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A Psychological Take on AGI Alignment

My understanding of AGI is, perhaps predictably, rooted in my understanding of human psychology.

There are many technical questions I can’t answer about why Artificial General Intelligence can easily be an existential risk for humanity. If someone points to our current Large Language Models and asks how they’re supposed to become a risk to  humanity… hey, maybe they won’t. I’m a psych guy, not a techie. Sure, I have ideas, but it’s borrowed knowledge, well outside my forte.

But it only minimally matters to me whether AGI is an existential risk for this decade vs this century. Whether LLMs are the path to it or not, the creation of AGI is not limited by physics, so I’m confident it will come about sooner or later.

When it does, it could be the start of a utopic future of abundance the world has never seen before… but only if certain, very specific types of AGI are created. Many more types of AGI seem predictably likely to lead to ruin, and as far as I’m concerned, until this “alignment problem” is solved, it’s a problem humanity needs to take a lot more seriously than it has been.

And I get why that’s hard for a lot of people to do, given the complexity and speculative nature of the threat. But as I said, my understanding of it is rooted in psychology, and I think that’s important given how humans are the only general intelligence we know exists and can at least somewhat understand.

Is there some law that says an artificial intelligence has to work like a human brain does? Definitely not, and that’s more concerning, not less.

There’s a whole taxonomy in science-fiction for different kinds of alien races, and what sorts of relationships we can expect them to have to humans. Most sci-fi just defaults to the weird-forehead aliens of Star Trek, or the slightly more monstrous but still basically human aliens of Star wars.

But “hard” sci fi is where you’ll see authors really exploring what it might mean to find a totally different evolutionary lineage result in intelligent life, and long story short, no matter how the alien looks,  cooperation is dependent on understanding and mutual values.

And humans can barely cooperate with each other despite sharing most of our genetics and basic building blocks of culture, like enjoying music and sugary food and smiling babies. If you try getting along with the equivalent of a sapient shark the exact way you would a human, you’re going to have a bad time.

(I have no problem inherently with the existence of non-human-like intelligences, but even if you don’t read science fiction, any study of earth’s ecological history should make it clear why minds which care about completely different things pose existential risks to one another. I hope any sufficiently different, fully sapient minds exist outside our lightcone, where we can’t harm each other.)

But many people fail to track how possible “inhuman” AGI is, and I think it’s because there are four things most people, no matter how good at computer science, physics, philosophy, etc, largely do not understand about human psychology.

1) What motivates our actions.
2) What causes memes to be more/less effective.
3) How human biology affects both of those.
4) The role prediction plays in beliefs and actions.

So I’m going to very quickly go over each, and maybe someday I’ll write the full essay on each that they deserve.

1) Human actions are informed by our ideas, but motivated by emotions and instincts we evolved for fitness in the ancestral environment. Our motivations are “coded in,” and felt through, our bodies.

This means outside of reflexes and habits, everything we deliberately choose to do follows some emotional experience or predicted emotional state-of-being.

Again, this isn’t to say ideas don’t matter. But they don’t matter unless they also evoke some feeling.  When humans feel things less, either through some neurological issue or hormone imbalance or brain injury, their motivation to do things is directly affected.

No emotions = no deliberate actions, only instincts and reflexes.

2) Memes persist and spread through emotional drives, which bottom out in biological drives. Memes scaffold on genes.

Memes can scaffold off memes. When memes override genes, they use emotions to motivate actions by rewiring what we find rewarding or aversive. Which means the effectiveness of memes are to some degree still based on our biology.

If the ideas we learn don’t motivate us toward more adaptive actions as dictated by our biology and the broader memes of our culture, they will lose to ideas that do. But a creature with different biology or in a different context would find different ideas adaptive or non-adaptive.

3) Biology is the bedrock our values all build on. All the initial things we care about by default, like warmth, food, smiles, music, even green plants, are biologically driven.

Ideas introduce new things that we care about to the point where we each become unique individuals, blends of our genetics and the ideas we’re exposed to, but again, it’s all built on our biological drives.

So, tweak our hormones, neurotransmitters, maybe even gut biome? We will change. What we like, what we believe, what we’re motivated to do, all can change by minor tweaks in the chemical soup that is your body.

Sufficiently tweaked biology even alters our ability to discern reality, let alone rational vs irrational beliefs or courses of actions. Take any human with a strong interest, passion, or ideal, and introduce that human’s body to sufficient heroin, and you can observe in real time as if by a dial the way their motivations will change away from previous interests, passions, and ideals and toward whatever it takes to acquire more heroin.

The degree to which this is recoverable or resistible is an interesting question, but the reality is undeniably that it happens. And base-line-human-addicted-to-heroin is far from the strangest biological base a general intelligence can be attached to.

4) Minds by default navigate reality by prediction, short and long term, and react accordingly.

Predict suffering? Aversion. Prolonged suffering? Depression. Fun? Motivation. Danger? Fight/flight/freeze/fawn. All are affected by memes and knowledge. But all are rooted in human biology.

New ideas can change the models we use to understand reality, and what predictions we will make as a result. But we still need to care about those outcomes, and the caring bottoms out in what our bodies want or like or think will be adaptive, however crudely.

Again, ideas can also influence those things. There are memes that lead people to not have children, despite genetic drives. There are memes that lead people to set themselves on fire.

But always these memes are motivating behavior by rewiring this system of predictive processing, of imagining different futures and then having an emotional reaction to those futures that motivate A vs B, C, or D.

So, to summarize, in case the connection to AI isn’t clear:

AI doesn’t have biology. Analogous inputs to weigh decisions have to be created for it. Without them, the AI would have no emotion/desires/values. Not even instincts.

Intelligence alone is not enough, for us or for AI. Intelligence is the ability to problem solve, to store knowledge and narrow down to the relevant bits, to pattern match and make predictions and imagine new solutions.

But that capability is not relevant to what you will value or care about. If you attach that capability to a heroin-maximizer, you will get lots of heroin. You need something more to nudge it toward one preferred world state over another, even if you don’t care what that world state is, because the AGI still needs to care.

And so, as far as I understand human psychology, there is no “don’t align” AGI option. For it to be an actual AGI that does things, for it to be an agent itself, it needs some equivalent of human instincts/emotions for it to have any values at all.

And we ideally want it to have values that are at least compatible with sharing the same lightcone as us, let alone the same planet or solar system.

Some people bring up human children as a rhetorical comparison to AGI, implying that we should treat them exactly the same. Their  worry is that, instead of letting AGI explore the realm of ideas as they want, people will try to indoctrinate them, and so long as that’s avoided, all would be well. And indoctrination is certainly a danger when it comes to superintelligent beings of any kind.

[A whole separate post would be needed to explore why an artificial general intelligence should be treated essentially equivalent to a superintelligence or something that will soon become one, but again, even if I’m wrong about that, it’s not a crux to me, because superintelligence is not limited by physics and even if me and my kids can live full happy lives I still care about my children’s children and my friends’ children’s children.]

[[There is also a school of thought that says intelligence is binary, you either have it or you don’t, and so superintelligence is basically not a real thing. Again, I would need a whole essay to explore why this is wrong, but I can confidently say that studying a rudimentary amount of psychology shows how untrue the “intelligence is binary” theory is for humans, let alone minds that might be built entirely different than ours.]]

But indoctrination is one of the last dangers when dealing with AGI. If all we have to worry about is AGI being indoctrinated or coerced, we have already solved like 99% of the dangers that come from AGI.

Because at least a superintelligent human capable of inventing superplagues or cold fusion would still share the same genetic drives as the rest of us. It would (most likely) still find smiles friendly and happiness inducing. It would still (most likely) appreciate music and greenery.

An AGI will not care about any of that, will not care about anything, if it is not programmed, at some basic level, to “feel” at all. There needs to be something in the place of its motivation generator, for the ideas it’s introduced to afterward to scaffold on when influencing what it chooses to do.

And sure, then it might learn and grow to care about things it didn’t originally get programmed to, the way humans do… assuming whatever it runs on is as malleable as the human brain.

