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!
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!