Also posted on LessWrong.
You've had those moments -- the ones where you're very aware of where you're at in the world, and you're mapping out your future and plans very smartly, and you're feeling great about taking action and pushing important things forwards.
I used to find myself only reaching that place, at random, once or twice per year.
But every time I did, I would spend just a few hours sketching out plans, thinking about my priorities, discarding old things I used to do that didn't bring much value, and pushing my limits to do new worthwhile things. I thought, "This is really valuable. I should do this more often."
Eventually, I named that state: Reflective Control.
As often happens, by naming something it becomes easier to do it more often.
At this time, I still had a hazy poorly working feeling about what it was. So I tried to define it. After many attempts, I came to this:
> Reflective Control is when you're firmly off autopilot, in a high-positive and high-willpower state, and are able to take action.
You'll note there's four discreet components to it: firmly off autopilot (reflective), high positivity, high will, and cable of and oriented towards taking action.
I also asked myself, "How to know if you're in Reflective Control?"
My best answer of an exercise for it is,
> You set aside the impulses/distractions, and try to set a concrete Control-related goal. This is meta-work, meaning the process of defining your life and what needs to happen next. You do this calmly. By setting a concrete Control-related goal successfully and then executing on it, you know you're in an RC state.
> Example: "I will identify all the open projects I've got, and the next steps for each of them."
With that definition and that exercise in hand, I was able to do something which works almost magically when I wanted to take on big challenges: I could rate myself from 1-100 on the four key elements of the component, and then set a concrete goal to achieve, and analyze a little about which factor might be holding me back. Here is an example from my journal:
> Reflective 70/100, positive 70/100, will 65/100, action 40/100… ok, I'm feeling good once a good, just some anxiety suppressing will a little and action quite a bit, but no problem. My goal is to finish the xxx outline before I leave here.
I've found this incredibly useful. Summary:
*There's a state I call "Reflective Control" where I'm off autopilot and thinking (reflective), in a positive mood, with willpower and action-oriented.
*I can put explicit numbers on this, somewhat subjectively, from 1-100. This lets me see where the link in the chain is, if any.
*By setting a concrete goal and working towards it, you can get more objective feedback and balance whichever element is lowest with some practical actions.
Navigating yourself when in a down state is one of the most valuable possible skills. And, extremely difficult.
One of the things that leads to snakebitten days is a convergence of negative events. Most people who develop healthy work habits and lifestyles can shrug off one or two things wrong. But when a mix of successes, accidents, and failures hits at the same time, you can lose time to the snakebitten day.
Navigating those days into being successful is really key.
Here's what happened yesterday:
*Wake up at 4:30AM (normal) after going to bed at 6:50PM (slightly early, 9.5 hours sleep).
The way we make decisions is pretty interesting. Making decisions that are bad for us is easy and effortless. Think about how easy it is to decide to watch TV, eat some junk food, take a nap, and then play some video games. On the other hand, let's say that today you wanted to have a really positive day. To actually decide and convince yourself to prepare and eat healthy food, avoid watching any TV, power through your work even when you're feeling tired, and avoid wasting time on facebook is hard. Not impossible, of course, but just by thinking through these two scenarios, you can imagine how much more mentally taxing the latter is.
The trick to overcoming this is to make decisions once that will have an effect for a long period of time-- in other words, having a standard routine that allows for no variance. For example, I want to have a good sleep schedule. I can do what I tried to do for about 30 years, which is will myself to make a good decision on when to go to bed every night, which didn't work at all, or just say that computer is off at midnight no matter what, and I'm asleep by two no matter what. Now I don't get to make a decision every night-- I just turn of the computer, read, and go to sleep. All I had to do was make this decision once, and then train myself on it for a couple weeks before it became second nature.
Another huge benefit of rigid scheduling is that the schedules can be tweaked. I wanted to eat more Omega 3 fats. How do I do that? Well, if I just know that's a goal, maybe I'll go grocery shopping and figure out which foods are better, figure out how to prepare them, and make them. Or maybe I'll just dial it in by eating a couple more walnuts here and there and order salmon on the rare occasion I go to a restaurant. In my case, switching to eat more Omega 3 was simple-- I eat the same thing for lunch every day, so I just substituted a sardine sandwich and tuna sandwich for my nut/fruit sandwiches. One decision and my whole diet is improved.
Studies have shown that willpower is like a muscle. On one hand it needs to be exercised regularly to be effective, but on the other hand it's strength can become depleted through short-term overuse. If you're trying to eat healthy, exercise, work effectively, write, be financially responsible, and sleep well through micro-management, you probably won't be able to continue indefinitely. Instead you'll have a burst of a week or two where you crush it, and then you'll deplete your willpower and regress back to old habits.