Guilt is useful only when first felt

My cliff notes from “Update from the suckerpunch”:

Some think guilt is a useful guide for avoiding doing bad things. This is similar to thinking belief in god is all that keeps you from doing bad things — and both are incorrect. You have reasons to do good (you’re allowed to Fight for something) that are independent of consequences you may face from doing bad.

Some think guilt is a useful teacher of lessons, and that without it they will repeat their mistakes. Fine, but the guilt isn’t an effective teacher if it keeps happening.

That said, there are lessons that need learning, and there is something sort of like ‘guilt’ that can help you learn them.

But you can use it even while completely replacing your guilt motivation.

When you realize you’ve made a mistake, there’s a moment of acute guilt that feels “like being punched in the gut”. Lingering regret, that continues afterwards, is distinct. The former is all that you need to learn a lesson and update your behavior. You experience it as an involuntary reflex. The latter is superfluous, disposable, and something you can choose to reject.

Update immediately when you realize where you failed, and use the terrible feeling to make sure you don’t do that again.

Updating your behavior matters, and can be done immediately — so do it immediately. Moping does nothing productive or positive.

One thing that lingering regret can accomplish is sending a social signal of your penance. Sometimes in groups of friends individuals “form a tacit pact of non-excellence”. Phooey; that normalizes mediocrity. It’s far more virtuous for humans to demand positive behavior changes, instead of punishment. Consider letting go of friendships with toxic elements.

Removing guilt requires you decide you don’t need it, and give yourself permission to live without it.

Emotions generally have their uses. The sucker punch you feel following a mistake is useful. Lingering guilt is not useful.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Replace guilt with science

My cliff notes from “Don’t steer with guilt”, arguably the heart of this series:

Guilt works in the same way as a threat: You want to avoid it. Feeling guilt steers you toward a future without more guilt in it.

Being threatened with an ultimatum (say, “I’ll break your leg if you steal from me”) steers you away from a future where the threat is realized. If you need to make good on a threat often, the threat isn’t doing its job effectively of steering someone else’s behavior in a direction you prefer.

Similarly, if you find yourself experiencing guilt often, then it isn’t being effective at steering your behavior. You should ideally not feel guilt; conversely if you feel guilt often, guilt isn’t serving you.

Experiencing guilt is costly, and can be demotivation. It can lead to failure spirals: Guilt leads to more failure leads to more guilt… This can lead to boom/bust productivity/failure cycles, that lead to lower productivity over time than intrinsic motivation (lack of external, guilt-based motivation).

If you regularly behave sub-optimally, assigning guilt to that behavior will not be useful.

If the situation occurs regularly, then guilt is not the tool to use! You’re welcome to feel guilty if you ever kidnap a baby or punch a homeless person, and you can tell that the guilt is working in those cases because you never do those things. But if you repeatedly find yourself in a situation that you disprefer, then guilt is just not the tool to use. That’s not where it’s useful.

Employ science, rather than guilt, to sub-optimal ways in which you regularly find yourself behaving. Look for patterns and hypothesize about conditions that lead to your sub-optimal behavior, then experiment with changing conditions. If your behavior changes, you’ve confirmed the hypothesis. If it doesn’t, what else have you learned from the experiment that can inform your next hypothesis? And how else can you gather more data that will eventually lead to your improved behavior?

“Don’t bemoan individual failures.” Focus on the pattern.

Recognize that there are infinite ways you can improve yourself, and you have to prioritize which to focus on. Then let the others go. There’s no need to feel guilty about them, as you are spending your finite energy wisely on more important things.

[I]f you lack the time to change the pattern, then the occasional failure is a fair price. Trust yourself to fix the pattern if the costs ever get too high, trust yourself to understand that investing in yourself is important […]

Each failure is new data. Each success is new data. Feeling guilt is nonsense, as it has no positive (only negative) bearing on your science experiments.

Shift the meaning of a failure from “I am terrible, and should feel bad”, to “time to update my tactics”.


This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Not because you “should”

My cliff notes from Not because you “should”:

Stop doing things because you “should”. Should can easily lead to feelings of guilt, obligation which you resent, and/or inadequacy.

Using the example of someone who stops thinking they should clean their room:

[E]ither (a) you stop forcing yourself to clean the room, and you realize you don’t actually care about having a clean room, and then your room stays messy and that’s fine because you don’t care; or (b) you stop forcing yourself to clean the room, and then you get a bit worried, because some part of you actually wants the room cleaned, so you listen to that part of yourself, and you work with it, and you find a time to clean the room because you want to.

You’re likely to do more good if you want than because you “should”.

A thought experiment to underscore how negative “should” can be as a motivator:

Imagine promising yourself that you’re never going to do something just because you “should,” ever again. How does that make you feel?

Do you feel relieved? If so, then you were probably putting your “should” labels on the wrong things and forcing yourself to do things that weren’t actually best.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

“Should” considered harmful

My cliff notes from “Should” considered harmful:

We enter this phase of the series with a pointed guilt about not doing something in particular, having dispensed with listless guilt.

Now, the pattern is simple: You think there’s something you should be doing, you aren’t doing it, and you feel guilty about that.

