This is part 23 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

In school, we spend thousands of hours learning about the building blocks of the universe. We learn that reality reduces into little pieces: organisms into cells, books into pages, skyscrapers into atoms.

Your life belongs inside this infinitely divisible reality. Your psyche divides into subpersonalities, emotions into qualia, actions into goals and aversions, habits into TAPs. In fact, what we think of as objects are usually patterns of interaction between many tiny pieces.

Day 23: Reductionism

Trigger-action plans are the building blocks of habits – all habits can be built out of single steps.

I want to share a model for why it’s so important to break actions down with reductionism.

Zeno’s Paradox Retold

Here’s the old paradox of Zeno:

To win a race, you have to run the first half. Before you finish the first half, you must complete the first quarter. Before you finish the first quarter, there’s the first eighth, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, by halving the first segment, every race is divisible into infinitely parts, and to complete the race you must make infinitely many actions.

What can we learn from Zeno’s paradox?

Of the infinitely many steps in the race, the first step accomplishes almost all of them. It follows that the first step in a race is infinitely more difficult than every later one.

The Method of Exhaustion

From Zeno’s Paradox, we readily derive the following algorithm for deconstructing problems:

  1. Pick an action.
  2. Divide it into halves. Focus on the first half.
  3. Repeat to exhaustion.

For example, I can decompose the action of “write a blog post” in exponentially ascending order of difficulty:

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Visualize success.
  3. Turn on computer.
  4. Open Chrome.
  5. Log in.
  6. Type a letter.
  7. Type a word.
  8. Type a sentence.
  9. Type a paragraph.
  10. Type a section.
  11. Type a post.
  12. Click “publish.”

After having completed the method of exhaustion, executing the action is much easier. Notice that even though I’m ostensibly only 1/3 of the way through writing this post, I’ve already accomplished 10.5/12 steps in the workflow.

I’m almost done!

Steps of Equal Difficulty

You may think the last section was flippant or self-delusion.

Nope.

I’m completely serious.

Walk through the whole activity of blogging (if blogging’s not aversive to you, pick whatever else you’re procrastinating on and apply the method of exhaustion to that one instead), and note how much total mental resistance you push through at each step in the 12-step process. Also note how likely you are to give up at each step.

The normal method of planning is to break into equally sized blocks, where size means “time and effort in objective reality.” Take stock of all the plans you’ve made in your life. How many failed at the very beginning? How many failed near the middle? How many failed towards the very end?

Most things fail before they begin. Of the ones that do begin, most fail immediately.

You don’t live in objective reality. You live in the mad world of Zeno, where the first step is infinitely difficult. The Method of Exhaustion is designed to parse a hard problem into steps of roughly equal psychological difficulty and failure rate.

Exercise: Apply the Method of Exhaustion to your next big project. How many pieces did you break it into?

Daily Challenge

Share anecdotes or data on how long it takes [intentions, projects, plans, relationships, careers, startups] to fail. What do the curves look like?

22

8 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:38 PM
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One common failure mode I've noticed in myself is taking breaks. After some productive work, I sometimes intend to take a 5 min or 10 min break, but I end up never returning in the specified time. In fact, I sometimes take several days to get back on to the task at hand.

It's like Zeno's paradox kicks in every time you try to start afresh after a break.

I've previously tried to avoid taking breaks in the first place ― and work in three hour sessions, but I wasn't consistent enough to do this everyday.

I've also had this problem. I think the following things help:

1) making the specified time 10 minutes rather than 5 - 5 never feels like a real break to me

2) doing social pomodoros with other people, so the return time is coordinated with others (this is by far the most effective intervention)

3) doing a breaktime activity that doesn't immediately suck me in (e.g. stretching and listening to a song, or talking to people, rather than social media)

4) if I encounter something during the break that feels important or urgent, write it down so I know I won't forget it and can come back to it later

5) ...not being terrified of the task in question. I haven't yet quite gotten the hang of this, for a lot of things. For tasks that are not very scary to me, returning to work is much easier.

6) having enough other time in the day to do things just for fun so I feel less like I have to steal productive time in order to have any fun at all (this is kinda hard to arrange though, sometimes)

It's surprising that taking a five or ten minute break makes such a big difference. I wonder what would happen if you practicing taking 5 minute breaks throughout the day, e.g. pomodoros.

