🔓 This is a free preview of a Member’s Only post 🔓
Hey Superorganizers readers!
The tools of psychology: therapy, cognitive behavioral techniques, mindfulness, etc. have been extremely important to me for a long time. But I’ve mostly thought of them as being useful for resolving mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
I was curious, though, about whether they might be useful for us to resolve some of the problems we encounter when we’re in productivity slumps — so I asked Jonathan Shi, postdoc research fellow at Bocconi university, to tackle the subject. What he found is that there’s actually a lot of room to take the same tools that we use to maintain our mental health, and apply them to some of the problems that we face in our work lives. In particular, letting go of the idea of “muscling through” every problem with willpower and instead working to better understand our own brains can, ironically, help us get unstuck when we’re feeling unproductive and achieve more of what we hope to.
This piece is eye opening and I think you’ll love it.
Imagine you're using an artificial intelligence to automate a process.
You set up examples for the AI to learn from: sample inputs and their corresponding expected outputs. When training the AI, you score its attempts to learn the process by penalizing when it deviates from the expected outputs. At the end of the training, you find that the AI has achieved a perfect score... but all its outputs are blank! Upon further investigation, you find that instead of learning the process you wanted, the AI has maximized its score by simply deleting the files containing the expected outputs... as if simply refusing to be scored!
Believe it or not, this actually happens in computer science research. And it serves as an allegory for ways that our human brains can sabotage themselves too.
Examples of this have come up before in Superorganizers:
In a productivity cycle, the “slump” (the period where you aren’t being productive) might be exacerbated by feelings of guilt and worries that it will never go away. You might avoid trying to be productive again, because trying means you have to face that guilt and those worries.
You might feel distressed just thinking about people, places, or objects associated with your work.
Maybe you are often distracted by urgent but unimportant tasksthat help you to avoid feelings of boredom, loneliness, fatigue, or uncertainty.
You overdesign an organization system because of fear that if it goes wrong, it will go wrong permanently.
Our brains learn powerfully by association—negative Pavlovian conditioning—to avoid things that harm us. But in all of these cases, we have learned to avoid not the real agent of harm, but the mere thoughts or feelings associated with them. Just like the AI in our story learned to avoid its training entirely rather than avoiding just the incorrect responses, we have also learned to avoid the cognitive tools we use to understand and anticipate bad outcomes rather than the bad outcomes themselves.
We often assume that our internal experiences can be controlled through willpower: that we can consciously decide to control how we feel or think. After all, deliberate conscious control is the approach we take to most everyday problems (like scrubbing hard to remove a stain, or summoning your willpower to climb that last flight of stairs). And we are culturally taught that it is: we are told as children to "control your anger" as opposed to controlling how we act in response to that anger. We try to suppress feelings of anxiety, in a conflation of the experience of anxiety with loss of control. But modern psychology challenges the popular "folk" conception that thoughts and feelings can always be willed away.
📣 Superorganizers Job
Longtime Superorganizers Member Mishaal is hiring a PM for his company Axis, the Bloomberg Terminal for knowledge workers.
Interested? Check out the job description here.
Want to make this article more actionable? Subscribe to the Everything bundle!
You’ll get access to this article and over 50+ essays and interviews going deep into the tools and strategies you can use to live a more productive life.
You’ll get all of Action Items, a weekly series of member’s only articles that condense and extend Superorganizers interviews into a series of actionable bullet points.
You’ll get templates like this High-Output Project Management template in Notion
The Everything bundle now has 10 paid newsletters including Superorganizers. Here are a few articles from around the bundle that you might like:
📐 Should You Invest In Wish?, by Adam Keesling in Napkin Math
🔮 Why Salesforce Bought Slack, by Nathan Baschez in Divinations
🗒 How I Made a Documentary Film with Digital Notes, by Tiago Forte in Praxis