Background Information: Ingredients of Timeless Decision Theory
Alternate Approaches Include: Self-empathy as a source of “willpower”, Applied Picoeconomics, Akrasia, hyperbolic discounting, and picoeconomics, Akrasia Tactics Review
Standard Disclaimer: Beware of Other-Optimizing
Timeless Decision Theory (or TDT) allowed me to succeed in gaining control over when and how much I ate in a way that previous attempts at precommitment had repeatedly failed to do. I did so well before I was formally exposed to the concept of TDT, but once I clicked on TDT I understood that I had effectively been using it. That click came from reading Eliezer’s shortest summary of TDT, which was:
The one-sentence version is: Choose as though controlling the logical output of the abstract computation you implement, including the output of all other instantiations and simulations of that computation
You can find more here but my recommendation at least at first is to stick with the one sentence version. It is as simple as it can be, but no simpler.
Utilizing TDT gave me several key abilities that I previously lacked. The most important was realizing that what I chose now would be the same choice I would make at other times under the same circumstances. This allowed me to compare having the benefits now to paying the costs now, as opposed to paying costs now for future benefits later. This ability allowed me to overcome hyperbolic discounting. The other key ability was that it freed me from the need to explicitly stop in advance to make precommitements each time I wanted to alter my instinctive behavior. Instead, it became automatic to make decisions in terms of which rules would be best to follow.
With that as background, this is how I made it happen:
I was walking home from class along my usual route I had made a habit while doing this of stopping into Famiglia Pizza and ordering garlic knots. I like garlic knots quite a bit, but I also hated being fat and the way being fat made me feel. Things weren’t quite as bad on that front as they’d been a few years before but they were still extraordinarily bad. I thought about my impending solace and thought to myself: You wouldn’t be so fat if you didn’t keep buying these garlic knots every day.
I thought about that for a second, realized it was trivially true and then wondered to myself whether it was worth it. If I never stopped for the knots I would weigh less and feel better, but I wouldn’t have any knots. Even worse, I wouldn’t have any garlic. But would I rather enjoy today the full effect of never having had the knots, in exchange for not having any? Once I asked the question that way the answer came back a resounding yes. I didn’t know how much it would matter, but the calculation wasn’t remotely close. I walked right past the pizza place and never stopped in there for a snack again.
Using this method seemed like the most useful thing I’d come up with in some time, so I quickly extended it to other decisions starting with the rest of my diet. For each meal I would consume, I decided what quantity was worth it and forbade myself from ever consuming more. I motivated myself to stick to that rule in the face of hyperbolic discounting by reminding myself that I would make the same decision next time that I was making now, so I was deciding what action I would always take in this situation. More generally, sticking to the rules I’d decided to follow meant I would stick to rules I’d decided to follow, which was clearly an extremely valuable asset to have on my side.
I used two other major rules in what I like to call the “Don’t Eat So Goddamn Much, Shut Your Pie Hole” diet. The first was to cut down from three meals a day to two and eliminate all snacks except water, cutting my consumption by more than a third. I’d had practice skipping meals in the past and realized that skipping dinner was far less painful than it looked; within a few weeks I stopped getting hungry at night. The other change was to weigh myself daily and alter how draconian the rules were based on my current weight relative to my current baseline. If I was below the baseline, I’d lower the baseline and give myself a chance to cheat a little. If I was above it by too much I would cut out all meal options that weren’t “wins” in the sense that they had more calories than my average.
I tried incorporating exercise into this program but made the discovery many others have made that exercise didn’t correlate with weight loss. Exercise makes you better at doing exercise so long as you keep doing exercise, but it had no measurable effect on my mission so I decided to let that wait until after the mission was complete. Even then I found several exercise programs I tried to be not worth it compared to not having one, or found that they became so over time. Eventually I was able to find a trainer and I remain happy with that aside from the cost. I also considered changing what I ate, but found that beyond cutting out the worst choices that it was neither necessary nor worth the cost.
The last obstacle on the journey was that as I lost more and more I started to feel worse rather than better due to all of the excess skin that doesn’t go away on its own. It was only after I’d lost all the weight and had the resulting skin removal surgery that I suddenly got up and felt genuinely good about how I looked and felt for the first time in my life. I’ve since managed to relax a number of the rules but was never concerned I wouldn’t do what was necessary to keep myself on track.
