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Executive Dysfunction 101

First things first; “executive dysfunction” is not a diagnosis. Executive functions are what govern our ability to plan actions, take those actions, maintain focus on them, adapt to changes, and more subtle steps between.

ADHD is a diagnosis that points to a cluster of common struggles with executive function: working memory, impulse control, and self monitoring. But there are plenty of other diagnoses that can impact one or more of those eight, and of course even things like lack of sleep, hunger, being irritated, disruptive environments, and other stressors can affect them.

So in general when we talk about executive dysfunction what we’re really pointing at is a symptom we witness when someone isn’t able to act on their desires, or on things they think they should do, or on things they think they should desire.

Which brings up the more philosophical question; what does it mean to “fail to act” on a desire? Does someone “have executive dysfunction” if they struggle to complete something they don’t want to do, but feel they have to? What about what they “want to want” to do, but don’t find interesting, even while they can still work on passion projects without issue? Or is it only executive dysfunction if they can’t bring themselves to work on something they feel a strong desire to do, in which case what does “strong desire” mean?

All this makes the question of whether someone struggles with executive dysfunction ill-posed. The better question is “in what domains or in what types of circumstances does someone struggle with executive dysfunction,” followed by narrowing down to which of their executive functions are the chokepoint. Organization? Task initiation? Emotional control?

(I’m also not a fan of “emotional control” as a phrase, as it implies something like stifling or dampening or wrestling with your emotions. This might accurately describe the feeling for some people, but integrating emotions in a healthy way doesn’t have to feel like any of that)

With this more precise understanding, the possible interventions also become more clear. Organization and planning skills can be learned, as can self-awareness and emotional integration. Multitasking and working memory, meanwhile, are harder to improve, and so reducing distractions by adjusting the environment might be more effective.

But most importantly, the question of whether the task is tied to a “want” or a “want to want” or a “should” can itself guide people to better understanding whether their struggle is one that is worth resolving at all, as compared to one that isn’t worth the costs compared to other actions or paths. Many people have pushed through some difficult job or university degree and were glad they did; others regret time wasted and emotional suffering endured for a goal that didn’t end up mattering to them.

Which is why executive dysfunction should not be treated by default as a difficulty that needs to be overcome. Instead it can also be a signal from one or more of your parts that the path you’re on is not the right one for you, and that you might benefit from searching for other, better roads, or even goals.

Along with depression and anxiety, additional factors can exacerbate executive dysfunction, such as perfectionism. The idea that anything tried must succeed, or be done perfectly, often leads to a feeling of dread or hopelessness at the prospect of even starting a task. This is particularly exacerbated by OCD.

Which leads to a general theory of treatment that includes things like exploring motivations and dissolving “shoulds” as a first step before taking for granted that failure to do something is about the person rather than the thing they’re trying to do.

Once that’s done, only then is it useful to focus on strategies for breaking tasks down into simpler versions of themselves, finding tools and contexts for improving focus and accountability, and generally working around that colorful circle up there as much as possible to improve all the ways executive functions might be disrupted. For example, since past difficulties can exacerbate this sense of predicted suffering or failure, it’s also important to focus on small, achievable steps that are more likely to succeed and thus increase predictability of success.

[The above refers to the parts model of the self, and to the therapeutic idea of systematically replacing the concept “should” with less normative framings. A lot of people find these helpful, but they’re not consensus views and they don’t work for everyone.]

To further explore this, I plan to write a series of posts on how to procedurally explore executive function within ourselves so that we can identify the places where we get stuck when we have trouble doing stuff we want to do, and have a better idea of what can help.

Procedural Executive Function: Part 1

Procedural Executive Function: Part 2

Procedural Executive Function: Part 3

Procedural Executive Function, Part 1

In this series I divide the 8 aspects of executive function into three parts that I consider roughly sequential in how people experience “deliberately doing something,” from start to finish, to point out pitfalls and how they can be dealt with.

Before starting, it’s important to take an extra moment to specifically emphasize that this is a process with multiple steps. Part of what I hope people learn from this is to better understand which aspect of the process is blocking them when they feel stuck with their own executive dysfunction.

So if I focus on a certain aspect of the process and share a perspective on how to help ensure that part goes smoothly, that doesn’t mean the assumption is everything will go fine as long as that one aspect does. For some actions you take, the whole process will go smoothly. When it doesn’t, the part that trips you up will likely change depending on personality, diagnoses, the type of action you’re taking, or just the context of your life at that moment.

We’re first examining these parts individually so that we can then examine how they interact more systematically; no part of this process should be taken as a final, normative word on how your own inner workings must look. But I hope it will be helpful nonetheless.

(As a final note, I won’t talk about medical solutions to Executive Function, as it’s outside of my area of expertise. I hope to add more resources for that at some point.)

Planning/Prioritizing

The first step of any intentional act can be called the “notion” to act. Notions themselves are involuntary, often vague, and not particularly compelling. They’re just an idea, summed up generically as a thought like “oh, that’s a thing.”

This sometimes comes with a should attached. “I should study” or “I should throw out the trash.” But the more neutral version is simply a could. “I could get a drink” or “I could watch some  TV.” It can also be nonverbal; just an image of something, maybe with a vague sense of desire or worry.

Once the notion occurs, a few things might happen automatically (that is to say preconsciously):

  1. Our mind discards the notion, sometimes so quickly that a few moments later we might not even remember having it.
  2. Our body starts acting on it, such as by walking to the fridge or alt-tabbing to a web browser.
  3. Our imagination starts to plan out how we might do it, or simulate what doing it might be like, or envision what the outcome might be.

We often become aware we’re doing the 2nd one as we do it (though it can take a surprising amount of time), and then decide if we want to continue or not. If the thing is enjoyable enough, it might be hard to stop. This will be covered more in future articles.

The 3rd one, if noticed and latched onto, can then be continued consciously. This is the first point at which intention enters play, which makes it the first relevant step of executive function; by definition, something is only a result of executive function if it’s intentional.

It may seem strange to count “what you decide to do” as part of executive function, but this is why it’s important that Planning and Prioritizing are grouped together; before you decide how to do something you must decide whether you actually want to at all. And your reasons, context, and frame for prioritizing something is all upstream of how “motivated” you will feel to overcome the various other challenges that might come up during the process, including the actual initiation of the task.

