I’ve written many times before about the motivational collapse I’ve been working through for the past year. As any person of my age would do nowadays, I searched these issues up online, and at various points I have immersed myself into a world of writing and images about self-improvement, self-help, productivity, and more—there’s an industry around it, but from what I can tell while it is in places very misguided, most involved have the right intentions; it’s not an industry in the negative sense, and those doing it for a living are nothing worse than bloggers and authors.

Aside from the parts oriented towards the psychology of work and how to get the most out of oneself, a lot of this is about outlooks on important parts of one’s life and thus on one’s life, so one is doing a kind of philosophy. It’s been interesting for me to compare these things with the analytic philosophy I do for my degree. I certainly apply my usual analytic methods where I can to sort out what I might actually agree with. Unintellectual influences batter me during this process: I worry that considering this stuff seriously would not be considered proper by tutors and fellow students, even though that’s probably not even true. This stops me from committing to things, coupled with my usual intellectual scepticism.[1] This has advantages and disadvantages. In any case this evening I want to write about a few of the things I have come to believe from my reading. I have two friends[2] who very much disagree with different parts of this each, and who have expressed this to me in response to specific worries I’ve had at various points. I’m going to try and discuss something like their objections if I can, but I don’t think I can represent anything more than the very simplest, surface-lying aspects of their views on these issues.

I’ll start with something I’ve sloganised and like to drop into conversations a lot as part of my usual hyper-judgmental background chatter: I talk a lot about doing things with intention, doing things deliberately, not drifting and just ‘doing things by default’. I invoke this terminology when talking about the activities people do automatically when they’ve finished doing something else, when they have time to kill. These things are easy, mildly interesting, and if you spend more than a smallish amount of time on them, it’s usually an indicator that you’re procrastinating something more worthwhile. Channel surfing on TV, re-watching YouTube videos, browsing sites like reddit and StumbleUpon, reading Facebook or Twitter for the sixth time that day, checking e-mail yet again. Most of the above can be done more deliberately for specific purposes. If you’re really into StarCraft, you might visit /r/starcraft—though given the state of the site nowadays this example is a bit of a stretch—to catch up on tournament news or because you’ve an eye for the meta-game, such as it is that filters down to the level of /r/starcraft. If you’re waiting for an important message, you might check your e-mail a lot. But most of the time one’s purpose with these things is decidedly less precise and collected.

My usual line is that you should avoid these things because you’re putting your attention at the whim of something you don’t particularly value; instead of taking a genuine break from purposeful activity, you’re taking the easy way out of procrastinating doing anything at all. A particularly poignant example is late-night web browsing where one is essentially procrastinating going to bed. This is the source of my complaint that someone’s broken sleep schedule is due to laziness about going to bed. I’ve done this so many times, and many people I know have; stopping the flow of novelty and preparing ourselves for more interesting things tomorrow with a good night’s sleep is just too much effort. Doing something deliberately means living your life according to what you really value, which takes a little effort, but you can get into the habit of doing it. This is not at all to suggest that we should be working to improve ourselves and the world every minute of every day. This is impossible (and probably not even desirable even if it was possible) and we need plenty of breaks from it. But we can choose to take a break by watching the next episode in a TV series we’re following via the Internet/recording it with a VCR/DVR, or by reading a book or magazine, or by just sitting outside with a drink, rather than wasting time online or in front of random TV. And this way we are more fulfilled, making more of the time available to us.

The second thing I’ve taken away from my reading is that multi-tasking[3] is really, really bad, and that distractions are an aspect of this that the modern world is rather good at multiplying up. Science suggests that all of our abilities work better for us when we use one at once, by trying to do one thing. Obviously there is an extreme to be avoided where one gets hung-up on something hard for longer than is useful, such as obsession with a maths problem when coming back in half an hour might actually work better. Losing track of the bigger picture of your project in some senses loses you the project, so obviously you don’t want to do that either. But don’t try to plan and run your project at the same time as working on a specific aspect of it! Keeping them separate lets you do both better.

