by Brian Tomasik
First written: 10 May 2010; last update: 5 Dec. 2014

Summary

Optimizing big-picture variables in our actions may have much higher returns than spending the same effort on smaller, recurrent dilemmas. "Work smarter, not harder" and "Don't sweat the small stuff" are two relevant maxims. Doing things you enjoy needn't be contrary to doing things that are productive, and in fact, you may find that doing what you enjoy most within certain constraints is the best way to be productive.

Introduction

Suppose you're trying to add up 4,000 numbers. You need to get the answer as soon as possible, so you think about how best to do the task. You might say, "Well, getting the job done quickly is important, so let me squint my eyes, roll up my sleeves, and concentrate really hard, so that I can have as much mental focus as possible while I get through this." You then proceed to use a pencil and paper to add the digits, sweating and wrinkling your brow as you focus your concentration for the next 10 hours until the task is complete. Meanwhile, your friend downloads the digits to a computer, pastes them into Excel, and figures out the answer a minute later.

Ah, the power of macro-optimization! I've noticed a number of instances in which I and other people tend to get overly caught up in thinking about micro-level decisions on a day-to-day basis, without spending enough time improving higher-level structural choices. For instance, Should I procrastinate for another X minutes? Should I keep exercising or stop? Shall I spend money on purchasing this small item that I could live without?

These are all important questions, and their answers are not irrelevant. It is important to avoid procrastinating, not to waste money on luxuries, and so forth. There is a place for exerting effort in these decisions. But if you find yourself burning up willpower on such questions on a regular basis, then you're probably doing something wrong. In general, life doesn't have to be a day-in-day-out struggle to "do the right thing" by sheer force of effort. Very often, there are big-picture changes and/or rules that you can put in place such that the micro-optimizations become minor or altogether unnecessary.

Examples

One case where this applies is with food choices. I've found that if I buy junk food and have it around the house, the day becomes a constant willpower struggle with the question, Shall I go ahead and eat another cookie or not? But if I don't buy the junk food in the first place, and if I go for a long enough period that my cravings for it subside, then the question vanishes from my mind, and I don't think about cookies at all.

Similarly, many people find that going completely vegetarian is easier than going almost-vegetarian, just because the question, "Should I eat meat on this particular occasion?" doesn't constantly arise. (That said, others find that near vegetarianism is easier than complete vegetarianism. And of course, it's important to consider the widely variable impacts of different types of animal foods.)

In other cases, the best solution may be not to set a rule to do the right thing but, rather, to allow oneself to do the wrong thing with the bargain of doing the right thing in another area of higher value. For instance, I sometimes feel guilty about not doing some tangible action that would prevent a little bit of immediate suffering -- e.g., looking for injured worms stranded on the sidewalk that could be put out of their misery on a rainy day. Sometimes I do stop to help the worms, but at other times, I instead promise myself to put in extra effort later toward another action with greater value (like promoting awareness of the general problem of worm suffering in the wild).

One complication with "willpower bargains" of this sort is that you have to make sure you actually will do more of the activity that's more efficient than you were going to beforehand. If you feel like you're at the limits of your willpower and may burn out if you work any harder, then optimizing where you expend willpower is the best choice. On the other hand, if you think you can build your willpower muscle stronger by using it more than you already do, then consider doing that first.

Similar thinking applies in many other areas. For instance, say you're persuaded by Singer's argument in "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" but don't want to live at the level of a Third-world peasant. You could probably do better by continuing to live a normal lifestyle in a rich country, taking a high-paying job, and donating your earnings. Chances are that even a spendthrift lawyer will have more cash left over to donate than the most frugal of secretaries or farm workers. In addition, rather than hyper-optimizing your own income, it's worth considering whether you could achieve more total donations for a given cause by spending less time on work and more time networking with friends and colleagues who might contribute.

