Making mistakes is usually not a problem.
We make mistakes. We become unhappy. We correct these mistakes.
Then voilà, we become happy with ourselves again.
The real problem
However, there are a few kinds of mistakes at different levels of sophistication, that tend to boil the frog.
Worse still, not only are these mistakes hard to detect, it is even hard to extract ourselves from them.
Because these mistakes tend to manifest as vicious loops - meaning the mistake aggravates itself, if left unchecked.
Worst of all
These vicious loops tend to interact with each other in a domino effect - in other words - these vicious loops may compound together to really burn us out.
We have all experienced good days and bad days with our work and studies.
The balanced probability is that one or more vicious loops have taken effect during those worse days.
So if we learn to identify them, and pull ourselves out with the right techniques early, we will gain the power to turn a bad day good.
Figure 1. Cambridge Focus Framework describes the interplay of five vicious loops
This focus model is formulated through extended observations and interviews with undergraduates of Cambridge University, over a span of several years, to answer a particularly intriguing question.
Why would extremely privileged and intelligent young individuals fail to perform academically, whereas many seemingly less intelligent students outperform?
And more importantly, why would the spread of overachievers and underachievers increase so dramatically, in a matter of just a few years.
The simplified conclusion we drew is that of a complex interplay of 3 factors.
Factor 1: Matthew effect - the better adapted get stronger and the less adapted get weaker.
Factor 2: Demanding work, aggravates the Matthew effect, as spelled out later, by the Cambridge Focus Framework - how 5 vicious loops throttle an individual's progress.
Factor 3: Differing levels of focus skills that these young individuals possess, of how to –
Tune out distraction
Manage willpower reserve
Reproducibly get into flow
- which would help them counteract the 5 vicious loops.
To illustrate Cambridge Focus Framework, we will go through a story of Amy, the profile of an “average” 1 undergraduate at Cambridge University.
1 Note: “Average” capability refers to the capability profile of 50th percentile (median) of the cohort, instead of mean capability profile, which is subject to the massive skewing effect of a smaller number of highly gifted young individuals from all over the world in Cambridge University.
Amy used to be able to get into flow easily with her coursework before she entered university. She was a top student in her high school and rather popular.
Five weeks into the school term, she finds her work much harder than before. If she couldn’t find the time to go through the notes before class, she would find herself scrambling through the class.
This frustration feeds on her, as she knows if she didn’t get as much from these sessions as she could, she would have to spend more time catching up.
This is the Paralysis Loop, where the “problem at hand” that is the challenging course, sets her into a mild frustration.
This work is not beyond her, just much denser and the pace is much faster. When the conflicting priorities of social life set in, she feels tempted by bad decisions, which she would normally avoid. But then she caves in, her sleep takes a toll, and fatigue level quickly escalates.
This is Burnout Loop, where fatigue sets in from the “problem at hand” - the intense coursework. Willpower bankruptcy ensues, and as a result she starts to make a series of detrimental decisions that undermine her capacity to tackle the challenging course, and exhausting herself further.
The most dramatic outcome is that she gets very anxious and irritable. These negative emotions seem to breed themselves, Amy starts to feel her stress is out of control, and she feels that she is starting to put her attention on the wrong places such as, “why am I not breezing through the course like in high school”, “why am I not as smart as some of my friends?”, and “how am I going to avoid the unavoidable crash in the coming exams?”, all instead of her work.
This is the Catastrophizing Loop 2, where willpower bankruptcy prevents Amy from controlling her emotion, and results in aggravating thoughts, that further stress her out, leaving her less capable to take on the “problem at hand” - the intense coursework.
