Life’s Little Regularizers

Fighting back against complexity bias

My microwave has no clock and a single dial. I spent extra for that.

In my extended social circle, it’s hard not to feel surrounded by hyper-optimizers. People with a plan. They know the system, they’ve studied it in detail, they’ve figured out the math, calculated the rewards and made the optimal decision accordingly. Whether it’s about getting the right credit card, maximizing IRS deductions or making the perfect latte, they’ve gotten financial and personal optimization down to a science.

While I happily revel in handling untamed complexity every single day of my professional life, this is a skill I’ve never been willing, or able, to transfer to my personal world, irrespective of the sometimes intense social pressure to ‘optimize your life.’

A non-exhaustive list, just to make the argument more concrete:

  • Travel miles? — nope.
  • Credit card points? — ditto.
  • FSA, HSA, 529? — no, no, no.
  • Health care? — Kaiser.
  • Investments? — index fund.

I have periodically attempted to consolidate my finances in one place, as well as my insurance — though repeatedly failed at both.

Perhaps the most counterintuitive topic in machine learning is the concept of regularization. The gist of the idea is that in order to reach your true objective, you generally don’t want to optimize directly for that particular objective, but for something else that also tries to incorporate some definition of simplicity. The counterintuitive part is that, while this added simplicity penalty you impose on the solution to your problem seemingly detracts you from your true goal, it ends up improving your future performance, which generally speaking is all that really matters. A huge amount of work often goes into defining and quantifying what ‘simplicity’ should mean for a given problem.

I’ve come to justify my unwillingness to make optimal decisions that involved adding even a modest layer of complexity to my life as a kind of life regularizer: costly, but perhaps with a long-term reward that’s not reflected in the basic math. I often wonder how my suboptimal decisions are faring against people who take advantage of every opportunity. I know it’s never a good idea to pick a fight against compound interest, and that every bit of edge can be magnified in the long run, but the anecdota remains that many conversations I have about air miles are around how people had to use them for fear of losing them; or how at the end of every year, people scramble to figure out how not to leave money in their prepaid spending account. I often see big purchases being eased into under the guise of ‘earning points,’ and vividly remember my own attempts at becoming a more active ‘optimal’ investor right around the time of the dot com crash, which lead to all-too predictable result of making my life much more complex and my wallet lighter. Our inner complexity bias is also increasingly weaponized against us by marketers seeking to convince us that Occam’s razor actually had 5 blades and a USB port.

I do sometimes wonder if I end up spending as much mindshare and time finding ways to simplify my life as the ‘optimizers’ would trying to get the best deals. Arguably, one main source of regularization in our life tends to be plain old laziness. As simple doesn’t always mean easy, chasing simplicity may actually cost you time and energy. Which brings us to the question of how much one should be willing to spend to save time. Us salaried employees rarely think in terms of net hourly wage: it comes to about $32 for a $100,000 salary (2087 h/year, 33% tax rate). This is how much your neighborhood Homo Economicus should be willing to spend to save an hour, under the fallacy of course that time is a fungible asset, without which it’s not entirely clear why anybody not struggling to put food on the table would actually rationalize spending long hours in a job they don’t absolutely love. This hourly wage has some built-in promise of stability, a steady return on future hours worked, which means this is somewhat lower than what you should be willing to sell your discretionary time for. Nonetheless, it’s a useful bar: it should make no sense to spend an hour to save less than that wage, adjusted for your own salary. As a life regularizer, it’s actually tremendously useful in informing time vs. money decisions quickly and without agony. Of course, this might not work well in the tail of the distribution, for anyone under extreme financial pressure, or conversely someone with no discretionary time. It also doesn’t factor in externalities (you can save time by not taking public transit and come ahead, at the cost of more cars on the road), though that’s really the case for any financially-based decision.

Simplicity stops being useful if it becomes a goal in itself, but as a gentle pressure added to life’s important decisions, it has proven to be very effective at keeping my inner FOMO in check. ‘Simpler is better’ may seem like a very lame topic to spend these many words on, but the fact that I see myself be at such a different place on the ‘simplicity spectrum’ than many of my friends and colleagues makes me wonder if I’m the only weirdo out there with a complexity phobia, and, now, even a hand-wavy theory to justify it to myself.