Since then I’ve used similar techniques and rules in a wide variety of areas of life. It was only years later reading Less Wrong that I realized that I’d effectively been employing inter-temporal Timeless Decision Theory. That realization allowed me to better understand and formalize what I had done, and gave me a better framework for explaining it to others. A common and justified criticism of using TDT in everyday life rather than as a theoretical construct is to ask where one can find another TDT agent, or indeed any agent sufficiently causally linked to you so as to allow you to utilize that link. My answer to that is that whether or not there is someone else you are linked to yourself. You can be that other agent, the recognition of which can allow you to win and win big.
I am fully aware that to a first approximation dieting attempts that follow similar patterns never work. Most people do not have the willpower necessary to sustain them, or otherwise suffer too much to choose to remain on the diet long term. There are powerful forces working against such an attempt. My working hypothesis is that I had five unusual things working in my favor: I have extraordinarily strong willpower in such areas, I already had strong affinity for rule setting and abiding, I fully believed in what I was doing, I had a life situation that allowed me to experience temporary discomfort due to hunger and I thought of all changes from the beginning as permanent. At least some of these advantages are things that can be learned. If anyone is capable of following in my footsteps, it would be Less Wrong readers. In New York’s Less Wrong group especially a lot of us have had success with various different approaches, and I think that developing mental techniques is the best way to enhance your chance of success.
I'm eagerly waiting the new Cosmopolitan cover with the line "TDT: THE HOTTEST NEW WAY TO WASHBOARD ABS".
I have the opposite history: I was able to stop stressing out about my weight when I realized that, no, I really don't prefer the idea of a thin life devoid of cheesecake and fried things to the life I currently have where I eat whatever I want and am yea big. (This calculation may change if I become more than yea big with age.) Making this tradeoff explicit in my head actually helped me uncover a couple of weird self-denial habits that did not make any sense according to any metric (specifically, I was not having all the legumes and fruit I wanted, out of some confused subconscious notion that they were displacing vegetables... but meanwhile I had already abandoned the difficult project of limiting my chocolate intake.)
I have had significant weight loss without reducing fried things and still having bi-weekly cheesecake. I had MORE weight loss after getting rid of the cheesecake, but I did go from 220 to about 190 with the cheesecake in my diet. (5'10", male)
The traditional American diet is so bad that most people can likely have significant weight loss with trivial loss of pleasure. This is especially true when combined with a human's natural scope insensitivity.
Teaspace is huge.
I don't know if this will be relevant for you, but white teas don't get bitter.
Even if you put a teaspoon or a pack of sugar in your tea or coffee, it's still 6-7 times less sugar than in a can of soda (and most fruit juices are not much better). The amount of sugar in juices and sodas is insane.
I think the interesting bit here is not the comparison you made (it's described quite explicitly in more than one self-help work I know of), but that you transposed it to the past.
That is, you appear to have effectively said, "If I'd not taken action X all this time, I'd have result Y; would it have been worth it?"
I would expect this to increase the usefulness of the technique for people who view the past in an especially concrete way, and/or have difficulty thinking of the future in concrete terms.
In any case, the improved effectiveness you experienced is almost certainly due to this one bit (improved concrete construal counteracting the discounting effect of an abstract future) rather than to anything to do with TDT.
I think I shall try it myself on some things, and see what happens.
It sounds like you just needed something to convince yourself with. TDT isn't special in this regard. With some inventiveness you could also have used quantum mechanics, evolutionary biology, extrapolated volition, or any number of other LW topics :-)
The advantage of TDT is that it is actually supposed to be a method of choosing how to act. The problem with the metaphor is that CDT and UDT would prescribe the same behaviour in this context.
Evo bio would say that overeating was more useful in the ancestral environment than it is now, so the brain's signals about desiring food are understandable but mistaken ("retarded" would be an appropriate word). Not sure what QM would say, but I've seen it used to support some weird conclusions.
Yeah, this is the kind of bullshit that I'm talking about :-) A cognitive algorithm cannot "choose" a quantum branch to "continue into", it always continues into both. The perception of choice relies on logical uncertainty about the future output of your deterministic algorithm, not on quantum uncertainty.
An interesting post. I immediately thought of asking "What habits would I adopt if the long-term effects were in full force immediately?"
I think I have some thinking to do.
You can buy a bulb of garlic in a grocery store for about 50 cents, and add it to meat and vegetable dishes. It doesn't have to come attached to garlic bread, and it's not the garlic that is loaded with calories.
This is similar to the mind hack I am working on to bypass my own hyperbolic discounting.
I assume that I will always make the same choice in similar circumstances. I find that this is a very good approximation of my actual behavior.
