The Forks Model is close to my experience, but not quite complete. In particular, I don't seem to be able to save forks: if I don't spend them almost immediately, they're gone.

But they don't quite disappear instantaneously, either. I can – sometimes – do something else briefly and come back and keep going. I haven't entirely figured out the rules of when and how this works, but I have a partial hunch, which I'll come back around to below.

I'd like to model this pattern of experience as an autocatalytic reaction, or more specifically, fire. Activity of a given type catalyzes more of that type of activity; it creates a mental environment that's conducive to itself happening. Gelt macht gelt, and like attracts like; fire spreads as it burns.

The fire metaphor also partly explains the partial interruptibility: even if the flame goes out, the embers are still hot, and so it's easier to start them up again than it is to start cold.

Where the metaphor weakens is the partial hunch that I mentioned above, which is that I suspect it matters whether the interrupting activity is itself autocatalytic. That is, an forksy activity is more severely interrupted by something that gives a different type of forks than by something that doesn't give forks at all.

However, the problem with forksy interruptions may be that they're harder to pull myself away from, because they're forksily interesting/gripping/engaging in themselves, and so they tend to last longer and redirect more of my mental resources away from the thing I'm supposed to be working on.

This does still weaken the metaphor – there isn't a maximum total amount of literal fire that can exist at one time, much to the dismay of Smokey the Bear – but I can think of it in terms of preparing a fire circle, ensuring that the fire only burns in the places that I want it to burn, so that I don't have to stop to put out my sleeve or my tent. This explains the popularity of "distraction free environments" like WriteRoom.

In closing, I note that the last paragraph in the original Forks Model article, which recommends breaking into smaller subtasks, can be understood as lowering the activation energy of the reaction, or of using easily-flammable tinder to help get the fire started. Some specific firestarters that have worked for me include:

  • a post on tumblr that said something to the effect of "whenever you see this post, you must write at least one paragraph"
  • telling people that I'm about to start writing
  • imminent deadlines (this may explain the infamously widespread Wait Until Sunday Night Syndrome among students)

These have in common that they're easy, but count as doing more than nothing.

You can't build a fire out of tinder, but it sure helps with getting one started.

May you burn brightly.