Exploring & integrating my resistances to growing Complice

For its whole existence, I’ve been vaguely wanting my business to grow. For a while, it did, but for the most part, it hasn’t. I wrote last post about how I have increasing amounts of motivation to grow it, but motivation towards something isn’t enough to make it happen. You also need to not have other motivations away from it.

My understanding of how motivation & cognition works is that any inner resistance is a sign of something going unaccounted for in making the plan. Sometimes it’s just a feeling of wishing it were easier or simpler, that needs to be honored & welcomed in order for it to release… other times the resistance is carrying meaningful wisdom about myself or the world, and integrating it is necessary to have an adequate plan.

In either case, if the resistance isn’t welcomed, it’s like driving with the handbrake on: constant source of friction which means more energy is required for a worse result.

Months ago, I did a 5 sessions of being coached by friends of mine as part of Coherence Coaching training we were all doing. Mostly fellow Goal-Crafting Intensive coaches. My main target of change with this coaching was to untangle my resistance to growing Complice. I think it loosened a lot of it up but I still have work to do to really integrate it.

In this post, I’m going to share some of the elements I noticed, as part of that integration as well as working with the garage door up and sharing my process of becoming skilled at non-coercive marketing. Coercion is quite relevant to some (but not all!) of the resistance I’ve found so far.

I’m going to do my best to be more in a think-out-loud, summarize-for-my-own-purposes mode here, rather than a mode of presenting it to you. Roughly in chronological order by session, which happens to mostly start by looking at money and end by looking at marketing…

Having more money is bad

This isn’t one I have very strongly, but it did arise a little bit. There was a sense of I don’t want to have too much money because then people will want my money. (Interestingly, time doesn’t work like this since it’s not so fungible in most cases!) But overall I like being generous and I expect that if I suddenly had a bunch of people trying to get me to contribute to their things, I’d do a good job of figuring out how to manage that. And frankly probably lots of people I know have likely assumed that I have more money than I do and I haven’t received the slightest pressure related to that (although a couple people over the years asking if I’d angel invest, which is the kind of message I’d like to get from friends anyway!)

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How and why I take a weekly “day off”

Last year I started a new habit of taking a weekly “day off”. The two key things that make my day a “day off” are:

  1. no preplanned anything
  2. no browser tabs to start the day

I’ve kind of tried to keep those 2 elements alive during the day too though, meaning:

  1. I don’t schedule anything later in the day, during the day
  2. I try my best to decisively nuke browser tabs I’m not actively using

No preplanned anything

If some event is particularly juicy and only happens that day, I might put it on my 2nd calendar (more of an “fyi”) so that I know that the opportunity is there.

But I make it clear for people not to assume I’ll go.

Sometimes, a day or two before my day off, I imagine what I might do that day, but I still have to find out.

Saturday-me can delight in the present FEELING of how satisfying it might feel to spend my Sunday day off finishing an old backburner project… but it’s a fantasy, not a plan!

If anyone asks me “what are you doing on tomorrow/Sunday?” I just say “whatever I feel like doing!”

It’s simultaneously kinda scary & profoundly liberating to tell people I’m not available on a given day not because I’m busy but because my schedule is completely empty and NOBODY (not even me) is allowed to fill it.

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Allowing allowing

I am coming to the conclusion that everything I was trying to get myself to do is better approached by exploring how to allow myself to do it.

😤✋❌ how do I get myself to do the thing?
😎👉✅ how do I allow myself to do the thing?


It’s obvious, on reflection: if “I want to do the thing”, great! The motivation is there, for some part of me that has grabbed the mic and is calling itself “Malcolm”.

The issue is that some other part of me doesn’t want to do the thing, for whatever reason, or I’d simply be doing it. (To be clear, I’m not talking about skills, just about actions, that I’m physically or mentally capable of taking.)

So there’s a part of me, in other words, that isn’t allowing me to do the thing that I supposedly want to do (I say “supposedly” because the part claiming I want to is necessarily also partial).

…and that’s the part with the agency to enable the thing!

So the question is:

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Towardsness & Awayness Motivation are fundamentally asymmetric

What’s the difference between positive & negative motivation?

I like to talk about these as towardsness & awayness motivation, since positive & negative mean near-opposite things in this exact context depending on whether you’re using emotional language (where “negative” means “bad”, ie “awayness”) or systems theory language (where “negative” means “balancing” ie “towardsness”). I have a footnote on why this is.

