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The centipede’s dilemma: Why overthinking is killing productivity

Discover the ancient wisdom of not pushing the river.
An intricate illustration featuring the centipede's dilemma on a blank white canvas.
George Shaw (English, 1751 – 1813) / Artvee
Key Takeaways
  • The expression “Don’t push the river; it pushes itself” evokes the natural rhythm of life that cannot be understood through rationalization.
  • The centipede’s dilemma refers to the phenomenon where becoming aware of one’s own ability or competence can lead to tripping up.
  • Here we look at three modern pitfalls of the centipede’s dilemma: micromanagement, information overload, and overanalysis.

If you were a hippie in the 1960s and 1970s, you would know the expression, “Don’t push the river; it pushes itself.” And just because its colloquial twin — “Go with the flow, dude” — sounds like it needs a dressing gown and suspicious cigarettes, it doesn’t mean there isn’t wisdom to be found. In fact, it is an ancient concept rooted in Chinese philosophy, especially Daoism.

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The idea behind “Don’t push the river” is that everything has a natural flow; there’s an organic quality to things that can only be experienced in the abstract. You cannot rationalize or draw schematics of life. So, a man trying to push the flow of a river is as laughable as it is pointless. Reality cannot be drawn or dissected into tiny parts to be forensically poked in a laboratory. Time is not a clock, and you cannot keep the breeze in a sack; don’t push the river.

All of which is very nice. It’s the kind of lyrical spiritualism straight out of Woodstock — but what does it mean? How can this wisdom be applied to our everyday lives? After all, ancient aphorisms and pretty metaphors are only as good as they can be applied. Here, we look at how we can apply this Daoist wisdom to our everyday life and to the workplace.

The centipede’s dilemma

In 1889, the zoologist, Ray Lankester, submitted a poem to the journal Nature. It goes like this:

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

Lankester’s poem gave rise to the “Centipede’s Dilemma.” This is the curious notion that, when you become aware of your own ability or competence, you trip up and fumble in what you’re doing. Imagine a dancer. They move and jump with the grace of many years, and they are beautiful. Now, somewhere in the crowd, a pedant shouts, “Turn your left foot out more on the third beat!” Suddenly, the dance is ruined. The dancer’s fluidity is reduced to the mechanistic step-counting of the novice. This is the centipede’s dilemma in action. When you try to explain or rationalize certain actions, it ruins them. It ruins the magic and also disrupts the flow.

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The philosopher, Alan Watts, called this “geometrization,” and he wrote: “Geometrization always reduces natural form to something less than itself, to an oversimplification and rigidity which screens out the dancing curvaceousness of nature. It seems that rigid people feel some basic disgust with wiggles; they cannot dance without seeing a diagram of the steps.”

The centipede’s walk

In modern (but decidedly less poetic) language we talk about “unconscious competence.” This is the psychological stage where, after weeks, months, and years of practice, an action becomes second nature. A young girl learning to write, the sous-chef learning to cook, and the toddler riding their bike — they all start by running through the motions and finish with unthinking expertise.

On Day One in a job, you’re a fumbling, awkward novice. It can take weeks to stop feeling like you’re drowning. But everyone has taken the same path as you.

In our day-to-day working lives, this journey is no different. On Day One in a job, you’re a fumbling, awkward novice. It can take weeks to stop feeling like you’re drowning, and you feel like a nag and a botherer to everyone else. “Er, Jerry, how do I log in to this?” you say; and, “Sarah, who do I speak to about this?” But everyone has taken the same path as you. You can do a lot to improve your relationships and understanding with colleagues by appreciating that everyone there will occupy a different stage on the four-stage route to competency: Unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence. 

Learning from the centipede

So how can we learn from the centipede’s dilemma? How can we turn Daoist wisdom into practical takeaways? Here are three ways:

Avoid micromanaging. The purpose of a manager is to get your team to reach the “unconscious competence” stage as quickly as possible. You want to facilitate the learning journey so that employees just do their job with the ease of the Daoist’s flowing river. The way not to do that? Micromanage. Not only does micromanaging massively reduce team morale, it constantly and effectively keeps your team in the “conscious competence” stage. Like our dancer told to focus on their footwork, no one in your team will excel if you are watching and criticizing. You need to let people dance, and not count out their steps.

Reduce interruptions. When you’re learning a task or first starting a job you need some guidance — an “employees handbook” or “how-to” database. After that, though, you need space and time to get on with the job itself. The average business worker receives 120 emails a day. It takes most people up to 20 minutes to get back on track after reading and replying to an e-mail. According to this study, “nearly everyone” who is interrupted during a task does worse at that task. Too much information is stifling your workplace. 

One strategy to avoid information overload is to establish clear boundaries for email and communication. Designate specific times of the day to check and respond to emails, rather than constantly being interrupted throughout the day. The software company, Atlassian, for instance introduced “No Meeting Wednesdays” to combat this overload and give employees uninterrupted time to focus on tasks.

Structure decision-making. According to one survey, 94% of all decisions in a business involve more than six people; 20% of the time more than 16 people have a say. That’s a lot of voices, with a lot of opinions, and a lot of cooks to spoil the broth. There is, absolutely, a time and a place for collaboration and collective input. But sometimes leaders need to lead, and workers need to work. It can be helpful to set deadlines for decision-making and establish clear decision-making processes within teams. Overthinking, second-guessing, and constantly living in the brainstorming stage means stagnation. Creating a structure for decision-making and encouraging open communication allow for forward momentum. Don’t push the river; go with the flow.

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