Hypothesis: three kind of mental energy

[epistemic status: private research note, except on the internet. Not even wrong. Thought in progress.]

I need to distinguish between different kinds of mental energy in the same way that I distinguish between different kinds of “feeling out of it”.

Here’s a start:

  1. Global energy – How energized you are to act on the scale of days (and shorter timescales). Relates to whether key goals are handled, or unhandled in a way that is being ignored, or that you’ve given up on, or is intractable, or is otherwise “stuck” (alternatively, key goals can be unhandled in a way that induces action). Probably related to depression.
  2. Phenomenological mental energy – The feeling of running out of mental steam. This is probably analogous to boredom. The longer you engage in an activity (that you dislike, or that isn’t fun, or something), the more you feel averse to exerting yourself. This is distinct from…
  3. “Cognitive resources” –  This is in quotes because it is probably fake in the way that phlogiston is fake: it is the absence of a thing (phlogiston is the absence of oxygen). This is whether ones performance on a task is actually declining.

This is informed by reading that I’ve been doing lately, and introspection that I’ve been doing, neither of which I will share in detail here.


How do I jumpstart into productivity momentum?

Initial ideas:

  • Start working as soon as I wake up
  • Start working at some pre-selected time, or at some pre-selected trigger.
  • Do my serenity protocol.
  • Process one of my inboxes (push through the crud, the small effort-aversions, and get into the rhythm of completing tasks)
  • Meditate
  • Mastrubate
  • Pick a task, then do 90 seconds of cardio.

My intervention, just learn to notice when my productivity momentum is low.

Looking at my listed hypotheses, from last year:

Hypothesis 1: My mind is mostly driven by short-term gratification. I can get short term gratification in one of two ways: via immediate stimulation, or by making progress towards goals. Making progress towards goals is more satisfying, but it also has some delay. Switching from immediate stimulation to satisfaction by making progress on goals  entails a period of time when you’re not receiving immediate stimulation, and also not being satisfied by goal-progress, because you’re still revving up and getting oriented. It takes a while to get into the flow of working, when it starts being enjoyable.

But once you’re experiencing satisfaction from goal-progress, it feels good and you’re motivated to continue doing that.

  • This suggests that I should do something that makes progress towards goals, but also gives me immediate gratification (like touch typing practice)?
    • Other options:
      • Processing email or reminders

Hypothesis 1.5: Same as above, but it isn’t about gratification from immediate stimulation vs. gratification from goal-progress. It’s about gratification from immediate stimulation vs. gratification from self actualization or self exertion, the pleasure of pushing yourself and exhausting yourself.

  • This suggests the same kind of actions as 1. + things like just setting an timer for an hour and switching to deep work (which I predict I will be resistant to, which is evidence for 1.

Hypothesis 2: There’s an activation energy or start up cost to the more effortful mode of being productive, but once that cost is paid, it’s easy.

[I notice that the sort of phenomenon described in Hyp. 1, 1.5, and  2, is not unique to “productivity”. It also seems to occur in other domains. I often feel a disinclination to go exercise, but once I start, it feels good and I want to push myself. (Though, notably, this “broke” for me in the past few months. Perhaps investigating why it broke would reveal something about how this sort of momentum works in general?)]

  • Intervention: make it as easy as possible to pay that activation energy (which sounds kind of like “productive task with immediate gratification”).

Hypothesis 3: It’s about efficacy. Once I’ve made some progress, spent an hour in deep work, or whatever, I the relevant part of my mind alieves that I am capable of making progress on my goals, and so is more motivated do that.

In other words, being productive is evidence that something good will happen if I try, which makes it worth while to try.

(This would sugest that other boosts to one’s self-confidence or belief in ability to do things would also jump start momentum chains, which seems correct.)

  • I could do autosuggestion, or affirmations?
  • I just need to do something hard?
    • But I don’t feel motivated to do something hard. That’s the point.

Hypothesis 4: It’s about a larger time budget inducing parts-coordination. I have a productive first hour and get stuff done. A naive extrapolation says that if all of the following hours have a similar density of doing and completing, then I will be able to get many things done. Given this all my parts that are advocating for different things that are important to them settle down, confident that their thing will be gotten to.

