Tag Archive | Oscillation

Writing Cycles

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

I see writing as an oscillation. 

On/Off. Engagement/Disengagement.

Does it not take you out of Flow to interrupt your writing?

Think of it. When do you usually have most insights?

When I’m taking a shower, and when I’m walking.

So when you’re not focused on writing – during the Off. 

Based on this insight, I’ve integrated the Off into the writing process. (Integral Thinking)

I see writing as both the On and the Off. 

The On and the Off form an integral unit – like Yin/Yang. 

The On without the Off is fruitless.
The Off without the On is aimless.

I call the sequence of On followed by Off, writing cycle.

Writing Cycle = On + Off

My System for Tracking Deep Work

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

Why do you track deep work?

Deep work is an essential component of my day. I no longer conceive of a day without deep work.

Tracking allows me to continuously optimize my work day. Deep work is actually an oscillation between work and rest. By tracking it, I can assess the quality of the oscillation at a glance.

What do you track?

You’re familiar with the Eisenhower Matrix:

Important / Urgent – Important deadlines and crises.
Important / Not Urgent – Long-term development.
Not Important / Urgent – Distractions with deadlines.
Not Important / Not Urgent – Frivolous distractions.

I track only what’s important.

How do you track it?

I have a system for it. I use math paper, a pencil, and a pen.

My system at a glance

A dot represents a pomodoro – half an hour of deep work. This is my deep-work unit.
A pencil dot represents a regular pomodoro.
A pen dot represents a high-leverage pomodoro – a pomodoro of doing the things that have the biggest impact on my life.
A circled dot represents the end of the work day – for me it’s usually around 6pm. It’s important to have a ‘shutdown complete’ ritual, as Cal Newport calls it, to close the work mental process [<link; short read]; otherwise, your mind may remain stuck in work mode.

Two separate dots represent pomodoros with a break in between. I take a 10 minute break after every pomodoro, in which I seek to move as much as possible.
Two joined dots represent pomodoros without a break in between. This is a situation I try to avoid. Whenever this happens is a sign I may have lost balance.

Four dots in a row represent a work-block. After a work-block, I take a longer break – 30+ minutes long. If a work-block exceeds four pomodoros, this is another sign I may have lost balance.
A new column indicates that I’ve taken a longer break.

That’s it. Simple and elegant.

Can you give an example?

A work day might look like this:

At the end of the day, I can tell how the day went at a glance.

11 pomodoros of deep work (5.5 hours) in total, of which 8 high-leverage pomodoros (4 hours).

I lost balance three times, two times by not taking a break between pomodoros (the joined dots), and once by exceeding four pomodoros in a row (the second column).

As an additional optimization, I started adding a small I (Input) or O (Output) next to each dot. I have a tendency to have too much input. The I and O symbols allow me to assess my input/output ratio at a glance at the end of the day.

Modular Writing

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

What is modular writing?

Let’s take this article on modular writing as an example.

When I start writing, I have a vague idea of where I want to get to. As I’m writing, I’m clarifying it to myself.

So you’re discovering what you want to write about as you’re writing.

Precisely.

I develop the idea through exploration. I don’t try to force the process. I let ideas emerge organically.

For instance, the idea about writing about the piece I’m writing was unplanned, it emerged spontaneously.

What if no ideas emerge?

Then I take a break. Breaks are an essential aspect of the creative process. Expressed as a principle, I call it creative oscillation. I call the off part of the oscillation, the creative pause.

Structurally, I use short sentences, like this one.

A bit like tweet writing?

Yes.

The goal is to create more or less self-contained units – modules – which, through an iterative process, I develop and eventually assemble into the final piece.

Creative Oscillation

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is creative oscillation?”

“The creative process is an oscillation. 

On/Off.

Creative insights happen during the Off, not the On.

This can be used strategically.”

“How?”

“By alternating Creative Thinking with Creative Pauses.

During the On, choose a Creative Focus, and follow it by Creative Exploration. Viewed as a mind-map, the Creative Focus is the center of the map, and Creative Exploration is the process of branching out in all directions, seeing where it takes you. You’re thus opening a mental process [<link; short read].

During the Off, let go. Focus your attention elsewhere, and let the unconscious mind do its magic.” 

“What’s the optimal oscillation pattern?”

“Play around with it. Experiment. 

What’s important is to remember that the Off is an integral part of the process.”

Optimal Oscillation

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is the optimal oscillation pattern for maintaining peak energy throughout the day?”

