What would you do with infinite willpower?

by D_Malik1 min read3rd Jun 201161 comments


Personal Blog

For the past few years my willpower has been steadily increasing. If it lasts and I use it to accomplish something noteworthy, I might write a post about it.

Anyway, what should a rational preference utilitarian with infinite willpower do? Assume that there are no negative effects (unhappiness, stress) with using this willpower, and that they can control their emotions at will.

Clearly they should work a lot more, not spend time on recreation (movies, TV, games), stand instead of sitting, etc..

What else? Should they listen to music? Should they keep their muscles flexed 24/7 ? What should they learn, where would they have the most relative advantage? How much time would be worth spending on social interaction?

I can figure out these things on my own, but those questions are important and good ideas are very valuable.

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[-][anonymous]10y 11

Well, the first thing I would do is try to come up with a large number of safety precautions. Then I would try to determine exactly what infinite willpower meant. This seems like good advice in almost any preference system when you discover you have almost any super power. Find out "What EXACTLY can I do with this?"

For instance, right now, I doubt I could pull two consecutive all nighters.If I wake up this morning and simply have infinite willpower (and am aware of that fact), the first thing I would probably test is my sleep cycle from my house. What does pulling two all nighters do to me? What does pulling three all nighters feel like? Obviously I'd want to be careful with this. I don't want to say "Well, clearly, with my Infinite Willpower I never need to sleep again!" and then kill myself through sleep deprivation. Start off slow.

This brings up the next related question: Tranquilizers! Let's assuming we've determined that I can stay awake for a month with no ill effects and no apparent microsleeps, find out "Well, is it just natural sleep?" If I take a sedative, do I simply fail to lose consciousness if I don't want to? Am I simply utterly immune to sedatives? Or do I simply stay conscious right up until I overdose and my heart stops beating?

Again, this is why I'd have to be careful with this. By default, your bodies distress systems generally are trying to keep you healthy. They might be inaccurate, but they try. A large number of them can be disregarded by using willpower.

For instance, it would be very bad if, as an act of will, I consciously held my breath because I was trying to hear something and then simply forget to breathe, ignoring my increasing pain/fatigue because I am still trying to concentrate on some faint noise and then oops! I appear to have asphyxiated myself.

Once I've determined how to make sure I don't kill myself, I'd probably attempt to determine if the source of my willpower was paranormal by attempting to win The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. This means I'd need to be in the news (Should be relatively easy, SOME safe feat of Infinite willpower should be newsworthy enough for that.) and the backing of an academic (Possibly a doctor. In the first phases when I was making sure I didn't kill myself, it would be handy to have a doctor's professional help nearby.)

This would likely fork:

1: It's paranormal! I now have not only Infinite Willpower, but Infinite Willpower and 1 million dollars! Score!

2: It's biologically explainable! Well, what's the biological explanation? Is it mass producible? Can I get a lawyer and get a share of the profits if it is?

If you were going to boil it down, I suppose this would boil down to



3:Wealth (If it's a good enough power to allow me to do this.)


I leave four blank because It's hard to plan out that far ahead without knowing the results from 2. I mean to me infinite willpower could translate into anything from:

A: It's like chronic insensitivity to pain, except with an on off switch but you still need to be careful or you'll kill youself.

B: I can do some cool things, but nothing much beyond parlor tricks like 'I bet I can hold more drinks than you.' My life is more or less functionally identical.

C: I can keep moving and be healthy after 100 simultaneous taser shocks by simply refusing to let myself be stopped!

To all sorts of things in between. I won't know what the next step is until I better know myself.

What I meant was ability to delay gratification, to actually live by a utility function that does not hyperbolically discount, which is more or less A.

I'm not on this level yet, but I think I can get there through prolonged effort. Unfortunately, I think it's mostly genetics and practice (which is exactly what everyone's trying to avoid, lol).

I think that everyone has periods when they feel the way you do good sir. I hope it lasts, but i think Michaelos was being quite facetious in the way he pointed it out.

  1. I would choose and maintain a sleep schedule, or at least a bedtime (I'm not sure whether infinite willpower would let me wake up without an alarm at a given time, and I find that having an alarm set messes up the quality of my sleep).

