Our needs and Procrastination: an Interview with Jim T. Stone


Jim Tiberius Stone has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Washington, in Seattle, where he got into Motivational Psychology with Evolutionary Ethics, which led his current research to the question of how humans can meet their psychological needs. In his blog, he writes about productivity, procrastination, unfinished tasks and basically, life in this modern, crazy, and rapid world, and how we can learn to deal with it, how we can create mechanisms that help us achieve what we propose to ourselves- and specially, what we need.

In a recent article in his blog, Stone talks about a 1700’s Scottish philosopher who, at the age of 27 (talk about success) published his “Treatise on Human Nature” and has had people talking about him ever since. In this book, the most “controversial” quote talks about how we can’t get things done just by mere reasoning. The simple fact of saying “I am overweight” and “Therefore, I should go on a diet” won’t help you achieve your goal. In reality, human psychology is much more complicated. I could try and explain you how Hume’s secret weapon against procrastination works, but I’m pretty sure Mr. Stone can do a better job:

1) As a philosopher, do you believe Hume’s premise? Would you care to explain it for us?

David Hume was 27 when he published “A Treatise of Human Nature”, one of the most influential works of Philosophy (and Psychology) from the 1700s. In that book he tries to give a comprehensive account of how humans think and behave. And one of the things he noticed about the people of his time was that, when they argued about politics with each other, they tended to do something a little fishy. They would move from “is” to “ought” in their arguments without acknowledging where the “ought” came from.

For example people might have argued that since human females are the ones who have children, they ought to stay home and raise children instead of pursuing a career.

Hume said you can’t get to that conclusion with reason alone. You can’t take the simple observation that females are the ones who are able to have children and derive the conclusion that they ought to forego careers. To get to that conclusion you have to fess up to additional normative commitments.

We saw another grievous leap from is to ought in the late 1800s and early 1900s when Social Darwinism and eugenics were all the rage. People would start with the commonly accepted “fact” that evolution works by a principle of survival of the fittest, and they would conclude that we should arrange our social policies so that only the “fit” survive. But one does not follow from the other. Just because evolution works a certain way doesn’t mean we have to approve of the way evolution works, let alone mirror it in our social policies. We should have done more to make those folks own up to their true motives.

So yes, I think it’s a good idea to treat our facts and our values as different sorts of things. If we start with facts, then we have to separately bring our values in if we are going to make claims about what course of action we should take. The facts alone are not enough.

2) What does it mean “going from is to ought to is again”?

The first Is is where you are now. It’s your current actual situation. The Ought is the demand to move toward a new and better situation. The new Is is the new actual situation you arrive at after working toward your Ought.

So the first Is might be a garden bed with no plants in it. The Ought might be an aspiration to get plants in the bed. And the new Is might be the new state of the garden bed after taking action (hopefully it has plants in it).

The motivation to pursue the Ought comes from our needs and desires. Sometimes these are all aligned with the Ought, and sometimes we have mixed feelings about it. The ability to translate the Ought into a new Is comes from coordinated action.

3) From Hume’s perspective, we can’t get to a normative conclusion from descriptive premises alone. When we’re setting goals for ourselves, do you think writing down the normative premises why we should reach out goals could help us achieve it?

Yes. This is especially important if we have some mixed feelings about our goal, or just find ourselves not working on it with much energy. Figuring out which needs and desires are and are not being served by working toward the goal provides clarity. And clarity about our motives might allow us to either modify the project so it meets our needs better, or allow us to re-frame the project so it seems more relevant to our needs.

4) If we can’t go from is to ought with reason, why can desire take us there?

First, let me distinguish between a broad sense of “Reason” and a narrow sense. In the broad sense “Reason” is just “the faculty that produces reasons”. And, of course, some of our reasons are descriptive and some are normative. So, in this broad sense, reason can bridge the gap — but then if we want to use “Reason” in this broad sense, we can understand Hume as saying that only normative reasons can bridge the gap.

In Hume’s narrower sense “Reason” is restricted to empirical scientific reasoning. And his claim is that you can’t get from purely empirical claims to normative conclusions without a normative premise.

OK, so that explains what Hume means when he says reason can’t bridge the gap without needs or desires, but it doesn’t explain why desire can bridge the gap.

And the answer is that desires and needs are what bridge the is/ought gap pretty much by construction. We didn’t discover desires and needs and then wonder what they were for. We started with our tendencies to act and the feelings we had as we acted, and we theorized backwards to needs and desires in order to explain what motivated our actions.

