Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Willpower is not a strategy

Psychological constraints are real constraints. People act as if they're not - because you can't see the process driving them, you should be able to make them just go away. I can see physical evidence of why I can't run 100m in ten seconds. I can't see physical evidence of why I can't work nine hours in a row without getting distracted.

Vanishingly few people ever do this on any given work day, of course. But that doesn't stop the motivated, type-A personality from holding himself to this standard. I'm so lazy, he'll say. Why can't I stop myself wasting time on the internet? When he inevitably falls short of this standard, he'll get frustrated with himself, and try to figure out how he can improve his output.

Usually, "willpower" is the deus ex machina by which this extra work is meant to happen. I'll concentrate more! I'll not check my email! This is, of course, no more practical as advice than 'I'll swim faster' or 'I'll eat less food every day'. It might work. But let's just say you'd probably want a plan B.

Willpower is better thought of as the residual between how much you actually do on a given day, and what a reasonable model of output would predict. In other words, just because you give a name to the part of the model that you can't explain doesn't mean you can now manipulate this part at will.

As Steve Sailer put it recently:
It’s a strange totem of the 21st century that if a brain scan can show us where something would happen inside the skull, we can therefore make it happen in ourselves...
We don’t think this way about other organs, though. Consider the stomach. For a century or more, we’ve had a more than adequate knowledge of how the digestive system works. Yet on average we’re fatter than ever. Why? Not because the science of stomach scans hasn’t progressed enough, but because we like eating more than we like exercising.
What's surprising is that this obsessive focus on willpower tends to blind people to more optimal solutions that recognise the constraints they face.

For instance, if you know you're going to get distracted and run out of energy by 4pm, why not try to do low mental energy admin tasks at that point so you're still getting something done?

When you find yourself not getting anything done at one task, why not switch to something else for an hour or two then come back to it?

Instead of getting up two hours earlier and being tired and unproductive all day, why not get eight hours sleep and work whenever you arrive?

Maybe you actually are unproductive. But what people refer to as 'unproductive' is usually measured against a standard that is
a) derived externally from some hypothetical benchmark,
b) not an unbiased forecast of actual output, and
c) not updated according to how their performance changes.

In other words, if every day you expect to be able to work 9 hours and you actually work 4, one of two things is certain. Either you're really bad at concentrating, or you're really bad at benchmarking what a reasonable output is.

I often hear the rejoinder that unrealistic benchmarks improve output, even if you always fall short. By aiming for 9 hours, I get 4 done, but if I aimed at 4, I'd only get 3.5 done.

Maybe. But do you ever see Microsoft announcing that they're going to set next quarter's earnings target as being earnings of two hundred gazillion dollars per share, just so that people would work harder? They'd be ridiculed, and rightly so.

You set targets so that you can see how different concrete strategies of improving output are actually working. But the hard work of improving output comes from understanding the internal processes at work, and how they can be optimised.

But if you haven't actually put any effort into the more difficult task of figuring out how you're going to change the underlying strategy, it seems largely delusional to think that just setting a higher goal will somehow produce this. This goes tenfold when you're setting the goal for yourself. 

James Bagian made a similar point about blaming people for medical screwups.
When I got into healthcare, I felt like I'd stepped into an entirely different world. It was all about, "Let's figure out who screwed up and blame them and punish them and explain to them why they're stupid." To me, it's almost like whistling past the grave. When we demonize the person associated with a bad event, it makes us feel better. It's like saying, "We're not stupid so it won't happen to us." Whereas in fact it could happen to us tomorrow.

And then, too, medicine is much older than these other fields, eons old, and for most of that time there wasn't PubMed or the AMA or what have you. It was all about the expertise of the individual practitioner. It's a short step from there to assuming that problems in medicine stem from problematic individuals. That's why we have this whole "train and blame" mentality in medical culture; someone makes a mistake, you train them not to do it anymore, and then you punish them if it happens again. I think we've ridden that horse about as far as we can.
Replace 'stupid' with 'lazy' and it describes the lecture you give yourself every day.

The willpower horse is dead on the ground and decomposing, but you keep lashing it with your riding crop.

Figure out something else.

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