Blocking Decision Fatigue

Thursday, January 24, 2019

I mentioned Alex Epstein's podcast, The Human Flourishing Project, some time back. I'd heard about it some time ago, but didn't have time to listen until very recently, due to our move. The series concerns finding the best way to achieve prosperity and happiness in our very unusual modern circumstances: Technology has advanced so far on so many fronts that it should be very easy in many respects to live an engaging, productive, and happy life. And yet, the following very significant obstacle to that goal remains: The knowledge of how to do this is often hard to get for many reasons, such as being drowned in a sea of non-knowledge.

Image via Pixabay.
This general problem is what Epstein opens his series with, and his solution is for us to work on improving what he calls our "knowledge systems." (e.g. How do we treat newly-encountered claims to knowledge? How do we evaluate experts? How can we test suggestions for ourselves?)

Throughout, I have been impressed with seeing both how Epstein has applied his knowledge systems to various concrete problems and some of the specific advice he offers after considering it. (Having said this, the best way to treat his specific advice is by applying one's own mind to it. This is in part to develop the habit of better evaluating claims to knowledge, in part to develop a better understanding of the type of problem one wants to solve, and in part because our individual natures and circumstances can require tailor-made solutions.) For one example, I learned from a STRIVE talk of Epstein's that he recommends meditation as a rejuvenation method. (He mentions this a few times in his podcasts, too.) This was interesting and fun, and I might try it again some time, but I usually fell asleep for about 15 minutes when I tried it a few months ago. I did learn that the resulting cat naps were sometimes somewhat refreshing. The point is, Epstein is demonstrating how to figure out good approaches to daily problems for which good advice is difficult to ferret out, if it exists at all.

A good, common, example is in order now. A couple of the episodes relate to relaxed productivity, and the first of these discusses a common problem -- and one that has greatly frustrated me over the years. I'll just dump my notes here for a description:
  • Example of tortured productivity [the opposite of relaxed productivity --ed]: Spending a work day unsure of what one should be working on. No plan, so options start popping into mind, so questions about priorities do. Eventually, on picking [a task], he starts wondering how best to proceed. This is complex, so by the time he gets to it, he's sapped of energy and stressed, so he hasn't the energy to do what he eventually chose. This is a very common and very miserable state that is a constant for many people.
  • He used to see this feeling as a symptom of over-commitment, but he now realizes that the feeling is due to a lack of prioritization.
  • Prioritization (what) and Work (how) BOTH require lots of effort, and mixing them is disastrous. Do each rigorously and separately.
  • He noticed early in life that lots of planning on Sunday worked extremely well, although he worried he was over-planning. But [what-planning] needs to be respected as its own kind of work... [format edits]
I couldn't have come across this at a better time: I have been trying to improve my own planning for quite some time, and had noticed the task taking longer and longer -- to the point that I was wondering if what I was doing was no better than a procrastination ritual. But it's clear to me now that the two kinds of planning can lead to decision fatigue when not separated. And worse, as long as planning a week can take -- Epstein recommends a big chunk of a day, if I recall correctly. -- the amount of time wasted and the degree of resulting frustration can dwarf that. So I now have something new I can add to my evolving weekly planning routine -- the realization that there are two kinds of planning to separate.

As a newcomer to this podcast, I have some advice of my own to offer to others who might be interested in trying it: Resist the temptation to just grab an episode about a topic that interests you. These build on one another and they're short. I tried that approach, listening to an episode here or there in the car while running errands, and taking notes later. But then I took a couple of solo road trips that allowed me to listen in batches. Listening to the first few consecutively helped me better appreciate the integration in Epstein's approach, and caused me to realize that different episodes than the ones I picked out were what I actually needed. (For example, I had tried "Engineering Your Life Routine," when "Relaxed Productivity" better suited the problem I was trying to solve.) Another thing you might find helpful is to listen through a whole episode (or set of them), resisting the understandable urge to take notes, and let it percolate for a few days -- and then re-listen for notes. You may well find things you initially missed when doing so.

So, you may find the technique of blocking out your weekly schedule helpful -- or you may have that one already figured out and have another question about the nuts and bolts of reaching your goals. I am looking forward to continuing to test this technique on myself, and hope I have succeeded in getting a few more people to give this podcast a hearing. I think there is something for everyone there, first and foremost the approach to new knowledge; second, careful thought about many common problems; and third, lots of ideas to try.

-- CAV

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