The Complexity of the Conceptual Mind

 Posted by on 26 October 2009 at 4:00 am  Productivity
Oct 262009

Paul and I just returned from a few days in sunny Southern California. (We visited his family in Los Angeles, including a delightfully talkative three-year-old niece Amanda and a new-to-us nine-month-old nephew Jeremy.) I’m definitely not ready for Monday, so I’m going to allow someone else to do my work for me with this post.

A few months ago, Kevin McAllister posted a really stellar analysis of the roots of his problem with work-avoidance on his blog, Logical Disconnect. The post is entitled Overload and a Coke. I’d planned to comment on it, but much of what I had to say ended up in my podcast on cultivating concentration.

In any case, the post is well worth reading in its entirety, as it’s an excellent example of the importance of introspection about such problems — and the good results thereof. Happily, Kevin gave me permission to repost it. So that’s what I’m doing. (Thanks, Kevin! My Monday morning bacon is hereby saved!)

Without further ado, here is Kevin’s post: Overload and a Coke:

I have just made an important discovery about my mental limitations and my response to them. I’ve confirmed something I had already known, that my mental stack for sub-tasks is finite. For a while I’ve been troubled occasionally by a nearly overwhelming emotional need to do anything else besides my current work. For a few months now I have been seeking, opportunistically, to understand this emotional state because it seemed completely at odds with my goals and my usual relentless need to understand things.

The idea here is there are often tasks that have hidden or unrealized requirements. An example is you start out to vacuum the rug, and you need to clean up the clutter and move furniture, but when you move the furniture you discover that the leg on the chair is so loose that it is unsafe, so you go to repair it only to find that your out of wood glue and finishing nails. And to make it to the hardware store you need to stop and get gas and go to the ATM for cash. So when you originally set out to vacuum the rug you never would have said, okay well I’d better go get gas and some cash before I get started. I’ve heard this phenomena referred to as yak shaving. But I think most people have experienced this, and typically the stacks of additional tasks don’t get too deep. However, in my work it is nearly a daily occurrence that my projects uncover things I could never have known until the work was begun. Some block your progress and some don’t, some are big, but some are small. I’ve found it’s the small ones that block your progress that were really stacking up on me and causing a problem.

If it is a big problem, meaning a full project in it’s own right, and is not blocking my current progress, I simply make a note that this new thing needs to be done too and continue on my way. Even if it blocks my progress, I’ll go ahead and shelve the first task and take on the second one. But if it is a small problem and blocking my progress, I just switch to this new task, and try to mentally retain all the context that got me there. Generally this works, but, often my extra tasks go down so deep that I reach a point where it is impossible to retain the whole context. This mental overload is real, and painful, and I’ve been dealing with it all wrong.

When I reach this point of mental overload I run away screaming! Well not literally, but I certainly do try and do anything else. Suddenly it seems like checking my email, or going to get a coke at the vending machine is the most important thing in the world. I think there are other factors in play as well, such as, if the driving project behind these sub-tasks is something that is only mildly interesting or something I loathe then the threshold for the number of sub-tasks I am willing to endure is much smaller.

The breakthrough in my thinking was realizing that this overwhelming need to go find and clean my white tennis shoes was in direct response to learning I had yet another task to be pushed onto the stack. So the emotional response was because I was no longer able to hold the whole of my current task in my head, and I have now set up a contradiction.

I know the thing I am doing is important and more important than the new thing because it is bigger and implies the new thing, so to prevent myself from losing the broader context I will not work on the new sub-task so I don’t lose any of the important details of the super task. But I also know that I cannot proceed on the broader task without working on the sub-task. As this contradiction leaves me nothing to actually do I might as well get a coke and avoid the whole irresolvable mess.

Now this has been a source of guilt and loss of productivity for me for a while because when in that mess I’m not making progress on my project. But from David Allen and Jean Moroney I’ve already learned the solution to mental overload. That is to write things down.

So the strategy I’ve just developed is when I recognize this feeling to stop and ask myself, “Are you overloaded?” If the answer is yes, then I simply need to write down the context I am in danger of losing. At this time I suspect that will consist of a list of the outstanding tasks that are standing in my mind.

If the answer to that question is not, yes, I have a backup question that has helped me with procrastination before that is, “What do you want?” I mean this in a broad way, basically, it helps me bring to mind the reasons behind undertaking the tasks in the first place.

Any similar stories to tell? Post them in the comments!

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