davidhartsough

Mostly regarded as a happy human, conversationalist, drummer, developer, wannabe psychologist, imminent philosopher, and stuntman — more or less... (definitely less towards the end there).

Catch me in the wild @ davidhartsough.com

Professionally, I'm an engineer at Spark Wave. Personally, I'm an unserious homie who is pretty obsessed with connection, creation, music, and cereal.

I'm here to discuss "flourishing" and to just meet you! (So stop by, come thru, say hey, grab a slice of 'zza, kick off your shoes, stay awhile. Stay stupendous.)

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The Importance-Avoidance Effect

Haha, I love how you captured the vibe in such a great image! Thank you for the compliment as well :)

(Hopefully some of these strategies will help us navigate the things that truly are "most important" in our lives.)

The Importance-Avoidance Effect

Thank you so much for your thoughtful response! I really appreciate your ideas. I'll reply inline here:

"Bigger and more-complex projects tend to be more important (or else we probably wouldn't do the project), and the complexity and size tend to make it harder to get started or get into a rhythm."

Totally agree with this, and these things are compounding.

Most of my claim is that some people struggle with a cognitive bias effect that pushes them to avoid all of this, all together.

So you're right, it's not necessarily always the "importance" of the project that leads to avoidance or a struggle to effectively prioritize it; instead, it can be the complexity or a lack of clarity or vision that keeps the project out of arm's reach.

Curiously, I often imagined that the people who struggle with the Importance-Avoidance Effect have typically already started their project(s) to some degree. And maybe they've even mapped out an outline of steps they need to follow to complete a series of milestones. Yet despite having had some start and having some clarity and vision, they lack the initiative and prioritization. This is very similar to what you describe as struggling to "get into a rhythm." I really like that phrasing.

But anyways, there may be several compounding effects leading to a disruption in getting in rhythm. And it's not always just the "importance" alone that is to blame. But the fact is that sometime it is a major contributor, and for me, that has been something I've neglected to recognize for years! Hence why I want to bring attention to it. (We've known about our inabilities to tackle projects of great complexity. And now I'm hoping to expand on that understanding.)


"I feel that I am decently capable of motivating myself to work on such projects [as simple data entry] in batches (perhaps even more so when it is more important!)"

That is fantastic that you are able to manage such dedication and prioritization. I'll be honest though, this is a major struggle for me and for some of my friends who I wrote this article about.

For us, no matter how little skill is required and no matter how simple the task may be, the more important it becomes, the less it gets reasonably prioritized and worked on. (I have two ongoing projects that have sat around for over a year because they only require about 10–25 hours of menial work to complete. I have tried working on them in "batches" or sessions, but those sessions are shorter and fewer and farther between... No amount emphasis on the "importance" increases motivation and prioritization. It often backfires.)

So whatever it is that you're doing that allows you to be able to muster that motivation and prioritization, please share 😄 (because I for one am not achieving that).


"These bigger and more-complex projects also tend to have longer deadlines, and longer deadlines plays into procrastination habits."

100% accurate. This is another compounding factor.


"If you notice yourself having to force/motivate yourself to work on something, it's typically because you don't want to do it despite its importance."

While this is certainly true in some cases, the people and projects I was thinking of when I wrote this would not fall into this category.

I posted this to the EA forums because the people I know who struggle with this are people who want to do these projects because of the project's importance, and because they genuinely want to do these things. They can't think of anything they would rather do. It really does become a life mission and grand purpose for them. They want to dedicate their lives to it, and they believe it is their magnum opus — their great contribution to making the world a better place.

Yet these same people find themselves needing effective strategies to "motivate" (initiate) themselves to do the hard work involved in getting these projects to fruition.

Hence why I mentioned this thought in the post:

"the solution is often about implementation strategies, such as basic behavioral change techniques to prioritize action"


"Is it possible that there is a degree of observation bias in that we might not notice all the cases where the importance of a project successfully motivated us to work on it? Or, perhaps more importantly/clearly, we might not consider all the times we just gave up on a potential project/task when we deemed it not important (rather than unsuccessfully berating ourselves to complete the task)?"

This is very plausible! Thank you for bringing this potential bias to this discussion.

How might we further explore this? If this is a possible blindspot for me, perhaps others might be consulted to provide more perspective on this.

However, I will note that, even if there are other cases not as readily considered, it might not necessarily change the idea that, in some key cases, this might be a very real problem people face.

The exciting thing about this is that, if we properly diagnose the problem as originating from this sort of avoidance effect, then we can just try out the best implementation strategies/techniques. See where that leads 🙂

"I think it's possible to overestimate the causal relationship between importance and avoidance due to other correlated factors and observation biases."

I agree. I don't want people running around "over-diagnosing" this 😅 especially when other factors might be much more significant, impactful, influential, etc.

But I also do want to bring this factor into our considerations, as I feel it can be easily overlooked and neglected. (Let's give it some of the attention it deserves for a while to see how prevalent and consequential the effect truly is.)

The Importance-Avoidance Effect

Thank you for sharing (and reading)!

Were you able to "share the load" (so to say) in some capacity with your PhD and research?

In what ways do you effectively utilize this insight you've gained into your own social motivation? Do you tend to build teams and recruit people to help you with your projects in specific ways? How do you keep it fun and enjoyable for yourself and your friends?

The Importance-Avoidance Effect

So glad to hear it was helpful! Thanks for reading it :)

Lemme know which strategies end up being the most effective for you! I'm keen to know what works best for people. (If you couldn't tell, I'm also a person who struggles with this a great deal, so this is mostly me trying to find answers and solutions for myself as well haha.)

The Importance-Avoidance Effect

Oooo love these thoughts from Aaron Swartz! I actually hadn't read this bit from him before, yet reading it felt so familiar in that "oh snap, duh, he just put to words that kind of unspoken wisdom we've always been dancing around for probably generations" kind of way.

Thank you for sharing this! I've added some of those tips to the list here.

Open Thread: September 2021

Hey oh! Long time lurker, first time poster.

Finally got those nervous jitters out of the way today and actually published my first post (awaiting "first-post approval"), along with my bio/this. (It is indeed daunting to try to insert one's self into the EA community and make a good first impression.)

I first discovered EA through 80000 Hours back when I graduated uni and felt existential bewilderment (5 years ago and still feelin' it of course). Then I came across ClearerThinking.org and eventually landed a gig with Spark Wave last year. I didn't get involved until EAGxVirtual2020 where I met amazing people through the "matchmaking" 1-on-1 video chats. (Big time game changer!)

Anyways, I'm just a happy human who loves conversation, connection, creation, music, psychology, philosophy, and cereal. (As you can tell, I ask that you don't take me too seriously half the time. It'll be a time and a half!)

I'm here to discuss "flourishing" (post on that coming in hot later this month) and to just meet you! (So stop on by, come thru, say hey, grab a slice of zza, kick off your shoes, let your hair down, and stay awhile. Stay stupendous.)