Cognitive readiness

[not obviously coherent]

There’s cognitive effort, which is, approximately, “thinking hard”, using your System 2, dilating your pupils. This should vary second to second, minute to minute, as you switch tasks, and as difficulty changes within tasks.

But there’s something like “willingness to exert effort”, or what I’m tentatively calling “cognitive readiness.” This accounts for how much resistance you have to increasing cognitive effort.

When I have a spare minute at the airport, how do I feel about processing tasks, vs. continuing to mostly-passively listen to an audio book.

It’s possible that cognitive readiness is just a matter of not being in an unproductive state + having your goals loaded up. But it might still be useful to ask what the inputs to cognitive readiness are.

  • Available mental energy
  • Cutting off easy attractor?
    • You are lazy, and there is always an attractor toward passivity?
  • Good posture?
  • Clear planning?

What is mental energy?

[Note: I’ve started a research side project on this question, and it is already obvious to me that this ontology importantly wrong.]

There’s a common phenomenology of “mental energy”. For instance, if I spend a couple of hours thinking hard (maybe doing math), I find it harder to do more mental work afterwards. My thinking may be slower and less productive. And I feel tired, or drained, (mentally, instead of physically).

Mental energy is one of the primary resources that one has to allocate, in doing productive work. In almost all cases, humans have less mental energy than they have time, and therefore effective productivity is a matter of energy management, more than time management. If we want to maximize personal effectiveness, mental energy seems like an extremely important domain to understand. So what is it?

The naive story is that mental energy is an actual energy resource that one expends and then needs to recoup. That is, when one is doing cognitive work, they are burning calories, depleting their bodies energy stores. As they use energy, they have less fuel to burn.

My current understanding is that this story is not physiologically realistic. Thinking hard does consume more of the body’s energy than baseline, but not that much more. And we experience mental fatigue long before we even get close to depleting our calorie stores. It isn’t literal energy that is being consumed. [The Psychology of Fatigue pg.27]

So if not that, what is going on here?

A few hypotheses:

(The first few, are all of a cluster, so I labeled them 1a, 1b, 1c, etc.)

Hypothesis 1a: Mental fatigue is a natural control system that redirects our attention to our other goals.

The explanation that I’ve heard most frequently in recent years (since it became obvious that much of the literature on ego-depletion was off the mark), is the following:

A human mind is composed of a bunch of subsystems that are all pushing for different goals. For a period of time, one of these goal threads might be dominant. For instance, if I spend a few hours doing math, this means that my other goals are temporarily suppressed or on hold: I’m not spending that time seeking a mate, or practicing the piano, or hanging out with friends.

In order to prevent those goals from being neglected entirely, your mind has a natural control system that prevents you from focusing your attention on any one thing at a time: the longer you put your attention on something, the greater the build up of mental fatigue, causing you to do anything else.

Comments and model-predictions: This hypothesis, as stated, seems implausible to me. For one thing, it seems to suggest that that all actives would be equally mentally taxing, which is empirically false: spending several hours doing math is mentally fatiguing, but spending the same amount of time watching TV is not.

This might still be salvaged if we offer some currency other than energy that is being preserved: something like “forceful computations”. But again, it doesn’t seem obvious why the computations of doing math would be more costly than those for watching TV.

Similarly, this model suggests that “a change is as good as a break”: if you switch to a new task, you should be back to full mental energy, until you become fatigued for that task as well.

Hypothesis 1b: Mental fatigue is the phenomenological representation of the loss of support for the winning coalition.

A variation on this hypothesis would be to model the mind as a collection of subsystems. At any given time, there is only one action sequence active, but that action sequence is determined by continuous “voting” by various subsystems.

Overtime, these subsystems get fed up with their goals not being met, and “withdraw support” for the current activity. This manifests as increasing mental fatigue. (Perhaps your thoughts get progressively less effective, because they are interrupted, on the scale of micro-seconds, by bids to think something else).

