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?

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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.

enthusiastic agreement beyond what can be expressed by a single Vote up!

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.

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.

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.

I'm not sure, given the ability for feedback between instructors and students. This only works well for extremely small class sizes. For those 300 student monstrosities, yeah, videotape is better.
Or medium-sized classes where the teacher asks a lot of questions, for the students who do most of the answering. It's not an absolute rule. The point is that if a student asks/answers 0.5 questions per class (a very high average), there's no way the benefit of that outweighs not having to pay the teacher and being able to speed up consumption of information by 1.4
Crank that slider a bit further - QuickTime 7 on OS X does it really well, and I do most of my video watching at 2.5x.
I'm on Ubuntu using VLC and if I recall correctly, it's pretty friggin' hard to make anything out once you get to 2x speed. I don't think that's the barrier for me, anyway.
VLC's algorithms are not very good, and out of the box it only moves in x0.5 increments (there's a setting to change that, but it's hard to find). Quicktime 7 is awesome at it (look for the A/V Controls), but Quicktime 8 can't do it at all. (A small note (probably for others, rather than JM-IV): it takes time for your brain to get used to very high speed audio - if you can't follow at first, give yourself a few minutes to adapt)
Hm. I might try to get Quicktime working on Linux if you think sped-up lectures are more effective means of learning stuff than reading pdfs and so on.
I think that different modes of presentation of the same content is a great learning hack, and verbal presentation without a speedup takes too long. Generally though, given a transcript, I'd prefer to read.
The particular part about you quoted, regarding whether to donate, does actually sound like status quo bias. I'm not sure if it hits the nail on the head in this example, you would need to know his mind to say so. I was trying to imply that he was in video games for selfish reasons: because it would be a fun job for him and the pay is good. So I expect that he's keeping the money because simply because he really likes money. If the situation were reversed, and he was already donating a chunk to charity (for some reason), I would expect him to gradually stop doing this. However, If you believe him when he says his goal is to save the world, and not think as I do that his motivations are mostly selfish, then status quo bias could definitely be a suspect here. In real world cases it's certainly a worthy consideration.
I doubt that simply donating money to charity is an efficient way to make the world a better place. There are studies that question, for instance, how much good all the money has done that we've given to developing nations. It's definitely possible, I think, that creating a great video game might bring more happiness to the world than simply writing a check for a charity. I am not saying, by the way, that being charitable is a bad idea. However, I do think you need to be strategic for it to be effective. For instance, it might be better to help a struggling neighbor or cousin by getting actively involved in their problems and helping them in a more involved manner. Or, if you have specific skill that can be helpful for a charity organization, that may be a better investment than just giving them money. My point is, there is no simple, clear path to making the world a better place. We all have to actively think about how to make it happen. And it may happen in unexpected ways.

Or, if you have specific skill that can be helpful for a charity organization, that may be a better investment than just giving them money.

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.

