Two interlocking control systems

When I was practicing touch typing I found that much of the skill was a matter of going as fast as I could, without letting my speed outpace my accuracy. If I could feel that the precision of my finger placements was high, I would put more “oomph” into my typing, pushing harder to go faster. 

But I would often fall into an attractor of “rushing” or “going off the rails”, where I was pushing to go fast in a way that caused my accuracy to fall apart, and I started to “trip over myself”. I made a point to notice this starting to happen and then intentionally slow down (and relax my shoulders) to focus on the precision of my finger placements. The goal was never to rush (because that is counter productive), but to go as fast as possible within that constraint.

I think there might be an analogous thing in my personal productivity. 

When I have a largish amount to get done in a short amount of time, this can be energizing and motivating. My physiological arousal is higher. The my personal tempo faster. There’s a kind of energy or motivation that comes from having things that need to get done, with deadlines, and it boots me up into a higher energy orbital, where my default mental actions are geared towards making progress, instead of random “I don’t feel like it” sort of laziness. There’s a bit of a tailwind behind me.

(Indeed, this kind of pressure is exactly what was missing for most of 2020.)

However, sometimes this pressure gets overwhelming, and my intentionality collapses. It’s too much. Either I don’t have the spaciousness to let my attention fully engage with any given task (which is usually necessary for making progress) because of the competing goal threads, instead only managing a shallow superficial attention, or I’ll get overwhelmed and opt out of all of it by distracting myself.

There’s this important principle that I never want my tailwind to outpace my structure. Having some amount of pressure speeding me along is great, but only if my intentionality is high enough to still absorb everything that’s coming at me, taking in the input of what’s important, orienting to it, and taking action on it.

Too much tail wind and that intentionality collapses.

Which means that I need a control system that keeps those two metrics in sync. I need to notice when my intentionality is starting to collapse, and take actions to slow things down and to shore up my intentionality. 

However, my intentionality can collapse for another reason, other than getting outpaced by motivation-pressure. It also collapses when I’m low on energy and alertness.

My intentionality depends on my personal energy and alertness. When my energy and alertness is depleted, the inner structure of my intentionality tends to collapse. 

(There are some caveats here. For one thing, it is possible to maintain intentionality in a low energy state. Also, I can sometimes depend on external structure as a substitute for intentionality, and external structure depends much less on my personal energy and alertness. But to a first approximation, low energy -> low intentionality.)

As a consequence of this, the control system maintaining my intentionality propagates back to an earlier control system maintaining my energy level. I want to notice when my energy is flagging, when I’m just starting to run on fumes, and take action to shore up my energy, before my intentionality collapses.

Furthermore, because my personal energy and alertness is at the bottom of the stack, a lot of my energy and alertness maintenance is not structured as a control system. I employ strategies to get good sleep, and to exercise every day, independently of my current energy level, because high energy is self sustaining.

Having some practices that are “foundational” rather than implemented as control systems is costlier, because it means that I’ll sometimes engage in them when they are not strongly necessary. But foundational systems are more robust: they have more slack in the system to absorb peterbations.

Aversions inhibit slow focus

I’ve written elsewhere about how the biggest factor in my personal productivity is aversions, and skillfully engaging with aversions. It’s maybe not unsurprising that having an aversion to task is relevant to effectively executing on that task. But it is a bit more surprising that having an aversion to some task or consideration, makes it much much less likely that I’ll effectively execute on anything.

The key insight, I think, is engaging deeply in a task entails clearing some mental space.

Aversion to something increases my compulsiveness / distractibility. I’m more likely to take a bathroom break, or to make food for myself, or to rereard old blog posts on my phone (without jotting down my thoughts in the way that makes reading more productive / creative), or to go check twitter and then get stuck in the twitter loop.[1] 

I think this is because I’m feeling some small constant pain, and part of me is compulsively seeking positive stimulation to distract from the pain. Basically holding an aversion makes me more reactive to stray thoughts and affordances of the environment. My immediate actions are driven by a (subtle, but nevertheless dominating) clawing, grasping, drive for positive sensation, instead of flowing from “my deep values”, my sense of what seems cool or alive. 

Most, but not all, forms of creative work, involve making mental space, quieting those distractions so that I can give my full attention to the thing that I’m trying to do. The reason why aversions kill my productivity is that my compulsive stimulation-hunger is too graspy to settle down into any long-threaded thought. That part of me doesn’t want to be still, because it is seeking distraction from the sensation in me.

(The exception is some forms of work that “fit” this compulsiveness, where I can get sucked into compulsively doing some task as a way to distract from the sensation in my body. Sometimes an essay is of the right shape that it can be a hook in just the right way, but most of my work is not like this.)

Generally, when I notice an aversion, I’ll engage with it directly, either by sitting down and meditating, feeling into the sensation in a non semantic way, or by doing focusing / journaling, which is more of a semantic “dialogue”, or something that is a mix of both approaches.

In doing this, I’m first just trying to make space for the sensation, to feel it without distraction, while also being welcoming towards the part of me that is doing the dissociation, and secondly hoping to get more understanding and context, so that I can start planning and taking action regarding the underlying concern of the aversion.

[1] I found myself doing all of these except the last one today, all the while vaguely / liminally aware of the agitation clench in my belly, before I sat down to engage with it directly.