I seem to have a kind of "mental momentum". Or maybe "cognitive inertia" is a better word.

When I feel as if I've lately been doing things worth doing, I feel curious and open and interested in things and seek more things to do, and have a good chance of actually doing them. But when I feel as if I haven't been doing things worth doing, or when my perception of the worth of the things I've been doing flips to them having been useless wastes of time (and thus, actively counterproductive as a result of the opportunity cost, since I could have been doing something useful, but stupid past-me was deluded and only now do I finally know the True Usefulness), then I lose momentum and start having a hard time perceiving anything as worth doing.

I become depressed, listless, closed off, unable to make decisions, and overwhelmed by the smallest actions. Generally at this point I lose my appetite (even if I am hungry, I can't bring myself to get something to eat - if it's really bad I don't even get coffee in the morning), and either walk in circles haranguing myself to just make a decision and do something already (if I'm in a sufficiently aroused state of mind), or climb into bed and try to dissociate enough that I don't feel as bad anymore, perhaps fleeing to daydreams about an elusive "someday when everything's better", wishing that night would come faster so that I could sleep and not have to endure living anymore for a while.

Eventually, miraculously, this goes away. I'm still not sure how, or what makes it go away, but my anxiety about decisions dissipates, the wall in my mind between intent and action becomes thinner, and I become able to do small tasks. Writing whatever I am thinking is usually the easiest - hence why I am doing it right now. This doesn't guarantee a total reversal - I usually still cannot come up with anything large to do, or the will to do it, but I can at least do this small thing.

I guess I end up passively scrolling, looking for dopamine, at this point, and often before the valley of apathy as well - but scrolling increases apathy due to the sensation of time being wasted and the vaguely addictive, energy-draining quality of it. Rarely, however, something I see on the internet sparks an idea sufficiently interesting that I want to try it out, and I start Doing Something, and begin to climb the hill.

Of course, when I am Doing Something, I have to try very hard to avoid noticing that it is uncertain how useful Something is - the moment I question the legitimacy of whatever I am Doing, I start sliding back down toward the valley again. To maintain momentum I have to be totally single-minded, hyperfocussed, and reject anything that gets in the way of continuing to Do the Thing.

Then I get burnt out. When progress stalls - and it always stalls, the moment there is a decision to be made whose outcome is not immediately obvious and takes any amount of non-negligible planning - I start sliding back down again. I start questioning the worth of everything I've been doing, feeling like I've been in a trance, like I was deluded, like I was allowing a random whim to make me stray from the path of True Usefulness - but at the same time I realize I have no idea what True Usefulness is, and the cycle begins again.

This cycle occurs on a small scale roughly every day with differing strengths, and on a larger scale has a wavelength of around a week or two. There's usually also a more general "tendency of my thought patterns to return to a given concept over and over" level of the wave on the order of a few months.

As a result of this cycle, I have never finished any project in my life that takes longer than the length of time I can remain hyperfocussed. Those projects I have finished all have a similar structure: they are made of totally independent parts each of which can be fully created in one sitting - in one daily focus burst - and which require no planning whatsoever, being able to perform fully from spontaneous intuition.

The lowest level parts may include any kind of work of art (nearly all my hobbies are artistic in some way for this reason - abstract visual art [trying to depict something takes too much planning], poetry, music, very short fiction [a few thousand words at most], etc), or small programming projects where I have a pretty good idea of how the whole algorithm works from the start and can iterate towards my ideal solution quite rapidly, on the order of a few interlocking functions.

Then the total project is essentially just a collection of such elements, each sharing a common theme and roughly connected to one another (but again, not in any way that requires pre-planning, and mostly independent), generated during the second level week-or-two time frame that I can maintain a project before crashing and feeling like it's all worthless shit.

And on the months level, I start and drift off of numerous projects with the same general "vibe" or attempts to move toward a single larger goal that I struggle to clearly explicate, where I hope each project is somehow a piece of a nebulous "plan" to get at that goal - but of course, it never is, and they never build on each other, because they can't. And so I never achieve any of those large goals.

I've been doing this for as long as I can remember. Some huge goals, like writing a book (about my philosophical speculations, which are all adjacent to both rationality and spirituality, and which have been an important part of my inner life since I was a teenager) and getting physically fit (I am a stick figure, as my natural low appetite combined with my regular fall into the abyss of apathy makes me unable to eat enough to gain weight and similarly unable to maintain an exercise regimen), have been in my head for over ten years and I have never been able to achieve them or even keep going longer than a few weeks.

In fact, in the case of the book, I've never managed to keep going longer than a few hours, as writer's block together with the need to plan (a book must be planned, you simply can't write something good spontaneously), as well as my lack of bird's-eye-view insight into my own mind (I cannot hold in mind what all I believe and how it relates together, and just notice things as they show up, in a rambling stream of consciousness - just as I cannot plan the future, I also cannot remember the past), ruins my ability to act very quickly.

Basically I have really, really severe akrasia due to a pattern of cyclical downturns in my ability to make and follow through with decisions (and plans are sequences of decisions, which is even worse) on top of a rather low ability to do so to begin with. I flip back and forth between pleasant (or at least trancelike) hyperfocus and depressive acedia. (Acedia is an old monastic term referring to a depression-like feeling of dreading the future, dreading any kind of effort, and the resulting inability to act despite wishing to, which outwardly looks like sloth.)

I'm not sure what the point of writing this is; basically I just was in a state of mild acedia this morning and I got out of it only upon getting the notion that writing this description of the pattern is something I might focus on and feel is just barely useful enough to motivate activity. Perhaps someone will find this noteworthy for some reason.


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Sorry I don't have anything useful to comment, but just wanted to thank you profusely for this post. I relate pretty strongly to these very problems, especially the uncertainty of usefulness (often the certainty of uselessness) and the opportunity cost considerations. I don't know any good article where someone talks about handling this issue.

I'm glad you like it! Something that I meant to point out in the post is that this pattern of mine implies that not only do I not have coherent preferences, they're not even temporally coherent - that is, not only do different parts of me disagree on utility, but I disagree with myself at other times on it as well. I'm really about as non-agentic as it's possible to be and still get things done occasionally!

First, Writing things so you know them seems valuable.

Second, Fwiw In my struggles with depression, I've found physical habits to be the easiest route to something better. When you don't know what to do but need to do something, go for a walk/hike/jog and let your brain sync up with your body a little, burn some calories to regain some hunger, and deserve some the tiredness you may already feel.

Good point! In those states of mind it is just as hard to make the choice to do some physical thing as to make any other choice, but perhaps I could try to hold in mind the intention to always do some exercise on the upswing, when I am getting back into the gear of action. Ideally I could even learn to do it on the downswing, before I'm so deep in the apathy valley as to be unable to make the choice.