This is part 1 of a sequence on problem solving.  Here is part 2.

It is a critical faculty to distinguish tasks from problems.  A task is something you do because you predict it will get you from one state of affairs to another state of affairs that you prefer.  A problem is an unacceptable/displeasing state of affairs, now or in the likely future.  So a task is something you do, or can do, while a problem is something that is, or may be.  For example:

  • If you want a peanut butter sandwich, and you have the tools, ingredients, and knowhow that are required to make a peanut butter sandwich, you have a task on your hands.  If you want a peanut butter sandwich, but you lack one or more of those items, you have a problem.
  • If you are sad, and you know that this is because you have not seen your favorite cousin in a while, and you have the wherewithal to arrange to have your cousin over, then arranging to have your cousin over is a task.  If you are sad, and you don't know why, then the sadness is a problem.
  • If eight of your friends are involved in massive unpleasant social drama, but you have a forty-three-step surefire plan to calm down the angry and smooth over the ruffled and chew out the misbehaved and bring back the normalcy, you have forty-three subtasks of one big task.  If you have no clue what the heck is up with the drama but it's on your last nerve, problem ahoy!
  • If you are a mortal creature, you may already be a problem-haver.

Problems are solved by turning them into tasks and carrying out those tasks.  Turning problems into tasks can sometimes be problematic in itself, although small taskifications can be tasky.  For instance, in the peanut butter sandwich case, if your only missing component for sandwich-making is bread, it doesn't take much mental acrobatics to determine that you now have two tasks to be conducted in order: 1. obtain bread, 2. make sandwich.  Figuring out why you're sad, in case two, could be a task (if you're really good at introspecting accurately, or are very familiar with the cousin-missing type of sadness in particular) or could be a problem (if you're not good at that, or if you've never missed your favorite cousin before and have no prior experience with the precise feeling).  And so on.

Why draw this distinction with such care?  Because treating problems like tasks will slow you down in solving them.  You can't just become immortal any more than you can just make a peanut butter sandwich without any bread.  And agonizing about "why I can't just do this" will produce the solution to very few problems.  First, you have to figure out how to taskify the problem.  And the first step is to understand that you have a problem.

Identifying problems is surprisingly difficult.  The language we use for them is almost precisely like the language we use for tasks: "I have to help the exchange student learn English."  "I have to pick up milk on the way home from school."  "I have to clean the grout."  "I have to travel to Zanzibar."  Some of these are more likely to be problems than others, but any of them could be, because problemhood and taskiness depend on factors other than what it is you're supposed to wind up with at the end.  You can easily say what you want to wind up with after finishing doing any of the above "have to's": a bilingual student, a fridge that contains milk, clean grout, the property of being in Zanzibar.  But for each outcome to unfold correctly, resources that you might or might not have will be called for.  Does the exchange student benefit most from repetition, or having everything explained in song, or do you need to pepper your teaching with mnemonics?  Do you have cash in your wallet for milk?  Do you know what household items will clean grout and what items will dissolve it entirely?  Where the hell is Zanzibar, anyway?  The approximate ways in which a "have to" might be a problem are these:

  • Lacking resources.  Resources include tools, materials, cash, space to operate, cooperative other persons, time, physical capacities, and anything else that will contribute directly to the bringing about of the outcome.  For instance, if you can't afford the milk you need to buy, carry it home once you've bought it because you have injured your elbow, or fit it into the fridge because the fridge is full of blueberry trifle, that's a resource problem.
  • Lacking propositional knowledge.  For instance, if you don't know where Zanzibar is, that's a propositional knowledge problem.
  • Lacking procedural knowledge or skill.  This overlaps somewhat with propositional knowledge, but roughly, it's data about how to go about applying your resources towards your goal.  For instance, if you don't know how to best approach your exchange student's learning style, that's a procedural knowledge problem.

So when you have to do something, you can tell whether it's a problem or a task by checking whether you have all of these things.  That's not going to be foolproof: certain knowledge gaps can obscure themselves and other shortfalls too.  If I mistakenly think that the store from which I want to purchase milk is open 24 hours a day, I have a milk-buying problem and may not realize it until I try to walk into the building and find it locked.

Part 2 of this sequence will get into what to do when you have identified a problem.


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I thought that everything in this article was obviously both true and important - enough that I promoted it as soon as I saw it, instead of waiting for it to be upvoted further. To clarify: It's not about low-level versus high-level goals. It's not about what you can do immediately versus later, or with or without further resources, or with or without breaking it down further.

It's about what you know how to solve, versus what you don't know how to solve; and the feeling of internal panic when you confront something you don't know how to solve; and the worst possible thing you can do to deal with that internal panic, which is to instantly propose a solution that turns it into a "task" but one that won't work. And HughRistik has an incredibly good point about the external converse, when people who are already good at something give advice that completely fails to turn a problem into a task. Alicorn's post is true and important because making the explicit distinction may help people on both the internal and external problems.

