In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, there’s a scene early on where Harry lists out numerous ways of utilizing only the materials in the classroom to defend against attackers. He goes fairly overboard, naming things from the school robes (which could strangle someone), to the air (which could be taken out to asphyxiate everyone), to the bones of Hufflepuffs (which could be sharpened into bones as weapons).
(The rest of the story is much less morbid than this, I can assure you).
Within the story, this scene serves to demonstrate an “intent to kill”, the singleminded focus of locating only solutions that lethally deal with the target. There’s something going on here, which seems very valuable to consider: going all out.
I think this can be hard to do because it’s so easy to simply want to lose when a setback occurs.
When a new complication comes up, that’s not a sign to give up. It’s merely a new requirement your solution has to satisfy. Take whatever setback happened into account, and find a new way to power through. The actual solution-finding part, though, also seems flawed.
Blind spots crop up when we try to generate solutions. Drastic changes, like moving to another country, or learning a new language can be glossed over because they’re so large. For the most part, this makes sense— breaking norms and undertaking large changes have major costs associated with them. But if we’re not looking at a large swath of the solution space, it’s possible we’re missing out on some strong actions to take, especially when trying to go all out.
Say we do manage to get a comprehensive list of ways to achieve our goal. Obsessing over doing all the action items is a sure recipe for running ourselves ragged. When it comes to figuring out which things to do, I think focusing on shaping the environment is the way to go.
To that end, a heuristic of selecting actions that operate well, regardless of willpower seems like a good idea.
We want to target areas that require us to put in the least amount of cognitive effort to get us there. Precommitment is the first method that probably comes to mind. It looks like it’s part of a larger class of actions that involves preparation as well as automation. Focus on taking the burden off your future self, by taking concrete actions now. For example, preemptively setting alarms before going into a task is far easier than expending brainpower in the moment to “pop out” of the situation. Or, operationalizing a planning strategy makes it easier than trying to straddle both the object question of optimal planning as well as the meta question of optimal plan properties at the same time.
Basically, making sure that my goals are set up such that I only need to use cognitive effort on the important stuff, and trying to let my environment dictate the rest.
This is a simple heuristic that also appears on CFAR’s Rationality Checklist. That’s fine with me, keeping in mind the thought that obvious or common knowledge does not necessarily suck.
Tying this back together to “intent to kill”, I’ve noticed myself only half-doing something— I’m not striving to win. If I have a high urgency but low importance task I often delegate it to my future self, but without actually giving my future self a comparative advantage (via a quick brainstorm, reminder, or mind map). Mentally, there’s a shift I have to do where I tell myself “Okay, let’s generate solutions to actually take this thing out” and steel myself to actually actually kill the thing.
So yes, I want to try harder to slaughter my tasks— an intent to overkill.