Thinking Out Loud No. 19
On procrastination and ugh fields, making friends online and the solarpunk aesthetic
It's been a stormy couple of weeks here in London, so I hope things are brighter wherever you are. I'm sure you'll be pleased to hear that after my bilateral knee arthroscopies last week, where the surgeon stuck a camera in both my knees and cleaned a lot of gunk out, I'm walking around and my knees feel much better. The power of modern medicine!
This week, I talk about:
my experience with procrastination and its 'ugh field'
the joy of making friends online
the solarpunk aesthetic
I hope you enjoy! Until next week.
Procrastination and its 'ugh field
Hi. I'm Michael, and I'm a procrastinator. I've struggled with it all my life.
This is a difficult thing to write about, because it's bound tightly with how I see my value as a person. But, I've spent the morning reading a number of articles on procrastination, particularly David Cain's excellent blog Raptitude, and I feel inspired to write about my own experience.
As a sidebar, I think I encountered Raptitude around 10 years ago. It was the first blog on 'being human' that inspired me to think "huh, this is great... and it feels like a thing I could do one day". It took me ten years, but I'm finally doing it. The story arcs of life are long and surprising.
So, back to procrastination.
"The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don't just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed" – Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
On the face of it, procrastination seems like one of the most nonsensical things a person can do. There are things that need to be done, but instead of doing them we procrastinators put them off until the last possible moment (or later). Not only does this mean we perform to a lower standard, but the doing of things is bound in a general emotional field of 'bad'.
I think people often look at me and think I'm some kind of hyper-productive engine of achievement. I'm an engagement manager in a consultancy, I'm helping to build a non-profit, I'm an Alexander Technique teacher and life coach and now I write newsletters and blog posts. All this means, though, is that I'm not lazy, not that I don't procrastinate.
As David says in his article Procrastination Is Not Laziness:
"I am not lazy. I have no shortage of energy, I have no interest in lounging on the couch, I don’t have TV service, I never wear pyjamas all day. Waking up after 7:30 is sleeping in for me, even on a Saturday. I actually like working." – David Cain
This describes me perfectly. I love working, but at the same time I often feel terrible while doing it and find myself avoiding it.
The excellent book The Inner Game Of Work says that "Performance = Potential - Interference", where interference is the kind we do to ourselves (getting in our own way). The Inner Game of Work is pure Alexander Technique, by the way, just using different language for the same concepts.
I believe that my potential could be very high, but so is my self-interference, which means my performance is often mediocre relative to my tastes. And procrastination is one of my biggest sources of self-interference.
What's going on here? Why do I often want to do the thing, yell at myself to do the thing, and still end up not doing the thing? For a long time I considered this a mere character flaw, a personal failing, but I'm coming to see that it's something much deeper. It's a paradoxical self-defence mechanism, one that's there for a reason, but that just ends up making things worse.
Basically, I've tied my self-worth to achievement, like so many of us I'm sure. This means that whenever I even think about work that is a combination of challenging and ambiguous, where it feels like failure is plausible, I immediately step into an Ugh field.
"If a person receives constant negative conditioning via unhappy thoughts whenever their mind goes into a certain zone of thought, they will begin to develop a psychological flinch mechanism around the thought. The "Unhappy Thing" — the source of negative thoughts — is typically some part of your model of the world that relates to bad things being likely to happen to you." –Anonymous, Less Wrong
The negative, anxious emotional quality set up by the ugh field, in this case the fear of being a worthless human, leads to procrastination as a displacement activity. I do easier tasks, I go on Twitter, I message my friends. What's tricky is that this self-soothing behaviour can kick in almost before I've even realised that I'm in the ugh field. Again, from Less Wrong:
Perhaps, (though this is speculative) the comforting displacement activity is there to counterbalance the psychological pain that you experienced just because you thought about the problem. – Anonymous, Less Wrong
So my mind moves to the idea of doing the thing, thinking about doing the thing causes me psychological suffering associated with an attack on my sense of self, and I find myself in mindless web browsing to ease the pain. This is a vicious cycle, one that is incredibly difficult to even notice since it can happen below the level of conscious awareness.
