Hypothesis: three kind of mental energy

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

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

Here’s a start:

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

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

How do I jumpstart into productivity momentum?

Initial ideas:

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

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

Looking at my listed hypotheses, from last year:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. This seems not right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there other ways to adjust the setpoint?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think this one is pretty close to correct.


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

Bah. Seems wrong.



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


Cognitive readiness

[not obviously coherent]

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

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

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

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

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

What is mental energy?

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

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

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

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

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

So if not that, what is going on here?

A few hypotheses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other notes about mental energy:

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

Napping Protocol

Followup to: Notes on Interventions for Falling Asleep

[This is a draft]

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

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

How to Fall asleep durring the day

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

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

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

Intro to and outline of a sequence on a productivity system

[Note: this is an unedited ramble]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


See you soon.