Saturday, March 21, 2009

Knowing What You’re Maximizing

One of the toughest problems in economic theory has to do with the question, What do people want? One of the early answers said that no matter how much you had, you would always want something more. By the early 20th century, economists generally accepted the idea that we don’t have to know what you want, but we can assume that you want something and are organizing your life to get as much of it as possible. Later, theorists said that people really can’t maximize their lives in the short run, because that would be too complicated. Instead, people make changes in areas of their lives that are most obviously deficient in order to approximate, in the long run, the best they can do with what they want in life.

None of this, of course, answers the question about what people ultimately want. But if a precise answer to that question is not important for economic theory, it can make a difference in your individual life if you have a clear idea of what you are trying to get. Most life coaches will advise you to clarify this through a kind of goal-setting process, like you were an engineer designing your life, but it can be even more illuminating to approach this question from the opposite direction, effectively reverse-engineering your life.

To do a quick first approximation of this:

  1. Remember where you were and what you did over the last seven days.
  2. Write down five things you did each day, or tried to do, that took a considerable time, focus, or effort on your part. This gives you a list of 35 actions.
  3. For each of these things, what was the goal or motivation for your action? What were you ultimately trying to accomplish, or what was driving you?
  4. You’ll find that you have similar answers for many of the actions. Form them into groups and count the number of occurrences of the three largest groups. Looking at each of these three groups, what direction is your action taking you?

This gives you an idea of what you’re maximizing in life, based not on the goals and dreams you say you have, but on your actual recent actions. Very few people find a clean correspondence between where their actions point to and what they say their goals and dreams are.

There are two motivating factors that people often are not aware of, but that can easily eat up half of your time, focus, and effort. These are:

  1. Trying to improve on your parents’ lifestyle — living the same general kind of life, only slightly better in every way. For example, if your parents had a dog, you have a better dog.
  2. Trying to live up to what looks like peer pressure, which actually does not come from peers, but from commercial messages. For example, you feel as if you have to look “right” or go on a vacation you can brag about.

In both cases, you give up more than you realize by letting someone else — your parents or commercial advertisers — set the agenda for the way you live your life. How much do you give up when you give up control of the agenda for your life? It could be enough to make the difference between a 40-hour workweek and a 4-hour workweek. And to me, that’s what Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek is really about. If you think about what you really want, you might decide that you don’t really want a dog, a house, or a full-time job. You could save seven hours a day! What will you do with all that free time?

Of course, there is always plenty to do. That’s a point on which traditional economic thinking is completely in line with common sense. You have to decide what you want to do. And if that is alien territory for you, Tim Ferriss’s blog and YouTube channel provide many colorful examples of the possibilities to get you started.