An akrasia case study

I just lost 3 weeks to a report that should have taken 2 days. My last job was an engineering research position; setting up an experiment, building prototypes, that sort of thing. After I left, I needed to write a report to brief my successor on what I’d done and what could go wrong, etc. I wasn’t getting paid for this report, but it had to happen.

What exactly do I mean when I say I lost three weeks?

I have a lot of projects that I am working on. I am studying AI, thinking of starting a business, writing videogames, studying and working on various math things, writing a small sequence of posts for lesswrong, trying to restart the local rationality dojo, and I had to do that report. What I mean when I say that I lost three weeks is that I spent three weeks doing practically none of these things.

The report had to be done, but I wasn’t really excited by it. It wasn’t urgent, but it was urgent enough that it had to be done before any of my other projects. It turns out this is a killer combination.

Procrastination took over, manifesting itself as skyrim, 4chan, reddit, and lesswrong. If I tried procrastinating by doing my other projects, I would remember that I had to do the report first, and try to work on the report. When I tried to work on the report, I would hit some small bump and find myself waking up on 4chan three hours later. Somehow, my antiprocrastination hooks were catching my own projects, but not the properly unproductive stuff.

While I had that report to do, I was unable to do anything else productive. When I realized this in conjunction with how important my other projects were, the report suddenly took on a dire urgency. That was four days ago. It is done now. I could have done it in two, or even one, but procrastination is insidious.

One anti-akrasia method that seems to work is going cold turkey on some problematic activity. I call it my personal banhammer. The first thing I banned myself from and how I discovered I could was Alicorn’s Twilight fanfic. It ate up a few days and disrupted my sleeping, so I stopped reading right in an exciting part. Haven’t gone back. That was before the report. Once I had the report to do, my roommate got skyrim. I spent a few days on skyrim, then realized what I was doing and banned myself. For the next few weeks, I procrastinated on 4chan, lesswrong, reddit, and some game development websites. When I finally realized how important it was to finish that report, I got the power to ban myself from those (I had tried and failed before).

Even when I finally cared enough to actually do the report, I still found myself procrastinating. I read some essays by Paul Graham. They were so good that I explicitly put reading his stuff on my todo list. When I wasn’t doing my report, I was reading Paul Graham. I don’t feel so bad because it was actually productive for me on a personal development level, and his essays are at least finite so I was making actual progress on a todo item. It was still not what I wanted to be doing.

So what did I learn from this little excercise?

  1. An unappealing but semi-urgent project can sabotage you completely, because you don’t procrastinate by doing the next project on your list; you procrastinate by doing the least productive activity you will allow yourself to do.

    It seems this can partially be beaten by just realizing what is happening and how much damage it is doing to you. Realizing what is happening promotes the project to “unappealing but direly urgent”, which makes it easier to do.

  2. You can raise the quality of your procrastination into at least the semi-productive by wielding the righteous power of the banhammer against unproductive activities. This takes practice.

    It may be a good plan for rationality dojos to find ways of training this. One idea is to simply emulate what it took me to develop it; acquire a minor addiction, realize that it is consuming your life, and then go cold turkey. May not be so easy (or safe), but worth looking into.

This akrasia stuff seems to be inherently personal, so what worked for me may not work for anyone else, but I publish it here in the hope that we can pull some good ideas out of it. Maybe you have a project that is holding you back the way that damn report got me. Maybe this can help.