Design 3: Intentionality

by radimentary

This is part 24 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

Intentions are momentary, but problems last forever.

A human being’s attention flits around like the Roman God Mercury, root of the word “mercurial” – subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind. The biggest problems in life require concentrated effort over years or decades, but you can only muster the willpower to even intend to solve a problem for minutes or hours. Worse, you can pretty much only maintain one intention at a time.

How do we make intentions count?

The philosophy of Design is: build intentions into external reality. Like your problems, external reality also lasts forever.

Day 24: Intentionality

You need to lose those love handles. Your reading list is piling up. You need to learn ten different programming languages. You need to sleep three hours earlier. You need to maintain your closest friendships. You juggle three different addictions that take turns monopolizing your life. You need to present like a functioning adult to your parents and coworkers. A childhood trauma you’re repressing makes it impossible to befriend a certain half of the population.

You have a lot of problems, each of which requires dedicated effort and thought to fix. Worse, each problems deteriorates while you’re working on the others. Perhaps some have gone so neglected they’re impossible to look at, and are slowly swallowing the rest of your life like a super-massive black hole.

Right this minute, there’s probably only a handful of problems that feel alive enough to you to inject energy into. Of those, you can only work on one at a time. In this crazy unfair world, how do you make the most of your intentions?

Outsource the Burden

There’s a certain unproductive way of thinking which goes like this:

“If I were really rational, I wouldn’t need all these aids. I wouldn’t need chrome extensions to block Facebook and Twitter, friends to reward me for the slightest progress, and SSRI’s to keep my demons at bay. I could just do what is right all the time.”

Give it up. There might be something aesthetically appealing about handicapping yourself this way, but it’s no way to actually solve problems. Life is tough and deeply unfair and you’ll need all the help you can get if you want any chance of success.

Part of the Design philosophy is allowing yourself to outsource your heroic burden. You can’t complete this quest alone. Make all the inanimate and animate objects in your life sidekicks in your quest – not obstacles. Every tiny push in the right direction you can get externally is one less ounce of force you need to generate yourself.

Incentive Gradients

The world is filled with tiny incentive gradients that slowly push you towards local optima. Look for and pay attention to these incentive gradients so that you can turn them to your advantage. Tipping the scales in the smallest way can do work for you in the long term.

In practice, we focus on the 4 S’s of Design. All of these we’ve already covered, but it’s time to review again.

Space. How is your space designed to help achieve your goals? Is the place you work maximally comfortable and well-lit? Are the things you need for your routines placed in optimal locations? Does the aesthetics of the space properly reflect your values? Is it conducive to productive social interaction?

Schedules. How do you manage your time and energy throughout days and weeks? Do you work better by interleaving different kinds of activities, or by batching? Do you schedule things in such a way that you look forward to the future? Do you use Calendars and apps efficiently to remove the mental load of remembering things? Do you follow your plans?

Social Groups. Do your friends reward you for making progress? Do they punish you for failure? In any social network, every individual is drawn inevitably into a niche: the Silent One, the Alpha, the Clown, the Cheerleader, the Cynic. What niche do you inhabit? What forces push you there? Is it where you want to be?

Screens. Given how much time we spend on screens, and the Machiavellian motions by which everything on the internet tries to ensnare your soul, pay attention to your computer habits. Draw a quick graph of how you navigate applications and websites. What factors take you from one place to the next? Where do you get sidetracked most often?

Be Good Incentives for Others

I had a vision yesterday of what the best friendships look like:

Two little boys want to fly. Each crouches on the mulch in one corner of the playground, tugging as hard as they can on their bootlaces, trying to pull themselves up into the air. They tug until veins bulge in their foreheads, but their little boots remain firmly planted on the ground.

One of the boys notices the other, and walks over. After a moment of silence, they each drop their own laces, interweave their arms and hold on to the other’s bootlaces. Pulling as hard as they can, they ascend into the air. Faster and faster the boys fly upwards. Until the neon yellow tube slide is the size of a pinky. Until the red brick schoolhouse is the size of an ant. Until the Earth is the size of a droplet of water.

Learn to provide good incentives for the people around you. If the smallest push on a regular basis might solve your problems, providing this push for other people can solve theirs. And the smallest push in the wrong direction can corrupt the purest of souls. Take a good hard look at the way you interact with people, and what this implies about what you want for them. Are there particular people around whom you happen to always play Devil’s Advocate? Are there ways you act to intentionally deceive, manipulate, or ignore?

Laugh at good jokes. Learn when to listen and hold space for others. Give specific praise and gratitude. Provide criticism in a consequentialist manner.

Daily Challenge

Praise me for one thing I’ve done well in Hammertime and criticize me for one thing I’ve done badly.