Most charities suck. A few don't. Finding the ones that suck least and then pumping money into them is actually a pretty efficient way to make the world a better place.
4lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
This is a good point, yes. A lot of times the finish line is not well-defined, and you have to choose. Or people self deceive for self esteem reasons or for signalling reasons. Yes, this could be a major reason it happens. Good point. There's still an open question of why people do it when they do have very clear purpose that they honestly want... for instance, the would-be comedian who really really does want to do comedy and is taking lower gains... that said, I think you just uncovered a big reason it happens - self-deception about goals, indeed.
For clear cut examples, the question certainly remains. Your example of the comedian is what got me thinking about this though, because if I heard of a person doing what he's doing, the "fake justifications" explanation would seem like the vastly more likely one to me. There's no way he actually thinks Garfield is the best way to comedy superstardom, or even a reasonable use of his time at all. In your example, we can look into his mind and see that he's doing comedian training. If I met this guy in reality though, my explanation of his behavior would be "He's lazy and just wants to watch tv all day. He tells himself it's training because he doesn't want to admit this".
If he just wanted to watch TV all day, I'm sure he could find something more entertaining. After a while, the jokes about mailing Nermal to Abu Dhabi get really old. This sounds like a case where he somehow convinced himself that watching Garfield and Friends was a good way to become a better comedian.
I liked Garfield and Friends...
So did I, but while I'm sure a comedian-in-training could learn something from it, it's far from optimal. Actually, most possible things people do are obviously far from optimal. Just look at how much time students spend zoning out in class, "learning". It's trivial to come up with a better way to use that time. Thinking about this scares me, because I could probably be doing something better most of the time, if I had a better idea of how to win at life.
School isn't about learning. Zoning out in class can be a rational choice on the part of a student. If your goal is to acquire the credentials school provides and a required component of that is a certain attendance level but you get little of value from the class then zoning out can be a rational response. This describes much of my school career.
When I was in those situations, I would usually read a book, or ponder something, and periodically check to see if the teacher was saying anything important. It was like an enforced study time. That's more rational than sitting there vegetating. (The downside is that some of the most boring teachers would get ticked off. Still worth it, though.)
I would usually pay attention to the actual lesson unless it was review over what we'd already been assigned to read or otherwise not new information. At that point, and otherwise when question and answer or assignment writing was going on and I was finished the assignment, I would mostly tune out the teacher and spend my time drawing on the backs and margins of my worksheets. I never in any other period of my life did as much artwork as I did while bored or distracted in high school, and I think it's because for many reasons I don't bother with well enough to control I am usually tired, and prefer to piss away my time with small "entertainments" like YouTube videos which are almost always available than invest my time in things which require more of an energy commitment despite also being more rewarding. Or I would nap on my desk. Got in trouble for it surprisingly rarely.
Maybe we should put the X-is-not-about-X stuff on the wiki so we can accumulate datapoints. I mean, for schooling I have 2 (lack of use of the proven superior spaced presentation/spaced repetition over the prevalent massed presentation; lack of sensible school hours for high schools), but most people interested in the topic will never come across these.
Definitely. And I'm sure that you'd learn a lot more about television than about how to do stand-up comedy by studying a television series that isn't itself about stand-up.

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 it's not just an abuse of Japanese grammar; you've picked the wrong bit of the phrase. "Tsuyoku" is "stronger" and "naritai" is "I want to become". May I suggest "Tsuyoku Project" instead? (I think it even sounds better...) (I know very little Japanese and am open to correction on this.)

I think "Kaizen Project" would respect the Japanese roots best, but I think the suggestions below work better for other reasons.

Tsuyoku is the adverb form of strong (tsuyoi), so it would translate roughly as "strongly". In Japanese "strongly become" is equivalent to "become strong". I suggest "Tokujyou Project", which would translate roughly as "bad-ass project".
Why not just call it "self-improvement"? The phrase had more specific connotations in the linked post (self-improvement as opposed to self-abasement), but those don't apply here, and in general avoiding needless cryptic jargon is good PR and anti-cultishness.
That does seem to make sense, but for some reason I can't quite place, the phrase "self-improvement project" suggests long-duration projects to me, while the concept I'm driving at is focused on one-time acts of analysis and precedent setting. I can't think of a good way to express this distinction in a catchy English phrase.

"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.

