goal

Bored? Alienate the Worker

The Sisyphus Series, Part IV

Of the three Sisyphean principles, this is perhaps the most counterintuitive. You’re thinking, I have to roll a boulder up a hill every friggin’ day, I hate this already, and you want me to feel more alienated? I get it. You’re feeling disconnected enough from your boring task. All I’m saying is, if you feel alienated from a chore anyway, why not try going with it ? We’re talking about something you do not want to be in the act of doing, no matter how much you want to have it done. A Sisyphean task is precisely one in which you have absolutely no interest. What happens if you do it without any interest on purpose?

That Sisyphus must roll the boulder up the hill repeatedly, without any variation or nuance or artistry, implies robotism. Most of the time you want to feel your full humanity and passion for life. By all means, when you are doing things you’re interested in, invest yourself! When it’s boulder-pushing time, though, you might be happier if you choose temporarily to di vest your full-blooded selfhood and robotically go through the motions with zero personal stake in the labor.

For our first example we return to the continuing saga of me and the cat box. I do not nor do I have any desire to appreciate, savor, or devote any part of myself other than brute muscle to the activity of removing animal waste. I derive no felt sense of satisfaction or accomplishment from it, yet do it I must. In our last episode I discussed how I fit scooping the cat box into my day as innocuously as possible; I do it sometime after dinner, at the same time my wife feeds the cats. This timing also helps me alienate myself from the task. The monkey-see-monkey-do act of simply following her in tending to the cats relieves me of the need to self-start an act I possess not one ounce of initiative for. I reduce the starting of the chore to a stimulus-response: she gets up, I get up. I don’t have to plan nor spare a single thought about scooping the box. To be as efficient as possible I’ve developed a scooping routine: tear off new disposal bag, bang box with mallet, scoop into old bag that lines plastic container, pull old bag out of container, tie it and trash it, put new bag into container, done. I follow this routine zombie-like every single night. I embrace my alienation from the work. I want to feel myself in the act of performing this task as little as possible.

Using a trigger to make starting the task automatic and repeating the same routine are two good alienation techniques. Now, when the task itself is cyclical—like washing a dish, then another, then another, then another, and so on, until you’d rather bungie jump into a live volcano rather than wash another dish—what you need is deconstruction. Take the cycle apart and group like steps together. In a complete cycle each dish gets soaped, rinsed, dried, and put away. Believe it or not when we perform the full cycle for each dish in turn, every transition from one physical activity to the next (e.g. from soaping to rinsing) though seemingly benign, requires attentional effort. Multiply several transitions per dish times the number of dishes, and—well, some of us feel overwhelmed just looking at a full sink. With ADHD, and especially when we’re bored with an activity, attention is our most precious resource. So let’s conserve it. Instead of soaping and rinsing each dish in turn, try soaping all the dishes, then rinsing all the dishes, then drying all the dishes, then putting all plates away, then all bowls away, then all cups away, then all silverware away. Performing the same physical action repeatedly helps your body get into a groove and is more likely to numb your mind and leave your attention alone. Mindless repetition is more efficient and leads to good, old fashioned, assembly-line alienation.

For a good alienated worker, there are two quite different kinds of tasks: dumb and smart. Washing dishes and scooping cat litter are dumb tasks; they can be done with virtually no thought and with minimal concentration. During dumb work, like pushing boulders up hills, alienation is relatively simple. Once you give your mind permission to disengage from what your body is doing, your mind is free to do what it wants. Some people listen to podcasts while doing busy work, others sing. One client of mine folds laundry while watching TV. Another cleans his room while talking on the phone.

For a smart task, like reading a book, thought and concentration are needed, and the mind is not free to gambol and cavort as it prefers. Alienating from smart tasks calls for stronger methods, because you’re trying to free your mind from work that requires your mind’s presence. It sounds paradoxical, but it can be done with some simple sleight of hand. The alienation goal is the same: perform a job that you are disinterested in disinterestedly. With smart work, though, you have to purchase your disinterest in the process by being interested in something else. Don’t worry, it’s something you probably really are interested in: crossing the finish line. If you really don’t want to read the book, but you really want to have read the book, then get interested in the future in which you have read it. Become product-oriented. Make your mental activity as robotically productive as possible, and eschew personal investment in the process. In fact, despise the process, if that helps. It often does. Just like swearing when you stub your toe, dissing out loud work you hate (when it is safe to do so) can provide effective pain relief.

