Some sleep thoughts very roughly

My current model: falling asleep depend on three things happening. If these three things happen, then you will be asleep:

  1. Relaxed body
  2. Lowered pulse (around 50 bpm)
  3. Mind clear of thoughts (or leaning into visual imagery)

But actually, most of the action is in the prerequisite 0th step: disengaging from whatever is interesting, so that your attention can actually be to relax and fall asleep.

How to do that?

Some ideas:

  • IDC with the thoughts
  • Physically remove the felt senses from the body
  • Meditate?
  • Distract yourself
    • By drawing
    • By reading fiction
    • By trying to get absorbed in some thoughts?
  • “Leaning out” from the thoughts?
  • By jotting down everything that you’re excited about?
  • By scheduling specific time in the morning to try and boot up those motivating considerations / making reminders of everything important.
    • The main thing, might be the sense of time scarcity or urgency which is salient at the time.

 

 

Modes, not traits, and decoupling cognitive energy from intentionality

[Epistemic status: speculation from single n of 1 experiences that I’m excited about]

I had a really effective second half of my day today, and right now I’m going to speculate about some of the mechanics of that.

Modes, not traits

Some relevant background to this is a thought that I had two weeks ago:

“I shouldn’t think of terms in terms of ways that I should be or things that I should do, but rather __modes__ that I could get into that are useful sometimes. Even if I want to be in those modes most days, I should still think of them as separate modes and not as default states.”

This is important because a lot of ways that I want to be consume some resource, so I can’t actually maintain them perpetually. I might want to be habitually hyper-productive, but since I probably can’t be hyper-productive for literally all of my waking hours (I need rest and stuff), if I try to always be hyper productive, I’ll fail, and never really build the habit. Instead, I should have a hyper-productive mode and build the habit of  getting into that mode regularly.

This is maybe obvious to a lot of you, but it seems like a useful insight to me. (I wonder if I’m on the verge of reinventng “work/life balance” in the same way that I reinvented “its good to have a room.”)

I think this goes pretty deep, and there are a number of different not-necessarily mutually exclusive modes at various levels of subtlety. (For one thing, I have a mode for syncing with Anna: our natures tend to clash by default, but these days she either meets me in something like my way of being, or I meet her at something like her way of being.)

But here are three high level, high granularity modes / ways of being / high-level intentions that it seems like I would want to operate from on a regular basis.

  • Rest
  • Executing intentions mindset / committed engagement [manager time]
  • Slow thinking / deep work / mono-focus [maker time]

The rest of this post will be about holding the Executing intentions mindset.

Maintaining taughtness

My current sense of how to do the Executing Intentions mode well, involves maintaining “taughtness” / “tension” across the whole period that you’re in that mode. That’s a phenomenological description: it feels like there’s a sort of tension that I can let go slack. It has something to do with remembering the executing intentions meta-intention? Or having the context of the tasks that I’m doing loaded up and available?

One reason why this worked well today, I think, was that I decided that I was going to stop listening to audio-books for the time being. I might usually listen to an audiobook as I walk somewhere, but this tends to take me out of the EI mindset, what was taught becomes slack.

Other ways that I can fall out of it:

  • Looking at my phone in the bathroom.
  • Making food and eating, and especially listening to audio while making food.

Each of these have a character of “I’m doing this mundane thing right now, I might as well occupy my mind with something entertaining or informative.” It might be that that engagement with that material kicks out the EI meta-intention, because my mind is filled with other content. But it feels more like all of those behaviors have a kind of lackadaisical attitude, like “its fine to slow down and spend time here”, instead of the momentum of one thing after another.

I did take breaks today, but they had a different character than most breaks I take. They were more intentional: more circumscribed, less distracted. I intentionally decided how long each one was going to be, and set a timer, but more importantly than the timer, there was a part of me that didn’t turn off during the break, I was still geared up to take the next thing coming at me. I’m confident this is less restful than other kinds of breaks, and thus it is crucial that this is only a mode and that one also have a rest mode, when you release all the tension and taughtness.

Decoupling energy levels from intentionality

Another thing that happened today is that at the end of my session, I was feeling cognitively drained. I think that usually, that would cause me to disengage from the EI mindset and release my conscious hold on my intentionality. But this time, I was more like “I notice that I am cognitively drained. My job in this time-slice is to recover cognitive energy.” and I went to go strength train.

I think there’s something important here: I was decoupling how tried I felt from how intentional I was going to be.

This seems important on a number of counts

  • For one thing it caused me to strength train during my work day, which sometimes gets skipped.
  • Additionally, this sort of rolling with the punches enabled me to maintain the taughtness, instead of abandoning the attitude whenever I loose cognitive resources.

Remember, this really depends on having high quality rest.

Physiological arousal / activation / agitation

Separately from aversions, there is excess physiological arousal. [1]

Sometimes, even when I’ve pretty successfully processed some felt sense, and am riding it out, there’s still stress involved. For instance, when I’m drafting an important email, to a potential employer or potential romantic partner.

This kind of arousal isn’t always bad. Often the energy of this kind of heightened state is positively useful. But high arousal usually correlates with less stable attention. And, often, this high level of arousal causes me to bounce off my work.

Oftentimes this happens just after I finish something stressful. In this case, it will often feel hard to transition to the next thing, instead opting to go for a walk around the neighborhood (for 40 minutes to an hour, usually). The high levels of activation is “left over” after sending the email, and it accordingly feels effortful to put direct my attention toward something else.

This doesn’t seem bad, calming down and returning to a baseline (and maybe doing psychological processing at the same time?) seems like a natural thing to do. But also, that bouncing off is one of the main ways that I loose time in my day, and it seems like there ought to be way to do drop that arousal much more efficiently.