In contrast if I have a bad morning, each part is afraid that it’s goal will be left by the wayside, and so they all scramble to drag my mind to their thing, and I can’t focus on any one thing.

[This doesn’t seem right. The primary contrasting state is more like lazy and lackadaisical, rather than frazzled.]

Yeah. This seems not right.

Hypothesis 5: It is related to failing with abandon. It’s much more motivating to be aiming to have an excellent day than it is to be aiming to recover from a bad morning to have a decent day. There’s an inclination to say “f*** it”, and not try as hard, because the payoffs are naturally divided into chunks of a day.

Or another way to say this: my motivation increases after a good morning because I alieve that I can get to all the things done, and getting all the things done is much more motivating than getting 95% of the things done because of completion heuristics (which I’ve already noted, but not written about anywhere).

Note: I think that I have learned about not failing with abandon, and this hypothesis dose not seem on point anymore.

Hypothesis 6: It’s about attention. There’s something that correlates with productivity which is something like “crispness of attention” and “snappiness of attentional shifts.” Completing a task and then moving on to the next one has this snappiness.

Having a “good morning” means engaging deeply with some task or project and really getting immersed in it. This sort of settledness is crucial to productivity and it is much easier to get into if I was there recently. (Because of fractionation?!)

This snappiness of attention seems like “cognitive effort/cognitive readiness“.

Hypothesis 7: It’s about setting a precedent or a set point for executive function, or something? There’s a thing that happens throughout the day, which is that an activity is suggested, by my mind or by my systems, and some relevant part of me decides “Yes, I’ll do that now”, or “No, I don’t feel like it.

I think those choices are correlated for some reason? The earlier ones set the standard for the later ones? Because of consistency effects? (I doubt that that is the reason. I would more expect a displacement effect (“ah. I worked hard this morning, I don’t need to do this now”) than a consistency effect (“I choose to work earlier today, so I’m a choose-to-work person”). In any case, this effect is way subverbal, and doesn’t involve the social mind at all, I think.)

This one feels pretty right. But why would it be? Maybe one of hypotheses 1-5?

And here I mention cognitive effort/ readiness, pretty exactly.

Are there other ways to adjust the setpoint?

It matters if this is a positive effect, that causes actions (as this framing implies), or a negative effect, that prevents actions (as the framing of hyp. 7.5 implies). Is is about increasing my cognitive effort, or about not giving in to fleeding temptations?

  • practice noting my urges, instead of acting on them.

Hypothesis 8: Working has two components: the effort of starting and reward making progress / completing.

If you’re starting cold, you have to force yourself through the effort, and it’s easier to procrastinate, putting the task off for a minute or an hour.

But if you’ve just been working on or just completed something else and are feeling the reward high from that, then the reward component of tasks in general, is much more salient, is pulled into near-mode immediacy. Which makes the next task more compelling.

I think this captures a lot of my phenomenological experience regarding productivity momentum and it also explains the related phenomena with exercise and similar.

(Also, there’s something like an irrational fear of effort, which builds up higher and higher as long as you’re avoiding is, but which dissipates once you exert some effort?)

(M/T on Hyp. 8:) If this were the case, it seems like it would predict that momentum would decay if one took a long break in the middle of the day. I think in practice this isn’t quite right, because the “productivity high” of a good morning can last for a long time, into the afternoon or evening.

  •  Again, this seems to imply some kind of bootstrapping activity, that is both easy and/or engaging, and effectively productive.

Hypothesis 7.5: [related to 1, 1.5, and 3. More or less a better reformulation of 7.] There’s a global threshold of distraction or of acting on (or reacting to) thoughts and urges flashing through one’s mind. Lowering this threshold on the scale of weeks and months, but it also varies day by day. Momentum entails lowering that threshold, so that one’s focus on any given task can be deep, instead of shallow.

This predicts that meditation and meditative-like practices would lower the threshold and potentially start up cycle of productivity momentum. Indeed, the only mechanism that I’ve found that has reliably helped me recover from unproductive mornings and afternoons is a kind of gently-enforced serenity process.

I think this one is pretty close to correct.


