My name is Agent18 and am a procrastinator
For the last several weeks I have been working for 48 hours a week on average. But there are many people (who I look up to), who are able to work way more than 48 hours a week. For example, Alexey Guzey claims to work 80 “focused hours” a week. And Peter Wildeford (previously Peter Hurford) claims to work 60 hours a week.
The 48 hours I work for, is split into a 32 hour regular job (one that pays the bills) and the rest of the time (16 hours) working on “useful things” such as blogging, writing, interview prep, deliberate practice etc.
There is lot of variation over the weeks in how I spend my time on those “useful things”. (From now on “useful things” shall just be referred to as work). Even forgoing certain activities during the week (like “working on getting my passport”, “attending team outings”, “hanging out with friends for a full day” etc.), I still have a pathetic record for hours worked per week (in addition to my regular 32hr job):
|Wknum||Amount of hours worked|
Wk –> refers to current week and
Wk-1 refers to the previous
My procrastination has gotten so GOOD (really BAD I mean) that I took off last Friday afternoon from regular work and did jack squat till the end of the day. Most of it was spending my time lying down on my bed and trying to gather the motivation to get some work done, while watching something on my phone.
My name is Agent18 and I am a monster procrastinator. With this post I want to understand what I can do to improve my working hours per week to >30 hours.
Is it time to commit?
Two things seem to increase the amount of hours worked per week, 1)
committing explicitly to someone while involving money, and 2) having
an external deadline. For example, in
Wk-5 I did 20 hours per week
(not great but better than the average), because I was fed up by the
lack of work I did in the previous weeks and COMMITTED to doing X
hours per day. In
Wk-3 where I worked for 31 hours, there was a very
SERIOUS DEADLINE as part of an interview. In
Wk-1 where I did only 7
hours, turns out that all these 7 hours came from day 1 of that week,
where I had a (you guessed it) DEADLINE. After that day I did jack
squat that whole week.
To me, commitment seems to be invoking the same feel as that of a deadline. When I commit to “finishing 4 hours of work today or I have to pay 20 euros”, it feels exactly like a deadline with 20 euros at stake.
“Productive people” such as Peter Wildeford, Paul Christiano and Alexey Guzey also seem to be suggesting to COMMIT. Paul and Peter suggest to use Beeminder (an app where you pay up if you don’t complete a task by the end of the day). Alexey seems to be “committing” in the sense that he schedules a “co-working session with someone specific”, that way he just can’t cancel that easily.
I have made commitments. Now what!
Carrying out a commitment is hard
Committing is just one part of the productivity game. Carrying out a commitment is riddled with issues. I mean I procrastinate even in the presence of a commitment (and this has led to me paying up a few times in the recent past). Just recently, when I committed to working 4 hours a day, I managed to do only 3 of those hours with 2x breaks which were each 1 hour long. I even had a 1 hour break after working for just 1 hour. Eventually it costed me money as I didn’t meet the commitment.
I think the tasks I work on don’t seem to be helping my cause. For instance working for 2-3 hours continuously is not a problem with coding assignments, but it is very hard with such “exploratory” tasks I have to take-up for writing (e.g., “write an essay on improving productivity”). The exploratory tasks don’t really have an end, but I usually decide I will spend X hours on it.
And perhaps the longevity of the task doesn’t help either. I need to do the same uncomfortable thing for 4 hours? No way, Jose! I don’t remember signing up for back-to-back weeks of commitment. I usually sign up for one week and then allow the “habit” to take over from there. Clearly the “habit” never, “took over from there”.
Another issue seems to be my inability to get started early. In theory starting early would help to finish early, sleep early and wake up “on-time”. But starting early is hard. Many days I get ready at 18:00 hrs to start my work but then decide to do other things like “watch JUST one YouTube video” or “lie down on the bed JUST for a few minutes” etc. Arghhh!
Maybe if I just did a few minutes of work or wrote a few 100 words I would get into the groove and nothing would stop me for those 4 hours. But even on days when I miraculously started at 18:00 hours and clocked a few minutes, I managed to fail badly. A few days back, I worked for exactly 7 minutes before giving up and going to bed (for a full hour).
Once I am in the bed and watching YouTube or engaging in some other form of procrastination, the only thing that drives me to get back to work is when I realize how late in the night I am going to have to work to fulfill my commitment. So if I start at 19:00, at the very least, I have to work till 12:00 am (assuming a 1 hr break). Sometimes despite this I procrastinate for even longer. It takes a lot of will power to metaphorically untie myself from the bed and eventually start work.
Maybe I should remove the bed out of the equation (at least while working). In 2018, for this very reason I used to work exclusively in the library and spent countless hours there after regular work and in the evenings. I pretty much used my home just to sleep and cook. I will look further into this, if I am unable to sustain 30 hours in the coming weeks.
I also use Leechblock to help curb my procrastination. I use the “block now” function (called Lockdown) to initiate the blocking. However I wish I could tell Leechblock to block the sites say 15 minutes from now. Ordinarily it is easier to decide to work at some point in the future than right now. Nonetheless, Leechblock seems to only allow me to block sites instantly or at a given time. :(
Now what do we do?
