Hidden cognitive costs of doing stuff

Sebastian Marshall's Lifehacker post on the cognitive cost of "doing things" is a really interesting look at all the hidden "costs" that keep you from doing stuff, and that you pay when you make stuff happen. I'm especially interested in "activation energy" -- "starting an activity seems to take a larger of willpower and other resources than keeping going with it," particularly this: "Things like having poorly defined next steps increases activation energy required to get started." I get a lot email asking me to help out with stuff, and I certainly notice that the more nebulous the request is, the more likely the email is to sit in my inbox for days or weeks as I try to figure out what to do about it. I'm certainly going to keep this in mind the next time I try to get someone else to do a favor for me.
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.
The Cognitive Cost of Doing Things


  1. While reading this I suddenly realized that reading articles on productivity is my favorite way of procrastinating.

  2. I read a study where “activation energy” was called “executive function”, and the idea was that choosing — choosing anything — depleted your reserves of executive function. So if you were on, say, a diet, you’d be better off with a blanket restriction, say “no refined sugar at all”, than with a “cut back a little” approach, where you have to decide each time whether or not to have some sugar.

    It also means that if you had to decide whether or not to eat a cookie in the morning, it could affect your ability to decide whether or not to exercise in the afternoon.

    It’s very cool stuff.

  3. Related


    “One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.”

    “Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Professor Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain — they were a “cognitive load” — making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation

  4. This could also be attributed to dopamine depletion in the anterior cingulate gyrus – along the same lines as difficulty in controlling impulsivity in ADHD.

  5. I abhor self-help books, probably because I’m beyond help, but what really helped me to improve my huge “activation energy” problem was the concept presented in “Getting Things Done” by David Allen that involves assigning a “next action” task to everything. This leads to being able to actually do something about all the projects and tasks one has, giving a (real) feeling of moving forward, which in turn motivates further.

    I also learnt to end mails to customers with “In summary, what I need from you next is .” That has had a bigger impact on getting useful and quick replies than I ever imagined it would.

    1. Agreed. In GTD one first defines the desired outcome (which likely will be the name of the project) and then defines the very next step. If there is only one apparent action, and it can be done simply and quickly, it’s probably not a project (so just do it… or defer, delegate, delete). Defining the project and the next step can clear up a lot of mental fog and boost one’s energy.

  6. Zowie, nice piece. I’m afraid to read the rest of his posts, but I immediately put him onto my Google reader and marked the Lifehacker post and original blogpost with “toforward”, which means I like it enough and actually read it and may want to send to people.

    So, I am Afraid because (i) I really hope I may be interested in them and he is a really clear writer and doing lots of things I would like to do, but (ii) I fear another thing which I won’t write here.

    In summary, w00t! Closed loop, let’s GTD!


  7. Seems like Mary Poppins was on to something – “Well begun is half done!”

  8. Thinking is work. It burns calories.

    This is not, in my experience, self-evident.

    Physical work makes us vividly aware of the relationship between work and fatigue. Running uphill, throwing spears, making love — the body gets tired, and it knows why in a deep intuitive way.

    Thinking, by contrast with physical action, seems … lazy, detached … more like dreaming than actually working.

    But experience, along with some layman’s knowledge of physiology and so forth, tells me that thinking is, indeed work. Thinking burns calories. Thinking hard burns more calories.

    Furthermore, I suspect it’s not a simple question of “thinking harder burns more calories.” All those lovely complex proteins and endorphins and other molecules that make up your pleasures and your pains, your genius and your dreams … those fancy expensive molecules have to be assembled from humble precursors, which in turn have to be digested from a slurry of bread and meat and cheese.

    I’m guessing that Fight-Flight molecules are relatively cheap in comparison to, say, the neurochemistry of Richard Feynman hard at thought.

    1. Actually, running a brain as big as ours is in fact a huge drain on our resources, and humans do need a fair bit more sustenance than our size would imply. And I certainly agree that thinking is work, but I tend to feel more mental exhaustion and a desire to sleep after heavy thinking, “OK, time to power down and get this data archived and refresh the thinky chemicals”.

      When I was voting yesterday, it was surprisingly exhausting. Even though I knew I was voting Yes to AV and red as the fires of hell in the council elections, the hugely inflated, in my mind, cost of making a mistake made me focus a lot more than putting a cross in the right box should require.

      1. When I was voting yesterday, it was surprisingly exhausting.

        Social activity, even the mere presence of other people, is stimulating (resource burning).

        Voting is surprisingly stressful: it evokes our fears and hopes for the future. (I suppose we all know that life in a modern democracy, for all its shortcomings, is a lot less nasty brutish and short than most of the rest of human history, let alone prehistory.)

        The effect varies from person to person. Shy people in crowds can burn a lot of calories doing nothing more vigorous than silently wishing it were all over. I know someone who has metabolic disorders in the presence of her mother-in-law. And so forth.

    2. Abstract: A currently popular model of self-control posits that the exertion of self-control relies on a resource, which is expended by acts of self-control, resulting in less of this resource being available for subsequent acts of self-control. Recently, glucose has been proposed as the resource in question. For this model to be correct, it must be the case that A) performing a self-control task reduces glucose levels relative to a control task and B) performing a self-control task reduces glucose relative to pre-task levels. Evidence from neurophysiology suggests that (A) is unlikely to be true, and the evidence surrounding (B) is mixed, and is unlikely to be true for subjects who have not recently fasted. From the standpoint of evolved function, glucose might better be thought of as an input to decision making systems rather than as a constraint on performance.