So how do we do that?

It’s difficult to make a full list of things to prioritize for; there are multiple entire frames you could use before you even start listing things, such as short term vs long term, or selfcare vs productivity, or explore vs exploit. Or you can divide your life up into different areas and goals, such as Health, Work, Leisure, and Love and then decide what to prioritize based on which is lowest, or which feels the most valuable in the moment.

Whatever the category or specific thing being prioritized for is, the first step to avoiding executive dysfunction is recognizing what feels, for lack of a better word, alive. That can mean “fun,” even if challenging, or “compelling,” even if scary… these are just a couple of the many words we use to refer to specific emotions that make up the umbrella term “motivation.”

Motivation comes up all the time when talking about executive (dys)function. Sometimes it’s called “willpower.” Other times people refer to its absence, “akrasia,” when they wonder why they’re struggling to do things they, ostensibly, want to do.

But this is why distinguishing actual “wants” from feelings of “shoulds” is important. There will always be more notions to do things than things you end up having time to do, and always more “shoulds” that you will feel pressured to follow than the ones you endorse doing.

Again, prioritizing is crucial to executive function. It’s how you avoid not just decision paralysis on one hand or regret on the other, but also how you avoid motivation traps (simply not caring enough about the thing to do it, despite feeling like you need to). Trying to do something that doesn’t feel alive is similar to getting a car from one place to another without enough gas; the less you have, the more you’ll have to push.

So what does it mean to prioritize based on what you “want,” in a world that’s so often full of things you “have” to do just to survive, or maintain basic quality of life?

There’s no easy answer to this, as your wants are to some degree a reflection of reality. There may be some activities that just are more fun than others for you in the territory. There may be some outcomes that just are more scary than others for you. There isn’t anything wrong with recognizing this.

But we understand reality through models, and our maps of the territory can change as we gain new knowledge. Some activities turn out to be more fun than we at first think they are, either with experience or with the right knowledge of how to do them a different way, and our motivation to do them increases. Other times we reframe our expectations or experience of an activity, and it becomes more or less motivating based on the attitude we take, or the predictions we have, about it. Genuinely believing that failure is just an opportunity to learn and grow makes activities with uncertain success less daunting to try, but of course this is more difficult the stronger the negative consequences are.

This may seem obvious to some, but it’s worth spelling out that this means our ability to simulate what will happen if we do something, or don’t do it, is actually fairly important for how motivated we feel to do it. If you can’t clearly visualize the steps from where you are to where you want to be, it’s much easier to end up feeling stuck, lost, or adrift.

(For those with aphantasia, the alternative process might be similar to what you do when thinking of something in the future you’re excited about; I’m not sure how analogous this is, and would love to hear from anyone who has trouble with mental visualizations, or see research on whether there’s a connection between the two)

We can also find more clues to why things might be emotionally difficult to do by looking at the reverse: habits.

Endorsed or not, we tend to feel no particular rush of motivation or painful akrasia when doing habits because, in order for an action to become a habit, we’ve done it so often it has become predictable. There’s no chance of failure, and no need for thought to ensure a particularly good outcome.

(Probably worth noting, it seems that some people really just don’t form habits, or at least the threshold for forming habits is much higher for them such that the closest thing they experience to being able to do things on autopilot while thinking about other things is something like “walking” or driving.” This is also something I’m curious to hear/learn more about.)

All of which leads me to my first crystallized insight from research:

Executive Dysfunction most often occurs when the next step between where you are now and what you want to do is difficult to imagine, and/or painful in some way.

Task Initiation

This, ultimately, is why a lot of the leading advice for clearing ugh fields are things like “break things down into smaller steps” and “check if there’s anyone you can reach out to for help” and “try approaching the problem from another angle.” It’s also why just talking through a fear and being reassured that the reality won’t be as bad as it seems can help people do things they’ve been putting off.

I suspect it’s also why just having company around can help people get through things they expect to be unpleasant. There’s a sense of ambient safety that comes from being around those we trust to support us, even if there’s nothing in particular they can do about the bad-stuff that we imagine. On top of that, as a separate thing, having pleasant company and conversation can just make unpleasant tasks easier to do.

This might seem really basic, but is worth highlighting as separate from social pressure or worries of how you’ll look to others, which tend to be how people perceive accountability partners or similar. Those can definitely have influence, but for many they’re aversive rather than compelling, and these more positive frames can be more valuable.

But those are all just a few ways to unblock the initial spark/decision/compulsion to do something you deliberately plan to do. If you don’t focus too much on deliberate steps of an action, you might find yourself able to do them more easily by just following notions; “non-doing,” or wuwei, is a phrase often used for this state. Of course, you also might find yourself non-doing something else other than the thing you “intend” to (that’s rather the point).

But that this “cheat” can work at all indicates again that there’s something about deliberate attention and focus that can evoke things which demotivate us, or paralyze us with indecision or fear. Acting before your conscious thoughts can get in the way is, in many ways like putting yourself in a state of total freedom from consequences; consequences only impact our behavior when we know about and believe in them, after all. This is a great strategy when the risks or consequences aren’t “real.”

Not that non-doing is fool-proof, even if you invoke it and and follow the “right” notion to, say, sit in front of your computer and open your email inbox; once you’re face to face with a difficult email, it might bring your attention back to the things that made it hard to answer them in the first place, sending your attention to something less uncertain or painful. But again, we’ll cover that in a later section.

How does task initiation happen at all, given the existence of multiple different possible acts you could take? What tips the mind in the direction of one over another?

At some level a calculation is being made from evidence accrued about what you want and how likely a given task is to get it for you, set against evidence of risk and consequences of failure. So all you have to do is find a way to make something seem more likely to get what you want, right?

Well, yes, except doing that is itself a task that requires initiation, which means it also gets stymied by next-steps that seem unclear or painful. It’s turtles all the way down.

But that’s not to say it’s hopeless; again, what frame you’re thinking of the problem in matters, as does real knowledge about what you want and how to get it, as do incentives.

So here are my practical suggestions, along with all the usual stuff like “reduce friction to doing what you want” and “set up good incentives” and “break tasks down” and “ask for help” and so on:

Suggestion 1: Distinguish what you actually want.

There are four things people confuse all the time, and use the same sort of language to express, despite them meaning very different things:

1) I want to do X.