There is a technique called POMODORO. The idea seems to be to have a timer (something like this), where there is 25 minutes of work (referred to as Pomodoro) followed by 5 minutes of break where you do anything other than the task at hand. You “decide” what you are going to do during the 25 minutes before the pomodoro starts. This goes on 3-4 times and then you get a 15-30 minute break. And repeat. Every time you finish a pomodoro, you have an alarm bell to start the break and an alarm bell for you to get you back to work. During a Pomodoro all distractions are to be silenced: phones are switched off, Leechblock on, Game Face on, and ear plugs are used as necessary.
I gave it a try. I tried this first at my regular work this week and I will say that it was one of the most “productive” days so far. The context is that I joined a new team and needed to “get up to speed” with the code they had written. I had been really struggling with getting this done for the last many days. The task somehow was really not pleasing. The thought of having to work 8 hours for my regular work on just reading code and “understanding it” sounded dreadful. There were no clearly defined things to do and no real deadlines, just a bunch of questions to answer (without any feedback). It got to a point that, last Friday I had had enough, that I left work mid-day and (here comes the worst part) procrastinated for the rest of the day.
I have been struggling with keeping my sanity in this new team doing this type of work for the last 2 weeks. I came across Pomodoro during the weekend and I had to give it a try. For the first time in days I felt good. I felt like I got “many things” done and I did finish quite some chapters. I made a small todo list of the section names I needed to cover. I picked up one section at a time and finished it in one to two Pomodoros. I generously took the breaks without feeling guilty. And the best part is that I ended up getting things done while feeling sane at the same time. Advantage Pomodoro!
What I like about this is, I have to push through only 25 minutes at a time. And there is a break right ahead in case I needed it. I think maybe this was the most significant contribution of pomodoro. And I continued to slay and slay through the rest of the day.
I really believed at first sight that I would never need any of this Pomodoro nonsense for my “work after dark”. But with how much I was sucking at work, I decided to give it a try. So far I have been able to make several 2 hr “continuous Pomodoro sessions”, which I didn’t believe was possible with this task with previous techniques (non-Pomodoro style). And the most important part was that I felt good again while doing the task and starting the task. I didn’t think of all the hours I had left to do. I am able to approach work in a friendly way rather than think of it as something that is painful.
I do understand that work done for 4 hours becomes 3 hours and 20 minutes as a result of the breaks. I say it is ok for now. Maybe it is ok for later even. The goal is to get work done and feel good at the same time so that I can continue this for a long-long time. Having said that I don’t completely waste the breaks. I use breaks in different ways, sometimes I just stop writing and walk around thinking about the task at hand or what is the next thing I should be working on. Sometimes I do sleep for those 5 minutes with my head on the desk and sometimes I do look at twitter or YouTube. The nice thing is the alarm, which so far I have used to immediately drop what I do and get back to work.
Many reputed people seem to be using the Pomodoro technique as well. Paul Christiano, an AI researcher who previously worked in OpenAI, used this technique with 20 minutes work and 3 minutes break (at least back in 2012). Peter Hurford also suggests the use of this technique to get into a habit. Alexey Guzey seems to be doing something very similar to this technique, where he works for 30 minutes and has “check-ins” with his work buddy to discuss what he is working on next and if is focused enough (and then repeat).
Measuring the success of POMODORO?
I think I feel generally better about the task at hand when working the POMODORO way, compared to how I felt when I had to do 4 hours of work without using the technique. (I know that sounds vague and un-testable)1. Below is a table with some statistics on this. For example, Day 1 is a non-Pomodoro day where I clocked 4 hours of work within 4.75 hours, with one half hour break and two >1 hour breaks.
|Day||Pomo/~||Clocked||Total||>1/2 hr break||2hr work||>1hr work|
|6||Yes||9||split through day||3||3||1|
For now I see that with POMODORO there is easily a 2 hour continuous session happening that day. In fact the first session of all Pomodoro days was a 2 hour session. I am still having the starting trouble where I can’t start by 18:00 hrs and sometimes it takes a while before I start, I will fix that with a bit of committing. But so far I think POMODORO seems to be doing well with allowing me to work long chunks of time (albeit with a 5 min break every half hour).
I think what would be even more interesting is to see how many distractions I had in a particular session of Pomodoro and non-Pomodoro. I will collect such information in the future.
I hope to use Pomodoro for tasks like writing and interview preparations. Maybe for Data Science tasks as well, I should give it a try and see how it goes.
My name is agent18 and I am a procrastinator. My goal is to regularly clock >30 hours a week on work (not including my regular day job) from now on. I like several others (Peter, Paul, Alexey, Scott Alexander) find that commitment is an essential part of getting uncomfortable things done (especially the “hard ones”) until it becomes a habit at least (not sure how long it takes).
Past weeks have clearly shown me that if I don’t commit, I wont get 30 hours of work done. Or if there is no deadline, I wont get 30 hours done. I propose that at the beginning of the week, I asses the situation (based on how the calendar looks like that week) and make a commitment for each day for that entire week. I will not commit to doing it every week for the coming year, but I will commit now to do it for the next week to begin with (Puppy dog close anybody?).
