Insights from Foggy Brain Week

Insights from Foggy Brain Week

A Week of Foggy ETPs If you’ve been following my daily journals on fog brain, you probably have noticed the observations that have been accruing as I’ve fought the fuzziness.

I’ve rewritten each observation to try to capture its essence. They are presented in chronological order without comment; I’ll be mulling over them over the week to see what patterns become apparent.

I welcome any reader comments or reactions…together maybe we can figure something out that’s of universal interest to people like US: semi-neurotic thoughtful introverted process-oriented productivity-obsessed shiny goal-setting creatives that just want people to be happy about chasing their dreams while not starving to death! Or something like that :-)

From Foggy Monday

  • The fresh first hours of the day, just after waking/showering/eating protein, are sacred. Don’t sacrifice this time to distracting activities like email, news, or social media. Take that first hour and make something for yourself.

  • Email is a source of focus-destroying distractions and new responsibilities to process and react to. It is draining. Avoid as much as possible if you want to be creative.

  • Maintaining continuity helps make the day a productive one. For work that doesn’t have its own continuity baked-in, the next best thing is a tool process you can discipline yourself to use as your daily anchor. Keep it in the same place, with the rest of the materials and tools you need.

From Foggy Tuesday

  • Chores are often much bigger in my head than in reality, especially when I’m actually facing them down. The trick is not to waste energy bitterly thinking about how I’d rather be doing something else. Instead, start and see what it’s like, and channel the thinking into doing the task quickly and well until a stopping point arises.

  • Any forward motion feels good, which reduces anxiety felt toward future deadlines and goals. Believe this, and progress is mine!

  • I have a problem being creative/productive after running physical errands and meetings. It is not clear to me why. A FUTURE EXPERIMENT FOR MARCH

  • When I am fuzzy-headed and unproductive, I end up doing a lot of mindless clicking on the Internet. GET AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER and harness that nervous impulse to click by getting in front of a CHORE like washing dishes or decluttering. Put other thoughts out of your mind, and clicks will turn into clean dishes. Amazing!

  • Just FACING a big hairy undefined task and figuring some piece of it out feels like progress, if you’re NOT FREAKING OUT about getting it all done ASAP and berating yourself for being stupid/lazy.

  • It’s good to be around people who love the same things you do. I must reduce the number of commitments that take me away from that (for example, a misplaced sense of duty).

From Foggy Wednesday

  • Meetings kill my ability to focus. Anticipation of the meeting is a distraction. After the meeting, I am often unable to focus. A general goal is to have as few meetings as possible per week, because they are highly damaging to my productivity.

  • Managing tasks and planning when to do them (as with Trello) can make the day seem more packed than it really is. The very existence of an upcoming task on a list creates a mental burden due to feelings of (1) responsibility (2) unknown amount of difficulty/time drain (3) loss of freedom (4) undefined expectations.

  • Productivity falls drastically outside a temperature range of 65 degrees to 75 degrees.

  • I live in my head a lot, constantly thinking and processing. The ability to TURN OFF REFLECTION and shift the focus to what is in front of me (both figuratively and literally) is a powerful focusing tool. Focus is the ability to NOT be distracted; it is not the intensity of thinking itself. When focused, the intensity of the thinking is a byproduct of not being distracted by other things.

  • Technical documentation is bad when it creates question after question in the mind of the reader, deferring understanding and causing frustration by never providing resolution. Bad nomenclature and architectural clarity in the product just makes it worse.

  • Learning something new will give me a physical headache when I am frustrated by the available material. The state of unknowing, when drawn out, creates confusion that is mentally draining. Knowing that, I have to adopt an investigative approach and create the complete picture from scattered clues.

  • When learning something new, augmenting the documentation with a look at the physical crime scene (i.e. working code) will help fill in the gaps. There are essential patterns that are often not conveyed by third party observers because of (1) familiarity blindness and (2) compartmentalized thinking.

