My Next Step
I feel anxious when I don’t know where to place my next step, literally and figuratively. And the compounding effect of this means a series of small uncertainties can lead to massive chaos
I don’t know if I should apologise for the long gap since the last edition. While for a while I simply didn’t have much material to put here, a friend also pointed out that I might be indulging in a lot of confirmation bias, and I think he is right.
That I’d been writing a lot about ADHD had meant that I was attributing a lot more to it than I should have. Consequently, I decided to not write here for another month. That month passed a month ago. Add another month for my “NED”, and here I am.
Recently I wrote about uncertainty, and about how that results in jittery and inefficient communication. Like the stuff I write on my main blog, it is a rather random and rambling post, where I start with Information Theory, and then go on to write about the effects of how mothers hold their newborns.
Now I think I’m going to (over)extend this theory to incorporate ADHD as well (is this confirmation bias, as my friend pointed out? may well be!). Like everything else I write on this newsletter, this is again largely based on in depth study of a sample of one - yours truly.
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The past weekend was a mixed one. It was mostly very good, including a party that we hosted. However, on Saturday, I remember feeling fairly jittery for large parts of the day (the peak-end rule meant that the weekend was great since I had a good Sunday).
During one of those jittery times on Saturday I had some time for myself, and I started introspecting about what makes me anxious. And through on-and-off thought about this through the day, I figured that I can summarise it as:
I feel anxious when I don’t know where to place my next step. And this compounds.
Let me explain. Taking a very literal example. Let’s say you are walking across a wet floor. That means you need to pay extra attention to every single step, so that you don’t slip and fall. This means you need to pay far more attention to each step than you normally would.
When you are walking, that is seldom likely to be the only thing you are doing - you are likely to be talking or thinking or daydreaming or something. And every bit (no pun intended) of attention you pay to your next step takes away from the other thing you were doing.
You go from single-tasking to multi-tasking. The constant back and forth in thought drains you. You become mentally more tired, and more prone to bad decisions.
Principal Agent Problem
Another situation that massively stresses me out is when I’m being an agent to another principal (for example, my wife has asked me to call someone on her behalf). In this case, I know that I’m acting on behalf of this person, and so I need to follow a particular script and do things in a particular way. This script or way may not be how I would naturally react to that situation.
Once again, my mind is instinctively telling me something. However, I know that I need to do things in a different way here. Hence, conflict. Increased thought. More mental strain.
On a related note, being an agent to a principal also means second guessing what they would have done in that step, and trying to do the same thing. This again implies “being in two places at once” (basically holding two strands of thought simultaneously in your head), and ammo for the brain to get thoroughly confused and fade.
Like I remember, this Saturday, one of the things that absolutely drained me was telling the cook what to make for dinner - I wasn’t going to eat that anyway, and I had to guess what my wife wanted, and she had conveniently disappeared at that time. This might sound trivial but this absolutely drained me out.
Again related to this, or maybe a subset of this, is micromanagement. When someone is giving you very precise instructions on how to go about something, and that is a thing you have a “natural way” of approaching, there is an immediate conflict. If you follow their instructions, you fight your own instinct and that drains you out. If you don’t, they are not happy with you and THAT drains you out. No win situation.
We frequently get into situations in life where we don’t know what the “acceptable next step” is. Since we personally don’t have an intuition, we start second guessing on what we are supposed to do. Again this is tricky. Invariably, it creates doubts on whether the path we’ve taken is the right one (irrespective of what path we take).
So, unless we very strongly convince ourselves that we don’t care at all about social approval, it is again a no win situation we get into.
When it is not clear what is being expected of you, or what you are supposed to do, again you don’t know where to place your next step. This directly relates to the blogpost I linked to earlier. Not being clear of what the other person wants, or not being able to communicate clearly, is similar to not being sure of where to place your next step. And it produces similar results.
What does ADHD have to do with this?
Again, I’m speculating, and extrapolating from my very comprehensive sample of one.
Firstly, when you have ADHD, you are a bad decision-maker, and can be prone to frequent flip-flops. This is because you are unable to carry through on a plan, and at each step you decide to optimise, ignoring the plan that got you to that step in the first place.
Consequently, you keep changing your strategy. And so keep reversing your decision, sometimes to hilarious or dangerous effects.
