What Should I Do Now?
One of the greatest questions in life, in philosophy, in management, in personal productivity is the ever present:
WHAT SHOULD I DO NOW?
(The now is redundant, as you can only do things "now". If you're talking about something to "do" in the future, then you're talking about "What should I plan to do now?" and have pre-supposed that the best use of your time right now is "planning"... which is a big supposition.)
Here are some scenarios:
- You are walking from point A to B, when you notice a piece of plastic litter on the ground. Should you stop what you are doing and pick up the piece of litter?
- You are walking from point A to B, when you notice a small unexploded bomb, with a digital timer that seems to be counting down, and has five minutes until it will explode. Should you stop what you are doing and focus on dealing with the bomb?
- You are walking from point A to B, when you also notice a second, much much larger unexploded bomb, with a digital timer that seems to be counting down, and has eight years until it will explode? Should you stop what you are doing and focus on dealing with the bomb
- You are walking from point A to B, when you also notice an apple on a tree, just a few steps off your path. The apple is almost ripe. Should you stop what you are doing and pick the apple?
Before you can make the correct decision, it's pertinent to know why you are walking from point A to B, as the answer can significantly change the relative and even the absolute value of the three interruption tasks you have been presented with.
- You are walking from point A to point B, because you are a bomb diffusion expert and there is a large bomb, at point B, which will explode in three minutes. You estimate that you can get there and diffuse the bomb with two minutes to spare.
- You are walking from point A to point B because at point B you will board a helicopter and depart the area -- which has been safely evacuated of all humans other than you. The area is set to be destroyed by aerial bombardment in three minutes.
- You are walking from point A to B to receive a valuable award for being the world's greatest at picking up pieces of plastic litter and never walking past any piece of litter. It is being awarded by a group of people who are generous with their prizes but also like to provide strange tests of character during the walk on stage to receive the award.
Although these situations do present a dilemma - they are given to demonstrate the way that the value associated with a task can change depending on the time.
Fairly Stable Expected Value across Time
The "expected value" of some tasks do not show much variation in time. Picking up the piece of plastic now or later may not make much difference. (This could be suddenly altered if, for example there was a strong wind and the plastic would move if you don't collect the item immediately. But for the purposes of this exercise, let's say it will still be there in a week.)
Rising expected value until a deadline, and zero value afterwards.
The ticking time bombs are tasks which become more and more immediate, higher and higher expected value up until a specific deadline. After the deadline, if you missed the task, you can't come back and do the task.
The two bombs are provided to contrast with each other, and demonstrate that when there is a longer amount of time until detonation, you have more options available, so the relative cost is lower. As the time approaches zero, the full cost of the missed deadline reaches its peak.
Rising and then falling expected value across time
The apple is given as an example of another pattern of changing expected value. The common market value of apple may get better over time, until it is fully "ripe", and thereafter it may slowly fall in value, until it becomes inedible and of very little worth. (Even then it has a little market value, but probably not enough to cover the cost of transporting it.)