Hypothesis 10: [related to 2, and 8] It’s just about ambiguity resolution. Once I start working, I have a clear and sense of what that’s like which bounds the possible hedonic downside. (I should write more about ambiguity avoidance.)

Bah. Seems wrong.



  • Why is it that getting up and working first thing in the morning jumpstarts momentum?
  • Why is it that starting at a particular time, jumpstarts productivity momentum.


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.

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?

_Why_ do we fear the twinge of starting?

[epistemic status: As always, I’m not claiming that I’m saying anything new. This might “just” be hyperbolic discounting.

Also I don’t know if this is true. I didn’t apply my regular level of skepticism to these ideas yet, and some of them are probably wrong or meaningless. Work in progress.]

Followup to: Working hurts less than procrastinating, we fear the twinge of starting

Here’s a puzzle:

I, like most people I think, am happiest when I am working hard on something: solving a problem, learning something, or otherwise exerting myself. But even though I subjectively enjoy working, and enjoy it more than not working, I do occasionally procrastinate on doing those things. Which is kind of weird: if my work time is more enjoyable than my not work time, you’d think that I would always be glad to move into working (and to be fair, most of the time, I am).

Here’s what a think is happening:

Starting to work pretty much always entails an increase in cognitive effort [1]. Humans are at some fundamental level lazy, and tend to flinch away from cognitive effort. It has a bit of of a sting to it [does it always?].

Now this effort is rapidly compensated, as one gets into the flow of working. However, I think that there are different subsystems in the brain that are tracking reward at different timescales. For the subsystem that is tracking reward in the next 30 seconds, working represents only the cost of cognitive effort, and none of the benefit of flow. The subsystem that is tracking reward on a timescale of hours, however; is nearly indifferent between getting into flow right now, and five minutes from now. So there’s a constant incentive do delay, just a bit, even to your detriment.

I bet there’s a math of this. In fact, I think that this might be just entirely be what the the book Breakdown of Will is about.

Some implications and related thoughts

I think this might explain something about “productivity momentum“: if it is shifts in the level of cognitive effort that are hard, then you just stay at a particular level of cognitive effort (or something like that? It seems like the level of cognitive effort must very throughout your working). or maybe you’re more willing to exert cognitive effort when it looks like it’s paying off. Similarly, think this might explain why outlining my day in advance is so useful and I think this might have something to do with why getting up and working first thing is so good for me.

Habits: I think that in many cases, habits are smoothing over this effect, by making exerting effort the down-stream thing to do. For instance, I find it much easier to exercise when I’m at home, than when I’m traveling. I think this is due to a number of reasons, but at least one of them is that at home I have a chain of familiar TAPs that guide me into exerting myself. When traveling, I don’t have those TAPs and need to force myself to do it much more. [I’m not sure if this makes any sense.]

I think a similar dynamic occurs with a more frequent kind of procrastination: avoiding looking at something true and bad. For a simple example: Your project is behind schedule. Once you consciously acknowledge that fact you’ll feel better and be able to respond more effectively. But first there is the pain of the situation, before one acclimates to a new setpoint of the way the world is. So the same dynamic occurs.

When I adopt this frame, I am inclined to adopt a policy / habit of noticing flinches, and doing the thing anyway, for just a bit (5 minutes). I can then get more data about if it is actually a good idea, or if I actually want to. Unfortunately, this policy trades off against making more deliberate choices: the space in which I would procrastinate is the same space in which I would pause to consider what the best corse of action is.


[1] Sometimes I’m thinking about something and energized about it, and am bursting to sit down to write. In this case it seems that physiological arousal is turned on, and cognitive effort is already recruited.



The two-way connection between thought-content and physiological state

[epistemic status: argument, followed by hypothesizing.]

Exercise for state-shifting

Here’s a useful trick for those of you who don’t know of it yet: you can use very brief exercise to quickly shift your physical/mental/emotional state.

Suppose that you’re agitated or anxious or energized about something, but you don’t have time to engage with it at the moment. You’re about to go into an important meeting, and it be disruptive for you to be experiencing agitation about something unrelated.

One thing that you can do in this scenario is 90 seconds of cardio: do 60 pushups, or do jumping jacks, or sprint. At least in my experience, this disrupts the agitation (clearing my mental pallet, at it were), so that I can go in and put my full attention on the meeting.

