Speaking of priorities. I had one of my weirder Aha! moments: you can use the well-known Towers of Hanoi game as a metaphor to understand the behavior of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or any similar hierarchy of priorities) under changing life circumstances, and the role of compartmentalization as a costly coping strategy. Here’s a picture:
If the details and implications of the metaphor aren’t immediately obvious, read on for the help-text.
The Basic Metaphor
The game involves moving a pyramidal stack of disks from one of three pegs to another without ever letting a larger disk rest on a smaller one. The number of moves approximately doubles each time you add a disk (so the full 5-level Maslow hierarchy would take 31 moves, where this simplified 3-disk version takes 7 moves).
The metaphor works like this: at any given time, each stack of disks represents a life compartment. Sometimes your life is more compartmentalized (work vs. life or work vs. life vs. health), and sometimes, it is all a single beautiful symphony.
The “never stack a big disk on a small one” models the idea that most of us don’t consciously violate priorities in obviously avoidable ways. If we do, we recognize our “moment of weakness.”
But this is only a local sort of consistency: we apply prioritization ideas via pair-wise comparisons/tradeoffs while making specific decisions. You rarely have more than two priorities butting up against each other in any given decision.
So long as your life situation is stable, you can gradually integrate the various compartments and get back to a single stack. We call this getting into a “routine.”
But when your life shifts, fragmentation and compartmentalization necessarily intrude. If your life changes faster than you can get back to the healthy stack of priorities, you’ll end up a mess, unless you level-up your game and redefine your idea of stability (think George Clooney in Up in the Air).
Integrated vs. Fragmented Priorities
In a fragmented, compartmentalized state, disks on the same stack represent integrated priorities while disks on different stacks represent fragmented priorities.
Integrated priorities reinforce each other via strong positive-feedback loops (lots of small trade-off decisions, with healthy behaviors being reinforced each time you make the healthy choice), and you can manage them consciously.
Fragmented priorities cannot be managed consciously, and can lead to messed-up behaviors that are not aligned with your actual priorities. You also lose any mutual reinforcement effects via positive feedback loops.
This happens because, in a compartmentalized life, you only have opportunities to trade off priorities that are on the same stack, through individual, micro-level decisions
Your ability to manage tradeoffs between stacks is much more limited. You are reduced to vague ideas like “I need to spend more time with my kids” or “I need to go to the gym more.” I suspect most people allocate attention amongst compartmentalized stacks based on how many disks the stack has (which determines how hard the stack is to compute with) rather than the priority of the stack.
To take a simple example “work life balance” is extremely hard in a traditional industrial environment, where “work” happens at the workplace, and “life” happens at home.
But it is much easier in (say) a Googleplex-like workplace with childcare, gyms and healthy food options available right near your office.
So instead of having to think in terms of “I need to spend more time with my kids” you can trade off “get coffee between meetings right now, or play a game of ping-pong with my kid in the childcare room.”
Priority management turns into a bunch of bite-sized decisions.
Implications of the Metaphor
The metaphor suggests several interesting ideas:
- Consciously violating priorities (putting a bigger disk on a smaller one) can help you stabilize much faster (exponentially faster) in a new situation, but at the risk of bigger disks permanently damaging/crushing smaller ones.
- Given a specific definition of priorities/disks, there is a maximum frequency of life changing disruptions you can handle while still getting to a stable integrated stack at least briefly between disruptions. If your life changes any faster, it will be in a perennially unstable state.
- Fusing layers simplifies the game. Manage fewer categories. So working for a moving company fuses work and physical health.
- How you frame priorities is crucial. A stack of disks that needs to be moved under a life transition may not need to be moved at all if you redefine them to be robust to such transitions. If you are a nomad, capable of living out of a suitcase or camel-pack, your life will resist disruption due to physical moves. If you live in a country with portable, government-provided healthcare, your health will resist disruption due to changing jobs.
- You are not entirely in control of your life stack. The organization of society plays a huge role.
- Trying to keep unfused priorities stable in transit (moving multiple discs at once) is a balancing act.
The part of the metaphor that interests me the most is the idea that there are positive feedback loops within compartments. The more you compartmentalize your life, the more you lose the benefit of such loops. I think this relates to how 10x dynamics can be catalyzed in your life. It also relates to the more comprehensive analysis of such stuff that Greg Rader recently posted.