  2. I would do more things that I enjoy while I do them, but fail to muster the activation energy to manage - going for walks in nice weather, cooking more complicated foods, etc.

  3. My ability to do things very fast is currently hampered by my psychological need to multitask, take frequent and extended breaks, etc. With infinite willpower I would just do things very fast. I would take on more paid work.

  4. I would probably learn to drive, if controlling my emotions at will meant that I could do it without shaking like a leaf for hours after the fact or freaking out so much that I become an actual road hazard.

  5. I would presumably be able to stop eating things after noting that I am neither hungry nor enjoying them. (I'm improved at this relative to how I was when I was a kid but it sometimes happens anyway.)

I would presumably be able to stop eating things after noting that I am neither hungry nor enjoying them.

This is actually theorized to be a major contributor to obesity. It definitely is for me; I generally desire to continue eating until mechanically full, or the food is gone.

Forcibly eating slowly (using chopsticks can help that) can help that.

It doesn't happen very often. Usually I am hungry, enjoying my food, or both. But occasionally I get stuck in take-more-bites mode with neither in place, and that's annoying.

My ability to do things very fast is currently hampered by my psychological need to multitask, take frequent and extended breaks, etc. With infinite willpower I would just do things very fast. I would take on more paid work.

Before I got ADD treatment I coped by working in a job where it's an asset rather than a liability: tech support. One cannot keep the same activity going very long in that environment because one is certain to be interrupted with something of higher priority, in short order.

You might try Melatonin for sleep regulation.

Might not (probably won't?) work for you, but as a data point, my routine, which works for me:

  • Don't expose yourself to bright light within 2 hours of going to sleep.
  • Around an hour before your ideal going-to-sleep time, take an ice-cold 3-minute shower in the dark.
  • Do n-back (black screen, black n-back background) until you are really really tired.
  • Get in bed and stay there until you fall asleep.
  • Get in bed and stay there until you fall asleep.

The important one! At least for me. I actually consider the inability to remember to go to bed a surprisingly legitimate sleep disorder - especially with people who have a significant weakness with task switching in general.

Doesn't work for me. I'll just lie there for hours.

I can agree with this. I usually find that unless I've reached a certain threshold of tiredness at night, there is no way for me to will myself to sleep, though at other times, especially for naps during the day, I can easily lay down until I fall asleep, even if I'm not feeling particularly tired.

That's way more intrusion into my life than I'd tolerate for a regular sleep schedule.

The only way i was ever able to get my sleep under control was by going through a full cycle... It didn't last very long(about a month) but it gave me a sense of power over my sleep schedule when it came to things i truly cared about and so far this has led to me being much more effective.

Step 1: Stay up progressively later each night while sleeping as long as you can each night/day.(this should take about 4-7 days) Step 2: Once you get within two hours of your desired sleep target time, simply lie in bed slightly earlier in the day and try to focus on memory's rather than new thoughts. Step 3: Slowly repeat step 2 over the next few weeks, while transitioning to more complex thoughts while lieing in bed.

The locus of control we feel for sleep is IMMENSELY important according to my research and my personal experience and i just thought id share my experience in defining my own schedule on my own terms.

Have you been doing anything in particular to cause your willpower to increase? What are some effective techniques for increasing willpower?

What seems to have worked really well for me is just practising willpower by intentionally exposing yourself to pain and stress. But then again, that requires willpower.

For example, eating restrictions, n-back, exercise, music starvation, standing up or squatting while doing things, not watching TV, not playing games.

For the past few years my willpower has been steadily increasing.

Could you explain how you've come to this conclusion? I seem to recall others saying things along this line in their posts every once in a while, and since I've got a fresh occurrence, I thought I'd inquire about what this means.

As to not be completely obscure, I've wondered if undergoing studies in applied rationality is increasing literal willpower (which I'm loosely defining as, "the ability to set a goal and follow through with it, regardless of what one feels like doing after embarking toward said goal or what surmountable obstacles come up")?

...Or does it just seem that way because one refines what one thinks of as worthy of time, and thus it seems that more frivolous things fall by the wayside because we simply have better goals/conceptions of what's worth investing in to begin with.