  • I am ready to work with a system once I completely grok it. To get to that point, I have to expand my inputs beyond documentation. Synthesizing and documenting my OWN mental model of how it should work is helpful. Observing the system directly and inspecting its operations in detail is also helpful.

  • The brain fog of confusion has been with me since I was a kid. Hard subjects are the ones that “don’t make sense” to me, and create a confusion headache. I am just now learning to cope with it systematically, by being serious about defining and kitting a learning process that is compatible with my thinking. I’m not completely dumb…better late than never!

  • When grok’ing a new system, I like to “blueprint” the critical operating routes through it so I understand its conceptual underpinnings in the context of the problem it is supposed to solve. It is only then that pre-built “recipes” for doing common tasks (as most tutorials are) become useful, as do higher-level “patterns” for common types of goals. The ability to observe the processes as they happen (as in having a good debugger in the programming context) is absolutely essential for model-refining reflection.

From Foggy Thursday

  • Only a small percentage of my time is spent in “hard creative work”. The rest of the time is spent managing, researching, or gathering. What is the right balance? I feel like I should be doing more hard creative work, and less managing.

  • It seems to take me a long time to solve programming tasks that, if I were a competent programmer, should be able to solve much more quickly. This is an unrealistic, unkind attitude to have toward myself, but still it lingers.

  • Sometimes hard work doesn’t create a physical headache. Differences noted this time: the end was in sight; rate of knowledge absorption was rapid; major unknowns were resolved; didn’t let myself have a negative emotional reaction, just focused on task at hand in front of me.

  • Thinking tools on the market today do not have an actual workspace for arranging, refining, and synthesizing data in a reflective, process-oriented manner. Scrivener is one exception.

From Foggy Friday

  • The very act of recording my activities creates mindfulness.

  • Getting together with friends feels like procrastination when I am not making the progress I want with my work. However, socializing with friends also adds energy and opens new possibilities.

  • Spending time socializing, meeting, and/or driving places makes me very tired, making it difficult to work afterwards.

  • Server administration can be a tedious, frustrating task. However, when I am not in a hurry it is like tinkering and kind of enjoyable in the way a half-compliment is.


  1. Naomi Niles 10 years ago

    I love that you’re keeping your morning hours sacred. I think that’s the best time to create something. I need to work on this better myself!

  2. Lynn O'Connor 10 years ago

    I identify with you so much, all the way round. Right now I have so much “scheduled” time with meetings with clients, students, and teaching 2 seminar. But all the between time, when I’m supposed to be sending out manuscripts for publication, when I could be doing so much like getting rid of maybe 20 boxes full of papers I can through out, on and on and on and my motivation right now is zilch. Not there. I watch your process with so much personal interest, and often I try to follow your lead (see what I always told you about being a leader?) Keep going, send your ETPs filled in, your time trackers filled in and any other forms you are using, they are visual music to my ears.

  3. Guy Porter 10 years ago

    Absolutely groundbreaking stuff, David. I’m sure many readers who have spent thousands on self help,or productivity seminars will agree that this post is a true gem. Combined with your productivity tools, these principles have really helped me in my business.

  4. Andrew Steele 10 years ago

    I’ve been dealing with Confusion Headache as you call it for years. Why can I read a novel for 2 hours painlessly, but source code documentation starts to ache after 10 minutes? I think part of it is definitely interest level, but I would posit another point worth considering: processor heat.

    If we were to think of our brains as computers, with our memories like hard disk drives and our frontal lobes like processors, it would be easy to correlate “confusion headache” with read/write speeds and activity heat. The more you use your computer, the more it has to read and write. The more it does that, the more it heats up.

    Likewise, when you use your brain a lot, especially for learning something new, the brain then has to work harder to create new memories and synthesize new connections. “Pleasure Reading”, then, doesn’t work the brain as hard because the number of new connections to synthesize are usually fewer. As well, even if it’s intellectually dense material, the facts and concepts are usually spread out between chunks of narrative, giving our brains a chance to ‘cool off’ before having to synthesize new data into actionable concepts.

