The leverage instinct

A few years ago, I wrote a post called What changes?, which included this pretty revealing observation: "Let's say you have an enormous mountain of things to do. Now you finish one thing. What changes? You still have a mountain."

It was part of an argument that meaningful transitions are good for motivation. I still basically agree with that, but I now see it as trying to make the best of some fairly limiting assumptions. To explain, I want to start with a bit of a procrastination syllogism:

So when I described my quote as revealing, what it revealed is one of those desirable properties: the longer you leave something, the more important it becomes. As the deadline approaches, what changes? gets larger and more motivating. Why is Superman always racing against imminent danger, rather than working proactively to prevent it in the first place? You almost start to wonder if he likes it that way.

Let's call this the consequence instinct. You want to do big things! Impactful things! Things that make a difference! In this case, difference is quite literal: good outcomes from acting minus bad outcomes from not acting. The further apart these outcomes, the bigger the consequences, and the more important it is to act, right?

Unfortunately, this instinct provides little motivation when the alternatives are also pretty good, which also means little incentive to have good alternatives. Imagine Superman catches the bus full of orphans just before it plunges... into a giant safety net that he built months earlier? Boring.

The problem is that every option is a safety net. Do it now? Do it later? If either would still get it done, then there's no difference – no consequence – to that decision. Every hero knows that true heroism is forged in the crucible of those last days or hours, when you've blown through every safety net and the only remaining options are total victory or total disaster.

If not everyone desires this, what do they desire instead? What causes someone to seek safety nets rather than destroy them? It must be a kind of opposite to the consequence instinct: a desirable quality that decreases as the task gets closer. Amusingly, I found a hint in The Tree Planter's Paradox, a post I wrote around the same time: "'The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago' means best time as in the time when it would have the most beneficial impact on you. On the other hand, 'The second-best time is now' uses best time to mean the time you have the most impact on it."

I wasn't deliberately dropping oblique hints to my future self; at the time, this just seemed like a good argument for making long-term consequences feel more salient in the present. But notice the consequence instinct shining through: what amazing thing is going to happen in the future if I do this? What horrific calamity will happen if I don't? But it's an unwinnable strategy: however consequential it is today, it will be more consequential tomorrow.

No, the real answer is hidden in the "second-best time": not when the consequences of the decision are highest, but when you are most able to bring about those consequences. When do you have the most resources? When can you most efficiently apply them? When are your efforts most likely to succeed? Our hero spent gigajoules of energy catching a bus in mid-air rather than 10 minutes arguing for better guardrails at a council meeting.

This is the leverage instinct. It focuses on your relationship to your actions rather than the relationship of your actions to everything else. Unlike the consequence instinct, it has a robust answer to the question "if later will work, why not later?" – because later is costlier, riskier, and less efficient. In other words, with less time left you will have less leverage over the situation.

I call these instincts because, at least in my experience, they fall below the level of explicit goals or strategies. Rather, they're heuristics for the importance of a decision or action in a given moment. In the earlier pieces I wrote, I didn't even consider how I was thinking about importance, because it was so obviously the same as consequence. It was too instinctive to seem like a factor.

These instincts connect deeply with our sense of what virtuous action even looks like. Why are we so captivated by high-velocity heroism? By the ticking clock; the red or blue wire; the one moment that changes everything?

Perhaps simply because life isn't like that. The power of our decisions is so small, and the power of time so great, that to pit them against each other is to watch an ant fight the Sun. Yet what could be more heroic than to overcome those odds? To kick back the tide and scream into the winds of entropy: "I beat you!"

"For now", it will say, "but I have all the time in the world."