Mental overrides


The last few posts contained some Serious Advice that helped me become much more productive in the past. Today's post is much more of a cheap trick, but it's helped me out once or twice.

For this post, it is especially important to remember the law of equal and opposite advice. I discuss how I've recruited my inner penny-pinching/hoarding impulse to help me avoid unwanted "addictions" to long book series, TV shows, video games, and programming rabbit holes.

The advice here will clearly be somewhat difficult to apply if you don't have an internal penny-pincher/hoarder.

Also, it's probably easy to read this post and feel bad because you like watching TV shows, playing video games, or diving into code-related rabbit holes. This is a technique that I use to avoid unwanted addiction to long media (and that feeling of helplessly watching yourself binge). I don't suggest using this to take the fun out of reflectively approved activities.


I have the "penny pincher" impulse, and relatedly the "hoarder" impulse, and as a result I take cautious and long-term stances on scarce resource usage by default.

(This leads to behaviors such as an aversion to throwing out old trinkets, a tendency not to use any of the "good" items in video games "just in case," a tendency to "save the best parts for last" while eating, a tendency to frontload hard work ostensibly so that I can take it easy later, and so on.)

Furthermore, I am capable of getting addicted to things that I'd rather not be addicted to, including book series, programming projects (just one more rabbit hole I swear), video games, and TV shows. In the throes of such addictions, I often have a sensation of part of myself wanting to stop, but powerlessly riding along anyway.

I mostly addressed this problem by deregulating distraction, but there's also a mental parlor trick that has occasionally helped.

When in the throes of one of these addictions, it is not just the "voice of reason" that wants to get out. There are many parts in my mental mob which are averse to the addictive state. There is a sort of tunnel vision, of narrowing-of-focus and restriction-of-thought, and a sense of helplessness or powerlessness, that most of me dislikes (and which can lead to depressive slumps after an addictive binge).

When in the addictive state, there are clearly parts of my mind that just want to keep reading/coding/playing/consuming, and they're also usually powerful enough to win, but it's also usually the case that most of me agrees that it would be good to have a way to pop out of the addictive state at will, if I should decide to do so.

So I formed a "sacred pact" with myself by essentially handing myself an "override phrase" which throws me into all-out "escape this addiction at all costs" mode. It's a precommitment to "actually try" to stop bingeing, and it's proven useful in a number of ways.


I'm not going to talk too much about how to make a mental "sacred pact", except to say that it becomes quite a bit easier after you've gained a lot of self-trust (via methods such as self-signalling self-loyalty).

It's sort of hard to describe what I mean by a "sacred pact," but to continue with the "mind mob" analogy from last post, one of the primary components of making a sacred pact with yourself is that the mob has to ask the voice of reason to do it.

If the voice of reason is like "hey this seems like a good idea, I'm going to install some mental override phrases that let me regain control when I want to do something the mob doesn't like," then when you're actually binge-watching some TV show and you try to use them, the mob will likely respond with the old "haha, yeah, no. Can't you see I'm busy starting the next episode?"

If, instead, you notice the feeling of helplessness or powerlessness while in the middle of things, and you notice some non-verbal part of yourself that is begging you to find some way to pop out and step off this well-worn path, then you're in business.

Treat with that feeling, of helplessness or tappedness, and make a pact with that thing. Promise it that that if it calls, you will move the heavens and the earth to answer.


Normally, I'm a strong proponent of using the voice of reason primarily for course correction and advice. Motivation is mostly about getting your mob pointed in the right direction and then letting it do its thing. Fighting your own internal mob has never been too pleasant, for me. In almost all cases, I recommend strongly against using internal mental force to make yourself to do something unpleasant.

This "override" is an exception, an explicit note from the mob to the voice of reason that reads as follows:

We have lost control and can no longer act in our own best interest. Please wrest control away from us for so long as it takes to get back to where we want to be, and ignore any resistance in the interim.

The mental override is a nuclear option. It's a promise to destroy the addiction as totally as possible, eliminating not only local desires to continue the addiction, but all future desire and future possibilities of relapse, potentially via an uncomfortable application of internal force. This is not expected to be a pleasant experience.

(Though to be clear, my mental mob is not afraid of the override. I have a mental compartment labeled "break this glass in the case of finding yourself helplessly doing something you don't want to," and inside there is a button labeled "nuke the problem from orbit." The nuking process is not expected to be fun, but the fact that the button is available and works gives the mob a warm fuzzy feeling.)

Now we're almost to the fun part. Bear with me a little longer.


Outside view, addiction sucks. And while I have no idea how programming rabbit-holes compares to chemical addictions such as nicotine, I imagine that the latter are much harder to shake at their peak. It does seem like addictions are possible to eliminate via sheer force of will, but it also seems likely that the addictive parts of me would adapt over time, making the mental overrides less and less effective. The brain is just really good at fulfilling addictions no matter how many cute stories you've told yourself about "override buttons."

That is, it's easy to imagine a failure mode where I invoke an override and succeed in putting down the book and going for a jog, only to find myself reading the book again the next morning and trying not to think about the fact that the override failed.

Or, in other words, I'm not yet sure how to avoid the problem of using an override and struggling to take manual control, only to have your brain respond "haha, funny how you expected that to work."

Given my own personal temperament (and extreme self-loyalty), I'm quite confident that the override would work the first few times I tried it. But I also expect, outside view, that the effect would degrade with each use.

Which means that successful mental overrides are a scarce resource.

And, as you'll remember, the part of my mental mob that does the default short-term planning is a penny pincher and a hoarder, and therefore is pretty dang averse to spending scarce resources.

So now, ever since making this pact with myself, my mind-mob is so averse to putting me in a situation where I might have to use the overrides that I now avoid those situations entirely in the first place.

In other words, this parlor trick cured my "binging" tendencies practically overnight, and I haven't had further problems with becoming addicted to books/video games/tv shows in the four years since.


This is basically just a technique to provide the penny-pinching/hoarding part of me with a tangible mental representation of the fact that willpower and determination (as used to escape addiction) are scarce finite resources that must be weighed before embarking on a potentially addictive path. The hoarder impulse that has me be a little tight with money and save the best food for last is now also identifying potentially-addictive situations and steering away from them.

Nowadays, even the notion that I might have to use an override to escape this [programming project / book series / video game] is enough to pop me out of the addiction immediately, in large part due to aversion to needing to use one of the "scarce" working overrides. The penny-pincher is working for me, now.


You'd think that I should have solved this problem by using "time" or "attention" as the scarce resource that the hoarding impulse defends. However, my hoarding impulse doesn't actually trigger all that hard in order to defend time and attention.

I have other impulses that defend time and attention, but the hoarding/penny-pinching part of me is usually happy to spend an hour in order to save $2 or something silly like that, and has to be reminded that attention is precious. (Nowadays, I have other impulses that are very defensive of time and attention, but I wasn't able to repurpose my hoarding impulse to do so. At least in my case, the hoarding impulse doesn't seem wired up to care about time expenditure.)

By contrast, my hoarder impulse abhors the idea of using a mental override, because it really does believe that working overrides are scarce in a way that it doesn't quite believe about attention. Somehow, the more mentally salient image of scarce internal overrides is very compelling to my hoarding impulse. Actually using an override seems almost dangerous, as it could reduce my self control and my ability to avoid the binging failure mode. The hoarder really doesn't like that idea.

Minds are weird.


This post is particularly heavy on techniques that are only useful for people with a very similar temperament to my own. However, the technique can be generalized.

What I've done here is identified a strong impulse that controls short-term planning (the "hoarder impulse"), and then identified a class of scenarios where short-term planning has failed (the "binge" failure mode), and then I recruited the impulse to help me avert the failure mode.

In my specific case, I recruited the hoarding impulse to help avoid the binge failure mode by creating a tangible mental representation of a scarce resource depleted by binging which the hoarder is really averse to using.

More generally, it seems possible to do this with many other impulse/problem pairs. Just pick a strong short-term planning impulse, choose a failure mode caused by poor planning, and find a way to make the impulse really really want to fix the problem.

I'm sure there are many other mindhacks that follow this general pattern; you're encouraged to post your own in the comments.