Flow Traps Revisited

On a recent Friday night, I installed a video game on my computer: Civilization 5. I don’t play “hardcore” (that is: long, complex, time-consuming) video games much anymore. Really, barely ever. The last time I did before this was probably nearly three years ago. But there was a time when I played them regularly and really enjoyed them.

In any case. I started a game at 6pm. I then played. And played and played for 12 hours. At 6am I finally went to sleep for the night, such as it was. I’ll spare you the digression into how out of character not going to sleep until 6am was. The point is just that this is quite different than something I normally do, and not something I was glad to have done. But I now see I was caught in a perfectly tuned flow trap.

What’s a flow trap? Well I first wrote about it some years ago, but on rereading the piece does too much bloviating and too little explaining. A flow trap is basically a cycle that locks you into the state of “flow” and then keeps you locked in despite the fact that it’s not a particularly useful place to be or thing to be doing. It’s a trap in the sense that the satisfaction of the feeling of “flow” stops you from breaking out and doing other better things. (For me, that list included but wasn’t limited to: folding the laundry, doing the dishes, reading a book, going to sleep.)

The state of flow was first described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Essentially, he uses the term to describe that “peak” experience you’ve probably had sometimes and may have a lot. It’s this mid-point between a task you’re challenged by and one you can easily accomplish that’s optimal for your continued good performance and willingness to keep performing. If the challenge before you is too familiar, accomplishable, and easy — doing the dishes — it’s likely to bore you rather than fulfill you. If it’s so hard that you struggle to perceive that you’re making any progress or having any effect — running a marathon, for most — you’ll never begin or quit too soon.

There’s a lot of good in flow. If you manage to find a way that your flow states correspond directly with things that our world rewards — good athletic performance is the common example, some people flow when conversing with acquaintances and so excel at sales, I sometimes flow while getting paid to write software — the experience is a clear win-win. You’re having so much fun you lose track of time, your employer is happy that you’re performing well.

The importance of the concept of “flow traps” is the fact that flowing effortless experiences are not so clearly a match with many things which are ipso facto valuable and good. I’ve encountered more than a few people who conflate “flow” with peak performance, and it can correspond, as we just outlined. But frequently flow experiences correspond with little or no substantial value. Video games to me are the clearest example, but hardly the only one.

Video games are a fun diversion. Though they today lack the cultural esteem of movies, reading, or even television, I don’t doubt that some of them are artful and perfectly sound ways to wile away a few hours pleasantly. But one of the things that I think is pernicious about video games is that because they’re so immersive, it’s much easier to “lose yourself” in their flow and waste not just hours but weeks and months of time accomplishing nothing in the concrete world we all share.

In my last article on this topic, I mentioned I’m a pretty good programmer, and I could optimize my life around getting into programming flow states and never leaving. That could probably be fairly well-paid if I structured it right. But — and this is important — I don’t think my best self is involved in programming things. I think I’m at my best when I push a little out of that comfort zone and try new things that feel awkward and hard and miles-from-flowing.

You should definitely know what “flow” is. You should definitely enjoy the experience of egoless ease that comes with it. But you must also make sure that when you experience such things, it’s because they’re really valuable to you, not simply because they are pleasant ways to waste time.

Practical Philosophy

What Do Your Thoughts Mean?

One of the subtler but more important things that has changed in my life is that I’ve stopped believing my thoughts. It’s not that I can’t think. No, I’m not saying I’m no longer able to productively puzzle through hard problems — if anything I’ve gotten better at that. What I mean is that I’m much less prone to identify with and believe in my thoughts.

Part of this topic I’ve covered before: I explained how there is no right and final thought. I really do believe that a large part of what shifted for me was that I came to see that when I was just feeling off or low, I could never use thoughts to guide myself out of it. I literally used to sit up for hours and think and think and think hoping I’d finally find the thought to assuage all my dread or doubt or whatever. It never came.

And so, thanks to that and my study of Buddhism, I feel pretty confident that my thoughts aren’t the answer to my thoughts. The real antidote to negative or angry or disappointed thoughts is instead just feeling them in the body and not doing anything about them. I’ve gotten better and better at seeing them and just waiting for them to naturally diffuse.