2) I want X to be done, but don’t want to do it.

3) I want to be the sort of person who does or can do X.

4) I want to be seen as the sort of person who does or can do X.

It’s important to notice which of these actually applies to your circumstances, not just to better figure out what sorts of frames and evidence will motivate you to do it, but again to figure out whether it’s something you endorse trying to do at all.

(It’s also much easier not to beat yourself up over failing to be motivated to do something when you realize that you don’t actually want to, and realize what similar motivations might be crossed with the one you thought you were acting on.)

Always be clear whether priorities are guided by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. I don’t have a source on this, but in my experience and from reports by others it is genuinely easier for a lot of students to do bullshit busy-work when the people asking them to do the bullshit work acknowledge it’s bullshit and take a “let’s just get through this together” approach rather than a “you’re a bad person if you don’t want to do this” one.

Suggestion 2: Review the actual costs/benefits.

Whether you’re journaling, Internal Double Cruxing, doing Narrative Therapy, or exploring Internal Family Systems, there’s something uniquely powerful about letting your thoughts finish.

Our brains are great at blocking or hiding from unpleasant thoughts. It’s basic behaviorism, reflexive as catching or flinching away from rapidly approaching objects. So when we need more evidence that something is worth doing to feel motivated to do it, we might keep the examination of that evidence from happening without even realizing it if the information comes “packaged” with painful thoughts or feelings.

You never know what might tip the amount of evidence your brain needs to do something past the initiation threshold, so one of the ways that we can “amass willpower” is by putting all the information in front of our System 2 and giving it time to process. This is part of why just talking to a friend about something difficult to do can make it easier, and we can isolate the effect by noticing a similar value from writing out the thoughts about it instead, or doing Focusing on some felt-sense of urgency, or giving space to internal parts to talk to each other. These can all provide different benefits, but what they have in common is that they’re time spent actually reviewing, sitting with, and absorbing the reasons why we want to do something, if you do, or why we’ll be glad that it’s done.

Let your inner sim slide forward in time, not just to the activity itself (which will likely make your attention focus on things that are fun to do moment to moment) but also to the post-act feeling, which may motivate you by focusing your attention more on the “completed a challenge” joy.

Suggestion 3: Prioritize smaller steps.

This planning/prioritizing stage can be a lengthy process or a nearly instantaneous one. Many have had the experience of feeling like they want to do something, or should do something, perfectly visualize what it would take to do it, but are simply/just unable to move their limbs.

In an extreme version of this, I heard from someone who reported that they needed to charge their phone, and the charger was even in reach, but the actual act of moving to get the charger felt insurmountable.

As a form of “break the task down into smaller steps,” I also suggest “prioritize smaller steps.” Don’t just break the task down into “turn off TV, get up, go to the computer, open email, select first unanswered email,” etc. That can be helpful sometimes, particularly for complex or obscure problems like research projects or bureaucratic paperwork, but it’s not priming the motivation generator.

Instead, also focus on how each step is itself valuable to you. You know the positive feelings you get sometimes when you stand up after being prone for a long time? You know how being in a sitting position for too long is bad for health? Let your attention focus on those things, and prioritize the task of just getting up first. You know that feeling of pleasure you get when you check something off a list, or remember that you made some progress on a task today? Focus on those feelings, and prioritize just opening the email and reading it if you haven’t, or starting the draft if you haven’t.

In other words, seek the positive valence attached to each step of an activity and focus on those to motivate you from one step to the next. If you’re having trouble feeling anything while doing this, note what your body sensations are as a default; if you feel numb in general, it’s going to be hard to feel motivated to do anything, since you won’t have an associated felt-sense (this is likely why depression and low-motivation are so correlated) and thus none of the things you imagine will help you reach the activation threshold.

In that case, do something to help you get re-embodied. For some people this is as simple as dancing; put on some music that makes you move, or just notice your body and feel your feet and sway your limbs. For others it means grounding yourself in your breathing or heartbeat, and expand outward from there.

Cheat Codes

I’m labeling these “cheats” without malice or judgment, simply because I have no plausible explanation for them beyond “they trick your brain into being in another state.” Even the word trick feels perhaps too judgmental, as it assumes that any other state you could change to needs to have some difficult or explicable process. Maybe it doesn’t/shouldn’t, and in any case, it seems worth noting these strategies in case they’re helpful, or to flag them as interesting things to explore in case others have models information to share about why they work they way they do.

Music: The right music can motivate you to do all sorts of stuff. This likely is related to the positive-valence thing; music can often shift your emotional state, and this is a valuable tool in many cases, such as when you want to exercise, or clean the house, or do something that feels scary. I claim a big part of this comes from narrative power, particularly as music from movies or games or anime seem unusually effective, but it’s not exclusive to those.

It’s hard to shift entirely from one emotional mood to a completely different one, so if this seems like it doesn’t work for you, one piece of further advice I have on this is to pick a song that evokes an emotional frame that’s in the direction you want to go while still being in the venn diagram of the one you feel. So if you’re sad, and you know playing a super bubbly, energetic, positive song just makes you feel worse, or can’t reach you at all… instead try a song that’s at least melancholy, but with a hopeful or nostalgic or bittersweet tinge to it.

Totems: Objects can change your mood too; clothing, teddy bears, pictures taped to your monitor, etc. Anything that alters or changes your state of mind can be a valuable tool for enhancing executive function. If you’re having trouble typing in that journal app you keep insisting to yourself you’re going to do, but wearing a bathrobe and writing in a physical book with a quill by candlelight seems more appealing to you, then go for it.

Frames: I claim that frames are, quite possibly, the most powerful and ubiquitous psychotechnology there is, but that’s a claim for a bigger post than this. Meanwhile, my assertion here is that they’re not just very powerful for motivation, but also possibly very dangerous if used in the “wrong way.” There are often many different frames that people can use to recontextualize or view the things they “have” or want to do, and it’s worth noting when the narrative you’re telling yourself isn’t working so you can explore what others might feel more true or reach that positive valence tipping point.

An easy example of this is how many people manage to work quite hard for long periods of time, day after day, because they believe it will advance their career if they do, compared to those who believe they’re working on something vitally important to the world or their values, compared to those who do because they believe there are people directly relying on them to. These are all things that can motivate different people in different ways, whether true or not… and also, all three can be true, but which one someone’s attention naturally focuses on in any given moment might not be the most motivating one.

