The Problem With My Friend Who Has This Problem

Dear reader, I have this ... friend, who has this problem, and I wanted to ask—

What do you mean, Who is he? You wouldn't know ... her, and—

You must realize that I'm already aware that it's a standard trope for someone to say "I Have This Friend" when they're really talking about themselves, and given that I know it's already a standard trope, I would never be so obvious as to actually do it! Therefore you must truthfully conclude that I really am talking about a—

Okay, that's a good point. No, I didn't consider the fact that that reasoning can't possibly be sound because if it were, then people would use it as an excuse to falsely claim that they were speaking about a friend rather than themselves, thereby contradicting the assumption that the reasoning is—

Well, we could try to calculate the probability that I really am talking about a friend conditional on your epistemic state and taking into account the game-theoretic considerations just mentioned, but that could take all night, so will you just listen to my transparent lies for fuck's sake?

Thank you. So I have this friend, who has this problem, which is that there's a not-infrequently-occurring scenario in which she has trouble doing stuff, which is this: she feels morally obligated to make progress on some work she owes someone else, but she also wants to make progress on her own personal projects. She thinks she ought to work on the thing she owes someone before she works on her own stuff, but doesn't feel motivated to work on the thing for someone else, and she doesn't feel like she's earned the right to work on her own stuff, so she just ends up doing nothing instead. (Or not literally "nothing"; she looks at mildly informative articles and mildly amusing captioned images on the internet. But that should be considered a ground state which might as well be called nothing.) And so the day becomes a double tragedy: not only has she failed her sacred duties to someone else, she's also failed her sacred duties to herself, and for what? Tech news emphemera? Keeping up with all the comments on her favorite community blog? An adorable animated Graphics Interchange Format file of Rainbow Dash jumping on a bed? Not worth it!

Of course the right thing to do would be to efficiently work on the project she owes someone for a reasonable amount of time, and then work on her own project, but if my friend knew how to "just" do the right thing regardless of psychological state, then this problem wouldn't exist (and I wouldn't waste your time telling you about a problem that doesn't even exist on behalf of my friend who also doesn't ex—uh, doesn't ex–pect me to annoy you with problems that—unlike my friend—don't exist). To say that she should "just use willpower" isn't necessarily wrong, but it needs to be made more specific for the use of my poor friend, or an easier-to-use (although morally or pragmatically inferior) strategy is needed.

So I recommended to my friend that when she notices herself in this situation, maybe she should just start working on her personal stuff that moment, with the quiet hope that the psychological momentum of doing something, anything, can be carried over to fulfilling her obligations to others later in the day. Again, it's not the right thing to do, but surely it's better than what she lets happen now. It is written that the perfect is the enemy of the good, with the implied moral being that we should side with the merely good. I would prefer to say that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and while we would hope for the perfect to mercilessly annihilate all its enemies, sometimes you have to temporarily ally with a stronger enemy (in this case, the good) in order to vanquish an even greater foe (in this case, evil). But for humans at least, it amounts to the same thing.

Did I say the Right Thing?

4 thoughts on “The Problem With My Friend Who Has This Problem

  1. This is astute and hilarious. And I have a nice specific answer: use Beeminder! (discl: I'm a cofounder)

    Do you know about sites like StickK and GymPact? The idea is to set up a commitment contract to force yourself to do what you should be doing. Like some kind of reasonable split between work for other people, personal projects, and screwing around on the internet.

    Beeminder's twist is that it's all based on collecting data about you -- your commitment is to keep all your data points on a "yellow brick road" to your goal.

    Good luck to your friend! (Ha, this reminds me of what psychologists sometimes call "multiple selves" theory.)

    Danny of Beeminder

  2. I'm having trouble parsing "J'espère que le mieux sera impitoyablement écraser tous ses ennemis". Is that supposed to read "J'espère que le mieux écrasera impitoyablement tous ses ennemis" (i.e. "I hope that the best will pitilessly crush all its enemies")?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *