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.



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.
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(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 ... (read more)

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.

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

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.

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 ... (read more)

8Scott Alexander
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.
Scott Aaronson writes about A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart. For example, a quote about school geometry:
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.
1Mike Bishop
compared to what? evidence?
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.
It does? I thought it was more heartbreakingly tragic than anything else.
The second; high school diploma and fifty-five credits at UCSC.
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.
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. 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.) 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.) 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.)
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).
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.
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;
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.
retarded retarded retarded retarded
Downvoted for name-calling and incomprehensibility, but mostly for name-calling.
6Paul Crowley
He's replying to himself.

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.

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.

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.
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.
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.
I think he's just putting mental software (brain state) above hardware.
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?
well, there's the mind he would self modify into if he could.
So how is his current mind an approximation of that?
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?
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.
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.
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!
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".
Well said!
I also seem to operate in this mode. Though I am not exclusively an autodidact.
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.
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.

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... (read more)

5Scott Alexander
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: 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.
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.
Hi from the future [1]! Beeminder has a version of this built in: the one-week akrasia horizon. You can change anything about a Beeminder goal, including ending it, at any time, but the change doesn't take effect for a week. As Katja Grace once said on Overcoming Bias: "[you] can’t change it out of laziness unless you are particularly forward thinking about your laziness (in which case you probably won’t sign up for this)."   [1] I'm mildly terrified that it's against the norms to reply to something this old. I've been thinking hard about your (Scott's) recent ACX post, "Towards A Bayesian Theory Of Willpower," and am digging up all your previous thoughts on the topic, so here I am.
As a matter of personal preference, I enjoy (and endorse) commenting and and reading comments on old posts—it nudges everything a bit more toward long content.
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.

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.

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.

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.
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

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 reso

... (read more)
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!"
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.
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.
How did it go?
That really seems like a bad combination. You are, it seems to me, trying to combine two opposed techniques without any real synthesis.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
The Leatherby Library at Chapman University has a copy of the second edition (link). You're going to be there in 8 days, right?
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.

The original website is down. This is an archived version around the same time the article was published:

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 ... (read more)

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

Correction to the Ainslie link:

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

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.
On the other hand, I was undiagnosed (and accordingly untreated) bipolar type 2 at the time of that comment, so my results are not generalizable. My hypomanic self wrote checks that my depressive self couldn't cash.

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.

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 cus... (read more)

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.

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.

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.


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.

an interesting insight. I shall try this.

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).

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 in... (read more)


The link to the original article is dead; is there a copy lying around somewhere?

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Does hyperbolic discounting mean that the sunk-cost fallacy can actually be adaptive, by "locking in" earlier decisions?

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.


s/drink alcoholism/drink alcohol