Gamification: Adding an extra layer of incentives or accountability can be fairly motivating for many people, and may seem less of a cheat, since it can be obvious why it works, but there are some forms of this that still feel “mysterious” to me, such as the idea of a “winning streak” that many apps use to keep people motivated to keep doing something day after day without missing one, even with no extra tangible reward. For many people, being rewarded with recognition of our effort, even if it’s just pixels on a screen from a computerized process, can still affect our expected emotional valence enough that it can tip us over the motivation threshold when we might not otherwise do the thing.

Further Resources

The next parts of this series will cover the other 6 aspects of Executive Function:

Part 2: Emotional Control, Self Monitoring, Impulse Control

Part 3: Working Memory, Organization, Flexible Thinking

And there’s a video I’d recommend if you’re looking for another take on Executive Function. It breaks it down into three areas of the brain:

  1. Frontal-Striatal Circuit: Response suppression, Freedom from distraction, working memory, organization, planning. “What” network.
  2. Frontal-Cerebellar Circuit: Motor Coordination, timing/timeliness, “When” network.
  3. Frontal-Limbic Circuit: Emotional Dysfunction, Motivation deficits, hyper-impulsivity, aggression. “Why” network.

And offers its own list of practical advice with some overlap:

  • Reinforce yourself with rewards
  • Use verbal self-encouragement
  • Take 10 minute breaks between tasks
  • Frequent 3 minutes of relaxation/meditation throughout day
  • Visualize future benefits
  • Engage in routine exercise
  • Drink sugary drinks to keep your mental energy up

Journaling 101

I often get asked what the most things valuable things people can do to improve their mental health are, and while it’s really hard to give a general answer to that sort of thing, what immediately always pops into my mind is journaling.

Journaling is almost the physical exercise of the mental health world; something uncomplicated and risk free that most people would benefit from doing more of. The reason it’s not is that physical exercise is also the physical exercise of the mental health world.

But there more similarities; even just a little bit tends to be significantly better than none, the kind you do doesn’t truly matter that much, and people are more likely to do it if they don’t have an expectation that there’s one specific kind (that they don’t like) that they’re supposed to do.

Personally, I hate running, but I love to swim. I get bored with stationary bikes or lifting weights unless I’m watching anime at the same time, but VR has been a fantastic way to get your heart pumping while having fun.

Similarly, I want people to know what their options are, so that when people think “maybe I should try journaling,” or are told to by their therapist,  they know there are a variety of different ways to do it, and know not give up just because the first they try doesn’t feel good.

So here’s a handful of ways to journal that clients have found helpful:

  1. Recounting Your Day

This is the most basic and stereotypical form of journaling, where you just write out what happened that day that was noteworthy, and maybe some thoughts or questions or worries that came up. Nothing wrong with it, but many find it a difficult or boring.

2. Stream of Consciousness

Less structured than the previous form of journaling, this is literally just writing whatever comes to mind.  It doesn’t matter if it feels “relevant” or “important” at all, it could be fiction, it could be pure sensory input, it could be anything. It’s just about creating space to sit with your thoughts and let them flow. You might be surprised at what comes out.

3. Scaling Your Day

This is the minimal viable product for journaling. Scaling how your day felt, either -5 to 5, or 0 to 10, with the lowest being “genuinely wanted to die” and the highest being being “life felt perfect,” can be useful even if you don’t accompany the number with any words (although you always can, of course). It sets a baseline that can be useful when you want to check if thigs start to change in a positive or negative direction, and also can be valuable for noticing large spikes up or down compared to previous days, which are sometimes hard to notice in the moment. But again, the value of even this sort of journaling can come from simply taking the moment to reflect on your day.

4. Gratitude Journaling

This is another really popular and common form of journaling that often surprises people with how much value they get out of it. You can write about people in your life that you’re grateful for, or things about yourself, or things in the world like puppies and books, or all of the above. You can do a simple 3 bullet list every morning, or write a paragraph about one thing every night. The idea is to generally spend more time thinking about positive things.

5. Letter to Future You

Many people have found that framing their writing as if to someone specific often unblocks the process for them, whether it’s to explain some technical bit of knowledge or just to explore their own thoughts and feelings. Writing your journal as a series of letters for the next-day-you can be valuable in this way, but also helps frame the content in a useful way too; what do you want to yourself to remember tomorrow? Not in a “to do list” way, though obviously you can include that stuff if you want. This is more about what sorts of emotional states you want future you to retain, and it can lead to some interesting chains between the various yous throughout your week or month as the conversation baton is passed along one day to the next.

There are plenty of other journaling methods, but this is the shortlist that I tend to recommend to clients, and usually they’ll find at least one of them appealing and valuable. Basic habit setting advice applies; set an alarm, keep your journal by your bed (or just use a phone if that’s easier), accountability apps, etc. If you have a romantic partner, maybe it’s something you can do together.  If you’re on twitter, try tweeting the things you’re grateful for and see how it feels.

Also, don’t feel a need to actually write if you hate writing or typing; Even just talking out loud to yourself is better than nothing, and definitely adds an extra element to “letter to future you.”

You’re Probably Underestimating How Hard Good Communication Is

People talk about “Public Speaking” or “Oration” as skills, and they are. We call people “gifted communicators” if they’re generally skilled at conveying complex information or ideas in ways that even those without topical expertise will understand. 

We get, on some level, that communication can be hard. But the above is mainly about one-directional communication. It’s what you’re engaging in when you write blog or social media post, when you’re speaking at conferences or in a classroom or for a Youtube video. It’s not what people engage in day to day with their friends and family and coworkers, which is more two-directional communication.

And yet we don’t have a word for “two-dimensional communication skill,” the way we do “Oration,” or words for people who are really good at it. We might say someone is a “good listener” if they can do the other half of it, and there are some professions that good two-dimensional communication is implicitly bundled with, such as mediators or therapists, but neither is specifically skilled in doing the everyday thing.

So first let’s break this “two-directional communication” thing down. What does it actually take to be good at communicating like this? What subskills does it involve? 

1) Listening to the words people actually say, also known as digital communication.

