How To Ride Your Brain Bicycle
Welcome back. Have your 2018 predictions and resolutions failed yet? No? Well, give it a few more weeks. Let's talk about why that is inevitable and what to do about it when it happens. It has to do with falling off bicycles.
Steve Jobs famously called the computer a bicycle for the brain. Have you ever wondered why a bicycle in particular? The answer is actually quite simple if you stop to think for a moment. The really tight interaction loop enabled by computers, capable of operating faster than the conscious executive decision-making rates of your pre-frontal cortex, allows you to literally hack your own attention and put your mind in a state of leveraged flow in relation to a specific activity. As we'll see, this is really close to riding a bicycle. The analogy works at a really detailed level. The oldest example of this loop is the REPL: read-eval-print loop, which refers to programming interactively using a shell interface. Once you get comfortable, you can literally program faster than you can make conscious decisions. Same with writing in a good word-processing interface, drawing on a good tablet, designing in a good CAD program, or researching a subject on Google. The interface, with all its frictions and latencies, becomes invisible. To your prefrontal cortex, the interface feels like another part of the brain rather than an external artifact. No pre-computing interface could disappear as completely into the brain
The bicycle metaphor is why I've gotten increasingly suspicious of all the agonizing about Facebook and Twitter hacking your attention with addictive dark-pattern interaction design.
The fact that your brain is hackable by computers in a way that was not possible with (say) shopping mall design, newspaper layout, library layout, or TV remote control design is **a _feature not a bug. _**That feature is central to how and why computers can be so incredibly valuable in our lives. Before you go looking for evil Facebook UX designers to lynch for your failed New Year's resolutions, ask yourself: do you even know how to ride your bicycle? Do you even know where on the computer it is?
Let's explore, in a classic retro tweetstorm format newsletter.
Your attention landscape
1/ We'll return to bicycles, but let's zoom out from the smallest scale of conscious decision-making of about 0.1s to the longest common one: about a year. Why do resolutions fail?
2/ The first class of failures is design failures: Setting naive goals over building good systems, focusing on lofty visions or values without building supporting habits, etc.
3/ The second class of failures is implementation failures: Making mistakes in prioritization relative to preferences, logical errors in planning, missing a key step, failing to establish a key precondition for action, arithmetic errors etc.
4/ The third class of failures is prediction failures: You do have to make predictions, and get enough of them right, to be effective. Bad information usually leads to faulty action.
5/ If too many of your operating assumptions are getting falsified or undermined as you work, your efforts fall apart. Effective people have a higher than average prediction hit rate.
6/ A broad understanding of behavioral psychology can fix the first class of failures. Good productivity systems like GTD can fix the second. Superforecasting discipline can fix the third.
7/ But the older I get, the more I'm convinced that these three classes of failures don't actually account for as much of the intention failure rate as we think. I'd attribute only about 15% to each.
8/ I think the majority of long-term action failures, about 60%, are commitment failures. We are plagued by doubts about whether what we are doing is what we should be doing at all.
9/ This is not doubt about outcomes. This is not doubt about probabilities of success based on factors outside your control. This is not doubt about your skills and competence.
10/ Consider a talented chess player, with a great coach, a proven learning strategy, clear understanding of their chances in the big competition, and the strength of rivals.
11/ Such a person can still be plagued by doubt about whether chess is their calling. Not doubt about being able to do pro-chess right, but about whether pro-chess is the right thing to do.
12/ This kind of doubt is what we call angst: doubt that is seemingly about meanings and values, ultimate purpose, a sense of being in a calling. Why "seemingly"? We'll get there.
13/ Angst has to do with ambiguity rather than uncertainty. Specifically, ambiguity in your understanding of your place in the universe and what you're meant to do in it.
14/ Are you one of the good guys or one of the bad guys? Should you strive for a dent in the universe or simply coast? Is it all just a cynical money game? Are you being a precious snowflake?
15/ Angst-ridden doubt is unmistakeable. You cannot confuse it with the kinds of doubts that lead to the first three kinds of failures. It lives in your gut rather than the environment.
16/ Design failure doubt shows up as means-ends skepticism: will writing clear goal statements really create focus? Can I really complete my novel simply by installing a 1000 words a day habit at the limbic system level?
