Building self-trust with Self-Referential Motivation

Noah asks:

I feel so incredibly much better when I don’t procrastinate, and yet I still procrastinate regularly. Why am I so resistant to classical conditioning in this context? What further questions should I ask myself / demands should I make of myself, to attack this problem?

I suspect that this is a paradox that almost everyone has encountered on some level. People want to be productive. It feels good to have a really fruitful day.

This is something we often forget, when we frame our self-improvement efforts as a fight between what we should do and what we want to do.

And note that it’s not just that people want-to-have-been-productive. It generally feels pretty good while you’re doing it too. There are exceptions, of course—some work is a grind—but in general it’s at least satisfying, if not fulfilling, to be doing good work. And even with relatively aversive work, it usually feels better to be actually making progress than to just be stewing in the feeling that you should be working but aren’t.

So here’s the million-dollar question: if it feels good to be productive, why aren’t people productive more? “Million-dollar” is an understatement, actually. If you can come up with a good, practical answer to this question, it’s worth an enormous amount of money. (The market for business and productivity apps is over $60B, to say nothing of books and courses and so on.)

Do you have any answers? This is a puzzle worth thinking about, I think. But don’t fall into the trap of planning to do that before you read on and never doing it and never reading on. That would suck. Either do it now or just keep reading.

…okay! Here’s my answer:

The reason most people procrastinate even though it feels good to work is that most people are not actually navigating by what feels good. They’re telling themself they should do certain things, and then either doing them out of fear of self-blame, or not doing them and then indeed feeling bad.

Blame is how our society does interpersonal motivation, at large, and so this is how we learn to do it with ourselves.

But how do you get out of this? Many people have tried turning off the self-blame, but then they find that they don’t actually do things—including things that they enjoy doing! I wrote this summer on the challenge of being purpose-driven without fighting myself and a lot of people resonated with that challenge.

So our quest is for some sort of scaffold for building a sense of navigating by what feels good instead of by fear, that allows us to be reliably productive in the meantime. Here’s one of my most powerful tools to that end. I’ve used it to avoid distractions—temporarily or permanently—and to stay focused on challenging, aversive projects.

Self-Referential Motivation

I developed the concept of Self-Referential Motivation several years ago when I noticed a commonality between several other blog posts, along with a recent win. I’m going to lay the source material out first, and again let you think about it first before I explain my take.

In How to start on the most important thing every day, talking about my morning routine, I remarked:

Now that I’ve done this for awhile, I’ve noticed that I’m so much more productive when email is off the table that I want to extend that morning focus block as long as possible, because I know I’ll achieve more things if I do.

In Mindfulness Field Training 2: Motivation, I asked myself:

“If someone was going to reward me with the abstract knowledge that I’m able to motivate myself to do really hard things using only hypothetical rewards, would I be able to do it?”

Nick Winter writes in Spiraling Into Control:

…the real cost of failing a goal is not the loss of your Beeminder pledge money. It’s the loss of confidence that you will meet all future goals that you perceive as similar to the current goal. You will trust yourself less.

Again, if you want, here’s a pause for you to consider what these have in common.

Okay!

Having a working motivational system is motivating

The motivation in each of these examples comes from knowing that if the motivational technique works, then it works! And it’s valuable to have a working system.

I felt silly typing what I just typed, but that’s basically it.

Seriously: the reason that these systems work is because they tap into the part of you that really wants the system to work, and gets that part to strategize on your behalf. I’ve had coaching clients say “I mean I can try to do that, but my brain will sabotage me.” This is the opposite.

But which kind of opposite is it?

One form of opposite is to create in yourself a sub-agent that is a very effective theoretically-benevolent dictator, and is able to get you to do what you want. Ziz called this Self-Blackmail:

I once had a file I could write commitments in. If I ever failed to carry one out, I knew I’d forever lose the power of the file. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since any successful use of the file after failing would be proof that a single failure didn’t have the intended effect, so there’d be no extra incentive.

I used it to make myself do more work. It split me into a commander who made the hard decisions beforehand, and commanded who did the suffering but had the comfort of knowing that if I just did the assigned work, the benevolent plans of a higher authority would unfold.

This works… on some level. It can cause you to do a bunch of things that you set out to do, and it can even sort of remove the unpleasant experience of second-guessing. But in this sort of scenario, you’re aiming for a kind of absolute authoritarian control of your behavior. This is hard to maintain, and when it breaks it can break very violently. Even if it breaks without TK-extra-casualties, it still basically stops working forever once it does.

