Thinking Toys #15 — Presencing

We often find ourselves in heated situations. Sometimes in the middle of arguments I “snap to” and wonder how I got there. It seems like this often occurs through a kind of Flow state. We “lose ourselves” — our sense of embodied agency — andbecome the interaction, for better or worse. On the plus side, this can bring a lot of passion and energy into our actions. It can also backfire, as we’ve all experienced. There is one powerful mental move for interrupting these flow states: presencing. You can presence yourself in many ways — one is by placing your attention over your entire body. You may immediately notice your energy levels, temperature, heart rate, and random discomforts. Then you can expand your attention to also encompass your surroundings. This may trigger noticing of objects in your environment that were being ignored. It may bring you to see other people in a new light. A pause can often be enough to turn an unpleasant interaction completely around. Or to identify possibilities hidden from view.

Depending on whom you ask, this is a variation of “mindfulness”. Luckily, you don’t need an app or a trip to the monastery for it. You already do it all the time. Yet, being aware that you can control it is empowering. By widening your scope of attention, automatic patterns get interrupted. Thoughts and actions can come to a screeching halt. It often feels quite pleasant. I deliberately try to trigger presencing moves when I become aware of a variety of warning signs. For example, when I am feeling excitement combined with contractive emotions — frustration, stress, righteousness. In general, if I notice myself trying to Feel Right about something, I try to enact a presencing. Also, I’ve built a few deliberate habits around the move. Lately, I’ve been doing it every time before unlocking my phone. 

By flow states, I mean something a little bit different from Csikszentmihalyi’s version. I’m in flow whenever my attention is moving in patterned, predictable, automatic ways. This is always happening within some specific, narrow field of attention. In an argument, we will be laser-focused on the way people communicate their reasons. While writing, we concentrate on sensing the resonance between written words and feelings. When brushing our teeth, some attention is in tune with a sense of how much time we spend in each part of the mouth. When cued by a reward, we have a hard time avoiding thinking about it. There are peaks and valleys of reward and punishment, predictable stimulus and response. These are spirals of affect generated as we bounce off the world in familiar ways. Some of these flow states are more fun than others, of course. But they all inhabit modes of habitual patterns of attention. There is nothing good or bad here, but being in habitual pattern makes it difficult to take new action. By rearranging the field of attention, presencing breaks us out of these flow states and allows for new, unpredictable action.

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Thinking Toys #14 — Implementation Intentions

Coming up with goals that feel worth achieving can be a struggle in an of itself. Unfortunately, merely formulating a desirable goal is rarely enough to succeed. The next critical step is planning the implementation. Forming implementation intentions helps with this. In my experience, it is one of the most powerful mental moves. They start where goals leave off: some outcome that you want to achieve. From there, you choose an action that will move you towards that outcome. Given that action, you form an implementation intention by choosing a specific when, where, and how. You envision and commit to the details of what your action will be in response to which precise cues. This planning process helps form a new stimulus-response pattern. With practice, it will automatically — subconsciously — occur under the envisioned conditions.


I use a simple implementation intention to help with my goal of learning more from other people. The cue is whenever someone excitedly mentions going to an event. The action I take in response is to ask them “What was your biggest takeaway?”. To install this pattern, I mentally practiced different variations of people presenting the cue — specific, recent examples — and then taking my response action. After a few weeks of practicing a few minutes a day in my head, and a few real-world triggers, the pattern of response became automatic.


A few conditions can increase the odds of success for an implementation intention. First, the triggering cue should be clear and precise. Something concrete that you can visualize. Rather than “When I wake up” try “When I press the off button on my alarm”. Second, the intended action needs to happen with consistency. You want to desire to, and be able to, always take the action when you encounter the cue. If there are situations where you don’t think that will happen, try to carve them out of your cue. For example, “When I press the off button on my alarm, except on weekends or when it’s raining out or when someone is sleeping over”. Finally, ensure that the action you want to take is one that furthers a goal you care about. If you don’t see the connection between your action and your goal, you won’t care enough to execute on it. Be able to answer why you want to take the particular action. If (cue), then (action), because (reason).