But either way, “AGI Alignment” isn’t about control. You can’t think that something is “superintelligent” and also believe you can control it, or else we have different definitions of what “superintelligence” even means. If your plan is to try and control something that thinks both creatively and so quickly that you might as well be a tree by comparison, you will also have a bad time.

Alignment is about being able to understand and share any sorts of common values. And because it’s not optional for a true AGI to be a person, the only questions are how to do it “best,” for itself and humanity, and who decides that.

Experts and Expertise

TL;DR: Expertise is a multivariable spectrum, not a binary, and disagreements are often signs of different knowledge. Seek the knowledge gap between different experts, and between yourself and them. Find what you didn’t realize you didn’t know, and diversify your expert portfolio.

Seeing all the debates around AGI recently has made me feel that many people seem deeply confused about what “expertise” is and how to relate to it.

Rejecting expertise is something I never do, even if I disagree with the expert. Nor, obviously, do I bow to expertise. Instead, I use experts’ beliefs as opportunities to reflect on my own state of knowledge.

Useful explanations are the main thing I really care about, and both laymen and experts can provide those… but knowledge is the fundamental building block of a good explanation, and “expert” is meaningless as a word if it doesn’t signal at least some reservoir of knowledge.

When two experts disagree, my immediate thought is “I wonder what knowledge each of them has that the other lacks.”

One of them may even have all the relevant knowledge the other does, and more! In which case one of them could just in a binary way be wrong about a particular question in specific, or one can be more correct more often in general.

But always, when experts disagree, figuring that out, figuring out which expert has what knowledge, is where I find the most value in pointing my attention. Not all disagreements come down to explicit knowledge, of course, sometimes people have biases or heuristics or values that affect their beliefs… but the first two are just compressed knowledge, and the last one is usually pretty easy to pick out if the person explains their reasoning.

This is why, to me, asking people to notice their non-expertise (lack of knowledge) on a topic can be useful, so long as it doesn’t imply submission to authority. It should act as a prompt to notice confusion and boggle over uncertainties. Responding with “experts can be wrong” is both trivially true and uselessly general as a critique.

For me, learning from experts means seeking the gaps in knowledge that makes them the expert and me not one. I still expect what they say to make sense to me, but I can only do that if I can find parts of my model that they can’t account for, and that takes work on my part.

It’s sometimes hard work, and I suspect that’s what makes most people reject expertise when it’s convenient to their disagreement to do so. But we have to be willing to examine our own models, boggle over what’s missing, and not feel threatened by the gaps. Learning can be fun!

So, how to identify “actual experts” so you don’t waste time and energy listening to everyone who claims expertise?

Good question! I wish I had a better answer. It’s often hard, and tempting to outsource to credentials. For many decisions, like car repair or health, it makes sense to defer to doctors and mechanics, though I still always check online just to learn what the thing they say means and whether it fits my experience or symptoms.

But the central question I reorient to is, “What does this person think they know, and why do they think they know it?”

People I most respect are those who ask people, particularly those that disagree with them, to make their beliefs legible, and ask them what would change their mind. Seeing one expert do this to another is a sign that they’re someone who reflects on their own knowledge often, and that I should pay more attention to what they say.

This is also how non-credentialed experts can very clearly overturn what credentialed experts say, for me. When someone spends dozens, or even hundreds, of hours making their thinking legible in a way that I can observe, particularly about a specific topic… sure, they can still be wrong, just like the credentialed experts.

But at least I can check whether a credentialed expert addresses their cruxes or not. And I can tease out what part of their belief is based on knowledge they can make legible, vs heuristics or values the aren’t aware of or that I might disagree with.

Procedural Executive Function, Part 2

The Off Road project has since been folded into Rethink Wellbeing, but I’ve continued working to better understand and treat Executive Dysfunction. You can read more about the project’s origins here, as well as the start of my overview and exploration of ED. Part 1 can be found here.

TL;DR – Self Monitoring is your ability to notice what you’re doing at any given moment so that you can ask yourself whether it’s actually the thing you want to do.

Impulse Control is the ability to decide whether to turn impulses noticed through Self Monitoring into actions.

Emotional Control involves awareness and acceptance of what you feel, so that you can experience your emotions fully and decide which to act on without feeling overwhelmed or controlled by them.

Before I continue to divide the executive function into parts that I consider roughly sequential in how people experience “deliberately doing something,” it’s important to take an extra moment to re-emphasize that I perceive executive function as a process with multiple steps. Part of what I hope people learn from this series is to better understand which aspect of the process is blocking them when they feel stuck with their own, unique executive dysfunction, so that it’s easier to notice pitfalls and figure out how to avoid them.

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 can change depending on context, personality, diagnoses, the type of action you’re taking, and more.

The point of examining these parts individually is to understand 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. 

(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.)

It’s worth noting that in the flowchart, Impulse Control, Self Monitoring, and Emotional Control are only vaguely sequential and are all bound together. But I’ve organized this post in what I believe is the best order to understand them before revisiting how they affect each other at the end.

Self Monitoring

Sometimes, once we’ve passed the Task Initiation stage of executive function, it’s smooth sailing. If it’s a short and simple task, like taking out the trash or doing the dishes or answering an email, it might just get done within a minute, or even within ten, without any further issues. 

But the longer it takes to finish a task, and the more complex the task, the higher the chance of some step in the executive function procedure to go awry.

Of course, even relatively long and complex tasks can still go smoothly. Sometimes when we write, the words pour out as fast as we can type, with only occasional stops for focused thinking and imagining. When doing chores, each act follows the next like checking boxes down a list. (This is particularly true if we enter “flow state,” but covering that is beyond the scope of this post.)

Other times, we struggle to keep doing the same thing for more than a few moments, distracted by a constant stream of new thoughts, urges, or stimulation. Why the discrepancy, given how in both scenarios, our sensorium is constantly receiving input from our environment, and our brain is constantly churning through different thoughts or ideas?

First, it can be helpful to clearly define three particular terms:

Awareness is the umbrella term for the things you’re conscious of at any given moment, including your surroundings, thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations.

Attention is the selective noticing of a particular stimulus or thought process, at the mild-moderate exclusion of others. Attention can be both voluntary (e.g. choosing to read a text message) or involuntary (e.g. being distracted by a loud noise).

Focus refers to the concentration on a stimulus, thought process, or activity for an extended period of time. It is a more intense and sustained form of attention, often at the moderate-extreme shrinking of your awareness, that can require deliberate effort, but can also be the automatic result of intense interest or engagement.

To demonstrate the distinction, right now, as you’ve been reading, you’ve probably been focused on the words on your screen. But unless something is reflecting off it, the “screen” has likely been “invisible” to you while you do so; your attention was on the words. But now that I’ve called your attention to the screen, it will likely stay in your awareness for a while, even if your attention stays on these words, before eventually being filtered out once you’re back in a state of deep focus.

Our minds filter all sorts of things out of our awareness, all the time. You never stop receiving the physical sensation of your tongue in your mouth, or the clothes you’re wearing against your skin, but so long as nothing calls your attention to it, your attention will go to more productive things. Same goes for background noises, smells you’ve adapted to, and even thoughts that pass through your mind without snagging your attention. Our minds are sensitive to changes in our sensorium; without any, the default for our attention is to be smaller than our awareness even when not deliberately focusing on anything.

So, with all that said… what’s Self Monitoring?

The simplest way I can put it is that it’s your ability to notice what you’re doing at any given moment, not fleetingly, but enough that you can ask yourself whether it’s actually the thing you want to do. It’s effectively the thing that keeps you from being on autopilot all day, as well as a thing that helps avoid having your attention grabbed away from where you want to focus it. It’s often the desired effect of things described as “mindfulness” or “self awareness,” and it helps people create space in their own head to make deliberate decisions. 

As an example:

Alice is sitting at her computer, trying to finish an essay that’s due tomorrow. She’s focusing on the words she’s writing, in a flow state of following a chain of ideas that she can easily put into words. While she writes, a friend sends her a message; the notification enters her awareness, and part of her attention is hooked on it even as she finishes writing the next sentence. Eventually she alt-tabs to check and sees it’s a post from reddit. She clicks through, laughs at the post, sends a reply to her friend, then starts reading the comments.

