One day last week I drank too much tea too late in the day. Instead of going to bed at my normal 1:30-2am time, I went to bed after 3am. The next morning I woke up around eleven, feeling a bit slothful for sleeping in. Usually I make some nice green tea in the morning, but I skipped it that day, half because I had overdosed on tea the day before, and half because it was almost the afternoon. I sat down at my computer, but instead of doing my daily planning, I started researching Persian rugs.
By one in the afternoon I was still sitting at my computer in my skivvies, having done nothing more substantial than gain a comprehensive amateur understanding of what to look for in a Persian rug, and maybe answering a handful of medium-priority emails.
The day was off to a bad start. Not a horrific start, like the kind where you lose your arm in a grain combine, but the kind where you've gotten such a slow start that the day begins to feel like a waste.
I opened up Google Calendar to plan my day, but then closed it. What's the point, I thought, when I've already wasted so much time? There was no chance it was going to be an excellent day, so my brain was trying to steer me towards just writing the day off and refocusing on the next one.
Somewhere in the back of my head, a small warning bell went off. It reminded me that this sort of situation is the exact situation where I can't afford to lose a day. Not because of the time and productivity, but because it's losing territory to the lazy part of my brain. And once you lose part of that territory, it's really hard to get it back.
I'm not naive enough to think that I control my brain. The relationship is much more complicated than that. Sometimes I have pure dominance over most of my brain and can bend it's capacity to my whims. Other times it gives me barely enough processing power to recognize that it's screwing me over. You know, like when you have a ton of important work to do and you're seriously considering buying a hundred year old Persian rug because it has a high KPSI (knots per square inch). I know that a rug isn't the highest priority in my life, but there I am, clicking away.
The human brain thrives on patterns. In many cases, we can identify them faster than computers can, and in even more cases, we can identify them when they're not even real. In a gross simplification, you could even call our brains pattern machines. They're that good at it.
Besides being a pattern machine, our brains are also lazy. If you're feeling charitable, you could just call them efficient. Conscious thought will be allocated to a problem only if the subconcious doesn't already have a pattern for how to solve the problem. When I first learned to play Musette on the violin, it took all of my brainpower to squeak out a really unpleasant rendition of the song. But as the pathways strengthened in my brain, the burden of playing that song was shifted to my subconscious. I still don't play it amazingly or anything, but now it all happens automatically. My fingers just move and the song comes out.
The switch from conscious playing to unconscious playing didn't happen in an instant, because my brain thought, "You know... the subconscious chunk of me could really handle this better." It happened because I repeated it so much that a pattern was built.
Building these patterns is one of the best features of our brains, but if mismanaged, it can also be really harmful. So whenever I'm doing anything that seems like it might be important, I ask myself if I'm building a pattern in my brain, and if I really want that pattern to exist. This, by the way, is a large part of why I've never tried drinking or drugs or anything like that-- I don't want to have even the faintest pattern of associating those things with pleasure.
Back to my poorly started day. When I'd wasted half a day and my brain was urging me to forget about it and regroup for the next day, I recognized that this was extremely dangerous. It's building a pattern of wasting half of a day yielding some rest for the second half of the day. My brain would love to have that rest, so it tries to build this pattern. It's up to me to use my will power to break it, so instead I forced myself to plan my day and have NO breaks or fun. This action builds a much better pattern of wasting half a day and then having to work uncomfortably hard for the second half. Having that pattern in place will make it much less likely for my brain to push me towards laziness early in the day.
Another example: yesterday around seven pm I was face down in my bed, in the very early stages of drifting into taking a nap. But as I lay there and thought about it, I realized that I got a full night's sleep the night before, had enough water and food for energy, and by every other indication should have been awake. Why did I feel so tired that I was about to take a nap and screw up my sleep schedule? I thought about it and realized that it was only because I was frustrated with the bit of work that I was doing, and my brain saw a nap as an escape. I forced myself up and decided that I would only take a nap if I finished that piece of work and was still tired. I finished it and was no longer tired.
Most people in this world are slaves to their brains. Comfort is suggested by some cluster of neurons somewhere up there, and without really even thinking about it, the rest of the brain latches on to the idea an begins moving towards that comfort. Pushing yourself away from comfort requires constant vigilance and negotiating with that little part of the brain that tries to sabotage us. A big part of that vigilance is using the pattern matching part of your brain to recognize when a course of action may create subtle bad habits, and stopping it before that happens.
Picture is from the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska. Headed back to SF today!
Perhaps due to my new commitment to not oversleeping, the past 2-3 days have really been great. I had a couple light sleeps in my chair (<1 hour), but the overall quality of both my naps and my awake time continues to increase.
Today, for example, I haven't been tired for the past 24 hours. My minor oversleep of 30 minutes was because I was bored and just spacing out at my computer.
Each nap I've had in the past 24 hours was accompanied by an awesome dream, and naturally ended before my alarm clock. Usually when that happens I get another quick nap in before the alarm goes off, but when I woke up early on my most recent nap, I just got out of bed. The funny thing is that I was SURE that I overslept - I felt great and it seemed like I was in bed for hours.
Our lives are full of reruns. While every individual day may have its own unique set of events and experiences, most of what we see and do is something we have already seen and done. I often look back on a month and can only recall a handful of times when my brain was stimulated by a new challenge, environment or activity. The rest of the days seem to run together like some monotonous pattern that I habitually follow. I think I finally understand why this situation bothers me (and probably many others) so much.The mouse that runs the same maze over and over eventually gets good at the task. Its brain activity then plummets, because the task has become an easy routine instead of a stimulating experience. The brain senses a cue (being put in the maze and smelling cheese), it reruns the routine (running the maze along a remembered path) in order to reach the reward stimulation (cheese) at the end. The Power of a Habit explains that this is the process by which habits are cemented into our brains. This is very useful for making us more efficient, and it frees up brain power for other tasks. By doing so, however, the brain essentially cuts out the best parts in the name of efficiency.I see a parallel between being stimulated by the exploration of the new and the feeling of being alive.Routine is to exploring as living is to being alive. It sounds pretty obvious. I know that my brain chemistry in not exactly typical, but I'm sure that I'm not the only one who only feels good when my brain is forced to rev to the redline.Armed with this new insight, the pieces started to come together for me. The existential migration group, with which I now identify, has two identifying characteristics: the urge to become foreigners in a foreign land and a strong preference for the new and unusual. Both can be explained by a very high need for stimulation. Imagine ripping yourself from the comfortable routines of your homeland and transplanting your life into a foreign environment. You gain immediate stimulation from new and unusual (to you) locations, culture, people, food, etc. Also, you lose all of the cues that were the basis on which you built your habits. Suddenly, your brain is both free to make new choices and forced to make choices non-stop, because there are no rails to follow anymore.Here at home, I feel like we try to medicate this state of low stimulation (boredom) with entertainment. TV, movies, games, internet junk, and shopping each provide a brief fix, but the euphoria never lasts because this is only a simulation of "living". I have gone through major addictions to all of these at one point or another, because they were like junk food for my brain. One idea that stemmed from this newfound understanding of my needs was my "one new experience every day" challenge, which I guess I'll write about next time.The last point returns us to the rerun analogy. It occurred to me that if I live a rerun of a day that I have already lived, then I have essentially shortened my life by one day. I wasn't truly alive during that time, and I will never remember anything that happened then. Obviously, this happens quite a bit more than once a year. I think the whole idea of taking a vacation stems from this problem. Perhaps we vacation to exotic locales in order to get away from the reruns of our everyday lives and collect a couple of weeks of interesting experiences to satiate us for the rest of the year.