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The Case for Overshooting

2023-07-07 11:27:58 -0500 CDT

TLDR

Consider two paradigms for change: Incremental change towards a known (fixed) target, and iterative overshooting of a target (where each iteration overshoots by less and less). I conceive of the first paradigm as a form of Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox, and the latter paradigm as resembling the motion of a pendulum with a damping force applied such that it converges on a central position over time (“damped oscillation” is one term to describe this motion, but I prefer to coin the term “pendulumnar”). I believe a pendulumnar change model is more useful in life, and I present some scenarios in which overshooting your target is useful.

Why should I care?

Change is everywhere, and optimizing how you approach change can be exceptionally empowering. In my experience, adjusting one’s approach to change can have profound effects on the ability to accept change, and become excited about the results of change. I also believe that optimizing a paradigm for change results in much quicker convergence on an ideal solution - that is, “pendulumnar change” is more effective and more fun.

What do I specifically mean by “incremental change” and “pendulumnar change”? As an example, let’s say I set a goal to wake up earlier in the morning. The incremental change model would begin by identifying a target (e.g. wake up 30 minutes earlier) and then identify a set of changes that could be adopted over a period of time to reach that target. Perhaps I decide to set my alarm 1 minute earlier every day for 30 days.

I feel that this paradigm has similarities to Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox because, during the incremental changes, the goal always feels out of reach. Although you are technically making progress, it always feels like you’re losing because it takes forever to reach your target and every incremental change gives you a chance to lose momentum and stop pursuing your goal. Every day I set my alarm back 1 minute, I have another opportunity to give up on my goal. Every day, I will bargain with myself to either accept the current condition (“10 minutes earlier is still a win!”) or just stop altogether (“I guess my original wake up time was fine”).

In contrast, a “penulumnar change” approach would suggest that if we think want to wake up 30 minutes earlier, we should overshoot that target substantially as a first iteration and adjust after we assess the results. One way I might approach this is doubling the time change - i.e. setting my alarm 1 hour earlier. After a few days, I reassess my situation. When I notice that I’m extremely tired waking up an hour earlier, I can then dial back my change so that I’m waking up 25 minutes before my original time. The process repeats until I reach my target, or decide that my target should shift entirely. Perhaps 30 minutes was a misguided goal and I actually feel better when waking up 90 minutes early. By intentionally overshooting my target, I was able to explore an extreme alternative that I would never have experienced in an incremental change model. This process not only results in faster adoption of change, but also allows for a more flexible conception of why a given target was chosen in the first place.

Personal change example

Through most of my conscious childhood, I took piano lessons. I have a strong memory from a specific piano lesson: there was a passage marked forte which I wasn’t playing loudly enough. My teacher kept telling me to play it again and louder. I kept increasing the volume little by little on each iteration. I was convinced that I was playing it plenty loudly, but my teacher kept asking for more. Eventually, my piano teacher told me to play it as loud as I physically could play it. He assured me I wouldn’t damage the piano (a monstrous Steinway grand), and so I went for it, banging on the keys as hard as I could. When I finished, he told me that I played too loud, but only by just a little bit. I dialed it back to a slightly more managable and we called it a day.

This experience burned into my consciousness because it demonstrated the massive benefits over overshooting a target. Of course my teacher didn’t want me to perform that passage at my maximum physical volume every time I played it. But, he needed to unlock the part of my brain that was resistant to playing more loudly. My natural approach was to make incremental changes on each repetition until I got to the target volume. The problem was that the target was abstract (“loud”) and my conception of the target didn’t match my teacher’s conception of the target. Rather than waste an entire hour telling me to keep playing it louder and louder and louder, my teacher simply told me to play too loud on purpose. By intentionally overshooting the target, we established a set of bounds to the problem (my playing volume) and were able to agree on the extremes (too soft, too loud). Once we had identified the two extreme bounds, it was fast and easy to agree on the target. A vague, objective measure (“louder”) was transformed into a clear, tangible goal (“louder than before, slightly softer than this”). This was my first conscious introduction to pendulumnar change.

