On Procrastination—The art of shaping your future actions

Link post

(This is a post from a daily blog­ging ex­per­i­ment I did at neel­nanda.io, which I thought might also fit the tastes of LessWrong)

(Also rele­vant: A post I made on sys­tems & willpower and notes for a work­shop I taught on Mur­phyjitsu, a tech­nique for bet­ter us­ing your in­tu­itions to plan)

Introduction

By de­fault, I’m an ex­cel­lent pro­cras­ti­na­tor. Worse, I’m a math­e­mat­i­cian, and trained to be ex­cited by ex­is­tence proofs and the­ory, and to ig­nore the im­ple­men­ta­tion de­tails. As a re­sult, by de­fault, I am re­ally bad at ac­tu­ally tak­ing ac­tions, or act­ing on my de­sires.

I of­ten have cool ideas, but rarely act on them. I might hear about a cool book that sounds su­per worth read­ing, an ar­ti­cle I want to check out, think about a friend I should mes­sage, or hear about an awe­some idea to try solv­ing one of my prob­lems with. And this flashes in my mind in the mo­ment, and it sounds worth­while! It’s some­thing I gen­uinely want to do. But, em­piri­cally, I of­ten for­get about these, and very, very rarely act upon them. And this is a re­ally big prob­lem! It’s so easy to fall into the clas­sic trap of be­ing aca­dem­i­cally minded—always think­ing, never do­ing. Hav­ing a bunch of things I want to do, but never get round to. This post is about my tools for solv­ing these.

And this is a prob­lem I very com­monly ob­serve in oth­ers! If you res­onate with this prob­lem, I strongly urge you to ac­tu­ally try the ideas I’ll out­line here, this is re­ally com­mon. To make it a bit more visceral, I recom­mend that you set a 5 minute timer right now, and list things you’re cur­rently putting off, and never get round to—if you’re any­thing like me, that’s an un­com­fortably long list.

Fur­ther, I think there’s a kind of per­son who’s been read­ing and en­joy­ing my blog, who thinks I have some in­ter­est­ing ideas that might be worth act­ing upon. Yet, em­piri­cally, they have yet to do any­thing, and are un­likely to ever get round to it. This post is aimed at you.

The mind­set of planning

I think the root cause of all these failure modes is a failure of plan­ning. It’s easy to con­ceive of plan­ning as sit­ting down and com­ing up with a care­ful, metic­u­lous strat­egy for how to ap­proach some­thing. But I define plan­ning as the art of shap­ing your fu­ture ac­tions to achieve your goals. Mak­ing a care­ful, de­tailed strat­egy is just a means to an end.

I find this mind­set helpful be­cause, when I have an idea and never get round to do­ing any­thing about it, this is a failure of plan­ning. It’s not that I never made a plan, it’s that my im­plicit plan was “as­sume it would hap­pen by de­fault”. The worst plan is the one you never make. And, un­for­tu­nately, this is by far the most com­mon failure of plan­ning. Be­cause the de­fault state of the world is that you for­get, and never achieve your goals. Thus, the first skill of good plan­ning is learn­ing how to make a plan in the first place—how to have a fleet­ing idea feel like some­thing worth mak­ing a plan about.

The un­der­ly­ing prob­lem here is one of willpower and at­ten­tion—re­mem­ber­ing to do some­thing con­sumes at­ten­tion. And do­ing it is not the de­fault ac­tion, so it takes effort and willpower. Fur­ther, your in­tu­itions are highly mis­lead­ing—it’s easy to be op­ti­mistic, and com­mit the plan­ning fal­lacy. To think I’ll definitely get round to it some­day. Yet, em­piri­cally, this is not true! There are a lot of things on your mind, if it doesn’t hap­pen now, it’s likely to be put off for­ever or for­got­ten about. As a con­se­quence, your one in­ter­ven­tion point is to no­tice in the mo­ment and do some­thing about it. You need to cul­ti­vate the skill of notic­ing and re­act­ing. And the re­ac­tion needs to hap­pen in the mo­ment, be­cause this is the only in­ter­ven­tion point—if you fail now, you’ve lost.

Upon hear­ing all this, a nat­u­ral re­ac­tion is one of guilt and obli­ga­tion. You might man­age to no­tice in the mo­ment, feel guilty, and re­solve to make sure you do it this time! This is press­ing the Try Harder but­ton. Plan­ning isn’t about try­ing it’s about do­ing. You don’t want to be spend­ing willpower on this—any strat­egy that in­volves spend­ing willpower in the longterm is not ro­bust. This is a prob­lem that needs to be solved with sys­tems think­ing—re­act­ing in the mo­ment means chang­ing the de­fault ac­tions you will take.

