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The Fear of Wasted Effort
Today we have a brilliant debut submission fromwho with this opening salvo has proven himself to be an extremely capable, self reflective, honest and clear sighted essayist.
I know that he is soon to begin work on his Substack (which you can subscribe to using the link below) where you will be able to find more quality long form creations such as this.
I suspect this could well be the beginning of something special. And again, I suggest that you get in on the ground floor so you can say you were there from the very beginning.
For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a phobia that has no name. Perhaps you do too, although you may not have realised it – nameless things are much harder to see. Having little skill in Greek, I simply call this fear “the fear of wasted effort” (or FoWE for short). Of all the myriad anxieties I have experienced it is one of the more pernicious and has also been perhaps the most difficult to overcome. A large factor in this has been my inability to recognise it for so long. This essay, then, is just one of a series of attempts for me to understand it. And, if I can help a few others along the way, all the better.
The fear itself is fairly self-explanatory – when presented with a number of options for projects in which you could apply yourself, an anxiety arises around choosing the one that would be the most efficient use of your time or energy. This arises from what some call a “scarcity mindset”: there are simply more things that we want to do than there is time in which to do them. Thus, we want to harness our energies as efficiently as we can so that, as our lives draw to a close, we can say we achieved a lot. And so we grow overly focused on picking one that will be a success.
It is worth distinguishing this fear from other, related fears that you may also be suffering from, as I do. Firstly, it is not the same as a fear that we are short of time (which actually does have a name: chronophobia). Neither is it the same as a fear that we will waste the time that we do have; we can see this from the fact that FoWE often causes people to procrastinate. Nor is it exactly the same as a fear of failure… it goes beyond it. A fear of failure is a fear of the shame we feel when something we try is not successful. FoWE is a fear that we will not spend our time in pursuit of something efficiently. It is not merely a fear of failure, but a fear that we will not achieve what we want fast enough, or that in achieving it, it will not have been worth the effort.
If you are thinking that this sounds somewhat insane, depressive, and perhaps even a little pathetic, you would be right. In a culture dominated by a Protestant work ethic, it is very much an embarrassing thing to admit to. But it is worse that that: when packaged up with some or all of the other fears I mentioned above, it is a perfect recipe for stagnation and misery. At the heart of it lies a cognitive dissonance – we desire to achieve things efficiently (a form of perfectionism), and fear work that yields no tangible benefits, so we constantly ruminate on choosing the best course of action and put off actually deciding what to work on, ensuring that no benefits are yielded at all.
Je ne regrette rien?
The absurdity of this entire thought process should already be clear, but as a certain Mr. Cobb once said, we need to go deeper... If you ask yourself why you might be afraid of wasting effort (rather than merely annoyed or irritated) you will likely find that what you really fear is future regret.
Regret can be a powerful (de)motivator, so much so that in game theory there is a decision-making strategy known as “regret aversion” or “minimax regret”. This is a strategy you can employ if your highest priority is minimising the maximum amount of regret you might experience as a result of your choice. In some situations, this makes sense – if you’re looking to avoid the maximum regret of total bankruptcy, you can easily dissuade yourself from investing your entire life savings in the latest shitcoin. But when we are looking at investing our efforts, the equations often go awry, and it’s not hard to see why.
When making most financial decisions, the criteria upon which we make judgements are actually fairly simple, even if the calculations we need to make to get us to the point of making these decisions are not. If we can figure out how much money we stand to make or lose in several different scenarios, we can decide what bets we are most comfortable with. But how we spend our time is nothing like this. In the real world (the world of finance, as we all know, is not real) there are hidden upsides and downsides everywhere. It isn’t a mere platitude that anything could happen to you when you leave your front door in the morning – the vicissitudes of fate are truly unknowable. We simply forget this because our lives can often seem repetitive, mundane and predictable… until they suddenly aren’t.
This uncertainty is inherent to existence itself, and it is what ultimately makes the fear of wasted effort so insane. Think about it: when you feel this fear, you are attempting to predict the mindset of your future self after engaging in some activity that also lies in the future. You project onto your future self that they will look back on something they did in the past (which is also in your future, from current you’s point of view) and regret it. Current you is deciding what future you will think, and future you is deciding that something they did in the past is not going to pay off sometime in their future.
This is the kind of mental time-travel that is of dubious benefit to us. The ability to make predictions about what may happen in the future is a defining human skill, but it seems to lose its utility unless it is strictly constrained. The fact is that you have no idea how an hour spent doing one thing or another may “pay off” in future. In prognosticating the outcome of any action we take, we usually end up with predictions that are very near-sighted, which is fine if that’s all we’re concerned with (in the case of buying or selling something), but not when the effects of a decision compound into the future.
Time ≠ Money
What comes from all this is that we must challenge how we think about time and effort, and whether they are even entirely distinct concepts (effort, after all, can only be expended in time). Our language betrays our default attitude: we often talk about spending or investing time. At work you may be asked how you manage your time, or to account for your time spent on a particular task or project. The common thread here is the financial language used. Such framing could be useful from the point of view of judging the merits of a particular project that must be held to some external standard of success, but it has become the way in which most of us habitually view our own lives.
In his 1945 book The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, the French philosopher René Guénon critiques the modern, materialist mindset as preoccupied with the measurement of the world against arbitrary criteria of quantity, and dismissive of its qualitative aspects:
“quantity itself, to which [modern men] strive to reduce everything, is… no more than the ‘residue’ of an existence emptied of everything that constituted its essence… by leaving aside or even intentionally eliminating all that is truly essential, [it is] incapable of furnishing the explanation of anything whatsoever.”