Some thoughts:

  • I could maybe just take this as my trigger to go exercise for the day, and turn the excess energy to a productive purpose, while also stabilizing my physiological arousal level.
    • Having a quick, intense exercise routine seems helpful for this. I was jumping rope for a while, but that apparently didn’t stick.
  • I could just set a ten minute timer and slow down my heart rate, by breathing slowly?
  • Remember my feet?
  • I could do a physical relaxation routine. [This feels wrong in that it’s like setting up a counterforce against the agitation, and having them conflict. It seems like a better thing would not feel like that.]
  • I could try removing the felt sense from my chest. [That feels bad and clugy.]
  • I have some idea that regular meditation is supposed to improve this stability of this variable. So that if I was meditating more regularly, I would return to baseline more rapidly and easily? I don’t know if that’s true.
  • Meditators do a thing sometime, where they break a thing down into its component sensations. Do that?
  • Maybe I should do Focusing to this as well? That seems hard. “This” is slippery.
  • Ok. Well another theory is that this is just the same thing exactly as the felt sense / unhandled concern situation, and not “left over” at all. Like I’m feeling agitated because I don’t know what the response will be, and its important, even if it is out of my hands. This suggests that I should dialogue with the thing about whether it is actually out of my hands?
  • Singing

 


[1] Just to note, you can have high arousal due to some aversion or concern that has not been processed. In fact, that is probably even more common. But in this section, I’m only discussing high-levels of activation that are not associated with an aversion or unprocessed yank.

 

Full productivity outline

[epistemic status: Tentative. A lot of observation and iteration has gone into this, but it is still probably wrong or misarticulated in some important way.]

This is a followup to, and update of The Basic Intervention Set for Productive Flow, and That, Generalized. In the days after I wrote that post, I mulled over the confusions I note there, and made a new diagram.

But this is also an almost complete outline of my full productivity system. Over the past few months (or longer, depending on how you count), I’ve been writing a something-like-a-book on the Psychological Principles of Personal Productivity. I think this post capture upwards of 80% of that something like a book. [1]

Overview

Basically, almost everything that I understand about how to achieve stable personal productivity is summed up in the this diagram:

2019-12-07 ontology of phenomological states that contribute to flow (with interventions) v.2b

The yellow boxes represent phenomenological states. I’m sure that each one could be grounded out in neurology or physiology, but I’m not concerned with that (at least right now, in this post). Each one can be thought of as an an axis that compresses detailed information about one’s mental and emotional state.

The pink hexagons represent interventions or intervention sets.

So pink is actions you take, and yellow is goals you hit.

I claim that the four main major state-targets (Spaciousness/ stability / reflective, Mental energy, Clear attention, and Structure / “loaded up” context), are, to a first approximation, both necessary and sufficient for sustained personal productivity. If you have all of these, then productive flow is automatic, if you’re missing even one, things break down, and making progress becomes a struggle.

Therefore, if you structure your life such that have / embody those states by default, and have systems that automatically return to them as set points, when there is drift or disruption, then productive flow becomes automatic.

So in this essay I’m going to outline each phenomenological target, and the interventions that are relevant to it. [Probably each of the interventions deserve their own page, with implementation details, but I’m not going to try for that in this version.]

Caveats

Note that virtually all of the content in this post comes from first person n of 1, phenomenological observation and experimentation. Your Mileage May Vary. In fact, since I no one but me has tried to implement this system, I have almost know idea how idiosyncratic to me it is. I can imagine people who work really hard, and effectively achieve their goals with a quite different internal setup. But this one is designed to make exertion automatic and frictionless, sidestepping the need for internal force. To me, at least, it seems principled, not just effective.

A note on choosing goals

This system is sufficient for getting to productive flow, the state of maintaining high, regular, levels of focus and effort, with the automaticity of water flowing downhill. Maximizing your personal work efficiency.

But that is not sufficient for productivity, that is actually creating value.

The biggest factor that determines a person’s productivity is which problems they choose to work on. It doesn’t matter how efficient you are, how much of yourself and your resources you bring to bear on your work, if your work doesn’t matter.

Productivity = usefulness of work * efficiency of work

So all of the following needs to be put in the context of the huge caveat: Most of your productivity has already been determined by the time you’ve decided on a project. Don’t neglect that step! Figure out what the best thing to do is (or at least which things are in the running for “best”), and only then focus on improving your efficiency.

[Eli, I’m talking to you.]

Clear attention; clear internal, physical/emotional space

In brief, this phenomenological state equals “not distracted.” In order to do deep work, you need to have a clear mental space, so that you can actually commit your full attention to the relevant task. Otherwise, your attention will be pulled this way and that, and you won’t be able to have any deep thoughts.

I’m going to break this overall state down into two components, though in practice the two are interrelated, and on reflection the distinction between them may be unprincipled.

That is, clear attention entails “no mental loops held in memory” and “no emotional hooks.”

Free of mental open loops and niggling thoughts

Here, I am referring to the issue of “holding open loops on the brain” described in detail in David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

[quote GTD?]

In order to clear mental space to focus on the things that you care about, your other concerns and commitments (to yourself and others) have to be stored in a trusted system. Something like a GTD system is essential.

I still remember the immense feeling of relief I experienced the first time I processed all my inboxes. I had had a background sense of not being on top of everything, of not knowing which things I needed to do, what items I hadn’t seen yet, and which one’s had slipped through the cracks and I’d forgotten about. After getting to full inbox 0, that background anxiety evaporated.

You want to be on top of everything that you need to do, in that way, consistently. Sometimes things slip and you find you have more things coming at you than you can track and process, and that’s ok, but this should be a trigger (one of several) for a self regulating system that brings you back to that kind of control. [2]

The actual book Getting Things Done is an excellent resource for this, and I highly recommend it, though virtually everyone I know has needed to adapt its principles into a personalized system, rather than adopting the GTD-system proper, outright.

