I have a confession to make: I’m lousy at multi-tasking. I’m one of those people who feels like they have to finish everything they start, even if they never actually do finish anything. I prefer to “drive” only one project at a time, because I don’t feel like I can put myself wholeheartedly into more than one. Often this causes problems for me, because sometimes the “one” at a given point in time is a work project and sometimes it’s a personal one, and in either case the other project(s) in my life don’t get the full benefit of my focus. Rarely does anybody else notice this (that I know of, anyway), but I sure notice.
So I decided about a week ago that I really needed to do something about it, and that’s why I started re-reading Turtles All The Way Down for the seventh or eighth time. The book has stuff a lot of stuff about seamlessly switching between passionately committed states relating to different endeavors, and I was determined that this time, I would figure out how to do it myself.
So far, however, I haven’t been successful – at least not at what I’m still trying to learn. I’ve been shockingly successful at a lot of other stuff in the book, though, that I never got out of it before. Writing all the essays between The Multiple Self and this one made a big difference to my base of understanding going into the book this time around, and I finally understand some of the cryptic discussion of logical levels and disassociation and “choosing what circuits to live in” that are in the book.
So, when I now read the parts about switching between “demon states” (passionate commitment to the exercise of a skill), I have a more visceral grasp of what they’re talking about when they explain that you need a controller demon at a higher logical level than the demon states it is responsible for controlling. To use a computer metaphor, you might say that the controller is at a higher privilege level in the operating system; it can see into the process state of the individual demons, but they cannot see into it. Thus the controller is able to save or restore the state of the demons that are being switched in and out.
So I “get” all that. But getting it isn’t doing it.
The Commitment to Change
Yesterday this was bothering me quite a bit, because I’ve been torn between working on different projects, and being unwilling to really focus on the one that I probably should have been working on yesterday. When I spent some time centering myself and seeking the message from my feelings, I found two issues. One was personal and easily resolved, the other more difficult. Specifically, I didn’t know how long the work was going to take, and when I really engage myself in a project I want to just work on it till it’s done. But since the project in this case was a “20% project”, I could really only devote at most one day this week to it.
I suppose it’s another example of DaVinci-style “all or nothing” thinking. Having to stop in the middle seems worse to me than not starting at all.
Anyway, having established this, I realized that I really need to do something about it. As I’ve been getting more and more serious about living my dreams, it has become clearer and clearer that I need to be able to do more than one thing at a time, despite what seem to me like inherent drawbacks of multitasking.
(It occurs to me, though, that a lot of you may have a different meaning for “multitasking” than I’m using here. I really just mean having more than one thing in my life that I’m focusing on creating. In truth, I do pretty decently at multitasking lots of minor tasks and external requests. If I’m running a project at work, for example, I have no problem dealing with as many other projects as you like, as long as my responsibilities are demand driven. That is, if you ask me for something, I can do it. I just don’t do well at setting the goals for multiple projects and doing them at the same time.)
So I paced around the house awhile, trying to figure out what I need to do to get past this. I dug into my beliefs about multitasking, and quickly realized that I was the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since I don’t think I can do well when multitasking, my fear of how to drive multiple projects keeps me from getting clarity on them, which then produces the result I don’t like, i.e. chaos. Realizing that it’s self-fulfilling helps to shed the belief, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem.
Living Your Dreams – Literally!
I stood in the kitchen, staring out the window at the trees and grass, and had a momentary image of myself split in three, all of us standing there and glittering in the sinking light of the sun. Of course! I just need to (mentally) have more than one of me, I thought. And after a little bit of consideration, I realized I also needed to have an extra me to co-ordinate the activities of the others. To tell “each one of me” when they’re “on”, and to pull them offstage when they’ve performed for their allotted time. Meanwhile, “each of me” could still work on their separate projects unconsciously while they were “offstage”.