Comments and model-predictions: This seems like it might suggest that if all of the subsystems have high trust that their goals will be met, that math (or any other cognitively demanding task) would cease to be mentally taxing. Is that the case? (Does doing math mentally exhaust Critch?)

This does have the nice virtue of explaining burnout: when some subset of needs are not satisfied for a long period, the relevant subsystems pull their support for all actions, until those needs are met.

[Is burnout a good paradigm case for studying mental energy in general?]

Hypothesis 1c: The same as 1a or 1b, but some mental operations are painful for some reason.

To answer my question above, one reason why math might be more mentally taxing than watching TV, is that doing math is painful.

If the process of doing math is painful on the micro-level, then even if all of the other needs are met, there is still a fundamental conflict between the subsystem that is aiming to acquire math knowledge, and the subsystem that is trying to avoid micro-pain on the micro-level.

As you keep doing math, the micro pain part votes more and more strongly against doing math, or the overall system biases away from the current activity, and you run out of mental energy.

Comments and model-predictions: This seems plausible for the activity of doing math, which involves many moments of frustration, which might be meaningfully micro-painful. But it seems less consistent with activities like writing, which phenomenologically feel non-painful. This leads to hypothesis 1d…

Hypothesis 1d: The same as 1c, but the key micro-pain is that of processing ambiguity second to second

Maybe the pain comes from many moments of processing ambiguity, which is definitely a thing that is happening in the context of writing. (I’ll sometimes notice myself try to flinch to something easier when I’m not sure which sentence to write.) It seems plausible that mentally taxing activities are taxing to the extent that they involve processing ambiguity, and doing a search for the best template to apply.

Hypothesis 1e: Mental fatigue is the penalty incurred for top down direction of attention.

Maybe consciously deciding to do things is importantly different from the “natural” allocation of cognitive resources. That is, your mind is set up such that the conscious, System 2, long term planning, metacognitive system, doesn’t have free rein. It has a limited budget of “mental energy”, which measures how long it is allowed to call the shots before the visceral, system 1, immediate gratification systems take over again.

Maybe this is an evolutionary adaption? For the monkeys that had “really good” plans for how to achieve their goals, never panned out for them. The monkeys that were impulsive some of the time, actually did better at the reproduction game?

(If this is the case, can the rest of the mind learn to trust S2 more, and thereby offer it a bigger mental energy budget?)

This hypothesis does seem consistent with my observation that rest days are rejuvenating, even when I spend my rest day working on cognitively demanding side projects.

Hypothesis 2: Mental fatigue is the result of the brain temporarily reaching knowledge saturation.

When learning a motor task, there are several phases in which skill improvement occurs. The first, unsurprisingly, is durring practice sessions. However, one also sees automatic improvements in skill in the hours after practice [actually this part is disputed] and following a sleep period (academic link1, 2, 3). That is, there is a period of consolidation following a practice session. This period of consolidation probably involves the literal strengthening of neural connections, and encoding other brain patterns that take more than a few seconds to set.

I speculate, that your brain may reach a saturation point: more practice, more information input, becomes increasingly less effective, because you need to dedicate cognitive resources to consolidation. [Note that this is supposing that there is some tradeoff between consolidation activity and input activity, as opposed to a setup where both can occur simultaneously (does anyone have evidence for such a tradeoff?)].

If so, maybe cognitive fatigue is the phenomenology of needing to extract one’s self from a practice / execution regime, so that your brain can do post-processing and consolidation on what you’ve already done and learned.

Comments and model-predictions: This seems to suggest that all cognitively taxing tasks are learning tasks, or at least tasks in which one is encoding new neural patterns. This seems plausible, at least.

It also seems to naively imply that an activity will become less mentally taxing as you gain expertise with it, and progress along the learning curve. There is (presumably) much more information to process and consolidate in your first hour of doing math than in your 500th.

Hypothesis 3: Mental fatigue is a control system that prevents some kind of damage to the mind or body.

One reason why physical fatigue is useful is that it prevents damage to your body. Getting tired after running for a bit, stops you for running all out for 30 hours at a time, and eroding your fascia.

