Mind Wandering CAN be of benefit and serve a purpose towards the realisation of goals.
Having said that, before we go off and indulge carte blanche in flights of fantasy, it’s worth pointing out some research that counters ‘received wisdom’. The tide of positive thinking, self-help and the message that gurus across the land proclaim, that ‘if you imagine it, it will happen’, needs to be checked right there. Actually, research across a variety of domains shows that fantasising about the outcomes of your life you want to happen, is less likely to make said dreams come true. People trying to lose weight, by putting extra efforts into visualising this happening, for instance, lost less weight than those who didn’t take this approach. Similarly in domains such as academic achievement, relationships, and recovery from surgery, thinking positively about the desired outcomes had the same ‘negative’ result.
What’s going on here? Doesn’t this run counter to what we have been led to believe across all those years of positive psychology, of ‘self-mastery’ messages, therapist sessions, Hollywood movies? Well, yes. And so it should. Don’t believe everything you are fed!
Reversing the dictum that there’s no smoke without fire, let’s look at this from a slightly different perspective. It is thought that the reason why indulging in whimsical fantasies about getting that dream life, those rock hard abs, the keys to Gotham City (hang on minute...)...is less likely to make these things happen, is that you are vicariously enjoying having these perks right now. You are enjoying them as if they already happened. In effect your lazy brain, by virtue of having experienced these ‘hard won’ rewards you have ‘earned’, determines that there is no point in then expending further energy in putting in the actual hard work required to make them happen in the real world. Think of it as like writing a to-do list so that you don’t then have to do the tasks. You’ve ticked them off by the act of writing them out. There is no cost pertaining to reality, to real work, hard work – no consequence. Life is easier to live sometimes in one’s head!
Before we throw out the baby with the bathwater, there is a viable option to use imagination and ‘Mind-Wandering’ techniques (otherwise known as thoughts!) to help you achieve real goals, that manifest as rewards in the future.
This involves taking a slightly negative approach to your fantasies. Not necessarily thinking yourself into a really bad mood (although there is some truth in the notion that if you are fed up with aspects of your life this is motivation enough to do something transformative about it). Instead this is about injecting some sense of pragmatic realism into the fantasy world you are constructing in your head.
Mental Contrasting is a term that expresses this idea. And it has been shown to effect ‘selective’ behaviour change. This links the desired fantasy state of affairs to the current status quo, including the challenges, obstacles that are a source of discontent and impetus for change. It also sets expectations about what is required to action changes to get to where you want to get. And expectations drive the effort that must be galvanised to make behavioural modifications towards the end goal.
Importantly, fostering a consequent state of high expectation about how to overcome the obstacles in your way and resolve these as steps to achieve your future goal, will energise you and impel you to act more or less straight away. Conversely, revelling in the fantasy version of your life, or setting lower expectations, will result in little likelihood of embarking on the journey towards utopia! Physiologically speaking, high expectations raise systolic blood pressure, generating a surfeit of energy that demands being spent on pursuing the the path to your goals (which is in fact tackling the obstacles of the reality that stands in your way). If you can see your current reality as an obstacle then you are more motivated to climb over it, step round it, smash through it (!) towards the new reality you are empowered to build in it’s stead!
So the message here is that you can use your capacity for Mind Wandering in a proactive way to help you achieve your goals. A couple of points to emphasise to help you on that journey. Firstly, it takes cognitive effort. It is much easier for your brain to revel in fantasies of that golden future. But then as we have ascertained, it’s less likely to happen! But mental effort is a feedback loop that will tell you something worthwhile is happening. If you want a firm core, put the effort into doing sit-ups rather than imaging the benefits without any of the satisfying work that enables it’s achievement. Think of it then as ‘feedback’ rather than work if that helps motivate you even more! If you are blissfully happy and absorbed in the fantasy this is another feedback telling you that you are heading down a blind alley to progress. So snap out of it. Inject some realism. Check in with the future image of success achieved of course, but don’t dwell on it, or embellish it dreamily. Pull yourself back and think about the present. Think about the source of your discontent. But again, don’t dwell on it! Use the capacity to fluctuate back and forth, discipline your attention to switch meaningfully between moments. I will soon write a piece on how to train your attention to flip between different modes of attention and thoughtful processing to help manage this capacity further. Compare, contrast, and set expectations about how the present reality represents obstacles that are concrete but surmountable. You mind will be set towards creatively overcoming these obstacles!
Off you go!
The thing about the mind is that it never stops thinking. If you aren't focused on a task, the chances are your mind is wandering off at a tangent. Even when you try to focus on a task it tends to do just that. And unless it does this productively, by coming up with a new idea associated with what you are doing, it will be in fact detrimentally affecting your performance. You'll make errors.
You'll also be less happy for this.
'Mind Wandering' (especially when it is concerned with thoughts that have no bearing on your current task) lowers the mood. You'll have expended extra energy sustaining the spiral of thoughts when you could have profitably put that energy to getting a satisfying job done.