17/ Implementation failure doubt shows up as confusion and fatigue: Wait, is this the actual next action? What's in this pile of papers? Where should I file this? This is too complicated!
18/ Prediction failure doubts show up as a sense of missing something in the picture or a vague sense that a new event has turned your map into garbage.
19/ But angst-ridden doubt doesn't feel like this. It does not have an external locus but an internal one. A deep gut-level discomfort and sense that you should be doing something else with your life. That you're playing the wrong game.
20/ We're almost back to bicycles. Here's the thing: distractability is almost entirely a function of angst and commitment failures, not the other 3 kinds of failure modes or external factors.
21/ What do I mean? It means, if you're getting distracted, at some level, you're choosing to be distracted. Your commitment to your intentions is simply not as strong as you think.
22/ At this point point, the Facebook-can-do-no-wrong libertarian would derp: "...and you should take responsibility for that choice and not blame Facebook."
23/ Equally the progressive would derp, "...and it's not your fault at all, Evil Corporations have systematically weakened your ability to commit strongly by building addiction technology."
24/ I'm convinced both are wrong, a_nd your subconscious decision to be distracted is in fact the right one almost all the time, because your angst is likely well-founded and worth listening to._
25/ There is no point being focused, with a finely tuned productivity system, and maniacal discipline against distractions, if you're not sure what you're doing is worth doing.
26/ I've written about my (critical) view of "deep work" before. There is no point diving deep if a big part of you believes you're in the wrong ocean.
27/ Take the best-case scenario of our perfectly prepared angsty chess player. Let's say his angst shows up as "wasting too much time on Facebook." His coach wants him to delete Facebook from his phone.
28/ Let's say overnight, miraculously, Facebook grows a corporate conscience and revamps its products to be Buddhist Mindfulness Product-Certification Compliant.
29/ Will our angsty chess player overnight find a renewed commitment and sense of purpose around his chess playing efforts, and go on to beat Magnus Carlsen and AlphaGo? Unlikely.
30/ Here's the thing. Commitment is not the absence of distractions, but the presence of stabilized focus. Focus is a positively defined condition, like "balance" on a bicycle, not merely insensitivity to things arbitrarily labeled "distraction."
31/ Do you stay on your bicycle because there are no wind gusts, no cracks on the pavement, no obstacles, no turns, no Zuck trying to push you off? _Or because you've learned to balance? _
32/ Think back to when you first learned to ride a bicycle. That miraculous shift from feeling unnatural, wobbly and unstable, like the smallest thing could topple you, to mastery.
33/ In the beginning, staying on the bicycle simply feels unnatural. Falling off seems natural. You frame the problem as "staying on longer and longer, delaying the inevitable tipping over"
34/ In the second stage, you have discovered indefinitely extendable "balance" but it is a fragile equilibrium. You overcorrect for roll/yaw errors. You can't really steer. You visibly wobble.
35/ Then you learn relaxed control. Wobbles become invisibly small. You do the right amount of correction. You can even let go the handlebars safely and bank safely.
36/ In the next stage, you stop panicking and getting off the bicycle every time there's an obstacle in the straight-line path. Slowly you learn to steer around with a minimal touch and use the brakes without launching yourself over the handlebars.
37/ Then finally, you have enough control that you can actually handle turns and follow a route, instead of needing a straight, clear road. Smooth! Nice! Hey, this is actually fun now!
38/ You can now ride a bicycle without it occupying 110% of your attention. Maybe it's at 70%. And crucially, the 70% feels right. It is enjoying itself without angst. It has no doubts about whether it should be sailing or walking instead.
39/ Now you can use the remaining 30% to pay attention to the environment while riding a bicycle. You don't have to get off to admire the scenery. An attractive person walking by doesn't get you into an accident.
40/ The scenery isn't "distraction" getting in the way of riding your bicycle. It's part of the point of riding the bicycle. You want to experience the world from the bicycle, not tune it out.
41/ Parts of it might even be crucially important input you need to take note of to be ride. Blinkers are for horses being controlled with reins by a human.
42/ As your core "riding the bicycle" loop gets more efficient and reliable, you can go faster. You feel comfortable going faster than a walking pace, or even racing downhill.
