my procrastination is not your procrastination

I stayed up late reading slate star scratchpad.

This falsified a somewhat important hypothesis of mine, relating to procrastination. Procrastination, I hypothesized, for me at least came in two flavours: pull and push. Pull is when there’s some nearby pot of instant gratification that pulls you in, away from what you were originally intending to work on. Push is where the task you’ve set yourself is so aversive that you start looking for literally anything else to do.

That hypothesis was falsified that night. Because neither of these mechanisms explain staying up late reading slate star scratchpad.

You may have seen this. It’s the one about the monkey and the dark playground.

It’s a describes an insightful but rather depressing model of procrastination and how to beat it. It describes very well what procrastination feels like, to me. It seems depressing   because it seems to imply beating procrastination is a constant unrewarding struggle with yourself, or at least that’s the impression I got when I read it the first time. It doesn’t seem quite as bad as that reading it again now.

It misses something important, of course, which is that reading things about how to procrastinate while you’re procrastinating is actually probably a really good idea.

But the main insight that I got from it was that of the Dark Playground – that the activities you engage in while putting things off are themselves often not really enjoyable. This seems to fit with the Push model of procrastination I have above: the task you’ve assigned yourself, the “Dark Woods”, is sufficiently aversive that you will just let yourself wander over all kinds of crappy things in an effort to avoid it.

It’s a mistake to generalize this as being the only procrastination experience though. When I discovered Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, I was doing little else but read it until I was many chapters in. From the outside it looks much the same as the other kind of procrastination – I’m engaging in a task which wasn’t the one I originally planned and which isn’t obviously helpful for my long term goals – but there are differences. I found something NEW which delivered a way above average amount of reward, and I kept to that thing at the expense of sleeping or whatever else I would normally be doing. This is the pull model, and it’s very different behaviour from idly shopping around some standard set of low-value and usually unrewarding tasks.

So the late at night slate star thing. This was a blog of random snippets of vaguely interesting stuff, which I already knew of. It wasn’t novel and it wasn’t going to deliver a big superstimulus of reward. This seems to rule out the pull model. On the other hand, the task I originally intended to accomplish – going to bed – is in no sense an aversive one. Being snuggled between sheets is definitely well within my comfort zone, and sometimes I even retreat there when things are getting stressful. And so it doesn’t seem to be the push model either.

So what was going on?

I don’t have the answer yet but I’m going to think about it right here.

It felt like this. I have a very small number of websites I check in order to receive low-intensity shots of instant gratification. Facebook is one. A couple of blogs. Sometimes I’ll enter a state where I’m wanting more – I need more reward but all the available sources of it have been used up. Nothing has entered my Facebook feed that I haven’t already seen, I’ve read all the recent posts on the blogs.

I am fully aware that this isn’t how the Internet works for most procrastinators. I am talking as if there are only around 5 or so websites that contain interesting material, but in reality there’s a whole world out there. I don’t even read Reddit, regularly cited as one of the top sources of procrastination fodder. When someone links me to it, I don’t feel any particular urge to stick around.

I notice I’m confused about this.

Slate Star Codex is of course in my little canon of blogs that I distract myself with. It’s not very useful as procrastination fodder because new posts only appear every now and then, but when one does I’ll be sure to read through it. Slate Star Scratchpad is its rather less interesting spinoff, but somehow that night it entered my canon and induced me into reading all of the recent material until it (a) got really late and I basically needed to go to bed anyway, and (b) the stuff started looking familiar from the last time.

This makes sense under the model that I have a small collection of “things I like to read”, which are regularly updated with new material, and I’ll carry on reading through them until this new material has been used up.

It’s not quite that simple though. When I’ve got to the bottom of the new stuff, often there won’t be a feeling of satisfaction and I enter “scraping the bottom of the barrel” mode, where I stick to the same sites, but try to extract less and less valuable material. This includes:

  • seeing what happened as soon as a “1” shows up on my Facebook notifier
  • finding other recent posts by people that haven’t shown up in my main feed
  • reading really old blog posts that I may not have read yet

And things can enter and leave my list of things I read. TV Tropes used to be on there, which was a big problem because it’s huge, and I would accumulate a big tabsplosion that I felt compelled to whittle down to nothing before I could go to bed. Beyond a certain level of tiredness, each tab would spawn on average less than 1 new one, and eventually I would be free. But it was a really horrible behaviour pattern and I’m glad it’s over. If I were to visit TV Tropes again now I don’t think I would have this problem (due to it not being on my “list of things I like to read” any more), but I’m not certain and it would be somewhat expensive to find out.

My anticipated feeling on browsing TV Tropes these days would be a feeling of danger or disgust, which I think would overrule the reward feeling. This is one way things can exit my canonical list.