It’s also very rigid. Sometimes the reason you don’t want to follow the plan you made yesterday is that you have more information today and you can make a better plan. This sort of structure disrupts the ability to improvise and respond creatively.

One way to use this sort of thing that still allows for plenty of creativity is to only use it to get yourself not to do specific things that would get in the way of your flow. I posted the following about one of my early experiments in self-referential motivation:

Lately I’ve been having decent success with “I swear on my ability to use this kind of vow again, that today I will not [specific distracting thing I spent a bunch of time doing yesterday]”
I get urges to do it, but then I’m like “noooo, if I follow the urges then this pledge will lose its power.” Interestingly it seems I have to make this pledge out loud for it to work. In particular, considering making it, or even thinking “it would be a good idea if I made it” does not work.

It’s telling that the first comment on that post got half as many likes as the post itself. It reads:

I find that often I refuse to make such a vow… because it works.

This comment highlights that Self-Blackmail is powerful, but as stated so far… it’s missing that key part where it feels good. It’s just another form (albeit a clever and useful one!) of the classic authoritarian motivation strategy.

Interestingly, Self-Blackmail does sort of let you build a certain kind of self-trust: the trust that you can decide to do a thing and then do it, even in the face of internal resistance. Even if the thing is actually a bad idea at that point. This is a thing worth having, despite its limitedness.

Internal conflict doesn’t feel good

Self-Blackmail is the opposite of self-sabotage in that it creates a self-control system that works hard to make sure your plans aren’t sabotaged. But it’s still based on this internal conflict.

We can do better.

Something that’s the opposite of both self-sabotage and self-control is self-trust.

So how can we make a self-referential motivation system that isn’t fear-driven and has the long-term effect of increasing internal integration and self-trust?

Instead of motivating yourself towards “if this system works, then I’ll have a system to control my behavior arbitrarily”, shift the frame so that it’s “if this system works, then I’ll have a way to do what I want to do without fighting myself about it.”

So the aim isn’t to be productive all the time. It’s to be productive at the times when your internal society of mind generally agrees it would be good to be productive. It’s not to be able to motivate yourself to do anything. It’s to be able to motivate yourself to do anything it makes sense to do.

What this distinction represents is taking an collaborative stance. Wars are nothing if not costly, and whatever competing parts you have would rather not be destroying shared resources by fighting. But they don’t know how to get their needs met without doing so. The authoritarian part thinks, “If I didn’t boss myself around, then I wouldn’t be productive, and I wouldn’t be able to meet the needs of [whatever external authority you’re orienting towards]”. The rebellious part thinks, “If I didn’t resist arbitrary attempts at motivation, then I would never have any fun or be able to read my favorite webcomic. Also I would end up doing bullshit work that isn’t actually worth doing at all.”

And both of these systems are reasoning accurately, as long as the other is also reasoning that way. It’s like how two countries with troops at their border have a good reason for wanting to keep their own troops present as long as the other country does.

Building trust in a conflict zone is a matter of gradual mutual disarmament.

My SRM technique: Self-Trust Bet

My explicit technique also involves a kind of vow, so on the surface it looks a lot like Self-Blackmail. I want to get clear terminologically for a sec:

Self-Referential Motivation (SRM) is the general principle that the desire to have a functioning motivational system is itself a major source of motivation.
Self-Blackmail (SB) is a technique that leverages SRM to control behavior to execute plans, in an authoritarian way.
Self-Trust Betting (STB) is a technique that leverages SRM to align behavior to execute plans, in an integrated way.

The STB technique is approximately what I described in the post above. I declare out loud or in writing, “by the power of Self-Trust Bets, I shall not play this game for the rest of the day.” I literally say phrases like that.

The integrated part of STB has two elements. One is the matter of when I make such vows. I don’t just immediately say them when my inner taskmaster first notices that I’m doing something other than working. Nor do I commit to finishing projects that I’m not sure are worth it. I first try to check in on how my whole system feels about the thing, and I only say it if I can really get behind it.

And then because I’m feeling aligned, if I notice the urge to play the game or whatever, I have a kind of excited energy towards the importance of squashing or setting aside that urge. It makes it easy, and even fun. It’s an opportunity to build self-trust.

It’s also an opportunity to damage self-trust. This is the other reason why it’s important to find things you’re aligned about—you want to make sure that whatever you’re committing to actually happens!

