TL;DR: When we're unsure about what to do, we sometimes naively take the "average" of the obvious options — despite the fact that a different strategy is often better. For example, if you're not sure if you're in the right job, continuing to do your job as before but with less energy ("going half-speed") is probably not the best approach. Note, however, that sometimes speed itself is the problem, in which case "half-speed" can be totally reasonable — I discuss this and some other considerations below.
I've referenced this phenomenon in some conversations recently, so I'm sharing a relevant post from 2016 — The correct response to uncertainty is *not* half-speed — and sketching out some examples I've seen.
The correct response to uncertainty is *not* half-speed
The central example in the post is a time when the author was driving along a long stretch of road and started wondering if she’d passed her hotel. So she continued at half-speed, trying to decide if she should keep going or turn around. After a while, she realized:
If the hotel was ahead of me, I'd get there fastest if I kept going 60mph. And if the hotel was behind me, I'd get there fastest by heading at 60 miles per hour in the other direction. And if I wasn't going to turn around yet -- if my best bet given the uncertainty was to check N more miles of highway first, before I turned around -- then, again, I'd get there fastest by choosing a value of N, speeding along at 60 miles per hour until my odometer said I'd gone N miles, and then turning around and heading at 60 miles per hour in the opposite direction.
Either way, fullspeed was best. My mind had been naively averaging two courses of action -- the thought was something like: "maybe I should go forward, and maybe I should go backward. So, since I'm uncertain, I should go forward at half-speed!" But averages don't actually work that way.
[...] [From a comment] Often a person should hedge bets in some fashion, or should take some action under uncertainty that is different from the action one would take if one were certain of model 1 or of model 2. The point is that "hedging" or "acting under uncertainty" in this way is different in many particulars from the sort of "kind of working" that people often end up accidentally doing, from a naiver sort of average. Often it e.g. involves running info-gathering tests at full speed, one after another.
Opinions expressed here are mine, not my employer’s, not the Forum’s, etc. I wrote this fast, so it’s definitely not an exhaustive list of examples or considerations and is probably wrong in important places.
Assorted links that seem related to the post
- False compromises & the fallacy of the middle / the argument to moderation / the middle ground fallacy (example link - I don’t know what the right term here is, or if there’s an excellent explanation)
- Dive in and the explanation of “split and commit” here
Where I’ve seen the “half-speed” phenomenon recently
I think that I’ve seen multiple instances of each of these in the past few months. I’m not sure that all of these directly stem from the phenomenon described above — there might be better descriptions for what’s going on — but they seem quite related.
- Jobs. Someone is unsure if their role is a good fit (or if it's the most impactful option, etc.) for them. So they continue working in it, but put less energy into it.
- What you might do instead: set aside time to evaluate your options and fit (and switch jobs based on that), consider setting up some tests, see if you can change or improve things in your current job (talk to your manager, etc.), decide that it’s a bad time to think about this and that you'll re-evaluate at a set time (schedule it in), etc.
- Resting. Someone is tired and worried about burning out, but they also think it’s important for them to work right now. So they do work-related things that they think are kinda relaxing, but which are neither as useful nor as relaxing as the most useful or the most relaxing things respectively. (Half-speed resting.)
- They should probably decide one way or another, and then go all-in. Although it’s possible that this sort of middle ground is a useful hack for the person to actually take a break if they’re having trouble letting themselves do that.
- See also: Rest in motion
- Community-building. Someone is uncertain about the value of working on some kind of community-building or field-building. So they think that they or the people working on it should slow the community-building down.
- I’d guess that it’s generally better to investigate whether the community-building should be stopped altogether (as much as possible). (You could also decide that it shouldn't be stopped, but should be seriously modified.) If you're actively involved in community-building, this might mean that you should stop what you're currently doing in order to investigate. Alternatively, you might think that you're very unlikely to make progress on this investigation — consider thinking about how your beliefs on this front have been changing after you started thinking about it, in which case I think you should decide one way or another now and commit to that until you have new information.
- Note that it is right to slow down if you think that the speed is the thing causing problems — I discuss this a bit below.
- Cause prioritization. Someone has changed their mind about cause prioritization and is now quite unsure if they’re working on the right problem. Maybe they’ve decided that animal welfare is probably significantly more important than they used to think, and they’re unsure about whether they should switch into that cause area. But they’re already on an unrelated path and it seems hard to switch, so they make their current work slightly animal-welfare-related.
Some notes / adding nuance
- When speed itself is part of the problem, going “half-speed” can be totally reasonable.
- If going fast means being more careless or if it has some other costs, then you should absolutely consider slowing down. This isn’t the same as responding to uncertainty by doing something like averaging your options.
- For instance, if you’re unsure about the value of growing your organization in part because growing it fast might make it harder to maintain good team culture (or is straining management capacity, etc.), slowing down could be totally reasonable.
- (This is a sub-case of (2) below.)
- There are many things that can seem like “half-speed” that I think don’t face the problems described here.
- Three examples — not exhaustive
- Being careful with whatever you're doing (see (1) above)
- Preserving option value (see also: Hard-to-reverse decisions destroy option value and Adding important nuances to "preserve option value" arguments)
- Hedging your bets
- Three examples — not exhaustive
- Going “half-speed” could be a low-cost way of getting some more capacity for figuring out what to do. (Related to (1) in this list.)
- Maybe you’re unsure if you’re in the right role, but it would be really costly for you to drop all of your current responsibilities to try a different job, or to take a month to investigate what you should do. It might make sense for you to reduce hours at your current job or put things into maintenance mode and make space for side projects and thinking about your career.
- In the driving-to-a-hotel example above where you’ve just realized that you might have missed your hotel, half-speed might be reasonable if:
- It’s taking mental energy to drive fast (e.g if you’re worried that you’ll miss the hotel)
- It would be pretty hard to pull over (e.g. you’re on a big highway)
- And you can make progress on the problem of “what’s the best way to get to my hotel?” just by thinking or doing something that doesn’t involve driving past where your hotel is (whether that’s in front or behind of you) — like pulling out a GPS, just being more attentive to your surroundings, or giving your brain more bandwidth to figure out what your next steps should be. (If you can’t, I think you should probably just keep driving fast, commit to some distance that you’ll drive forward, then go back if there’s no hotel.)
There are more examples in the original post.