What's the mental burden of trying to do something? What's it cost? What price are you going to pay if you try to do something out in the world?
I think that by figuring out what the usual costs to doing things are, we can reduce the costs and otherwise structure our lives so that it's easier to reach our goals.
When I sat down to identify cognitive costs, I found seven. There might be more. Let's get started -
Activation Energy - As covered in more detail in this post, starting an activity seems to take a larger of willpower and other resources than keeping going with it. Required activation energy can be adjusted over time - making something into a routine lowers the activation energy to do it. Things like having poorly defined next steps increases activation energy required to get started. This is a major hurdle for a lot of people in a lot of disciplines - just getting started.
Opportunity cost - We're all familiar with general opportunity cost. When you're doing one thing, you're not doing something else. You have limited time. But there also seems to be a cognitive cost to this - a natural second guessing of choices by taking one path and not another. This is the sort of thing covered by Barry Schwartz in his Paradox of Choice work (there's some faulty thought/omissions in PoC, but it's overall valuable). It's also why basically every significant military work ever has said you don't want to put the enemy in a position where their only way out is through you - Sun Tzu argued always leaving a way for the enemy to escape, which splits their focus and options. Hernan Cortes famously burned the boats behind him. When you're doing something, your mind is subtly aware and bothered by the other things you're not doing. This is a significant cost.
Inertia - Eliezer Yudkowskoy wrote that humans are "Adaptation-Executers, not Fitness-Maximizers." He was speaking in terms of large scale evolution, but this is also true of our day to day affairs. Whatever personal adaptations and routines we've gotten into, we tend to perpetuate. Usually people do not break these routines unless a drastic event happens. Very few people self-scrutinize and do drastic things without an external event happening.
The difference between activation energy and inertia is that you can want to do something, but be having a hard time getting started - that's activation energy. Whereas inertia suggests you'll keep doing what you've been doing, and largely turn your mind off. Breaking out of inertia takes serious energy and tends to make people uncomfortable. They usually only do it if something else makes them more uncomfortable (or, very rarely, when they get incredibly inspired).
Ego/willpower depletion - The Wikipedia article on ego depletion is pretty good. Basically, a lot of recent research shows that by doing something that takes significant willpower your "battery" of willpower gets drained some, and it becomes harder to do other high-will-required tasks. From Wikipedia: " In an illustrative experiment on ego depletion, participants who controlled themselves by trying not to laugh while watching a comedian did worse on a later task that required self-control compared to participants who did not have to control their laughter while watching the video." I'd strongly recommend you do some reading on this topic if you haven't - Roy Baumeister has written some excellent papers on it. The pattern holds pretty firm - when someone resists, say, eating a snack they want, it makes it harder for them to focus and persist doing rote work later.
Neurosis/fear/etc - Almost all humans are naturally more risk averse than gain-inclined. This seems to have been selected for evolutionarily. We also tend to become afraid far in excess of what we should for certain kinds of activities - especially ones that risk social embarrassment.
I never realized how strong these forces were until I tried to break free of them - whenever I got a strong negative reaction from someone to my writing, it made it considerably harder to write pieces that I thought would be popular later. Basic things like writing titles that would make a post spread, or polishing the first paragraph and last sentence - it's like my mind was weighing on the "con" side of pro/con that it would generate criticism, and it was... frightening's not quite the right word, but something like that.
Some tasks can be legitimately said to be "neurosis-inducing" - that means, you start getting more neurotic when you ponder and start doing them. Things that are almost guaranteed to generate criticism or risk rejection frequently do this. Anything that risks compromising a person's self image can be neurosis inducing too.
Altering of hormonal balance - A far too frequently ignored cost. A lot of activities will change your hormonal balance for the better or worse. Entering into conflict-like situations can and does increase adrenalin and cortisol and other stress hormones. Then you face adrenalin withdrawal and crash later. Of course, we basically are biochemistry, so significant changing of hormonal balance affects a lot of our body - immune system, respiration, digestion, etc. A lot of people are aware of this kind of peripherally, but there hasn't been much discussion about the hormonal-altering costs of a lot of activities.
Maintenance costs from the idea re-emerging in your thoughts - Another under-appreciated cognitive cost is maintenance costs in your thoughts from an idea recurring, especially when the full cycle isn't complete. In Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about how "open loops" are "anything that's not where it's supposed to be." These re-emerge in our thoughts periodically, often at inopportune times, consuming thought and energy. That's fine if the topic is exceedingly pleasant, but if it's not, it can wear you out. Completing an activity seems to reduce the maintenance cost (though not completely). An example would be not having filled your taxes out yet - it emerges in your thoughts at random times, derailing other thought. And it's usually not pleasant.
Taking on any project, initiative, business, or change can generate these maintenance costs from thoughts re-emerging.
I identified these seven as the mental/cognitive costs to trying to do something -
*Altering of hormonal balance
*Maintenance costs from the idea re-emerging in your thoughts
I think we can reduce some of these costs by planning our tasks, work lives, social lives, and environment intelligently. Others of them it's good to just be aware of so we know when we start to drag or are having a hard time.
Thoughts on other costs, or ways to reduce these are very welcome.
Not sure why - but some of the words of the post below got scrambled on upload. ["as I know you already know"] - [back from the "you're not doing it right"] edge stand out during a quick scan. Sorry about that. Again - great post!
