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Synaptic Sunday #5

Psychology/neuroscience link roundup centered on a particular topic – this week, some links on what makes people productive.

1) Would this work for anyone? (If something like it has worked for you, speak up):

Helen Oyeyemi advises writers to download the Write or Die app onto their computer (or does she write on an iPhone?). In ‘kamikaze mode’, if you stop writing for more than 45 seconds it starts deleting the words you have already written.


That sounds like a nightmare to me. Whenever I’d stop to think (or to just sit quietly for a little bit, staring out the window and letting my brain do whatever it does when I appear to be unproductive), I’d be too busy watching the clock to let my brain work.

2) It can be good to let your mind wander! (As long as you’ve put in some focused mental effort beforehand.)

3) When our thoughts and attention wander, the brain isn’t as passive as we imagine it to be: …an interesting study published in a 2009 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that daydreaming also activates parts of our brain associated with ‘high-level, complex problem-solving’ including the lateral pre-frontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.”

I don’t think day-dreaming, and its potential creative benefits, can be forced (then you’re too self-conscious – attending too much to your own thoughts); it also isn’t beneficial when done excessively. But to dismiss it as wasted time is a mistake. And to chain productive and creative thinking to strict time intervals strikes me as useless (and horrifying).

Unproductive thinking

unproductive thinking

I’ve started reading about mindfulness, the practice of living your life aware of the present moment with its rich mix of sensory details, thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness is about really being present in your life; you’re conscious of the world and whatever is passing through your thoughts. I’ve read that mindfulness can be useful for people who have a tendency to brood and fret like the guy in the comic.

A lot of times we aren’t aware of when we’re brooding; we unconsciously drift into a whirlpool of obsessive repeating thoughts that go nowhere and yield nothing. There are times when I’m sitting down to enjoy a book or a movie, and because of some unresolved problem my attention will unconsciously slip away from the text or from the screen, and that’s it – I’m sucked into the whirlpool (“What’ll I do? Why can’t I get it done? Why can’t I make it right?”) On and on it goes. Apparently with mindfulness training you’re more likely to catch yourself before you go too far down that useless path; you’re better able to redirect your thoughts to the present and choose a more productive course of action.

Why is brooding useless? Because it rarely gives you any solutions. Instead it gets you even more worked up and stressed out than you were before. It tires you out and takes away hope, as you slap yourself down with discouraging thoughts (“I’ll never get this right,” “I’ll never figure it out,” “How long will it take?” “I’m going nowhere”). Brooding gives you a deceptive feeling of being productive. By picking and picking at a problem you feel like you’re doing something about it. But you’re not – you’re just sitting there miserably eating away at yourself. Your negative thoughts (“It’s useless, it’s hopeless, I can’t get anything done”) become reality.

With the proper frame of mind and in the right context, the questions the guy in the comic asks himself can be useful (“Why am I doing this?” is a good question to ask to keep from coasting through life). These questions can help us identify problems and ultimately improve ourselves. But it doesn’t happen when our minds swarm with them, and when we’re fixating obsessively on the difference between who we are and who we want to be. Obsessing over the gap between Present Self and Improved Self only makes it more unbridgeable.

Feel free to share your advice on how to snap out of a spell of brooding. In future posts I plan to return to mindfulness, as I learn more about it.

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