[This is a hierarchy of techniques to use for in-the-moment situations where you need to “convince” yourself to do something. I don’t necessarily endorse the sort of mindset this encourages because in a perfect world we wouldn’t need to use these sorts of patches at all. However, the Ladder outlined below is roughly how I actually handle motivation problems in practice, so it’s here anyway.]
[META: Several of the past MLU posts here have been in a sort of numbered list format. I don’t actually like “listicles”, and this list structure just sort of happened, as a result of essay organizing. How do you, reader, feel about this? If you don’t normally comment, perhaps take this as an affordance to let me know!]
As humans, our short-term preferences aren’t always aligned with our long-term goals, and this disconnect forms the basis for lots of ideas in instrumental rationality. With so many potential tools, I’ve found it useful to have a rough ordering of which tools to try when. The general philosophy behind this ordering is to throw increasingly high-powered tools at the motivation problem until it disappears.
This is probably not optimal.
Ideally, I’d like for every internal disagreement, i.e. problem of motivation, to be resolved by addressing all your competing concerns and letting all sides get a chance to talk. But in real life, it’s often a lot more messy than that, and there’s sometimes not enough apparent time to run a full-fledged round of truth-seeking.
Thus, when confronted by an “intention-action gap” (i.e. motivation problem), even though I want to say that I try to use Internal Double Crux whenever possible, what often actually happens is that I try several techniques until I “feel like” doing whatever action I was deliberating on doing.
(It’s analogous to the Engineer vs Hacker mindset.)
What follows is the ordering of several abridged versions of rationality techniques that I’ll run through when I find myself in a motivation problem. My ordering is approximately based off the perceived mental effort involved in each action (so the “easiest” action comes first) because that often seems to be the costliest resource for me. But a different ordering might work better for you.
[Start with 1) and proceed down the list until you feel like you want to get your task done]
1) Checking the Obligation:
“Do I really need to take this action?”
Sometimes, the action I am trying to motivate myself to do is a byproduct of free-floating obligations or other reasons that, upon reflection, might not actually be very good justification. So before everything else, my default is to check in and see how I feel about the obligated action. If it turns out that it’s not very useful, or my reasons for wanting to do it actually weren’t strong, then I just don’t do it, and I don’t need to go any farther.
However, as you might expect, any search for reasons can be very subject to confirmation bias. For example, if you remember that you needed to get some homework done in the middle of a TV series, you can likely expect that your brain to come up with highly reasonable-sounding arguments as to why finishing the TV series is better. So that’s a big potential pitfall.
In cases like these, it’s important to listen carefully to those lone voices of dissent that quietly cry out, “Wait! This is Bad!” and take it as a signal that your preferences may have been compromised. (But also, your ability to listen for such dissent is probably at a minimum in such scenarios…) Time-inconsistent preferences are a tricky thing.
Overall, though, I still think this is a useful thing to check before moving on to anything else because it has the biggest benefits if it turns out that the obligation truly isn’t very necessary.
EX: You are sitting down for a class, and you feel very bored and don’t want to stay for the whole lecture. Checking in with your obligation to stay in class, you ask yourself if attending this class is even truly necessary.
2) Shift Local Preferences:
“Can I put myself in a state where taking this action feels desirable?”
This is based off the idea of mutable local preferences in Attractor Theory. The short summary is that the sorts of things that feel desirable in any given moment is actually quite influenced by your environment, thoughts, and actions you take.
Thus, if you find yourself finding unwilling to do something or drawn to something you want to abstain from, consider looking for actions that can reliably change your preferences. What those actions actually look like will likely differ from person to person and if you’re trying to avoid a specific action or perform a specific action.
For avoiding a specific action, one general type of action to consider are ones that directly tap into your reward centers.
EX: If you’re trying to avoid watching porn, a quick hack is to start playing video games, as many games are both immersive and come with quick feedback loops to cut off any thoughts about pursuing other actions.
(Yes, you’re basically substituting one addiction for another in the above example. But if you’re swapping a lesser evil in for a greater one, that still seems like a net benefit to you.)
For performing a specific action, finding ways to tap into a state of mind where you feel more willing to take on certain actions as a result of “feeling pumped” could be good.
EX: If you don’t feel motivated to get your math homework done, consider reading up on the biographies of Euler, von Neumann, or Gauss to feel more motivated to do more math. (If you’re the sort of person who gets pumped by reading about other people’s awesome accomplishments.)
3) Focusing on Salience:
“Can I selective focus on some of the positives to convince myself this action is worth taking?”
Though we might like to think of ourselves as agents who incorporate all or most of the available information to make decisions, such integrated decision-making is often far from reality. Rather, it’s usually a small number of salient features that determine our actual choices. Focusing on Salience is an effort to capitalize on how some immediately salient features can turn the tide when making decisions.
You’re looking at the beneficial parts of whatever action you’re trying to take, and then letting those pros outweigh any objections you might have.
If this sounds shady, you’re right. While it’s not exactly about deceiving yourself—the whole point of this is to focus on true positives that are associated with the action, this does change your decision-making process to become more “unreasonable” in that you’re intentionally not looking at all the information.