ALSO - my last name is a hyphenate, which it seems is not allowed in Sett's name field. Any clout with the folks who could correct that oversight? It's disempowering to post under a mangled version of one's name!!
NEW thumbs up for an old post!
Hi Sebastian -
I absolutely ADORE this article (and this site - and am enjoying lurking at LessWrong). I will be quoting your words as well as linking to your posts in articles to come in several Series on ADDandSoMuchMore.com, an Evergreen informational blog helping the neurodiverse "learn to drive the very brains they were born with." I'll ping you when they go live (or as I backlink, since I revisit posts to update and change-out links).
MEANWHILE, I want to underscore the value of your delineation of the types of cognitive costs that come with follow-through.
Almost all of my readers have suffered accumulated ego-depletion costs of hearing some version of "You're not doing it right!" most of their lives. Individuals who aim various versions of that invective at those who are struggling with activation and follow-through may mean well, but their comments don't create an environment where change and growth is likely. Shame piggybacks fear of shaming onto fear of failure - and fear shuts us down (brain-based!)
What I hear most often in response to that "shut-down" point of view is fear of "enabling" behaviors they'd like to see stopped. Ironically, the very thing they are doing actually becomes part of the problem, "enabling" failure. Empowering an individual is tricky, however - and your article provides an excellent model of a great way to begin.Quantification of some of the stumbling blocks to activation and productivity helps those who are struggling step back from the edge, reducing amygdala activation to allow unfettered access to the pre-frontal cortex - the "executive functioning" area of the brain they need on board to be ABLE to focus and follow-thru with intentionality (as I know already know).
"Your lack of life success is ALL your fault!"you
Quantification of costs also provides a new way to look at getting things done -- budgeting energy in a sort of cost/benefit analysis to help predict ROI. After all, there are only so many hours in each day, and nobody can do EVERYTHING, regardless of how important each individual "thing" might be.
They still won't get everything done, but the likelihood is higher that they will continue working on it with greater success. More to the point, they'll get SOME things done, in marked contrast to sitting around doing nothing as they ruminate over their lack of activation energy. Success breeds success.
ONE last thing - I have been attempting to distinguish "activation" from "motivation" for my readers and have found little to add to the distinction in the "getting things done" literature around the 'net (and even less indication that there is much awareness that there IS a distinction). Any interest in co-writing something with me on the topic? I'd also welcome a guest post on the topic (with links and attribution as you desire, natch!)
Madelyn Griffith-Haynie - ADDandSoMuchMore dot com
- ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder -
"It takes a village to educate a world!"
Good post. Maybe this belongs to another post, but I would add transaction costs for work that involves a team. This would include communication overhead (e.g. me not being specific enough or my team member misunderstanding me), information gap (e.g. I don't know if my team member has completed his task so I have to constantly check up on him), and dead time on a production line (e.g. I have to wait for my partner to finish his task before I can do something).
Thanks Sebastian, yes it works but I posted a comment with two links and returned to this page with no notice and it did not show. I assumed it was in moderation but I did not see any notice of that.
Also related on how to start, writing in this case:
Hi, there is no confirmation when we post a comment or it is not working now, it is confusing. Thanks.
I'd be interested to learn what faulty thought/omissions you've recognized in PoC.
"Neurosis/fear/etc – Almost all humans are naturally more risk averse than gain-inclined. This seems to have been selected for evolutionarily. We also tend to become afraid far in excess of what we should for certain kinds of activities – especially ones that risk social embarrassment."
This really hit me. I never thought of it as neurosis but that's what it really is. I think I've made it a life goal to want to minimize this feeling as much as possible. It's such a huge challenge for me that it's something that's worthy to challenge and overcome everyday.
It's a daily battle because neurosis (especially in the social realm) is like a rubber band. Every time you do something neurosis inducing, it stretches out a metaphorical rubber band out more. That symbolizes how "flexible" you are with this neurosis. It's like momentum. When you continue to do it, you have more leeway with novel experiences. (It's not as neurosis inducing after the 10th risky situation in the same day for example.)
However, the rubber band bends back the moment you stop having those neurosis experiences, so it's a never-ending challenge.
Of course, people have metaphorical rubber bands that range in many sizes (their ability to resist neurosis naturally).
So in summary: if you're someone with high sensitivity to neurosis like situations, then it's just a matter of tons of exposure to expand the "rubber band".
Brain Willpower Depleted By Use
but this one contradicts the previous one
Brain’s willpower not fueled by glucose
In chemistry, activation energy is a term introduced in 1889 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, that is defined as the energy that must be overcome in order for a chemical reaction to occur.
In this article, I propose that:
After proposing that, I'd like to explore:
Every action a person takes has an activation cost. The activation cost of a consistent, deeply embedded habit is zero. It happens almost automatically. The activation cost for most people in the United States to exercising is fairly high, and most people are inconsistent about exercising. However, there are people who - every single day - begin by putting their running shoes on and running. Their activation cost to running is effectively zero.
This site is about finding ways to improve your ability to improve yourself. Integral to this is utilising meta-habits; habits that enhance your ability to adopt other habits.
To get started, here are five meta-habits that can serve as a foundation for continuous growth.