Finally, the same sorts of logic apply with respect to where one donates. To use a slogan of Givewell, "Don't give more; give well." Spending time to research where to donate probably does more good than using that time to earn a few extra dollars.

Moralizing isn't always the answer

The questions about willpower and personal effort may seem different than those about allocation of time and money. On the inside, it often feels as though we should be able to make the right individual choices on every occasion. Sure, we can't blame people for having limited budgets or a finite number of hours in the day, but when they expend money on a product they could have lived without, or when they waste time on a fun activity instead of working more, it sometimes seems like they're blameworthy, because "they could" have done differently. But the fact of the matter is, willpower, energy, and motivation are themselves finite resources, and sometimes "wasting time" on having fun is the right choice. Rather than feeling guilty about every little apparently sub-optimal decision that you make, try to direct your guilt toward those areas that you rationally observe have the highest value.

The micro-optimization choices that we face are clear and immediate: It feels morally important to make the right decision in those cases, and we feel bad about ourselves when we don't. Yet -- as the case of adding 4,000 numbers illustrates -- many times there are solutions beyond sheer force of will that can end up making a bigger real-world impact. Moralizing isn't the answer to every problem. And indeed, because willpower is limited, expending guilt should only be a last resort: Sometimes there are other structural changes you can make (to your work environment, your purchasing habits, your topics of mental focus, your social activities, and so on) that will eliminate the willpower dilemmas altogether. In other words, focus on finding the right rules more than on forcing yourself to do the apparently optimal thing in each situation; the latter is a recipe for burnout. (This discussion is relevant to the act- vs. rule-utilitarianism debate, among other things.)

Illusions about productivity vs. wasting time

"Work is what you're doing when you'd rather be doing something else. I haven't worked a day in my life."
--Eliot Coleman, 13 Aug. 2004 (as best as I can remember the quote from his lecture)

A friend of mine once asked, "Why is it that everything that's good for you is hard?" She had in mind things like exercising, not overeating, and so on. I replied, "Most things that are good for you come easily: Sleeping, breathing, talking with friends, etc. Evolution has mostly shaped our experiences so that healthy things feel good. It's just a few cases that go awry due to different conditions between the modern world vs. the ancestral environment (such as with diet and exercise) and the gap between personal wellbeing vs. optimally passing on your genes (such as with refraining from risky sex and saving for retirement)."

I sometimes find a similar misconception about what it looks like to be "productive." In the misguided interpretation, productivity consists in using willpower to get through a task that's not something you'd intrinsically prefer to do -- e.g., finishing a school assignment, completing a write-up for your job, taking out the garbage, or doing your taxes. People seem to give particular praise for accomplishing non-fun activities, and to some extent this makes sense: The motivation that comes from being recognized is most needed to encourage people to do things they don't enjoy. But sometimes this praise of hard work goes too far and incentivizes people to do hard things over easier things that would be just as valuable.

For example, I often hear people explain how Facebook is a waste of time. People feel guilty reading blog posts rather than crunching numbers on an Excel sheet for their job. And so on. But is it really the case that Facebook and blog posts waste time compared with the alternative? Of course, it depends what you're reading. Spending a whole day browsing cat pictures may be a waste of time, if only because of the diminishing returns to knowledge from doing so. But a lot of what I read on Facebook, blog posts, etc. is actually quite valuable, and it broadens my view of the world. Even "trivial" things like what happened to your friend yesterday are useful in moderation by providing data to your model of how social relations operate, what people's intuitive reactions are, and so on. Unless your life's work is very specialized in a field that doesn't involve people, this is important information to know about.

Similarly, reading popular articles about a wide array of topics is actually very helpful for giving you broad perspective on many different corners of the globe and of intellectual life. Of course, it's important to have diversity. It's also good to read Wikipedia and review articles in addition to just news, which can miss historical context and is not representative of the actual distribution of events in the world. Still, even news has worth in moderation.

