Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.
Do my taxes? Oh, no! It’s not going to be that easy. It’s going to be different this year, I’m sure. I saw the forms—they look different. There are probably new rules I’m going to have to figure out. I might need to read all that damn material. Long form, short form, medium form? File together, file separate? We’ll probably want to claim deductions, but if we do we’ll have to back them up, and that means we’ll need all the receipts. Oh, my God—I don’t know if we really have all the receipts we’d need, and what if we didn’t have all the receipts and claimed the deductions anyway and got audited? Audited? Oh, no—the IRS—JAIL!!
And so a lot of people put themselves in jail, just glancing at their 1040 tax forms. Because they are so smart, sensitive, and creative.
—David Allen, Getting Things Done
Very recently, Roko wrote about ugh fields, “an unconscious flinch we have from even thinking about a serious personal problem. The ugh field forms a self-shadowing blind spot covering an area desperately in need of optimization, imposing huge costs.” Suggested antidotes included PJ Eby’s technique to engage with the ugh field, locate its center, and access information—thereupon dissolving the negative emotions.
I want to explore here something else that prevents us from doing what we want. Consider these situations:
You attack a problem that is at least slightly complex (distasteful or not), but are unable to systematically tackle it step by step because your mind keeps diverging wildly within the problem. Your brain starts running simulations and gets stuck. To make things worse, you are biased towards thinking of the worst possible scenarios. Having visualized 30 steps ahead, you panic and do nothing. David Allen's quote in the introduction of this post illustrates that.
You attack a problem of any complexity—anything you need to get done—and your mind keeps diverging to different directions outside the problem. Examples:
a. You decide you need to quickly send an important email before an appointment. You log in. Thirty minutes later, you find yourself watching some motivational Powerpoint presentation your uncle sent you. You stare at the inbox and can't remember what you were doing there in the first place. You log out without sending the email, and leave late to your appointment.*
b. You're working on your computer and some kid playing outside the window brings you vague memories of your childhood, vacations, your father teaching you how to fish, tilapias, earthworms, digging the earth, dirty hands, antibacterial soaps, swine flu, airport announcements, seatbelts, sexual fantasies with that redheaded flight attendant from that flight to Barcelona, and ... "wait, wait, wait! I am losing focus, I need to get this done." Ten minutes had passed (or was it more?).
Repeat this phenomenon many times a day and you won't have gone too far.
While I am aware that situations 1 and 2 are a bit different in nature (anxiety because of “seeing too much into the problem” vs. distraction to other problems), it seems to me that both bear something very fundamental in common. In all those situations, you became less efficient to get things done because your sensitivity permitted your attention to be deviated to easily. You suffered what I shall call an attention hijack.