Often when people are dealing with an issue – emotional, mental, or physical – there’s genuine progress and the issue becomes less and seems to go away.

Until it comes back, seemingly as bad as before.

Maybe the person developed a coping mechanism that worked, but only under specific circumstances. Maybe the person managed to eliminate one of the triggers for the thing, but it turned out that there were other triggers. Maybe the progress was contingent on them feeling better in some other way, and something as seemingly trivial as sleeping worse brought it back.

I’ve been there, many times. It is often very, very frustrating. I might feel like all the progress was just me somehow perpetuating an elaborate fraud on myself, and like all efforts to change the thing are hopeless and it will never go away.

And I know that a lot of other people feel this way, too.

Something that I tell my clients who are experiencing this despair is something that I got from Tucker Peck, that I call the 99% principle:

The most important step is not when you go from having the issue 1% of the time to 0% of the time, but when you go from having the issue 100% of the time to 99% of the time.

It’s when you go from losing your temper or going into a fawn reaction in every disagreement, to staying cool on some rare occasions.

It’s when you go from always procrastinating on an unpleasant task, to sometimes tackling it head-on.

It’s when you go from always feeling overwhelmed by anxiety to having some moments where you can breathe and feel a bit more at ease.

When you manage to reduce the frequency or the severity of the issue even just a little, that’s the beginning of the point where you can make it progressively less. From that point on, it’s just a matter of more time and work.

Of course, not all issues are ones that can ever be gotten down to happening 0% of the time, or even 50% of the time. Or even if they can, it’s not a given that the same approach that got you to 99%, will get you all the way to 0%.

But even if you only get it down somewhat. That somewhat is still progress. It’s still a genuine improvement to your life. The fact that the issue keeps occurring, doesn’t mean that your gains would be fake in any way.

And also, many issues can be gotten down to 0%, or close to it. Over time both the frequency and severity are likely to decrease, even if that might be hard to remember in the moments when the thing gets triggered again.

For many issues, it can be the case that the moment when it finally goes to 0% is something that you won’t even notice – because the thing had already become so rare before, that you managed to forget that you ever even had the problem.

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Relatedly: existence proofs can be extremely emotionally important.

Likewise with disproof by counterexample. Even a single (actually received) counter example to a strong emotional belief about one's self and the world can do a disproportionate amount towards letting that belief go.

I feel skeptical of this in the context of problems in my life. It feels like there's a ton of randomness, so I never have a problem ALL of the time given a certain trigger, I just have the problem a bunch

This was my instinctive reaction as well, made clearer by having done a few years of personal data tracking to (among others) A/B test self-improvement experiments. It's just hard to tell, especially with the low-probability high-severity recurring issues, perhaps complicated by ever-changing life contexts.

Yeah, the intended context is for people who feel like they managed to solve their problem for good, only to have it unexpectedly come back again. If that's not the context of your problems, then it's not useful advice for you.

I feel the OP is best thought as a placebo pump rather than a mechanistic one-size-fits-all advice. It might not be the best for you if it lacks some key ingredient you need. Or it might work iff you first create a fiction character that you can feel responsible for many of your problem (« Moloch did this! »), then allow yourself find the >1% of the time where you did successfully overcome the bastard, then you can climb.


Huh, yeah, this is basically the opposite of how things work for me?

I get into spirals a lot. I can have a positive spiral: I sleep well, get out of bed feeling rested, start the day with a small easy task, get a feeling of accomplishment, feel more confident about starting a bigger task, eventually get into flow, have a very productive day, by 7pm I'm satisfied and decide to start cooking dinner, so I'm ready to go to sleep at a reasonable hour and have another great day tomorrow.

I also get into negative spirals: I wake up feeling tired because I had a nightmare, pick up my phone and scroll social media in bed, encounter some upsetting news, start playing video games to distract myself, suddenly it's 11pm and I forgot to eat so I stay up late to get groceries and cook, so I don't get much sleep, so the next day I'm tired again and irritated at myself, so I'm more likely to get back on social media...

I can't remember to brush my teeth 99% of the time. If I forget once, then the habit is broken, and I'll forget again tomorrow. Then I'll have forgotten for three days and it won't even be on my mind anymore. Soon it'll be psychologically difficult to think about brushing my teeth because I feel bad about the fact I haven't done it in a week. Negative spirals.