2 Note: 46% of Cambridge students believe that they are depressed while 21% have been diagnosed with depression.
Even after major effort, adjustments, and taking time off, at the expense of work progress, Amy begins to cope better with her stress by pushing the problems to the back of her mind, choosing to forget how much she has missed out and will need to catch up. However, the inevitable side effects of choosing to suppress these thoughts, is becoming less motivated. She used to look forward to getting work done, the very trait that enabled her to excel in the past. She now subconsciously associates her work with recent failures. This change in perspective increases the mental effort she expends to try to get work done, and she now finds temporary relief from diversion by reading news, browsing her feeds, in the midst of her work, sometimes even late into the night, in her college library where she knows that she should really be getting her work done.
This is “Self-sabotaging Loop”, where low willpower reserve tempts Amy into procrastination, with many side effects such as guilt, and lower self-esteem, which may trigger another Catastrophizing Loop or an over- drive out of guilt may trigger another Burnout Loop.
However, the worst blow to Amy is when the effect of natural addiction sets in. And the addiction 3 in Amy’s case manifests in terms of “Mindlessness Loop”, where Amy starts down the path of digital distraction, mindlessly scrolling down feeds, sometimes even during her classes. Mindlessness breeds mindlessness. The more she stays in this state, the more she craves instant stimulus from the smartphone and the more she feels she can’t seem to focus as well as before. Not only does this distractibility reduce her ability to focus, it also impacts her short-term memory, she can’t seem to remember things as well, which prevents her from learning quickly.
3 Note: Addiction is the craving for something, and loss of control over its use, in spite of undesirable consequences. It rewires the brain, by subverting the way it registers pleasure, and corrupting positive drives and motivation, such as for learning and self-improvement.
This is the “Mindlessness Loop”, which is the terminal phase to Amy’s focus capacity.As the Mindlessness Loop is stabilized by natural conditioning mechanism, (or addiction in its negative manifestation), it is a highly stable loop, and given enough time,a sufferer usually won’t realize they are in it and thus have little motivation to break it, despite the obvious impact it has on their cognition, keeping their “executive control” (the fancier term for willpower) constantly low, and subjecting themselves to all the other vicious loops.
Now, instead of how her high school teacher would describe her as quick, smart and motivated, her tutors in the University would most likely describe her as average and unremarkable.
If Amy stays in this state longer than she can afford, she would descend from an “average” student to a “struggling” student, which answers the question before the start of the story - why do extremely privileged and intelligent young individuals underperform?
Focus Skill Level 1 to Level 4 would describe skillsets Amy could use to subvert the negative effects of these vicious loops or even outperform her peers.
“Know yourself, know your enemy, and you shall win a hundred battles.”
The Art of War
Build the foundation of focus skills
Objectively appraise the level of impact that the vicious loops in Cambridge Focus Framework have on you, Forming the conceptual model of how each of these loops affects you, and how they interact with each other, would enable you to tackle them better with focus skills.
Biologically, we can never lose our worst selves. But with the right skills training, we can learn to live above them.
Figure 2. Paralysis Loop arises from the emotion from tackling the problem at hand, exacerbating the problem itself.
When you are solving a problem, you tend to get frustrated.
And the frustration is usually not helping, instead, for what you can usually perform well or get right, you tend to underperform.
A common symptom for students is to do well in daily coursework but not in examinations. And in formal interviews and presentations, they tend to underperform below their real capability.
For the better adapted, they would get better as they get deeper into the problem, and find their touch again.
For the less well adapted, they might even skip breath- ing for a few seconds as they get deeper into the problem and get even more anxious.
Paralysis Loop is a very sophisticated situation whereby frustration of resolving a problem and natural stress response feed on each other. And when enough stress is built up, it may trigger a Catastrophizing Loop which makes this loop even less tractable. This has been plaguing professional athletes, performing artists and high-stakes professions for millennia.
Breaking this loop is the highest hanging fruit, it is really about getting into your peak mental performanceand that requires elimination of all other vicious loops as a prerequisite.
You can learn to counter the effect of this loop in Focus Skill Level 4: Getting into your peak mental performance with the knowledge of tuning emotion states with breath pacing to help you tune into flow.
Rate from 1 to 5, how much this loop affects you (or your young).
