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!