Not-Useless Advice For Dealing With Things You Don’t Want to Do

Sometimes, you want to do something hard, like working on a project, but you can’t get yourself to do it in the moment. I think most advice one reads about this problem (at least outside of LW) is useless, hence the title. The aspiration of this post will be to say at least one thing you haven’t thought of before.

[Epistemic status: self-experimentation & modelling; no empirical evidence.]

Here is our basic model:

There’s [you], and there’s [something you want to achieve], but the process of achieving it is unpleasant, so we’ve drawn a metaphorical “Unpleasantness Barrier”.

This image immediately suggests a bunch of ways how to proceed. Let’s start with one of the less obvious ones.

1. Avoid the Barrier

1.1. Just don’t do it

I am continuously amazed at how often people tell me they will do something only to then not do it. If this is the option you will end up going with, it is almost strictly better to decide this early rather than resolving to do it and failing. Perhaps you couldn’t have known how hard it would be at first, but in most cases, who are we kidding? As trivial as this sounds, I think it is one of the most underutilized strategies on this list. Quite often, you can, in fact, just not do the thing.

Related: Should considered harmful; Taboo Should

1.2. Get Around the Barrier

Don’t like calling people? Text them instead. Don’t like cleaning your house? Hire someone. Don’t like your job? Look for another one.

This strategy is arguably even more underutilized, though probably less so among this audience. It’s not always applicable, however, which is true for most items in this list. E.g., perhaps what you want to do is study something, in which case getting someone to do it for you won’t help at all.

2. Overcome the barrier using BRUTE STRENGTH

You have some tools to do hard things. Let’s look at them in turn.

2.1. Motivation

Sometimes you are motivated and can do things that would usually be hard.

This is what most advice focuses on. It’s also probably the least useful item on this list. It’s not that motivation isn’t helpful when you have it, but it’s infamously uncontrollable, and telling people a variant of “just be motivated” probably is unhelpful. I mean, just look at that gun; does this really look like something that’s going to work when you stop believing in it?

Generally, no amount of intellectual understanding will get you motivated on demand.

That said, I do think motivation deserves a special mention for creative tasks like writing a novel. Not because motivation is reliable in those cases (I wish!) but because it’s far more necessary. If I’m not motivated to write fiction, it generally doesn’t help to force myself into doing it anyway because even if I do, what I produce won’t be any good.

2.2. Willpower

It is not clear how willpower works or what it is, but it is a fact that people sometimes do hard things that they’re not motivated for, so something else is at work here.

Willpower is far more reliable than motivation, but it seems to have a limited supply. It’s unclear how to cultivate it (though there’s been a decent amount of discussion on LW), but repeated success is probably helpful, so if nothing else, I recommend not resolving to do things with a high probability of failure-to-try.

In general, I think “don’t ever expect motivation to work, just rely on willpower for things you really must get done” is good advice.

2.3. Penalties

Tim Urban from WaitButWhy talks about this problem using the metaphor of the rational decision-maker (stick figure), the instant gratification monkey, and the panic monster. The general situation is this:

But when the panic monster shows up, we get this instead:

Tim Urban argues that this happens when a deadline is nearing its end. However, it translates into a more general takeaway for our model: being afraid of something-bad-when-you-don’t-succeed makes it more likely that you succeed. This is the idea behind Beeminder. It’s also a big part of why a lot of people usually manage to show up for work on time.

2.4. Rewards

This one is rather obvious:

You don’t want to work, exactly, but if the reward is great enough—like if the platform you’re on for some reason decided to pay you money for good posts, hypothetically speaking—you may just be able to overcome your resistance.

This is the positive analog of penalizing failure, and to some extent, it can also be engineered.

3. Outsmart the Barrier

3.1. Decrease Ambition

Here’s another one of the more useful approaches.

Instead of resolving to work on your project for an hour, resolve to work on it for a minute. Since the task is now much smaller, the barrier should be much smaller as well.

“But wait,” you say, “then I’m also only getting as much done as before”. Well, maybe! But often, there is something special about starting to work on a task. Once you have started, perhaps you will be willing to work for another 29 minutes even though you don’t have to, and whenever that happens, you’ve successfully gamed the system. If you do this every other time, the method has paid for itself.

