I’m too lazy to check, but I think that the most popular topic among rationalist writers is akrasia – whatever is in your head that prevents you from doing what upon reflection you wish you did. Akrasia covers things like procrastination, lack of will, and poor sele control. It has you doing what’s easy right now over what’s useful long term.
Who’s worried about akrasia and procrastination? Who isn’t! Scott is. Eliezer is. Luke is. Robin is. Tim Urban wrote a bunch of posts about procrastination, then decided to do a TED talk about it, then procrastinated on preparing the actual talk to the point of near calamity. With so many great thinkers thinking about vanquishing akrasia it’s a surprise that akrasia still exists! Of course, maybe it doesn’t. But it probably does.
Being late to a topic that was already covered by smarter people never discouraged me before, so why do I not have a post about procrastination yet? You see, I was about to write that post, back in 2015. And then I started reading all those other posts about procrastination. And then I read some other interesting posts. And then I read about the amazing speciation of blue and red cichlids swimming past each other in Lake Victoria, and how it’s a perfect metaphor for the red/blue political bubbles in the US.
And somehow, that post didn’t end up being written.
You’re still here? I was hoping that ten shiny links would be enough to distract you. You’re probably here because you’re hoping I’ll tell you the secret to becoming a strong-willed, hyperproductive person. I wish I knew it! If I did, I would have told you back in 2015. I would also be rich, have chiseled abs, and would blog every day instead of every other week.
I’m not a Productive Person™ but I do have a messy and convoluted method that lets me get some things done each week and avoid being a total catastrophe. I’ll tell you about it. I won’t tell you because I hope to make you more productive – I couldn’t if I tried. I’ll tell you about it because I’m at work, and I don’t feel like working, and I’m short 9 time-points to stay on track for my weekly goal.
Productivity advice comes in two flavors. On one side, there’s rigorous scientific research of human motivation. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to turn “People compensate by strategically adjusting behavior in anticipation of their future motivational selves” into a plan that will actually get your inbox cleaned. On the other side are listicles tips that read like horoscopes – fun, until you realize that their advice is either impracticable or contradictory. Forget your mistakes but also learn from them! Ignore others but also embrace criticism! Be in the moment but also constantly remind yourself of death! The only thing everyone agrees on is that it’s important to make goals and track your progress towards them.
A few years ago, a guy named Daniel Reeves wrote on LessWrong that he’s launching an app to track your goals and progress, and he’s going to arm it with every science-based akrasia-busting trick known to the rationalist blogosphere. He and his cofounder called it Beeminder.
Beeminder has a blog that tells you what it’s about, but I have a blog too so I’ll tell you what it’s about instead. I see Beeminder’s model of akrasia as a coordination problem among your selves at different times, like Jacob.Now, Jacob.NextWeek and Jacob.2018. Jacob.2018 wants to be skinnier, but Jacob.Now wants to eat cake instead of going for a run. Jacob.NextWeek will want the same things as Jacob.Now, but if Jacob.Now doesn’t run 5 miles, Jacob.NextWeek will feel really guilty. Basically, every long term goal is achieved through a lot of short-term decisions, but every short term decision feels like it affects only the next few days.
Beeminder brings your time-selves into alignment by tracking cumulative goals, like running 500 miles in 2017. If I wanted to track this as a yearly goal, I would leave all the actual running for Jacob.October to do, which isn’t going to work. I could try breaking it into daily chunks, but it’s impossible to go on a run every single day for a year and run precisely 1.37 miles each time. Beeminder tracks your long-term progress with a medium-term buffer, like a week. To stay on track for 500, I would need to run about 10 miles a week, no matter how they’re broken up into separate runs. This allows Jacob.Now and Jacob.NextWeek to find a compromise that will keep Jacob.2018 happy.
Of course, a track isn’t worth much if you wander off it. Beeminder keeps you honest and itself solvent by making you pay cash money if you stray off track. The amount at stake starts from just $5 when you derail the first couple of times, the amount increases until the threat is severe enough to keep you committed.
Another thing the app does is help you fight the weasely weasel that lives in the heart of every wanna-bee. For example, Beeminder knows that it’s much easier psychologically to “forget” logging than to lie outright. So, Beeminder lets you avoid paying if you write them with an excuse but never if you just neglect to enter data. Goals can only be canceled with a week’s delay – that’s roughly how long it takes good judgment to overcome short term impulsivity. You also have the option of tracking data automatically via everything from step trackers to Duolingo, all with the goal of making weaseling harder.
