Prepare for Your Sphexishness

Previously I wrote about the constant slide into sphexishness which one must work vigilantly to avoid. Of late I’ve noticed that even when I’m generally achieving a high level of agency – and I’m using the term today to mean a high energy, high willpower state enabling me to be effective at goal pursuit – I don’t maintain it at a constant level. Instead, my agency level fluctuates periodically. Drops occur after a point daily with tiredness, and also for stretches of a few days with the ups and downs of life.

These states of decreased energy and increased akrasia don’t need to be unproductive though, nor I am forced to wait passively for their end. In the case of tiredness, there are plenty of tasks I can do with reduced energy levels, even if it’s just taking a restorative break – or  I can just actually go to sleep. Yet once I’m tired and my willpower is down I’ll get stuck staying up late, doing something which isn’t even that fun – wasting time now and sabotaging tomorrow by not going to bed.

The same goes for when I’m in a more enduring rut. Every now and then I’ll get stuck in a period of low productivity where my morale goes down, I start to leave the house less, socialise a bit less, exercise less, and generally feel less good. There are actions I can take to break out of these states too – get on top of my sleep, exercise, success spirals – but more often than not I wait for a natural return to normality rather than short circuiting it. I generally don’t have the willpower to both think of what I need to do and to do it.

In both these cases I’m being sphexish, but I struggle to get out of it due to low willpower and energy. Noticing that this happens recurrently, I realised that I needed to prepare for sphexish states while I still have cognitive resources to do so. I’ve started installing routines and habits which let me still work towards my goals even while in a “sphexish” state. I’m guessing that doing this hadn’t occurred earlier because sphexish-me never has the energy to do so, and agentic me never remembered sphexish-me’s predicament once it was over.

So far I’ve got a few short checklists for when I’m feeling tired or in an ongoing rut. Nothing fancy, just something like:

Tired? Try the following.

  • Is it due to lack of sleep? -> Go get more sleep
  • Start working and see if the tiredness goes away
  • Sunlight
  • Light exercise
  • Stimulants: caffeine, nicotine, modafinil
  • Sugar

Similarly, I’m experimenting with incorporating this into my GTD system. Part of a GTD system is a list of next actions to take, and it’s recommended that these are sorted by context: at home, with a computer, with a telephone, etc. Since the strongest determiner of which action I should take seems to be how much energy and alertness I have, I’m now sorting my next actions list by energy-level. This way, when I get tired there’s already prepared list of things I can do that I’m up to doing. I save my high-energy periods for reading textbooks and call my bank when I’m fading. So not only do I still get some stuff done while tired, but I’m also not wasting high-energy periods on tasks that don’t need it.

As a bonus, checklists and routines have the added benefit of saving attention. I have an evening routine and in the past I’d always have to stop for a few seconds and think what next despite doing it day after day (inconsistent order might contribute) which distracts me from thinking about other more interesting things. I’ve now got those five steps written down, and I imagine that after a few repetitions they’ll stick and require no conscious attention all. Checklist Rationality will be the topic of my next post.

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