It’s hard to overstate the power of implementation intentions. I want to keep this introductory post short to communicate the basic idea. I intend to write a follow-up post to highlight the wide variety of possibilities made available with this tool. To hint at the potential, here are a few ideas for implementation intentions:

  1. Every day after brushing your teeth in the bathroom, do 20 push-ups
  2. Whenever someone is presenting a contorted facial expression, ask them what they are feeling
  3. When someone tells you their name, repeat it back to them and do it again at the end of the conversation
  4. When you finish a block of work and want to take a break, make a short note on what you think the next steps are
  5. Every morning right after turning your alarm off, sit up and smile
  6. While taking out your phone and unlocking it, close your eyes and take 3 deep breaths while paying attention to how your body feels


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Thinking Toys #13 — Miracle Question

Is there something in your life or work that you’ve been trying to solve but can’t seem to make progress on? Perhaps it even seems impossible. Try posing the miracle question… Imagine you wake up tomorrow morning and a miracle has occurred. What’s a small change that would make you exclaim: “wow the problem is gone and here’s how I know!” Answering this can be difficult. Your first response will often be “I don’t know”, or something along those lines. This is frustrating but normal. Sit with it for 5-10 minutes. Start generating a list of responses that are not quite right or even obviously bad. Eventually, you may hit on something interesting and surprise yourself. Once you have an answer, you can often generate a way to move towards it. Ask yourself, what can you do that would help you move towards this new world, even if only in a small way? This may generate a specific goal or action. Ideally, frame it as a positive rather than a negative: something you do rather than something you avoid doing.


I’m experiencing a growing frustration with a lack of progress on a big project I’m interested in. I’ve been nibbling along the edges but have a sense that a lot more is possible. Posing the miracle question helped. After about 5 minutes of “I don’t know”, I was able to start generating some bad answers. After another 5 minutes of those, I wrote down something that seemed quite good. In hindsight, it seems silly that I didn’t think of it right away, but that’s often how these things go. I found that I’d feel like my sense of a lack of progress would resolve by seeing the results of an experiment. Specifically, a hypothetical experiment on a few friendly participants that tests some implicit assumptions. My next action follows pretty smoothly from that realization!


Sometimes finding a positive action or goal is the difficult part. You know what the world would look like when your problem is gone but you have no idea how to take a step in that direction. Fortunately, having a list of bad ideas is better than no list at all. If you can carve out enough examples of things that won’t work, you can try inverting them. Also, you can compare new ideas to the bad ones to try to help understand what is missing. A bad model is better than no model at all.


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Reason as Attentional Prosthesis