The other practice in this space that seems to make a big difference, and is similarly accompanied by a palpable sense of relief when I do it, is weekly(ish) scheduling.

(I say weekly(ish), because I’ve lately been experimenting with structuring my life in chunks larger than 7 days: 15 days as an upper bound).

Once every week or so, I make sure to take a few hours and outline the upcoming span on my calendar, scheduling workshops, full focus days, task days, rest days, Deep work blocks, and meetings. [Here is the current version of my span-scheduling checklist. Scheduling a bunch of things is an overwhelming combinatorics problem, and having a checklist really helps. Every time I get confused, I just go back to the last unchecked thing.]

At least for me, I almost always have a bunch of priorities that I care about making progress on, too many for me to manage in my head. This gives rise to a kind of anxiety about not hitting everything that I care about. I’m committed to all of them, and so they interfere with each other: it’s hard to dedicate my focus to any one goal, for an extended period, and sink into deep work, because I’m agitated the other things falling by the wayside. I’m wanting to make sure that everything happens, so by default, everything tries to happen at once, which prevents much of anything from happening. Like Mr. Burns’ diseases.

When I schedule my week, this allows me to sequentialize those parallel processes, such that each one trusts that it will be taken care of in due time, and I can give my full attention to one thing at a time. [Another example of an internal agreement]

Free of “emotional hooks” and unprocessed reactions

The more important class of internal disruptions though, is unintegrated emotional responses, often in the form of anxiety or something like it. (The category of “unintegrated emotions” need a good name.)

For instance,

  • I’m agitated because some part of me is expecting something painful to happen.
  • I feel activated because I have a partially formed idea that I want to put to paper, and I’m afraid that I’m going to loose it.
  • I’m triggered and defensive about something that’s happening.
  • I feel generally “urgy” and compulsive, with no superficially obvious reason why.
  • I’m distracted, thinking compulsively about my romantic situation, at the expense of much else.
  • I’m anxious that something is going to slip through the cracks, or I’m going to drop a ball.
  • I’m agitated that I’ll actually be able to do enough math to acquire the math competencies and/or that it will be a boring slog.

All of these involve some part of me that is holding some concern, which in someway distracts or disrupts from highly focused attention. [3]

As I said, these all fall under David Allen’s definition of “Open Loop”, but they differ from the connotations of that phrase in a few ways. For one thing, these ones seem more visceral than “remember to bring in my laundry.” For another, it is often (but not always) much less clear, on the face of it, what the thing is “about.” Also, with these kinds of emotional hooks there’s usually a little pain in the mix, too, which incentivizes flinching away from the thing.

With things of this category, simply offloading them to an external system is probably not sufficient. The part of me holding the concern will continue pulling at my attention and/or affecting my physiology. Sometimes, rightly so, for the concern maybe urgent, higher priority than what I would otherwise be doing, it might be relevant to what I’m doing doing, or if I put the painful/difficult thing out of sight for now, I might continually avoid thinking about it, and not come back to it.

The important thing is that all of the yank at my attention, (or, if not yanking in a particular direction, cause my attention to be generally jumpy).

One major category of unprocessed concerns are Aversions. Aversions are a big deal. My impression is that most of people’s problems with “Akrasia”, “motivation”, and “procrastination” are fundamentally about aversions to their work. (I think this is usually the case, even when there aren’t physiological tells, and when there isn’t an obvious aversive element.) Everything else can be going amazingly, and an Aversion can stop me cold in my tracks, killing my momentum.

Therefore, the most important strut of this whole system is using Gendlin Focusing to process and integrate aversion and other emotional “yanks”. This is so important that it needs to be reliable, both in the sense that there is ~ zero friction to applying it, and in the sense that it works when I apply it. I’ve been working on both of those over the past 3 months.

Very briefly…

My Focusing practice involves a number of different moves that are relevant depending on the specifics of the situation. The core idea is to get to the heart of the thing that’s bothering me, expressing it in its own terms. Sometimes simply articulating the thing cause it to resolve itself. Other times, it gives me footholds into doing debugging, crafting  plans, or making internal agreements that the relieve the concern.

A lot of my work is contiguous with doing Focusing: I start out doing the introspection, but this blends into taking action in the moment. Often I’ll act from the the felt sense, letting it steer.

Often action is what’s needed, but sometimes what’s needed it closer to grieving or acclimating to a new expectation (set point) about reality, but some part of me is blocking that, because it seems painful. “Letting reality in”, produces relief. I’ve sometimes pondered that all anxiety is has some dishonesty at it’s core: their either something that you’re trying to reject, or something that you’re trying to project falsely to others.

(I metaphorize that as a vesicle that’s tense, holding something inside, but if you puncture the membrane, the surrounding cytoplasm can get in and the chemical levels equalize. The anxious pressure comes from holding on to something which is not in equilibrium with the world.)

I speculate that in addition to a dialogue practice like Focusing, this overall system needs some way to, gently, top-down, reduce physiological arousal. These felt senses often come with activation, and the activation itself can be distracting / make it harder to make progress on the problem. This is certainly not always the case, often that anxious energy, when properly focused, is super useful. But also, sometimes the most useful thing for me to do in a given moment is take a nap, or to calm down.

I’ve been exploring a few methods in this area, including controlled breathing, and direct manipulation of the felt sense.

Some extra only-kind of related stuff near this category

Expectation of distraction

The two sections described above are relevant to clearing your attention, but there’s at least one other thing that can kill my ability to focus: the expectation of a physical interruption.

This has been discussed at length, but it bears repeating: if you’re trying to do deep work, you need to be in a context that some less-than-conscious part of you expects will not be disturbed.

Dealing with particularly attention grabby things

As an aside, there are a number of stimuli that are attention suckers, like social media, youtube, webcomics, etc.

