The Centipede's Dilemma - When Effort Backfires
From micromanaging your thoughts to effortless flow
“Thinking too much about right thinking. Like a centipede who is asked how he does it, so that he does not stumble. In his introspection he suddenly begins to stumble. "
Entering the PIN code on my phone I normally press the right keys without even thinking about them. I do so subconsciously. But the moment I grow conscious of which number to press first, I stumble, even press the wrong numbers.
It may seem paradoxical but not paying too close attention to certain actions increases our performance. Conscious effort can be counter-productive.
This phenomenon is well known in professional sport and is sometimes referred to as “Analysis paralysis”. In contrast, when you’re in the flow and you’re not thinking about it, you act effortlessly and you just trust your skills.
Trusting our subconscious skills enables us to act effortlessly and perform the task to the best of our ability, using our skills to the utmost.
A key to understanding the flow state arises from the distinction made between two knowledge systems our brain operates on:
The explicit system
The implicit system
The explicit system is rule-based, its content can be expressed by verbal communication, and it is tied to conscious awareness. With this memory, we can answer questions like "How much is 2 x 2?" Or "What are the hobbies of David Hasselhoff?"
In contrast, the implicit system stores, among other things, highly complex skills that cannot be adequately expressed through language, such as our ability to ride a bicycle. Such memory is extremely robust against disruption and unlearning - we hardly ever forget how to ride a bike.
A little experiment that you can try: type the following sentence without looking down at your hands: "A wild frog jumps joyfully." Now, without looking, try naming the ten letters that appear in the top row of your keyboard.
You probably found it rather easy to type the above sentence without having to navigate your fingers on the keyboard consciously. This is implicit memory in action. Having to recall which letters appear in the top row of your keyboard, however, is something that requires explicit memory.
Describing how to play tennis is basically impossible. We have to learn it by doing and training our implicit memory.
When you just start learning to play tennis, you are thinking about every little detail. You have to constantly remind yourself how to stand, how to hold the racket, how strong you hit the ball, etc...
Yet soon after some practice, you can play shot combinations while thinking about chocolate cakes. The right way of holding the racket happens then by itself. As soon as you learn to combine a whole set of tennis strokes you might start to think even not in stroke combinations but in playing styles (collection of strategies, e.g. defensive play). Your attention will be on the external experiences and the overall style. Your focus is guided by creative intuition and awareness for more subtle nuances.
At this moment, playing tennis becomes effortless. We are completely absorbed by action, we are in Flow, we rely on and trust our implicit memory. In this context, learning means increasing the complexity of our implicit memory.
A well-learned task is performed best if it is controlled maximally by implicit memory. Any interference by the explicit memory (“overthinking“) in the actual execution of the task is detrimental to our performance.
The more advanced our learning process becomes, the more intuitive our previously learned behavior becomes. In the successful learning process, we reduce the impulses (thoughts, decisions) per action. You can go more and more on a meta-level. Towards controlling on the level of style instead of the level of micro-actions. Additionally, we feel more and more emotionally secure and confident. This perceived security will guide us intuitively through creative decisions without costing us much energy.
Yet when we are playing tennis in front of an audience and we make a mistake, it pushes us to try harder and to avoid mistakes. As a consequence, we might fall back to micromanaging our actions (e.g. Overthinking our hand position on the tennis racket or ruminating what to say next in social situations) and we interfere with our natural instinct and intuition. As a result, our brain’s error detection kicks us out of Flow.
Overall, overthinking causes us that our conscious mind doesn’t trust our subconscious mind anymore. We lose self-confidence and perform much worse than before.
Each stage of learning has a “point of attention” – a single objective that you focus on controlling. Flow experiences often rely on habitual patterns of response to certain stimuli. Automating sequences of action allows us more attention to be invested in the essential aspects of the activity. To stay with the example of tennis, if you automatized your forehand shot, your awareness has the capacity to think about strategies and shot combinations or observe subtle weaknesses in your opponent.
Thus, effortless attention is rarely fully automatic. In fact, it is likely that in the Flow state a person is more open, more alert and flexible, within the awareness of the activity.
