Commitments and affordances

[Epistemic status: a thing I’ve been thinking about, and may be more ignorant about than approximately everyone else.]

I don’t seem to be an expert on time management right now. But piecing through the crufty wreckage of my plans and lists and calendars, I do have a certain detailed viewpoint on particular impediments to time management. You probably shouldn’t trust my understanding here, but let me make some observations.

Sometimes, I notice that I wish I did more of some kind of activity. For instance, I recently noticed that I did less yoga than I wanted—namely, none ever. I often notice that my room is less tidy than I prefer. Certain lines of inquiry strike me as neglected and fertile and I have an urge to pursue them. This sort of thing happens to me many times per day, which I think is normal for a human.

The most natural and common response to this is to say (to oneself or to a companion) something like, ‘I should really do some yoga’, and then be done with it. This has the virtue of being extremely cheap, and providing substantial satisfaction. But sophisticated non-hypocritical materialists like myself know that it is better to take some sort of action, right now, to actually cause more yoga in the future. For instance, one could make a note in one’s todo list to look into yoga, or better yet, put a plan into one’s reliable calendar system.

Once you have noticed that merely saying ‘I should really do some yoga’ has little consequence, this seems quite wondrous—a set of rituals that can actually cause your future self to do a thing! What power. Yet somehow, life does not become as excellent as one might think as a result. It instead becomes a constant stream of going to yoga classes that you don’t feel like.

One kind of problem seems to come from drawing conclusions that are too strong from the feeling of wanting to do a thing. For instance, hearing your brain say, ‘Ooh babies! I want babies!’ at a baby, and assuming that means you want babies, and should immediately stop your birth control. This is especially a problem if the part of your brain that wants things (without regard to trade-offs) also follows up with instructions on how to get them. “Oh man, I really love drawing with oil pastels…I should get some…I could set up a little studio in my basement, and enter contests…I should start by buying some pastels on the way home, from that art shop near my house”. I have noticed this before, and now more often think “Oh man, I really love drawing with oil pastels…but probably not enough that it’s worth doing…I’ll put it next to having babies and starting a startup in the pile of nice things I could do if I didn’t have even better things to do”

Another kind of problem, which is what I’m actually trying to write about, is that after establishing that a thing would actually be great to do, it can be very natural to make a commitment to doing it. For instance, because I wanted to do some yoga, I signed up to a yoga class, and put a repeating event in my calendar. Similarly, if I want to see a person, often I will make an appointment to get lunch with them or something, which I am then committed to. Commitments often go badly. The whole idea of being committed is that you will do the thing regardless of your feelings about it at the time. Which has costs—many things are just much worse if you don’t feel like doing them, either because you need to feel like doing them to do them well, or because not feeling like doing them is information about their value, or because doing a thing you don’t feel like is unpleasant in itself.

There are of course upsides to committing—for instance it allows everyone to coordinate their plans, and doing a thing once may be more valuable if you have a strong expectation that you will do it another ten times. I think the error I make is just defaulting to commitments without much concern for whether commitments are appropriate to the situation. My impression is that other people also do this.

If I now want to do some yoga in the future, and I don’t want to commit myself to it, how else can I increase the chance of it happening? The options for influencing my future self’s behavior seem pretty much like those for influencing other people’s behavior (I actually rarely commit other people to doing things against their will). Here are some:

  • cause my future self to notice that yoga is an option
  • let her know about the virtues of doing yoga
  • make yoga salient
  • add further incentives to doing yoga
  • make it easy to do yoga

If I know the virtues of doing yoga, usually my future self will automatically know about them too, so that one isn’t widely applicable. Incentivising doing yoga might be good sometimes, but it sort of suggests that my natural incentives are substantially misaligned with my future self on this, and if that is so, it seems like there are deeper problems e.g. around very high discount rates, that perhaps I should sort out. That is, I’d like it if yoga didn’t just seem appealing because the costs are tomorrow, and I don’t care about tomorrow. Nonetheless, to some extent this is why yoga is appealing, and incentives can help align interests (especially if present me pays for the incentives, instead of stealing from some other future self).

The remaining options—make yoga known, salient, and easy—might be summarised as causing my future self to have an affordance for yoga. They might collectively be achieved by going to yoga once, so that I know where it is and what it involves, and have already paid some of the logistical costs. Also, I will gain a concrete sense of what yoga does that can pop up if I want that kind of thing. My guess is that I should do this kind of thing more often, and that I mostly don’t because I don’t have so much of an affordance for it as I do for making commitments. I haven’t actually tried this a lot however, so I’m not sure how often replacing commitments with affordances is good. It does seems likely good to at least notice that there are often alternatives to commitments, for when you are trying to have a causal influence on your future behavior.

One place I have tried this more is in social engagements. Replacing commitments with affordances is part of the motivation for things like the Berkeley Schelling Point (a regular time and cafe at which people can go if they want to hang out), a breakfast club that I’m part of, and my ‘casual social calendar’, in which I write things I’m doing anyway for which I’d be happy for company (e.g. going to the gym) so that my friends can join me if they feel like it. These have varying levels of overall success, but I think they are all better than higher commitment versions of them would be.

Thanks to Ben Hoffman for conversation that inspired this post.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.