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Edgar Barrantes

Willpower, efficiency and anxiety

Self-assessment, Writing5 min read

What's this about?

I've been puzzled as to why I've been having a hard time reaching my goals this past few weeks, I've been searching for an explanation as to the whyness and looking for a potential solution. This is a reduction of a couple of videos of What I've learned channel and a personal note that hopefully can explain what some people feel and act after long periods of taking SSRI's. These are conjectures from research, don't take my word for it, but if my solution works for you, great.

Constrains reduce anxiety

More things to do add anxiety due to having to make a choice of the best possible options with more variables.

The ACC (anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain) is linked to decision making, and that part is particularly active when people experience uncertainty, and hyperactivity of that part is linked to anxiety.

It follows that: decision making -> anxiety.

Having too much choice then generates anxiety. Activity that we know we have to do (choices) will passively generate anxiety. Quite a compound interest.

More religious people have less activation in the ACC, and therefore experience less anxiety. Since they have a framework that constrain their views of the world, which means that some things are out of the questions. E.g.: Hooking up with other person than the current partner? No, that's not an option. If you have a serious goal, you have a constrain. The more connected you are and the more close relations, the more constrained.

A constrain is a choice in advance, which means one less choice to make afterwards. A routine for example is a choice on what to do what specific times so that a choice in no longer necessary. A goal will limit the amount of things to do to those that help the goal. Connections to a place or family will limit job and housing searches to an area.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction from a job well done acts as a biological signal that one completed something correctly, which means one can stop doing the work and focus on other things.

Studies () about the incapacity of people with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) of feeling that satisfaction after a job well done (cleaning hands, closing doors, etc) show a relation between serotonin levels and that feeling of satisfaction. Serotonin makes people satisfied and less anxious. There are also direct links between serotonin levels and reduced anxiety. In fact, SSRIs (selective serotonin receptors inhibitors) are prescribed to reduce anxiety for people with OCD.

Now, in the same study it's shown how since people with OCD don't get that satisfaction release, even if they can rationally understand that it doesn't makes sense to continue doing the action they're repeating, they feel urge to do it and they need to make an action on the thing, or the anxiety won't away. That is the same reason why if one has a pending task, a related action needs to be taken and procrastinating on it or trying to thinking it away won't work (no kidding).

What's the least amount of action needed to get that satisfaction

There are two things that can work:

  • Formulating plans on when and where to do the activity removes the anxiety.
  • Writing the next step in the process to complete a task.

The first one removes the task from the mind, this can be done using a calendar app, or pen and paper. The second one reduces the amount of choices on how to tackle the problem to just one, further reducing the mental overload.

Willpower

Resisting a desire reduces the chances of resisting a future desire, people that report to have high self control in fact tend to use it less, due to consciously reducing their own options.

It's then not the people who use more self control that are more successful (more goals attained), it's the people who plan their life so that they don't have to use that self control. The children in the marshmallow study did other things to focus on avoiding the marshmallow, sing, count, etc, instead of simply focusing on thinking the temptation away. This implies they made an effort by doing another action, instead of relying in brute willpower. Just being tempted by things, makes people distracted, reducing brain performance.

Wrap up

Values, goals and relationships are a way to reduce anxiety due to having less choice in what one's going to do. Planning life in order to reduce willpower use is another solution, so routines and things that in general will guarantee less choices in times where focus is necessary are great ways to reduce anxiety and get more of the things that matter to us done.

Personal notes and potential solutions

Vicious circle of anxiety and productivity

Not only limiting the things one can do while working (or being engaged in reading, creating something, etc) help reduce anxiety since there is a greater constrain which means less choices, which leads to an inferior activation of the ACC, and hence less anxiety, but also the fact that this allows to complete tasks, which lead to a satisfaction feeling, and reducing overall anxiety because there is a serotonin spike related with the feeling that the task was done. And on top of that there is going to be one less thing to do in the list, generating less choices.

SSRIs after effect

I spent a good part of two years on SSRIs and suffered the effects of withdrawal.

In those two years I got through with life, I did what I needed to do and was able to cope, that was great. But, looking back, in those two years I did not accomplish too many things of note, I was feeling pleased all the time so there was not much to do other than what was necessary. The reward of getting things done was always with me.

The after effect was not pretty, but, after getting over that, I find myself having a hard time at concentrating on things I want to get done. There is always something else that draws my attention and small as it might be, it makes me lose my train of thought and effectively reduces my capacity to do things. My current solution to how to overcome this to do the following:

Things that can be done

  • Make sure to allocate a time and a place to do things that you want to get done.
  • Prepare the space for the work to be done before hand with as few distractions as possible.
  • And lastly, but the more drastic: use an application that blocks your use of internet to specific websites you might need, in my case, I decided for Freedom, though there are alternatives that I share bellow.

Now, things like blocking traffic and applications can seem drastic, but while creating this post I searched for how to sell physical books in amazon for 30 minutes instead of actually watching the videos and taking notes... This is when I realized I needed a bit of help, which eventually led me to look for a solution, if one need a push to get things done, why not push one self over the abyss and see what kind of monster comes out?

More information:

Sources of data
Links to useful things
Further reading
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