Manipulating my mind

Self-diagnosis is a dangerous thing. Especially if that diagnosis is socially motivated—for example, labelling yourself as “on the spectrum” because of a desire to fit in with narratives about rationality, or affecting certain eccentricities in order to signal something to a particular community or audience. It is not my intention to do that. No, I’ve been forced to self-diagnosis in order to solve a persistent problem.

My partner will tell you that I am easily distracted. We’ll be talking and I’ll fade out. I’ll start tapping my foot, or playing with something in my hand, and a blankness will come over my features. It’s not because I’m not interested or that I don’t care. It’s just that my mind wanders without my permission. And sometimes it wanders far, far away.

In secondary school I was remarkably un-engaged. Teachers couldn’t get through and the subjects they taught were met with indifference. I’d only respond when I wanted to, when I was in the mood—which wasn’t often. Sometimes, I sit down to read and find it impossible to keep reading because I cannot focus on the book in hand, no matter the exhortations from my will. These are just a few manifestations of a particular problem I’ve encountered over the years as part of an effort to, first, write more, and second, launch a freelance career. The particular problem is this: I find it incredibly difficult to force myself to pay attention to something.

I hadn’t defined the problem as such until I read an article on ADHD by Gravis McElroy. Some of the most striking excerpts. Exhibit A:

“If I’m not interested in doing something, I can’t process any thoughts about how to do it. No, I don’t mean it’s not fun, I mean my brain will not do it. If I don’t want to wash a fence, I can’t think about how to wash the fence. I go into complete lockup. I ask the question, “how do I wash the fence?” and the answer will not come to me.”

Exhibit B:

“You know that tired old joke: “wanna hear a joke about ADHD? a guy w– hey, a squirrel!” I hate to tell you this, but it’s true. I hate it, but it’s almost completely accurate.

The “anterograde amnesia”-style reaction is a little overblown. But that’s part of what’s so frustrating about it. I can be in the middle of a sentence, a really important one even, and if something catches my eye I can completely forget what I was saying. I’ll know I forgot it, but I can’t get it back. And yes, I know, this happens to everyone, but imagine if it happened every single time you tried to talk at all. And this usually happens in a matter of seconds.

I can be midsentence and stop to say “hand me that pen” and my last idea is gone because my brain is now thinking about pens. If you think this is fun or funny, you have never experienced it. It’s a fucking nightmare.

Do you know how stunted my capabilities are because of this? Do you understand how INFURIATING it is that I don’t get to choose my interests, they choose me? I have very little say in my hobbies. I can put myself in front of things but if my brain doesn’t latch on, I just don’t get to do those things.”

Exhibit C:

“ADHD is debilitating. It is not a “kid disease” and it doesn’t make it “harder” to do things. It is a fundamental difference in the way brains work.

ADHD means you don’t have the ability to “buckle down” and “just get to it,” or if you can, it requires MUCH more effort. WAY more effort than for someone without this condition. ADHD means you can’t begin a task until you trick your brain into wanting to finish it.

If you have ADHD, everything you’ve ever accomplished was done this way even if you don’t realize it. How functional you are with ADHD depends on its severity but also on whether you learned, by chance, how to trick yourself. Some people pick it up on their own but others need help. If they don’t get it, they just get left behind.”

And finally, Exhibit D:

“My head is full of ideas, all day. I want to create, I want to accomplish. But everything creates a blast of static in my head that I can’t penetrate. If I try to think about anything I either can’t at all because I just slide off of it and onto whatever my brain wants to think about, or as soon as the idea enters my head I’m assaulted by a cacophony of related ideas. I can’t think about step 1 because my brain is already thinking about steps 6 and 7 and worrying about things that aren’t yet relevant so I can’t even take the initial steps.

Even for the things that I want to do, getting started is hard. Suppose I’m at work and I think, “I need to send an email to <people> about <issue>.” Before I can do anything, I’m already thinking about the issue.