It was at that point that I realized I’d just reinvented exactly what it said to do in Turtles, although it seemed quite different to me at first. There’s a big difference between reading about the idea of having demons and controllers and realizing that they would actually all be you, and yet also disconnected from you. Also, until I envisioned it this way I had been having trouble seeing how I would get out of a demon (passionate productivity) state and back up into the controller (multitasking management) state. That was because I was thinking about logical levels logically, the way they work in computers and formal systems, not the way they work in the brain!
To put it another way, I couldn’t see how I would get out of a demon because I was imagining being the demon, from an inside perspective. In other words, I was identifying myself with the demon state, and then trying to see how I could get to the controller from there. But this is precisely what can’t happen, because the demon has no access to the controller. What happens instead is that the controller stops being the demon, thereby popping the demon out of existence in the same way that your dreams pop out of existence when you wake up.
So, switching metaphors now, the whole demon/controller thing is like dreaming. First I should identify with the controller state, and decide what balance of time should be spent between different projects. Then, I should shift my identification “down one” level into a nested state – the productivity state – as if I were reading a story within a story, or having a dream. In the dream, I don’t know anything about the other projects or how time is being balanced. I’m just living the dream.
But at some point, the alarm clock goes off, and the dream world dissolves, popping me back up a level into the me-as-controller state. The me that “woke up” now remembers what I did while I was “dreaming”, and takes it into consideration for making future plans, then proceeds to drop down into another project’s state.
Discovering the Fluid Self
At first glance, this sounds a little weird – surely consciousness isn’t such a fluid thing? And yet, what are flashbacks in movies? What about stories within stories, plays within plays? These are pretty common things and nobody seems to have much trouble following along and even identifying with the characters at each nested level of “reality” – even though none of it is even real! So what we identify with can actually be amazingly fluid.
And when you have a story within a story, or a flashback in a movie, there is an automatic logical levelling that takes place, because the people in the inner story (or flashback) know nothing about the people in the outer story (or main plot), but the people in the outer part know (or remember) about the people in the inner story.
In a sufficiently complex movie, we can flip back and forth several times, identifying with different people as we go, in the space of a few hours. Even in movie trilogies like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, where there are several groups of characters involved in separate (but related) stories, cutting back and forth between them doesn’t seem to faze us a bit.
So identification is fluid. The self is fluid. What we associate our “self” with – or not – determines our experience. This is a refinement of the concept of attention as a mirror of the unconscious mind, as I wrote about previously. And, in Turtles All The Way Down, John Grinder frequently talks about “choosing what circuits to dwell in”, by which he roughly means which neural networks are currently “being modelled by first attention”. That is, what part of the total state of brain and body (including your full sensory environment and perception of the people and things around you) are you currently choosing to mirror with your conscious attention?
The magic of drama (and empathy) is that we can and do choose to live in our perceptions of others. We can also choose not to live in them, but to just observe instead. We can live in and through our own feelings, or detach from them. We can passionately commit to “just doing” an action, or we can identify with our thoughts and fears about what might happen if we take action.
The Master Keys to Mind Hacking
This fluid flow of attention and identification is at the heart of every mind hack I’ve blogged about here (or wrote in my book), and it is the secret to creating new ones. It is also the key to “making friends with your inner sysadmin”, because for most of us our sense of identity does not extend to include the things we don’t like about ourselves. We detach from what we dislike about our own personalities and behavior, and fail to “own them”.
And when we do this, we literally are choosing to dwell outside those circuits, cutting off our own access even though those networks never meant to do us any harm. The brain doesn’t create crazy behavioral patterns for no reason; there is always something good that every network was meant to do for us. That’s why I wrote in Time And Awareness: The Refactored Self Part 2 (which you can read in You, Version 2.0) that you have to be able to convince the self who created the network, before you can change the network. You literally have to go back and identify with yourself as the creator of the behavior you hate, before you can change it, because that’s the only way to “dwell in those circuits”.
Once you start making a habit of this, you start to get along better with your unconscious mind. For me, one of the big things was learning how to identify with my fears and concerns. If you don’t really listen to yourself or pay attention to what you’re actually getting out of the behaviors you hate, your unconscious mind won’t trust you very much, like a dog that gets beaten for barking at actual burglars.
