GHDR Report 0303: Mitigating Executive Distraction

Posted Friday, March 3, 2023 by Sri. Tagged GHDR
About the image: This is one of my curry trees that almost died, but it's doing much better now and is even sprouting new growth in the dead of winter! The bigger tree isn't, which makes this even more special to mepicture of Sri's office spacepicture of Sri's office space (full size image)

Happy Groundhog Day Resolutions (GHDR) Report Day! I've been struggling with feeling like I've lost the big picture of what I'm doing, which has lead to a drop in motivation.

This a recurring pattern in my GHDR experience. I think that it looks something like this.

  • February - Excitment! First two weeks are extremely focused. Third and fourth weeks less so, but carry on the momentum of the first two weeks.
  • March - I have to look up what my goals were because they've faded from memory. I start to fall into sidetracks, feeling they are justifiably related to GHDR...but I don't look it up.
  • April-June - As work and life ticks by, it becomes more of a struggle remember "what the point" was. Demands on my time pull my attention away from GHDR-related projects. Feelings of resentment toward work begin to grow.
  • July - I'm feeling fed up, and declare a reset. GHDR goals are refactored based on issues from April-June. Lagging motivation and energy levels are often a problem. I feel starved for something new. Interesting new insights about myself are uncovered. The refactored goals set a new trajectory.
  • August-October - I descend into depression/boredom as the hard things are hard to push forward, even with all the mitigating insights I have applied. Strategy shifts toward managing depression, trying crazier ideas that challenge notions of "good" and "normal". Often I reject old beliefs and form new ones based on a refined understanding of their origin.
  • November - The feeling of having a lot of responsibilities in addition to my own starts to frustrate me. Irritatability grows as each unwanted responsibility and inconvience is thrust upon me, and I am left lamenting poor design, documentation, communication.
  • December - Although I think that nothing great happened, I am surprised to see how many consolation insights have been collected that are applicable for the coming year. There is always something tangible and good that has happened, but I tend to be disatisfied that I haven't creating "the big things" that would impress myself.

Looking at this list, it reminds me a lot of someone with ADHD You know the stereotypes: has difficulty finishing projects, easily bored, easily frustrated by routine tasks, distracted by novelty, does not work well with deferred rewards, preferring immediate gratification, but framed under the lens of my own lived experience. In my own terms, I do like to seek novel experience and excellence in my process Looking at this now, this reminds me of the stereotypical ADHD frustration cycle but framed as my own "lived-experience"; the terse clinical assessment would be has difficulty finishing projects but I think that's a lazy generalization. That aside, I think that motivation and novelty are the factors that diminish within me over the year; I'm constantly seeking novel elevated experiences, after all.

Mitigating Depression and Frustration

One theory I'm trying is that novel experience boosts dopamine, so this year's GHDR includes directives that I believe have certain effects:

  • Mandated Curiosity - That is, I'm allowed to indulge curiosity that helps me stay engaged with the work.
  • Finding Interesting Peers to Talk to as I Work - I like to talk about my work as I work, sharing ideas and experimental results

In practice, it hasn't been quite enough.

There are two things I'm trying now:

  1. Weekly Summaries to reduce the friction of recalling what I have been doing.
  2. Reframing Executive Function as "battery power" for when I notice that Emotional Regulation is creating problems.

I'll address what these are below.

1. Weekly Summaries to Help with Recall

ASIDE: I think this technique can work well as a Weekly Review for anyone who talks a lot to people online, because there is a textual record and it's relatively easy to scroll-back in the timeline or search for messages from yourself. Once you can remember what you did, you can then reflect on whether it's related to whatever goals you had set.

These are simply going back through my writing in various messaging apps, social media, and photos to reconstruct what I did. I tend to report what I'm doing every day to someone to help keep me engaged with the work; I think of it as necessary overhead for my brain to function at all. I then try to distill them into a very short summary that will trigger a memory for Sri of the Future. Since I know her well, these summaries can use code words that are extremely rich in meaning.

I do something like this with my freelance project work. My main client does two-week sprintsRelated to agile software development and SCRUM, these are limited-time limited-focus projects related to meeting the overall goal. and I had gotten into the habit of writing weekly summaries to remind myself what got delivered when so I could see the "shape" of our development. It also highlighted just how long things took, and it was instructive to see where we had under and overestimated difficulty of tasks. I don't see why this couldn't work for my own projects, as nebulous as they are. In both cases, I am trying to reconstruct the "shape of what I've been doing", as that contributes to the feeling of being lost. Being able to see where I came frome gives me confidence to continue to move forward.