Internally, it feels like you seize upon one or two desirable things that result from taking the action and keep those benefits in mind. There’s an element of telling yourself something like “I’ve already acknowledged the negatives, but I’m still okay with taking this action because of these fricking sweet positives which make it a worthy tradeoff!”
EX: You are trying to get out of bed. You focus on how getting out of bed means you can be active, and you link being active to embodying a mystical sort of Life-ness as a quality. Life-ness is very good, you think, and with that thought in mind supporting you, you’re able to push yourself out of bed.
(While I’m willing to make some tradeoffs in good decision-making for some speedy instrumental benefit, you might want to read about an opposing view here.)
“Can I restrict my options such that taking this action is one of the only things I can do at all?”
If the above three things haven’t worked, then I begin to doubt my ability to get the action done on my own, uninfluenced volition. Precommitment is about either shifting your incentives (EX: via self-blackmail) or purposefully restricting your options (EX: turning off WiFi when trying to get work done) in order to get yourself to take certain actions.
In a way, this is basically a hardcore application of Attractor Theory because you’re once again shifting your incentives. It’s not exactly the same thing, though, if you take a more nuanced view that looks at whether the incentives are internal or external and also to what degree you are being “coerced”.
The internal-external distinction is often applied to motivation, where people refer to internal vs external motivation. I think there’s a lot to be said here, and I’ll likely write more on this later. In broad strokes, though, it seems useful to distinguish between pursuing actions because you expect something in the world to happen (EX: receiving an award for high marks on an exam) or because you “desire” for it to happen (EX: scoring for high marks because it’s tied to your self-worth).
Also, my typical experience with precommitment is that it is not very good for shaping decisions in split-second situations; it’s used best to pass some tasks onto Future You. Nevertheless, it’s indeed something I will use if the chance arises.
My reasoning is that typical opportunities to precommit are often underestimated by our intuitions. The ability to focus seems very valuable, and the loss of flexibility is more than made up by the additional focus precommitting enables you. (Something about Deep Work seems relevant here.)
Additionally, I don’t quite trust my ability to make sound decisions in the moment, as Attractor Theory means that once I’ve chosen one action, I’ve pretty much determined how I’ll act for the rest of the day, as I shoot from one Attractor to another:
For example, if you knock over a line of dominoes, you can already predict what the end result is, yet every domino “feels” like its falling is the most natural thing in the world to do. Relating this analogy to how Attractors shift your preferences: for me, the in-the-moment switching from one action might seem completely natural as my preferences shift. But it’ll still be the case that, given knowledge of my starting point, you’d be able to largely predict where I’d be several hours from the start.
(I think the relevant mathematical metaphor here is that of a Markov chain.)
EX: You’re trying to run more, but you find yourself always making excuses. You call up a friend and set a time/place, effectively using your friendship capital to blackmail yourself. This finally pushes you to start running.
5) Go Uphill:
“Can I simply do it?”
The last resort is to, as might be obvious, just do it. Willpower, strength, Resolve, etc. all seem to be pointing at something useful. We humans seem to have the ability to override typical objections and instead act on our “higher-order” preferences.
Truth be told, I don’t have that much success with this one. While the Baumeister idea of ego depletion or the related idea of willpower as a muscle both now seem very suspect, it does seem largely true that “if you use willpower more, you’ll become more able to use willpower more”. And to that extent, finding new opportunities to use Resolve probably trains the ability to see more opportunities where Resolve is a useful tool to be using.
For me, then, holding onto this as a last resort might not be a very good idea for me if my goal is to try and use more of it. (Perhaps it’d be good to flip this Ladder around for a while to see what happens…)
EX: You would like to read a book, but other things keep getting in the way. You say “Screw it, I’m reading the book!” and read it.
(This is not a good explanation, and the original Post-CFAR essay that I linked on Resolve might be a clearer read.)
When I was explaining this Ladder to a friend, they pointed out that a major flaw here was that all of these techniques are self-reliant. That is, if you have a motivation problem in trying to get an action done, it’s possible that you’ll also have a motivation problem in trying to implement any of these techniques.
I admit that I feel somewhat compelled to go for some special pleading and say things like, “Wait, but the whole point of this Ladder is to not have to recurse on finding the motivation to perform techniques which themselves require motivation—that’s not the point here—realistically there’s got to be some actions that are easy for you to do!”
But what I’ll instead respond with is to acknowledge their point that the Ladder isn’t enough. There are other pieces, like prioritizing, systematizing, and decision-making which are also important to winning at life. The internal-external distinction I briefly touched upon in the Precommitment section also seems relevant—you can’t always rely on self-directed impetus to succeed.
There’s also more to be said about how different ontological lenses, i.e. operating systems, can be used to frame rationality. My use of a Ladder presupposes several things, like the idea that rationality techniques are conscious operations you execute, rather than habitual, reflexive actions you’ve already got installed.
My hope, though, is that the explicit use of an ordering (based on some metric) makes this a useful metaphor you can quickly pick up and use with regards to your own techniques.