Dialogue About “Time-Based Metric For Overreaching” Part 2

Part 2 of a dialogue about an article from Elliot Temple on a time-based metric for avoiding overreaching.

Adam (A): Hi.

Bob (B): Hi. Let’s continue our discussion of Elliot Temple’s article on a time-based metric for overreaching.

A: OK.

B: So picking up from where we were last time, the next thing he says is:

If you're writing an article or novel, most steps should take less than 2 minutes of thinking before you do them. A paragraph is a reasonable step. You decide what the next idea will be, then you write the paragraph for it.

A: So, point of clarification. Sometimes I’ll get on a roll and do a bunch of writing in a big chunk (might be more than one paragraph). From what I recall, Elliot’s focus here is on thinking time and avoiding getting stuck. Activity-doing-time would be a separate issue. So like if I spend 1 minute thinking about something but then 10 minutes something in an active way, that’d be no problem?

B: Yes I think that’s right. As you say, in this article, Elliot is focused on the issue of avoiding being stuck while thinking. He’s not offering a general rubric for how long activities should take, but how long a session of thinking should last, in general (with some allowance for thinking to go over). He actually clarifies this in this next excerpt:

If you stop midway through the paragraph, starting again is another step. If you need to do planning for the paragraph, e.g. checking your notes about the plot and your chapter outline, those activities are also steps. If you spend 10 minutes reading your notes before starting a paragraph, that's fine, that's time spent making progress on the activity. The time limits are to deal with the time you aren't doing anything, where you're just thinking and not actively, directly getting anything done. When the breaks between actively doing stuff are larger than these time limits, that indicates it's hard for you and a lot of problems are coming up and you're probably making a bunch of mistakes.

A: Okay that makes sense.

B: More from the article:

Don't try to cheat. This will only help people who approach it honestly. Like if you think of a clarifying question in 10 seconds, just ask it. Don't save it for 1 minute 50 seconds to try to get extra thinking time.

A: Why would somebody try to “cheat” about this sort of thing? What’s the advantage? Where does the issue of dishonesty come in?

B: I think people might want to spend more time on things that are hard for them than Elliot advises. Elliot’s advice already takes into account that some instances of thinking will be very short. He’s saying the limit should be 2 minutes in 90% of cases. He expects that some might take 5 seconds or whatever. His assumptions involve people operating according to their normal thinking process, and not trying to optimize their thinking processes in some way for his advice. So if you try to “bank” 1 minute 50 seconds from a 10 second thinking session in order to give yourself, for example, a limit of 3 minutes and 50 seconds on a harder problem, instead of a 2 minute limit, then you are violating the advice.

The issue of honesty comes in in that Elliot is suggesting that people try to apply his advice to their actual thinking processes and not play games trying to get around it. If you say “welp, 2 minutes passed, guess maybe I’m overreaching”, then that’s being honest. If you try to play games where you’re banking time from shorter thinking sessions, you’re not actually applying the advice that was being given. You’re playing some sort of private game that’s a different thing than what you were advised to do, but you’re pretending that what you’re doing is somehow aligned with what Elliot was suggesting. The whole reason you’d be “banking” time and doing things in that way is because you’ve managed to convince yourself (dishonestly) that it’s somehow compatible with the advice in the post.

A: Hmm okay that makes sense.

B: Another thing there is that lots of thinking sessions are typically quite short. So if you were actually serious about trying to “bank” time from such sessions, you could totally destroy the effect the advice is trying to achieve. You could just be like “Oh well, I spent 5 seconds deciding to make a sandwich for lunch today, so bank 1 minute 55 seconds, and then I spent 3 seconds deciding to go to the store, so bank 1 minute 57 seconds”, and so on, and then you’d just be back to the situation you were in previously, without the advice, while lying to yourself about following the advice.

A: I see. That seems pointless - to pretend to follow the advice while utterly thwarting the intended effect.

B: I agree. Anyways the article continues:

If you're usually going near the time limits, something is wrong. Sometimes it should be 5 seconds, sometimes 30 seconds, sometimes 90 seconds. If you're frequently just under 2 minutes (or a little over and rounding down), you're probably overreaching. For the 2 day timeframe, most of those should only take a couple hours of time you actually spend on it. Actually spending a large portion of one day, let alone two days, should be much rarer. Two days gives you time to sleep on it, or leave it on the back burner for a while, wihch [sic] is good to do occassionally [sic].

A: So this illustrates the point that you made earlier that Elliot’s advice already takes into account that some instances of thinking will be very short. He’s expecting there to be a range of thinking times, and not for it to be a bunch of thinking times that are 1 minute 57 seconds, 1 minute 58 seconds, 1 minute 55 seconds, and so on.

B: Right. I don’t know whether Elliot would agree with this interpretation, but my suspicion is that if you did find yourself with a bunch of thinking times very close to 2 minutes, one cause might be that you’re only counting some stuff as thinking, and then trying to not violate the rule on that subset of stuff.

A: Oh so like maybe you only count thinking sessions involved in reading philosophy articles or something, and you notice that those are all approaching 2 minutes.

B: Right. Anyways the article concludes:

These guidelines are not exact but the simplicity and ease-of-measurement are major upsides. They can give you a ballpark of what to look for. Compare what you do to this and see if it's even close. I think people don't have much understanding of how long "too long" is, in concrete numbers, so this will help.

A: It seems like a good metric. I’ve tried using it a bit for certain things in combination with a timer. It’s not well-integrated yet but it’s something I’m trying out.

B: OK! Good luck.