I encountered this over the Summit weekend. 1.5 hour lunch with a couple of people who could not stop solving the Friendly AI problem.

I suggest there's a third major way to fail, especially among smart people: crunching the problems into tasks and stopping. Not actually doing the tasks.

Out of curiosity, what is the most promising suggestion regarding Friendly AI that you've heard from someone who had probably spent fewer than 48 hours thinking about it?
This is a great example, and was very helpful to me in understanding the article; I think it, or one substantially like it, should be added.
Er....please, not if it's going to be another thread in which geeks whine about not getting girlfriends and how society is trying to stop them procreating and all the advice is actively harmful and probably intended as such and how even if I spoke to that cute girl she'd just make fun of me and blah blah expletive deleted blah... Maybe there should be a geek dating and discussion site, but I'd rather such a thing was independent from LessWrong.
The fact that people might write replies that aren't worth reading is not an argument against posting.
HughRistik's comment, though, and now a top-level post, is already well down the road I described.
Imagine a society that put non-trivial effort into helping the type of male HughRistik described in his comment here and in the previous discussion, and that actually updated its advice as it learned what worked and what didn't. One where you can openly give effective advice about what a man should do to create interest from females without being ridiculed. Compare it to the present society. Do you see a difference? If so, you are in agreement. Despite the humor in the comic, that is a real danger: men do have "something to lose", well above and beyond the feeling of rejection: he suddenly becomes a "pervert", the woman tells others about what a loser he is, etc. I know because I have lived it. What's the difference between a romantic act and a pervy one? Whether the woman has decided she likes the guy doing it.
What about all the PUA stuff? I know nothing more of it than has been discussed here and from looking around their web sites, but it's been spoken of with approval by some here and on OB. Not that I'm recommending it, I have my own ideas about it which aren't relevant here, but there it is for the studying. Yes, there are people who say that it's nasty and manipulative, yadda yadda. What do you care about that? The PUA people don't. Take it or leave it. If "society" doesn't lay out a red carpet for you it's deliberately doing you down? Sorry, but it isn't anyone else's responsibility to solve your problem. You solve it yourself, or not. Resources are out there, and pretending they aren't and whining about how if it wasn't for "society" you'd succeed at this is just an excuse to justify losing. And so you believe that any time a man asks a woman out and she declines, he gets labelled a pervert and badmouthed to all her friends. That is actually not how things work in the world outside your head. Offers amicably made and amicably declined happen all the time. BTW, minor quibble (or major truth, depending on how far you pull on the loose thread): there is no such thing as a feeling of rejection. There is only the fact of being turned down (if it happens), and whatever attitude you decide to take about it.
Yes, people who could actually use the advice appreciate hearing it. I'm talking about disapproval from society in general. There is no widely-accepted, effective advice that you can openly talk about for how to attract women, like there is for women wanting to attract men. PUA is a recent development that is slowly allowing men to work around this problem, but its effectiveness will always be officially denied in polite company, no matter how much evidence accumulates. Yikes! Putting words into my mouth there? Let's see, I didn't claim there are no resources, I didn't aim to justify any of my personal failings, I didn't claim that society has to throw out a red carpet for every idea. However, there is a very real problem for men in general, and it's ridiculous to equate any discussion of that with excuse-making. For what it's worth, I am most certainly not retiring to my cave on this issue, and in no sense have I given up. I have, in fact, availed myself of the resources you mentioned. Though I won't publicly go into much detail, it proved my suspicions right -- the course assumed a prerequisite level of implicit social knowledge that I didn't have. Fortunately, I got a refund and have been developing in that area. As the thread Hugh linked shows, my efforts have led to a date, so I most certainly not taking the attitude you have so rudely ascribed to me. Again, putting words into my mouth. I never claimed that this happens every time, I don't believe it happens every time, and it wasn't necessary for my point that it happens every time. All that's necessary is that the risk be too high. If you've never had that problem, good for you -- you're a natural, or learned the appropriate protocols from the appropriate people. That's still no reason to deny the existence of the problem for others. Nope, there's also the change in other people's behaviors and beliefs about me that result from a failed attempt, which I cannot alter merely by changing my view of how I was
This, from OB seems particularly relevant.
Whoops, misread that and focused on a point that wasn't there. Thought RK's comment expressed a sentiment that it did not actually express, or at least expressed only very mildly. Original comment: African nations could all develop well-functioning, corruption-free constitutional democracies, if only people took responsibility for their actions. You see how this attitude is, perhaps, less than constructive? I'm willing to bet that what works for you isn't working for a lot of other people; a solution existing doesn't help people who can't employ that solution. Until employing that solution is a task, and not a problem, there's progress to be made.
I don't accept this analogy. It would take a large number of people acting together to change the African situation. One person acting on their own can do little. But SilasBarta's desire for an active social life only requires action by him. The problem, as he describes it, is that he does not know what to do, that what he has done so far has failed, sometimes catastrophically. But nobody is stealing women from him. Nobody is preventing him doing whatever it is that will work, should he ever discover what that is (although depending on the scale of past catastrophes, he might have to emigrate to another continent to start over). Nobody is to blame. I have been single for all of my 54 years. Make of that what you will.
One thing I'll add is that I don't want people to think from either of our posts that dating is only a problem for shy or interpersonally-challenged straight males. I was once at a club talking to guy I met who turned out to be gay. He was telling me that he has no idea how to approach new guys at clubs. He said something, "well I could go up and ask if they want a drink, but that feels cheesy... and then what?" Clearly, he is aware of the socially acceptable taskification (buy potential partners drinks), but finds it inadequate and feels lost about what concrete actions to take. Everyone except naturally adept and popular kids suffer from the norm against taskifying the dating process, or using taskifying to learn how to develop dating skills and attractiveness. Males are just the only population that date from a pool of people who typically (a) are more selective than them, and (b) expect them to be the primary initiator of advances.
Or he becomes a "stalker". I've lived that, and it's not good for anyone.
It sounds like you're writing off the Romantic view without properly understanding it. Every day is an adventure! Why 'taskify' "attracting mates" when you can just follow your intuition and see where the road takes you? The Romantic view doesn't specify that if you follow your intuition, then good things will happen. Rather, it suggests that you should follow your intuition - full stop. Perhaps Romanticism is an easy target on a community devoted to rationalism, but it's unhelpful to complain that your hammer is not a good screwdriver.
Certainly possible. But I think you do a good job of summarizing the view I'm criticizing, and showing why I write it off. Sounds great... unless you are actually trying to solve a problem that your current intuitions are inadequate to solve. But I kind of agree that Romanticism is being held to the wrong standard: solving real-world problems and gaining empirical and procedural knowledge is not really what Romanticism is for. Which is exactly why it's so strange to see the attitude that problem-solving in socializing and dating must not violate Romantic ideals at any stage. It's proponents of this attitude that are trying to turn a hammer into a screwdriver. Connecting with one's intuitions and instincts can often be difficult: it can be a problem. Yet this problem can be mitigated through taskification: you can systematically identify factors that are preventing you from acting on your instincts, and remove those factors. See this video advising men to avoid anxious, tentative language when asking women out that masks the intensity of their feelings. The goal of expressing one's feelings is romantic, but the means involves certain tasks: such as resisting anxiety that might make you uses hedging language that diffuses the chemistry, and instead "claim what's true" for you with "integrity" and "conviction."
I don't think there's anything here I disagree with.
The Romantic view is a description of what the process feels like from the inside, by someone to whom it does not feel like anything. A fish is not the best authority on water.
Because following my intuition is the default state, and results in precisely zero romantic relationships. Why is it so hard to communicate that people giving romantic advice don't quite understand what situation their audience is in?
Some adventures don't go well.