What you’re doing here is getting your conflicting parts to find a thing they think they can cooperate on, and then collectively betting that they’ll succeed. These shared bets are how trust is built—in this case, self-trust. This also means that if you’re feeling uncertain about using STB for something, then don’t! Whether it’s because you’re still partially conflicted, or because you sense that the situation is one that calls for more flexibility, follow your sense that this is not the right moment. That builds a different kind of self-trust.

When there’s good alignment, I feel a sense of coherent excitement to be deciding to do a thing. That thing might be to avoid a distraction, for the rest of the day or in one case forever (I just realized that particular game I was addicted to wasn’t actually that satisfying and I’d be better off quitting it. I still get urges periodically, but each time it’s a chance to build more self-trust by not playing the game, and I know that I value that more than I value the game itself.).

You can also use this to align yourself around something like “I’ll focus intently on this project tomorrow until it’s done.” This is slightly harder, because it’s less clear what it means to focus intently on the project, but since you’re trying to build a sense of self-trust and self-efficacy here, exploiting loopholes doesn’t really work. There’s nothing to “get away with“.

What to do if you fail to do the thing you used STB on on?

This has basically never happened to me. I pretty much always followed the explicit declaration that I’ve made, even if “I won’t go back to bed after I get up” led to passing out on the couch once. And this is the point. If you think you might fail even once declaring IV, don’t do it! Start smaller!

(If your internal war is so heated that you’ll predictably self-sabotage any attempt at disarmament, then perhaps such a vow is not the technique for you and you probably want to start with some other kind of self-compassion. This post may be helpful to you.)

I generally assume in these cases that either I didn’t manage to really get fully aligned, or I failed to clarify exactly what the plan was, or something else happened that shifted the landscape so that my intention no longer made sense.

Rather than focusing on my past declaration of intent or on who’s fault it was, I continue to focus on what will yield the most alignment and self-trust going forward. This might involve a post-mortem and a strategizing-for-next-time, but as best I can I try to avoid being mad at myself. If become mad at myself, I’ve lost sight of the whole point: navigating by what feels good. Not getting mad is the other element that makes Self-Trust Bets integrative, unlike Self-Blackmail.

(If you’ve read my post on the third kind of expectation, that’s the kind of response towards yourself that I’m talking about here.)

What does it mean to say “I mean it”?

I’ve been actively working with this SRM concept for a couple years now, and was thinking about it again today because I found myself doing something that was kind of the opposite of an Self-Trust Bet, but it also wasn’t Self-Blackmail. Nor was it self-sabotage, per se. It was just silly.

I was using my Captain’s Log to reflect as I went about my day, and at one point I wrote that I was going to meditate, then I ended up doing other stuff. About an hour later, I wrote

I’m going to actually meditate for a few minutes, and feel if it makes sense to try to nap.

When I returned to my log after I’d napped, I laughed as I realized that I totally still hadn’t meditated! I then wrote the following reflection (lightly edited):

I think this is a remnant of authoritarianism. The laughter feels integrative! But the “actually” feels… ugh.

It feels judgmental, perhaps, of my oh-so-naïve past self, who thought he would meditate and didn’t, and my current self thinks he knows better. I think that was the main source of the humor: there was so much emphasis on the “actually” and it still didn’t happen!

I recall feeling slightly conscious of the tone of my use of actually at the time, but didn’t quite flag it. That’s fine—I’m looking at it now. It feels good to link the current investigation with more more in-advance consciousness of the thing.

I think it’s fair to say that this use of “actually” has not been healthy for my self-trust. Both in little instances like this and in larger situations where I have said things to myself like “I just need to actually get my shit together here.” This is a channel on which I have primarily judged and blamed myself. I have also perhaps motivated myself using it, but not in a way that builds ongoing self-trust.

In fact, it’s a way that I’ve said “I mean it” without checking to see if I really mean it, which makes my meanings not-trustable. It’s a form of crying wolf. This “actually” thing, actually, undermines self-trust.

I’m now noticing something about the way that I’ve used Self-Referential Motivation vows [Note: I didn’t come up with the Self-Blackmail / Self-Trust Bet name distinction until writing this post]. The gravity of the use of these vows means that I always first make sure that I really mean it. This means getting my whole self on board. Whether it’s avoiding something for some period of time, or staying really focused on a task or project until it’s finished, I don’t explicit SRM for a vow unless I feel good about it. And I also don’t mach such a vow unless I genuinely mean it.

So if I had said, hypothetically, “by SRM, I shall now meditate” then it would have happened. Or I wouldn’t have said it.

So another way to think about SRM is that if you’ve got a history of saying things like “this year I’ll actually go running every day”, such that you can no longer really trust that you mean it, then SRM is a way to rebuild that, by only saying it when you mean it.

Tips and next steps

A motivational structure doesn’t have to have vows in it to be self-referential. Vows (ie Self-Blackmail or a Self-Trust Bet) are the most overtly self-referential scenario, but any time you design a system for yourself where part of your motivation comes from the desire to have the system work, this is a form of SRM. I think this is actually most systems, and that paying attention to your desire to have your systems work can help in general, even if you never use vows like this.

Also note that using Self-Trust Bets is intended over the long term to build your general sense of self-efficacy. So you can expect to find yourself being more able to decide to do things and follow through with them, without having to formally declare that you definitely will. Hell, you might even just find yourself doing saner things without needing to have decided in the first place—sanity feels good.

Another thing to know: placing regular Self-Trust Bets is a particular meta-structure, but you still need good habit techniques. If you get yourself feeling aligned, and say “STB: I shall go running every day this year”, but you don’t do things like…

  • make sure you’ve got running clothes that you like
  • decide what time of day you’ll run by default
  • set up some sort of simple system where you can check off “yep I ran today” so that you’re always sure
  • devise a plan for if you’re travelling

…then it’s going to be way harder. What an STB does though is it suddenly makes all of those actions feel very important! Because you’ve gotten yourself aligned around wanting to succeed, so you need to actually bring all of your tools to the table. Some habit-failures come from a lack of knowing good habit techniques, but on some level most of them come from some internal conflict. The conflict either prevents you from deploying those techniques or ensures that you manage to fail despite them.

You might be thinking “this all sounds great but how do I actually do that getting-aligned part?” It’s a good question! I think there are actually a lot of techniques for this, which is why I haven’t focused on it. The powerful thing that an STB offers is a way to turn alignment into powerful action. Techniques you can use for getting aligned include:

  • a Captain’s Log, morning pages, or some other journalling system
  • a self-designed meditation towards “what would be really satisfying & meaningful to do right now?” (I have done this and found it very fruitful)
  • talk about your internal conflict with a friend or counsellor who is able to hold space for you
  • Internal Family Systems (IFS) or other parts-based introspection tools
  • Internal Double Crux (IDC) as taught by the Center for Applied Rationality

Note that some alignment techniques (particularly IFS and IDC) may encourage you to make some sort of compromise or bring your parts into “agreement”. It might surprise you to realize that this is often unnecessary! The crux of the conflict often isn’t about an actual disagreement about what’s important. Your inner YouTube Addict might not actually want to watch youtube that much, they just don’t want to be told what to do, and so you might find that you can make a Self-Trust Bet by just saying “hey, wouldn’t it feel awesome if we were really productive? what if we did that instead?” as a genuine question, and having it go “okay!” (rather than needing to negotiate with it about hours-spent-on-youtube-per-week).

You’re in this for the long-haul—where by “this” I mean your relationship with yourself. Building self-trust not only feels good but can yield better and more consistent performance. It’s work, but it’s worth it. If you feel resistance, is probably because you’re still thinking of it as a way to build self-control, and so you’re also feeling a sense of needing to rebel.

Be that as it may, unlike much of my writing, where I lay out a distinction and say “I think that this half has sufficient flaws that I’d recommend avoiding it altogether”, in this case I actually think that (despite the name Ziz gave it) Self-Blackmail is both more effective and less damaging than many motivational strategies people would otherwise be using, so if you’re not attracted to the integrative techniques, but you think Self-Blackmail sounds worth trying, I say go for it!

(If you’re curious where some of my thinking around this is coming from, two books to check out are The Guru Papers and Making Sense of Behavior: The Meaning of Control, which both have really powerful things to say about internal conflict and self-control.)

MC Escher's etching "drawing hands", which depicts a left and right hand drawing each other

(On a process-level I want to note that I’m excited to have published this, because it’s been a major mental model in my own thinking, and I’ve kind of got a backlog of further things that I can now publish and reference this piece. One of the main things sticking up my writing has itself been self-reference, in a different form! I feel like I have 5 things I’m excited to write about, but each of them requires me to have already written about 2 or 3 of the others. I’m gradually finding ways to do it anyway though!)

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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