    These thoughts are just my opinions, of course. I leave it to the scientists and psychologists to figure these things out for real. But so far my theory has proved out well: the harder my brain has to work, the more it gets worn out and starts hurting, just like every other muscle in my body. ;)

  5. Author
    Dave Seah 10 years ago

    Naomi: Yes! Make those sacred hours YOURS!!! Even if it’s just 15 minutes, I think it’s important to establish ownership of those first blessed minutes of the day.

    Lynn: You sound overbooked!!! I hope you can find some ways to carve out some more time for your primary tasks, and rearrange everything else to serve them instead of the other way around.

    Guy: Thanks for the kind words. It’s always good to hear what I’m going through has some relevance to others.

    Andrew: That’s a great observation. More energy is being used in synthesis than in consumption. I’d maintain that well-structured documentation is easier to absorb and a pleasure to read when it’s structured to work within the confines of limited processing capabilities. For me, it’s often confusion due to use of functional concepts before they are declared, or use of more than two memory registers at a time.

  6. Lynn O'Connor 10 years ago

    Thing is, right now I don’t know what my primary tasks really are. Teaching doctoral students is very important at the moment, for me not just for $$. But I’m at some kind of stall otherwise. Watching stupid TV (which I never used to watch at all), watching MSNBC ad nausea, writing my Psychology Today blog (Our Empathic Nature) once in a while (when I should do that often, it’s another form of teaching). Maybe that is the only thing I should worry about except teaching. Keep writing for all of us, we need it.

  7. Author
    Dave Seah 10 years ago

    Lynn: That sounds like a familiar place…I’ve been there. Was there a few months ago…how in the world did I get out of it? It was right around the time I was writing about feeling blah and wanting to look for “zing”.

  8. Hey, Dave —

    Very much enjoyed watching the process this week. (Also enjoyed knowing that I’m not the only one who gets stuck in these fuzzy non-productive weeks).

    Just a selection of things that have come up for me while reading the series.

    Since reading Paul Graham’s post on Makers vs Managers (, I’ve put effort into making sure I get long, uninterrupted blocks of time in which to work. (The phrase that made my heart sing was “You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”)

    He suggests office hours at the end of the day, but I find that having any appointments at all in a day is enough to knock me out of flow for the entire day. If necessary, I can alleviate some of that by setting a really obnoxious alarm for an hour before the appointment, knowing I can enter flow and I’ll still be on time to the appointment. But it’s FAR better to have entire days that can just be me and the script I’m working on. So I’ve started blocking off Tuesdays & Thursdays as coding time, and putting all my meetings on MWF. You’d be amazed how much it helps to have two days just dedicated to creative work.

    As far as getting started / wasting energy worrying about how long it will take, I tell myself I can take a break as soon as I’ve set up my computer so that as soon as I come back from break, I can dive right into the work. I am consistently amazed at how much resistance is centered around opening the damned script in a Python editor. (Of course, it’s not actually opening the script; the resistance is in figuring out what things I need to open. As soon as they ARE open, I often find I don’t need a break.)

    As far as learning goes, I’ve found that I feel better about a project when I recognize that learning how to do (this thing) is step one of doing (this thing). So when I decided I needed to create a function in my Python script, step one was not “Code function”; step 1 was “Study Function Definitions in Python”. Then the time spent on puzzle-solving is exciting and productive, rather than an irritating sub-step of actually coding. I wrote a blog post recently ( making your life more like a game, and one of things to recognize is that in games, achieving some goal is pretty easy: you do step 1, step 2, step 3, and so on. In real life, it’s much less clear what step 1 even is. But you’re better off picking a step 1, and doing it, and finding out that your selected step is actually step 5, than standing around looking at a giant tangled mess and crying (which is my usual approach). So it seems to me like part of your confusion-headache problem and your just-start-dammit problem are related.

    Enjoying muchly — keep posting!