By simple analogy to physical fatigue, we might guess that mental fatigue is a response to vigorous mental activity that is adaptive in that it prevents us from hurting ourselves.

I have no idea what kind of damage might be caused by thinking too hard.

I note that mania and hypomania involve apparently limitless mental energy reserves, and I think that theses states are bad for your brain.

Hypothesis 4: Mental fatigue is a buffer overflow of peripheral awareness.

Another speculative hypothesis: Human minds have a working memory: a limit of ~4 concepts, or chunks, that can be “activated”, or operated upon in focal attention, at one time. But meditators, at least, also talk a peripheral awareness: a sort of halo of concepts and sense impressions that are “loaded up”, or “near by”, or cognitively available, or “on the fringes of awareness”. These are all the ideas that are “at hand” to your thinking. [Note: is peripheral awareness, as the meditators talk about,  the same thing as “short term memory”?]

Perhaps if there is a functional limit to the amount of content that can be held in working memory, there is a similar, if larger, limit to how much content can be held in peripheral awareness. As you engage with a task, more and more mental content is loaded up, or added to peripheral awareness, where it both influences your focal thought process, and/or is available to be operated on directly in working memory. As you continue the task, and more and more content gets added to peripheral awareness, you begin to overflow its capacity. It gets harder and harder to think, because peripheral awareness is overflowing. Your mind needs space to re-ontologize: to chunk pieces together, so that it can all fit in the same mental space. Perhaps this is what mental fatigue is.

Comments and model-predictions: This does give a nice clear account of why sleep replenishes mental energy (it both causes re-ontologizing, and clears the cache), though perhaps this does not provide evidence over most of the other hypotheses listed here.

Other notes about mental energy:

  • In this post, I’m mostly talking about mental energy on the scale of hours. But there is also a similar phenomenon on the scale of days (the rejuvenation one feels after rest days) and on the scale of months (burnout and such). Are these the same basic phenomenon on different timescales?
  • On the scale of days, I find that my subjective rest-o-meter is charged up if I take a rest day, even if I spend that rest day working on fairly cognitively intensive side projects.
    • This might be because there’s a kind of new project energy, or new project optimism?
  • Mania and hypomania entail limitless mental energy.
  • People seem to be able to play video games for hours and hours without depleting mental energy. Does this include problem solving games, or puzzle games?
    • Also, just because they can play indefinitely does not mean that their performance doesn’t drop. Does performance drop, across hours of playing, say, snakebird?
  • For that matter, does performance decline on a task correlate with the phenomenological “running out of energy”? Maybe those are separate systems.

Napping Protocol

Followup to: Notes on Interventions for Falling Asleep

[This is a draft]

Some people seem to have a natural affinity for napping. They can just lie down and easily fall asleep. Unfortunately, I am not one of them. So over the past 2 months, I’ve been experimenting with and iterating on napping procedures, aiming to acquire the minor superpower of sleeping durring the day.

I have not yet gotten to a ~100% success rate: my current protocol effectively causes me to fall asleep something like 70% of the time. But I’ll keep iterating and post and update if and when I find a more robust procedure.

How to Fall asleep durring the day

  1. Make the room as dark as possible.
    1. (In my case, simply using blackout curtains is insufficient, I need to cover my window with with cardboard sheets, with the blackout curtains over it.)
  2. Cool the room or set up a chilling airflow.
    1. (This one might be specific to me, I have long needed cold to fall asleep: when I was 3, I would ask my parents to put my red blanky in the freezer.)
  3. Lay down in a comfortable position with your arms over your chest or by your sides.
  4. Progressively relax each part of your body.
    1. Put your attention on each body part, and silently tell it to relax. Continue until that body part has a tingly, heavy, “set” sensation (a feeling like it would resist moving or is encased in clay).
    2. Continue up the body:
      1. Toes
      2. Feet
      3. Lower legs
      4. Upper legs
      5. Buttocks
      6. Back (this part is hardest)
      7. Arms
      8. Neck
      9. Face (this is the most important one, I think)
  5. [Still experimental, so maybe useless] Lean into the hypnogogic imagery.