There must be other factors involved too – like why doesn’t Reddit appeal? Or Wikipedia? – but I don’t need an exhaustive list of them just yet.

One model would be that non-procrastinators essentially have the size of this list set to zero. When they start idly browsing some site, they either feel guilty or otherwise pulled back to the task in hand, or are just not really that interested in the first place. This would imply a smaller list is better for productivity.

Let’s call it the “pull list”.

There must also be a push factor, though, or else I would give up on procrastinating as soon as the pull list had been exhausted. This could be an explicitly aversive task, or just a lack of obvious things to do. The “obvious thing to do” might seem like it should be whatever’s at the top of my to-do list, but I just don’t have that habit built up – and I’m not going to if the thing at the top is always something aversive.

Let’s analyse what’s going on in my mind right now. It’s 00:33. I have a notion that I should be going to bed. Tomorrow is Saturday.

In this circumstance I don’t have a clear policy set. I don’t have a well-defined bedtime, ever but especially on weekends. 1:36 feels like too late. 1:06 feels ok as long as I was doing something worthwhile. Writing this feels worthwhile, and I’m before the 1:06 vague cutoff, so what’s the worry?

There seems to be a battle here between “acceptable” and “optimal”. The optimal bedtime would leave time to get whatever I wanted done in the evening, while leaving me refreshed and energized and able to jump out of bed in the morning and start doing awesome stuff again. That time is before 00:33, or 00:37 as it now is. It’s probably some time between 22:35 and 23:30. Some enthusiastic past self set my phone to beep at 23:30 reminding me it was bedtime. That still happens (the beep part) but tonight I don’t even remember hearing it.

On the other hand there’s the “acceptable” bedtime. If you’re maintaining an optimal average then occasionally you’ll expect to go way over, because something interesting caught your attention or whatever. There’s an argument for being more disciplined than that, but if you haven’t bought into that argument – and it seems like I haven’t – then yeah there will still be late nights. There’s still an acceptable cutoff time, beyond which things are just getting silly and you’ll just feel miserable the next morning (or wake up some time in the afternoon if it’s a weekend).

You can see where this is going – if I’m always, or usually, telling myself it’s one of those special evenings where I get to stay up later, then my average is going to deviate way off where my optimal average would have been. Even the occasional early night doesn’t bring the average back far enough that I get a shot of virtue reward.

It’s 00:43 now, and having written that suddenly I feel more tired. Still I feel an urge to check Facebook or something before going to bed. I’m not going to give into it this time, but if I wasn’t pointing the harsh light of contemplation straight at myself, maybe I would have.

(The next day). It’s occurred to me that there’s something funny about writing this blog. Writing it helps organize my thoughts about important things, or at least creates the impression that it does. It doesn’t seem an activity I’ll regret when I look back on it. I even needed to give myself a little push to start writing. But at the same time it doesn’t appear on my to-do list.

This suggests two possibilities. Firstly, that what I’m doing right now is “officially procrastination”, even though it has a different character from the usual kind. Secondly, that what I’m doing right now is valuable but somehow my to-do list is reserved for the yucky stuff I’ve already been putting off for ages and lack any genuine intention to get started on soon.

These views are not incompatible with each other.

Let’s complexify the rational decision maker vs. monkey picture. For a start, my rational decision maker has no idea what the rational decision actually is. At least some of this is due to not trying to emulate an obvious career path. For many people, the rational decision to make in many circumstances has been well-rehearsed by other people. For example:

  • Work on essay —> Lots of A’s —-> Get a degree

If the end goal, and the paths to get there, are a lot vaguer then it becomes more like:

  • ?????????? —> ???? —-> UTILITY FOR EVERYONE!!

This takes a noble end goal and works backwards, accumulating more and more uncertainty about what the right thing really is the closer you get to the present.

The obvious suggestion – to plan my life out in a bit more detail – might help. But there’s some important context here.

The picture in Wait But Why is of two internal creatures who fight over control of external behaviour. Each has its own independent system of beliefs, motivations and preferences. This isn’t what it’s really like though. That steering wheel shown plugged into the bottom of the brain – it doesn’t just control your actions, it influences your thoughts too. And the monkey, and rational decision maker, and whatever other personifications you want to add in there, are ultimately made up of those thoughts.

The end result is a bunch of beliefs and desires at various different levels of precision and realism, that sort of all slop over each other from moment to moment.

It’s harder to depict that though, and there’s a sense in which multi-agent models such as Internal Family Systems – or the simplified rationalist/monkey version of it – work better than they seem like they really ought to. This sounds like it’s important and I may or may not come back to it.

As a programmer, I do a lot of thinking. But it’s a well-rehearsed kind of thinking. It doesn’t extend beyond shallow concrete near-term things, for the most part. As long as nothing too disruptive is going on in my life, it seems to escape interference from any kind of mental monkey.