I find that if I’m engaging with any of these, it is usually because there’s an aversion that I’m flinching away from. (This is also true of TV. If I’m watching TV, that’s a flag that some part of my system has broken down.) But also, they sometimes come up in the natural course of doing stuff.

I’m generally advocating a pretty internal alignment flavored philosophy in this post. I think it is pretty important (and more effective in the long run) to not disown any of your goals. But often the appropriate response is environmental. In this case: block the fuckers.

Personally…

  • I have blocked both xkcd and Saturady Morning Breakfast Cereal, my distractions of choice.
  • I’ve blocked the youtube feed and recommender sidebar, but I can still use youtube. This is great, because I periodically want to watch a video for any number of legitimate purposes, but it also prevents me from falling into a loop of dazedly watching clip after clip for hours.
  • Similarly, I’m using newsfeed eradicator for facebook.
  • It would be great if there was I way that I could search my email inbox, without seeing the new email that’s at the top (maybe I can bookmark a link that’s just to my read messages? Apparently, you can search for just read emails, an I could use that to bookmark a link. Success!)
    • There are also ways to open blank email to send without viewing your inbox.

Some behavioral interventions that are in this vein, but that I haven’t really got a hang of yet…

  • Keeping track of the various pseudo-adictive things, and learning to notice the flavor those urges, so I can be more reflective about them. Things like, “see what’s on my phone”, “check my financial account”, “see if anyone messaged me back on okcupid.” Most of these should have a policy: you check them exactly once a day or once a week, or whatever, with a set trigger (like when you get an email in your inbox.)
  • Separating out work that involves searching for information on the internet. Currently, I’ll be doing something, think that I should look something up or see what google says and go do it immediately. But this inevitably turns into a low-value time sink, as I get distracted by all kinds of stuff in the same general area as what I am looking for, and it kills my momentum. A thing that I could imagine doing instead is writing down all of these task, and doing them only after I’ve finished everything else. I haven’t implemented this though, so [shrug].

Psychological Energy

I think most people know what I’m pointing at when I use the word “energy”. Sometimes I have my work laid out in front of me, and I’m free of distractions and…I find it hard to get out of bed. Or sometimes, I know what would be best to do next, and the thought of it is exhausting, and I feel like I have to force myself to do it. In contrast, sometimes pushing hard feels easy (insofar as that makes sense).

Technically, I define psychological energy as “the willingness or propensity to exert cognitive effort” (“cognitive effort”, having its own technical definition). I don’t have a clear enough understanding to know for sure, but I think that it might make sense to think of one’s energy level as the regulator on cognitive effort.

Having ample mental energy is crucial. Some people try and power through life with will power (a loosing proposition most of the time), but if you cultivate your mental energy, you won’t have to force, exertion flows from you easily [modulo the considerations about aversions, and whatnot].

Mental energy seems to break down into, or be predicted by two factors: physical well being, and outlook.

Note that I’ve spent some time looking into the academic literature on mental energy and fatigue, but the following is not that. The following sections, like the rest of this post, are based on my own n of 1 phenomenological investigation and experimentation.

Physical well-being

If you find yourself low on mental energy that could be because of purely physiological factors.

Sleep

Most notably, not getting enough sleep. My ability to function seems particularly sensitive to sleep deprivation, but the cognitive costs of lack of sleep are well documented.

For this reason, a system for stably good sleep is among the most important interventions in this set. [Write a page outlining my suite of interventions on sleep.] It’s hard to get to 100% reliability, however, so it is good to have the ability to compensate for disruptions by taking naps. [Write a page on my updated nap-protocol.]

One re-frame that’s been useful for me: I think of sleep as something like “renewing my connection to the Force.” This seems pretty connotationally correct to me. When I’m well rested I’m just better: I think more clearly, I have abundant energy for enacting my will on the world, I am more alive. Being sleep deprived is like being cut off from the source that nourishes and empowers me.

Thinking about sleep in this light is helpful when I’m up late and engaged in something that feels-urgent in the moment. I remember how much value and power there is in being well rested, and I’m more motivated to put down what I’m doing.

[Notes for future Eli:

  1. Using rhythm to make up for sleep deprivation
  2. Napping
  3. Nicotine

Exercise

I have the intuition that exercise also improves my energy levels. Certainly I often feel great after strength training, in addition to more settled, which seems to jump me into a more productive mode. But I’m somewhat uncertain about the impact of exercise. (Notably, I seem to doubt that it has much impact when I haven’t been exercising, and it seems obviously impactful when I am exercising hard, regularly.)

Intense exercise supposedly improves sleep, giving the former a multiplier effect. (I’m not sure that I exercise hard enough for this consideration to come into play, though.)

[Write about my current exercise processes.]

Rest

Taking rest days also seems to have a large effect. When I take a day off, even when I spend that day doing mentally taxing side-projects, I feel notably refreshed when I return to work. [3] [Note: this is an example of an inner agreement and an outlet policy.]

Similarly, having a 2-hour, 0-commitment, decompression time at the end of the workday seems helpful for maintaining mental energy.

Other

Being physically sick is obviously relevant.

Another behavior that seems depress my energy in the short term is overeating, particularly carbs. Don’t do this.

In general, personal energy depends on general health. Take care of yourself.

Unhanded concerns

After you’ve optimized all the physical influences, the rest of the variation in energy levels is determined by “emotional factors” or outlook.

In particular, it seems to me that low mental energy is a consequence of something being unhanded.

That is, when you have visceral goal or a concern or need that is not being met, and there’s no feasible strategy or meta-strategy for resolving that, your mental energy dries up. Somehow, as long as that concern is unhandled, it is hard to get one’s self to do anything effortful, including task unrelated to the concern.

Therefore, when I find myself sapped of energy (and I’m taking care of my physical well-being), my response is to do Focusing, just as much as when I’m experiencing an aversion. Often, I can uncover what the thing is that’s bothering me and “let it breath.” Sometimes this process releases something on its own. Other times, it gives me footholds for making a plan or a meta-plan that satisfies the undernourished / fearful part.