It’s one of those startling things you don’t realize: thoughts just kind of drift off. If you’re like I was, that’s hard to believe. I’ve felt bad for days about some situations, if not weeks. Just in a real funk. But what turns out to be true is that it wasn’t a single thought or feeling that lasted that long. It was my continuation and revisiting of those thoughts that lasted. I’d remember the initial thought, use it to wind up higher and higher into a frenzy, then it’d soothe down, but then, troubled by the disappation, I’d build back to a frenzy… on and on for quite some time.

I was listening to the NPR podcast Invisibilia recently, and in the episode “The Secret History of Thoughts” (starting around the 10-minute mark) the narrator, Alix Spiegel, made a point about the shift in the way that pyschologists deal with thoughts. It really clarified this whole thing for me. The basic argument is that the history of Western psychology’s disposition toward thoughts looks like this:

  1. First came Freud. And Freud believed in thoughts. He believed that every thought was not only true, but was “the tip of an iceberg.” That underneath everything you thought were profound, important, and consequential drives that you had to master to understand yourself. So people would do years on the couch, puzzling at things they were thinking or had thought in the past, searching for significance and meaning.
  2. Then came cognitive-behavioral therapy. Aaron Beck and his descendants believe that thoughts aren’t inherently meaningful and can be corrected. People are prone to a lot of negative and defeating self-talk, but they can most effectively cope by explicitly refuting the thoughts they realize are wrong. Exposure therapy — slowly taking a person afraid of heights to higher and higher ones as they realize they need not fear this height — is a typical CBT tactic.
  3. Finally came mindfulness. Mindfulness — and its long history in meditative Eastern traditions like Buddhism — tells us that thoughts are mostly inconsequential noise. Some may be worth working with, but we shouldn’t even bother with those that aren’t helping us. Our experience of the world is just our experience of all of our five senses, and the thoughts that our brains throws in. Just as we don’t think things we smell are important or revealings of our inner self, neither are our thoughts. So we just work on seeing our thoughts as thoughts.

I’m a bit dubious of this narrative. It serves my prejudices well and paints my perspective in an unquestionably favorable light. But it does represent the basic way I’ve transitioned in my understanding of thoughts, and how I’ve dealt with those that aren’t helpful.

As I first remember, I’d deal with problematic thoughts by analyzing them deeply. Staring at them hoping to find value and use in them. Then I’d try to talk them down: to add enough rationality or contrary thoughts to counter-act or diffuse those negative thoughts. Today, I mostly just watch them, and (most of the time) they just float away.

Moving between these three stages isn’t easy. But the structure gives a clear progression of possible ways of thinking about thinking. And it’s a progression I’d been slowly making for a while. You are not only not your thoughts, but your relationship to your thoughts matters far more than the thoughts themselves. You don’t, as they say, have to believe everything you think.


Premature Optimizations and the Tool Distraction

I do a lot of computer programming. More than that, I’ve made it my primary task of the last few years to learn as much as I can about it. One of the ideas anyone who spends a lot of time doing this will come across is this quote from Donald Knuth:

Premature optimization is the root of all evil

It may seem a bit hyperbolic, but it holds a real truth. Without diving too deep into programming theory — this is a site about doing life better, not about programming — I’ll just take it as given. It matches well with my experience of programming.

And I think it applies well outside the domain. In programming, optimization means that you have something that works, but you’re going to make it work faster and better. The reason Knuth and many others call this seemingly beneficial process “evil” is that doing this doesn’t provide nearly as much value as it may superficially seem.

We do a similar, but not identical thing with productivity. I call them “tool games”. “Tool games” are a way we spend time on things that seem like they’re beneficial to our goals, but are actually an “evil” in much the way premature code optimization is.

To clarify my meaning, let’s say you want to become a great novel writer. That means that you’ll need some writing tools to use. You start with a pen and paper. And you start a few stories that way, and you get a little fed up with the difficulty of revising in that medium.

