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Applied Picoeconomics

46 Post author: Yvain 17 June 2009 04:08PM

Related to: Akrasia, Hyperbolic Discounting, and Picoeconomics,  Fix It And Tell Us What You Did

A while back, ciphergoth posted an article on "picoeconomics", the theory that akrasia could be partially modeled as bargaining between present and future selves. I think the model is incomplete, because it doesn't explain how the analogy is instantiated in the real world, and I'd like to investigate that further sometime1 - but it's a good first-order approximation.

For those of you too lazy to read the article (come on! It has pictures of naked people! Well, one naked person. Suspended from a graph of a hyperbolic curve) Ainslie argues that "intertemporal bargaining" is one way to overcome preference reversal. For example, an alcoholic has two conflicting preferences: right now, he would rather drink than not drink, but next year he would rather be the sort of person who never drinks than remain an alcoholic. But because his brain uses hyperbolic discounting, a process that pays more attention to his current utility than his future utility, he's going to hit the whiskey.

This sticks him in a sorites paradox. Honestly, it's not going to make much of a difference if he has one more drink, so why not hit the whiskey? Ainslie's answer is that he should set a hard-and-fast rule: "I will never drink alcohol". Following this rule will cure his alcoholism and help him achieve his dreams. He now has a very high preference for following the rule; a preference hopefully stronger than his current preference for whiskey.

Ainslie's other point is that this rule needs to really be hard-and-fast. If his rule is "I will drink less whiskey", then that leaves it open for him to say "Well, I'll drink some whiskey now, and none later; that counts as 'less'", and then the whole problem comes back just as bad as before. Likewise, if he says "It's my birthday, I'll let myself break the rule just this once," then soon he's likely to be saying "It's the Sunday before Cinco de Mayo, this calls for a celebration!" Ainslie has some much more formal and convincing ways of framing this, which is why you should read the article instead of just trusting this summary.

The stuff by Ainslie I read (I didn't spring for any of his dead-tree books) didn't offer any specific pointers for increasing your willpower2, but it's pretty easy to read between the lines and figure out what applied picoeconomics ought to look like. In the interest of testing a scientific theory, not to mention the ongoing effort to take control of my own life, I've been testing picoeconomic techniques for the last two months.

The essence of picoeconomics is formally binding yourself to a rule with as few loopholes as possible. So the technique I decided to test3 was to write out an oath detailing exactly what I wanted to do, list in nauseating detail all of the conditions under which I could or could not be released from this oath, and then bind myself to it, with the knowledge that if I succeeded I would have a great method of self-improvement and if I failed I would be dooming myself to a life of laziness forever (Ainslie's theories suggest that exaggeration is good in this case).

I chose a few areas of my life that I wanted to improve, of which the only one I want to mention in public is my poor study habits. I decided that I wanted to increase my current study load from practically never looking at a book after school got out, up to two hours a day.

I wrote down - yes, literally wrote down - an oath in which I swore to study for two hours a day. I detailed exactly the conditions that would count as "studying" - no watching TV with an open book placed in my lap, for example.

I also included several release valves. The theory behind this was that if I simply broke the oath outright, the oath would no longer be credible and would lose its power (again, see Ainslie's article), and there would be some point where I would be absolutely compelled to break the oath (for example, if a member of my family is in the emergency room, I refuse to read a book for an hour and a half before going to check up on them). I gave myself a whole bunch of cases in which I would be allowed to not study, guilt-free, and allowed myself five days a month when I could just take off studying for no reason (too tired, maybe). I also limited the original oath to a month, so that if it didn't work I could adjust it without completely destroying the effectiveness of the oath forever. Finally, I swore the oath in a ceremonial fashion, calling upon various fictional deities for whom I have great respect.

One month later, I find that I kept to the terms of the oath exactly, which is no small achievement for me since my previous resolutions to study more have ended in apathy and failure. On an introspection level, the need to study each day felt exactly like the need to complete a project with a deadline, or to show up for work when the boss was expecting you. My brain clearly has different procedures for dealing with vague responsibilities it can weasel out of, and serious responsibilities it can't, and the oath served to stick studying on the "serious" side of the line.

I am suitably cautious about other-optimizing and the typical mind fallacy, so I don't promise the same method will work for you. But I'd be interested to see if it did4. I'd be especially interested if everyone who tried it would post, right now, what they're trying so that in a month or so we can come back and see how many people kept their oath without having too much response bias.

 

Footnotes

1: I'm split on the value of picoeconomic theory. A lot of it seems either common-sense if taken as a vague model or metaphor, or obviously false if taken literally. But sometimes it's very good to have a formal model for common sense, and I'm optimistic about someone developing a more literal version of it that explains what's actually going on inside someone's head.

2: Ciphergoth, as far as you know does Ainslie ever start making practical suggestions based on his theory anywhere, or does he leave it entirely as an exercise for the reader?

3: I don't read a lot of stuff on productivity, so I might be reinventing the wheel here.

4: For people trying this, a few suggestions and caveats from my experience:

  1. Do NOT make the oath open-ended. Set a time limit, and if you're happy at the end of that time limit, set another time limit.
  2. Don't overdo it; this only works if you really do want the goal you're after more than you want momentary pleasure, people are notoriously bad at knowing what they want, and if you break an oath once you've set a precedent and it'll be harder to keep a better-crafted oath next time. If I'd sworn six hours of studying a day, no way I'd have been able to keep it.
  3. Set release valves.
  4. Do something extremely measurable in which success or failure is a very yes-or-no affair, like how much time you do something for. Saying "study more" or "eat better" will be completely useless.
  5. Read the article so you know the theory behind it and especially why it's important to always keep the rules.
  6. Don't just think up the oath and figure it's in effect. Write it down and swear it aloud, more or less ceremonially, depending on your taste for drama and ritual.
  7. Seriously, don't overdo it. Ego depletion and all that.

