Thoughts on Planning

by radimentary

Partially as an extension of the “Binge vs. Steady” thought from Reflections I, here are three things that worked for me to get better at planning my day and valuing the power of incremental progress.

Value a Habit as if You Reap the Rewards Immediately

In a binge-progress state of mind, you value an activity for how much value that activity provided you just then. In a steady-progress state of mind, you value an activity for how much value it provides, plus some fraction of the total value you receive from becoming the kind of person who can do this thing (or even things in general) over a long period of time. So if you spend 15 minutes grading today, value it as if you just did the work of grading for 15 minutes for the next week. Don’t be unrealistic about this, however, habits do have some extra cost every day even if you get into them.

Another useful metaphor for me is to imagine building a habit as cooperating with a bunch of copies of decision theorist you across time, so you only have to make the decision once and reap the rewards of the simultaneous cooperation immediately. Newcomb’s problem where you are your own Omega. If you expend the mental energy to cooperate on the first day, the second day, and the third day, allow yourself to expect that you will cooperate in the future. This is a fairly realistic model in the sense that the first few times are the most difficult to get started on. This idea of cooperating with many copies of future you in TDT deserves its own post. The more I think about it, the more I feel that Newcomb’s problem is a parable about becoming someone who can build steady habits. In real life, the only Omega that understands you well enough to predict your actions is you.

Plan Activities You Enjoy

Jordan Peterson talks about “planning a day you would like.” That means that whatever you were looking forwards to, plan those things as well. Just because you don’t need to force yourself to do things doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan it. This should also improve your overall happiness with the idea of scheduling itself.

This is especially useful for things that you would like to do but might forget about. A lot of my enjoyment of RPGs like Diablo 3 or Age of Decadence comes from the planning of the character itself and imagining the awesome badassery that will ensue, not from actually playing the character once the levelling progression is complete.

Meta-Increment towards Incremental Progress

Incremental progress is king, and if there’s a single most important habit to increment towards, it is the habit-building habit itself. I would not start by immediately planning half a day of “chores” that you would not otherwise do. Start by planning half an hour of something, and increment the amount every week, say. Everything in the previous idea applies doubly to the “habit-building habit.” For “I planned and then executed 15 minutes of grading a day,” add the expected value gained from grading regularly, plus the expected value gained from being that much better at planning your day.

Another thing I have found useful is disentangling the “planning phase” and the “following through phase.” What I mean is that I add a regular activity to my day in two steps. I add it to my regular daily plan and don’t push myself to actually follow through with it, or maybe do much less than I plan. Eventually I ramp up to actually doing it more. Sometimes at the beginning, I would stop planning something if I just skipped it for one day. There’s no reason to do that – incremental progress is king and something is better than nothing! Just get Google Calendar out and start planning.

One more experimental planning trick I’ve tried with moderate success is what I call “planning negatively.” Instead of picking times when you “must do something,” pick times which are the only times that day you “are allowed to do something.” If you have a book or video game to enjoy, block out four hours in the evening for it, and don’t do it until then. If you have a chore that you haven’t been doing, block out half an hour which is the only time you’re allowed to work or worry about it. I find that negative planning is useful for two reasons: if the thing is fun it becomes a sort of exciting thing you can look forwards to, and if the thing is icky you don’t have to worry about it for the rest of the day.