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?

» read the rest of this entry »

Internal Trust Dancing case study 3: easy but impossible; welcoming suspicion

This is a sequel case study to Internal Trust Dancing case study: scheduling & cancelling dates. This was my second session with this client, and here we look something a bit deeper, less concrete, and more meta-conflicted. A lot of the moves are the same, but there were a few moments where something else was needed.


M: So I’m interested in knowing as part of part of going into this… what does the moment look like, when you tip over into the despair space? Like, what happens just before that happens? And you can share whatever’s arising, even if it doesn’t feel like an answer to that question.

C: I can feel exactly where it starts… it’s when I think about doing something that I want to do, like, think about a goal, a work goal or personal goal. And it’s almost like, it loses value, you know? But I’m trying to move back to that moment… There’s some kind of aversion, like, “No, no, go back. Don’t do that.” And it’s not fear, it’s almost…

M: Wondering if this feels related to the thing you said earlier around feeling like “not allowed to do that, shouldn’t do that”

C: Yes, definitely. Wow, yeah! This sense that you’re not allowed to take that step. When I say “step”, I mean “everything”. Like you’re not allowed to move to that location… go to that other place. It feels really physical, like, there’s a gap. Like “No, no, don’t do that. You shouldn’t go there, you’re not allowed to go there.”

M: What kind of “not allowed” is it, in the physical metaphor?

C: It feels more like a gap, like something that I cannot jump, you know?

M: So even more physical, like, not allowed by the laws of physics.

C: [laughs]  yeah.

M: …but we usually don’t frame it that way, like “I’m not allowed to levitate”… so, there’s something kinda funny there.

C: Yeah.

M: Huh, maybe it might occur more like that to a little kid though, it’s like… if I’m a little kid, “I wanna levitate! I saw a guy do it in the anime I watched! Mommy how do I levitate?” and she says it with the same tone that she says “Sorry, you can’t have a fourth cookie.” And you don’t realize that the “can’t” is a different kind of “can’t”.

C: [laughs]  huh, yeah.

M: I’m going to offer what’s called a sentence stem. Basically, it’ll be like the first half of a sentence and you can just try saying it a few times and sort of see what comes out as the second half. So: “if I try to jump this gap…”

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Internal Trust Dancing case study 2: scheduling & cancelling dates

A long-time reader of my blog reached out to me after reading Internal Trust Dancing case study: EA & relaxation and asked if I’d do a session, and I said sure! I’m mostly not taking new coaching clients at the moment, but I want to refine and share this technique so I have some small availability for one-off sessions on this. Let me know if you’re also interested!

This case study, shared with permission of course, is a bit longer, since it’s a transcript of an hour’s conversation. I’ve removed a couple tangents but almost all of it is important and it could be misleading to leave out almost any of the lines, so instead this is just a 6000 word post. Read it if you want! It gets juicier about halfway through, for what it’s worth. I do also have more commentary which I can share with folks who are interested.

I’ve annotated the transcript in the same style as the Therapeutic Reconsolidation Process case studies in Unlocking the Emotional Brain, with 7 steps (ABC123V), while trying to not get too shoehorn-y about it. Doing this annotation helped me get clear on what I was actually doing—the level I’m working on wasn’t actually obvious to me until I wrote it out. The steps, for reference, are:

  • accessing sequence
    • Step A: symptom identification
    • Step B: retrieval of symptom-necessitating emotional schema
    • Step C: identification of accessible contradictory knowledge
  • transformation sequence
    • Step 1: reactivation of symptom-necessitating emotional schema
    • Step 2: juxtaposed, vivid experience of contradictory knowledge
    • Step 3: repetition of the juxtaposition experience
  • Step V: verification of change by observation of critical markers

And of course M is me and C is my coaching client.


Internal differentiation—each part taking its own perspective

As discussed in the previous case study, in order to have conversations internally, it’s necessary for the parts to see that they’re parts. Here they each get the chance to speak to their perspective briefly. We don’t go too deeply or intensely into either part’s viewpoint, because we want them both in the room together, and they may not trust each other enough to go deeper. This

C: So there’s one specific problem I want to look at… I ended a relationship 6-8 months ago. And we’re still friends, that’s okay there. A couple months ago I decided to start dating again, so I’ve been scheduling dates, etc. But then, when I get to the point of meeting someone, I don’t want to. And I end up cancelling. This has happened 6 times in the last 2 months. And then I have a date coming up this Saturday but I’ll probably cancel it on Friday.

[This conversation was on Wednesday—there’s an email at the end of this post with an update. This simple articulation of an oscillation from compartmentalization is essentially Step A: symptom identification. This was a conveniently precise and concrete oscillation. However, note that we’re going to focus on the compartmentalization itself, not on the content of the conflict. So for what follows, Step B: retrieval of symptom-necessitating emotional schema, we’re not asking “why is it necessary to cancel the date?” we’re asking “why can’t these two perspectives talk to each other?” The fact that his parts are stuck in a tug of war rather than co-creatively finding a solution to this conflict is the symptom. This is, in general, the focus of internal trust-dancing.]

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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)

» read the rest of this entry »
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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