There's a good chance that the contents of your thoughts involve the past. The most significant incidence of lowered mood in mind wandering relates to thinking about the past. Yet interestingly, 'prospective' mind wandering - i.e. thinking about the future - can actually associate with raises in mood, reduce cortisol levels in response to stress and at the very least offset the negative impact of thinking about the past. Brain science attests to this.
At the heart of what I 'do' is attempting to 'neuro-engineer' solutions to improve and 'optimise' mental performance, elevate mood and gain greater 'self' control that can help manage (and harness) stress in relation to life's circumstances and the environment in which we operate day to day...
Simple concepts can be employed based on understanding how the brain works as a 'machine' with various parts and functions which interact, connect, and importantly disconnect. So a tip for today that utilises some understanding of brain functioning involves shifting the arrow of time if you catch yourself ruminating, feeling a little downcast. You can take stock of your mental operating system, check in to monitor if you have bccome lost in a train of thought, and note if it is directed towards the past. Halt the train in it's tracks, or more accurately, turn it around using the momentum it has already gathered, and direct it towards the future!
Flux Capacitor: timetabling your on and off-task 'rest' periods for greater productivity and 'self-control'
"This is what makes time travel possible! The FLUX CAPACITOR!!"
Doc Brown - Back to the Future
Your mind is ‘designed’ to fluctuate – your attention will flit from this to that. It is a natural state of affairs that the brain craves stimulation, is restless, has the tendency to focus momentarily on one thing then another. Animals perhaps take this to the extreme, rarely ‘switch off’, are sedentary one moment then hyper alert the next. The trouble is, particularly in today’s information/stimulation saturated world, we are becoming more ‘animalistic’ in our behaviours, stressed out, hyperactive, unable to truly ‘rest’.
Rather than ignore this or simply resign ourselves to the infernal phone-checking life we resort to, a little reflection on what we are getting from this is required.
We must accept that brains fluctuate, attention ebbs and flows, but we do not need to accept that we cannot have control over this, or assert a little structure and discipline to get something positive out of this innate tendency.
A technique found in psychological therapy practice is used to help people overcome severe anxiety and depressive rumination. PTSD even. It acknowledges that sometimes stress and emotional trauma can over-activate the brain’s ‘default mode’ such that at any time of day or night, the sufferer may experience vivid and intrusive thought patterns that can also elicit physiological stress responses. Banishing sleep, preventing any ability to ‘switch off’, leading to nervous exhaustion, desperation and an inability to function or make decisions: ‘mind-fog’. This may also be called ‘executive dysfunction’. The technique is quite simple. It requires the sufferer to set a timetable for allowing the mind to run free with it’s ruminations, it’s indulgent focus on the negative thoughts. Rather than attempt to nip these thoughts in the bud throughout the day – an impossible task given that they may arise spontaneously and so cannot be second-guessed or ‘headed off’ - instead you decide that you will set aside a time in the day when you will indeed ‘allow’ your mind to revel in this pattern of thinking. What this does is to establish boundaries, and a semblance of control over the tendency – for if thoughts arise ‘out of the blue’ you simply divert them, turn them away ‘for now’, and allow them to realise they will indeed be granted a platform later on. Otherwise they will grumble and complain and make their voice heard here and now, as if it is the only opportunity to ‘speak’. This establishes routine, discipline and ‘structure’. But you must adhere to this routine – so if it is to be between 5 and 5.30 (before tea time perhaps) then stick to it religiously.
You will soon find that the intensity of these patterns of thought will dwindle over time. You will ‘see’ these thoughts for what they are, within the enclosure of that time period. Perhaps even become sympathetic to their voice and see them as detached entities that perhaps ‘you’ can help, empowered to assist in their passing like restless spirits unsure how to transition to the afterlife!
In daily life, even if we are not unfortunate enough to be laden down with anxiety or depression, we still can benefit from a structured approach to how we manage our thinking and attentional focus. The obsession with checking phones, Facebook, notifications, emails, spills over into a potential ‘dysfunction’ of attention which has unconscious but cumulative effect on mental health, anxiety, stress. This is because we naturally gravitate to a state of constant flux, as the ‘task-focused’ and ‘default mode’ constituents of our brains perform a perpetual tug-of-war. The ‘default’ or ‘self’ demands to be listened to, granted free rein to satisfy it’s impulses. It does not ‘like’ to be turned down whilst the more purposeful elements of the brain focus on getting the job done.