Comments (76)

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 18 June 2009 05:50:33AM *  9 points [-]

I've been inspired by Yvain and ZM, so I wrote up my resolution, printed it, signed it, and taped it to the wall in front of my desk so I see it when I look up. All with a bit of ceremony of course. My full resolution is below. ZM inadvertantly provided some of the language. Feel free to copy and/or modify for your own resolution.

Also, the short time frame is due to my summer arrangements. On June 29, I fly to California to begin a 6 week internship. After I get a feel for how much time I can realistically apply to studying while there, I'll write up a new resolution that takes those particular circumstances into account.

I, Matthew Simpson, realize that I am not a monkey brain, but am a timeless abstract optimization process to which this ape is but a horribly disfigured approximation. As such, I take it upon myself to improve this approximation.

First and foremost, I promise to continually remind myself that every minute and every dime is precious, and every minute and every dime that I don't spend doing the best thing I can possibly be doing is a mark of sin upon my soul. Thus I resolve to spend every minute and every dime I have maximizing my utility function. I resolve to ask myself before every decision to spend money or time whether the chosen activity or good is utility maximizing.

In order to achieve this end, I promise to perform the following specific duties beginning Thursday, June 18, 2009 and ending Sunday, June 28, 2009:

Second, I promise to do mathematics for two hours a day, every day in order to prepare for the Iowa State Ph.D. Statistics program this fall. The television must be off during the math session and time spent talking on the phone does not count. Phone calls are not to be answered and text messages are not to be replied to unless there is a non social reason for doing so. The mathematics must be performed by working through the sections of and doing practice problems in the following books (in no particular order):

  • Probability: The Logic of Science, E.T. Jaynes
  • Probability and Statistical Inference 7e, Hogg and Tanis
  • A First Course in Real Analysis 2e, Protter and Morrey
  • Topology 2e, Munkres
  • Calculus 5e, Stewart
  • Elementary Linear Algebra 5e, Grossman
  • Elementary Differential Equations 6e, Edwards and Penney
  • Contemporary Abstract Algebra 6e, Gallian

The following exceptions apply:

  • Medical emergencies for myself, family, or friends, a car emergency, or other family emergency
  • Once during the period, a math session can be replaced with a two hour economics session using a suitable economics textbook that uses math extensively
  • Once during the period, a session can be skipped for any reason I deem fit

By attaching my signature to this document, I, Mathew Simpson, do solemnly swear on science, Bayes, and all that is rational to perform the above duties without exception, save those listed above.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 18 June 2009 02:47:05PM 4 points [-]

Second, I promise to do mathematics for two hours a day, every day

But this is fishy, right? Because it's easy to "do mathematics" for two hours every day without really learning anything. I've been thinking about the same kinds of problems (i.e. how to reliably learn mathematics) and one of my ideas is to use a formal proof checker. If you put yourself on a tough schedule that says something like "I will prove the first 10 theorems in PLoS by Wednesday", then when Wednesday comes around you will understand those 10 theorems. The proof checker does not allow hand-waving; if it accepts your proof, you know you've achieved something. It also should permit moments of insight where you say "hey... this proof is clunky... what was Jaynes thinking? I can derive this result in 5 lines of HOL light!"

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 19 June 2009 08:05:47PM 4 points [-]

As long as I'm actually working through the texts, I'll learn more than if I had not done the math at all, so it's an improvement. Before my resolution, I had sat down to work through one of my texts exactly twice since I graduated and summer began. I'd been aware of my problem and wanted to do something about it for some time, but it seems my akrasia applies even to planning to do something about my akrasia.

Comment author: billswift 18 June 2009 05:59:33PM 1 point [-]

This technique only works if you do what you commit to. Once you break your agreement, it stops working very well. You can work X amount, you cannot decide you will accomplish Y amount; what if it turns out one of the problems is much harder than you expected, or simply takes longer to work through, you will not get everything done, which will weaken the technique in the future.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 19 July 2009 08:32:08PM 2 points [-]

I promise to perform the following specific duties beginning Thursday, June 18, 2009 and ending Sunday, June 28, 2009

How did it go?

Comment author: Cyan 21 June 2009 06:34:33AM 0 points [-]

If you want to study up on Bayesian stats, I'd recommend Bayesian Data Analysis, 2nd ed by Gelman et. al over Jaynes's opus. There aren't enough problem sets in PT:LOS, and the problems aren't very relevant to the actual practice of Bayesian statistics.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 22 June 2009 02:56:08AM 0 points [-]

Thanks. Right now, though, I'm constrained by the books I currently have. I just don't have ~$50 to spend on an extra textbook. On the other hand, how does the first edition compare to the second? It's at about $20 on amazon, which I may be able to do.

Comment author: Cyan 22 June 2009 03:48:45AM *  4 points [-]

The Leatherby Library at Chapman University has a copy of the second edition (link). You're going to be there in 8 days, right?

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 22 June 2009 05:05:01AM 0 points [-]

Wow, I didn't even think to check their library and I'm the one who's going to be there in 8 days. Thanks.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 18 June 2009 09:36:57AM 0 points [-]

That really seems like a bad combination. You are, it seems to me, trying to combine two opposed techniques without any real synthesis.

Comment author: ChrisDavoren 18 June 2009 12:27:14PM 2 points [-]

I think you've been voted down because your comment may be seen as unsubstantiated, as well as needlessly critical. Perhaps you'd care to elaborate?

Comment author: ChrisHibbert 21 June 2009 04:04:13AM 1 point [-]

I read Matt Simpson's description of his intended process, and I have no idea what two "opposed techniques" you are talking about. Would you mind saying a bit more?

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 19 June 2009 07:58:50PM 0 points [-]

The idea is to apply the techniques to separate domains in order to see the relative strength of each. Not a synthesis, but more of a test. I'm pretty sure that specific duties will bound me, but I'm less sure about ZM's technique. So I want to see what works.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 17 June 2009 05:47:55PM 34 points [-]

(I trust I will be forgiven for the overwrought and repetitive prose that follows. In my defense, on this issue, I really do try to think in such terms, and arguably all this drama is a large part of why the method works as well as it does.)