In gen­eral, this is a difficult prob­lem be­cause the failure mode hap­pens on the five sec­ond level—it’s not some­thing you can solve by just think­ing or try­ing harder. The differ­ence be­tween do­ing and not do­ing is one of re­flexes and men­tal habits, and de­vel­op­ing the right men­tal habits is a very differ­ent skill from un­der­stand­ing what they should be. This is not a prob­lem you can solve by just try­ing harder, you need to be de­liber­ate and care­ful!

Noticing

The first step is notic­ing when you fail to plan! I have writ­ten my thoughts pre­vi­ously on how to no­tice things, this is an ex­cel­lent time to ap­ply that! Notic­ing breaks down into two parts—be­ing aware that you’re failing to plan, and feel­ing a sense of ur­gency. One trig­ger I’ve found use­ful here, is peg­ging the notic­ing to the word “I should …”—I very rarely say “I should do ___ some time” and then ac­tu­ally do it.

I find aware­ness tends to be eas­ier here—it of­ten man­i­fests as a sense of un­ease when I say “I’ll do that later”—I know this isn’t quite true, but don’t want to con­front that. Or I feel a bit guilty, but don’t have the en­ergy to act upon it.

The key part is the ur­gency—the feel­ing that this is im­por­tant—some­thing worth act­ing upon, some­thing I care about. A flash of ac­tu­ally car­ing, that’s enough to break the in­er­tia and get me to spend some willpower on it. The de­fault state of the world is that I won’t act on the aware­ness, so I need a trig­ger to break from that de­fault. Some tips:

  • Re­mind my­self that I prob­a­bly will never get round to it—it’s not now or later, it’s now or never.

  • No­tice the re­flex to ig­nore the thought, and challenge that

  • Try to make “over­com­ing pro­cras­ti­na­tion” part of your self-image—some­thing you feel proud of, and to do for its own sake

  • Try to hack in to in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion—say “I can do some­thing about this now, or never get round to it, and this is my free choice. And I choose to never do it”. Does any­thing feel wrong here? If so, listen to that part of you, and try to chan­nel it into some­thing stronger

  • After prac­tic­ing Mur­phyjitsu—imag­ine a world where I do noth­ing now yet even­tu­ally get round to it. And ask “am I sur­prised by this world?”

    • This ac­cesses a more ac­cu­rate layer of my in­tu­itions, and hav­ing it as in­tu­itive knowl­edge makes it more pow­er­ful—sur­prise is a pretty visceral emo­tion, and is good at hack­ing into my mo­ti­va­tion system

  • An ideal end goal—ev­ery time you no­tice want­ing your fu­ture self to do some­thing, ask your­self “am I sur­prised if this doesn’t hap­pen?”—I’m part­way to this point, and have found it su­per powerful

Note that the ur­gency doesn’t have to be very strong—just enough to get you to do some­thing rather than noth­ing.

Reacting

Once you’ve pul­led off the tem­po­rary feel­ing of ur­gency, what can you do about it? This is an im­pulse that can get you to spend some willpower. But spend­ing willpower sucks. Your goal is to achieve goals, not to “try hard” in some ab­stract sense—re­sults are all that mat­ters. And your goal is to change the de­fault fu­ture ac­tion. And the right tool for this prob­lems are sys­tems! You want to have ways to use a min­i­mal amount of effort to change this de­fault—a great in­vest­ment of time is set­ting up scaf­fold sys­tems to help with this like a to-do sys­tem or cal­en­dar.

My go-tos:

  • Add it to my to-do list, and do it in my weekly “clear­ing my to-do list time”

    • Note: If you don’t reg­u­larly clear the list, this is not a plan. That is by far the most com­mon mis­take made with to-do lists

  • Mes­sage a friend com­mit­ting do­ing it, or ask­ing them to re­mind me

    • Note—try to make it con­crete. “I will do ___ by ___ time”. This makes it far harder to weasel out of.

  • If it’s time/​lo­ca­tion sen­si­tive, set­ting my­self a reminder

    • Even bet­ter, I have a Trello board called Wait­ing which is noth­ing but re­minders. This is ex­cel­lent, be­cause even if I miss the re­minder, I can still get it when I clear out my to-do list

  • Fi­nan­cial commitments

    • I get a lot of mileage out of com­mit­ting to pay a friend if I don’t do some­thing, or giv­ing them money and tel­ling them to only give it back if I do some­thing.