I determine the potential consequences of the alternatives in relation to my goals. Sometimes it helps me if I specify the consequences in a way that captures an opportunity cost. For example instead of cost in dollars, I'll consider the cost in terms of new tires for my truck.
I decide what to do -- treating the consequences as though they will occur immediately. In practice I only focus on the top one or two consequences for each alternative -- based on my current value weighting.
For example, every morning at work I am tempted by the pile of donuts in my office's cafeteria.
If I ate a donut every day, in a year I could gain an extra 13 pounds (50 work weeks 5 days per week 180 calories per donut / 3500 calories per pound).
These donuts would cost ... (read more)
I am...very impressed. Currently searching for areas in MY life where I can apply this.
A simpler argument would be noticing that what you're actually doing is not just taking too many calories today, but following a strategy of taking too many calories every day. You don't need TDT to see that, it's a matter of recognizing a precommitment, and making decisions about alternative precommitments (strategies).
Zvi mentioned hyperbolic discounting. What if an agent's preferences are actually described by hyperbolic discounting? Then different versions of the agent in time have different preferences, so they are essentially different agents. Consider just two such agent-moments. Each agent-moment would prefer both not eating garlic bread to both eating, but prefers even more itself eating while the other doesn't eat.
Since they have different preferences and the earlier agent-moment can't physically force the later agent-moment to make a certain choice, the analogy with PD seems pretty good and TDT does seem relevant here.
The resounding impact of this post was to make me crave garlic knots. Not sure I can get any here though... all the pizza places in Berkeley are either chains or places with limited menus selling nothing but California style pizza (and the best ones are closed on Mondays!).
On the matter of exercise, there are two kinds, represented by walking and weightlifting. I.e., there is the low-intensity long-duration kind (such as walking, bicycling, dancing, aerobics), and there is the high-intensity short-duration kind (such as weightlifting, nautilus, squats and pushups). The book Body by Science describes the latter sort of program, and attempts to find the minimal effective program.
From the point of view of the person considering whether to add exercise to his program, one of the major advantages of the Body by Science program is... (read more)
Wow. Super relevant to my situation, at a BMI which is close to 40, and has climbed from 25 over the years. I make changes that feel sustainable and then they disappear.
I have questioned whether I would be happier as a skinny person not eating frozen pizzas for dinner than as a fat person eating frozen pizzas and ice cream. I really like eating frozen pizzas and ice cream. I have at best a theoretical liking of being more attractive and having more of an opportunity to have sex with non-fat girls, and to ski a whole day, and to not face the embarrass... (read more)
After listening to Gary Taubes' Why We Get Fat, I'm curious to know three things about your weight-loss diet:
Did you eat more or fewer grams of carbohydrates per day?
Did you eat more or fewer grams of fat per day?
Did you eat more or fewer grams of protein per day?
Why would I? The only thing thermodynamics tells us is that calories place an upper bound on how much weight a person can maintain/gain. The actual amount of weight gained/lost depends on the operation of regulatory mechanisms.
The laws of thermodynamics don't require a fat cell to release lipids because you're hungry or exercising; the fat cells can just physically not react until your muscles run out of glucose or your brain overrules your attempt to starve yourself to death. Similarly, there's no rule that fat cells can't die or shrink and the waste be dumped out through urine.
Thermodynamics is not any more useful than quantum mechanics in understanding obesity. It is moralizing disguised as an invocation of natural law.
This is really impressive, and a great example of how rationalists really do will. From what I gather, even the great Eliezer himself have not been able to take this idea so seriously! Truly an example for us all.
Meeeeep D: covers from the higher status individual and tries to look harmless
Then remembers Eliezer is probably on crockers rules
... Sorry, I just had a really low prior for how someone not eating and using lost of energy could not lose weight given thermodynamics.
The fascinating thing about this situation is that Eliezer is about as high status here as it's possible for a human being to be in a non-religious group, and it's still extremely difficult for him to get people to take what he says about his experiences with food and exercise seriously.
It's VERY hard to accept that your own anecdotal experience doesn't apply to everyone. Especially in nutrition/diet/exercise, where basically the only information we have available is anecdotal. (Well, there are medical studies, but they tend to test only not-very-strenuous diets and exercise routines.) It takes a while before you notice that there are real physiological variations. There are people who can't run without joint pain; there are people who can't go three hours without eating or they'll faint; etc. There really are constraints that we don't set ourselves. It's not always an easy thing to accept.
Bleah. Still not used to this high status thing.