My improvement program, which has been working fairly well so far, although I am still continually refining things as I will detail below, is based on the opposite principle. Rather than setting explicit measurable goals, I try to continually remind myself that every minute and every dime is precious, and every minute and every dime that you don't spend doing the best thing you can possibly be doing is a mark of sin upon your soul, and furthermore that this is not some extremist dictate, but rather a tautology---that's what the word "best" means: that which you should be doing. Rather than goals to satisfice, I want to have a utility function to maximize. I do not place myself under some dreaded burden to fulfill some oath: I'm just trying to not be stupid. There is no such thing as "leisure"---everything is booked under "Dayjob" or "Lifework" or "Education" or "Maintenance," for every book that you read makes you stronger, every problem that you solve increases your beauty, every line that you write is another stitch in your ball gown. It is not: "Once I finish my homework, I can watch the teevee or play flash games on the internet." As an autodidactic generalist, I either have no homework, or an infinite amount of homework, depending on how you want to phrase things. I don't want to watch the goddam teevee! Mathematics is more fun than those moronic flash games! Slacking off is not a guilty indulgence; it's just stupid, and the entirety of my powers are now devoted to the monumental task of not-being-stupid. I recognize no other intertemporal selves to bargain with---I have but one Self, a timeless abstract optimization process to which this ape is but a horribly disfigured approximation. There have been times when I was tempted to go buy an ice cream ("frozen yogurt") and even took a few steps towards the shop before thinking---is this really what I want? Living as I am on short time, wouldn't have rather have that four dollars which is equivalent to twenty-four minutes at my crappy dayjob? I prefer the money, so I turned and walked back to my car.

All this is not to say I am in no need of more structure---it would be helpful to keep some sort of schedule or timelog, not in the form of an oath to another self from another time, but simply as a guideline to give direction to my full autodidactic fury. I've experimented with this and that, to no notable success so far---but I'm going to keep hacking away at this; sunk costs can't play into your decision theory, so no number of failures can discourage an expected utility maximizer, though such a thing might happen to a goddam ape.

Am I kidding myself?---in some sense, maybe a little. How much writing have I done?--when allegedly my lifework was supposed to be a work of fiction. Does it only seem like I've been being more efficient, because I've been doing so much math and programming which leaves a paper trail, as compared to reading which doesn't? But for once in my life, induction is on my side now: I've gotten better before, so I can do so again. I don't watch teevee any more, and I don't play flash games---I'm not even tempted. I don't know what my limits are. So help me.

Comment author: Yvain 18 June 2009 04:05:44PM 14 points [-]

Can you give us some numbers? How long have you been doing this? What is your average day (better yet: yesterday) like?

I tried something like this when I was very young - middle school, maybe. I think the most embarrassing part was where I decided I would never have any interest in the opposite sex, because that would be a distraction. It lasted for about a week before I decided maybe there was something to this "being human" thing after all, and put it all down to childhood exuberance and never tried anything of that sort again.

...but if you can actually pull it off, you are my new hero.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 18 June 2009 06:22:55PM 9 points [-]

I don't actually have any numbers on hand, and to be clear, I don't claim to have achieved any level of sheer awesomeness, but rather only that I'm a better person than I used to be. (This is by no means a high bar.) You ask, how long have I been doing this---but I can't point to any discrete start; my personality has been in a sort of gradual flux in what I've been calling "these days of Eliezer Yudkowsky and my purity born of pain"---dating back to my nervous breakdown of 29 November 2007.

This was actually sort of my point: life is continuous. When you have a discrete goal, an explicit program with a start date and an end date, you can just fail. Whereas when you have an open-ended concept of things-worth-doing, there's no failure, only degrees of win. You seemed to be saying that when you have an open-ended goal, that just gives you an excuse to cheat. Whereas I'm working under the theory that if I want to cheat, I've already lost.

All this might tie into why I can't deal with school: they give you a curriculum, and all the good thoughts you have that aren't on the curriculum don't count, and everything that is on the curriculum that you didn't do is a mark of sin upon your soul, because you have a duty to perfectly obey the teacher's commands. It's too precise---arbitrarily precise. I realize that most people probably aren't like this---somehow they can muddle through the system without being driven to madness by all the little details. Most people have not thrown crying fits contemplating how they got a B in that poetry class, even though they weren't sure they did all of the reading, and therefore might not have truly deserved that B. Nor is it common, I imagine, to worry about what constitutes a "reading"---they tell you to read the chapter, but what does that mean?---if my eyes skim over a paragraph, do I have to go back and make sure I touch every word? I just want to be good! What do you want from me?!

I tried to obey. I couldn't. What would constitute obedience is either underspecified or overspecified; I can't figure out which. I need a different methodology if I am simply going to exist. Explicit rules and goals sum over far too many details. It might help to have handy verbal guidelines and best practices, but ultimately these are only useful if you really care about what you're doing. And if you really care about what you're doing, then you can't be so utterly dependent on the guidelines. "How will you discover your mistake? Not by comparing your description to itself, but by comparing it to that which you did not name." I really think it is a tautology that you should always be doing the best thing you could possibly be doing. You can't stop time; you're always going to be doing something, even if that something is nothing in particular. And so if you have to do some uniquely determined thing---it should be the best thing. But I think I repeat myself.

Comment author: Yvain 19 June 2009 01:17:16PM *  7 points [-]

Did you go to school, did you go to school for a while and then leave, or are you entirely self-taught?

Your method is clearly better if you are able to think like that successfully, and my method is mostly born from the observation that I can't. I've heard it said that one of the effects of spending a decade or two in the school system is that it twists your mind to think more in the way typical of my system and less in the way typical of yours. And I find that people who managed to avoid school almost entirely, like Eliezer, radiate a sort of psychological healthiness I can only dream of.

