Does anyone else sometimes "run out of gas" when trying to think?

post by Sunny from QAD (Evan Rysdam) · 2021-02-03T12:57:55.188Z · LW · GW · 12 comments

This is a question post.

Sometimes when I'm trying to think something through (like a social dilemma, or a chess problem, or a program I'm writing, etc) I have a pretty unpleasant experience that feels to me the way I imagine a car feels when it runs out of gas in the middle of the interstate. My thoughts screech to a halt, and I stop being able to make progress. If I try to force myself, my head fills with mental static. If I try to power through that, it builds into heavy psychological pain, and I burn through willpower insanely quickly. The only solution I know of is to give in and come back to the problem later.

I have two questions about this, and if you can only answer one of them you should feel free to ignore the other.

  1. Does anyone else experience this / Is this a universal human experience?
  2. Do you have any tips for dealing with it? Predicting when it will occur so I can schedule important work at other times, or taking steps that reduce how frequently it happens, or using some special hack to circumvent it when it's already happening?

Answers

answer by Ustice · 2021-02-03T14:41:57.031Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. I have ADHD. Sometimes it’s like my brain just refuses to cooperate. This is more common when I have been stressed or haven’t had enough sleep. I’m a software engineer, and so it’s very obvious to me while working. It’s like the code loses all meaning, or more specifically I can’t keep track of all of the different contexts.

ADHD for me feels like I lack the ability to have background processes. It feels like most people have all of these background thought that stick around, like “I need to check on the food in an hour,” or “once I’m home, I need to look up that address,” etc. I don’t, or at least mine is severely faulty.

“Attention Deficit” doesn’t really explain it. It’s more like attention regulation. My attention is pretty binary. When I am into a thing, it can be all-consuming, and then suddenly it’s gone. I have a bunch of projects that I have just abandoned ¾ of the way through.

ADHD can also make me naturally impatient. I get bored easily, and once I’m bored with something it’s a struggle to stick with it. That impatience can also manifest as thinking I know how someone is going to finish their sentence, and if they are going into detail, my natural inclination is to interrupt to get to the point. I’ve had to learn to be careful about not doing that, and to listen actively and when my brain stopped paying attention in the middle of someone’s sentence, I just fess up to it and ask them to repeat that last bit.

It’s not all a detriment though. I’m good at improvising, and I’m pretty damned clever. I’ve built up discipline to mostly slow down and verify my work. When I am able to focus, getting into a flow state is pretty easy, especially when working on something interesting.

My medication helps me get past those rough days. Not all the time. Sometimes, I just can’t work. On those days, I try to stick with light tasks, and make up for it later.

So yeah, I don’t know if any of this sounds familiar to you. If so, maybe you should talk to your psychologist about getting tested for ADHD. If not, I hope that it helps to know that others out there have uncooperative brains too.

comment by Sunny from QAD (Evan Rysdam) · 2021-02-04T11:58:24.403Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This very much matches my own experiences! Keeping something in the back of my mind has always been somewhere between difficult and impossible for me, and for that reason I set timers for all important events during the day (classes, interviews, meetings, etc). I also carry a pocket-sized notebook and a writing utensil with me wherever I go, in case  I stumble on something that I have to deal with "later".

I have also found my attention drifting away in the middle of conversations, and I too have cultivated the skill of non-rudely admitting to it and asking the other person to repeat themselves.

As for improvising... I play piano, and the main thing I do is improvise! I find improv sessions much easier to stay engaged in than sessions spent trying to read through sheet music.

And, I also have a ton of projects that are 1/4 to 3/4 done (though I think that's probably common to a larger subset of people than the other things).

So thanks for sharing your experiences! I had never seriously considered the possibility that I had ADHD before, even though I've known for a while that I have a somewhat atypical mind. I'm gonna look into that! Makes note in said pocket-sized notebook.

Side note: I think one reason I never wondered whether I have ADHD is that, in my perception, claiming to have ADHD is something of a "fad" among people in my age group, and I think my brain sort of silently assumed that that means it's not also a real condition that people can actually suffer from. That's gonna be a WHOOPS from me, dawg.

answer by shminux · 2021-02-03T19:06:07.251Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I definitely have these experiences. Still can think about other things, but can't even focus on the topic I was fruitfully exploring a moment ago. And yes, not forcing the issue tends to help, can return to the issue some time later.

comment by Sunny from QAD (Evan Rysdam) · 2021-02-04T11:59:24.199Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing!

answer by AnthonyC · 2021-02-04T00:59:17.409Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I think this is very normal, though I can't say if it's universal or nearly universal, and I assume thresholds vary. I suspect there are people who've never thought hard enough, long enough to experience it, though.

I have never been very good at predicting when this will happen or how long it will last. Some other people seem better able to do that, some worse. 

I've found that for me, having someone else (not a group, just one or two people, I am very much an introvert in this) working on/thinking about the same thing, and talking to them about it in real time, is often helpful, at least if it is something I genuinely care about; I find that helps me regain some mental energy as long as I'm not too far gone.

comment by Sunny from QAD (Evan Rysdam) · 2021-02-04T12:10:08.103Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Re the second sentence: lol. Yeah, I bet you're right.

Your last paragraph is interesting to me. I don't think I can say that I've had the same experience, though I do think that some people have that effect on me. I can think of at least one person who I normally don't run out of gas when I'm talking to them. But I think other people actually amplify the problem. For example, I meet with three of my friends for a friendly debate on a weekly basis, and the things they say frequently run against the grain of my mind, and I often run out of gas while trying to figure out how to respond to them.

Replies from: AnthonyC
comment by AnthonyC · 2021-02-04T15:25:49.708Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's true for me too, there's definitely people I resonate with that way and people I don't.

answer by weft · 2021-02-03T21:11:20.810Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. Trying to Think Hard about something logical just makes my mind feel like a brick wall slams down. Things that work: 

-Sticking with things that are easy enough I don't actually have to use Real Brain Power. If I'm learning complex things, the underlying level of abstraction has to be absolutely second nature before I put anything on top of it. 

-Pretending To Think, which works good enough if you just want to trick people into believing that you are working hard at thinking

-Tricking my mind into not recognizing it is Thinking by use of humor, play, narrative

Like Ustice I have ADHD, and have a frequent feeling of low-level boredom that I get around by usually having two tracks running in my brain, e.g. watching TV while working / answering emails. 

comment by Sunny from QAD (Evan Rysdam) · 2021-02-04T12:22:33.464Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your response!

answer by Maxwell Peterson · 2021-02-03T13:37:02.043Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’ve never! Not even close.

comment by Sunny from QAD (Evan Rysdam) · 2021-02-04T12:16:38.611Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing!

answer by ike · 2021-02-06T03:58:41.225Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've found taking a long bath is quite useful if I want to think about a specific topic in depth without distractions. At least one of my LW posts was prompted by this.

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