Social issues example

What do veganism and the prison abolition movement have in common? They are both fairly extreme responses to their respective social issues. I don’t personally prescribe to either of these philosophies, but I deeply appreciate both for the perspective they bring to the table.

Let’s start with veganism1. One popular argument for veganism goes like this:

  1. Greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change, which is an existential threat to humanity
  2. Animal agriculture represents a significant amount (perhaps greater than 16%) of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions
  3. Veganism avoids animal products and therefore does not contribute to animal agriculture emissions
  4. Veganism can immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions, therefore it is logically and ethnically preferable to adopt veganism

Even though I am not vegan, I find great value in this perspective. While it may overshoot the target in some ways, it provides a useful stimulus to move human behavior towards less animal agriculture. The more people who are vegan and advocate for veganism increases the chances that restaurants and grocery stores will provide vegan options, which will in turn have an effect on the larger population, perhaps without even being aware that their behaviors are being effected. By overshooting, veganism actually has a greater effect on the target behavior (reducing animal agriculture) because the extreme position has an impact on the general population. In contrast, an incremental approach to reducing meat consumption at the population level would take an extremely long time to gain consensus and enact meaningful change, because people could actively resist change at every step.

Prison abolition is an entirely unrelated social position which posits that the abolition of prisons is necessary to achieve justice for everyone - both those currently imprisoned and those who are not. Without making a value judgment about either position, I believe a much more mainstream view is that prisons should be reformed in some way. There is much greater societal acceptance of the fact that mass incarceration is detrimental for poor communities of color, and that conditions in prisons are inadequate and sometimes inhumane. I have some lingering questions about prison abolition, but I still appreciate it as a viewpoint that moves the needle towards justice. If my goal is a world in which vastly fewer people are imprisoned, and those who are imprisoned are treated well2, then prison abolition is a useful addition to the conversation. Consider a debate in which multiple views must compromise on a final policy decision about prison reform. Prison abolition might overshoot the target of the compromise, but including this “extreme” view in the discussion makes it easier to settle on meaningful reforms, rather than concessionary reforms that really don’t achieve the target (vastly fewer people in prison, significantly more humane conditions in prisons).

Professional workplace example

Have you ever wanted to make a change at work? A common way to achieve change at work is to make a proposal for a new system, present it to your team, get feedback, refine the proposal, and finally implement some incremental change that gets you closer to your target.

Another approach is to run a workplace experiment. Identify a possible operational model that is distinctly different from your current operational model in a specific way, and adopt it sincerely for a fixed period of time. After the time period has elapsed, reflect on what worked and what didn’t. After the reflective period, identify how to proceed: continue using the new model, revert to the old model, or iterate on the experiment with a new operational model that addresses feedback from the first experiment. This is one example of how pendulumnar change can look in a professional setting. I find this approach very satisfying: it is more exciting, more fun, and converges on an ideal situation much faster that iterative change.

At a former employer, we used a workplace experiment to drastically reduce our use of Slack. We made a concerted effort to use real-time voice/video calls for time-sensitive communication, and email for non-time-sensitive communication. Afterwards we reflected on what worked, and what didn’t work, and then we adopted some set of changes to our official guidelines on company communication. The whole experience took less than a month and resulted in many team members feeling much more balanced about workplace communication.

Conclusion

Whether or not you think I’m absurd for using the term “pendulumnar”, you gotta admit that my argument is air-tight. There is literally no counter-argument to anything I wrote in this post. It feels really good to publish such a buttoned-up think piece, I hope it felt just as good to read it.


1There are lots of reasons one might choose to be vegan. I’m limiting the discussion here to climate justice because it most easily fits in with my point and avoids distraction.

2I don’t claim to have an exhaustive list of desired prison reforms, but at a minimum I believe that all prisoners deserve: dignity; safety from other inmates; safety from guards; safety from themselves; adequate privacy; access to safe social interactions (i.e. no solitary confinement); access to visitors; plentiful, healthy food; access to healthcare; access to education; access to entertainment; access to fresh air; access to exercise and movement; access to the internet; and probably much, much more.