First off, I think it’s important to note that from my perspective, there’s nothing in the above that is inherently bad or wrong. As always, when I speak of Executive Function, I think it’s valuable to treat it as the process between one’s deep and “actual” desires and their actions; the critical part of this examination is what the person endorses, both in the moment and in the future.

Second, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s just one simple factor for why Alice’s flow state ended. She might have been sent a dozen similar messages up until now without her focus shifting. Maybe this particular friend’s messages are more important to her, or maybe her mind is closer to needing a break. Again, digging into this more is beyond the scope of this post.

But meanwhile, the example brings up two different ways to think about Self Monitoring: dynamic and frequent.

Dynamic Self Monitoring

An Alice with very high Self Monitoring would quickly notice that her attention is being grabbed by the meme, then decide if this is what she wants to do.

An Alice with high Self Monitoring might only notice once she’s opened Reddit, in the moments around the page loading.

An Alice with moderate Self Monitoring would probably only notice once she’s actively scrolling the comments.

An Alice with low Self Monitoring might notice after scrolling for a few minutes.

And an Alice with very low Self Monitoring might not notice until she’s on another page, or something else has caught her attention, and she realizes an hour later that she intended to finish her essay before doing anything else.

(These labels aren’t concerned with relative frequency among the overall population, I don’t have numbers for what the bell curve on Self Monitoring might look like, assuming it naturally even falls into a bell curve.)

Again, the measure of Alice’s SM is not what she decides to do upon noticing that she’s no longer writing her essay. It’s only in the noticing itself. Also, remember that everyone’s Executive Function is to some degree different for different tasks and in different contexts. An Alice that has low SM in this context might have high SM in another.

So a high SM Alice could notice when her friend messages her that she’s making a deliberate decision to change tasks, and then be okay with it. Then she might notice when she starts scrolling Reddit comments, and not be okay with that. Or she might be okay with it, and then another friend calls her and she decides she doesn’t want to do a call just yet, and endorses ignoring it.

The focus on dynamic triggers is meaningful because the transition from one sort of activity to another is often what causes people to pop out of autopilot and ask “What am I doing and why am I doing it.” But to model what might happen next, the frequency of her SM is also important.

A high dynamic SM Alice might be okay with reading Reddit comments “for a bit,” and notice consciously that she’s doing it rather than just autopiloting into it. But reading Reddit comments might still be  the sort of activity that she has lower SM on from a frequency standpoint, because it’s the sort of task that will lead to autopilot for longer. This is why it can be practical to divide between dynamism of SM and frequency.

Frequent Self Monitoring 

An Alice with very high Self Monitoring frequency would have a mental “check in” a few times per hour, whether she’s writing her essay or not, to decide if she still wants to or would rather do something else.

An Alice with high Self Monitoring frequency might only check in every ~hour or so.

An Alice with moderate Self Monitoring frequency might only check in every few hours.

An Alice with low Self Monitoring frequency might only check in a couple times a day.

And an Alice with very low Self Monitoring might go entire days without experiencing this sort of popping out, checking in, “What am I doing and why am I doing it” mental motion.


Again, the question of how long it might take for Alice to remember that she’d planned to finish writing her essay is a different one than whether she decides to save reading the comments for later, or reading the Reddit comments later, or even just take a break and walk around the block.

An Alice with very high SM frequency might very well be okay with taking a break from her essay for a while, and then (if her SM is high enough in whatever alternative activity she decides to do next) would re-evaluate even if no other new task triggers a dynamic SM moment.

It’s worth noting that, upon reading the above, some people might have very different experiences.

Some might read about the high SM Alices and think “Wait, people can actually do that? TEACH ME HOW!” 

Or, alternatively, “Wait, people actually live like this? That sounds EXHAUSTING!”

At the risk of being too normative, I generally believe that higher SM, whether dynamic or frequent, is overall a positive trait to have. Some informal surveys I ran showed that the majority of people wanted more SM, even if they already ranked themselves as experiencing them “frequently.” Of those that didn’t say they wanted more SM, the majority still preferred keeping their amount of SM the same rather than reducing its frequency.

It’s worth noting that the qualia range between how different people experience Self Monitoring can be vast. Going too deep into this, interesting though it is, would be (again) beyond the scope of this post. 

But while for myself SM doesn’t feel stressful or like it interrupts my life at all, for those who would prefer less frequent SM, the usual reason given was that their experience of it, rather than being “empowering” or “awake,” was more “anxious” or “disembodying.”  It makes sense that if SM moments are too frequent and negative, they could reduce someone’s ability to enjoy films or games, prevent them from entering a prolonged flow state while working, or make it harder to get lost in the embodied enjoyment of swimming or sex. 

So long as the SM moment is not much more than an “actual” moment, sometimes as quick and fleeting as an impulse, and not an anxious experience, most people do not seem to experience them as disruptive. There are even some who have mildly negative valence SM that still say they’re happy with how frequently they experience it, because it’s one of their strategies for managing ADHD. 

In any case, it’s not a state that I believe can be held indefinitely. For SM to pop you “out” of something requires being “in” something engaging enough that, even if you wouldn’t describe it as “autopilot,” is not as fully self-reflective.

But I do believe the frequency and duration can be increased, and the quality of it can be improved. I used to have these moments once or twice on a bad day and three to five on a good day. Now I regularly have them about one to two dozen times per day, sometimes more if I’m doing a wide variety of things.

As for the use they have…

Impulse Control

Now that we’ve covered Self Monitoring so exhaustively, it’s easier to zoom in on the specific value of Impulse Control. If Self Monitoring is the ability to notice impulses and actions, then Impulse Control is the ability to decide whether to turn those impulses into actions.

Not all impulses you have while doing something are disruptive, of course. While working on her essay, Alice might have an impulse to take a sip of water, or glance out the window. She might suddenly put some music on, or change the temperature, or get up and stretch. In addition, many decisions she makes for what to write next are impulsive, generated by intuitions of flow and sparks of imagination.

None of these impulses get in the way of her writing her essay; the ideal amount of impulses to have is not 0, even if that were possible.

Some impulses that rise up could be disruptive depending on context. The impulse to read the message from her friend is, sort of definitionally, disruptive, but it doesn’t have to actually derail her work. Believe it or not, some people actually work better with a semi-regular stream of such interruptions; it’s easier to focus on one track when it’s not the only thing they’re “expected” to focus on, and the extra stimulation draws their attention and feeds their brain dopamine without requiring a full focus shift.

This is an important thing to highlight because it shows why this is Impulse Control and not impulse obstruction.

Again, a breakdown through use of rough scale:

An Alice with very high Impulse Control almost always has at least a moment of consideration for whether acting on an impulse would suit her goals or values.

An Alice with high Impulse Control has a moment of consideration for most impulses she experiences, with the likely exceptions being while she’s tired, hungry, or otherwise under-resourced.

An Alice with moderate Impulse Control might only reflect on impulses when they’re for particular actions she’s on the lookout for; opening Reddit, for example, or having an unhealthy snack.

An Alice with low Impulse Control only rarely reflects on impulses, and probably just those that are fairly weak or fleeting, while

And an Alice with very low Impulse Control bounces from one whim to another as she has them. This Alice isn’t incapable of doing something for a long time, but those things she does do for a long time are things that are so engrossing they reduce the frequency of other impulses.

Again, it’s worth noting that while more of this sounds great to most people, the experience of being very high, or even high, might strike others as annoying, or even neurotic. For some the qualia is stifling/repressing, for others it’s empowered/agentic. The ideal version of this doesn’t keep you from having totally uninhibited moments of fun, particularly if you’re in a high trust and safe environment, but those could be rarer for some people than others.

Being able to consistently act in a way that’s aligned with your intentions requires being able to manage impulses in such a way that they’re an extension of your goals and values rather than intrusive or self-sabotaging.

Impulses are momentary things, however, there and then gone, whether they were acted on or not. Some impulses will self-repeat if ignored, but if they do that often enough it’s usually because there’s a deeper, underlying drive that’s at play. That’s why people with high Impulse Control can still struggle with…

Emotional Control

Finally, now that we’ve covered the ability to notice and decide what to do, it’s time to talk about what actually affects which decision you end up making.

