Sunday, 7 August 2011


I'm trying to figure out how to train conscientiousness.

When I imagine how a formidable rationalist would act, I imagine a particular superpower: achieving the things he or she sets out to do.

Part of this superpower is the skill of planning: choosing what goals to achieve, breaking them down into subtasks which are achievable, and so on. I'm not going to talk about planning now, though that seems important.

Instead, I'm going to talk about another required skill: conscientiousness -- following through on your plans. This means doing all the steps, not just the ones you feel like doing; doing them in a timely fashion, before your plans go stale; cutting down on procrastination and other forms of akrasia; and keeping your effectiveness high even when your motivation flags.

Since these appear to have synergistic effects, I categorize them all under "conscientiousness." Some synergistic effects: if you're working efficiently, you will quickly finish things you don't want to do, so you can get onto more fun tasks. Checking things off of a list produces positive feedback and improves your motivation level.

My own recent successes:
  • I am most of the way through signing up for cryonics, which is a stupid long and painful process involving talking to lots of people and waiting for bits of paper to go through the mail system. (Lots of people decide that they want cryonics in general, but that they don't want it now, or something like that, when in reality, if they're young, they can get it now for less than $400/year.)
  • I adopted about six new small daily habits: planning every day; brushing my teeth consistently in the morning; doing Anki and N-back; taking a multivitamin.
  • I use to-do lists regularly and they make me get all the little things done that I used to waste time on.
  • I created a better model of my own procrastination / time-wasting habits, and apply it regularly to reduce these behaviors: I browse Reddit or Hacker News when I'm "bored" of whatever I'm doing, but I've changed my default response to boredom from "do something fun and idle" to "go figure out why you're bored".
I still have a long way to go, but there were a few fundamental insights which caused me to put everything together and start developing this model.

The first useful model I built was when I read about ego depletion: the idea that self-control is a resource which can be used up. The main thing I learned from this was just that self-control isn't all-powerful in my own head. When I was younger, I used to have the belief that I was very much in control of my own actions and that if I decided I wanted to do something difficult, I just had to try hard enough. I was disabused of this when I tried to stop biting my fingernails through sheer willpower (I still have never solved this habit), or tried to work on a boring project for a long period of time. I was amazed at how much I was able to rationalize why I couldn't work on it "today" every day. I could summon the willpower to start working on it, but I couldn't maintain it for a long period of time without a different motivational structure.

The second useful piece of the model was my brain as a set of interconnected agents, each with its own needs and goals. This came from Rationality Boot Camp and it came to me through the sessions about The Elephant and the Rider -- IFS and mind-charting (a topic which I intended to, but never wrote about -- whoops). Basically, my brain is not unified in its goals, but instead it has lots of agents. I should individually optimize those agents so they don't block me from my higher level goals.

The third useful piece of the model comes from positive affect and conditioning. I can make myself want to do something by getting positive feedback when I do that thing, so if I am trying to find out how to convince myself to do something, I better figure out why I would enjoy it, or how I could make myself enjoy doing that thing.

Specific techniques I've used:

"I'll just do it for 3 minutes" -- I think I read this one on Hacker News. It only takes a bit of self-control to convince yourself to start doing a task if you know it'll only be for a short time. Once you're doing it, maybe you'll actually enjoy it and want to keep doing it. This works for me when I have a complicated programming or administration task I don't want to do, because those sorts of things are hard to motivate myself to start doing, but once I start doing it, I don't usually want to stop.

"Imagine the goals it serves" -- as Anna calls it, the "use fungibility procedure". I wrote about this before, but I'll say it again, because it comes up a lot: notice you're doing some action, figure out what goals it serves, figure out if there are other ways to achieve those goals, and then check for resistance along the new plan you've conceived. This is useful even if you're pretty sure you're achieving your goals optimally -- it is quick and it allows you to be more likely to notice options that might have just opened up, and it also makes sure you know where you're going with anything you do.

When I notice someone (including myself) saying "you should probably X" or "I should really Y", I now have a really strong affordance where I ask "when will you do that?" Tons of people seem to decide they SHOULD do something that they never really do. Automatically asking "when?" has two purposes: it asks you to commit to doing a thing which is beneficial; and it helps you notice your own bullshit, when you don't actually intend to do the thing you say you "should".

Related: asking "what's the next action?" for all your goals, all the time. (Once you've figured out the next action, figure out when you'll take that step.)

"Planning is good": You can actually achieve a lot by thinking, being strategic, analyzing your goals, figuring out other routes to achieving them, and so on. An hour a day of planning is a fair bit more than most people do, and depending on their goals, lots of people would benefit from well over that. Basically, it seems like opportunities appear all the time, but you have to regularly write down your goals to notice them. I don't think I'm averaging anywhere near an hour a day yet, but it seems like a goal to achieve. (What's the next action? Spend an hour today meta-planning!)

Keeping a notebook: I write every day in my notebook. I take five minutes every morning to plan -- write down my short, medium, and long-term goals. The notebook serves as my general scratch pad for planning too. I rarely reference anything in my notebook, but having something on paper while I'm planning serves to greatly clarify my thoughts. (Don't know if it's better than random sheets of paper -- it's more viscerally satisfying I guess, and I don't have to go hunting for pen and paper.)

Making a to-do list. When I notice I have more than a couple things to do in the day, I write them all down in one place in my notebook and check them off. It seems much easier and more satisfying than doing it in my head. (Current goal: when I start school, start a proper Getting Things Done inbox, which collects everything I need to do in one place. Next action: buy a damn box.)

If you have any ideas about how you've learned the skill of conscientiousness, please share them in the comments.


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  2. Great post! Some other strategies:

    Contrasting: Imagine the benefits that would come from achieving your goal and then imagine the obstacles that could arise, preventing you from fulfilling the goal. While fantasizing about only the benefits or obstacles reduces motivation, Gabriele Oettingen's work has shown contrasting the two increases the chances of success.

    Time tracking: Keeping a log of your time use has the dual benefits of keeping you on-task since slacking is recorded and giving you a better sense of how your time is actually used. There are apps like RescueTime for this if most of your work is on a computer. I've had better luck doing it on paper with David Seah's forms. Setting a regular or random timer helps remind you to actually log the data.

    Quitting time saving throws: You've been working for a while and feel like quitting. Before you do though, roll a d20. You must work that many more minutes before you can take a break.

  3. I've had a lot of success with attacking something I don't really want to do with the thought that I'll just spend 3 minutes to get it started and then I can pick it up again later.

    Many times I want to finish it and actually enjoy doing it much more than I thought I would. Often I will just finish it... and if not, it is actually a lot easier to pick up again later because the hard part was getting it started.

    As for conscientiousness, I think meditation has helped me to take a step outside my thoughts and ask what am I thinking about right now and why? Are these thoughts helpful to anything that I really want to accomplish?

    It can still be really difficult to force myself to stop a particularly negative or non-productive train of thought... but recognizing it and deciding that I don't want to go there is the first step.

    Then replacing it with a positive, goal-oriented thought is the next step. (I hope to get to step 2 someday :-)