Sunday, April 21, 2024

Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Stick Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

It's been a minute. To spare you from rescanning previous installments, here's a...


The title’s click bait. This is about Process. That refers to projects, endeavors, and issues actively ongoing. The plates we keep spinning, small and large. Think of this as a meditation on plate-spinning.
I know things about this because I experienced an epic crash/burn after founding an early online community which scaled way, way out of control sans funding, tech, or really anything but a phalanx of part-time moderators and my puckered adrenal glands. I hurt myself.
I describe four levels of processes:

Daemon Processes
Reminders, alarms, alerts, vigils, etc., sane and otherwise. These mostly just glide along. (I never should have spelled it "demon" in previous installments; this computer science spelling works better.) More on daemons here.

Engrained Processes
Tying shoes, brushing teeth, locking doors. Little effort or attention required. When we are severely overburdened, these, to our abject horror, can deteriorate. That's a very bad look, and often leads to a vicious circle where processes of shame, self-loathing, and bandaid application are launched, compounding the overextension. In extreme cases, even daemon processes start to glitch, which is a ghastly prospect. Trust me, I've been there (I know overextension like Navalny knew Novichok).

Workshop Processes
This is how engrained processes are developed. Effort and attention are front-loaded, so we can later whip up delicious panini or a charming watercolor with relative ease. I've always had a lot of these, which makes me a rather content 61 year old, enjoying the fruits of so much investment. Thanks, younger me!

Workshop processes are precarious before they become engrained. It’s like trying to strike a match in a hurricane. They require time, space, peace, and commitment, but they're frequently interrupted by....

Imposed Processes
The issues du jour. A fallen tree just knocked a hole in your roof! You've got the flu! These are the bane of our existence, but (shhhh!) we'd be bored out of our skulls without fraught challenges dropping on us from time to time. Consider this: why do we always design them into our games and entertainments? Why do we pay to experience challenge, puzzle-solving, and obstruction-removal? Why do so many people willingly invite needless complexity and mayhem into their lives? The truth is self-evident, yet we pray incessantly for God to stop fucking with us.

Multitasking is not a thing. We are serial computers, not parallel. And our headroom is lower than we imagine, so overloading is a constant risk. New processes can't be freely popped in, like tapes into a player. This explains why earnest New Year's Resolutions usually turn out to be feckless conceits.

Rest - even "time-wasting" - is a process, and a critical one. Respect it! Budget for it! Shake off the Puritanical notion that taking a nap or reading a comic book constitutes loafing when there's work to be done. Guilt and shame are processes, and entirely counterproductive. Of course, don't use this as an excuse for extreme, ruinous avoidance!

Headroom must be managed. Which means you need to consider whether a process is worth the assets it consumes. The most expensive process is also the least helpful: self-drama. If you perpetually star in a movie in your head - particularly if it casts you as a victim while you enjoy your unimaginably comfortable and secure life here in Utopia - your whimsy saps copious time and energy. Best to pay attention to what you're doing, and not to what you've done - or failed to do. Keep your channel clean and available, allocating extra space to new workshop processes (added judiciously!) and imposed processes (accepted amiably!).

The Juicy Stuff

Last time, I concluded with what I described as "the juicy stuff":
When you get a respite between imposed challenges, and eagerly take on a new workshop process, do not imagine you've achieved a New Normal. Respite is an exception, not an entitlement. Most people imagine that an undisturbed, unmolested, uninterrupted life is their birthright. Interruptions bubble up from some other realm, forcing us to pause Life until we can once again restart the clock and continue living.

Opt out of this insane framing to be less pained and stunned (less interrupted!) when tumult arises. Reframe the tumult! Deem it not interruption, but just another process to work!

The life clock never stops! Remember the closing line from last time: Living never pauses. Process = Life. Own it all. Don't frame yourself as sidelined just because it didn't go how you expect!
Consider a short order cook who clenches and curses whenever a new order appears. The guy is doomed. And it’s a question of perspective; of framing. He could just as easily accept new orders happily. Eagerly, even, making a light-hearted game out of meeting pressing need. After all, that's the proposition of games and sports; the epitome of leisure fun time! So why not opt for salvation rather than damnation, when it's just a trivial flip of perspective?

Heaven or hell: the choice is yours. But remember that stress is a grueling process of its own, which expands to fill all space. You may clench harder and harder and curse louder and louder while sinking into a vicious circle of overburden where everything eventually breaks. Just see it for what it is!

The Curveball

As previously noted, I work like an ant.
I'm like an ant. I'll very contentedly reconstruct a smashed anthill, one grain at a time, even amid multiple re-smashings.

To human beings, I suppose this seems sad. Humans aspire to grander dreams than endless drudging anthill reconstruction. They're taught to rage at the smashing.