But mindful of the earlier example we can set a precedent that benefits us all, and instead of being in a less productive, inefficient, wasteful state throughout the day that dips in and out of these fluctuating states (trying to get on with a job then checking the phone, daydreaming, moving from one idea to the next), we should timetable our on and off-task periods of focus. This means in effect elevating the ‘default state’ to the status of a task in itself. And a task that will be granted valuable minutes of focused time to do what it will. Instead of relegating the default mode to the status of a mithering child who never quite gets enough attention, but is fobbed off, half-listened to or outright ignored, instead it is granted a platform of time to make the most of itself! It in effect is given opportunity to make it’s voice fully heard, and with that comes it’s own motivational impetus to make the most of it. Productively. In practice this means timetabling your day so that you focus fully on a task – it might be for half an hour, it might be an hour. But be clear what that period is. And likewise you schedule your ‘default’ periods within that overall timetable. 15 minutes of ‘pure default’.
This may not seem like anything new or revelatory – ‘take a break for 15 minutes out of every hour’. And in a sense it is not. But then again this is about becoming aware of the sources of your non-productivity, your stresses, your fluctuating resources. And through that awareness, you are formulating a focused, efficient and strategic response that works proactively on boosting your efficiency, capacity to get things done, whilst simultaneously managing your ‘self’ and how you deal with stress and anxiety. The ‘resting state’ in effect turns into a focused task in itself But one that has a looser remit, is not constrained (other than by time available), and which can seed a boost in creative thoughts that might just help on the tasks you are trying to get done in the interim. It is probably no coincidence that high performers, entrepreneurs, ‘world-changers’, are seen to exhibit intense timetabling of their waking day to maintain insanely busy schedules. I read that Elon Musk has his day broken down into 5 minute chunks. Perhaps there is something to learn from this! (Though let’s not get too OCD about it and create more stress!!)
I spend a lot of time looking into brain activity and correlated mental functioning related to 'task-related' as well as 'mindful' processes, including monitoring my own 'brain waves', noting fluctuations in attention and how this relates to ‘on’ and ‘off’ task processing. It is self evident that a more satisfactory approach to managing one’s day-to-day tasks and activities benefit from a more structured approach, that is anything but onerous! It in effect empowers you to get more out of your brain functions! It allows greater freedom for creative (productive) expression from the ‘default mode’, and it can inspire more output and reward from the jobs that need to be done. It can eliminate 'wastefulness'!
Do you want to be the ‘master of your domain’? Or at the behest of a chaotic household where the ‘kids’ run riot, the background noise needs constantly to be tuned out and you are continuously trying to pull back your focus to the job that needs doing, but seems to go on forever...?
If the former, then give your default mode a talking to. Explain that you want to hear what it has to say. At 5 o’clock; until then keep schtum! It might just appreciate your taking control and grant some respect in turn!
Attention fluctuates. Get used to it!
The brain is never truly 'at rest'. Or 'still'. But it can be managed more efficiently.
Maintaining a semblance of control over the turbulent contents of a restless mind is a key discipline to embrace! As I talked about, the brain is highly creative, it loves to churn out ideas, mull over information, revel in splashing the paint in it's toolbox all over the surroundings!
A really useful skill is to recognise that you can be a custodian over this process. A curator if you like, of the ideas that pour forth.
When you are in your 'White Room', you can learn to become a more competent facilitator of the curation process. To marshall the unbounded creativity by imposing some restrictions....
When in a 'default mode' state, the mind will follow it's own path, like a runaway train careering off into the distance, zig-zagging here and there without a 'driver' at the wheel. The act of remaining mindful, attempting to defocus and 'clear' the mind as described earlier, can help significantly in this regard. Lifelong practitioners of meditation may still admit to finding it a tricky process to master, and acknowledge that indeed attention does fluctuate. But then that's the point of the exercise. Consider the following approach to work with this fluctuating tendency and use it to 'curate' the thoughts that spill through the 'gate'.
'Stilling the mind' is an act that is doomed to failure in many ways. To eradicate all thoughts, from a thinking machine! Part of mindfulness training is to simply observe the thoughts which 'do' arise, to catch your mind as it embarks on a train of such thought. Inevitably we get swept up on that train ride before we attempt to 'jump off' and start again. Instead let us set our 'task' as a gatekeeper who monitors the thoughts that seek to break out from the enclosure that has been constructed to contain them. Attempt to suppress ALL thought, but do use this opportunity to observe as particularly crafty thoughts seek to 'sneak' through and past the gatekeeper. For as long as these are not destructive thoughts that undermine the 'establishment', the chances are they are thoughts which exhibit the positive traits of the creative, the tenacious, the maverick. In effect the 'gatekeeper' sensibility is striving to select the ideas which can have impact, that drive and motivate, and bring something new to the table. This is something of a 'blind eye' approach with one rule for the masses and a leniency towards the individuals that possess the traits you wish to foster...
To be in a 'default mode' state (i.e. just 'resting' with no attempt to suppress your mental content) and simply hope that a creative idea comes boldly striding through is wishful thinking. There's too much noise. Instead it is vital to attempt to suppress that noise across the board, to suppress ALL thought, but to be mindful of the ideas, the maverick thoughts that have sufficient tenacity to still try and climb over the wall, stealthily crawl past the gatehouse. These are the ideas worth 'letting in'! Without that tension created by attempted suppression of thought the special thoughts may not 'get through'. By clearing out the 'clutter', the important stuff will emerge. So work with the fluctuating tendency of attention, use it to weed out the noise. Nurture your creativity!