Luckily for you, when “you” are sincerely understanding of “yourself “, you will begin to find that not only do “you” like “yourself” more, but that “yourself” likes you right back, and can be as eager to please and play as any puppy. Uprooting outdated beliefs and behavior patterns then becomes a fun pastime, like hunting with an eager but well-trained dog. “Here’s another one, boss!” he seems to say to me, wagging his imaginary tail. “Can I kill it?”
Okay, so that’s a very different metaphor from thinking of your unconscious as a system administrator, but then system administrators usually aren’t nearly as cuddly as puppies are. But whatever metaphor works for you is good. Literally! Metaphor is the brain’s UI, and rightly so. We learn concepts from experiences – the experiences are the metaphor for the concept. This is the brain’s meat and potatoes – metaphorically speaking.
The “New Code” of NLP
But back to attention and identification, which I cannot emphasize enough. With them, you can do anything, but without them, almost nothing. Indeed, the other day I ran across an interesting article about the “New Code” of NLP, in which John Grinder explained that the major failing of his “old code” work with Richard Bandler was that they rarely (if ever) explicitly discussed the issue of attaining rapport with the unconscious mind. As a result, when individuals use NLP techniques on themselves, they often don’t get any results, because their unconscious minds won’t have anything to do with them, like a dog that’s been kicked too often.
Of course, Bandler and Grinder and others taught rapport skills for NLP practitioners to use on other people’s unconscious minds, but this was mostly implicit and described in a way that implied this was only needed because people’s conscious minds were in the way. You would never get the idea from reading most “old code” NLP books (as Grinder calls them) that getting rapport with your own unconscious was necessary for a technique to work; it’s just assumed, like the way it’s usually assumed you can read and write when you show up for an office job.
Anyway, I’m drifting way off of what was originally my main point, which is that I’d like to be able to multitask – or more specifically, I’d like to be able to apply my ability to passionately envision and create to more than one project during the same day, without spending a lot of time retuning my brain for each one. I would like to be able to move from “deep” work in one project to equally “deep” work on another, without finding myself thinking about the project I just stopped working on, or taking a long time to remember what I was doing on the project I just switched to.
So how do I get to doing that?
Well, in Turtles All The Way Down, John Grinder makes this point pretty early on:
I make the following claim, and I ask that you check in your own heart and determine if this is true. Start with the assumption that you’re capable of personal genius and [what] prevents most of you from exercising [it] is that personal genius presupposes a passionate 100% commitment to the moment and the context. Therefore, if you have a question about whether you could get back [out of that committed state], there will be an incongruity you experience… which will defeat your attempts
So he then goes on to say that you need to establish “lifelines”, which are the signals that indicate when you should come out of the committed state. These conditions are set by the parts of you that have concerns; the parts of yourself that are keeping you from entering the committed state, or which were immediately yanking you out when you tried to get into it.
You basically want to put those parts in charge of monitoring for whatever it is they’re concerned about – whether that concern is that you’ll spend too much time in the state, or not notice if the house catches on fire because you’re so deep into it. With those safety conditions established, you can then begin.
(Notice, by the way, that this totally presupposes that you’re able to establish rapport and communication with your unconscious mind!)
Anyway, so I tried to set this up last night and do a few simple practice shifts between projects. The results were somewhat mixed.
Life in Three Minute Slices
I dug out my old Visor handheld and its convenient timer program to do some time slicing, and alternated between working on the wsgiref library and designing a course on “overcoming procrastination”. What I found was that the programming tasks were near-trivial to switch in and out of – perhaps because they were of a nature that didn’t require a huge mental commitment. In fact, I suspect that the three minute time limit actually made it easier to switch in, precisely because I wasn’t worried about it consuming gobs of time.