I recently experienced this on a larger scale: after touching a very deep trigger / trauma for me, and having a more visceral reaction reaction than I’ve yet experienced. I was still very triggered about it and ruminating on it, an hour after the initial trigger-event.

The advisor I consulted told me to exhaust myself: to do squats to failure, or to do tabata sprints. Not having a squat rack available at the time, I went outside and did some (bad) 20 second sprints. I was much calmed by the time I finished.)


In my sleep post from last month, I ended by outlining a very simple model:

I’m awake because my body is physiologically aroused.

…Which is caused by attention being absorbed by something that’s in some way energizing or exciting.

…Which is probably because a goal directed process in me is trying to get something (by ruminating or planning or whatever).

Or, stated visually:

Physiological activation diagram 1

However, the fact that you can use exercise to shift your state suggests that this causal flow is not so simple.

Short, intense, physical exertion is sort of like manually resetting the physiological activation node, by “washing it out” with all the state characteristics implied by exercise (or something).

But the fact that this works, and (at least sometimes) you don’t immediately go back to ruminating, suggests that the causal connection between mental content and physiological activation can go both directions: your thoughts can change your level of arousal, and your level of arousal can change your thoughts. Which gives us a causal diagram more like this one:


Elaborating on that model

[Epistemic state: The following is a working hypothesis.]

My current working model has it that you have effectively two “immediate states” or working memories”: that of your system 2 (that’s the standard one), and that of your system 1 (the felt senses and bodily auroral).

Each one has a limited capacity. Just as you can’t keep track of more than a few ideas at a time, your body can only have one(?) overall physiological state. Otherwise 90 seconds of cardio would not “wipe the slate”.

Each of these “states” can influence the other: Your physiological state can influence your mental content (this happens deliberately when one does Focusing), and your mental content can influence your physiological activation (remembering a task I forgot can induce panic).

More thoughts

I frequently experience myself becoming more activated when I lie down to go to sleep. I hypothesize that when I let my mind wader as I’m falling asleep, I often hit upon either, a new exciting idea, or some area that I’m anxious or fearful about. This triggers an activation response, and then a positive feedback loop between the two states.

(Notably, distracting myself by, for instance, reading a comic book for a while, allows me to fall asleep. Eating something also helps, and sometimes masturbating. I speculate that distraction is intervening on the mental content, and eating is intervening on my physiological activation, because digestion activates PSNS. Masturbating might be both?)



Committed Engagement and the Critical Importance of Ambiguity

[epistemic status: the basic idea has been validated by at least my experience, and it seems to resonate with others. But I’m not confident that I have the right framing or am using the right concepts.]

[Part of my Psychological Principles of Productivity drafts.]

In this essay, I want to point out a fact about human psychology, and some interventions  based on that fact.

First, an example. There’s a rule that my mom taught me for cleaning my room, when I was growing up: never pick up an object more than once. Once you have an item in your hand, you must put it where it goes, never put it back down where you found it. The reason for this is that you otherwise tend to get stuck in a loop: where you pick up a thing, are not quite sure where it goes, and so pick up another thing. Finding yourself in the same situation, you pick up the first thing again.

In my adult life, I sometimes find myself in a similar situation when processing email. I’m going through my inbox, and I get to an email that I’m not quite sure how to respond to, and I notice myself flicking back to my inbox without having made a decision about how to reply.

There’s an important truth about human psychology in this phenomenon: ambiguity, that is unclarity about specific next actions, is micro-hedonically aversive, and the human mind tends to flinch away from it.


In fact, I think that ambiguity is the primary cause of ugh fields that can curtail my (your?) productivity.

Committed engagement

That’s because resolving ambiguity, clarifying what your options are, and choosing which one to commit to, is hard work. It requires conscious, System-2 style, effort. For most of us, being so called “knowledge workers”, resolving ambiguity is the bulk of our work. The hard part is figuring out what to do. Doing it is often comparatively easy.

Often, when Aversion Factoring, I find that the only reason why I don’t feel like doing something, is the effort of chunking out what exactly the next actions are. After I’ve done that I have no aversion at all.