2. Executive Function and Emotional Regulation

I'm thinking of executive function as my ability to do work without dopamine. This is necessary when there is no emotionally-boosted, immediate need, or interesting questions posed to me. I think when I'm at my best, I'm powered by (1) emotional connection with other intensely-engaged people and (2) curiosity framed by someone asking a question. The arithmetic of this is more dopamine = more activity, which addresses motivation by externalizing it.

CAVEAT: The above is a hypothesis; I am not sure that all the above are actually related to "lack of meaningful triggers of curiosity or connection" in my work, but I'm going to assume they are as I consider what executive function / emotional disregulation mean to me.

There are many days when these dopamine-producing contexts are unavailable, so I seek them out; this is the beginning of distraction from tasks I ostensibly should be working on. I think there are a few different levels of distraction:

  • I crave any kind of thoughtful conversation, and since I can't find any on my task, I will post what I'm doing in a social media channel or in the Coworking Discord. The act of externalizing the conversation gives me hope that someone will ask me a question in return, which then triggers engagement with the task.
  • If more time passes without a trigger of some kind (insight, relevant question), I start to look for cast my distraction net further. I suddenly remember that there's MUSIC to fill the silence, or I let myself research a "related" field, or I take the time to do some errands or help someone else. These all feel like they are "good" and therefore justifable in a broader sense of being human. But, I am still not getting the hard work done.
  • If this goes on too long, then I start to go a little stir crazy. I get depressed. I binge-watch media or play games too long. This tends to lead to poor nutrition and irregular sleep.

A recent trick I've learned is to recognize the situation where I'm lacking any of the dopamine-producing emotionally-immediate conditions that activate my brain, and then I remember that I can limp purposefully to a location where I can 'catch the next dopamine wave' that invariably occurs. This is an entirely different brain mode than being "dopamine starved", similar to when I de-emotionalize a negative reaction. I can try to apply this brain mode more when I'm "feeling blah", since I know it works. Knowing it works removes uncertainty, which removes anxiety. However, this is a very limited resource. If I'm being practical (and my thesis is true to begin with), then the amount I can do every day by myself is bottlenecked by how many curious people are around me asking questions related to my work. Let me state that in BIGGER LETTERS because it's important:

The amount I can do every day by myself is bottlenecked when there are not enough curious people around me.

On a related note, a side-effect of my ASD-pattern brain is that I'm thinking all the time and this leads to mental exhaustion. It's even more exhausting if I'm using it to process anxious emotions which arise in unpredictable social situations. If I try to work while processing emotions at the same time, I eventually burn outThe description of "lived experiences" in the article Autistic Burnout - A Tech Sector Lived Experience is what gave me this idea. This is what seems to be happening now with GHDR: I'm processing uncertainty due to lack of solutions, and I'm also trying to find the patterns of what's going wrong. On top of that, a lot of the solutions seem boring and I'm working in isolation instead of with engaged peers, so dopamine boost isn't available.

I'm not quite sure how to handle this, but let me remind myself what GHDR is supposed to help me answer.

  1. What work will support me financially, without compromising freedom?
  2. What work is best suited to my experience and personality, without compromising joy?
  3. What personal work experiences are unique to me, and interesting to others, such that they can be the basis for public interaction?
  4. What am I building for the future?
  5. How to I manage the anxiety of not building fast enough to meet all these criteria?

Thanks to prior GHDR years, I have plausible answers to all of these questions. However, these are just good theories, not solutions. A theory gives rises to experimentation, but a solution bring closure. It's closure that reduces anxiety, and I think it's anxiety that is the underlying feeling that makes me question what I'm doing.

In practice, experimentation is necessary to find a working solution, so there's no avoiding the conditions that give rise to my anxiety. This is where emotional regulation ("coping") comes into play; previously I had focused on dopamine production as the solution to the motivational/focus challenges I face, but it seems that it isn't sufficient. So, what are the new stratagems I can deploy?

I don't have any answers right now, but that's on my mind. I'm actively looking for solutions to add to my growing list of execution cards so I'm sure I'll return to the topic later.

How did February Go?

It's slow work, but I am reminding myself that ASAP is the antithesis to ELBSASAP = As Soon as Possible. ELBS is my experimental Explore Learn Build Share cycle that is how I prefer to work.

There are several active strategic horizons for GHDR 2023, which I discussed in the Feb 2 kickoff.

