Time management: Optimizers, Satisficers, Minimizers

I want to talk about three different mindsets for time management and what constitutes “success”. In all three, I’ll talk about an example problem, let’s say “writing term papers” for a student who finds this difficult, and see how each might approach the goal. My goal is not to promote one of these as best, but rather to illustrate that all three exist. Each may be favored by one person or another, or by a single person depending on the situation. I hope that by describing them, I can help people understand one another’s motivations, so as to facilitate communication. The first mindset I will call optimization. The optimizer tries to spend their time gaining resources. For example, they might work to get money. They also attempt to increase the rate at which they can gain resources. Some optimizers even try to increase the rate at which they can e.g. network or learn skills. The intuition here is that most goods are somehow fungible, and that you should try to get as many fungible goods as possible. Example of term papers: An optimizer might try to learn to write term papers, or get faster and faster at writing papers. If they got good at writing term papers, they might try to write even more (for example, taking classes heavy on papers) to take advantage of these skills. Heuristics:

  • Get nowhere faster: Get where you’re going faster, even if you don’t have a specific goal in mind
  • Level up: It’s always good to learn things and develop skills
  • Experiment: Never be content with the status quo. (Choose explore/exploit explicitly and dovetail, for principled experimenters)
  • Accumulate multipliers / Seek good trade routes: Be able to buy all things with money, learning, whatever you have most of. Try to maximize the rate.
  • Get money: Anywhere you have a resource coming in, increase the income rate, or trade rate you’re getting it for.

Failure modes:

  • Butterfly: Ends up unfocused and with no immediate or terminal goals.

The second mindset I will call satisficing. The satisficer is goal-oriented, and tries to stay focus on the goal at all times. Traditional goal-based time management like GTD encourages satisficing. Example of term papers: Their specific goal might be “Get an A on all papers until I graduate”. If they can write well enough to get an A, they probably would not learn to write better. If they can’t get an A, their goal might be better served by learning to write to rubrics. The question of learning to write better vs spending more time editing on each paper would be decided by the amount of time each would take for the actual number of term papers the student expected to write for their immediate goal. Heuristics:

  • Get to the goal as quickly as possible
  • No lost purposes: One of the strengths of satisficing is to avoid “rabbit holes” which don’t contribute to any end goal
  • Munchkin: Think about what will actually contribute to the goal, as well as what won’t.

Failure modes:

  • Tunnel vision / inflexibility: Not contributing to the immediate goal is not the same as being useless. Can lose sight of the big picture (supergoal or unrelated terminal goals) and ways to work toward that other than via the immediate goal.
  • EA Bot Syndrome / Don’t smell the flowers: Excessive goal focus can lose sight of human involvement, and end up giving the satisficer low life quality.

The last mindset I will call minimization. The minimizer will try to minimize the amount of resources spent on a particular task or problem. They will especially try to avoid any indefinitely-big cost. Example of term papers: The student might try to spend the minimum amount of time possible on the paper to get an A. If they knew they were going to write several papers, they might study how to write papers faster, so as to spend less total time–even if they expected the time learning to write faster would be greater than the time to write the immediate papers (“but what if there are more papers someday”). The eventual state of the minimizer will probably be to have set things up to avoid term papers, or write them very quickly. Heuristics:

  • Automate / Offload for free: Spend only a finite amount of time on something
  • Eliminate recurring costs
  • Asymptotic improvement: Any finite number of mistakes is okay, as long as you end up optimal eventually
  • Deal with it permanently: If you’re not closing things and returning to them indefinitely, you’re spending infinite time and attention on it
  • Timebox: Only spend a finite amount of time on something, and then consider it resolved forever

Failure modes:

  • Bad at goals: Minimization deals with recurring activities, but can fail to offer any positive motivation for one-time end goals
  • Negative mindset: Heavy focus on mistakes and resource use

Rationality Techniques 1

CFAR usually designs their techniques to help people Get Stuff Done. I have a failure mode of Getting The Wrong Stuff Done, so this time through their workshop, I focused on improving techniques to explicitly have steps around pursuing the correct terminal goals (which I’ll here call “terminal goal techniques”).

Original technique: Goal-factor
New terminal goal technique:

  1. Find an instrumental goal toward another instrumental goal.
  2. Embark on that goal provisionally, while also making a plan to acquire more information about whether it’s a good idea and better plans are available.
  3. Periodically re-evaluate to make sure it’s the best goal and you’re gathering information.

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