Intrinsic motivation is crucial for overcoming akrasia

tl;dr: If you strug­gle with mo­ti­va­tional prob­lems, it’s likely that the prob­lem is not in­trin­sic to you, but in­stead that you haven’t yet found work that you find very in­ter­est­ing.

How I dis­cov­ered how to do great work

Last win­ter I did some­thing that I had never done be­fore. I spent ~1500 hours work­ing on gen­uinely origi­nal sci­en­tific re­search.

I had done re­search for my PhD in pure math, but faced squarely, the prob­lems that I worked on were of very lit­tle in­ter­est to any­one out­side of the fields, and I was not very en­gaged with my re­search. Pure math is very heav­ily stacked with tal­ent, and the low hang­ing fruit has been plucked, so un­less you’re one of the most tal­ented peo­ple in the world, your prospects for do­ing any­thing other than deriva­tive work are very poor.

What I did last fall was en­tirely differ­ent. As I trained to be a data sci­en­tist, I found that there’s far more low hang­ing fruit in the field than there is in pure math, and found my­self work­ing on novel prob­lems that are of broad in­ter­est al­most im­me­di­ately.

Hav­ing very high in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion made a huge differ­ence. I found my­self spend­ing all wak­ing hours (~90 hours /​ week) work­ing on it ob­ses­sively, al­most in­vol­un­tar­ily. Once I emerged, I re­al­ized that what I had done over the past ~3.5 months was far more sig­nifi­cant than all of the other work that I had done over the span of my en­tire life com­bined. I was as­ton­ished to find my­self hav­ing as­cended to the pan­theon of those who have made ma­jor con­tri­bu­tions to hu­man knowl­edge, some­thing that I hadn’t imag­ined pos­si­ble in my wildest dreams.

The prob­lem isn’t “laz­i­ness”

Many of the most in­ter­est­ing peo­ple who I know are achiev­ing at a level far be­low their po­ten­tial. They of­ten have ma­jor pro­cras­ti­na­tion prob­lems, and be­lieve this to cor­re­spond to them hav­ing a char­ac­ter flaw of “laz­i­ness”. I’ve be­come con­vinced that these peo­ple’s prob­lems don’t come from them be­ing in­suffi­ciently dis­ci­plined.

Their prob­lems come from them spend­ing their time try­ing to do work that they find bor­ing. If you find your work bor­ing, it’s very likely that you should be do­ing some­thing else.


References

My po­si­tion is not unique to me: it’s com­mon to ex­tremely high func­tion­ing peo­ple.

[1] Steve Jobs cre­ated Ap­ple, which owns ~0.1%+ of the world’s wealth. In his 2005 Stan­ford com­mence­ment ad­dress he said:

I’m con­vinced that the only thing that kept me go­ing was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is go­ing to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satis­fied is to do what you be­lieve is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep look­ing. Don’t set­tle. As with all mat­ters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great re­la­tion­ship, it just gets bet­ter and bet­ter as the years roll on. So keep look­ing un­til you find it. Don’t set­tle.

[2] Bill Thurston is one of the great­est math­e­mat­i­ci­ans of the 20th cen­tury. He for­mu­lated the ge­ometriza­tion con­jec­ture, which sub­sumes the 100 year old Poin­care con­jec­ture, con­sid­ered one of the ~7 most im­por­tant un­solved prob­lems. He de­scribes his own char­ac­ter as fol­lows:

My at­ten­tion is more in­ward than that of most peo­ple: it can be re­sis­tant to be­ing cap­tured and di­rected ex­ter­nally. Ex­er­cises like these math­e­mat­ics les­sons were ex­cru­ci­at­ingly bor­ing and painful (whether or not I had “mas­tered the ma­te­rial”). I used to think my wan­der­ing at­ten­tion and difficulty in com­plet­ing as­sign­ments was a defect, but now I re­al­ize my “laz­i­ness” is a fea­ture, not a bug. Hu­man so­ciety wouldn’t func­tion well if ev­ery­one were like me, but so­ciety is bet­ter with ev­ery­one not be­ing al­ike.

[3] Scott Alexan­der /​ Yvain is widely re­garded as a great writer. Poli­ti­cal celebrity Ezra Klein char­ac­ter­ized his blog as fan­tas­tic. Scott wrote:

On the other hand, I know peo­ple who want to get good at writ­ing, and make a mighty re­s­olu­tion to write two hun­dred words a day ev­ery day, and then af­ter the first week they find it’s too an­noy­ing and give up. Th­ese peo­ple think I’m amaz­ing, and why shouldn’t they? I’ve writ­ten a few hun­dred to a few thou­sand words pretty much ev­ery day for the past ten years.

But as I’ve said be­fore, this has taken ex­actly zero willpower. It’s more that I can’t stop even if I want to. Part of that is prob­a­bly that when I write, I feel re­ally good about hav­ing ex­pressed ex­actly what it was I meant to say. Lots of peo­ple read it, they com­ment, they praise me, I feel good, I’m en­couraged to keep writ­ing, and it’s ex­actly the same vir­tu­ous cy­cle as my brother got from his pi­ano prac­tice.

[4] Paul Gra­ham is the co-founder of Y-Com­bi­na­tor, a seed fun­der with a port­fo­lio of com­bined value ex­ceed­ing $30 billion (with in­vestees in­clud­ing Drop­box, AirBnB and Stripe). In What You’ll Wish You Had Known he wrote

One of the most dan­ger­ous illu­sions you get from school is the idea that do­ing great things re­quires a lot of dis­ci­pline. Most sub­jects are taught in such a bor­ing way that it’s only by dis­ci­pline that you can flog your­self through them.

Now I know a num­ber of peo­ple who do great work, and it’s the same with all of them. They have lit­tle dis­ci­pline. They’re all ter­rible pro­cras­ti­na­tors and find it al­most im­pos­si­ble to make them­selves do any­thing they’re not in­ter­ested in. One still hasn’t sent out his half of the thank-you notes from his wed­ding, four years ago. Another has 26,000 emails in her in­box.

I’m not say­ing you can get away with zero self-dis­ci­pline. You prob­a­bly need about the amount you need to go run­ning. [...] But once they get started, in­ter­est takes over, and dis­ci­pline is no longer nec­es­sary.

Do you think Shake­speare was grit­ting his teeth and dili­gently try­ing to write Great Liter­a­ture? Of course not. He was hav­ing fun. That’s why he’s so good.