I was sufficiently impressed to try it out.
I started by Beeminding a bunch of things at once. I Beeminded blogging (at least 1500 words per week, including edits) and brushing my teeth (at least 12). I Beeminded calorie logging, hours of sleep, coding exercises… and after a couple of months, I stopped. I hit an unexpected obstacle: Beeminding itself, easy though the app made it, was the chore I didn’t want to do.
For simple things, I felt like Beeminder was a needless complication – I didn’t need an app to tell me how often I brushed my teeth. For harder things Beeminder was more useful but also annoying – I enjoyed writing more than I enjoyed figuring out how many words I have written.
I decided I should Beemind just one thing, something that’s easy enough to track on a daily basis but complex enough that I would need an app to monitor it. Some way to take all my goals and motivations, my fitness, education, social life and future plans, and condense them into a single number that I can calculate at the end of the day.
Trying to measure complex things with a single number may seem like a strange pursuit, but I’m the dude who called his blog Put A Number on It. I’m the dude who saw a single currency run a military base, uses a single happiness measure to decide what to buy, and came up with a single score for comparing girlfriends. This is my weird hobby.
At first, I thought about converting various outcomes I hoped to achieve to a single scale of desirability. But progress towards outcomes is hard to quantify, and it’s too hard to compare say “losing 10 pounds” to “growing the blog”. As my mind kept thinking about matrices and procrastination I stumbled upon The Procrastination Matrix, written by the man who put the “pro” in “procrastination”, Tim Urban.
Tim gets to the core of what procrastination looks like outside your head: a misuse of time. You should be spending your time on what’s important and kinda urgent, then on what’s important and not urgent. Instead, you find yourself spending a bit of time on whatever is most urgent (panic monster), and then on whatever is immediately gratifying (the monkey).
I decided to track what I spend my time on, in half hour increments throughout the day. I opened Google Sheets and wrote down a long list of everything I do, from playing ping pong to reading Twitter on the subway. I assigned each activity 1 or 2 points if it was important. I added a point if it was not urgent, since what’s urgent would get done anyway. I subtracted a point if something was really fun and added a point for things I hate doing, so the points would balance out the intrinsic pleasure.
I ended up with following categories:
-2 points for each half an hour spent at a screen (TV/internet) after midnight, or awake for any reason after 1 am.
0 points for filler activities, like sleep, commute or reading blogs. I’m sorry, you’re not earning any credit right now.
1 point for reading books and walking, two things that are positive but I’d do them anyway. Reading and walking are what I do on vacation.
2 points for things that are important but that I would do anyway because of outside pressure (my actual job, cooking) or because I love doing them (time with my fiancee and friends, playing sports).
3 points for important activities whose benefits are too long-term to be immediately motivating: gym, self-study, blogging.
And 4 points for each half hour doing something that primarily benefits others, like volunteering or helping a friend in need.
Here’s what a useful day looks like for me:
This isn’t a system for world-beating overachievers, but a baseline of 30 points a day forces me to spend some portion of my time productively every week. It allows me to substitute tasks based on mood: if I was planning to go to the gym but am not feeling up to it, I’ll spend the time blogging to make up the points when otherwise I would have just played video games. If I find myself neglecting or overdoing some activity, I can adjust the points up or down as needed.
Another benefit of the system is that it forces me to do a weekly review, which is widely proselytized as a productivity hack. When I clear out the weekly spreadsheet on Monday I have an honest conversation with both Jacob.LastWeek and Jacob.NextWeek. If I have an important task I need to get done, I can bet myself points that I’ll get it done before the end of the week and add those to the score – I went 5 points in the hole last week for not finishing this post by Sunday.
Finally, Beeminder allows all of you to see how well I’m spending my time. The answer is: not so great . In February I had 8 days of breathing room and now I’m down to 4. I did spend two and half hours today writing the second half of this blog post, so that’s going to give me some sorely needed 15 points. Thanks, y’all!
Should you run and create your own “Time Well Spent” system? Probably not. I’m the kind of weirdo who finds it easier to track what I do in half-hour increments than to brush my teeth twice a day.
Every species of bee is different. My advice is to keep mucking around until you find a system that works for you, read up to gain more clarity into your own brain, and use tools that are based on smart principles like Beeminder.
And remember: those who can be productive – do, and those who can’t – blog about productivity.