelings associated with that, while still holding the vivid outcome and unqualified desire stable.
          • Step 3: Overlay what is on top of what could be. If it's an image of your current state and end state. Make the end state transparent and overlay it on top of current state. If it's a feeling, imagine the feeling of what could be moving towards the feeling of what is in your body, and overlaying on top. Same for sounds, proprioception, etc.
          • Step 4: Notice your brain wanting to resolve that tension. Let that process happen, and stabilize the resulting resolve to work on the task.
        • Exercise: For each item on your list that had unqualified desire, do your desire contrasting move. Let yourself do one small step towards each task based on your resolve, before letting that resolve go and moving to the next task.
      • Reflex: If unqualified desire, then desire contrasting.
        • Exercise: Imagine a version of yourself that finds this mental reflex easy, fun, and intrinsically rewarding. In your head, as that person, rehearse 5 times a situation in the recent past or the future, and how you would react as that person.
    • Meditation Exercise
      • For 10 minutes, you'll ask yourself "What's important to do?"
      • You'll notice what comes up for you and do your desire check.
      • If you feel unqualified resolve, you'll do your desire contrasting to feel resolve.
      • Then you'll drop your resolve, and repeat from the beginning
      • Each time, make micro-corrections, how can you make your form better on the next go around?
    • Deliberate Work Session Exercise
      • Brainstorm tasks you can make progress on in five minutes or less.
      • Set a five minute timer.
      • Use desire contrasting to create resolve.
      • Work until the timer goes off.
      • Repeat 5 times for 5 different tasks
      • At the end, ask yourself what about your form was great, what you'd like to improve for the future, and what you learned about this cognitive strategy.
    • Conscious Work Session Exercise
      • Go through a normal work session, using pomodoros.
      • At the end of each work session, ask yourself if you succesfully used this cognitive strategy when you needed it. Ask yourself what was good about your form, and what needed to be improved.
      • Try to remain a bit more conscious of these items in your next pomodoro.
comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-16T13:21:24.040Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Cognitive Strategy: Intention Clearing

  • Symptoms: You frequently find your mind racing and its hard to focus on anything. You find it hard to switch between cognitively different tasks and that's a frequent point of failure for you.
  • Mental Reflex: Internal Clearing
    • Trigger: Internal Loudness
      • Description: The threshold at which your internal chatter begins to be "too much."
      • Exercise: Begin to make a list of small tasks you want to focus on. As you list each one, ask your brain to keep thinking about it as you list the next one. You'll quickly get a sense of internal "loudness" where your mind is racing and its' hard to keep more items in your head. There's a threshold when things get "too loud". That threshold is your trigger.
    • Action: The 9 Breaths Technique
      • Description: The 9 breaths technique is a centering exercise that lets you "Loving Snooze" your worries, previous intentions, feelings, and mental chatter. Note that '9 breaths' is aspirational. At first, it might take you much more than 9 breaths to go through the exercise. As you get more skilled, you may be able to compress it in to 9 long, slow, and deep breaths.
      • Form:
        • First 3 Breaths - Body Relaxation: For your first 3 breaths, you'll be focusing on relaxing your body. As you breath in, you'll scan for areas of tension or discomfort, and as you breath out, you'll relax those muscles and settle into comfort. You'll do this 3 times, each time scanning for areas of body tension you missed on the previous breath.
        • Second 3 Breaths - Your Timeline: As you move into the next 3 breaths, you'll create a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic representation of your past, present, and future. I like to imagine a rope floating in the wind, with 3 sections of the rope for past present and future. For your first breaths, as you breath in, you'll gather up all the things you care about from your past. Your regrets, things your proud of, things you're confused about. As you breath out, you'll "loving snooze" all of that, promising to bring it back up when its' relevant. You'll let that part of your representation float away. On the second breath, you'll do the same for your future. All your hopes, dreams, predictions, uncertainties. And on the 3rd, you'll do the same for your present, any current intentions, worries, and thought streams.