I’ve sometimes spoken of this in metaphorical terms as “the energy being locked up inside of you”, like it is entwined with the knot that is the unhanded goal. When the knot is untangled, the energy starts flowing again.

Maybe just optimism?

It’s possible that this “mental energy depression is the result of something unhandeled” formulation is too specific. it might be that mental energy simply tracks optimism, or overall outlook. The better you feel about how things are going for you, overall, the more energy you have. [The extreme example being depression, where things seem so hopeless that one can’t muster the energy to get out of bed.]

From an evo psych perspective when things are going well, your system is willing to spend more resources (and take more risks), and when things are going badly for you,

The weird thing is that this is not-domain specific. There’s a single energy level across domains, even though my prospects might vary substantially between domains. For instance, when I feel despair in my romantic life, it leaches my mental energy for making progress on my other projects. A better set up would be, when one goal seems impossible, you double down on the areas that are going well. Indeed, my doomy romantic prospects seem much more likely to improve, if I’m exerting myself in my work life, compared to if I’m laying in bed unable to get myself to do anything. But maybe this is just an inefficient quirk of our evolved minds.

Intra-human variation

I should also note that it seems very plausible to me that humans have a default set-point of mental energy, there is variation in the level of that set point between people, and the processes I’m describing here are on top of one’s individual set-point.]

If so, I would bet that I am relatively privileged in having a high “mental energy set point.” In that case, I’m sorry for your lack of privilege.

That said, I don’t think this is the world we live in, based on other things I know about motivation.

When mental energy falters

I’ve made the claim here that mental energy is extremely important, and you should take pains to cultivate it. But that doesn’t mean that when you’re having bad days you should give up and fail with abandon! (It might mean that you should do less, or take a rest day, but that not the same thing as giving up.

Personally, I don’t refrain from using willpower, but when I do, I flag it, because it means that some part of this overall system has broken down and needs to by repaired and debugged.

“Loaded up” context and structure

If “clear attention” is about clearing away unwanted tugs on your attention, context and structure are about directing your attention towards the things you do want to engage with. Context and structure are actually different things, but they have a mostly overlapping intervention set, so I’m going to treat them together.

“Loaded up” context

I have sometimes had ample mental energy, and be unhampered by aversions or distractions, but still spent most of a day wasting my time on something. There’s a third element which is necessary, which is something like “having the goals you care about, and the action steps that lead to them, mentally present to you.”

You want to have your medium term goals primed, or available in your peripheral awareness, so that they are present to you when you’re making second to second decisions about what to do next, (at what I call “choice points”).

This involves both simply remembering what those things are, and being able to contact the motivational-energy: why you care about them.

In practice, the main intervention that helps me do this is doing daily scheduling, each night (as part of my evening checklist). In this process, I survey the things that I have to do from a fairly high level, where I can make tradeoffs about which things to do in the next day (tradoffs that are hard to make “on the ground”).

Then, outlining my day, and murphyjitsuing it (and making TAPs for some of the transition points as necessary), gives me an opportunity to “future pace”, walking through everything. The next day, I’ll have a sort of “echo” of that plan as I’m going about my day.

I outline my day in my meta-cognition journal, and I am allowed to reschedule things as I see fit, but if I do, I need to note that in the journal and reschedule the things to come afterwards. In theory this is to give me a sense of the scarcity of time, and more clarity about the tradeoffs that I’m making: if I decide to just procrastinate on writing because “I just don’t feel like it right now”, I can see that that means that I’m just not going to do that thing today, or that there’s something else that I’m giving up.

But the main reason I do the re-outlining as I go thing, is that I tried not doing it, and that made my scheduling epiphenomenal: the schedule that I outlined stopped having much connection at all to how I actually spent my day (usually for the worse).

The other thing that I’ve found helpful lately is a weekly-ish list of things to do. This will sound like a todo list, but somehow my way of engaging with this list is unlike any todo list I’ve ever used.

I have a list of all of the shortish-term, medium-sized projects/tasks that I want to get done. Mostly they are sized such that each one will be my main goal for some upcoming day, though some of them are only an hour to two hours of work.

This list gives me a powerful sense of urgency, because I can see the upcoming things, and that I care about them, and that I don’t want them to get lost or fall to the wayside, so I don’t want the list to get backed up by my not doing the thing for today.

Structure

Structure is not actually a phenomenological target, it’s an environmental condition. Context is about setting up your internal world so that there are affordances pushing you toward the things you care about, structure is about setting up your external world so that there are affordances pushing you towards the things that you care about.

Often times, when people have “problems with motivation”, what they really have is a lack of structure.

Basically, structure, as I mean it here, is anything that makes taking some action the default.

For instance, making a meeting with someone (because humans tend to have a higher standard for canceling meetings with other people compared to blowing off an appointment with themselves).

The most extreme version of this is straight up commitment devices, by which you try to constrain your future self using per-committed punishments. I’ve never really used commitment devices, but they seem sort of inelegant. I imagine that most of the time the a person using a commitment device has an unprocessed aversion, but instead of engaging with and resolving the aversion, they just stack the scale on the other side, making it even more aversion to not do the the thing, and thereby powering through the aversion. That sounds terrible, to me.

One bit of structure that I’ve found to be extremely important is a robust, rehearsed transition function for starting focused work. Generally, once I get started, thing fall into place and making progress is much easier. But before I get into the stimulating flow of work, other things can seem pressing or interesting. I’ve sometimes spent an embarrassing number of days without even starting work.

It’s good to make a bulletproofed plan for starting work. It doesn’t have to be the same plan every day, you can more flexibly decide during daily scheduling.