I usually have the subjective impression that it’s not going to work, that I’m not going to fall asleep, and then the next thing that I’m aware of is waking up an hour or so later.

As I said, this procedure is very much still experimental. It seems plausible that some parts are superfluous or inefficient, and also that there are still pieces missing. I’m going to keep tinkering.

Intro to and outline of a sequence on a productivity system

[Note: this is an unedited ramble]

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to publish at least a post a week on a my productivity system.

I’ve been writing occasional posts in a series that I’ve been calling the Psychological Principles of Productivity. The idea of these essays is less to present productivity tricks, and more to use those tricks as a starting point for exploring what that must mean about the human mind.

I’ll be doing that a little bit, over the next few posts, but mainly, this is a full practical system for efficiently converting one’s time and mental energy into productive labor. If I were to sum it up, I would say this is a system for increasing the quantity and quality of one’s focused Deep Work time, up to sustainable human limits.

(This series is the successor to my SAAH model of productivity from 2016, and is similar to Leverage / Paradigm’s AVADI framework.)

Of course, what a person choses to work on is a much bigger factor in their impact than how efficiently they utilize their mental/emotional resources, but that’s not what this series is about.

Basically, this is a way for me to get a bunch of rough drafts written down, so that I have fodder to organize into a book or a Less Wrong sequence, down the line.

I’m also going to be implementing and testing a few pieces as I go: almost all of the content to come will be things that I already do, are already crucial pieces of sustaining my high productivity. But there will be some places that are still theoretical: pieces that I have reason to think are crucial, but which I haven’t gotten work, practically, yet. I’ll note these explicitly.

With that in mind, here’s an outline of the pieces to come. Note that these are strongly NOT ordered by importance (the most important factor, in my experience, is antagonistic aversions, which is all the way at the end).

  1. Prerequisites / preliminaries
    1. Healthy state
      1. Sleep
        1. Naps
      2. Exercise
      3. Meditation?
      4. Rest
    2. Mental / emotional state clear – everything is handled
      1. Other open loops in a system
      2. All emotional considerations are handled or meta-handled [1]
        1. Overwell
        2. Urge-y-ness / reactivity
      3. Outlet policies
        1. Explicit priority without an implicit 
          1. Scheduling rest and breaks 
  2. Positive factors
    1. Set up
      1. Having the item in your attention
      2. Scheduling: immediacy, urgency, etc. 
        1. TAPs
        2. Schedule blocks
          1. Murphyjitsu
        3. Habits
      3. Motivation – how it works
        1. Time horizon is overweighted
          1. But it should be propagated back from something good.
        2. Only reaching for achievable lists
          1. Committing to not adding more
      4. Momentum
    2. Hyperfocus
      1. State modulation – calm, focused, alert, energized
        1. Pumping up
        2. Bleeding off
      2. Committing to focus
        1. Distraction catching system
          1. Especially web surfing
      3. Breaks
  3. Negative factors
    1. Aversion
      1. Antagonistic aversions
        1. Focusing [1]
          1. How to make it work
        2. Watching TV is a flag that some part of the system is broken
      2. Ambiguity aversion 
        1. Operationalizing
        2. Committed engagement


See you soon.

My personal wellbeing support pillars

[Epistemic status: my personal experience]

Last week, I wrote about a way that I now conceptualize my personal maintenance habits/ systems/ practice. In this post, I want to say what those practices are, in rough order of importance for me.

Regularly doing all of these, more-or-less insures that I have good productive days. Note however that various stressors can make it harder to maintain each of these practices (especially #3), and correlation is not causation. It is not entirely implausible that some of these are not doing much work, but they seem useful because the days when I do them are the days when things are going well. More randomized experimentation is needed.

Plus, of course, your milage may vary.

