Delegating Mental Work

People often try to become really smart by optimizing their conscious thinking. This can only take you so far. Conscious brainpower is a limited resource. To be a really effective thinker, you have to consider how to use things outside of your conscious mind to help you be smarter. What other resources can you use?

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
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As an analysis exercise, I’m going to go through this article and write summaries of each section (and sometimes some of my own thoughts).

People often try to become really smart by optimizing their conscious thinking. This can only take you so far. Conscious brainpower is a limited resource. To be a really effective thinker, you have to consider how to use things outside of your conscious mind to help you be smarter. What other resources can you use?

Summary: Conscious thinking is a limited resource, to be a great thinker you need additional resources.

For example, if you write notes, you can reduce the mental load on your conscious mind. You don’t have to remember as many details if you can look them up when needed. Notes are a resource, outside of your conscious mind, which can take some burden away from your conscious mind.

Summary: Notes are an example of an additional resource outside your conscious mind.

Thoughts: I guess it’s something like moving something from conscious to subconscious (at least in some cases). I expect when you take notes, you typically still have the subconscious recollection of their meaning. So the note is allowing you to access a specific area of your subconscious when needed, and save the conscious thinking resource for something else. It’s a bit like storing a memory address for data on a disc (with a symbol rather than a number), though the note could also have extra useful meaning.

Your subconscious mind has much more computing power than your conscious mind. It’s kind of like using a desktop computer: a lot more computing happens off-screen than on-screen. The more mental work you can delegate to your subconscious, the better. Whenever something is habitual, intuitive, or second nature, your subconscious is doing work. If you can do something on autopilot, it uses less conscious attention. You use your subconscious all the time even without realizing it; intuitions and habits are cases that are easier to identify and to use on purpose to improve your thinking.

Summary: Your subconscious has more computing power than your conscious. It’s useful to delegate mental work to your subconscious. You do this a lot e.g. intuitions and habits.

When something feels “automatic” or even like “muscle memory”, it isn’t. You don’t actually act automatically. Your brain is still doing computations and controlling your actions. Your muscles don’t have memory; your brain does. These are cases of your subconscious being effective. When you memorize your times tables and then just instantly know the answer to a multiplication, that is your subconscious looking it up in memory rather than you using a conscious thought process to figure it out.

Summary: When something feels “automatic” it’s not really automatic; your brain is still doing computations. This is your subconscious being effective.

Besides written information and your subconscious, another huge resource is other people.
Instead of writing something down, you can tell someone else, then ask them to tell it back to you later. In that case, you’re using their memory instead of your own. This delegates work away from your whole mind (both conscious and subconscious) to theirs.

Summary: Other people are another resource you can use. You can tell something to someone else and they can repeat it back later. This delegates work out of your whole mind.

You can have an assistant, secretary, editor or colleague do some task for you. If you don’t do it, you don’t have to think about it, which leaves you more time and brainpower available to do something else. Anything that means less work for you means less work your mind has to deal with, which frees up attention for other things like thinking about some issue more thoroughly or learning.

Summary: If an assistant does a task for you, it frees up time and brainpower for something else.

Other people can learn something and then use their knowledge to help you. For example, car mechanics aren’t just assistants who do a repair task for you. They also let you save brainpower because you don’t have to learn how to repair cars. They can save you the task of repairing your car and the larger task of learning how to repair cars.

Summary: Other people can learn skills and use them to help you. This means you can save brainpower on both learning the skill and applying the skill.

Other people figure things out and write books. This aids your learning. Instead of having to figure everything out yourself, you can read their book and learn faster. You can learn the same thing using less brainpower. Current knowledge about physics, for example, would require more than your entire lifetime worth of mental effort to create. It took the work of many people, over centuries, to accumulate humanity’s current understanding of physics. Many other fields also have more knowledge than you could personally invent from scratch within 100 years.

Summary: You can use books to figure things out. Books can take many lifetimes of work to create the knowledge for. Physics and many other fields have more knowledge than one person could create from scratch in 100 years.

People can also try to solve your problems for you. E.g. you can share some of your thought processes and work with a tutor, who can then think about what errors you’re making and how to correct them. That way you don’t have to do all the error correction yourself. The tutor does some thinking which reduces the thinking you have to do.

Summary: People can try to solve problems for you. E.g. a tutor can analyse your problems and think of error corrections, saving you from doing it all yourself.

So, in broad conceptual terms, you can reduce the burden on your conscious mind using your subconscious mind. And you can reduce the burden on your whole mind (both conscious and subconscious) using stored information. Information can be stored in ink on paper, in computer files, and in other people’s brains. You don’t have to store the information yourself: someone else can write notes which you use, which might be called a document, book or a video depending on the format. People or robots can also do tasks for you; if you did the task yourself, it’d require some thought while doing it. And you can have people think for you, including scientists you never interact with but who indirectly inform your doctor about what disease you have and how to cure it, and also tutors who directly thinking about your personal problems.