Back when I was teaching college courses on mythology, I had a student—I’ll refer to him by the name Prior—who absolutely hated what happened to be my favorite book in the course. To me, teaching this book year after year was a highlight, but to Prior every page was a Sisyphean boulder. He was earning an A so far, and didn’t want to jeopardize that, but he found reading this book intolerable. Finally he came to me and asked what he needed to be able to understand and talk about from the text in order to maintain his A.1 I supplied him with A-level study questions. He proceeded to plow through the book, holding his nose, and mechanically applied his comprehension in order to grasp the required concepts and demonstrate them to his teacher’s (my) satisfaction in a paper that barely restrained his disgust. He got an A.

Prior asked the magic question that helped him to get through his chore without one shred of his own interest: What do I need to end up with? His eyes found the finish line and kept it in sight throughout his reading. Even in a chore that requires your active intelligence, knowing what you have to end up with enables you to focus on the part of the task that actually does interest you, being done.

Caveat emptor: Focusing on product rather than process is the most essential technique in alienating workers from their work. It’s how craftsmen were turned into disaffected assembly line cogs in the industrial era. Similarly, focusing on product rather than process in education, notably through high-stakes testing policies, reduces learning to academic input-output processing. Over-applied, alienation is very, very BAD for us. When doing work we love and when learning with genuine interest, we don’t want to feel and naturally don’t feel alienated from the process; instead we’re wholeheartedly engaged, fully present, enjoying, growing, appreciating, living our experience.

I’m only proposing using alienation surgically, when necessary. When our interest in process = 0% (or very near) and interest in finished product = 100%, alienating ourselves from the work can be an act of self-mercy, even self-protection. It helps us endure negative experiences with less pain. In truth, assembly-line-type alienation is essentially a form of dissociation, which is how our nervous system protects us from suffering when fight and flight aren’t possible. For most activities I emphatically do not recommend dissociation! But on those occasions when we can neither fight off nor run away from a deadly boring task without betraying our best interests, just a spoonful of alienation helps the medicine go down.

The object in this series has been all along to cut Sisyphean boulders down to size, from daunting to doable. Tools reduce needed effort. Flow minimizes time commitment. Carefully applied, consciously chosen alienation rejects boredom without sacrificing productivity. You can get done what you have to do with less suffering and more ease, freeing yourself to savor the challenge of life activities that interest you.


  1. Students, take note! Don’t be afraid to confront your professors with this question. 

Minimize Boring Tasks with Flow

The Sisyphus Series, Part III

If you have to push a boulder up a hill, when do you want to do it?—And by “when” I mean right after doing what and right before doing what? The modern day Sisyphus might choose to do it after work, before arriving home, exactly when he’s not going to the gym he signed up to be a member of. Or he might want to do it first thing in the morning, to get it out of the way and wake himself up. The principle here is choosing the timing that’s easiest for you.

I choose not to scoop my cats’ litter box in the morning, because I want as little responsibility in the morning as possible; morning isn’t a good time for me. I scoop at night, but not last thing before coming to bed, because I’ve just concluded my ablutions, and ick, gross. I prefer to do it some time (an hour or more) before my pre-bedtime routine, because otherwise getting ready for bed feels tedious enough that I begin to avoid it and stay up too late. So I scoop shortly after dinner, at exactly the same time that my wife feeds the cats. The argument has been made that this is illogical timing, as soon after they eat they will effectively undo my work. But I don’t care. Having poop in the box overnight is tolerable, and doing the chore when I mind it least makes it substantially less avoidance-worthy.

Another example. I coached someone who decided to take a rigorous professional exam that requires months of study. We explored the question of how he wanted to do his studying in terms of when and where it would fit best into the flow of his day. He found that studying while he ate lunch at work gave him natural start and end times, and the study material became more interesting than he had expected because it was now sandwiched between and in comparison with his job duties, which were less than enthralling.

To choose the timing that works well for you, let’s again (as we did in Part II) call on your imagination. Picture yourself ending one activity—leaving the bar where you hang out with friends on Friday nights, for instance—and then picture what you will probably do next—sleep it off at home, for instance—and then try inserting your task in between them—practicing for your driving test, for instance—and see how it feels to imagine that flow of events. If it doesn’t feel good, try out a different opportunity in your day: getting out of class with your friend who has a car, for instance—insert practicing for driving test—going to your retail therapy appointment with Dr. T.J. Maxx. And now check to see how this new flow feels.

Look for flows that score high on both the Easy and Settled Stomach scales, and low on the Concerning and Agitating scales. To do the scoring, consult your gut, your heart, and your intellect. Look for consensus; i.e. if any one part of you—gut, heart, brain—objects, move on and imagine a new flow.