In contrast, I found the work on designing a course quite hard to switch into or out of. During the programming tasks I completely lost track of time and was alerted only by the beeping of the timer program that the time had ended. In contrast, during my attempts at course planning, time behaved rather paradoxically. I was ridiculously aware of time pressure to try and get some progress within three minutes, while at the same time, the three minutes would seem to take forever. Meanwhile, I was distracted by even the slightest things, such as the handheld screen blanking out due to inactivity.
In retrospect, this was probably not a great pair of things to experiment with. Turtles All The Way Down actually recommends doing your initial setup with two similar (but distinct) states, rather than wholly unrelated ones. Despite this handicap, I actually made some real progress during both sets of time slices (I think I did about 3 or 4 iterations of each). But at the time I was quite disappointed, as I had hoped to be able to get cleaner state switching, and I was in fact rather cross with my unconscious about my difficulty concentrating on the one task.
After reviewing things this morning, I realized that there were a number of things I was doing that probably interfered. In retrospect, I did not set up the logical levels correctly. When I switched into the “programming” state, I was doing so in a dissociated fashion; the “self” that was to do programming was not the “self” that was running the overall exercise. However, when I worked on the “course design” task, I was still the same “self”. There was no separation, and thus no real task switch! I was running the second task at a higher privilege level than the first one, and so it had access to distracting information about the overall system state (such as what was happening with the handheld timer).
Raising Your Demons
Thinking back, I was reminded of my vision of the three selves, and it became clearer to me why the book uses the term “demon” to refer to these subordinated states; implicitly, these demons are not yourself, except when you are “possessed” by them. When thinking about the programming task, I had envisioned it in a dissociated way, as though there was this other “me” who was going to step in and do the task, while I just watched from inside my head. And so of course that was exactly how I experienced it.
But the second task, I had been thinking of it as “me” doing it, and so “I” was still there, getting in the way. In fact, at one point during one of the timeslices I kind of realized this and tried to consciously back out and just “let it happen”, but nothing happened. In retrospect I see that it’s because I didn’t create a model beforehand of what was going to happen or who the “me” doing it would be. So when I tried to step out and let “it” take over, I just drew a complete blank because there was no “it” there. I managed to write the word “the” on autopilot, and then just stared blankly at it for several seconds before realizing that my unconscious didn’t have anything else to contribute!
So at this point it seems clear that a big part of the process is creating dissociated models of the states beforehand: envisioning the “demon selves” from an observer position outside of them, so that you can metaphorically step into and out of them (or have them step in and out of you, whichever works). This seems to be necessary in order to ensure that there is not only a boundary between the “controller” state and the demon state, but also to ensure that the demon state is sufficiently well-defined to be able to take over and actually do something.
(By the way, if you find all this talk of demons and possession disturbing, I suggest that you simply replace the word “demon” with the word “angel”, and “possession” with “divine inspiration”. You’ll feel much better about it that way.)
Welcoming Our New Demon Overlords?
The other thing the book said to do, but which I hadn’t really done, was to create a “controller” for the demons, that would determine when and for how long the demons would be released. I sort of went through the motions of requesting one, but I wasn’t particularly specific about it and I definitely wasn’t congruent. (That is, I wasn’t wholeheartedly and unequivocally committed.) It took a fair amount of soul-searching today to realize why.
You see, this “controller” entity was going to have to be responsible for scheduling and planning, in the sense of choosing what blocks of time and how many should be allocated to different aspects of my life, and enforcing them. What’s more, it would be inviolable in some sense. If the controller holds all the keys to the demons’ cages, then the controller’s decisions are actually final. And on some level I found that deeply disturbing.
That is, an aspect of me doesn’t like the idea of my behavior being controlled – even by me. No wonder I have problems with self-discipline! If I successfully created this controller entity as part of myself, then I would indeed gain an enormous amount of self-control, and this rebellious aspect of me didn’t like that idea one bit.
Indeed, this was an example of the kind of “incongruity you experience at second attention which will defeat your attempts to achieve personal genius”, that Grinder was talking about in the book. So today I’ve been digging into this inner objection to find out what’s really going on and how it can be resolved. And essentially the issue is quite simple: my current identity is defined in terms of rebellion against control. So the incongruity is that an aspect of me essentially believes I will lose my “soul” if I allow myself to be controlled by anything – even my own self-control.