Does that make sense?

Asked another way, what metrics exist to test the strength of willpower over time, and how have you used such metrics to observe an increase?

I do less hyperbolic discounting. A few years ago, if I was given the choice between playing flash games and studying, I would choose games, but if the choice was to be made a month in advance I would have chosen studying. Now I always choose studying.

I still value the same things over the long term, but now my short-term and long-term values are mostly the same. Hyperbolic discounting / akrasia does not affect my judgments as much.

...but now my short-term and long-term values are mostly the same.

That makes sense, but I don't understand this:

...but if the choice was to be made a month in advance I would have chosen studying.

Could you clarify that? I don't understand "if the choice was to be made a month in advance" -- you planned to study in one month's time?

If I was given the ability to force my future self of one month later (or my past self, if that were possible) to study, I would. But at any given time I would usually choose not to study.

This is like a study I read about where people were given a choice between a bag of chocolates and a bag of fruit. If they were told they would immediately be given the food, most chose chocolate, but if they were told it would be delivered a few days later, most chose fruit.

Huh. I think I'd choose chocolate now or later :)

I still don't know I quite get it. So, if I asked you what you'd like to do in one month's time, study or play a game, you'd say study?

I was thinking you were going along the lines of timeless decision theory, and perhaps that's why I'm confused. I'd assumed that were comparing whether to study or play games now based on the immediate but momentary reward of games now vs. the longer lasting and more deeply satisfying future rewards of studying.

In other words, I'd always thought that TDT/hyperbolic discounting were about remedying the postponing of actions because of far-mode perception of rewards. Thus, your statement of having decreased your hyperbolic discounting made me think you meant that you were better about seeing the far-mode rewards of studying and thus chose to study now rather than postponing.

Instead, you've discussed what you would decide to do in the future, and thus I'm confused...


I would be such an utterly different person that, at the moment I was bitten by that radioactive willpower spider, I would have ceased to be in any reasonable sense.

What that person leftover would do, I have no idea.

Why have infinite willpower if not to use it to satisfy preferences? Smell the roses, play games, chat with friends. The only reason not to do this on any large scale is if there was something you had to do now that could have huge returns later. Code a self-improving AI, discover immortality, that sort of thing. However, even with infinite willpower I don't think everyone is cut out for that, so for most people I'd say make enough money to hit diminishing returns on investing it in research, invest it in research, and live the good life.

Smell the roses

While you smell the roses, 100 people die horrible painful deaths. What would you like to do next?

My point is, until the Singularity (if then) other people's suffering will outweigh rose-smelling by people who can control their emotions at will anyway (and by other people), even if they've invested in research to zero marginal utility.

Just because people are dying doesn't mean you shouldn't do a cost/benefit calculation. Which sounds terrible until I bet you haven't donated everything you can to charity. Now it just sounds human to me.

So any pleasure is considered luxury until death is eradicated, and finite willpower is the only apology that can justify not concentrating all one's efforts to fighting against death?

Imagine that aging was curable and you were essentially immortal - only there was an annual chance of 10^(-8) that you will die painful death by some accident. Would you forgo all trivial pleasures, if that spared you from the risk? In such a world, with present population of order 10^10, 100 people would still die painful deaths each year.

I would try to figure out how painful the deaths are and how trivial the pleasures are.

I don't think this world's an edge case yet though - decreasing pleasure now seems like it would increase long-term expected pleasure, e.g. by working more and using the money to make FAI more likely, or giving it to any effective charity.

"Enough to hit diminishing returns" doesn't mean anything until you specify how strongly diminishing.

Redacted because I misread Manfred's comment the first time.

After a while of doing that, you will no longer need willpower to prevent you from chatting with friends.

I would only buy as much fruit and veggies as I was likely to eat. Guess who just cleaned out the refrigerator?

I try to eat only fruits, vegetables and peanut butter. I live alone and prepare my own food. I am at the grocery store 5 to 7 days a week. When freshness is essential and overstocking is bad, then I don't know of a better way.