  1. Get enough sleep. Nap during the day if I didn’t sleep enough or sleep well. (I never used to be able to nap durring the day, but I recently developed a method for falling asleep that works reasonably reliably.)
  2. Exercise, intensely, everyday.
  3. Notice, respond to, and process my aversions/ anxieties / triggers / concerns. This one is crucial, and is the current weak point for me. Some percentage of the time, my doing Focusing fails, in that I don’t get more clarity or a next action on the cause of discomfort. I think this is a bug in my Focusing process more than an inherent limitation.
  4. Outline my days the night before.
  5. Do some hours of Deep work, especially first thing in the morning.
  6. Full inbox 0: keeping my attention clear and keeping things moving. [I wonder if this is only good because of the momentum building effects / reward of closing out a list.]
  7. Make some visible-to-me progress, on my projects, even on minor projects
  8. Take rest days (I don’t know if this is only beneficial because it aids in doing some of the things above, but I think there’s an important thing of getting a reprieve from my stressors.)

One important open question for me is, “when all of the above is functional, is there still and additional benefit to daily meditation?” Or, alternatively,  does daily meditation pay for itself by making any of the above (perhaps #3) easier?

Currently, I keep track of most of these in a daily checklist. This has gone through a large number of iterations over the past 5 years, but the first version was based on Sebastian Marshall‘s lights spreadsheet.

The bootstrapping attitude

This is a quick post highlighting a recent change in my mindset that I suppose might be useful to others. (I make no claims that this shift in mindset is clear from the post.)

I used to have a bit of a “failing with abandon” problem. If I wasted most of a day, that meant it was too late to have a “good day”, and it wasn’t very motivating to get up and work on having a “slightly better, but still not very good day”. [I will get around to writing up how motivation works, sometime]. So I would something like give up on my long term goals for that day, and fitter it away.

These days, I have a different attitude. My functionality and effectiveness is a structure that depends on a bunch of different, self-supporting, maintenance processes: exercising, getting enough sleep, having my attention clear, having “everything handled”, doing Deep Work first thing in the morning etc.

These processes are self supporting in that each one makes it easier to do the others. Sort of like a reciprocal structure.


It used to be that when I looked at my lightsheet/ daily checklist and everything was red… Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 1.52.37 PM

…I felt the weight of how far I was from hitting my goals. That feels un-motivating. What’s the point of pushing myself, if I’m not going to get a payoff?

Now when I look at today’s column, and it’s all red, my response is something like: “Yep, I’m not going to have a “good day” today, my supports are not in place. But I can start bootstrapping.” I can, starting from right here, lay the first of those supports, and start building up momentum.

This resets the reference point: I’m not expecting to have a satisfying productive day, but I can still put pieces in place, so that I can have a day like that soon.

Exercise and nap, then mope, if I still want to

I have a new rule for myself (partially inspired by reading Scott Adam’s book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big): I’m not allowed to be mopey or depressed unless I have exercised and gotten enough sleep on that day.

If I feel some kind of despondent, and I haven’t exercised, then I’ll stop bemoaning my situation and go exercise. And if I’m running on sleep deprivation, then I’ll nap first.

I’m allowed to feel grumpy or depressed after I’ve done both of those things.

I’m doing this because, a huge portion of my subjective well being and optimism depends on sleep and exercise, so I want to always make sure that those are taken care of before inhabiting an epistemic state in which things seem bad or hopeless.

Controlled actions

[Note: I learned this concept directly from John Salvatier. All credit for the ideas goes to him. All blame for the incoherence of this post goes to me.]


This post doesn’t have a payoff. It’s just laying out some ideas.

Controlled actions

Some actions are “controlled”, which is to say their consequences are very precisely determined by the actor.

The term is in reference to, for instance, a controlled demolition. A controlled demolition occurs when a building collapses in a specific pattern, compared to an uncontrolled demolition, which would just be knocking over a building, without any particular concern for how or where the pieces go.

The following are some axis that influence how controlled an action is.

