Design 3: Intentionality

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This is part 24 of 30 in the Ham­mer­time Se­quence. Click here for the in­tro.

In­ten­tions are mo­men­tary, but prob­lems last for­ever.

A hu­man be­ing’s at­ten­tion flits around like the Ro­man God Mer­cury, root of the word “mer­cu­rial” – sub­ject to sud­den or un­pre­dictable changes of mood or mind. The biggest prob­lems in life re­quire con­cen­trated effort over years or decades, but you can only muster the willpower to even in­tend to solve a prob­lem for min­utes or hours. Worse, you can pretty much only main­tain one in­ten­tion at a time.

How do we make in­ten­tions count?

The philos­o­phy of De­sign is: build in­ten­tions into ex­ter­nal re­al­ity. Like your prob­lems, ex­ter­nal re­al­ity also lasts for­ever.

Day 24: Intentionality

You need to lose those love han­dles. Your read­ing list is piling up. You need to learn ten differ­ent pro­gram­ming lan­guages. You need to sleep three hours ear­lier. You need to main­tain your clos­est friend­ships. You jug­gle three differ­ent ad­dic­tions that take turns mo­nop­o­liz­ing your life. You need to pre­sent like a func­tion­ing adult to your par­ents and cowork­ers. A child­hood trauma you’re re­press­ing makes it im­pos­si­ble to befriend a cer­tain half of the pop­u­la­tion.

You have a lot of prob­lems, each of which re­quires ded­i­cated effort and thought to fix. Worse, each prob­lems de­te­ri­o­rates while you’re work­ing on the oth­ers. Per­haps some have gone so ne­glected they’re im­pos­si­ble to look at, and are slowly swal­low­ing the rest of your life like a su­per-mas­sive black hole.

Right this minute, there’s prob­a­bly only a hand­ful of prob­lems that feel al­ive enough to you to in­ject en­ergy into. Of those, you can only work on one at a time. In this crazy un­fair world, how do you make the most of your in­ten­tions?

Out­source the Burden

There’s a cer­tain un­pro­duc­tive way of think­ing which goes like this:

“If I were re­ally ra­tio­nal, I wouldn’t need all these aids. I wouldn’t need chrome ex­ten­sions to block Face­book and Twit­ter, friends to re­ward me for the slight­est progress, and SSRI’s to keep my demons at bay. I could just do what is right all the time.”

Give it up. There might be some­thing aes­thet­i­cally ap­peal­ing about hand­i­cap­ping your­self this way, but it’s no way to ac­tu­ally solve prob­lems. Life is tough and deeply un­fair and you’ll need all the help you can get if you want any chance of suc­cess.

Part of the De­sign philos­o­phy is al­low­ing your­self to out­source your heroic bur­den. You can’t com­plete this quest alone. Make all the inan­i­mate and an­i­mate ob­jects in your life side­kicks in your quest – not ob­sta­cles. Every tiny push in the right di­rec­tion you can get ex­ter­nally is one less ounce of force you need to gen­er­ate your­self.

In­cen­tive Gradients

The world is filled with tiny in­cen­tive gra­di­ents that slowly push you to­wards lo­cal op­tima. Look for and pay at­ten­tion to these in­cen­tive gra­di­ents so that you can turn them to your ad­van­tage. Tip­ping the scales in the small­est way can do work for you in the long term.

In prac­tice, we fo­cus on the 4 S’s of De­sign. All of these we’ve already cov­ered, but it’s time to re­view again.

Space. How is your space de­signed to help achieve your goals? Is the place you work max­i­mally com­fortable and well-lit? Are the things you need for your rou­tines placed in op­ti­mal lo­ca­tions? Does the aes­thet­ics of the space prop­erly re­flect your val­ues? Is it con­ducive to pro­duc­tive so­cial in­ter­ac­tion?

Sched­ules. How do you man­age your time and en­ergy through­out days and weeks? Do you work bet­ter by in­ter­leav­ing differ­ent kinds of ac­tivi­ties, or by batch­ing? Do you sched­ule things in such a way that you look for­ward to the fu­ture? Do you use Cal­en­dars and apps effi­ciently to re­move the men­tal load of re­mem­ber­ing things? Do you fol­low your plans?

So­cial Groups. Do your friends re­ward you for mak­ing progress? Do they pun­ish you for failure? In any so­cial net­work, ev­ery in­di­vi­d­ual is drawn in­evitably into a niche: the Silent One, the Alpha, the Clown, the Cheer­leader, the Cynic. What niche do you in­habit? What forces push you there? Is it where you want to be?

Screens. Given how much time we spend on screens, and the Machi­avel­lian mo­tions by which ev­ery­thing on the in­ter­net tries to en­snare your soul, pay at­ten­tion to your com­puter habits. Draw a quick graph of how you nav­i­gate ap­pli­ca­tions and web­sites. What fac­tors take you from one place to the next? Where do you get side­tracked most of­ten?

Be Good In­cen­tives for Others

I had a vi­sion yes­ter­day of what the best friend­ships look like:

Two lit­tle boys want to fly. Each crouches on the mulch in one cor­ner of the play­ground, tug­ging as hard as they can on their boot­laces, try­ing to pull them­selves up into the air. They tug un­til veins bulge in their fore­heads, but their lit­tle boots re­main firmly planted on the ground.

One of the boys no­tices the other, and walks over. After a mo­ment of silence, they each drop their own laces, in­ter­weave their arms and hold on to the other’s boot­laces. Pul­ling as hard as they can, they as­cend into the air. Faster and faster the boys fly up­wards. Un­til the neon yel­low tube slide is the size of a pinky. Un­til the red brick schoolhouse is the size of an ant. Un­til the Earth is the size of a droplet of wa­ter.

Learn to provide good in­cen­tives for the peo­ple around you. If the small­est push on a reg­u­lar ba­sis might solve your prob­lems, pro­vid­ing this push for other peo­ple can solve theirs. And the small­est push in the wrong di­rec­tion can cor­rupt the purest of souls. Take a good hard look at the way you in­ter­act with peo­ple, and what this im­plies about what you want for them. Are there par­tic­u­lar peo­ple around whom you hap­pen to always play Devil’s Ad­vo­cate? Are there ways you act to in­ten­tion­ally de­ceive, ma­nipu­late, or ig­nore?

Laugh at good jokes. Learn when to listen and hold space for oth­ers. Give spe­cific praise and grat­i­tude. Provide crit­i­cism in a con­se­quen­tial­ist man­ner.

Daily Challenge

Praise me for one thing I’ve done well in Ham­mer­time and crit­i­cize me for one thing I’ve done badly.

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