There's just a lot of things in my life that I need to be 100% absolutely consistent with, no exceptions, and it's worth it for me to dip into resources to make that happen. 99% isn't a stable number; it's too easy for it to become 98% and too easy for that to become 1%. If I notice a 100% thing becoming a 99% thing, I need to treat that as very urgent and fix it before a spiral starts.

(Yes, this is very delicate and a terrible system which creates gigantic setbacks in my life whenever there's a change, like needing to move house. But I have to acknowledge that that's how I work so that I can fix it.)

That makes sense. I have some amount of those kinds of spirals too, especially around "I'm well-focused on my tasks and productive starting from early morning" vs. "I'm keep procrastinating on my tasks and getting distracted from the ones that I did manage to start". Focus seems to feed additional focus and distraction seems to feed additional distraction, but distraction is often stronger, so if the focus starts slipping it's an easy slide to complete distraction.

In that context I'd think of the percentage thing on the level of spirals than individual tasks. E.g. getting into a positive spiral on 1% of days is better than getting to a positive spiral on 0% of days, and if I get into a negative spiral on one day, I can take comfort in the fact that tomorrow may be a more positive one. (If your spirals are longer than one day, adjust appropriately.)

I think your insight is that progress counts--that counting counts.  It's overcoming the Boolean mindset, in which anything that's true some of the time, must be true all of the time.  That you either "have" or "don't have" a problem.

I prefer to think of this as "100% and 0% are both unattainable", but stating it as the 99% rule might be more-motivating to most people.

Maybe the progress was contingent on them feeling better in some other way, and something as seemingly trivial as sleeping worse brought it back.

Can that really happen to normal adults?

That they go from seemingly fine members of society to despairing emotional wrecks after a single bad sleep?

The only cases I've heard of in real life happen to those who are literally brain damaged, whether from a bad industrial accident, accident/shell shock in military service, overdosing, bad car crashes, botched surgeries, retired football players, etc...

Your definition of "normal adults" is very vague.

Speaking for myself, I would consider myself quite "normal" (whatever that means precisely) and am struggling with anxiety for the last three years. I have made a lot of progress over the years, going from "waking up with anxiety and being anxious the whole day until going to bed" to "occasionally getting axious feelings, when triggered" and a night of bad sleep definitely occasionally worsent my state.

I don't think its about becoming "despairing emotional wrecks", but rather just waking up in a worse state than the day before. This can feel like a setback if you thing in "I have the problem"/"I don't have the problem"-terms and the authors point is that its not really a setback, because the fact that if you feel worse means, that you came from a better state already. 

This can feel like a setback if you thing in "I have the problem"/"I don't have the problem"-terms and the authors point is that its not really a setback, because the fact that if you feel worse means, that you came from a better state already.

Can you clarify what this means?

I have a nightmare disorder which can absolutely ruin my week, but I wouldn't really call myself "literally brain damaged".

A retried football player might not call themselves 'literally brain damaged', but if they played professionally they very likely are to some extent, and if they were a linebacker it would likely be noticeable in day to day life.

I'm confused by what is meant by this comment. Are you suggesting that Firinn has brain damage?

I'm suggesting that claims of whether or not a specific person, including oneself,  is 'brain damaged' are not possible to assess without actual hard evidence, e.g. MRI scans and so on.

It's simply not something that even a highly motivated passing reader on LW could ever credibly determine, and it's unlikely Firrin would want to share that kind of information in any case.

If Firrin turns out to literally be a retired football player, or had suffered shell shock in military service, etc., then I guess I would be suggesting that in retrospect, and would have phrased it differently, but I didn't consider that this morning.

I have definitely had periods where my mood on the day has basically been determined by whether I've slept well or not (assuming no other major factors influencing it in either direction).

A bad mood sure, but to visibly regress in a face to face conversation from one day to the next is a lot more severe. Or do you mean that they really can’t control their bad mood?

I don't know how literally you meant the "visibly", but people are often good at covering up how they feel inside. My mood is more stable these days so it's a bit hard to recall the details anymore, but I would find it very plausible that a well-slept night could at some point have made the difference between "feeling basically good and happy" and "feeling like life is not worth living" for me.

But you probably wouldn't have been able to tell that from the outside. Probably to an outside observer, it would have looked more like "Kaj looks like he's in a good mood today" vs. "Kaj looks a little reserved today".