“Say hello to my leetle friend...!” Think of SAM as the ‘homunculus’. The little ‘man’ (or woman) who lives in your head. ‘He’ (I’ll refer in the masculine as ‘he’ is ‘me’ for now) determines how ‘you’ feel, how motivated you are, how in control you are over your surroundings, over your ‘self’.
SAM represents three essential dimensions of your emotional being, the core elements or ‘affect’ that determine whether you are motivated to get up in the morning, to do things productively, to engage meaningfully with the world.
In short, we are wired for approach or avoid behaviours that drive our engagement with the environment, be that to explore the world, forage for food, seek challenge, or to run screaming in the opposite direction, or shrink back into our ‘cave’ (go back to bed, ignore the outside world and hope it goes away).
SAM is a useful tool representing the elements of ‘self’ that decide if the world requires approaching or avoiding. He is composed of three elements: Valence, Arousal, and Dominance (from top to bottom on the picture above). Valence effectively relates to how pleasure-evoking something is, whether ‘SAM’ is inclined to inspect further or retreat away from. As such the Valence ‘scale’ is positive or negative. Arousal is the level of ‘activation’ or energy available in SAM’s system. This can be low to non-existent, or high in ‘voltage’, representing a capacity for action, and readiness to ‘move’. This is where ‘valence’ comes in, for if this is ‘positive’ then SAM is inclined to rush headlong towards the source of stimulus and engage it wholeheartedly. Finally, Dominance refers to the level of ‘control’ that SAM is empowered by – does ‘he’ feel small, insignificant, at the whims of the wider world, or does he feel large, forthright and robust, able to exert influence over the surroundings (or himself)?
Embracing SAM as a manifestation of the emotional, responsive, reactive or empowered ‘self’ can be useful to: a) give yourself a sense of ‘where you are’ currently in terms of your motivations, your resolve, your capacity to ‘do stuff’, and b) do something about it. We can all go through life with a nagging sense that something is not quite right, or even be oblivious to an underlying condition that eventually requires more urgent attention. But a healthy, balanced life (physically and mentally) is more likely to be effected by having ‘self awareness’, by looking honestly at aspects of your behaviour, attitude, environment, nutrition etc. etc., taking stock and attempting to keep it on track. Avoiding ignorance.
Ultimately it’s in our interests to take a sensibly ‘approach-centric’ ‘approach' (!) to life. It’s a positive step to seek out challenge, explore the environment, and confront sources of discontent, or nagging ‘niggles’ that otherwise may be brushed under the carpet. This is a healthy, functioning strategy to prevailing and prospering in life. All to often we react, shrink (become the small SAM that is submissive, powerless, at the behest of the ‘big wide world’) and thus either remain impassive, or ‘run away’ from opportunity, or even daily chores and things we otherwise need to address. But SAM, as a representation of your ‘self’, requires attention, has potential, is responsive to direction, encouragement. ‘He’ is not fixed and reactive. He can be motivated, galvanised, used to achieve things, get things done, embrace the world!
For a simple exercise, take a look at SAM (see the picture above) and think about where you are currently, in this moment, how you ‘feel’. But do this with respect to a thought in mind that is perhaps troubling you, or a task that needs doing, or the environment you are currently in (say your bedroom). Do you ‘feel’ positive or negative on the top (Valence) scale? How much ‘Arousal’ do you have in you, in terms of energy, urge to move, to act? And how ‘in control’ of that do you feel (Dominance)? If you think you are currently de-motivated, lacking in energy, want to just go back to sleep, or retreat away from the world, is that really what you want to do? I suspect not. You are likely in an ‘avoid’ response pattern, contrary to what you actually 'want'. But SAM does wants to get up and and get going, he just lacks the 'command' to do so. How can you help ‘him’ do so? He will ultimately do as ‘you’ say. But he looks to you, and responds, for guidance, direction. So do it for him if you can’t do it for you...
Think of it in terms of an ‘approach’ strategy. That job that needs doing. The thing you are putting off. Devolve responsibility to SAM. Empower him. Let him increase in stature – give him control (increase his dominance ‘score’!). The valence should be positive, as this is what galvanises him to act. The task requires attention, it ‘wants’ to be done! So approach it – ramp up SAM’s valence score! With this increase in valence, attention towards the goal of ‘approaching’ the task, arousal should naturally follow. When we are engaged in the idea of doing, our system ignites, primes the engine. You have to scratch that itch, you have to get up and do it! Otherwise you will end up in an unbalanced state of high arousal and low valence. Inaction. Frustration...