For now, it's enough for me to recognise that this is going on and to try to remove the self-judgement inherent in it. As The Inner Game of Work says, "non-judgemental awareness itself is curative". Making myself feel bad for responding unhelpfully to feeling bad just compounds the problem and will interfere further with my system's ability to perform well.
Instead, I am resolving to address this issue once and for all in 2020, as a major life project in itself. It's one that will suck a lot of the time, because it means going into and becoming okay with staying in the ugh field rather than going to the beguiling comfort of my displacement activities.
I've bought a couple of books to get me started (The Now Habit and Creative Visualisation) and I will work on my ability to notice, stay with difficult emotions and express self-compassion through my meditation practice.
Ultimately, my goal is the same as David's:
I want to be able to do something many (most?) people do every day, and would never consider it a problem: I want to write down what I’m going to do the next day, and actually do it. – David Cain
I'll report in on my progress.
The joy of making friends online
This weekend I had the privilege of meeting two people who I had only interacted with via Twitter. It turns out they're both just as lovely and interesting as I expected and we'll be meeting up again.
I recognise this kind of thing is unusual for many people, but it's prompted me to reflect on the relationships in my life that have been enabled by the Internet and why I think this way of making friends is underrated.
I've had four long term romantic relationships in my life, of which the first three were enabled by the Internet. I met my first girlfriend at band camp (seriously) and then we chatted for months via MSN Messenger (those were the days) before getting together. I met my second girlfriend via a student Internet forum. I met my third girlfriend through an online dating website. In fact, the wonderful relationship I'm in now is the only one where the Internet hasn't been involved! I've also made 'Internet friends' who I never ended up meeting, but we've discussed shared interests and taken an interest in each other's lives.
I've written before about some of the conditions that I think are required for building friendships and tribes:
we need a structure where regular and repeated interactions are allowed
we need a common purpose to connect around
we need a safe environment that encourages vulnerability, playfulness and growth
And, as it turns out, I think the Internet can be the perfect place to enable this. We can find online communities, visit regularly and form connections. Those communities can be thematic or have a certain cultural flavour. Some online communities, and I promise this is true, can be feel far safer and nourishing than physical ones – even public ones like Twitter.
Not only that, but by removing some of the constraints around luck and geography, we're more likely to find people who share common interests, who we can connect deeply with. We are no longer limited to the local network effects of friends-of-friends. The Internet is an amazing tool to find the others, or, more accurately, to let the others find us.
What I'm enjoying more and more is the increasingly seamless mixing of online and IRL (in real life) communities. I can build relationships with people on Twitter and, if they live in London, we can meet up and form IRL friendships! How amazing is that?
But it goes further. What if they live in New York, San Francisco, or Singapore? No worries, I'll just let them know if I happen to be passing through and we can grab a coffee. It doesn't take much to transition from 'hey, you're the person I know from Twitter' to 'hey, we're, like, actual friends!' And why should it? People are people – the format in which we meet is increasingly irrelevant.
I plan to keep this up all my life, but I'm curious – am I the weird one here, or is this more common than I think? Let me know if you've had this experience! You never know, replying to this email might be how we become friends.
Media of the week – the solarpunk aesthetic
Image source: Social Anarchist Futures
I've become very interested in the solarpunk aesthetic for its ambition to depict positive visions for the future of humanity. And I should note that, even though there is often an association with anarchism, as in the image source above, solarpunk is technically independent of political ideation.
"a movement that encourages optimistic envisionings of the future in light of present environmental concerns, such as climate change and pollution, as well as social inequality. Solarpunk encompasses a multitude of media such as literature, art, architecture, fashion, music, and games. Solarpunk focuses on renewable energies, as well as technology as a whole, to envision a positive future for humanity; although, it also embraces less advanced ways to reduce carbon emissions, like gardening."
As I've become wont to say on Twitter, "this is my vibe". I increasingly believe that choices that don't exist within our awareness are effectively impossible. It takes people to talk, write and draw about different possible futures to make us sit up and think "Ah! Yes! That's it! Let's build that!". Solarpunk does that.
I have naturally pessimistic tendencies – I more easily see the bad in things than the good – but paradoxically I am also a firm believer that better is possible. Rather than give in to the pessimism, I've chosen to focus on exploring ways of making things better. The solarpunk vibe is proving to be a wonderful way to tap into that.
Image source: Imperial boy.
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