I had the same feelings about school as you did, my parents refused to let me leave, and I ended out, over a few years, becoming the sort of person who could tolerate the school experience. Sometimes I worry that the process made me less able to do a lot of other things, like strive for excellence in the way you're describing.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 19 June 2009 04:03:05PM *  7 points [-]

Scott Aaronson writes about A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart.
For example, a quote about school geometry:

Posing as the arena in which students will finally get to engage in true mathematical reasoning, this virus attacks mathematics at its heart, destroying the very essence of creative rational argument, poisoning the students’ enjoyment of this fascinating and beautiful subject, and permanently disabling them from thinking about math in a natural and intuitive way.

Comment author: RobinZ 08 November 2009 09:39:32PM *  4 points [-]

I haven't even finished reading Lockhart, and I am already unspeakably glad that I was homeschooled by a mom who cared about what math really was.

To add something of substance to the conversation: coming at math from an understanding of the game of it instead of the rote work, I've noticed that I'm better at applying it than most of my classmates in my (well-regarded state university) engineering school. I can't say how much of that is "innate" "talent", with all the sarcasm that the quotation marks imply, but I can't help but see how little of the rubbish that Lockhart describes was inflicted upon me and wonder if there's a correlation.

Comment author: MichaelBishop 08 November 2009 08:45:47PM 1 point [-]

compared to what? evidence?

Comment author: arundelo 25 June 2009 12:44:15AM 0 points [-]

Scott Aaronson writes about A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul [Lockhart].

The Lockhart piece is great and deserves to be much better known. The only bad thing about it is that it pisses the reader off.

Thanks for the link to Aaronson's commentary; I hadn't seen it.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 25 June 2009 10:15:13AM 3 points [-]

The only bad thing about it is that it pisses the reader off.

It does? I thought it was more heartbreakingly tragic than anything else.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 19 June 2009 10:42:24PM 1 point [-]

Did you go to school, did you go to school for a while and then leave, or are you entirely self-taught?

The second; high school diploma and fifty-five credits at UCSC.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 19 June 2009 03:07:52PM *  1 point [-]

If you naturally like learning, school doesn't take away the opportunity to continue learning naturally, despite the school assignments. I always studied stuff obsessively, and school/university topics rarely correlated with what I was obsessing about at the time. If, on the other hand, you prefer other extracurricular activities, I doubt the absence of school would likely change your course.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 19 June 2009 06:04:36PM *  2 points [-]

The benefits and attractions Z.M. describes are similar to what attracted me to goal system zero. The following three passages from Z.M.'s comments particularly resonated with me.

when you have an open-ended concept of things-worth-doing, there's no failure, only degrees of win.

In other words, all you have to do to win the Game of Life is to play the Game the best you can. (And a big part of that is making sure that none of your deliberations are rationalizations in the service of an unacknowledged agenda.)

I really think it is a tautology that you should always be doing the best thing you could possibly be doing. You can't stop time; you're always going to be doing something, even if that something is nothing in particular. And so if you have to do some uniquely determined thing---it should be the best thing.

And it is important to stress that oftentimes the best thing for me to do is to get my mind off of all planning and all tasks that are not intrinsically rewarding on a short time scale, so I can relax and rest. (Actually, there is a whole lot more to "keeping the ape happy" than getting enough relaxation and rest, but relaxation and rest illustrate the general point.)

I have but one Self, a timeless abstract optimization process to which this ape is but a horribly disfigured approximation.

One way Z.M. differs from me during my period of loyalty to goal system zero is that the value I assigned to my life and my self flowed entirely from my usefulness to goal system zero. In other words, I did not assign any intrinsic value to my life or my self. Goal system zero was the only source of intrinsic value I recognized. (Z.M. probably differs from the former version of me in a lot of other ways, too.)

Comment author: ektimo 18 June 2009 08:38:03PM 3 points [-]

Yvain, did you consider how much getting to the point of not having interest in the opposite sex would cost you and harm your ability to achieve your rational goals before abandoning that high standard? It sounds like you're confusing accepting your humanness as a factor of your current environment versus trying to achieve your goals given the reality in which you exist (which includes your own psychology and current location).

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 02 November 2010 11:58:59PM 12 points [-]

SECOND ADDENDUM--- While I still endorse many of the ideals and sentiments expressed in the parent, I now believe that the comment as written is predicated on a bad model of human psychology. I notice that I am currently confused about the topic of human motivation and have nothing further to say.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 19 December 2010 07:16:53AM 2 points [-]

Thanks for checking in. I hope you'll update us further if matters clarify.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 06 December 2009 10:21:55PM 8 points [-]

POSTSCRIPT--- You know, this had been working so well, but then I seem to have lost the knack in recent months and I don't know what went wrong. Somehow I need to figure out how to rebuild this fury from scratch.

Comment author: wedrifid 07 December 2009 01:54:08AM 7 points [-]

You know, this had been working so well, but then I seem to have lost the knack in recent months and I don't know what went wrong. Somehow I need to figure out how to rebuild this fury from scratch.

An observation I have made from my own experience is that fury is powerful fuel that is best used as a trigger for self awareness. It is best used to develop an observing ego and give myself direction that can then be used with a calm sense of purpose. Fury is not for long term consumption and our minds will tend towards homoeostasis even if that means sabotaging all our good intentions to get to that balance.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 30 August 2011 09:35:50AM 6 points [-]

I think I have experienced something similar repeatedly in the past; and some of my friends experienced it too. It works like this:

I do something very stupid, such as waste a lot of time procrastinating and therefore fail in some important goal. I decide to never make the same mistake again. I feel anger and lot of energy. I read some book or article on motivation / will / planning / whatever way to improve your life. I will make some plan, based on the book, but also tailored to my specific needs. For the first few days (exceptionally: months) the plan works perfectly. I am very happy that I have discovered such perfect method. I feel desire to tell everyone else, but usually people don't care. And then... somehow... the strategy stops working, and never works again. I simply don't have the energy to follow it anymore. (A few months or years later the same thing repeats with another strategy.)

So, what does it mean?

