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.

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