Sometimes an easy flow is all we need to be able to get something done. Grocery shopping is a typical example of this; most people I talk to don’t despise their local supermarket, they just find going there inconvenient much of the time. Well, when—in between what two activities—is food shopping more on your way? That’s what easy flow is about: slotting a dull chore where it is least in your way and getting it out of the way as effortlessly as possible.


Overpower Boring Tasks with Tools

The Sisyphus Series, Part II

OK, you’re Sisyphus. You’ve got this enormous rock to get up the hill. You can push it yourself, or you can drive it up in your Ford F350 truck. Like crows, humans can use tools! Don’t have a truck? Use a scaffold and a jackhammer. If you’re stuck with low-tech, do what English villagers did to break up ancient megaliths to get stones to build their houses: heat the boulder with fire, then throw cold water on it, causing it to shatter. This is what is now known as “chunking” a daunting task.

Sometimes people feel some resistance to employing tools, perhaps out of a sense that I can do it myself. Pride in ability and work is an admirable human quality. It is not mandatory, nor is it advisable in all situations. I want to take pride in abilities I value and in work I care about. A boring chore that I wish were finished before I even start it, though? Who cares?

I mentioned in Part I that scooping the cat box is one of my daily Sisyphean chores. We actually have a cat tub—higher walls, better containment. The litter I use has a nasty tendency to stick to the sides of the tub, and scraping it takes both persistence and strength. Not once after struggling with heavy, wet litter did I feel any impulse to spike the scooper and prance while flexing my muscles. I just wanted the ordeal to be easier. I bought a cheap mallet to knock the litter loose by banging the outer walls.

The effect of good tools is increased power, smart strength, a form of leverage. With the application of technology, even as simple as a rubber mallet, my power increases and my required effort therefore decreases. The job becomes easier. I grow in stature relative to the chore.

Try this. Pick one of your boring tasks. Now in your imagination picture yourself in the act of doing it. What would augment your powers in tackling this job? What would make it easier for you? If you find yourself thinking rationally about this and no ideas are coming, then close your eyes and return to your imaginative picturing.

Here’s an example of discovering tool power via imagination, from one of my clients. She dreaded having to clean snow off her car. She complained that snow removal paraphernalia for cars are pathetic, and invariably she ended up covered in snow, with some always falling into one or both of her shoes. I asked her to fantasize how she ideally would want to clear her car of snow. Her first image was a giant hair dryer. Her second was a leaf blower she had seen a neighbor using one day. She didn’t like the noise (or the price) of a leaf blower, but she loved the image of being able to blow the snow away from herself instead of sweeping it downward onto her clothes and shoes. This was a key stage in our exploration: noticing what she liked. We put two things together: the usual sweeping of snow off the car, plus moving the snow away from her. She wondered if a push-broom that she had would serve the purpose. After the next blizzard, she gleefully reported using her push-broom to shove two-foot columns of snow away from her and off her car, and being done faster than ever. Her dread of the chore vanished. She even enjoyed a feeling similar to mastery, like she was showing the snow who was boss.

If you allow yourself to imagine freely, and trust your gut feelings about what you like and dislike, you might be surprised at what you can envision. Dare to diminish drudgery!

The tool power principle extends beyond manual labor. If you have a paper to write, a thorny problem to solve, a political situation at work to navigate… think about what resources are available to you. Who can help or advise? What templates or techniques do others use? Expand your resources, expand your power.

Make Boring Tasks Easy

The Sisyphus Series, Part I

I have the shittiest job in the house. I scoop my cats’ litter box. A couple of years ago I successfully traded the after-dinner clean-up for scooping the cat box plus a second round draft pick. I scoop every day. I don’t like doing it; I find it tedious and uninteresting. This is a challenge for me, an ADDer. My brain’s “reward center”—you know, the part of my brain that hands me a pink dopamine-stuffed walrus every time I shoot water into a clown’s mouth and burst a balloon, providing me the motivation to pick up the water pistol and compete against seven-year-olds—functions less than optimally; which is to say (to follow the absurd metaphor) that my brain is understocked with pink dopamine-stuffed walruses. I therefore have trouble feeling rewarded, and my motivation is apt to drop, unless I experience genuine interest in the activity. Scooping poop does not float my boat. Quickly I felt no sense of the value to me of having gotten out of washing the dishes. My motivation drained, and the chore became Sisyphean. Sisyphus, you may recall, pushed the same boulder up the same hill every day, for at night while he slept the gods caused the boulder to roll back down to the hill’s foot. Perhaps more than most, ADDers recognize Sisyphus’ fate as a divine curse.

