Intent to Overkill

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.


  1. Hello Owen,

    I want to expound on “…[w]hen a new complication comes up, that’s not a sign to give up.”

    This reminds me so much of the TSPE arc in HPMOR, where Harry struggles to find solutions to a certain problem (which I will not expound on due to spoilers?). There were too many constraints. What Harry did was just shut up and compute.

    Many times, I guess, I have this urge to give up without even trying. This reminds me of another thing that appeared in HPMOR – “have you tried closing your eyes and thinking about the problem for five minutes straight?” I have a tendency to give up on the problem just because it’s seemingly hard.

    So this is something I guess, not giving up just because a new complication comes up. That’s something I need to work on myself, because often I’d work on a (math) problem and not get it after giving up, and then after a few minutes I’d find a simple solution I’d missed.


    • Hey CJ,

      Yeah, I’m actually rereading HPMOR right now, and I’m at the TSPE scene now. And the solution-finding mindset is proving to be very inspiring.

      The “shut up and actually spend 5 minutes thinking about the problem” is an actual heuristic CFAR teaches called a Resolve Cycle.

      I have problems with this sort of “actually trying to solve the problem” as well (there’s probably a better word for this, but I keep finding “actually trying” to be the best word so far).


      • Hi Owen,

        Another thing my mind likes to do instead of actually trying to solve the problem is to pretend it’s solving the problem.

        Like when my mind tries to use the same faulty approach over and over again, as if it’s expecting something different to happen. I think there’s a word for this – the tendency to believe there’s only one way to solve a problem, and to not know what to do when that fails.

        And the other error mode is when my mind, due to familiarity, believes it’s solving the problem, when it actually isn’t. I find this harder to describe, but it’s like the reason why reading something over and over isn’t a great way to review for stuff.


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