Committed Engagement and the Critical Importance of Ambiguity

[epistemic status: the basic idea has been validated by at least my experience, and it seems to resonate with others. But I’m not confident that I have the right framing or am using the right concepts.]

[Part of my Psychological Principles of Productivity drafts.]

In this essay, I want to point out a fact about human psychology, and some interventions  based on that fact.

First, an example. There’s a rule that my mom taught me for cleaning my room, when I was growing up: never pick up an object more than once. Once you have an item in your hand, you must put it where it goes, never put it back down where you found it. The reason for this is that you otherwise tend to get stuck in a loop: where you pick up a thing, are not quite sure where it goes, and so pick up another thing. Finding yourself in the same situation, you pick up the first thing again.

In my adult life, I sometimes find myself in a similar situation when processing email. I’m going through my inbox, and I get to an email that I’m not quite sure how to respond to, and I notice myself flicking back to my inbox without having made a decision about how to reply.

There’s an important truth about human psychology in this phenomenon: ambiguity, that is unclarity about specific next actions, is micro-hedonically aversive, and the human mind tends to flinch away from it.

Productivity

In fact, I think that ambiguity is the primary cause of ugh fields that can curtail my (your?) productivity.

Committed engagement

That’s because resolving ambiguity, clarifying what your options are, and choosing which one to commit to, is hard work. It requires conscious, System-2 style, effort. For most of us, being so called “knowledge workers”, resolving ambiguity is the bulk of our work. The hard part is figuring out what to do. Doing it is often comparatively easy.

Often, when Aversion Factoring, I find that the only reason why I don’t feel like doing something, is the effort of chunking out what exactly the next actions are. After I’ve done that I have no aversion at all.

Accordingly, I now think of processing my various inboxes (and particularly the inbox of reminders that I leave for myself), not as a low-energy, time-limited [as opposed to energy-limited] task, but as a key component of the work that I do.

And when I’m processing inboxes, I step into a mode that I call committed engagement: I make it my intention to plow through and empty the inbox. Given that I’m going to get to and deal with every item, there’s no incentive to look at a thing and put it back. In Committed engagement, the natural thing to do with an item is figure out what needs to be done with it. (Committed engagement is an energized state, with some pressure to get through the task rapidly.)

This is contrast to a sort of “shallow engagement” in which I skim over the inbox, clicking on things that seem quick or interesting, and then marking them as unread again, if they require even a little bit of thought.

Simulation for resolving ambiguity

I have a variety of useful TAPs based on this principle that my mind avoids ambiguity. When I feel averse to a thing in a way that has the flavor of ambiguity (which I do have specific phenomenology for), I visualize the very first smallest steps of the action in my Inner Simulator, which often lowers the activation energy so substantially that it becomes basically easy to take the action.

For instance, Trigger: “I should start writing, but I don’t feel like it” -> Action: “Visualize opening up my laptop” tends to automatically lead to opening up my laptop and begin writing. 

If know that I should strength train, but I don’t feel like it, I’ll simulate concretely standing up, walking to the elevator, and pushing the button. Which in most cases, is sufficient to cause me to get up, walk over, and push the button. And once I’m in the elevator, I’m on my way to the gym.

I think of this as taking advantage of “the smallest atomic action” principle of setting good TAPs. But instead of setting a plan for the future, you’re “setting a plan” for the very next moment. It’s almost humorous how much motivation cascades from merely imagining a simple atomic action.

Similarly, if I’m lost in working on a problem, I might write down the first step, or the main blocker, just to make it clear to me what that is. From there, the next actions are often clear and I can make progress.

Epistemology

This psychological fact is extremely important for productivity, but it is also relevant to epistemology. Your mind is averse to ambiguity. when considering a problem, you have a tendency to deflect away from the parts that are non-concrete: which are often where the important thinking is to be done.

This is at least a part of the reason why “rubber ducking” or talking with a friend is often helpful: stating your problem out loud forces you to clarify the points where you have ambiguity, which you might otherwise skim over.

A shout out

I think my mom probably learned that rule from David Allen (who she met in person), or at least his excellent book, Getting Things Done. He says:

You may find you have a tendency, while processing your in-basket, to pick something up, not know exactly what you want to do about, and then let your eyes wander onto another item farther down the stack and get engaged with it. That item may be more attractive to your psyche because you know right away what to do with it – and you don’t feel like thinking about what’s in your hand. This is dangerous territory. What’s in your hand is likely to land on a “hmppphhh” stack on the side of your desk because you become distracted by something easier, more important, or more interesting below it.

Furthermore, this idea that clarifying your work, and resolving your “stuff” into next actions is the bulk of one’s intellectual labor, is an important theme of the book.

. . .

Keep this in mind: Your mind flinches away from ambiguity. But you can learn to notice, and counter-flinch.

 

Related: Microhedonics, Attention, Visualization

References: Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress Free Productivity

3 thoughts on “Committed Engagement and the Critical Importance of Ambiguity

  1. Thanks for writing this! I’ve noticed myself that these microfeelings of ambiguity are really important, but haven’t seen much written about it.

    I’m currently trying to get into using Anki, which is a good laboratory for noticing lots of these feelings quickly. Answering a card with a really sharp, defined answer provides a microhit of satisfaction, whereas a card with a long, badly worded or poorly remembered answer has a tiny ugh field associated with it.

    Like

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