Think Economically


Maximum understanding, minimum average total cost.

Training your elephant: how to make yourself do what you already promised yourself you would do.

Some of my students have asked me for advice on how to achieve, and as someone who almost failed out of college, then went on to finish a Ph.D., I suppose I’m in a position to provide some advice on the matter. I tried to boil it down for one of them, and the three most important things that I came to were:

  1. Making active decisions about how you spend your time.
  2. Setting long-term goals.
  3. Driving your discount rate down.
These are really important to me. I still feel like the person who almost ruined his life, and I think of the disciplined exercise of these as a bulwark against the loss of everything I hold dear. It’s been a decade since I really behaved badly, but it’s an ever-present fear.


The third one is the least straight-forward, and the first one is the hardest to do in practice, and I was thinking about what stands in the way. Time inconsistency of preferences is closely related to the interface between spending time wisely and your discount rate, and it can throw the whole thing off, though, and so I wanted to talk a little about it.

Ultimately, all of these are about trying to take your life and turn it more efficiently into whatever it is that you want to accomplish. I’ll talk more about them later. One thing that occurred to me today, though, is related to the rule v. discretion problem that pops up incessantly in economics, most particularly in the concept of “time inconsistency of preferences”.

The concept of time inconsistency of preferences is based on the idea that your “yesterday” self may have made plans—maybe you decided to go to the gym, or visit someone in the hospital, or quit smoking—but your “today” self is not such a big fan of those plans. And so you smoke again today, always promising that tomorrow will be the day. Following Jonathan Haidt, I’ll call the “today” self, the part that wants “The Elephant”, and the “yesterday” self, the part that makes rational plans “The Rider”

The most commonly used models exclude this ubiquitous human behavioral feature—they use exponential discounting, which yields time-consistent preferences, and everything works out nicely. The models most consistent with human behavior include such behaviors, either through hyperbolic discounting, or some dual model of mind.

The models matter to me in my research, but in my life, and in the advice I’d give, I find them to be a little unhelpful—they are good and describing the situation (some not even that so much) but don’t always offer a solution. The solution I’ve come up, and all the solutions I’ve heard, involve to managing the situation with two strategies that I call Feed the Beast and It Doesn’t Matter What You Want.

Feed the Beast means you indulge first, as quickly as possible to quiet the impulse to procrastinate and to put yourself back in a rational frame of mind. It works for being emotionally overwrought as well. In some situations, I will find myself focusing on some form of procrastination or off-plan desire. Maybe there’s some extra cake downstairs and I’m working from home, or maybe my kids are around and I want to play with them, or maybe I’d rather be chatting with colleagues, or maybe I just want one more game of Scramble With Friends. The Elephant wants to do something other than what I’ve committed to do. In this case, I will often try to do whatever it is that part wants as quickly as possible. There’s some evidence suggesting that when people have eaten high-sugar foods, they’re better able to resist temptation, and that’s one of the basic ideas here. The other is that if I’m going to lose focus, I want to do it as soon as possible and for as short a time as possible.

The problem is that this has negative long-run consequences. The Elephant gets fed, and it begins to get ideas, and to pipe up more often. It works really well for short periods of time, however.

Every so often, though, I have to exercise It Doesn’t Matter What You Want. The problem is that The Elephant finds it hard to understand that sticking to the Rider’s plans means better cake, more often, a life free of destitution and misery. I have let the Elephant run the show and it is not a pretty show. This ought not be a fundamentally antagonistic relationship, but it can be. It Doesn’t Matter What You Want refers to specific practices for putting off and quieting down the Elephant. What has worked for me?

  • Running – I really dislike running, but it’s good for me. For a month or two, I will run three times a week to exercise the discipline required to ignore the Elephant.
  • Meditation – whenever the Elephant starts getting loud, I stop and sit and think about the reasons for the plans the Rider has made.
  • This or Nothing – this has been really effective. I block off some time, say twenty minutes. For twenty minutes, I can either do the task on my list, or I can do nothing. Just sit and stare. Sometimes I do nothing. Usually I get bored after five minutes and the task itself becomes the next best thing.

Those have basically done it for me. I’m sure there are lots of others, and I’d be curious to hear it if you’ve got one. The last one, This or Nothing, falls into a much larger class of mental tricks I have that I call Manipulating the Counterfactual. There’s also lots of little stuff I’ve gleaned and/or honed over the years.

But yeah, it’s not enough to come up with a good plan. You still have to do the work, and having a plan makes that easier, but I kind of think we are each our own worst employee. Learning to be a good boss is really important.

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One Response

  1. Manu says:

    I enjoyed this read! … Although I was probably feeding my elephant just now. I really should be working 🙂 But I’ll definitely make a mental note of this method.

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July 2012
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