Debugging an Unexpected Energy Imbalance

Posted Thursday, May 11, 2023 by Sri.Tagged JOURNAL
EDITING PHASE:first draft

Last Monday I noted that I seem to have "energy" to complete at most 4-5 task items a day. Today I am not feeling very rested, having gone to sleep too late as it took too long to wind down from work, then popping awake way too early. I have some new hypotheses about why this is happening.

On Going to Sleep Too Late

I had a great productivity day yesterday, knocking out 6 hours of billable work that covered two Zoom meetings and a lot of documenting future system technical design. I also did the three tasks for the May Productivity Challenge that E over in the DS|CAFE is running until May 15, these being (1) writing 150 words minimum in a journal piece, (2) finding 3 pieces of junk to expel from my house, and (3) spend 15 minutes getting products ready to sell on my Shopify store. Oh, I also attended a landscape beautification meeting for the first time for my condo association, and chatted with some people afterwards! On top of that, I learned that a blogger I used to admire had died of suicide...and that this blogger also had written anti-transgender anti-neurodivergent last year.

This is a lot of experience data to process, and I think it takes a very long time for me to wind down when a lot has happened. Even when I fell asleep, I still had to process it through unusual anxious dreams after finally falling asleep, only to pop wide awake a couple hours later. Too tired to get out of bed but also brain-starved for mental stimulation, I couldn't get my day started even though I really wanted to. Right now, it's 130PM and my brain is having difficulty holding continuity of one thought to another ("brain skipping" as I call it), and the only reliable fix is to get more rest.

Takeaway: If I have too much mental stimulation during the day, this increases the amount of 'processing time' my brain needs to quiet down. Limiting stimulation might be necessary if I want a sustainable, regular schedule.

On Maximum Number of Tasks per Day

I seem to have a limited number consciously-chosen task choices to make every day, assuming I am fully-rested. The number is around five (5) such consciously-chosen tasks. There is a pattern I've noticed over the past 7 working days:

  • The first two tasks are relatively easy, especially if I wrote down what I was going to do in the morning before going to sleep. However, I need an unstructured break of an hour or so afterwards. It's a good time to have lunch.
  • The third task takes considerably more effort to start. If I'm continuing work from the morning (and therefore haven't actually switched tasks) I can keep going to maintain a kind of "flow". However, picking a NEW task uses up one more chunk of energy and I develop a slight headache. Afterwards, I need a longer break of around four hours to reset. I prepare an evening meal or run errands, scan social media for interesting idea-driven content, and maybe nap a bit.
  • The fourth and fifth tasks are started reluctantly, my body rebelling against them. What is often likely to happen is structured procrastination where I do something other than what I have prioritized. This is still "productive" in a holistic sense, but it doesn't move any of my strategic goals forward because I simply am not doing them.

Hypothesis: . When the energy reserve falls below a certain point, my ability to maintain continuity is effectively gone. This is accompanied by a desire to escape boredom by doing unrelated explorations. I think there are two main energy consumers:

  1. Making a commitment to start one of the tasks I've put on my priority to-do list and follow-through.
  2. For every 30-45 minutes of focused work, there is a noticeable drop in the ability to stay focused on-task without jumping into tangents. The amount depends on how frustrating the work is.

Another hypothesis is that doing more than 3 tasks in a day makes it more likely that I'll be much lower energy than usual, which paradoxically requires both more rest and more brain stimulation before I am feeling well again. If I don't, then my self control will crash. I'll make bad choices for eating, shopping, or scrolling through social media to just better.

Takeaway: The number of conscious task switches and the length of time committed to the task at hand. With more than three tasks, there is a danger of depleting so much energy to the point a crash will occur.

On Deferred Commitments

Another thing I noticed is that because 3 of my 5 slots are taken-up right away by the May Challenge Daily Tasks I've chosen. I consider this a commitment I've made to the group to show support for this activity, as well as to help unstick longer-term projects. I take this commitment very seriously.

I have noticed that while I'm getting my daily challenge tasks done, the todo list where I am queuing "do soon" tasks is growing longer than normal. I think the backlog is creating an upsetting feeling as these responsibilities/commitment piles grow longer, which makes me feel trapped by my commitments. So this raises an interesting hypothesis: is it the number of unresolved commitments that is the source of the bad feelings because my autism-patterned brain dwells on what promises I've made with great rigidity and moral principle, and I worry about not meeting the expectations that I explicitly agreed to constantly until after the commitment has been fulfilled. A related pattern is that I avoid scheduling meetings for a similar reason, because it's really hard for me to focus when I know there's a meeting coming up and I have to be somewhere at an exact time. Irritatability starts to grow.

Takeaway: The number of conscious planned commitments that remain unresolved has a direct effect on my sense of calm, which further depletes my ability to remain undistracted. Commitments have to be limited.


If my disordered sleeping is caused by "too much experience to process" from the day, then I have to limit this more strictly. Disordered sleeping leads to less available energy to consciously start a task. The efficient use of this energy is diminished in proportion to the number of commitments I have looming over me, including ones I make to myself. Commitments requiring preparation on my part and being at a specific time/place are particularly draining.

To recover from this, I think my immediate action is to finish processing emotional backlog from yesterday, which just takes time. I also have to limit the number of new experiences for a while so I have the energy to start clearing out those deferred commitments as this list has grown so long it is distracting me from my focus. I need to cancel meetings. I need to pull back from volunteering.

Let's see if that happens.

Update 8PM

After I had taken the time to cook a meal and reward myself by eating, I decided that I needed some "medicinal dark chocolate" from Trader Joes. They close at 9PM, and it's about a 20 minute drive, so I had a sense of purpose and urgency to get me into the car. While I was driving there, I noted that there was an absence of the emotional stress that I had been holding. I had not flagged it as emotional stress earlier. Interestingly, when I reviewed all the things that had made me feel upset in the morning, they no longer provoked the same stress response. With the passage of time, the reaction seemed to diminish until it was gone.

This is a pattern I've noticed before. I know that I often need a lot of quiet time after something that is upsetting, sometimes up to a week if it's a severe emotional incident where I feel I have made a grave error involving someone else's feelings. In today's case, though, there was nothing particularly upsetting about my day. However, I did have to (1) process a lot of new people with unknown personalities and thoughts toward me and (2) deal with a parasocial bit of bad news topped with a sense of rejection. While I didn't think they affected me, the dreams and difficult morning suggest otherwise.

A working theory that is completely unsubstantiated by research:

The emotional reactions that I thought were under control still produced a physiological stress response, which disrupted my sleep. The cycle of stress continued when I woke up from having similar dreams, prolonging the physicological response until I literally stopped thinking when I was unconscious. On waking, the stress response-inducing neurotransmitters had faded...and I was back to "normal"?

No idea if that is a thing that is founded in neuroscience or psychiatry, but it might be a useful working model to help anticipate the next time. The two other theories are independent of this mechanism; in short, they are...

I still need to limit the amount of sensory experiences, particularly social ones to prevent a sensory overload that I didn't realize was happening.


I have to ensure the number of commitments that I feel responsible for are not piling-up, because these are unresolved situations that demands attention. Each commitment creates another source of anxiety that lowers the threshold to overload.