Living in the Moment

Living in the Moment:


     Why is it so difficult to implement good habits?

     Maybe you’re turbocharged with motivation and it’s not hard for you at all.  But if you’re like me, it can seem like everyday is an uphill battle–there are books to be read, journals to be written, exercises to be done, all while your primitive brain putters along in fits and starts, craving cookies and comics most of the way.

     But this isn’t so surprising when you break it down.  

     Think about it–when you wake up, your room, your bed, your alarm, and a million other things are probably already priming you to act in your default way–the habits you’ve developed over time will overpower any changes you’ve been trying to instill.  Compared to anything new, your default habits have had eons to sink in!

     Basically, you don’t automatically remember your insights and motivation hacks as easily as you do your “normal” habits, because your normal habits have been your defaults for much longer, making them more ingrained.  

     It might be helpful to think of all the positive changes you’re trying to implement, along with their associated thoughts as a save file package, like in a video game.  Unless you “load” the save file when you wake up, you’ll have to “start over” and have to go through many of the same challenges over and over again.  You might see your thoughts following the same trail over and over again (see here).

     But remembering is only half of the story.  Once you’ve “loaded” your list of positive habits, you actually need to follow through with them.  If you don’t want to make these changes, it’ll be much, much harder to get them down.

     It seems like if this is the case, we shouldn’t be surprised when a half-hearted effort to do 50 push ups a day dies halfway throughout the week–if you’re not used to doing exercise, it’s much easier to forget, or choose to just not do it.

     However, to counteract this two-fold problem, I’m not suggesting you go all-out and burn yourself out on a barrage of reminders, alarms, memos, and mantras to get these habits to stick.  In such a case, you’d be actively fighting against your brain’s defaults, and such antagonization can be both exhausting and ineffective (see here).

     Instead of taking a die-hard combative stance, I suggest you move to an attitude where your positive habits are both easier to remember and implement–you’re optimizing your mindstate before you tackle the “hard” actions.

     In short, optimizing your mindstate consists of:

  • Identify when you are having difficulty getting yourself to do an action.
  • Do something to put yourself in a better mental position to do the action.
  • Doing the original action.



     Central to this technique is the understanding that many of your wants and desires are situation-dependent.  If you think back, you can probably recall instances where you did something you later regretted–except that it made sense at the time.

     For example, binge-watching Netflix can seem like a good choice, if you are in need of some pleasing, mindless stimuli.  If you are well-rested and feeling disciplined, however, you may view such a choice as a poor one.  

     You can have different “attitudes” or “modes”, where your tastes can differ.  This “mode” is like a collection of related thoughts and habits, which have multiple effects.  I’m trying to point to a “mental shift” that brings with it a host of small changes in preferences and habits of mind.

     For instance, you may find that when you’re accessing a more contemplative attitude, you’ll be more likely to consider, not just math questions more deeply, but all questions in general.  

     The trick here is to see what sorts of activities can put you in a positive state of mind, so you can reframe the decisions you’re facing in a way that better fits what you “really” want.

     (There is another question about whether or not it even makes sense to talk about what you “really” wants when your brain obviously “wants” something else.  That is for another time, though, so I hope it’s intuitive enough to see the gist of what I’m getting at here.)

     Alas, I can’t identify what actions work well for you, because I’m not you, but activities that have worked well for me include:

  • Getting a breath of fresh air outside
  • Reading my journal/notebook
  • Cracking open a textbook
  • Watching something motivating

     Once you’ve got a mental (or physical) list of activities that put you in a good mindstate, the next step is identifying when you’re in a harmful mindstate, and doing something on the list to optimize your mindstate.

     Why go out of your way to do this “get into a good mindstate” business?  

     Recall that the point of this is to follow good habits (things you know you should be doing) when you’ve got a brain that doesn’t want to do them.

     My assumption here is that the list of actions which put you in a better mindstate are easier than the aversive action you’ve been not wanting to do (the good habit).  I think that’s fairly valid–most of these actions fall into more of the “relaxing” or “reset” category, which you really need not have to force yourself to do.

