Plans need motivational components

One of the most valuable things that I got out of the Center for Applied Rationality’s recent workshop, but which took a while to really sink in, is that a plan isn’t finished until it also includes a component for how you’ll actually get yourself to carry it out.

I think that people in planning mode have a tendency to think of themselves as magical robots, as in “once I know what I need to do to accomplish my goal, the hard work is done and all that remains is executing the plan”. But in my experience, getting yourself to actually carry out the plan is the hard part. Everyone knows how to Bungee jump, or how to get a date: just tie a elastic cord around your leg and jump, or just walk up to everyone who seems attractive and ask them out until someone says yes. It’s not figuring out what you need to do that’s hard.

Probably the thing that taught this the most viscerally was an exercise at the workshop, called Focused Grit. It’s really simple: you imagine that there’s an evil genie behind your back, who’s giving you five minutes to solve some particular problem that you have. Once the five minutes has passed, the genie will delete your ability to ever think of the problem again. So if you don’t want the problem to be with you for the rest of your life, you have five minutes to either actually solve the problem, or at least make a plan for how you’ll solve the problem that’s good enough that you can just execute it afterwards.

Then you set a timer, and solve your problem within the next five minutes.

This works surprisingly well.

A mistake that a lot of people make with this technique at first is that they only create a plan which would work if they were to carry it out. Then they stop there, feeling that they’re done.

But remember the evil genie. You won’t have a chance to develop your plan further once the five minutes are done, and that includes trying to motivate yourself to carry out the plan. When the five minutes finishes, you need to actually be in a state where you’ll carry out the plan, or you’ll be stuck with your problem for the rest of your life. And the genie will laugh at you.

I found this to be a very effective way to internalize the “a plan is only complete once it includes a component for how you’ll actually complete it” lesson. In the past, I used to do write-ups of techniques that seemed good and useful if I could get myself to use them, but which I knew I was unlikely to actually use. They seemed so good on paper!

Now I know better. A technique that you don’t think that you’ll be able to use isn’t good even on paper.

This is now the most important lens that I use to evaluate all of my plans and techniques.


  1. Clearly put, and I strongly agree!


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