After all the serious stuff I’ve been writing I thought it was time for a bit of levity. It’s also occurred to me over the last couple of years that a lot of our problems stem from our tendency to massively overcomplicate (and overthink) our world. So I’m going to try to kill two birds with one stone.
KISSED is a pretty dumb acronym. I played around with FUCKED (Faulty Unconscious/Conscious Knowledge Enhances Dysfunction) and PENIS (Psychologically Enhanced Neurosis Is Silly), but gave up on VOMIT. And let’s face it, the world needs more acronyms (especially three-letter acronyms or TLAs), because nothing screams competence like a string of acronyms combined with some choice pieces of jargon. I found this strategy worked particularly well when I worked for a big consultancy – consultant-speak seems to involve a never-ending stream of TLAs, jargon, and (if possible) Powerpoint. Apparently they’re the three pillars of civilisation and mental nirvana.
Kidding aside, this overcomplification (OK, I admit this isn’t actually a word, but I intend to use it for illustrative purposes) for its own sake seems to be a bane of modern living. Workers become swamped under a complex mound of TLAs, HR practices, and badly designed systems. And when we leave work, we’re surrounded by a never ending array of signs, systems and silliness that requires, nay demands our attention. Sadly, this excessive demand on our attentional systems results in two things. First, we don’t pay attention, we tune out instead in an attempt to avoid the constant drain on our attentional resources. Second (and this is the sad/scary bit), we’re trained from an early age to overcomplicate our own lives, by overanalysing, overthinking, and overreacting wherever possible.
You might remember that a while back I talked about Daniel Kahneman’s notion that humans have two major processing systems: Type I and Type II thinking. Put really simply, Type I thinking is all of the complex, automatic processing we do that doesn’t involve conscious thought. So, for example, if someone asks you to calculate 2+2 when you’re driving, Type I will kick in and let you do both, whilst continuing the conversation. Type I systems require virtually no effort, but aren’t flexible, they only do stuff that’s been previously trained into them. Type II systems, on the other hand, allow us to solve more complex problems (like 79×456) but require our attention. We can’t therefore, solve a Type II problem and (for example) drive a car at the same time – you’d need to pull over to solve the problem. Type II problems, therefore, require more processing time and use a fair bit of blood sugar (the brain’s fuel) in the process. Now, because we didn’t evolve with ready access to sources of blood sugar, we are programmed to conserve it whenever we can and tend to favour Type I thinking over Type II thinking wherever possible. So much so, in fact, that we’ll often kid ourselves that we’ve solved a complex problem by substituting a Type I answer to a Type II problem (and then believing that we actually solved the problem).
What have Daniel Kahneman’s ideas got to do with the problem of overcomplification? I think we’re falling victim to a nasty bug in our neural architecture. Type I-II thinking systems demand that we economise by using Type I when we can, and Type II when we have to. I think that the overbombardment of our systems by useless tat (in the form of rules, regulations and TLAs) has taught us to engage Type I to ignore a lot of our input (to disengage when we need to), but also to engage Type II thinking when we don’t need to (because a lot of this shit is confusing). Type II thinking is great for solving problems, but it’s physically and mentally exhausting over time, and if we can’t turn it off we can get into a lot of trouble.
It appears that many of us have fallen victim to our own Type II processing systems. We’ve learnt to overthink pretty much everything, without coming up with any sort of a solution. Instead of disengaging at this point, we continue to overthink, in round after round of painful internal analysis, and with diminishing returns. Each time we’re unsuccessful in finding a solution, we reinforce the process until the go-to for any problem is paralysing indecision caused by excessive overanalysis. At the same time, we let our Type I systems do the important stuff with unpleasant results. We’ve learnt to trust our feelings, and to act accordingly. As we’ve talked about before (read here), if you feel that something’s right, it’s probably wrong – systems that worked really well for predicting the world around us 100,000+ years ago just don’t work anymore. And, sadly, acting on our feelings tends to mean we’re acting on instinct – which means we’re definitely not in the driving seat (and often acting in ways that are pretty crap).
In other words, excessive input exposes a flaw (bug) in our neural architecture: it activates overthinking, which binds up our ability to think rationally by clogging our Type II systems. This leaves us victim to the whims of our Type I systems (without a rational override), and the consequent overreaction that often accompanies attending to and acting on our emotions.
Is there an antidote I hear you ask? Simply put, yes. It’s called (wait for it) mindfulness. Let me reiterate. Mindfulness is the voluntary focusing of attention without associated labelling or judgement (the mental chatter and desire to solve or fix). It’s the ability to experience the present moment without getting distracted by the associated thoughts and memories and the consequent Type II grind. It’s keeping it simple (and stopping extreme dysfunction)…
Nobody can (or should) live their lives in perpetual mindfulness – after all, it is useful to stop and think from time to time. It isn’t useful, however, to get so stuck in our own heads that we’re incapable of interacting properly with the real world. The trick is knowing when and how to direct your attention to the task at hand, rather than flitting from one thing to another, or being paralysed by excessive internal activity. So next week I’ll write a simple primer on mindfulness and compassion – a “Mindfulness and Compassion for Dummies”.
So, in the meantime, sit back, relax, and try not to get FUCKED.