Zooming your mind in and out

by John_Maxwell 1 min read6th Jul 20156 comments


I recently noticed I had two mental processes opposing one another in an interesting way.

The first mental process was instilled by reading Daniel Kahneman on the focusing illusion and Paul Graham on procrastination.  This process encourages me to "zoom out" when engaging in low-value activities so I can see they don't deliver much value in the grand scheme of things.

The second mental process was instilled by reading about the importance of just trying things.  (These articles could be seen as steelmanning Mark Friedenbach's recent Less Wrong critique.)  This mental process encourages me to "zoom in" and get my hands dirty through experimentation.

Both these processes seem useful.  Instead of spending long stretches of time in either the "zoomed in" or "zoomed out" state, I think I'd do better flip-flopping between them.  For example, if I'm wandering down internet rabbit holes, I'm spending too much time zoomed in.  Asking "why" repeatedly could help me realize I'm doing something low value.  If I'm daydreaming or planning lots with little doing, I'm spending too much time zoomed out.  Asking "how" repeatedly could help me identify a first step.

This fits in with construal level theory, aka "near/far theory" as discussed by Robin Hanson.  (I recommend the reviews Hanson links to; they gave me a different view of the concept than his standard presentation.)  To be more effective, maybe one should increase cross communication between the "near" and "far" modes, so the parts work together harmoniously instead of being at odds.

If Hanson's view is right, maybe the reason people become uncomfortable when they realize they are procrastinating (or not Just Trying It) is that this maps to getting caught red-handed in an act of hypocrisy in the ancestral environment.  You're pursuing near interests (watching Youtube videos) instead of working towards far ideals (doing your homework)?  For shame!

(Possible cure: Tell yourself that there's nothing to be ashamed of if you get stuck zoomed in; it happens to everyone.  Just zoom out.)

Part of me is reluctant to make this post, because I just had this idea and it feels like I should test it out more before writing about it.  So here are my excuses:

1. If I wait until I develop expertise in everything, it may be too late to pass it on.

2. In order to see if this idea is useful, I'll need to pay attention to it.  And writing about it publicly is a good way to help myself pay attention to it, since it will become part of my identity and I'll be interested to see how people respond.

There might be activities people already do on a regular basis that consist of repeated zooming in and out.  If so, engaging in them could be a good way to build this mental muscle.  Can anyone think of something like this?