[ Question ]

How do you stay emotionally motivated while working on highly specific problems?

by Denis Drescher5 min read2nd May 20213 comments

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Research methodsRethink PrioritiesMotivational
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Introduction

I used an Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) of Rethink Priorities to ask a series of questions about research in general (not limited to Rethink Priorities).

I’m posting these here severally to make them more visible. I’m not personally looking for more answers at this point, but if you think that readers would benefit from another perspective, I’d be delighted if you could add it.

Question

It’s easy to be motivated on a System 2 basis by the importance of the work, but sometimes that fails to carry over to System 1 when dealing with some very removed or specific work – say, understanding some obscure proof that is relevant to AI safety along a long chain of tenuous probabilistic implications. Do you have tricks for how to stay System 1 motivated in such cases – or when do you decide that a lack of motivation may actually mean that something is wrong with the topic and you should question whether it is sufficiently important?

Jason Schukraft

When I reflect on my life as a whole, I’m happy that I’m in a career that aims to improve the world. But in terms of what gets me out of bed in the morning and excited to work, it’s almost never the impact I might have. It’s the intrinsically interesting nature of my work. I almost certainly would not be successful if I did not find my research to be so fascinating.

David Bernard

My main trick for dealing with this is to always plan my day the night before. I let System 2 Dave work out what is important and needs to be done and put blocks in the calendar for these things. When System 1 Dave is working the next day, his motivation doesn’t end up mattering so much because he can easily defer to what System 2 Dave said he should do. I don’t read too much into lack of System 1 motivation, it happens and I haven’t noticed that it is particularly correlated with how important the work is, it’s more correlated with things like how scary it is to start some new task and irrelevant things like how much sunlight I’ve been getting.

Alex Lintz

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what I’m calling “incentive landscaping.” The basic idea is that your system 2 has a bunch of things it wants to do (e.g. have impact). Then you can shape your incentive landscape such that your system 1 is also motivated to do the highest impact things. Working for someone who shares your values is the easiest way to do this as then your employer and peers will reward you (either socially or with promotions) for doing things which are impact-oriented. This still won’t be perfectly optimized for impact but it gets you close. Then you can add in some extra motivators like a small group you meet with to talk about progress on some thing which seems badly motivated, or ask others to make your reward conditional on you completing something your system 2 thinks is important. Still early days for me on this though and I think it’s a really hard thing to get right.

Michael Aird

(Disclaimer: I’m just reporting on my own experience, and think people will vary a lot in this sort of area, so none of the following is even slightly a recommendation.)

In general:

  • Personally, I seem to just find it pretty natural to spend a lot of hours per week doing work-ish things
  • I tend to be naturally driven to “work hard” (without it necessarily feeling much like working) by intellectual curiosity, by a desire to produce things I’m proud of, and by a desire for positive attention (especially but not only from people whose judgement I particularly respect)
    • That third desire in particular can definitely become a problem, but I try to keep a close eye on it and ensure that I’m channeling that desire towards actions I actually endorse on reflection
  • I do get run down sometimes, and sometimes this has to do with too many hours per week for too many weeks in a row. But the things that seem more liable to run me down are feeling that I lack sufficient autonomy in what I do, how, and when; or feeling that what I’m doing isn’t valuable; or feeling that I’m not developing skills and knowledge I’ll use in future
    • That last point means that one type of case in which I do struggle to be motivated is cases where I know I’m going to switch away from a broad area after finishing some project, and that I’m unlikely to use the skills involved in that project again.
      • In these cases, even if I know that finishing that project to a high standard would still be valuable and is worth spending time on, it can be hard for me to be internally motivated to do so, because it no longer feels like doing so would “level me up” in ways I care about.
  • I seem to often become intensely focused on a general area in an ongoing way (until something switches my focus to another area), and just continually think about it, in a way that feels positive or natural or flow-like or something
    • This happened for stand-up comedy, then for psychology research, then for teaching, then for EA stuff (once I learned about EA)
      • (The other points above likewise applied during each of those four “phases” of my adult life)

Luckily, the sort of work I do now:

  • is very intellectually stimulating
  • involves producing things I’m (at least often!) proud of
  • can bring me positive attention
  • allows me a sufficient degree of autonomy
  • seems to me to be probably the most valuable thing I could realistically be doing at the moment (in expectation, and with vast uncertainty, of course)
  • involves developing skills and knowledge I expect I might use in future

That means it’s typically been relatively easy for me to stay motivated. I feel very fortunate both to have the sort of job and “the sort of psychology” I’ve got. I think many people might, through no fault of their own, find it harder to be emotionally motivated to spend lots of hours doing valuable work, even when they know that that work would be valuable and they have the skills to do it. Unfortunately, we can’t entirely choose what drives us, when, and how.

(There’s also a scary possibility that my tendency so far to be easily motivated to work on things I think are valuable is just the product of me being relatively young and relatively new to EA and the areas I’m working in, and that that tendency will fade over time. I’d bet against that, but could be wrong.)

(If one of the answers is yours, you can post it below, and I’ll delete it here.)

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It's a pretty simple trick, but I find it very helpful to have multiple projects on the go in any one day/week/month and switch projects (1) half way through the day, and/or (2) when I get especially bored or notice I'm flagging.

2 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:05 PM

The article “Why I find longtermism hard, and what keeps me motivated” by Michelle Hutchinson seems related:

I find working on longtermist causes to be – emotionally speaking – hard: There are so many terrible problems in the world right now. How can we turn away from the suffering happening all around us in order to prioritise something as abstract as helping make the long-run future go well?

A lot of people who aim to put longtermist ideas into practice seem to struggle with this, including many of the people I’ve worked with over the years. And I myself am no exception – the pull of suffering happening now is hard to escape. For this reason, I wanted to share a few thoughts on how I approach this challenge, and how I maintain the motivation to work on speculative interventions despite finding that difficult in many ways.

This issue is one aspect of a broader issue in EA: figuring out how to motivate ourselves to do important work even when it doesn’t feel emotionally compelling. It’s useful to have a clear understanding of our emotions in order to distinguish between feelings and beliefs we endorse and those that we wouldn’t – on reflection – want to act on.

Yeah, I liked that post and do think it's relevant.

There are also a whole bunch of other posts with the Motivation tag, some of which could perhaps be of interest to readers of this post. (I've now applied that tag to this post as well.)