But seriously, if you are not metabolically privileged, what happens if you try this is that your body shuts down and goes into starvation mode instead of losing weight. Your fat cells do not release fat under any circumstances, though they're happy to hoover up blood sugar so you always feel tired. We're not talking "feeling hungry", we're talking that you stop feeling hungry and lie down, feeling very very cold and having a hard time moving. Literal starvation, instead of your fat cells releasing fat. I've never tried starving myself that much (I worry that it will cause my brain to cannibalize irreplaceable neurons or something, the way the rest of the body cannibalizes muscle) but I've just recently watched that happen to someone else who tried to lose weight by not eating and wasn't metabolically privileged enough to get away with it.
A calorie is not a calorie. The thermodynamic theory of metabolism is a fucking lie. And it seriously does wear away on your nerves like sandpaper, after a while, to be blamed for it, when the exact same diet can make one person thin and cause the other to blow up like a balloon...
Eh, just read "Beware of Other-Optimizing."
Have you had your thyroid hormone levels checked? Lethargy, feeling cold, and weight gain/inability to lose weight are ALL symptoms of hypothyroidism. Basically, without enough thyroid hormone telling your cells to be active, your metabolism shuts down. Just a thought.
Not so much a lie as 'inapplicable'. Energy balance and mass balance are still true. What happens so that that balance is maintained is highly variable.
In Breakdown of Will George Ainslie describes a mechanism through which this sort of behavior can be obtained within the framework of hyperbolic discounting. He says
In this view, thinking now in terms of TDT (or whatever) gives you enough evidence for future self-control such that abstaining from garlic knots is the correct decision even for a hyperbolic discounter.
"The most important was realizing that what I chose now would be the same choice I would make at other times under the same circumstances."
Wow, this is a really powerful statement that has immediately begun helping me with my procrastination issues.
This reminds me of the character based self improvement programs of guys like Benjamin Franklin. The first step is deciding who you want to be. Then take them one at a time, and practice them. You become who you want to be by acting like it until it becomes a habit.
Covey is similar, though he stresses being clear on the choice of who you want to be more than developing into who you want to be through habit. Without that clear vision of who you want to be readily available, it's hard to overcome the easy feel goods of the moment.
My bias is toward Franklin'... (read more)
The rule of thumb that helped me lose 120 pounds is this: long term (due to being not fat) happiness is greater than than short term, ephemeral (due to eating lots of pizza) happiness.
Great post. You can think of lots of on-going choices like this; whether to be nice to colleagues, for example, or making an effort to drive efficiently in a similar way. Accruals based accounting also gives you similar results, if you can manage the trick of actually assigning some amount of extra weight, unhappiness etc. to each unnecessary food item consumed.
FWIW I used this method successfully to get in the habit of flossing my teeth every night. It seems like every night after dinner I am tired and I have the same urge to skip flossing and just read a book, watch tv, hang out with my family, etc.
I started telling myself that whatever I decided to do was probably what I would end up doing every night. To my surprise, this worked like a charm.
I think flossing is especially amenable to TDT because you are in basically the exact same scenario every day, day after day after day.
With dieting it's probably tr... (read more)
Wow, fancy, for a bot.
The title sure reminds one of Egon Spectowsky's all-time self-help classic, How I Rose From the Dead in My Spare Time (and So Can You!)
I'd love to hear more success stories like this from you and other people but only if you/they also talk about the background reasons that made the final successful step possible. You did this in your last paragraph, which is extremely helpful!
But sometimes you don't eat the junk food because you've been eating junk food for the past week. Sometimes you stop procrastinating for a while because you've been procrastinating for the past month.
Thus your decision is affected by recent history, which is different every day. Still, if TDT considerations help one take up the strategy of not committing some vice if one hasn't committed it in in one's recent history, that's very useful.
(I've thought of these things before, and TDT hasn't cured me of akrasia)
To me, keeping the weight off after reaching your "maintenance weight" is the real challenge. To keep it off for 5 years or more would be truly impressive. How long have you kept it off?
In your article , you say that
"The first was to cut down from three meals a day to two and eliminate all snacks except water, cutting my consumption by more than a third."
It may have worked, but it was probably not the most healthy way. Losing weight isn't all about how much you eat, but also what you eat. I'd suggest adding a couple of "healthy snacks" every day. These might be a piece of fruit or a nice glass of milk. That's healthy, tastes fine and may further motivate you to remain abstinent of other, less healthy snacks.
After all, ... (read more)