But to ants, human beings - who grow ever more crippled and demoralized with every inevitable reversal, and who only with great weighty effort manage to soldier on - are the sad ones.
Life is enjoyable if you eagerly accept imposed processes (the disruptions du jour) with the same affability and engagement as your super-fun workshop tasks. That's the juicy epicenter of my message, and it is both 1. an extreme curveball and 2. eminently available, just like any reframing.

The proposition is radical and eccentric, but conformity is not always safe. One can follow a crowd straight off a cliff! Given how most humans appear so needlessly harried and clenched and stressed and unhappy, it's worth thinking twice before following the pack when it comes to process (and the processing of process). In just this one aspect, consider being a weirdo!

You could just as easily embrace disruption with the same delight as whatever you were working on before. This is how you make disruption disappear. You undercut it via embrace. You reframe it as a boost rather than hindrance. You incorporate it.

An ant reaches the same conclusion because, lacking higher-level thinking, it never frames counterproductively in the first place. For people, it's more involved, because we forget that perspective is volitional. We imagine ourselves persecuted by stuff we’ve arbitrarily decided to be persecutive. But we’re free! We frame the world, the world doesn't frame us!

At some point we've seen enough movies and TV shows, and observed enough role models, to absorb the deep conviction that disruption's bad. We are conditioned to clench and seethe! But here's another angle: doesn't that presuppose that you were expansively happy and delighted two seconds earlier? And will be once the interruption has been handled?

No. You weren't so delighted before, and you won't be so delighted after! And you could choose delight right now, even while searching for your car keys, preparing for the tax audit, or getting your scary lump x-rayed. You don't need to follow the script. You get to choose.

The choice is effortless, but it's a tough sell because the behavior I'm describing is "weird". But perhaps I've convinced you that it's at least possible to accept imposed tasks like an in-the-groove short order cook, or like an ant amiably grabbing another sand grain. Perspectives are hot-swappable, and re-framing is effortless and instant. You control this thing! You've just been pretending otherwise!
The fact that our society has somehow managed to contrive an aphorism as clueful as "Play the cards you're dealt" shows that, beneath the fraught drama, we really do know what's what. We just pretend not to know.
A blithe approach opens space to sustain an extra workshop process or two, even while handling the gaping hole in your roof and your kid's dislocated shoulder. I'm revealing the secret to versatility and high productivity. Frame the imposed task as an acceptable part of the greater flow - which is never interrupted!! - and you can transform "disruption" into, well, fodder. More life stuff to chew on! More doing what you're here to do! More of what corpses, claustrophobic beneath all that dirt, wish they could still be doing! Simply decline to ever pull a Gandalf, demanding/commanding that things go some certain way.

In the long view, much of the disruption we attribute to imposed tasks is just the friction of a dynamic world rubbing against our frozen perspective. We expected this, but then came that. We may not love our status quo, but we mourn it bitterly when it's been upset. For modern entitled humans, who have the chutzpah to imagine they get a vote in how things unfold, such an indignity feels like persecution from a wrathful God. It takes gobs of time and rivers of tears to come to terms with it and to move on. Or so I'm told. Me? I just go pick up another sand grain.

Like any point of sanity in a demented world, this curveball is profoundly counterintuitive, so let me run it through a slightly different lens, hoping it might sink in better:

We are conditioned to imagine we're battling imposed tasks. But there are far more effective framings. Try seeing imposed tasks as benevolent, not malign! Maybe life isn't so fantastic while you're working on your stamp collection or ballroom dancing steps, nor so catastrophic when the septic tank overflows or the car stalls! These are learned reactions, needlessly stanching happiness. Response can be reprogrammed with silky ease. Taught from childhood to "stick to our guns", we feel like losers blithely accepting detour. But that's a dangerous mindset in an endlessly dynamic world where the flow never stops and nothing disrupts unless you’ve set rigid requirements.

A continuous series of challenges, shifts, and mishaps is what we're here for. You signed up for this! So relish the obstacle course, like a bratty kid firing away on his Playstation. Redirect your relish - the relish currently directed to the lifelong project of needlessly stressing yourself. This extremely short posting might help. Doing Life means the whole bundle. Life doesn't stop when you stub your toe. It's one Big Process!

The Framing of All Framings

This is the framing of all framings, and it's just as easy and instant as any other. Simply opt out of the "Oh, shit!" response. Pop in a different tape!

If you find it hard to cultivate the habit of reframing into a higher perspective when you've shattered your phone or burnt the steak (the flip is effortless; the only struggle is remembering that the flip is available), at least strive to be more strategic. More clever and resourceful.

