003 Plans, Processes and Mindlessness

It may seem from some of the stuff
I have been talking about
that I am opposed
to systematic
to how we run our lives
As if being systematic
is the same as being
of course
is not the case
It is true that I am resistant
like many of us
to approaches
to life
that feel arbitrary
and imposed by someone else
Approaches that somehow
feel as if they
do not fit
what is actually going on at the time
I am drawn to improvisation
and situations where
you make things up as you go along
depending upon what is happening
at that moment in time
Maybe like you
I get a buzz
out of paying attention
responding to the particular context
I am in
There can be real enjoyment
when we act spontaneously
guided by what feels right
at that moment
at that place
in that context
But then in contrast
if I look at the pattern of much of my daily life
often my actions tend to be less spontaneous
The day can fall into rigid patterns
a bowl of raw porridge in the morning
a mug of tea and the first cigarette
a quick check of my email
and my horoscope
another mug of tea
then take a look at what I am supposed
to be doing that day
decide to check out something
on the net
make a pot of coffee a bit later on
and so the pattern goes on
one action
prompting the next
a set of familiar
comfortable responses
requiring little attention
a well worn groove
a pretty predictable pattern
to the day
Like most of us
my days tend to be structured
in clusters of habits
repetitive semi-automatic actions
that need little thought
or attention
They are just the things
we do
without much reflection
or questioning
The taken for granted
background to our lives
For something that plays
such an important role in our life
the word habit
is a curious one
We tend to think of habits
as things we need to lose
things that are bad for us
like my habit of smoking
or procrastinating
But our habits
cover much more of what we do
they are an important part of who we are
Our habits are what works for us
or what once worked for us
and provide a framework
for how we define ourselves
and our lives
in everyday action
Another way of looking at this
less coloured by the often negative
we carry about habits
is to use a more neutral word
to think about this pattern of activities
we call habits
as a process
or set of processes
Now process are really interesting
and worth us spending some time
thinking about
There is a lot to unpack here
Both the things I have been talking about
the improvised action
my daily routines
are examples of processes
but examples
that feel very different
One feels like being alive
and paying attention
The other feels like
a way of being
that can be dangerously comatose
a way of avoiding
things that need to be attend to
some caution needs to be exercised here
it is too easy
to simply dismiss
the routines of daily life
just because they seem
mundane and ordinary
The issue
as I have talked about before
is more to do
with the level of attention
we give
to this kind of activity
rather than the activity itself
and what is the appropriate level
of attention
we should give
to the different things we do
I remember reading an interview with
Derek Jarman
the film-maker
shortly after he had discovered
that he had AIDS
at that time a fairly immediate death sentence
he was saying that the knowledge
that he only had a short time to live
made him appreciate
the daily routine and processes of every day life
and how even peeling potatoes
could be experienced
as a celebration of life
Now to experience
peeling potatoes
as a celebration of life
takes a very particular
form of attention
that few of us can manage
and I am not even sure
that we should try
I guess that the irritation
that many of us feel
about things that have to be done
where we want the result
rather than the process
is often because we are too focused
on the process
rather than too little
If peeling potatoes
was really a deeply ingrained
that we could do well
we could get on with it
while absorbed in something else
we enjoyed more
like planning the rest of the meal
or inventing a new future
Of course
paying deep attention
to peeling potatoes
is probably very Zen
and may have profound pleasures
and provide important insights
and could be worth trying
as an occasional experiment
but all the time?
