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.


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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?

Dremelling may not be worse than nothing, but it is certainly so suboptimal that it will feel thus.

The issue here is that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and nobody bothered to investigate that. A jigsaw isn't a particularly special piece of equipment, and even if it was a particularly fancy jigsaw I'm pretty sure it still wouldn't be a unicorn. So the obvious conclusion is that there's probably one or more nearby. In that case, what does one have to do to find one, and arrange the use thereof?

There are always going to be chokepoints, barriers, rules, etc. in life. The trick is to learn how to get around them in novel ways. There's nothing wrong with following the established path when it works, but you need to veer off it when it doesn't (and if you think inactivity bothers people, just see how badly the react when you start unapologetically doing things the wrong way).

The solution to this problem is the same as for boredom: having something else to do while you wait.

If the appearance of meaningful activity is all that is required then as long as said pantomime doesn't create setbacks itself then it is good enough. Anyone that has carried a clipboard around an office knows this.

Learning to trick your own brain is an important life skill. If your brain is saying "Must be busy" then give it work, because it won't care what the work is, nor can it tell the difference between meaningful work and busywork. You give your dumb brain what it wants and it will stop bugging you.