Personally, I usually rehearse the TAP / transition function of starting work as soon as I wake up, or sometimes at 10 AM (after taking some time in the morning). I’ll have pre-decided what I’m going to work on (and opened the relevant document, etc. on my computer, ect.), and where I’m going to do it. And I’ll run it over in my mind, or in physical practice a couple of times.

You probably also want to have very solid structure for a lot of the interventions I’ve talked about here. Sleep and exercise are so important, and upstream of so much else, that it is probably worth it to make the systems that make those things happen really strong, such that, for instance, you do exercise even when you don’t feel like it. (That situation, for instance, might be a good place to use nicotine, even if that’s the only place you use it.)

Spaciousness, stability, reflectiveness

This is the phenomenological target that I am least sure about. It seems like maybe it is just a reflection of the other factors. I’m including it because it seems like there’s something that happens when I make sure I have two hours of 0-commitment decompression time at the end of every day, instead of staying in motion for days at a time.

It feels something like I have more spaciousness, or stability. I’m more able to absorb an roll with whatever comes up internally or externally. This whole system is less fragile. I have more slack.

Specifically this state has the property of making it easier to take the elements of my experience as object. More likely to notice, block / felt sense, and gracefully transition into engaging with it, for instance.

When I “run out of spaciousness” I’m much more reactive.

Also this property allows me to make “stepped back” choices, instead of reflexively reacting to what’s put in front of me. When I have context loaded up, these two, together, represent what I was calling metacognitive space (which is maybe what this state should be called).

I’m not super clear on the relationship between loaded up context, spaciousness without loaded up context, and “stepped back”ness. My current guess is that you could have the lack of reactivity without loaded up context, but in order to be oriented around making decisions optimizing for specific (some kinds of?) goals, you have to load them up.

It’s possible that sort of grace and flexibility is simply a consequence of everything being handled, and nothing additional. That is, when everything is in its place, I’m less on edge, less agitated, in general, and so there’s less pressure to succumb to.

Or maybe this is just one of the effects of being topped off on mental energy. Or maybe something else. This one does seem the most correlated with the other factors.

[Yeah, on further reflection, I think this kind of spaciousness is mostly the result of everything being handled (you trust that everything important will be gotten to, so there’s space to be deliberate about what you’re doing now instead of having a bunch of urges all competing for bandwidth), but is bolstered by the same physiological factors that are casual of mental energy.]

Intense exercise seems to support this state.

Notably, this seems like exactly the benefit that meditation is supposed to confer. So far, I haven’t noticed any particular impact of meditation, and taking a space for a long walk when I am not feeling pressure to do anything helps a lot.

Also, I track all of my time in toggl, which (at least when I was more rigorous about it) was helpful for helping me to be more intentional with my time. That feels like a different thing than this kind of spaciousness, though.

Flow, momentum, rhythm

This is the target of this system, so it seems worth at least mentioning it. There’s a mode that I can get into where things seem to flow, my attention settles deeply into the thing that I’m working on and then moves “snappily” from on thing to the next. Things feel smooth.

There’s an energy, a slight fore-wind pressure, pushing me onward. Things flow, unobstructed.

Actually, I think there are two forms of the goal state. One is something like “controlled overwhelm.” This is when you’re stressed and would be frantic, but you’re attention is organized, and you ride the wave of your overwhelm, letting the energy of the stress push you forward, with enough spaciousness and awareness to respond effectively to, to judo, anything coming at you. Things aren’t handled, but they are meta-handled. This is (according to me) the correct state to be in for most cases of overwhelm. It’s part of the control system that gets you back to closer to on top of things.

Secondly, there’s the equilibrium state of being centered and calm, but energized, speeding up and slowing down as necessary, where everything is handled. That looks like what I described above.

Review and conclusion

  • The goal is extended, high quality focused attention (Deep Work) on the problems you care about.
  • The equilibrium state is “everything is handled.” This is really important.
  • A lot of how this is reached is internal agreements.
  • Systems that make the intervention level automatic, make everything else automatic.

[1] Some pieces that are left out, but which I think are important, are…

  • How motivation works
  • Hedonics, micro-hedonics, and boredom
  • Insistence on not squandering time
  • TAPs for state-regulation

[2] One, semi-related trick that I like: when I feel overwhelmed with everything that I need to do, I’ll write out all of the things on index cards. This way, I can spread them out on a table, and take stock of all of them at once, and then prioritize them, and put them in a stack, so that I can only see the top one (the task that I’m focusing on), at any given time.

[3] I note that all of these are “uppers”, in marked contrast to symptom of being low on mental energy, which (as I postulate later) is also a matter of unhanded, unintegrated concerns. Are these perhaps fundamentally the same thing, but sometimes manifesting as excess activation (potentially maladaptive, preparation to fight or flight) and sometimes manifesting as dampened activation (for some reason)?

Further, does settling into deep work requires a Goldy-locks sweet spot of the right amount of physiological activation? Or is it just that you can’t be activated and have other concerns pulling at your attention, because then your attention will switch between them. High activation and mono-focus is fine?

[4] This suggests to me that mental energy is, at least in part, a cost of stress or top-down focused intention. It may just be that exerting mental effort is, well effortful, and the subsystem that governs effort allocation is only up for it if it expects to get a reprieve in short order. Otherwise, it refuses to allocate the relevant mental resources.

I grant that this seems to be passing the buck on why overexertion of effort is to be avoided and why a reprieve is good. A literal energy cost seems implausible, but it might be due to the costs of continual high arousal (which correlates with cognitive effort), or maybe because there are mechanisms that need processing / consolidation / diffuse mode time following application of focused attention (maybe because focus attention overrides a bunch of competing processes in the parliament and they need to stick their head up and do some processing to confirm / repair* / update their strategies, or maybe because focused attention / intention entails a lot of data input, which needs to be processed for learning to occur).

