Quantum Quest: Pruning Procrastination
by Zhiming Darren TAN on September 24th, 2012
In a series of posts, I will offer a perspective on the “quantum quest” - the evolving attempt to make tomorrow better than today. Changing the world is certainly a quest. And while the evolution may appear to be smooth and continuous, it happens in discrete steps – hence the “quantum”.
Productivity and Effectiveness
80,000 Hours has focused on how you can change the world through your career. This post is a lead-in to a series of posts aiming to complement the deliberation on career choice with thoughts about how to be more productive and effective in the paths we end up pursuing (which can be applied more generally to other areas of your life).
If you have altruistic goals, then boosting your effectiveness helps you make more difference, sometimes a lot more. We may spend about 80,000 hours in a typical career, while the time available in a longer-than-typical life (for now) is probably on the order of 800,000 hours – which of course includes plenty of time for sleep!
Goals, Plans, Methods
How do productivity and effectiveness fit into the big picture? There are three broad stages in purposeful action – starting with goals, make a plan, then execute actions with methods.
Increased productivity does not obviate the need to identify goals to focus on, as it will never be possible to have the time or resources to do everything you want to do. You have to decide what you really want, which is tricky to say the least.
A plan is a set of actions leading to a goal. Better plans make the goal more likely to be attained. Plans are also tricky because they form the bridge between reality and dream, a hypothetical link between what is practical and what is possible.
The focus of this post is methods. Methods are the nitty-gritty of what gets things done, and are literally what you have to do to make things happen. Boosting the productivity and effectiveness of your methods will serve the cause of your plans and goals.
The first stumbling block to any method is not applying the method. Dealing with the psychology of procrastination is therefore a key step in understanding effectiveness. The rest of this post will point you towards ways to prune your procrastination.
I procrastinated about writing this post, so I thought I’d tell you about some of the methods I used, based on the best resources I found, to get myself to finish it!
Luke Muehlhauser gives a gentle introduction to the field of temporal motivational theory. The converse of procrastination is motivation, and a simple, experimentally validated theoretical framework from the literature (1) takes the approximate form of,
which really just means that to increase motivation, do one or more of the following
Expectancy: increase your chances of succeeding at the task
Value: increase the subjective value of the task to you
Impulsiveness: decrease your impulsiveness and distractions
Delay: decrease the time delay of the task reward
In coming up with this blog post, the issue of scope was critical. By telling myself to start small and focus on “getting out the door”, I set myself a target that was more easily achieved, and which would set me up for a progression to greater targets in future. This concept is called success spirals (2). Think of it like nudging a ball sitting at the top of a hill: it starts to move slowly and picks up speed once it gains some momentum. Success spirals work by leading to increased expectancy. By starting small, you build up your belief that the tasks are manageable, increasing your chances of handling the next task (as long as you stay grounded, and don’t let success blind you to potential problems). The other nice thing about initially embarking on a success spiral is that breaking up a task into smaller chunks naturally decreases delay (3) as the smaller chunk will materialise sooner.
Finding a supportive community was another important strategy to facilitate writing. By bouncing my ideas off Ben Todd and Mark Lee of Leverage Research, I not only got useful feedback and comments, but also the discipline of internal deadlines for drafts, which helps enormously with decreasing impulsiveness (4).
There are also ways to fight procrastination before it can make the first move. By positioning this post as the first in a series of posts on the “quantum quest”, I’m also committing myself to future work that increases the value(5) of this first post, which I need to release into the wild in order to pave the way for more posts. And such positioning also helps in the future with decreasing impulsiveness.
Do you have some favourite ways of beating procrastination?
Help to steer the “quantum quest”. What areas of productivity and effectiveness are you interested to hear about? Personal development? Skills-building? Software/computer-related stuff? Information management?
The world is changing as we speak. The growth of groups like 80,000 Hours and THINK in the “effective altruism” space is exciting. Will you get involved?
(1) Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 65-94. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65
(2) Efficacy-Performance Spirals: A Multilevel Perspective Dana H. Lindsley, Daniel J. Brass and James B. Thomas The Academy of Management Review , Vol. 20, No. 3 (Jul., 1995), pp. 645-678
(3) Integrating Theories of Motivation Piers Steel and Cornelius J. König The Academy of Management Review , Vol. 31, No. 4 (Oct., 2006), pp. 889-913
(4) J Consult Psychol. 1967 Apr;31(2):169-74. Punctual and procrastinating students: a study of temporal parameters. Blatt SJ, Quinlan P.
(5) Eisenberger, R. (1992). Learned industriousness. Psychological Review, 99(2), 248-267. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.99.2.248