There’s a very core difference between these two types, both inherently to any feedback system and specifics to human psychology implementation.

Awayness can’t aim

Part of the issue is (and this is why I say positive vs negative motivation are different in all systems) you fundamentally can’t aim awayness based motivation. In 1-dimensional systems, this is almost sorta kinda fine because there’s no aiming to do (as long as you don’t go past the repulsor). But in 2D (below) you can already see that “away” is basically everywhere:

Whereas with towardsness, you can hone in on what you actually want. As the number of dimensions gets large (and it’s huge for most interesting things like communication or creative problem-solving) the relative usefulness of awayness feedback gets tiny.

Imagine trying to steer someone to stop in one exact spot. You can place a ❤ beacon they’ll move towards, or an X beacon they’ll move away from. (Reverse for pirates I guess.)

In a hallway, you can kinda trap them in the middle of two Xs, or just put the ❤ in the exact spot.

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What are you knot-doing?

You know that thing where you spend a lot of time NOT doing something?

Like you can’t actively do anything else (spontaneously nor decisively) because you’re supposed to be doing the thing, but you’re also not doing the thing because of some conflict/resistance.

I’ve decided to call this knot-doing. (I have another post in the works called knot-listening). You can just pronounce the k if you want to distinguish it from “not doing” in the daoist sense. Or call the latter “non-doing” and be done with it.

Here are some examples of knot-doing:

  • You feel like you should be working on your grad thesis… pretty much always… so it’s hard to make time to go out and have fun, or to go to the gym… but you don’t actually spend more than a couple hours here and there actually working on it.
  • You’re sitting at your desk at work and you don’t feel like doing your assignment so you’re sorta scrolling through your email and you sorta wish you were working on a side project but you can’t actually work on a side project on company time.
  • It’s a nice day and you’d love to be outside, but you’d decided you’re going to spend the day doing your taxes… and you will… any minute now… after you clean the sink, because you know, it could really use cleaning… and come to think of it the shower is also kinda gungy…

You might be inclined to just call this “procrastination” but I think that knot-doing is a more specific phenomenon because it points at the lack of agency experienced while being in the state of not doing something—your agency is tied up in knots. A student may be procrastinating if they go to a party instead of working on their homework, but if they’re letting go and having fun at the party then it’s not knot-doing. I’m arguably procrastinating on fixing my phone’s mobile data after a recent OS upgrade, but I’m doing loads of other stuff in the meantime.

a figure with long hair sits at a desk, but the person is sort of made of strands and is tied in various knots
“knot-doing”, illustrated by Silvia as usual

Why does knot-doing occur?

Unresolved internal conflict, most fundamentally. You’re a bunch of control systems in a trenchcoat, and if part of you has an issue with your plan, it can easily veto it and prevent it from happening. Revealed preferences can be a misleading frame, but if you leave aside what you think you want for a moment and look at yourself as a large complex system, it’s clear to see that if the whole system truly decided to do anything in its capability, it would simply be doing it. I want to type these words, my hands move to type them. Effortless.

Sex can be a workout, physically, depending on the position, but until we actually become tired, we usually also experience it as effortless when we’re so in the flow that we just want to do it. Same with dancing. Being in a flow state, whether work or play, is basically the opposite of knot-doing.

I want to break down my above statement: “You’re a bunch of control systems in a trenchcoat”. First, what’s a control system? The simplest and most familiar example is a thermostat: you set a temperature, and if the temperature gets too low, it turns on the furnace to resolve that error, until the temperature measured by the thermostat reaches the reference level that you set for it.

But what prompts you to adjust the temperature setting? You probably walked over to the thermostat and changed it because you were yourself too hot or too cold. You have your own intrinsic reference level for temperature, which is like a thermostat in you. Except instead of just two states (furnace on, furnace off), your inner thermostat controls a dense network of other control systems which can locomote you to adjust the wall thermostat, open a window, put on a sweater, make a cup of tea, or any number of other strategies (habitual or creative) to get yourself to the right temperature.

Without explaining much more about this model (known as Perceptual Control Theory) I want to point out an important implication for internal conflict, by way of a metaphor: if your house has separate thermostats for an air conditioner and a furnace, and you set the AC to 18°C and the furnace to 22°C……. you’re going to create a conflict.

What actually happens in this scenario?

