Instead of fumbling with folk intuitions and deeply dodgy evolutionary psychology (hard for even the experts to not embarrass themselves doing), why not look at what the psychologists have actually found?
http://lesswrong.com/lw/3w3/how_to_beat_procrastination/ covers the literature. (You will notice that the equation includes 'expectancy' as only one of the related variables. This is a simplified form; the full equation with the details can be found in all the linked PDFs. http://lesswrong.com/tag/procrastination/ also has a lot of interesting reading which are much better than this guy.)
And heck, while I'm at it, the overview of research on how to be happy: http://lesswrong.com/lw/4su/how_to_be_happy/
"Why am I studying this material? To pass the test. Why? To pass the class. Why? To get a good GPA? Why?..." You lost me several Whys back!
As a professional, it was the same way. The worst was when my short stint in Finance, but even working for nonprofits and social-conscious startups, it's tough for me to get motivated when the end goal is too many layers of abstraction away.
(I think that's strange, because when I'm actually dealing with technology, abstraction is one of my strengths.)
This was one of the factors in my decision to start my own company. I want to get rid of the layers of Whys and let them have more weight. Why am I working on this project? To make this client happy, so I can pay the rent this month.
Another approach that has helped me in the last year or so has been phrasing my goals and aspirations in the form, "I want to be the kind of person who ___." Then do ___!
At the same time though, I'm constantly working on side projects. Currently, I'm building an autonomous tricopter, because I thought it'd be cool to build. Last semester, I wrote a webapp to handle an event we were having. Previous semester, I was working on a way to control my room from my computer (still working on that, just not as intensely). These all easily answer "Why am I doing this?" (tricopter: because it's cool. Webapp: Might be able to make money from this [Note: didn't make any money from it ): ]. Computer-controlled room: It's cool, and it allows me to be incredibly lazy.)
I know that I'm not an idiot, I should be getting As, and I do get As in the classes that genuinely interest me. Unfortunately, at least 75% of the classes I take don't interest me, so I get lost in trying to answer "why am I even bothering with this?"
I would say it fits, since the person at the top (guy running the company, decision maker, so on) sees the abstractions beneath him, and takes action accordingly. Being a layer of abstraction (as you discuss) keeps you focused in one area, but without much knowledge of what's outside or the companies overall objectives for a specific task. It's hard to find motivation and purpose when you see just code.
There was recent article about people getting bored, and it seems to stems from the same source, visibility and purpose. From experience, the view from the top is all about visibility and purpose. You know why things are happening, and you believe in the reason because you are often the source of the actions. You enjoy the work because you feel the connection.
So how do we create visibility without inviting the increased communications overhead discussed in the mythical-man month? Is it read only, or does there have to be a full feedback mechanism?
While I've experienced procrastination that had nothing to do with not having a good plan, I've also had the kind that does. And it's far worse.
Some procrastination occurs because we know we have time, and other things seem more important or fun.
Lack-of-plan procrastination is worse, though. You delay until you have a plan, but without a plan, you can't know if you have time to finish. That -should- push you into making a plan immediately, but the whole enormity of the situation causes a panic reaction that prevents you from thinking rationally about the plan to start with. In the end, you put it aside until you can deal with it. It doesn't matter what reason (tired, no time, need something/someone, etc) you give, it all ends up the same.
The only way out of that kind (that I've found) is to seek help. Complain to random people about it, ask people with specific knowledge, etc etc. Just find help somewhere. Sometimes you just need a direction to start heading in.
A lot of evolutionary science talks about energy expenditure. For an animal to survive it needs to take in at least as many calories as it expends, so evolutionary scientists often explain behavior in terms of expending calories and preserving calories. E.g, Predators tend to sleep a lot because hunting takes up a lot of calories. It's better to preserve the calories they gained hunting by sleeping a lot, rather then spend them on another hunt that may or may not be successful. As opposed to large herbivores that don't gain that many calories from grass, but don't spend so many eating it, either. They sleep very little because foraging those extra hours turns out to be a caloric win.
