Reflective Mini-Tasking against Procrastinationpost by shminux · 2014-06-06T00:20:30.692Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 3 comments
This is a slightly polished version of a draft I originally deemed not ready for posting, but given that people keep saying that the Discussion post quality bar is set unreasonably high, here it is.
Most of us have little aversion to doing something that we perceive as short and easy, even if it is not very interesting. If your English homework consisted of writing a one-line poem (this is actually a thing), you'd be less likely to put it off for later, even if writing poetry is one of your least favorite activities. We are certainly more likely to do something if we hate it less, shifting the balance between "should" and "want" toward want. To quote one of my three favorite Scott A's, the one with an unhealthy addiction to puns,
Just as drugs mysteriously find their own non-fungible money, enjoyable activities mysteriously find their own non-fungible time. If I had to explain it, I'd say the resource bottleneck isn't time but energy/willpower, and that these look similar because working hard saps energy/willpower and relaxing for a while restores it, so when I have less time I also have less energy/willpower. But some things don't require energy/willpower and so are essentially free.
And so there are various anti-akrasia proposals based on increasing the want/should ratio (or should it be the want-should difference?) by way of reduction of the perceived will power expenditure to accomplish a task, and/or sweeten it with a reward tacked-on, such as checking off an item on a to-do list and finishing pomodoros. These definitely work some time for some people, but the effect tends to wear off. As one of my coworkers described his attempt to switch from coffee to decaf, the body is fooled for the first few cups, but then it catches on and stops finding decaf enjoyable. (Your experience may vary.) The reason is probably related to the negative feedback, also known as punishment in the Skinner's operant conditioning model.
I think of many of these attempts to shorten/sweeten a should-task as "mini-tasking". It is also commonly known as "just putting one foot in front of the other" and "taking it day-by-day".
What I find hard is not the process of working through a completed set of mini-tasks, but actually breaking a large task down into small ones. So instead I tend to switch to a want-task (like writing this) from a should-task, like finding a bug in my code. I suspect that if I had a to-do list of bug finding in front of me, where, once I finish and check off each short item on the list, the larger project would be completed, I would be less inclined to take breaks for fun before feeling guilty and switching back to "work". Unfortunately, creating such a list is a non-trivial and fairly involved task in itself, so I rarely get it done, preferring instead to, say, just dive into the code and hope for the best.
If only I had a way to reflectively (reflexively?) mini-task, where no single action is perceived as long and/or tedious...
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