A tip on consuming more vegetables and fruits when you have them: don't also keep other food around that you prefer to veg/fruits. If you prefer x to mangoes and have x and mangoes available to eat, then you'll eat more x than mangoes. Take willpower out of the equation. Force yourself to eat what you "should."

Why did you choose that diet? What advantages have you found from it?

The diet is the result of a 5-ish year development. The major changes were, first, elimination of animals, then animal products, then processed products and finally everything that wasn't fresh fruits and vegetables and some pb and tofu. I heard a couple reasonable talks in the past year making the case that fresh fruits and veggies are unequivocally the healthiest foods. I said fuck it, why not just eat all fruits and veggies then? This was ~3 months ago.

In every way that matters to me it has been an overwhelming success: it's cheap, it tastes good, it gives me ample energy, it seems to make me feel better physically and emotionally, I have lost weight, I think I appear more lean, and it's filling--it was a pleasant surprise to find that a small salad can create a satisfying fullness in my body.

*Added: One downside is frequent trips to the store.

Whoa. I have also been vegan for a few years. You might want to look into creatine (which boosts intelligence, especially in vegans) and IF/CR if you haven't already.

Have you ever tried recording what you eat to see how the nutrients add up? I might try something like what you're describing in a few years.

While for a couple periods I counted my calories, measuring nutrients--either of the food or my own--is a low priority for me. If I could afford to pay someone to do these things for me I wouldn't hesitate. I'm content for now with this simple reasoning: How bad could it be to eat only fruits and vegetables? Plus, I can alter the diet in a moment if needed.

The results here seemed unrealistic to me until I saw the earlier comment which revealed that 'pb' meant peanut butter. With that in mind the diet seems both sustainable and fairly healthy (assuming a lot of attention is paid to nutrient levels.) If not optimal then at least far better than most people's default eating habits.

I am not good at estimating this at all. Sometimes I buy two of something and only eat one, and sometimes I buy six of it and then I eat it all in one sitting and wish I'd bought twelve so I could have six more.

I simply overestimate what I'm likely to eat, so will-power (eating somewhat more veggies and thinking more carefully before I buy) would make a big difference for me.

It might not be relevant in your case.

Resist an infinite number of chocolate bars?

Seriously, do whatever you would have thought otherwise, just do it better than the rest of us.

This guy seems to have a shitload of willpower; you could read what he does with it: http://www.sebastianmarshall.com/the-evolution-of-my-timehabitlife-tracking

I wouldn't be reading LW right now.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

I'd finish reading the sequences (I've only read about 2/3 of them).

I'd work non-stop on Hard Problems. Eat an optimal diet. Manage my time in an optimal way. Every distraction would be excised from my life.

I guess I have found I do not know what willpower even means. Does it mean that I do not change my mind, once I have set upon some course of action? So I say, well, I'm going to climb Everest naked. And then I don't update based on damage from rock and cold to my extremeties. I just keep climbing. That is willpower?

Because if I can change my mind about what I want to be doing well then, I guess I will. Oh I need to write this document for work that is already overdue. Hmm well its pretty boring, let me go see what people are saying on LW. Is that a lack of willpower, or did I change my mind about what I wanted to be doing?

I got the impression that D_Malik was using the word to indicate a lack of akrasia: i.e. a perfect ability to undertake tasks believed to be in your best interests, without limitation by boredom, distraction, procrastination, etc.

Isn't distraction sometimes simply a lack of resolve about what it is that one ought to be doing? Does having willpower mean that I am 100% confident in judgments I made at some previous time about what I ought to be doing now, even if I've had new inputs since then (such as an RSS reader helpfully popping up in my tray) ?

No. Provided my interpretation matches D_Malik's, it means you'll never be unhappy about a time-management decision you've made in the past given the state of your knowledge at the time; that doesn't, however, prevent you from responding to priority interrupts.

Right. So it seems the problem I may have with distraction is not that I re-evaluate my priorities on interruption, but that I later think I made the wrong decision about priorities. So I go respond on LW again, despite that I really have to finish this paper by the end of the day. Then at the end of the day, I regret this.

Does willpower help me evaluate priorities more sensibly?

