Habitual Productivity

[Note: backported from LessWrong]

I was able to maintain high productivity for extended periods of time and achieve some difficult goals. In this and the following posts I will discuss some personality quirks and techniques that helped me do this. This post is fairly self-expository. I claim no originality, this is simply an account of how I operate.

Secret number one: Productivity is a habit of mine. As I mentioned in the previous post, I've been following a similar schedule for years: two days doing social things, five days doing something constructive. Before I turned my efforts towards FAI research, this mainly consistent of programming, writing, and self-education.

This habit was not sufficient to get the high productivity I attained in the last few months, but it was definitely necessary.

I understand that this is not helpful advice: "I'm habitually productive" just passes the buck. "Ah", you ask, "but how did you turn productivity into a habit?" For that, I have an ace up my sleeve:

I deplore fun.

Ok, not really. However, I do have a strong aversion to activities that I find unproductive. This aversion is partly innate and partly developed. It first became explicit at the age of nine or ten, when I read The Phantom Tollbooth:

"KILLING TIME!" roared the dog—so furiously that his alarm went off. "It's bad enough wasting time without killing it." And he shuddered at the thought.

This quote stuck with me. Time is scarce, and I certainly didn't want to kill any.

I developed an explicit distaste for boredom, and went out of my way to avoid it. I kept books near me at all times. I invented stories and thought up new plots when drifting off to sleep. I invented mental puzzles to keep me entertained during class, including a stint in my teens where I worked out the base 12 multiplication tables. Later, I put spare mental cycles towards considering my code, probing edge cases or considering alternative designs (a practice that is no doubt familiar to all programmers).

This distaste broadened as I aged. I grew to realize that I didn't just want to be doing things, I wanted to be doing useful things. My disdain started spreading towards other activities, ones that didn't forward my long-term goals. The memories are hazy, and I'm not sure whether this caused or was caused by my naïve resolution to save the world (or a whole tangle of other factors), but I know the two were linked.

Before long, I began to view escapism as a guilty pleasure: fun and addictive, but unsatisfying. Things like hiking and going to parties became almost a chore: I superficially enjoyed them, sure, but I yearned to be elsewhere, doing something permanent. Even reading fiction took on a pang of guilt. I valued things that moved me forward, that honed my skills or moved me closer to my terminal goals. I wanted to be building things, improving things.

This is my first secret weapon: I lost the ability to be satisfied by unproductive activity.

This was not particularly pleasant.

As I got older, I struggled to balance social activities that were supposed to be fun with all of the things that I wanted to learn and build. All forms of entertainment were weighed against their opportunity cost. This wasn't an elegant phase of my life: I was still a teenager, and I yearned for social validation, strong friendships, and adventures just as much as my peers. Trouble was, I was caught in a catch 22: when I squirreled away in my room being "productive" I felt like I was missing out, and when I went outside to have "adventures" I only wanted to be elsewhere. I vacillated wildly for a few years before coming to terms with myself.

These days, I aim to spend about two evenings a week (one on weekdays, one on weekends) doing something that's traditionally fun. I spend the rest of my time doing things that sate my neverending desire to march towards my goals.

It's interesting to note that, in the end, there wasn't really a compromise. The productivity side just flat-out won: I eventually realized that human interaction is necessary for mental health and that a solid social network is invaluable. I don't mean to imply that I engage in social interaction because I've calculated that it's necessary: I really do enjoy social interaction, and I really want to be able to enjoy it without guilt. Rather, it's more like I've found an excuse that allows me to both enjoy myself and sate the thirst. That said, it's still difficult for me to disengage sometimes.

This is also not the most helpful advice, I realize: I'm good at being productive in part because I'm bad at being satisfied unless my current task forwards my active goals. This isn't exactly something you can practice.

Unless you're into mind hacking, I suppose. (Note: At this point in the post, set your "humor" dials to "dry".)