–René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times
The modern mind is always accounting for things. We are always weighing things against each other, trapped in a mentality of comparison; an algorithm trying to nail down that elusive object, “efficiency”. This is the external standard. And it’s one that we only need hold to so long as we decide to hold ourselves to it.
To escape this never-ending loop we must overcome our inner bean-counter, the one who knows the quantity of everything and the value of nothing. The one who asks what is achieved by going for a walk, not if the walk is worth it for its own sake. As a writer, I have often fallen afoul of the bean-counter’s productivity advice. “Go for a walk to spark your imagination” he will say, but if I come back from a walk feeling that the spark hasn’t been struck, he deems the walk “wasted”. This makes the next walk less likely, as he no longer sees the value in it.
The only solution then is to question the entire notion that engaging in any activity should “pay off” in the future at all. This is especially urgent when you consider that many of the things we fear may be a “waste of time” are the ones we are intrinsically drawn to. By overvaluing the avoidance of activities that have no payoff, we may ultimately be dooming ourselves to wasting our lives in the frantic pursuit of things we never wanted, or numbing our anxieties by procrastinating away the time we have. The fear itself may lead us to the very thing we are afraid of: regret for having lived a wasted life.
And so, we must learn to appreciate applying our effort for its own sake, not for some reward that we predict will come sometime in the future. We must learn to enjoy doing difficult things and view the time spent as well spent regardless of any tangible outcome.
This is easier said than done, of course, so we need an intermediary step. First, as I alluded to earlier, we must accept uncertainty as an existential given; and this might be easier to do than it sounds. While it is well-understood that uncertainty produces anxiety, this case is the opposite – we are made anxious by the false certainty that doing something will have been a waste of time for our future selves. The truth is that we do not embrace uncertainty enough. By regretting something in our past we make a judgement about our future from a point of view of certainty, but we can’t truly know whether that thing will “pay off” in the future – or has even paid off already in ways that we don’t know about.
We can view this as a completely dysfunctional coping mechanism – we apply our reason against the uncertainty of the world (which produces anxiety), by constructing a false certainty that itself also causes anxiety. As such, we can see that reason is often a poor foundation for decision-making.
However, perversely, this first step in our escape plan must involve a little further reasoning still: that is, reasoning about reasoning. If we can accept that we simply cannot know how a certain action will pay off – that uncertainty and non-linearity are baked into existence – we can begin to judge our decisions about what to do more lightly. We can dispense, for example, with the ingrained notion that practicing a musical instrument for an hour has a “predictable” payoff in a slight, linear increase in our skills, and instead embrace the possibility of compounding progress and “skill leaps”, where a concept or technique suddenly clicks with us and we make rapid progress. These non-linear payoffs are real and can have similarly non-linear consequences in the future: the difference between 5,000 hours of practice and 5,100 hours could be the difference between you becoming a successful musician or not. This non-linear outcome takes much of the pressure off of us to predict what will or won’t happen and decide accordingly.
But, as I said, this is only the first step. What is truly required to escape the ruminative cycle of FoWE is to dispense with the desire to choose the action that leads to the successful outcome at all. It is to cast aside reason entirely and to take what Søren Kierkegaard referred to as a “qualitative leap”, or a leap of faith. In circumventing our desire to expend effort efficiently – and accepting that we can never know how to do such a thing – we instead give ourselves over to doing what is right. The reward then becomes the doing of the thing itself. Even if that thing is not necessarily enjoyable per se, the discipline acquired, the sense of mastery over something, even if that mastery is not recognised by others, can be our rewards.
This tendency, to not view life as fundamentally transactional, is at the core of what I call the aristocratic temperament, and, I would argue, a well-lived life. It is a way of being that traditional man, as Julius Evola referred to him, would have understood clearly. Consequentialism – the rule of cause-and-effect – is not a trap he would have fallen into, because he understood that fate, and our inability to truly comprehend the consequences of our actions, would ultimately defeat our desire to choose an “efficient” course in life. And so, he concerned himself with character, the development of which was itself the key to taking the limited life we have and living it fully.
To do this ourselves, we must simply leap, if only from the much easier position of having embraced uncertainty. By no longer seeking to spend most of our time on activities that we expect will pay some material dividend in the future, we cease to defer being present in our own lives and can fully engage in what it means to be here.
If it is an existential given that our world is uncertain, constantly shifting and hard to predict, so too is it a given that we must choose. Choice itself, and our struggle against it, is at the very heart of the fear of wasted effort, and another reason that it is so painful and disorienting – we are railing against existence itself. But while we can’t escape the choices that are given to us, we can reframe them. By choosing first-and-foremost to adopt the aristocratic temperament, our choices about what we should pursue become much easier to make. If we know in our gut what is right for us (which most of us do, despite the level to which we have been overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of choices offered up to us by the modern world) then we can pursue it reassured that the ultimate outcome, whatever that may be, is not what truly matters. Our lives are not projects or artworks to be completed piece-by-piece, to be judged by some external standard. Rather, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his essay Self-Reliance, “life is for itself and not for a spectacle.”
There is much more that could be written on this topic. The fear of wasted effort is difficult to fully understand, entailing as it does many forms of distorted thinking, paradoxes, reasoning under uncertainty etc. But the scale of the problem is beyond the scope of a mere essay. I hope, at least, that this can serve as a useful introduction and a starting point for anyone who, like me, struggles with this daily. Perhaps some of the ideas explored above can lead you to new realisations of your own.
And, even if none of this has sparked any sense of familiarity within you, there is still, perhaps, some small counsel I can leave you with. If in future you are at a crossroads deciding between a number of things you could be working on, remember this: perhaps the most destructive and self-defeating question we can ask ourselves when deciding whether or not to embark upon a task or project that feels meaningful to us is “what will I get out of this?”.