LW – Analysis of Returns on Time Spent

I don’t have a good name for this fallacy, but I hope to work it out with everyone here through thinking and discussion.

It goes like this: a large majority of otherwise smart people spend time doing semi-productive things, when there aremassively productive opportunities untapped.

A somewhat silly example: Let’s say someone aspires to be a comedian, the best comedian ever, and to make a living doing comedy. He wants nothing else, it is his purpose. And he decides that in order to become a better comedian, he will watch re-runs of the old television cartoon ‘Garfield and Friends’ that was on TV from 1988 to 1995.

This is absolutely not a great use of his time. Maybe he’ll learn a little about jokes structures and pick up a gag from the show. It’s probably not entirely useless. But Garfield and Friends wasn’t all that funny to begin with, and there’s only so much to be learned from it. The would-be comedian would be much better off watching Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, and Bill Cosby if he wanted to watch old clips. He’d be much better off reading memoirs, autobiographies, and articles by people like Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld. Or he could look to get into the technical aspects of comedy and study well-respected books in the field. Or best yet, go to an open mic night, or spend time writing jokes, or otherwise docomedy. But he doesn’t, instead he just watches re-runs of Garfield and Friends.

I think a lot of us are guilty of this in our daily lives. Certainly, most people on LessWrong examine our lives more carefully than the rest of the world. A lot of us have clear goals. Maybe not a full, cohesive belief structure, but pretty clear. And sometimes we dabble around and do low-impact stuff instead of high impact stuff. The equivalent of watching Garfield and Friends re-runs.

I’ve been an entrepreneur and done some entrepreneurial stuff. In the beginning, you have to test different things, because you don’t know what’s going to work. But I’ve seen this fallacy, and I was guilty of it myself – I didn’t double down and put all my efforts into what was working, or at least commit mostly to it.

The most successful entrepreneurs do. Oh, keep learning, and diversify a bit, sure. But I remember watching a talk about the success of the company Omniture – they had two people in their enterprise business-to-business side, and 60 people in their business-to-consumer side. Then the founder, Josh James, realized 90% of their revenue was coming from business to business, so he said – “Hey. 58 of you go over to the business to business side.” And just like that, he now had 60 of his team working in the part of the company that was producing of the company’s revenues. Omniture sold last year for $1.8 billion.

I feel like a lot of us have those opportunities – we see that a place we’re putting a small amount of effort is accounting for most of our success, but we don’t say – “Okay, that area that I’m giving a little attention that’s producing massive results? All attention goes there now.” No, we keep doing things that aren’t producing the results.

I’m curious as to why. Do we not evaluate the return on time? Is it just general akrasia, procrastination, fear of success, fear of standing out? Those hard-wired evolutionary “don’t stand out too much” things? Does it seem like it’d be too easy or can’t be real? 

A lot of times, I’m frittering time away on something that will get me, y’know, very small gains. I’m not talking speculative things, or learning, or relaxing. Like, just small gains in my development. Meanwhile, there’s something on-hand I could do that’d have 300 times the impact. For sure, almost certainly 300 times the impact, because I see some proven success in the 300x area, and the frittering-away-time area is almost certainly not going to be valuable.

And heck, I do this a lot less than most people. Most people are really, really guilty of this. Let’s discuss and figure out why. Your thoughts?

http://lesswrong.com/lw/2p1/a_failure_to_evaluate_returnontime_fallacy/

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Cal Newport – Nathan Med School Student

Nathan is pre-med at the University of Texas at Austin, where he’s currently tackling the weed out courses that give this major its bad reputation. Here’s what makes Nathan interesting to me: he finishes his work by 5:30 pm every weekday.

In fact, he doesn’t just finish it, he dominates it.

“On the last chemistry test, the average score was a 57,” he told me recently. “I made a 98…My professors are fascinated by me.”

Naturally, I asked him to share a typical day’s schedule:

  • 6:00 to 6:30: Breakfast/Shower
  • 6:30 to 9:30: Study
  • 9:30 to 10:20: Class
  • 10:30 to 11:30: Study
  • 11:30 to 12:30: Lunch
  • 12:30 to 1:30: Class
  • 1:30 to 2:30: Class
  • 2:30 to 5:30: Study
  • 5:30 to 11:00: Chill by meeting girls, explore the rolling hills and lakes of Austin, listen to live music, etc.

Here are two things I noticed about Nathan:

First, he’s not necessarily working less than his peers. His schedule includes 40 hours of studying per week, which is about right for his course load. He simply consolidates this work better.

“But he wakes up at 6,” you might complain, “I could never do that.”

Nathan’s out chasing girls before most students have even started their work for the day. Fair trade, if you ask me.

The second thing I noticed is that he’s obsessive about focus. He doesn’t just “study,” he works on the 7th floor of the engineering library: one of the most isolated spots on campus (see the above image). He works in 50 minutes chunks, and does 10 minutes of calisthenics, right there on the library floor, between every chunk. In three hours of this focused studying, he probably accomplishes more work than most pre-meds do in ten.

I don’t claim that Nathan represents a specific system that all pre-med students should follow. To me, he’s just a nice example of a more fundamental observation: the happiest students are those who take control of their academic experience, molding it to fit their own ideal of a life well-lived.