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.
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.» read the rest of this entry »
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 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.
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?» read the rest of this entry »
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:
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)
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:
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:
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.
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?!?“» read the rest of this entry »
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.
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:
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:
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:
Keep reading and we’ll explore each of them…» read the rest of this entry »
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?
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.» read the rest of this entry »
I don’t often pick fights, but when I do, I pick them on Twitter, apparently.
The Law of Viral Inaccuracy says that the most popular version of a meme is likely to be optimized for shareability, not accuracy to reality nor the intent of the original person saying it. On Twitter, this takes the form of people parroting short phrases as if everybody knows what words mean. One of the phrases I felt a need to critique is Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ “systems, not goals”.
This blog post is adapted from a tweetstorm I wrote.
The term “pre-success failure” from Scott Adams’ book is a gem. His related idea that you should have systems and not have goals is absurd. (have both!) Scott cites Olympic athletes as examples. 🤨
Take 3 guesses what goal an Olympic athlete has… 🥇🥈🥉
Systems don’t work without goals.
You need a goal in mind in order to choose or design what system to follow, and it’s literally impossible to evaluate whether a system is effective without something to compare it with. Implicitly, that’s a goal. (Scott Adams uses a somewhat narrower definition, but of course people just seeing his tiny quote don’t know that!)
We know certain Olympic athletes had good systems because they got the medals. They designed those systems to optimize for their athletic performance.
Lots of other Olympic athletes also had training systems, but their systems didn’t work as well—as measured by their goals.
I’m part of a team that runs a goal-setting workshop each year called the Goal-Crafting Intensive (where part of the craft is setting up systems) and the definition of goal that we use in that context is:
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:
One interesting evolution is that ppl prefer to see things unpolished rather than perfected
Perhaps because it’s more relatable
You squint + you can see yourself doing it
What caused this change?
This trend is only increasing, + may explain why we'll (maybe) record everything
— Erik Torenberg (@eriktorenberg) January 8, 2019
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?
I feel so incredibly much better when I don’t procrastinate, and yet I still procrastinate regularly. Why am I so resistant to classical conditioning in this context? What further questions should I ask myself / demands should I make of myself, to attack this problem?
I suspect that this is a paradox that almost everyone has encountered on some level. People want to be productive. It feels good to have a really fruitful day.
This is something we often forget, when we frame our self-improvement efforts as a fight between what we should do and what we want to do.
And note that it’s not just that people want-to-have-been-productive. It generally feels pretty good while you’re doing it too. There are exceptions, of course—some work is a grind—but in general it’s at least satisfying, if not fulfilling, to be doing good work. And even with relatively aversive work, it usually feels better to be actually making progress than to just be stewing in the feeling that you should be working but aren’t.
So here’s the million-dollar question: if it feels good to be productive, why aren’t people productive more? » read the rest of this entry »