There's a bit of a gray area in that optimizing time and attention management itself takes time and attention, and so your happiness and accomplishment aren't necessarily optimal in absolute terms after taking the time to work out optimal allocations. But that's a quibble; people very frequently engage in behavior they know at the time to be long-term suboptimal, and when we talk about things like willpower and akrasia we're primarily concerned with minimizing that sort of behavior.

With this in mind, I'd describe willpower as the component of your priority-evaluation algorithm that counteracts present-biased preferences. Hypothetically perfect willpower would mean no temporal discounting, although discounting future possibilities in proportion to probability of occurrence doesn't seem like a failure of willpower to me.

Definitely explore what infinite willpower means, since it would certainly be possible to hurt myself since it presumably includes a lot of ability to ignore pain.

Would I give up Minesweeper or find out what it's like to play Mindsweeper while completely ignoring all internal and external distractions? Unfortunately, the latter is more attractive.

One good thing about infinite willpower is that I'd be better able to track the effects of various choices. For example, I'd have infinite ability to give up recreation, but that might mean my mind is less usefully flexible in a week or a month.

Keeping your muscles flexed all the time is not a good idea. I recommend reading Ralston's Zen Body-Being (not a great title, but a lot of good stuff in the book) about the importance of putting the least effort into martial arts.

I would definitely explore putting less into low intensity pleasures.

Back to experiment-- this is really important, because, since infinite willpower doesn't exist, it wouldn't be obvious, for example, how much socializing supports other goals.

If infinite willpower seems to be leading to good results after five or ten years, I'd start researching how to make it available to other people.

If (as a result of infinite willpower or by other means), life is made generally good-- prosperity and health for all, what would preference utilitarians do with infinite willpower?

What I'd do during an infinite willpower streak is:

  1. Determine the most important thing I should be working on right now ( "Maximize on big things, satisfice on small things", "concentrate on the high-order bits", 80/20 rule, "What are the important problems in my field and why aren't you working on them?" )

  2. Sit down and work-work-work-work-work while it lasts.

(Alas, my last two-week long streak of infinite willpower ended a couple of days ago, so now I have to go back to regular, limited willpower.)

What would you do with infinite willpower?

Historically speaking: push myself to the limit, achieve some seriously impressive results in multiple work, study and physical endeavors simultaneously for a few years then hit the limit as additional stressors were introduced to the environment. Take it easy for a year or two and then build back up to a more sustainable level of willpower application.

Knowing myself, if I had "infinite willpower" I'd probably eventually end up using it to irrevocably commit myself to doing something that will inevitably turn out to have been a really, really stupid idea.

My plans wouldn't drastically change. I would still work on the projects for which my participation yields the the greatest increase of the probability of a sufficiently positive outcome of a technological Singularity. But having infinite willpower would have the surprising disadvantage that I couldn't experiment with increasing my willpower anymore. So, my advice when it comes to willpower increasing would be pretty bad (unless I know how to generate infinite willpower of course).

Basically, I would just get more important stuff done. I would forgo all purely recreational activities, as they aren't as important as improving the world and securing its existence and quality.

Lose 120-150 pounds. Then put some energy into figuring out what to do next. Then do that.

I would obtain a small library of textbooks on academic subjects and read them all, then reread them, then do all the exercises contained therein several times. In my current state, being without a will of iron, I tend toward less efficient and detailed learning methods like online articles and wikipedia for extra education. I would take maybe five years and revolutionize a field of science after studying it continually, with regard for only my health and basic socialization. Eight hours of sleep, three hours of internet, movies and videogames, and thirteen hours studying and improving on widgets would make for an impressive work output, considering that that would be thirteen hours uninterrupted by distractions, procrastination, or sudden desires to scream.

Spend all your time working on permanent solutions to the issues of aging, death, and/or political conflict, or whatever other big issues you think are important.

Should they keep their muscles flexed 24/7?

You are using "flexing muscles" as a shorthand for something, and I don't know what. Flexing muscles to impress others is silly; you have better things to do. Flexing muscles to exercise might make some sense, but infinite willpower doesn't imply infinite ability to recuperate from exercise. Stay within the limits of your body so long as you have a use for it.

What I would do (and more or less am doing): generate ideas for projects to work on, figure out which is the best, work on it.