posttitle = Nothing is Behind titleClass =short len =17

Nothing is Behind

This article was adapted from a late-night Captain’s Log entry of mine from last April. I did most of the edits at that time and thought I was about to publish it then, and… here we are. That delay is particularly amusing given the subject-matter of the post, and… that feels compatible somehow, not contradictory!

I’ve done a bit of writing since then, getting back in touch with my intrinsic motivation to blog without any external systems. We shall see when any of that ends up getting published going forward. I am publishing this now because:

  1. I shared it with a participant at the goal-crafting intensive workshop last weekend and they found it valuable
  2. because I came across this tweet:

The writing begins:

@ 12:30am – okay, I need to account for something
I woke up knowing today was a blog beemergency. I went back to sleep for 1.5h.
I got up, knowing today was a blog beemergency. I did Complice stuff, almost-all of it non-urgent.
I reflected late afternoon (above) knowing today was a blog beemergency. I did other stuff.
…and I had the gall to consider, around 10pm, that I might weasel.

(If you’re not familiar with Beeminder, “blog beemergency” means that I owe Beeminder $ if I don’t publish a blog post that day. Weaseling in this case would refer to telling it I had when I hadn’t, then (in theory, and usually in practice for me) publishing something a day or two later to catch up)

I don’t want to get into self-judgment here, but just… no. Weaseling undermines everything. At that point you might as well just turn it off or something. Except, bizarrely… part of me also knows that this Beeminder blog system does continue to work relatively well, despite my having weaseled on it somewhat and my having derailed on it regularly.

…in many ways, the Beeminder part of it is actually totally broken, except inasmuch as its ragged skeleton provides a scaffold to hang my self-referential motivation on—ie the main role that it provides is a default day on which to publish a blog post (and by extension, a default day on which to write) and it acts as a more acute reminder of my desire to be actively blogging. But… it’s not in touch with any sense of deep purpose.

…I don’t have that much deep purpose that generates a need to blog regularly. And it’s nebulous the extent to which my sense of deep purpose is connected with needing to blog at all, at the moment.

I do have the sense of having relevant things to say, but I’m—hm. Part of it is like, the strategic landscape is so up-in-the-air. Like who is Upstart? What’s this Iteration Why thing, and where am I in relation to that? And how all of that relates to my other projects!

So then, I could be publishing other things that are more instrumentally convergent, independent of whatever exactly emerges there. When I look at my Semantic Development airtable though… a lot of this stuff actually feels like it would be pretty publishable, and I feel quite attracted to working on it… so what’s the issue? Why have I been doing so much Complice stuff, the last week, for instance?

Ah!!! I’ve still been orienting to behindness, and Complice stuff feels behind, whereas somehow my writing stuff doesn’t. I think that I’ve been outsourcing a sense of behindness to the Beeminder goal, and even having it existing but with a long window has made it feel like “I’m not yet behind” and I’m still tracking that.

So I’m archiving it right now.

The long window thing that I’ve done a few times (ie given myself a month or two where Beeminder isn’t nagging me) has been intended to create spaciousness, but it didn’t disrupt the old system enough. In part because of fear. In order to really lean into a new self-trust, I think I need to not be orienting towards this very-old system.

Interestingly, this also implies that setting up any sort of “it’s been a few months—check in on your new blogging system” reminder might just become a new thing-to-orient to in a behindness way.

I clearly have lots of learning on this whole acting-from-desire thing—which I knew, but here it is more plainly.

I did have some success a few days ago with spontaneously starting to write about… something. Ah yeah, Wants & Meta-Wants. Although that currently feels very messy to try to actually publish, for various reasons.

Anyway, yeah.

I have been doing a decent amount of writing-to-figure-things-out lately, too, which is important to note! That is a major purpose that my blogging has served, and it has been getting met through other means—and perhaps more practical means, since there’s a large inferential & contextual chasm between myself and my readers, and bridging that doesn’t usually feel like the main thing that I need to figure out for my own learning.

(As I mentioned at the top, this entire post was just very lightly edited from a piece of writing that was just me writing to figure things out! But I did have to remove a number of references to concepts that are rich and meaningful to me but that haven’t yet been explicated on the internet for me to cite.)

So. Archiving that Beeminder goal already feels enfreshening.

What happens if I try to speak the phrase “Nothing is behind” (and mean it)?

One thing that comes to mind is the set of Complice features about which I have been thinking “it would be good to implement that this week” for over a year. (I’m not going to go look at them. I can recall enough by memory, I’m sure, and I don’t want to get distracted.)

What’s going on with these? Why do they feel behind? I’m still comparing myself with the past and the concept that I had had!

Be a new homunculus! Here we are! Nothing is behind.

