A Rhythm in Notion
Small(er) Steps Toward a Much Better World

A New Year's Resolution is a Risky Business

Time Travel

‘Tis the season to consider New Year’s Resolutions, and that means thinking about what we want to do and what we should do! Suppose you have a chore to do, like cleaning the dishes, or a treat to enjoy, like an ice cream cone. Should you do the chore and enjoy the cone now, or later?

First consider if there’s an advantage either way: is future you better situated to deal with the problem than present you? Or will future you probably enjoy the ice cream more? In that case you should defer to the person who has the comparative advantage.

One effect of this rule is to make whichever time-you winds up with the job a little happier. “Why didn’t I do this earlier?” you might think. “Oh yes, I was stressed then and decided to wait until I was calm.”

Suppose though that you have no reason to think you’ll be better off doing the chore now or in the future. Should you live for the moment and screw over your future self, or bite the bullet now?

Tyler Cowen argues that we should not discount the value of the future, and that broad argument includes our personal futures. That is, we shouldn’t think our future selves are worth less. So we shouldn’t just throw our future selves under the bus without a second thought!

Risky Business

Crucially though, time introduces risk into our moral calculus! And interestingly, risk tells us both to enjoy the ice cream cone now, and to do the chore now. Faced with each choice, on both occasions you should choose to act now, not later!

Right now, faced with the choice, you can’t see any advantage to acting now or acting later, so your “comparative advantage” rule won’t help you. But that means you know that now is a good time, and later might be a bad time. You should therefore act now.

For instance, later you might be rushed, and wish that chore were already done. Or, later you might be in a bad mood, and unable to enjoy the ice cream. Right now, you know that you have time to do the chore, or you know that you’re in a good enough mood to enjoy the ice cream. Carpe diem!

The element of risk says: Don’t forget to smell the roses, and don’t leave till tomorrow what can be done today.

If you have read this wonderful essay on slack, you can also think of current action as saving opportunities for tomorrow, or as cushioning yourself against future risk.

  • You know that now you do not need to spend that time in leisure, but you might need to take a break tomorrow.
  • By the same token, if you’re considering whether to accept a new obligation, you don’t need that spare time today, but you might need it tomorrow.
  • If you are deciding whether to spend or save on a trifle, you know you don’t need to spend those dollars now, but your future self might well need to spend those dollars.

Naughty and Nice

There is still a contradiction here, hiding in plain sight. What if the chore and ice cream cone are mutually exclusive? Suppose I don’t have an ice cream cone, I have an Xbox, and I want to play a video game but also should clean the dishes.

Let’s take a side trip into virtue and vice, and experience and memory.

In general, virtues are actions that help our future self at the expense of our present self, and vices are actions that help, or at least please, our present self at the expense of our future self.

For instance, eating a donut feels good now but will make us fat tomorrow, so we think junk food is a vice. Running a mile doesn’t feel good, to most of us anyway, but will make us fit tomorrow, so we think this is a virtuous action.

I might feel a little chagrined, or maybe defiant, about the donut, but make sure to casually slip the morning run into conversation with others. We have moral emotions, at least in part, to help coordinate between our present and future selves. Just like moral emotions usually help us coordinate with other humans, moral emotions also help us coordinate with other humans who are us!

Some people don’t have the problem of short-term thinking - they are so dedicated that they want all of life to be nothing but progress towards their goals. I think they have gone too far, they are privileging their remembering self over their experiencing self.

Most people experience life in terms of stories, even if those stories do not hang together very well. When we look back, all we have are our memories, and these influence the stories we tell as well as the stories we then try to live. However, we remember far differently than we experience.

Should you always give your experiencing self, the in-the-moment self, the short end of the stick? I think not. Small children do not remember their infancy either and yet it’s wrong to allow them to suffer just because they will not remember it. Taken to an extreme, even if you are about to kill me so that I won’t remember you torturing me, I still prefer not to be tortured!

Conscious experience in and of itself has value. Even if you will not remember to tell stories about the pleasure you’re experiencing now, you should still enjoy it.

At the very least, you should be on the lookout for opportunities for enjoyment that won’t affect your future goals. This is like spotting free money on the sidewalk! You may as well pick it up.

Bring Your Other Self to Counseling

Considering risk helps us decide whether to choose current self or future self. But it will not solve all our time-related moral dilemmas for us. Like many moral decisions, I think this one should be made based on particular circumstances rather than broad rules.

Most people should respect their future selves more, and be more virtuous. You should probably mow the lawn now and play the xBox later. Some people should respect their present selves more, and adopt some vices.

But if you’re trying to achieve a particular goal, like a New Year’s Resolution, be biased toward taking action as opportunity presents itself! Opportunity may not knock twice.

Like everyone else, I will also recommend the wonderful book Atomic Habits as an aid to establishing any new habits you may have chosen for the year.

Happy New Year’s!