2) Holding that separate from the implications that went unsaid, but may be informed by body language, tone, expression, etc, also known as analogue communication.

3) Evaluating which of those implications are intended given context rather than the result of your heuristics, cached expectations, typical-mind, and general knowledge you take for granted.

4) Checking your evaluation of implications before taking them for granted as true or reacting to them.

This is what it means to be a good listener. Not in the “you let me talk for a long time and were supportive” sense, but strictly as a matter of whether you managed to accurately take in the information communicated without missing signal or adding noise.

The second half of being a good communicator involves:

5) Communicating your ideas clearly, with as little lost between the concepts you have in mind and the words you use to express them.

6) Being aware of what your words will imply, both to the individuals you’re speaking to and to the average person of the same demographics.

7) Being aware of what your body language, tone, expression, and the context you’re saying it will imply. 

8) Adding extra caveats and clarifications  to account for the above as best you can.

Each of these can be broken down further, but as the baseline these are all extremely important. And yet very few people are great at all of them. let alone consistently able to do each well at all times.

I think this is important both as a signpost for what people should strive to do, as a humility check against people who take for granted that they’re communicating well while failing at one or more of the above, and last but not least, as something that should be acknowledged more often in good faith conversations, particularly if things start to go awry.

Good communication is harder than we collectively think, and effective two-directional communication is one of those skills we often take for granted that we’re at least decent at because we engage in it all the time, and usually get by just fine. But this leaves us less prepared for when we’re in a situation where we or others fail at one of the above skills, in which case it’s good to have not just a bit more awareness of why we fail, but humility that it’s always a two-way street.

Trust vs Trust

The word “Trust” was never quite operationalized as well as it should have been in society, and as a result it can now be used to mean two rather different things.

The first form trust takes is probably the most commonly understood use of the word; expecting someone to behave in a way that’s cooperative or fair. If you trust someone enough, you may enter into a business partnership with them or let them borrow your belongings or vouch for them to friends or colleagues. This trust can be broken, of course, if they start to act in ways other than what you expect them to, particularly if they start to defect from agreements. It is, ultimately, about how well you can model their ability to act prosocially.

The second form trust takes is much rarer, and yet somehow feels to me more like the “true” meaning of the word. It’s a level of trust that’s related to your confidence in someone’s character, sometimes despite their actions. It’s not about predicting what they’ll do in any given situation, but rather predicting the arc that their actions will take over a long enough timeline; trusting them, essentially, to error correct.

This may seem like it has the same outcomes, like if you trust them enough in this way you’d still be okay with lending them something, but it’s far less reliant on game theory or incentives, and far more about what you believe about what kind of person they are. In the first case, if the person you trust does not give back what you lent them, your trust is broken. In the second case, if they do not give back what you lent them, your trust endures, because your expectation is that their character is one who had a good reason not to give it back. This doesn’t require a resolution; it’s baked into the decision to lend them the thing itself, as you’d expect yourself not to regret lending it to them if you had all available future information, and are thus okay with not having that information.

That’s why, in this second sense, “Trust” really only has meaning if it’s applicable to situations where you might normally trust someone less or be unsure of them. If you can always know what someone does and why, your trust of them lacks the real power of the second definition. It’s only when someone is able to act without your knowledge, or acts in ways that you don’t understand, or even that seem like they harm you, that your “true” trust in them is tested, and either justified or not.

Because it can be unjustified. People can trust others in this “true” sense and still be wrong, and be hurt as a result. I think this is why it’s such a rare form of trust, in the end; it’s a more vulnerable stance to take, the same way an expression of love is different from an explicit commitment.

Which ultimately makes this trust about you as much as others. Whether you want to be the kind of person who trusts others to that degree or not is an orientation to vulnerability, and the deeper connections that can result from it. It makes sense not to grant it too often, but to never grant it at all would indicate either an inhibition of true connection, or a paucity of good friends.

Memorization Matters

When I was young I and others I knew used to deride “memorization tests.” In a world where being able to learn facts is easier and faster than it’s ever been, it was hard to imagine why being able to recite trivia for a test would ever be useful. And since structured education is an abysmal way to learn in general, it took me a while to distinguish the poor pedagogy from the value of actually having memorized knowledge of things, even in the Information Age:

1) Synthesizing existing knowledge is usually necessary to gain new insights about the world. It seems obvious when stated clearly, but pay attention to how often people feel like they have new or interesting ideas, only to discover that they’ve already been had by others or are invalidated by some facts they didn’t know. Knowledge builds on knowledge; the more you have, the more likely you are to generate more.

2) Memorized information saves time, the value of which is often underestimated. People spend a lot of time trying to remember things, arguing about what facts are true (often for inane pop-culture info), and even a 10 second google search adds up if you do it enough, and can break flow of thought and productivity. Personally, I spend hours every week researching stuff for my story that someone with more in-depth physics, history, biochemistry, etc education would just know and be able to utilize to write.

3) Having a large body of true knowledge is VITAL for good information hygiene. Lack of knowledge is a big part of what makes up “gullibility.” When you hear an assertion about reality, your mind often automatically feels something, whether it’s skepticism, plausibility, confidence, or just uncertainty, that weird “back and forth” feeling as your brain offers up arguments or data or comparisons for and against.

The more true facts you actually know, the better calibrated your skepticism of false claims will be, and the more likely you are to actually investigate things that are presented as true when you think they’re not, or presented as false when you think they’re true.

To be clear, when I talk about memorized facts, I mostly am referring to actual understanding, not just being able to say the right combination of noises by rote. Memorizing a list of invention names doesn’t help you create new inventions, being able to recite atoms doesn’t help you understand each one’s properties, and new information would just get absorbed if you don’t understand what you’ve memorized enough for there to be some interaction with it. But once in a while even basic memorized trivia like names and dates are valuable for their own sake too.

I don’t mean to counterswing into an opposite extreme. Simple facts are no substitution for critical thinking or creativity, and knowing how to gather good information is also a very important skill. But the knowledge you have stored is what informs your thoughts day to day, and often affects whether you will know to start gathering more when faced with new info of dubious quality.