* – The idea being that you’re making a bunch of updates in a bunch of different areas throughout the day, and some of those updates would break, or interfere with some of your existing strategies. So one of the things that is happening in defuse mode processing is those strategies are themselves adapting to the new updates, so as to still be functional. Total speculation.

 

 

 

The Basic Intervention Set for Productive Flow, and That, Generalized

[Epistemic status: Sketch. I could write this post in a lot more detail, delving in the specifics of what I mean and being a lot more rigorous, but I’m opting for a quick and dirty outline that hopefully gestures in the right direction. Plus, I’m still figuring out some of the details.]

Related to: My personal wellbeing support pillars

The Basic intervention Set for my Personal Productivity

Lately, I’ve been writing a book (or something) about the psychology and phenomenology of personal productivity, and designing a complete, robust system, for maintaining high levels of productivity sustainably. In that text, I go into a lot of detail about the a fairly large number of policies and procedures.

But in thinking about implementing this system, I recently asked myself “what are the most basic, most important pieces? Which habits are crucial, in their support of making everything else work? Which things should I make sure happen every day?”

This is the list I came up with:

  1. Prioritize sleep: Sleep well and long every night, and if that fails for some reason, make up the difference with a nap in the afternoon.
  2. Exercise everyday (which in practice, means having an exercise TAP, or a suite of exercise TAPs).
  3. Outline my day, everyday (part of an evening routine).
  4. Have free space (on the order of two hours) at the end of every day,
  5. Reliably transition to a Focusing Process when I experience aversion or anxiety.

(This is missing somethings that are obviously crucial, but I mostly don’t worry much about any more, like having a system to keep track of everything the I need to do without using my head, or not overeating. I these are issues that I used to have, but are now robustly taken care of.)

Generalizing

Looking at this list, I can generalize each item: I don’t care about sleep for it’s own sake, I care about my level of mental energy and focus. This is important to note, because sometimes I’ll have missed the boat on good sleep, and knowing what sleep is in service of lets me find other ways to meet that goal.

(Similarly, having a TAP to get paper, when your working memory is overwhelmed is excellent, but you want to understand the mechanism by which paper helps. Otherwise you might find yourself without any paper, and not realize that ducking with a buddy might also help you.)

Generalizing in that spirit, it seems like there are three phenomenological states that are contributing to a final goal:

  1.  Space or spaciousness, both
    1. Attentional space, and
    2. Physiological / emotional space
  2. Mental energy
  3. Structure / nudges / goals loaded up / context

All of which together create or support something like

4. Flow / momentum / rhythm

2019-12-05 Space, energy, structure

I tentatively claim that if the first three are present, the fourth deterministically follows.

Elaborating on each

These breakdowns are first and foremost phenomenological categories. The important thing is that they feel like distinct states from the inside. I might additionally have theories about the mechanisms that give rise to those states, or how these states give rise to other states further downsteam, but the fundamental thing is the first person experience.

Space

Or internal space. The feeling of not being distracted, or yanked around, or whatever. Not feeling pressured. Not being harried or rushed.

Related to what I called metacognitive space, but I think metacognitve space is actaully the combination of space and structure.

I break down internal space into space of two kinds (which are probably quite interrelated):

Attentional space is freedom from distraction, meaning both people coming and bothering you, and little nagging pings about things that you need to deal with. GTD is aimed at creating this kind of space.

Physiological / emotional space is related to Focusing. Your attentional space can be eaten by some nagging thought. Your physiological / emotional space can be taken up by some unmet need or unhandled goal which is manifesting as a felt sense in the body. This can be just as distracting.

[Actually I think this might still be conflating two things. I can have space in the sense of “there’s no pressing need in my felt sense center”, and I can have space in the sense of “there is a pressing need, but I have some distance from it, and am not blended with it or acting compulsively from it.” I think those are importantly different. Note to reader: I’m still confused about this one and. I should figure how how those pieces all fit together.]

Mental energy

The thing I was talking about here and here. I currently define it as “in practice willingness to exert cognitive effort.” The more your mental energy is topped off the more effortless it is to do demanding cognitive work. To the extent that you’re running low on cognitive energy, doing work feels force-y.

Good sleep is crucial for this, and regular exercise also seems to help.

Context

Even having both space and energy, my hours may not be automatically spent on progress towards my goals. I need to have my goals (or tasks) “loaded up” in my attentional space in order for me to automatically take action on them.

I think this is why scheduling my day is so helpful, among other reasons: it primes me with some mental context about what I care about and what needs to be done.

Flow / rhythm

This is what it feels like when I’m clipping along, smoothly moving from one task to the next. There’s no impediment. There’s a slight pressure, like a forewind pushing me forward. There’s momentum to it. I don’t have to force, the natural thing to do is just the next thing that needs doing.

2019-12-05 Space, energy, structure (with interventions)

I actually don’t know how reserving 2 hours at the end of day during which I have no obligations and I’m not trying to do anything in particular fits into this. Naively, it seems like it would contribute to spaciousness, in the same way that meditation is. But it also seems like it actually buys me energy, in the same way that a rest day buys me energy.

I think that taking time with no obligations actually buys me space in the sense of space between stimulus and response / being able to take things as object, as opposed to either attentional or physiological/ emotional space.

Anxiety and distraction

Ok. I think that watching TV / reading blogs / whatever, works to defuse anxiety to the extent that you actually successfully distract yourself, and become engaged enough in the new activity that you actually manage to drop the initial fear that was being held by your felt sense.

Notes on my Focusing bottlenecks

Related to: My current model of Anxiety, Some ways to “clear space”, What to do with should/flinches: TDT-stable internal incentives

[Epistemic status: thinking aloud]

It seems like my Focusing practice is bottlenecked on two things:

  1. I still sometimes have the problem of noticing an aversion, but deflecting from it. It is not automatic to transition into doing Focusing, especially when I’m anxious. Instead, I deflect into pacifyer / distraction behaviors (like watching youtube or what not).
  2. Sometimes, I just can’t seem to get a handle on what’s wrong. I can’t make progress, and the thing just sits in me, stagnant, sometimes for days, locking up my energies and preventing me from flowing.

