Last Saturday and Sunday there was an international Quantified Self Conference at Stanford. I attended. In Gary Wolf’s introductory talk, he said there are 70 Quantified Self chapters (New York, London, etc.) and 10,000 members. I was especially impressed because I recently counted about 50 chapters. One new chapter is Quantified Self Beijing. It has its first meeting — in the form of a day-long conference — in nine hours and I haven’t quite finished my talk (“Brain Tracking: Why and How”). Please indulge me while I procrastinate by writing about the Stanford conference. (more…)
Archive for the 'procrastination' Category
This photo illustrates a method I have used for many years to get work done, usually writing. Every six minutes of work, I make a dot or line. One hour = 10 marks = a box (counting method from Exploratory Data Analysis). I use a stopwatch. I make a mark when I am more than halfway to the goal. If I glance at the clock and it says 4 minutes (more than halfway to 6 minutes), I make a mark. If I glance at the clock and it says 10 minutes (more than halfway to 12 minutes from 6 minutes), I make a mark. I only zero the clock when I take a break. I use one piece of paper per day.
I devised this. It is based on an effect discovered by Allen Neuringer and Shin-Ho Chung called quasi-reinforcement. Neuringer and Chung studied pigeons. They found that if you give a pigeon food every 500 times it pecks a key, it will peck the key slowly (say, 2 pecks/minute). If you give the pigeon a brief flash of light every 20 pecks — a marker that shows it is doing the right thing to get food — it will peck much faster (say, 4 pecks/minute). The flashes of light are quasi-reinforcement, said Neuringer and Chung — they have some but not all of the properties of ordinary reinforcement, such as food. By themselves, the flashes of light don’t interest the pigeon. It won’t peck a key to get them. The amazing thing about this effect is that it doubles how hard the pigeon works without raising its salary.
I noticed improvement — it was easier to write — within about 20 minutes the first time I tried this. I chose six minutes as the unit because shorter times were more distracting and longer times less effective.
I told Gary Wolf about the dots method two years ago and he’s been using it ever since. He says it is good for getting started on something he needs to write. After he gets going, he stops doing it. He uses it as an example of the value of self-tracking. I too find that after I get going on something, I need it less. If I stop, however, I drift backwards toward doing less productive stuff or nothing.
Gary asked me about this a month ago and I started doing it again (instead of percentile feedback). I noticed something I had never noticed before, which was that the system lifted my whole energy level and gave me a “can’t wait to get started” feeling in the morning. This too made it easier to get stuff done. It reminded me of some rat research I’d done. Put a rat in a Skinner box and it will explore for a while. If it doesn’t get any food, after a while (10 minutes?) it will stop exploring and curl up in the middle of the box. However, if I give the rat a pellet of food at random times (at the rate of one pellet/minute), it will keep exploring the box indefinitely. Learning psychologists have emphasized that when you reward an action, you make it more likely. The rat experiment I just described suggests a second effect: when you give reward — at least, when reward is rare — you make all actions more likely. You increase exploration, not just the rewarded response. When I was a young professor I went to a two-week neuroscience program at Dartmouth. It was all lectures. The other attendees were graduate students. I had little in common with them. There was little to do in the town, besides eat Ben & Jerry’s. The next town was 8 miles away. I couldn’t find anything I enjoyed doing. After a week, I had trouble getting out of bed, like the rat curled up in the middle of the Skinner box. A psychiatrist might have said I had major depression. I flew home and was fine.
Nathan Yau, who is trying to reduce how much he surfs the Web, has posted a report of what he learned during his first month of self-experimentation. It reads exactly like my experience of research: In the beginning, few things turn out as planned.
Nathan Yau has posted results from the first two weeks of a self-experiment about procrastination. He tried
1. making a to-do list every evening for the next day
2. blocking the sites he wastes the most time at.
The results were not what he expected.
Nathan Yau, a graduate student in statistics at UCLA, has started a self-experiment about procrastination. He is measuring his procrastination by how much he surfs the web. To reduce it, he is doing two things: 1. Make to-do lists. 2. Block favorite sites. More info here. He’s starting today or tomorrow.
Evidence is the raw fuel of science: We collect data, it pushes forward our understanding. But there is also anti-evidence: observations that have the effect of holding back our understanding. The clearest example I know comes from experiments that supposedly “tested” mathematical learning theories in the 1950s and later. The observation was that the theory could fit the data. Theorists wrote papers to report this observation. In fact, the theory was so flexible it could fit any plausible results. The papers, which were taken seriously, retarded the study of learning because they wasted everyone’s time. They gave the illusion of progress. Hal Pashler and I wrote about this.