First, despite my strong belief that I have found the right method, this effect is probably method-independent, or at least works with a large number of methods. Because I have experienced it a few times, with different methods. It could be prayer, meditation, "getting things done", writing a list of priorities or life goals, weekly and daily plans, installing a web-blocking software, writing an agreement with myself, setting positive and negative rewards for myself, telling other people my plans, etc. Now I think the exact method is unimportant, but the belief that I have found the best method could be a key component in the process.

Second, after initial success I feel a strong desire to tell other people about my successful method. (Just like you did now.) And I somehow expect to be admired and followed, if the method is proven to work. Now I think, maybe this is the part that makes the whole process work -- expectation of social reward. And when this fails; when the method is temporarily successful, but no one except me cares about the details; then the method stops working. (This may be a coincidence, but only once I could follow some system for months: it was a system of regular physical exercise I found on internet, called "5BX". Also, only for this system I have received positive social feedback; many people asked me to send them this plan.) Sometimes I think that following my method would be easier if I knew some other people are following the same method.

So now it seems to me that when I follow some cool methods, I am actually expecting two kinds of rewards: improving my life, and getting social reward for using the right method. When I don't get the social reward, I lose energy to follow the system, even if the system improved my life in other aspects. Possible fix? Perhaps, don't forget to use the system for things that generate social reward quickly.

OK, this is how it works for me, maybe not for you, but I felt like I noticed some similarities.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 28 December 2009 10:30:06AM 0 points [-]

retarded retarded retarded retarded

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 28 December 2009 11:03:42AM 0 points [-]

Downvoted for name-calling and incomprehensibility, but mostly for name-calling.

Comment author: ciphergoth 28 December 2009 11:04:41AM 6 points [-]

He's replying to himself.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 28 December 2009 11:09:54AM 10 points [-]

I don't see how that redeems the comment.

Comment author: wedrifid 28 December 2009 01:14:37PM 3 points [-]

I don't see how that redeems the comment.

I tend to agree.

I would perhaps make an exception for the context if I thought Zack's strategy was even remotely effective. But I'm not going to encourage futile self flagellation by allowing self directed slander an exception to my usual standards. Here isn't the place for calling people retarded, particularly when their problem has almost nothing to do with delayed or substandard intellectual development.

A more useful criticism would be:

Insane. Insane. Insane. Insane.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Comment author: pdf23ds 28 December 2009 05:35:30PM *  9 points [-]

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

That's a stupid quote. The fact that it's often attributed to Ben Franklin is even more ridiculous. Insanity (psychological problems) rarely includes that as a symptom, and even when it does it's only a small part of the problem. (OCD doesn't count, because the compulsion doesn't include a belief that this time will be any different.)

Replace "insanity" with "stupidity" and the quote isn't quite as stupid.

Comment author: MatthewB 28 December 2009 05:48:00PM 3 points [-]

I have a particularly nasty relationship with that particular quote. And, an even more toxic relationship with the group that seems to popularize that quote. Seems that they are the bastion of an acutely massive amount of crazy themselves, yet seem to be blind to that fact.

Comment author: summerstay 07 May 2012 12:36:08PM 0 points [-]

Oh, it's not so bad a quote. If we define sanity around here as being more Bayesian (that's the waterline we're trying to raise, right?) then defining insanity as refusal to update when more data comes would make sense.

Comment author: JamesAndrix 18 June 2009 02:43:06PM 7 points [-]

I have but one Self, a timeless abstract optimization process to which this ape is but a horribly disfigured approximation.

Umm, it seems like huge error to me to think that there is anything but the ape.

Comment author: [deleted] 19 June 2009 02:26:47AM 2 points [-]

I think he's just putting mental software (brain state) above hardware.

Comment author: DanArmak 08 November 2009 10:19:30PM *  3 points [-]

Well, it seems to me like a huge error to think there's anything there but ape software. How is an ape's mind an approximation of something else?

Comment author: alex_zag_al 06 May 2012 01:25:31PM 1 point [-]

well, there's the mind he would self modify into if he could.

Comment author: DanArmak 06 May 2012 01:42:05PM -1 points [-]

So how is his current mind an approximation of that?

Comment author: loqi 18 June 2009 06:53:39PM 5 points [-]

My attempts to adopt a similar attitude have basically resulted in an infinite regress of trying to figure what "best" is and why, which wasn't conducive to actually doing anything. Do you just already know what you want from life, or do you have some method of dealing with goal-uncertainty?

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 18 June 2009 07:59:21PM 4 points [-]

Um, yeah, I was actually suffering from that just now after having written my other long comment in this thread. I know what I want; I have plenty of selfish goals, for there's always another book that you haven't read, and there's always more math that you don't know, and I have far too many ideas of my own to follow up on, and one particular set of ideas that I thought was particularly important (to me)---and surely I can get a better dayjob, and I have a few friends, and I could be very happy this way for a very long time---

But then I start worrying that I am insufficiently "contributing to society," or mitigating existential risks, or whatever, and this is a much harder problem of which I am not even capable of thinking clearly about.

Comment author: HalFinney 18 June 2009 01:02:34AM 2 points [-]

I find myself afraid to criticize this perspective, because it seems that if you came to believe less in its effectiveness, it might make the technique stop working. I would not want to inflict this harm upon you.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 18 June 2009 03:39:36AM 9 points [-]

No, no! On my honor as an aspiring rationalist, I am obligated to relinquish my cherished beliefs if and only if they are false, and to expose myself to evidence for the same. Go on! Crocker's rules! Stab me with the truth!

Comment author: MichaelVassar 18 June 2009 09:40:45AM *  7 points [-]

Z.M. You didn't have the belief that everyone would anticipate your procedure's success. You did have the belief that some people would sometimes be polite to you.
Now, here you are in the "should world" saying that no-one should ever be polite to you.

I'm particularly concerned because I think I sniff a whiff of aspiration towards mental toughness, of "tell me the awful truth, if I can't take it I don't deserve the benefits of a lie" rather than "tell me the truth, reality is what it is, only relative awfulness exists and relative awfulness is a feature of the map, not of the territory, a feature of worlds which could never be, in which my illusion of free will failed and the deterministic abstract ideal dynamic that I am, in contemplation of a choice that it was determined to reject, instead chose the relatively awful seeming option that by the dynamic that I am must be rejected".

