2012-02-29 (Wednesday) § Leave a comment
About a month ago I came up with a plan to control how I spend my time at home. The basic scheme I came up with, as I later learned from a Freakonomics podcast (thanks to Stephen and Becca for linking me to it), is called a “commitment device”. A commitment device means you set up consequences for your future actions that your future self won’t be able to avoid. It’s a way of dealing with the fact that different functions in your brain are driving your actions at different times, and those different functions sometimes have conflicting goals.
Freakonomics recommends against
Dubner of Freakonomics concluded that “self-imposed commitment devices are rather imperfect” because in two such cases he looked at, the subjects eventually triggered their self-imposed punishment procedures, and the costs to them were pretty serious. In one case, a guy with a gambling addiction signed up for a list that would get him arrested if he set foot in a casino. Eventually he did, and he was arrested.
The other case involved a guy named Adam who wanted to get rid of some habits he thought were unhealthy. So he wrote a $750 check to Oprah, whom he dislikes intensely, and gave it to his friend to mail to her if he ever got “any credible evidence” that Adam had done any of the things he committed not to do. This last resembles my system very closely: a monetary penalty to be spent in a way that the subject despises on a gut level, and the assessing of the penalty to be done by a trusted third party. My Oprah is the Republican Party and my fine is $30. Less painful a fine than Adam’s, but significant enough to be emotionally salient to the unconscious brain functions that want to derail me from my preplanned agenda. This balance is key. I don’t want a single infraction to cause serious life problems for me, but I do want it to sting, and I want repeated infractions to start causing serious life problems for me.
Unlike Adam, I haven’t had a fine assessed yet. Today is agenda day #26.
One key advantage of my system over Adam’s is that the target behavior is defined in a way that allows pressure valves. Adam had no outlet for the drives of the parts of his brain that he was trying to get under control. He simply wasn’t allowed to do certain things that those parts of his brain really wanted him to do, and the slightest infraction incurred a penalty.
For me also, the slightest infraction incurs a penalty – but for me an infraction means not doing something. The target behavior is to spend predetermined amounts of time focused on particular activities. What my unconscious drives want me to do that interferes with the target behavior is things like browsing the web or sitting around thinking about nothing in particular. I can still do those things. I can even stop in the middle of a task to do them. I just can’t credit the time so spent against my preplanned agenda items.
It may make things clearer to give a sample of one of my daily agendas. Here’s yesterday’s.
61 minutes: Math.
31 minutes: Music textbook exercises.
10 minutes: Scales.
Shut off computer and go to bed before 9:45pm. Don’t turn computer back on. No reading after 9:45pm.
Exactly what time I do these things doesn’t matter. I just need to spend the full duration doing them before bedtime. This allows flexibility for things like groceries, washing dishes, answering phone calls. But it’s still specific enough to keep my eye on the clock.
The very writing of this blog entry is one of my agenda items for tonight. I have to spend 90 minutes on it, or less if I finish it before then. In other words, if I hit 90 minutes and I’m not done yet, I can call it a night. But the clock is only running while I’m actively working on the entry. Daydreaming and Facebook time are allowed but require the stopwatch to be paused.
The real motivator?
Recent introspection has led me to think maybe the money isn’t the biggest part of my motivation to keep my agendas. The imagined outcome that I really recoil from when I glance at the clock and realize I’m going to have to register a fail if I don’t get started right away is not the paying of $30 to the GOP (may low voter turnout be ever their lot). It’s the prospect of having to report the fail to my friend, who has agreed to referee the matter for me (and who is a loyal Republican). In other words it’s shame. For this reason, my scheme might not work so well for some people. If the money doesn’t sting at the right moment, and if shame doesn’t drive you like it drives me, you should probably rig up some other kind of motivator. Another key element, of which I bear within me a boundless source, is guilt. I never find myself contemplating the option of failing my agenda but not telling my friend about it. The guilt of that secret would torment me. And what if he found out? The shame!
Why go through all of this?
Unlike the guys discussed on Freakonomics, I’m not running this commitment device because I’m at risk of hurting others or destroying my own life. Life is pretty stable and healthy for me right now. But I’m not where I want to be yet. My job is reliable and stress-free but unfulfilling. I want to be spending most of my time doing something that I’m proud of and enjoy. That means I need to put a lot of time into developing certain skills. Throughout my whole life until recently, I’ve had serious trouble sticking to my plans for how to spend my free time. So far (26 agendas to date), this particular commitment scheme has altered the frequency with which I stick to the plan from “seldom” to “always”. That’s a tool I can turn to many important uses. I want to develop some songs into a presentable form and write more of them, so I need to spend a lot of time getting good at the keyboard, recording and editing. I want to understand economics, so I need to learn a lot of math. I can now be confident that I’ll put the necessary time in, as long as I have it to spare after work. Just put it on the agenda.
Or maybe I’ll run into new limitations. Maybe as I crank up the amount of agenda-defined time (as I have been doing, slowly), I’ll find that the motivational pressure to crap out increases beyond the capacity of the existing pressure valves. I hope not, but if so, I don’t think that will be a catastrophic outcome. The GOP will get some money from me, and I’ll grimace with chagrin and make any needed adjustments to future agendas.
Now I need to figure out what I should be focusing on most. For the next few days it’ll be music. I really want to get some songs into presentable shape.
2012-01-21 (Saturday) § 3 Comments
I have all kinds of plans for productive use of my free time. A lot of the time I crap out and instead spend the time doing things that are fun but leave me no closer to the goals I had intended to approach. (I have a feeling I’m like the majority of humanity in this respect.) “Just do it” has so far been a losing strategy for beating this problem. Here’s a better one