Summary: You can reduce the burden on your conscious mind using your subconscious mind. Information can be stored externally on paper, in computers, or in other people. Other people can store information which you can access. People or robots can also do tasks for you. Other people can think for you and solve problems for you.

I’m reminded of a quote from Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill:
[EDIT for context: this is a originally attributed to Henry Ford, when people tried to claim he was “uneducated”]

“WHY I should clutter up my mind with general knowledge, for the purpose of being able to answer questions, when I have men around me who can supply any knowledge I require?”

Knowing about stuff like subconscious or external delegation of mental effort seems like a big part of understanding why there’s such a stark difference between typical people and super successful people. I think often people who don’t understand how someone can be worth $10,000 an hour (or even way more) don’t appreciate the intricate structures of knowledge (in their own subconscious, in their books and notes and other resources, and in their employees and associates). These structures are constructed possibly over years or even decades of thought and effort to accomplish tasks which are so complicated most people can’t begin to understand.

I was thinking about this subject while writing another post about Conjectures & Refutations (I haven’t finished the post yet).

Some related ways I delegated my conscious thinking within a few minutes:

  • Karl Popper wrote a book of ideas so I could learn them without needing to create them all from scratch.
  • I have the subconscious knowledge of where I had the physical book stored.
  • I have the automatised skill of how to pick up and move a book so I can read it.
  • I have the automatised skill of reading words and converting them to ideas.
  • I saved the relevant chapter number at the top of the previous post so I could find it without needing to think about it.
  • I have the automatised skill of reading the contents page of a book, finding the chapter number, and turning to the required page.
  • I had the stored subconscious knowledge of where in the chapter I had gotten to to find my place again.
  • I used the stored subconscious knowledge of where I keep my digital copy of the book.
  • I used the automatised skill of opening a PDF, finding the right page, identifying the right section, and copying text from PDF to forum post.

There are many many more. I could spend a very long time trying to write out every automatisation or stored piece of information involved, and would probably still miss some. I don’t know how to even make a reasonable guess at how many things I think subconsciously per second.

This is a misquote. Within the block quote, you put a double quotation marks character preceding the “WHY” which isn’t at that location in the book. And you left out the start of the sentence (with no ellipsis) which breaks the grammar of the quote (breaking the grammar would be bad even with an ellipsis, but is especially confusing without one). And the quote marks character plus the omission work badly together: the inaccurate quote marks character falsely tells readers that there weren’t omitted words at the start of the sentence.

The attribution is wrong too. You noticed a problem there, but instead of fixing it, you put a confusing addition in brackets with multiple errors.

Misquotes are not allowed on this forum.

This is also a misquote. Your source doesn’t say that those people claimed Ford was “uneducated”.

Misquotes are not allowed on this forum.

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I’m sorry for the mistake. I acknowledge misquotes are a very big problem. Thank you for explaining it.

One of the causes of my mistake is that I didn’t have the text available. I could remember something like the quote from reading the audio book but I couldn’t remember the exact wording so I googled it and foolishly copied it from this goodreads page.

Another cause was being overconfident in how well I remembered some parts of the text. The “uneducated” misquote was incorrectly written from memory. I thought the quote I copied from goodreads looked right but my memory wasn’t good enough to notice that it dropped a large part of the sentence.

Another possible cause was that I think I might have been confused and subconsciously mixed up formal quote usage with scare quote usage. I’m not very confident of how accurately I’ve worked out what my thoughts were about this, but I don’t think I should ever do anything with scare quotes anywhere near any formal quotes.

I wont use goodreads as a quote source again. It’s an unacceptable risk to use a quote that has a chance of being wrong. I also wont rely on my memory for any quotes. I think I should also avoid writing out quotes from audio books as I’m not confident that I will identify the grammar correctly. I haven’t quoted from an audio book like that, but before my mistakes here I might have considered doing it. I’ll only quote when I have the complete text available.

FYI, even if the Goodreads quote was correct, you still would have misquoted it because you copied the quotation marks characters, which indicates this is a quote, and then put them inside a block quote. The quotation marks characters on Goodreads are not part of the quote – they surround the quote. But you copied them into the quote. A block quote indicates this is a quote and quotation marks inside it indicate the quote contains quotation marks within it which the Goodreads page doesn’t say. By coincidence, there actually is a quotation mark character at the end of this quote in the book (and preceding it with some other words in between), which Goodreads omitted.

By quotation marks characters I mean " or ’ (called double or single). The single version can also be an apostrophe rather than a quotation mark. You can mostly tell by whether it’s in the middle of a word or not, as well as by whether there are two markers surrounding something or not.

Yes that is another mistake I made as part of my misquote.

I think the underlying root cause of that mistake is incomplete integration. I hadn’t consciously thought about block quotes and quotation marks serving the same purpose (though I’m sure if someone asked me I’d have been able to say so) so when I saw them together I didn’t have an existing connection to automatically see the problem.

I think I’m going to be careful to re-read things when I quote them to look for these errors for a while. I’m not feeling confident about quoting at the moment. I don’t want to make this sort of mistake again.