Secondly focusing on one thing rather than trying to multi-task unlocks the door to the state of flow, when time drops out of one’s perspective and your mind forgets its usual rambling thoughts and ruminations because it’s just so busy working on whatever it is you’re working on. Somehow this seems to me like the very best thing that can happen to a human being. I get this when writing, primarily, occasionally when reading, often when doing sysadmin stuff and flicking around doing things on the computer, or when doing some monotonous text editing task like when I used to do pages and pages of JCR minutes. Others get it from doing maths, or playing StarCraft, or playing a physical sport. The sweetest moments are when you recover yourself long enough to observe, ‘this is great look at me just doing this thing, all the basics happening completely naturally, my mind thinking through the more difficult and interesting parts’, without losing the flow itself. For example when (if you can actually play, unlike me) your mechanics and macro in StarCraft are utterly automatic and yet you’re hitting them all perfectly, your mind concentrating on your strategy. Or when you’re doing some maths and your mind is automatically churning out “let this be this and choose gamma such that…” while your mind is actually thinking about what’s really going on behind the language. Or when you’re writing and elegant, expressive sentences are just appearing while you worry about the flow of what it is you want to say and what order it must be said in.

There is masses of literature on the way the modern world is getting better and better at distracting us from what we’re trying to do; it’s a hot topic in the press as people realise that the Internet is sapping our attention spans, for all its wonders. So I’ll just say a little. Since much intellectual and creative activity is either on a computer or has one close by, the quick hits of social recognition from Facebook and Twitter and mild and easy intellectual stimulation from browsing the web are always there to tempt us. Mobile phones and instant messaging and e-mail keep us connected so that we continually swap focus, losing our precious precious single-tasked concentration and tiring out our brain’s ability to focus with the constant switching. This stuff stops us from being anywhere near as effective for basically the same reasons discussed above.

The above represents the most important parts of what I have got from my reading that I feel that I understand well enough to write about as I have. There is probably more but I will come to it some other time for, as usual, I’m many words in yet rather far from talking about the title of this post. The important thing is that I am motivated by the above concerns to change things in my life to try to mitigate the effects of the damaging things I have talked about, so I need to say something about why it’s important to me to have improving on these things such a large part of my outlook. I think this is the part that people are most likely to disagree with. A friend asks me why it is important to me to be ‘productive’, instead of just being, and another just worries about completely different things and seems to wonder about why these things bother me so much.

In a very broad sense of getting better, getting better without worrying too much about where you are at any point nor where you’re going, is what keeps my self-esteem up—and when I fail to do it, as I have done a lot over the past year, said self-esteem crashes. Getting better is deliberately pursuing something because I have judged it to have value. Reading something because I see the topic as important. Testing what I can endure through running. Studying philosophy because I desperately want to understand some of the issues. Watching an episode of a TV series because the quality of the storytelling inspires me and reminds me that understanding of humanity and everything else comes from many sources. Playing an enthralling board game with friends for similar reasons. Going for a drink to see the complexity of other mind’s in action. I worry very much here that I am appearing to say, I do all these things because I’m looking to analyse and learn: analyse others in social situations, analyse The Sopranos to see what those who wrote it think about reality. The thought is more that in the intensity of these experiences there is something of that underlying it all, giving it some of its value, but in its own intensity it somehow has rather a lot of its own. Apologies for this obscurantism; I need to work this out more carefully as I’ve never written about it before, but perhaps I have given a flavour. Here’s another attempt at expressing something similar.

Here is something I saw online today that expresses some of the above, where you are encouraged to take ‘run’ as a metaphor for deliberate activity, rather than just for actual running.

In this race, there is no trophy ceremony, no accolades, no credit. Fuck, there isn’t even a finish line; you just run and run and run till something stops you. And then, of course, you’re dead.

