The Danger of Invisible Problems

TL;DR: There is prob­a­bly some costly prob­lem in your life right now that you are not even aware of. It is not that you are pro­cras­ti­nat­ing on solv­ing it. Rather, this prob­lem has grad­u­ally blended into your en­vi­ron­ment, sink­ing be­neath your con­scious aware­ness to the de­gree that you fail to rec­og­nize it as a prob­lem in the first place.

This post is par­tially an elab­o­ra­tion on Ugh fields, but there are some de­ci­sive differ­ences I want to de­velop. Let me be­gin with an anec­dote:

For about two years I’ve had a pe­ri­odic pain in my right thigh. Grad­u­ally, it be­came worse. At one point I ac­tu­ally had a sort of spasm. Then the pain went away for a few weeks, then it came back, and so forth. All the while I ra­tio­nal­ized it as some­thing harm­less: “It will prob­a­bly just go away soon,” I would think, or “It only in­hibits my mo­bil­ity some­times.” Oc­ca­sion­ally I would con­sider seek­ing med­i­cal help, but I couldn’t muster the en­ergy, as though some ac­ti­va­tion thresh­old wasn’t be­ing reached. In fact, the very promise that I could get med­i­cal help when­ever con­ve­nient served to fur­ther diminish any sense of ur­gency. Even if the pain was some­times de­bil­i­tat­ing, I did not per­ceive it as a prob­lem need­ing to be solved. Grad­u­ally, I came to view it as just an un­for­tu­nate and in­evitable part of ex­is­tence.

Last Mon­day, af­ter hardly be­ing able to walk due to crip­pling pain, I fi­nally be­came aware that “Wow, this re­ally sucks and I should fix it.” That evening I fi­nally vis­ited a chi­ro­prac­tor, who pro­ceeded to get me­dieval on my fe­mur (imag­ine hav­ing a sprained an­kle, then imag­ine a grown man jump­ing on top of it). Had I clas­sified this as a prob­lem-need­ing-to-be-solved a few months ear­lier, my treat­ment pe­riod would prob­a­bly be days in­stead of weeks.

Sim­ply, I think this situ­a­tion is of a more gen­eral form:

You have some in­effi­ciency or ag­i­ta­tion in your life. This could be solved very eas­ily, but be­cause it is per­ceived as harm­less, no such at­tempt is made. Over time your tol­er­ance for it in­creases, even if the prob­lem is wors­en­ing (Bonus points for at­tempts at ra­tio­nal­iz­ing it). This may be due to some­thing like the peak-end rule, as the prob­lem doesn’t cause any dra­matic peaks that stick out in your mem­ory, just a dull pain un­der­ly­ing your ex­pe­rience. Even if the prob­lem sub­stan­tially low­ers util­ity, your satis­fic­ing lizard brain re­mains ap­a­thetic, un­til the last mo­ment, when the dam­age passes a cer­tain thresh­old and you’re jolted into ac­tion.

While similar to pro­cras­ti­na­tion and akra­sia, this does not in­volve you go­ing against your bet­ter judge­ment. In­stead, you don’t have a bet­ter judge­ment, due to the blind­ing effects of the prob­lem.

Pos­si­ble Solu­tions:

I didn’t solve my prob­lem in a clever way, but I’ve be­gun em­ploy­ing some “early warn­ing” tech­niques to pre­vent fu­ture in­ci­dents. The key is to be­come aware of the wors­en­ing in­effi­ciency be­fore you’re forced to re­sort to dam­age con­trol.

  • Do a daily/​weekly/​monthly re­flec­tion. Just for a few min­utes, try writ­ing out in plain text what you cur­rently think of your life and how you’re do­ing. This forces you to ar­tic­u­late your situ­a­tion in a con­crete way, by­pass­ing the shad­owy am­bi­guity of your thoughts. If you find your­self writ­ing things about your life that you did not pre­vi­ously know, keep writ­ing, as you could be un­cov­er­ing some­thing that you’d been flinch­ing from ac­knowl­edg­ing (e.g. “Obli­ga­tion X isn’t as re­ward­ing as I thought it would be”). A more elab­o­rate for­mu­la­tion of this prac­tice can be found here.

  • I kind of feel that “mind­ful­ness” has be­come a man­gled buz­zword, but the ex­er­cises as­so­ci­ated with it are quite pow­er­ful when ap­plied cor­rectly. I’ve found that fol­low­ing my breath does in­deed in­duce a cer­tain clar­ity of mind, where ac­knowl­edg­ing prob­lems and short­com­ings be­comes eas­ier. Us­ing your own thought pro­cess as an ob­ject of med­i­ta­tion is an­other ex­cel­lent method.

  • While the pre­vi­ous two ex­am­ples have been per­sonal ac­tivi­ties, other peo­ple can also be a valuable re­source due to their un­canny abil­ity to be differ­ent from you, thus offer­ing mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives. How­ever, I doubt ex­pen­sive talk-ther­apy is nec­es­sary; some of my most use­ful re­al­iza­tions have been from IRC chats.