Our "ancient" brain (which is a crappy term, I know) refers to the set of behaviors we evolved to survive in a society pre civilization. In that environment, effort == calories spent. What the author is saying is that for evolutionary reasons, we evolved to not want to waste calories (put forth effort) if there isn't a good chance of getting them back. But, because our food sources no longer in jeopardy, that evolutionary urge which led to our survival in the wild now leads to the vice known as procrastination.
Predators hunt to obtain food which provides them with calories. More calories must be gained than spent from hunting, otherwise it would be pointless as they would make a net loss and, ultimately, starve.
It is more likely that they hunt less, and sleep more, because hunting has large payoffs, and therefore they don't need to continue hunting for a while.
and to obesity.
Basically, the idea of those who oppose the "calorie in - calorie out" theory is that eating simple carbs quickly raises the blood sugar level. Body responds to that by secreting insulin. One of the tasks of insulin is to keep blood sugar within certain levels, so it "commands" to the cells to uptake sugar from blood, and one of the ways to do it is to convert it to fat. Eating food that does not has simple sugars in it, on the other hand, does not raise blood sugar that much so does not trigger insulin response.
To that the "calorie in - calorie out" guys respond that this does not take into account the 24-hour cycle, because even if some fat will be stored after a high-carb meal, it will still be used later if the overall calorie intake is low enough.
It seems that clinical studies, where it is possible to exactly know how much calories the subjects consumed, support the calories in - calories out. Studies where caloric intake is not precisely calculated may support the opposite theory.
No references to studies as I'm not sure if that's going to be read by anyone, it's been two days since ...
Cognitive psychology might offer a more sophisticated version of this article's strategy, where psychodynamic would try to identify and work through the underlying cause of your motives not to work (e.g. part of you wants to experience the sense of crisis that comes from being incredibly behind on a deadline, so let's try to understand that part of you).
There's a significant amount of evidence that actively building positive emotional connections to the activities you want to do is useful-see Switch, or The Talent Code for examples.
Discovering the cause alone might not necessarily helped, but being armed with the information is invaluable. Knowing that what's happening when you're declining to work on a project is that you're trying to recreate the feeling worthlessness associated with being criticized as a child is pretty useful in understanding the situation and addressing it.
I guess the broader point is just that self-help and tips and tricks can be helpful to generally healthy people who occasionally procrastinate or whatever, but that people who are significantly inhibited by their inability to motivate themselves are likely depressed or suffering from anxiety and need to deal with it medically. You can't cure an anxiety disorder with "REPS".
I'm not a psychologist, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it's damaging to people who are considering getting treatment to be told that "procrastination" is some kind of normal thing that they can fix by thinking about things a little differently.
My mileage definitely varied. I found that after my second (Sophomore in the US) year in college I rarely procrastinated. It was getting through the required classes the first two years, where the why at the end of a long chain of questions was "because you have to to graduate from MIT." That's not as motivating as it sounds.
Eventually I was taking only classes I wanted to be in. And if I didnt want to do an assignment and wasnt going to destroy my GPA I just didnt do it.
Fast-forward to the real world and it returns. Deadlines from bosses help to avoid procrastination but if the work isn't too challenging and expectations are low enough you can still do some deep procrastinating.
But then again, maybe the reasoning my work isn't challenging enough is because I didn't get the most amazing job in the world because I didn't just push through those assignments in college that I really didn't want to do. Hmmm...that's some meta-circular evaluation right there.
 No it isnt.
That works as well :)
I can't believe everyone's actually discussing this as though it were insightful.
Look, you're sitting at home, you're a student, and you have, let's say, three things you can choose to do right now:
1. You can study for your class tomorrow, working towards a degree. Effort required: high. Reward: far future.
2. You can go out with friends. Effort required: medium to low. Reward: near future.
3. You can play a video game. Effort required: low. Reward: immediate.
So which one do you really want to do?
