Why do some kinds of work not feel like work?

post by Wei_Dai · 2011-01-08T01:28:06.001Z · score: 19 (20 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 21 comments

A topic often discussed here is how to avoid akrasia/procrastination in order to get on with work. I suggest another possible "workaround" for akrasia is to find work that doesn't feel like work. From personal experience, I know this is possible, because many of my efforts did not feel like work, in the sense that my motivation on those projects was so high that procrastination simply wasn't a factor at all. (I remember, for example, designing parts of my open-source cryptography library every day while walking to and from class, and then coding as soon as I got back to my apartment, or later, thinking about multiverses and anthropic reasoning in much of my spare time.)

Why do some kinds of work feel like work, while others don't? (Is there any existing literature on this topic? I tried some searches, but don't really know what keywords to use, so I'll just generalize a bit from my own experience, and open the question for discussion.) Among the projects that I've done, the ones that didn't feel like work seem to have the following in common:

  1. It was in a field that I found interesting and exciting. (What determines this seems to be another interesting mystery.)
  2. There was no payment or other form of obligation to complete it.
  3. There were no negative consequences for failure, other than time spent.
  4. It fit my idealized self-image (e.g., cypherpunk or amateur philosopher).
  5. There was an implicit prospect of status reward if successful.
  6. I hadn't done it for so long that I started to get bored.

Unfortunately I don't have enough data to conclude which of these factors were necessary or sufficient, or their relative weights in contributing to the "not work-like" feeling. Do others have similar, or perhaps different, experiences?

21 comments

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comment by WrongBot · 2011-01-08T02:26:56.784Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The lack of payments, obligations, and negative consequences has been one of the most important factors for me when I've been in a similar situation. I have a bad habit of ruining the feeling by creating obligations for myself, which I have only just now realized I should stop doing.

comment by InquilineKea · 2011-01-08T08:47:05.608Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The labor of fun - how video games blur the boundaries of work and play

I think that a lot of Nick Yee's papers, in general, can provide some insights into this (even if not specific answers).

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-01-08T06:01:26.718Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Funny you mention that -- two days ago I started working on a new project, and I managed to get an almost ideal "non-work" feeling about it. I haven't been this productive and I haven't enjoyed work so much in quite a while. Right now it's Friday night in my time zone, and I'm frankly having more fun working than if I were somewhere out boozing.

The project however is not especially cool or interesting in any way. For me, the actual content of the work is much less important than the feeling that I'm getting good money for it, and even more importantly, that seeing the eventual results will give me the feeling of useful accomplishment. Either of these two can be enough to make me apply myself with genuine joy and enthusiasm to even the hardest toil, whether physical or intellectual. In contrast, what absolutely kills my enthusiasm and pushes me into severe akrasia is the feeling that the work I'm forced to do is ultimately without real value and useful purpose.

Another potentially significant factor are the co-workers I'm stuck with. Having to work with people whose company irritates or depresses me can make otherwise OK work feel awful, and this actually spills over into those parts of the work where they're not even present. Conversely, fun and likable co-workers can make even the worst drudgery enjoyable.

comment by gwern · 2011-01-08T01:41:32.946Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think I would start with the psychology term 'flow': http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_%28psychology%29

When you're in flow, akrasia is simply irrelevant; nor does flow seem to be simply 'the absence of akrasia', since I have felt perfectly productive at times but not in what I take to be flow.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2011-01-08T01:52:12.570Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Flow seems to be another way to get around akrasia, but I think I'm talking about something a bit different. From the Wikipedia page, there are "three conditions that are necessary to achieve the flow state":

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.[8]
  2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.[8]
  3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.[8] (end quote)

You can see there's little overlap between these and my list. And one of my examples (thinking about multiverses and anthropic reasoning) does not seem to satisfy any of the three conditions for flow.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-01-08T16:42:33.589Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

And people are quite capable of procrastinating about activities that put them into a flow state.

comment by Benquo · 2011-01-11T19:52:59.341Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

3 seems like a subset of 2.