Accordingly, I now think of processing my various inboxes (and particularly the inbox of reminders that I leave for myself), not as a low-energy, time-limited [as opposed to energy-limited] task, but as a key component of the work that I do.

And when I’m processing inboxes, I step into a mode that I call committed engagement: I make it my intention to plow through and empty the inbox. Given that I’m going to get to and deal with every item, there’s no incentive to look at a thing and put it back. In Committed engagement, the natural thing to do with an item is figure out what needs to be done with it. (Committed engagement is an energized state, with some pressure to get through the task rapidly.)

This is contrast to a sort of “shallow engagement” in which I skim over the inbox, clicking on things that seem quick or interesting, and then marking them as unread again, if they require even a little bit of thought.

Simulation for resolving ambiguity

I have a variety of useful TAPs based on this principle that my mind avoids ambiguity. When I feel averse to a thing in a way that has the flavor of ambiguity (which I do have specific phenomenology for), I visualize the very first smallest steps of the action in my Inner Simulator, which often lowers the activation energy so substantially that it becomes basically easy to take the action.

For instance, Trigger: “I should start writing, but I don’t feel like it” -> Action: “Visualize opening up my laptop” tends to automatically lead to opening up my laptop and begin writing. 

If know that I should strength train, but I don’t feel like it, I’ll simulate concretely standing up, walking to the elevator, and pushing the button. Which in most cases, is sufficient to cause me to get up, walk over, and push the button. And once I’m in the elevator, I’m on my way to the gym.

I think of this as taking advantage of “the smallest atomic action” principle of setting good TAPs. But instead of setting a plan for the future, you’re “setting a plan” for the very next moment. It’s almost humorous how much motivation cascades from merely imagining a simple atomic action.

Similarly, if I’m lost in working on a problem, I might write down the first step, or the main blocker, just to make it clear to me what that is. From there, the next actions are often clear and I can make progress.


This psychological fact is extremely important for productivity, but it is also relevant to epistemology. Your mind is averse to ambiguity. when considering a problem, you have a tendency to deflect away from the parts that are non-concrete: which are often where the important thinking is to be done.

This is at least a part of the reason why “rubber ducking” or talking with a friend is often helpful: stating your problem out loud forces you to clarify the points where you have ambiguity, which you might otherwise skim over.

A shout out

I think my mom probably learned that rule from David Allen (who she met in person), or at least his excellent book, Getting Things Done. He says:

You may find you have a tendency, while processing your in-basket, to pick something up, not know exactly what you want to do about, and then let your eyes wander onto another item farther down the stack and get engaged with it. That item may be more attractive to your psyche because you know right away what to do with it – and you don’t feel like thinking about what’s in your hand. This is dangerous territory. What’s in your hand is likely to land on a “hmppphhh” stack on the side of your desk because you become distracted by something easier, more important, or more interesting below it.

Furthermore, this idea that clarifying your work, and resolving your “stuff” into next actions is the bulk of one’s intellectual labor, is an important theme of the book.

. . .

Keep this in mind: Your mind flinches away from ambiguity. But you can learn to notice, and counter-flinch.


Related: Microhedonics, Attention, Visualization

References: Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress Free Productivity

Notes on interventions for falling asleep

[Epistemic status: not even a claim, really. This is still mostly stream of thought. Barely edited.]

One major result of my initial meditation experiment was driving home to me, on a more visceral level, the importance of sleep. Given that sleep is so critical, having a robust system for falling asleep, regardless of how I’m feeling seems high priority.

I can usually fall asleep pretty well, though I occasionally have bouts of restlessness, when I’m awake with my mind churning hours after I’ve gone to bed. I want to prevent that, permanently and robustly.