Comment author: [deleted] 18 June 2009 02:11:44PM 0 points [-]

I think this is a fantastic method. What's more, you may be able to do it without the messy work of having to continually remind yourself.

Just find a way of expressing what you really want, or what you feel like you need to keep reminding yourself of, in a single sentence. Do it in a way that RESONATES with you - every time you read it it should motivate you to get off your ass and go do whatever it tells you. It doesn't necessarily have to be written by you, just express your desire. Example: I use the famous Fight Club quote "This is your life, and it's ending one second at a time".

Then just write (or print) this on a piece of paper, big enough to read, and tape it somewhere you'll see it all the time. Essentially a motivational poster, but with content that actually IS motivational (because you picked it out), not just an eagle flying over a mountain with the word "integrity" under it.

Instead of having to remind yourself constantly, the piece of paper will do that work for you. But I'm guessing the mechanism at work is the same - the message seeps slowly into your subconscious, influencing your thoughts so that, eventually, you don't need reminding. If it works at all for you like it did for me, every single thought you have, every action you take will be thought of in terms of this goal or desire (so it's important to pick a good one). You don't need to, for example, force yourself to read instead of watching tv - watching tv will feel so wrong that you will be repelled from it.

In essence, instead of trying to fight your subconscious desires, change them and use them to your advantage.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 19 June 2009 08:09:30PM 0 points [-]

I taped my resolution to my wall, and used a green dry erase marker to write LW on it, to remind me to be "less wrong" and follow the damn resolution Why a green LW? Well, on my bookmarks toolbar in Chrome, the symbol for the website is a green LW. I think I need to change my computer's wallpaper to something suitable, since that is on of my primary distractions.

Comment author: pjeby 17 June 2009 05:47:37PM *  11 points [-]

My brain clearly has different procedures for dealing with vague responsibilities it can weasel out of, and serious responsibilities it can't, and the oath served to stick studying on the "serious" side of the line.

I doubt it's the oath or the rituals. The key piece (in my experience) that makes this work, is the part where you considered conflicts and consequences. You made explicit under which specific conditions you would do it, and which ones you wouldn't.

To translate this back into Ainslie's model, the success of bargaining at any point in time is dependent on the degree of activation of "interests". If at the time you decide to do something, you envision only the default case, then the interest is only mentally linked to the default, not the situation where "something else comes up".

However, if you explicitly contemplate all the things that might come up, and decide what you'll do in each case, then you are mentally linking your "interest" to those contexts, along with a preferred behavior... thus reducing the willpower load required to make those decisions when the time comes, and giving that "interest" a larger say in the bargaining that occurs at that point in time.

I mentioned this briefly in my New Years' Resolutions video this year, but I've been teaching this concept for some time now. A key variable is how well you can mentally put yourself into the conflict situations that will occur, so that you can actually make realistic tradeoffs in "near" thinking, rather than using over-idealistic "far" thinking.

Related is Martha Beck's concept of "four day wins", which emphasizes the idea that as long as you make changes to behavior in small enough steps that no unmanageable conflicts arise, you can make that behavior "normal" within four days.

For example, the 4-day win approach to studying 2 hours a day would first be to set a time at which you will simply take out your books and look at them for say, 1 minute, without actually opening them, and to do that for four days. Then, for four days, do that and actually open them to what you're supposed to be studying, but don't do any of it. From there on, setting timers for small intervals where you have to stop as soon as the timer goes off.

In either case, whether you do it by exhaustive imagination in advance (as you did), or the 4-day wins method, you are doing the same thing: establishing a conditioned link between the "interest" (in Ainslie's terminology) and the context where you would like that interest to be active, so as to prevent other interests from dominating the negotiation in that context.

My suggestion for your next experiment would be for you to see how much less ritual you can get away with, as long as you satisfy the criterion of linking your preferred decision and the feeling of your "interest" to as many explicit, specific contexts where other interests might be in conflict.

with the knowledge that if I succeeded I would have a great method of self-improvement and if I failed I would be dooming myself to a life of laziness forever (Ainslie's theories suggest that exaggeration is good in this case).

So do Tony Robbins's theories, as described in his 1991 book, "Awaken the Giant Within". However, this is an area where I disagree with both Robbins and Ainslie!

For certain personality types, creating this sort of bargain is dangerous and damaging if you fail, for reasons that are actually brought up in Ainslie's book. And those personality types are very likely to fail, for the simple reason that they will not actually do the critical task of considering all the ways in which they might fail.

For example, how many Republican senators and Baptist ministers would you guess have sworn mighty oaths to never have gay sex?

If the subject of your oath is an ideal-belief-reality conflict, you will not "negotiate fairly" with your other interests, which means you won't really think about the areas where conflicts will arise, which means those other interests will dominate, and your oaths will eventually fall by the wayside.

So I'm glad it worked for you, but I strongly recommend that others NOT add this sort of "leverage" - it's not necessary and can be damaging. The critical factor is inter-interest linkage, not consequences of failure.

Richard Bandler actually encourages people embarking on something new that they might backslide on, to actually visualize themselves backsliding... repeatedly! And then to imagine this making them MORE motivated to proceed.

And if you think about it, this is actually an example of the same principle I described above - linking an interest to a context where a conflict might occur. In this way, even if backsliding does occur, it still contributes to the goal, rather than detracting from it.

In contrast, what you have done sets up an expectation that a single failure will lead to the destruction of someone's entire life... and that is NOT a responsible thing to suggest or prime, EVER.

Comment author: Yvain 18 June 2009 04:12:52PM 5 points [-]

I'm going to have to read this a few more times before I understand it fully, but I want to address one thing right away:

For example, how many Republican senators and Baptist ministers would you guess have sworn mighty oaths to never have gay sex...what you have done sets up an expectation that a single failure will lead to the destruction of someone's entire life... and that is NOT a responsible thing to suggest or prime, EVER.

