Good morning and welcome back to your regularly scheduled Shelf Life. Today we are fomenting an insurrection. We are planning a forceful uprising to take over the greatest authority in our lives—our brain. This blob of gray matter is sitting pretty in its control room in the bone dome atop your skeleton calling all the shots. Today is the day we take brain matter into our own hands.
I am a person with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) but I was not diagnosed till well into adulthood, so controlling my brain manually to keep it focused on tasks—as focused as possible, anyway—required learning numerous workarounds and cheats. Even those who don’t have ADHD probably find themselves needing some help to focus from time to time, on something. The problem brain behavior I’m addressing today is the tendency of the brain to not notice when it starts doing something other than what you’ve told it to do.
Listen, you don’t have to read about this here. This is just mindfulness, I didn’t invent this. You can learn about this anywhere. But, you’re already here. So.
The problem isn’t that the brain wants to wander off. Brain’s gonna wander. The problem is that the brain doesn’t notice that it’s doing this, denying the conscious part of itself the chance to redirect back to the thing it’s supposed to be doing. For instance if you need to be writing Shelf Life but after starting you find yourself ten minutes later texting your friends, the problem isn’t really that you picked up your phone to text your friends. Picking up the phone only cost you a few seconds. It’s the ten minutes that went by while you didn’t realize you had strayed from writing that are the real cost.
I’m not saying that when you know you’re procrastinating you can simply stop doing that and all will be well. If you have ADHD or you’re a pressure-prompted person or you have other task-avoidance behavior, there’s a two-part solution. The first part of the solution is what I’m talking about today: Noticing the moment when you begin to avoid your task so that you can redirect your brain back to what you were doing.
There are a lot of applications for this for me, personally. There are a lot of things that I’m always trying to catch myself doing so I can learn to stop doing those things. For instance:
When I am trying to hatch a new idea and my brain keeps trying to regurgitate old ideas.
When I am trying to adjust my vocabulary but my brain keeps using words it’s used to using.
When I am trying to stop negative self-talk but my brain is very used to doing it.
When I am trying to write and my brain is afraid of that so it wants to turn my attention to everything else.
Just a few examples from my actual life, with which I am having varying degrees of success. I have almost totally eliminated negative self-talk and I’m really good at catching myself when I choose a word I’m trying to reduce or eliminate in writing and speech. Focusing on tasks is still a little challenging but I have a secret weapon.
The first step is to notice when your brain does something that you don’t want it to do. Spending many years directly editing and proofreading texts has helped me hone the skill of tuning my brain to look for a complex series of very specific things while giving the lightest possible amount of attention to everything else, so that handy skill comes into play here.
For those who are not editors or proofreaders, though, there’s another activity I can think of that really prepares you for this undertaking.
Have you ever played a drinking game? If you have not, imagine that you have. I once invented a ruleset for a very complicated drinking game called Resident Evil: Extinction: The Video Game: The Movie: The Drinking Game. The idea was to watch this zombie movie starring Milla Jovovich while following rules like:
If you see a zombie, take a drink.
If you see Milla Jovovich, take a drink.
If a woman’s clothes are all torn off but a man’s clothes are fine, take a drink.
If someone gets bitten by a zombie and tries to hide it from the other survivors, finish your drink and your next three drinks.
I hasten to assure you that no one died playing RE:E:TVG:TM:TDG; but it was a near thing.
When you play a drinking game like this one, you are holding in your mind a series of specific circumstances and watching for any of them to happen. And when any one of them happens, you have a corresponding behavior to do (ingest alcohol).
The person who played along that day with a glass of water instead of vodka is, coincidentally, the smartest person I know (you know who you are). They are probably the only person (other than me) who remembers that day, to be honest.
If you’re not used to paying attention to what your brain is doing and this sounds impossible, consider that your mind is like a muscle. It’s not a muscle, the brain is an organ, I know that, but it’s like a muscle. You can train it. When you train it, it gets stronger and better at the activity you’re training it in. With enough training, you build muscle memory and then you will begin to do the thing without having to consciously think about it.
Further, though this part is optional, I find it helps me to understand what’s underlying my task-avoidance so I can tailor my approach. If I’m bored with a task because it’s not interesting to me and my brain wants to seize on something engaging instead, that requires a slightly different tactic than if I’m afraid of completing a task. I could just say “well, I have ADHD, task-avoidance comes with the territory”—and that is true—but that doesn’t mean that all the tasks I try to avoid are created equal.
For what it’s worth, if I’m bored and my brain is trying to find something more interesting to work on, I can calm that behavior by making a list of all the things my brain is trying to flit off to, so I am assured that I’ll remember them “for later.” If I’m afraid of completing a task—and I am often afraid to complete manuscripts because I know that when I finish them someone will read them—then I try to isolate exactly what part is triggering this response and then desensitize myself to it. Which is why you get these essays twice a week.
I don’t even care anymore. Read all my garbage. Read my diary. Read the notes I took on my dream when I woke up at 4am. No one cares. See how well it worked?
If you are a person who tends to go off on conversational or storytelling tangents and lose the main thread of a story as you speak or write, you are probably acting on the fear that you will forget an idea or lose an opportunity to tell someone something. By learning to put a hold on pop-up thoughts, you can train yourself out of this fear. I guarantee this will make you a better conversationalist and storyteller if you put in the effort.
There are three steps I use to get my brain doing what I want it to when it’s trying to do anything else. You had to know there were steps coming. There’s always steps. I love steps.
The first step is reflection, and this part I’ve spoken about at some length already. You have to make sure you understand exactly what the behavior is that you’re trying to catch. Try to put a finer point on it than a broad and vague “getting distracted.” What task (or tasks) is it that you are trying to stop being distracted from? What distraction does your brain go to when it wants to avoid the task? I’ve noticed that I have specific different avoidance behaviors depending on what it is I’m supposed to be doing, ranging from scrolling social to cleaning the house to taking a nap.
Identify the entire throughline of the avoidance behavior:
What task or activity triggers it?
What underlying reason causes the avoidance of this task or activity?
What thing (or things) does your brain redirect you to to avoid the task or activity?
What does the ideal outcome look like if you can get this behavior under control?
Is there any room for compromise with your brain on this particular topic?
Once you understand as much about the behavior and its causes as possible, you can design an action plan. In the short term, we’re going to adopt an intercept-then-redirect strategy to stay focused, but is this something you can address in the medium- or long-term to cut down on the behavior before it even happens? If you’re avoiding out of fear, figure out why the task scares you. Maybe you don’t have all the knowledge you think you need to do the task and you might fail. Maybe you’re afraid of receiving criticism on your performance. