The Cognitive Costs to Doing Things

What’s the men­tal bur­den of try­ing to do some­thing? What’s it cost? What price are you go­ing to pay if you try to do some­thing out in the world.

I think that by figur­ing out what the usual costs to do­ing things are, we can re­duce the costs and oth­er­wise struc­ture our lives so that it’s eas­ier to reach our goals.

When I sat down to iden­tify cog­ni­tive costs, I found seven. There might be more. Let’s get started -

Ac­ti­va­tion En­ergy—As cov­ered in more de­tail in this post, start­ing an ac­tivity seems to take a larger of willpower and other re­sources than keep­ing go­ing with it. Re­quired ac­ti­va­tion en­ergy can be ad­justed over time—mak­ing some­thing into a rou­tine low­ers the ac­ti­va­tion en­ergy to do it. Things like hav­ing poorly defined next steps in­creases ac­ti­va­tion en­ergy re­quired to get started. This is a ma­jor hur­dle for a lot of peo­ple in a lot of dis­ci­plines—just get­ting started.

Op­por­tu­nity cost—We’re all fa­mil­iar with gen­eral op­por­tu­nity cost. When you’re do­ing one thing, you’re not do­ing some­thing else. You have limited time. But there also seems to be a cog­ni­tive cost to this—a nat­u­ral sec­ond guess­ing of choices by tak­ing one path and not an­other. This is the sort of thing cov­ered by Barry Schwartz in his Para­dox of Choice work (there’s some faulty thought/​omis­sions in PoC, but it’s over­all valuable). It’s also why ba­si­cally ev­ery sig­nifi­cant mil­i­tary work ever has said you don’t want to put the en­emy in a po­si­tion where their only way out is through you—Sun Tzu ar­gued always leav­ing a way for the en­emy to es­cape, which splits their fo­cus and op­tions. Her­nan Cortes fa­mously burned the boats be­hind him. When you’re do­ing some­thing, your mind is sub­tly aware and both­ered by the other things you’re not do­ing. This is a sig­nifi­cant cost.

In­er­tia—Eliezer Yud­kowsky wrote that hu­mans are “Adap­ta­tion-Ex­e­cuters, not Fit­ness-Max­i­miz­ers.” He was speak­ing in terms of large scale evolu­tion, but this is also true of our day to day af­fairs. What­ever per­sonal adap­ta­tions and rou­tines we’ve got­ten into, we tend to per­pet­u­ate. Usu­ally peo­ple do not break these rou­tines un­less a dras­tic event hap­pens. Very few peo­ple self-scru­ti­nize and do dras­tic things with­out an ex­ter­nal event hap­pen­ing.

The differ­ence be­tween ac­ti­va­tion en­ergy and in­er­tia is that you can want to do some­thing, but be hav­ing a hard time get­ting started—that’s ac­ti­va­tion en­ergy. Whereas in­er­tia sug­gests you’ll keep do­ing what you’ve been do­ing, and largely turn your mind off. Break­ing out of in­er­tia takes se­ri­ous en­ergy and tends to make peo­ple un­com­fortable. They usu­ally only do it if some­thing else makes them more un­com­fortable (or, very rarely, when they get in­cred­ibly in­spired).

Ego/​willpower de­ple­tion—The Wikipe­dia ar­ti­cle on ego de­ple­tion is pretty good. Ba­si­cally, a lot of re­cent re­search shows that by do­ing some­thing that takes sig­nifi­cant willpower your “bat­tery” of willpower gets drained some, and it be­comes harder to do other high-will-re­quired tasks. From Wikipe­dia: ” In an illus­tra­tive ex­per­i­ment on ego de­ple­tion, par­ti­ci­pants who con­trol­led them­selves by try­ing not to laugh while watch­ing a co­me­dian did worse on a later task that re­quired self-con­trol com­pared to par­ti­ci­pants who did not have to con­trol their laugh­ter while watch­ing the video.” I’d strongly recom­mend you do some read­ing on this topic if you haven’t—Roy Baumeister has writ­ten some ex­cel­lent pa­pers on it. The pat­tern holds pretty firm—when some­one re­sists, say, eat­ing a snack they want, it makes it harder for them to fo­cus and per­sist do­ing rote work later.

Neu­ro­sis/​fear/​etc—Al­most all hu­mans are nat­u­rally more risk averse than gain-in­clined. This seems to have been se­lected for evolu­tion­ar­ily. We also tend to be­come afraid far in ex­cess of what we should for cer­tain kinds of ac­tivi­ties—es­pe­cially ones that risk so­cial em­bar­rass­ment.

I never re­al­ized how strong these forces were un­til I tried to break free of them—when­ever I got a strong nega­tive re­ac­tion from some­one to my writ­ing, it made it con­sid­er­ably harder to write pieces that I thought would be pop­u­lar later. Ba­sic things like writ­ing ti­tles that would make a post spread, or pol­ish­ing the first para­graph and last sen­tence—it’s like my mind was weigh­ing on the “con” side of pro/​con that it would gen­er­ate crit­i­cism, and it was… fright­en­ing’s not quite the right word, but some­thing like that.

Some tasks can be le­gi­t­i­mately said to be “neu­ro­sis-in­duc­ing”—that means, you start get­ting more neu­rotic when you pon­der and start do­ing them. Things that are al­most guaran­teed to gen­er­ate crit­i­cism or risk re­jec­tion fre­quently do this. Any­thing that risks com­pro­mis­ing a per­son’s self image can be neu­ro­sis in­duc­ing too.

Al­ter­ing of hor­monal bal­ance—A far too fre­quently ig­nored cost. A lot of ac­tivi­ties will change your hor­monal bal­ance for the bet­ter or worse. En­ter­ing into con­flict-like situ­a­tions can and does in­crease adrenalin and cor­ti­sol and other stress hor­mones. Then you face adrenalin with­drawal and crash later. Of course, we ba­si­cally are bio­chem­istry, so sig­nifi­cant chang­ing of hor­monal bal­ance af­fects a lot of our body—im­mune sys­tem, res­pi­ra­tion, di­ges­tion, etc. A lot of peo­ple are aware of this kind of periph­er­ally, but there hasn’t been much dis­cus­sion about the hor­monal-al­ter­ing costs of a lot of ac­tivi­ties.

Main­te­nance costs from the idea re-emerg­ing in your thoughts—Another un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated cog­ni­tive cost is main­te­nance costs in your thoughts from an idea re­cur­ring, es­pe­cially when the full cy­cle isn’t com­plete. In Get­ting Things Done, David Allen talks about how “open loops” are “any­thing that’s not where it’s sup­posed to be.” Th­ese re-emerge in our thoughts pe­ri­od­i­cally, of­ten at in­op­por­tune times, con­sum­ing thought and en­ergy. That’s fine if the topic is ex­ceed­ingly pleas­ant, but if it’s not, it can wear you out. Com­plet­ing an ac­tivity seems to re­duce the main­te­nance cost (though not com­pletely). An ex­am­ple would be not hav­ing filled your taxes out yet—it emerges in your thoughts at ran­dom times, de­railing other thought. And it’s usu­ally not pleas­ant.

Tak­ing on any pro­ject, ini­ti­a­tive, busi­ness, or change can gen­er­ate these main­te­nance costs from thoughts re-emerg­ing.

Con­clu­sion I iden­ti­fied these seven as the men­tal/​cog­ni­tive costs to try­ing to do some­thing -

  1. Ac­ti­va­tion Energy

  2. Op­por­tu­nity cost

  3. Inertia

  4. Ego/​willpower depletion

  5. Neu­ro­sis/​fear/​etc

  6. Al­ter­ing of hor­monal balance

  7. Main­te­nance costs from the idea re-emerg­ing in your thoughts

I think we can re­duce some of these costs by plan­ning our tasks, work lives, so­cial lives, and en­vi­ron­ment in­tel­li­gently. Others of them it’s good to just be aware of so we know when we start to drag or are hav­ing a hard time. Thoughts on other costs, or ways to re­duce these are very wel­come.