Ontology 101

Learning new words late in life (by which I here mean “in my 30s”) is interesting, because most of the time it’s a word that’s just another version of a word I already know with some subtle difference, or a mashing of two concepts that might be useful to have mashed together once in a while. Truly new concepts become rarer the older and more educated someone is, but as faulty as words are for communicating concepts, if you have no word for a concept then it becomes much harder to think about and discuss, a bit like having to rebuild chair every time you want to sit on it, or only being able to direct people to a location by describing landmarks.

A couple years ago I had no idea what “ontology” actually meant, despite feeling like I was hearing people say it all the time. Once I did I started using it all the time too. Okay not actually, maybe a few times a month , but that still feels like a meaningful jump given I had no word to cleanly represent what it meant before! So here’s me explaining it in a way I hope will help others do so too.

The problem was, every time I saw the word used, it seemed like it could be removed from a sentence and the sentence’s meaning wouldn’t change. All the definitions I read appeared to just mash words together in a way that made sense, but didn’t mean anything. For example, Wikipedia says:

“The branch of philosophy that studies concepts such as existence, being, becoming, and reality. It includes the questions of how entities are grouped into basic categories and which of these entities exist on the most fundamental level.”

This may or may not be a great definition, but it does little to actually tell people how to use the word “ontology” in any other context, or how it can be usefully applied to confusions or conversations.

What I found most helpful, ultimately, was considering the question “Do winged horses exist?”

This a question of ontology, because depending on how we define “exist” the answer might be “Probably not, there’s no evidence of any horses ever having wings,” or it might be “Yes, I read about them all the time in fiction, in contrast to flanglezoppers, which is a sound I just made that has no meaning.”

So ontology is the study and specification of what we mean when we say “real.” But it’s also about categorization; a more useful definition of ontology I came across is: An adjective signifying a relation to subjective models.

What does “a relation to subjective models” mean? Well, all ways of thinking of objects, for example, are subjective models; reality at its most basic level is absurdly fine-grained, far too detailed for us to understand or easily talk about. So we focus on emergent phenomena that are much easier to interface with, even if they’re not as precise. For example, we can talk about a country’s hundreds of millions of individuals, with their own personal goals and desires and preferences, and that can be useful. Or we can just say “The USA wants X” and it’s understood to mean something like “a meaningful chunk of the population” or “the government.” On the flip side, even an individual is not monolithic in their desires, and can be further broken down into subagents that might want competing things, like Freedom vs Security.

So it can be very valuable to know what model/map/layer you’re organizing concepts on, as well as what level your conversation partner is, to focus discussions. I wrote a brief conversation that shows what this looks like:

The philosophy teacher hands his student a pencil. “Describe this to me as if I was blind.”

The student thinks he’s clever, so says, “Well, it’s a collection of atoms, probably mostly carbon and graphite, with some rubber molecules—”

The teacher flicks the student’s ear, causing him to wince. “You’re in the wrong ontology. What you described could be a lot of different things, it could have been a lubricated piece of coal for all I knew. Describe it in a way that makes its distinctly observable parts plain to me.”

“Um. It’s a core of graphite wrapped in wood, with a piece of rubber on the end?”

“Better. Now switch the ontological frame to the functional parts.”

“It… has a writing part that’s at one end, and it has an erasing part at the other, and it has a holding part between them?”

“Excellent. Now tell me about it from the ontology of fundamental particles…”

There may be no end to ontological frames that you can use to examine and organize reality; animals can be classified by environmental preference or limb count or diet, stories by genre or structure or perspective, food by flavor or culture or substance.  Some are more broadly useful than others, but being able to swap ontological frames of how concepts are related and at what complexity level of “reality” they emerge, can be very valuable for the whole practice of using maps, frames, lenses, etc in a strategic way.

Classy Agency

[Epistemic status: still figuring things out. Like most discussion of class or society, this is a somewhat reductive view on categories of people and their thoughts/preferences/behaviors. I’m trying to figure out and point to broad trends, not prescribe what should be, or what has to be, for any given person.]

The relationship between class and agency has been really interesting to poke into as a way of exploring both. I’ve been working on developing a new lens on this in relation to my actions and what perspectives/generators they’re coming from, and it seems to have uncovered some assumptions/blind spots.

Starting to notice what class my actions would signal has lead to a feeling of constraint on what I could actually do to solve problems around me. The explicit version of an inexplicit chain of thought I had today would be something like “If I want to test this brush before I buy it, the obvious thing to do is just lay my jacket out on the floor and test how good it is at getting dust off.” Which totally works, assuming you don’t care what strangers in a store who you’ll probably never meet again think of you.

And that lack of care can be crucial to actually getting things done sometimes. When you boil it down, about a third of what “having agency” ends up requiring in the world includes the willingness to break social norms that others would be too afraid of censure or judgement to breach. This is a big part of why Quest Day is so successful for students at the end of SPARC or ESPR; it creates an atmosphere that gives license to do things that are, in essence, “weird,” such as walking up to strangers and gathering data on unusual questions, putting on an impromptu improv show at a local pub, or asking a cab driver to let you put on a blindfold and get dropped off at a random location.  Weirdness isn’t necessary in many cases where showing agency is what gets something done, but it can’t be an impediment if the thing you’re prioritizing is actually to Do The Thing.

But there are costs to ignoring some Chesterton Fences around others’ comfort that someone blind or uninterested in class or status is much more ready to pay. And this means more than just how people judge you; it includes the comfort of those associated with you. Being able to make that trade can be vital for someone who has no other options in getting something difficult done, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it, if you judge the tradeoff too high.  you can have more than one consideration while prioritizing, and there’s a fine line between determination and tunnel-vision, and if you’re used to doing things with low resources, then you might get stuck in a local maximum when your context has changed.

High class people don’t have this problem, because they operate with fewer constraints, and have socially supported ways of exercising agency. This isn’t to say that all of them do; I’m not actually sure which classes are most or least “agentic,” and maybe the framing itself is still too entangled in what it means to enact your will on the world.

But it seems more clear to me now how, when high class individuals exercise agency, it looks different than what lower or middle class people are used to; primarily, it’s through delegating tasks to others. My friend Lulie made the analogy of limbs as an extension of the self in enacting agency in the world, and obvious though it seems in retrospect, it unlocked a whole cascade of realizations.