Strategic Horizon: Writing Custom Software for Design

Foremost on my mind is improving future sources of income from creating more shareable design work. However, I had also stipulated that all my new design work had to be custom software I write myself so I could more easily customize the experience for many markets without the annoying manual updates in Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign for products like The ETP 365 Day Journal, The Compact Calendar, and The Word Counting Calendar. This involves a lot of tedious copy/pasting of numbers to create the various customizations, which discourages me from creating a broader range of products. The process of writing custom software to automate this form generation will also be useful for creating interactive productivity tools that I used to make in Flash, which opens up future opportunities for both freelance work and my own projects.

The tangible achievements are all in my personal knowledge management system (PKMS) based on Eleventy:

  • Deep dive into Javascript tooling with Typescript for use with my PKMS
  • Adding custom per-template Javascript support to my PKMS
  • Create a cheeseball way of generating printable cards in PKMS entries

I'm also reviewing development environments for rapid prototyping of interactive systems. I'm feeling a strong pull to get serious about this because this is a possible niche that I could shine in, but mostly because I'm irritated by all the bad work out there that I want to FIX.

A surprising realization is that I actually find programming quite boring and this is one reason that my motivation has been flagging. Finding a way to inject some more excitement into writing stupid boilerplate code using someone else's terrible instructions is very much on my mind.

Strategic Horizon: Community Building

In 2023, I'm using the Coworking Discord as a jumping-off point to create the sanctuary for my tribe, a place where we can hang out and make cool stuff and share our experiences in the name of self-empowered prosperity.

  • The key piece I'm thinking of are Expeditions, which is a way to have two or more people collaborate for a limited-time shared purpose. I have some prototypes for an expedition listing but have not figured out how to actually find people to work with them. I think this is a matter of getting the word out there, so a lot of my effort here is related to the next GHDR goal: "Writing Ascendancy"

  • I am looking at OTHER communities. There are a couple of Twitch streamers who have captured my attention because I like the way they are maintaining their communities. The first is the streamer BlinkBlinkGames who I stumbled upon while looking for No Man's Sky channels to grab some "drops" for the Fractal update. She was on-stream with some other non-streamers in their Discord server, and I really liked the way they interacted with each other. I checked out the Discord server and have been hanging out there geeking out about various things, and this is the first community I've found in a long time that I wanted to be part of. The other streamer is CerebralArcade who is a narrative designer playing games from a narrative designer's perspective, talking about the stuff that I like talking about with games too! Finding two streamers/communities in one week like this is really shocking and eye-opening, and it occurs to me that I can enrich my community experience both as an admin and as a participant. There are some downsides to this, though, which I'll talk about in Sri Ascendancy.

Strategic Horizon: Writing Ascendancy

An ongoing concern is improving my writing. I ramble and avoid proofreading, which impacts the approachability of my writing. Since writing on multiple channels is part of the requirement for "getting the word out there", I've been experimenting with different ways to approach it.

  • I've started to use paper to outline my thoughts. Since moving my office back downstairs, I have a much larger desk and I'm rediscovering the pleasure of having enough space to spread everything out. I've been grabbing a piece of blank paper everyday to ground myself for the day, using my PKMS and Typora for longer stream-of-consciousness journaling.

  • I'm summarizing weekly. It's hard for me to remember what I've done and how long ago that was. In my freelance projects we often work in two-week "sprints", and a habit I developed was to summarize each sprint's week in a big document so I could see the rough "shape" of what we've done. This helps reorient me very quickly when trying to remember what's important and where we are in the process. I've started doing the same for my own work so I can replay the past few weeks. This is reassuring, reducing anxiety! It's work I would have to do anyway when I get that "I'm lost" feeling, so I am considering it necessary overhead.

  • I'm posting on Mastodon. I have been writing short threads on Mastodon about the various ADHD and ASD mitigations I experiment with, and the 500 character limit is helping me structure shorter article. I try to keep it to three 500 character messages, so this makes me stick to the salient points. It's been good practice, and I think this is helping me get to the point already.

  • I'm realizing that as a writer, I am very productive. As a programmer, not so much. I spend hours and hours thinking and writing every day, and it struck me that I really like this. Having Discord communities and Mastodon to react to sharpens my thinking, and I'm gathering all these thoughts in my personal knowledge management system for later remixing. THIS IS WORKING, and I've been thinking that maybe it IS ok to think of myself as a writer.