2) Mindlessness Loop
Figure 2. Mindlessness Loop arises from distractions while you are in a distractible state. This in turn diminishes your willpower reserve, making you even more distractible.
When you are distracted and become mindless with what you do.
And this mindless state further gets you into a more distractible state, and you seem to be carried off in an unproductive mindless state for quite a while.
A common symptom is for students to be very careless in coursework and examinations, and even in things they have got a good grasp, they underperform. And in the workplace, strings of ‘sloppy’ mistakes undermine the good work and effort invested. And it is often characterized by either a blank look, or scrolling mindlessly on a smartphone late into the night, well past bedtime.
Mindlessness Loop starts off with a distraction while you are in a distractible state, this diminishes your conscious will, which in turn makes you even distractible. When your conscious will is almost depleted, you would transit into a mindless state, highly distractible, awaiting the next stimuli that grab your attention, that keep you in this endless cycle.
In fact, this has been exploited extensively commercially to reduce potential customers’ conscious judgement with regards to making purchases, or continuously engaging with an app, even though one would most likely regret it later on.
Breaking this loop requires first building natural (or not so natural) triggers, to help you detect the presence of the vicious loop, and then proceeding to reduce the general distractibility.
You can learn to counter the effect of this loop in Focus Skill Level 1: Tune out distractionwith the knowledge of the chaotic nature of your brain and how to bring it under control in minutes with biofeedback.
Rate from 1 to 5, how much this loop affects you (or your young).
3) Burnout Loop
Figure 3. Burnout Loop arises from fatigue, which depletes willpower reserve and destabilizes emotion state, rendering the problem at hand even more toilsome.
When you are going strong, but then you lose the traction.
And the loss in traction brings you more lethargy and you struggle to perform to the level that you really can.
A common symptom for students is to have oscillating academic performance. And in the workplace, someone who has fluctuating delivery who is seen as less dependable than someone else who is less capable. And it is often characterized by a sudden loss of motivation that could be triggered by a bad night’s sleep or an intense length of work.
For the better adapted, they would be able to reboot quickly and get back on track almost without others noticing.
For the less well adapted, they might get stuck in this unproductive ditch, get anxious and begin to procrastinate uncontrollably.
Burnout Loop can start with frustration or stress at work progress, compounded with fatigue, or it can itself be triggered by fatigue, or bad sleep hygiene. However, the outcome is almost always that conscious will (commonly called motivation) is depleted and then, work traction worsens, and more fatigue and stress ensue, feeding on each other.
Breaking this loop is a high hanging fruit, it requires a fair amount of emotion awareness and basic skill of balancing fatigue and stress.
You can learn to counter the effect of this loop in Focus Skill Level 3: Build a longer focusthat gives the basic knowledge of how to detect and use techniques to regulate fatigue.
Rate from 1 to 5, how much this loop affects you (or your young).
4) Catastrophizing Loop
Figure 4. Catastrophizing Loop arises from emotion, depleting willpower reserve, which further destabilizes emotion state.
When you are stressed and become fixated with it.
And this fixation means that you can no longer think straight or act in your best interests. Performance throttles all the way to the bottom.
A common symptom is for students to be so stressed out about exams that they spend a disproportionate amount of time dwelling on the exams instead of preparing for it. In the workplace, they tend to avoid stressful tasks, such as giving a presentation even though they are very capable, and it would greatly benefit their career, instead, they give up opportunities to someone less capable than they are.
For the better adapted, they would be able to normalize this stress eventually, and get on with solving the problem.
For the less well adapted, they might get uncontrollably stressed, which impedes any progress, or they might choose to forget about the problem and procrastinate until the original problem really becomes an issue for them.
Catastrophizing Loops begin with stress and quickly end with total depletion of conscious will. This willpower bankruptcy, would almost always lead to the other vicious loops, as the absence of conscious will invites mindlessness and self-sabotaging via impulsive behavior.
This Catastrophizing Loop is totally manageable, breaking it requires the basic emotion awareness and basic techniques to regulate stress.
