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November 29, 2008


"Unfortunately," I replied, "I have to do something whose time comes in short units, like browsing the Web or watching short videos, because I might become able to work again at any time, and I can't predict when -"

I had a similar problem during my PhD. Basically I had to be a workaholic in order to get through it. However, I still wanted to have some kind of life and occasionally relax my brain. I found that when I tried to watch a DVD, I would either have an idea, or I would start feeling guilty about not working. And then I'd stop watching the DVD. Gradually this made me not want to watch films any more, because I knew I wouldn't be able to sit through the film in a single sitting without having either workaholic guilt, or a distractingly useful idea.

My solution was cinemas. Whenever I felt like I needed a distraction, I would go the cinema with some friends. By paying actual cash and having only a fixed time available to 'enjoy myself', my brain somehow decided 'well, I'm not going to waste this money by walking out to do some work!'. So, I was able to enjoy full length films without considering the possibility of working.

I took a notebook in my pocket, of course, in case a truly amazing idea came mid-film, but thankfully it never did. Besides, the shower room proved to be a reliable source of ideas ... I just wish someone could invent a decent waterproof notepad :-)

I can also recommend vigourous exercise such as martial arts. Although you sacrifice time, you gain improved health and mood, and that's important for the long run...


Many rationalists (not saying Eli is one) are of the opinion that introspection is worthless (or at least suspect), so not surprising that trying to predict certain things doesn't occur to us.

The self help route. I've seen good bloggers succumb to it. Please don't go there.

I'm sure you've already heard this, but have you tried reading relevant papers rather than random websites?

Personally, I'm kind of giving up on "discipline" as such, in favor of looking for things worth doing and then doing them because they are worth doing. Why torture myself trying to regulate and control every minute, when that doesn't even work? Of course every minute is precious, but just because I'm not following a schedule doesn't mean nothing valuable is getting done. Whatever happened to the power of play? The first virtue is curiosity, isn't it?

Results are mixed so far, but with a certain history, even "mixed" counts as a win.

In their book Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland say that by their observation the elements that prove to allow a creative person to work are essentially idiosyncratic.

For example, they say, Hemingway discovered that in order to be productive, he needed to stand up while typing.

And, they continue, this discovery of Hemingway's is useless to nearly everyone else: other artists find what they need to be productive is something different.

Most productivity suggestions are naturally from people who found something that worked for them, and so recommend that's what you should do: "The Standing Up Method for Productive Writing".

So in lieu of a working general theory, the solution is to be experimental on a personal level: find a way to measure your productivity, even if subjectively, vary your working conditions in systematic way, and see what makes a difference for you.

Several days ago I have night dream there I met someone who said to me: "you even don''t realize what is your main problem. It is haos". He ment that all that I did during a day or full life was haotic, but not planned.

But I do the same - then I am tired I browes random sites, untill unpredictable moment then I feel new interest to work. Maybe it is working strategy after all?

"The solution is to be experimental on a personal level: find a way to measure your productivity, even if subjectively, vary your working conditions in systematic way, and see what makes a difference for you."

Exactly. As a working, self-supporting artist, I learned pretty early that I could rely on certain techniques for working through problem times. The tools of the job delighted me, drew me back to the work table. I learned what it takes to move around problems, see them from a variety of perspectives. It became important (if frustrating) to junk stuff that was bad and that I couldn't fix. I learned that walking out the door and doing something completely different helped a lot. Most of all (and this took ages) I figured out what makes my brain work -- and that's when I began to develop some serious self-respect! Maybe thinking in terms of keeping your creativity alive, rather than "getting the job done," would help. Even artists stick to work schedules: self-discipline (and/or disregarding the demands of others) may sound like a bummer, but it's the oil in the engine.

You could take advantage of Parkinson's Law using the following:


You could also take a gander at the 4-Hour Work Week, even if you're not interested in working for 4 hours a week, he lists a lot of great productivity tips in there such as, indeed, limiting your working time to a certain schedule, for some reason your mind then gets the idea that working time is limited and will respond to the scarcity by taking full advantage of it. I've found this one to be particularly helpful.

