Excusejitsu

28 Jun 2017

confidence: likely, importance: high

[Often I feel “stuck” because I don’t know what to do next. Many important things need to be done, but no one thing is a satisfying candidate, and I just sit around doing nothing and feeling uncomfortable. This is a technique to generate the Most Important thing to do in a way that resolves the stuck-ness.]

You visit Las Vegas1 with a friend to have a great time poring over the intricacies of betting odds and casino security. Once you arrive however, you’re not sure which casino to go to first, since there are so many good options to choose from.

Friend: Look, there’s Circus Circus! It’ll be fun to look at the lions, let’s start with that.
You: Hmm, I’m not sure. I’d rather look at the enormous skylight on top of the Luxor, than at lions. And besides, one of them escaped recently.
Friend: Yes, I remember, and I don’t trust lions who escape. Alright, let’s go to the Luxor.
You: Okay… but wait, wasn’t Ocean’s Eleven based around the Bellagio? We can visit all the locations from the movie. Why don’t we go there instead?
Friend: Aha, we can buy some balloons and try to block the security cameras. Maybe we’ll get taken to the boss? I do like the sound of that, the Bellagio it is!
You: Here we go… although… I’ve heard the Cosmopolitan is new and really swanky. Plus they have this really expensive nightclub, called The Marquee. If we sit in the coffee shop just outside, we can make up background stories about all the people going in and out. I bet there are some real Bond villains there.
Friend: Yes, in fact, you’ve put into words exactly the thing I’ve been wanting to do as well. Oh, Vegas is so exciting!

Las Vegas motivation works as follows:

  1. Choose any task that you want to do, but don’t feel motivated to do.
  2. Generate any solution to “if I could muster the motivation/time to do this task, what other more important task would I rather do instead?”. Pick that as the current task.
  3. Repeat 2 until you feel motivated to do the current task, then do it.

It relies on the fact that it feels easy to generate solutions in step 2. We’re good at coming up with comparatively more important tasks, even if only as an excuse not to do the original task. My thought process looks a bit like:

“Do the dishes? If I had enough motivation to do that, I’d be going for a run instead. Hmm, it doesn’t seem like I can figure out what to do. Let me think about this after a few games of online blitz…” 3 hours pass

A better solution is right there: go for a run! And if that doesn’t work, use the next task-for-an-excuse your incredibly clever brain comes up with. Excusejitsu!

This works is because you build towards increasingly important tasks, and eventually, you can’t (or don’t want to) come up with excuses.

Here’s an example that worked well for me this evening:

  • read a book (random task I picked, couldn’t be bothered doing)
  • reply to messages on okcupid (if I can read a book, I might as well get this out of the way first)
  • go over monthly goals, and re-prioritise as necessary (hmm, this is beginning to seem interesting and doable)
  • restart writing habit (yes, I remember wanting to do this! In fact I can start with this very technique)
  • meditate, practice mindfulness (I know this will get me out of this spiral of procrastination, and it feels awesome - let’s start!)

As you can see, I grew progressively more excited about the tasks I was able to generate, until it was easy to overcome inertia and actually start. I’m curious about whether this works as well for other people, so if you try it, do let me know.


  1. Not just by co-incidence, Las Vegas algorithms are a class of randomized algorithms that always generate correct results, but gamble with the running time. 

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