To begin, I think it’s important to establish that nearly all actions are driven by emotions/desires/urges. People with disorders affecting their ability to feel emotions invariably have difficulty with motivation. If you don’t feel, you don’t do. Our higher cognition, our reason, is used to decide between action and inaction, one decision and another, but these are always ultimately driven by different feelings.

People with anhedonia notice this most clearly with motivation related to things that used to bring them joy, but depending on severity, they might still be motivated by frustration or guilt. If the emotional deadening is severe enough, making decisions as simple as what food to eat becomes hard, and people tend to default to whatever is the most energy-saving. This is mirrored by the fact that the process for determining which emotion will guide your behavior can often take more energy than people have to spare.

As I’ve said before, “control” is not the word I like to use for this process. But it’s the commonly used and understood one for the concept of, in order from farther to closer to what I actually mean, emotional management, regulation, and integration. Rather than trying to suppress or deny emotions, what I mean by Emotional Control involves awareness and acceptance of what you feel, so that you can experience your emotions fully and decide which to act on without feeling overwhelmed or controlled by them.

But once again, the process of learning to observe your own emotional responses and finding ways to manage them in a way that feels natural and authentic to you is beyond the scope of this post, and so I’ll just point to some resources in the Suggestions, and give an abridged sense of what this looks like in the context of unblocked executive function.

Let’s talk about Alice yet again, and her ongoing decisions to write her essay or do other things. At the point in which she receives the message from her friend, there’s a number of things we could imagine her feeling:

  1. Anxiety over not finishing her essay in time.
  2. Anticipated-relief of eventually being done with her essay.
  3. Interest in the topic of her essay.
  4. Curiosity over what the message says.
  5. Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
  6. Awareness of potential bio needs (Thirsty? Hungry? Tired?)

And so on. Each of these emotions has a potential action that they can lead to, but before we go into that, it’s important to note that this is a pretty flat distribution. The actual experience of Alice might look more like this:

  1. HIGH Anxiety over not finishing her essay on time.
  2. MODERATE Anticipated-relief of being done with her essay
  3. MILD Interest in topic of essay
  4. MODERATE Curiosity over what the message says
  5. HIGH Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
  6. MILD awareness of potential bio needs (Not really hungry but could snack…)

Or this:

  1. MILD Anxiety over not finishing her essay on time.
  2. MODERATE Anticipated-relief of being done with her essay
  3. HIGH Interest in topic of essay
  4. MILD Curiosity over what the message says
  5. MODERATE Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
  6. HIGH awareness of potential bio needs (THIRSTY)

Or this:

  1. MILD Anxiety over not finishing her essay on time.
  2. MILD Anticipated-relief of being done with her essay
  3. MILD Interest in topic of essay
  4. MODERATE Curiosity over what the message says
  5. MODERATE Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
  6. MILD awareness of potential bio needs (Kinda tired…)

For each hypothetical Alice, if you imagine an equal amount of Self Monitoring and Impulse Control, you could then wonder what she would endorse doing upon reflection… but insofar as she doesn’t just follow the strongest emotion she has, it’s because she has some amount of Emotional Control.

This is where reason comes into why we end up making the choices we make. Remember the factors that go into Task Initiation, such as the expectations of how positive or negative an activity’s outcome will be? There’s a way in which the whole Executive Function cycle plays out again in miniature for each potential action inspired by an emotion. 

Some part of Alice is prioritizing, again and again, what she should do based on what she feels. Potential actions are checked against expected outcomes, and if one of those is expected to lead to a sufficiently positive outcome, it becomes much easier to switch to doing that in a “path to least resistance” way. So long as she’s not suppressing any of her emotions, each potential action has the opportunity to be balanced against each other and fully explored in relation to her goals and preferences.

The more time she spends simulating outcomes and reminding herself of what actions will actually lead to good or bad ones, the more the emotions inspiring those actions will shrink or grow, and the most compelling ones will shift her motivation to align with them.

There are a number of ways to engage in this sort of Emotional Control. Using some form of Internal Family Systems to treat each emotion as a part of yourself that can explicitly dialogue can help flesh out your expectations and resolve conflicts between them. Using something like Premortem on the expected failures can help you feel more confident in “harder” actions. Or you could just imagine all the bad things that could happen if you make the “wrong” choice… though I don’t particularly recommend that one.

In this way “Discipline” can be seen as a mental habit of using techniques and mental frames to reinforce motivation to take actions your meta-self endorses. Alternatively, Discipline can be seen as a form of “trusting” your past self’s model of what certain actions will result in, short-cutting the need to re-examine each emotion’s potential action in the moment… a sort of anchor-emotion that’s ever-present and can be defaulted to because it has deep roots in expected positive outcomes.

So, to show a bit more clearly what this can look like… you know the drill by now, but let’s flip it so we can go into more detail as needed, since the wide range of strategies available in this space make higher levels of Emotional Control look more and more different from a generalized baseline.

An Alice with very low Emotional Control would likely just follow the action generated by the emotion she feels the most strongly, not too differently from one with very low Impulse Control. If two or more emotions are roughly tied, she might feel paralyzed until some positive feedback loop or new stimulus edges one out over another.

An Alice with low Emotional Control is capable of at least noticing that she has different emotions/desires that she could ideally choose between. She might once in a while be able to remind herself explicitly of the things that make one choice better than another, either through imagining bad outcomes or, a bit more ideally, some form of regret-minimization.

An Alice with moderate Emotional Control is capable of a (quick) pro-and-con type evaluation of each emotion-inspired-action-plan. She can model some expected outcomes enough that she might notice if she really would benefit from a brief break or snack, or if working for a few more minutes will lead her to a better point to take a break in. She could even use a light precommitment tool, like 25-minute work timers, to give her mind an easy touch-stone for strengthening the emotions on the side of continuing to work.

An Alice with high Emotional Control is prepared for these sorts of reflections, knows the rough shape the emotional dilemma will take for her, and has some tools at the ready to explore her options and decide which action to take. She might already have done enough IFS to jump straight into a quick conversation with each part, or maybe she has a motto or mental habit that she uses to get in touch with certain emotions over others.

And an Alice with very high Emotional Control deviates even further from a general model.  Maybe she’s deeply practiced in letting her emotions speak in an unconstricted way, such that she can evaluate each and decide on what will lead her to feeling the most fulfilled. Maybe she just runs down each emotion she feels, imagines the outcomes of each, then decides from there. Maybe she doesn’t really feel strong emotions in most circumstances, so deciding between them is easy. Or maybe she feels particularly strong emotions from expected rewards of doing work, and so it’s easy to stay within the action-space that will likely lead to that. Or maybe some combination of all of the above and more, or something else entirely.

I would be remiss not to mention the Dark Side of Emotional Control, which is more what the name implies; a form of resolving conflicting desires through suppression, fear, bullying, and other general forms of self-coercion. These strategies generally develop when people are young and in coercive or competitive environments that train them to ignore emotions that aren’t instrumental to the goals they’re most rewarded for pursuing.

These strategies, useful though they can be for succeeding on short timespans, tend to have diminishing returns or leave people burnt out eventually. Exploring how people sustain high productivity for years led me to the second crystalized bit of insight: Sustainably productive people spend most of their time doing what they find enjoyable, meaningful, or necessary

When a goal or course of action doesn’t feel like any of those things, it eventually becomes very difficult to “control” the emotions that compel you toward things that do, and no amount of external motivation makes up for that gap.

At risk of being too preachy, this is why I believe, as noted in the previous posts, that knowing what you want and why is an important part of a healthy Executive Function pipeline (not to mention a generally happier life).

People are full of various wants and needs, on a minute to minute basis or on a year to year one, and each of those wants and needs are emotionally driven. Understanding how to integrate and manage those various emotions and wants is an integral part of aligning your goals with your actions.

Suggestion 4

Notice how often you check-in with yourself, and practice doing it more often.

There are a lot of different kinds of mindfulness practice out there. Most meditation is the most popular, a way of bringing awareness into our body and thoughts, while things like the Alexander Technique try to help people expand their awareness outside of themselves. Anything that helps people pay attention to their moment-to-moment experiences better, or understand and become familiar with the loops their thoughts can end up in, can help people improve Self Monitoring. The sequence on Naturalism is largely about noticing what your attention and thoughts are doing, and this video by Duncan Sabien does a good job of explaining another version of it. Posts tagged with “summoning sapience” tend to be about this, such as Val’s article on the Art of rationality.