Before you answer that, let's add one more little piece to our hypothetical: let's imagine that you have all the time in the world. You're immortal. There is absolutely no rush to get your degree. Whether you do it this year or in thirty years will make absolutely no difference.
So which one do you do?
This is procrastination. I should know. I'm an expert procrastinator. There are about eleventy-seven things I should be doing right now -- and they are all things which require a lot of effort right now, and won't pay off today. What am I doing instead? I'm wasting time on HN: low effort, immediate reward. If I couldn't be on HN, I'd probably be in my garden. Again: low effort, quick reward.
This guy's a book author. He wants to sell more books. He probably wants to make a little extra money doing speaking engagements. So he has to set himself up as an expert, and to do that, he's put together this notion about "ancient brains" and evolutionary psychology (which is mostly bunkem) and the "wasting" of energy.
And it sounds sort of OK, except that it skirts around the basic notion that we're largely reward driven, and all of these distractions that we have today are really good at pushing our little reward button, and we'll keep triggering our reward button for as long as we can -- until we become that little mouse that starved itself to death pushing its feel-good button.
Short-circuiting this requires two forms of self discipline: one, you have to tear yourself away from pushing the reward button occasionally (and no amount of telling yourself why you're trying to get a degree will do that). You have to have enough self-awareness to realize that you've just blown your entire afternoon on a game or online and you have nothing to show for it, and maybe you should try to squeeze in some actual work before the day's over.
Two, you have to have the discipline to recognize the things that make you procrastinate, and engineer around them. For me, it's barriers. Once I get working on something, I'll plow through it like a bullet through jelly. But, if I'm not yet working on it, and there's the merest little speed-bump of a barrier to overcome before I can work on it ... then I don't want to start.
So, for that reason, I put a lot of extra effort into making it really convenient to get things done. I write scripts that do things for me with a single command. I keep things organized so that I don't have to find things (which is a barrier) before I can get started. I try to keep things simple.
But that's just me. Maybe it's different for you.
But I seriously doubt that the approach in this guy's article will actually help anybody.
>>requires two forms of self discipline
Anyway, I've tried the pure willpower self discipline approach for a long time with mixed results. Not like I never got anything done, but I wasn't as productive as I would've liked.
And the thing is, I thought that willpower was the only thing that could possibly work. All those other things people did? Gimmicks. Trying to trick yourself into being productive? Guess they didn't have the... willpower.
Well, that kind of attitude didn't improve things for me. Willpower is nice. Some willpower is needed. But there are ways to make whatever willpower you have go farther.
For instance, one thing that made more of an improvement than all the "I'm going to be disciplined starting tomorrow!" mantras was just keeping a to do list with very tiny tasks. So instead of buying a programming book and then planning to read it all in a weekend by sheer willpower and then usually never starting or giving up after five chapters, I set up my to do list manager to show me "read one chapter" as a task every day. Now I'm working through 1-2 programming books a month in my spare time whereas that used to take me half a year before.
(I realize that you weren't promoting pure-self-discipline-and-nothing else and the low barrier to entry thing you mentioned is in a similar vein... just thought I'd emphasize that discipline is the starting point, not the end all solution.)
I was just saying that even with all kinds of tricks and fooling yourself and convincing yourself and whatnot, you still have to make yourself stop pushing that reward button and do some work. The key, for me, is to make it easier and easier to switch from procrastinating to getting work done.
Let's look at the impact on what sort of respect others will give you with your three options:
1. Studying for a degree: high - hard worker, smart
2. Going out: medium - friends like you, but you're a party-person and don't really do anything respectable.
3. Video games: low - lazy bum.
I think the argument is that the part of your brain that is trying to procrastinate understands enough about society to realize that making yourself a better and more respectable person is a worthy goal and will help you work towards it. The trick is having that goal in mind. With the goal in mind, not making progress is an immediate negative reinforcement.
I used to play video games all day instead of working. Now I feel almost dirty if I do that. I know that the person I want to be is not someone who sits around and reads HN and gets no work done in a day.