So as an exercise, think about SAM as the manifestation of your ‘self’. Be that a lazy self, or a motivated and aspiring self. Give SAM a figurative pat on the back if the latter! Importantly, check in on SAM, see how he is doing. And if need be give him a helping hand!
SAM is your friend. He will help you become a better ‘self’, motivated, empowered, happier. And more productive!
"In the white room with black curtains near the station...
...I'll wait in this place where the sun never shines
Wait in this place where the shadows run from themselves"
White Room - Cream
I was given a piece of advice many years ago concerning ‘overcoming mental blocks’. If struggling to come up with an idea, the imagination failing to spark, stare at a white wall. A blank, space, ideally in a sparse room. Painted white. Failing to give the mind any stimulus of interest on which to anchor, it will create it’s own. Ideas will begin to emerge, coalesce, and will hybridise, expand, grow in stature. From this emergent complexity will arise impetus to act. As if the ideas spill forth from the confines of the mind and into the real world, demanding constructive action!
This thinking was borne out of research into isolation. Sensory isolation to be precise. Place an individual in a restricted environment, homogenise the light field (this can be achieved with halved ping pong balls over the eyes in front of a light source), and soon boredom will spawn fragmented then continuous imagery. Hallucination even. The brain craves stimulation. Whilst this can send a person unhinged, nevertheless it attests to the capacity of our most revered organ (!) for creativity.
This is an important facet to consider in these isolating times: where stimulus is reduced, our immediate confines may become underwhelming, over-familiar, oppressive even. If the brain-mind is left to drift un-tethered, or become subsumed into a drab, un-interesting environment and daily regime, it will craft it’s own demise. It is all too easy to devolve responsibility for our cognitive direction to automated patterns of behaviour. The brain will wander off tangentially and soon lose all focus, threatening the stability and meaningfulness of ‘self’, if there is no-one electing to take the reins.
It is therefore important to take ‘executive control’ as soon as possible over your mental faculties, before the board, the workforce ‘take-over’ and the ship sail off with no figurehead at the helm. The ‘default mode’ feeds on it’s own output, spiralling into a ruminative and destructive vortex of indulgent thinking. This in itself can create de-motivation, simply because all the energy is going into stirring the pot rather than cooking the food and feeding it to the workforce that make more productive output! It takes mental effort to instill this ‘executive control’ (that is a defining feature of this higher level directorship!). We have ‘fronto-parietal’ attention networks that identify salience in the environment and help facilitate behaviours that are ‘task-focused’. This ‘Salience Network’ is effectively a mechanism for ‘flipping the switch’ between ‘default mode’ and task-focused brain state. In order to galvanise this executive control capacity requires voluntary attention (as opposed to involuntary attention) and is lodged in a strategy that seeks to dissociate the emotional valence of the current state of mind, and sources of rumination. The emotional attention sub-network within this Salience Network engages involuntarily with stimuli either in the external world or based in internal ‘default mode’ rumination.
Where we find ourselves ruminating, procrastinating, we are inevitably falling prey to this default mode, and allowing the emotional attentional system to satiate it’s own appetite. This prevents focusing reserves, and attention on the ‘task-positive’ network. An efficient and productive ‘task-positive’ network will coincide with a ‘de-activated’ default mode network, wherein the voice of self, of internal rumination, or of wandering thoughts, is ‘turned off’.
Taking a step back, to a state where the ‘default mode’ holds sway, prior to finding sufficient momentum to get into ‘task-focused’ mindset, we need to find out how to disengage the default mode, and the emotional attention system. A ‘mindfulness’ approach is a first step, to observing the ‘default’ thoughts in a detached manner. If you can then switch straight into ‘doing’ and allow this activity to generate it’s own momentum, great. But it may be that you have as yet not found the motivation to activate that impetus.
This is where the ‘white room’ comes in. The default mode can be used, directed to creative ends – much as it inevitably operationalises when left un-checked. But with mindful ‘executive control’ it can be used as a machinery for generating ideas. Ideas that emerge slowly, then expand, become sculpted into intentional actions that realise them into being.
You may have a ‘white room’ in your house – or at least a white wall (sit close enough to it and it encompasses your whole visual field, so does not need a large space). Or the ceiling of your bedroom as your eyes adjust to wakefulness. Capitalising on a dreamy, drowsy state where the default mode begins to emerge from unconsciousness, you can engage your executive system to allow an idea to emerge. Nurture it, let it grow and take first steps of exploration into the world. Keep it central, do not let it give way to a plethora of other ideas that suddenly disperse that nascent energy across a multitude of unrealisable content. As you nurture it, feed its confidence, hopefully that will create the energy and impetus to jump up out of bed and hardly contain your impatience to get started (as the other rituals of the day come in sequence first).
Try this approach in order to get in touch with your executive control system, and mindful to your default mode. With such knowledge of how things work, you can empower more direction over the source of anxiety and rumination, motivational impetus, and the energy resources available to put to being more task focused, productive, and satisfied day to day.
