We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done. — Alan Turing
Some of the best ideas are simple but counterintuitive. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection established how complexity could emerge from simplicity and overturned previous assumptions regarding trickle-down causality. Likewise, the polymath Alan Turing demonstrated a computational approach for constructing basic algorithms that revolutionized computer science and the future of artificial intelligence. Even the most elegant architecture in the world began with rudimentary drafts developed over time while being constructed incrementally. Progress requires the application of consistency when sculpting desired outcomes.
In therapy, progress often takes a sawtooth form and therapeutic insights that encourage change can also cause behavioral or emotional relapse when conditioned responses are fully exposed. The instant gratification of impulsive living often prevails when the banality of slow improvement loses its magnetism. Sometimes the task of reverse engineering cognition and behavior is overwhelming, frustrating, and seemingly futile. This is when the emergency axe of tenacity shatters the glass of intransigence to reveal the Byproduct Theory of Engagement.*
Like many counterintuitive ideas, the Byproduct Theory of Engagement (BYTE) maintains that desirable outcomes are simply byproducts based on the cumulative effects of engagement rather than the inevitable default positions of therapeutic processing. BYTE demands attentive persistence and the ability to remain relatively unaffected by emotional setbacks while trusting the power of process. For example, many people wait until they experience a psychological epiphany before committing to a routine schedule, making a change, or pursuing activities they value. If fear is affecting their ability to function, a reduction of apprehension is often achieved by engaging in at least one challenging activity on a daily basis. The more the person distracts themselves by focusing on a project, the greater their sense of self-efficacy. For example, I often suggest productive sublimation as a way to create value with emotions rather than succumbing to preemptive despair. Granted, many of my former clients could do nothing that demanded motivation until their symptoms were attenuated with the proper psychiatric medication, but the primary efficacy of BYTE revealed itself with treatment-resistant clients who had already “tried everything.” As with physical exercise, the commitment to routine is usually solidified after the momentum of routine has already been established. Most people believe they would be more determined in life if previous outcomes had been favorable, or if their current disposition was inspired by enticing incentives. However, to paraphrase the author Joyce Carol Oates, one does not wait for the mood to write; you write to get into the mood. What initially may seem contradictory is often the ironic inversion of reasoning necessary for moving forward.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an established form of clinical behavior analysis that focuses on recognizing negative emotions when confronted with unfavorable stimuli while engaging in alternative behavioral responses. Similar to the Byproduct Theory of Engagement, a commitment to manifesting change through activity remains a significant component of ACT. However, values generally precede action in ACT; whereas values are considered a process of ongoing discovery in BYTE, and auspicious outcomes are the “side-effects” of being occupied.
J. B. S. Haldane, a British biologist and geneticist, who was one of the founding fathers of the modern evolutionary synthesis, understood the implications of time and variation in biology via mathematical models. Population genetics was built on calculating changes in gene frequency over time and the “byproducts” (phenotypes) of this development are seen all around us.
Consistent environmental pressures, variation, and replication are responsible for the diversity of life in the same way that gradual erosion carves the scenic views of oceanic landscapes. Dedication to process is best achieved by immersion in process, and unbounded processes make all experience possible.
*Developed via fortuitous thought experiments in a community mental health setting.