So you seek a better way, and you find a computer program that lets you store and retrieve text files. It allows no fancy editing and formatting, but it’ll take your words and save them for later. And unlike your paper, it’ll also let you quickly correct a minor error or add a few lines to the middle of something you wrote without issue. So you start a few stories with this new text program. And then you get a little fed up with the difficulty of making your writing easy to share with your friends.

So you look around for a while and your find a different computer program that lets your take your words that it’s storing for you and makes it really easy to put them in an email or print them out to hand off. And you’re really satisfied that you’ve now solved this sharing problem, so you start to write a few stories this way.

I’ll stop this cycle, because you should by now understand what I mean by “tool games”. These are the premature optimizations of the way you actually do things in your life. You’ll notice that in my telling of your journey through three different kinds writing tools, there was never anything about writing, finishing a story, figuring out its more intricate plot points, or understanding what really makes good novels so compelling.

We’re premature optimizers in many areas of our life. When faced with a choice between learning how to do something we already do a tiny bit better and learning how to do something hard, we’ll almost always choose the first. It’s easy and alluring to think that the reason you’re not publishing great stories in great books is that you just haven’t found the right set of tools to let you do that.

But the tools are the most superficial part of almost any work. Want to be a great bike rider? I’ll tell you a secret: you’ll get a lot better riding the dusty old bike in your garage for 50 miles a day that you will by shopping around endlessly to find which of the new shiny $2,000 bikes fits your ideals of bike riding better.

You get better at doing work by doing it. You spend time futzing with your tools or shopping for better ones, and you’ll be really good at futzing and shopping. Neither of which is likely to lead to accomplishing things that are valuable and hard.


Moving Beyond the Psychology of Defeat

When I think back about how I’ve changed and who I used to be, a word that comes to mind is “defeated”. I lived most of my life as a lazy, overweight, and unmotivated student. There’s a lot of weighted meaning in that characterization, but all of those words are related in my mind to being defeated.

When you’re defeated, every bad event is a disaster. And it’s a sign of something far bigger: your failure, your oppression, or your fate. Pessimism, realism, defeatism, the loser mindset — all just variations on the theme of “well I can’t change it anyway.”

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The Long Game of Kindness

Living creatures, by their nature, find it hard to think, plan, and act for the long term. For millennia life on this planet has survived because it acts, first and foremost, to do what it is best for it in the short term. This near-term greed allows living creatures to keep being alive, and that’s really their most important quality. Anything else they may or may not accomplish is secondary.

As I’ve been spending time thinking about why kindness is so difficult to do on a consistent basis, one of the things I’ve realized is that it has little benefit in the very short term. Surely there is some small short-term glow after an acknowledged kindness, but even that is rather fleeting.

And almost necessarily, to be kind you must also give up something else of value to you in the act. Whether it’s time, energy, money, or all three, kindness is never free. Definitionally, an act that is kind cannot serve your short-term self-interest. If it did it wouldn’t be an act of kindness, but of greed.

Kindness can have tremendous benefits in the long term. When it comes back to you, if it comes back to you, it’s almost certainly in the form of someone making for you the same trade that you made initially. They forfeit some short-term energy, money, or time so that you can have a better day, year, or life.

Aside from the expressed gratitude of the person to whom you act kindly you are unlikely to get much immediately from your kindness.

And it may be the case that you kick off a chain of kindness that doesn’t affect you, but has a positive effect for others. And while such a chain could come back to you, it’s never certain to. If it does, it will almost never do so immediately. Aside from the expressed gratitude of the person to whom you act kindly you are unlikely to get much immediately from any single act of kindness.

That is one of the central obstacles to kindness. As we move through the world, we’re characteristically short-sighted. We’re focused on the next activity, obligation, or event and not on the longer term questions of what will help others and ourselves to feel better and more satisfied as we move through the world.

We’re far more likely to bask in the warm glow of a received compliment than ask ourselves how we can increase the likelihood that we and others can bask in such a glow more regularly. While giving unprompted compliments on a consistent basis is almost certainly the easiest way that you can receive them regularly (people love to bounce compliments back) it’ll almost never cross our minds.

This shortsightedness has served living creatures well for thousands of years. But it makes kindness harder. The best way we can cope with it, I think, is just to be aware of the tendency. Awareness in itself doesn’t change anything, but it makes it much easier to see and change your behavior around this misplaced focus. If practiced regularly, awareness can shift your attention to the longer-term.