I think not
and maybe
doing so would
fail to respect
the real value of habits
and the role they play in our lives
Getting a feel for habits
is one of the things
at the centre of
purposive drift
Just as our habits
help define who we are
and the pattern of our lives
We are surrounded by the habits
of others
and that
provides the arena
in which we can act
The Universe has its habits
the planets that orbit stars
the comets that appear
in particular places
with predictable regularity
Nature has its habits
from the seasons that come round
one following the other
at roughly the same time of year
to our habit of breathing
to pull the oxygen we need
into the complex of processes
moving at different speeds
we recognise
as ourselves
And human societies have their habits
like the boom and bust
of the stock market
or the ebbs and flows of economic activity
we call growth and recession
or the pig cycle in New Guinea
where individuals accumulate wealth
by breeding pigs
and then return their wealth
to the community
in ceremonial feasts
in a seven year cycle
The easiest processes to see
are those which we can describe
in terms of habits
cyclic actions
that come round time and time again
not always as regular as clock work
not always precisely predictable
but regular enough
for us to have a rough idea
of when they are likely to occur
or which event will probably follow
the current one
But there are other processes
which look less like habits
These are processes
which are about
moving from one state
to another
Sometime we could call them plans
I am planning to write this book
its a kind of one off
The process will have a beginning
a middle
and an end
Of course at the moment
its end is indeterminate
I may not finish it
these word could be the last
I write
So far
so good
And of course
what may look like
a unidirectional process
from one perspective
may look like a circular one from another
You have been born
are aging
and will die
just like
From my point of view
and probably from your?s
that looks like a pretty one way process
From another
its just a cycle of
and death
repeated through the generations
It all depends
where you sit
Neither view is any more correct
than the other
and how we need to think about it
may depend
upon what we are doing at the time
Getting a feel for process
they are cyclic
a means of changing state
is a an important part
of understanding what is going on
We can see our arena for action
at any one time
being a space determined
and those possibilities
are processes that could be
just as the constraints
are processes
that act on our freedom now
The possibilities may be much greater
than we imagine
The constraints may be different
from what we believe
but both define
the spaces
in which we can move
Following a process
a plan
is itself a constraint
on our possibilities
for action
which may be no bad thing
for too much choice
can be as paralysing
as too little
but we need to understand
the process maybe inappropriate
for the situation we are in
that we may be
vital information
readily available to us
if only
we could see outside
the process we are following
I remember once
I had to pick up my son
from his Aikdo class
(another set of learned processes)
At the time I was thinking very hard
about something
Slightly irritated
at having to break my concentration
I got into my car
and started to drive
It must have been
ten or fifteen minutes later
that I realised
that I had been following
drive to work process
and that I had driven
in the opposite direction
to the one I should
The thinking had still been good
because I had been focusing on it
but my immediate task
had gone seriously awry
Ellen Langer
the cognitive psychologist
whose book
talks about both
tells an illuminating story
about how processes
can go wrong
Her story goes
that a friend of hers
was watching
a friend of his preparing
pot roast
He noticed that she cut off
a portion of meat
before putting it into the roasting pot
He asked her why
She told him she didn’t really know
but that was the way her mother
always did it
Her curiosity aroused
she rang her mother
to find out why
Her mother told
she did that way
her mother always did
So she contacted her grandmother
and asked her why
Her grandmother laughed
and told her
that with that size of joint
the only way she could
fit it into her only available roasting pot
was to cut a piece off
Both these examples
are of processes
in one context
were perfectly appropriate
but in another
became stupid
Now both these examples
are trivial in consequence
and probably
lapses of this kind
are unavoidable
metaphorically driving off
in the wrong direction
and mindlessly following
a process from the past
may have serious consequences
and if we look carefully
at how we live
both as individuals
as society
we may find more worrying examples
of inappropriate processes
remorselessly being carried out
The question is
what do we do about it?
Another question is
should we do anything
about it?
There are some processes
that seem
best left alone
I remember a story
Paul Desmond
the soprano player
who was part of the Dave Brubeck Quartet
I don’t know whether it is true
or not
but it makes the point
someone once pointed out
that he sometimes played notes
an octave higher
than a soprano saxophone
should be able to produce
When he tried to work out
how he did it
he found
he could never do it again
Ellen Langer
tells a similar story
someone in her office
who could type very fast
and also read and retain
what he was typing
as he did it
When she asked him
to teach her
how to do it
he found that
analysing what he did
that for a while
he lost those skills
On a slightly different tangent
talking about
the habits of a group
that had been passed down
generation after generation
there is a story
I came across
that filled me with delight
since at the time
I was working in a college
that had
a new
modern management
who knew how things should be done
and knew
that most of what we did
was wrong
The story was told by a Spanish farmer
In his part of Spain
there was a complex system
of irrigation
that had been set up by the Moors
many centuries ago
Not only did the Moors
create the physical infrastructure
of this system
they also
created the system to manage it
The storyteller
had been elected leader
of one of the groups
within this system
Being young
and modern
and knowing
how things should be done
he was appalled
at how the group was run
They had no formal agendas
and kept no written minutes