If you follow your intuition and good things never happen, it's time to take the Romantic view and put it on a rocket ship and fire that rocket ship into the Sun.

Phfft - just what a Realist would say.
And if you do eventually manage to screw things up...looking back and not having anything to say but "I got lucky" is pretty damn disheartening.
I have a little "luck" story. My first, and so far only, girlfriend, was a person who my mom saw one day working in a video store. Being concerned with my personal life, she called me and recommended I go to the store to flirt with the girl. I did, and it went pretty well, though I didn't ask her out. Then I came home and googled her name. Well, it turns out that her first name, alone, (which was on her name tag) identifies her uniquely in the world. (It's not that weird just looking at it, but still.) And she had a livejournal. Which I read. And she had just broken up with her last boyfriend. After that, e-mailing turned into phone calls and dates and then real dating. I broke up with her after a while--I wasn't lucky enough to get someone extremely compatible, but I look back on it now and appreciate that we were pretty damn compatible, and in many more ways than could be expected just by updating on a few surface-level signals, which was all I had available at first.
Your mom is quite the wingman.
That word, I do not think it means what you think it means.
I think "matchmaker" is the traditional term.
pdf23ds writes: I would not break up with a woman just because we are not "extremely compatible". (I might break up with a woman because I met someone else who is more compatible, but that is different. One reason that is different is that I tend to think that it is a lot easier to interest woman # 2 in a relationship if you are still with woman # 1, and part of the reason for that is that a man in a relationship exhibits subtle non-verbal signs that women can pick up on that are very costly or impossible for most men to learn to exhibit at will for the duration of the courtship phase. Or so it seems to me.) A large challenge for young people is to get to a place where their social connections, income, net worth and general knowledge of the world provides a nice cushion or source of resilience. A significant proportion of young people get stuck along the way to that place of resilience with the result that they never reach the destination or, if they do, they languish for years or decades in poverty, depression, social isolation or in some other form of unpleasantness. Having a girlfriend or a wife makes a man significantly more resilient. This is because when a woman loves a man, all or almost all of the woman's "ego skills" (a term used or formerly used by the psychotherapy profession to mean something like what writers on this site mean when they say "instrumental rationality") are available to the man. In contrast, the ego skills of a doctor, social worker, psychotherapist or such are generally mostly not available to the patient or client even if the patient or client is paying the doctor, psychotherapist or such $100 or $200 an hour (though that would definitely increase the expected rate at which the ego skills transfer). In other words, the rationality, the intelligence, the cognitive skills (particularly those having to do with the mind or with human society) of a person are available to the individual owner of those skills, but not in general to the per
OK, another thing. I now remember that a bigger reason than the lack of compatibility that I broke up with my girlfriend was that I had almost no respect for her, possibly quite unfairly (but nevertheless), and I felt that with this asymmetrical situation, staying together was not at all fair to her. I still don't see how I could possibly have enough respect for a person to not feel this way unless they're very compatible with me.
I really appreciate your exploring this topic with me. Feel free to continue the conversation by private email. I have not so far experienced significant difficulty winning women I go on to continue to respect. What most rapidly decreases my respect for a woman (and the same thing goes for all my friends and indeed, if I am not forgetting something, all human being or at least all human being who were raised in the Western tradition) is habitual lying, particularly, lying in order to obtain a personal benefit (fraud in other words) or other violations of basic ethical standards around which there has been widespread agreement (at least in the West) for thousands of years. The girlfriend of 5 years who just dumped me? More probably than not, she never lied to me. But part of the reason for that is that I would regularly proclaim to her that I have never lied to her in the slightest matter (which was and remains true) and that I expect the same behavior from her to me. If she did lie to me, almost certainly it was in a series of "misdemeanors" or petty matters. I did not observe her to lie to any of her friends as far as I can recall. If she did, it was something small. It is extremely _un_likely that she would ever do serious harm to any of her many friends through fraud or other clear violations of the basic ethical standards. My first girlfriend (of 3 years) I am almost sure never lied to me or cheated me in any way. The government and major corporations? Different story. But never anything "actionable" (anything that could result in her getting sued or prosecuted.) Before my first girlfriend, I considered defrauding the government or a major corporation just as bad as defrauding a person. So that first relationship definitely got me to become more tolerant of that if it is minor. I still think people should treat fraud of major corporations as just as bad as fraud on a individual, but my first relationship got me to face the fact that most people -- and most "go
Let's talk about lying! It is a topic very much like dating, but without dividing people. You talk about thousands of years of consensus on lying, yet you also talk about learning that most people, even most "good people" disagree with you. I suspect I'm just not parsing something here, but the need for careful parsing seems like a bad sign. I'd like to hear more about self-deception about lying. I think most people don't notice most lying that they do, having put it in some other bucket. But that looks to me to be a very different belief than your belief about self-deception. I'd think that only people who want to express righteous indignation about lying (like you) would need to self-deceive.