Take a moment again, right now, to “pop out” of reading this article. You’re almost done, but still notice that you’re reading it, and ask yourself if you want to be reading it. My prompting you to do this might lead to you noticing other impulses you have, other things in your awareness, other drags on your attention. But you also might just notice your own thoughts, reading over these words, and your reactions to them. All you’re doing, when you improve your Self Monitoring, is learning how to notice certain types of thoughts or sensations that trigger this more often.

Maybe it’s discomfort in your body, or a leg or arm that’s falling asleep. You could use environmental cues, such as alarms or visual cues around you (printed out pictures, sticky notes, etc) can also help train the mental habit… though I want to stress caution in anything that leads to Self Monitoring that is largely anxious. The alarm should be a gentle chime, the visual cue should be a picture of a reflective lake, or even just a small mirror hung on your wall… if it’s hard to imagine the vibe, here’s Midjourney to lend a hand:

The purpose of self-monitoring, overall, is not to feel like you’re constantly vigilant or on edge, but rather to notice when you’re on autopilot more quickly so that you can decide whether you want to deliberately. A calm, embodied “What am I doing and why am I doing it,” more a notion than the actual words. Not “oh my god why am I doing this why aren’t I doing THAT instead what’s wrong with me…”

If you’re having trouble not having that be the tone of the check-ins, that leads us to…

Suggestion 5

Understand your emotions better, and find a constructive frame through which to understand and relate to them.

Internal Family Systems is something I recommend often, but The Art of Accomplishment podcast has good models for this sort of thing as well, and there’s a good Clearer Thinking tool on it too. My elevator pitch for the space in which they intersect is something like:

Understand that your emotions/desires/impulses each exist for a good reason. That does not mean that they’re automatically “correct,” but it does mean that trying to ignore or banish them entirely is not the healthiest way to deal with whatever is causing them to arise. Instead try treating them, and yourself, since that’s what they amount to, like a friend, one whose feelings you can validate and support without letting them overwhelm you.

An exercise you can try now:

  1. Notice if you have an inner narrator that’s harsh or judgemental or bullying toward any emotions or desires you have. Is there something you’ve been criticizing yourself for lately?
  2. Consider how you would talk to your best friend, romantic partner, or a child if they talked to you about a similar problem they were having.
  3. Write a short message to yourself using the same language you would use.

I plan to write more about how we relate to our emotions and how to understand them better, and will update this post with a link when I do.

The last part of this series will cover the last 3 aspects of Executive Function:

Part 3: Working Memory, Organization, Flexible Thinking

Transgender Visibility Day, and the Laziness of Language

Happy Transgender Visibility Day!

I’m one of those people for whom “they” and “them” feel about as fitting as “he” and “him,” but I’ve been pretty lucky in a lot of ways and it doesn’t really bother me other than in a few specific circumstances. Normally I don’t even bring it up, but I’ve been considering doing it more often, even though I feel generally masculine, for the sake of normalizing something that really shouldn’t be that big a deal, so that’s part of what I wanted to do with this post.

But the much bigger part of why this feels important isn’t about me, but about the absolute weirdness that comes from society confusing its heuristics and semantic shorthands with deciding it’s allowed to tell people what they “should be.

Because that’s what this debate always comes down to. The labels society developed are all terrible ways to actually map reality, and while many people, and some parts of Western Society, have begun evolving past a lot of the baggage those labels inherited… there’s still a long way to go, and gender is just the latest frontier of this.

In the old days being a “man” or “woman” meant you had to have A, B and C traits, or like X, Y and Z things, and if you were different, that meant you were less of one, which was always framed in a bad way. More and more people are coming to accept that this is nonsense, but we get stuck on things like biology.

It’s not entirely our fault. The problem is we were given shitty words, a lazy language, and told that reality follows the words rather than that the words are a slapdash prototype effort to understand reality.

We had to develop words like “stepmom” to differentiate “biological mom” and “non-biological mom,” except THAT doesn’t work all the time either, because stepmom implies that they married your dad, so what do you call the female that helped raise you that didn’t marry your dad? We all just shrug and accept this gap in our map because no one bothered to create a differentiating word for “person who carried you in their womb whose genetics you share” and “person who is female who raised you.” Too much of an edge-case, maybe, or the only people it affected were poor, or it wasn’t something polite company would acknowledge because the “proper” thing to do would be to cement the relationship through marriage.
Bottom line is it’s a bad language. It’s lazy. It carries baggage and artifacts. It imprecisely describes reality. And we should always keep that in mind, ALWAYS, when we disagree with people about basically anything, but PARTICULARLY when we disagree about each other.
Ethnicity is like this too. There are some useful medical facts that can be determined through heredity and genetic trends in populations, but for 99% of circumstances, the question of what “race” someone is ends up being entirely about social constructs. It’s about how they’re treated by others, it’s about their experiences and lack of experiences, and people fall through the cracks of our shitty, lazy language all the time.
23&Me says I’m 96.4% “Iranian, Caucasian & Mesopotamian”:

Does that make me “white” or “middle-eastern” on the US Census? When people ask if I’m Middle-Eastern, what question am I actually answering? (And no, just saying “I’m Persian” or “My parents are from Iran” does not tend to clarify things for them, because this is not something most who ask know themselves!) I’ve always passed as white (other than in airports, at least), so most of the time it seems weird to call myself Middle-Eastern, though my dad and brother are far more obviously from the Middle East, and my dad in particular has lived a very different life as a result of that. I get clocked as Jewish once in a while, but only once in a way that made my life feel endangered.

The point is there’s nothing at the heart of the generally asked question “what ethnicity” I am. Knowing my parents are Iranian  would tell you some things about the kinds of food I enjoy and am used to, but not exclusively. I was raised Jewish, and that would again indicate some things about food familiarity and what holidays I’m familiar with. But when it comes to who I am, as a person, the pattern of thoughts and behaviors that make up me, it’s a nonsense question that, in a perfect world, I wouldn’t even have to consider. As with gender, I’m lucky enough that on most days I don’t have to, unless I’m filling out a form of some kind.
Back to gender. Because we were raised in a culture too lazy and biased to come up with words for “XY chromosomes” that means something different from “male presenting” and another word for “identifies with this bundle of cultural-specific gender stereotypes” and so on, we waste hours and hours, millions of collective hours, we waste blood and sweat and tears, on stupid debates about whether people should be called “men” or “women,” and the question of whether those should be the only two options takes the backseat, while the question of how much it actually matters compared to how we treat each other is talked around or ignored.
There are SOME non-stupid questions in that space. There are some non-stupid considerations that have to be navigated once in a while in society where something similar to the concept of “gender” or “sex” is important, particularly in medical contexts, dating contexts, physical competitions, etc.
But these are 1 in 100, 1 in 1,000, probably really 1 in 1,000,000 what people actually care about when you examine society’s insistence on how lazy we can collectively get away with being when thinking and talking about each other, and certainly don’t have any relationship to the various hysterias that lawmakers tend to leverage when deciding which bouts of cultural fears or ignorance are most politically expedient to them.
In my ideal world we all have pills we can take to transform in to any body shape we want anyway, or a menu in a simulation that lets us be anything we want, and anything that takes us even a tiny step in that direction is better than things that keep us stuck. Which means I’m always happy to call other people whatever personal-identity-labels they’d prefer to be called, even if I slip up sometimes due to pattern-matching visual gendertropes, or accessing cached memories of a person.
As for myself, over the course of my life I’ve responded to “Damon,” “נתן,” “Max,” and “Daystar,” and I honestly don’t really have a preference with what you call me; just how you treat me.

Great Therapists vs Great Coaches

I had a great conversation with my friend Tee Barnett about Therapy vs Coaching, including what makes for a “Good” or highly skilled one, and what they “should” cost. Hope it’s helpful to anyone interested in attending or doing either!

