Notes on utility function experiment

post by taw · 2009-09-05T19:10:05.400Z · score: 13 (18 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 9 comments

I just finished a two-week experiment of trying to live by a point system. I attached a point value to various actions and events, and made some effort to maximize the score. I cannot say it was successful in making me achieve more than normally during the same period of time, but it made more clear some of the problems with my behaviour.

Here's some notes from my experiment:

Anyone else wants to share their anti-akrasia experiments?

9 comments

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comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2009-09-06T02:57:57.049Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anyone else wants to share their anti-akrasia experiments?

Making a list of things to accomplish next day each evening worked moderately well for me. Logging all my activities quickly became a pain in the ass. Following a routine in the mornings and evenings worked fairly well until I realized my routine needed refactoring, abandoned it, and never got around to refactoring it. (As a general principle of self-improvement, I think it's important to stick with solutions that you suspect are suboptimal but are still better than whatever your default pattern would be. Let's say you're thinking up some scheme for yourself and then say "I'll never get this right". Well, if the scheme you've got so far is better than what you'd normally do, you should still stick with it.)

comment by Emily · 2009-09-06T15:12:58.916Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you use any system to make the points worth something real apart from just satisfaction at having maximised them? Something like... reaching a certain number of points in a week = favourite chocolate bar?

comment by taw · 2009-09-06T17:05:06.242Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No. The points have no external value attached to them. If I wanted chocolate bars, I'd just get them anyway.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-09-06T13:49:41.277Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm currently doing something similar to this as the natural progression of the method I described here. The main difference is that instead of maximizing points, I'm holding myself to a budget of points.

It started by me telling myself I was going to spend two hundred fifty minutes / day doing useful self-improvement type activities. Then I decided that certain activities were only marginally useful, and started counting them at a rate of one minute per two minutes, and others were extremely useful, and counting them at a rate of two minutes per minute, and now it's more or less the same as your point system. I also subtract points for certain things I want to do less of. I've been doing it for about a month now pretty successfully.

At some point I want to make a post on it, but not until I've got more to say about it. I'm trying to think of it with an economic metaphor, as the personal equivalent of subsidizing useful activities and taxing useless activities to change the resources devoted to each, but I can't really present the analogy coherently until I understand the mind better.

comment by taw · 2009-09-06T17:06:55.084Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is overhead of measuring time spent on a particular activity a big problem, especially if you're multitasking like most people?

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-09-07T09:09:55.911Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Time budgeting hasn't been a problem; it's pretty easy to keep track of.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-07-12T09:09:29.159Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Did it get you to do things that have non-linear benefits?

For example - if you put +1 on eating walnuts, does you find yourself tempted and compelled to eat more walnuts than healthy?

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-09-05T23:29:31.938Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

An interesting idea. It sounds like it was structured more like a video game (get the highest score) than a budget. If you used the same system and assigned positive and negative point values to activities you want to do more or less of, perhaps with an appropriate sliding scale (e.g. the first half hour a week on tvtropes is free, but it gets pricey after that), I think you'd see less akrasia. Enforcement is obviously the big problem, though.

As it is, it sounds like you're just pretending you want to do things that you don't actually want to do and hope that getting a high score will be enough to motivate you to actually do them.

comment by taw · 2009-09-06T02:45:35.487Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As it is, it sounds like you're just pretending you want to do things that you don't actually want to do and hope that getting a high score will be enough to motivate you to actually do them.

I often don't care much for particular activities, but I definitely care about results, which require me to do the activities. Add hyperbolic discounting (effort now, results later) and risk aversion (efforts certain, results uncertain, probability for risk-aversion is irrationally sublinear) and you'll see the problem.