You can learn to counter the effect of this loop in Level 3: Boast a longer focus spanthat gives the basic knowledge of how to detect and use techniques to regulate stress.
5) Self-sabotaging Loop
Figure 5. Self-sabotaging Loop arises from procrastinating while you are under low willpower reserve. This in turn leads to distraction, further draining willpower reserve.
When you experience a bout of impulse, especially when you anticipate effort is needed, you tend to follow the impulse, even though you know it is unwise.
And then later regret, along with other problems caused by the impulse, tend to preoccupy you, away from your work, until much later.
A common symptom for both students and in the workplace is procrastination, which means they put off assignments and work until the very last minute, finding creative ways to fritter away time, even though they can finish the work earlier and spend the time in much better and fulfilling ways. Worst, this squanders away their talents and opportunities, and corners them in life, with fewer and fewer options available to them.
For the better adapted, they would be conditioned to feel the emotion of ‘guilt’ kicking in after a while and cut this loop.
For the less well adapted, they might not have built such an automatic protective mechanism, and tend to let it slide until external triggers such as an impending deadline bring them out of this daze.
Self-sabotaging Loop is a result of human nature, where we tend to avoid pain and frustration and to seek out pleasure - the more instant the gratification the better. Usually our conscious will keeps us in check from such destructive loops in which our impulse pushes us off the right track. However when our willpower is worn down by either a Mindlessness Loop or Burnout Loop, we tend to fall prey to this Self-sabotaging Loop where we reverse the good work we have done and corner ourselves.
Breaking this Self-sabotaging Loop requires a fair amount of investment, as it requires emotion awareness and the right skills to tame our human nature.
You can learn to counter the effect of this loop in Level 2: Terminate procrastinationwith the knowledge of how to use psychological techniques augmented with tech to terminate procrastination.
Rate from 1 to 5, how much this loop affects you (or your young).
Which of these vicious loops affect you more?
The root cause of a problem is often nonobvious.
Various loops are usually composed to confuse us, to lead us on a merry chase.
However, willpower bankruptcy is a recurring theme for all these vicious loops, as escaping the conscious will poverty trap is always very tricky.
Willpower is just another name for the neuroscientific description of the brain’s prefrontal cortex’s limited executive control capacity.
So it is always more profitable to first identify the vicious loops that kick in and tend to deplete your willpower, and use the corresponding focus skill sets to banish the vicious loops.
There are not many moments that can have a profound impact on the way our life unfolds.
If you are here, and reading this line, and you have been pestered by one of these loops. This could be your ‘defining’ moment, as the choice is now, literally in your hand.
If you press on, to acquire the skill to live above any of these vicious loops that have been throttling most people, you will accrue an edge that could set you apart, starting from this very moment you make this decision.
So will you learn to control these vicious loops? It is not easy by the way.
A sloppy genius in a highly organized working environment can often perform really well.
For the scope of this focus training manual, memory skills (such as chunking, mnemonics and information organization), problem solving skills and organization skills are omitted. However we can see from the interaction in the diagram, they take up a preeminent position in your performance.
For the purpose of simplification, one of the most destructive vicious loops is omitted.
The worst possible: Bad Life Situation Loop.
It is when one faces rejection from relationships such as parents, tutors or friends, because of a problem one fails on. For example, one may be addicted to games, so much so that one faces rebuff. This bad rejection escalates stress and stress aggravates the problem, and depletes one’s willpower along the way.
So, if you are helping your young solve one of these vicious loops, be sure to be supporting and do not show unnecessary rejections, as this would only push him or her into a Bad Life Situation Loop.
Understand the perennial chaos happening inside your brain and bring it under control in minutes with biofeedback.
Power up the most well researched psychological technique with tech augmentation.
Stay balanced with fatigue and stress more effectively with added emotion-awareness and the right countermeasures.
Learn to tune your emotion states with breathing pacing technology to get into psychological “flow”.