Hmm, long comment. Let me start at the end. I think this is a communication error. I didn't mean that I require extreme compatibility--my phrasing was perhaps a bit idiomatic or even idiolectic. My very vague and silly guess is that among women in my age range, she was more compatible than about 49/50 of the others. And what I'm looking for is more like 1/300 or 1/400. Is that level of compatibility extreme? Am I being too picky? Well, if I thought that, I would be less picky, obviously, so I give it a .5 chance. As I implied above, my estimate of her compatibility has risen a lot since when I broke up with her. I would now agree, and regard my breaking up that soon a mistake, though I didn't ever believe that we had anything long-term. Due to my own issues, the bond was quite asymmetrical, heavier on her side, which is how I could have overlooked its value.
Thank you for clarifying what you mean by extreme compatability. I did not misinterpret what you meant. Consider all the women between 22 and 60 in the eastern part of Marin County, California. Note the extremely broad defintion of "my age range." (Again I'm 49) Not all the single women, but all the women, single and looking, single and not looking or married. My next girlfriend will come from this set with probability .9 or more unless I move, which is very unlikely. (Of course she is more likely to come from the subset of those not now married.) Now (using Pearl's language for causal models) do surgery on my model of reality so that I am already in a sexual relationship with one of these women picked at random. Do additional surgery so that she and I already know each other at least as well as couples usually do. Acquiring this knowledge is very time consuming and entails costs like dinners and entrance fees to cultural events. Note that this second bit of surgery allows me to consider the merits of the woman picked at random without regard to whether those cost (again, mostly my time and attention but also entrance fees, etc) are better spent on a different woman. Marin County is among the top 3 most affluent counties in California. Demographics similar to Silicon Valley, but replace the nerdy component with earthy-crunchy and new-age components. Probably .1 (10%) of these women work out with weights regularly and a significant fraction employ personal trainers to help them keep in shape. (An ordinary trip to the supermarket is often a very distracting and very vivid experience for me ) There is a higher than .5 probability that I would choose to stay in the relationship until she dumped me or 36 months have gone by. The only reason the 36 months is in there is so that I do not have to consider the effects on my attractiveness to women (and consequently, my dating options) of a significant change in my circumstances. The most likely reason I would choose to
I think it's pretty relevant that the pool I was talking about was in rural northeast Texas. I'd say the selectivity would be much smaller in a liberal metro like Austin (where I now live). I'm not even including things like being even familiar with the words "transhumanism" or "rationalism". My standards are even less than you talk about having. (Which is why selectivity numbers suck as a way of communicating about this subject.) Additionally, I'm on the verge of resigning myself to the possibility of remaining single indefinitely. This definitely has the effect of raising my standards.
The above analysis neglects IQ. One of my girlfriends was definitely above one standard deviation above the mean in IQ and the other 2 were probably above that line. The math of the normal distribution is such that only 16% of the population is above one s.d. above the mean. (The mean IQ in Marin County is probably higher than the national mean, but I am using the population here, not the national population, as my standard of reference for thinking about IQ.) One s.d. above the mean BTW is defined as an IQ of 115. So multiply the .5 figure in my original comment by .16 or so, pushing us down to 1/12 of the women in the set defined above. And since it took me several hours to realize I had overlooked such a crucial factor (.16 -- that's 2.6 bits of entropy!) there are probably other factors I've overlooked, so push the figure down some more. The reason IQ has 2.6 bits or so of "importance" is that (again) the usefulness of the girlfriend is roughly the ability of the girlfriend to achieve goals and make good decisions in her own life multiplied by "caring", and that first factor is very heavily reliant on IQ -- more so than for example income is reliant on IQ IMHO. And now my attention is caught by that second factor in the equation usefulness_to_me == rationality * caring: how much she really cares about me relative to how much she cares about herself. One of my girlfriend was above .5 on that measure, another probably above it or approaching it. (The third was below .1 -- definitely below .15 -- and I only got involved with her because she was very nearby and conveniently at hand during a time in my life when for me to have to travel even a few miles to get together probably would have been a dealbreaker. And she was spontaneous and childlike and fun and pretty.) Knowing that prospective girlfriends who pull above .5 on the caring measure are available, I probably will not settle for one who does not (unless there is some countervailing consideration, but let
Hey, pdf23ds, please speak up if you do not welcome attempts by me to help you, and I will shut right up, but could it be that the reason you feel the need for such a high level of compatability is that you consider it necessary for you to understand her and for her to understand you sufficiently well? Women are quite different than you and I! They are from a different planet! (Not really, of course, but it is an apt metaphor.) But I think I understood my girlfriends well enough to steer the future into quite wonderful territory even though they're from another planet. The best roads to understanding are the study of evolutionary psychology and simple experience being in a relationship. (Again I have 8 years.)