3.2. Make the task less unpleasant

If you really don’t want to write that email, perhaps if you prepare your favorite tea and a few snacks first, the task becomes at least a little more bearable? I think this is generally one of the weaker approaches, but I don’t think it’s totally useless.

3.3. Timing

Most of the elements in this model are subject to (random?) fluctuations. On some days, things are more unpleasant than on other days (and your willpower and motivation vary as well). This means you can decrease the problem by doing the hard thing on a day where the resistance is smaller.

You can also view this as “motivation done right”. It’s not that motivation is useless; it’s just that it’s unreliable. But when you happen to be motivated, by all means, use it to do the thing!

This also seems criminally underutilized. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s useful, and people almost always seem to act from necessity rather than opportunity.

3.4. Equanimity

If the problem is that doing the unpleasant thing is unpleasant, you need only do the general trick that removes the unpleasant-ness property from arbitrary sensory inputs. Notice the resistance as a pattern of energy and apply your equanimity powers to it. Do this successfully, and the unpleasantness will usually go away rather quickly.

This won’t make any sense to you if you can’t do mindfulness—tough luck! Sadly, this method is also near useless for creative tasks.

3.5. Neural Annealing

Affects motivation, willpower, and the size of the barrier; see here. I secretly consider this the most valuable approach of this post, but don’t expect anyone to buy it, so we won’t talk more about it.

4. Habits

Habits are when you have already done something regularly for an extended period. Habits are most definitely a real thing that really matters. is far higher than , and it seems to keep increasing with larger values of . I used to be a person who doesn’t work out; I’ve now worked out every day for the past couple of years, with only one exception where I was really sick. I consider this the most successful habit I’ve ever adopted.

Personally, I suspect that habits’ dirty little secret is that they primarily help through #2.3, adding a penalty for failure. I would be devastated if I lost my most successful habit ever; this makes me do highly unpleasant things to preserve it. But even if that is true, it’s probably still worth it?

4.1. Acquire important habits using BRUTE STRENGTH

This is what I did for my working out habit; I willed it until it was so much of an investment that losing it was no longer an option. But this is extremely costly and can only be done very rarely.

4.2. Acquire important habits using (some of) the strategies above

A unique property of habit formation is that it requires you to do the hard thing every time, which means that some of the approaches no longer work. This is most obviously true for motivation, which is why you should never rely on motivation to form a habit. It’s not going to work. (Ok, not never, but very rarely.) Also, choosing your timing doesn’t work for obvious reasons, and rewards are also questionable.

But many other approaches do work! If you formulate your habit to be very small, you can apply #3.1, which is basically the idea behind Mini Habits (one of the rare useful books on this subject). And while I’ve never tried it, pledging 1000$ on Beeminder will probably work as well.

4.3. Don’t take your habits for granted (!)

This, I think, is the most important part of succeeding with habits. You try to adopt a habit. Against your own expectations, you succeed. You manage a flawless record for weeks, months, perhaps even years. Then at some point, you have an opportunity to slip. However, it’s not even particularly hard for you to avoid it—it’s just that you don’t think it’s a big deal. Just look at your record; you got this. You don’t need to try anymore.

Then you slip again, and again, and a month later, everything is lost. This is how I stopped always getting out of bed immediately, among other things.

Don’t take your habits for granted. If you stop enforcing them, you will lose them. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve succeeded up until this point.

4.4. Don’t make stupid habits

This should go without saying, but don’t abuse your habit system for things you can’t control. Not, “I will achieve success XZY”. Crazy as it sounds, I even used to (albeit >15 years ago) abuse the “I resolve to do x” thing meant for overcoming internal resistance for things like “I will win this game I’m playing now”. This is a bad idea.

A slightly less obvious failure mode is an ambiguously phrased habit; in this case, you can lose it by gradually half-assing it more and more. Avoid ambiguity when formulating, don’t make exceptions, and think about whether your habit is truly desirable before you set out to adopt it.

5. Combine All of the Above