The problem with a Sisyphean task is that it feels goalless. What satisfaction is to be had by rolling the boulder up the hill? Is there ice cream at the top? No. Can I brag that I did it? OK, I’ll take that. But then I have to do it again, and again, and again…. It’s difficult to get myself to do a chore I don’t feel is rewarding, unless I force myself. I don’t know about you, but when I force myself to do something I don’t want to do, I, the laborer, end up resenting myself, the boss. I chronically come to my forced task late, making me want to take disciplinary action against myself. Occasionally I’ll go on strike, and hire imaginary thugs to break the strike…. It gets ugly fast, and I look like an immature moron.

Most of the time my solution to this problem is to circumnavigate it. To the extent I can, I steer my life so as to maximize opportunities to do things I want to do, while respectfully declining things I don’t enjoy. I realize, however, that many do not enjoy the privilege of dodging undesirable tasks, and I myself still have to do things I don’t like, like change the cat box every day.

What can help us accomplish tasks that do not reward our effort with any feeling of accomplishment? Consider this. If you had to pick one, which boring task would you choose to take on: (a) one that required significant effort, was out of your way, and demanded constant attention, or (b) one that required a bit of effort, was on your way, and demanded periodic attention? This series is about how to turn boring overwhelming task (a) into boring doable task (b). For litter-box-changers everywhere, I offer the following principles:

  • Tool Power
  • Flow
  • Alienation of the Worker

Tools increase your power, making tasks puny, thereby reducing required effort. Flow lets you dispose of chores when it is most convenient for you. Alienation of the worker (that is, yourself) enables you to get through painfully tedious jobs competently with the equivalent of attentional Novocain, so you experience much less pain and tedium.

Each of these principles will be explored in practical terms in the next three posts.

The Executive Functioning STOP Sign

What is executive functioning? Picture, if you will, an executive. Now notice some things about this picture. Most images of executives are lofty in a number of ways: working on the top floor, formally dressed (even on “dress-down Fridays”), with clean (not labor-soiled) hands; workers are under the executive; the population at large is held at a distance from the executive’s door, and can only get in for a consultation by making an appointment well in advance, not on the spur of the moment. These are not necessarily distinctions of importance: after all, an executive is of little value without workers. The distinction I’m pointing out is one of separation.

People with ADHD tend to have a whole lot of trouble with one executive in particular—their own inner executive. One leading theory is that the primary deficit in “Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” is predominantly one of executive functioning (“EF” for short). One of the most highly respected ADHD researchers, Dr. Russell Barkley, offers this list:

  • Inhibition—self-restraint: having a response, yet deciding to hold it back
  • Foresight—projecting experience into the future: imaginatively seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and moving at a future time
  • Hindsight—reflecting on past sensory and movement experiences and learning from them
  • Self-awareness—being conscious of what one is thinking, feeling, wanting, doing
  • Sense of time—feeling time passing; correlating self-movement with time passing
  • Working (short-term) memory—recalling multiple pieces of verbal and nonverbal information (i.e. speech and images) for work; e.g. hearing a ten-digit phone number and later dialing it accurately
  • Planning—hierarchically ordering actions
  • Problem solving—revising, reframing, conceiving multiple scenarios…in effect, self-directed playing
  • Self-motivation—harnessing one’s will, which is the motive force that drives one’s actions (unharnessed will, for example, can manifest as hyperactivity)
  • Emotional self-regulation—feeling strong emotions and letting them pass without becoming overwhelmed by them; self-evoking emotion in the service of one’s goals

The number one essential characteristic of executive functioning, from a usefulness point of view, is that it works with representations of the experiences with which it is concerned. That is, executive functions don’t handle down-in-the-trenches work directly; rather, they handle reports and projections of that work. Executives don’t respond to stimuli. They get a report that a stimulus has been received. They analyze the report. They make a decision. They call in their administrative assistant and instruct the assistant to respond to the stimulus, or delegate the response to a worker. Executive functioning isn’t the hands-on work itself; it considers what work has already occurred in the past, determines what work will be done in the future, plans the work, monitors the work, thinks about and assesses the work, solves problems that arise in the midst of the work, and weathers the ups and downs of the work by keeping the big picture and long-term goals in mind.