Thanks for mentioning the mind projection fallacy, I've written about it before on my blog but never realized it had a name. I've used this phenomenological fact to help me guide my emotions towards happiness but recognizing that the "problem" or "frustrating" aspects of something are in my own mind, and not in the world, and that I'd rather be happy.

Anyhoo, good luck! Hope this helps! Pavlina has a lot of other good articles on productivity, such as here:



Have you ever had a job where your boss yelled at you if you weren't continually working? If not consider getting a part-time job at a fast food restaurant where you work maybe one day a week for eight hours at a time. Fast food restaurant managers are quite skilled at motivating (and please forgive this word) "lazy" youths.

Think of willpower as a muscle. And think of the fast food manager as your personal trainer.

My guess is your problem arises from never having had to stay up all night doing homework that you found boring, pointless, tedious, and very difficult.

I'm not particularly asking for help on the productivity thing. Just remarking on the realization that the Mind Projection Fallacy extends to, as it were, real life.

Huh. I always had the impression you were quite productive. Makes me feel better. I've been doing better with it for the past several months, which I attribute to medications.

You're welcome, anyhoo, as is any other reader who might find value in the comments. In the future, you can specify the comments you would like specifically, so that you can get exactly what you're looking for, instead of people doing crazy things like interpreting what you said differently and acting according to their interpretation in a space for their words.

I feel slighted that I attempted to offer a bit of advice that's worked well for me and I didn't even get a "thank you" and instead a "I'm not interested in what you have to say". My feelings may not have much to do with you, except to suggest that a little manners go a long way.

Take care, and I mean that sincerely.

You may want to consider Amphetamine. It worked wonders for me.

I worked at an ISP call center for a few years, doing tech support. My numbers weren't great, in terms of calls handled per day. I can't recall the number anymore, but while I usually got close, it was always a near thing. At some point my brain would just go numb.

If anyone is curious sitting at a phone for hours a day is soul crushing. Just FYI.

We got two 15 minute breaks and a half hour lunch. One day I decided to start taking a short break after every few calls, trying to amortize my half hour of small break time out over the whole day. I'd like to say it was because I carefully plotted out what would help me the most, but I was essentially an insensate beast at that point and can only thank my subconscious for its brave effort to keep me from dying. Anyway, the day I started doing that my numbers nearly doubled, and remained high from there on. The key, it seems to me now, wasn't just that I wasn't working during my two to five minute breaks, but that I would actually get completely away from my work area. Go the bathroom, get some water, buy a soda, bother the smokers, whatever. If I just sat at my desk browsing the internet, I got nowhere near the same feeling.

It was a unique revelation for me. True, I was taking more break time than I was allotted, because I'm bad at tracking things like that, but nobody cared because my numbers, and caller satisfaction, were rather high.

@RT Wolf: Thanks for the Pavlina link. It looks fascinating so far.

So it can be a mind projection fallacy even when you are ultimately reasoning about your own mind? Something needs to cancel out in the divisor. A more accurate assessment of others' mental nature may not assist you when you then tie it back into your own. You have mentioned this productivity issue a couple times, and yet don't want solutions suggested. Now that could be because the solution itself is OT (identifying is ok, but fixing a bias is OT), or because you don't think what works for others could actually work for you.

meh. My last point doesn't make sense. Fixing the bias isn't equivalent to fixing your problem.

Some of Steve Pavlina's essays are excellent, unfortunately he also advocates a lot of wacko stuff. I finally just quit reading his site because all the newer stuff seemed to be more than a little on the crackpot side. Enjoy.

The self help route. I've seen good bloggers succumb to it. Please don't go there.

Will the writer of that please explain why? I take it that the warning is against using self help advice in one's own life -- not against writing about it in a blog.

I find this post interesting, because I wonder whether you really have periods where you can't work and therefore must do other things, or whether the other things get in the way of working. My default assumption is that website browsing keeps me from getting work done, because finding a cool website is instant gratification while serious work involves delayed gratification. Similarly, I'm doing national novel writing month right now, and I found my most productive fifteen minutes were when a friend said, out of nowhere, "want to see who can do the most work in 15 minutes?" It may have been the most productive fifteen minutes of my life, because the $0 bet meant doing semi-serious work = instant gratification, rather than the delayed gratification it usually involves.

Interesting... It's true that inversion (as general type, of which the mind projection fallacy is token) is constantly applicable to daily life, in particular to interpersonal relations. Someone may seem too arrogant to be willing to listen to you, but you should always step back and ask whether it might be more useful to restate the problem, "I am not presenting my points in an interesting or persuasive enough way to interest or persuade this person." These thoughts are two sides of one coin. Each is valuable in some circumstance: the first if you can successfully solve the problem by chiding the person, the second if you can solve the problem by being more interesting or persuasive. (And either can have some not-to-be-overlooked effect on your self-esteem.)

But look -- a word of advice on self-discipline, to your readers if you yourself aren't looking for it. If you think of yourself as a system whose operations you cannot OR can predict, you have lost half the battle before starting. I recognize that you can sometimes e.g. alter some aspects of your environment that you can see affecting you, but if you can't manage that without coming to think of yourself as a passive recipient of effects upon you, you should change your mindset altogether. In short: DECIDE to work. Just do it.

Also -- well said, Uncredible. I find -- if I may be hypocritical a moment -- that novelty is highly effective; whenever I make some new resolution, it works for some short amount of time. Then I have to make a different one, based on a different principle of hope. The issue is confidence. Once a strategy fails to work once, I no longer have faith in it. What's more, since I know that confidence is what strategies give me and that I'm prone to lose confidence as soon as one fails to work once, I REALLY no longer have faith in it. It's a sick cycle. I wouldn't have that problem if only I would attribute agency to myself...

'I found my most productive fifteen minutes were when a friend said, out of nowhere, "want to see who can do the most work in 15 minutes?"'

That's interesting, because historically great works have been accomplished when a group of really talented people get together in the same place (e.g. Florence, Silicon Valley, Manhattan Project).

The Internet is great in that it enables you to find like minded people and bounce ideas of them. But that's only half the achievement puzzle. The other half is pestering each other to work, which the Internet is not so good for.

In short: DECIDE to work. Just do it.

For those lacking the relative self-discipline, this is like asking someone to lift a box that's too heavy for them. It's exactly the same as telling an obese person to just stop eating so much. If someone has the self-discipline, it can be helpful advice in certain circumstances. If they don't, all the advice leads to is cycles of guilt and frustration.

(I don't mean to say Eliezer has no self-discipline. What he's trying to do requires huge reserves of it.)

What I'm successfully experimenting with at the moment is:

Prime the pump for action! Whatever you need to do, just get started. If instead you start thinking and analysing too much you will find 1000s of other things to do. A related advice: do your email and webbrowsing at the end of the day, not at the beginning or middle.

It is interesting that no one from this group of empirical materialists has suggested looking at this problem from the perspective of human physiology. If I tried painting a house for hours on end I would need to rest--my hand would be sore, I'd be weak and tired, and generally would lack the energy to continue. Why would exercising your brain be significantly different? If Eli is doing truly mentally strenuous work for hours, it is not simply a problem of willpower, but mental energy. Maintaining a high level of cognitive load will physically wear you out. The US military is experimenting with fnirs-based neuroimaging devices to see if they can measure how much cognitive load they can put on workers in high-performance mental situations the same way you measure how much weight a person can lift or how much time/distance someone can run.

If the problem was that he could not get going at all, then it is more of a psychological problem such as procrastination. But it seems to be that he just wants to sustain long stretches of high-performance cognitive work, which unfortunately the brain cannot do. Switching to watching a video or browsing the web is your brain stopping the run and resorting to walking until it rests enough.


"Wanting and Doing: A common-sense model and its limitations.

In high school, I passed many hours thinking about how I wanted to be doing my homework, being frustrated with myself for not doing my homework, making elaborate plans to try to get myself to homework... and still not starting my homework. When I've tried to describe how this worked to others, I've generally been met with disbelief. "If you didn't do it," they say, "You must not really have wanted to." This idea seems to function partly as a belief about how people work, but also partly as a definition -- what a person wants to do is almost defined as what they end up doing. The belief-structure underlying this -- our society's common-sense explanation for what a person does and does not end up doing -- seems to go something like this:

A person is a chooser. They have an array of options laid out in front of them, and they take whichever one they most want -- whichever option they care most about doing. What a person does is exactly the same as what that person cares most about doing.