Commitment as seen in this blog and with other people (Alexey, Paul and Peter) seems to be only one part of the story. The other part is about somehow carrying out the commitment without “much resistance”. It should not be like I am moving a huge rock up a mountain. And that is where the Pomodoro technique seems to come into place. So far (last 3-4 days) it has shown that I can work in multiple 2 hr sessions with as little as a half hour break between successive sessions. And the most important thing is that work becomes much less grueling when I use the Pomodoro technique.
My name is agent18, I hope to do >30 hours in the coming 4 weeks.
- Alexey Guzey’s current plan to work 80 “focused” hours a week.
- Alexey Guzey’s post on productivity in general
- Peter Wildeford’s take on how productive he is
- Paul Christiano’s productivity post
- Paul Christiano’s productivity post follow up
- Scott Alexander on commitment
- Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Execute by default
Other techniques I want to work on
- Measure how focused I am during a session, and what all I am distracted by and address them.
- Make a long term plan and list concrete things I need to do for that.
- Reflect on the amount of work and what has been done, per day, per week and per month. Come up with concrete possible changes to improve it.
- Eliezer suggests to count down from 10 and jump out of bed at 1, to stop procrastinating in bed. Been doing it for a few days now after waking up in the morning, and it seems to work.
- Plan the day in advance.
- Org mode to-do list on the cloud or try a Workflowy.
- Keep inbox to 0. Always move mails to Action, Waiting and Reference. Started doing this on work emails.
- Focus on doing whats really important.
- Consider going to the library to exclusively have a productivity place.
Some “good” quotes on procrastination
As a general rule of thumb. If you notice yourself procrastinating, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just notice the behavior and put some time aside to have an honest conversation with yourself for why you might be unconsciously avoiding these tasks. There is no shame here. It’s very difficult to move forward without self-empathy and self-understanding. ‘Pushing yourself’ is OK in small doses, but if you make it a habit, you are increasing your chances of burnout! — Guzey
I had a lot of trouble implementing this plan until I was able to think of myself as an important person who does important things and should personally value my time. I had to really want to be productive before I could start being productive. Success at this will follow from the right mindset. It’s time to start thinking of yourself as important. If you can’t fool yourself, maybe it’s time to look at your goals and decide what goals would make you feel important and then do those goals instead. —Peter
I’d been aware of my problem and wanted to do something about it for some time, but it seems my akrasia applies even to planning to do something about my akrasia —Scott Alexander
I thought I understood the following quote, but I was struggling coming up with an example for a “difficult project” and matching it with the definition. I didn’t realize that was the problem for a long time. Need to get back to my DP.
I define a “difficult project” to have some or all of the following characteristics:
- Has long, noisy, and painful, rather than short and clear, feedback loops
- Does not have a well-defined scope
- Does not have a well-defined deadline
- Induces anxiety —Guzey
The important lesson of working a lot is to be comfortable with taking a break. The novice productive person will think it virtuous to work clear through a break and onward, thinking that he or she is making even better use of their time, defeating all those sissy workers who need breaks! But really, this person is just setting up their own downfall, because they’ll crash and burn.
Burnout is real and one of the most dangerous things you can do is train yourself to feel guilty about not working. So you need to remember to take breaks. The break in a Pomodoro is a good one, but I also recommend taking a larger break (like 30 minutes) after completing three or four Pomodoros.—Peter Wildeford
Remember, the goal of being more productive is to free time to do the things you want and be with the people you want. It’s not to spend 100 hour workweeks neglecting those who are important to you. Make sure to take some time off to spend with friends and family. Schedule it in your calendar if you have to. This will matter most in the long-run for your life.— Peter Wildeford
On an introspection level, the need to study each day felt exactly like the need to complete a project with a deadline, or to show up for work when the boss was expecting you —Scott Alexander
Total hours: 25 hours
Total words: 3000 words
Avg per day: 4.25 hrs per day :)
Update after 2 weeks
|Wknum||Amount of hours worked|
|Wk +1||24 (failed on 2 days here)|
I still use pomodoro for most of the times. I get distracted a lot, and need to keep count track of it. I have been successful in committing since wk-0 every single week reliably. I don’t feel the burden. It’s becoming natural Somehow it’s becoming habit? to commit
I still suck and push to the very end to start the task for the day. Perhaps I should set a target for within 8pm.
I did fail in wk+2 to finish said task within time. I failed in wk+1 on 2 days to complete the within said times. Also I didn’t really have a deadline post or something to get with.
Some of my captured feelings as I was writing this essay
I feel like it really reduces the burden of having to do another fucking 6 hours and shortens the burden of doing 2 hours at a time— me, on the first day I tried Pomodoro.
For the first time in a few days I have hope, that maybe there is a way for the future to keep grinding. I mean how long was I going to be in this realm of discomfort. Wont I burn out? and when the greats are claiming to use it (Pomodoro) and Guzey especially, then I am very hopeful. There is still will power and all that bullshit at hand… Let’s not deter. :)