DRMacIver's Notebook

Drifting away the time

Drifting away the time

One of the ways my current difficulty with motivation plays out is that I spend a lot of my day drifting. Left to my own devices my day probably won’t be completely drifting, but I might spend an hour or so on something I’d actually endorse as worthwhile. One of the reasons why daily writing is good for me is that it claws back another hour or so from the drift. This is, presumably, also why I sometimes find it hard to sustain.

Drifting is like… evil flow. It absorbs the totality of your being in the same way, but you’re left feeling entirely unnourished by it. Flow is what happens when you’re able to absorb yourself entirely in the achievement of some end. Drifting is what happens when absorbing yourself entirely is the end, a way to dissociate from the world. Drifting is eating the lotus.

For me drifting tends to be spending time on Twitter, or watching youtube, it might be reading truly execrable Royal Road quality fiction, or if there’s a new TV series to binge I might lose a day doing that. It probably isn’t playing games. The games I play tend not to be drifting games, because I’ve learned the hard way just how bad they are for me and in a rare case of being sensible about this I avoid drifting games. This is why I don’t play Cookie Clickers.

(Slay the Spire is interesting in that it can be either drifting or flow - at low ascensions you can absolutely play it as a drifting game, but if you do that at high ascensions you die to Gremlin Nob. All of my Slay the Spire drifting time seems to have been adequately satisfied by watching other people play it on YouTube though)

A lot of my time is spent in this drifting state - not really doing anything useful, but also not following any sort of interesting direction. This is why I don’t really feel like it’s right to characterise my relationship with curiousity as only being able to do useful things: It doesn’t seem to be based in a strong desire to be useful. Idly following my curiosity in whatever direction brings me joy would be significantly more useful than most of how I spend my days.

But apparently that’s not what I want to do. What I want to do is drift.

Except, that’s not quite right. It’s not that I want to drift - the idea almost feels contradictory. It’s more that drifting is an easy state to fall into. Not drifting requires active effort, and I don’t want to spend that effort.

None of these are endorsed preferences of course. I want to want to spend that effort, and ideally I want to want to spend it on fun things as well as useful things. But in the moment what I apparently choose, most of the time, is drifting instead.

The aversion to effort does feel like a key part of it. It’s not an aversion to things I think I “should” be doing exactly - going for a walk or cooking a nice meal are equally prone to being avoided as reading and writing are. But they seem like too much work.

There seem to be two distinct triggers for this:

  1. Unable to generate the worthwhile activity in the first place. Making it easy to generate good activities seems to help a bit here. For example having habits around good quality reading seem to result in more of that. Having a daily writing habit makes it easier for writing to feel salient.
  2. Unable to stick to the worthwhile activity - I start writing, or doing something useful, and then I reach a point where it feels unbearable to maintain my focus on this for any longer and I check Twitter or otherwise take a break “briefly” and often it’s not so brief. This is particularly prone for things that I very much don’t want to do.

The trigger for this does often seem to be unpleasant feelings come up when trying to focus and falling back to drift. I’d like to think I was good at dealing with unpleasant feelings, but the reality is that I’m probably quite bad at it. I think it’s also telling that the thing I often need to do to get to sleep right now is to deliberately induce a drifting state.

Internally the urge to drift feels like I’m “too tired” to do things, but this seems to be fake, or rather it’s not tiredness in that sense. Probably it’s a Freeze reaction of some sort.

The reason I don’t think it’s real tiredness is how much of this goes away as soon as soon as there are other people involved. Often I’ll spend an entire morning drifting, and then get on a call with someone and be absolutely fine.

This of course tends to result in people thinking I’m in a much better state than I actually am a lot of the time, because I’m fine when interacting with them and stop being fine as soon as I stop interacting.

It doesn’t even have to really be interacting with the other person. On Monday a friend and I got on a call together as a way of motivating each other to get things done, turned off our microphones for an hour, and then checked back in at the end of the call. In that call I did all of the accounting and tax admin I’d been putting off for months (and learned I had about £800 of unpaid invoices. Turns out checking whether people have paid you is good). Normally this is maximally aversive task that would definitely have resulted in me losing track of myself about 5 minutes in.

Something like this also often happens with tweeting. I say Twitter is drifting, but that’s not quite right. Writing on Twitter is often flow, or at least interesting and worthwhile. What happens sometimes is that I’m drifting and then suddenly there are Thoughts! which have to be expressed, I coalesce into a person for about 10 minutes and hop on Twitter to express them. But then I’m done, and I dissociate again.

What’s really drifting is checking Twitter, especially my notifications. People often describe this as waiting for the dopamine hit, but it doesn’t really feel like a reward, it’s more that I’m waiting for something to happen, and until then my brain is in idle mode. Thinking at the speed of likes.

How bad this is comes and goes. December was the worst for this, but probably that’s partly because I was ill a lot on December. Right now it’s moderately bad, but feels like it’s letting up.

It never really goes away though unless I have some project I’m able to obsessively work on, which is a state that rarely lasts more than weeks, or I have people to work with (or at least in the company of). Conveniently both of those are 2022 goals, so this problem may be solved as a byproduct of that, but I sure wish I had a clearer idea of why this happens.