TAPs 3: Reductionism

This is part 23 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

In school, we spend thousands of hours learning about the building blocks of the universe. We learn that reality reduces into little pieces: organisms into cells, books into pages, skyscrapers into atoms.

Your life belongs inside this infinitely divisible reality. Your psyche divides into subpersonalities, emotions into qualia, actions into goals and aversions, habits into TAPs. In fact, what we think of as objects are usually patterns of interaction between many tiny pieces.

Day 23: Reductionism

Trigger-action plans are the building blocks of habits – all habits can be built out of single steps.

I want to share a model for why it’s so important to break actions down with reductionism.

Zeno’s Paradox Retold

Here’s the old paradox of Zeno:

To win a race, you have to run the first half. Before you finish the first half, you must complete the first quarter. Before you finish the first quarter, there’s the first eighth, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, by halving the first segment, every race is divisible into infinitely parts, and to complete the race you must make infinitely many actions.

What can we learn from Zeno’s paradox?

Of the infinitely many steps in the race, the first step accomplishes almost all of them. It follows that the first step in a race is infinitely more difficult than every later one.

The Method of Exhaustion

From Zeno’s Paradox, we readily derive the following algorithm for deconstructing problems:

  1. Pick an action.
  2. Divide it into halves. Focus on the first half.
  3. Repeat to exhaustion.

For example, I can decompose the action of “write a blog post” in exponentially ascending order of difficulty:

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Visualize success.
  3. Turn on computer.
  4. Open Chrome.
  5. Log in.
  6. Type a letter.
  7. Type a word.
  8. Type a sentence.
  9. Type a paragraph.
  10. Type a section.
  11. Type a post.
  12. Click “publish.”

After having completed the method of exhaustion, executing the action is much easier. Notice that even though I’m ostensibly only 1/3 of the way through writing this post, I’ve already accomplished 10.5/12 steps in the workflow.

I’m almost done!

Steps of Equal Difficulty

You may think the last section was flippant or self-delusion.


I’m completely serious.

Walk through the whole activity of blogging (if blogging’s not aversive to you, pick whatever else you’re procrastinating on and apply the method of exhaustion to that one instead), and note how much total mental resistance you push through at each step in the 12-step process. Also note how likely you are to give up at each step.

The normal method of planning is to break into equally sized blocks, where size means “time and effort in objective reality.” Take stock of all the plans you’ve made in your life. How many failed at the very beginning? How many failed near the middle? How many failed towards the very end?

Most things fail before they begin. Of the ones that do begin, most fail immediately.

You don’t live in objective reality. You live in the mad world of Zeno, where the first step is infinitely difficult. The Method of Exhaustion is designed to parse a hard problem into steps of roughly equal psychological difficulty and failure rate.

Exercise: Apply the Method of Exhaustion to your next big project. How many pieces did you break it into?

Daily Challenge

Share anecdotes or data on how long it takes [intentions, projects, plans, relationships, careers, startups] to fail. What do the curves look like?