“I’ve been experimenting a lot with it.

I metaphorically (and aesthetically) view it as a nested oscillation: oscillation within oscillation within oscillation.

The big oscillation is the circadian rhythm pattern, our natural 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. Sleep is by far the most important variable for managing energy and it’s worth optimizing to perfection.

The medium oscillation is the ultradian rhythm pattern. Our capacity to engage in deep work depends on our capacity to concentrate – to maintain focused attention. This is energy-intensive, and cannot be maintained for longer than 90-120 minutes. This is the optimal duration of a work-block. After every work-block, I take a medium or big break. It is during these breaks when I go for my Parkour walk [<link; medium read]. 

The small oscillation is the pomodoro pattern, which for me is a 30 minute cycle followed by a 10-minute break. During the break, I reflect on the previous time-block and have a consistent movement snack [<link; medium read].

I take my small breaks religiously. They provide feedback. Whenever I miss a break is a sign that I need more rest.”

“When you’re doing creative work, does it not take you out of Flow to take a break every 30 minutes?”

“Creativity is itself an oscillation. Creative insights usually happen during the off-time.

The skill you’re practicing is getting into Flow as fast as possible.”

Quality Oscillation

To turn it on, learn to turn it off. (Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning)

Relaxation is essential for the full expression of power. (George Leonard, Mastery)


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

The quality of the on depends on the quality of the off.

“What does quality oscillation look like?”

100% On / 100% Off.

That means two things:

Total Disengagement (Letting Go)
Total Relaxation (Breathing, Centering, Letting Go, De-Tensing)

“Like a reboot?”

“Or a reset [<link; medium read].”

The ideal break

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What does your ideal break look like, viewed as a checklist?”

“It has the following components:

Micro Meditation – One or more centering breaths; connecting with myself.
(Centering, Shine)

Moving Meditation – One or more movement snacks, as a means to actively recover energy.
(Active Recovery, Perpetual Motion Machine)

Reflection / Recall – Looking backwards, asking three questions:

  • What went well? (Celebration, Shine)
  • What needs work? (Understanding, Design/Optimization)
  • What will you do differently? (Design/Implementation)

(Learning Cycles)

Intention-Setting – Looking forwards, a brief preparation for the next work cycle (pomodoro); getting clear on what I want to accomplish.
(Priming)

Getting Inspired – Right before the next work cycle, reading a few random inspirational quotes.
(Gratitude, Shine)”

Creative Preparation 2

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“How can you create optimal conditions for the creative process to unfold?”

“Edward de Bono makes a distinction between artistic creativity and idea creativity. I’m mainly interested in the latter, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on.

The goal of idea creativity is creating ideas through combining ideas.
The output of idea creativity is creative ideas, which are a synergistic combination of two or more ideas – a combo, in Magic the Gathering terminology.

What’s important to understand is that it’s the subconscious mind that makes the connections. The role of the conscious mind is merely to facilitate this process.

There’s several aspects to creative preparation:

Creative Library
Creative Stimulation
Creative State
Creative Limitations
Creative Oscillation

Creative Library

Ideas are the building-blocks, so a large part of creative preparation involves collecting ideas. I like to think of this process as building a ‘creative library’. An inner library of internalized ideas, and an outer library of externally stored ideas – which can be thought of as an extension of your brain.

To create ideas you need to have ideas stored in your creative library. The more you have, the wider the possibility-space.

The quality of the creative output is dependent on the quality of the stored ideas. The less noise, the more signal.

Creative Stimulation

This is essentially creative priming, bringing ideas ‘on top of your mind’, thus increasing the likelihood of generating useful creative output. 

Another aspect of it is creative provocation, which is meant to break through thought-patterns that inhibit creativity (pattern-breaking), that prevent your subconscious mind from making certain connections.

Creative State

Your creative capacity is profoundly influenced by your state of mind (state management), which is profoundly influenced by your energy level (energy management).

Brian Johnson’s fundamentals of optimal living are a beautiful guideline here:

Sleeping
Eating
Moving

Breathing
Meditating

All are important.

Tony Robbins’ Triad of Human Emotions – which we’ve talked about before [<link; medium read] – is another beautiful guideline.

Another aspect of it is what I call the creative mindset. This involves embracing your playful essence, making creativity a central value of your life, and a deep trust in your innate capacity to create.