I think I should focus on problem 2. If that problem were perfectly solved, problem 1, might or might not resolve itself.

So, what could I do to make focusing work better for me, so that I can more reliably get a foothold?

Some ideas:

  1. This might mean that I just need to go back to the basics: do the actual six steps of Gendlin’s Focusing, and see how that works.
  2. Maybe I can do binary search? Start broad and break down the universe of discourse into a taxonomy: “Is this about work?”, “Is it about something other than work?”, If it’s about not-work “Is it about my romantic life?”
  3. Instead of Focusing, try IBR? This has a different rhythm, and sometimes has helped me get unstuck.
  4. If I can get any handle on it at all, I could try exploring gradients: taking the imagined situation and varying attributes of it, one at a time, and seeing if those variations feel better or worse, and use that feedback to triangulate to the exact thing that is bothering me.
  5. I should maybe read this book, which I do own.
  6. Maybe just hold my attention at the felt sense for minutes at a time?
  7. Maybe I should try speaking from the felt sense or “acting it” out?
  8. I think (in addition to other things on this list), that I have to remember that I have been mistaken about what the felt sense is concerned with before, and be less apt assume that I know what the bothersome thing is, when that theory is not getting feedback from the felt sense.
  9. I should try taking the felt sense out of my body so that I can talk with it?
  10. Thank acknowledge that I don’t know what the felt sense is doing yet, and thank it for looking out for me.

Do other people have other ideas?


Oh. Also, I think that part of the art of solving problem 1, might be learning to notice the slight and subtle urges to distract myself, before they give rise to action.

[Interestingly, the thing that is currently stuck in me feels slightly improved, after writing this.]

 

Metacognitive space

[Part of my Psychological Principles of Personal Productivity, which I am writing mostly in my Roam, now.]

Metacognitive space is a term of art that refers to a particular first person state / experience. In particular it refers to my propensity to be reflective about my urges and deliberate about the use of my resources.

I think it might literally be having the broader context of my life, including my goals and values, and my personal resource constraints loaded up in peripheral awareness.

Metacognitive space allows me to notice aversions and flinches, and take them as object, so that I can respond to them with Focusing or dialogue, instead of being swept around by them. Similarly, it seems to, in practice, to reduce my propensity to act on immediate urges and temptations.

[Having MCS is the opposite of being [[{Urge-y-ness | reactivity | compulsiveness}]]?]

It allows me to “absorb” and respond to happenings in my environment, including problems and opportunities, taking considered instead of semi-automatic, first response that occurred to me, action. [That sentence there feels a little fake, or maybe about something else, or maybe is just playing into a stereotype?]

When I “run out” of meta cognitive space, I will tend to become ensnared in immediate urges or short term goals. Often this will entail spinning off into distractions, or becoming obsessed with some task (of high or low importance), for up to 10 hours at a time.

Some activities that (I think) contribute to metacogntive awareness:

  • Rest days
  • Having a few free hours between the end of work for the day and going to bed
  • Weekly [[Scheduling]]. (In particular, weekly scheduling clarifies for me the resource constraints on my life.)
  • Daily [[Scheduling]]
  • [[meditation]], including short meditation.
    • Notably, I’m not sure if meditation is much more efficient than just taking the same time to go for a walk. I think it might be or might not be.
  • [[Exercise]]?
  • Waking up early?
  • Starting work as soon as I wake up?
    • [I’m not sure that the thing that this is contributing to is metacogntive space per se.]

[I would like to do a causal analysis on which factors contribute to metacogntive space. Could I identify it in my toggl data with good enough reliability that I can use my toggl data? I guess that’s one of the things I should test? Maybe with a servery asking me to rate my level of metacognitive space for the day every evening?]

Erosion

Usually, I find that I can maintain metacogntive space for about 3 days [test this?] without my upkeep pillars.

Often, this happens with a sense of pressure: I have a number of days of would-be-overwhelm which is translated into pressure for action. This is often good, it adds force and velocity to activity. But it also runs down the resource of my metacognitive space (and probably other resources). If I loose that higher level awareness, that pressure-as-a-forewind, tends to decay into either 1) a harried, scattered, rushed-feeling, 2) a myopic focus on one particular thing that I’m obsessively trying to do (it feels like an itch that I compulsively need to scratch), 3) or flinching way from it all into distraction.

[Metacognitive space is the attribute that makes the difference between absorbing, and then acting gracefully and sensibly to deal with the problems, and harried, flinching, fearful, non-productive overwhelm, in general?]

I make a point, when I am overwhelmed, or would be overwhelmed to make sure to allocate time to maintain my metacognitive space. It is especially important when I feel so busy that I don’t have time for it.

When metacognition is opposed to satisfying your needs, your needs will be opposed to metacognition

One dynamic that I think is in play, is that I have a number of needs, like the need for rest, and maybe the need for sexual release or entertainment/ stimulation. If those needs aren’t being met, there’s a sort of build up of pressure. If choosing consciously and deliberately prohibits those needs getting met, eventually they will sabotage the choosing consciously and deliberately.

From the inside, this feels like “knowing that you ‘shouldn’t’ do something (and sometimes even knowing that you’ll regret it later), but doing it anyway” or “throwing yourself away with abandon”. Often, there’s a sense of doing the dis-endorsed thing quickly, or while carefully not thinking much about it or deliberating about it: you need to do the thing before you convince yourself that you shouldn’t.

[[Research Questions]]

What is the relationship between [[metacognitive space]] and [[Rest]]?

What is the relationship between [[metacognitive space]] and [[Mental Energy]]?

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.

 

Notes:

  • 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.