Women are quite different than you and I! They are from a different planet!

This is called "othering". It is not nice. Certain amounts may be required for accuracy, but this much is uncalled for.

Edit: If you think something is wrong with my identification and/or evaluation of othering, I'd be interested to hear it. I brought it up because the parent commenter has mentioned wishing to speak more sensitively in the past.

Voters: since I explicitly asked Alicorn to point out objectifying language to me, and that sort of thing, it pains me that her doing what I asked is currently costing her 3 karma. Yeah, I think some of the writers who favor terms like "objectifying language" and "othering" are silly and counterproductive, but Alicorn strikes me as quite sensible and a good person to teach me concepts that will help me get along better with people high the Big Five personality trait agreeableness. In the process of trying to rewrite what I said, I realized that I had no insight into pdf23ds's reasons for adopting the (1/300 to 1/400) compatability target, so I should have kept silent. (I would have deleted my comment, but now it is the subject of responses.)
I think you should.
Trim the first bit and that sounds like a good idea!
Indeed, I know I would be more likely to actually read a thoughtful post than a funny chatlog post on the subject.

If eight of your friends are involved in massive unpleasant social drama

... then my first step is to admit that they have a problem. In times past, I may not have noticed that distinction, to the detriment of my decision making. I say this to emphasise just how important the step of identifying the problem is. If I neglected this step I may jump straight into 'dramatic' tasks without thinking.