I try to write the email, but as I’m writing it, questions fill my head. I try to push them aside and just concentrate on the initial task, send a simple email, but the questions keep hounding me. I have to stop and get answers to them or I can’t think about the email. And if I can’t get answers, I’m stuck. I just can’t proceed. I end up staring at the empty compose window for ten minutes, writing the first sentence over and over, because my mind is so far out of the game I can’t even do basic grammar.

I can only do tasks in one big shot. If I know I’m going to have to stop, if I know I’m going to be interrupted by some other dependency, I can’t even get started. And most of the time, that dependency can’t be satisfied unless I take the first steps.”

A disclaimer: I haven’t experienced ADHD to the degree mentioned in the article. My experience is somewhat more mild, but it is still chronic, and it is still a gigantic pain in the ass. And realising that it even is a property of my mind, and accepting it as such, has necessitated a change in how I work on a day-to-day basis, and in how I plan, structure and execute short- and long-term initiatives.

When it comes to strategic planning I prefer frequent, lightweight and agile processes. I don’t go in for yearly and bi-yearly reviews and meticulous monthly evaluations and examinations. I’ve tried and I never even make it through them. Currently, I opt for a once-weekly “RPR” session. It looks like this:

  1. Review the previous week for pluses and minuses, freeform in my notebook.
  2. Review “The Archipelago”—a document which contains my stated priority, my list of projects and the primary next actions associated with each one, a list of random to-dos and obligations, my daily/weekly/monthly repeatable processes, and my publishing pathway. I’m basically looking to see if I’ve changed my mind about any of it, or if I need to make any additions or subtractions.
  3. I then plan out the next week in the same “Archipelago” document. I input hard activities—appointments, work, things bound to specific times—and lay out, roughly, what soft activities I need to do during each day in the course of the coming week.
  4. After that, I give myself five or ten minutes to look over, examine or reflect upon anything that seems worthy of attention.

That’s about it. And on a day-to-day basis? Well.

I used to go for the standard to-do list approach. 4×6 index card. Tasks ordered from top to bottom in terms of importance, and thus, in chronological order. Random tasks or obligations were tacked to the bottom and all of it cross-referenced with a master list—like “The Archipelago”. I still do a similar thing, but now I think and plan in terms of “scalable loops”.

One of the most interesting conflicts—for me—about my own ability to work is this: I like routine—I’m hesitant to say I need it, but without it, it is more difficult to work—but I won’t do anything I’m not in the mood to do. Scalable loops are a workaround for this conflict. My particular loop is this:

Med / Re / Wr / Mo / Pl

So, in the morning for example, I meditate, then I read for a bit, then I’ll write for a while, then I’ll move, then I’ll spend some time playing around with whatever I feel like. That’s the loop, and it’s scalable because I can increase or decrease it, collectively, in length, or I can increase or decrease each component individually in length. I can go through the loop once in a day or three times. The loop can take an hour or five. It’s rather flexible, which works well for me. However. Sometimes I don’t feel like doing a particular sort of writing, or a certain type of reading or movement. What then?

Venkatesh Rao tweeted “a workflow management cheat sheet”. Here it is:

“Grunt labor: optimize for productivity/utilization/yield rate

Maker work: do things in order of importance, subject to sequencing constraints, to ship early/often

Creative work: sequence demons in optimal killing order as they emerge from shadow”

As a person with mild ADHD, grunt work isn’t compatible. Doing something I don’t want to do at a time I don’t want to do it is like eating a food that I hate. Sure, I could do it, but my mind will scream in protest, I’ll hate every second, and I’ll feel an everlasting fury towards whoever is forcing me to eat said food. Maker work is similar: it’s still externally imposed obligations upon my inner world. Creative work is more palatable. Mostly because it contains an element of choice. “Sequence demons”—there’s multiple—”in optimal killing order”—an order which I can choose—”as they emerge from shadow”—as seems appropriate to whatever my mind’s momentary obsession is.

