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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 think about your personal problems.

This leads to some actionable advice:

  1. Improve and use your subconscious mind; don’t just focus on your conscious thought processes.
  2. Learn humanity’s existing knowledge on a topic instead of reinventing it.
  3. Use notes.
  4. Look for opportunities to delegate and outsource.
  5. Cut down on unnecessary stuff; focus your limited resources on what you think is important.