Identity Factoring

Humans are not perfectly rational machines who take the most efficient actions towards our values. We procrastinate, are prone to peer pressure, and in general “actually doing things” is a fairly difficult process. One method for improving your efficiency and motivation is the process of goal factoring. For example, say you frequently procrastinate by visiting . There’s a very simple biological need that’s met whenever you get distracted or switch tasks, which is the release of dopamine. So instead of trying to use willpower to stop procrastinating, you can focus on getting your dopamine hit from other sources, such as doing 10 push-ups  whenever you feel the need to switch. This tends to be a lot more effective in the long run than trying to will yourself not to procrastinate: you’re quickly satisfying your body’s needs while giving yourself space to get back to work pretty easily.

But biology isn’t the only source of human needs. We take action based on emotions, desires, and self-conceptions: if you think of yourself as a good person, you’re more likely to donate to charities and less likely to kick a puppy. So one of the best ways to understand your own motivations is to understand how you see yourself, in other words, to factor your identity/self-concept. The goal is to break your self-concept down into distinct parts, which you can then use to analyze the motivations behind your different goals. You can tell which parts of yourself are emotionally malnourished, or being fed through poor goals, and rework your actions in order to more effectively meet your needs. Here’s the list I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Genius. The prodigy identifies with effectiveness and fast learning. This part of me is satisfied when I do something I couldn’t do before, show exceptional skill in some area, or improve very quickly. (I’m not actually claiming to be a genius under any formal definition, but the word is productive for me.)
  2. Bond-maker. This part identifies with connecting with other people, and is satisfied when I spend time with friends, teach, or generally help others.
  3. The simplifier. This is the part of me that values elegance, simplicity, and efficiency. The part that spends inordinate amounts of time refactoring code to be as small and clear as possible or optimizing my workout routine, and generally focuses on finding ways to do more with less.
  4. Formless. Ironically I have a very strong identity about not having an identity-not getting attached to one place, or belief system, or body, or job, or comfort zone. The formless hates the status quo bias, and thinks statements like “I can’t do math” don’t make any sense.
  5. Futurist. I believe in the power of technology to improve the world, and want to make it happen as soon as possible.
  6. Altruist. This is the part of me that wants to help people, increase happiness, and reduce suffering as much as possible. Unlike most of the others, this was acquired fairly recently and I’ve deliberately been making it part of my identity.
There are two major practical applications:
  • Resolving Internal Disagreements. Genius and Simplifier love to go off and spend hours solving Math problems, but this frustrates Bond-maker, since Math tends to be a solitary activity. Thus I would end up feeling conflicted, which often made it very difficult to get anything done. The solution I use is to add a social element by going to Math club, discussing Math with friends, and giving talks. Explicitly identifying the points of disagreement makes it easy to come up with a solution.
  • Motivating or demotivating actions: humans have a very strong bias towards trying to appear consistent. If you think of yourself as a simplifier and encounter a piece of messy code, you feel compelled to clean it up. If you think of yourself as an athlete and a healthy person, then eating unhealthy food or failing to exercise several days in a row feels wrong. And having these be part of your emotional response makes it much easier to stick to the desired behaviors: instead of exerting willpower to clean up messy code or eat healthy, you have to exert willpower not to do so. That said, deliberately adding or removing pieces from your self-concept is quite difficult. The easiest way to accomplish this is to hang out with other people who identify as athletes (or simplifiers, or altruists) and realign your reference group…social pressure is incredibly powerful, and can be a huge help when you want to make major behavior/identity changes.

Categories: Career, Effective Altruism, Happiness, Productivity, Uncategorized


  • Satvik

    Agree that it’s very risky. I should probably write a post talking about how to make small identity changes safely. Generally speaking, it’s much more productive to remove things from your identity than to add them.

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