Do you ever look around and think, where did the last few years of my life go? Few months? Weeks? Come on, admit it, you’re not perfect. Even if you are mostly productive and happy and almost perfect, you aren’t always as clearheaded and effective as you can be. We all get into ruts and fall into bad habits. It’s particularly easy to do so in this modern world of distractions and mindless entertainment. It’s easy to shut your brain off and go through the motions, but it’s not always so easy to turn it back on. That motion requires making a solid and consistent effort and building habits; setting goals and following through. I’m currently in the process of refocusing my brain and I thought I would share some of the things I’m doing to facilitate the wake up process (things that you can do too).
1. Morning Brain Dumps
Not only is this useful, but it’s interesting. Dumping the contents of your befuddled brain every morning is as easy as keeping a notebook and a pen next to your bed. The idea is that you open your eyes and you just start writing. It doesn’t matter what you write. It can be utter nonsense, but set yourself a goal to write 2-3 pages every day. Just start writing and don’t stop or slow down until you hit your goal.
At first, I found this exercise to be not only tedious, but physically painful. Seriously, it hurt my brain. I even stopped doing it for a little while because I was anticipating the discomfort shocking my brain into action. But then I noticed something- it got easier and the nonsense that I wrote down became a little more coherent . It was mostly descriptions of the bizarre dreams that I was having or the stupid things that I tend to stress myself out about. A lot of times my sleepy thoughts blended into logical waking thoughts halfway through the exercise and I was able to deal with an issue that I had been unconsciously juggling.
I don’t keep the pages for very long. This notebook is not a diary by any means, but I go back through every couple days or weeks and I review what I wrote before tossing the pages. I keep coming across these fantastic visuals and story ideas that I concisely copy into my Exocortex (see #5 on this list). I’ll also reread a thought that was bothering me, and seeing it a second time makes it even easier to see it at it’s proper level of importance. No problem is ever as bad as it seems before thinking it through and writing it down.
Overall, it’s a great exercise and it helps your brain deal with the subconscious stuff that would otherwise interfere with the important stuff throughout the day.
This is one that I’m struggling with, particularly since it’s winter, and I’ve been in school but I know for a fact (and you do too) that it works. I know what I’m writing here is not revolutionary, but it’s worth the reminder. Exercise is good for your body and your brain, mmkay. So, no more excuses (I’m talking to myself here). Get your heart pumping every. single. day. If you don’t have time for a full workout, at least go for a walk.
I personally resolve, to run on the treadmill (until it gets warmer) 5 days a week and walk to work every day.
3. Quit the Mindless Shit – you know what I’m talking about
Hulu, Netflix, Reddit, Words with Friends, crossword puzzles, etc. I’m not saying you have to quit cold turkey, but really really minimize this shit. I’m speaking from experience. It devours the hours of the day like a hungry wolf in the eighties. How do you do this? You set limits and you write them down: 1 show per week. If I have to pick, I pick Dr. Who right now. When I get through that series, I’ll pick something else. TV, while sometimes entertaining is just an exercise in shutting off your brain.
Word puzzles should be good for you, but I tend to do the easy ones that don’t really challenge me. How about I attempt the Sunday NYT puzzle if I feel like it, and if I don’t feel like doing it on Sunday, I can do something more productive… like go for a stinkin’ walk!?
I’m citing my own examples, but you know what your guilty distractions are. Reign them in.
4. Realize that Multitasking is a Myth
This is another one that I struggle with. I open Maya almost every single day and it’s not unusual for me to close it at the end of the day without making any progress on my project. The only way to move forward in any meaningful way is to do one thing at a time and be honest with yourself about what you can accomplish in one sitting. Switching your focus- rewriting your context from one task to the next- takes valuable time away from actually producing anything.
This is particularly problematic at work, where I average about 20 emails per hour and I’m expected to reply promptly, while completing both creative work and coordination projects at the same time. In a work situation where the culture calls for an immediate email response, it’s hard to avoid multitasking, but I can at least portion off blocks of time for the tasks I wrap around my incessant email checking.
I try to mitigate the distraction problem by writing a new to do list every morning with my priorities for the day. I never get through my list and I tend to check my email quite often, but I get the high priority things done every day because I keep the other things out of mind until I get to them. They’re on my list and they’re not going anywhere. If my priorities change throughout the day, as they often do, I write the new thing on the list in it’s proper position and I continue the same top down attack.
I need to get a little better at doing this at home with my personal projects. I’m always telling myself “I’ll get everything done this weekend,” and then I open everythng at once and get nothing done.
Long story short. Make a list. Do one thing at a time.
5. Create an Exocortex
This one is interesting. If you have a server or web hosting, it’s easy to set up a Wikimedia page. I also just learned that you can run a wiki on your home computer. The idea with what I’m calling an Exocortex (an idea that I got from the Pragmatic Programmer’s, Pragmatic Thinking & Learning) is that you are putting all of knowledge and ideas into a space outside of your brain.
You can see a screenshot of my Exocortex to the left. It’s just the front page. I really think this is a more effective tool if it’s private. In addition to your proper library of knowledge, you should be putting all your stupid and incomplete thoughts here, with no worries of what others think about it.
Make your wiki your own, with categories that work for you, and keep it updated. For me, action categories (Do, Make, Know…) work. They remind me to continuously do something, even if that something is to think. I put goals in the “Long Term” category, I put story ideas, in “Write,” keep track of my computer hardware in “Inventory.” This works for me.
The goal of this, as I see it, is similar to the morning brain dump and the to-do-list- to unburden your brain from the details so you can focus on the task at hand. The wiki format works perfectly, because it’s flexible, sortable, and easy to work with.