Of course we in the 21st century don’t have to do all this theorizing from scratch. We are taught a folk psychology by the people who socialize us, and psychologists and other people who research human nature study these folk categories more rigorously, and our collective understanding of human motivation improves over time.

5) Are all of our goals aligned with our needs? What happens if we don’t achieve them?

No. In fact its probably rare to find any goal that is fully aligned with all of our needs. Most of the time our goals will satisfy some needs and, and won’t satisfy others. Or they’ll satisfy one of our needs in the short term and frustrate other needs in the long term.

For example, we might form a goal of eating pizza and set aside our goal of losing weight. Or we might pursue a goal of making more money and fail at our goal of being a good parent.

The consequences of failing to reach a goal depend on the goal. And the consequence of failing to satisfy a need depends on the need. One trap people fall into often in the US is to start chasing money while sacrificing things like autonomy or good relationships. And then they find ten years later that they’re miserable, because they don’t have good relationships, and they also didn’t make as much money as they set out to make.
6) If we understand that our goal has to satisfy some of our needs, can we manipulate our goal or our needs in order to trick ourselves to get there more easily?

Yes. If we start with a goal, and realize that pursuing it might frustrate some of our needs, we can sometimes change the goal a bit to make it meet our needs better. For instance, if a boss assigns us a project, and the boss also tells us exactly how to do the project, and it just feels like a drudge to work on it the way the boss wants, maybe we can ask for more autonomy on the project. If we are allowed to determine how some of the project gets done, we might suddenly find enthusiasm for reaching the end goal.

Alternately, if the boss says, “no, the project has to be done this way”, we might be able to make a game out of working on it, framing it in a way that more directly connects with our needs. For instance, instead of thinking about how much of a drudge it is, we can focus our attention on the skills we are developing as we work on it.
7) When we have a clear ought, we have to start working towards it. This is where action takes place; to take us from ought to is. Passion and Action are the ones that help us get things done. But, isn’t it reason the one that help us create a plan to get to the new is? Is that its role here?

Yes. One of the roles for reason is to help us break the project down into a hierarchy of actions that will allow us to reach the goal. Reason helps us create a fractal plan from which we can take sequential action.
8) How can we use this knowledge to fight procrastination? Can it help us understand why we are procrastinating?

I tend to think that much of our ordinary procrastination comes down to some combination of 4 factors:

  1. We are tired.
  2. We are distracted
  3. We don’t enjoy the task
  4. We are confused

If we’re tired, we probably just need a break. So that’s probably the easiest cause of procrastination to address.

If we are distracted, we can try clearing our minds. And I have a great exercise for doing that that I teach here (http://evolvingego.com/courses/CMCW/cmcw.php?sd=p2g)

If we don’t enjoy the task, it’s probably because it doesn’t align with our needs very well. So working to align our goal with our needs can help overcome that source of procrastination.

And, if we’re confused, we might be able to clear up that confusion if we plan the project out better.

So, yes, aligning our goal with our needs and desires, and aligning our goal with our actions (through planning) are crucial for overcoming procrastination.
9) Lack of motivation, self loathing, anxiety and other aversive emotions have been proven to contribute with procrastination. Do you think this method can help us understand that out goals are perfectly achievable and not terrifying, and help us overcome these feelings associated with our goal?

My previous answer addresses “lack of motivation” and “aversive emotions” to some degree. And yes, if we spend time making sure our goals are aligned with our needs, and that our actions are aligned with our goal, then we can gain confidence that we can achieve the goal. And that can reduce anxiety.

It might not be enough, though, depending on the source of our anxiety. It might be that we could benefit from other forms of therapy (either self-therapy or with a professional).

The confusion and conflict might not all be internal, for instance. Perhaps we are sensitive to the fact that our goals don’t align with other people’s goals, or that the stakes are higher than we would like them to be. If the broad shape of our future depends on our performance, we can be understandably nervous and might find ourselves seeking ways to escape from the stress of it all.


10) Any advice for our readers?

In spite of Hume’s use of the word, I’m not going to tell readers that they should follow their passions.

“Follow your passions” is typically not good advice for anyone under the age of 30, because, when we are younger, most of us are not in a position to know all the things we might be passionate about if we only tried them.

Also, we tend to become passionate about the things we are good at. So the key to finding yourself in a career you are passionate about in your 30s, 40s, and 50s might be to just learn as many skills as you can in your 20s.

So try to make be passionate about learning new skills in your 20s, and you’ll probably find that your passions will align with your career later in life, because you’ll be doing things you’re good at.

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