I’m interrupting what I was writing to bring you an introspection moment.
I noticed a sense of disjointedness about my day, and also a feeling of frustration. I noticed I was sabotaging my own plans, like I would be writing something on Facebook – yes, I was on Facebook – and then I would decide that I shouldn’t write that thing after all. That’s not necessarily a problem but it happened several times. I wasn’t feeling so good about the thing I was writing on Fix These Important Bugs either.
This is the “giving up for the day” feeling, which normally motivates me to go to bed early under the assumption that nothing else productive is going to happen. It’s an angry feeling, combined with a slight feeling of helplessness.
As it happens, the thing I was writing was about feelings and emotions and how I don’t tend to feel them. This wasn’t the sort of thing I was talking about unfortunately. I think I feel this way quite a lot.
But I can still turn the joyful light of curiosity inward. Something I’ve tended to wonder about introspection is: some mental states could be described as introspective, others not. Does that mean that some mental processes are unavailable for introspection, because whatever mental machinery you would be using for introspecting would have to be taken away from whatever was originally going on in your mind?
I don’t think that’s relevant here though. I’m still feeling grumpy and I’m still feeling curious about it.
I’ve already mentioned that I think you can take too shallow a view of procrastination, like it’s all about just following your urge for short term gratification at the expense of more worthy long term plans. That’s certainly true as an introduction, but there seem to be a lot of details there – different flavours of procrastination, and it seems worth capturing them all in case plans to tackle them don’t cover all of the different failure modes.
By the way, I found this post from Malcolm Ocean that describes exactly the setup I was describing – looking at some irrelevant thing on the Internet late at night when bed would have been a straightforwardly better choice. Like me, he attempted to phrase it in terms of preference cycles without obviously making progress that way. To the extent that I’m pretty sure I was just remembering having read that blog post and rephrasing it in my own words with my own examples.
So, let’s ignore preference cycles. The other thing I’ve come up with recently is that the scary things you put off are Just Scary and treating them that way might be more immediately useful than trying to figure out why they were scary. This doesn’t exactly apply this time around, because there wasn’t some specific scary task I was putting off.
But why not? Such tasks are clearly available on my list.
Several possible explanations.
- I have a certain stamina for doing scary things. Once I exceed that throughput, my mind moves up to avoiding even thinking about attempting scary things.
- Having a strategy for attempting scary tasks doesn’t help me, because I know that if I fail I not only fail at the original scary thing, I also fail at my strategy.
- It honestly never occurred to me I was supposed to be doing any of these things.
- It’s the long weekend and I want to enjoy it, damn it.
- Not having a specific plan for the day, it was easy to drift off and do low-value tasks.
Points 3 and 4 sounds suspicious to me. The fact that I have scary stuff that needs doing has pervaded my entire existence for so long I don’t think I’m going to just forget about it. And spending a lot of time on Facebook is not “enjoyment” as such. It’s just one of my default behaviours when other options are too aversive.
But thinking about point 4 brings something up. If I really wanted to try to enjoy the weekend, I would probably try and do some work on a programming project I recently thought up. This is problematic though.
The motivation for doing this was one of the previous posts I wrote, stating that it was necessary to find something to do with my time even if that thing wasn’t optimal. Fun programming is such a thing, and until I think of something better it’s actually optimal in some sense.
But I noticed some aversion even to this task which is so very much me. I was going to write a post about that here. And then I didn’t want to do that either.
Why has even writing here become aversive, at least in some cases? Is it because I’ve been doing it a lot and feel on some level it’s a waste of time? Or am I steering close to some insight which would be troubling if I made it explicit?
First of all: it’s difficult to say “I feel insecure about something”. I’m not sure I’ve ever said it face to face to somebody. If I did, though, I know what the reaction would be: “oh no you don’t have to feel insecure about that thing”.
But what if you just want it to be ok that you’re feeling insecure? Or not exactly ok, because feeling insecure feels really bad, but ok except for the part where you feel bad. Or that it’s ok that it’s not ok that you feel insecure, or something like that.
I think it was Anna Salamon who calls it the “it’s ok” game. It’s invoked whenever you’re not feeling ok about your own feelings, and generally it bottoms out on some level. In this case it’s simple enough: there’s something I feel insecure about here, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I feel ok that I feel that way. Other people might not, but they’re not reading this anyway so they don’t need to come into it.
So at a more object level, what’s the problem here? It has to do with making things, or the desire to do so.
I’m generally really bad at bringing self-directed projects to completion. And yet at the same time I have a strong desire to start them: I want to finish up life having left some thing behind, which may not turn out to be useful to anybody but at least has the chance that it might do.
Apparently not everyone feels that need. Some people are content just to experience life, and don’t feel a need to make everyone else’s life more convenient by creating some kind of tool for them?
That doesn’t cut it this time though. Creating something which ultimately has zero value, as most of my projects do, would be a real downer this time. And it’s strange because my motivations are similar to the depression example: if I’m actually just finding something to do with my time, this project (even if it never got finished) would suit that just fine.
If, on the other hand, I was trying to maximize utilitarian value then I wouldn’t bother with any of that stuff anyway and instead would be doing some EA thing. So what’s going on? I want status and recognition for having made something cool, or what?
I find myself checking Facebook at this point, and some kind of mental cloud pushing back on me (somewhat distinct from the original feeling of grumpiness which is also still there). This is a separate phenomenon from ugh fields, which for me seem to be about thoughts relating to considerations you’re well aware of but just don’t want to deal with right now. This time, I have no idea what my brain is trying to shield me from.
My cue for meditating on this is: what factor usually makes me want to make things, that this time makes me want to not make a thing?
It has to do with status and recognition, and wanting to impress certain people, and a tendency to be over-ambitious with projects, and my own sense of identity, and not being a cog in the machine, and being cleverer than average, and actually wanting the thing that I’m planning to make to exist so I can use it, and knowing that in general trying to make a tool exist because you want that tool is a terrible idea, and there not being enough time this weekend to finish anything substantial, and doubting my own seriousness with the project, and feeling that no-one would be interested in the project anyway, and not knowing anything about how to get a project like this beyond the initial prototyping and idea stage.
On the face of it, none of those should be much of a blocker if all I’m looking for is something to do to pass the time. But one of the criteria for that is that the activity is actually going to happen – which means it needs to consistently keep on seeming like a good idea. If the above considerations – and others that haven’t occurred to me yet – keep it from seeming that way, it’s not a good time-passer.
Is EA to blame for any of this? Absent any EA philosophy, there’s a sort of lottery consideration – my project will probably be garbage but may turn into something really cool. Within the EA framework, “really cool” may still come out way behind saving a few lives in terms of actual value created. And both can be accomplished with similar amounts of effort, maybe.
Sometimes I wonder if I just fully update on all the facts that my brain still seems to be stuck on, then my brain will just be able to work things out and I’ll do just great. In this case the problem would be “thinking like an EA” – if my hypothesis above is correct, it seems like I’ve partly got it right, in the sense that actions that don’t seem like they’ll translate into lots of happiness for lots of people seem less valuable. But what’s not being modelled are my own rationality failures, and how something which can help fix those even a little is going to be tremendously valuable compared to almost anything else.
It might be easier appreciating the value of an idea than appreciating the value of the work to make the idea happen.