Ultimately, though it may seem to be the biggest hindrance, especially in current times of uncertainty, and restricted opportunities, look upon the brain’s capacity for creativity and productivity as one’s greatest asset to adapt, ideate, and create!
I will soon talk in more detail about some experiments in ‘quantified self’ with respect to how I investigate and ‘train’ attention, and my ‘executive control’ over default mode, task-positive network and creative impetus, using Virtual Reality whilst monitoring of electrical brain activity that signifies the different networks that are in operation....
Following on from 'yesterday': how did you get on?
Is your day more structured now? Have you established a routine?
If you wrote down your goal - first step to realising it - then 'laced up your shoes' so to speak, hopefully you found yourself already moving forward, gathering momentum and overcoming that inertia....
To demonstrate the 'proof of the pudding', I had to enforce a rest and a 'break from structure' this weekend (it being a bank holiday it was justifiable!). Because I had embraced my own rule 'too' readily. My goal was to make sure that I take a decent period of exercise each day and get out the house, away from the interior isolation situation. In line with the 'brushing one's teeth' analogy, I was so successful at making my goal invisible, automatic, I found myself jumping out of bed (somewhat!) earlier than normal to go cycling. On ever more prolonged circuits of the nearby countryside. Perhaps the weather has doubly inspire me to this, but that's beside the point. I couldn't not do it, in the same way, to avoid brushing my teeth, performing my morning ritual ablutions would prevent me starting the day properly. So successful was my strategy that I continued into the weekend, and was getting increasingly tired and drained from almost too much exercise!
Being positive about this, I am fitter, leaner, not in need of motivational impetus to do so again. And I now appreciate the 'holiday' that gives me an allowed break from that routine.
Ok, now we have established this principle, and that it works, what next?
What is it today that prevents me from doing x,y,z? Or knowing where to start if there are too many letters in the alphabet to focus on in my roster of tasks?
White board. An invaluable tool. It doesn't have to be an actual white board. We don't want to make today's sticking point about the search for an actual white board, the lack of which prevents us getting ANYTHING done! I use an old cupboard door, or a shelf from my previous kitchen before a new one was installed! But write stuff down!
We need to map out the things which give us 'pain'. The nagging thoughts, the obstacles - those tasks talked about previously that are brushed beneath the carpet. Get them out in the open, on the table (whiteboard).
Our primary task 'today' is to note down first what all the possible tasks are that could be focused on. Don't worry about the order. Jut get them down. Being able to look down the list will help in determining what's feasible, what's desirable, what's important or less so. If they all seem vital, crucial to achieve in one day, but impossible, overwhelming, well, that's a useful start because if something is impossible why worry about achieving it!!!?? Or put another way, the impossible can often motivate one to greater success than can be achieved by setting the bar much lower, to the more easily achievable, and ultimately less satisfying.
An overview of all these tasks may provoke recognition of common aspects of different tasks, links not so obvious before. Softening one's attitude towards this flood of demands by stepping back, adopting the same 'mindful' approach one may take towards one's cacophany of thoughts likewise will help the brain form strategies and resort to a more efficient way of dealing with what needs to be done. [Remember we are aiming to take control over the brain's ability to find the most efficient way to do things, to eradicate wastefulness and find patterns in the noise.]
So let's pause and take this thought on board. It doesn't matter how many tasks you have written down, how overwhelming it may look, for now you are applying a mindful attitude, impartial to the emotional valence or stress associated with the thoughts, the tasks, that list. It' just a list. It's been made explicit whereas before it was all implicit, a turbulent vortex inside that was having a influence on you without you being able to pinpoint what it was! So become aware of the sources of your 'pain' then become mindful, dissociated from them. Observe. This is, if you like, externalised mindfulness!
The next step is to allow that 'soft' mindset to absorb the information, the stimulus. This will allow the brain to engage it's organisational capacity and start to tackle the overall task of deciding how to 'solve' this problem. It is beginning to strategise based on it's normal tendency to constantly strive to make sense of the world, to solve problems, to 'make it's life easy'.
You can give it a helping hand with a little introspection. Interception in fact. This is where you become aware of (mindfully) how you feel about all the tasks as a whole before drilling down into each individual component. This is called global processing, taking an overview of things rather than a narrowed focus. Imagine google earth showing your house, or even the room in which you sit. Now zoom out, pull back, out of that room, above your house, above your street, above the surrounding area. Don't go too far or you will be out on a flight of fancy above the earth and into the cosmos! See the 'problems' in a wider context, interlinked, part of a 'whole'. What is the overall purpose you are trying to achieve? Keep it more localised to 'today', though in due course we can apply this to life more generally, and ambition. For now we need to establish the technique and approach, still maintaining some discipline, structure and routine to how you going about instilling this performance mindset!
