_Why_ do we fear the twinge of starting?

[epistemic status: As always, I’m not claiming that I’m saying anything new. This might “just” be hyperbolic discounting.

Also I don’t know if this is true. I didn’t apply my regular level of skepticism to these ideas yet, and some of them are probably wrong or meaningless. Work in progress.]

Followup to: Working hurts less than procrastinating, we fear the twinge of starting

Here’s a puzzle:

I, like most people I think, am happiest when I am working hard on something: solving a problem, learning something, or otherwise exerting myself. But even though I subjectively enjoy working, and enjoy it more than not working, I do occasionally procrastinate on doing those things. Which is kind of weird: if my work time is more enjoyable than my not work time, you’d think that I would always be glad to move into working (and to be fair, most of the time, I am).

Here’s what a think is happening:

Starting to work pretty much always entails an increase in cognitive effort [1]. Humans are at some fundamental level lazy, and tend to flinch away from cognitive effort. It has a bit of of a sting to it [does it always?].

Now this effort is rapidly compensated, as one gets into the flow of working. However, I think that there are different subsystems in the brain that are tracking reward at different timescales. For the subsystem that is tracking reward in the next 30 seconds, working represents only the cost of cognitive effort, and none of the benefit of flow. The subsystem that is tracking reward on a timescale of hours, however; is nearly indifferent between getting into flow right now, and five minutes from now. So there’s a constant incentive do delay, just a bit, even to your detriment.

I bet there’s a math of this. In fact, I think that this might be just entirely be what the the book Breakdown of Will is about.

Some implications and related thoughts

I think this might explain something about “productivity momentum“: if it is shifts in the level of cognitive effort that are hard, then you just stay at a particular level of cognitive effort (or something like that? It seems like the level of cognitive effort must very throughout your working). or maybe you’re more willing to exert cognitive effort when it looks like it’s paying off. Similarly, think this might explain why outlining my day in advance is so useful and I think this might have something to do with why getting up and working first thing is so good for me.

Habits: I think that in many cases, habits are smoothing over this effect, by making exerting effort the down-stream thing to do. For instance, I find it much easier to exercise when I’m at home, than when I’m traveling. I think this is due to a number of reasons, but at least one of them is that at home I have a chain of familiar TAPs that guide me into exerting myself. When traveling, I don’t have those TAPs and need to force myself to do it much more. [I’m not sure if this makes any sense.]

I think a similar dynamic occurs with a more frequent kind of procrastination: avoiding looking at something true and bad. For a simple example: Your project is behind schedule. Once you consciously acknowledge that fact you’ll feel better and be able to respond more effectively. But first there is the pain of the situation, before one acclimates to a new setpoint of the way the world is. So the same dynamic occurs.

When I adopt this frame, I am inclined to adopt a policy / habit of noticing flinches, and doing the thing anyway, for just a bit (5 minutes). I can then get more data about if it is actually a good idea, or if I actually want to. Unfortunately, this policy trades off against making more deliberate choices: the space in which I would procrastinate is the same space in which I would pause to consider what the best corse of action is.


[1] Sometimes I’m thinking about something and energized about it, and am bursting to sit down to write. In this case it seems that physiological arousal is turned on, and cognitive effort is already recruited.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s