How does this fit with the idea of a “scalable loop”? Simple. Each component of the loop—”meditate”, “read”, “write”, “move”, “play”—is not a specific task, but a class of activity. “Move”, for example, can mean strength train, or practice BJJ, or go for a cycle, or take a walk, or do some yoga. Here’s the notecard that I’ve taped at the front of my notebook:

scalable loop classes

As you can see, each component of the loop contains different possibilities. Which is how, on a day-to-day basis, I am able to negate some of the peculiar properties of a mind prone to distraction and semi-arbitrary obsession. Like most people, I operate within a framework of routine and structure, but within that framework is embedded the option to adapt on the fly and engage in opportunistic focusing.


It’s taken me several years—and multiple lucky discoveries—to work out the above. But the main insight seems to be that I do not respond well to being told to do something I don’t want to do, especially when the command comes from myself. Instead, I have to find a way of subtly manipulating my own energies, letting my whims and desires run free whilst, like kingmakers and other puppeteers of power and influence, invisibly guiding unfolding events.

To unfollow

One thousand, two hundred and eight. That’s how many people I follow on Twitter. But I’ve found that somewhere between five hundred to a thousand follows is ideal for signal and serendipity, so it’s time for a cull. I open Twitter, head to my “Following” list, and began scrolling. Ahh, here’s someone I won’t miss (or haven’t noticed). Tap. Oh. I have to tap twice to unfollow someone? The same asymmetry exists on Facebook as well: one action to “like” a page, two to “unlike” it.

In a single instance, the cost of that extra action is minute. But multiplied a few hundred times, it’s annoying. I wonder why it exists? Why is it twice as much effort to remove someone from your feed as it is to let them in? I was willing to be benevolent, thinking that maybe it is a design flaw, a default value that is a remnant from the early days. But having thought more on it, it seems to be a tiny instance of a dark pattern. “Dark Patterns are tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn’t mean to.” True, making it harder to unfollow than it is to follow isn’t forcing you to buy something or sign up to anything. But it is making it harder to extricate yourself from the tentacles of that particular service.

If we frame every like or follow as a sunk cost, a statement of expectation that the person followed will provide value, then it becomes apparent that the more people you like or follow, the more invested you are in that particular stream, and the less likely you are to abandon it.

A subtle trick from the denizens of social media, but an effective one, nonetheless.

Archaeological and architectural

Frames allow us to deliberately distort our perception of the world. For instance, a frame of self-interest would better enable me to trace—sometimes where there isn’t any—threads of selfishly-motivated actions. For example, I could detect the soothing effect charitable acts have on the ego as the main reason for their undertaking, instead of generosity or kindness. A frame of evolutionary instinct would allow me to tinge every act as one which allows its performer to enhance the propagation of its genes. For example, I’d see a relationship as motivated by the perception that the male partner thinks the female can bear and bring up children, and that the female partner thinks the male can provide shelter, support and security when she needs it.

Of course, we get ourselves and others into trouble when a particular frame becomes the only construct through which we perceive the world. I don’t want to discuss that though. Instead, I want to share a new frame, one relating to the practice of introspection. Introspection, typically, is a solitary pursuit. It occurs inside our own head and involves no outside parties. And I’ve begun to think that it comes in two forms: archaeological and architectural.

architecture and archaeology

Archaeological introspection is concerned with the excavation of pre-existing, but buried structures. It is a practice which alternates between gentle sifting and furious digging into our past.

Architectural introspection is concerned with the construction of something new. It is the use of raw materials to build new meaning or a new narrative structure.

Naturally, I suspect that the two are not distinct; they exist on a spectrum, rather than as an either-or choice. However, I have found it useful, in my own moments of reflection, to ask which I am primarily engaged. “Am I attempting to excavate and examine something from my past, or am I engaged in the building of something new?”

Things so small

In Other People’s Trades, Primo Levi talks about sidewalks:

“Sidewalks are a highly civilized institution: present-day Romans know this, because they lack sidewalks entirely, and when they want to walk somewhere are forced to make their way through unnerving labyrinths of cars parked too close to the walls. The Romans of long ago knew it, too, and they built the sidewalks good and high in Pompeii; and Fra Cristoforo in The Betrothed was well aware of the issue, since he had in fact become a friar because a certain sidewalk was lacking entirely, or it was muddy, or too narrow, and in any case he was as a result forced into an unfortunate clash that caused him to change both name and destiny.”