Consider the common ADHD symptom hyperfocus, the on-task equivalent of the word banana(nananana—easy to spell, but who knows when to stop?). In a state of hyperfocus, an ADDer can work on a task for—well, let’s just say well past bedtime. To use myself as an example, when I was doing the research on EF that in part resulted in this post, I got interested in the subject, and just kept going. I periodically noted the time, as hour after hour inexorably wheeled by, but I did not feel that the day—and then the night—was getting progressively later (time insensitivity). Instead, I felt a continuous, unchanging sense of being in the moment of doing what I was doing.

Most of the symptoms of ADHD have this in common: being in their own moment of doing whatever the ADDer is doing—daydreaming and not noticing that they’re daydreaming, tapping and humming without noticing they’re tapping and humming, blurting out “Egad, what happened to your face?” to the scarred woman in the elevator without noticing.… In the midst of doing there is no noticing, and thus no self-regulation of the doing.

Something else to notice about the executive: the CEO is responsible for the well being and success of the corporation, in this case the body of the self.1 If we ADDers are to empower our inner CEOs, we have to perform those executive functions. And the only way to perform executive functions is to STOP working.

Don’t worry (or don’t rejoice)—I’m not proposing going on strike from all work. I just mean we have to put up stop signs at important intersections, and actually come to a full stop before proceeding along our route.

(My cousin Sidney tells my favorite stop-sign story. Sid pulls up to a stop sign and sees there’s a cop around the corner, so he slows waaaaaaaay down, till he’s moving like a three-toed sloth, one M.P.W. (mile per week). Sid looks to the right. Sid looks to the left. He eases like a gentleman in a Cadillac through the intersection. Immediately—siren, lights. The cop pulls him over. Sid protests, “Officer, sir, what did I do wrong? I stopped at the stop sign.” The officer flips open his summons book and replies: “Sir, your wheels never stopped turning.”)

David Giwerc, MCC and Founder and President of the ADD Coach Academy, calls this kind of stopping “The Power of the Pause: The Difference Between Reacting Impulsively and Responding Rationally.” Even in the marathon of hyperfocus, ADDers have moments of self-awareness. The main difference between such self-aware moments in an ADDer and a neuro-typical is that for the ADDer these moments don’t automatically result in recoiling and saying, “What the heck am I doing?” Instead, we tend to blow right through those moments of awareness. Even if we slow waaaaaaaay down, our wheels never stop turning. We can take our summons one of two ways: either as a call to appear before the judgment of our external circumstances, which usually results in a hefty fine—a penalty of sleep or productivity or time with loved ones…whatever our hyperfocusing typically costs us;—or we can take the summons as a call to our own inner judgment. Stop and ask some executive questions: What has happened when I’ve done this before? Tomorrow, what will I wish I had decided to do right now? How much time is passing for other people close to me while I’m engaged in this activity? What goal did I originally set out to accomplish when I started doing this? Problem solve. Plan. What does your heart feel is the course of action most in alignment with your intentions and values?

These are not light questions, and the answers you give to them are consequential. Before getting into them, though, I recommend taking them into your office—the biggest, cushiest, highest-up, picture-windowed corner office you can imagine. Take a few moments. Breathe. Relax. Take as much time as you need to arrive at a decision in your head that feels right in your gut.


  1. “Corporate,” from the Latin corporatus, means “formed into a body.” 

What Is Will? (1)

I. Will and Intention

The usual conception of will is that it is mental intention; a thought of doing something. “I will knit a sweater.” Then the brain sends signals to the muscles, and the act of knitting is performed. This would be an example of free will: choosing a course of action and executing it. Having the thought of doing something, then doing it.


But why is it that our will doesn’t seem to work sometimes? It is a rare human being indeed who has never experienced intending to do something that didn’t get done, such as reply to a letter or e-mail, or write a report, or fix a dripping faucet. I’m not talking about conscious choices not to do something you originally planned to do; I mean the activities that simply end up not having happened. This is what makes procrastination so baffling: procrastination isn’t really a choice; not when it feels like procrastination, anyway. Procrastination—the “dilatory”1 kind—is what we do when we’re not doing what we intended to do. The mental intention is there, but the intended action isn’t. When we intend to do something, we say, “I’m going to do that,” as if to mean, “I’m squarely facing that activity and I’m on my way toward it, but I’m not there yet.”

A Short Zero-Act Play Not About Will

Scene: Millie, while texting, talks to Willy, who is playing a computer game.

Millie: I’m going to knit a sweater.

Willy: Are you knitting it right now?