Giovanni makes a similar argument in my story at one point, but at the time I wrote it more as a method to achieve difficult goals, not ways-of-being. How well you delegate suddenly doesn’t just seem a matter of efficiency; it’s like an entirely different theory of self.  When you legitimately think of yourself as not just your body, but the resources at your command, your agency is enacted through everyone who does what you want them to, for whatever reason you give them to do it.

From many low or middle-class perspectives, this can look like indolence, sloth, parasitism, etc. Part of this is because being low-resourced develops habits that skew against relying on others, but I think another part is because bodily skills feel intrinsic and heroic, while social skills seem (and in the case of things like money, often are) transferrable, which is bucketed with concepts like “unearned” or “vulnerable.” The average skilled laborer could get dropped naked onto a deserted island and maybe build themselves a shelter, but the average elite raised with a silver spoon would be helpless.

Except that’s clearly a challenge biased toward one set of skills. Social skills may be more contextually fragile, but they’re also immensely more powerful in a world as interconnected as ours; success through skills useful in the state of nature may be a more deep-seated value evaluators, the same way muscles do, but social muscles are no less real for being invisible.

(This is probably in part reinforced by fiction. Heroes (both in life and in stories) use charisma all the time to talk their way out of problems, but most fiction doesn’t turn those sorts of actions into interesting plots resolutions outside of a few narrow situations like rousing speeches or duplicity. This is largely because a) most writers are themselves unused to seeing these dynamics play out, and b) most readers wouldn’t find the challenges of someone in this position as relatable or aspirational. By and large, people want to be rich and socially respected to *avoid* conflict and hardship in life, not to face new types.)

What’s left, then? Well, there’s also general attitude of what agency “looks like” and what it says about the person.

One of the major marks of an “Honor Culture” is that how you’re perceived has actual effects on how you’re treated. The best example of this is what’s considered an appropriate response when someone gets insulted. In most “modern, progressive, civilized” societies, ignoring insults is a sign of maturity and status; it indicates that you’re secure enough in your life and sense of self to be utterly unconcerned by what someone else thinks of you. But in Honor Culture it’s a sign of weakness, because reputation often means as much, if not more, than resources. If being perceived as weak invites attack, then you have to show strength at all times.

Similarly, I think taking action to solve one’s own problems seems intrinsically to be a lower class act by those in the upper classes. For the leisure classes, security is taken for granted, and so any actions taken are at most a hobby or interest, not something you get invested in. In more cut-throat setting, being invested is a sign of vulnerability; if you care about something besides your wealth, you may be willing to trade wealth for it at disproportionate rates.

In addition, not having someone at hand to do something for you could indicate a lack of sufficient security itself. Taking on the task of repairing an out of date automobile is impressive if it’s a choice, but it doesn’t signal competence at anything that “matters,” because the moment you actually need a car to be fixed, it’s almost always a better use of your time to hire someone else to do it for you.

To lower and middle class people, being personally dependable and resourceful in this way is an attractive and admirable trait, but if it is the only way you can get something done, it seems on net a weakness.

This is all still a series of tentative hypotheses, but they feel like the start of a new generator. Meanwhile the class-lens feels much clearer, and the self-reflective part of it feels less restricting; instead it’s more like there’s new space for “me” to stretch into, if I choose to.

Epistemically Honest Reassurance

There’s a problem I’ve been seeing a lot since I started doing couple’s counseling with rationalists: we are, on the whole, uncomfortable with lying, particularly to people we care about, even if it’s for a good cause. Being put in a position where someone asks you to lie to them can feel like a gear grinding in the head, or a disembodying from your true self, or a sense of suddenly walking on eggshells.

Not just rationalists feel this way, of course, but the following exchange is nearly ubiquitous in normal romantic culture:

“Do you think [bad thing will happen]?”

“Of course not, everything will be fine.”

On an intellectual level, the person asking often knows that their partner can’t actually promise this. But for many people, particularly in times of crisis, words to the effect of “Everything will be fine” are comforting, and all they’re really asking for in that moment is emotional reassurance. There’s nothing wrong with that, any more than there is a desire for aspirin when you have a headache.

Meanwhile, this is what might happen for rationalists:

“I’m scared of [bad thing happening].”

“Well, there’s a chance that it does, of course, but on net it doesn’t seem likely.”

or, if it does seem likely:

“Well… [brain lock]… Uh… [something meant to be reassuring but undermined by tone and affect].”

And sometimes the issue isn’t even about probabilities at all:

“Have I gained weight/does this make me look fat?”

“Are we going to be together forever?”

“Do you think they’re more attractive than I am?”

“Does it bother you when I get really sad for no reason?”

Again, it’s taken as the default in general romantic culture that what matters in responses are that they are reassuring, not that they’re true. Most people in normal culture would react with indignant outrage on their friend’s behalf if told that a spouse gave an honest answer to any of the above that reaffirmed the insecurity.

And again, even for other rationalists, the person asking may know that they’re putting their partner in a double bind, but the thing they want is not actually a “comforting lie.” Many people, particularly rationalists, really appreciate a partner who will be scrupulously honest with them.

But what still matters more than the object-level question is answering the implicit query:

“[I’m feeling insecure; do I have reason to be?]”

Which is why it might help to see the desire for verbal reassurance as similar to the desire for a hug; it’s about the sensation and the signal, and those can be provided without saying anything that feels false.

How Do?

First, its important to reiterate that this is meant to be a way to reassure someone who is having a bad time, not a method of “fixing” underlying insecurities. Everyone needs a hug now and then, and sometimes all you can do for a cold is pop some aspirin. If there seems like a deeper issue at play then resolving that requires more in-depth discussion than this article is going to cover.

Second, I am not suggesting platitudes. If you can’t think of something both honest and reassuring to say, that’s a separate problem; if your partner wants reassurance that you love them or are committed to the relationship, and you can’t give that, don’t make it seem otherwise.

Third, remember to be ready to reverse all advice. Some people do actually want to be told “Yes, that makes you look fat.” But hopefully you will learn this through the relationship itself, and often even in those cases people don’t just want radical honesty, but also reassurance and understanding; this article is trying to help those who have already tried addressing the object-level and found their partner wasn’t reassured, without ignoring the possibility that they did in fact want object-level reassurance about improbability and wanted more emotional reassurance.

Speaking of which… a related problem is the one where people are unsure if their partner wants to “vent” or “problem solve,” and this post has advice on that which is very relevant here too.