        • Last 3 Breaths - Your Self Concepts: For the last 3 breaths, you'll loving snooze 3 different representations of yourself. The first is your "ideal self". The person you want to be. All your values and goals, the blueprint of who you want to be in your head. The second is your "social self". All of the things you try to be for others, the ways you want to appear and look and seem. Finally, your "perceived self", all of the ways you think you are. Things about yourself you know or are proud of or are insecure about.
      • Exercise 1: Go through the previous exercise to make your mind race. Then, take as long as you need on each section of 3d breaths, to really feel what it's like to quiet your mind using this technique. Get a sense of your own good form for each section
      • Exercise 2: Once you've gotten a sense of each section, try to loop through the technique a few times, each time only taking 3 breaths for each section. Experiment now with how close you can get to total quiet with only 3 breaths for each section.
    • Reflex: If Internal Loudness then 9 Breaths Technique
      • Exercise: Imagine a version of yourself that finds this mental reflex easy, fun, and intrinsically rewarding. In your head, as that person, rehearse 5 times a situation in the recent past or the future, and how you would react as that person.
  • Mental Reflex: External Clearing
    • Trigger: External Loudness
      • Description: The threshold at which external distractions begin to be "too much."
      • Exercise 1: Close your eyes, and run your 9 breaths technique to quiet your mind. Then. open your eyes, and scan the area you're in from left to right with your eyes, ears, and other senses. Notice how things in your external environment can be "loud" in the sense that they stir up internal chatter and feelings. Note that this "loudness" isn't good or bad, it depends on the task the "level" of loudness (less cognitively demanding tasks may require more loudness) as well as the "flavor" of loudness (different tasks may require different attitudes and thoughts). The goal is simply to get a sense of what its' like for an object to be loud for you.
      • Exercise 2: As you begin to sweep around the room this time, begin to make your environment louder. This may involve making things messier, or less aesthetically pleasing. The goal is to get a sense of your "loudness threshold", that is, the level at which for the given task the external environment is too loud.
    • Action: Area Sweep
      • Description: Use "desire contrasting" to get your space to the ideal level, flavor of loudness for your current task.
      • Form
        • Close your eyes, think about your task, and having completed it ease.
        • Ask yourself, what mental state was I in to facilitate this ease?
        • Ask yourself, what level/flavor of external loudness do I need to get into this state?
        • Open your eyes, and sweep the room from left to right with your eyes and ears. Overlay the feeling of that ideal level of loudness on top of the loudness you're actually getting, and let yourself tidy up/change the space to match that ideal level and flavor.
        • Note: The most common actions I do during my area sweep are closing tabs in my browser/programs on my computer, and tidying my desk.
      • Exercise: Cycle through a few tasks on your todo list. As you do, run through the area sweep action and see what its' like to rearrange your space to be ready for that action.
    • Reflex: If External loudness then Area Sweep.
      • Exercise: Imagine a version of yourself that finds this mental reflex easy, fun, and intrinsically rewarding. In your head, as that person, rehearse 5 times a situation in the recent past or the future, and how you would react as that person.
  • Mental Reflex: Context Clearing
    • Trigger: Large Context Switch
      • Description: Your mind is switching to a vastly different mode that requires vastly different modes of thought. (The most common time I find myself doing a large context switch is going from break to pomodoro, and pomodoro to break.)
      • Exercise:
        • Switch between the following 4 activities, giving 2-3 minutes for each.
          • Count up by 7's, starting at 4.
          • Count up by 2's, starting at 3.
          • Strategize about a relationship issue, either a problem or improvement to a relationship you have.
          • Make a timeline in order, of all the things you can remember about your country's history.
        • The goal is to notice the difference between a small context switch (counting by 3's and counting by 2's) and a large context switch (switching between counting, relationship strategizing, and timeline creating). Your trigger is the large context switch.
