Think on Purpose

Brains are for making choices, so you would think that the animal with the most brains spends a lot of time thinking about what choices to make. It doesn’t seem that way to me though. It seems like a lot (most?) people spend most of their time thinking about anything but what choices to make. This is especially true of people who are in some sense tortured by their own thoughts.

Some examples:

  • Some people spend a lot of time wondering whether they are bad. They give themselves the best arguments they can muster that they are a bad person, and then see if they can undermine those arguments. If they conclude that they cannot, they get sad and feel guilty.
  • Some people spend a lot of time rehearsing arguments in their head, or having arguments with hypothetical people who disagree with them. Some people do all of their abstract thinking by imagining hypothetical disputes, or at least default to thinking that way.
  • Some people spend a lot of time going over the past. It seems like they are trying to find a flattering summary narrative that they can be comfortable with and broadcast to others.
  • Some people spend a lot of time going over their regrets. They imagine how things would have been different if they had done that one thing differently.
  • Some people spend a lot of time fantasizing about a fun or accomplished future.
  • Some people spend a lot of time wondering whether other people like them. Trying to convince themselves either that they do or do not.
  • Some people spend a lot of time being furious over how unjust something someone else did was, trying to solidify their belief that the other is a bad person, or that they were wronged.
  • Some people spend a lot of time agonizing over some awkward thing they said or did, reliving it over and over again, seemingly in order to assure themselves that it was in fact as bad as they thought.

What all of these types of thought have in common from my point of view is that they are not directly about figuring out what actions to take. They also seem to not be deliberate in some sense. They seem more like some sort of compulsion or habit, rather than like something someone might do on purpose in order to get the things they want.

My guess is that these kinds of thought were critically important in the ancestral environment, where the narrative you told others about yourself was a matter of life and death, and where being mistaken about your relative rank could lead to some nasty confrontations, and where being able to win over the crowd could mean the difference between no offspring and hundreds. These things are still important in the contemporary environment, but I think I am personally better off when I try to make sure that my thought is deliberate and practical, and I suspect that many other people would be too.

When I notice myself doing some form of thought for an extended period of time, like fantasizing about having my PhD, or going over some mistake I made, I ask myself what sort of practically relevant question I am trying to answer, and then I check to see if there is a better way to answer it. For instance, I regret beginning to smoke and sometimes I find myself wishing I had never started. So I ask myself: “what question about what actions I should take am I trying to answer? how does the output of this thought plug into my decision making algorithm?”

Sometimes I find that it’s obvious, like when I am thinking about a chess move I regret making, it seems clear that I am trying to learn how to recognize similarly bad moves in the future. Sometimes it takes some thinking, like when I wish I had never started smoking, this is actually about how to think about my agency and what actions I have available rather than about figuring out whether or how I should quit smoking. In general, when I find myself thinking about my past, I try to make sure that there is some deliberate question about the present or future that I am trying to answer, so that I don’t end up wasting a bunch of time thinking about useless and/or painful stuff on autopilot.

But sometimes I can’t find any practical reason for the thought I am executing at all. In that last case I try to start over and I ask myself: “what practically relevant question should I be trying to answer right now?” And then I try to execute thoughts that might help me answer that question instead of whatever thoughts I was compulsively executing before.

It’s totally ok to spend time ruminating. Sometimes that’s just what you gotta do for a while, and sometimes it’s going to happen whether you choose it to or not, but I find it very liberating to remember what I think of as the empty advice:

All you have to do is find the action that best brings about the stuff you care about, and then do it.

This is totally obvious, and yet it is the best advice I have ever received. Here is some related advice that I am less confident in: be wary of thought that you are unsure how to turn into plans.

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