I don't really agree about the Zeno thing. Yes, most projects fail near the beginning, but I think that's because projects that fail near the beginning don't also get a chance to fail later! Most projects contain plenty of potential failure points.

This is probably less true of projects where there's a bunch of basically similar work that needs to happen - once you start your work and get the hang of it and get used to the idea that you're doing this work, it gets easier. But many projects have variety all the way through - you need to email different people at different points with different questions, you have different stages at which you do different types of work, etc. Sending an email is a different kind of scary from writing a draft is a different kind of scary from editing the draft is a different kind of scary from showing the draft to someone for feedback is a different kind of scary from deciding you're done and submitting the draft.

I guess there is a sunk costs effect where you're more likely to try and force yourself to put up with the later difficulties just because of how much time you've already put in. But it's still very possible to continue intending to do that and then keep gradually putting it off until it becomes a lot less salient to you and/or it's not relevant or useful anymore.

--

Here's how I did the exercise:

1. Naïvely write down the major steps in completing the project.

2. Rate each step by difficulty, 1-10. (this idea is from the bug hunt, thank you)

3. Find the most difficult step and break it down into easier sub-steps, then rate each sub-step by difficulty and cross out the parent step.

4. Repeat step 3 until all your steps are of a very manageable difficulty and/or you can't think of ways to subdivide them any further.

--

Within subtasks, I think difficulty does sorta increase as I go down the list, but that's mostly because any step of any difficulty begins with easy steps like "take a deep breath", "create and title a Google doc", "start an empty bullet-point list", "set a 5-minute timer". For me the timer is more helpful in getting me working than just writing a first letter or word - I will often write a word and then delete it out of uncertainty. And as I go down the entire list of tasks, there are easy things interpersed with hard things, just because there's a lot of hard tasks involved that I need to prepare myself for before starting them for real.

Anyway, this is a useful technique and I think it will help me with this project :)

I really liked your take on planning. I've tried it on the task of "doing self CBT therapy session on my X painful belief" and found that there was another tension point that was helped by rewriting into additional steps.

I didn't really understand your disagreement with 'zeno thing' - I saw it stating that most projects fail before they begin or immediately after the beginning. Regardless of truthfulness of this claim - it doesn't mean that there are no other important failure points that would have been exposed in projects /if we were/ to start them.

But whatever failure points there are - fixing first line of failure still seems really reasonable. And I didn't see any claims that this is all it takes for the project to succeed.

One of the most trivial examples - at the beginning of each separate step I could encounter similar levels of resistance.

“He has half the deed done who has made a beginning.”
– Horace

I applied the method of exhaustion to my course final project this semester, breaking it into 9 steps. It was a fun exercise, and I appreciated it!

It's interesting, you definitely see failure rates that look logarithmic in marriages and bankruptcies, but I do think that some of that is what tcheasdfjkl said - some of that is just from the fact that things that fail early don't get a chance to fail later. In my personal experience, I think there are two big places where my plans fail: before they start and at the first major setback. I think that usually if I can get started on something and keep going past the first time there's a problem, I can usually overcome future problems. But sometimes the first setback is enough to make me set something aside, and I just never end up coming back. 

Something is so satisfying about reductionism. Breaking things down does wonders for unlocking the "do anything" ability in me. Now the problem becomes aiming that superpower and following through, but it's still a great tool to have.

I like the amended exercise below for emotionally aversive tasks, specifically iterating through and finding the most painful step and breaking that one down specifically. 

Share anecdotes or data on how long it takes [intentions, projects, plans, relationships, careers, startups] to fail. What do the curves look like?

I've noticed a common theme in my life with things that end of: I. Solid, II. Wobble, III. Topple

  • Relationship is totally stable (months), notice some tension but nothing too crazy (months), relationship ends in a random 30 minute conversation
  • Startup is growing (years), some hiccups w/ large contracts (6 months), ends without warning in a single meeting
  • Consistently do habit (weeks/months), do habit but start fudging it for a week (bare minimum/changing expectations/cheating), miss a single day and completely stop