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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23 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:02 PM

I'm intrigued but also very uncomfortable, probably because I worry that if this works people will mostly use it to force themselves to do things.

That's probably fair. I struggled a bit with how to frame this post. In practice I've used the "spamming micro-intentions" as training wheels to rapidly get to the point where I just actually pay attention to what my intentions in the moment look like. It seemed like a decent enough arrow-pointing-at-the-moon exercise to get people there.

If this works and people are able to get themselves to do more complex and willpower heavy tasks that they wouldn't normally be able to do, wouldn't that be a good thing by default? Or are you worried that it would allow people with poorly aligned incentives to do more damage?

No, I'm worried about people hurting themselves doing this, not others. In general I have a lot of concerns around people forcing themselves to do things - my model is that this amounts to some of their parts subjugating other parts, and I both think this is just bad and leads to visibly bad consequences down the line like burning out.

I'm late to this but I wanted to say that I'm glad to see this concern on LW. I have a tendency to burn out whenever I try to do things in The Most Efficient Way (precisely because my Efficient (TM) parts underestimate how much downtime other parts of me need), and I've had to avoid LW sometimes in order to get out of a "must do everything efficiently!" spiral.

(That said, I like this idea and will be trying it out and see if it helps or hurts me.)

ETA: I did not try it out after all; I was too worried about causing burnout.

Yeah, that's a nice technique. But for push-ups there's an even easier way: do one push-up and go back to work. (You can to do more, but only if you feel like it.) Do that several times in one day. It takes literally one day to pick up the habit, the next day you fall into it naturally.

Or more generally: Break up a larger and more difficult task into a chain of subtasks, and see if you have enough willpower to accomplish just the first piece. If you can, you can allow yourself a sense of accomplishment and use that as a willpower boost to continue, or try to break up the larger task even further.

I like this, sort of like reverse-engineering the slight but persistent thoughts and impulses that arise when you're meditating.

I've been using this for meditation too, but it's interesting to see it formulated for wider application. It seems to work for me to reduce resistance. Some other comments mentioned how this mirror how addictions seem to work. But it also mirrors how advertisements and even reading about something work.

Was not able to get it to work.

Tried for push-ups. Then for standing up. Then for closing my laptop.

I think I'm confused how to do it. What am I supposed to do with my mind exactly?

What I'm trying:

a) I recall what it feels like to 'intend' to close the laptop

b) I pick the most salient bit of that (the motion of my hand swiping downward while feeling the edge of the laptop with my fingers)

c) I repeat this salient bit between breaths or maybe a bit more frequently than that

Am I supposed to, instead, be choosing the very initial bit, where I /start/ to move my hand, and then repeat that?

That didn't quite work either, and my head is starting to hurt. Appreciate debugging here.

Some other ideas:

Include a visualization and kinesthetic somewhere in the package. Like, you see what the action should look like, you see yourself doing it, and you also feel what that will be like.

Focusing on the first part of the motion actually seems fine to me, that sounds like what I do automatically.

Play around with getting a sense of what intentions feel like outside of the context of this exercise. For example, if you routinely get up to get a drink of I water, or habitually check your email, or something like that, pay attention to the inner experience of how that intention arises in your mind, how your mind appears to briefly examine the impulse before accepting it, and how your body executes it. Make it easy on yourself by picking something neutral like refilling your water, and not something you’re conflicted about like checking social media.

I think having a more precise inner sense of what naturally arising intentions feel like will help you craft valid ones.

I also wonder if you’re not expecting slightly too much. Here’s how I would describe the inner experience of it: If you do it right, tour body isn’t hijacked, you just gradually lose the feeling of resistance to the task and feel a growing positive compulsion to do the task. This (apparently) grows until you find that doing the task feels like the obvious thing to do. Does any part of that start to happen for you?

I can very easily imagine choosing the wrong task (e.g. stick your hand into a pot of boiling water) where the inhibitory impulse Is much stronger than any amount of micro-intending can overcome. But it doesn’t sound like that’s your problem.

Well, maybe the problem is:

It doesn't work because I don't want it to work. This matches my understanding of predictive processing theory.

My mind gets distracted, or I 'hold onto' the resistance so that it doesn't go away. And I endorse the resistance more than the intent to get out of bed or w/e, which feels arbitrary or 'from outside'.

I usually don't do things that don't come from my elephant directly or isn't checked and greenlit by the elephant. (But then I get confused why it works for Qiaochu who seems similar to me.)

I might keep trying and seeing if I find a version that works.

I think how much you don't want it to work probably matters. Again, not only will your mind inhibit you from sticking your hand in boiling water, but your mind will be right to do it. You have to pick something that you feel mild but not extraordinary resistance to doing.

Thanks for trying it and reporting back. I'm really curious to hear if you get it to work.

Well, I haven't tried it on something I don't elephant-endorse yet.

