DRMacIver's Notebook

Grappling with vastness

Grappling with vastness

It turns out I've written about drifting before, albeit obliquely, in Why is it hard to choose what to do? where I talked about the difference between proactive and reactive work.

One reason why I’m interested in this split is that I’ve found that how proactive I’m able to be is a pretty reliable predictor of my mental health. On a bad day, the ability to be proactive goes long before the ability to be competently reactive.

For example, I often find myself having days where if you dropped me in a coaching call I would be perfectly alert and useful and able to do a decent job, and between calls I get nothing done1 - I check Twitter, or I watch YouTube, play a game, or maybe (probably not) I go for a walk or do some cleaning or the like.

The way this feels internally is that I’m perfectly able to do things, but what I’m unable to do is generate things to do. This is unfortunate, as in theory I have lots of free time and the ability to do quite interesting things, but often they don’t get done anyway.

That is, on a bad mental health day, faced with the requirement to choose what to do, I drift.

Rereading this piece makes the difference between my newsletter and my current notebook writing fairly clear I think. It's a very intellectual approach to the problem - it's not that I don't talk about the feelings involved, but even there it speculates about them in a very detached way that I'm not sure is entirely helpful.

As Adam puts it:

what if your cognitivist problems like "akrasia" and "low executive function" are actually emotional problems like "this scares me" or "i don't actually care"

I noted that drifting feels a lot like a freeze response ("I'm too tired to do anything" is a common feeling leading to drifting), and, well, maybe it is. Maybe I encounter the vastness of free choice available to me and Freeze in response to it.

It's not hard to see little versions of this sort of response.

  1. What should I do with my life?
  2. What should I do today?
  3. What should I write today?
  4. What should I write on my notebook today?
  5. What should I write on my notebook today about what I've been thinking about recently?

As you move down the list the possibilities become more constrained, until it becomes narrower and more tractable. Towards the beginning of the list, you have to confront the vastness, and that's scary.

The problem isn't just that you have to make a choice from within infinite possibilities. It's that you have to grapple with your agency over those choices, and confront your lack thereof.

I started writing about how the problem was infinite freedom and some part of me rebelled, because it's not, is it? In fact there is very little freedom right now, and dealing with "What should I do today?" causes me to confront that head on, let alone "What should I do with my life?". Given free choice over what to do today I'd probably try to hang out with a group of friends in person, but even in the before times that's hard to organise on short notice, and right now it's all but impossible (or at least feels like a bad idea).

Choosing smaller problems allows me to grapple with things that are my size, and that I know I can handle, but as I expand the scope, I have to grapple with a world of possibilities that is vastly larger than me, and could easily crush me as and when it fights back, and honestly, yeah, this scares me.