It’s not utilitarian to live in a cardboard box

October 2013

Trying to maximize your donation to charity, but worried that this requires you to give up lots of nice things for yourself? There are more purchases than you think that are justified. This is because attention is a scarcer resource than money. Any time that I have to worry about money, it takes up space in my very small working memory that could be used for useful and interesting thoughts. I think that for many people there’s a fairly low point at which it’s more productive to spend your marginal bits of working memory on trying to increase your income (or equivalent thing that you optimize if you’re not earning to give) rather than reducing expenditures.

This mirrors e.g. Ramit Sethi’s point that it’s easier to increase earnings than to suck up all of your attention trying not to buy a latte every day. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that you should never try to cut costs; for instance, it takes a lot less energy never to start drinking lattes, and some types of spending cuts like a cheaper house are big wins. But in general, just because cost cuts are more available doesn’t mean they’re the best thing you can do.

Edited from a post in the Effective Altruism Facebook group.

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Satvik Beri

I think working memory, willpower, insight, and communication are four scarce resources that deserve massive amounts of optimization (for someone living in a relatively rich country like the US.) A lot of people try to optimize time & money, but those are almost just consequences of these four.

One thing people don’t realize is that every item you hold in WM makes you slightly dumber (effectively), so worrying about lattes will literally affect your ability to solve important problems (and reduce your long-term earnings.)



Satvik: great point!


Satvik Beri

Working memory, not memory. So e.g. keeping a to-do list and setting calendar reminders instead of actively remembering where you have to be each moment.

You optimize the effectiveness of individual insights by spending time on higher levels of abstraction. E.g. instead of spending a lot of mental energy writing perfect emails, write great email templates. I find the approach in Rich Hickey’s “Hammock Driven Development” ( to be good for increasing the # of insights, as well as thinking “on paper” or with a visual, external representation instead of keeping thoughts in your head.

Not really, other than having observed that optimizing the effectiveness of working memory and willpower seem to be massively useful.