The way I dealt with this was to make my oaths in one month blocks. So the Republican would have to swear "I won't have any gay sex...this month." Even for the most lustful, this should be possible.

If, at the end of the month, this was so painful he wants to just give up on this, he can. Or if he thinks he can do it, he could also include the statement in his next month's oath.

What I found was that there's a very different mental feeling between "I can never do this again" and "I have to wait a month to do this." The latter is annoying but bearable, and it's why I included the "never make an open-ended oath" point up there.

(if you want to test this for yourself, but don't have any repressed homosexual urges, masturbation makes a good test case)

I don't think this technique is at its best for something where doing it once is a disaster, like gay sex for Baptist ministers. I think it's better for something like dieting. Tell yourself you won't eat cookies the whole month, do it in the full knowledge that you'll start eating cookies again when the oath runs out, pig out on cookies for one day, and then when you have no desire whatsoever for any more cookies, swear to diet again for the next month.

Comment author: pjeby 18 June 2009 04:36:02PM 4 points [-]

I don't think this technique is at its best for something where doing it once is a disaster, like gay sex for Baptist ministers.

I'm saying that your "dooming myself to a life of laziness forever" is an artificially created disaster, where none would have existed otherwise. The closeted gay thing was just giving an example of how (as I said), "For certain personality types, creating this sort of bargain is dangerous."

IOW, using your "doom" model, if a person swears not to eat cookies for a month, and then fails to do so, they will now consider themselves doomed forever. That's the kind of failure mode I'm talking about.

Comment author: loqi 17 June 2009 06:57:07PM 2 points [-]

Richard Bandler actually encourages people embarking on something new that they might backslide on, to actually visualize themselves backsliding... repeatedly! And then to imagine this making them MORE motivated to proceed.

Something about this really appeals to me. I'm about to begin a fairly large project, I'll give this a whirl and report back.

Comment author: Henrik_Jonsson 17 June 2009 05:49:19PM *  4 points [-]

Ainslie's answer is that he should set a hard-and-fast rule: "I will never drink alcoholism".

You probably meant to write "alcohol" here.

All data, even anecdotal, on how to beat akrasia is great, and this sounds like a method that might work well in many cases. If you wanted to raise your odds of succeeding even more you could probably make your oath in front of a group of friends or family members, or even include a rule about donating your money or time if you failed, preferably to a cause you hated for bonus motivation.

I'd like to give a public oath myself, but I'm going away shortly and will be busy with various things, so I don't know how much time I will have for self-improvement. In somewhat of a coincidence, I just received "Breakdown of Will" in the mail yesterday. How about this.. I proudly and publicly swear to read the entire book "Breakdown of Will" by George Ainslie and write an interesting post on LW based on the book before July 17th 2009, so help me Bayes.

Comment author: byrnema 25 June 2009 11:19:01AM 1 point [-]

Ainslie's answer is that he should set a hard-and-fast rule: "I will never drink alcoholism". You probably meant to write "alcohol" here.

If it was a typo, it was a fortuitous one! I've quoted it several times in conversation while explaining that I read 'somewhere' that the key to quitting is in identifying the single, local instance (a beer) with the global bad (alcoholism) even if the connection isn't technically true. Because otherwise, without thinking about it this way, avoiding that single drink may seem silly or irrational, and that is what usually defeats me. (Not giving the small steps enough credit in whatever I'm trying to achieve.)

Comment author: Henrik_Jonsson 20 July 2009 02:21:21AM 1 point [-]

I read the book, but found it rambling and poorly supported. The basic point about agents with hyperbolic discounting having dynamic inconsistencies is very important, but I wouldn't recommend the book over Ainslie's article. The only mental note I made of something new (for me) and interesting was a point about issues with a "bright line" being much easier to handle than those without. For example, it's easier to stop drinking alcohol completely than to drink less than a specific limit at each occasion, and even harder to eat a proper diet, when you obviously cannot make us of the only very bright line; no food at all.

I have been busy (with the SIAI summer program), but I do think I actually would have found time to write the post if I had found more data that was both interesting and not obvious to the LW crowd. This might be rationalization, but I don't think the me of one month ago would have wanted a post written about the book if he had known the contents of the book.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 19 July 2009 08:19:02PM 1 point [-]

So... what happened? Why do you think your oath failed to work?

Comment author: Hey 18 June 2009 10:20:34AM 7 points [-]

I have been using this exact method for a few years. It is absolutely the most reliable method for getting something specific and critical done in an intermediate time frame (say 2 weeks to 3 months), but it's kind of the nuclear option of willpower and should be used sparingly since 1) it relies on being the nuclear option, if you ever fail then you would lose faith in the method 2) it absolutely sucks, since it's usually something sucky you decide to do and you have bargained away the usual weaseling out tactics 3) Cthulhu doesn't like it when you break your promises.

Comment author: Yvain 19 June 2009 01:27:14PM 10 points [-]

it absolutely sucks, since it's usually something sucky you decide to do and you have bargained away the usual weaseling out tactics

That's a really good point. Robin likes to talk about this. Someone may enjoy eating fatty foods more than they would enjoy being fit and healthy. But people who express a desire to be fit and healthy get more social prestige, so the optimum case for them is to think they would be better off dieting, while continuing to eat as much as always. These people think they have akrasia, but don't. If someone gives them a way to "cure" their "akrasia", they'll just end out unhappy.

I got the impression that Robin thinks this explains most or all akrasia; I wouldn't go that far, but I think it explains some.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 08 May 2012 01:29:14PM 0 points [-]

Someone may enjoy eating fatty foods more than they would enjoy being fit and healthy.

Or, like in my case, someone may not very much enjoy eating fatty foods, but when they start, they lose a bunch of weight and become more fit and healthy.

Comment author: faul_sname 03 January 2013 01:00:31AM 1 point [-]

it absolutely sucks, since it's usually something sucky you decide to do and you have bargained away the usual weaseling out tactics

I find that if I reinforce myself with an M&M or other small candy every time I complete the sucky task, it stops feeling sucky after about a week

Comment author: zeek123 24 June 2009 10:07:51PM *  3 points [-]

Check out this book. It's for dieting, but I suspect the ideas can be applied to other things.

http://www.amazon.com/Beck-Diet-Solution-Train-Person/dp/0848731735

So, it's basically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, chock full of statements like, and I'm paraphrasing, "Just because I've broken down and started eating this cake, doesn't mean I can/should finish it. I can stop immediately and limit the damage."

I'm reasonably sure they even did research on this program and that it works, better than X, Y, and Z.

Also, I don't know whether it's correlation or causation, but I experience very little procrastination or regret and I've been working with David Allen's "Getting Things Done" for years. That is, not masturbating with it or worshiping it, but realistically and critically exploring how to apply it to my life. Other people really like "The Now Habit" for beating procrastination.

Finally, I've found the killer productivity plan to be this:

http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/02/15/fixed-schedule-productivity-how-i-accomplish-a-large-amount-of-work-in-a-small-number-of-work-hours/

http://calnewport.com/blog/2007/07/26/the-straight-a-gospels-pseudo-work-does-not-equal-work/

http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/01/21/monday-master-class-how-to-use-time-arbitrage-to-maximize-your-productivity-profit/

Comment author: orthonormal 17 June 2009 06:07:29PM 3 points [-]

That's encouraging news. I'm going to use this; next month I'll tell you how it went.

Comment author: orthonormal 18 July 2009 11:05:07PM *  4 points [-]

Well, here's my data point: complete failure, worse than usual.

I'd resolved to do at least 3 hours of math on every workday for the month, which was something I thought I really wanted to do and would be able to maintain. Well, on Day 2 I failed; and suffice it to say that I've had a much less productive month than my norm.

Comment author: mtraven 18 June 2009 10:08:44PM 2 points [-]

This is a rather reductive approach to Ainslie. He's not writing a self-help book. The upshot of his view is not simply that people get distracted from long-term goals by short-term goals, but rather that the self emerges from the need to manage conflicts between a variety of internal goals. Fervid declarations like "I have but one Self, a timeless abstract optimization process to which this ape is but a horribly disfigured approximation" gets it exactly backwards. You don't have a Self, except as a hacked-together construct that helps your goals get along.

More discussion here and especially more in the links to bhyde's commentary.

Comment author: davidr 18 June 2009 01:30:08PM *  2 points [-]

I purchased AI: A Modern Approach by Norvig and Russell in march 2008, and by December I'd read a pathetic 80 pages due to work and general cant be botheredness. So I decided to choose a deadline that had some sort of symbolic significance. I would have to finish the book before the end of the 2008. Yes, that meant over 1000 pages of textbook material before the year was out.

I calculated it would take 40 pages a day; skimming was not allowed nor was moving ahead without a solid understanding of the material. I knew that the end of the book would be a cushion, since there were a number of pages on philosophical issues that were pretty familiar for me.

The result was successful and I learned a few things similar to what Yvain has posted. One of them is leave yourself outs, don't be too ambitious, because the damage of a failure is persistent beyond a particular case. If you don't have a good idea of how demanding the objective will be, err on the side of laziness, or do a smaller test run. Choose small short term objectives, because if you don't calibrate well and end up having to strain, it won't be for long and you'll get a better idea what you can do. In my case I went on 5 day trip and had to drag the book along and steal time to read, not good. But thanks to the experience I know that a 1000+ page text book per month is not realistic for me.

Comment author: feanor1600 23 February 2010 07:18:27PM 1 point [-]

I do solemnly swear by the great Wiki that from now until April 1st, I will finish every part of every homework assignment by the midnight before it is due, on pain of food deprivation until the work be complete.

Comment author: Unknowns 23 February 2010 07:21:08PM 2 points [-]

That's not much of a penalty. It just means that if you stay up all night doing the work, you won't get to eat until breakfast.

Comment author: hrishimittal 17 June 2009 11:04:16PM 1 point [-]

Thanks Yvain, you have inspired me to commit to some important things for the next month. I have written them down.

I promise to write about my achievements here on LW on the 18th July.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 September 2013 07:41:31AM 3 points [-]

Huh.

Comment author: kodos96 03 January 2013 01:38:49AM 0 points [-]

calling upon various fictional deities for whom I have great respect.

Just curious... can you clarify this statement? It sounds a lot like Chaos Magick to me, and that surprises me, coming from you (not necessarily in a bad way).

Comment author: john2219 10 May 2012 07:54:44PM 0 points [-]

This reminds me of certain behaviours I have read about in, for example, books by Walter Scott, where he is writing about Covenanters. Their behaviour is very similar to setting an oath and never allowing it to be broken. They usually did not allow exceptions, not even ones which are included in the initial oath. Or only after the most careful analysis.

They also had a refinement where they could identify "falling off on the left", as straightforward failure and "fallingoff on the right" as, basically, over-doing it. Three hours study instead of two, that sort of thing.

Likewise, in his book "Surely you are joking", Feynman discusses his family trait for always telling the truth, no matter how inconvenient, which seems to me to have similar overtones to the ideas here.

My point is that the behaviour is not uncommon and I would guess that in general, it was followed for intuitive reasons, not on the kind of formalism that picoeconomics is. If picoeconomics describes this kind of behaviour then that would be good.

Comment author: ChrisBrown 18 June 2009 02:37:02PM 0 points [-]

I've used a similar approach in the past to get myself to do things. One addition to it I find useful l is to also include a reasonable penalty of sorts for failure. For example, I will study for my test for the next two hours, and if I fail or attempt to weasel out of it, I will eat X amount of spinach. This way, even if you assign yourself an unreasonable goal and fail, you still have to pay a price, so you'll a. Hopefully assign yourself more reasonable oaths in the future and b. The effect of breaking the oath is "lessened" since you are paying a price for failure.