Deciding the Undecidable
In a recent blog post I introduced the notion of undecidable tasks — a particularly important type of work that’s not well covered by standard productivity advice.
These tasks are crucial to my job as an academic — as they are to many creative fields — so I devote a lot of attention to understanding how best to tackle them.
Today I want to share three tips along these lines that have worked well for me…
- Work on Undecidable Tasks Both During and Outside Work Hours. This type of task often requires a moment of inspiration where the pieces of a new approach suddenly click together. It’s useful, therefore, to not only dedicate regular workday deep work sessions toward their completion, but to also return to them, even if briefly, in unconventional settings more conducive to serendipity, such as while driving or walking the dog. I’ve found both types of thinking are necessary. A lot of intellectual progress can be made in structured sessions at the office while sometimes a hike in the woods is then needed to make use of this progress.
- Pursue (Exactly) Two Undecidable Tasks at a Time. Through hundreds of hours of experimentation I’ve found that having two undecidable tasks primed (see below) at a time is optimal. Two is better than one as it allows you to switch your focus if you get stuck (or fed up) with one task. But two is still small enough that your mind can keep the various pieces properly sorted and available for serendipitous reconfiguration.
- Undecidable Tasks Require a Decidable Priming. It’s not sufficient to have only a vague understanding of an undecidable task before you dive into solving it. You must first “prime” the problem by working out precisely: (a) what a solution would look like; (b) why standard or simple approaches fail; and (c) a sense of what type of approaches are promising and are worth exploring. This type of priming is a decidable task — something you can schedule and consistently complete in a fixed amount of time — and is something you must do before diving deeper on interesting problems. A non-primed undecidable task is merely a whiff of inspiration — not yet worthy of your limited time and attention.
The above tips have helped my work with the undecidable (i.e., my proof rate is higher when I structure my thinking in this manner). But simple heuristics are just scratching the surface of the fascinating — and under-discussed — intersection between undecidability and productivity.
Better understanding this type of work is something I plan to pursue in the New Year.