Notes on Doing Things

I have a stupid hippie mantra that my brain says to itself when I’m running and I notice that I’m second- or third-guessing myself over some little decision, like which route to take or how far to go:

Body is driving.

When my brain says this to itself, it’s using a dualistic metaphor similar to the one Jonathan Haidt uses in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Briefly, there are two selves, one conscious, introspective, logical, and verbal; the other subconscious, sensory, emotional, and largely non-verbal (therefore relatively opaque to introspection by the verbal self). The elephant is apparently responsible for a great deal of behavior.

One upshot of this model is that you can’t just do things: you have to somehow get the elephant to do them. The popular tradition of productivity and getting things done is built around techniques for imposing the will of the rider on the elephant.

However, I am here interested in another way of looking at the duality, which I think my embarrassing, intrusive running mantra explains concisely: how to give the elephant the ability to do what it wants, sometimes even taking a rest and abdicating on behalf of the elephant.

The Owner and the Dog

I don’t know much about elephants, but consider how, in reality, we get dogs to work. One way is breeding them such that they naturally take to (and seemingly enjoy) the task that they are expected to do – herding, hunting assistance, sled-pulling, snuggling. Productively, this implies that in order to make our own elephants/dogs happy, we should figure out what they were “bred” (through natural selection) to do and enjoy, and figure out how to let them do that.

Beyond this, though, the process of dog training, as I understand it, comes down to exposing the dogs to opportunities to perform desired behaviors, and then rewarding them when the desired behavior is neared or accomplished. Wild canids find their own opportunities to learn fun and useful behaviors; captive dogs, like human bodies, rely on their owners to expose them to experiences.

My conceptions of “owner” and “dog” as subselves is distinct from Haidt’s (though I think their model is useful for other purposes). To clarify my model:

  • The owner takes a third-person perspective on the self; the dog takes a direct, experiencing, first-person perspective.
  • The owner is capable of a long time horizon (months, years, perhaps millennia); the dog has a relatively narrow time horizon (seconds, minutes, perhaps days).
  • The owner is verbal, expressing itself in language; the dog is largely non-verbal, communicating with the owner through behavior and emotion.
  • The owner makes plans for the future; the dog experiences life in the moment.
  • The owner is into “getting things done” while the dog is into “doing things.”
  • The owner can increase the behavioral repertoire through innovation and exposure; the dog selects and performs behaviors from the behavioral repertoire.
  • The owner makes obligations; the dog treats obligations as obstructions.

Here I distinguish “getting things done” from “doing things.” The phrase “getting things done,” often used in discussions of productivity, emphasizes the end result of a behavior. Implied is the stressful state of having a lot of responsibilities that one hasn’t gotten around to performing. “Getting things done” connotes two things: first, getting stuff done can open up space in which to be calm and relaxed (a very valuable function). Second, “getting things done” means one can check off some kind of box, having done something, often for reasons of maintaining or increasing social status (responding to emails, studying for tests, writing a book, working out in order to have an attractive body).

“Doing things,” on the other hand, frames time differently, focusing on the experience of doing things as its own end. The dog in my metaphor is distinguished by not being particularly motivated by the distant social status plans of the owner. (The dog-self may do things that end up being very embarrassing, socially, for the owner-self.) My distinction is primarily one of time: the dog is the moment-to-moment experiencer with moment-to-moment agency (as monitored by the owner), and the owner is the one with long-term projects.

The owner makes obligations, scheduling tasks and deadlines and appointments, and the dog takes these obligations as obstructions in two ways:

  1. The dog treats the obligation as damage and routes around it, that is, largely ignores obligations to the degree possible (procrastination);
  2. The dog takes the obligation as a challenge, allowing it to be a framework for beautiful structure to emerge. This is the sense of “obstruction” used in The Five Obstructions.

Even if the happiness of the dog is paramount, rather than the owner getting things done, obligations can still be valuable; the experience of (2) above is highly desirable in and of itself, regardless of the final “product.” Selecting proper obligations is something the dog-self can’t do for itself, except over time and with the help of the owner-self. And it is much more difficult, not to mention unpleasant, to simply come up with obligations and attempt to force them on the dog-self from the “top” down. The owner-self may decide to go on a diet, but the dog-self is the one who has to endure periods of hunger, desire, and stress from relative calorie deprivation.

If “getting things done” is the core value of productivity, then “doing things” might be the core value of deep laziness. I will say more later on why (deep) laziness is distinct from minimizing metabolic costs, but it seems strange on the surface that “doing things” could be lazy. I live in the same town that I went to high school in, and when I go running before dawn, I sometimes see children waiting for the school bus. My high school self would not believe that I’d be doing anything before dawn except sleeping, if I had the choice. But my present self, a nearly completely lazy person with near-total freedom, chooses to head out on ten-mile runs an hour before dawn even when it’s barely above freezing. Here is why this is actually lazy:

  • it’s a structure-preserving transformation of my body in time (milliseconds to years)
  • the metabolic cost incurred helps the body perform structure-preserving transformations on itself, building bones and muscle and dexterity
  • it’s experienced as pleasurable both in anticipation, experience, and memory
  • it’s probably an ancestral thing to do who knows
  • it increases the pleasure of merely sitting around for hours afterwards
  • in the case of each step, when running is lazy, taking the next step feels like less work than stopping or walking

Consider the children I run past. Even though they are not expending any energy waiting for the bus, they are nonetheless in a less lazy state than I, just as they are less free. Their dog-selves have virtually no say over what they do and where they are. Their location and behavior (even their sleep) must conform to a top-down program of behavior created by others, mediated only somewhat by their own owner-selves, who must worry about homework and tests and status.