How precisely predictable the effects of the action are

Rocket launches are highly controlled, in that the one can precisely predict the trajectory of the rocket. Successfully changing the social norms around dating, sex, and marriage (or anything really) is uncontrolled because human society is a complicated knot of causal influences, and it is very hard to know in advance what the down-stream impacts will be.

(In general, actions that involve physical deterministic systems are more controlled than actions that involve human minds.)

How reversible the results of an action are

But you don’t need to be able to predict the results of your actions, to have controlled actions, if your actions are reversible.

Dynamiting a mountain (even via a controlled demolition), is less controlled than cutting down a forest, which is less controlled than turning on a light.

How much you “own” the results of your actions

Inventing and then open-sourcing a new technology is uncontrolled. Developing proprietary software is more controlled, because you have more ability to dictate how the software is used (though the possibility of copycats creating can create similar software mitigates your control). Developing software that is only used within one’s own organization is more controlled still.

Processes that are self perpetuating or which take on a life of their own (for instance, sharing an infectious idea, which then spreads and mutates) are extremely uncontrolled.

How large or small the step-size of the action is and how frequent the feedback is

It is more controlled to cut down a tree at a time, and check the ecological impact after each felling, than it is to only check the ecological impact after the whole forest has been removed. Careful gradual change is more controlled.

(Unfortunately, many actions have different effects at large scales than at small scales, and so one doesn’t get information about their impacts until the action is mostly completed.)


In general, there’s a pretty strong tradeoff between the effect sizes of one’s actions, and how controlled they can be. It’s easy to keep many small actions controlled, and nigh-impossible to keep many large actions controlled.

Problems requiring high control

Some problems inherently require high control solutions. Most construction projects are high control problems, for instance. Building a sky scraper depends on hundreds of high precision steps, with the later steps depending on the earlier one. Building a watch is a similarly high control problem.

In contrast, there are some problems for which low control solutions are good enough. In particular, when only a single variable of the system being optimized needs to be modified, low control solutions that move that variable (in the right direction), are sufficient.

For instance, removing lead from the environment is a moderately low control action (hard to reverse, hard to predict all the downstream consequences, the actor doesn’t own the effects) but it turns out that adjusting that one variable is very good move. (Probably. The world is actually more confusing than that.)


The seed of a theory of triggeredness

[epistemic status: not even really a theory, just some observations, and self-observations at that.


Related: “Flinching away from truth” is often about *protecting* the epistemology

“Triggered” seems to be a pretty specific state, that has something of rage, something of panic, and a general sort of “closing in” of experience. I think it might be a pointer to something important (I postulate a related triad of triggeredness, trauma, and blindspots, and blindspots seem like a crucial thing to have a better grasp on.) So I’ve been paying attention to my own triggeredness.

I’ve noticed that I feel triggered in only two situations.

Adversarial forces

The first is when there’s something that I think is important, but I anticipate adversarial forces, either in me or external to me, that are threatening to erode my commitment to that important thing.

For instance, if I have a standard that I’m trying to hold to, but I expect (or project) that someone is about to try and argue me out of, or social pressure me out of it. (Probably, it is necessary that I be unsteady in my commitment to that standard, in such a way that some part of me expects me to be improperly argued out of it, and something important will be lost? If I were confident in my view, or confident in my ability to respond and update sensibly, there wouldn’t be an issue.)

An example: If someone makes even mild, good-natured attempts to convince me that I should impair my cognition, or drink alcohol to relax, I might become filled with triggered rage.

[This is not quite a real example for me, but it is very close to a real example. I in fact, have trouble writing a real example, because my every attempt to fill in the what they are suggesting I do are obvious strawmen that don’t come close to passing the ITT. I get things like “meld with the crowd”, or “surrender my independence” and start feeling slightly triggered. I think I can’t currently see the real thing clearly.]