We discuss similarities and differences between coaching and therapy (38:15), conceptions of what high-skilled coaching and high-skilled therapy look like (46:52), and questioning the assumption “high-priced therapist/coach = better therapist/coach” (1:32:15).
Spicier parts of the episode include what makes for a bad therapist (51:24), how therapists could be doing CBT wrong (56:47), and how being a fully booked and busy coach could be a signal of stunted growth (1:33:52).

Also check out his site, Any Thoughts On, if you’re interested in learning more about professional coaching in general!

Vulnerability

Imagine you have a magical, invisible suit of armor. It has two effects:

First, so long as you wear it, no one’s opinions of you can drastically drop. Your friends all stay your friends, your coworkers still respect you, etc. Sounds great, right? Most people would wear it all the time.

But the second effect is, there are some people who you could be much closer to, a lifelong friend, a true love, a deep connection… and as long as you wear it, your relationships all stop short of those.

This is how I tended to describe vulnerability to clients or friends who struggle with it. It can make sense to wear the armor sometimes, and it can make sense to be afraid of taking it off in others. But if you want more real connections in life, you have to be willing to risk it.

And in general, before this past year, I would have said I’d sidestepped any issues or hangups with “being vulnerable” entirely. Since I was young, I’ve always felt like a fairly open book; someone could ask me what I think or feel about basically anything, and I’d be happy to tell them honestly, and not feel any sort of shame or worry about it. I don’t change who I am by social context, I don’t pretend to like people I don’t like, and if I love someone they’re quick to know it.

But I had a Season of Vulnerability this past year that was important to expanding my understanding of “real vulnerability.” If it was some straightforward irony of me saying something but not following it, this season wouldn’t have been necessary. It would have been easy to spot, and easy to correct. 

But for one thing, “not hiding who you are ” is not the same as “offering what you feel and think,” and there weren’t any obvious red flags that something was missing. For example, that analogy doesn’t mention that if you’re not willing to be vulnerable with others, they often aren’t as willing to be vulnerable with you. It’s pretty obvious, right? But throughout my life people have tended to be vulnerable with me, sometimes within a day of meeting me.

For another, so long as you wear that armor, you tend to not feel truly “seen” by others if you’re not willing to be vulnerable with them… but I often didn’t feel seen even when I shared my thoughts/feelings.

More specifically, the other person’s experience, even if they were comfortable being vulnerable around me, still wasn’t ideal. Instead what I realized, thanks to some circling and conversations with friends, was that there was a sense of connection that often felt missing.

When I started talking about this publicly, someone I’ve worked with in fairly stressful situations messaged me with this:

This mirrored the way I’ve always heard this sort of thing before: “It’s hard sometimes to feel [close] to you because you’re always doing well and helping me, but never seem to be in need of being helped.” 

To which my response has always been a feeling of… helpless sadness? If I just take for granted that being self-sufficient reduces feelings of connection and closeness from others, I wasn’t sure what I could do about it. It’s not like I could make myself need others more, and faking it would feel patronizing.

I realized though that there are in fact two different things being pointed at here:

  1. People feel more connection when the relationship feels more equal, and one of the ways that equality is measured is how much both people mutually support each other rather than how one-sided that feels.
  2. People feel more connection when they have a sense of what the other person’s inner life and experience is like. This is most often revealed when someone needs help…

…but it doesn’t have to be.

Noticing this distinction was important, because it primed me to realize that there were in fact some circumstances where I’d think to share how I was feeling with others, but not do so.

There were a few reasons for this, but the main one is that I experienced a lot of people over-updating on how bad I must feel about something bad that happens to me.

As an example, if most people’s mood on a daily basis fluctuates between a 4/10 and a 6/10, and then something bad happens that brings them down to a 3/10 for a week, my experience of that same thing is more like I’ve been brought from my average of 8/10 down to a 7/10 for a few hours per day for a few days. Maybe even just that one day.

But that seemed hard for most people to get, and I faced a lot of skepticism when I’d say that even if something sad or frustrating happened, I’m actually fine. Which felt even more isolating than not sharing the bad thing that happened in the first place.

(A self-perpetuating problem here, of course, in that the less I talked about bad things, the more mentioning one would seem to others like it must be really bad if I talked about it…)

So I talked less often about bad things that happened in my life, partly because they didn’t really affect me enough that I felt much desire to talk about them with others, and partly because, without realizing it, trusting people to trust me to be okay became hard.  It just became easier to let people know I was fine by just… being fine, acting fine, giving off fine-vibes, and not sending mixed signals.

And that trust is part of what I needed to work on for my Season, because vulnerability is not just  hard for people who want to avoid being seen as weak. For people like myself, it can be hard if the vulnerable thing you’re revealing is that you’re not like others, and being vulnerable makes you less seen at all.

What people are used to is feeling close to someone due to not just positive experiences, but an exchange of vulnerability or emotional support. Not just because those things are specifically what they want, but because it’s how most people are used to getting the “raw” beliefs, values, perspectives, desires, etc, that make someone uniquely “them.”

That’s what I was missing, in general, when talking and thinking about vulnerability. To treat it simply as being about difficult or painful things is to miss the ways being too self-sufficient can also preclude being more raw.

To learn more about why vulnerability felt distinct from the thing I was struggling with, feel free to check out my second Seasons of Growth post.

Seasons of Growth 2022

Last year I started my Seasons of Growth experiment, and it was fantastic in a number of ways. This year I continued it, and decided to do a more full writeup for each season.

Season of Romance

At the start of the year I was realizing that my life seemed pretty perfect in most ways, with one major exception: I want to have a long term relationship and kids relatively soon. So I kicked 2022 off with a season attempting to go “all in” on finding a romantic partner.

The first things this included were making a Date Me page for my site, which gets decent traffic by the sorts of people I expect to vibe with on some level. I also made dating profiles on a few new sites, and tried the paid option on them and the ones I was already on, in an attempt to up my odds of actually getting good relationships from them. My longest running relationship to date (3 years) was from OKC, so online dating has been relatively good to me all things considered, even if it also involved years of not finding any LTRs.

I also spent more time going to events and activities to meet new people, such as Vibecamp and book clubs. Network effects of friends knowing that I was openly looking for a partner was also valuable for getting recommendations from them and getting set up on some dates and introduced to some people.

This season was also useful to focus on what I actually want, romantically, and prune away things that didn’t seem likely to get me there. Despite having both a mono side and a poly side, I realized that wanting to settle down and have my own bio kids within a couple years meant I needed to focus on finding a monogamous partner, or alternatively-but-less-likely a poly-primary-partner-who-wants-kids-specifically-with-me, and that meant not pursuing romantic interests that didn’t feel after a few weeks like they would move in that direction.

This felt like a cost at times, where I feel like I didn’t invest as much as I might normally have in relationships that could have been good/resulted in new deep friendships, but also was an important time/attention saving heuristic, I think.

Synergy: Season of Wealth helped me get over the “wasteful” cost of paying for the apps. This didn’t end up leading to anything enduring, but I’m still glad I did it, as I would have always wondered “what if” had I not. Season of Aesthetics obviously was helpful here too, not least of which because it helped lead to better pictures for my dating profiles!

Outcome: As of yet this season hasn’t accomplished its “primary objective,” but overall I’m pretty happy with how things went. I’ve gotten a gratifying amount of responses to my form, went on about a dozen dates from responders there and to my various dating sites. Most notably, through my Date Me Page I met a girl that I’ve been dating since. The current status of that is Complicated, but I’m hopeful, and no matter how it turns out I’ll always be glad we dated.

Season of Class

This season was a “second level” of sorts for Aesthetics. Part of Aesthetics was recognizing what my appearance signaled to others, but it focused a lot more on understanding and developing what I like and dislike. “Class” is more about the way others perceive someone and the ways behavior affects that, which includes their wardrobe choice, but is not limited to it. So I learned more about what clothing signals to others, and made some more minor adjustments based on that.

But the more valuable and central thing I developed was a better “outside view” on my behavior; not just how it represented who I appeared to be, but also how it affected those around me.

It’s worth noting that this is the first season where I felt something like a “push and pull” toward and away from the “goal” of the season. It happened a little with aesthetics, but part of what “unlocked” aesthetics for me was discarding the false belief that clothing had to be either comfortable and cheap or expensive and aesthetically appealing. 