    • Reflex: If Large Context Switch, then Area Sweep and 9 Breaths Technique
      • Exercise: Imagine a version of yourself that finds this mental reflex easy, fun, and intrinsically rewarding. In your head, as that person, rehearse 5 times a situation in the recent past or the future, and how you would react as that person.
  • Meditation Exercise:
    • For 10 minutes you'll think about "things you want to do,:
    • For each item, you'll first do your external clearing to get the ideal level of loudness.
    • Then your internal clearing to clear internal loudness.
    • You won't actually work on the item, but simply loving snooze the item you're on and choose a different one for the next loop.
  • Deliberate Work Session Exercise
    • You'll make a list of 5 items that you can make progress on in 5 minutes or less, each of which represents a large context switch from the previous.
    • For each item, you'll do you'll internal clearing.
    • Then, you'll do your external clearing.
    • Then, you'll work on the item for 5 minutes.
    • Finally, you'll loving snooze that item and move to the next one, restarting from step 2.
  • Conscious Work Session Exercise
    • Go through a normal work session, using pomodoros.
    • At the end of each pomodoro, ask yourself if you succesfully used this cognitive strategy when you needed it. Ask yourself what was good about your form, and what needed to be improved.
    • Try to remain a bit more conscious of these items in your next pomodoro.
comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-16T12:06:28.417Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Meta Comments and comments not having to do with a specific exercise go here.

comment by notjaelkoh · 2019-09-16T21:40:39.717Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Just wanted to highlight the self-handicapping view of procrastination as it might be of interest to you.

Here's some resources:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52lZmIafep4

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-worth_theory_of_motivation

comment by mr-hire · 2019-09-10T19:28:32.396Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW
  • Cognitive Strategy: Loving Snooze
    • Symptoms: You frequently find yourself considering other tasks, or hearing the call of a distraction like browsing your phone or Facebook. You find it hard to stick to one task for a long period of time.
    • Mental Reflex: Loving Snooze
      • Trigger: Bid for Attention
        • Exercise: Choose an external locus of attention, like a spot on the wall. As you focus, notice what it feels like to have other things "bid" for your attention and resolve, your brain wanting you to focus on or do other things.
      • Action: Snooze Move
        • Description: Taking a bid for attention, then in a gentle, loving, and non-judgemental way, checking which action is more important to you and promising yourself that you'll check in on the other action when you're done.
        • Form:
          • 1. Acknowledge and accept that this bid for attention has a positive purpose.
          • 2. Feel gratitude and love for yourself for bringing this bid to attention to you.
          • 3. Compare the bid for attention to your current action, and check which takes precedence.
          • 4. Promise (and mean the promise) that you'll check back in with whatever you put off to see if its' still high importance.
        • Exercise 1: Imagine that you're on a phone call with someone you care about, taking care of an important issue. You're now going to imagine 6 different scenarios, and compare each to the previous ones, to get a sense of the snooze move.
          • Scenario 1: You're on the phone call, and someone who you barely know walks in and says "I need you." You view them as an obstacle getting in the way of you finishing your phone call, and respond in a congruent way, maybe with something like "I can't talk right now I'm busy." Notice how it feels to respond to them as an obtacle.
          • Scenario 2: You're on the phone call, and someone you barely know walks in and says "I need you." But this time, you take a moment to recognize that they're a person, and they probably have their own reasons for coming in to interrupt you. Respond to them in a congruent way from this frame, maybe something like "Sorry I can't talk right now, I can see this is important to you." Notice how it feels to acknowledge that they have a need as you respond.
          • Scenario 3: You're on the phone call, and this time someone you really care about walks in and says "I need you." You talk a moment know to not only acknowledge that they have a need that matters to them. But also, you take a moment to recognize your love for them, and notice that because you love them, you're GRATEFUL for them bringing this need to you, so you can get a chance to help them. Then you respond congruently. An example would be with something like "I see this is important to you. I love you, and would be glad to help after I finish this conversation." Notice how it feels to acknowledge their need, and feel love and gratitude to be given the opportunity to address it.