Another example: I think that I should only use CFAR units that I personally use. I agreed to teach Aversion Factoring, explicitly with the condition that I say clearly that I used to use it, but now use Focusing with a dash of IDC for processing aversions. Someone who wasn’t aware of that, asked (in a way that I guess felt presure-y to me?) if they “could convince me not to tell the participants that I use Focusing/IDC instead?” I got slightly triggered and snapped back, “absolutely not” (in a kind of mean way).

Impossibilities of crucial communication

The other is when there’s something important to protect, but I don’t expect to be able to comunicate what it is to the relevant actors, perhaps because the true reasons don’t seem defensible.

For instance, if I’m on a team and we’re considering bringing on a new member. Most people on the team feel excited about the new guy. I don’t want him to join, but despair of compelling them. (It feels to me like the excited people are being reckless with our team and I’m going to end up leaving it.) I feel a triggered panic.

This impossibility of communication is often due to some conflation of separate things, or bucket error, either in me, or in others.

Example: a person is considering taking some action, X. I think X is doomed to fail, but it is nearby to action Y, which I think is important or valuable. I’m afraid that the person will try X and it will go poorly, and onlookers will not be able to distinguish X and Y, so and so everyone gives up on Y as untenable. If I could convey that X and Y were meaningfully distinct, then there wouldn’t be an issue, and I wouldn’t need to be triggerd about it.

Common thread

There’s a thread in both of these of “something important to me is threatened because I can’t articulate what it is or name it right.”

Why does outlining my day in advance help so much?

[epistemic status: Hypothesizing. Pretty stream of consciousness. I’m rereading Thinking, Fast and Slow right now, and that has clearly been influencing my thinking.]

Advance outlines

More than a year ago, I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rule’s for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Overall, I wasn’t that impressed with it: it seemed to be mostly fluff. There was one practice that I picked up from that book however, that made the time cost of reading it (actually, listening to the audiobook) worthwhile.

Newport recommends outlining your day, hour by hour, before the day starts. This outline is not intended to be a ridged schedule however: you’re allowed to deviate from the plan. However, if you do decide to change what you do in a given time block, you have to put that on the outline, and also reschedule the rest of your day in light of that change.

(It’s possible that I’m misremembering the actual procedure that Newport recommends. I think that his version has two side by side columns, one with a pre-made outline and the other to be filled in with how you actually spend your time? What I do, at least, is fill out a new column every time I make a decision to deviate from my schedule outline. It looks something like this:


In practice, I often don’t keep this up for the whole day. For the day shown above, “writing” ended up turning into a debugging meeting with a friend/collaborator, alternating with writing, and then going home to pack. [2] )

Outlining my day in advance like this has a pretty large effect on “how well my day goes” overall, my subjective sense of my own focus and productivity. The effect is not as large as waking up early and doing Deep work [3], but it is larger than the effect of a 20 minute meditation. My guess is that the effect is larger than regular exercise, but I’m much less sure of that. (All of these are eyeball’ed subjective estimates. It’s quite possible that my affect heuristic is failing me here, if my subjective sense of wellbeing does not correlate well with my actually getting things done and moving towards my goals. I really need to figure out some better metrics for my own effectiveness.)

A priori, it’s a bit surprising that writing a schedule that I’m not even going to stick to would have such a large effect. Why would this be?

I don’t know. But here are some hypotheses. These aren’t mutually exclusive. For all I know they all apply. I think at least some of these point at interesting psychological phenomena.


Hypothesis 1: It causes me to load up my goals and priorities in some kind of short term memory or background awareness. 

This might be subtle; I don’t know. There’s a thing about having my goals “loaded up”, or at hand to me, not far from my thoughts. Sometimes (like after a workshop, and before I have had time to orient) I don’t have my goals loaded up. I’m not taking actions to hit them, and I’m not experiencing any anxiety about them. I might spend the morning (or the day) doing whatever random thing, because I’m something like not tracking / not paying attention to / not primed to pay attention to / not remembering the things that I care about and want to accomplish? [I should probably study this experience more, so that I have a better sense of what’s going on.]