Scan the list, observe how you feel in terms of the level of arousal, or energy activated within you - simply in terms of voltage rather than emotion. Next think about how that energy s channelled. Is it a positive voltage, an excitement? Or is it a negative voltage - anxiety provoking? Don't think too much on this as the technique here is to 'decide' which 'direction that voltage is actually channelling. Our perception and action systems are inextricably linked. There is an illusion that demonstrates this - a circle of dots which appear to move clockwise or anti-clockwise depending on whether you circle your finger in either of these directions. The point is we have agency over what we perceive according to our 'action state'. Action creates perception. A high arousal state can be 'determined' as being 'exciting' rather than 'anxious' in the same way. We want to use that energy as impetus to move towards a stimulus rather than away from it. This as opposed to our direction of movement being determined by a reflexive response to the environment that perhaps moves us away from the source of 'shock' as opposed to using that shock to give us the energy to jump wholeheartedly forward!
So starting with mindfulness followed by interoception we can start to view the overwhelming list of tasks firstly dispassionately, then as motivating - galvanising the energy we have in store to start getting stuck in!
Next we need to drill down into our list and decide what to do first.
Perhaps already from the 'overview' stage we have a sense of what stands out. What is crying out to be done (i.e. most energy-provoking), and what blurs back into the background. With a little extra 'helping hand', still in a dispassionate, mindful, but somewhat interoceptive mode, scanning the list, let the individual components form a 3D 'contour' if you like, some emerging taller, more prominently from the rest. Perhaps your mind is deciding what is most immediately appealing, but this may not necessarily be the most 'important' or productive task to tackle. So you can zoom out again and 'decide' what is the key criterion to satisfy today? If it is 'productivity' then establish that mindfully in your strategy, the go back into the scanning mode - what emerges will be determined by this criterion. You have to take charge at this 'executive' level otherwise no decision will be made at all. Is it then about 'productivity'? or is it about what will make you feel stimulated?
Try this approach.
Now get stuck in!
How ‘energy efficient’ are you when it comes to managing your own thoughts, your brain’s output? How ‘cluttered’ is your house? Clutter takes up energy, it occupies ‘space’, be it on the shelves of your kitchen, in your bathroom cupboards, the shed, the garage. The living room floor. It goes unnoticed but it actually has a draining effect. Tidying up takes effort, a chore that must continually be ‘kept on top of’. But it weighs on the mind, even when you might ‘not care less’. In fact any chores left unattended will occupy resource in your mind, and laziness or ‘laissez faire’ attitude only contribute to a façade that they don’t matter and that you are ‘taking it easy’. The environment we inhabit affords actions, perceptions. A garden path affords walking out into the meadows beyond. If it is overgrown by weeds, lost in the undergrowth, it no longer overtly offers that avenue or the opportunity. Just stay inside. Or keep to well-trodden tracks that guide you to familiar locales. Perception is narrowed, the world shrinks.
People’s lives across the world are defined by chores, jobs that need doing. Putting them off might confer an illusion of liberty. But it is not freedom to ‘ignore’ tasks or pretend they do not exist. Satisfaction and empowerment comes from taking control, exercising self-discipline, clearing out the ‘clutter’. Consumers the world over recognise that much of the ‘effort’ associated with household chores comes from the anticipation of all the jobs that must be done, rather than the doing in itself – even in communities where manual labour is the norm, where labour saving devices are scarce, or unreliable, outdated. Where predominantly women scrub plates, clothes, surfaces for hours on end, or resort to using crude tools, or ‘products’ derived from natural sources other than the supermarket. This effort is ‘mental’, it manifests as cognitive workload. And workload as such leads to emotional strain. Stress...
The question is, how can we manage our ‘workload’ more efficiently? How does one move towards disposition of effective task-focus, embracing the jobs to be done enthusiastically?
‘Doing’ rather than thinking about (or actually more to point of fact not thinking about) the jobs that need doing is the rather ‘obvious’ answer to this. As mentioned, putting things off, or pretending they either don’t need doing, or they don’t exist, only serves to brush these under the figurative carpet, making the weft bulge up so that you have to step over and around it – it is defining your metaphorical mental domicile in such a way that forces you to adjust your behaviour accordingly, restricting your movements. from a psychological standpoint, this is in effect cluttering up your unconscious, restricting your options. What is pushed away, hidden, ignored and ‘forgotten takes up cognitive resource – which you will be unaware of. You will have less available for other motivational ends.
Keeping one’s house in order requires routine, discipline, effort. But surprisingly, as mentioned, not doing so also entails effort of a different kind (mental effort). Funnily enough, consumers asked about this in far flung, deprived regions, tended to stress the mental effort outweighing the physical act of ‘doing’ (within reason and dependent on the nature of the task of course!). But physical work often gives it’s own reward. The gym being an obvious example. What is the hardest part of going to the gym? Signing up? Not likely – it's exciting! It is something to look forward to! Its more likely to be the putting on and lacing up of the shoes, or the packing the bag. Or the deciding to get up off the couch and drive there...All mental ‘steps’ that require overcoming of psychological inertia...