of the decisions
they reached
He rapidly introduced
a series of innovations
to make the process
more efficient and up to date
Very quickly
he found the group
riven by feuds and quarrels
and their decision-making
ground to a halt
Being a sensible man
he recognised
that maybe
the old ways of doing things
had some value
and went back
to running the meetings
in the way they
always had been done
and lo and behold
the group began to make decisions
You’ve probably picked up
some ambivalence here
of course
you’re right
The process of writing
of having this conversation
with you
has changed what I think
When I first began thinking
about what I was going to say
in this chapter
my focus
was on the way
that processes and plans
can blind us
to what is happening
and can take us to places
we don’t want to be
I was also very conscious
of the role
that formal processes
and plans
in implementing
and justifying
machine-like visions
At best
I could accept
that processes
and plans
could sometimes be useful
that they were questioned
and reflected upon
but some of the examples
I have given
that some processes
should just be accepted
without going through this process
Paul Desmond might have been
better off
had he just continue
to play
without analysing
how he did it
and I was suggesting
the Moors way of managing
how water was distributed
was best left undisturbed
In other words
if the signals that you get
are that things are going OK
maybe it’s best
to just go on
going on
This all begins to sound
very conservative
and in one sense
it is
Purposive drift
is as much about preserving
what you value
as it is about finding out
what is important to you
We need the familiar
and taken for granted
as well as
the fresh and the new
leaving a process
that we can change
is better than changing it
just for the sake of change
But there is something wrong
with the way this view is going too
a slight sense of unease
of discomfort
a sense that
another way of way
of looking at this
what I know
And this is important
These vague feelings
give a clue
to how
we might
give plans and process
their proper weight
Looking at how
we often behave
you could say
we’ve lost our senses
Now this is not to say
we should always act
on what we feel
Feelings can be misleading
or inappropriate
as well as informing
But we seem to have developed
a strange attitude
to our feelings
On the one hand
are seen as being irrational
and therefore
safely ignored
On the other
there is a cult of emotion
that proclaims
that we should express our feelings
in all circumstances
and that actions guided
solely by
what we feel
are the only authentic ones
A position
we seem less often
to adopt
is to see our emotions
as information
that needs interpreting
Raw emotion
tells us what we are feeling
but it doesn’t tell us why
or what we should do about it
But it is useful information
that shouldn’t be ignored
I guess what I am saying here
is that
any process
we have consciously devised
whether it is a routine way
of getting something done
a plan to move from one state
to another
needs some kind of validating
process built into it
We are biological beings
we have whole sets
validating processes
built into how we operate
If we are too cold
our bodies soon let us know
If we need food
we start to feel hungry
The sense of unease
I was feeling earlier
is also
a signal
that there is something going on
I should pay attention to
Now this is complicated
there may be many reasons
for my unease
It could be
that what I am talking about
does not make sense
or it may be that I am apprehensive
about how you will react
to what I am saying
or it may be
that I fear that I am unable
to grasp and express the logic
of where this conversation is going
It may be that I am aware
of running out of space
in the arbitrary structure
I have devised for this book
to take this conversation
to a satisfactory
if temporary
It may even be a combination
of different
contradictory reasons
This is why feeling is not enough
on its own
It can be a useful signal
that some action needs
to be taken
It can be another piece of evidence
to be connected
with other kinds of evidence
to form the basis for a judgement
to see
whether we need to change our actions
or even
to change what we are trying achieve
I think what I am saying
is beginning to make sense
and links to what
I am going to be talking about
with you
the next chapter
There I am going to be talking about
some processes
we do carry out
in a remorseless way
without regard
for the damage they are doing
and disregarding all the evidence
that they are just not working
in the way we intended
But these are special cases
of habits
that have gone wrong
but most processes
fall into another category
a lot of the time
one way or another
they kind of work
and sometimes
they are the best we can hope for
Some my confusion
in this chapter
now begins to look like
a productive kind of confusion
a naming of some the dilemmas
we face
when we start
to think about
how we use plans and processes
in our lives
The reality seems to be
that the world we live
and act in
is a world of processes
and at any moment
there is only a small fraction
of what is going on
that we need to be consciously
aware of
or even can be aware of
More than that
there are only a very small number of things
that we can do anything about
Most of the time
stuff happens
and we react
more or less appropriately
on the information
we have available
and the actions we perceive
are open for us to take
Some times we are right
Some times we are wrong
Some times we just don’t know
one way or another
In making the attempt
to live a life
of purposive drift
all we are trying to do
is to be open enough
to devise plans and processes
that are sensitive
to the ebbs and flows
of the processes that surround us
so that we can recognise
when we need to give a little nudge
to shift us
into another pattern of processes
that for that moment
seems to make more sense
and maybe
that’s the best
we can hope to do
Of course this raises the question
of how do we recognise the need
to give ourselves a nudge?
And how do we know
that another pattern of processes
makes more sense
than the ones we are in now?
These are the things I want to explore
with you as we go on
in the conversations that follow
this one
but first we need
to look at
some of the other things
that can get in our way
and can block our ability
to move more freely
in the spaces that may be available
if only
we could see they were there