I had many meetings that day, and a lot of managing issues to attend, so I found myself thinking “I just can’t get any research done today”.

It was not the first time I had thought that thought; but it might have been the first time I applied my main epistemologist’s tool to it: I asked “Why?” For I did have time to work, not that much, yes, splintered, yes, but enough to make progress.

So why was I discarding the very possibility of making progress and working on my research?

Because I had internalized a false requirement: that I needed large chunks of time with no distractions to do research. That it was a precondition to me doing anything worth my time, and so investing little pockets of time here and there was a mistake.

Of course, long sessions of deep work are reliably more productive than 15 minute sprints peppered through a day of meeting. It’s a reliable and reproducible finding, and I’ve experienced it again and again in my own life.

Yet the point here is different. Instead of simply recognizing my lack of ideal condition, and deciding whether it was still worth it for me to do research despite the discrepancy, I automatically discarded the possibility of doing research. I turned ideal conditions into necessary conditions.

And it’s even worse than that. Because I could not even consider doing research despite distractions, I never exercised this specific attention muscle. I never trained myself to go back quickly and smoothly to my train of thought after an interruption. Which means that when I had to make progress despite the constraints and distractions (for example when I had both an important research deadline and documentation/posts to write), my research suffered far more than it needed to because I was not trained to get the best out of the little time I had.

Which naturally leads to the more disturbing question: how many instances of this kind of thinking am I not noticing? How much am I costing myself by subscribing to necessary conditions that aren’t really necessary, just ideal?


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This kinda reminds me of Failing with abandon

In defense of your unconsidered approach here: I've sometimes found that, if conditions aren't good, then I can do negative work, by making mistakes that take time to discover and come back and fix.

Now, it probably is possible to harness higher-mistake work time.  Put in extra effort to double-check your work as you go.  Some mistakes are easier to detect—for typos you just need to go through it again, for math mistakes you can see if approximations or "casting out nines" check out, but "Did I judge this nuanced tradeoff in this design decision correctly?" may require a different kind of thinking—so another approach is to select the subset of one's tasks that are one's comparative advantage while impaired.

It probably is possible to harness higher-mistake work time.  But it is a different skill than working at one's best, and it is a real skill; if you've never done it before, and you naively treat the one like the other, you'll probably get hurt.  It is, at the very least, understandable why one would avoid it until it becomes truly necessary.

Oh, I definitely agree, this is a really good point. What I was highlighting was an epistemic issue (namely the confusion between ideal and necessary conditions) but there is also a different decision theoretic issue that you highlighted quite well.

It's completely possible that you're not powerful enough to work outside the ideal condition. But by doing the epistemic clarification, now we can consider the explicit decision of taking step to become more powerful and being better able to manage non-ideal conditions.

This seems to generalize your recent Confusing the goal and the path take:

  • the goal -> the necessary: to achieve the goal, it's tautologically necessary to achieve it
  • the path -> the ideal one wants: to achieve the goal, one draws some ideal path to do so, confusing it with the former.

To quote your post:

For it conjures obstacles that were never there.

Or, recalling the wisdom of good old Donald Knuth:

Premature optimization is the root of all evil

Good point! The difference is that the case explained in this post is one of the most sensible version of confusing the goal and the path, since there the path is actually a really good path. On the other version (like wanting to find a simple theory simply, the path is not even a good one!

As someone who's experienced this, I've found that Slack is a helpful idea to bring to bear.

Sometimes, trying to utilize the small segments of free time leads to scheduling so much work that one small interruption snowballs into a huge failure. So I've often asked myself, "What can I do to create more slack so that I do have the required bigger chunks of time to truly focus on work that matters?"

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