I think that one of the things that’s happening is that the outlining activity causes me to “load up” my goals in short term memory.

Hypothesis 3: It clarifies time scarcity and tradeoffs

There’s a temptation (for me at least) to act as if there’s infinite time. “I do want to write today, but I’ll do it later.” That kind of postponement feels costless, but it really isn’t. Something has to give. The procedure outlined above gives me a much more visceral sense of the scarcity of the time resource, and forces me to confront the tradeoffs. (For instance, I didn’t do math on July 1, I met with Diva instead. But that was a conscious choice.)

Being aware of the limits on my time supports me in spending it well. I’m less apt to waste time if I’m viscerally aware of what that actually costs.

Hypothesis 3: It allows me to rehearse my day / set TAPs / biases later decision moments

There’s something magical about walking through my day in some detail that, for instance, just making a todo list of three or four priorities, doesn’t do.

In order to schedule in blocks like that I have to visualize how my day will go in at least a little detail. And I think that future-pacing my day like that makes it easier to execute.

I’m not quite sure why this is. It might be something like that walkthrough lightly sets some TAPs, and particular, TAPs for transitioning between tasks.  For instance

TAP: Finish meeting with Ben -> walk over to my desk, take out “How to Prove It” and start reading the introduction).

Note that my current procedure does not have me visualizing the scene in detail like that, or explicitly setting TAPs. But maybe something like that is happening subliminally, as I think about how long I need to do a task and where I’ll be at that time of day, etc.

Another model in this vein (or maybe another frame on the same model) is that scheduling introduces a bias or directional tendency to my decision points. Throughout the day, I have a small hundreds number of moments when I need to determine my next action. Those moments include when I feel like getting up from writing to pace, or if I should go make food right now, or if I’m going to sit down to work on that python script I was writing, or if I should do Focusing on that thing in my belly.

Such decision points inherently entail ambiguity. Furthermore, there are really a large number of factors to take into account: my energy levels, what I feel like doing, if I have enough time to make progress on a thing, the nature of the tradeoffs between the various good things that I could do etc. I have policies and TAPs for making some of these decisions (one wants to live a choice minimal life-style), but most of these moments still entail some level of ambiguity and cognitive effort. And the more of the decision that falls to my current less reflective self, the more likely I am to follow a path of least resistance: taking a break instead of finishing this post, or doing something good but not crucial.

I think having rehearsed the decision in advance takes some of the load off, there’s a sort of echo of having already chosen, I’ve carved a shallow rut, so that the thing that my more reflective self decided was best to do at this time is the path of least (or less) resistance.

Interestingly, this maybe the same mechanism as hypothesis 1, except where Hyp 1 is about loading up goals, Hyp 3 is about loading up task-transitions. And the mechanism in question is starting to look suspiciously like priming.

Let’s clarify that claim explicitly: the main reason why prescheduling works is that it briefly puts my attention on my goals and the tasks to achieving them. This leaves a kind of mental “residue” [4], those goals and actions are more cognitively available. And therefore, those actions are given higher decision weightings at ambiguous decision points. [Plus, it makes time scarcity feel real. (Hyp. 3)]

Next steps

I’m not sure if any of that was even coherent, or if it is, if I’ll think that this is correct in a week.

After writing this, it seems like the natural next thing to do is goal-factor. Is there a way that I can get all the benefits of this procedure more cheaply? If I find a strictly better procedure, that’s a win. If I find a procedure that hits some but not all of the benefits, that would give me more data about the physiological structure in this area.



[1] I was nocturnal for this day because I was transitioning in advance for a Europe trip.

[1] I can easily check, because I separately track all my time in Toggl.

[3] I find that my day goes better the earlier I wake up, and that this trend is robust all the way up to as early as 3:00 AM. It’s really amazing to have long blocks of uninterrupted work time, while it’s dark and the rest of the world is sleeping. Unfortunately, this has the obvious tradeoff of making it hard to  meet with / spend time with other humans.

[4] I believe this is a technical term used for the cost of attention switching?