Zooming your mind in and out

I re­cently no­ticed I had two men­tal pro­cesses op­pos­ing one an­other in an in­ter­est­ing way.

The first men­tal pro­cess was in­stil­led by read­ing Daniel Kah­ne­man on the fo­cus­ing illu­sion and Paul Gra­ham on pro­cras­ti­na­tion. This pro­cess en­courages me to “zoom out” when en­gag­ing in low-value ac­tivi­ties so I can see they don’t de­liver much value in the grand scheme of things.

The sec­ond men­tal pro­cess was in­stil­led by read­ing about the im­por­tance of just try­ing things. (Th­ese ar­ti­cles could be seen as steel­man­ning Mark Frieden­bach’s re­cent Less Wrong cri­tique.) This men­tal pro­cess en­courages me to “zoom in” and get my hands dirty through ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

Both these pro­cesses seem use­ful. In­stead of spend­ing long stretches of time in ei­ther the “zoomed in” or “zoomed out” state, I think I’d do bet­ter flip-flop­ping be­tween them. For ex­am­ple, if I’m wan­der­ing down in­ter­net rab­bit holes, I’m spend­ing too much time zoomed in. Ask­ing “why” re­peat­edly could help me re­al­ize I’m do­ing some­thing low value. If I’m day­dream­ing or plan­ning lots with lit­tle do­ing, I’m spend­ing too much time zoomed out. Ask­ing “how” re­peat­edly could help me iden­tify a first step.

This fits in with con­strual level the­ory, aka “near/​far the­ory” as dis­cussed by Robin Han­son. (I recom­mend the re­views Han­son links to; they gave me a differ­ent view of the con­cept than his stan­dard pre­sen­ta­tion.) To be more effec­tive, maybe one should in­crease cross com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the “near” and “far” modes, so the parts work to­gether har­mo­niously in­stead of be­ing at odds.

If Han­son’s view is right, maybe the rea­son peo­ple be­come un­com­fortable when they re­al­ize they are pro­cras­ti­nat­ing (or not Just Try­ing It) is that this maps to get­ting caught red-handed in an act of hypocrisy in the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment. You’re pur­su­ing near in­ter­ests (watch­ing Youtube videos) in­stead of work­ing to­wards far ideals (do­ing your home­work)? For shame!

(Pos­si­ble cure: Tell your­self that there’s noth­ing to be ashamed of if you get stuck zoomed in; it hap­pens to ev­ery­one. Just zoom out.)

Part of me is re­luc­tant to make this post, be­cause I just had this idea and it feels like I should test it out more be­fore writ­ing about it. So here are my ex­cuses:

1. If I wait un­til I de­velop ex­per­tise in ev­ery­thing, it may be too late to pass it on.

2. In or­der to see if this idea is use­ful, I’ll need to pay at­ten­tion to it. And writ­ing about it pub­li­cly is a good way to help my­self pay at­ten­tion to it, since it will be­come part of my iden­tity and I’ll be in­ter­ested to see how peo­ple re­spond.

There might be ac­tivi­ties peo­ple already do on a reg­u­lar ba­sis that con­sist of re­peated zoom­ing in and out. If so, en­gag­ing in them could be a good way to build this men­tal mus­cle. Can any­one think of some­thing like this?