Once I realize that my problem is "something is getting on my nerves" I can begin looking for solutions. Whether that be quashing social conflict or reassessing my personal boundaries.

I used that as an example because the problem I had that prompted this train of thought was a bunch of social drama, in which I was a catalyst but not (except voluntarily in my attempt to find a solution) a participant. It seemed quite clear to me (in a way I'll get to in the next post in the sequence) that I needed to solve the problem of social drama, even if I didn't hold myself responsible for it or, strictly speaking, need to involve myself in it.

I like the definition given in Gause and Weinberg's "Are Your Lights On", a book I'd recommend to anyone thinking about the topics in this post: "A problem is a difference between things as desired and things as perceived."

Sometimes the resolution involves bringing "things" (i.e. reality) in line with our desires, after we (correctly) perceive it to be different from the desired reality. This will normally involve tasks. (We usually speak of a "project" if we envision many tasks, in particular if they have a hierarch... (read more)

This is an interesting idea, though I'm not sure if it's terribly useful.. Here's a summary that may make more sense for some readers. The examples are entertaining, but they may obfuscate the central point a little.

-A "task" is where you have some goal, D, and some series of operations, A, B, and C that will result in the attainment of this goal. All you have to do is actually carry out those operations and you should attain your goal.

-A "problem" is where you have goal D, but you do not know any series of operations that you could pot... (read more)

Sometimes a problem doesn't have a goal so much as an... ungoal. Basically, an attitude towards a state of affairs that is "I want ~that". That seems awfully broad to classify as a goal. Tasks do properly have goals in mind; not all problems do.
I would say all purposeful action is goal-directed. You may need to clarify your goal before you can effectively work toward it, but the goal is there even if you can't state it clearly yet.
Right; in addition to not narrowing down the search space, our hardware doesn't process "run away from bad thing" in the same way as it does "search for good thing"; in particular, the former induces stress responses that were designed for short-term activities like escaping predators or territorial fights. To get optimal long-term motivation, you need to be seeking something good, rather than trying to escape something bad. What's more, simply reversing "~that" (e.g. turning "not be broke" into "have money") doesn't always work either. In Robert Fritz's book, The Path Of Least Resistance, he points out that the reason most people fail at achieving goals is that their goals are simply rephrased versions of their problems. The key issue, he says, is attitude; merely changing the words around doesn't automatically switch you from a problem-escaping mindset to a goal-seeking one. That is not the original point your post is making, of course; I just wanted to add that even if you narrow down the search space to a specific target, there may also be an attitude issue required to prevent akrasia due to ego depletion -- the most common result of operating in the problem-escaping mindset while trying to achieve a long-term goal.
That raises the question of the common case where you do have a set of operations [A,B,C] that will result in attainment of the goal but where there is a potentially better solution out there potentially worth trying to find. Thus the person in question has a choice. She can treat this as a task, or she can treat this as a problem. Thus wouldn't we define a "task" as where you have some goal D and selected a potential set of actions that will (may?) result in attainment of this goal. However a problem remains a problem even if such a task exists until such time as that task is selected to be used; merely having a task available does not mean you no longer have a problem.
Additional information or additional resources, if I read the article correctly.
Yes, that got left out - see my other top-level comment. I think a lack of resources is best thought of as a lack of the knowledge of how to attain such resources, which I explain in detail in another comment.

Short summary:

  1. To achieve a goal, it's usually best to plan the entire sequence of actions in advance.
  2. Coming up with a really good plan is often much harder than carrying it out.
  3. We humans have a common failure mode where we don't stop to plan, or don't think out a plan before executing it, or even feel a problem is insoluble without having tried to come up with a plan.
  4. Therefore it's useful to plan explicitly, to recognize when we do and don't have a plan, and to have a good estimate of success for the plan and of each step in it.

As far as I understand, all the rest is examples. Did I miss anything?