Creative Limitations

Restrictions breed creativity. (Mark Rosewater)

On a general level, this means embracing and befriending the very notion of constraint. For me, Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way captures this idea beautifully.

On a specific level, this may mean choosing a creative focus, to serve as a starting point, and – similarly to meditation – as an anchor to return to when your mind wanders off course.

Creative Oscillation

We’ve talked a while back about the distinction between Focused and Diffuse Thinking [<link; medium read]. The creative process requires both. Both engagement and disengagement.

The focused mode is for creative stimulation. You’re sketching a map for your subconscious to explore. Then you let go.

A beautiful diffuse-mode activity is what I call the creative walk. Going for a walk, equipped with a notepad or your phone to collect the fleeting flowers of your thought. What makes the creative walk beautiful is the life-stacking [<link; medium read] aspect of it. You’re moving at the same time.”

Remembering to take breaks

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

How can I stop forgetting to take breaks?

Let’s take this situation as an example.

In twenty minutes, you will have been writing for one hour. It will be time for a break. Naturally, you will want to keep going. ‘Just another half an hour.’

Don’t.

Break the pattern. Pause, and say to yourself:

The ‘on’ is as important as the ‘off’.

Remind yourself that oscillation [<link; medium read] is an essential aspect of Energy recovery, Learning and Creativity.

Repeat it over and over and over again, until you deeply internalize it.

The measure of success is when you look forward to taking your breaks.

Beautiful Systems: (Practical) Oscillation

To turn it on, learn to turn it off. (Josh Waitzkin)


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What do you mean by oscillation? It makes me think of waves, and breathing.”

“I mean a regular rhythmic pattern of alternating between two things.”

“So a dichotomy pattern.”

“Yes. The notation I like to use is ‘A/B’, where A and B are variables.”

“So something like Up/Down, High/Low, In/Out, On/Off?”

“Yes. 

I’m focusing on four areas in particular, where oscillation has practical application: 

Energy
Growth
Learning
Creativity

As concerns Energy, the basic oscillation pattern is On/Off.

On/Off Oscillation => Quality of performance

The optimal oscillation pattern – where peak performance happens – is Full Engagement/Full Disengagement. Deep work, followed by equally deep rest. Being either 100% On, or 100% Off.

Now, 100% Off means total disengagement from the work, not being totally passive. Some activities and settings can help you actively recover energy faster. Things like movement, nature, movement in nature, napping, etc.

So, adding a bit more nuance to it, the optimal oscillation pattern is Deep Focus/Active Recovery.

As concerns Growth, the basic oscillation pattern is Stress/Recovery.

Stress/Recovery Oscillation => Rate of growth

Venturing past the limits of your comfort zone, breaking through a homeostatic plateau, produces a stress response. By taking time to recover afterwards, growth occurs. 

In physical training this process is called supercompensation. Muscles break down after intense training, and given time to rest, they become stronger. 

If stress is not followed by recovery however, if it’s not flushed out of the system, so to speak, it adds up and becomes chronic, which produces negative results.

As concerns Learning, the basic oscillation pattern is Input/Output. Alternating between absorbing knowledge and acting on the knowledge.

Input/Output Oscillation => Quality of learning

That may mean reviewing what you’ve learned (active recall), or testing your understanding by explaining what you’ve learned to yourself (constructive learning), or to others (interactive learning).

That may mean reflecting on an experience afterwards to extract the lessons within (learning cycles).

That may mean taking steps towards implementing what you’ve learned, by engaging in habit design. For instance through the creation of drill-games for practicing specific skills, or the creation of specific behavior patterns (behavior design). 

As concerns Creativity, there’s two basic oscillation patterns: Focused/Diffuse, and Generative/Evaluative

The Focused/Diffuse oscillation refers to the two modes of thinking:
Focused mode, when you’re consciously engaged in a mental activity.
Diffuse mode, when, after disengaging from the activity, the subconscious continues to work on it in the background.

Focused/Diffuse Oscillation => Creative insights

“So it’s the same engagement/disengagement pattern.”

“Yes, it’s the same pattern, used for different ends.

In the energy context, it’s used to recover energy.
In the creativity context, it’s used for making creative leaps.

The Generative/Evaluative pattern refers to the two stages of the creative process: generating creative output, and sifting through it to discover value. We can metaphorically think of it as Expansion/Contraction.

Generative/Evaluative Oscillation => Conversion of creative output into useful output

I call all these oscillation patterns combined, the oscillation system.”