Millie: No, but I’m going to.

Curtain

Of course it is possible that, in a revision of the above play, Millie could demonstrate determination and grit and actually do what she intended. In that case her claim, “I’m going to,” would turn out to have meant: “I will knit a sweater, even if it’s the last thing I do!” This alternate scenario is closer to the essence of what will is. That which is willed will in fact happen. There is no such thing as willed activity in theory; that’s an oxymoron. There is no such thing as will in intent only. Will is will in action by definition.

We don’t look at Hamlet when he’s deliberating whether he should revenge his father now while the murderer is defenselessly praying on his knees, or whether he should wait for a more opportune moment when the murderer will more likely go to Hell instead of Heaven—we don’t watch this scene in the theatre and admire Hamlet’s willpower while he intends and intends and intends to act. Meanwhile, the two other characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy who have lost their fathers—Laertes and Fortinbras—both singlemindedly pursue their respective revenge plots. Neither is able to achieve his goal immediately. Laertes must collude with the king, because his target is Prince Hamlet himself, whom Laertes kills at the first viable opportunity. Fortinbras marches his army into an utterly profitless battle, just to move into position to get what he wants and takes at the end of the play, which is the crown and country of Denmark itself.

The proof of will is in the follow-through. For Millie’s sweater to get knitted, all that’s necessary is Millie’s will—plus some dexterity, some yarn and knitting needles. And yet, if she knows how to knit, and has the tools, won’t the act of knitting follow naturally? Why is her will necessary?

A Short Zero-Act Play About Will

Scene: Willy visits Millie in the rec-room at the Home for Ennui.

Willy: Aren’t you going to knit your sweater?

Millie: I don’t want to.

Willy: If you don’t, they’re going to take away your needles and yarn.

Millie: I don’t care.

No further action. The curtain doesn’t fall. Eventually the audience gets bored and wanders away.

Will is necessary because it is the force that overcomes inertia. Without the will to knit, poor Millie will waste away in the Home for Ennui watching reruns of Lost.

But how can she engage her will to knit if she never says or at least thinks: “I’m going to knit”? Doesn’t she need intention as well as will? If her will is free, then sure. If she chooses to knit a sweater of her own free will, her intention will be evident in her choice, as her will shall be evident in her follow-through action. But does intention always precede an act of will? Is intention a prerequisite for action? As we’ve seen, intention is not the same thing as will. Intention goes hand-in-hand with choice and decision, but does not necessarily lead to execution. If Millie chooses to knit, she will have that intention, as she did in the first play, but this does not guarantee that she will knit the sweater.

What about the reverse case?—If she in fact knits the sweater in an exercise of will, must she have intended to do so?

A Short One-Act Play About Will

Scene: Willy, dressed for Saturday night, tries to get Millie to go out with him.

Willy: Come on.

Millie: I’m busy knitting a sweater.

Willy: Every time I look at you you’re knitting a sweater. Why are you knitting a sweater now, anyway? It’s midsummer.

Millie: I don’t know. Everyone in my family knits sweaters all year round. It’s just what I do.

Willy: Stop knitting! (He grabs the yarn.)

(Millie stabs him with a knitting needle. She keeps knitting. Willy crawls to the emergency room of the nearest hospital and eventually lives happily ever after, but is a little cold in winter, because he never wears a sweater.)

Curtain

Millie does indeed knit the sweater. Her will is strongly evident: she will knit, despite Willy’s attempts to dissuade and stop her. But far from freely intending to knit, she appears to do it out of habit, perhaps even mindlessly. Knitting in this case is more like an inherited trait than a choice. She is impelled to knit. The forethought that we associate with intentionality is not there.

It is the freedom in free will that complicates will. With freedom of choice we may do as we intend. But then whether or not we follow through on our intentions we can’t predict with any certainty. We may intend to act, but (in a condition of freedom) we are neither impelled nor compelled to do so. Free will is evident when conscious choice and the will to effect that choice are united. For Millie to exercise her free will, she would have to say (or think) “I’m going to knit a sweater,” and then actually knit one.

If, just for the purpose of observation, we remove the complicating element of freedom of choice, will as the pure force that effects action is much easier to see. Will that is not free looks like instinct. It’s involuntary and inexorable. This is what we’re seeing in the last short play, above. Millie’s behavior in that play is a bit unnerving, because there’s something just a little inhuman about her this time (even without the stabbing); something almost mechanical. She’s like a knitting machine. In other words, she’s like a spider.

