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Behavior Management

“I hate writing, I love having written.” — Dorothy Parker

I would not consider myself especially good at exerting willpower. I have a hard time saying no. I don't exercise much self control in most domains of my life (e.g. diet, finance). Even now, I've had bouts of egregious non-productivity playing video games, watching television, or procrastinating on work.

What I am good at is designing systems that don't require exercising self control. Self control is an unreliable resource to depend on when producing behavior, so you should find ways to either to limit the amount of willpower you need to exercise to produce a behavior.

We'll talk through some general themes of good systems of producing behavior, roughly ranking in terms of easier to harder to implement.

Taking Away Options

“The power to constrain an adversary depends upon the power to bind oneself.” —Thomas Schelling

The easiest way to solve the motivational issue is to find ways to produce behavior independent of motivation. This works particularly well around behavior restraint. When I was 7 I had no trouble avoiding video games — My mom would never buy me any. Even if I cried and begged, she would refuse to shell out the money for a Gameboy. Knowing I had no choice in the matter, I just quietly accepted that I couldn't play video games.

The easiest way to stop yourself from browsing Reddit when it's your bedtime is to find a way to take that option away. In order to prevent myself from being a RescueTime affiliate (although RescueTime has a great product offering in this space that I use, but is a paid feature), I searched up similar free software that helps block websites, each highly configurable. SelfControl is one I've heard is great for Mac. FocusMe has a free trial (I think?). Cold Turkey also does similar things.1

I also asked my friends to put parental controls on my phone to block distracting websites that I might visit on my phone. I'll have to ask them for a passcode if I have a legitimate reason to visit those sites (99% of the time it's either not a good reason or not an urgent enough reason to bother them).

Make Bad Behavior Difficult

Other creative solutions for restraining behavior is to make doing the right thing easy and doing the wrong thing really hard.

For electronics, you can follow the guide at Time Well Spent, which involves installing/uninstalling apps, configuring settings, and creating habits to make you spend less time on your phone.

I disabled javascript on my mobile web browser, which makes nothing but the simplest websites (Wikipedia, Google) work. Deleting the Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and Slack apps on my phone were some of the most liberating decisions I've ever made.

I also delete my entire video games library before my work week starts. This way if I want to play any games during the week, I would have to reinstall the entire 8GB video game file, which definitely takes longer than it's worth.

To avoid checking my phone before I go to bed and when I wake up, I keep my phone outside my bedroom, and use a simple alarm clock to wake me in morning.

On my laptop, I have a chrome extension set up to redirect distracting sites to useful sites (like my calendar or my list of gathering points). For Youtube videos, there's a similar blocker called “Video Blocker” that lets you block Youtube Videos by keywords. An adblocker, a distraction-free youtube experience, as well as blank newtab have been helpful for keeping me focused.

If you're human, you've probably had some backdoor mechanism for disabling any kind of blocks. Perhaps you had to reinstall Messenger for some legitimate reason and forgot to block it, or if you reinstalled video games during the weekend but forgot to uninstall it when the workweek ends. It helps to have a reoccurring task to reinstate these blocks so you're consistently keeping yourself accountable.

Change Your Payoff Function

There's a popular way of categorizing tasks, called the Eisenhower Matrix. It puts tasks along two axis — important and urgent

Not Urgent Urgent
Not Important

It's too easy to shirk off important but not urgent responsibilities. Something like “I should learn Excel” is something that can greatly benefit your career, but without deadlines attached to the goal and consequences attached to the deadlines, it's just too easy at any given point to not do it.

That's why it helps to tie consequences to accomplishing your goals. By having skin in the game, you are changing your payoff function such that it moves not urgent/important tasks into the urgent/important quadrant. I personally use Beeminder for getting myself to not spend time on distracting sites, to exercise, and to do laundry. The way it works is simple -- do something at a regular interval or you pay money. I like money, and loss aversion is strong, so even when I don't feel like doing something, I'll do it because doing it is better than reckoning with the consequences (lose $30 because I didn't go to gym on Thursday? No effing way!).2

Dashes and Pomodoros

Pomodoros are the poster childs of the productivity community. Pomodoros are time blocks (usually 25 minutes) in which you work on a single task, followed by a short break. Dashes are the shorter version of Pomodoros, which last 5 mins. Pomodoros are a well covered subject in the literature of productivity, so I think they're worth someone else covering the subject matter if you want to read into it. For the break portion, you should read Cal Newport's article On Deep Breaks.

Persistent Starting

Neil Fiore's book “The Now Habit” introduces a concept called “persistent starting” that helps overcoming procrastination by helping individuals focus on making progress rather than producing results. “Keep on starting, and finishing will take care of itself. When you're afraid of finishing, keep asking, ‘When can I start?'”.

Environmental Factors

Some people work best at home by themselves, some people work best at a crowded cafe. Figure out what environment you work best in and try to spend time there when you're trying to get work done. Feel free to experiment for a while until you find something that works well for you.

Make Your First Order Desires Do Work

First order desires are emotional responses that irrationally motivate people. Some people don't like to let others down. Other people hate being a hypocrite. Some people love impressing their friends, and some people really like proving people wrong. Find out what motivates you, and align those motivations with your goals.

For example, I like healthy competitions with people. I know it's a childish emotion to try to beat your friends, but it's a great motivator. If I can't seem to train for a half marathon, I hijack the emotional component of competing with people to align with the motivation for training the half marathon. I ask my friends who ran half marathon to see what their times were, and then try to beat it. I end up more motivated by my first order desires.

Make your motivators do work. If you like keeping up appearances, work on developing a reputation for the characteristics you want. If you're a social creature, be friends with people who bring the best out of you (whether you prefer being the big fish in the small pond or the small fish in the big pond, it doesn't matter as long as it does what makes you better).

Building Habits

Habits are free, recurring behavior. When you develop a habit, you pay a discount of the amount of willpower required to execute the behavior. However, habits are tough to develop, and require patience and upfront vigilance to form. You can follow this flowchart on how you can change your habits. The only caution I will say is to only focus on producing one habit at a time. If you want a more in-depth exploration on building habits, I recommend reading Charles Duhigg's book “The Power of Habit”.

Practice Motivation

If you're already a fairly motivated person, you'll find that you'll get more mileage from the tools listed above than trying to increase your motivations. But if you're very unmotivated, it might make some sense to explore how increase your motivational pool. How could you be more motivated? Well, really practicing grit, developing self-efficacy, and the topic of our next section — energy management.

  1. Feel free to let me know what productivity software you use and I'll add it to my guide! 

  2. I really enjoy Beeminder's list of taglines that they cycle through 

Last update: 2023-03-12