I claim that the word “should” is causing damage here.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the way that most people use the word “should,” most of the time, is harmful. People seem to use it to put themselves in direct and unnecessary conflict with themselves.

“Should” set you up for self-judgement as incompetent, akratic, or bad if you don’t do what you “should”. This is divorced from why you “should” in the first place, substituting that baseline “why” that first motivated the “should” for an obligation with ugly, meaningfully consequences.

The solution is to keep the reason attached to the task, by stating the why and considering consequences for doing or not doing the thing as tradeoffs. This allows you to make a rational choice to not do or be something, accepting the consequences as a reasonable tradeoff instead of disobeying a “should” and incurring a value judgement against yourself.

Should motivations set you up for a lose-lose: even if do what you “should” and avoid the bad self-judgement, you’ve potentially suffered through something painful to do so. Considering the tradeoffs instead allows you to choose one set of tradeoffs for another on the basis of optimizing to minimize suffering.

Nate’s example is someone who’s sick and “should” go to the pharmacy for meds. If you “should” do it, and you do it, then you may’ve suffered through painfully social awkwardness to get there, plus you had to get dressed, leave the comfort of home, and apply your limited energies to driving or navigating transit, all while feeling miserable.

It may have been a preferable set of consequences to feel the pain of not having the medicine from the comfort of bed, and avoided all of that other kind of suffering. This recognizes the decision isn’t between “suffer or be bad”.

But the actual options aren’t “suffer” or “be bad.” The actual options are “incur the social/time costs of buying meds” or “incur the physical/mental costs of feeling ill.” It’s just a choice: you weigh the branches, and then you pick. Neither branch makes you “bad.” It’s ok to decide that the social/time costs outweigh the physical/mental costs. It’s ok to decide the opposite. Neither side is a “should.” Both sides are an option.

When breaking a “should” down into options with tradeoffs, be careful to avoid confusing others’ preferences for you with your own. Another difficulty to avoid is fear of even considering failure, which can drive you to irrationality. A third difficulty to avoid is trading one negative-infinity (I do this or I’m bad, period, end of story) for another, for example by substituting “I should” with “I need to”.

To avoid each of these, seriously break down the tradeoffs. Don’t be afraid to do so. Alternative options might truly be bad, but define and evaluate them concretely, then make your choice about what to do — instead of rounding up to “I do this, or I’m bad”.

When you should yourself without looking at the alternatives, you run a high risk of making yourself feel obligated and resentful. When you lay out all the options you can think of and choose the best, then it’s much easier to work with yourself rather than against yourself — sometimes you have to settle for the best of a bad lot, but this is much easier once you’ve actually looked at the whole lot.

If this is hard, focus on becoming mindful of when you are guilt-motivated. Keep track of how many times a day you “should” do something. When that becomes a habit, start trying to break down those moments of “should”, into options with tradeoffs, and then celebrate building that habit.

If this seems like a lot of work, or an exercise that seems likely to lead to the same outcome of motivating one choice or another, recall that the whole reason we are doing this is to move toward guilt-free lives, by removing guilt as a motivation. We aren’t there yet, but this is a step in the way.

It’s not necessarily easy, either: Once you’ve “cashed out” shoulds into tradeoffs, your interests amy conflict, you may be left with a hard choice, and you may still find yourself doing the worse thing. So this isn’t a fix-all, but it is a strategy.

I’ve found it very helpful to treat almost all shoulds as a toxic attempt to blind me to the alternatives. Be careful: the thoughts you can’t think do you harm, and the options you can’t weigh cost you dearly.

So cash out your shoulds, and weigh all your options on the scales — and then choose what is best, free of obligation.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Avoiding the Slacker/Tryer Dichotomy

Thanks to the Beeminder blog, I stumbled on’s Replacing Guilt series. It’s long, which is a bit daunting, but it captured my interest. To make digesting it easier, I created a Beeminder goal to consume it one article at a time, over the next forty days.

In what would normally be unrelated news, I’m also experimenting with a write-more-words goal. Blogging my cliffs-notes versions of the Replacing Guilt articles should help me retain what I read, and help me with that write-more goal. Nothing fancy here, just notes for my later reference.

So here goes, beginning with the first entry, Half-assing it with everything you’ve got.

remember what you’re fighting for

Apply only the optimal effort required to accomplish your goal (no more, no less). That requires a clear idea of your goal (what you’re fighting for), which requires establishing your own goal, not simply accepting what others assume or expect of you.

Specific examples include: If determined goal is to get an “A” in the class, and your overall grade is already high enough to earn the “A” if you only get a “C” on the paper, aiming for an “A” on a paper will result in wasted effort. Conversely, if your determined goal is to learn as much as you can from a class, you may want to put in significantly more effort than is required to earn an “A” on the paper, due to grade inflation.

[T]oo many people automatically assume that, when an authority figure describes a quality line, they’re “supposed to” push as far right as possible. They think they “should” care about quality. This is silly: real world problems are not about producing the highest-quality products. In all walks of life, the goal is to hit a quality target with minimum effort. […] I’m not telling you that you should be scraping by by only the barest of margins. […] What I am saying is, don’t conflate the quality line with the preference curve. […] Remember what you’re trying to achieve, identify your quality target, and aim for that: no higher, no lower.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.