05 November, 2011

More X is good

A lot of decisions about things in life is about optimization: how long should I study for this exam, in which order should I do things a,b, and c, how much pounds will I need to exchange when going on a trip. Now, those things aren’t terribly hard to decide. The longer you study, the less free time you have – simple rule. You probably have an inkling as to what kind of questions the lecturer prefers, and you have an idea of your strong and weak points. Cash exchange is a problem already framed in numbers, so that’s even easier. The problems start, however, when we’re facing larger problems with multiple variables.

To take an example, let’s think about an example questions, say “How much time should I spend per week to improve my career prospects?”. Let us define “improve career prospects” as anything that goes beyond the pareto rule and your standard result – basically anything that is extra effort aimed at making you better off careerwise. Depending on your career, it can be anything from networking to programming to reading articles or magazines, to name a few. I’m sure you know better than I do, what that would be in your career.

So, what kind of optimization problem are you facing? What are the relevant variables? The input side seems straightforward enough: time. No worries there. The output side, too: career prospects. What’s my problem, then? Well, mainly the fact, that there are a dizzying number of interdependencies here. A lot of other stuff is influenced by your decision on this problem. To name a few: time spent with your family, time spent on hobbies, energy available for other things, physical fitness, etc… Pretty much anything, that involves time in one way or another. Those are the hidden output variables.
In these kinds of situations, our brain fails us. You know that your time is limited. You know that the time you cannot spend all of your time on improving your career prospects. You know that you want to have hobbies and a family, too. But instead of supporting the decision you’ve made about splitting your time, your brain goes completely haywire.

As you do something that you intrinsically enjoy, for example advance your career, you brain releases dopamine. And dopamine makes you feel good. So your brain goes “Oh yeah! Feel so good, gimme more of this!!” But you can never fulfill that expectation completely – because you want to do other things, too. And when this happens with every enjoyable thing…you’ll be left with a crave for more, a crave for more of everything that you desire.

It does help to realize that your brain works like this. Because next time, when you feel like you haven’t spent enough time with your wife/spouse/kids/work/hobbies/whatever, maybe you’re right – maybe you’ve been slacking off. Or maybe it’s just your brain talking.

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