When I was quite young, one of the guests at our house refused to eat processed food. I remember that I offered her some fritos and she refused. I was fairly astonished, and young enough to be socially inept. I asked, incredulous, how someone could not like fritos. To my surprise, she didn't brush me off or feed me banal lines about how different people have different tastes. She gave me the answer of someone who had recently stopped liking fritos through an act of will. Her answer went something like this: "Just start noticing how greasy they are, and how the grease gets all over your fingers and coats the inside of the bag. Notice that you don't want to eat things soaked in that much grease. Become repulsed by it, and then you won't like them either."

Now, I was a stubborn and contrary child, so her ploy failed. But to this day, I still notice the grease. This woman's technique stuck with me. She picked out a very specific property of a thing she wanted to stop enjoying and convinced herself that it repulsed her.

If I were trying to start hating fun (and I remind you that I'm not trying, because I already do, and that you shouldn't try, because it's no fun) then this is the route I would recommend: Recognize those little discomforts that underlie your escapism, latch on to them, and blow them completely out of proportion. (Disclaimer: I am not a mindwizard; I've no doubt there are better ways to change your affections if you're in to mindhacking.)

Note that such mindhacking is a Dark Art which you should not pursue. Side effects may include:

  • Experiencing guilt when you should be having a grand old time.
  • Attempting to complete hikes as fast as possible so you can get back to what you were working on.
  • A propensity to get more tense when you're supposed to be relaxing.
  • A tendency to bring books to live concerts so that you can multitask.

Furthermore, I imagine that this can backfire reaaaly hard: if you manage to develop a strong revulsion for unproductive activities but still can't force yourself to stop browsing reddit (or whatever your vice) then you run a big risk of hitting a willpower-draining death spiral.

So I'm really not recommending that you try this mindhack. But if you already have spikes of guilt after bouts of escapism, or if you house an arrogant disdain for wasting your time on TV shows, here are a few mantras you can latch on to to help yourself develop a solid hatred of fun (I warn you that these are calibrated for a 14 year old mind and may be somewhat stale):

  • When skiing, partying, or generally having a good time, try remembering that this is exactly the type of thing people should have an opportunity to do after we stop everyone from dying.
  • When doing something transient like watching TV or playing video games, reflect upon how it's not building any skills that are going to make the world a better place, nor really having a lasting impact on the world.
  • Notice that if the world is to be saved then it really does need to be you who saves it, because everybody else is busy skiing, partying, reading fantasy, or dying in third world countries.

It also helps if you're extraordinarily arrogant and you house a deep-seated belief in civilizational inadequacy.

(You may now disengage your humor shielding.)

I strongly recommend finding a different and preferably healthier route to habitual productivity. The point of this exposition is that for me, a quirk of my psychology led me to a schedule where I spend my days doing things that lead towards my goals.

My distaste for other activities is not the thing that is driving me, per se: it has merely pushed me towards a certain lifestyle, it has helped me develop a certain habit. That habit is the foundation for my recent achievements.

If you can structure your life such that productive things are the things that you do by default, the things that you do in your free time when you have nothing else on your plate, then you will be in good shape. When "do something that forwards your goals" is the fallback plan then it becomes much easier to scale your efforts up.

The way that I built such structure into my own life was pretty personalized and likely unhealthy, but I'm quite content with the end result. So that's my advice for the day: if you can, try to make your default actions useful. Find a way to make productivity habitual.

When forming habits, repetition is very important. If you're trying to be highly productive, consider starting by being a little productive with high regularity. Humans are very habitual creatures, and establishing a habit of completing easier tasks may pay off in the long run.

Even if you start with the easier tasks, though, you're going to need a good chunk of motivation to successfully form a habit of doing things that require effort. In these waters swims Akrasia, a most ancient enemy. I meant to delve more into the sources of my motivation and some tricks I use to avoid akrasia, but I've run out of time. Further posts will follow.