Laziness is not minimizing energy expenditure, though that can be part of it. Rather, deep laziness is about minimizing the effort of the owner-self to conform the dog-self to some consciously-chosen image. In the Christopher Alexander terms I employed in Deep Laziness, in other words, it minimizing structure-destroying transformations of the dog-self, and allowing the dog-self and owner-self to collaborate in elaborating the self in structure-preserving ways.

Notes From Disneyland

I describe the dog-self as largely non-verbal, lacking the capacity to produce language. It must rely on behavior and emotion to communicate with its owner. Come up with a plan in your head. That’s your owner-self. Now notice how you feel about the plan. That’s the dog-self reacting to it. (Its reactions may be different depending on how soon the contemplated thing to be done is.) Consider posting a tweet. That’s the owner-self. Now notice how you feel about it. Perhaps you come up with a revised version; does that feel better? This is not to say that all speech is planned; often, it seems as if the dog-self takes control and forces the owner-self to translate, such as moments of heated emotion. The resulting speech is often nonsensical or “out of character.”

If the dog-self is indeed not capable of telling us its needs (like an actual dog), we might expect a certain poverty in the language for personal experience, for “what it is like” to be the experiencing dog-self. We might expect the dog-self’s interests to be relatively neglected in verbal culture, because its only voice is reactive emotion.

I think the moment-to-moment experiencing self should be the main, if not the only, focus of ethics and ultimate value. This, I think, is the intuition underlying measures such as quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) and utils (units of utility). However, I don’t think we have come very far in linking up our desire to do good with the moment-to-moment experiencers who endure our efforts.

Dog selves are subtle communicators, but not in language. It can take a long time and a lot of failed attempts in order to figure out what they want or enjoy. When I was coming out of the worst major depressive episode of my life, maybe a dozen years ago, I found that I didn’t seem to enjoy anything. I seemed to lose my relationship with the future, in that my dog-self didn’t react with anticipation to any plans I formed. I tried to prod the dog-self for anything it might still like or enjoy, and came up with a shockingly basic answer: Disneyland.

I responded to this rather literally, actually getting a season ticket to Disneyland (I lived nearby) and going there frequently with friends. And I did enjoy it. It was a relief to have something to do, to have one single behavior to look forward to and enjoy. Disneyland is still special to me on the object level (see e.g. Frontierland).

Now, many years and a lot of behavioral repertoire management later, it has become apparent to me what the dog-self was after, though it was not able to communicate this in words. When I picture myself at Disneyland, I don’t picture myself on any ride, though my favorite moments of Disneyland are on particular rides. What I picture is the in-between spaces, experienced as if in motion, walking, with freedom to choose experiences (rides, snacks) as I choose. What Disneyland creates is a zone of hyper-agency, where many behaviors are available, all enjoyable, all fun. Disneyland is a self-contained behavioral repertoire that is pre-selected to be enjoyable, protected by civilization and especially the Order of Civil Disattention (moderated by cheerful relaxation of no-talking norms, but with no-drama norms in place for the adults), and united by mostly-good aesthetics (especially the older rides, which themselves mostly hearken back to even older times with better aesthetics), upbeat narratives, a spirit of play, and affect-lifting music. Disneyland is a sort of training wheels for the experiencing self, an easy mode for moment-to-moment agency. One can be swept up in activity and still very lazy.

I am able to see this now, because I can see the structure of Disneyland in my own life and behavioral repertoire. To begin with, my main life center, mountain runs, are clearly rides, featuring a flying sensation, lots of scents and sights, the narrative drama of quickly changing biomes, and a cartographic nature. I used to look at the two highest nearby mountains with fearful desire, like looking at the Matterhorn or Splash Mountain or Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland, but then I climbed them, and now I regard them with affection and a sense of ownership, like a ride conquered. But it is more than that: mountain runs make up a zone within a greater behavioral repertoire, such that there is almost always a thing to do. Most of my hobbies seem to reflect this structure. I look at maps and plan and anticipate runs with the same pleasure as my 11-year-old self did looking at a map of Disneyland for the first time. I have many knitting projects in various stages of planning and execution – rides within the larger ride of knitting. I look forward to yoga, to cooking and eating, to occasional meetings with friends. The availability of pleasurable “rides” (experiences) allows a positive relationship to the future to exist, through anticipation and planning, and with the past, through long-term progress and expertise.

