Emotion as motion

Swarming the blocker for 1 player

I went spinning with my bike club one lunchtime this week at Psycle London in central, which was always going to get me thinking about spin.systems.

The experience was an unexpected shift from the perspective fostered in conventional exercise programs, which can have a punitive nigh on sadistic quality cloaked as justified by the cause of self-betterment: go harder, just do it, you have more in you (admonishments intent on driving you past pain barriers).

Instead, there was a wholesome atmosphere set to an EDM sountrack, the 2010's low-rates era poptimism, and the instructor emphasised us giving "everything you'd brought" to "the space you work in" (language which subtly pumps your ego, selfhood, and drive to contribute).

LED strip lights were beating overhead, as we were guided to curl dumbbells ("pulse"), to let one leg lead the ride, alternate between grips (side, top, close, ...) at times bouncing between them, switch from seated to standing, temporarily freeze our hips in place (forcing all the resistance into our legs), "run" (ascending an imaginary flight of steps through the pedals as fast as possible), and constantly retake control of the machine resistance by changing the gear (up and to the right or "back down" to the left).

Writing it out like this, rather than experiencing it unmediated by active awareness, my hunch is that all this geometric, orienting language works to engage a spatial sensorium (while, obviously, sat still on something that typically is moving) and establish a symbolic connection between directions (up, down, close, out, low, high) to enhance what weightlifters call "mind muscle connection" (the name given to the active consideration of muscles being engaged in a workout, which increases attendance to form and, so the theory goes, thereby achieves higher quality exercise).

The direction that I was left with ingrained in my mind upon leaving was from one particular directive called out midway through the class, in a strangely heartfelt way:

When you push down with one leg, I want you to pull up with the other leg, because when things get heavy, we're Still. Moving. Upward.

I may be misremembering the exact wording, but the effect was undeniably an innuendo of a deeper double meaning, definitely some wink to break the fourth wall at play, as if to say there's something symbolic about your relation to your body in a training class that carries over more deeply to your psyche, that the psyche is indeed something you must train to be in good health. Of course, the name of the brand nods to the same.

As much as I felt that all this softly softly approach to fitness was not 'for' me (as someone who is comfortable going to a gym, and doesn't need a certain sort of uptalk to get or keep me there) I still felt touched by the sentiment.

It sat and nestled in my brain as I went back to work after lunch, and I abstracted it away from the gym and considered applying it to my mindset at work.

I'd been working on a big project that had become a bit of a slog. Task after task, no quick shortcuts or easy wins, and as glad as you may be to get through it you also begin to lose the will to live.

Halting on problems

It was this sensation of having your life force drained by obstacles in a task that I could see was counterproductive.

When encountering a problem, either your faculties kick in to resolve it, or you are exhibiting learned helplessness. The typical reaction is all too often to bemoan obstacles, to sigh and become dejected and instinctively move to look away...

Being knocked out of your flow by a problem that you require said flow state to tackle seems akin to burnout in micro.

You might suggest that such feelings are cue to take a break, but the effect is therefore to slow down and fall prey to the problem.

I think this highlights a deeper issue in how we approach problems, particularly the emotions we unconsciously attach to them. These emotions colour our perception of problems and subtly draw us away from them altogether, to turn a blind eye, avert our gaze in favour of something more pleasant...

If it's always a negative experience to encounter an obstacle, and specifically if it's so negative that it triggers avoidant psychology, then how can it do anything but make the work harder? You can't solve what you're trying not to face head on, so if we accept these subconscious mannerisms then we are destined to struggle, because obstacles are inevitable.

We are setting ourselves up for a bad time.

Condition of success

I find it helpful to repeat in some situations: what's the condition of success here? We can often say how it'd be possible for a situation to fail, but if that's all we can see (if we can't see a way to win in the situation) then we're talking about a guaranteed L. I typically raise this question when someone has unintentionally eliminated any chance of success by their way of framing the situation. A polite nudge encouraging them to consider what would constitute a positive outcome can help shift their perspective and avoid succumbing to fatalism.

So how do we succeed in working life where obstacles are going to show up? Clearly I would argue there's no possibility to succeed when a barrage of negative emotional responses accompanies your participation.

Manual effort is inevitable, our best efforts at automation won't always lead to sudden gratifying simplification.

The understanding that I came to was that besides explicit blockers (which we have language to talk about in Agile), we tend to hide implicit gaps in knowledge of a problem and silence criticism of our own work.

We avert our gaze from obstacles for the same reason we avoid acknowledging problems: they make us uncomfortable. Even the awareness of these issues can drain the psychological energy needed to carry on with the work, or put a chink in the composure we uphold as professionals.

But what if, instead of avoiding them, we confront these problems head-on? What if we actively pursued these avoidant thought processes as soon as we noticed them?

What if we reframed our emotional reaction to obstacles and supported the weight of that "heavy" downward push with an upward, spirited move, like in spin? Instead of dwelling on them and letting them cut your reserves, what if we actively ran towards these avoidant thought processes and used them as our catalyst?

What if we subconsciously sought out the unblocker, the thing that would free us from the feeling of being stuck? Can we imagine something so successful that it breaks through any obstacle?

This post is part 1 of The downbeat technique, a series looking at a physical analogy to exit writer's block, fatalism, and burnout at a core psychic level. Read on for part 2, discussing best practices for using it as a software engineer.