As I've gotten older, I've increasingly realized the importance of learning about a wide spectrum of fields, and I see that the assorted knowledge that other people pick up through casual reading is actually more valuable than they realize. If I were going to devise a syllabus for filling in the gaps of my knowledge, it would include a lot of things that many people learn on their own for fun. The irony is that most people see this reading as an unproductive distraction from their important work; in fact, this learning may be at least as important as their other work, if they absorb it properly into their world views. Fred Rogers said: "Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood." A similar spirit applies for adult leisure exploration too.

When people ask me about my strategy for being productive, I tell them the following. I rarely use willpower. There are just a few times when I need to fill out a particular form or respond quickly to a particular message when I force myself to do something I'd rather not do. Most of the time, I do whatever seems most rewarding at the moment -- whatever I have the most motivation to do. This might be writing an essay, reading a paper, having a discussion on Facebook, or cleaning out my to-do list. My brain naturally picks something that looks fun, and then I just do that, and I get into the flow of the activity. Often, what seems most fun has reasonable correlation to what's most urgent and important; my conscience has some effect of modulating how fun things look. Beyond that, when there are many options for what I could do that all seem roughly in the same ballpark for usefulness, I do whichever I want, and then being productive is not just effortless but actually enjoyable. The positive reinforcement then helps motivate further activities of this type. If I found what I did to be draining, it would be hard to sustain it for long.

Being guided by enjoyment can also help keep you open-minded and interested to learn new things, rather than getting stuck in a local but not global optimum. Indeed, this is the main function of boredom and curiosity in animal brains.

I'm fortunate that my work allows me to do whatever seems most fun at a given moment. If I were cleaning bathrooms or preparing accounting paperwork, this would less often be the case, and I commend those who -- whether by choice or necessity -- take jobs that they don't maximally enjoy for other reasons. That said, when it's possible to give yourself flexibility in what you work on, I think it's advisable. My guess is that a significant minority of instances where people don't enjoy their work occur because what they're assigned doesn't happen to match with what inspires them at that particular moment. Maybe on another day or at another stage of life, they would be motivated to do it. As Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes said in one strip: "It's only work if somebody makes you do it."

I suspect that if lots of people did useful things that they found most enjoyable at the time, rather than doing what a particular employer assigned them, we could end up with mostly comparable output but higher worker satisfaction (at least in certain industries like research and altruism work -- maybe not so much with accounting). Or maybe the output would be not just comparable but higher because people would feel greater motivation and have more fun. Of course, your mileage may vary; there may be some people for whom the structure of being assigned a particular task at a particular time reduces existential angst and focuses their attention.

Also keep in mind that different people like different things. If you find a particular important activity unpleasant, rather than doing it because you feel like "unpleasantness = productivity," see if you can find someone else to do it who actually enjoys it. And inversely, what's easy for you may be hard for others, so focus on doing what you enjoy and are good at within the bounds of reasonable usefulness toward reducing suffering. Frederick Buechner has a famous quote along these lines: "The place God [or, perhaps, altruism] calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." At the same time, it's important not to focus too much on what you feel like you enjoy right now, because interests are flexible, and we change more than we expect. A safe path is to follow useful short-term passions while learning broadly, building skills and network, and keeping options open.

Thinking vs. acting

"There's a time to think, and a time to act. And this, gentlemen, is no time to think."
--Boomer, Canadian Bacon

For me, altruism has an interesting tension between two sides: Feeling the urgency of actively doing things that appear useful vs. taking a step back to reflect and explore. Both components are necessary in some measure, and it's not always clear how to strike the balance. I also can't be in both states at the same time; it feels like the brain chemistry between them is different.

The "getting things done" mode feels like you've just had a cup of coffee: You want to focus on concrete projects with measurable achievements. You're motivated by accomplishing clear goals, and there's a sharp distinction between productive vs. unproductive work because unproductive work is anything not on your todo list. Often the work is not something you'd do for its own sake, but you do it because it's important. This mode is probably how many people feel about their jobs.