          • Scenario 4 and 5: You're on the call, and someone you love walks in and says I need you. This time, you're going to check which thing is more important. This will involve looking at the emotional urgency of the person interrupting, the importance of the call you're on, and potentially asking a few followup questions to each person to determine the importance. Imagine one scenario where completing the conversation with the person on the phone is more important, and another where the person interrupting is more important.
          • Scenario 6: The same as the last two scenarios, but this time, you're going to add in a promise to whichever person you're stopping the conversation with, that you'll follow up with them later.
        • Exercise 2
          • You're now going to take those same 4 steps (Acknowledgement, Gratitude, Compare, Promise) but apply them to internal bids for attention. Do the external locus of attention exercise (focus on a spot on the wall), and practice with the loving snooze move you learned above. The qualia shift you're looking for here is to have the competing bid for attention melt away, because your mind believes you will get back to it.
        • Reflex: If Currently Focused and Bid for Attention then Loving Snooze.
          • Exercise: Imagine a version of yourself that finds this mental reflex easy, fun, and intrinsically rewarding. In your head, as that person, rehearse 5 times a situation in the recent past or the future, and how you would react as that person.
    • Mental Reflex: Capture Snooze Items
      • Trigger: Anxiety about forgetting a snoozed item
      • Action: Write the snoozed item down.
        • Description: Sometimes, people have trouble with the snooze move because they don't believe their own promise. By writing down the snoozed item, you make the promise more believable and allow it to stop coming up in your head.
        • Exercise: Just combine this with the previous exercise for the snooze move.
      • Reflex: If Snooze Move and Anxiety About Forgetting then Write it Down.
        • Exercise: Imagine a version of yourself that finds this mental reflex easy, fun, and intrinsically rewarding. In your head, as that person, rehearse 5 times a situation in the recent past or the future, and how you would react as that person.
    • Mental Reflex: Recheck snoozed items on Pomodoro Start and End
      • Trigger: Pomodoro Break Starts, Pomodoro Break Ends
      • Action: Revisit snoozed items to see if any of them still feel important.
        • Description: The other important part of the loving snooze is to believe that you'll check in with the snoozed items. By combining the loving snooze with pomodoros, you can check in at the start and end of any break, to see if there are any snoozed items that are important to work on during the break or next work session.
        • Exercise: Do the same exercise with an exeternal locus of attention, but put it on a timer of 5 minutes of exercise followed by 1 minute of break. Use the breaks and start of the next 5 minutes to check if any snoozed items take precedence.
      • Reflex: If Pomodoro Break Starts/ Pomodoro Break Ends then Revisit Snoozed Intentions
        • Exercise: Imagine a version of yourself that finds this mental reflex easy, fun, and intrinsically rewarding. In your head, as that person, rehearse 5 times a situation in the recent past or the future, and how you would react as that person.
    • Meditation Exercise
      • For 10 minutes, you'll focus on an external locus of attention
      • Notice bids for attention, and use your loving snooze move.
      • If you get anxiety about remembering, right the actions down.
      • At the end of the meditation, take 2 minutes to review your snoozed items and see if any of them feel important to attend to.
    • Deliberate Work Session Exercise
      • Choose a single item you'd like to focus on for a 25 minute pomodoro
      • Deliberately make your work area distracting, open documents and create reminders for other projects, open distracting tabs like facebook, etc.
      • Begin to work, and as bids for attention come up, use your loving snooze move, and write them down if necessary.
      • At the end of the pomodoro, use the pomodoro break to come back to any bids for attention and see if they're still important.
    • Conscious Work Session Exercise
      • Go through a normal work session, using pomodoros.
      • At the end of each work session, ask yourself if you succesfully used this cognitive strategy when you needed it. Ask yourself what was good about your form, and what needed to be improved.
      • Try to remain a bit more conscious of these items in your next pomodoro.