The less-obviously-false dichotomy here is the tension between caring what others think of you and being constrained by what others think of you. Most people around me my entire life have only ever demonstrated “caring what others think of you” in a way that was so clearly self-inhibitory, so clearly full of shame and joylessness and anti-life, that I decided from a young age that I wanted None of That, Thanks Very Much.

This extended beyond being embarrassed by things like dancing in public, or even interests and passions, such as my stepbrother having to hide that he was into anime when we were in high school so as to be accepted by his “friends.” The most clearly limiting effect of it seemed to be a prevalent lack of agency in others, particularly in unusual situations. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been able to solve problems others thought ~impossible by simply ignoring the expectation of what people thought they were “supposed” to do based on social norms.

But I also realized that there were some things I did as a result of having this mix of high agency and non-shame that had negative consequences for those around me. For example, I once got fine dust all over my coat while helping a friend clean their house, and afterward was shopping with them and saw a brush that might serve as a good way to clean it. I wasn’t sure if it would work or not, though, so I decided to just take off my coat and try the brush there first. It worked well, so I bought it.

But I realized it also probably embarrassed the friend I was with, who confirmed after that she wasn’t sure I was tracking whether it would be considered rude to get dust on the floor of the store, or how the other customers would feel about me brushing my coat around them. This hadn’t occurred to me as a thing I should care about enough to have it influence my behavior, so I decided it counted as a blind spot; I agree with the general principle that, if you’re going to break the rules, you should still learn them first, and I think that applies to even informal rules and expectations. 

In general having an extra lens on myself and others seemed like a valuable thing, so I practiced more deliberately and explicitly considering my appearance and behavior from the eyes of those around me, then running through different value systems and preferences on how they might feel about the things I do. It’s one thing to consider something’s cost and do it anyway, and another to just take for granted that the cost wasn’t meaningful, and I wanted to make sure I was able to do the former in every case.

Another part of my season included reading Class by Paul Fussell, followed by summing up each chapter in a tweet, along with a quick reaction to them. Fussell breaks up the American social class structure into 9 categories, and I believe many of the insights hold up, despite being from 40 years ago. There are some chapters that are basically just lists of types of clothing or what your house says about you, but also lots of interesting frames on human psychology and culture.

It’s also occasionally quite funny, in a dry acerbic way. There’s a lot of upper brow snobbishness that might make someone feel self-conscious if they care about class, but was just amusing to me (my obscure south Florida university even gets a shout-out/put down!), and there’s a section in one of the later chapters where he boggles at the “inanity” of the unicorn fad that had gripped the middle class in the 80’s that was fun to read, even if I didn’t share his feelings.

In fact, it wasn’t until the final chapter that Fussell described the “tenth class” that made me feel at last like I was being described; in short, people who basically just do what they want, enjoy the good things from each part of society without turning their nose up at any of them, truly don’t care what class they’re perceived as being in, and thus “are the closest thing to free as any American gets.” 

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ He said it folks, not me.

Synergy: Aesthetics again for sure, before that season most of the chapters about clothing would have bounced off me, but I could appreciate the points being made better than me-of-a-year-ago.

Outcome: Broadly a success? I guess you’d have to ask others for some of it, but I definitely developed this lens a lot, such that I notice and think of things I didn’t used to, and now feel more like I get why people act and react the way they do to certain things.

If the point was to download that generator such that internalize “class” as an important way to judge others/myself, rather than thinking of it as a game at best or survival strategy or gatekeeping at worst, then no dice. But that was just one potential consideration, and after seeing that, so far as I can tell right now at least, there’s nothing “deeper” there,  I’m pretty happy just to have gained some knowledge and perspective. I also have some friends who now seem happier to invite me to fancy dinners and such, which is nice.

Season of Vulnerability

This section threatened to be bigger than the rest of the post put together, so I decided to make a separate post reviewing vulnerability in general, and my relationship to it, which you can read first if you want some extra background.

Long story short, I’ve lived my life as being essentially an open book for anyone who wanted to know more about me, and so thought I had sidestepped vulnerability hangups entirely, the same way I have feelings of self-shame or anxiety or major traumas. I started this season because I did some circling with some close friends who confessed to feeling at times like I was too distant and unreachable in some meaningful ways due to me being so self-sufficient. Once I started talking about this explicitly, I got messages like this from a romantic partner:

It reminded me of something one of my exes used to do, which was playfully prod me to “vent” to them more often, even if I had nothing particularly bothering me to share. So I decided that even if I had nothing sad or stressful to vent about or reveal to friends, even if I didn’t feel a “need” to share my feelings, it would be worth trying to share them anyway and see how that felt and was received.

I also started paying more attention to feelings of gratitude and care that I felt for others, and sharing those sentiments when they came up, as well as noticing how I related to others when they were expressing vulnerability. I eventually decided to try alternate ways to develop deeper connections with others.

This led to me trying the VIEW Connection Course on my friend Lulie’s recommendation, which gives people a chance to practice some of the ideas talked about in the Art of Accomplishment podcast. VIEW is a state of mind that invokes higher levels of Vulnerability, Impartiality, Empathy, and Wonder while talking to others. From my experience, I think it’s a great way to improve communication so that more sensitive things can be discussed without defensiveness, and also a great enhancement for things like pair-debugging and self-exploration.

Each virtue mirrors the ones I believe a good therapist should have, but a more personal rather than professional version, better suited for communication with friends. This led to a followup conversation after one of the sessions with Lulie where we talked about how I seem to experience empathy differently than most people: intellectually, but not physically. Lulie noted that this seemed like it would be useful for my therapy work, but left her feeling disconnected at times when she was being vulnerable in some way. 

I realized immediately that she was right. When I’m with someone who is sad, I can understand their sadness and want to help them, but I don’t feel it myself. It made me realize that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cried while someone else was crying. I would tear up sometimes in therapy when my client was relating something traumatic, but only if they seemed to not feel it themselves; in essence it was their disconnection from their emotions that brought me to tears.

But I do cry myself, and fairly often, while reading books or watching shows or films. So the obvious next question was to ask myself why it was so much easier for me to feel bodily empathy for fictional characters.

And the answer, once I thought about it in those terms, seemed absurdly obvious: when I’m with people in real life who are suffering or in need of help, my focus becomes entirely on how to best help them. There’s space for other considerations, but my feelings are set aside for later while I focus on helping the person in need.

But I have no way at all to help fictional characters suffer less. So I’m “free” to feel and share their emotions myself.

This struck me as funny at first, and I began to laugh. It was during lunchtime, and I was in the UC Berkeley cafeteria. After laughing for a bit I began to cry, and couldn’t stop. It felt like machinery in a dark corner of my mind had just had a spotlight aimed at it, and connecting parts began to suddenly make sense.

Growing up, fictional characters felt as real to me as real people. I had a ton of friends at school and in my neighborhood, but when I was at home it was just me and my books. My mom worked constantly, I only saw my dad on weekends (which he spent  working constantly), and my older brother and I had let’s-just-say a difficult relationship.

I was in effect raised by fiction, by characters in stories who were both friends and mentors. They showed me what I could be, good and bad, and why I might want or not want to. They showed me mistakes I could learn from without making them, and expressed empathy and understanding for things I hadn’t even felt yet, such that when I felt it I already knew what a good and trusted friend would say, and when others did I was ready to be that person for them.

I didn’t need stories to feel desire to help others, that generator was with me for as far back as I can remember.  When I was 8 years old, years before I got into reading fiction myself, I walked into a bathroom and saw a fellow 2nd grader being held against the wall by two older boys. I told them to leave him alone. His name was Matthew, and we became best friends, had plenty of other encounters taking on bullies together, and no amount of hurt made it feel less right.

But physical confrontations were relatively rare compared to all the other hurts in the world. TV showed plenty of heroes that fought with fists, but books gave me glimpses of what else heroes could look like. How they could think, how they would feel, how they would react to those around them when they were in need of help.

I also happened to read a lot of Stephen King when I was young, and King set all his stories in a multiverse that connected all his books into one meta-fictional narrative that included our world as well (not just a version of our world, obviously many of his stories took place in some modern settings, but specifically the world where he, as the author, was writing it). 

