The Fishbowl Metaphor

For the past year or so, I’ve been working on a visual metaphor of what goes on in a person’s head that will explain why people get things done or don’t. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far: a fishbowl.

Let’s start this metaphor by saying that the bowl is your head, psychologically speaking. In this bowl, filled with water, are objects. These objects are things to do. Things you have to do, want to do, could do, should do, with a fox, in a box, etc… In sum anything you think of doing is represented by an object in this bowl.

Swedish Fish, gummi bears and gummi worms

Just need some whale butter, now.

Doing your taxes would be one thing, eating a sandwich another. What isn’t represented in the bowl are things you would not or could not think of doing. For example, rubbing whale milk butter mixed with Gummi Bears on the bottom of your feet while singing La Vida Loca is, I hope, something you’ve never thought of doing.

These objects have a certain level of buoyancy. Some float right up to the top as if they were inflatable pool toys, others drop like rocks, and many float right in the middle. Buoyancy is affected by two things. Actually more, but we’ll start here. The first thing is urgency. Extreme hunger makes the eating objects rise. I say objects, because there are objects for eating pizza, squash, ravioli, etc… Each of those is it’s own object. They all rise, because hunger makes us much less picky about what we eat.

The second thing that affects buoyancy is the complexity of what the object represents. Scratching your ear would be a light object. Getting a Master’s degree would be much heavier, because it is made up of many other objects. Pick off one of those objects, and that new object is smaller. Finding out about Master’s degree programs is a much smaller task/object.

Buoyancy is important because of what the top of the fishbowl represents. The top is the space in your mind where you choose what to do next. We constantly reassess what we are doing based on what is in this space. We choose one of the options available and only from that available list. If an object is not up there, we can’t choose it. If you can’t think of a thing to do, you can’t do it.

Here then, is one of the first differences between being productive or unproductive. Productive people have the options in front of them, so that they can make the decision to do the productive thing. If you walk by your basket of dirty laundry and don’t even notice, because you are thinking of something else, you can’t make the decision of whether or not to do the laundry.

How does knowing this help you if your laundry is of the invisible type? Remember, the point is to be able to make the decision to do the productive thing. The top of the bowl is where your options are, so you need to either widen the top of the bowl, so that more things can rise to the top, or you need to bring more productive things to the top, so they can crowd out the less productive things.

The former option is accomplished through mindfulness. It is always easier to make the right decision about what to do with your time when you are aware that you are making that decision. Often we abdicate our responsibility by blaming the situation. When we decide to continue watching a TV show merely because it hasn’t ended even when we aren’t enjoying it or have something dramatically more important to do, we are saying that we don’t have a choice, so we stop thinking about the choice, and the top of the bowl disappears.

The latter option is about controlling your environment to direct your attention

dirty laundry

Assuming you can find a basket under all this.

to more productive tasks. Putting the laundry on top of the TV remote forces you to make the choice between watching Jersey Shore and heading to the washing machine. One makes you less dirty, and one makes you more so. You know which is which. A to-do list is another good example. It forces you to consider many productive options at the same time, crowding the top of the bowl with things you’ll feel better about choosing.

So there’s my productivity metaphor in a nutshell. Coming up, but maybe not next time, I’ll talk about how you can further use this metaphor to help your productivity without too much effort on your part. This is the Lazy Porcupine after all. Feel free to recommend this to your friends, neighbors, and postal carriers. Until next time.

Feel free to also check out my other blog,


3 thoughts on “The Fishbowl Metaphor

  1. […] holds near infinite possibility, and who knows for sure now that they won’t tomorrow be rubbing whale milk butter mixed with Gummi Bears on the bottom of their feet while singing La Vida L…. (Don’t pretend you’re not clicking on that link. SFW, I […]

  2. phil says:

    This is utter nonsense. The best take on the fishbowl metaphor is about the fish not knowing it’s in the bowl, thus not seeing the bigger picture.

    • But we’re not fish. Given the appropriate mindset we can see a lot more of the big picture. There are things that get in the way of doing that. Are you sure you read it right? Wait, are you a fish. I didn’t mean to insult any fish.

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