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A simple trick for managing your reserves of free will

ClearerThinking founder Spencer Greenberg is a mathematician who likes to look for ways that numbers can express complex features of human life. This week, he describes a trick he uses to keep himself on the straight and narrow with everyday decisions.

A trick I find really useful which I've employed for years: thinking of myself as having sustained free will for only about the next 5 minutes, and assuming my distant future self has free will only intermittently.

If, like most people, you think of yourself as continuously having free will in the future, you may have thoughts like:

  1. "I'll have an hour to do this project tomorrow, so I don't need to do it now."

  2. "Once I'm back from vacation, I'll start going to the gym every day."

  3. "I don't need to make this decision about where to invest my money now; I can make it at any time."

  4. "I'll choose not to eat those delicious cookies that are out on the kitchen table."

When you start thinking of your future self as having free will only intermittently, you instead ask yourself things like:

  1. "Do I expect that I'll actually do this project during the hour I have available tomorrow? What does my past behavior imply about whether I will actually do it?"

  2. "Based on what I know about myself, will I actually start going to the gym daily when I'm back from vacation? If I had to bet money on it, which side would I bet on?"

  3. "If I don't make this investment decision now, at what time am I likely to actually end up making it? Will it be later this week, or more realistically, months from now?"

  4. "Even if I successfully avoid eating the cookies on the table a few of the times that I pass them, do I expect that I will resist the temptation every time? Or will I eventually give in and eat them?”

Additionally, when you think of yourself as having reliably controllable free will for only the next 5 minutes, and start therefore viewing free will as precious, you may say to yourself things like:

  1. "Since I don't actually expect I'll spend that hour tomorrow doing the project, I'd better do it now."

  2. "Since I probably won't start going to the gym daily when I'm back from vacation as things currently stand, I'd better use the next 5 minutes to begin tweaking the situation to increase my odds of success, such as by picking the gym I'll go to, and asking a friend that lives nearby if he wants to go to the gym with me regularly.“

  3. "Since this investment decision will never feel urgent, I know I'll probably put off making it for a long time by default. But since I don't have time to make the decision thoroughly right now, I should set aside 3 hours on Saturday to do it, which I can block off in my calendar right now.”

  4. “Since I am in control of the decision right now, I should put the cookies into a jar that is out of sight, so that I won’t be tempted over and over again every time I pass the table.”

Or, to think of this all a slightly different way:

If you almost always drink more than you want to when you go out with your friend Don, you'll almost certainly do it next time too, unless something about you or that situation is significantly different next time around.

More generally, if you almost always do action A1 in situation S1, why would you assume you'll now instead do a different action A2 in the same situation? The fact that you can "choose" to do A2 instead of A1 is not enough to go on — you already have a demonstrated pattern of repeatedly choosing A1 in that situation, even though you could've chosen A2 in the literal sense.

So whatever the causes were the last time you did A1, they'll likely cause you to do A1 again in the same situation. If you want to do A2 instead of A1, then you should do what you can right now — while you have awareness and control over the next 5 minutes — to change the future situation from S1 to S2, where S2 is a new situation that pushes the balance towards you doing action A2 instead of A1. It could be that the change from S1 to S2 is a change you make in the surrounding environment (e.g. moving the cookies), or it could be a change in yourself (e.g. reminding yourself regularly about why you care about going to the gym), but whatever it is, it had better be a change. Otherwise you're likely stuck doing A1 over and over.

Yet another way to think about it: it's often useful to predict the behaviors of your future self much like you'd predict the behaviors of other people, adopting the "outside view."

You have 5 minutes of free will available to you right now, at this moment, if you choose to use it. It’s precious. What will you use it for?

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