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In many of these episodes, the whirlpool has been used to visualize vicious and virtuous cycles, as with regards to habits both good and bad.


Habits compound on top of themselves to create both momentum and substance.  The Tinkered Thinking platform, for example, started from a mere habit of writing daily. Now, in terms of word count, it is larger than a five hundred page book.  Such is the result of a virtuous cycle.


As for vicious cycles, we all have enough experience with bad habits to know what it’s like to go down the drain in some respects.  And this whirlpool is a tidy and beautiful way to see a process that exists as behavior in a more abstract way.


Since good and bad habits both have the same basic structure of compounding repetition, and therefore both can be visualized as a whirlpool, meaning we do not need two different structures to understand or visualize good and bad habits, it’s worth wondering how to move or alter a habit.  Often we think improvements are made by ripping down an entire structure and building a new one, and while this can be a valid way to make improvements, it need not be the only one.  It begs the question, can we move existing habits around? 


If we go back to the image of the whirlpool, what sort of answer begins to materialize if we pose the same question:


how do you move a whirlpool?


To begin thinking about this odd question, we are first faced with another question: what exactly is the whirlpool?  We cannot exactly pick it up or push it without the risk of destroying the whirlpool.  We realize quite quickly that the whirlpool is not just the exponentially V-shaped cone that cuts down into water.


The whirlpool that we see is the cumulative result of much larger forces and movements occurring around the whirlpoolThe whirlpool is just the intersection of these forces.



Just as someone’s emotions are not merely the movements of muscles on their face, the facial expressions they make are merely a part of the cumulative result of much deeper processes that are occurring in the brain behind those expressions.


To move a whirlpool requires first Zooming-out and looking at a much larger context that includes the large moving forces that eventually intersect and result in a whirlpool.  We may discover that there are multiple forces acting upon one another that result in this whirlpool, and just as a puppet master controls puppets from a distance, we would have to concede that moving a whirlpool would require altering these forces.  We would probably have to alter these forces simultaneously in order to maintain the integrity of the whirlpool.


Naturally there might be limits to how far we can move a whirlpool based on the nature of these different forces.


We may even find that we can swap out one of these influencing forces with a totally new one and achieve a different sort of whirlpool.



Take the common bad habit of biting one’s nails for instance.  It’s a simple habit, a whirlpool that actually isn’t too hard to move.


Often we look at such bad habits and think the answer is the cold-turkey approach: to just stop doing it, to just have more willpower, but this ignores the fact that our nails still continue to grow and there’s something that needs to be done about that.


Moving this whirlpool can be as simple as carrying a nail file around all the time.  It’s much easier to stop biting one’s nails the instant we notice if we have the option of pulling out a nail file to finish the task.  Otherwise, we risk being reacquainted with the all-to-eerie and unsettling experience of noticing we are doing something we wish we wouldn’t but simultaneously finding we cannot stop ourselves.


Note also the difficulty of totally killing off a real whirlpool. It might be small enough, say in a bathtub where we can destroy the whirlpool by passing our hand through it, but if the larger forces responsible for the whirlpool remain active, chances are that whirlpool will materialize again, and again. 


It’s like hacking at the leaves of a problem instead of recognizing the root is where we should be striking.


As with the small example of biting one’s nails, carrying a nail file constantly is akin to redirecting one of the forces that creates the bad habit, therefore moving the whirlpool into a different place, a better place where we can turn a bad habit into a virtuous cycle.


This episode references Episode : The Well-Oiled Zoom.

Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

Dive in to the Archives

Podcast Ep. 164: Moving the Whirlpool

Tinkered Thinking

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