Another example of anti-evidence, I think, is the sort of data that linguistic theorists have been fond of: Observations that this or that sentence or sentence fragment strikes the theorist as grammatical, i.e., possible. Not studies of how people actually talk; the observation that a speaker of English or whatever could say this or that. The theorist’s judgment based on introspection. I’m not saying that this isn’t actual data of some sort; I just suspect that the value of these sorts of observations has been overrated and the net effect has been to keep linguists from collecting data that would push theorizing forward.
Months ago I blogged about how I found that when I made playing a game contingent upon clearing off my kitchen table, I was able to clear off the table. Which had been messy for quite a while. My question: is this evidence or anti-evidence? If I think about this, and try to understand it, will I be deluding myself, as the mathematical learning theorists and the linguistic theorists deluded themselves? On its face, it seems like a very ordinary, very narrow observation, much like the observation that “George played with the game Dave brought over” is a possible English sentence. On the other hand, it is something unusual and helpful that actually happened, unlike an observation that this or that is a possible English sentence.
When someone says “the plural of anecdote is not data,” you can be sure their grasp of scientific method is weak; lots of important discoveries have begun with accidental single observations. But those productive single observations are always surprising. My table-clearing observation was slightly surprising…
A just-published review article (abstract only) on procrastination, which looks good, and an interesting talk by the author of the review, Piers Steel, a professor of business at the University of Calgary. No mention of an evolutionary explanation.
Update of my earlier post about procrastination: To keep my email In Box un-jammed and my kitchen table unembarrassing, I now realize I must play a few games of Sudoku every day.
The clearing took about 40 minutes of work and three games of Sudoku. Now to test the broken-windows theory of neatness, which says that things stay decent (say, a few items on a table) so long as the disorder stays below a certain threshold. Below that threshold, a natural tendency keeps things neat. Above that threshold, it malfunctions.
A month ago I had lunch with Greg Niemeyer, a professor of art at UC Berkeley whose medium is games. His games have appeared in art galleries all over the world. He asked me if games had been studied by psychologists and pointed out some of their psychological properties — the power to make you concentrate for a long time, for example.
This was fascinating. He was so right — games are powerful in several ways. I wondered how that power could be (a) studied and (b) used. My first question was whether games could be a stimulant, like caffeine. I emailed Greg about this; he suggested I try Bejeweled and Sudoku. But I found them tiring — they require concentration. My next idea was that maybe I could use games as a reward. I used to enjoy Tetris and Freecell. If I do X (something I wouldn’t otherwise do), then I get to play a game. This contingency causes me to do X. There are dozens of rewards you could use this way (listening to music, eating a piece of chocolate, etc.); the advantages of games include their number and variety, the care put into them, the lack of satiation (you can play the game many times and it remains pleasant), their harmlessness (if I avoided getting addicted), their low cost, the ready supply (you can play a computer game whenever you have a computer), and the short duration of some of them. The reward for a 5-minute task should not last 4 hours.
I have wondered for a long time about procrastination — what causes it, what to do about it. I like to think I’ve figured out a few things but even so certain things I should do seem to go undone . . . well, forever.
For example, a month ago I had 40-odd emails in my inbox, some a few months old. I never got around to clearing it out. Bejeweled was no fun but Sudoku (Easy level) was okay. I never played Sudoku for fun but it was slightly enjoyable. Maybe I could play a game of Sudoku as reward for answering email. If I made the requirement — the amount of email that I needed to answer — small enough, it might work.
It worked. When I made the requirement tiny — deal with 3 email (which might take 10 minutes) — that was small enough. And I was able to do it again and again: handle 3 email, play Sudoku, handle 3 email, play Sudoku, etc. Progress was slow — I spent more time playing Sudoku than dealing with email — but slow progress was far better than no progress. I was a little stunned it was actually working. After about 10 cycles (which took 3 or 4 hours), my inbox was as empty as I could make it. It hadn’t been that empty in years. To gather some data about the whole process I wrote some R programs for recording what the task was, how long it took, etc.
Then I started spending all my time revising The Shangri-La Diet for the paperback edition. A few days ago I finished that. My inbox had gotten full again and again I used Sudoku to clear it out.
I want to learn more about this way of getting things done. Does it work with other chores besides email? Here is the kitchen table in my apartment:
It isn’t usually this messy but it hasn’t been completely clear for years. Can I use Sudoku to clear it off?