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.



Emotional misattribution? Mental structures you can access from states

In my recent post on possible interventions on physiological arousal, there’s something interesting about two of the approaches that felt most promising to me.

Both singing and exercising involve going with the flow, or moving in the same “direction” as the arousal. In both cases, you lean into the activation, but you apply a new meaning to it, or reinterpret it, or repurpose it, or something.

In the case of singing: I feel agitated about something and my physiology is activated. I sing some folk songs, really feeling into the emotions and the meaning they embody. After doing that for a bit the arousal exhausts itself, and I’m calmer or more settled.

It similar in the case of exercising: I’m agitated, I pour that excess energy into working out, and I expend that energy.

In fact, while we’re at it, in the past, I’ve noted before that masturbation / ejaculation seems to have a similar impact.

The last two are less confusing / surprising, because they seem like they involve hormonal shifts / the literal expending of chemical energy. But what’s happening in the case of singing? There’s some, goal structure / meaning, some reason why I’m aroused / agitated / activated, I take that activation and “apply” it to a totally separate goal structure / meaning, I “resolve” this new goal structure, and my system calms down as if it just forgets what caused it to be agitated in the first place.

That seems kind of weird. You’d think that if my body thought that there was some reason to be energized, and I added a second reason to be energized, but then resolve that second reason, I should still be energized, because nothing has changed about reason #1.

But I guess it doesn’t work that way.

It seems more like there’s a two way information flow between mental content and physiological state, and each one informs the other. (I think “informs” is exactly the right word. Each one is updating on the outputs of the other, my body responding to my thoughts, and my thoughts responding to my body.) So if I’m agitated, and I try to shift my thoughts to something non-agitating, this force-against-force, my mind is resisting, on the basis of my bodily activation. But I can easily swap out a different agitating / activating thought structure, without any resistance at all. And apparently, the whole system doesn’t have enough “working memory” to track two meanings at once, and so the original gets dropped.

I suspect that this phenomenon might be pretty general, that it applies to a bunch of different emotional/physiological states, not just arousal. I was in a circle once, when I was really sad about one thing, and then I found myself crying about (and feeling some catharsis around) some other sad thing.

In fact, I think in general, when I’m feeling sad, I tend to associate it with my romantic loneliness, out of something like habit, even if my romantic situation didn’t have much to do with why I was feeling down.

I postulate that when you’re in a given physiological state, you have ready access to all (?) of the meaning-structures (whatever that means), that are “attuned to” (whatever that means), that state. So when you’re sad, you can access all of the reasons / narratives to be sad (although maybe only one at a time?), and when you’re excited you can access all of the reasons / narratives to be happy.

[I wonder if this has anything to do with why depression is resilient. Maybe people slip into a depressed state, and they access / slide into a meaning structure that they’re used to remunerating on, which unfortunately, is very robust, and so they get stuck in their depressed state.  That is, when a person is depressed they are accidentally doing the opposite of the trick I described above, instead of switching to a meaning that they can resolve, thereby exiting the state, they switch to a meaning that is particularly hard to resolve.]

This is in some sense just a restatement of the concept of “emotional misattribution”, but it seem importantly different in framing somehow.




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.)


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.


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.


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.

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?]


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.



  • 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.

The bootstrapping attitude

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The seed of a theory of triggeredness

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


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

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

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

Adversarial forces

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

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

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

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

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

Impossibilities of crucial communication

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

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

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

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

Common thread

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