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False And Real Progress

I've been experiencing a certain type of problem in my life recently. Simply put, it seems that our intuitions are not well primed to figure out if we're making high quality progress, and we can't rely on these intuitions especially as the tasks we're doing become more and more unclear.

Understanding why is simple. It would make sense for our brains to care about the progress we're making so that we prioritize survival in a dangerous environment. But the tasks that help us survive have some unique characteristics: they are easily measurable and tracked, like herding cattle, lighting a fire, cooking food, or soothing a crying child. Now, the difference between productivity and unproductivity is as slight as the difference between one series of keypresses and another series of keypresses. It's no wonder that our intuitions get it wrong.

But the danger here is not that it's simply wrong, it's dangerously wrong. Over my first year in college, I thought that I ought to do project work and make my time in my course actually useful. A noble goal, but it was quickly forgotten about when it was replaced with a preoccupation to engage in the various intricacies of college work. To clarify, it is not that the work was hard: the first year was particularly easy and the workload very light. But the alarm bells that alert you to laziness did not sound, and so I did close to nothing with my free time. Looking back, it is startling how easy it is to not even consider if what you are doing is valuable, or to even shun any considerations out of your working conciousness.

When I settled in to first year, I did what now seems like a whole lot of nothing. But it was comfortable - college work is clear, well defined, and has beautifully linear progression. You can pinpoint where you are in relation to the entire whole at any one time. You know that when you are clicking keys, stuff is getting done.

Real life is considerably more tough. Nobody reminds you to get your work done. And most of all, there is no such linear visible progression. Continuing with the analogy of software projects, say you write a line of code - it is not at all clear whether you have just advanced by one task item or doomed yourself to a week of desperate bug fixing. Even worse, writing shitty code can cause effects down the line that are not visible the moment you write it, which skews the reward curve to a time scale that our primitive brains simply cannot intuitively grasp.

We are used to carving a trinket out of wood, the progress of which is immediately visible, easily judged and somewhat clearly mapped. We are not used to working in today's world, where a single thought can leapfrog you years in advance, and the abscence of one can cause you to waste the precious time we have assigned to us.

It's probably necessary to therefore implement a strict opinionated system of priorities. We cannot be relied on by our subconcious minds to tell us what to do anymore. And the first step, I would guess, would be constantly checking to see if what you are doing is about to push you into the future, or keep you in the past.