30 May 2017

Intractable Problems

Getting into the state of mental flow leads to enjoyment for me.  Whether it's playing a lively game of Monopoly with my kids, or playing/coaching an engaging soccer match, or developing the next feature for FamilySearch -- all of the above activities are more enjoyable when I spend a lot of time in the state of mental flow.

There's a book about this, and I still would like to read it at some point.  But today's post is not primarily about flow.

There are times when I know that a state of mental flow is possible, and desirable, but I can't seem to enter that state.  Maybe I'm meaning to write in my journal but the thing I want to write about is an unresolved problem of some importance to me, and I go into immediate problem solving instead of writing about it.  Maybe I'm trying to get going on a project outside but I'm exhausted from not getting enough sleep the night before.  Maybe I'm attempting to learn something new at work and there is too much new all at once.

Today I realized that when I have problems entering the state of mental flow, it's because I'm stuck trying to solve intractable problems.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computational_complexity_theory

Here are a few "intractable" problems I've faced recently:

  • Which task would be most helpful for me to work on first this morning?
  • What is important to deal with after a trip, and what can be dropped?
  • Who can I get to help set up flags on Memorial Day?
  • How can I get uninterrupted time to spend with my wife?
  • What can I do to increase the likelihood of my son wanting to work with me outside?
The truth is the above problems are only "intractable" when attempted in a certain mental state that treats these decision problems as personal tasks.

Hint: It takes social skill & action to answer all of the above questions effectively.  And while the social skill can be learned, if you approach the above problems by thinking that they are personal tasks to be completed, they will by definition be intractable.

A useful word is "stall".  Some definitions, glosses, examples:

So when you feel yourself get into a stall, think what intractable problem you are trying to solve.  And if it's a problem that needs social skills to solve, reach out for help.  Figure out what skills you need to develop and improve your abilities.

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