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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Chaotic Flow, Focus, and Interrupts

Clare* made the comment the other day that the state of flow[? ? ?], aka being "in the zone", is characterized by a lack of meta processing (in particular, she was talking about a silencing of one's inner critic). This got me thinking about the nature of various tasks, and whether some quite worthwhile pursuits are simply not compatible with flow.

With some introspection and recollection, I realize flow for me only comes when I am performing, and not when I am exploring. Or let's just say exploratory flow is chaotic, while performance flow is smooth. This is a significant realization, since the lack of (smooth) flow in my endeavors is certainly a source of angst and stress, yet nonetheless I regularly, consciously choose exploratory tasks over performance oriented ones. And I'm not about to change that.

From the second link above: "Flow occurs when a person's skill level is perfectly balanced to the challenge level of a task that has clear goals and provides immediate feedback." That pretty much spells it out, doesn't it. AI, higher mathematics, theoretical physics, most any field that bears the name "research"--these tasks rarely even have clear delineations of difficulty, let alone clear goals. And feedback comes at best in random blips, often late in the process and sometimes only at the very end. It is no wonder people in these fields are oft heard saying they must be masochists to do what they do. Yet they do.

When I recall the time course of projects prior, they always start with a nebulous period of mental wandering, a definitively meta-level process of exploring not just how to get from here to there, but just exactly where there is, or should be. This is the period of determining what is both possible and desirable--two constraints which begin at opposite ends and grope searchingly toward each other, sometimes across great distances. And this is invariably a period of great angst and chaos.

When and if that process is satisfied, the project rapidly shifts to solving the goals therein defined, and this becomes a task of performance, of applying experience and well-honed skills to getting from A to B. And this can be a period of smooth flow.

Maybe I just haven't found the secret to fusing the two, but to me they seem incompatible modes. And it feels introspectively as if we aren't really made for the research mode--that historically it just wasn't viable to spend that much time on anything with no immediately tangible results. But times have changed, and now not only is it viable, but potentially quite rewarding in the long term--if only you can last that long at odds with your evolutionary programming.

On a related tangent, I've found tasks in general for me tend to fall into one of two groups: externally driven, context-switching tasks, and internally driven, deep-focus tasks. The former set includes everything from doing the laundry to answering emails. The latter set, everything from research to design and implementation. Both categories have elements in and out of the flow-compatible group, so this is an orthogonal cross-section to the one above. But, unlike where chaotic flow often evolves into smooth flow, context-switching and deep-focus tasks butt heads horribly and often result in debilitating focus and motivation problems.

Indeed, it seems that to attain flow in either category, one has to eliminate the other category from the slate entirely. (At least I do. Maybe it's just a trait of INTP's, or any P's, or perhaps ADD'ers.)

And interestingly, it doesn't seem to matter which one. I have had periods in my life where I have eliminated my deep-focus goals, or at least put them on indefinite hold, and spent my time remodeling my house, cooking, cleaning, gardening, going to the movies, chatting on the phone, organizing social events, or whatnot (I am reminded of my recent "travel mode" period when I was cruising around California), and I felt quite productive in that time even though many of the things I was doing weren't resulting in any lasting tangible results. I guess the memory of time enjoyed is as valuable and tangible a result as any. And I have had my periods--mostly when I was first out of college--when my life was so utterly simple that I had almost no distractions: eating out with co-workers at every meal, paying for everything with cash and having no bills in my name, doing my taxes in an hour per year on a 1040-EZ, owning just the bare essentials and nothing I cared too much about. And I was phenomenally productive during that time, because I could work for days or weeks on one thing and literally never be distracted by another concern the entire time. Even eating and sleeping just became background noise to the thinking, because they didn't require any of their own.

But most of my adult life, I have lived square in the middle, having to earn the money (which in my case is deep-focus work) and manage and live a life (who's simplicity I was never satisfied to maintain), and these two sides have done much worse than merely compete for time, they have grapple constantly in my head nearly incapacitating each other.

The reason they don't mix is quite simple: deep focus cannot abide by distractions, and context switching cannot abide by long time slices with interrupts disabled. Further, the former is a navigation process, while the latter is a queuing process--two fundamentally different modes of focus and prioritization which are low-level enough in our mental hierarchy as to require substantial effort and context losses to swap out.

Looking around at others, I see a number of functional patterns to address this. Some people simplify their lives as much as possible, often foregoing a great deal, nurturing their deep focus into thriving. Others take the opposite approach and find queue-style work (indeed, a great deal of work in the world falls into this category) which is easily integrated into a multi-faceted life. Then there are the schedulers, who valiantly allocate blocks of time to deep focus work--with mixed and unpredictable success, since deep focus work rarely cooperates with designated context switching times.

The real stars seem to be the delegators, who have picked one mode for themselves, and delegate the other out, thus attaining the benefits of both without the cognitive dissonance of implementing both. A researcher may delegate tasks to an administrative assistant's queue, while a manager may delegate tasks to a staff of researchers.

Of course the obvious ubiquitous historic example of this is the traditional division of labor (mutual delegation) between husband and wife. And while this division is rapidly eroding from public preference, pragmatism seems to still prefer it, as for instance where The Millionaire Next Door observes that most self-made millionaires got there in the company of a highly supporting wife. Feminist ideals (depending on who you ask, of course) are pushing toward a more androgynous society where tasks are shared or at least not partitioned along any obvious boundaries, and while this sounds fine on the surface (setting aside the whole question of gender-specific innateness), I wonder now if this doesn't spell death to efficiency due to incompatible mode mixing. Indeed, (resurrecting the question of gender-specific innateness) it seems maternity concerns would tip the pendulum in the direction of women preferring context-switching and men preferring deep-focus, and that once so tipped the antagonistic relationship between the two modes would drive each gender to specialize in their respective directions as much as possible.

When I think of all my often-single friends, both men and women, for the most part they are a mentally androgynous lot (myself included). Though the causality may run both directions, it occurs to me that while androgyny is highly beneficial to surviving single, it imposes a double fine on relationships: One, because the androgynous couple doesn't find immediate practical utility in each other the way a highly gendered couple does (quite simply, they don't need each other in any practical way). Two, because the androgynous couple is much less likely to partition tasks along a line that cleanly separates navigation from queuing, leaving them both subtly but substantially handicapped compared to their optimal potential.

If this all seems too abstract to be relevant, separate the tasks and goals in your life into the two categories, and try to imagine if you could entrust one or the other set entirely to someone else--and I mean someone you could trust enough to let them be responsible for it so you don't have to. Does it feel categorically easier to tackle the half you chose to keep? It does to me, and it doesn't matter which half.

The question remains, for the relatively androgynous singles and couples, is there a way to recover that optimality? Another abandoned concept of the past comes to mind: hiring a girl (or man) Friday--a personal assistant in life rather than just in business. Is this a viable option in this modern era? (I am reminded of various Robert Heinlein books...) Other solutions?

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com