[A rambling look at how rewards, distractions, and attention interact. Starts with the idea of lying on the ground as an interesting break-time activity and goes from there to talk about Saturation and Feeling, two concepts that I’ve been thinking about lately.]
Sometimes, when I need a break, I’ll just lie on the ground. Maybe I’ll also roll around for a little bit.
It’s weird, I know, but I endorse this quite strongly for two reasons:
People seek novelty, and one thing that’s often difficult is maintaining the same activity for very long periods of time. One way to think about this is that we have an internal Saturation Meter, which measures how much more of one activity you can take.
Saturation can be thought of as one way of looking at how variety in the form of little breaks can help. Malcolm Ocean’s distinction of breaks being divergent or centered also helps point how noticing that “distractions” can still be productive. With lying on the ground, I’m basically trying to point at the category of Centering Distractions.
Once an activity feels Saturated, a feeling of boredom kicks in. We feel compelled to try and something else; in those states anything is better than the Saturated activity.
Even in flow states, I personally find it hard to keep doing the same thing for longer than about 2 hours. For me, this is true for things like Netflix or video games, which are quite powerful Attractors.
I claim that after about 10 minutes of lying down, you’ll feel more compelled to take on another activity. It’s a very weak Attractor activity that helps with recharging. The point here is to find a low-friction activity which doesn’t hijack your attention.
“When I don’t want to do work, I just sit down on my couch and do nothing until I feel like working again.”
– Overheard at a CFAR workshop
It seems to me like much of the trouble with getting derailed or “off-schedule” is less about not doing work as it is about getting sucked into dark spirals of attention-grabbing rabbit holes, whether that’s a new TV series, an entire comic books series, or a funky subreddit. Thus, I think taking time off to do things like this, which can be thought of as auxiliary actions to help with your overall productivity are quite good.
2) Cultivating Feeling
Feeling is a loose label I use for the category of things which involve getting in touch with your body’s sensation. Mindfulness, Folding, and Focusing all fall in here, as do typical meditation and cold showers. It’s sorta about the general art of savoring experiences, but more focused on the relation between you and the world.
In Folding, Lippmann talks about just hanging in the moment and noting your mental state as a useful skill to learn more about your mind. I think there’s a neat analog when it comes to physical sensations. As we’re often having our attention directed for us towards other things, it can be a good exercise to try and directing your attention.
The second useful thing, then, when you lie on the ground, is to just note the feelings of your body in relation to the ground. There’s a lot to take in if you open your zone of attention.
I know that I haven’t really explained why I think Feeling is a useful concept. I’m still trying to clear up my thoughts on that front, but let me try to give a little bit more of the concepts behind it:
2a) Attention and Attractor Theory:
Recently, I’ve been seeing local preferences and the focus of attention as closely related concepts. As I mentioned above, I think that typical life is filled with reinforcing loops that steal your attention and make it very attractive to keep going around and around until Saturation kicks in, and 2 hours have disappeared.
While certain reinforcing loops, like an engaging textbook, might be useful for certain purposes, I think that a good structure of interacting with information consists of:
- Taking it in, absorbing it from a inside view, where you’re just trying to grasp what the information means.
- Asking yourself what you think about the information from a more outside view, where you step back from the text.
Thus, in an effort to correct in the opposite direction, I’m looking to inject more opportunities for doing the second bullet point, which is about being more generative, synthesizing existing information by putting in mental effort.
2b) Hedonic Treadmills
The hedonic treadmill refers to how we can become acclimated to luxuries. As we become accustomed to better and better living experiences, we need to seek out ever more extreme stimuli.
This seems to be because we often use relative comparisons (rather than absolute), and quickly take our current environment to be the status quo. Thus, when it comes to superstimuli like video games, I think that our hedonic treadmill scales up way too quickly, causing us to miss other options.
I think that there are interesting experiences that we’re too quickly to discount because they can’t compare with what we have. (This is related to my thoughts on obvious advice and insight porn.) I think there’s something about Feeling that helps you reset the “zero-point” of your hedonic treadmill, making actions like checking in with yourself physically feel more palatable.
By getting yourself accustomed to noticing the sensations of even apparently boring activities, I think this helps make work seem like an even more attractive option compared to the alternative (lying on the ground).
2c) Variable Interval Rewards
There’s this thing that happens with rats and a lever that delivers food: If you set it up so the lever always delivers, the rat soon learns that the lever delivery is consistent and goes off on its own business. However, if you set up the lever to deliver food randomly, then, without the comfort of consistency, the rat soon develops a habit of pushing the lever whenever it can, in hopes of securing food.
I think this is roughly analogous to why so many Facebook users are habitual: By the very nature of the application, your notifications are tied to other people’s activity— something you can’t predict very well. Thus, without any sense of consistency, you end up compelled to check Facebook notifications at any given opportunity.
This idea of variable interval rewards, of delivering them at a randomly selected time, is a powerful reward scheme for creating new habits. On the flip side, if Facebook instead gave you a daily digest that bundled that day’s notifications into one package, delivered the same time every day, then I think we’d see less compulsive Facebook-checking.
This is less of its own distinct point, but it’s more about a way that attention-grabbing activities can create habitual hooks into your schedule.
This was more a brain-dump of things I’ve been thinking about lately when it comes to noticing sensations than something cohesive. In short, attention is often something directed by the medium you’re viewing; good things might arise if you try directing your own attention.
More structured content is coming soon, as well as an exciting new web app. In the meantime, perhaps try just lying down on the ground.
Suggested Exercise: Lying on the Ground
- Set a 10 minute timer.
- Lay down, back on the ground.
- Note the sensations you feel. Some good questions to perhaps ask yourself:
- How does the air feel as it goes into your nose?
- Where on your back do you feel the most pressure?
- Is there any internal tension in your body?
- What texture is the ground?