Now, add a (figurative) wet floor to this. Suddenly, you need to make so many more decisions - on where to place your (figurative) foot each time. That can be tiring. And there can be times when you change this decision when your foot is in mid-air, risking a fall, which creates its own set of anxieties and decision making.
Messing with workflows
I’ve written about how one way you combat ADHD is by having workflows, that you brainlessly follow. This helps you to reduce the number of decisions you make (since every decision, however big or small, can drain you).
When you don’t know where to place your next step, your workflows get massively messed with. Even if you have made a short term plan, the sudden uncertainty of your next step means the number of your optimisations goes up significantly. And more optimisations means more mental work, and you get drained.
This is the same issue with micromanagement - it messes with your internal workflows and makes you recalibrate very frequently. Which again means more decision making and draining you.
Being In Two Places At Once
Let’s say I’m making a decision on behalf of someone else. First of all, I’m not able to empathise with them, which means I need to let my rational brain think of what is the right decision there. Now, add in uncertainty of not knowing that they really want.
“Should I place my foot here or there? What will they think if I put my foot here?”, followed by deep thought on how the someone else will react if you put your foot ‘here’. And continuing the thought, “What will they think if I put my foot there?” followed by deep thought on how they will react if I put my foot there.
Let’s say you need to decide whether to do something or not. You start evaluating both situations - one where you have done the thing and one where you haven’t. You hold both situations in your thought, and start playing out the various scenarios.
Inevitably, when you hold two parallel (and related) thoughts in your head, these two thoughts overlap. The thoughts will mash up. You get confused. When you make what you think is the “final decision”, you have made it based on some weird superposition of the states which doesn’t exist in real life. It is highly likely to be a suboptimal decision.
Each incident, or difficult decision, might be small. However, the problem is that things compound. Every time you don’t know where to place your next step, you tire mentally a wee bit. You know you have tired, and that makes you less confident of your next decision.
Because you are less confident of your next decision, you think harder about it, which drains you even more, and there is no guarantee that you have still made the “right decision” there. That reduces your confidence further. Making you worse at the next decision. And so on.
So all it takes is a series of decisions or processes that each only mildly damage your confidence. Soon you are in a vicious cycle of dropping confidence, and self-doubt. Even routine decisions become hard for you. Everything drains you out. Soon you are “gone”.
I’ve seen this vicious cycle play out in my own life at various time scales. In the “better cases”, these last a few hours or a day (like it did this Saturday), and then I recover. In the past I went through a 3 year period of bad decisions and increased anxiety. There are middle grounds as well here.
What can we do about this?
This is more of a note to my (later) self than to my readers, and I think it’s best to document this thought here rather than elsewhere.
I was thinking of why I was getting a bit jittery of late in certain places, and I realised it is to do with confidence. I’m someone who thrives on self-confidence and “swagger”. When I know I’m doing well, on average I’m likely to do well in my next decision (though there is a small chance of overstretching and going spectacularly wrong).
This means that when I’ve made a few “wrong decisions” or “uncertain decisions”, my confidence gets dented, and that affects my next decision (which I’m now more likely to get wrong). And the compounding effect mentioned above means I’m soon madly obsessing about every single little decision, and not letting my instinct do its thing.
From a work perspective, this means I need to do more of things I’m naturally good at, since it’s difficult for my confidence in decision-making there to be shaken (you can think of this in terms of Bayes’s theorem - if you have a strong prior, it takes a LOT of negative evidence to shake it). The more I do of things I’m not naturally good at, the easier it is for my confidence to get shaken, which means there is a higher chance of going into a downward spiral.
I essentially resurrected my career in 2012 when I figured that I was spending way too much time and energy doing things I wasn’t good at, and then went freelance so I could just focus on the stuff I was good at. And that is because in the stuff that I’m good at, I largely know where to place my next step.
When I got back to a job in 2020, I found one where I would spend a really large amount of time doing things that I’m good at. However, I still occasionally find that the things I’m not so good at are capable of quickly shaking my confidence, even in the things I’m good at.
Given we’ve spoken about “next steps” here, I’ll leave you with a fascinating sculpture of Vamana in the Trivikrama form, taking the three steps that Bali had promised him.