Best suggested phrase so far. And searching seems to indicate that it's unused.
Life hacking on the other hand is a widely used phrase with a similar meaning.
That's an obviously good idea, now that I see it written out, and I'm going to try it. Some of those things really are one-time, like finding a more convenient gym. Creating a habit takes determination over a longer time-span, though. When I try it, I need about a week before I no longer need to spend conscious effort maintaining a new habit, and another week before it's entrenched and I don't have to think about it anymore. I suppose you can still classify this as a one-time act, that just happens to take a while. I wonder, what are some other Naritai Projects? I want some, so if anybody has some ideas, please post them. Some of my ideas: * Minor dietary change: exclude or strongly limit a single type of food. If you regularly eat candy, your dental health will probably benefit a lot if you swear off hard candy and strongly limit your consumption of any other sort of candy. I did this after my dentist had to do some unpleasant drilling, and it was a two-week process, as described above. The same sort of method can apply to alcohol, if you find yourself drinking too much. * If you're in college: go on a several-hour study binge on one of your classes where you try to understand the subject in greater detail than the class requires. Power-read a textbook, hit up Wikipedia, prove theorems while pacing back and forth in an unused classroom, whatever. And skim way ahead, even if you don't understand everything. Surprisingly, this gives a lasting boost to performance in that class. Improving your understanding early on improves how fast you learn, which improves how fast you learn, and so on -- education yields compound interest. It also improves your morale, at least temporarily. But looking it up would be a one-time thing, and would make your grammar more correct forever! ;-) I know that using the correct grammar would actually make your phrase harder for LWers to remember, so it would be a net loss. Still, it suggests another Naritai Project: * Learn somethi
For diet, in my experience, trying to eliminate a food directly is nearly impossible; instead, I approach it from the opposite direction and look for foods to add, which can displace the unwanted ones. From this angle, a lot of subtle failure modes become more obvious; to displace candy, you need something (or some combination of things) that's equally convenient (or you'll backslide when you don't have time to cook), non-perishable (or you'll backslide when you haven't grocery shopped for awhile), portable (or you'll backslide when travedlling), and calorie-containing (or you'll backslide when you really need the calories). My most important self-improvement project recently has been researching and experimenting with nootropics. Gadget shopping can sometimes be a self-improvement project; buying a Roomba is better than cleaning, for example, and buying a smartphone can convert a lot of downtime into reading time. Trying new software, particularly in categories you've never used before, gives you new capabilities. You do have to be honest with yourself about how much the actual benefit is, and how much money is worth to you, though. Any time spent searching for and addressing bad habits is especially well spent, if it has a reasonable chance of turning up new insights. But they only count if they're actionable; deciding to be more considerate is worthless unless it's followed by thinking about or researching a specific cue to consider, deciding to study more is worthless unless it's followed by choosing a distraction to eliminate, etc. This is mostly a matter of sitting down with a diary and thinking. (Thanks Alicorn, for pressuring me into doing this more; my diary's been getting a lot more entries since I started reading Luminosity, and some of those entries had important insights.)
Depends on the songs. :) Hmm, what's Japanese for "I want to become cooler"?
If I have the grammatical pattern and the loanword right (I probably don't), I think it might actually be "Kuku Naritai".
I'm afraid you don't, sorry. The "-ku naritai" pattern only works for the "i-adjectives" (it goes like tsuoyi->tsuyoku, ureshii->ureshiku), and hardly any loanwords turn into those - at least, not while they're still recognizable as having originally been English. Otherwise it would be "XXXX ni naritai", as the commenter above you suggested. Also note that this only works for "[subject] wants to become X"; "[subject] wants Y to become X" is completely different (something like Y ni X(ku/ni) natte hoshii, correct me if I'm wrong). Examples: tadashiku naritai - I want to become right (in the sense of right answer on a test, right thing to do) beisutsukai ni naritai - I want to become a Bayesian (Personally I've always thought that risei-ryokusha, "one with the powers of reason", would be way cooler, if only because it would then play well with "First off, I'm not interested in ordinary people. But if any of you are transumanists, Singularitarians, or Bayesians, please come see me! That is all.")
My best guess would be "kuuru ni naritai"
It also depends on your voice. You really, really don't want to hear me sing.
I once spent a few very silly hours with Steve Rayhawk coming up with 'autothexis': poor archaic Greek for 'self-sharpening'. I like it because you can use it to talk about self-improvement in Seed AI as well as in your own life. Now it's my email address and profile name on various sites. Also, autothectize, autothectic, and my favorite because 'intelligence explosion' is unwiedly, 'thectodammerung'. ;) Unfortunately, there seems to be no easy way to say 'self-improvement' in English. I thought about this for a few minutes once and found it moderately disturbing.
However, there are 42 ways to say "self-improvement" in Japanese.
So that's why '42' is the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything...
Anthony Robbins coined the word CANI, which is short for "Constant And Never-ending Improvement". Some might find it useful. Me, I can't take it seriously because it's too close to the Finnish word "kani", meaning "bunny" (as in the animal).
He also trademarked it. ;-) Might as well use "kaizen", since it's pretty much the same thing.
Compare with the mildly archaic English word "coney", also meaning rabbit.
Given to choice to start a running habit, which would you choose? a) Buying new running shoes b) Starting to run with your precious shoes Psychological research suggests that b) has a higher chance of producing a lasting habit. Your strategy would however suggest that a) can be billed as high value wile b) doesn't. It's no good idea to try to feel satisfaction for something else then following through on the habit. It reduces the satisfaction you can expect by actually following through because you already felt some satisfaction for the goal. Therefore you are less likely to follow through. There also a related TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_keep_your_goals_to_yourself.html
I would count (b) only the first time, when it's precedent-setting. I wouldn't count (a) at all, unless my current shoes were in such poor condition that they were a genuine obstacle to running; the connection between buying running shoes and running is quite tenuous, despite the name and the marketing.

