Spamming Micro-Intentions to Generate Willpower

by moridinamael3 min read13th Feb 201823 comments


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The purpose of this post is to outline a potentially general trick for getting yourself out of a rut or motivating yourself to do a small task that you don't feel like doing. Part (i) describes the source of the idea. Part (ii) outlines an example for testing the technique. Part (iii) is a more abstract discussion about how this technique engenders an awareness of your moment-to-moment intentions which is itself valuable.


I recently made some meaningful strides in my meditation practice by following this advice from a reddit post (emphasis mine):

Having clear, strong intentions is what drives all progress through the TMI stages. But intentions become clear and strong, not through force or the intensity of delivery of the intention, but rather, through a very light, gentle touch that is consistently, repeatedly reinforced.
So, when Culadasa instructs you to “tighten your focus on the meditation object”, for example, all that’s required is a very light touch of intention, as if you were trying to brush a fragile snowflake with the tip of a feather.
When this quick, gentle intention is repeated consistently (perhaps with every breath cycle, or even two or three times during each breath cycle), it’s power grows and the mind eventually complies.
I call these “micro-intentions” to highlight their, quick, light, gentle quality.
It’s important to understand that there will often be a delay (sometimes considerable), between when you begin to apply micro-intentions and when you notice an effect. Often, it can take a few breath cycles of “micro-intending to notice greater detail and vividness in the meditation object” before you actually perceive a change.
So, be patient and diligent, keep refreshing the intentions, and stuff will happen =)

The truth of this advice can be easily demonstrated. Your first micro-intention appears to do nothing, and your metacognitively monitoring vantage point scoffs at its ineffectiveness, but after three or four breaths of "tip of the feather" nudges, you're suddenly percieving sensations with peak clarity. Maybe beyond what you've ever achieved previously.


It occurred to me that sustained micro-intentions could be a very generally powerful tool. I have tested it enough to certify it as something that I will keep in my toolkit, and I figured I would just share it, since I think it should be replicable in its most basic implementation.

Try it out: You probably don't want to do ten push-ups right now. If you give yourself a "push" to do it (an "intention"), you'll probably encounter resistance. (If you don't encounter resistance to doing push-ups, then maybe find some other small activity that you don't really want to do right now, that you feel resistance to doing, but would be in principle doable.)

Now that you've found that resistance, just ... start spamming micro-intentions. That "push" you just tried, to test for resistance? Just do that again, but lighter. So lightly that you don't even really care if your body complies. Keep doing it roughly every one or two seconds, or as frequently as feels "right".

(I found that it helps to also sustain a meta-intention to keep producing micro-intentions to do push-ups. Otherwise there's a risk you'll quickly get bored or distracted, because this is a weird thing to ask your brain to do, especially if you don't have any evidence that it will work.)

In about 15-45 seconds of sustained little pushes, you may suddenly start to feel kind of weird. Like you're suddenly uncomfortable just sitting there. None of the other activities that were on your immediate docket seem at all appealing anymore. It may occur to you that the only way to allieviate this discomfort is to just get up and do those push-ups. Then you do them. It will feel natural and inevitable to do so; the resistance is no longer present.

In the interest of pre-empting a potential failure mode, there's a world of difference between the verbal thought "I wish to do ten pushups" and the felt intention (or micro-intention) to do ten pushups. One of them is basically just a symbol in the phonological loop. The other is something like a motor program being submitted to consciousness for approval. We lack the language to talk about these distinctions clearly, but it's beneficial to be aware of mental phenomena in such detail.


It's been a few days since I first tried this, and since that time, I've come to better appreciate the value of being cognizant of "intentions" as discrete mental phenomena. For example, I've noticed a dozen times since then that when I'm failing to do a task I need to do, I'm failing because I literally haven't bothered to create an intention to do it. Then I create the intention, and miraculously I just do it.

Or I create the intention, discover the resistance to doing it, solve the resistance, and then I just do it.

It's on a level obvious but worth sketching out that this is how things are supposed to go in the ideal case:

  1. Possess the abstract knowledge that you are supposed to do the thing.
  2. In the appropriate context, formulate the felt intention to do the thing.
  3. If you encounter resistance, address it. When it's addressed, try step 2 again. If you don't encounter the resistance, then you'll just do the thing, because that's how minds work.

Your mind is really good at juking around actually executing this script. It'll introduce a disconnect between step 1 and step 2, perhaps by interposing a different intention to do a different thing which distracts you. Your mind actually has a lot of tricks for avoiding actually formulating a felt intention, in the moment.

At the very, very, very least, I've found this awareness of the state of my intention in the moment to be useful to better understanding how motivation works.

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