Monday, July 19, 2010

What Was I Thinking?

The mind is an amazingly flexible instrument. In one moment, it's a calculating machine, racing through facts and figures like Sean White traversing a half pipe. In another, it's a magic carpet whisking us away to foreign lands never visited? More often, the mind is a time machine transporting us back to events long passed or forward to events long anticipated. Just a word, a sound or a scent can trigger an instantaneous time trip. All the while, the mind is a master controller, maintaining temperature, blood flow and balance.

And yet, despite all the wondrous tasks that a mind can accomplish, despite its adaptability and flexibility, a mind is finite: a mind can do almost anything, but it can't do everything.

Poor Performer
As Iris and I were driving to New Jersey last night, I was sharing with her how I felt as though lately I'd been doing pretty much everything poorly. Tasks that would normally have taken me three or four hours have been taking five or six hours. Little details that I would normally have caught, have been dropped. As I've played sax or piano, I just haven't been in my flow. As I've approached complex software programming tasks, it's taken me longer to get into my zone and I've consistently found myself losing context, losing track of where I am. I'm not sure that anyone else has noticed it. In fact, I'm pretty sure that no one has noticed it. But I have noticed it.

And then it occurred to me. The word to describe my situation would be: distracted. Normally, when I take on complex or intense tasks, I'm able to completely abandon myself to them, much more readily than with simple, mundane tasks. I find the intensity and complexity to be freeing and I'm able to achieve a hyper-focus. But lately, it takes me longer and longer to establish that level of focus, and then, I pop out of it almost immediately. It feels like my mind has gone from a nice fat broadband connection to a skinny, piss-poor dial-up connection.

So of course the question is, why? What changed? What am I doing differently?

Malicious Mindware
This morning, it occurred to me that it's not so much the connection that's the problem, instead, it's more like my mind has been infected by a virus, or perhaps more accurately, by malware or spyware. My mind is working just as fast as ever. However, a lot of CPU cycles and memory are being allocated to running the malicious software (mindware) that I've allowed to infect my brain. Everything seems to have slowed down like a Gatesian PC overrun with the stuff. Getting a faster processor or more memory won't help. What I need is some good mental anti-virus scouring.

Not to overstretch an analogy (as perhaps I already have), but it also occurs to me that the times that you experience the effects of spyware are not the times when you are being infected by it. In fact, spyware stealthily enters your system unannounced doing everything possible not to draw attention. Only later, when you're focused elsewhere, does it begin to eat away at the capacity of your system. Similarly, distraction doesn't enter your mind at the point of distraction; it enters at other times, taking root when you're not particularly focused and then lying dormant until you really need to focus.

Actually, that's not it either. I don't think that it lies dormant. I think that it begins running immediately, taking up more and more and more of your mind's capacity. You simply don't notice until it's time to bring that capacity to bear on something important. I imagine that many minds are completely infested with spyware, but you'd never notice because the spyware becomes the program of choice. The distraction becomes the focus: having enough money, being accepted by others, doing well at work or in school, fear and doubt…

Eradicating the Spyware
OK, so I'm going to go with this: distraction doesn't occur at a time of focus, it occurs on an ongoing basis and is only noticeable when you try to focus. If that's the case, then trying to deal with distraction at the point where you notice it is like stepping in front of a boulder that's rolled three-quarters of the way down the mountain hoping that it will stop. The boulder barely notices the encounter, whereas the stopper…

The best way to stop a boulder from bouldering you is to never let it roll in the first place. If it does start rolling, then you want to stop it before it gathers momentum. The same is the case for distraction, if you want to avoid being bowled over by distracting thoughts, then never let them start rolling in the first place. If they start, stop them before they gather momentum.

OK, nice analogy but how the heck does that translate into actually doing something? I think the key to eradicating the distraction is to focus on it, step one being identifying it.

Let's see, as I think about it, for me the biggest distraction right now is my internal critique of how I'm doing. Normally, I don't give a thought to whether or not I'm performing well, but lately, I give it a lot of room. For example, yesterday I spent several hours before breakfast writing a blog on how to create a business plan. When I was done, I didn't celebrate it. Instead, I thought, "Shit, it took me nearly three hours to write that and in the end, I left out so much stuff."

Later as I got things ready for us to drive to New Jersey, I made dinner so that Iris would have something to eat on the way down. Each Sunday, we jump in the car and start driving as soon as Iris returns from her sessions playing with David and Quinn. Iris is normally famished. Last night, I got everything done about ten minutes earlier than I'd planned, so I jumped all over myself for the fact that it wouldn't be hot when Iris arrived.

You wouldn't believe how much I can distract myself with this kind of trivia. Nonetheless, distract I do. I guess I could critique myself for being so trivially critical of myself, but... OK, so today I'm going to focus on eradicating self-criticism. I'm not going to let the boulder start rolling. Nip it in the bud. Not an inch, let alone a mile. No room in the inn. You're not thinking you're gonna bring that thing in here are you? Uhh... Well, you get the point.

So, what spyware are you running? What are your biggest distractions? Have your distractions become your foci?

Happy Monday!


  1. Very insightful, Mark. If distractions are all the things I focus on instead of focussing on where I want to be going, I get distracted by the journey not being perfect, the roses having thorns, the various little things that I would prefer to be different. I've been thinking about being self indulgent and distraction is another version of that for me, like I get a kick from the focus on what I don't want. Since the distractions are all around us, I guess it depends on where you direct your energy on a moment by moment basis.

    By the way, I loved yesterday's blog, I'm using it as a template!

  2. LOL - It reminds me of my judging my messiness.

    I can put a lot on my plate, but if one or several of them evokes one of a range of emotions which to me links to fear - then I "turn on my adhd brain":

    - I get distracted
    - I start staying up late
    - getting exhausted
    - making mistakes or spending longer time on the tasks I want to do
    - I start blaming myself for my behaviors
    - getting more distracted....

    my solution is

    First: ritalin, sleep and stopping the blame
    Second: cutting down on some of the tasks
    Three: "getting my life back to normal"
    Four: looking at what the trigger was...

    *exhausted due to feelings of excitement*

  3. I must report that after writing yesterday's blog, I had the most amazingly relaxed and productive day. Every once in a while as the critic in me started towards the podium, I would ask myself, "Who do I think I am saying that to me!"


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