Heuristics for Deciding What to Work On

post by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2011-06-01T07:31:17.482Z · score: 20 (23 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 9 comments

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9 comments

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.

And here are some ways you could use these heuristics:

Further Reading

9 comments

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comment by Swimmy · 2011-06-01T14:49:44.587Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for leechblock. Unfortunately, when it comes writing time, this website is going on it.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-06-01T13:14:42.559Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2011-06-01T18:51:59.909Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by taryneast · 2011-06-02T11:32:38.767Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by patrickscottshields · 2011-06-18T03:35:44.985Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by mutterc · 2011-06-02T18:40:20.371Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-06-01T13:11:53.241Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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?

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2011-06-01T15:32:37.820Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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

comment by Swimmy · 2011-06-01T14:46:52.344Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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.