Impact of mindfulness meditation on wellbeing and productivity: preliminary results

[epistemic status: semi-formal lab report.

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


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

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

So, I’m doing a randomized trial.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My current model of Anxiety

[epistemic status: untested first draft model

Part of my Psychological Principles of Productivity series]

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

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

The model

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

Here’s the causal diagram:



The parts of the model

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

For instance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Note for application

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