What are we doing when thinking, or reasoning?
Often, thinking is goal-directed. There is some outcome we are trying to achieve or problem we are trying to solve. In hindsight, answers often seem obvious. “Why didn’t I think of that?” For the most interesting problems, there is no formula or system that will lead to an optimal solution. The hard part becomes framing the problem. How do we do that? I have some thoughts on the role of attention.
But first, pigeons! In an experiment, pigeons are rewarded for pecking a toy banana hanging from the ceiling of their enclosure, but only while standing on a box placed below it. They’re also rewarded, in a separate setup with no toy banana present, for moving a box to randomly marked spots on the wall of their enclosure.
And then they’re faced with a novel puzzle:
“When these pigeons were confronted with the banana out of reach, the box present but displaced from under it, and no spot was on the wall, they looked back and forth between banana and box at first, appearing “confused” to human observers. Then, within less than two minutes, they abruptly began to push the box in the direction of the banana, stopped when it was underneath, climbed and pecked.” (Epstein, Kirshnit, Lanza, & Rubin, 1984).
A conundrum that stresses the bird brain. Its attention is drawn to the banana, motivated by reward previously reinforced, and yet something is wrong. The pattern is not quite the same as before. Our feathered friend has yet to encounter a banana and a box at the same time where the box was not under the banana. Also, he has not been previously rewarded for moving a box except to a marked target location on the wall. To solve this problem, the pigeon seems to need to somehow suppress its default, habituated behavior. We can see it struggling to do so. Perhaps this is the pigeon-equivalent of “dropping preconceptions”, or our habitual way of seeing a situation. Once a primary reaction is suppressed, it can hold attention on other options which don’t immediately seem like answers to its problem.
Even more is demanded of the pigeon. He must figure out how to combine familiar behaviors in a new way. The pigeon experiences pleasure — anticipated reward — when he sees a box and a marked spot on the wall. Now, there is no marked spot. He also experiences pleasure when he sees a box under a banana. Now, the box is elsewhere. How to fit these pieces together to cause new behavior? Presumably, he is doing something like reasoning. He is aware of the box, an ability (affordance) to move boxes, and the good feelings associated with a box under a banana. He must be able to ignore other aspects of the scene which are not relevant. By first simplifying his experience to relevant aspects, he can attempt novel combinations. Once perceiving a candidate solution, new action is a foregone conclusion — the pigeon is quick to push the box across the cage.
Reason seems to serve as a kind of attentional prosthesis. By default, humans, and pigeons, are responding reflexively — according to habit. When reflexes aren’t good enough, we need some way to explore pieces of past experiences and recombine them in new ways. In the process, we need help navigating our attention away from what is often the most attractive stimulus. Reason functions as such a mechanism. We recall memories of situations where only certain aspects (“abstractions” or “concepts”) are attended to. For each aspect, we trigger a re-cognition — a re-experiencing — of previous experiences that are somehow related. The relation can be a similarity of stimulus, but also, crucially, similarity of outcome or response. This is also known as functional or mediated generalization. By compressing into relevant aspects, the mind seems to be more capable of chaining together previously unrelated “sub-experiences”. If a chain is conceivable to an emotionally-appealing outcome, action can follow.

Thinking Toys #12 — Granularizing

Sometimes we’ll have a big goal that we’re excited about but can’t seem to make progress on. It can be so big and important that we feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it. Making a plan seems like the prudent first step — with a good plan success seems more likely. But even making this plan feels overwhelming and scary. It’s such a big undertaking and there is a lot of pressure to get it right because we care about the goal. As a result, we procrastinate and fail to make any progress at all. In this situation, it often makes sense to granularize. Don’t try to plan the whole thing. Take a best guess at a first milestone that we will need to hit and figure out how to get there. Break up that path into small steps and define a next action that you can take immediately. If it’s too big or uncertain to be something we can start immediately, break it up further. Once we have a doable next action, it’s often effortless to begin.


I’m interested in the study of developmental psychology. To better understand the field, I made a goal to review the academic literature. While excited about the project, I felt overwhelmed — the field is massive with dozens of seminal works. I wanted to do it right — to have a complete plan of attack. Unfortunately, I didn’t make much progress for a while. Upon noticing this pattern of procrastination, I tried to granularize. I picked a first milestone of reading a single popular work by someone that I was already familiar with. I found the book available online and started reading immediately. By making it OK to start somewhere imperfect, it enabled initial progress which led to eventual momentum.


For big projects and ambitious goals, it is tempting to think we need the perfect plan. It seems like we can make one if only we set aside the time and energy. Unfortunately, this planning process itself can turn into something scary and overwhelming. Rather than starting, you delay. If you notice this happening for a while, consider whether your desire to plan is useful. Almost always you can proceed productively with little to no plan. Try guessing at some initial steps that will move you in the general desired direction and focus on executing those. If you’re worried that the first milestone is a bad one, see if you can develop falsifiable tests. What would you need to see to know if you were on the wrong track? Finally, it’s important to conclude this process at a fine enough granularity. Have you generated a next action that you can take immediately? If not, it may continue to be difficult to start. Keep breaking up your steps into smaller and more granular actions.


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