Planning my career out is the other kind of thinking.

When I first encountered Less Wrong I was somewhat startled to realise that I had all this intelligence but it apparently had not occurred to me to try applying it to my own life. But there’s a sense in which fixing your own life is harder than a math or programming problem – not just harder in the way that some math is harder than other math, but an entirely different kind of problem.

One thing is that there’s no certainty involved. Well, so what? There’s no certainty in programming either. When your system starts doing something weird, many times it’s not a question of isolating the problem through logical deduction. It’s about building up intuitions through experience, that “this feels like this kind of a thing”. And when you fix it, are you certain that the original problem will have really gone away? Until you test it, hell no. After you test it, still not really.

So yeah uncertainty is OK I think.

What isn’t so ok is the tendency for these kinds of thought process to interfere with themselves. I’m referring to things like ugh fields: topics you avoid thinking about because they make you uncomfortable. Often there’s important thinking that needs doing in these areas that gets neglected for exactly this reason. For the most part these ugh fields have a particular feeling associated with them so are fairly easy to recognize. Around half the items on my to-do list seem to have that feeling.

So why don’t I just do the other half? There must be some other thing blocking it, maybe I need to plan some time around it and there’s an ugh field around that, or I’m not sure how best to tackle it and there’s an ugh field around not being able to solve problems or of failing. But it’s not all ugh fields.

When the procrastination monkey is in charge, many many things become ugh fields. Basically any thought that might lead out of the procrastination trap becomes aversive, for me at least. I know that different people experience procrastination differently.

An example, taken from the present moment.

I need to eat something, but that means:

  • Going outside, but I’m wearing shorts and I don’t know how warm it is outside
    • Checking the temperature means either Googling or Duck Duck Go
      • Googling means sending more of my data to Google !!!
      • Duck Duck Go seems to give less reliable answers
    • Changing to trousers
      • Is a hassle
      • Reminds me that I only have one pair of trousers left, and that seems to imply that I should go out and buy clothes which is a lot larger project than the buying something to eat project I originally had in mind
  • Buying food that someone else made and paying extra for that
    • Less variety
    • Unvirtuous somehow

Two things to note about all of that. Firstly, it happens at a pre-linguistic level so while it probably took you around 60 seconds to read it all and understand what I was talking about, in my mind it all flashes by in a couple of seconds. I have been in this exact position before, with the same considerations, so that also increases the speediness.

Secondly it’s silly. The urge to eat obviously outweighs all of those things and eventually it will happen, but maybe I’ll sit here putting it off for a while. Today, this isn’t such a problem – I’m spending the time writing down things that are interesting to me which seems productive. But if I was doing nothing productive at all, it would just have the effect of delaying starting the rest of the day.

Considerations which make no sense are taking time out of my day because it takes me time to fully realise that they make no sense.

Also, truthfully, I needed to introspect a little to find all of those reasons. It’s not like I’m fully aware of them in the moment. The experience is mostly one of thinking “oh I should get some food” and then my thoughts steering away from it, with a slight ughy feeling.

Oh, a new thought happened.

  • The crepe place will be super busy at this time.
    • I always eat in there, never taking things out. Why not?
  • The available alternative is getting a muffin from Tim Hortons.
    • This doesn’t appeal and I don’t know why not.
    • I am currently running an experiment to see whether coffee from different Timmy’s locations tastes different, with a particular hypothesis that the one next to my work place tastes especially bad. I’m not at my workplace so the joy of running an informal experiment should provide some motivation here. For some reason it doesn’t seem to be.

This points at something else: in this case, I was having similar kinds of thoughts to before but I was unable to bottom out at things I could understand. It was more like “here’s something I know I don’t want to do but can offer no particular reasons why”.

Again, in the rational decision maker (vs. monkey or whatever) model, this wouldn’t make sense. A big part of being a rational decision maker is knowing why you’re doing things or not doing things, and this is absent here even though the monkey’s influence isn’t apparent. If there’s any shady influence, it seems to have a very different mode of operation: it is blocking introspective access to some of my decisions.

I’m bringing this up in such a trivial context to disentangle it from things that I know I’m insecure about. Questions such as “why don’t I do online dating” also don’t have an answer (I mean, yes it sounds utterly miserable but there’s more to it than that). But they seem like the sort of thing which I’d expect to be entangled with difficult psychological issues that I avoid thinking about.

Deciding which direction to go in order to get coffee and a sweet thing made from flour, does not seem like that.


I will tell you when I come back from Timmy’s.

Nope, coffee tastes bad this time, although slightly different from the one near work. This one mostly tastes burnt, the other one tasted like someone put last week’s milk in there even though I drink it black.