4 and 5 also seem related (I suspect self-image is deeply entangled with perceived status).

I don't know how much 6 really means as written. How long is "so long that I started to get bored"? For me that varies a lot from task to task, depending on the task and its context.

comment by Alexandros · 2011-01-08T16:12:12.941Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I have this exact same feeling about my ongoing work on the 17x17 problem. In fact I've paused my attempts to defeat akrasia since when I work on this the problem akrasia simply isn't there:

I've put in something like 6 months of full-time work on it and the reason I let myself go into it that deep is that it is the only thing I've found that pulls me out of the everyday struggle of 'I'm bored/I should work/I am working/Can't work any more/Let's read hacker news/Nice article/I should get back to work...'. For a few precious months I went into an all-work nirvana and I really don't care what the problem is that motivates me this way. In restrospect, I've learned tons of new things, both in math and computing through this project. It has certainly been worth it regardles of the result.

One of the factors that I think has helped me is the mesurability of the results. While working on optimizing the search algorithms I've got, I went down from 4 hours per run to about 0,1 seconds in nice idea-sized decrements, in the span of 3 months or so.

I think most of your factors apply. In particular, there is definitely the status gain aspect related to it. A number of people with much more of a math background than myself have tried and failed to solve this problem which has been open now for over a year.

I am not sure I understand the 6th factor in your list.

Finally, success would prove to myself that I am capable of extraordinary feats, not simply locally-worthy accomplishments, which is a prize of great importance to me.

comment by DanArmak · 2011-01-08T13:13:14.698Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Why do some kinds of work feel like work, while others don't?

How do you define what is work and what isn't?

A plausible definition might be: work is what feels like work, i.e. makes you suffer from akrasia. Under that definition, your statement would be self-contradictory.

comment by jwhendy · 2011-01-08T05:08:03.623Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder how much personality plays a role in this question. For myself, I can say that I have noticed a strong trend toward pursuing things with a high novelty value. Documenting work experiments with a new piece of note-taking software. Tracking tasks with a new task manager. Setting up a new piece of equipment. Getting to document an experiment with a high-speed video camera for the first time. But this fades. In the case of software tools, this is dangerous as I expend more time looking for a shiny tool than actually using it.

I could also list "work" done at home that would seem like work to others but not to me. Consider the following:

  • My enthrallment at setting up a fresh install of Linux compared to an IT employee who does so every day
  • My recent acquisition of a table saw and subsequent fling with woodworking projects compared to a carpenter who does all he can not to quit
  • My excitement at spending spare time learning Python compared to a programmer who can barely bring himself to look at another line of code
  • My buying of a road bike on craigslist, then excitedly taking the entire thing apart and rebuilding it for maintenance compared to someone at a bike shop who hates what he does

I guess I'm not exactly giving you an answer, but simply sharing some personal data points. My endeavors that don't feel like work generally don't last very long. My attention wanders to something new that I get excited about. My energy toward that arena becomes almost unlimited and it never feels like work even though I'm accomplishing tangible results. Even though novelty and interest fade, these types of things can be cyclical for me. After some time has passed, it may regain it's glow.

I would love to hear if anyone has managed to maintain a doesn't-feel-like-work relationship with something for an extended period of time. I don't think I have a single example of something in that category for myself.

comment by Lila · 2011-02-21T18:54:21.076Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think I have a single example of something in that category for myself.

Not even if you include relationships with people? (It's often said that "relationships require work", so relationships with people could be relevant to the subject.)

comment by jwhendy · 2011-02-21T19:48:27.552Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmmm. Interesting point. I'm tempted to draw some kind of distinction between the two, as I see the "work" in this post typically as impersonal, static objectives that need to be completed whereas a relationship is a personal, dynamic entity that I'm "undergoing." I don't see my relationships as "tasks" or work in the sense of them having a deadline, concrete end point, etc. Perhaps if I broke relationships down into steps (e.g. "get coffee with so-and-so by x date for at least 30min)... they could be looked at like that.