I didn't see the post as being about plans at all. Planning is vastly overrated anyway. Planning is solving the problem in your imagination, and the more steps, the less likely they are to all proceed as imagined. Ask a car mechanic how often a repair can be completed by first planning out each thing that needs to be done, then executing the plan. My experience of doing occasional work on my car has been that it never goes exactly as described in the Haynes manual, and that's not a criticism of the manual.
While I would say that it is more common for people to plan too little than to plan too much, I think that point one here is worded so strongly I would disagree. Most plans don't even consist of entire sequences of actions, even for very small simple tasks such as writing this comment, during which I took multiple unplanned actions including noting that I took them, none of which would have been worth planning for.
Plans have a level of granularity beyond which you don't plan in advance. As I said in another reply, stopping at the correct regularity is important and sometimes difficult.
While I agree with what you have said here, it's not quite what I was getting at. I was trying to introduce some terms and point out difficulties identifying the members of the two sets, not just talk about plans. If I include anything about plans in particular in this sequence, that'll be part 3.
Why did you serialize the articles?
Because I have multiple clever titles that I want to employ, not just one. Also, one really long article would annoy certain people and take longer to write than two or three brief ones.
Let's add the terms to my summary: we generally start with a problem, something we're not happy about; then we design a plan to solve it; executing the plan is a task. A plan can only have so much detail. Doing sub-tasks I didn't plan in sufficient detail, or which turned out to be unexpectedly difficult, are the remaining sub-problems. We should seek the best balance between pre-planning and deferring until a problem is encountered, and this is not trivial. Is that what you're talking about? Otherwise, your list headed The approximate ways in which a "have to" might be a problem can be simply restated as "the cases where there is no obvious plan": when I lack procedural or propositional knowledge, or resources, which (I believe) are necessary to solve the problem. And then I can come up with a plan for when I've acquired them and go solve the sub-problem of getting what I need.
As I understood it, the purpose was to sharpen the boundary between what would otherwise be relatively fuzzy concepts, by going through the edge cases systematically. The individual facts given are all obvious, but consolidating them into a single crisp distinction is not so obvious and enables that distinction to be used elsewhere.
Yes, thanks - this is more what I had in mind.
That's definitely closer. I'm now concerned that I haven't made this nearly as clear as I would have liked, though.
Don't question your clarity too much. With so much prior knowledge about decision making schemes it is easy for your readers to match your words to other similar frameworks.

The second sentence of the article should answer, why is it a critical faculty to consciously distinguish tasks from problems. The answer comes much later ("Because treating problems like tasks will slow you down in solving them.") and still isn't satisfactory. My first reaction is "never happens".

In other words, I've never thought about it like that before, but I'm not convinced I should have.

This was originally part of my summary, but it didn't make sense there.

I take issue with "lack of resources" having its own category. It seems like a special case of a lack of procedural knowledge.

If I don't have bread, it's only a problem if I don't know how to get bread and I don't know how to figure out how to get bread. If my elbow is broken and I need to get milk home, the problem is not my lack of working elbows so much as my lack of knowing how to get the milk home without using the elbow. Having a working elbow would also solve the probl... (read more)

Some forms of resource lack can overlap with procedural knowledge lack, but in some cases the resource is... I'm going to use the word "immediate", even though that's not really optimal vocab for the purpose. But sometimes the needed resource is "immediate", by which I mean to stab in the general direction of something that has to be directly employed in the solution of the problem. Money is a good example of this. Sure, you could frame the issue as not knowing how to get money, but it seems more natural to call it an issue of not actually having money, because the money is to be used immediately.
The solution to "I don't have enough money" is, generally, to figure out, "How do I get the money I need?" If this is possible, it requires some form of procedural knowledge - you have to know how to get a job, or how to attract investors, or how to rob a bank. Since the shortage can only be resolved by getting more knowledge and then employing it, it seems inappropriate to say the resource is the problem. "How do I solve this problem without that money?" would also be an appropriate solution, i.e. finding a "taskification" that does not require money as a sub-task. This, again, is knowledge-based.

Even if you know of possible solutions to a problem, it doesn't become a task until the solutions are good solutions.

That is, if you have all the knowledge to complete a task, you still have a problem if your actions will lead to negative side effects.

What I'm wondering is whether the problem-task distinction represents different categories? Or different points on the ends of a continuum?

Some types of problems may resist being completely taskified, particularly unstructured socializing and other improvisation-heavy tasks. Successful execution in those areas requires being more in-the-moment rather than following pre-defined procedure. You could say that the end of the procedure is to "be in the moment," or "act on your feelings," but that's still awfully general and would stretch the... (read more)

Improvisational problems, as you call them, can be chalked up to procedural knowledge failure: if what you need to do is think on your feet, and you don't know how to do that, then that's the problem there. Socialization and other improvisation-heavy tasks - like, say, jazz piano, my style of cooking, or other activities that require on-the-fly context-dependent adjustments - depend on knowing how to detect, interpret, and adjust for those contextual changes. These things can be learned, although perhaps not with the fluency of a "native speaker" of those activities.

But for every task, person wants to perform it as efficiently as possible, thus rendering that task into a problem in the sense that it was used in this post. This is why I think distinguishing the two like that might be misleading.

Sometimes, the cost of figuring out the most efficient way to do something is higher than the cost of doing the thing less efficiently. I could probably kill an afternoon plotting elaborate kitchen choreography to make a really efficient sandwich - or I could just make a sandwich in some way that seems natural and not too roundabout.