On the way, I remembered one reason I was averse to Timmy’s: that on some level I feel I should be taking a Bold Stand against Corporate North America (Timmy’s is owned by Burger King). This anti-corporate attitude has mostly descended to the level of explicitly signalling or trying to fit in, but there’s still some part of me that believes a comparatively effective way to make the world a better place is to buy from independent coffee shops.

Once I got there I remembered the other reason, which is that as soon as I see their muffins I see them looking all mediocre and remember that they taste that way too. Now, this meant I needed to steel myself to make a decision, which will take some explaining.

In the UK, where I’m from, a biscuit can mean either a cookie or a cracker. Here in North America people use those other two terms instead – which I guess is a good thing because it’s more precise. But apparently “biscuit” still means something.

Tim Hortons sells something they call “raisin tea biscuits”, which are a sort of triangular scone. I’ve never tried one but they look pretty boring. Next to them though, they have something labelled “cheese” – yes, just “cheese” – which are similar but minus the raisins and plus a little cheese on top. Given the muffin situation I was in the mood for trying one of these, but it presented a problem. What exact words would I use when I asked for them?

Clearly I couldn’t ask for “cheese”. And asking for anything with the word “biscuit” it would be hard to shake off the feeling that all supposed differences in the English language across regions are somehow just an elaborate joke to get me to say “pants” in an inappropriate context, and that if I were to ask for a “cheese biscuit” or “cheese tea biscuit” the cashier would look at me in the same way as if I had asked for the same thing back in the UK.

That doesn’t seem to be really how it is, by the way. I draw the line at pants, but occasionally I’ll use one of those other funny North American words like zucchini or “tomayto” and feel all self conscious but people don’t even seem to notice that I did anything.

This is leading somewhere, don’t worry.

Asking to buy something in words that may or may not make sense to the other person could be said to fall under “comfort zone expansion”. At the other place, the crepe place, I have actually left the shop after asking for the same thing 3 times and not being understood because of my accent. This, I think, has helped create an aura of comfort zone failure around the location which discourages me from doing anything at all unusual, such as asking for a crepe to go (which doesn’t feel like it makes sense somehow, even though I’ve seen them all wrapped up like that) or asking somebody if I can sit next to them because it’s busy.

Asking for a cheese biscuit is like micro comfort zone expansion. It’s like pathetic comfort zone expansion.

I say this because. I learned about comfort zone expansion – in the way that I currently understand it – from CFAR. And at CFAR, something amazing happened. While other people were off trying to obtain free knickers or claiming they were the messiah, I had set myself a comparatively mundane goal: to talk to people in the food court.

I was so scared.

But I did it. CoZE isn’t like rejection therapy in one aspect – the goal is to try and get people to say yes, not to get them to say no – and it’s an important one, because in the face of rejection you have to actually do some strategizing to figure out why people are rejecting you and what you could do better. If your goal is to talk to strangers in the mall, maybe picking on women sitting on their own isn’t the best strategy? Maybe it’s better to make eye contact with the person first and see if they acknowledge your existence before you actually say anything to them? And other details like that.

Anyway, I actually got to talk to some people and it was great. Whether I could still do that I’m not sure – I lack the supporting infrastructure of CFAR instructors hovering in the background, and I might have regressed in some sense. Which is why it’s so disheartening to feel I have to overcome a comfort zone barrier when trying to accomplish such basic things as with the biscuits or the take-out crepes.

But I feel like I’m ok at being honest with myself, and if such things really are outside my comfort zone then I’m better off knowing that.

Right now CFAR techniques are providing essentially zero value in my life, because I’m not doing any of them. Going from zero value to amazing value overnight isn’t going to happen, and I’m not sure I’m ready for some big set-piece CoZE experiment. Other people would no doubt disagree with that – CoZE is always going to seem scary, that’s the whole point. But I’m not sure I have anyone in my life who understands both me and the concepts of rationality well enough to have that honest conversation and convince me.

I want to de-ugh CFAR and applying it in micro doses – with correspondingly modest but hopefully tangible benefits – seems like a good approach to that.

All right now I need to tie this back to procrastination somehow.

Basically, each thing that I want to change about myself is blocked by some other thing that I also want to change about myself, often accompanied by an ugh field. This doesn’t imply complete deadlock – it’s possible to tease such a thing apart. But it suggests a very different approach from the conventional way to tackle procrastination which is to SUFFER LIKE MAD while you tackle a big pile of things you don’t really want to be doing, and then at the end you gain Character and are 15% more productive or something.

I’ve gone through phases of my life where I’m more or less productive, either at work or at all the other things that need doing. Right now I’m in a phase where I’m productive at work and not at the other things, and it’s been like that for a while. I know that change is possible though, for better or for worse, and I think that insights will help me make deliberate changes for the better.

It’s possible to get addicted to insights, to have frequent flashes of inspiration that seem like they’re going to answer all your problems and then don’t. But that will have to wait for another post.


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