43/ Now your broader awareness and reactions start to get retuned for "bicycle speed" mobility. You now have a "bicycle riding" orientation that comes on automatically when you mount, not just basic skill.
44/ What happened along this learning curve? As we'd say in control engineering: you progressively solved the problems of stabilization, noise rejection, disturbance rejection, and reference tracking.
45/ As OODA loop fans would say, you got "oriented" to riding a bicycle. You installed a lower level observe-decide-act loop, and a higher level situation awareness and orientation loop appropriate for bike-riding.
46/ You didn't need to poke out your eyes or put on blinkers to ride your bicycle. You could stay plugged into the environment completely.
47/ Most importantly, you can get off and on intentionally rather than via miracles and crashes. Your ability to experience the world on a bicycle is now innate. You'll never forget.
48/ What does this have to do with angst and brain bicycles? Well, let's start with the simplest example: your own cerebellum, which the rest of your brain "rides" to govern your body.
49/ If you've ever tried meditation, especially the most basic kind of breath-focus/breath-counting meditation, you'll notice the eerily perfect match to bicycle riding.
50/ Your "breath" is an approximately 0.5 hz embedded computer in your cerebellum interacting with breath-regulation circuitry in the autonomic nervous system.
51/ We are not normally aware of the bicycle-like nature of breathing, but we do notice it when sudden shocks make us fall of our bicycle and we "forget" to breathe.
52/ Basic meditation is learning to be conscious of the "breath bicycle." Go back and re-read points 29-39, but replace all external factors with the obvious corresponding internal ones.
53/ When you first try meditating, it will be like when you're first trying to ride a bicycle. You have no idea that a "state of balance" is a thing, let alone actually achievable. You imagine it is some sort of not-falling-off superpower.
54/ Like beginner bike riders, you'll frame the problem of balance as "staying focused on the breath longer and longer without falling off due to the tug of a distracting thought." You went 3 breaths without falling off, then 4, then 10, hey you got to 20!
55/ But once you discover "balance" on the breath bicycle, even if only for 30 fragile seconds in a 15 minute meditation session, your mental model will shift.
56/ You'll go through the other stages, all the way to where only a part of your mind is being used to maintain meditative breath-bicycle balance, and the rest is free to look around and enjoy the ride.
57/ This latter stage is what mindfulness meditators are aiming for. It's not that you don't react to tugging thoughts or just "acknowledge and let go thoughts," but that the process doesn't knock you off your bicycle.
58/ The environment of bicycle riding is streets and trails. The environment of meditation is the contents of your own head. Look at the picture to see what I mean.
59/ Anxieties and aversions, continuing messes from last year, the rigidity of your own expectations, unacknowledged depression, isolation, relationship messes, any of these things can knock you off your breath bicycle.
60/ You don't need to be on Facebook with Zuck's dark-UX minions trying to hack you to fall off. You can do it all by yourself in a dark room, just breathing.
61/ Or to put it another way, you've got like 5 Facebooks inside your own head. Your amygdala doesn't need help from Facebook to try and knock you off your breath bicycle. A nagging memory of your last fight with your spouse will do the trick better.
62/ The unlabeled black-hole-with-crosshairs with a yellow circle is my visualization of the breath bicycle. The dotted yellow line is the process of getting to a stable "orbit".
63/ Meditation uses simple focal devices such as breath or a candle flame because the balance zone there is light enough to master quickly and safely, and put 90% of the brain's contents "outside" the bicycle so it can be sensed with the delicate balance.
64/ Just like once you learn to ride a light bicycle you can easily move on to heavy motorcycles, once you learn to ride a breath bicycle, you are ready for heavier ones.
65/ Now let's move on (FINALLY) to resolutions and actual computers. Your breath computer isn't good for much beyond just existing. It's a pretty limited bicycle. It won't write novels or build startups.
66/ To do more with your life, you need more powerful bicycles. Fortunately, today, nearly all kinds of bicycles can be implemented as computers.
67/ Think about a resolution (or system, or habit, or trend assumption, or whatever) you've adopted for the year. Ask: what is the underlying bicycle? Can you actually ride it? If not, can you learn in time to get where you want?