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Internal Trust Dancing case study 1: EA & relaxation

This post consists primarily of a lightly-edited text of a chat-based coaching exchange between Malcolm (M) and a participant (P) in a recent Goal-Crafting Intensive session, published with permission.

It serves several purposes I’ve been wanting to write about, which I’ll list here and describe in more detail at the end:

  • Share an initial model of Internal Trust-Dancing, which is also relevant to interpersonal non-naive trust-dancing
  • Talk about the importance & relevance of Perceptual Control Theory & conflict
  • Provide a Goal-Crafting Intensive coaching sample

Without further ado, here’s the conversation we had:


P: I’m thinking useful next steps might be planning out how to explore the above; the ML-work will come relatively naturally as part of my PhD, whereas the science communication could take some fleshing out.

I feel a little discouraged and sad at the prospect of planning it out.

M: Mm—curious if you have a sense of what’s feeling discouraging or sad about the planning process

P: My sense is that if I plan it out it’s somehow mandatory? Like it becomes an “assignment” rather than a goal, like I have to persevere through even on the days where I don’t want to.

M: Here’s a suggestion: write a plan out on a piece of paper, then burn it
(inspired by the quote: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”)

P: That was fun! I guess I’m very much a “systems” man, I have this fear that nothing will get done if it’s not in the system. But that might be detrimental motivationally for stuff like this.

M: Hm, it sounds like you have a tension between wanting to track everything in the system but then feeling burdened by the system instead of feeling like it’s helping you

P: That definitely strikes a cord (as well as your points, George, about separating “opportunities” from tasks). I guess I’m worried that I won’t get as much done if I’m not obligated to do it, or that it’s somehow “weak” to not commit strongly. But for long term growth, contribution and personal health, that’s probably not the way to go.

M: Yeah! If you want, we could do some introspection and explore where those worries come from!
(we could guide you through that a bit)

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Fractal Pomodoros

Or: how to temporarily put your head down to focus, on different timescales

(Also, lest it’s unclear: I don’t think everyone should work this way, or that anyone should work this way all the time. There’s something to be said for defragmenting your attention, but there’s also something important about improvisation and fluidity.)

There’s a very famous productivity technique called the “pomodoro”, named after the Italian word for “tomato” because its inventor used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. There’s a lot of subtlety to the full technique, but here I’m going to mostly refer to the basic elements:

  1. pick something to work on
  2. work on it for 25 minutes without distraction
    • external distraction: don’t answer calls or knocks at the door
    • internal distraction: stay focused on your original task/project even if you think of something else you might do instead
  3. when the 25 minutes ends, take a break for 5 minutes
    • (even if you don’t feel like taking a break, take one anyway! stopping randomly, rather than when stuck, can make it easier to get back into it after your break, and it can be easier to get focused if you trust that you’ll pause when the timer goes off)
  4. …repeat 2 & 3 until the task is complete or no longer top priority

There’s something profoundly relieving, for many people, when they first try the pomodoro technique, where a big question goes away: should I be doing something else?

This should I be doing something else? applies to:

  • should I interrupt what I’m doing to talk to my coworker?
  • should I be working on something else?
  • should I be taking a break?
  • should I be working? (if taking a break)

The internal conflict that comes from evaluating these questions every minute or two while trying to work or rest burns a lot of energy without really producing anything meaningful. It’s not to say that those aren’t important questions to consider, just that by default most people can’t usefully consider them every minute.

So instead: pomodoros: a license not to think of anything that isn’t relevant to the task at hand, for 25 minutes. And people regularly discover that they’re able to get more done in a few hours of this method than they usually achieve in a day.

Seriously, if you haven’t tried the pomodoro technique, and you have trouble staying focused on a challenging project… It’s a classic and my go-to #1 productivity technique recommendation. Doesn’t work for everybody or every situation, but when it does work the ROI is huge.

But then, why stop at 25 minutes?

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Lecturing & Learning: Emotional Coherence Case Study

This post is adapted from notes to myself plus a bit of context I added for some friends I shared the notes with. It’s a cool example of how gradually making an unconscious pattern more conscious can lead to transformational insight, and the specific pattern also seems like one that’s likely to resonate for a lot of other people with similar experiences to mine. I’m willing to bet that other people who’ve interacted with me a lot directly are familiar with this pattern as it shows up in me—and I’d be interested to hear about that!