I don't know how well this model works for most people, but I know this model does not work for me, or for a number of other ACs. For the purpose of this paper, I'll call anyone for whom this model is far from working "inertial", and I'll call the phenomena which make it difficult or impossible for them to connect intention and action "inertia". I'm going to try to explore what factors effect inertia in various people, and how one might structure one's life to make inertia less of a problem.
Assumed Skill Sets

To begin with, it might be useful to look at the skillsets a person would need to have, in order for what they did to be whatever they cared most about doing. A person would need, among other things, to:

* Notice they can make a choice.
* Notice what options are possible in their situation.
* Figure out how they feel about the various options.
* Bring "online" any skills which will be needed to carry out those steps (for example, if their choice requires standing up, they'll need to bring "online" whatever motor skills are involved in standing up. If their choice involves writing an essay, they'll have to bring "online" all the pieces of knowledge and manners of thought involved in essay-writing).
* Begin -- i.e., actually start moving, in response to thought.

Since a lot of ACs are missing various neuro-typical cognitive modules, and since if any of these steps fails to work in a given situation the person will be inertial in that situation, it is perhaps not surprising that a lot of ACs are inertial. Also, since removing various skills from that list will all result in a disconnect between intention and action, but will have rather different internal dynamics, it is perhaps not surprising that the details of how the person is inertial, and of what changes make sense to address that, vary widely from person to person. "

@haig: good point.

@Bryan Bishop:
Your quote about inertia reminded me of EY's post Created Already In Motion.

I think you are very productive Eliezer. Human Rationality is surely not tortured wheels squeekily running every second of the day - producing producing producing.

Human rationality should not and cannot be made into an assembley line.

Not Getting Things Done in a balance with GTD is important. Productivity is one of the big American lies.

Among the positive values of school, matriculation exams, college, grad school, the tenure system, and the career-track rat-race: In some cases they help motivate and bring out the best in people; even smart, creative people sometimes need that sort of external motivation.

(See also James Miller above.)

I'm not particularly asking for help on the productivity thing.

Why not? Isn't this topic deeply related to overcoming bias? To me, they are all part of the same striving for self-improvement. Improving my ability to work and not be distracted is a way to be a more effective human (better at achieving my goals), just like improving my ability to accurately judge the truth and not be biased.

While it doesn't have much recursive loop potential, an improvement in personal productivity is a meta-level improvement - it improves our general ability to create stuff / advance science. Advancements in this area have a leveraged effect in that they could potentially cause lots of people to accomplish lots more.

So I think it's really important, and I wish we talked about it more here. Among other things, it seems to affect some of the smartest people, so I see potentially huge gains from getting better at it. David Allen has done far more to make people more effective than this blog has.

he he.. that's quite normal actually.. when looking for the solution of a problem the last resorts seems to be the mirror..

Seconding Anonymous's recommendation of amphetamine, unless you're particularly addiction-prone. After years of trying to bootstrap willpower, it's fairly shocking to find it waiting in a pill. Even if you only use it for a short time, the potential long-term gains from taking short-term control of your life are huge.

As a mathematician, you may be particularly interested in Paul Erdős as a data point.

@billswift: You were right about Pavlina. I discovered that as I read more of his stuff.

Most interesting/creative people have some sort of ADD Personality...

Amphetamine (Ritalin, Adderall) did not help me on net, and I took >~30 mg Adderall on many days, once went up to 60 mg and tried it in combination with a benzodiazapine. Point is that I explored a wide variety of doses, including 7.5 mg, 10, 15, 20 mg / day.

Moreover, besides alcohol, amphetamine has the highest correlation with violent behavior of any drug, and even behavior that suggest that one might become violent has a significant change of very costly socioeconomic consequences.

Catherine: "If you think of yourself as a system whose operations you cannot OR can predict [...]"

But isn't this actually true? I mean, law of the excluded middle, right?

Or am I just trying to hard to be clever?

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