Attentional and Motivational Dynamics of Goal Space (Part One)

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

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So let’s say that something about your life is not *handled.* (Or, lots of things.) It feels like if you left this thing on autopilot it would never improve. And it feels like you have no idea what to do to move it *towards* handled. There is no clear path forward, or any path at all.

You can sort of describe things you want and don’t want, in general language, but those descriptions don’t suggest a way forward. You don’t know if going after the things you want will actually get you to the things you want. You don’t know if you even want the things that you want, or you can’t be sure of what the concrete shape of what you want should be. And you don’t even know if the things you want are possible, let alone actually desirable once you have them. And you’re not sure what you should want at the expense of other things you want. And you’re not sure how the concrete things you have to do, in the present, those things you do to keep the game going, should interact with these vague, ambiguous, ill-defined, uncertain future possibilities. Furthermore, these goals, wants, desires bounce around in your head as you think, ruminate, read, try stuff out or don’t, take first steps or don’t, have conversations, etc. Furthermore, you don’t trust some of your desires. You suspect that they are solutions to problems you don’t need to have or that there are things you could do first to dissolve the *need* for those solutions, if you could only figure out what steps to take in that direction.

So let’s say you’re willing to experiment, to take actions in various directions, maybe even write down some language, write down some “outcomes” or “goals.” But, sometimes this doesn’t work, for a lot of reasons.

First, that goal language might have no energy behind it the next time you look at it, or even whilte you’re writing it. The sense of what you want(ed) with all the attendant energy, motivation, emotion behind it is no longer there. It’s not that the goal is gone, it’s just that the link between what you wrote and the goal is gone. The words you got down weren’t a good anchor.

Or, another thing could happen. You try to get some words down, but you notice that the act of trying to put words to the goal starts to interfere with the goal. It’s like pinning a butterfly to a board. You caught it, but you’ve killed it. Sometimes some gentle effort can capture the goal without killing it, but some goals resist being captured in this way. These goals are nuanced, shifting, complex, fragile–perhaps not the goal itself, but what would be a reified expression of that goal in the world. It’s hard to hold onto vivid, rich, meaningful essence that you deeply cherished and valued in the first place as you try to capture a concrete realization of that goal that’s stable enough (in terms of situated achievability) to move forward on.

Or, another thing could happen. You try to get some words down, but you notice that the act of trying to put words down is interfering with other goals, duties, responsibilities, needs that are more immediate. Attempting to concretize this goal creates disruptive ripples in goal space, making it an overall a non-starter to try and actually get that goal down and integrated. It’s probably still there in a vague and diffuse way, there’s still energy behind it, but it’s not focalized, not graspable, but having it graspable would cause problems.

Or, another thing could happen, the goal doesn’t contain the means, it’s ungrounded. But neither can you link actions to the goal in such a way that doing those actions feels like and means that you’re doing the original goal. You don’t feel like you’re doing the goal, you feel like you’re doing meaningless actions that don’t feel like you’re doing the goal. They take a lot of effort and you don’t feel like you’re actually moving closer to the goal.

Or, in an attempt to set explicit goals, you intuit that setting goals will make it less likely that you’ll get what you want than setting no goals at all. The kinds of goals you habitually reach for don’t map well to what your deeper intuition feels you actually need.

Or, sometimes your monkey machinery is interfering with seeing the world clearly and sometimes the world isn’t arranged in a way that fit your brains ability to generate discrete, legible goals. Deep down you don’t believe your goal or plan will work or you believe it will take too much energy away from other important things. (And whether or not this perception is actually true, it feels true.)

In any case, for any of those reasons above, you’ve got nothing to grasp, no representation to hold onto, no framework, no gears to turn, no machinery to crank, no way to get good traction and a sense of progress towards what you actually want. Or, it’s a patchwork of those things. Bit and pieces, fits and starts, attempts and experiments and experiences–You’re moving forward, maybe, sometimes, but it’s not *handled*: It takes a lot of attention, cognition, emotional energy. Sometimes that feels good, and sometimes it doesn’t, and it interferes with the rest of your life.

So, I’m exploring how to have a light touch in goal space, to make non-disruptive, creative forays, to experiment, to sketch something you can come back to, that has energy behind it, that you can get believable traction on, that doesn’t interfere with your other goals, legible or illegible, that moves you forward on illegible goals that you care about without doing damage to them or your representation of them. I wonder if it’s possible to deliberately, directly work with goal space, scribing goals that embed seamlessly with illegible goal fields and other explicit goals, that participate in superordinate related goals…

There’s this phenomenal thing that happens when you attend to a goal (or any emotional object, or any object): Everything else “dims.” It’s as if everything hinges on that one thing you’re focusing on…

To be continued…

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