Of course, there's a balance. If I'm ahead on a deadline, good luck getting me to finish it early.
However, there's something else to be added to the discussion about procrastination that has to do with people's temperament and unhealthy ideas they have of work (and themselves).
For example, one problem people might have is they tie their self-worth to the outcome of their goals. You can see why that could cause a lot of anxiety and stress. Using your examples, if you needed to win every time you played video games, and it was a source of great confidence and self-esteem for you - the moment you're in a situation where you know there's a chance you might loose, it will become a lot harder to get the energy to practice/play. It has nothing to do with enjoying video games in and of itself - it has to do with connecting your worth to the outcome. Even hanging out with friends can become a hassle if people think they need to control the outcome somehow.
This happens in school (in college,where for the first time people may not be getting the top grades and in highschool grades were the source of great pride and acceptance and popularity), and at work (if you screw something up you think you'll be considered an idiot and possibly be fired). A lot of people, somehow and at some point, develop some sort of inner drill sergeant who tells them they are no good until they get X done - and this works well enough when you're young and use to being forced to do things by other people anyway and are looking for approval from adults and peers. But as people grow independent they realize they really don't like the way they talk to themselves or at the least, they start not to care about what the drill-sergeant in them wants.
To people who do not have these cognitive traps, these problems are invisible. They are likely to think procrastinators are inherently lazy/undisciplined because that is what they can visually conclude (and it also reinforces the idea they are not lazy and are disciplined).
Another trap is not viewing work in the correct context. People feel they are being 'forced' to do something. That reinforces the idea that the work isn't very pleasant, and they would be doing something else if they could. Well, thats the wrong way to frame the problem. It focuses on your feelings, transient and often miscalculated. A healthier way to frame work is to consider cost vs reward. We tend to highlight the cost of work and compare it to the rewards of procrastination.
Also, people who procrastinate may also not take breaks when working, or set aside time to enjoy their life - they are stuck in a perpetual grind where they feel like crap/imposters if they take their attention off work. That very pressure is what renders them unproductive.
Anyway, if this stuff seems interesting to anyone, I recommend checking out "The Now Habit" by Neil Fiore. I found it to be one of the few books that frames procrastination as a symptom rather than a cause. It has a lot of interesting insights if you don't feel the you lack discipline or are lazy, but may not be framing things (or talking to yourself) in the healthiest way.
I also can recommend "The Now Habit", this is really a book that stands out on this topic.
It feels unnecessary, but have a script called run in the root of your project that does that startup stuff. Then you just run ./run and it's time to code. No friction
// Bleurgh. Why not give it some sort of descriptive title? "./run-startup-actions-initialise-database.sh" would only need an extra keypress to start with shell completion active.
The fact of the matter is that we have orders of magnitude more knowledge about how we work and what makes us happy than even 50 years ago. Yet we do not apply it. It's the same as the issue in software development where we have accepted industry standards for producing quality work yet relatively few teams use them, and hardly any use all of them.
Ofcourse, the reason for these inefficiencies at processing new information is the same as the one which causes procrastination - the wetware simply isn't built for it. And so we have a vicious circle. There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel. Whatever we are aware of at a given point in time will shape the next moment. Yes, our wetware is at odds with the environment it has created, but our wetware is capable of self-modification, hence the author's suggestion being a perfectly good one until we can reach the tipping point as a collective. But I still argue that curing procrastination is putting a bandage on a rotting limb which desperately needs to be amputated and replaced with a tentacle.
The Deep Procrastination Crisis
Above is a snapshot of my blog e-mail inbox, filtered to only show e-mails from students struggling with deep procrastination. Notice that there are close to 60 such messages. If I include blog comments in the search, the number jumps into the hundreds.
Deep procrastination is a distressing affliction. Students who suffer from it lose the ability to start school work. Deadlines pass and they hand nothing in. Professors provide special extensions, but the students still can’t bring themselves to do the work. And so on.
