I don't have a good name for this fallacy, but I hope to work it out with everyone here through thinking and discussion.
It goes like this: a large majority of otherwise smart people spend time doing semi-productive things, when there are massively productive opportunities untapped.
A somewhat silly example: Let's say someone aspires to be a comedian, the best comedian ever, and to make a living doing comedy. He wants nothing else, it is his purpose. And he decides that in order to become a better comedian, he will watch re-runs of the old television cartoon 'Garfield and Friends' that was on TV from 1988 to 1995.
This is absolutely not a great use of his time. Maybe he'll learn a little about jokes structures and pick up a gag from the show. It's probably not entirely useless. But Garfield and Friends wasn't all that funny to begin with, and there's only so much to be learned from it. The would-be comedian would be much better off watching Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, and Bill Cosby if he wanted to watch old clips. He'd be much better off reading memoirs, autobiographies, and articles by people like Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld. Or he could look to get into the technical aspects of comedy and study well-respected books in the field. Or best yet, go to an open mic night, or spend time writing jokes, or otherwise do comedy. But he doesn't, instead he just watches re-runs of Garfield and Friends.
I think a lot of us are guilty of this in our daily lives. Certainly, most people on LessWrong examine our lives more carefully than the rest of the world. A lot of us have clear goals. Maybe not a full, cohesive belief structure, but pretty clear. And sometimes we dabble around and do low-impact stuff instead of high impact stuff. The equivalent of watching Garfield and Friends re-runs.
I've been an entrepreneur and done some entrepreneurial stuff. In the beginning, you have to test different things, because you don't know what's going to work. But I've seen this fallacy, and I was guilty of it myself - I didn't double down and put all my efforts into what was working, or at least commit mostly to it.
The most successful entrepreneurs do. Oh, keep learning, and diversify a bit, sure. But I remember watching a talk about the success of the company Omniture - they had two people in their enterprise business-to-business side, and 60 people in their business-to-consumer side. Then the founder, Josh James, realized 90% of their revenue was coming from business to business, so he said - "Hey. 58 of you go over to the business to business side." And just like that, he now had 60 of his team working in the part of the company that was producing of the company's revenues. Omniture sold last year for $1.8 billion.
I feel like a lot of us have those opportunities - we see that a place we're putting a small amount of effort is accounting for most of our success, but we don't say - "Okay, that area that I'm giving a little attention that's producing massive results? All attention goes there now." No, we keep doing things that aren't producing the results.
I'm curious as to why. Do we not evaluate the return on time? Is it just general akrasia, procrastination, fear of success, fear of standing out? Those hard-wired evolutionary "don't stand out too much" things? Does it seem like it'd be too easy or can't be real?
A lot of times, I'm frittering time away on something that will get me, y'know, very small gains. I'm not talking speculative things, or learning, or relaxing. Like, just small gains in my development. Meanwhile, there's something on-hand I could do that'd have 300 times the impact. For sure, almost certainly 300 times the impact, because I see some proven success in the 300x area, and the frittering-away-time area is almost certainly not going to be valuable.
And heck, I do this a lot less than most people. Most people are really, really guilty of this. Let's discuss and figure out why. Your thoughts?
This is a classic time-management issue, often titled "ants vs. elephants", e.g. using your time to tackle small tasks you can complete easily for some immediate gratification instead of investing in the large ones with big payoff. In my own experience, it almost feels like tasks have an "activation energy". I have a list of prioritized goals, but if I'm low in energy I avoid the big but important tasks and do something relatively mindless like reading Science News or doing a sudoku. In college I used to despise myself for not being able to study on Saturday. Finally I accepted it, and used Saturdays for relaxing. I know you are not suggesting I should still despise myself, or somehow trick myself into not needing down-time. But I think this "energy effect" may partially explain why we don't always choose optimal tasks.
I suspect (perhaps "fear") that, outside of very specific goal-oriented fields like entrepreneurship, this is more likely a symptom self-deception about our goals.
You tell yourself that your ultimate goal is, for example, to make the world a happier place. And so it is for this ultimate reason, that you decide to be a video game programmer. What a coincidence that you're a video game enthusiast that always dreamed of making the next Mario Bros. What a coincidence that it happens to pay extraordinarily well.
And if someone points out that you could probably increase world happiness more by, say, donating some of that money to charity, naturally you can come up with some convoluted explanation of why this is not (at least provably) so.
I think even more so though, it happens on a small scale. When I'm working, I take breaks to cruise the internet. Ostensibly, to recharge and give my brain a break. While this is indeed what I'm doing, this explanation has usually run dry within 10 minutes. After this point, my actual goal has become putting off work because something else seems more interesting, and I'd be lying to myself to claim otherwise.
In short, we sometimes fall short of our "goals" because they're actually not our goals. Canonically, this.
Doesn't that sound like status quo bias?
