Tyler Cowen on Time Management

The cryptic one says:

All people are equally good at time management, but some people are more willing than others to admit that they are doing what they want to do, while others maintain the illusion they wish they were doing something else.

Completely unhelpful. And obviously false!

Here’s the easy proof: (1) If it is possible to improve your time management skills, then time management skills can be better or worse. (2) If time managment skills can be better or worse, then some people (or stages of people) are better at time management than others. (3) If some are better than others, all aren’t equally good. (4) It is possible to improve your time management skills. So, (5) All aren’t equally good at time management.

Tyler apparently denies (4), which is weird. It seems to me he’s just re-stating the well-known fallacy of psychological egoism. That each thing you have done is, ipso facto, the thing you were then most motivated to do, does not imply that you were acting in your self-interest. It implies nothing more and nothing less than that what you do is what you are most motivated to do. That is not very interesting. “Doing what you are most motivated to do” is equivalent to neither “acting in your self-interest” nor “managing your time as well as possible.”

Here’s a much more complicated argument from the intensionality of desire. Good time management intuitively has everything to do with coordinating first- and higher-order desires. Tyler seems to maintain that first-order desires are both motivationally decisive (true) and not subject to deliberative or therapeutic revision (false). This implies that higher-order desires don’t really count as desires at all, since they can’t do anything. There is no higher-order. If we are willing to admit that we are always already doing what we most want to do, then it is because we have a first-order desire to admit this. Likewise if we don’t admit this. If not admitting it amounts to an “illusion,” then some people are stuck in illusions because of their first-order desires about what to admit.

Now, while it may be true that not admitting that you’re already doing what you want does amount to an illusion, those of us who don’t admit it may not represent it as an illusion. But a change in representation can create a change in desire. Learning that Clark Kent is Superman may change Lois’ first-order desires with respect to Clark Kent. Likewise, a first-order desire to avoid illusions may lead me to adjust my willingness to admit that I was already doing what I wanted to do. Because of my stong feelings about not being self-deceived, simply reading Tyler’s post may have changed my first-order desires. I have become willing to admit something I was unwilling to admit before!

But notice that I did not previously represent my options the way I did because I wanted to represent them that way. Extensional exquivalence is often a discovery. But we can also induce these discoveries by, say, reading illuminating books on time management. It is a general possibility that redescribing our options can change what we want to do. And if there is some redescription of my options such that I would be doing what I believe I really want to do, instead of what I am actually doing, then it’s true that I have sufficient desire to do what I think I really want to do. I just need to think about my options in a different way. In which case, my “wish” is no illusion.

Some people really do get something out of Getting Things Done.

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