      • This was strong enough to once get me to rap ter­ribly in front of 100-odd people

    • Web­sites like Bee­minder and Stickk let you do this with­out need­ing a friend, if that part feels weird.

  • Make it con­crete. Figure out ex­actly what I need to do, when I need to do, what the first step will be, what bar­ri­ers make this hard and what I can do about them.

    • This is a re­ally pow­er­ful tech­nique—fuzzy ideas are much harder to do, and take a lot more willpower.

    • This ap­plies es­pe­cially to more am­bi­tious things! If you want to, say, start a daily writ­ing pro­ject, there are a lot of de­ci­sions in­volved in that. It’s much eas­ier to do if you can de­cide when to do it, where you’ll do it, how you’ll do it, what you’ll write about. This makes it more likely to ac­tu­ally hap­pen!

    • I find this is of­ten good to com­bine with mes­sag­ing a friend, or chat­ting to a friend about—it’s much eas­ier to clar­ify my thoughts when talk­ing to some­body else, and takes less energy

  • Find a good time in my cal­en­dar for it, and sched­ule it in

    • Note—this only works if you stick to your schedule

Fi­nally, if at all pos­si­ble, do it right now. If an ac­tion can be done in <5 min­utes, train the habit of just do­ing it. The first step is always the hard­est step, so if you can just make a start in 5 min­utes, do it now! Set a 5 minute timer, and see how far you can get.

A com­mon failure mode is be­ing OK at these things, but be­ing in a con­ver­sa­tion and feel­ing too awk­ward to do it. “Let me just set a re­minder to do that” is to­tally so­cially ac­cept­able! (At least, among the peo­ple I hang out with). Hell, if you want to fol­low ad­vice or a recom­men­da­tion some­body has given you, it’s pretty flat­ter­ing if you say “huh, that’s an ex­cel­lent idea, and I will in­evitably for­get about it, let me make sure I do it now”

A fun var­i­ant on this: When giv­ing ad­vice to some­body else, it’s pretty easy to recog­nise this failure mode. And ex­plic­itly call­ing them on it, by ask­ing “are you sur­prised if this doesn’t hap­pen?” is pretty effec­tive for cre­at­ing a sense of ur­gency. I think one of the most valuable parts of giv­ing ad­vice isn’t the in­for­ma­tion trans­ferred, it’s shift­ing some­body from think­ing to do­ing. Offer­ing ac­countabil­ity, helping them make it con­crete, and helping them make “ac­tu­ally do­ing it” be­come the de­fault. And as a bonus, if they gen­uinely are sur­prised if it doesn’t hap­pen, you can back off with no harm done! Good so­cial skills should fail grace­fully.

Conclusion

Over­all, I’m still pretty bad at pro­cras­ti­na­tion. But I have got­ten much bet­ter at re­act­ing in the mo­ment over time, and I con­sider this a re­ally valuable skill. And I strongly urge you to try cul­ti­vat­ing it your­self, es­pe­cially if you re­late to these prob­lems. And es­pe­cially if you’ve been en­joy­ing this blog, and want to act upon the ideas, but have yet to ac­tu­ally do any­thing—ideas you never act upon are worse than use­less. They con­sume time and en­ergy, with no re­sults.

This is hard, be­cause it’s not always the best idea to do the idea—pri­ori­ti­sa­tion mat­ters and is hard. I think it’s im­por­tant to build the skill of re­act­ing in the mo­ment first, and solve pri­ori­ti­sa­tion sec­ond—it’s much harder the other way round. Have sys­tems to add the task to a to-do list, and pri­ori­tise then. Pri­ori­tis­ing and do­ing take very differ­ent parts of your brain, and you can­not do both at the same time.

Ul­ti­mately, pro­cras­ti­na­tion is a re­ally hard habit to kick. In part be­cause, even if you know what to do about it, it’s easy to pro­cras­ti­nate about that. And you get stuck in a catch-22. And the only way to break out is to feel that sense of ur­gency. Do you pro­cras­ti­nate about ev­ery­thing? And are you sur­prised if you never do any­thing about this?

Is that a life you’re happy with? What could you do, right now, that would be a first step to­wards the kind of per­son you want to be?

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