If those things are worth doing, it’s because of what will happen in the future.

I know this, and it’s the fact that they continue to be good ideas that has them still on my radar at all—I have forgotten the many dozens of things that I put as intentions and wisely didn’t bother doing.

So why the behindness feeling?

Ahh, I think part of it is a sense of feeling like I implied to other people that I was going to do many of these other things sooner, and not having done it, and feeling a need to perform behindness to satisfy them.

I find myself imagining performing a speech act that is something like declaring task bankruptcy. It seems like this might have negative effects, in the same way that declaring actual bankruptcy does bad things to your credit.

But first I’m going to imagine a simplified scenario, where it’s not me declaring this about everything, on Facebook and Twitter and so forth, but just me declaring it to and about some smaller system of which I am part. I’m going to use this case study I’ve already been thinking of: the various Complice features that I have been thinking it would be good to implement this week for over a year.

Let’s say that I were to indicate to the Complice users, somehow, this bankruptcy thing.

I think that this would actually be received quite positively… but why?

One piece is something like, the Complice users have some recognition of the terribleness of staleness, particularly in the context of Complice itself, and their relationship with me.

Another piece is that the space of what exactly I’m dissolving is pretty clear; I would be very able to make it clear that I’m not dissolving my commitments or relationships or bigger picture. And part of why that would be is that there’s a clear higher-level shared goal that I could point to, of having the Complice system be more awesome, and that letting go of these old phantoms is part of that!

Thirdly, I would be able to indicate to the users that if they’re sitting with something that they really want to have happen, they would be welcome to message me again about that, and I could take that information in without giving any particular promise to what would happen next.

The thing about being able to not promise or even imply that I’m going to do something I don’t expect I will do is really important. I’ve noted before that when I’m really in touch with my sense of purpose-based-choice, then saying “I will do X” is not a promise but a fact. Therefore, by modus tollens, if one says “I will do X” and it is not a raw fact, then one is not in touch with purpose-based-choice (or one is actively lying in the full central sense of the term). And I’ve noticed myself do this a bit when users report bugs that I have no idea how to fix or even investigate. I’ve said, “I’ll look into it,” and sometimes I do but other times that has really been a euphemism for “I’ll wait to see if you or other users report with more info, or see if I encounter this bug on my own.” Maybe “I’ll keep an eye out” would be more accurate.

This is actually something I quite like about the Complice user-visible-improvements spreadsheet. It allows me to very honestly say “I have added it to the list” and there is absolutely a list and the list is sorted in priority order, and the person’s request is… not a priority. But the request is on the list, and I am basically trusting that they’ll trust me to make good decisions about what’s important. (Regardless of how much they are trusting me, that’s the implicit contract here.)

Okay, I could legit actually do this with my users. I think it would make an interesting messaging piece, actually.

Send out something on intercom to [anyone who has been active in the last month &/ sent a support request ever] and explain that I’m doing this, and why, and how it relates to productivity and staleness and so on. Probably in the ideal world it would include a blog post on the subject that I would link to. Probably this post itself. Wow, super self-referential!

The Self-Referential Motivation (SRM) post goes into bits of this (re: “actually actually”) but I could come at it from a whole different angle.

I want to come back to the more general case. I think for the general statement to be clear, it would need to say something like:

I hereby dissolve my sense of obligation to do things because of having said or implied, to others or myself, that I would.
HOWEVER, I probably will still do many things I said in the past that I would,
SOME of them because they genuinely are still a good idea
OTHERS because they are situations where keeping my word itself feels like something I want to care for
AND that caring-about-the-integrity-of-my-word is a thing that is in the present & future, not about obligation or any notion that I “should have already done the thing”

(I’m now recalling that I had considered writing a blog post about patterns that include “already should”, and I’m realizing that the notion of “already should” is generated from exactly the same thought-structure as “behind”.)

That feels like basically what I would need to say, and that feels like something I could more comfortably declare publicly than the previous phrasing I had. It fits in two tweets, fwiw.

This is interesting. I’m noticing that part of me wants to tweet it now, and another part wants to wait until I’ve thought more, and then also some part of me is worried that if I wait then I won’t actually come back to this and then I won’t actually tweet the thing.

…and this itself is kind of a case study of the whole behindness thing!

(Added 2019-01-09: It feels cool that I have come back to this post, driven by using it to answer a question that somebody had, then by wanting to share my process more with the internet, not by a sense that it should be published.)

Although I’m also recognizing, as I think about this, that the announcement isn’t actually what matters. My internal sense of obligation isn’t fundamentally about others’ expectations, it’s about how I’m orienting to expectations, internal and external.

