What to do with should/flinches: TDT-stable internal incentives

[epistemic status: current hypothesis, backed by some simple theory, and virtually no empirical evidence yet]

{Part of the thinking going into my Psychology and Phenomenology of Productivity sequence}

The situation

I’ve been having an anxious and unproductive week. There’s a project that I intend to be working on, but I’ve been watching myself procrastinate (fairly rare for me these days), and work inefficiently.

More specifically this situation occurs:

I’m sitting down to start working. Or I am working, and I encounter a point of ambiguity, and my attention flinches away. Or I’m taking a break and am intended to start working again.

At that moment, I feel the pressure of the “should”, the knowing that I’m supposed to/I reflectively want to be making progress, and also feel the inclination to flinch away, to distract myself with something, to flick to LessWrong (it used to be youtube, or SMBC, but I blocked those) or to get something to eat. This comes along with a clench in my belly.

The Opportunity and Obligation

This is a moment of awareness. At that moment, I am conscious of my state, I’m conscious of my desire to make progress on the project. If I do flick to LessWrong, or otherwise distract myself, I will loose that conscious awareness. I’ll still feel bad, still have the clench in my belly, but I won’t be consciously aware of the thing I’m avoiding (at least until the next moment like this one). At that moment, I’m at choice about what to do (or at least more at choice). In the next moment, if the default trajectory is followed, I won’t be.

Realizing this put’s a different flavor on procrastination. Typically, if I’m procrastinating, I have a vague “just one more” justification. It’s ok to watch just one more youtube clip, I can quit after that one. I can stay in bed for another five minutes, and then get up. But if my level of consciousness of my situation fluctuates, that justification is flatly not true.

I have the opportunity right now, to choose something different. I, in actual fact, will not have that opportunity in five minutes.

That me, right then, in that timeslice, has a specific obligation to the world. [I should maybe write a post about how my morality cashes out to different timeslices having different highly-specific obligations to serve the Good.] In that moment, I, the me that is conscious of the should, have the obligation to seize the opportunity of that increased consciousness and use it to put myself on a trajectory such that the next timeslice can effectively pursue a project that will be a tick of the world iterating to a good, safe, future.

The problem

The naive way to seize on that opportunity is to force myself do the task.

There’s a problem with that solution, aside even from the fact that it doesn’t seem like it will work (it’s typically a red flag when one’s plan is “I’ll just use will power”). Even if I could reliably seize on my moment of awareness to force myself to overcome the aversion of my flinch response, doing so would disincentivize me from noticing in the first place.

Doing that would be to install a TAP: whenever I notice myself with a should/flinch, I’ll immediately grit my teeth and preform an effortful and painful mental action. This is conditioning my brain to NOT notice such experiences.

Which is to say, the “just do it” policy is not stable. If I successfully implemented it, I would end up strictly worse off, because I’d still be procrastinating, but I would be much less likely to notice my procrastination.

A guess at a solution

After having noticed this dynamic this week, this is the approach that I’m trying: when I notice the experience of an entangled “should” and the flinch away from it, I orient to hold both of them. More specifically, I move into facilitation mode, where my goal is to make sure that the concerns of both parts are heard and taken into account. Not to force any action, but to mediate between the two conflicting threads.

(Taking advantage of fleeting moments of increased consciousness to hold the concerns of two inchoate and conflicting things at once, is a bit tricky, but I bet I’ll aquire skill with practice.)

If I were to generalize this goal it is something like: when I have a moment of unusual awareness of a conflict, I move to in the direction of increased awareness.

I’ve only been doing this for a few days, so my n is super small, and full of confounds, but this seems to have lead to more time spent dialoguing parts, and days this week have been increasingly focused and productive.


5 thoughts on “What to do with should/flinches: TDT-stable internal incentives

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