Why People Don’t Practice

When I was 16 I decided to teach myself to play guitar. I have been playing ever since and it’s probably my favorite pass time. But, playing the guitar (or any instrument) doesn’t always feel good. When anyone starts playing an instrument they’re not going to be good at it immediately. This makes playing frustrating and not enjoyable. The only way to start enjoying it is to get better at it and like everything in life, this requires practice. Something which people (myself included) don’t usually enjoy.

This is strange considering that while most people don’t enjoy practicing, they do enjoy being good at things. If you asked anyone would they prefer to be able to play guitar or not, I would imagine most people would choose the former option. Most people also know that practice would award them this ability, but very few actually decide to practice. This is because practicing is essentially a decision, and every decision has two influencing factors in it; preferences and constraints.

Your preference for doing something is determined by the amount of satisfaction or utility that decision provides you with. Whereas your constraints are the costs you would have to incur because of that decision. In this example our preference would be the satisfaction we would derive from being able to play guitar and the constraints would be the costs associated with practicing e.g. sore fingers, frustration, and time spent. This last factor is very important.

Time plays a huge role in motivating our decision making because time makes us discount our preferences. This is because individuals prefer the pull of immediate gratification over future satisfaction. Practicing is a perfect example of this. You have to incur all the previously mentioned costs in the present and only get to enjoy the benefits in the future. American economist, Paul Samuelson proposed the discounted utility model (DUM) which is entirely focused around the area of inter-temporal choice (decisions over time).

We can quantify how much we discount our preferences for a certain decision by using the following equation:

Discounting formula

Where u is your level of preference, d is the rate at which you discount those preferences, and t represents the value of time regarding the decision. So for example,  if you decide to do something in the present which provides you with 20 𝑢 and you discount it at a rate of 10% then your overall level of preference should round to 18.18.

If you were to make this same decision over a period of three time periods (t=3) then your level of preference for the decision would diminish to 15.03. This diminishing level of satisfaction we have for returns in the future vs the present is referred to as hyperbolic discounting and it’s the reason people find it difficult to save money, eat healthily, study, and practice.

By Daragh O’Leary

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