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.

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?

8lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
Sure. An easy one: Commenting on nothing particularly important on Hacker News when I could be writing my second book. Commenting on HN = very small gain, minor contribution to a few people over a very short period of time. Working on a book = much more enjoyable, and much larger contribution over a longer period of time. Have you seen the same phenomenon in your life at all Andreas? Maybe "300x" is an exaggeration - or maybe not, even, if the value of the distracting task is low enough, and the value of the good task is high enough.

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.

6lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
Indeed, this is a good insight. I've done both, actually. I have an active blog, and actually making a public commitment helped me finish my first book. I wrote about it under "The Joys of Public Accountability"; it does work. That's a really powerful observation. Why do you think people don't do that more often? Ignorance? Also, do you have any observations from your own life of structuring your environment? I'd be fascinated to hear, you seem very knowledgeable and astute on the subject.
I used to be pretty cavalier about messing with Windows, and would lose my files on an annual or bi-annual basis. I spent a heck of a lot of time tracking down files and restoring from my sporadic backups, not to mention the virus scan time or defragging. Then the 4th or 5th time I realized that this was crazy, switched to Linux, and learned how to use DVCSes. I'm not sure that this has yet amounted to a 300x improvement in wasted time, but I'm pretty confident that by the time I die it will have.
I agree, I don't think these kind of 'easy' wins are all that common in real life, certainly not those offering 300x improvements. I would like to see some better examples. Entrepreneurship / business seems likely to be relatively fertile ground for finding good examples since short term financial gain can often be used as a relatively good proxy for 'success' and is relatively easy to measure. Too much focus on short term financial gain isn't always an optimal strategy even in business however since it may result in getting stuck in local maxima or directly compromising longer term success.
Squatting heavy once a week will make you stronger than almost everyone at almost everything, younger, healthier, leaner, smarter*, richer, prettier; takes about fifteen minutes. How does that compare to your current exercise regimen? *http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0000465 **http://download.journals.elsevierhealth.com/pdfs/journals/0197-4580/PIIS0197458005002745.pdf
I was already persuaded by the evidence that strength / weight training is a more time efficient and effective route to overall fitness and health than extensive cardio but I'm not familiar with the specific arguments in favour of squats. The first link doesn't seem to highlight squats specifically and I didn't read the second yet (behind a required registration). Are you saying that heavy squats specifically are dramatically more effective than other approaches? I haven't had a regular exercise regimen for a while but I'm just starting to try and get back into strength training, mainly focused on body weight exercises as I don't like gyms and I can do them easily at home.
Time shouldn't be that much of an issue if you're interested in functional improvements in your strength. I mean, if it's functional, you should be doing it anyway - so just do it more or provide more resistance. For instance, you can put your car sit horizontal, then do situps when you get to traffic lights.
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/30/phys-ed-how-much-exercise-to-avoid-feeling-gloomy/ http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/24/can-you-get-fit-in-six-minutes-a-week/
this is very weird to read on this forum, but yes, it's a good idea.
Your second link is broken, even for people access; worse, it doesn't give the citation. I think that this (ungated, alt) is the study.
That depends on the universe out of which you're selecting/counting them. In business, most attempts to improve things have zero (or very nearly zero) positive effect on the bottom line, and thus finding things that are 300x or more better than the worst case or even typical case isn't really that hard. ;-) Understanding constraints and the Pareto Principle are critical to making effective improvements in business, i.e., ones that have non-zero chances of affecting the bottom line.
I think these types of wins are common, but not easy. That is, working a little more on your primary project (the one that offers greatest ROI), or figuring out how to become more productive on your primary project, will usually be > 10x ROI of commenting on blog and web forums. But the latter is fun, immediately rewarding, doesn't require willpower, etc. We sometimes do it b/c we haven't explicitly recognized this difference (an easy win), but more often it is due to a limited ability to direct our attention to our most valuable project, not a limited ability to identify our most valuable project. So the solution requires the hard work of greater willpower, increasing self-discipline and the ability to direct your attention. You know, what I'm failing at right now :). More generally, what almost anyone commenting on a web forum (instead of writing a great top-level post or book or starting a local LW chapter) is doing. At least, if you agree w/ me that commenting on web forums is a very low-valued activity.

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.

Oh, wait...


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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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'd suggest looking at Pathologic, which implements a world-saving task with a set time limit. You are free to walk around, talk to people and just try to do your regular side-questing, but you need to learn some things and do somethings before the first day is over, you lose. The gameworld is pretty alive in itself - important characters will move around on their daily business, making you ask people for possible directions. It creates a lifelike situation, where you can't really predict the causal links between your actions and possible progress towards your goal. I noticed that the decribed fallacy can only be applied to cases where you are able to evaluate with some reliability the possible returns. Let's say you're trying to learn about druidic herbology. You could spend time t1 to find some books on it and time t2 on reading those books for skillset s. Or you could spend T1 > t1 to find an expert in the field and ask for lessons/best books and then spend T2 on studying towards skillset S. The problem is that you can predict t1 and T1, but until either of them is done, you can't evaluate the related extra time needed or the value of the skillsets.
Warning: I tried Pathologic. It's a gem of a game, but a very unpolished one, and the translation is absolutely horrible. It may still be worth trying, if you can look past that; if you know russian, certainly, since you can then get the un-translated version. I hear there's a fan-translation project going on, but they haven't gotten too far. Maybe in a year or two.
A couple of roguelikes work this way. ADOM, in particular, gives you a very fixed period of time to save the world from an incursion of Chaos before said incursion and its radiation-like effects start making it very much harder.
Dead rising had a bunch of that going on.
That sounds a lot like the actual game The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. You have a fixed time limit in which to save the world, and if you don't, you have to go back in time and watch most of your progress become undone.
Yeah, right! I'm playing through this right now, and all the important things get saved when you play the Song of Time. But the most important part is that there's no penalty to wasting time: you could spend all 3 days looking for one heart piece, and whether you did or didn't find it, you'd be no worse off after playing the Song of Time again.
Persona 3 and 4 actually do integrate something like this; they run on a calendar with fixed dates for important plot events. They're very compelling because of it; you really have to time-manage if you want to optimise for content-seen (and you are rewarded for managing it).

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.