I frequently point out to fellow students at my school that given the existence of videorecording technology, seeing live lectures is the equivalent of having scribes copy books by hand after the invention of the printing press. No one says "yeah, you're probably right"--at least not without fairly substantial discussion. I'm pretty sure everyone's first instinct is to figure out why I'm wrong.
How does this make sense? By donating your labor you're effectively giving the charity money, since now they don't have to pay someone to do said labor. Since it's rare that your skills and an organization's needs are going to line up, it's almost always going to be more efficient to just make a donation.
If you think the organization is going to waste your donation, you shouldn't offer them labor instead - you should find a better organization.
I think a large part of the problem is simply not having the right mental toolkit to make these evaluations. It's not that people are evaluating return on investment incorrectly, so much as not evaluating it at all because they don't know how.
I've recently started using "Naritai Project" as a mental category (in reference to Tsuyoku Naritai), meaning something that improves myself or my habits, as a one-time act. For example, locating a more convenient gym counts, creating the habit of exercising regularly counts, but exercise itself does not. Anything classified as a Naritai Project is automatically high priority.
(And yes, I know this is a horrible abuse of Japanese grammar. Looking up the correct conjugation isn't important to me.)
I think "Kaizen Project" would respect the Japanese roots best, but I think the suggestions below work better for other reasons.
"Life refactoring" would work for people with a programming background.
edit: Although the pedant in me says it is a mix of optimisation and refactoring. Refactoring has the right connotations of single instance changes and less confusion from other sources than optimisation.
Your post includes a "silly" and a business-scale example, but not a personal one. In order to answer the questions about causes that you ask, it seems necessary to look at specific situations. Is there a real-life situation that you can talk about where you have two options, one almost certainly hundreds of times as good as the other, and you choose the option that is worse?
Comments on HN and LW result in immediate reward through upvoting and replies whereas writing a book is a more solitary experience. If you identify this difference as a likely cause for your behavior and if you believe that the difference in value to you is as large as you say, then you should test this hypothesis by turning book-writing into a more interactive, immediately rewarding process. Blogging and sending pieces to friends once they are written come to mind.
More generally, consider structuring your social environment such that social expectations and rewards line up with activities you consider valuable. I have found this to be a powerful way to change my behavior.
Slightly less silly example: Let's say someone aspires to be an X, the best X ever, and to make a living doing X. He wants nothing else, it is his purpose. And he decides that in order to become a better X, he will read and comment on blog posts on lesswrong.
I find myself doing something very similar when it comes to every day activities. Let's say I am searching for my missing sock and I have three locations to visit: A, B, C, with probabilities of finding my sock there: 80%, 15%, 5%. For some reason I keep wanting to search C, then B, before A. In my mind this kind of goes like this "let's make sure it's in none of the weird places and then I can be very sure it's in A and search it thoroughly". Empirically, most often if I just started with A, I would have been successful...80% of the time.
But to answer OP more directly: I feel that in most cases it's simple akrasia and the fear of succeeding.
I've noticed that some video games tend to directly reward this behavior (starting your search in the worst place). They provide a big maze, with a goal at the end that you're supposedly trying to get to, but in fact your goal is not to reach the end quickly but to search as much of the maze's area as you can. Similarly, if you're on a quest to save the world, you put it off as long as possible, because you're optimizing for fraction-of-content-seen, rather than probability-world-is-saved, which is 1.0 from the very beginning. Some of the errors taught are very subtle and insidious.
Now I'm wondering how you could subvert that. I'm imagining something like a Legend of Zelda game which is split into two phases:
A fairly long preliminary phase, where you don't know about saving the world or anything. This should have maybe one or two boss fights and teach you how to play the game well.
A race against time to save the world. Bad stuff starts happening at preset times (plus or minus some randomness), and you've got to hurry and go for the high-probability ideas in order to maximize your chance of not losing. Skip the side-quests and mini-dungeons unless they've got some important items, because Kakariko village will be destroyed in 4-5 hours of game-time. To enhance the sense of urgency, make save-scumming impossible and make it harder to die in order to compensate for the increased difficulty of gameplay. Make sure there are several ways to win in any scenario, so the player doesn't have to rely on trial-and-error to find the one officially blessed way of doing something. And to hell with switch mazes.
I would definitely play this game. It would be intense. And the quest for 100% completion would result in absolutely crazy Let's Play videos.
I've long been a critic of experience point / levelling systems in RPGs because of this. They optimise for wanting to be a sociopath. The guy who slaughters everything possible becomes the most powerful. I found Vampire: Bloodlines an interesting alternative, in that you were rewarded skill points for finishing quests, and you'd get the same reward whether you slaughtered everyone, snuck through, or any other way of solving the problem.
As for side quests, I guess the problem is that the developers spend an enormous amount of time generating them all, and don't want to see that time as essentially wasted, especially since a large number of people don't do them anyway. Considering just how expensive a modern AAA game has become to create, it's hard to imagine you could persuade RPG developers to punish people for undertaking side quests, even if it does lead to the ridiculous situations where you're supposedly racing against time to save the world/galaxy/universe, but have time to help every kitten stuck in a tree on the way.