The reflection mode feels more like relaxing and following your passions. You don't have a strict agenda -- by necessity, because a main point is to learn things you didn't expect to discover. You investigate what looks interesting to identify new insights about areas where your world model was previously vague or incorrect. This mode is how people probably feel about their hobbies and leisure time.

Based on the descriptions I gave, some people would say the "getting things done" mode is obviously more useful. However, I'm not sure that's the case. If I had always been in "doing" mode without reflecting, I wouldn't have uncovered many important realizations about areas where I could have been making bigger impact and even areas where I was previously making negative impact. My naive assumptions about the world would have circumscribed and misguided my actions. And when you're in caffeine mode, it's harder to get in touch with your deep feelings about what you value and what changes you want to see. Reflection can multiply impact many times, and I wouldn't be surprised if spending 20 years thinking and then 20 years doing tended to outperform 5 years thinking and 35 years doing in total impact.

When I'm in "thinking" mode, I have high curiosity (the first virtue of rationality). I actively seek out insights that will transform my thinking -- through what Robin Hanson calls "viewquakes" -- because progress in research is measured by how much you change your mind (for justified reasons). In contrast, when I'm in "doing" mode, I'm nervous that new information will invalidate my past efforts and force me to course-correct.

Still, there are dangers in too much reflection. You might continue reflecting forever without acting, although maybe that's okay if you significantly influence other actors. Also, the world of action teaches things that you may not learn from just reflecting, although reading other people's accounts of their experiences with various forms of action can help make up for this. Finally, there's a temptation to do too much reflection because it's more fun, although this might not be true for everyone. Many people express sentiments like, "Enough meta-reflection already! Let's get something concrete done." And they feel reward from tangible achievements more than broad insights. So there's room for specialization between the thinkers and doers.

I don't like goals

Some people seem to be more productive and satisfied when they set arbitrary goals for themselves and turn life into an RPG. I can understand this mindset and have sometimes lived this way myself. But on the whole, I think I'm better off not setting specific goals and instead going with the flow of where my emotions and circumstances pull me.

One reason for this is that goals are inflexible to changing circumstances. You were going to do X, but suddenly Y seems more important. If you ease off on your commitment to finish X, are you violating your self-bargain to finish X at the specified time? If you are lenient here, how do you avoid sliding at other times?

Setting specific goals with timelines increases stress. Maybe I start on project A but then become more interested in project B. If I were following the whims of my emotions, I could finish project B and then later return to project A -- completing both effortlessly. But if I instead impose a deadline for project A, I have to override my natural inclinations to work on B so that I artificially finish project A first. This seems like a silly waste of willpower.

A solution to these problems could be not to set goals but merely to assign points to activities and then try to optimize point accumulation. But this has its own problems: What if your estimation of points is off? What if you're over-rewarding yourself for an activity relative to its actual importance and difficulty? What if you skim on quality to favor quantity? You would then bias your actions toward suboptimal directions. It's also a lot of work to assign points to everything, especially to intangible and ill-defined activities that may nonetheless be important. I think my brain is better than a fixed point system at intuitively generating holistic assessments of value that incorporate intangibles and what-ifs that are very hard to externalize via sequence thinking.

Maybe assigning points post-hoc rather than fixing them at some predefined level could help. And maybe the exercise of producing explicit numerical valuations would be salutary in its own right. Still, I don't feel very motivated by points. I can see through them as the arbitrary made-up tokens that they are. Typically I'm motivated to do something because I actually want it done, and its completion is my actual source of motivation.

I'm happiest and least stressed when I follow my own internal motivations about what I want to do. Often these motivations are heavily influenced by what important tasks there are to be done, but they're also shaped appropriately to my mood and interests at a given time. Often I don't need to eat frogs because my inclinations change enough from day to day and hour to hour that what looked like a frog at one point has now turned into Prince Charming.