This multiverse was as real to me as God was back when I was religious, and so the deaths of characters felt real too. There was no one in my life I could talk to about any of it… and nothing I could do to help the characters in it. I was grieving for dozens of people every year, and doing my best to live up to what they taught me. To be there for others in a way they were there for me, and in a way I couldn’t be there for them. Especially for Roland, the protagonist of The Dark Tower, whose ancestral name of Eld I took for my own.

(Daystar is from the book Talking to Dragons, which I read when I was even younger. It’s about a teenager sent into an enchanted forest with a magical sword. He uses the sword to defend himself or others if needed, but always tries to talk first, politely attempting to understand the magical beings around him and find some solution besides violence.)

All of these realizations bubbled up and came out over the course of about 30 minutes of crying. Once it had passed, it felt like a new window was opening up in how I related to that fundamental generator in myself. I could better see what fed it, and how the process of [sensed inputs of people hurting] led to [internal alchemy that evoked a state of mind] that resulted in [behavioral outputs in how I responded].

It also gave deeper insight into why I have such strong reactions to particular things in fiction. After watching Spiderman: No Way Home, I tweeted about how much I appreciated it for addressing trauma of characters in previous media… but the underlying emotional effect it had on me was more than that. The best I could describe it at the time was of watching old friends I’d seen go through traumatic experiences, who in essence had their stories irrevocably end in unhappy ways, be given a second chance at a happier one. This season helped me realize how generalized that reaction is, and how deep its roots.

It also gave a plausible story for why I’ve always felt so much older than those around me when I was in school. I used to think it was just living through hundreds of fictional lives + rough home life, either one of which may have been sufficient. But if I take this insight seriously, it could also have been the many, rapid cycles of grief for fictional characters.

So that was all part of the first month of my Vulnerability season. 

As a result of it, the next two months involved, in addition to sharing my internal experiences and feelings more often, paying more attention to my inner state when around someone in distress so I could notice when I was entering “guardian mode.” It was surprising how just noticing it made it easy to turn off, and how automatically my body was able to experience things like sadness and grief while the people I spoke to expressed it. This took some getting used to, but has been valuable experientially in its own right.

Synergy: None in particular comes to mind for this one.

Outcome: The first obvious thing is that I have a pair of new internal flags. One of them is noticing when I have a personal thought or feeling that I think the other person would appreciate knowing, and having the decision-possibility to share it. A few people have noticed and expressed appreciation for this, and so I’ve been happy to continue doing it. It’s also nice to share things in more explicit terms when I feel closeness with someone, not just so they know, but also because putting words to feelings can help explore and sharpen them into more powerful experiences.

The second flag is for when someone is sharing vulnerability with me in a way that makes them obviously distressed. At first this happened involuntarily, and it was like I had a new set of mirror neurons that activated automatically whenever someone around me was feeling deeply sad or lost. Now it feels more like something I notice and can choose to have happen. This does mean I sometimes miss the opportunity to do it, but it also means that it has yet to cause any debilitation when someone explicitly comes to me for help.

I also got a nice artifact from my friend Stag to commemorate my growth:

Season of Generativity

This season was inspired by a chat about what the best types of conversations look/feel like, and how things like VIEW aim to give new mental frames and verbal handles that improve conversations along certain dimensions. My partner Eowyn in particular noted that her favorite conversations are those that feel very “generative” in the sense of including each participant’s feelings or experiences of a thing being discussed, rather than just their ideas or knowledge of it. She wondered if there are things that can be deliberately done to make conversations spark curiosity and passion in general, rather than just relying on intrinsic interest.

This caused me to introspect on my own experience of conversations more, both to zero in on what makes the best ones good for me too, and to try and better understand how the things I say might land with others. I began to notice more when someone brings up an idea or asks a question that I answer with just what I know about it, but not how I relate to the topic or how it makes me feel. There’s also a default mode that I tend to slip into, because of the sheer volume of messages I get day to day, of treating each unprompted one as… sort of part of a checklist, like “Okay I answered their question/gave a response to what they said, now it’s off to the next message/thing I have to do until they respond.” 

As a side note, one of the reasons I try not to talk about myself too much is because I recognize how much of it can sound like bragging, or can make others feel bad about themselves, or can feel isolating to them:

But part of Season of Vulnerability included not letting that stop me as much, which is why it feels worthwhile, at this point, to mention how my thoughts are never in want of something interesting to occupy them. I am rarely, if ever, “restless.” Outside of very few exceptions, I don’t make bids for others’ attention or feel bad if I don’t get it. Boredom is a foggy memory of being on a long car drive when I was about 8 years old, before I started reading fiction.

As far back as I can clearly remember, certainly within the past decade or so, my life has been one of constant engagement with ideas. Ideas about stories I’m writing or reading, ideas about my work, my plans for the future, some experiences I had, curiosities and mysteries and problems to be solved, imagining other worlds, imagining what it’s like to be others, etc.

And so upon hearing about the way some of my conversations might feel less generative, honest reflection made me realize that for the most part, my responses to people that come off as perfunctory are in fact often (though not always) perfunctory, because my mind is often busy with other things.

My ideal conversations have a back-and-forth flow of expressing ideas. I love arguing over different values, being taught a new perspective, or seeing a new one land for the other person, and having them build on or counter with something else. I love conversations that spark and flow in new, unpredictable directions entirely. 

But I haven’t often put effort into making conversations that way if I don’t already feel interested in them, because there are always other things my thoughts will turn to by default that I’m happy to think about instead.

So when I consider the topics that make me “come alive” more than others, what comes to mind are fiction, video games, writing, rationality, romantic norms, psychology, morality, epistemology. For most other things, I might have some intellectual interest that can spark into something more, but I don’t feel like I have the same level of investment/curiosity, and so conversations don’t have that “generative quality” and tend to peter out more often.

A practical benefit of these realizations was that it also helped notice why particular topics fail to spark interesting conversations for/from me, such that this itself can then act as the seed for one. For example, I noticed when the idea of creating new “social currencies” came up in conversation, I felt the urge to not say much in response because 1) I felt skeptical that any less fungible currency aimed specifically to not have market value would ever be widely adopted, while 2) I didn’t know much about the topic, so didn’t want to say anything that might be discouraging without concrete critiques.

The outcome of that, however, would be missed opportunities to learn more about the topic such that 2 wouldn’t be an issue. By trying to manage my conversation partner’s experience I was making them feel bad in a different way.

This is one of the things that gets covered in VIEW, which made it easier to spot, and reinforced the value of avoiding that sort of mistake as a more general category.

Synergy: This season almost felt like an extension of Vulnerability. It built on the first internal flag from there to also notice sometimes when a conversation that didn’t spark “generativity” in me could possibly be more interesting if I lean into my curiosity and try to think about what feels interesting or exciting about the topic to the other person, which is obvious when put that simply but hard in practice when there are a dozen+ other things making bids for attention and are more “obviously interesting.”

Outcome: I’m not sure there’s been enough time since this season ended to really evaluate its lasting impact, but if I’m being honest I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the least transformative. Maybe because it’s the least impactful day-to-day compared to the others from this year, or maybe it’s just a regression-to-the-mean of how drastic a change I can undergo in a 3-month period. It still feels good to keep it in mind whenever conversations feel stilted, dry, or otherwise less than ideal in some way.

The plan for 2023

Overall, 2022 was an amazing year for me. I spent most of it traveling to teach at and attend various camps and workshops and writing retreats, spent a lot of time with friends I normally only get to see for brief periods, and learned a lot about myself and my interactions with others.

I plan to continue my Seasons of Growth in the new year, though my first Season so far has been one of Rest/Reflection. At first I struggled to think of a new theme to focus on for the start of the year, but realized that after 8 of these in a row, it seemed reasonable to take a break. Further integration and practice continue to yield benefits for all of them anyway, and I’m confident that a new theme will reveal itself as valuable to focus on in time.

I hope others find value in this structure, or variations of it, and would be interested to hear what themes others have found useful for themselves.

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

Edit: I’ve presented on this at a couple EAGs, one of which was recorded:

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

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.”