Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thought for the Week of the May 25th Class: Finishing and Behavioral Economics

"Huh?  Behavioral economics?" you ask.

"Yes," I say.  "Because I have seen the light."

For years, I (and much of my family) have wondered how I could be so good at math (although I admittedly dislike it) and still have so little common sense when it came to money.  And I stumbled on the answer a few months ago:  behavioral economics.

Behavioral economics examines our behavior regarding our fiscal responsibility in terms of what we know intellectually, how we process it psychologically, and what we do (and how we feel about it) finally.

Behavioral economics is slightly more than common sense, and in this case, one of the lessons I learned from behavioral economics has direct bearing on one's ability to write and finish.  Here is the case:

An example of suboptimal behavior involving two important behavioral concepts, loss aversion and mental accounting, is a mid-1990s study of New York City taxicab drivers (Camerer et al. 1997). These drivers pay a fixed fee to rent their cabs for twelve hours and then keep all their revenues. They must decide how long to drive each day. The profit-maximizing strategy is to work longer hours on good days—rainy days or days with a big convention in town—and to quit early on bad days. Suppose, however, that cabbies set a target earnings level for each day and treat shortfalls relative to that target as a loss. Then they will end up quitting early on good days and working longer on bad days. The authors of the study found that this is precisely what they do.  (Excerpted from "Behavioral Economics."  The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.  2008.  Available online at http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/BehavioralEconomics.html)
 So what does this have to do with us as writers?

Simply, it teaches us five things about maximizing our efforts:
  1. Go to work.  Every cab driver actually had to go to work to get anywhere.  They had a time planned to work; they got into their cab; and they want to work.
  2. Have a strategy.  Every cab driver went out every working day with a route planned.  In order to make any progress at all, you need to plan a route.  You may not stick with it, but you at least need to have a plan.  Several other authors, experts, etc., have offered advice on creating plans, and we'll get there eventually, but for now, let's just accept that we need a plan.
  3. Set realistic goals.  Each cab driver had an expectation about how much they wanted to make.  The expectation in and of itself was not a bad thing.  And we know that the goals were realistic because the drivers usually attained them--although the time it took to attain them varied.
  4. Adjust your plans to the circumstances.  This step was the kicker.  This is where I have my gripes as a teacher and where I fail sometimes with money.  But the strategy for both (and for us with writing) is very simple:
    1. Recognize the progress you are making.  The cabbies knew how much money they were bring in, obviously, because they knew when they could quit.
    2. Adjust your practice to maximize the time you are spending.  Here's the rub.  Instead of just plugging away and plugging away on the rotten days, there needs to be a point of no return where you just call it a day.  That doesn't mean never plug away.  It means recognize when your wheels are just spinning and you need to call the tow truck or wait for the mud to dry.  On the other hand, though, you also need to recognize when you are making progress and build in ways to put in more time on the days that you are succeeding.  Don't quit early when you're doing well.  Plug at it a little more.  Go until you have to stop or just challenge yourself to keep at it for another half hour.
  5.  Recognize that your work is not a one-day deal.  The cabbies' initial goals were for single-day revenues.  Yes, we should have single-day goals.  But we aren't only working for a single day, and so
    we need to recognize that profits and shortfalls will occur and can balance one another out--without our killing ourselves over it--if we are smart in how we work.

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