Heuristics for Deciding What to Work On

by John_Maxwell3 min read1st Jun 20119 comments

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If you're like me, you have way more ideas for things to do than time, energy, and willpower to do them with.  (And if you're not like me, you might very well become like me if you just kept track of all the times you or someone else said "Hey, that might be a worthwhile project.")  To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, here are some entries on my things-to-possibly-do list: give speed reading another shot; improve the Less Wrong codebase and add a feature that helps users find old, good posts they haven't read; experiment with online freelancing work; try my hand at e-commerce; work as a salesperson to build social skills.

One of the things I've learned from keeping a things-to-possibly-do list is that doing stuff inevitably takes longer than I intuitively think it will.  For example, the main thing I did during the past 3-day weekend was write 36 Anki cards and 220 lines of Python to program myself and my computer to help me keep a resolution.  In past years, I might have gotten demoralized halfway through, thinking things were taking too long, but I've gradually gotten used to things taking longer than I expect.

Given that things take such a long time to get done, it seems worthwhile to spend a decent amount of time deciding what to work on.  But the standard objective of doing whatever has the highest expected utility is often computationally intractable in practice.  For example, what's the expected utility of building social skills?

Given this, I'm working on a list of heuristics for the computationally intractable problem of what to work on.  Here's my current list; feel free to suggest additions in the comments.

  • Watch for investments that pay for themselves.  For example, I have two close-to-identical keys that I use multiple times daily.  About a week ago I taped some paper to one of them.  I wouldn't be surprised if this time investment will have paid itself back within a few weeks, and start generating value from then on.
  • Find things that separate those who succeed from those who fail, and focus on getting those right.  For example, I've observed that men who have succeeded in business seem more likely than regular people to display high-status behavioral cues.
  • Find things that will give you a lot of new information in an important domain even if their immediate expected value may be low.  (An example might be buying a few websites on Flippa to learn what strategies work on the web instead of going through the relatively laborious process of writing a website that might fail yourself.)
  • Find things that will start generating continuous benefit as soon as you do them, and do them first if they're worth doing at all.  For example, I'd guess that for most, installing LeechBlock or a similar anti-time-wasting tool can potentially generate continuous benefit for quite a while, especially if you install it while in a resolution-making mindset.  (Of course, an argument against doing all activities of this type first is that you might be optimizing prematurely.  Consider the case of a self-help reader who judges self-help techniques based on the number of hours they help him spend reading self-help books.)
  • Work on things you've been doing recently, so you aren't penalized by context switches.  (Unless you've reached some sort of intellectual dead end where revisiting the problem later would actually result in increased effectiveness.)
  • Do things at the best possible time.  For example, maybe you're a PhD student with an unpublished book you've written and you're not sure whether you want to spend your summer trying to get your book published or travelling.  Using this heuristic, you might decide to put off trying to get your book published until you've got your PhD, with the rationale that it will be easier to find a publisher then.  (Of course, it's possible that publishing your book is so high-value that you shouldn't put it off, and given the scale of this example it's probably worth doing more computation to determine this.)
  • Do what you want to do--people tend to be better at things they like doing.
  • Intuitive estimation of expected value.
And here are some ways you could use these heuristics:
  • Rank everything on your to-possibly-do list according to each heuristic.  Do the top item according to each heuristic.  (The rationale being that even if some heuristics turn out to be way better than others, this approach will generate a decently good return.)
  • Determine some weighting for each heuristic.  Score each item on your list according to how well it satisfies each heuristic, then use the weightings to determine an item's overall score.
  • (Probably the best...)  Intuitively rank the items on your list, keeping these heuristics in mind.  Spend relatively more time figuring out the positions of the top items on your list, since those are the ones you might actually have time to do.

Further Reading

  • Tom McCabe's Levels of Action post touches on the idea of activities that provide new information being high-value.
  • Cal Newport says you're best off putting a lot of effort in to a very small number of projects.  This implies that choosing one's projects is important, and is also related to the idea of things taking longer than expected to get done.
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9 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:22 AM
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Thanks for leechblock. Unfortunately, when it comes writing time, this website is going on it.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

I have some other suggestions:

Focus on activities for which you have a comparative advantage and outsource whatever else you can. Exploit your edges! Also, spend a significant amount of your time and resources increasing your comparative advantage(s). Become as much of an expert as possible at whatever you are focusing on, though this works better if whatever you are focusing on has increasing returns to expertise. So for instance, getting to the top .1% of programmers is worth a lot compared to even being in the top 1%, but being in the top .1% of elementary school teachers probably not so much.

That shouldn't discourage you from giving random stuff a try sometimes but I think that should get a limited amount of resources. What I have mostly learned from trying out a lot of different things is that most things are a lot harder than I think they will be. Trying to make money off a website and failing will teach you some things, but probably not the valuable secrets that people who actually make a lot of money off of websites know. In my opinion if you want to maximize your value to the world, or to yourself, you should aim to maximize the number of valuable secrets* you know and can exploit. In my experience you have to really specialize to learn those secrets so that should dominate your productive time.

Another suggestion, somewhat related, is that you should focus on the activities that have the highest expected monetary reward. Prices are a valuable signal that represent the collected wisdom of a lot of reasonably rational actors. They should be an important part of your calculation of how to spend your time. In other words, if someone is willing to hand you a pile of money to do something, that probably means they have thought long and hard about it and consider whatever they want you to do to be very valuable. You should think long and hard about it before you decide that some other activity that no one is willing to pay you anything for is actually more valuable.

*maybe rare knowledge is a better term, since they don't literally have to be secret, just unknown to most non-experts and difficult to discover.

Hm, I wonder if there is some sort of fundamental trade-off between being a specialist (as you describe here) and being more of a jack-of-all-trades opportunist.

Another suggestion, somewhat related, is that you should focus on the activities that have the highest expected monetary reward. Prices are a valuable signal that represent the collected wisdom of a lot of reasonably rational actors. They should be an important part of your calculation of how to spend your time. In other words, if someone is willing to hand you a pile of money to do something, that probably means they have thought long and hard about it and consider whatever they want you to do to be very valuable. You should think long and hard about it before you decide that some other activity that no one is willing to pay you anything for is actually more valuable.

hmmm - not necessarily. With this heuristic, the common wisdom says it's much more important that we spend our time working on the docks... or hedge-fund twiddling.. rather than teaching children.

Socially I'd consider the latter far more important, both short and long-term, but more powerful unions have made the former job better-compensated, and the middle-one... well they grabbed that wealth for themselves despite the long-range utility to the rest of the species.

So yes - a heuristic with some benefit, but keep in mind its many failure modes.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

I've been working on a similar problem in a slightly different way. The problem as, I would phrase it, is "What should I do next?" Instead of turning to heuristics, I'm writing a program that calculates the utility of each task and shows me a list sorted by utility.

The basic method I'm using to generate utility estimates is assigning tasks a significance value from 1 to 99. I multiply that by a function that increases with respect to the time the task was inputted into the program. That way, tasks naturally percolate to the top over time--and more important tasks rise faster.

My goal is to eventually input everything from my core values down to specific task components and chain them together using probabilities in order to arrive at a recommended task list that's far more optimal than what I can do on my own.

One problem I've encountered is just as you described in your post; each feature is taking longer to complete than I initially expected. I continue to waver in my sense of whether working on it is worthwhile at all, but I work on it anyway because when I ask myself what I should do next, my first thought is usually to find a better way to answer the question.

With similar keys: If they're the same brand of lock, and you control both, you can get one re-keyed to be the same as the other.

Locksmiths will do this, or if you buy a new lock of that brand at Lowe's and bring that existing key (and the person who knows how to do this is afoot), they will re-key the lock to match your existing key, at no extra charge.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

For example, what's the expected utility of tripping on 2C-I?

Good question. I'm sure there is something that prompted your interest. How is the legality? Are there expected benefits beyond fun?

[-][anonymous]10y 0

My experience is that I tend to be unusually rational for maybe a day after I finish tripping.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

2C-I is an unscheduled research chemical. However, it's chemically related to mescaline and thus can be prosecuted under drug analog laws. But most people really don't care about these drugs, and when they do they tend to get emergency scheduled. "Pseudo-legal" is a good way to describe it.

The benefit for me in taking 2C-E was that it shocked me into seeing a psychiatrist. (Tripping epiphany: happiness is chemical. DUH!) Other people report "spiritual" benefits from these drugs (I'm not so into that). There can be some intellectual epiphanies that are not solely caused by the drug temporarily making you stupid, ie, theyr'e actually valid. For instance, I'm sure Robin Hanson would drop that line about video games offering much of the gains of virtual reality if he tried it. But mostly it's just fun.