Status quo bias. And, the average person's gut morality is not consequentialist but virtue ethicist. Working from your gut, you don't profit-maximize, treating your morale as a resource to be spent and refillled. You work until you "deserve" a break.
An example or six would help.
I think we do a lot by feel instead of by quantifying results.
Mainly because correlating results to actions is hard and it's not obvious how to do it. Actions are habitual; feedback on success is sporadic. How do you know whether your habits are helping or hurting you?
It took me years to realize that lack of sleep affected my intelligence, mood, and ability to concentrate. It hadn't occurred to me to perform the experiment -- sleep a lot one night and see how it feels the next day.
I guess my take-away lesson is that it's worthwhile to test out life changes -- do something different once and see the result.
Or, alternately, that gathering data is an essential thing that we reliably fail to do.
In my first year of financial independence, the best thing I did for myself was just record, each day, how much I spent and what I spent it on. Despite living on a grad student's budget for 5 years, I never ended up strapped for cash, didn't have to skip out on fun times for lack of funds, and even had enough left to start saving.
Ditto for my akrasia remedy from last year (points system during the workday: 1 point per minute for productive mathematical work, 1/2 point per minute for listening to math talks or working on teaching, and -1 point per minute for wasting time online, with a goal of +180 every day); the most essential part, I now think, was that I kept track of how I was actually spending my time.
Our stated reasons for doing something are rarely our true reasons, and NEVER the complete reasons.
Most cases I can think of regarding this particular failing are NOT failure to understand that an action is not optimal toward a stated goal, nor failure to consider return-on-invested-time. It's plain old procrastination or "simple" akrasia, with a veneer of deniability for signaling (often self-signaling) purposes.
I consider participating in Less Wrong an excellent example of this.
How so? I find it to be a great use of learning time, my learning rate on this site is as high as almost anywhere. In fact, it's one of the very very few sites that I get somewhere close to the signal:noise ratio that I would with an excellent book. I've learned a lot from here, especially Eliezer and Yvain, but really everybody here has good perspectives. The community is shockingly intelligent and focused on a topic that's really important...
Eliezer did. (Well, almost, for a while.)
When charitable services can be gained in exchange for money, our default failure mode is to purchase moral satisfaction instead of choosing an allocation of money that will maximize expected benefit. Maybe there's something similar going on when the exchangeable resource is time? We have some built-in facilities for tasting fatty foods and processing that I'm diligently working long hours feeling; tasting healthiness and feeling like a wise spender of time don't come as easily.
Any time want to perform a complex activity, we need to balance our time between evaluating different strategies for performing this activity, versus performing the mundane steps of this activity, themselves. If we just jump right into the activity without adequate planning (and without reevaluating our plan periodically) then we may perform it with a low efficiency. On the other hand, if we invest too much time in planning, we end up never actually "doing it."
At it's simplest level, your idea can thought of as getting stuck in local maxima of efficiency, when additional time could be spent in strategizing to find higher possibilities for efficiency.
If you are giving some area a little attention, this does not imply that more attention would get you proportionally better results; you may run into diminishing returns quickly. Of course, for any given situation, it is worth understanding whether this is the case or not.
I keep seeing this and thinking "return-on-time" means something more like returning videos you rented on time. Has there been any progress on a better name for this?
Evaluation blindness? Efficiency fallacy?
I think your topic is really important.
There may be a few useful insights in an article I wrote a couple of months ago: The Instrumental Value of Your Own Time
Myself, I don't really have any goals I'm working toward, so I'm not bothered by wasting time.
But is there a way to waste time that is 300X more effective? Perhaps you're playing the wrong video games, surfing the wrong parts of the web, or doing the wrong drugs, and you never took the time to meta-optimize!
What I don't even - what would it look like if there were more and less efficient ways to waste time?
I am reminded of this Anscombe quote:
I'm currently reading this, because I want to learn things. It has taken me so long time to decide on properly devoting time to this website and go through everything it has, mainly because it's difficult to get into these subjects and understand it, and because I have a shit sense of time and it simply flies, plus i have a shitty memory. I think I can fix this by writing down what I've learned and when, set up a schedule I should follow, and just devote all my brain power to understanding, changing and learning, so that I am off for a good start to accomp... (read more)
Reading the top comments, I'm immediately reminded what the cause of this is: Lack of motivation. The "energy" described by the top comment is motivation.
As someone who has never once performed akrasia, and has spent their life watching others do it constantly, the most solid answer I have comes from evolutionary psychology: Nothing will motivate you nearly as effectively as the encouragement of other humans. No competing explanation even comes close.
I procrastinate alot and when I do set aside some time to do something I usually manage it horribly. I'm aware of the problem, I just don't know how to fix it.