1) Problem X

2) Task "Think on a solution to the Problem X until it taskifies to some Task Y" + Task Y

Is (1) -> (2) a valid transition?

I think lot of people indirectly follow the things written in the post--I certainly do. What we actually try to do all the time is: Not try to control things which cannot be, we have to accept certain things are beyond us, and we deal with things which we think we can deal with, isn't it?

This an amazing paradigm that can be used in project management.

Take a problem break into tasks and sub-problems, keep breaking until sub-problems can not be reduced into tasks. Then we can measure the risks involved, etc.

I think the terminology that's familiar to many LW readers calls "problems", "goals", and "tasks", "subgoals". Framing it that way, there isn't a difference between tasks and problems as such - a task/subgoal is merely what you get when you break down the problem/goal to smaller parts.

It seems to me you can move between the two framings by simply changing the way you describe the top-level objectives. If the top-level objectives are undesirable things that you want to change, they're problems. If they're desirable things you want to see happen, they're goals.

Thanks! I'd been contemplating a post about "The unreasonable importance of procedural knowledge", now I don't have to write it. Eagerly awaiting the sequel. Also, thanks HughRistik for the examples.

I think it might be more useful to use the term "goal" instead of "task", since task implies a series of steps -- a sequence of operations that change the state of the world, whereas a "problem" is a state of the world.

IOW, task = goal state - problem state. (Except it's not really subtraction, because there are potentially an infinite number of task sequences that will get you to the goal state from the current state... which is another reason why I think that maybe "goal" is a better word here.)

Goldratt's "T... (read more)

I'm not sure I agree with this distinction as any more than one of degree. Both tasks and problems are differences between the perceived state of the world and a desired state of the world.

As you describe it, "tasks" tend to be plans of action which you expect to have acceptible cost for their probability of success in moving the world state to the desired one. "problems" are just situations where the cost of the actions you're considering are too high for their probability of success.

I believe that both cost of planned actions an... (read more)

I think it may be a bit more than that. An example of what Alicorn is calling a "problem" might be where you can't even figure out what actions you should be taking in the first place. Or you lack resources or knowledge to actually carry out those actions.
Hmm, I may need to find better words to express this idea. each possible action you take has some probability of being part your desired future world-state . You may not assign a high probability to any action you've considered, but that just rolls into the decision of what to do. For EVERYTHING you've labeled "problem", there are actions you might take and/or goal changes you might make. Same for "tasks". Many times, that action is "research", which has sub-actions like "find an interweb terminal" or "ask someone", or "complain on Less Wrong", which has sub-actions, which have sub-actions, etc. You might categorize some of these as "tasks" or "problems", but that categorization is arbitrary. Lacking knowledge vs lacking a sandwich is NOT a binary distinction. It's a distinction in costs, duration, and probability of success of various actions you might take. Lacking resources is even more obviously not distinct: task: get resources. subtask: find someone to pay you. subtask: learn a valuable skill. etc... So: not a problem, right? It takes time and is not guaranteed to work, but both of those are true for "acquire bread to make sandwich" too. The continuum of cost of actions and probability of success has no obvious inflection point to objectively call "problem" vs "task".
I don't think that's it. The distinction between tasks and problems is well-expressed in the idiom of Eliezer's post on Possibility and Could-ness: achieving the GOAL state is a problem until the could-ness algorithm has managed to label it "reachable from START", at which point it becomes a task. (This makes the problem/task status of any particular GOAL a property of the current state of the could-ness algorithm, which is as it should be.) I think Alicorn intends to offer observations which might improve the execution of our could-ness algorithms. The current post points out that due to the similarity of language we use to describe tasks and problems, it's common for people who have problems to fail to recognize that fact and not even start their could-ness algorithms.
I think the reason for the common lingual similarity in treating problems and tasks is the ACTUAL similarity. Could-ness, or reachability of a theoretical (alternate past or unknown future) world-state is not binary. It's a probability function related to likelihood of theoretical actions and likelihood of various results of those actions. If your could-ness function returns one bit of information, it's too simple to be very useful. And any theory of decision-making based on it is equally oversimplified. I do think there's value in exploring this as a (false, but perhaps novel) quantization. Choosing between physical movement vs searching for alternate plans vs abandoning/altering goals (all of which are action, but feel somewhat different) is a real part of any decision theory. I don't think the quantization is real. The chose of what to do next (perform some physical action, think about alternate strategies, or rethink goals (or change focus to a different goal)) is valid and necessary for things labeled tasks as well as those labeled problems.
If you want to consider probabilities other than epsilon and 1 - epsilon then the distinction becomes: setting up and approximating the solution to the right Bellman equation is the problem stage; carrying out the indicated actions is the task stage.