Today, I outlined some perspectives on what’s preventing me from falling asleep in that situation, and the interventions each might imply:

  1. My mind is holding on to some open loops that it thinks are important
    1. Jot down my thoughts in my metacognition notebook.
  2. My thoughts are racing, and I just need to stably direct my attention to something else for a bit.
    1. Meditation (though this might be hard to pull off in such a situation)
    2. Drawing
    3. Reading
    4. Masturbating
  3. I’m physiologically aroused, and I need to cool off
    1. Serenity ritual / protocol
    2. This breathing technique?
    3. Progressive relaxation
    4. Againstness-like activation modulation
    5. Clearing a space-like motions?
    6. [added 2019-03-016: EFT (which seems to work pretty well for reducing anxiety and the like. I don’t know why.)]
  4. My thoughts are racing and I’m physiologically activated, because there’s some important goal that a subsystem of mine is tracking.
    1. IDC with it

When I started listing these, I was think that I was noting different theories about what’s blocking falling asleep. But actually, these perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re more like different intervention points of a potentially contiguous model.

That is:

I’m awake because my body is physiologically aroused.

…Which is caused by attention being absorbed by something that’s in some way energizing or exciting.

…Which is probably because a goal directed process in me is trying to get something (by ruminating or planning or whatever).

And I can intervene on any of these levels.

Impact of mindfulness meditation on wellbeing and productivity: preliminary results

[epistemic status: semi-formal lab report.

This is all about me. Probably of interest only to the people that want to observe some of my process. This is also not all that well organized. It’s partly stream of conciseness.]


Over that past few months (and the past 2 years, before that), I’ve been conflicted about the importance of having a regular meditation practice. There are good arguments for the high importance of concentration and metacognition, and meditation supposedly boosts those skills. Furthermore, I’ve directly observed some effects on my cognition that seems to be the result of having meditated that morning: being more apt to notice my thoughts as they’re happening, feeling more settled, being less reactive [I still need to write about “reactivity”], etc.

However, there’s clear and plausible confound. My life is often hectic, and maybe I only get around to meditating on days and weeks when I’m generally on top of everything. That is maybe the causality is reversed: instead of meditation making my life better, it that when my life is already going pretty well, I sit down to meditate.

So, I’m doing a randomized trial.

Two Mondays ago I flipped a (digital) coin. If it came up “1” then I would make a diligent effort to meditate every day for 20 minutes each day for the next 14 days, regardless of what else happening in my life. If it came up “0” I would meditate only when I felt like it.

It came up “1”, and for the past week and a half I’ve been meditating every day. (On one of the days, I meditated for only 18 minutes instead fo 20, but I don’t think that invalidates the experiment.)

I haven’t even finished my two weeks of meditation yet, but these are my preliminary results.

(Note that this experiment is just for observing the effects on my overall wellbeing and productivity. I may do other experiments with more explicit measurements for the psychological axes that I expect meditation to improve, but this isn’t that.)


This is going to be kind of informal. I don’t have rigorous proof for any of these conclusions. I’m partially sharing my “this is what it seems like to me”. Obviously, I’ll do further followup on all of these.

Briefly, meditation is definitely less important for my overall wellbeing than 1) Good sleep 2) getting regular intense exercise 3) being oriented on my goals and having my tasks “loaded up” and maybe 4) regularly taking a rest day.

Last week, the first part of my week was especially (95th percentile) good and productive, and then the later part of my my week (Wednesday on) was kind draggy and low-motivation (Being gentle on myself, I fell back to doing only one major task each day).

I’m chocking this up to 1) having a good rest day on Sunday, and 2) outlining my day in detail the night before for each of the days of the week (something I sometimes do). My subjective impression is that doing that self-organization in a deep (vs. a cursory or superficial way) makes a big difference for my productivity.

(My current hypotheses are that this is due to “loading up” my goals in my peripheral attention (or something) / making me (peripherally) aware of the full context of my goals and therefore the real tradeoffs and costs, and/or future-pacing providing some sort of sub-verbal nudge at decision point junctures throughout the day. [I should theorize about this].)

In the later part of the week, I had some major shoulder tension (a first for me), that persisted for days. After about 5 days, I spend an hour doing Focusing, and hanging with it, and “going inside of it”. It dissolved.

I think there was also an issue of not exercising (I was going on long walks, but I didn’t do anything intense, like strength training) making it harder for me to get to sleep. At least, I wasn’t strength training and I was getting less than 8 hours of sleep. (Around 7. Always more than 5.)

All of these seem like bigger factors than my meditation practice. Though I’ll also note that my meditation sessions weren’t particularly good. I sometimes am on-point, returning to my breath with high frequency, and getting into a sort aggressive flow with meditation. That didn’t happen this week. When the other factors are taken care of, I might meditate better, and meditation might then provide a boost over and above.


My current model of Anxiety

[epistemic status: untested first draft model

Part of my Psychological Principles of Productivity series]

This is a brief post on my current working model of what “anxiety” is. (More specifically, this is my current model of what’s going on when I experience a state characterized by high energy, distraction, and a kind of “jittery-ness”/ agitation. I think other people may use the handle “anxiety” for other different states.)

I came up with this a few weeks ago, durring that period of anxiety and procrastination. (It was at least partial inspired by my reading a draft of Kaj’s recent post on IFS. I don’t usually have “pain” as an element of my psychological theorizing.)

The model

Basically, the state that I’m calling anxiety is characterized by two responses moving “perpendicular” to each other: increased physiological arousal, mobilizing for action, and a flinch response redirecting attention to decrease pain.

Here’s the causal diagram:



The parts of the model

It starts with some fear or belief about the state of the world. Specially, this fear is an alief about an outcome that 1) would be bad and 2) is uncertain.

For instance:

  • Maybe I’ve waited too late to start, and I won’t be able to get the paper in by the deadline.
  • Maybe this workshop won’t be good and I’m going to make a fool of myself.
  • Maybe this post doesn’t make as much sense as I thought.

(I’m not sure about this, but I think that the uncertainty is crucial. At least in my experience, at least some of the time, if there’s certainty about the bad outcome, my resources are mobilized to deal with it. This “mobilization and action” has an intensity to it, but it isn’t anxiety.)

This fear is painful, insofar as it represents the possibility of something bad happening to you or your goals.

The fear triggers physiological arousal, or SNS activation. You become “energized”. This is part of your mind getting you ready to act, activating the fight-or-flight response, to deal with the possible bad-thing.

(Note: I originally drew the diagram with the pain causing the arousal. My current guess is that it makes more sense to talk about the fear causing the arousal directly. Pain doesn’t trigger fight-or-flight responses (think about being stabbed, or having a stomach ache). It’s when their’s danger, but not certain harm, that we get ready to move.)

However, because the fear includes pain, there are other parts of the mind that have a flinch response. There’s a sub-verbal reflex away from the painful fear-thought.

In particular, there’s often an urge towards distraction. Distractions like…

  • Flipping to facebook
  • Flipping to LessWrong
  • Flipping to Youtube
  • Flipping to [webcomic of your choice]
  • Flipping over to look at your finances
  • Going to get something to eat
  • Going to the bathroom
  • Walking around “thinking about something”

This is often accompanied by rationalization thought, that is justifying the distraction behavior to yourself.

So we end up with the fear causing both high levels of physiological SNS activation, and distraction behaviors.


The distraction-seeking is what gives rise to the “reactivity” (I should write about this sometime) of anxiety, and the heightened SNS gives rise to the jittery “high energy” of anxiety.

Of course, these responses work at cross purposes: the SNS energy is mobilizing for action, (and will be released when action has been taken and the situation is improved) and and the flinch is trying not to think the bad possibility.

I think the heightened physiological arousal might be part of why  anxiety is hard to dialogue with. Doing focusing requires (? Is helped by?) calm and relaxation.

I think this might also explain a phenomenon that I’ve observed in myself: both watching TV and masturbating defuse anxiety. (That is, I can be highly anxious and unproductive, but if if I watch youtube clips for and hour and a half, or masturbate, I’ll feel more settled and able to focus afterwards).

This might be because both of these activities can grab my attention so that I loose track of the originating fear thought, but I don’t think that’s right. I think that these activities just defuse the heightened SNS, which clears space so that I can orient on making progress.

This suggests that any activity that reduces my SNS activation will be similarly effective. That matches my experience (exercise, for instance, is a standard excellent response to anxiety), but I’ll want to play with modulating my physiological arousal a bit and see.

Note for application

In case this isn’t obvious from the post, this model suggests that you want to learn to notice your flinches and (the easier one) your distraction behaviors, so that they can be triggers for self-dialogue. If you’re looking to increase your productivity, this is one of the huge improvements that is on the table for many people. (I’ll maybe say more about this sometime.)