I think I previously had a strong sense of there being a part of me that actively didn't want me to do various things, but in the striatum-receiving-bids model of action selection it makes more sense to think of not-doing-anything as the default thing that happens in the absence of sufficiently strong bids, and all I'm doing is amplifying whatever bids are present, which feels less bad to me than crashing through my resistance.

Hmmmmmm. Yeahhh, let me try it on something I actually want to do.

Suspicious. I immediately sat up, and there was no notable resistance.

If it only works on things I want to do, then this technique is asymmetric, not symmetric for me. Which I guess is a good thing.

I can't tell if it's symmetric for the rest of ya'll.

I tried this and it worked (did some pushups, some pullups, and sent an email I had been procrastinating on). I'm still worried about it leading to some weird compensatory reaction down the line so I don't think I want to do it too often. Although if meditators do it and it results in them getting better at it then maybe I'm totally wrong and this is just amazing.

Thanks for trying it.

I think the most likely compensatory reaction is that you just find yourself unwilling to start the process of micro-intending in the first place. That's how my brain usually dodges out of stuff like this. "Oh, you think Pomodoros are a good idea that works for you? Enjoy completely forgetting that technique exists!"

My initial impression is that this is absurdly efficacious (maybe it’s partly due to expectation, however). What could this be emulating on a neurophysiological level? Why would this even work? My first thought was that it’s spoofing external cues en masse, but that doesn’t seem right.

Part of what led me to think of this was the recent Slate Star Codex post on motivation.

The striatum receives “bids” from other brain regions, each of which represents a specific action. A little piece of the lamprey’s brain is whispering “mate” to the striatum, while another piece is shouting “flee the predator” and so on. It would be a very bad idea for these movements to occur simultaneously – because a lamprey can’t do all of them at the same time – so to prevent simultaneous activation of many different movements, all these regions are held in check by powerful inhibitory connections from the basal ganglia. This means that the basal ganglia keep all behaviors in “off” mode by default. Only once a specific action’s bid has been selected do the basal ganglia turn off this inhibitory control, allowing the behavior to occur.

Think of the mind as an assembly of subminds who are bidding for control of the body. Sweep all the complexity aside for the moment and think purely of that bidding process. It seems evident that subminds can win the bidding war by being weak yet insistent. You can get your mind to pay close attention to your breath by repeating tiny intentions at a high frequency. You can make yourself do pushups by the same means. You're effectively hacking the bidding process by taking advantage of an exploit.

Many of these action bids originate from a region of the lamprey brain called the pallium…
Each little region of the pallium is responsible for a particular behavior, such as tracking prey, suctioning onto a rock, or fleeing predators. These regions are thought to have two basic functions. The first is to execute the behavior in which it specializes, once it has received permission from the basal ganglia. For example, the “track prey” region activates downstream pathways that contract the lamprey’s muscles in a pattern that causes the animal to track its prey. The second basic function of these regions is to collect relevant information about the lamprey’s surroundings and internal state, which determines how strong a bid it will put in to the striatum.

Neurologically, I guess you're submitting a large number of rapid-fire "copies" of the same motor program from the pallium (cerebral cortex, in higher animals) to the striatum. I guess the striatum isn't smart enough to recognize spam when it sees it. And why would we expect it to, necessarily? It's not like the subminds are literally fighting to win the bidding war; except in pathological edge cases like OCD and addictive behavior, you don't see a lot of spurious motor program submission going on. So it kinda makes sense that this exploit would work.

(I assume from your post that you actually tried it and it worked?)

So I'm very worried about this. It wouldn't surprise me to find that the striatum is capable of learning that it's being exploited in this way and compensating appropriately. Median case is the technique just stops working. Worst case is something really weird happens to your ability to submit bids.

(Not worried enough to not try it, mind you. But worried enough to not have tried it yet out of fear.)

I certainly won't strenuously argue that it's definitely safe, because I really have no idea if it's safe. But I would note the analogy to addictive and/or compulsive behaviors. The striatum doesn't distinguish "valid" compulsions from invalid ones by default, and that's why it's so easy for us to get addicted. It's not like the striatum has any way of knowing what counts of spurious input. At least, I can't imagine why it would.

Again, not really arguing with you, really still just working through my own sense of why this works at all.

That’s a fascinating possibility.

Yes, it did work for me. In fact, once I’ve spammed my brain into meditation, it has a very dopaminergic, "you’re-about-to-be-rewarded" mental signature. I’m going to tread quite carefully.

(I normally cannot stand sitting still and meditating.)

This is an interesting idea!

I'm prone to pushing myself too far and burning out, so I'll have to be careful about this, but this sounds like it could work well for me. My problem is that 1) forcing myself to do things is exhausting and 2) I need more downtime than I expect, and I think that this approach could help with 1).

I'll try this for a week, and check in the following Monday.

ETA: I did not try it out after all; I was too worried about causing burnout.