     By tackling the way you look at your habits, you can make the action less daunting/aversive.  You’re tackling the meta-level of the way you perceive the tasks, before doing the tasks themselves.

     Here’s a quick example of what it feels like mentally:  Suppose that I’ve decided to get some work done.  But I feel tired and lazy and I don’t want to do work.  

     I think, “I notice I currently don’t want to do work.  What’s the very next thing I could do that could put in a better position to want to do work?”

     “Hm, I’ll go and wash my face.  That should make me less tired.”

     I go do that, and I do indeed feel less tired.  Optimizing your mindstate is pretty much about doing easy to do “auxiliary actions” (which have meta-level effects) before you tackle something “hard”, to make the hard task less hard, bridging the gaps between taxing tasks.


     What the above process seems to make important is the concept of The Next Action.  Exactly like it sounds, The Next Action is the action you will take right after your current action (see here and here).

     But we’re talking immediately right after your current action.  When you’re trying to get something done, it’s less about what you plan to do in the next 1 hour, but more about what you plan to do in the next 30 seconds.  

     I’ve noticed that when I get distracted, it’s mostly because I don’t have a concretely defined thing to be doing after my current moment, so I will go for the path of least resistance, which usually involves webcomics of some kind.

     Realizing that what you do in each moment matters is very helpful, I think (see Micro Actions lead to Macro States).  By focusing on instant-by-instant actions, you’ll be creating a flow of actions in your mind.

     Having a schedule that fills up the available time exactly, without spare time for distractions is good, but without some contingencies, it’s still highly possible to off-schedule.  However, by keeping a list in your mind, you’ll have an internal drive to go straight to the next action as you’ve completed one–it’s already in your head.


     One way of making sure you’ve got a continuous flow of actions is by deciding what you’re going to do, before you’re done with your current task.  At least for me, if I simulate myself doing the task I want to get done (in my head), it feels like doing that task next is Following The Plan.

     Mentally, I say something like, “Okay, now I’ve got to go vacuum the floor–but wait I need to finish this rough draft–but I need to vacuum the floor–but I need to finish this first…”

     So it’s something of an internal back-and-forth, and I suspect that it’s not good for my efficiency at the current task at hand, but it does greatly increase the chance that I’ll do The Next Action (e.g. vacuuming the floor).

     I don’t like doing things against The Plan, so I’ll feel a strong urge to go and do the task I’ve previously already mentally committed doing.  Doing something else feels Wrong, and that’s something I can capitalize on to do the the task I have a “nagging obligation” to.


     Instead of looking at the problem as the difficult task of somehow achieving long-term productivity, instant-by-instant optimization means that you only need to do one thing well at a time.  I think this reduces the difficulty of the task, as it’s now a more minor optimization problem.

     So focusing on what you will do right now should have some positive productivity benefits, hence this post’s title–Living in the Moment.

     A lot of this, I suspect, will sound obvious and much like common-sense.  But that shouldn’t, I hope, be the reason you decide not to try this out.  Many of the best tips I’ve encountered for productivity, like “make a schedule” and “write down your goals” would not be amiss in a grade school student planner, but it does not dismiss their effectiveness.

     Remember, if it feels like you’re trying very hard to force yourself to think differently, that’s not the best way to go about it.  It’s ultimately about putting yourself in a mindset where the actions are easier, and you face less resistance from your brain.

     Lastly, this doesn’t require you to be anyone special.  It’s a powerful testament to human ability–by re-purposing something your brain already does (which is what a lot of the stuff I write about tries to do), you’re able to achieve better results, with your own brain.



  1. […] “Optimize Your Mindstate:” If you’re feeling in a “not-work” state, do a thing that is low-effort but puts you in a more of a “yes-work” mode, so you don’t have to immediately force yourself.  EX: Walking outside, stretching, getting water, etc. […]


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