Once a habit is ingrained though, remember, some of that mental inertia is removed from the equation. Do you groan at the thought of brushing your teeth? Doubtful, you just do it. Once you have a routine, a structure in place, this generates it’s own momentum. You don’t think about routine, it just happens. You don’t have to motivate yourself to do your daily routine. But you might actually have to ironically expend energy NOT to do it once it is ingrained...
Think about doing sit-ups. Do you want the benefits of a strong core, a washboard stomach (maybe)? You might decide right let’s do it. You get down, huff and puff through 5, maybe 10. It feels good. You might even fresh from this rewarding experience do it again tomorrow. Or maybe not. It’s lost it’s appeal, hard work, little or no immediate gain – you feel worse...But what are you wanting from that burst of motivated endeavour? Chances are, like a person who always looks to buy the next piece of equipment that will galvanise the exercise routine, or waits for the yoga mat to arrive from Amazon like an expectant dog at the letterbox, you put it off till 'the time is right'. It’s delayed, it’s going to be 2 weeks. The motivation is dependent upon the excitement, the stimulation of a new activity. Which is doomed to failure as the novelty wears off...
A better strategy is to treat it like brushing your teeth. It’s something that will become assimilated into your everyday routine. You don’t expect any improvement, in fact banish it from your mind. The only real satisfaction you might derive is from having done it, got it out the way. It becomes second nature. You are not interested in results. Like a child eating his greens, it is just something that is there on the plate. The ice cream for ‘afters’ is what occupies his attention, and this is how the broccoli is sneaked past his alerting system, doing him good without realising it.
But the thing about routine is that it passes the time, the structure is the foundation for progress. Before you know it, three weeks have passed. The ‘invisible sit ups’ you have not really been paying attention to, but have just been doing, have been having an insidious (but positive) effect. You start to notice a slight change in appearance on passing the mirror. How did that happen? You ask yourself. Actually you feel quite taut...Forget about it, maybe look again in another 3 weeks. Where did that 6 pack come from!!
The point I am making here is about how ‘cognitive workload’ dominates our thinking, and often is due to the lack of doing things that actually would benefit us,. Be it from a motivational/aspirational point of view, or from a tendency to put off doing things because we approach with the wrong attitude, and reacted negatively to the thought of performing tasks. Tasks in themselves are there for a purpose. We are predisposed evolutionarily to perform actions, do ‘work’, go through the motions of fulfilling basic tasks and needs. Not to sit back lazily and demand that the task confers some kind of indulgent reward. We are not entitled beings! The more you avoid doing something that needs to be done, the more your cognitive workspace, available energy, and capacity to progress and achieve things is undermined, restricted. Conversely, the more you ‘get on with things’ the more you de-clutter this workspace and clear the decks for new opportunities, new creative possibilities to emerge. You benefit from the ‘sit-ups’ so to speak. You have established a meaningful and productive routine, a structured, self-disciplined approach that produces it’s own reward, and generates it’s own energy.
You have in effect recycled your mental waste, and turned it into profitable output, renewed energy stores...
Waste is in effect what this represents, cognitively speaking. Like the flab that displeases your midriff, you can turn that into muscle, trim off the fat, become a leaner version of you. I already talked about how the brain is prone to redundancy, excess, inefficient use of resources and how ‘optimal performance’ depends on sloughing off excess, eradicating redundancy, and focusing on the areas where good honest work can take place. And for which everyone is happier and more productive.
So to sum up, what we are talking about here is addressing a tendency in all of us to put things off, to rely on immediate, but illusory reward in order to motivate doing something proactive, be it a household chore or a commitment to ‘getting fit’. The longer-term benefits are likely to come from creating structure in the day, a routine that actually ‘hides’ the task within it, and which, like brushing your teeth becomes so ingrained it’s actually more of an effort to NOT do it. Structure, routine channels time more effectively, more productively. Before you know it rewards are evident – a tidier ‘house’, a de-cluttered mind, new goals and aspirations and opportunities, and the capacity to take these on without thinking. A fitter, leaner, more energised version of yourself. And importantly, a recognition that you can take all that waste and recycle it, to power a sustainable version of your self that has renewed capacity to achieve ever greater ambitions!
What are you waiting for?!
Here is where I synthesise my Adventure Psychology approach based on my extensive adventure travel and pursuits experiences, more than two decades of applied psychological research, and my association and work with extreme sports practitioners. My philosophy can be boiled down to a simple premise (as elaborated on in Science section): a 'task-focused' mindset is key to achieve success! What gets in the way of this is 'self' Through a deep understanding of how the brain 'works' it is possible to refocus attention, use 'self-control' and engage with the world in a more efficient manner to achieve goals. I offer insights and techniques backed up with cutting edge science and practical knowledge, studying optimal performers to ensure insights are based on real evidence!