Another idea is to keep a memory vault of all the good that’s come of kindnesses you’ve done. Kindnesses done for you, or even those you’ve witnessed and felt were commendable can help. This vault may be light at first, and can be hard to fill, but remembering the long-term good that has resulted from short-term sacrifice can be a powerful way to be more aware of and ready to do similar kind actions.

Kindness is a long game. Maybe the longest of all. That makes it really hard for us bumbling myopic humans to do it all that well. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s worth learning to do. And well.


Presence not Presents

My war on gift-giving earns just about as much criticism as it does confusion, so I think it makes sense to lay the argument out here. To start: there is a strong economic case against gift giving. It’s based on things like gift-givers routinely paying more for their present than the receiver values it at, that a large percentage of gift cards–the latest way out of the gift giving puzzle–go unredeemed and are inherently inefficient even when they are, that we (in the rich world) frequently want for nothing and so are given things we definitionally do not want, and the fact that people get little enjoyment or economic benefit out of either giving or recieving gifts and yet spend a great deal of time and money doing it. All those arguments are valid, rational, and widely greeted with a “yeah, well, but economics sucks.” So I’ll set that whole area aside, if you’re interested I’d recommend the reasonably short, accessible, and available Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.

To start, I think it’s worth considering the practical symbolism of gift-giving. Like the pre-Medieval tribute, gift-giving is essentially an economic way by which we demonstrate if not good will, then at least a promise not to harm. That description is obviously somewhat inflammatory, but I find it undeniable that there’s a thread of commonality between this archaic demonstration of commitment and this rarely-questioned tradition we still practice today.

Practically speaking, the positive case for gift giving is usually that we’re showing our care for each other by buying the other things they certainly want but wouldn’t indulge so much as to purchase. Setting aside the reality that this is rarely how gift-exchanges shake out, even this idealization seems odd. It posits that the strongest needs that we can satisfy for each other are urges for physical objects that others must help us to realize. Again, accepting that to be true is, to my mind, rather depressing.

We humans have many needs. We need things like shelter, food, water, sanitation, and comfort. We also have deep and seldom-explored psychological needs for belonging, purpose, love, success, acceptance, etc. Gifts almost never satisfy the first set of needs–we’re buying chocolates for each other not because we think the other hungry, but because we figure at least they can eat it–and rarely offer more than a momentary relief from our psychological longings.

When we spend time on other people with the goal of securing a secret physical object to later hand them, we’re excluding them from our time as though the physical object we find will somehow make that time directed toward them (yet without them) worthwhile. Maybe we think that we’re not excluding them from our time, but rather borrowing time from elsewhere to devote to gift giving. Again, even if that were true, it would be a strange and irrationally indirect way to show we care.

There are few greater gifts we can give to one another than our genuine and complete presence with them. This is not an easy gift to give–we have minds built for avoiding being hunted down by predators, not for focused caring attention for another person–but it is the gift that best fulfills our so-frequently-missed psychological needs. Giving someone your genuine presence almost inherently gives them a sense of belonging, love, and acceptance. Those things give them easier access to a sense of purpose and success. Even if you’re not good at demonstrating presence to others, there’s no way for you to get better than spending your time doing it intentionally with a willingness to improve.

It’s time, not money (even proxied through physical goods), that we need to give each other. No gift means as much as a few hours spent genuinely encountering each other with acceptance and care. We can’t give presence without taking the time out of our lives to give to others; the same can not be said for physical presents. Money is unevenly distributed and so a problematic medium through which to demonstrate our caring. But there is nothing more even than time. The fifteen minutes we promise to regularly spend really present with each other represents an equal loss and possibility of gain for both of us, and that seems like the best possible kind of gift-exchange to me.


Flow Traps

One of the more popular psychological ideas in the public sphere is that of “flow.” The idea, originated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is that we’ll get more done and enjoy it more when we’re given a level of challenge to keep us engaged and exercising a sense of mastery. One shouldn’t have to look very hard at their life to find times when work has been easy, fun, and “flow”ing.