I noticed something similar. A while back, I figured that a game's quests didn't technically require you to kill, so I tried to play the game with a pacifist character -- basically, set up so he can't fight, but has skills in persuasion and sneaking around. But for some reason, the game forces you to fight even when the storyline doesn't literally require it. (The game was Morrowind.) I had a related experience with Knights of the Old Republic. One of the storyline quests is to "sneak" into the enemy's base and steal a special item. I took that literally and used my rogue's special abilities to sneak past all the enemies, and even pilfer the special item undetected, but then that triggers a scripted dialogue with a guy near it and makes you fight a boss. Turns out that "sneaking in" means openly fighting a dungeon of monsters in the base... I even tried the pacifist approach in ... Hitman 2, where I would try to kill the target by tricking other enemies into to shooting him dead. (I went through a pacifist phase, if you couldn't tell.)
7lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
Wow Jim, that's actually a really really amazing insight. Do you think people get a feeling of, "Well, I'll get there eventually anyways, so I might as well (have some ice cream / surf the net / watch some TV / screw around)?" Fascinating if true... hmm...
For me: yes, definitely. I have to be careful setting my goals because if it looks something like (read this paper by the end of the day), then unless I have other more pressing concerns, it will take all of my productive time that day to read the paper. Even though the paper will in actuality take at most 2-3 hours to read and understand, probably closer to an hour and a half. My best counter to the problem is to remove the time limit on the goal. It's counter-intuitive, but there's something in my brain that will see a concrete time limit and decide that as long as it gets done by that limit it's fine to be wasteful with the rest of my time.
I think I feel like that sometimes.
Yeah, isn't it screwed up that whenever you look for something, it always turns out to have been in the last place you looked?
0lionhearted (Sebastian Marshall)
Yeah, maybe it's just that. I love that Bruce post by the way, that's one of my favorite posts on here. That one and "Generalizing From One Example" are probably my favorite non-Eliezer posts.

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.

That is a very good point. I wouldn't have used the word "morality," but I think its use is the key to the situation. If you "work in order to make money," there is nothing moral about the question of how much to work. Partly people work until they "deserve" a break because they don't just work for money, but also to demonstrate virtue. But partly it is that people are confused about moral senses of "should" and instrumental senses of "should"; they rely on the same gut module for both decisions.
This seems at least partly depending on status. Roughly along a "virtue ethicist -> deontologist -> consequentialist" pathway. (With high IQ people more likely to emulate consequentialist morality cognitively.)
Could you elaborate on that, and/or give examples? I suspect that we're talking about completely different things, but I see a lot of high status, high IQ professions like investment banking that seem pretty well described by the idea that the survivors deserve money because they were tough.

we see that a place we're putting a small amount of effort is accounting for most of our success

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.

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...

I assume you mean that if you were really rational, you'd quit your job and spend all your time writing posts for Less Wrong? ;)

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.

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."

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?

"Return on Invested Time", as an analog of Return on Invested Capital, seems reasonable.

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:

"The general method that Wittgenstein does suggest is that of 'shewing that a man has supplied no meaning ["no reference"?] for certain signs in his sentences'. I can illustrate the method from Wittgenstein's later way of discussing problems. He once greeted me with the question: 'Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis? I replied: 'I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.' 'Well,' he asked, 'what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?'
This question brought it out that I had hitherto given no relevant meaning to 'it looks as if' in 'it looks as if the sun goes round the earth'. My reply was to hold out my hands with the palms upward, and raise them from my knees in a circular sweep, at the same time leaning backwards and assuming a dizzy expression. 'Exactly!' he said."

Haha, good quotation. I take 'efficiently wasting time' to mean 'decreasing the ratio of perceived time to actual time'. Cryopreserving oneself is probably the best method. Doing some drug that messed with your perspective of time in the right way would be an efficient waste of time, but far less so than just entering a coma. If one does not have the necessary drugs or willpower to attain them then I would suggest doing fun things that require little sustained effort like an endless string of pirated computer role playing games punctuated by sleep, hot pockets, a multivitamin, and water. Actually I wouldn't recommend any of those, but for the sake of this thought experiment they seem to be decent suggestions.
I have an exam I'm supposed to be revising for, but unless it contains a lot of questions on Starcraft 2, naked ladies and sandwiches, my study priorities are seriously off-kilter. Reading this, however, has made me realise that I can become vastly more productive by studying courses with a high Starcraft 2, naked lady and sandwich syllabyus content, and I won't even have to change my behaviour.


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.

When you're doing something, perhaps you could take small meta-cognition breaks and ask yourself periodically if you're managing your time well? When I'm programming, I find that I have to take breaks to do some chin-ups and clear my head a bit, and those are an ideal time to take a step back and look for better solutions that I may have overlooked.
I belive my problem is that I take to many of those "little breaks" and never actually get the project done, even though I may have most of the details worked out in my head already. It probably has to do with my ADHD as a kid, I have a short attention span and get off-task easily. Oh look, a squirell...