Fun and rational economic theory: reflections on the book “The Logic of Life”

What do you do for fun? Why do you do it? Do you want to shift your patterns?

I was surprised to hear Gretchen Rubin (The Happiness Project) say at her book talk that most grown-ups don’t know what they would do for fun. I can easily list things I enjoy doing. I can probably even explain why I enjoy doing them and how I want to change or improve.

Sometimes knowing what you would do for fun isn’t easy. It forces you to confront the fact that you do not do some things for fun, that the intrinsic enjoyment of it is dormant or gone. For example, I realized that making or giving presentations had dropped off the list of things I enjoy doing just because.

Are there activities you would like to enjoy more? What about activities you’d like to enjoy less? I’m like that too. Rational economic theory to the rescue! If you look at what you enjoy doing, think about the costs and incentives of different activities, and work on ways to change those costs and incentives, you can make it easier for you to do the kinds of things you want to do and avoid the things you don’t. In this blog post, I’m going to see if this geeky way of looking at fun actually works.

The relevant quote from The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World ( Tim Harford, 2008)

p4. Rational people respond to trade-offs and to incentives. When the
costs and benefits of something change, people change their behavior.
Rational people think – not always consciously – about the future as
well as the present as they try to anticipate likely consequences of
their actions in an uncertain world.

What do you do? What are your behaviours? What are the benefits? Let’s take a look at fun. Here’s what I do (roughly in order of preference), why I do them, and what I’d like to change.

Spending time with W-. This is an easy one. Pay-off: Richer relationships, more in-jokes, and quite a bit of learning along the way. We like cooking, discussing books, going for walks, and picking up shared hobbies, although we occasionally watch movies (mostly borrowed from the library). Cost: Time. Change: This part has good balance, so I don’t need to increase or decrease it.

Writing. I love writing down what I think and what I’m learning. I’ll even write as a way of procrastinating other things I need to do. Pay-off: The immediate benefits of understanding, the medium-term benefits of recall, and the long-term investment in a knowledgebase. The insights people share with me through comments and the insights they pick up from me through reading are icing on the cake. Cost: Time. Change: I think I spend a good enough amount of time on this and that I get great value for the time I spend on it. I might try spending less time on it.

Reading. I read voraciously. Fortunately, Toronto has one of the largest library systems in the world. Pay-off: I pick up new words and ideas that I can use in life and writing. Cost: Time and space. Change: although taking book notes and doing life experiments based on what I’ve read help me make sure I get more value from the time, I probably spend more time reading than I should. I get diminishing returns from, say, the Xth personal finance book I’ve read, and I suspect I sometimes read things to feel smug. ;) (Like the way people watch reality TV shows?) I can increase the cost of reading by planning to ask questions and write book notes for books that come in. I can increase the benefits of reading by sharing book notes and life experiments. I can shift to higher-value reading (new subjects, question-driven research).

Baking or cooking. I enjoy trying new recipes or making our favourites. Pay-off: Yummy food, new experiences, and closer relationships with W-, J-, and friends. Cost: Time and freezer/fridge/bread-box space. Change: Good balance here, no change needed. (Although it’s interesting that I’ve been procrastinating working on open source in favour of making bread, probably because the pay-off from appreciative family / friends makes me feel warmer and fuzzier.)

Walking or biking. Pay-off: Satisfaction of knowing I’m getting some exercise, long-term health benefits, and often shared time with W-. Cost: Wearing winter-friendly clothes when I’m working at home; making time for a walk when I’m at the office. Change: More of this, maybe at the expense of some writing. (Or maybe I can use walking time to think about what I want to write…) I can lower the costs by changing into going-out-friendly clothes when I’m working at home, and blocking out time for walks.

Planning and reviewing my finances. Yes, I actually enjoy doing my books and reviewing my plans. I’m weird. Pay-off: Satisfaction of knowing things are going well; confidence in being able to plan for purchases or goals. Cost: Time. Change: This doesn’t take a lot of time, but I should probably spend less time on this.

Organizing. Pay-off: Investment into being able to find things again, reducing frustration. The satisfaction of having a neat-ish place. Appreciation from W-. Cost: Time. Change: This is currently reasonable, although I could invest some time into simplifying and improving systems so that I can avoid even more clutter.

Playing the piano. Pay-off: Satisfaction from learning and from listening to music I’m playing. Mental exercise. Appreciation from W- and J-. Cost: Time. Change: I think this is okay. I might look into piano lessons if that will help me learn faster.

Gardening. Pay-off: Yummy food. Satisfaction of self-sufficiency (at least in small parts!). Experiences with nature. Shared experiences with W- and J-. Cost: Time and some money. Change: I want to do this more efficiently next growing season, working my way to a better yield.

Building furniture. Pay-off: Shared interests and shared time with W-. Custom items. The satisfaction of making things. Cost: Time, money, and risk. Change: More of this during the summer! =)

Sewing. Pay-off: Satisfaction of making things that fit my preferences. Cost: Frustration, time, some money. Task-switching cost – have to set up. Change: I’d like to do more of this. I can do that by starting with small projects, practising and improving my skills (so that I can reduce frustration), and attending lessons (formally blocks the time off, makes it easier to task-switch).

Working on open source. Pay-off: The buzz of solving problems; the convenience of programs that fit the way I work a little bit better; the appreciation of other people; improved technical skills. Costs: Task-switching (loading the relevant programs, remembering where I am and what I’m working on, getting into the swing of things); occasional bit of paperwork. Change: I’d like to do more of this, maybe by creating blocks of time where I can focus on open source.

Things that I would like to enjoy more:

Drawing. Pay-off: New skills; satisfaction from creating things; improved ability to communicate. Cost: Not entirely happy with drawing on my tablet yet; switching cost if I use the tablet downstairs. Change: If I get better at drawing through practice and learning, and I get used to drawing with one of the programs on my computer, then I’ll find this easier, more natural, and more enjoyable. GIMP? MyPaint? Paint? OneNote? Inkscape? I should pick one and learn it inside and out.

Making and giving presentations. Pay-off: Improved understanding. Helping other people. Connecting with others. Passive networking. Cost: Time. Risk of boring-ness. Obligation. Stress. Change: If I write more, I’ll have more to harvest for presentations. If I ignore the fear of being boring and just get something out there, that will help me deal with the stress of creating something for public use.

Meeting people. This includes meeting new people as well as hanging out with friends. It’s much too easy for me to go into introvert mode and get out to meet people only once in a while. Pay-off: Potentially interesting conversations. Opportunities to help others. Aha! moments myself. Friendships. Cost: conversations that don’t go beyond news, sports, and weather. Change: I should do more of this. Maybe if I focus on remembering how fun it was to hang out with my friends in the Philippines, that will motivate me to build more friendships here too. Simplifying my get-togethers might lead to my actually having regular monthly get-togethers. Setting aside specific blocks of time to be social will also help me work around my introvert tendencies.

Looking at this, I suppose I could scale back on reading, baking/cooking, planning, and reviewing my finances.

I can integrate organizing into my daily routines better.

I can work on remembering or increasing the pay-offs for meeting people and making presentations.

Then I can set aside blocks of time that I can use for drawing, sewing, or making presentations, and another regular block of time for meeting people or investing in relationships.

When summer comes again, gardening can take the place of some walking, and biking will take the place of my subway commute. Woodworking/building furniture is also spending time with W-, so that should be okay.

Thinking about this and writing things down helps me tweak the balance.

How about you? What do you do for fun? What are the costs and pay-offs? What would you like to change?

The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World
2008 Tim Harford
ISBN 978-0-385-66387-8

2011-01-19 Wed 06:20