As evidenced by my inbox, this issue is surprisingly common, especially at elite colleges. Yet it’s also almost entirely off the radar of traditional student counseling, which is why I dedicate time to it here.
In my previous post, I introduced a dubious evolutionary explanation for an otherwise very real phenomenon: procrastination, in my experience, is not a character flaw, but instead evidence that you don’t have a believable plan for succeeding at what you’re trying to do. In this post, as promised, I want to apply this evolutionary perspective to help better understand, and therefore better combat, the deep variety of this common issue.
The Question of “Why”
Deep procrastination usually strikes students later in their college career, when the difficulty of their courses ratchets up. At this stage, their work load gets harder and harder, and at some point some powerful part of their brain says “no more!”
An evolutionary perspective on procrastination helps explain this reaction. The student is asking his or her brain to expend lots of energy (from a biological perspective, studying for an orgo exam is an expensive thing to do). One way to see this process is that there’s an ancient part of our brain that has evolved to evaluate any such plans — a filter, of sorts, to prevent the wasting of precious energy.
“Why are we going to expend so much precious energy?”, it asks.
The more modern, abstract-reasoning, rational part of the student’s brain is quick to respond: “Because we need to expend this energy to pass the test which we need to earn our degree!”
“What the hell is a ‘degree’ and why do we need one?”, the ancient brain counters.
“Because that’s what you’re supposed to do,” the rational brain responds.
And this is where the problem occurs.
The rational part of the brain is promoting an abstract societal value. It knows that for a middle class American, earning a college degree is an expected milestone on your path to integration into the middle class economy
But the ancient brain doesn’t do well with abstract societal values, which are a recent addition to humankind on the scale of evolutionary time. One way to understand deep procrastination, therefore, is as a rejection of an ambiguous, abstract answer to the key question of why you’re going through the mental strain required by the college experience.
(As in my previous post, I’m using an evolutionary explanation metaphorically — as a way to help explain a concrete phenomenon I’ve observed in my research and writing on this topic. Whether the evolutionary explanation for the phenomenon is strictly true is somewhat beside the point and beyond my expertise.)
The good news is that this understanding provides a clear strategy for combating this scourge: form a more concrete and personal answer to the question of “why.”
Combating Deep Procrastination
From my experience, an effective answer to this question of why you’re at college can be constructed through the following process:
First, devise a (tentative) answer to the following question: What makes a good life good? This is the foundation on which everything else in your life will be built. Your goal is not the identify the “right” answer, but to instead identify a working hypothesis. This answer will evolve along with your life experience, so this is not a time for perfectionism. If you’re religious, your starting point for finding this answer is obvious. If you’re not religious, you could jump into philosophy — as this question has been at the core of human thinking since the time of the Greeks — but I’ve found it’s more approachable to start with biographies of people whose life you admire, looking for evidence of their own responses to this prompt.
Second, decide how your experience at college can best be leveraged to support this vision of a good life. If, for example, you decide the key to a good life is to master something useful to the world, this might lead to you to see college as an opportunity to master a hard skill while exposing yourself to examples of people applying this skill in useful ways.
Third, identify the set of specific student tactics that will help you succeed in this leveraging. In our above example, this thinking might lead you to the concrete strategies I espoused in my romantic scholar series.
This process provides a more personal and concrete answer to the fundamental question being posed by your ancient brain.
“Why should I expend all this difficult energy?”, it asks once again.
“Because it’s part of a well-thought through plan for leading a good life,” you now respond.
“Sounds good,” it agrees while you head to the library.
As I noted in an earlier post on this subject, this self-reflection is not an easy process. But college really is a fantastic time to face these basic questions. Deep procrastination, once you understand its source, doesn’t have to a Jobian affliction. It can instead be seen as the prompt you need to get your internal shop in order.
If you’ve had success combating deep procrastination with answers to these basic questions, please share your experience. Concrete examples help deep procrastinators commit to a way out.