If your running to win, you’re a fool. A mad, dream-filled, delusional fool. Trophies are cheap, plastic shit signifying nothing.

No matter your accomplishment, in time, the world will forget you.

And if your worried that the other guy, by some twist of fate, gets his name in lights, written about in books, or otherwise becomes famous, don’t worry–it doesn’t count for shit. The memory will become a shallow caricature of a single moment of life–a fading Polaroid stuck on the bulletin board of history.

Don’t run for glory, money, or even to prove something.

Run because it is who you are.

Run because you are not the tired, whimpering shit you play at.

Run because pain does not control you.

Run because comfort does not control you.

Run because you can.

Run because of joy.

Run forever.

Run —riddlingdark

To the efforts of mine, now that I’ve given a sketch of why I put these efforts in. One final thing—note that the above is an attempt at a naturalistic description of what might be going on inside my head, rather than a normative creed. This can be seen by my framing of the whole thing in terms of my self-esteem. This is because this is something I can definitely say; if there is a good normative basis for these beliefs, then my self-esteem would be tied to it, if I were to discover it. If no such basis exists, then the self-esteem is all there is, and remains as such.

Over the past six months, then, I’ve come up with a catalogue of things to do and think to oneself to work towards a life of deliberate activity with a return to genuine focus. I’ll describe a few of these things. I have a good system to organise myself and get my work done efficiently to avoid distractions due to technicalities via my Emacs and Org-mode setup, which I have waxed lyrical about many times before. Disorganisation provides a distraction, and I now know how to eliminate it. I have cut out usage of social networking and distraction websites: reddit, YouTube and Twitter are blocked on my computer, and I stopped Facebook long ago. I’m not so good at it at the moment but I have had periods where I’ve religiously checked e-mail twice a day, dealing with everything on the spot to avoid things piling up. I continually evaluate how I am spending my time to aim towards deliberate activity. Am I getting something out of this? Then stick with it, etc..

In particular, this vacation, I have very thoroughly cleared the decks out before me. I completed almost all the non-academic tasks and projects I had to do before leaving Oxford, doing a great deal really, I haven’t got a massive involved computer game to distract me, I haven’t an obsession with something like StarCraft or Emacs to keep me occupied. So I’ve been faced with procrastinating work and with my lack of motivation and my lack of implementation of the above strategies that I have worked so hard to bring together face on. In the face of it, I flounder. Each day I have the stark choice ahead of me of what to do, and I only partially make the right one.

This has been a fascinating process of increasing my self-knowledge as I see what my mind does in such situations. All I can do is keep trying, failing, and still trying, because these things tend to change suddenly; one moves back to Oxford or home after a vac or term and can suddenly do something or whatever. Until then, I will continue to tear myself up with self-hate as to my lack of success at getting on with things, I imagine, but that’s nothing very new.

Hopefully this post has explained some of the things I’ve been working on of late. I think I’ve managed to talk about things that I haven’t written about much before, and have never before managed to set out with the necessary context. I’ve used StarCraft as an example a lot not, sadly, because I’m super into it at the moment or anything (sadly, and this is something I wish to change), but because it’s a good example of a skill and it’s one that I know something about, and because Sean “Day[9]” Plott likes to talk about this sort of thing a lot. Sean has a lot of very interesting things to say about what it means to get good at something and how one might think about the emotional turmoil we experience when self-improvement in one way or another is important to us, as it has always been for him. He’s long been obsessed with being good at StarCraft, and he’s had a pretty emotionally-intense past, so he’s in a good position on this sort of thing. I disagree with a lot of what he has to say but certainly not all of it, and will perhaps write about this at some point.

[1] Which I continue to fail to match in my continual, extreme judgements of character.

[2] If you’re reading and don’t realise, it’s you LSV&JR. Looking forward to your comments…

[3] Outside of StarCraft ;)

I actually agree with all of this!
Comment by james Sat 24 Dec 2011 02:12:51 UTC