69/ I'm not being mystical here. I mean literally something in the form of an interaction loop that gets leveraged work done, like an REPL or other finger-tip-skill mode. Something to which the bicycle analogy can be mapped fairly closely.
70/ Unlike breath bicycles and regular bicycles, not everybody can learn to ride all kinds of computers-as-bicycles. So this is NOT a trivial question.
71/ I suck at riding the chess bicycle. I am fairly comfortable riding cooking, basic math and simple coding bicycles. I fall off pretty quickly on an advanced math or "real" coding bicycle.
72/ Moving to my strengths, on the writing bicycle, I can let go the handlebars, race fast, and do wheelies and other stunts. On a good day, I can do well on the "speaking" bicycle.
73/ Now we are in a position to consider angst. Believe it or not, though angst seems like it's about Meaning and Values and Purpose, it is really about bicycle-rider fit (BRF).
74/ Angst is the question: "can I ride this bicycle well enough for it to be the balanced state of motion from which I experience the universe? Or do I need a different bicycle?"
75/ Flip the question of distraction around. When are you in a state of perfect absorption with absolutely no doubt, and no prefrontal-cortext second guessing that you're doing what you're meant to?
76/ Is it when your system design is perfect? Is it when your implementation is error free? When your predictions are 100% right? When you never lose a game? No, no, no, and no.
77/ Is it when you're distraction free and 100% laser focused, unaware of everything going on around you except the task at hand, never checking Facebook or Twitter? Again, NO.
78/ You are angst-free when your attention has a dynamically stable and pleasant balance state from which you can experience almost anything the universe can throw at you without getting knocked off or working too hard.
79/ When distractions don't cause anxiety, overcorrections, or fallings-off. When obstacles don't cause panic attacks. When turns don't require you to dismount to navigate.
80/ You don't need to block off Facebook and Twitter (in fact you create blindside risk that way, like riding a bicycle with blinkers on).
81/ If you use them while on a brain-bicycle you know how to ride, they cannot actually distract you, no matter how many billions are spent on dark UX and clickbait.
82/ Zooming back out the year level, what makes for a successful year? When are you able to look back and say, "that was a good year"?
83/ I guarantee you this: it's not when you manage to "stay focused" and check off every resolution and "execute" perfectly, with a perfectly maintained social media diet.
84/ A year can go "perfectly" as measured by resolutions and informational dieting boundaries, and still feel like a failed year. And a year where almost nothing goes according to plan can still be a success year.
85/ What makes a year a good year is if you can log strong memories of periods of effortless, angst-free bicycle riding. When, at least for a while, you felt you were living as you were meant to.
87/ And what if you don't have such a week in the year? Should you get worked up about it? Punish yourself by swearing off Facebook the next year?
88/ Here, I'm a pragmatist. The universe is a big place, we're all creatures who've emerged out of random design trials in a gene pool and been thrown out here to find our way.
89/ You shouldn't expect to miraculously shape yourself into the key you were meant to be, and find the lock in the universe you fit into with a couple of weeks of meditation and GTD. There is no One True Bicycle out there for your particular mind.
90/ It can take years, even decades of searching and maybe you never find a bicycle you like. For most of you, there will likely be more bad years than good by my bicycle-riding test, especially in your 20s and early 30s.
91/ There are no guarantees. And in the down years, if your subconscious "searching for purpose" bicycle is drawing you to mess around on Twitter and Facebook, that might be the right thing for you to be doing that year.
92/ The world is a frankenstack. To learn about it is to navigate a rhizome. Getting to where you're supposed to be, and finding and learning to ride your bicycle aren't meant to be easy.
94/ I've had many good, deep conversations with them in the past, and interesting and productive disagreements. There's a chance they are much more right than I am here.
95/ If you'd like to try a more practical approach, you may want to experiment with Kevin Simler's Intent plugin for Chrome, to help you manage your online attention. Who knows, maybe that can work as bicycle training wheels for you.
96/ Here's wishing you a good bicycle ride in 2018, or good luck finding your bicycle if you haven't. In the meantime, just breathe, relax those muscles. You're not going to crash.
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Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. If you're interested in bringing the Season 1 workshop to your organization, get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr
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