Above, I mentioned that laziness is not simply minimizing metabolic cost. Disneyland’s nature is that not all options are available at once at the same place and time. One must walk to each zone, or take the train, or take some other mode of transportation, incurring a metabolic and time cost and narrowing down the options in the same motion as making them possible. This, it seems, makes the choice of thing more meaningful. To be someplace on a map of possibilities is nicer than to be presented with everything at once. Optimal laziness often means doing difficult things.

I don’t know if your dog-self’s dream landscape looks anything like Disneyland – I’d be surprised if it did. But think they mostly take the form of zones of hyper-agency, in which a diverse and desirable set of behaviors is available, and which are, in combination, sustaining and satisfying. (Note that I don’t think literal Disneyland satisfies this; you wouldn’t want to spend all day, every day, in Disneyland for long.) In order to move toward this state, it is necessary to increase the behavioral repertoire.

Increasing the behavioral repertoire is a cooperative process between the dog-self and owner-self. The dog-self can’t express ideas for things to do in words, but it can tag memories with special feelings of positive affect, or light future fantasies with an emotion of possibility. The dog doesn’t know it wants to go to the park unless it’s been to the park and enjoyed it (especially several times). Similarly, the dog-self must be introduced to new behaviors repeatedly, and found the behaviors to be worthwhile, in order for the behavior to truly enter the repertoire – to become a true option, or even a habit. This model predicts that signing up for a gym membership (owner self) won’t cause people to form gym habits, but going to the gym a few times and trying things until one finds some enjoyable routine or activity (dog self in cooperation with owner self) will cause them to form exercise habits – and that enjoyment and repetition will specifically predict future behavior.

The Role of Obligation

Earlier, I mentioned that the owner-self takes on obligations, and the dog-self treats them as obstructions (either in a destructive or constructive sense). The dog-self, residing as it does in the present moment and without words, cannot take on obligations. It relies on the owner-self for providing the obligations that provide structure for its behaviors and moments. In choosing obligations, such as work, relationships, community membership, contracts, religious vows, or deadlines, the wise owner is mindful of the dog. Good obligations can be the structuring obstructions of a beautiful life, from which structure-preserving transformations are possible; bad obligations, or a bad lack of obligations, mean stress and misery for dog and owner.

Recommended reading: Goodin, R. E., Rice, J. M., Bittman, M., & Saunders, P. (2005). The Time-Pressure Illusion: Discretionary Time vs. Free Time. Social Indicators Research, 73, 43-70.

Bonus exercise: Try to think about something you look forward to and enjoy, without words, for fifteen minutes. Notice how you feel and what images come to mind.

Double bonus exercise: Do a thing. Notice how you feel.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. I understand the dualistic perspective of rider and elephant, of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’, or however else one wishes to describe it. But I’m not entirely sure how it applies to my personal experience. As I’ve aged, it makes less sense to me. I just don’t sense my identity in this way. My embodied self exercises and whatever else it does simply because that is what it does and wants to do. It just is what it is.

    Yet I still understand the dualistic view. It’s there in the background, as cultural baggage. But I no longer strongly embrace it because it somehow doesn’t quite connect to where my life is at present. I don’t see my mind-self as telling or compelling my body to do anything. Or at least that isn’t how I tend to think about myself these days. It is a shift in perspective.

    Maybe related to this is synchronization. Certain activities cause us to become synchronized, on the level of neurocognitive functioning and in group behavior. In the past, I felt out of sync with myself and with the world. But at this point, I feel like my lifestyle has found its groove and my everyday life feels easier, less conflicted. My depression is as much a part of my life as it ever was, although the difference is significant in that I no longer fight it.

  2. Nona Duli says

    This makes so much sense. Reminds me of the Ted Talk by brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor.
    And here is a take on Plato’s Chariott Allegory…

  3. This resonates strongly with me, in terms of obligation and engagement with my everyday tasks. I have a significant number of open directives I’m expected to pursue in my job, but the more I insist to myself that I need to work on them, the more I tend to refuse on a gut level. The result is that I can ONLY get anything done when I have an imminent deadline, and the rest of the time is filled with free-floating anxiety about what I SHOULD be doing. This is a very demoralizing way of living.

    I have things that I love doing… reading, studying, writing, existing in the free space of Wikipedia and blogger… but this isn’t what I’m employed in doing at the moment. In fact, I mostly rely on late nights (midnight to 5 AM) to exist in that space.

    What I’m curious about: how do compulsive procrastination tools fit into this model? It seems like these things, stuff like Twitter and other social media distractions, are designed specifically to indulge the dog when it’s passive, or in a resistant mode. They’re like a bone that the dog can chew on, and when your dog is not properly engaged (which describes a LOT of the world around me these days), they become dangerously addicting.

    After reading this post, I will try to be more mindful of this dynamic. Thank you.

  4. Clumsy Dad says

    quite interesting, I’m not sure if I understood it all, but it harkens back to the idea of passion in what we do. very good take on laziness because it is a much exploited word, in that if you aren’t “doing your job” you are lazy, but all this is normally defined in what others want you to do. laziness as it’s normally known is often the conundrum of not being able to find or have agency in the things we’d like to do. it’s complicated (-: