Noticing Wasted Motion

by lynettebye3 min read17th Sep 2020No comments

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This post is about a practical skill you need to effectively minimize wasted motion - noticing. Noticing is a key skill for changing behavior in general, because it allows you to respond deliberately instead of automatically. Yet in my experience, it is one of the more difficult skills to learn. Hopefully the following will give you a toehold. 

This piece is cross-posted on my blog here.

In my last post, I talked about the cost of wasted motion - the lost opportunity to go straight for the goal and make the world a bit better. If you’re staring into the dark world of the cost of wasted motion, don’t despair. Minimizing wasted motion is a skill and you can train that skill

But before you can do that, you need to learn to notice wasted motion. This is hard. First, it’s hard to remember to pay attention, especially if you’re already doing something else. Second, it’s hard because -- deep down -- you might not want to. 

It feels ughy to start working, because that project is big and hard. The immediate pain of starting work looms large in the hyperbolic-discounting agents we call brains. Maybe you're anxious that you’ll look bad if you try and fail. So you just...let your mind slip away to easier tasks. You may not even notice you’re doing it. 

But, if you’re paying attention, there’s a little catch there, in your mind. When you stop and think, you know you're procrastinating a little bit. You know you're wasting motion toward your goal. You want to complete your goal, but you also want to avoid dealing with those bad feelings. And that internal conflict makes you feel guilty or frustrated or anxious. 

But that little catch is small and easily ignored. If you haven't thought about it before, you may not even have realized it's there. Maybe that guilt is so small you never really notice it. And maybe it's grown so large that you feel overwhelmed and ashamed (link to measuring progress). 

Learn to notice that bit of frustration at how you’re doing the task, that ugh feeling around a certain plan. 

If you’re not sure where to start, it might help to read more about noticing. A therapy-style before-after record can also be helpful for identifying emotions, what issues trigger that emotion, and reliable ways to respond. 

Personally, I started learning how to notice by reflecting after something went wrong, and seeing what emotions I felt earlier that could have warned me. Once I had those emotions in mind, I started to pause and check in whenever I noticed that emotion. This led to successfully correcting course, which caused a virtuous cycle by reinforcing noticing that emotion. 

For example, one time I got caught up in errands and realized I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner in 5 minutes. The only catch was that the friend was three miles away, and I was on bike. Now for those of you who don’t know me in person, I’m not exactly the paragon of physical endurance. There was no way on earth I was getting there in 5 minutes. But I felt this tunnel vision pressure to bike as fast as I could and not think about the fact I was probably late. 

I finally showed up, quite winded, about half an hour late. It turned out my friend had been pretty worried. I felt really bad, but it was useful for recognizing that the feeling of “I can’t stop to reflect, I just have to press forward as fast as I can”. That tunnel vision feeling reliably signals that I’m feeling time pressure to keep going, but also think I may be doing the wrong thing. Since then, I’ve gotten better at slowing down and checking my plan whenever I notice that feeling. 

I experience emotional responses that tell me a poor choice is happening. Other people sometimes describe noticing physical sensations or directly noticing a poor choice, so feel free to try those instead. 

You can try deliberately practicing noticing. If you already know of something that triggers the feeling, then you can deliberately cause that emotion and practice responding the way you want to. Or you can try making an intention to notice. Borrowed from psychology, these intentions are usually formatted as if/then sentences - if I notice X feeling, then I will do Y. There is high variance to how well these intentions work in practice, but they are extremely useful when successful. 

It might take you a bit to identify what you’re trying to notice. Some people describe looking for what their thoughts slide away from, rather than going straight for the negative feeling. If you’re really struggling, deliberately plan not to fix the problem when you notice you’re wasting motion. This piece of advice might seem super weird. After all, the end goal is to save motion. But if you have to change something if you notice it, you might subconsciously stop yourself from ever noticing it.  

As you start to pay attention to those cues, they can be confusing. It’s hard to tell if you’re feeling frustrated because your plan is bad or just because the task is hard. Try doing a brain dump when you feel that frustration. Let your thoughts spill onto the page, and see if there’s a different action you could take that would accomplish your goal better and make that feeling go away.  If you’re not certain about this plan, try it for a week. Then reevaluate whether it’s useful for you. 

As you practice, the feelings become clearer and more useful. You’ll get fewer false alarms. 

But for now, notice when you feel that catch in your emotions. Pay attention to why you feel frustrated or trapped or unhappy. See if those emotions are saying, “Here, do it this way instead. That way won’t work, you’ll just waste time” or “You know it would be better if you did the other thing instead. Why don’t you go and do that?” Use those cues to become aware of when you’re wasting motion. 

Once you’re aware, then you can stop wasting motion. 

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