Spiders that spin webs2 do so instinctively.3 It’s what they do. If you ask a spider, “Why are you weaving a web now?,” she will reply: “I don’t know. Everyone in my family weaves webs all the time. It’s just what I do.”4 If you destroy her web, she will not stab you, because she’s not big enough to hold knitting needles (silly!). But she will start making her web all over again without hesitation. If you destroy the web again, she’ll weave it again. If you destroy it a hundred times, she will weave it again every time, until she dies. The spider will weave her web.


We tend not to notice will in these kinds of contexts—spiders and their webs, ants and our picnics, birds and the worms that eat of kings—because we free-willers automatically associate will with intention. But distinguishing will from intention can clarify confusing behaviors, like procrastination, in which conscious intention points in one direction and unconscious will—perhaps in the form of an underlying aversion, or an interfering habit—goes in any direction but the chosen one.

The story of will so far:

  • Will is not one and the same as intention.
  • Whereas intention is the idea of an action, will overcomes inertia and initiates action like a force.
  • It is possible to intend something but lack the will to make it happen.
  • It is possible to act with will without intending to do so.
  • Less complex life forms—spiders, for instance—demonstrate powerful will in their behaviors. Spiders do not have free will, though; their will is instinctive.
  • We human beings have free will, in the sense that we may choose (i.e. intend) a course of action, and then carry it out in an exercise of will. But there is no automatic guarantee that we actually shall follow through.

What is it that makes our will free, while the will of spiders is solely instinctive? In this post’s following two episodes, we’ll answer that question by searching more deeply into how will functions. We’ll also go into the reasons we conflate will with intention, and tend to see intention when we’re really looking for will (as when we’re trying to get ourselves to do something we’ve intended to do, but keep not doing). It all turns out to be related to bodies, intelligence, and executive functioning.

To be continued…


Gedankenexperiments

  1. What kinds of activities do you…

    • intend to do, but just don’t?
    • do without intending to?
    • have no trouble intending and doing?
  2. What does “the will to win” mean? How do you manifest it? Where do you feel it, and what does it feel like?

  3. Try to feel your will when you stick to your guns.

  4. Try to feel your will when you change your mind.
     


  1. “Often with the sense of deferring through indecision, when early action would have been preferable.”—Oxford English Dictionary

  2. Not all spiders spin webs. Many hunt down their prey (gulp!). However, for the purposes of this post, in which I am comparing web weaving to knitting, every time I refer to spiders, I will mean those types of spiders that spin webs. 

  3. I am indebted to Dr. Scott McPartland for the image of spiders weaving webs as a metaphor of instinctive will activity. 

  4. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Charlotte (from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, page 39):

    I’m not entirely happy about my diet of flies and bugs, but it’s the way I’m made. A spider has to pick up a living somehow or other, and I happen to be a trapper. I just naturally build a web and trap flies and other insects. My mother was a trapper before me. Her mother was a trapper before her. All of our family have been trappers.

How to Get the Reading Done (Enough): The UBER Method

Here is a tried and true outside-the-box method for doing course reading that works for people who feel weighed down by reading assignments.

Riddle yourself this: How often do you complete enough of your assigned reading to be able to go to class feeling confident that if called on you’ll be able to look the teacher in the eye and respond directly from your knowledge of the text? Restrict your answer to one of these two:

  1. Often enough to do as well as I want to
  2. Not often enough to do as well as I want to

If your answer is “a,” don’t mess with a winning streak. No need to spend time on this post; go do your reading.

If your answer is “b,” however, then the UBER method can change your academic life.

If you’re actively choosing not to read for class, then at least you’re exercising free will. But many of us don’t read (or not much), yet wish we could magically absorb books. We want to have done the reading, but somehow can’t manage to do it. When I played the “super-power” game for the first time in my life—“If you could have one super-power, what would it be?”—my answer was, “The ability to read a 500-page book in an hour with perfect comprehension.” All these years later, my answer is still the same.

My super-power wish betrays a common preconception: that reading needs to be done from beginning to end without skipping anything. Reading every word from start to finish is ideal, at least in the respect that most literature, fiction and nonfiction, is written to be read this way. If I’m reading for pleasure, I read from beginning to end (though not everyone does this; it’s a matter of personal preference). But reading for course work involves an important utilitarian consideration: if I understand the substance of the reading, who cares if I didn’t read every word? And what difference does it make if I read the pages out of order?

The essence of the UBER method is simple and practical. Be goal-directed. Read what you need to read.