  • I made new support tools in the PKMS. There's now a new jot command to open a scratch document. There's also a new ghdr-report command that will figure out how many days have elapsed since the last GHDR report day and create that dated file in the ghdr section of the site. These help reduce friction when I have an idea and want to capture it.

I have been thinking more about doing the solo podcast and starting streaming again also, but I have to work through some issues related to how I want to present, which I'll discuss in the next section.

Strategic Horizon: Sri Ascendancy

This is the overall goal of just being comfortable showing myself to people. This is where Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) tends to come into play. For a while I didn't think it affected me as much as it did when I was a kid, but it's resurfaced as I've been exploring other communities related to the Twitch streamers. I've been too entrenched in my comfort zone of familiar friends and environments, and being faced with a whole new group of people has reminded me that GAD (and ASD) make this an exhausting emotional experience. And these groups are some of the nicest and most supportive group of people I've seen online. What's wrong with me??? Oh, right...I have a few challenges here 😀.

I came up with a list of Sri Affirmations that I turned into a printable card. At the time of this writing, this is what it looks like:


  • is unafraid to love and to feel
  • is unafraid to share what she knows as a means to create space for others to play together and with her
  • accepts that other people's needs and moods happen outside of her control, and are not her responsibility to take on
  • exists outside of other people's non-intersecting beliefs and related actions, but applies independent movement to share the lanes equitably
  • is always primed for a collaborative question and answer play might be her job!
  • remembers that she is not defined by how she feels, and chooses aspirational action instead
  • rations executive function energy when feels, curiosity, others are not availble to power the sailboat

The esssence of this is to remind myself that I can create my own standards and still interact with people on my own terms. I have a tendency to feel misunderstood/unwelcome because of remembered social awkwardness; I have to remind myself that this conditioned reaction does not reflect reality in the dire way my brain is telling me. The card is helpful, though I really need to look at it more.

The Month Ahead

I've spent a lot of February on refining process that I think will help get things done in March. To recap:

  • Learn to apply executive function as "limp along" mode to catch the next dopamine wave when I am feeling low. It works.
  • Remember to not think all the time. Goof off more to let the brain rest. I'm thinking 4 hours max of deep or boring work.
  • Scribble with abandon on paper to think without worrying about structure or form! Computers restrict that kind of thinking.
  • Embrace writing as my primary job. It's what I do naturally and I have a whole PKMS/publishing infrastructure set up for it!
  • Converting thinking into consumable products is the secondary job that does not come naturally, and this is what Groundhog Day Resolutions ultimately is supposed to address. It's hard.

The main Strategic Horizon I want to focus on is software. Now that I have a rudimentary way of putting arbitrary javascript into any page of my PKMS, I can now prototype some fancy form drawing and pdf generation.

  • browser: draw part of an existing form using SVG.js
  • server: generate a PDF using SVG and Puppeteer Headless

Also there are some improvements to make to the PKMS:

  • rewrite card generator library to convert existing DOM elements into the printable card, rather than generate it from an HTMLstring. This is better for SEO.

I have also been thinking a lot about narrative design; this might be even more fundamental to me than concept modeling. I approach my entire life as an exercise in narrative design, an applied form of communication design that goes beyond the mechanical techniques of interaction design. I'd like to develop more example of my competencies in this area, because these are the types of projects that I like to do.

  • make a narrative design topic in the PKMS
  • list narrative design-related projects that come to mind
  • design an expedition

Stretch goals related to Writing Ascendancy are:

  • solo podcast prototype
  • live streaming setup on pc, mac
  • create a substack and substack content strategy

I think that's enough for now. I'll need to make that list into some kind of printable card,


Feb 2

Kickoff - Defining the goals for 2023.

Feb 17

Solidifying the Big Picture - I know I'm prone to forgetting my own big plans. Compacting and simplifying them helps me remember?

Mar 3

Mitigating Executive Distraction - I note that two executive function challenges I face is (1) remembering the context and specifics of the GHDR goals set a month ago and (2) managing the energy needed to push through challenges. I hypothesis that executive function is like "battery" and well-regulated emotions are the true power source.

Apr 4

May 5

Jun 6

Jul 7

Aug 8

Sep 9

Oct 10

High-Octane Interactions - Despite positive developments on my contract work, I find myself in "The Cycle of Doom": depression, dysregulation, and disconnection. I consider possible causes in the context of my Autism and ADHD needs and come up with a mitigation plan to address the doom spiral.

Nov 11

Dec 12

Dec 31