Work imposed tasks - however unthinkable - with the same passion and eagerness as your hot tango moves. You will sometimes forget yourself and snap back to wallowing in THE HORROR OF IT ALL. Just keep the other perspective close and periodically take stock of the larger dance. Instill the habit. I promise it's not hard, even when the very worst thing happens. It's all a game, and clear cognizance of this needn't feel deflating. Passion remains an option even for the mildly bemused. Do I strike you as the least bit blasé?

"Take stock of the larger dance." That's something an ant can't do, and it adds beauty to the equation. Which is something ants are missing, the poor little fellas.

Rather than curse your fate when circumstance forces you to cancel your vacation, keep one toe in the recognition that the deeper beauty is in playing the cards you're dealt, and doing so full-heartedly (see postings on karma yoga).

The Structure of Process

Understanding the structure of Process helps you elevate beyond the cartoon image of yourself as a lazy susan to be loaded with dishes, to a more realistic view of how you, your life, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune intertwine. Step back and behold the machine. Take stock of the larger dance.

In terms of process, I hope I've at least convinced you that you are not a computer, blandly available to launch a given app upon command. We can't force that result; it's like trying to push a string. We can, however, cagily play at it, like a game, coaxing new processes into limited capacity while sensitively avoiding overburden. More like eye surgery than popping in a DVD. 

A Great Feast, One Plate at a Time

I play the cards I'm dealt. I endeavor to make the tastiest possible lemonade from any surfeit of lemons. I'm a coaxer, not a forcer, and this approach has worked. I've done accomplished work in seven fields, while marinating fresh insights and juggling myriad hobbies and fascinations. And I've now explained how I went about it so you can surpass me. It's not a talent thing, or an intelligence thing. It's a process management thing and a framing thing. My one unusual attribute has been my insatiable curiosity to fiddle with parameters and try to figure stuff out. And this is what I figured out.

Once you've developed a feel for how process works, it gets easy to playfully fit in more of them, remaining emotionally stable if they must be back-burnered when it's necessary to call a plumber or a cardiologist. Results are delightfully cumulative. A great feast can be built one plate at a time! Ant hills appear, magically, after a few days of trifling sand grain manipulation. They surprise you. Ants never drudge; they're perennially surprised and delighted by what's arisen, without self-conscious compulsion to take credit (credit-taking is a sapping process of its own, part of the cinematic approach I warned about earlier).

Once you hit a stride, you'll find yourself thinking very differently. You'll viscerally understand that inaction - rest - is a critical process of its own, to be nursed as sensitively as other spinning plate (I have always felt like a repulsively lazy slacker, and my affect can be slothful, bleary, and foggy for long periods between brief flashes of bristling intensity, and it took decades to realize that's okay). It's not the on/off situation it appears to be. Inaction is a process, so, until the day you die, your toggle will remain solidly "on" regardless of your particulars. Breathe easy; you’re doing it!

It's all process. You can't separate yourself from the greater flow! You can try, but cultivating a sense of separation is just another process! All this mental stuff is process. Consider depressives languishing in bed, incommunicado, tirelessly constructing internal towers of brooding discontent. They're very busily working on ambitious - though entirely futile - internal projects. They're the busiest of all!

I promise this isn't just Jim's kookie stuff. It will work for anyone, though your results (your "water jets", returning to an analogy from part two) will look completely different from mine. It takes all kinds to maintain this vast collaborative art project. And you can encompass multiple “kinds”, if you understand process. Even amid cascading disasters!

Back to New Year's

After spending several postings intermittently ridiculing New Year's Resolutions, let me flip it around.

They can work! But not like loading apps onto your smart phone. Wait, no, actually, it's exactly like loading apps onto your phone. Downloading an app does nothing; changes nothing. You must launch the app and use it. Nothing else matters, including your best intentions and carefully crafted policy positions.

The goal of this series hasn't been to discourage you from adding tasks or implementing resolutions. It's been to explain how to do it effectively. Remember my description of kindling a campfire by generating a precious spark, coaxing that spark into something just a bit greater ("You don't create the fire; you only cultivate the spark, which, in turn, makes the fire").

Also remember the level of effort and commitment required to actually fulfill a goal, as explained here and in the "get good" section here.


Lots of words, lots of explanation, simply to persuade you (remind you, really) that the world is not a roiling tar pit of obstruction and persecution. It's actually quite benign, but it's up to us to structure, layer and pace our lives prudently, and to enjoy the big view of it all; to take stock of the larger dance.

We obsess over controlling outcomes (it’s a fantasy; we really can’t!), while completely ignoring our internal framing (where all our actual free will is!). The 5000 year written record of humanity shows us ceaselessly trying to game out the former while scarcely considering the latter.

All process is "our" process. The only possible disruption is from our own resistance. Choosing to embrace and surf and play - to encompass - reveals our true ownership of It All.

Life, alas, comes without a manual, but I've reverse-engineered a chunk of it, and I sincerely hope it helps :)

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