Micromanagement vs. Metaphors
If you don’t trust yourself, you can’t let go of doubts & ruminations. You’ll limit your ability to create at a bigger level.
For people suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), the merciless voice of the inner critic is especially hyperactive. That’s why OCD is sometimes called “The Doubting Disease”. The never-ending loops of doubts and fears are caused by a too strong firing brain region called orbital-frontal cortex (OFC). This part of our brain acts as an error detection mechanism and gives a feeling of something is wrong.
In contrast, several studies describe extensive deactivation in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) during musical improvisation. As Roger Beaty’s paper “The Neuroscience of Musical Improvisation“ stated:
“[The] deactivation was interpreted as reflecting a suspension of inhibitory or conscious monitoring processes.”
In order to help us stay in the Flow state and not fall prey to our inner critic, we can train the use of metaphors or analogies. In the movie The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi used this type of learning when he taught Daniel-san how to deflect a punch using the “wax on, wax off” analogy.
Such analogies help to direct the learners attention to an external point of concentration and keep the cognitive processes flexible enough to adapt to new circumstances.
In this way, an athlete training with analogies will not suffer ill effects from stress that easily and can even continue to improve. In contrast, an athlete that was explicitly trained with behavior recipes will be much easier negatively impacted.
Similar to metaphors, games and role-plays can make it easier for us to acquire new modes of agency. When you wanna become a self-confident speaker it helps dramatically when you first learn to embody your personal role models. Using, for example, rock-star personas as Identity-Construction Blueprints gives our intuition clear guidelines how self-confident acting feels.
"Games offer easier entry points into novel modes of agency precisely because they are thinner, narrower, and more precisely specified."
- C Thi Nguyen
Putting yourself in the shoes of your personal role model (e.g.: David Hasselhoff) - imagining what it feels like to be him or her - gives our intuition an easy inspiration to act. Feeling “as if” guides our movements with a vision. This means refocusing on different meta-levels (e.g. style) beyond our micro-actions that we want to control with overthinking.
In conclusion, implicit learning is a key to effortless attention and action; it's easier to sustain a non-striving mindset when coordinated movements happen automatically and are acquired through implicit learning. Conversely, when skills are learned through excessive analytical thinking, a stressful situation might cause you to return to such thinking mode more easily.
When we learn to shift our point of concentration to where it is essentially needed in the current moment, we can find creativity and self-confidence in all learning stages. For instance, when you play tennis and you feel stuck or can’t find your rhythm, you could refocus your attention on “playing like Roger Federer”. Creating and simulating vibes guide your actions in the same way a musical conductor directs the melodic shape of his orchestra.
Letting our actions be guided by the bigger vision (emotions or style), we allow our actions to emerge bottom–up.
“Eyes on the forest, not on the trees.”
— Suzanne Collins
If we zoom out on the bigger picture & vision, our actions can self-organize and we can reach effortless spontaneity. If we zoom in on details we can update our automatic behaviors & habits if needed, yet if we micromanage our minds, we get lost in controlling details. In these moments, our zoom button seemed to be stuck on the closest setting. The lens through which we view the world can help or hinder our ability to make good strategic decisions, especially during crises.
Once we let go of controlling every action and open up to the guiding visions of our muses, creating and acting feels more like channeling than controlling. Allowing style and aesthetics to move through us, we can relax our inner judge and let our movements be conducted by the bigger picture.
In such states of absorption, we lose our sense of self and we act based on intrinsic motivation— acting and interacting because we intrinsically love these activities or see innate value in them. Our actions emerge spontaneously & effortlessly and are guided by our innate creative source.
When we learn to recognize that we want to explicitly control something that can be better performed implicitly, we should refocus and allow creative action to emerge effortlessly. In this way, our conscious mind learns to trust our subconscious intelligence and intuitive creativity. Thus, allowing us to beat endless rumination and find healthy balance between thinking and acting.
“No organism can afford to be conscious of matters with which it could deal at unconscious levels.”
— Gregory Bateson