Enjoying the feeling of agency

1

Most ideas need at least one champion. There is a moment when ideas are forming — be it over drinks at a bar, during a brainstorming session at work, or in the moments after a teacher has assigned groups to a project — where you personally have the opportunity to take initiative and ensure that an idea gets realized.

Not every idea should be realized. Many ideas aren't worth your time. But at the same time, many valuable ideas never come to fruition because nobody steps up to take the initiative. Most humans go with the flow most of the time: in order to change the status quo, somebody first needs to take responsibility.

Humans can do some pretty incredible things, when they put their minds to it. The ability to take initiative and cause a plan to succeed (when, by default, it would have withered and and died) is known as "agency." My next few posts will be for people who want to become more agentic.

2

Imagine a student on a rainy afternoon with a big unpleasant project due in two weeks: they might begin to consider working on the project now, only to find the very idea to be somehow slippery. Their thoughts just slide around the possibility, finding other things to do with their free time instead, refusing to fully consider working on the unpleasant project until shortly before the deadline.

Picture someone with rotten leftovers in their fridge, and imagine how their thoughts route around the idea of dealing with the problem: they close off their nose when they open the fridge door, and their gaze slides over the takeout containers, but the idea of actually dealing with the problem never comes to mind.

Imagine getting a parking ticket, and leaving the bright pink slip of paper on your table, and finding that your gaze somehow slides over it for two weeks without you ever consciously deciding to procrastinate.

LessWrong calls this an "ugh field", and these things occur whenever it becomes difficult to think about doing something because the very thought of the thing is unpleasant.

There is a lot of power to be had in training yourself to notice ugh fields. I won't be talking too much about the art of noticing, but you can read more here. Instead, I'll be talking about what to do once you've noticed.

The obvious response, once you notice that you're avoiding a thought, is to think the thought. The student would do well to focus for a moment on whether doing the project now will lead to more pleasure over time. The person with the rotten leftovers would do well to stop and think about throwing them out now (as opposed to later, when they smell worse). The person with the parking ticket would do well to stop and weigh the consequences of paying it now rather than later (when there are late fees). In many cases, breaking through an ugh field is much easier if you know how to cooperate with your future selves. Again, this is an important skill to learn, but again, it is not the focus of today's post.

Say that you've noticed an ugh field around smelly leftovers, and decided to take them out now rather than later. Now what? Do you force yourself to take out the leftovers now? Because I am not a fan of forcing oneself to act. Willpower is a stopgap measure; any plan that requires continuous application of willpower is doomed.

Instead, my suggestion is this: install a part of yourself that enjoys doing things that are supposed to be difficult.

3

I'm not entirely sure how to start enjoying things at will, but there are at least three things that help:

  • Permission: if your social circle considers a certain food to be a delicacy, it's much easier to enjoy it greatly.
  • Context and framing: it's much easier to draw satisfaction from a clean room if your mother didn't make you clean it.
  • Explicitly noticing the enjoyable parts: given the right context and framing, I quite enjoy cleaning the dishes, in part because I enjoy the feeling of warm water and soap on my hands.

When it comes to ugh fields, naming the concept helps with permission: once you realize that ugh fields are a silly thing that brains build by default, it can feel good to notice and break them. Empathy for your future self can help with context and framing: if you care about your future self as much as your present self, it can feel virtuous to throw out bad food before the smell gets worse.

But what of explicitly noticing the enjoyable parts? Personally, when I have a tangible feeling to focus on (such as warm water and soap while washing dishes), it becomes much easier to enjoy an experience. What is the analog for breaking ugh fields?

The analog is to notice the feeling of agency, to notice the fact that you can do what you put your mind to even when default human psychology is stacked against you. This is a feeling worth enjoying — if you can remember to notice it for a moment or two when it happens, then hopefully you can train your subconscious to eagerly anticipate the feeling of approaching an ugh field.

4

About four months ago, two bike seats were stolen from two bikes outside the office where I work. One of those bike seats was mine. Noticing this felt bad: theft is somewhat violating, and being immobilized when you're in a rush is also quite annoying. My schedule was tight that day, and I felt quite a bit of pressure to ignore the problem, walk to where I was going, and solve the problem later when I had time to go to the bike shop.

But, of course, every day feels busy in the moment. One never has time, one makes time. I noticed that the default action was to ignore the stolen bike seat indefinitely, leave the rest of the bike locked up, and eventually develop an ugh field around the problem. I noticed, with this, an opportunity for agency: I could, in fact, delay my next meeting by an hour and take the bike into the shop immediately.

So I did.

The second bike has not yet had its seat replaced. It remains locked up there, unused, and each day, it serves as a small reminder that agency is not the human default.

For me, this is a daily power signal, a reminder that I can act where others fail to, a reminder that I can cause the world to be a little more how I want it to be, even in the face of mental inertia that many find difficult to overcome. I expect that the reminder of agency would be interpreted very differently by different people; the important point is this:

If you have the opportunity to be agentic, take it — and appreciate it. It is a rare thing.

5

Most people, upon acquiring an annoying responsibility (such as paying a parking ticket or replacing a bike seat), avoid thinking about it and start developing an ugh field. If the problem will not, in fact, disappear when ignored, then it must be dealt with eventually. One powerful way to deal with it now rather than later is to recognize an opportunity to demonstrate agency.

Notice and enjoy the fact that you can do things that are traditionally hard for humans, when you put your mind to it. If you focus on this good feeling, you can train your subconscious to enjoy opportunities to demonstrate agency, and this is a solid first stride on the path to becoming more agentic.

The skill generalizes beyond ugh fields: the general technique is something like "steering towards the hard parts," and I'll discuss this more in coming posts. In the meantime, I encourage you to stay on the lookout for small opportunities to demonstrate (and self-signal) agency.