It was nothing more than the properties of a sidewalk that remodelled Fra Cristoforo’s future. In my own life, I can think of multiple seemingly inconsequential things that have set me upon entirely different paths: a deed I shouldn’t have witnessed, an action I should but didn’t take, a chance meeting, an opportunistic word heard or uttered, something seen by someone else or something shown to me. So many little things have irrevocably altered my life, and as I meditate upon them I cannot help but see long-held notions of grand purpose and ultimate destiny dissolve. Doesn’t the fact that things so small can alter a life in such large and diverse ways makes my belief in such constructs absurd?

Information fasts

The reevaluation of the worth of social media—typified by Cal Newport’s most recent “experiment”—has a singular central step: absence. The idea is that by deliberately detaching ourselves from these digital tools and services, we are better able to understand the impact they have on us and where they fit into our lives. It’s similar to the idea that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but in this case, absence helps the mind to notice. I see this practice of informational abstinence as having a similar flavour to nutritional fasting.

What is the main advantage of a nutritional fast? For me, it is that the body and its systems get a break from the constant barrage of stimuli. For example, most of us eat three meals a day, and in between those meals we snack on other foodstuffs or consume calories in liquid form. Thus, our body—and consequently, our mind—is always responding to intake. It never gets a chance to decompress. Only when we sleep are we able to suspend response to new dietary inputs (and even then, we’re digesting what we ingested in recent hours). A twenty-four-plus hour fast breaks this cycle, this chronic state of response and digestion, and forces our mind and body into a different mode of operation.

Because of this, when we come back to eating food we notice the change in state that occurs. We feel the shift that takes place. So we could say that the very cycle of fasting and consuming results in a heightened awareness. Which is what, I think, is the real virtue of social media fasting that Cal Newport et al. have stumbled upon. It’s not so much that we recognise the negatives associated with social media usage. No. When we come back to social media—or any other source of information—after a prolonged absence, we notice the negatives and the positives of both states, of immersion in information and of immersion in isolation from information.

Practitioners and researchers involved in the domains of health and fitness are starting to notice (read: relearn) the efficacy of intermittent and periodic nutritional fasting. Similarly, I think that everyone who is connected to some degree to the internet and social media will begin to notice the efficacy of intermittent and periodic informational fasting in the years to come, and implement it into their day-to-day life.

The privately powerful

Tyrants are stupid and dictators are dumb because they seek public power.

Sure, on some level, those who climb to these positions are worthy of respect; they had the cunning to spy out a path, as well as the audacity to walk it. However, the very nature of their power makes them fragile. Power overtly exercised manufactures opposition. Power visibly possessed puts a target on the possessor’s back. That’s why figures like Trump don’t bother me overmuch: sure, he can cause some havoc, but that’s mainly because he wants other people to recognise his dominance. I find little to fear in someone who seeks influence and wants others to know that he has it.

No, more demanding of my cautious attention are those with private power. Those cunning enough to understand how to get power, audacious enough to gather it into their hands, but wise enough to mask the full extent of the influence they possess. These are the ones I am wary of. These are the ones who will maintain their positions long after they have consolidated them. Mainly because, if they are successful in their aims, their hand in events will never be detected, and thus, will never be eradicated.

All persons fictitious

I often come across some variation of the following words at the beginning of a novel:

“This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.”

I understand the motive behind such a statement: it reduces the possibility of a legal attack. It’s also B.S. From my limited experience creating characters and worlds, and from what I’ve read about other people’s work that involves the same, works of fiction are sometimes directly, and always indirectly, derived from personal or vicarious experience. How can it be any other way? Robert Greene has a wonderful way of looking at it: “It’s all material.” He means that life and everything that happens within it can be used. Had a teacher with a limp and skewed smile? Save it for later. Can’t forget the cruelty or the generosity of a member of your family? No problem, work it in. Learnt about the intellectual courage or cowardice of a historical figure? Perfect. More raw material.

We can create characters, worlds, institutions, technologies, stories. But none of what we create, none of what we think, is one hundred percent, bona-fide original. And when it comes to novels, the content is only ever part-fiction.