Photo by Jonathan Petersson on Unsplash

Could a Randomness Machine Help You Fight Procrastination?

2020-05-08 - Arne Jenssen

The motivation

Nir Eyal, the author of "Indistractable" says that distractions are actions that pull us away from what we plan to do. The opposite of distraction is not focus, it is traction. Anything can be a distraction, just as anything can be traction. If you check your email when you plan to work on a big project, you’re distracted. Conversely, if you plan to play video games, the game is not a distraction. It is traction.

A diversion is a refocusing on attention. Diversions can be wonderful.

Procrastination is when we give into a distraction instead of doing what we plan to do,

There are many theories on why we procrastinate, and why this unwanted habit is so hard to break.

In the 1930s psychologists trained rats to do a certain behavior, e.g. pressing a lever, by giving them small rewards. Once trained, the scientists discovered that when the rats were given rewards unpredictably, on a variable ratio schedule of every 3 - 7 times, they would perform the trained behavior more often. More remarkably, with randomized rewards, the behavior became hard to extinguish.

Getting rewards releases dopamine in the brain, and even the expectation of a reward has this effect.

Not only rats, but also humans have a desire for randomness. We get excited by unpredictability. Watching sports - who will score/win? Fishing - will I get a catch? Reading news - what has happened (in the last hour)? Listening to radio - what song will they play next? Going to a bar - who will I meet? Shopping - is there a bargain on the sale?

In this age we are just a mouse click away from randomness. Most of us carry a smartphone everywhere we go, and a big part of the appeal is the excitement finding out what is “new”. For some it is more addictive than sugar and heroin.

Engaging in randomness itself is not bad, but when we use it to procrastinate it can be hard to stop. Just one more click, scroll, or tab.

Many of the tasks that we plan to do, like work, studying and chores, don’t have immediate rewards. The benefits of work and studying are in the future, whereas checking Instagram or Facebook hits the reward systems in the brain immediately. Did I get any likes on my post? What stories hide under the bell-icon?

One popular technique that I and many others use for fighting procrastination is timeboxing a.k.a. The pomodoro Technique. The technique prescribes a 25-minute session work followed by a 5-minute break. There is a strict rule. During the 25-minute work session you must only do one task and do not interrupt yourself e.g. by checking email. No distractions - only traction.

I am able to be focused during the 25-minute work sessions, but I didn’t have a system for the breaks.

During my breaks I would often engage in mindless checking the online “slot-machines”. News sites and social media. I admit that I didn't use a timer for the 5-minute breaks because I have only one timer. As a result I was not so strict about the 5-minutes of the breaks, meaning they could run over a bit.

I’ve tried media fasting. It was too strict. My rat-brain would too often manage to come up with an excuse for breaking the fasting.

I needed a better system for the breaks. The whole point (for me) is to get a little diversion. I want to satisfy my urges for (social) media, but in a responsible way.

I realize that it is not smart to trust myself to take a rational decision in the moment.

Dan Ariely has found, when researching behavioral economics and irrationality, that most people think of themselves as better versions in the future. “We all think that in the future, we are wonderful people. We will be patient, we will not procrastinate, we will exercise, we will eat well... The problem is we never get to live in that future. We always live in the present.”

One trick he recommends to overcome present irrationality is to make upfront decisions. For example a way to be nice to your future self is to set up automatic savings for retirement at the beginning of the month rather than waiting until the end of the month when money is tight. Otherwise your “present self” will win over your “future self”.

So back to the problem of having effective breaks during work. I want some diversion, but not be drawn too deep into a rabbithole of internet. I could have made a strict plan with many rules, but I know myself well enough to know that I would have found excuses to break them.

Human brains in some ways are not too different from rats. We also crave a dopamine rush. I thought about how I could use the desire for randomness to my benefit?

The hack

I created a simple “randomness machine”.

The first prototype: I took a big glass jar and filled it with paper-lots. On each lot I wrote a thing I would reward myself by doing during a break. Facebook, linkedIn, twitter, youtube, pushups, local news, national news, tech news, close browser tabs, brainstorm, … and a handful more. Some of the lots I made more copies of because I’d like to do it several times per day. For example I want to drop into facebook up to 4 times per day, so I made 4 lots with Facebook.

It is simple to use the “randomness machine”. After completing a 25-minute session of work it is time for a diversion. I get up from my desk and go to the jar to pick one lot at random. Eyes closed - no cheating.

The prototype

First Impressions: It works well (otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered to write this post). Now my breaks are more structured. One meaningful reward, instead of my old habit of a handful of empty rewards selected out of boredom. The scarcity of only one reward per break made me appreciate it more, and more importantly the randomness of drawing a lot created a lot of excitement (pun intended).

Upgraded the prototype: A few days later I upgraded the prototype. I realized that I don’t need so many rewards during the day. So I added another rule. The first part of the day I dedicate to deep work where I do 8 time-slots of programming. The new rule I made was that during this period I will not use the randomness jar, instead I throw a dice after completing each session. Each side of the dice has assigned an activity or a reward: 1 stretching, 2 yoga-poses, 3 foam roller, 4 thinking, 5 facebook, 6 pick from the jar. A mix between something I should do more often (stretching, foam-rolling) and diversions. After the first 8 time slots are completed, I skip the dice and go right to the goodies in the randomness jar for the rest of the day.

With the second version of the prototype I still get randomness throughout the day, but it is less distracting.

Other points

If there is a reward I want to engage in less frequent than daily, I keep the lot under the jar for a few days before putting it back in.

I have about twice as many lots in the jar as I normally go through so there is no guarantee that I will get to every reward every single day. Which is fine. Twitter can wait.

After drawing a lot I don’t put it back in, but I have some duplicate or triplicate lots. If I draw the same two times in a row, I allow myself to skip it and draw a new lot. Don’t use it for scheduled social diversions that involve other people.

Observations

My breaks are better and more fulfilling, and I return to work quicker. I think there is less total procrastination during the day.

With the randomness machine my excitement gets bigger. I appreciate the diversion much more. Now it actually feels like an earned reward and there is a sense of suspense about which lot I draw.

Less decision fatigue. Steve Jobs famously always wore the same outfit every day to avoid having to make about what to wear. Trivial decisions on what diversion to engage in is better left to a system (the jar). Near infinite choice can be fatiguing. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter which diversion I engage in, so better leave it up to chance instead of using energy to make a decision. With the randomness machine, it is like a friendly butler who makes the decisions for me. My days are on a rollercoaster. The direction is set, but the thrills are up to me to experience.

When I draw a lot that is not the one I hoped for in the moment, I can feel a bit disappointed. But then I remind myself that this is something my former self wanted me to do when I created the lot. So I decide to enjoy it.

Like chocolate. The less you have, the more precious each bite becomes.

Conclusions

I don’t know if a randomness jar is the best way to manage breaks and diversions, but after several weeks I think it is superior to having no system or a too rigid system, so I plan to keep using it for a while.

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