Dialogue About “Time-Based Metric For Overreaching” Part 1

A dialog about some of an article from Elliot Temple on a time-based metric for avoiding overreaching.

Adam (A): Hi.

Bob (B): Hi.

A: I find that I often spend a lot of time being stuck on things.

B: Have you read this article: https://curi.us/2182-time-based-metric-for-overreaching

A: Yes but I think I should reread it and go through it. I’ll comment as I go and we can talk about it.

B: OK.


90% of the time, thinking should take 2 minutes or less. (1 in 10 things goes past 2 minutes.)
90% of cases that take longer should be under 15 minutes. (1 in 100 things goes past 15 minutes.)
90% of the cases that take longer than that should be under 2 days. (1 in 1000 things goes past 2 days.)

Ok, I think I go over these egregiously.

B: Is there any particular context in which that comes up?

A: It’s come up when working on technical things, like math or programming.

B: So maybe you have skill gaps that you need to fill in? That’s common in those kinds of areas.

A: Yeah, probably. I have trouble convincing myself to do that, though, and want to keep pursuing the problem.

B: Why?

A: Part of the issue is that I convince myself I can do it. And often I can, if I keep trying long enough.

B: Yeah but that’s kind of like someone at a slot machine waiting for 7-7-7 to come up. Sure, if you keep pulling the lever long enough, maybe you’ll get it - like maybe things will finally click - but it’s not the best use of your time or effort.

A: Right.

B: Maybe you feel like you should be able to solve certain things, so you wanna just rush ahead and not acknowledge the relevant skill gaps.

A: Yeah that sounds plausible.

B: Well don’t moralize your lack of knowledge like that. Imagine that some software you were trying to run required some other software, but you didn’t have that other software installed already. You wouldn’t curse your computer for not already having that software installed.

A: lol that’d be a pretty ridiculous thing to do.

B: Right, see? You’d just install the needed software. So try to think about getting pre-requisites down in the same way.

A: Another part of the issue is not knowing where my skill gaps are.

B: Well you should get advice about that. I think that’s the most effective and efficient method. But you could also build an explicit step into your problem-solving process. Like imagine you get past the first cut-off above, of 2 minutes. At that point, you could have a “evaluate possible skill gaps” step that you always run, and you could try making a list of things that you might need to brush up on.

A: I like that idea.

B: Elliot says:

Next steps should be fast. You shouldn't be stuck for long periods of time. ("Long" means longer than the amounts of time above. A main point of this post is that people have the times wrong and are routinely stuck for a few hours and don't realize how long and bad that is.)
Most stuff you do should be small and easy. If it's not, break it into smaller parts (so that you can be making progress frequently by finishing one little part) or find easier stuff to do.

A: Yeah. I have some sense of how bad being stuck a long time is but still have had trouble getting stuck.

B: You should also try setting an actual timer. Or two. Maybe you could try setting one timer for 2 minutes and one for 15 minutes. That way, even if you want to “keep trying” for a while, you have a secondary timer to stop at, which limits your downside of time wasted.

A: watchOS 8 lets you have multiple timers running at the same time now, so I could try using that.

B: I think that it’s worth a try.

A: watch buzzes Oh hey two minutes is a really short amount of time lol.

B: I think if you take steps to indicate to yourself how much time you’re spending on being stuck, you’ll be surprised at how your sense of time is different from an objective measurement of time.

A: Yes that seems plausible. By the way, a meta comment is that I have only rarely found myself stuck when writing these dialogues. When I’m writing them, I’m writing or thinking (in a useful way, not a circular/stuck way) pretty continuously. I have sometimes put one aside for later to finish it because I couldn’t think of the next thing that I wanted to stay or was too tired or something, but I haven’t been actively stuck in the same way that I get stuck on some other things.

B: That may be an indicator that you are not overreaching in writing them. They are something that you can comfortably do at your skill level.

A: Yeah. That seems like a good thing to keep in mind.

B: Let’s continue with Elliot’s article:

If someone says something, you should usually have an idea of your reply within 2 minutes. A clarifying question is fine as a reply. It doesn't have to be a big thing. Or if you are going to give a big reply where you make 5 points, then you could think of each point as a mini project and figure each one out in 2 minutes.

A: So if I think something is wrong in the logic of what someone said, I could break things up into like, a just writing out some initial thoughts step, and a making a mindmap step, and a more finalized polished writing step?

B: Yes. That’s a bit of a different issue than what Elliot was talking about, but I think it’s compatible with what he’s saying. He was talking about breaking up a multipart reply into smaller steps, whereas you may be talking about breaking up figuring out your reply into smaller steps.

A: Yeah.

B: I think that part of the reason people often get stuck on things is because they try to skip to the part of writing some finished, polished, finalized piece, without having gone through the necessary intermediate steps that are required to develop the knowledge in order to do that effectively.

People in certain technical fields often speak of “attacking” a problem. In a military context, what would an attack involve?

A: Well, you could just go rushing in from the front.

B: You could, but that is a tactic that can involve serious risk of unnecessary loss of life and defeat. So what would be a smarter approach?

A: Well, you could do reconnaissance, make maps, gather intelligence, take notes, think about different possible angles, take an inventory of your available resources, think big picture about how important winning this particular battle or territory is or whether it might be wiser to double back…

B: Right. So you can take that sort of systematic, smart approach from the military context and apply it to other areas.

A: I see. So if you are trying to solve some math problem, you might try to carefully organize your information, think about different possible ways of approaching the problem, think about what sorts of conceptual tools you have at your disposal, think about whether you should double back to learning some required concept you’re shaky on…

B: Exactly.

A: I see. But if you just try to press ahead, that’s the equivalent of just a run-in-from-the-front, human wave kind of attack.

B: Yes. And maybe if the problem is not very hard, that may work - just like when an enemy force is not well equipped or trained or organized, you might get away with just rushing in from the front and be able to rout them. But if you actually encounter “resistance”, that’s a sign to think twice about whether this approach makes sense!

A: So I could ask myself whether I’m encountering “resistance” in a problem and adjust my approach accordingly.

B: Yes. And you could frame this as not an issue of you lacking some prerequisite knowledge you should have, but of you just being a smart general with the resources you have.

A: I like that framing! 🙂

B: Let’s end it here for today. Maybe we’ll talk about the rest of the article later.

A: OK.