For the last week or so, my partner Sarah and I have been doing a lot of active noticing a particular tone I sometimes have, which Sarah hates, and she described it as being lectured. It took many months of work on both our parts for her to be able to articulate the feeling so clearly as “lectured” and for me to be able to acknowledge that there’s something there even though I wasn’t sure what or why. While I could tell it didn’t work (because it made Sarah defensive) I didn’t initially have any intrinsic motivation to speak any differently. More on that work and on motivation to change, below.

Anyway, since we’ve gotten a better handle on that, I’ve gotten a lot better at noticing when I’m doing the Lecturing thing, often via Sarah making a 🤨 face at me, but sometimes from my own stance or tone. As I’ve been integrating that unconscious drive, I’ve started often interrupting myself midsentence, something like “So you see, it’s really important… (S: 🤨) …that I lecture you about this. You need a lecture.”

And speaking that explicitly defuses a lot of the tension, which has already been great. Yesterday some additional integration happened, via gentle prompting from Sarah. She was saying something and I was suddenly experiencing an immense urge. I had enough mental space to hold that urge, and I strained to speak: “It. Is. So. Hard. For. Me. To. Not. Lecture. You. Right now.” I started to try to convey something about my experience of that to her, and she very gently and groundedly suggested “is there something you might want to do for yourself, first?”

I tuned into that part of me and it voiced internally “why are you so fucking stupid?!?

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Complice: Beyond Getting Things Done

Some years ago, I invented a new productivity system, called Complice. Complice is a productivity app, and it’s also a productivity philosophy, or even an entire paradigm.

What is Complice?

Complice is a new approach to goal achievement, in the form of both a philosophy and a software system. Its aim is to create consistent, coherent, processes, for people to realize their goals, in two senses:

  • realize what their goals are
  • make their goals a reality

Virtually all to-do list software on the internet, whether it knows it or not, is based on the workflow and philosophy called GTD (David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”). Complice is different. It wasn’t created as a critique of GTD, but it’s easiest to describe it by contrasting it with this implicit default so many people are used to.

First, a one-sentence primer on the basic workflow in Complice:

  1. Clarify your goals: what matters to you on the timescale of months/years?
  2. Set intentions for today: how can your day be in service of your big-picture vision?
  3. Take action: work on what feels meaningful, whether the intentions you set or other emergent opportunities or challenges.
  4. Review, reflect, reorient: did you do what you set out to do? Is it actually moving the needle? Go to 2.

There’s a lot more to it, but this is the basic structure. Perhaps less obvious is what’s not part of the workflow. We’ll talk about some of that below, but that’s still all on the level of behavior though—the focus of this post is the paradigmatic differences of Complice, compared to GTD-based systems. These are:

  • choosing & doing, over organizing
  • goals as fundamental, rather than tasks
  • aliveness, instead of exhaustiveness
  • proactive, rather than reactive

Keep reading and we’ll explore each of them…

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A Collaborative Self-Energizing Meta-Team Vision

Originally written October 19th, 2020 as a few tweetstorms—slight edits here. My vision has evolved since then, but this remains a beautiful piece of it and I’ve been linking lots of people to it in google doc form so I figured I might as well post it to my blog.

Wanting to write about the larger meta-vision I have that inspired me to make this move (to Sam—first green section below). Initially wrote this in response to Andy Matuschak’s response “Y’all, this attitude is rad”, but wanted it to be a top-level thread because it’s important and stands on its own.

Hey @SamHBarton, I’m checking out lifewrite.today and it’s reminding me of my app complice.co (eg “Today Page”) and I had a brief moment of “oh no” before “wait, there’s so much space for other explorations!” and anyway what I want to say is:

How can I help?

screenshot of LifeWrite landing page

Because I realized that the default scenario with something like this is that it doesn’t even really get off the ground, and that would be sad 😕

So like I’ve done with various other entrepreneurs (including Conor White-Sullivan!) would love to explore & help you realize your vision here 🚀

Also shoutout to Beeminder / Daniel Reeves for helping encourage this cooperative philosophy with eg the post Startups Not Eating Each Other Like Cannibalistic Dogs. They helped mentor me+Complice from the very outset, which evolved into mutual advising & mutually profitable app integrations.

Making this move, of saying “how can I help?” to a would-be competitor, is inspired for me in part by tapping into what for me is the answer to “what can I do that releases energy rather than requiring energy?” and finding the answer being something on the design/vision/strategy level that every company needs.

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A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to coordination between parts of people as well as between people. More about me.

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