One method I've found helpful for overcoming my own tendency to procrastinate is to create my own environmental cues instead of wishing I had an academic institution to provide them. Having specific clothes, music and similar things that you associate with your study or project can be very effective. If you had a long-term goal of being a doctor, for example, it might be helpful to put on a lab coat even if you are currently studying something you don't like in order to get into medical school later. If you're doing a lot of work or study on the computer, create a new user with a different wallpaper, color scheme, and desktop for work on the long term project. Keep your leisure browsing/gaming/whatever in a different environment from your task-oriented one. If you're an entrepeneur, photoshop yourself onto the cover of Fortune as a joke and hang it on your wall. The sub-headings can be little reminders about staying ahead of the competition, or keeping your edge, or whatever cues you effectively. Go to professional conferences and chat to the sort of people that you wish to have in your peer group. Sign up for magazines or other marketing materials so that you get random reminders of your future falling into your mailbox (most of which will be junk mail, but it will be a better class of junk mail than you had been getting).
In short, surround yourself with things that help you stay emotionally connected to your goal. 'Fake it till you make it,' not to deceive others about the progress or success you have achieved so far, but to bypass the analytical part of your brain and give the more instinctual/emotional part the feeling of what achieving your goal will be like.
This, in fact, is how I sometimes write long documents: I say that I will work on something for one to two hours, usually with Mac Freedom on. Or I will write 1,000 words, or five pages, or whatever. Something small. This is probably the kind of thing that's best layered on top of the deep meaning described in the article, but so it goes.
However, this only works if you aren't suffering from Deep Procrastination. Like you mentioned, if you don't have the deep meaning already covered, small steps won't help.
I have wondered for some time: is there research that can put a number on how much caloric energy the brain (just the brain) uses when it's being worked/stressed (as the article suggests, studying for an organic chemistry exam) compared to when it's relatively relaxed or even asleep? Some cursory searching hasn't gotten me past "the brain uses about 20-25% of consumed energy a day," but that doesn't really answer my question. I acknowledge it is difficult to define when the brain is "relaxed," because it's always doing something, but I suppose what I'd like to know is if there is a truly significant difference in energy expenditure due to intense activity or if comparatively it's just background noise because the brain is always working hard.
To take it to an extreme/absurd point, could thinking hard help you lose weight?
p.s. thanks for posting the article due to the 503
I know that the brain consumes glucose when thinking hard-this is related to all those studies on willpower being a physical process-but I would love to see a formal measurement of calories.
Meaning: Interrupt yourself every time you feel procrastination -- that heavy, draining, depressing, oppressing feeling -- that sudden drop in energy when thinking about taking the next step -- or even planning and deciding the course of action to take you to your goal. Catch yourself feeling this. Then directly manipulate that.
Sometimes you don't need to convince yourself of anything, you need to change course.
The fast simple setup task could be something that takes less than one minute of your time, such as open an application, create a new document, type a few notes, save the file.
Procrastination is friction. Doing the first simple task without any direction or commitment gives you that initial push force needed to get the project moving.
I can actually give an example from my own life. And this is totally legit. Imagine having todo a parallel Masters in Physics so that you'd have the opportunity to do a Bachelors in EEE so that you could get a job working with computers!! I literally was "deep procrastination" for 4 years!
One good thing that came out of this is that I can handle really intense situations which others cannot psychologically handle for long periods of time. But on the flip side Im really bad at Prioritizing my own immediate happiness but I'm making progress in that regard.
1) Stop reading articles about procrastination.
2) Start doing what you're supposed to be doing, you lazy asshole.
I understand what you're trying to do but a bit of advice for the future: do not offend your reader. You can offend something else they might hate, e.g. "fuck procrastination".
I just downvoted you solely on the lazy asshole comment because I took it personally, because I'm reading this. If you were to say it personally to someone, in certain cliques, you would've gotten the shit beaten out of you for saying things like that unless you aren't their teacher. I would personally just flip you off, told you to go fuck yourself, and then never spoke to you again.
Just friendly advice.
Oh the irony