The best types of problems are those that seem harder at first than when you think about it. If you have ten such projects and one of them works, you’re good because lots of people think it’s astronomically unlikely the project would have worked and they don’t know you’ve tried ten of them.
—Erez Lieberman Aiden (source)
I’m always excited to find ways of overcoming solved problems—so that we can move on to ever-more new and complex problems!
Less Wrong is a great source of materials on this topic, and you can find a selection of articles under “Akrasia, motivation, and self-improvement” toward the bottom of this page.
- How I Am Productive – Less Wrong
- The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
- Interview with Charles Duhigg
Willpower, Choice, and Decision Fatigue
- Developing Willpower, by Jason Shen
- Decision fatigue: Wikipedia; NY Times article
- Vohs, et al. (2005): “Decision Fatigue Exhausts Self-Regulatory Resources —
But So Does Accommodating to Unchosen Alternatives” (PDF)
- The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz (related TED talk)
The idea of a “flow state” comes from positive psychology, and describes a centered, energetic, and positive feeling of immersion in an activity. The high challenge of the task at hand is well-matched by the high competence of the skilled performer or operator.
“Flow arts” turn this concept into a moving meditation of being in the present flowment. From the fine folks at Flow Temple:
Flow is the state of optimal experience that occurs when your body, mind, and spirit are in dynamic balance. It’s what’s happening when the Now is so compelling that everything else fades away. Ego and fear dissolve in the perfect moment, time slows down, and whatever you’re doing becomes a meditation. Flow toes the fine line between controlling your actions and obeying your commands. You know when you’re in the flow, and flowing is half the battle. Where will and physics intersect, we hone our own flow.
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
- TED Talk by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! But how do you know if you’re happy? Do you only know what it’s like to feel happy in contrast to feeling unhappy, the same way in which you only know sound in contrast to silence, or light in contrast to dark? If suffering is suboptimal, but some contrast is required for a conscious experience of bliss, what is the optimal amount, magnitude, and distribution of non-bliss experiences? (If there’s happiness but no contrast, clap one hand!)
In one conversation about this, I flippantly declared the optimal distribution of non-happiness to be “1/f“… and now I’m stuck figuring out what that would actually mean! The best implementations I’ve seen so far are regional Burning Man events, which seem to be pretty excellently optimized for contrast.
How Meta is too Meta?
Sometimes, I worry about things. And sometimes, like shaunphilly over at Polyskeptic:
I also worry that I worry too much. I never meta-worry I didn’t worry about, I suppose.
I often struggle to find a good balance between doing something, figuring out how to do the thing better, wondering if that’s the best thing I could be doing, thinking about ways to optimize my workflow, reading articles about productivity, questioning whether I’m applying my effort to the most effective leverage points… problematizing all the things and wondering whether I’m acting ethically while working towards large-scale goals… and then I realize that the lemons have gone bad in the fruit bowl, and the cat’s litter box is a horrorshow, and I’ve fallen into a Wikipedia-hole for the past three hours.
Fortunately, the fine folks at Less Wrong have an article for that! It’s called Levels of Action, and makes the excellent point that no matter how much work you put into building skills for becoming more efficient at a given task, if you never apply those skills to the actual base-level task at hand, you are multiplying by zero. Doing something, no matter how inefficient, will accomplish more than optimizing without acting. (There’s also an xkcd for that!)
However, it’s also possible to run into the opposite problem. Setting aside too little time for reflection runs the risk of putting all your effort towards actions that don’t actually end up making life more wonderful. The following quote seems… ironically appropriate, given that Peter Drucker’s work was instrumental in the development of management techniques for modern corporations:
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.
—Peter F. Drucker (source?)
But when I’m able to let myself be in the present moment, confident for the time being that my actions are in line with my goals and my ratio of optimization to action is good enough, it’s a wonderful way to be. When I feel centered and grounded, I’m able to act with much less friction from doubt and angst and meta-worrying. Instead of working against my own lack of motivation and feeling like I have to fight for every inch of progress, my actions feel autotelic, flowing easily from what Maslow called “metamotivation.”
It’s a bit like trying to lift a weight overhead: if it’s too far off vertical, it’s much more difficult than finding that sweet spot where my body’s well-aligned to carry the force down to the ground. (Acro yoga folks refer to this as “bone-stacking.” For example, from tabletop pose, it’s much easier to bear someone’s weight on your shoulders or hips, right over your arms or legs, than in the unsupported middle of your back.)
This is where I find an important connection between self-actualization and identity. How I define myself in relation to the systems that surround me has a huge effect on whether or not I feel that sense of alignment and experience the ease in action that flows from a centered state. I consider the experience of wide identification, whether or not it is catalyzed by tools such as psychedelics, to be the single most profound and effective means I’ve found for dissolving the many ways in which I tend to frustrate myself, and for growing better patterns in their place.
When I can no more identify myself with that little man inside,
there is nothing left to identify with—except everything!
There is no longer the slightest contradiction between feeling like a leaf on a stream and throwing one’s whole energy into responsible action, for the push is the pull.
And thus in using intelligence to change what has hitherto been the course of nature, one has the realization that this is a new bend in the course and that the whole flood of the stream is behind it.
—Alan Watts, This Is It