Even if other people were to respond in the maximally concordant way to this, being super understanding and accommodating, it wouldn’t work AT ALL if I continued to feel like I should do them anyway. Especially since many of the things are about things I said/implied to myself that I would do—others not being involved at all!

Okay, so the announcement could be worth doing, but I need to note that the actual dissolving doesn’t require a speech act. The speech act, honestly, is mostly interesting as a talking point and for other playful signalling benefits or whatever… (in some contexts this could be valuable for the benefit of encouraging feedback, à la Common Knowledge Self-Commitments, but for whatever reason that feels pretty minor here)

Okay, so the exploration of the speech act has helped me clarify what it is that this shift is about, and ALSO has helped me clarify that the notion of making a speech act is noncentral (although perhaps worth it for other reasons).

Mmmm… I’m noticing that as I think through all of this, it feels like things are already shifting in me, without having to force things, or declare things, or whatever. I’m just seeing more clearly the ways in which the behind structure shows up.

The Confusing Debt of Behindness

Here’s another take:

“I thought this was important in the past and yet I didn’t do it” can be a scary thought to have.

It undermines self-trust in the present, because it implies at least one of:
– my discernment of what is important is poor
– my ability to act on what I deem is important is poor

…either of those, taken to certain extremes, is devastating: the first paralyzing, the second depressing. And somehow, behindness seems to hack this confusion. I think it hacks it with a new confusion? Or no… without behindness, there isn’t a confusion, there’s just an unwanted conclusion. Behindness introduces a confusion that allows the thinker to avoid making either unwanted conclusion.

But how!?

Something like “I can redeem myself by doing it now. Or soon. Or… ever.” …and this notion of redemption is the confusion.

Because basically the person is walking around with problems in their past and they’re actually sort of saying “if I do this now, I can resolve that past problem.”

And this might be true on one level, but… it ignores compound interest.

If you borrow $100 now, and you pay back $100 in a year, you still owe $5. And this particular mental schema doesn’t actually really allow for a way to pay back the principle and the interest.

Well… sometimes it does, actually! Sometimes waiting generates something that is so much obviously a better solution to the original problem that there’s an experience of the waiting having been a very good choice etc. (For example, consider how it took me 2 years to publish a post about Self-Referential Motivation, and my sense is that it turned out way better as a result.)

But this isn’t something that can be consistently relied on, and also many of these debts aren’t worth paying back at all, so even if you do it’s a bad investment.

And people end up mostly paying interest in the form of something resembling guilt. Which doesn’t actually have any value to it, in the dimension of the original value of doing the thing.

(I say “something resembling guilt” because I mostly don’t experience things that I call guilt, but I definitely have a pattern that is in this general ballpark. What have I been paying interest in? Frustration? Stress? Self-whipping? Blame? Oscillating tension? Those broadly sound right.)

The behindness is the debt, I think.

It’s the notion that the thing-to-fix is in the past.


Where does aheadness fit into all of this? It seems that sometimes it’s healthy, like the actual clarity of attention that comes from having cleared away things that would distract… and other times it’s just the same mental motions that track behindness, except they’re temporarily experiencing abundance… but they’re still fear-based or something, is my sense.

This feels important to note, because the “nothing is behind” thing, when it’s understood as just resetting the set-point, is actually missing something important about how this is stepping out of the whole dimension of behindness/aheadness. It’s not setting the set-point to zero, it’s turning the whole system off.

Now, it might be that pragmatically speaking, it’s worth simulating “what if I set the set point to zero” for various reasons. One reason: it might generate the kind of reflection I’m doing now (as it did, in fact, for me!) Another: it might make sense to allow the old system to articulate its fears before dismantling it; setting the set point to zero gives it a chance.

You want to make sure though not to get too fixated on these fears though, because they are fundamentally about a different scenario than the turn-off-this-dimension one. There are probably lots of examples of situations in which the midpoint of a false dichotomy is obviously bad, but the transcended version is great and has none of those issues!

I think that Beeminder illustrates how this is one dimension quite effectively. Some time back, I was doing a thing where most days I would set aside a few hours, and at the start I would meditate on what might be a really valuable way to spend those few hours. It was supposed to be a way to tap into the kind of purpose-driven-choice I’ve been gesturing at throughout this post, and it worked reasonably well at that.

At one point, I found myself thinking about a potential blog post to write, and when I asked “would that be the most valuable thing I could do this afternoon?” I got back a result like “well, it would be nice to get ahead of my blogging deadline!”

Noooooooooo. That is not the consideration that really matters!

If blogging is valuable, it’s because blogging is valuable, not because I have a Beeminder-based commitment contract stating that I will blog at a particular frequency and blogging allows me to push away its nagging.

