Getting things done: don't get stuck in the foothills

I spent the formative years of my corporate life as a support programmer for computer science researchers, specifically for folks who were studying artificial intelligence. I never did such research myself, but I had to understand the field well enough to work effectively with the folks I was supporting, and so I ended up conducting an on-the-job version of a short course of study. Not much of it was worth remembering, but there were occasional observations about the nature of problem-solving that have stuck with me.

One of the most important is referred to as the hill-climbing problem. In searching for a solution to a problem, one possible strategy is to consider all our options and then choose the one that will improve the situation the most; once we reach a state where none of our options will improve the situation, we conclude that we are now in the best possible state. This is called the hill-climbing strategy.

The problem with the hill-climbing strategy is that you can get stuck in the foothills. That is, even though you are at the top of a hill, there may be much higher hilltops surrounding you—hilltops that can only reached by going down, then going up the new hill. If your strategy tells you that going down is to be avoided, once you reach a hilltop you are stuck there, even if you discover that it is not the highest hill.

Seeing a higher hill in the distance, why wouldn’t you simply abandon your current vantage point and strike out for the higher one? Well, there’s no assurance that you can reach the top of a hill just because you can see it, so it may not be prudent to give up the gains you’ve made in the hopes of greater gains that you may never achieve.

For an example close to home, imagine a father who over the years has established a regular and profitable practice of spending an hour in the morning in prayer and Bible study. However, since he began this practice his family has grown and his responsibilities have increased, to the point where it is hard to find the time to add a new practice to his schedule—say, daily family worship. As he considers ways to make the time, he will be reluctant to entertain the possibility of forgoing his daily private time; after all, the benefits of that practice are known and proven, while the benefits of family worship are unknown and untested.

What the father should consider, though, is whether the benefits of his daily private time could be obtained in some other way, one that didn’t require the hour that might be used instead for family worship. In fact, it might very well end up that the benefits of a robust and thoughtful family worship that emphasized Bible study and prayer would overlap with and even outweigh the benefits of his current private time. There’s no assurance that this will be true, of course; but it is a strong enough possibility that it is worth trying out.

And therein lies the secret of not getting stuck in the foothills: no such decision need be permanent. Just because we need to give up a successful practice in order to try out something new and more promising, doesn’t mean that we can’t admit defeat and return to our old successful practice if the new approach doesn’t deliver on its promises.

If you’re finding it hard to get something done because it interferes with some longstanding practice, consider setting aside the practice—temporarily. At worst, your experiment will lose you a little time and perhaps cause you a little embarrassment. At best, you’ll not only have gotten something done, you’ll have found new and better ways to gain the benefits of your former practice.

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