…my answer is almost always “I want to understand my problem better, feel understood, and be reassured that the people important to me agree that this is a real problem, or at least that they support me in general. If understanding itself doesn’t solve the problem I will want to problem solve after I understand it”.

Similarly, people expressing insecurity through unanswerable questions often want to feel understood, and reassured, and maybe then also problem solve. That might look something like:

Am I getting fat?

What’s making you think that?

I no longer fit into these pants.

I’m sorry, I know you like those pants. I think you look great, but maybe we can find another pair you might like as much?

But that’s a nuanced and context dependent maneuver, not a one-size-fits-all password. The point of this post is to highlight to those who ask questions like this why their partner might have trouble answering them, and help those who are asked these questions understand what’s really being asked for is not always an answer to what’s being asked.

The root generator you want to tap into here is the one that creates your own optimism. What do you feel good/safe/confident about that you can share with your partner? What truth about yourself or your relationship do you want them to take comfort from?

“Do you think I’m going to get long COVID?”

“Either way, I’m here for you. We’ll get through it together.”

“Are you attracted to them?”

“Not the way I am you. You’re the only one I want to be with.”

“Do you think we’re going to make it through this?”

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m with you because I believe in us.”

“I hate how depressed I get all the time. I feel like I’m never going to be ‘normal.’”

“I know that must be frustrating, but I want you to know that I love you, and feel so lucky to be with you.”

And so on. For that last one, conversely, a bold prediction like “Don’t worry, I’m sure you will someday” could be counterproductive even in normal romantic culture. Some might want that object-level reassurance, but for others it would be missing the point;  the actual thing they want is, again, to know that your love and support isn’t dependent on that happening.

Remember, try to find words that are true for you and feel right for your partner, and stay curious about what your partner is actually seeking in those situations; it may change over time, or be different in one context vs another. Then, once the moment is past, talk to them about it! Ask them what they felt when they asked something, what they meant by it, how your response was, what they would like to hear more of or less of.

There are also of course physical things you can and should do as well; touch is important for comfort and reassurance, as are gifts and acts of service. If you own a scale and your partner asks “Have I gained weight,” there are some pretty good ways to show that you find your partner attractive, and that question is a decent signal that you should do them more often.

Emotional/IFS Integration 102

(This is going to be another brief + tips oriented review of IFS concepts; be sure to read the 101 post if you’re totally new to this)

Not all parts that can exist inside you are naturally there or equally fleshed out. Circumstances in life will strengthen one or another, but like the saying about the two wolves inside us, you can also intentionally “feed” specific parts to make them stronger, and there’s one part in particular that your whole system will benefit from having strong.

Some call it the Ideal Parent Figure, others the Ideal Future Self, Inner Champion, Inner Mentor, etc. By some interpretations these could be considered “guides” or “critters” or “voices” rather than parts, in that they may speak to you but not want to act on their own, but that might vary per person. Additionally, their roles are subtly different based on the internal system they’re part of, but are still broadly those of Mediator, Comforter, and Encourager, whose primary value is their endless compassion for you and your parts.

Self-compassion is crucial to IFS, not as a prerequisite but as the primary ingredient for true acceptance of your parts/emotions, productive forgiveness for your mistakes, and a dignity that no one and nothing in life can take away from you. When you unconditionally love yourself, all sorts of healing and growth become possible, and you can create much stronger boundaries between yourself and harm.

Developing and feeding these inner parts can look similar, but experimentation can help find which works best for you. For this post I’ll just give brief advice for the first two:

Ideal Parent Figure is often a source of compassionate mediation between your parts. It helps you bring the Exiles in from the cold, soothe Anxiety’s fear of being ignored, understand Anger’s justifications, relax Firefighters’ vigilance, etc. Those who had abusive or distant parents often don’t know where to start with constructing this, unless they’re lucky enough to have met a friend’s parent or other mentor in their life who can serve as a model. Fictional characters can work too; Mr. Rogers is an example of someone widely considered a “platonic parental figure,” and many have found comfort and self-compassion by internalizing his “voice” and perspective to help replace some of the more harmful self-talk and their own (often well intentioned) imperfect parents left them with. You can also use this Protocol to help visualize what having a part like this could actually look like.

Ideal Future Self in many internal systems (my own included) serves identical purposes to the IPF; it’s particularly useful for those who had no sense of “parents” as a distinct emotional category, positive or negative, by instead drawing directly on your aspirations. Constructing and feeding your Ideal Future Self is done by thinking over and writing out what a version of you with all the skill and wisdom that you hope to develop would say if they were around and freely able to give it to you, all in a compassionate way. Your ideal self would not judge any shortcomings and failings you have, because they remember your journey and all the difficulties you struggled with along the way. They serve less often as the mediator for your other parts (those without “parent” as emotional category are more likely to act as their own internal mediator), and more a source of encouragement for you; they believe in you, and care about you, and are waiting for you, no matter how long it takes. This means that you can also develop them by writing to your past self, and telling them what you wish someone had told you, particularly in your darkest moments. Like with the IPF, it can often be very healing to deliberately imagine yourself hugging your past self as you deliver the words, and similarly imagine your future self using soothing touch as they comfort and encourages you.

Psychologically, whatever this part is called, it acts as a container for all the things you intellectually might believe, but still have trouble emotionally accessing at all times, particularly at your low points.  Samples of the sorts of things they would often say include:

  • “You don’t have to be perfect to deserve love and kindness.”
  • “I know it’s hard, but I’m proud of the progress you’re making.”
  • “There’s nothing wrong with your wants/feelings, even if they’re confusing.”
  • “You made a mistake, but it doesn’t have to define you.”
  • “You can get through this. I believe in you.”
  • “It’s okay to hurt. I’m here. We’ll get through this together.”

It’s okay if you don’t believe these just yet, or if there are other voices shouting the opposite. The purpose of taking time to better build up these models and strengthen these parts is to help make these feel more real, particularly if you have memories of times they did feel true and spend time meditating on those experiences.

Once these parts are solid enough, they make practically every other aspect of emotional integration easier. It’s quite literally like having a perfect ally travel everywhere with you, ready and waiting to step in and help you whenever you need a steadying hand and comforting word.

(For further reading, here’s a good overview for why self-love and self-compassion is so powerful, with more good resources at the end.)