This is a classic example of the “I’ll never be like my parents” problem, in the sense that what happened here is that at some point I decided I would not be like “them” (overbearing authority figures in general, and my mother in particular), and I made this the basis of my identity. I defined “me” as “not that”, so I back away from anything that threatens to make me the authority over myself, or put me in a position where I feel like I’m “giving in” to an arbitrary authority. As a result, I basically end up having all these struggles with myself when I try to accomplish things, simply in order to validate my identity as an independent thinker. D’oh!
The Momentary Lapse of Reason
This is also probably another reason why I force myself to come up with valid reasons for things that really can’t be justified by reasons, like how many hours I should spend on one project versus the other, and on which days of the week. You see, if there’s no reason for it, but I still make a decision to do it, then I am issuing arbitrary commands for no reason. And if I actually do what I decided, then I am giving in to the dictates of an arbitrary authority!
So how’s that for a double bind? With that mental structure in effect, nothing I did was ever going to work, if it led to a greater ability to set and accede to arbitrary limits. Indeed, I had already seen some signs that certain aspects of the mental reorganization I was doing this week were failing, in the sense that the behavior changes weren’t consistent. It’s clear now in retrospect that this aspect of myself was getting uncomfortable with the increased self-control that those behaviors represented (e.g. in the amount of exercise I was doing, not to mention the planning and organizing).
So it’s both exciting and daunting to contemplate. Exciting, in that I’ve finally tracked this sucker down. Daunting, in that altering it is likely to be another major personality change for me. And what if this isn’t the last such problem? How many more of these things are there to get past, anyway? And if it is the last one, what the hell else am I going to blog about in the future? (Alas, I’m only partly joking about that last one.)
More immediately pressing, however, is the question of what my identity should be instead. I’m going to use the techniques from Time And Awareness: The Refactored Self, Part 2 (which you can read in You, Version 2.0) to make the necessary modifications, of course, but as discussed in that article, I need to provide the self that made the decision with a more-attractive alternative. Right now, that aspect of myself doesn’t see any other options, and so is relentlessly hanging on to its existing course of action.
No Enemies Within
So I just took some time away from the computer to work this change through. The results seemed a little anticlimactic at first: I was expecting a more noticeable change, but instead found only a deep silence. It took me a while to realize that the silence was an indication the change was successful, not an indication that nothing was happening. The silence is the absence of a defense of a particular idea of who I am. Now I just am.
So I was a little confused when, post-change, I envisioned things like scheduling and planning my time, or thought about learning to enjoy doing the things that “have to” get done. I found these ideas neither attractive nor objectionable, they were just ideas, and nothing special either way.
The result seems kind of underwhelming. Yeah, this is what I wanted, but it seems difficult to work up any excitement about not feeling anything in particular! I think I’ve had so much motivation tied up in being able to do things (as opposed to actually doing them), that the more able I become, the less motivated (in one narrow sense) I am.
Largely, however, this is a side-effect of not having a coherent life purpose or plans. I was already becoming aware of this throughout this week’s reorganization of my self, because I was starting to realize that to create an optimal self-organization, there had to be something it would be optimized for. This probably means that in the near future it would good to do some pondering about what I value in life, and begin organizing myself accordingly.
But first, I think it’s time for me to establish “controller” and “editor” subsystems as described in Turtles All The Way Down. That way, I’ll be able to establish a context for that kind of pondering and adjustment to occur on an ongoing basis, rather than stopping everything to do more self-analysis.
I have the feeling it’s not going to be nearly as difficult now as it was before, and that state switching is going to be a lot easier too. But for right now, I’m going to wrap up this article and spend some time actually living in my life, instead of working on it.
I’ll write again when I have more to report. In the meantime, as John Grinder says in Turtles, “may your houses be full of wonderful demons.”