Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Psychological Constraints are Real Constraints

Over the years, I've increasingly come to the conclusion that the advice to 'try harder' is largely useless.

If you, like me, have battled with procrastination at some point, you possibly find yourself thinking 'Why can't I just sit down and work for 8 hours straight, instead of wasting time on the internet?'

On the other hand, my attempts to boost my productivity rarely last more than a few days, at least absent concrete, short-term, high-stakes deadlines. Once when I had a really big work deadline a month away, I managed to put in a full month of 17-hour work days, every day. But then I was exhausted for the next two months. Most of the time, each new productivity scheme lasts either a few days, or a few hours.

So what gives? Am I just abnormally lazy? Are you?

I think that the way to think about it is to realise that psychological constraints are every bit as important as physical constraints. Just because you can't see them doesn't mean they're not real - your brain is part of your body, just like your muscles, and it's not much easier to just instantly reconfigure your brain than it is to instantly grow your muscles.

For instance, suppose someone was a slow runner. No matter what they did, they can't crack 17 seconds for 100m.

If you were to tell them, "Why don't you just run faster? Why don't you stop being so lazy? You just like taking it easy and running slowly, and don't want it enough!", it would be obvious that this was completely useless advice. Maybe the person lacked natural ability to run very fast. Maybe the person hadn't trained enough, or in the right manner.

Maybe the person actually was being lazy, and not running as fast as they could. But would you bet on that as the main explanation?

My guess is that the ability to concentrate for 5 hours in a row and not click on your internet browser is a skill,  just like running. Some are born with it. Some have to train in specific ways to get it. Some will never have it.

The same holds for the ability to be a door-to-door salesman or telemarketer, and have people scorn you over and over and over and keep on being cheerful.

The same holds for being able to cold-call 20 women in a row in a bar and get rejected each time.

You might be born with this ability, or you might have to train in certain ways. But if we take the average person and just chuck him in that situation, don't be surprised when he fails. And when that happens, laziness is probably not the most fruitful way of understanding the distribution of outcomes.

I can't run 100m in 11 seconds, I don't have a vertical leap of 1m, and I can't make myself do non-stop work for hours on end. And I'm okay with all three of those.

As to how you deal with this problem, your mileage may vary. I respond by repackaging my procrastination as alternative endeavours. Like, you know, writing blog posts. This way, I can surround myself with audiences who appreciate my time-wasting. Yes, that's it. I'm too well-rounded and interesting to do nothing but work.

And who'd want to run it in 11 seconds, anyway?

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