      From Kurzban, R. (2010). Does the brain consume additional glucose during self-control tasks? Evolutionary Psychology, 8, 244-259

  9. “starting an activity seems to take a larger [amount] of willpower and other resources than keeping going with it,”

    I seem to be the exact opposite. I enthusiastically start new projects all the time. It’s finding the energy to carry though with a plan to completion that I find difficult.

  10. Lifehackers=stoners with philosophy degrees….
    For whom I have the most profound respect, for realz

    I want a T-shirt that says “The Cognitive Cost of Doing Things”

    AND, I honestly believe the cost can be quantified.

  11. After learning about B.F. Skinner’s fourfold positive and negative reinforcement combinations in high school, I came up with an idea that, whether or not it’s true, worked for me. I decided I’d been raised in a willpower-based economy that used a lot of negative reinforcement, yet what motivated me best was positive reinforcement. I respond better to the carrot than the stick. That got me through a decade of college courses.

    As a result, I think it’s every adult’s job to have a list of rewards that will pull them forward through their work. As I’ve aged it’s gotten harder to find suitable rewards though. Wonder if the Internet could help with that.

    Willpower gets exhausted. It’s a shame to waste it on petty matters when with a little knowledge of human biology you can hack your life to circumvent those minor issues and move on to more important stuff. For example, fighting yourself on an hourly basis to not eat cheap chocolate, when you could do things like eat a square or two of really good chocolate every day and take the edge off and be satisfied, or even better have a hot meat-and-gravy dinner with friends and relatives that will reassure your body it’s not starving while closing nutrient gaps that induce cravings.

    1. That’s cool, but that’s not what “positive” reinforcement means.

      Positive reinforcement: stimulus applied as a consequence of a behavior. Do this, get that. Significantly, “this” and “that” can be either good things or bad things here. Do homework, get cake. Do crime, get jail.

      Negative reinforcement: stimulus negated as a consequence of a behavior. Do this, X stops happening. Buckle seatbelt, noise stops. Confess to crime, torture stops.

      1. You’re a bit off. Positive and negative do apply to whether you are giving/applying something (positive) or taking it away (negative), correct. However, the other half of the term is “reinforcement” or “punishment”.

        Imagine a kid screaming for a candybar at the grocery store. The kid is attempting to apply negative reinforcement techniques on the parent. (Do what I want and I will remove the aversive stimulus of my screaming.)

        If the parent gives in, s/he is giving positive reinforcement to the behavior of throwing a tantrum.

        If the parent does not give in but instead says “stop screaming or I will take away your TV privileges for the week”, that would be negative negative punishment. If the parent does not give in but instead says “stop screaming or I will make you scrub the bathroom floor with a toothbrush” that would be positive punishment.

        1. I buy the candy and then we go outside and let the screamer watch me and the other kids enjoy it as they watch and go China syndrome, full meltdown. Our kids haven’t tried that tactic in years now. It would be too cruel if it didn’t work so well.

      2. Replying to cory and Anon:

        Whether or not this is what Skinner said, my takeaway was the presence or absence of punishment matched up with the presence or absence of reward. R+P-, R+P+ (Cory’s handcuffs?), R-P-, R-P+.

        Temporal variables, e.g. if you promise it or inflict it before/after the behavior, matter IRL but make the grid so much bigger.

  12. Unfortunately, that’s not a very solid conclusion. There have been studies that show that people doing certain cognitive tasks just feel hungrier.

  13. One way to get going on something is to promise you will do it for 10 minutes and then stop. Having gotten over the start hurdle the rest usually follows.

  14. Anyone else familiar with the “spoons” concept that people with chronic illness (and others, these days) use? I think these folks are finding evidence for the existence of spoons.

    In essence: we have a finite number of spoons, which must be used to get things done. Those of us with chronic pain, for example, have to use spoons for things other people just do unthinkingly, like walking across a room. By the end of the day, we’re generally out of spoons, and anything that requires impetus at all is just too much. Some of us go into spoon-debt by borrowing from the future, others just have fewer spoons to start with… you get the idea.

    I know that I generally feel I have a finite store of willpower and ability to concentrate, and that they’re linked. And yes, thinking is totally work! Depending on what sort of thinking I’m doing and how hard I’m doing it, I’m often hungry and exhausted afterward. I think for a living, and I’ve considered this often – how a few hours of concentration can leave me physically exhausted.

    (Spoon Theory was coined by Christine Miserandino at butyoudontlooksick.com.)

  15. I was just talking about this with my dad this week. I have so many projects I want to do around our house and garden, and for some, even have the supplies. The hardest part, it seems, is overcoming the inertia to begin.

    What I’ve started doing is to figure out 1) what is the MOST important thing I need to do first and then 2) what is the baby step I can do to start it? Seems to be really effective so far.

  16. I’m currently doing research on the cognitive complexity of some seemingly very simple actions when using a computer mouse to interact with 3d objects.

    All this stuff which examines things which we take for granted (and seem obvious at first glance) is really interesting, exciting, and could prove worthwhile. Funfunfun :)

  17. From an engineering standpoint, the tendency to continually add functions to things carries hidden costs which people don’t recognise until they reach a crunch point. For example, lets make an intersection twice as complicated, with signs all over the place saying you go here, you go here. Looks okay on the design, right? But in practice nobody does the right thing because most of their cognition is already taken up with driving their vehicle. Its really hard to convince people to do less.

  18. one of the reasons I love BB so much is the comments.
    People actually thoughtfully discuss the info presented.

    This reminded me of David Allen’s Getting Things Done as well.

    Which, if you haven’t read it, is a great book / set of ideas

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