If one considers relationships as "work"... then yes, I have at least one thing that I've been working on for a long time that doesn't feel like work :)

Edit: I'd still be interested in the more "traditional" meaning of my question, though... has someone done some task/line of work for say 1+ years straight and been as enthralled about it as they day they started? Something like that.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2011-03-10T19:24:41.782Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I find this is true for writing (fiction): I feel such a strong compulsion to do it that sometimes I can hardly drag myself away long enough to do my schoolwork. Needless to say, this has a lot to do with the fact that I write for fun, not for status/grades/money. And it's part of the reason I chose not to pursue writing professionally.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-12T15:07:10.528Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My current best guess for the deciding factor (for me, at least) of whether something feels fun is the ability to temporarily forget about long-time goals while doing it and focus only on the task at hand.

The related common wisdom goes that procrastination can be driven, among other things, by fear of success or the failure to break down the task into subtasks. I find that it doesn't have to be about fear -- I am equally capable of being distracted by excessive long-term optimism. And simply coming up verbally with a list of subtask isn't enough. When I keep regularly zooming out and glancing at the bigger picture, the small subtasks don't register with my "motivational sense". I can congratulate myself for accomplishing a subtask from the list but it won't be accompanied by a gut feeling of achievement and won't provide reinforcement.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2011-01-09T03:55:15.572Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Very good point; finding an additional trick of finding work that doesn't feel like work that someone is willing to pay for would be worth utilions. In my limited experience companies manage to make things that are potentially fun not so.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2011-01-09T03:15:35.762Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

To theorize a bit, all of us probably have evolved, unconscious heuristics for what kind of work we are highly motivated to do (which can vary from individual to individual), and when a certain piece of work satisfies one or more of these heuristics, it "doesn't feel like work". Ideally, evolution would have tuned these heuristics so that we always feel motivated to do the kind of work that we rationally should do, but of course evolution hasn't worked quickly enough for that to be the case for us.

The above seems fairly obvious, but the details of some of these heuristics are still puzzling. For example, why does payment or other form of obligation reduce motivation?

comment by pjeby · 2011-01-11T14:37:57.931Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The above seems fairly obvious, but the details of some of these heuristics are still puzzling. For example, why does payment or other form of obligation reduce motivation?

Supply and demand. If you have a skill that's has worth a lot in trade, evolution doesn't want you lowering the price by doing it for free. Conversely, if something isn't worth a lot in trade, but gets you friends/allies (i.e. you get smiles and small praise), then you're motivated to do it more.

It's only paradoxical until you imagine what would happen in a small community if the motivation scale was reversed.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2011-01-11T19:44:05.382Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, that makes sense. Another explanation I thought of was if you're being paid or are obligated to do something, then the work is likely for someone else's benefit, in which case you'd be better off (aside from reputation) just doing the minimum amount necessary to get paid or get the obligation discharged.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-11T20:11:30.445Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There's a classic case (sorry, cite not handy) involving a day care center that started fining parents for picking up their children late, and discovered to their chagrin that parents became more likely to show up late. The usual explanation for this is that once they were paying for the late-pickup service, they felt entitled to it, and the amount of the fine wasn't nearly as much of a deterrent as the earlier social sanction had been.

The principle seems related: we do different accounting for social and financial capital, and switching a particular task from being measured in one unit to another can totally change the motivation structure for that task.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2011-01-11T23:02:37.924Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(sorry, cite not handy)

Gneezy and Rustichini 2000

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-08T08:03:26.449Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In general I agree with you. I'll note that in my start-up days, though, I had this experience a lot even though I was being paid, had plenty of obligations, and there were plenty of negative consequences for failure.

Not sure what to make of that, though.