I experimented a bit, at that time and later, with putting breaks in my Beeminder blogging goal, which was designed to create more spaciousness. However, these breaks just created a feeling of anti-behindness, because I’ve been anchoring on my Beeminder goal as the amount to blog. In principle it’s supposed to be a kind of lower bound, but it has ended up being an upper bound.

Being able to get ahead means being able to get behind, implicitly. Even if you grip the world tightly and force the getting behind to never actually occur, it’s still implicit in the fact that you’re acting so as to avoid it.

Is there a way to avoid aheadness? One thing I could do is have a schedule (whether with Beeminder or something else) of blogging every 10th day, but if I want to publish something on the 15th, I can, but I still have to publish something on the 20th, and the 30th. So there’s no getting ahead in that sense. But of course I could still implicitly get ahead by waiting to publish.

Yeah, I feel like aheadness is just anti-behindness.

What I actually want to be coming from is a sense of “what do I want, and what matters?” Writing, or dancing, or eating, or conversing, based on what feels good, and based on what impact I want to have in the world.

There’s a different dimension that often comes with aheadness, which is essentially slack, but I can track that without orienting to behindness.

Closing thoughts

This shows up majorly in multi-person systems, where instead of internalized guilt about that-which-is-behind, there’s outward blame: “We should have done this already and it’s your fault we haven’t. Don’t you care?” Sometimes both. Much more has and will be said about that.

There’s an event called Email Debt Forgiveness Day, which says “On April 30th, write your response as though the e-mail just arrived that morning. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been. Just include a link to this explainer, the one you’re reading right now, so that your recipient knows what’s going on.”

What I like about this is it says “forget the heavy behindness hanging on this thing—it’s still worth sending now, in the present.” I got rid of my whole email backlog on EDFD last year and it was great. It was also important for me to recognize that many emails aren’t worth sending.

This is big stuff. I’ve made major leaps since I wrote this journal entry / post last spring, and I think that was aided enormously by this writing and the decisions I made while writing it—both the object-level decision to archive my Beeminder goal without a reminder and the mindset-level decisions of how I chose to orient to the world.

It seems I haven’t decided to declare to the world that I’m dissolving my sense of obligation, as I considered above. I don’t really think I need to on the general level. This writing (and revisiting it!) represents my place on the path of dissolving that internally, which is what really matters.

Want to dig into other productivity concepts with me? My team is hosting a series of workshops on goal-setting, planning, execution & reflection, called Goal-Crafting Intensives. Join us online this Saturday, or later in February, and become part of an ongoing community of practice of other people interested in developing productive habits and effective mindsets.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.


Malcolm » 12 Jan 2019 » Reply

I got this comment on this post…

What we maintain here is , a pleasurablepresent
Are you in?

…and I’m basically certain it’s spam (it had a link to a random google drive url as well). But it fits the theme of this post remarkably well on a surface level, particularly given that aside from the word “present”, it couldn’t really have been automatically scraped from the post text.

I thought this was amusing so I’m sharing it.

George » 13 Jan 2019 » Reply

I enjoyed reading this. Really love + resonate with the image of moving away from a false dichotomy entirely (in this case Behind ↔︎ Ahead), rather than simply moving to its midpoint (“no longer behind, but look out if I haven’t done anything in a week because then I’ll start to drift down the line again…!”).

The value you describe having gotten out of this internal shift strikes me as similar or related to the value I’ve gotten out of the Emergent Strategy principle, “There is always enough time for the right work.” At one point during the past semester when I was feeling really stuck—and where part of that “stuckness” was feeling *behind* on lesson-planning, keeping up with my wellbeing, pursuing my goals in general—I took some colored markers and wrote that quote up on a sheet of paper, followed by the question, “so what is the *right work* in this moment?” (I don’t think I read much into the word “right” here—just treated it as a pointer to “particular work that supports my goals and feels good and is compatible with the context I’m in”.) On an impressive number of occasions, seeing that hanging on my wall and posing that question to myself helped me re-orient from a sense of what I “already should” have done (to use language from this post) to one of “what makes sense *now*, given where I am in *this* moment and accepting this moment for what it is”. Another way to look at it (I now realize) is that posing this question to myself was helping me do a “here we are” (HWA!).

And!— I’m finding that for me, right now, “be a new homunculus”, “here we are”, and “orienting towards the work of *now*” are all pointers to the same thing in concept-space. And further, in my present mind-model—”transcending the Behind ↔︎ Ahead dichotomy” is the same thing as (approximately) “applying the ‘be-a-new-homunculus/here-we-are/orient-towards-the-work-of-now’ motion *continuously*/*as a default stance*/*automatically* (i.e. {beyond + in addition to + growing out of} applying them as discrete ‘resets’).” Neat! 😀

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