It might be a useful habit to remember, whenever you're making a choice about some situation, that "doing nothing" is never actually an available option. Even if you avoid doing the task you're considering, you're still making some kind of choice about how you spend your time, and you're still doing something relative to that task. For example, if the task is "paint the barn" the alternative is "leave the bare barn exposed to the elements", not "store the barn in some impermeable stasis field and return to paint it later". Being able to clearly articulate what that "nothing" slot entails, its consequences and rewards, might be a helpful way to motivate yourself to make better choices.

I am working on internalising this, because if I don't think about it, a part of me tends to just think that I'm doing the equivalent of sticking the task in an atemporal stasis field instead of leaving it unattended. If I don't exercise, I don't stay "the same amount fit". I get weaker (or, as aelephant points out, I could be getting stronger, during a recovery period - in which case "doing nothing" (as far as exercise) is the better option, after evaluation) . If I don't study, I don't stay "the same amount knowledgeable". I forget. Sure, there are things which remain effectively "in stasis" - Olympus Mons will probably stay about the same whether I climb it in ten years (somehow) or a hundred years - but I won't be the same by then. Or things that are so transient and commonplace that they might as well be in stasis - If I'm thinking of going somewhere, I might think, "I might miss catching this taxi cab, but I miss cabs all the time, there are always more cabs, and I can catch another one". But subjectively static opportunities are rare.


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"If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice"
ā€” Rush, "Freewill"

So much better than "not deciding is still making a decision" because it's actually true! Thanks.

edit: oh and Good post voltairina.

I think I learned this particular bad habit from video games. You can put a game off for a year, load up your save file, and continue as though nothing had happened.

Typically, you can also put off completing a quest for as long as you want in in-game-time. That way you can procrastinate while you procrastinate...

This is something I have really been wrestling with lately. I know I have many things to be done, but not doing them is not an option. Why is it not an option? Because the task is eminent in my path of action anyway, and if I choose not to do it, there will be a deficit in some form or fashion in my life trajectory because the task all ready had some relationship to me that I cannot break without severing the tie; however, as much as I'd like to believe, it is not a clean break.

I'd also like to discuss injury and chronic pain. I played American Football and wrestled in my high school years (as well as a year of football in college) and I have also been in a car wreck where my body was injured in a few places that could not feasibly be medically treated; both of these contribute to chronic pain in several areas of my body. Now, the pain is nothing I cannot work through, and it has taught me to be more careful with myself, but I can't help but feel that for every instance of acknowledgement of pain, my cognitive resources are being pulled away from other subjects that I may find of greater importance. In each iteration of an idea, there is a building process, but if the building process is interrupted by something it can cause the idea to lose its inert force, right? So the occurrence of chronic pain, in my experience, can cause tiny rifts in coherent cognitive thought, because the pain is taking a cognitive-resource from what would normally be a different cognitive process. However, I am not sure how significant this really is, because the momentary lapse in concentration may not be enough to considerably derail the thought, and working with the chronic pain may allow a greater focus to be gained, though I am really not sure. The construction of coherent thought that builds on itself has always been of great interest to me, though I feel there are many complex variables involved, and I haven't even touched on biological factors such as the interplay of cortisol levels with cognitive processes or other aspects I may be overlooking.

Not quite the same as what you are talking about, but I felt the supplanting of focused thought-instances with detracting thought-instances was in some way parallel to the idea of non-action still being a choice, albeit negative when in reference to one's necessary task completion.

Edit: Changed instance to importance. Was that merely an unconscious word swap or was it due to distraction?

I think you're right - I don't know what the concensus is, but I certainly found studies just googling around and looking at webmd saying that chronic pain can impair focus and even effect memory (I'm guessing it disrupts encoding a little when there are sharp pains?). And I've heard you can use training to overcome focus difficulties that come with ADHD, so I think that in general you should be able to train yourself to think through it. "Characteristics of Cognitive Functions in Patients With Chronic Spinal Pain" "Cognitive Therapy in the Treatment of Adults With ADHD: A Systematic Chart Review of 26 Cases "

Other thing that some people disastrously fail at internalizing is the time limits and the necessity to make best use of available time. Many techniques of rational thought are incredibly time-expensive; especially those related to probabilities; a lot of the time in the real world you can dramatically improve your certainty easier than you can calculate appropriate degree of uncertainty, to high reliability (people tend to be sloppy at math, and the priors are all too often horribly off due to unawareness of the degree to which the proposition was privileged).

Example: professional problem for software developers - often you are stuck choosing the best way to implement something, wasting as much time as implementation of both options would have took. The opposite also happens - rushing to implement ill-conceived design that takes a lot more time than would of spent to find better way to do it (essentially, the effort is unbounded and any solution that can be done in a man-week can also be done, and routinely gets done, in man-year or a man-decade, when the effort is sufficiently misguided)

I agree with the sentiment expressed here if the alternative is simply a naive sense that "doing nothing" is always an option and is a generic semantic stop sign for consideration of possible outcomes of possible plans in a serious discussion on an important subject.

On the other hand, I think it is naive to forget that "doing nothing" is an option, and it usually does have a uniquely privileged position with respect to the alternatives. Specifically, "doing nothing" is generally a low cost and/or "low energy" strategy that allows its performer to fade into the background environment and not stick out where they could become a target for predation or blame or whatever. When people talk about the "nothing" option, they generally mean the option that goes along with things like diffusion of responsibility.

One hundred people can walk past a homeless person asking for money, and in doing so they are exercising the "do nothing" option, and it works if their goal is to get to work without a potentially dangerous interaction with a potentially confused person. If one of them stopped and tried to chat with the person to gather information as to whether or not it would be consequentially good all things considered to help this particular person that would not be "doing nothing".

I don't think neurologically normal people with experience living in cities would make this mistake based on thinking that doing "nothing" isn't particularly privileged, but I think it is possible to acquire a sort of second-order decision-theoretic naivete where you have an argument against "doing nothing" but no other arguments that explain what's going on when that strategy is executed. This second order naivete can trip you up in places common sense human instincts aren't already protecting you. If you're not careful you can end up trying to "become batman" and getting hurt or something...

Learn to "fall properly" before you work on throwing and being thrown over someone's shoulder, otherwise you'll probably become fodder for stories about the valley of bad rationality. The "nothing" option is generally a pretty safe move while you build up resources to spend some on a clever experiment :-)

Hrm, I hadn't realised how muddled my discussion post sounded until you brought these angles up. I think when I wrote, "the 'nothing' option is never available" I was trying to express a semantic stop sign as you've mentioned - I should have said something like, in considering my options in day to day life, it seems like I often assume that I know what the costs/rewards of the nothing option are without getting specific about them or thinking about the possibility in as much detail as I might think about other options because I seem to have a cached thought about it for most situations. And its often something I've tried before, like "not taking out a mortgage", but it might be something I haven't tried before, or shouldn't try, like, "freezing in a crosswalk" when a vehicle does something unexpected. Not that traffic is a good place for sitting there drawing up a spreadsheet with all your decisions and figuring out the right one, of course, but 'freezing in place' seems like a "do nothing" response to me too, I guess.
Hrm, yes. When I first moved to Portland, OR from Vancouver, WA, I remember losing a lot of money to homeless people in a very short period of time without really thinking about it until I looked at my bank statement and thought about where I'd been spending it. It was really surprising, because handing out a dollar or two, or helping someone who claimed to be in need, seemed like pretty standard behavior as a child. My dad still makes a point of handing out money to homeless people when he sees them begging at intersections. I've cut back to buying street roots (the homeless's local newspaper) when I see vendors if I haven't bought the latest issue, which seems to keep me from blowing everything, or as you've pointed out, interacting with a potentially dangerously confused person. I guess "nothing" to me seems like its a bit subtle in that information from instinct (the play dead routine) and experience get muddled together kind of seamlessly. And it is often reliable enough that I don't get eaten by tigers, or assaulted by homeless people anyways, on a regular basis. I'll have to think more about all this. Thank you.

Thanks for the thanks! Sometimes I feel bad when a comment I think is particularly helpful sits at zero and comments I think were cheap applause buttons are voted up. Most people like sugar and few people like broccoli, and this felt like a broccoli comment that maybe(?) I shouldn't have bothered with... until you responded :-)

The "freezing in place in traffic" as a "do nothing" response was interesting. I would not have lumped that with "not taking out a mortgage", but I can see how some people do. I think there might be something important there in terms of agency and cooperation/competition dynamics. It jogged a memory...

When I was growing up we had rabbits that ran free in the front yard, and they would sometimes sit at the bottom of our narrow driveway and freak out when you came home, running away from the car (up the driveway) as though it was a predator. It was particularly tricky because they seemed to have this instinct for running "away" along one vector (which was the same one the car took because it was trapped going up the driveway, so it reproduced "being chased" conditions to a first approximation) and then at the last second they'd swerve to "dodge the snapping teeth" of the car/predator. But if the you tried to dodge a rabbit at the last second based on the rabbit's initial trajectory, you and they would swerve in the same direction. If the rabbits had run away totally naively it would have served them better, because car drivers are not actually predators. Which meant that the right thing for a driver to do was to sort of half-heartedly follow through "as though to hit the rabbit" so they could dodge a simple form of the thing their instincts expected to happen.

I think "denying that anything changes" is one of the most common mistakes I make and notice other people making. I'm choosing between a few different jobs at the moment, and I notice I actually try to construct a vision of the world where I go off and do one for 2 years, then return and do the other. Its like I want to think current opportunities will always be open to me, so I don't have to make the painful trade-off.

Now I think about it, this "freeze the world" kind of thinking is also one of the things that makes me bad at chess. I don't think enough about what other people will do, only about my own cunning plotting.

I'm not trying to be pedantic and you probably might already be aware of this, but in one of the examples you gave ("If I don't exercise...") "doing nothing" sometimes might actually be better than doing something. For example, weightlifters who are trying to build muscles are well aware that muscles are not built during training, but during the rest periods between trainings. So in a sense, you could argue that you are ONLY getting more fit by "doing nothing". It would be counterproductive to exercise all of the time and never give your body a chance to recover.

Aside from this small critique, I agree with the spirit of the post and I think it is an excellent point to bear in mind.

Good point! I agree, sometimes "doing nothing" IS the best choice, but you have to weigh it realistically, I guess:).

When writing business analyses when multiple courses of action are available, they've trained us to always include the "status quo" option, which would be very similar to your definition of "doing nothing". Phrasing it in this way, and ensuring that it enters every discussion, allows better results from important decision points.

Interesting, I always only considered the opportunity costs of an activity, but not the consequences of not doing it. Thanks.