What I struggle to buy into is the rather popular correlate that these flow states are good and worth seeking and preserving. That they make us better at our tasks and thus make us better in life. I’d make no quarrel with the idea that they can do those things, but I’d strongly dissent from the idea that they consistently do those things.

To pick a common example, you’re a programmer. You’re a pretty good programmer, and you’re currently working hard on a project that’s offering opportunities to learn new things from time to time, but generally you’re just enjoying using your tools in slightly different ways than you have in the past. Here flow is clearly a useful thing. When you can get into that groove, you’ll probably be faster and more accurate than you would outside of it. And it feels great too, just being there pounding and creating and getting toward the goal.

But here’s how flow has you trapped: you don’t really want to be  a programmer your whole life. You’d really like to be the kind of person who hires and helps programmers to create projects far bigger and more ambitious than you’d ever manage yourself. You know this, but every day you arrive at work and you just plod until you flow and you stay that way (with a few breaks) until quitting time. You’re never making any progress on this big long-term goal because you’re stuck in a flow trap.

Flow traps aren’t inherently as pernicious as they may sound. (Though they can be: video games, I’m looking at you.) You’re still doing good things while you’re writing code, you’re just not getting any vision of the new vistas of possibility that you think you’d really enjoy. The problem with a flow trap is that it makes you think you can just keep coding your way out of writing so much code, and you can’t. There’s a drastically different skill-set you need if you want to go from the kind of person who writes code well to the kind of person that helps people to write code well.

Real tangible progress in your life, real growth in your skill-set, requires you to step out of the flow and take on things you don’t even have an inkling of how to take on. It requires you to be uncomfortable and for things to be hard. Because that’s where you really learn new things, see new vistas, and gain mastery of the world you’d never thought possible.

personal, ruminations

Thinking About Thinking

CMP73Purple Thinker

I noticed recently that I do this rather strange thing. I’ll think thoughts, and then I’ll restate them again as if I were speaking them. Even when I’m not speaking. Even when I’m the only one around.

It’s as if I have to “say” everything in order for me to have really thought it. That is, if I have to choose what to do, I immediately know that I have three options, about dinner for example, and what they are. But not until I articulate those options as if I were saying them aloud am I “done” and able to make the choice.

Certain that I’d noticed this phenomenon before, I went looking for it. This is how I explained it about two years ago (my apologies for it’s roughness):

for example, i do this thing where while i’m brushing my teeth or something my brain has two separate things running. one is basically what i would be saying out loud. it’s rather articulate and reasonable. and then there’s the lower level that comes up with where the articulated streaming is going to head next. and if something goes through the lower level and sounds reasonable i have to repeat it on the upper, more articulate, level. i don’t know why this is and i think it’s rather strange. i already know exactly what will come out of the more articulate string and yet i must MUST go through the act of thinking it or i may have never thought anything at all.

i think the whole thing is rather strange. and i sit there thinking about politics. and then talking to myself about politics [though usually without speaking]. and then thinking about how it’s weird that i have to say all the thoughts i have twice.

i want to know if other people do things like this. when i was pretty young and i did this is kind of made sense. because the more articulate strand would, for example, be talking to a room full of stuffed animals (they listened far better than anyone i ever knew). but now there is no room of stuffed animals getting my articulate presentation and the more articulate strand is still there.

do all people think like this? do they realize they think like this? do they think about why they think like this?

I’m now wondering, much as I was then, if this is normal. I think that it can’t be too abnormal because outwardly I seem to function nearly the same as everyone else. People seem about as fast or slow to respond as I am.

Part of the problem with this whole thing is that I have no terms to describe the phenomenon. The closest I can think of is that the lower stream is, essentially, the “subconscious,” while the repetition takes place, and translates it into the “conscious” mind. Perhaps psychologists really do use these words to mean these things, but I’ve never heard it.

I guess the whole point of this might be–and both parts of my brain are telling me I need a point–is, perhaps, how little I know. The fact is that I don’t often notice this odd dual-stream nature of my brain, even though I must assume that it’s always happening.

Perhaps, then, this whole thing is another lesson in paying attention. About how much we can notices if we just take the time to do so.