Reading every word and following every thought in a text step by step is a beautiful thing. But when we’re having trouble getting reading done, we have to be willing to sacrifice beauty. We’re going to read in an ugly but efficient way. That’s the UBER method: Ugly But Efficient Reading.1

The first thing to do when using the UBER method is—don’t read the text!—at least not yet. Walk around it for a few minutes; survey it. You’re not going to dive into the reading, you’re going to figure out what you need to get out of it, and then go fishing in the best spots. You’re not going to wade slowly but dutifully through all the pages; you’re going to look things up.

The UBER (Ugly But Efficient Reading) Method

  1. Consider the context. What do you already know? How does this reading relate to the course material? (This latter question you can ask your professor outright, if it’s not clear to you.)
  2. Gather clues. Also known as “pre-reading,” this is when you read all the easy stuff and learn as much as possible as fast as possible. The first things you should read are:
    • the book cover
    • the summary on the back cover (or the abstract of the article)
    • the table of contents
    • pictures and captions
    • charts, graphs, tables, notes
    • questions at the end of the chapter; and then…
  3. STOP. What do you know now? More importantly, given what you’ve learned from the clues you’ve gathered, what do you now want to know about this reading? Ask questions.
  4. Find out where the text is going to end up. Read the last paragraph (or two). Then read the first paragraph to see where and how the text begins, and ask more questions: What is important in this reading? What is the last paragraph saying? What don’t you understand yet? What do you need to find out more about?
  5. Finally, read whatever parts of the text you need to in order to answer your questions. In other words, read to learn what you need to know.2

The key to the UBER method is making sure you have accomplishable goals in front of you at all times. Finding answers to questions you have, especially when you have the text that the answers are in, is an accomplishable goal. For some of us, the prospect of a dense 40-page article on a subject we don’t find interesting feels daunting enough that we avoid even starting it. Now compare having to read that article straight through to having an untimed open-book exam on it. Passing an open-book exam is an accomplishable goal.

So, open your books and get out of them what you need. Ugly But Efficient Reading is much more enlightening than perfect reading that doesn’t get done at all.


P.S. Try the UBER method out on this post. Read the title and the footnotes, the lists, and the phrases in bold type. Then read the final paragraphs, then the first couple of paragraphs. See how much you can learn just from these?


  1. The reading strategies in this post are not original on my part; in fact they’re well known among reading teachers. However, the acronym “UBER” for “Ugly But Efficient Reading” is my own invention. 

  2. Now, don’t be a dope: what you need to know is not defined by what you learn until you get bored; it’s what you need to know to participate intelligently and confidently in a class discussion. 

Goals

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944)

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

absenceacceptanceaccomplishmentADHDaimsanalysisannotationanxietyAPAappearanceappleappreciationargumentartistaskingattachmentattentionawarenessBatmanbeingblank mindblissboatboring!brainstormingbraverycandlescenter of gravitychoicechoosing collegecognitioncommunicationcompassionconclusionconfidenceconsciousnessconversationcreative writingcreativitydawdlingdiagnosisdoorsdramadreamdrinkingecologyemotionenergyessaysessentialevidenceexamexcitementexecutive functionexerciseexperienceexpositionfailurefearfeelingfightfigurationflowfootballfrederick douglassfreewritinggamegedankenexperimentgesturegetting startedgoalgrammarhappinesshealinghearthonorhopehumanideasimaginationimagination_exerciseimplexinnovationinspirationinstinctinterestjubileekinestheticknifeknowledgelogicloudlovemagicmanagemasterymeaningmechanicsmedicationmeditationmetacognitionmilitarymindmistakesMLAmothermotivationmountainnontraditional collegenote-takingnotesorganizeout-of-the-boxparticipationpartspassionpatiencepeak-experiencepedagogyperseverancepersistencephysicalizeplanplayingplaywrightingplotpoetrypositive pointingpre-writingpreferenceprepositionpresenceprioritiesprocessprocrastinationprofessorsproofreadingputteringquestionsreadingrealityreflectionrelationshiprelaxationrepresentationreservesresourcesresponseresponsibilityrevisingsanctuaryself-actualizationself-assessmentself-relianceseptembershort storysocratic methodsoulspacestorystrengthsstressstudyingsuccesssummariessynthesistalkingtasksteachingtechniquetest anxietytest-takingThanksgivingthemethesisthinkingtimetolerancetomorrowtreetrusttruthunderstandingveteransvisualizationvoicewaldorfwelcomewholewillwillpowerwomenwordsworkingwriter's blockwritingyearningyesterday

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