Enjoying the context change

Imagine there's a project you want finished — for concreteness, pretend there's a paper you want written. You start trying to write it, and find yourself surfing facebook. You start trying to write again, and find yourself reading webcomics. You are now officially procrastinating.

Then, eventually, either by circumstance, force of will, or perhaps necessity (as the deadline draws closer) you finally actually start writing. Then the hours slip away unnoticed, and the paper gets finished.

I don't know about you, but for me, the difficult part of motivation is the context change, the switch from not-working to immersed: once I can get into the right headspace (known colloquially as "flow" or "the zone"), it's usually easy for me to continue working. I need to pass a Willpower Check in order to begin, but I don't need to make repeated Willpower Rolls in order to keep going.

The catch is, I don't like spending any willpower, except as a last resort: any plan that relies on repeated application of willpower is suspect, as far as I'm concerned. Fortunately, there are lots of motivation tools available that can help you perform a context change without applying sheer force of will: you can get a study partner, or gamify the task, or train a habit, and so on. But there's another tool that I find particularly useful, and which is related to the theme of my last three posts.

By now, you might be able to guess what this technique looks like:

(1) Train yourself to explicitly notice the feeling of procrastination, of avoiding a context change. For me, there's a specific sort of mental slipperyness associated with not being able to seriously contemplate actually staring at the blank text file until words come out. The feeling of slipperyness has some of the character of an ugh field, combined with a soft note of discord that plays when I attempt to begin the context change, a feeling that I can do it, but only if forced. The feeling may be different for you, but start keeping an eye out for times when you're procrastinating, and start noticing what that mental state feels like.

This feeling is the thing you could steamroll with brute force of will, but you know how I feel about using brute force of will. So instead, I recommend:

(2) Start seeing this resistance as an opportunity to exhibit agency and win back time from the Procrastination Gods; start enjoying the puzzle of figuring out how to initiate a context change without spending willpower.

This is exactly the same technique I recommended for forbidden conversations and learned blankness, in slightly different clothing. In my case, the part of myself that enjoys noticing that I'm in procrastination-headspace is closely related to the part of me that enjoys the raw feeling of agency. I enjoy opportunities to demonstrate to myself that akrasia doesn't need to apply to me; I appreciate opportunities to self-signal personal control. I get some thrills from defying akrasia, in spite of all the cognitive algorithms that make this difficult. Regardless of how you go about enjoying the feeling, though, the important thing is to notice and appreciate the opportunity to bust procrastination.

This alone won't stop procrastination: it just makes you eager to try. In my case, after noticing that starting work feels slippery, I deploy a number of procrastination-busting tools: First, I check whether or not I really need to complete the task (If not, problem solved). Second, I check for ways to Cheat and make the task easier (no sense doing hard work needlessly). Third, I check whether I need a nap, food, or a break. Fourth, I ask myself if there's an interesting task that I could substitute for the boring one without harm. If none of these things work, I may take a minute to clear my mind and focus, or I may check whether I want to do a Pomodoro, or I may go grab a friend and have them watch me for ten minutes to ensure that I actually carry out the context change.

Enjoying the feeling of busting procrastination isn't alone enough to bust procrastination, but it puts me into a state where I enjoy finding a way to induce a context-change without spending willpower; and that, in turn, makes procrastination less of a problem.

Next time you notice yourself procrastinating, remember that it can be very rewarding to bust procrastination, and see if you can find a way to induce a context change without spending willpower. If you succeed, don't forget to focus on that feeling of success.

If you can get your subconscious to eagerly enjoy defying akrasia, then it's only a matter of time before you build up a personal anti-procrastination toolbox that works for you.