In high school, I was on a robotics team (FRC) who, in honesty, were basically incompetent. (Me included.) We were bad at building a robot, bad at programming it, bad at design, but most relevantly for this post bad at planning ahead.

The particular instance which added a term to my internal monologue was this: We needed to cut slots in some aluminum in order to do...something, I don't remember what. It needed to be about a foot long, so it clearly was worth getting a dedicated tool - I forget what that was, probably a jigsaw. But we didn't have one and it was going to take a week or so to arrive.

What we did have, was a dremel tool. Dremels are small, portable grinders, usable for many things but rarely the best tool for the job. Using a dremel as a slot cutter is workable, but inefficient; it quickly ruins the bit and takes a long time. Nonetheless, despite knowing that the job could be done much more quickly and efficiently if they waited a week, people on our team repeatedly returned to dremeling the slots.

I think this is a common pattern. It's similar to the politician's syllogism ("Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, this must be done."), and to Lost Purposes, but distinct. "Dremeling" is the act of doing something you know is a bad way to attack the problem, and probably a waste of time, because it moves you incrementally towards the goal, and you can't do anything more helpful right now.

There are better ways; you know there are better ways and have at least a pretty good idea of what they are and how you could switch to one of those ways. But, in the moment, the better ways are unavailable and the bad way is available. And so you do the (dumb, wasteful, barely-helpful) thing you can do right now, because it will technically make progress.

Why does this happen? Well, not doing anything is uncomfortable. It often feels like failure. If others see you not doing anything, it may open you up to shame; at the national scale this is the politician's syllogism, but the politics of a peer group are just as terrifying - and probably more terrifying - than the party politics of a large polity.

So, as we learn from (Brooks, Reiner, 1975), it stems from fear.

New Comment
7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:12 AM

A more common term for this might be "precrastination".

I think that's different but I've having difficult articulating how, so I may be wrong about that.

The question is if dremeling is actually worse than sitting around doing nothing? If there is programming that you could be getting on with, or something like that, then go and do that, be back in a week. But if making those slots is part of the critical path, and the speed-up is more important than any loss of quality, go ahead and dremel.

So in the specific original instance, I think there were actually better things we could have been doing. But Edison's favorite aphorism applies: That would have required thinking.

Possibly there is some more detailed analogy to be made about confronting uncertainty and tending to under-explore and over-exploit.

Almost no human actions are anywhere near optimal towards optimising long term real world goals. Optimal seeking of long term real world goals looks like a superintelligence seeking the minimum time path to nanotechnology.

There are always better things you could be doing, the question is if you will think of a better thing to do given a little more thinking?