Gears metaphor: examples and variations

29 January 2010 by Jennifer

Following on from the metaphor of “gearing up”, here are some “example gears”, and some more things I thought about it as I experimented.

After coming up with the gears metaphor, I thought I’d sketch out what the gears might be for me. I imagined them something like this:

0 Not moving. I could have called this “neutral”, but somehow that seems like the wrong word. Stuck isn’t neutral. Exhaustion isn’t neutral. Moping around being mopey and miserable isn’t neutral.

On the other hand it could be a kind of relaxed resting peacefulness – but in that case, I’m probably not stuck, and some other metaphor would apply.

1 Minimal engagement. Playing computer games or just slightly pottering about e.g. tidying up. If this is the aftermath of some intensity, then I might be “processing” in the background. (Simple computer games can be a form of meditation, I think – they occupy the surface of your mind while things happen under the surface.) If pottering about, still feeling like each new thing is a re-start – not really any momentum from one task to the next.

2 Beginning to build momentum. Tidying could still be in here as long as it’s just putting things away that have an obvious home, or straightening up. Sewing or making badges as long as the process doesn’t really take any thought. Tinkering with writing (though not the process of deciding that something’s finished – I need to be more awake for that and it would be more like 4th gear).

3 Ordinary sized tasks. Returning emails, going to the library, sorting possessions, putting a wash in. Maybe some DIY that only requires repeating what I’ve already done, with no original thought.

4 Thought and organisation. Things that require more thought and a certain amount of awakeness. E.g. interesting DIY, planning. If I’ve had a day in 4th gear, I’ll almost certainly finish the day with a nice sense of satisfaction about what I’ve accomplished – which often involves some kind of tangible result in the 3d world.

5 Tricky interface stuff. Anything involving making arrangements with people I don’t know, especially if it involves some kind of time pressure and especially if I have to actually talk to them. I often have a sense of needing to “gear up” & “get my head in order” to do that kind of thing, but sometimes if I “get on a roll” it seems easy.

6 Immersion time. Song recording, coding, or any other complex task like accounts. This is often stuff that takes a while to reload into the brain, so that fitting it into “too small” chunks of time is very inefficient, and to me tends to feel intuitively like “there’s not even any point starting”. (And “too small” varies with the task – anything from half an hour to a day might feel that way.) Often, though not always, it’s the kind of thing I can “get lost in” so that time disappears.

This 6th level isn’t necessarily any harder than 5th gear; it’s the “chunk size” which distinguishes it. It needs to be preceded by ensuring that if I do give it that much time, nothing’s going to go wrong while I wasn’t paying attention to all the other stuff. Perhaps it’s more of a turbo button than another gear.


One thing which surprised me in a good way when I thought this through is the fact that tinkering with writing comes out so low-gear for me. I lucked into a good “effort-to-satisfaction ratio” there. The point is that despite being quite easy to do, it’s also quite satisfying to me, which helps me to move up through gears. I thought “Must remember that”.

This insight was definitely part of the source of the new era of “more than one blog post a month” :-) I realised that as a rule of thumb, “if in doubt, do some writing” had a lot going for it. And around Christmas and New Year I did have a successful gearing-up on the writing front.

Different cars

What was interesting, though, was that after a week or two of that, I realised that (slightly contrary to my expectations) my writing momentum hadn’t transferred onto the DIY. I was just doing more and more writing!

I found that to get going on the DIY, I had to give that a separate gearing-up all its own: starting with a bit of tidying, then assembling the tools and resources I’d want, and only then actually embarking on the work itself.

Not definitive

Of course everyone’s list of gears would be different – and the above isn’t the definitive list of gears even for me, just an approximate sketch. And there are different ways to apply the metaphor – including, as I’ve said there, considering each field of endeavour as its own separate gear system.

But the basic metaphor seems to be working well for me so far. Regardless of specifics, I can still tell myself: “Don’t bother trying to talk yourself into tackling big things. And don’t sit around waiting for the desire to tackle them to return. Instead, get stuck into the little things within easy reach. And trust that in a while, when you’re more rested and have some little accomplishments to be satisfied with, the desire to tackle big things will return of its own accord.”

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