what rational me would do

I caught myself thinking “a more rational version of myself, in this circumstance, would do such-and-such”.

I don’t think that very often, of course, but it’s really valuable to capture it when it happens because it gives a strong clue that either I should be doing such-and-such, or if that doesn’t seem like such a good thing to be doing at least there’s some complexity I hadn’t thought of that I should fold into my model of how rational me should behave.

Anyway, I resolved that one.

But that of course got me thinking “what would a more rational version of myself do next?”. I thought for a minute or so. The first thing that came to mind was that I needed to be ready for work tomorrow, but it seemed like I basically was and no particular action was needed. The next thing that came to mind was to start tackling some of the annoying paperwork that is basically my go-to example of myself not behaving rationally.

I’ve been putting it off.

A recent insight was that there might be more anxiety involved than I thought, but in any case it still needs doing. So if that was to be my short term goal, how was I to go about it?

The first answer that came to mind was “man up and just do it”. This has a certain amount of weight to it: while I’ve deliberated about this kind of problem a lot, I’ve been averse to just getting my hands dirty and doing things when they hurt.


It’s not obviously the right thing. If you’re akratic you can’t just do stuff – the best you can really manage is to intend to do something quite strongly, and then it will actually end up happening with some probability. In two recent examples, intending to do something translated into “I won’t let myself go to bed until it’s done”, and that in turn translated into staying up until 4am feeling very anxious with the thing not even started.

It may be that in some sense I wasn’t trying hard enough and you can in fact just do stuff. But the fact that I set out to do just that on two occasions and failed (it doesn’t always happen this way of course) suggests that if that’s so it at least involves a technique that I don’t know about yet.

So instead of that approach, I decided to write down a few different general-purpose approaches to tackling aversive tasks, rate them and then see what happened from there. The approaches were:

  • Man up and just do it
  • Something like “wash one spoon”, which I’ll explain more below
  • Analyze my own motivations in the hope of an insight
  • Clear my mind, mostly by clearing up some physical clutter.

The wash one spoon approach is named after washing the dishes, where if you’ve averse for some reason you start off intending to just wash a single spoon, and by the time you’re through with that you might find washing the next few items to be less aversive. What I had in mind is almost that but not quite. But anyway I’m getting ahead of myself.

With these four options, I looked over them and though about the negative feelings that came up and how I could categorize them. The main ones were: “ugh”, “I’ve tried this sort of thing before and it didn’t work”, and “It’s not obvious what the first step would be”. Since these are expressed negatively, I gave each option a score with 1 being the “best” (i.e. that particular consideration applies the least), and 5 being the worst.

This resulted in a winner, which happened to be number 4, the “declutter” approach. I didn’t feel entirely happy about this though, so what I did was think about why I wasn’t happy with it, which turned out to be “I expect to get distracted or demotivated part way through”, and again scored each of the four options according to that. It was still winning and I still didn’t feel happy, so the next consideration was “unclear end goal” i.e. I could carry on decluttering and decluttering and it wouldn’t be obvious when I should stop and start instead doing the original thing.

Anyway, with that folded in, there was a new winner. This is what the table looked like:

Ugh Already tried No first step Distract Unclear end Total
Man up 5 3 4 5 1 18
Wash one spoon 3 2 3 3 2 13
Analyze 1 5 2 3 5 16
Declutter 2 1 2 5 5 15

I’m not sure how I feel about this approach to decision-making. It seems pretty obviously cheatable, i.e. you can get whichever thing you want to win just by thinking up objections to whichever one happened to be in the lead. With “wash one spoon” I wasn’t able to really think of any objections that were easily scoreable, but also it was just the one I felt best about.

So it probably isn’t the best technique for figuring out which approach actually has the highest probability of succeeding. But it might help you figure out which you feel happiest about in cases where it’s ambiguous, and sometimes that’s enough information on its own.

Anyway, my own particular take on washing one spoon here is to take little bites into the task until it starts feeling scaring, and preferably then overcoming that first scary thing. At least while it’s not scary there’s no real reason not to carry on doing the next logical thing (unless interrupted by bedtime or some other appointment). I can’t say how well it will work – that’s reflected in only being a “2” in the “already tried” column. But I’ve mentioned something like it on here before, and it looks promising.

This time it worked – the first step was the same as the first step the last time I brought this up, which is to open the envelopes of the annoying mail without committing to actually look inside them, by which time curiosity may take over and I look inside anyway. If I don’t feel scared about what I see then I can go ahead and deal with them. (Often what’s inside is more confusing than actually scary, and I can deal with that a bit better).

(Also worth noting that what I originally thought would be the obviously best approach, manning up, only ended up being ranked number 4. I don’t know if there’s any kind of lesson there, other than that it’s just worth taking the time to think about things sometimes and not let myself be railroaded).

In general, though, this washing one spoon approach might work more effectively if I first include a decision table as outlined above, to choose between different approaches first. This would also allow me to try new techniques as they occur to me.

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