The correct response to uncertainty is *not* half-speed

Re­lated to: Half-ass­ing it with ev­ery­thing you’ve got; Wasted mo­tion; Say it Loud.

Once upon a time (true story), I was on my way to a ho­tel in a new city. I knew the ho­tel was many miles down this long, branch­less road. So I drove for a long while.

After a while, I be­gan to worry I had passed the ho­tel.

So, in­stead of pro­ceed­ing at 60 miles per hour the way I had been, I con­tinued in the same di­rec­tion for sev­eral more min­utes at 30 miles per hour, won­der­ing if I should keep go­ing or turn around.

After a while, I re­al­ized: I was be­ing silly! If the ho­tel was ahead of me, I’d get there fastest if I kept go­ing 60mph. And if the ho­tel was be­hind me, I’d get there fastest by head­ing at 60 miles per hour in the other di­rec­tion. And if I wasn’t go­ing to turn around yet—if my best bet given the un­cer­tainty was to check N more miles of high­way first, be­fore I turned around—then, again, I’d get there fastest by choos­ing a value of N, speed­ing along at 60 miles per hour un­til my odome­ter said I’d gone N miles, and then turn­ing around and head­ing at 60 miles per hour in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.
Either way, ful­lspeed was best. My mind had been naively av­er­ag­ing two courses of ac­tion—the thought was some­thing like: “maybe I should go for­ward, and maybe I should go back­ward. So, since I’m un­cer­tain, I should go for­ward at half-speed!” But av­er­ages don’t ac­tu­ally work that way.[1]
Fol­low­ing this, I started notic­ing lots of ho­tels in my life (and, per­haps less tact­fully, in my friends’ lives). For ex­am­ple:
  • I wasn’t sure if I was a good enough writer to write a given doc my­self, or if I should try to out­source it. So, I sat there kind-of-writ­ing it while also fret­ting about whether the task was cor­rect.

    • (Solu­tion: Take a minute out to think through heuris­tics. Then, ei­ther: (1) write the post at full speed; or (2) try to out­source it; or (3) write full force for some fixed time pe­riod, and then pause and eval­u­ate.)

  • I wasn’t sure (back in early 2012) that CFAR was worth­while. So, I kind-of worked on it.

  • An old friend came to my door un­ex­pect­edly, and I was tempted to hang out with her, but I also thought I should finish my work. So I kind-of hung out with her while feel­ing bad and dis­tracted about my work.

  • A friend of mine, when teach­ing me math, seems to mum­ble speci­fi­cally those words that he doesn’t ex­pect me to un­der­stand (in a sort of com­pro­mise be­tween say­ing them and not say­ing them)...

  • Dun­can re­ports that novice Park­our stu­dents are un­able to safely un­der­take cer­tain sorts of jumps, be­cause they risk abort­ing the move mid-stream, af­ter the ac­tual last safe stop­ping point (ap­par­ently kind-of-at­tempt­ing these jumps is more dan­ger­ous than ei­ther at­tempt­ing, or not at­tempt­ing the jumps)

  • It is said that start-up founders need to be ir­ra­tionally cer­tain that their startup will suc­ceed, lest they be un­able to do more than kind-of work on it...

That is, it seems to me that of­ten there are two differ­ent ac­tions that would make sense un­der two differ­ent mod­els, and we are un­cer­tain which model is true… and so we find our­selves tak­ing an in­ter­me­di­ate of half-speed ac­tion… even when that ac­tion makes no sense un­der any prob­a­bil­is­tic mix­ture of the two mod­els.

You might try look­ing out for such ex­am­ples in your life.
[1] Edited to add: The ho­tel ex­am­ple has re­ceived much nit­pick­ing in the com­ments. But: (A) the ac­tual ex­am­ple was le­git, I think. Yes, stop­ping to think has some le­gi­t­i­macy, but driv­ing slowly for a long time be­cause un­cer­tain does not op­ti­mize for think­ing. Similarly, it may make sense to drive slowly to stare at the build­ings in some con­texts… but I was on a very long empty coun­try road, with no build­ings any­where (true his­tor­i­cal fact), and also I was not squint­ing care­fully at the scenery. The thing I needed to do was to ex­e­cute an effi­cient search pat­tern, with a thresh­old for a fu­ture time at which to switch from full-speed in some di­rec­tion to full-speed in the other. Also: (B) con­sider some of the other ex­am­ples; “kind of work­ing”, “kind of hang­ing out with my friend”, etc. seem to be com­mon be­hav­iors that are mostly not all that use­ful in the usual case.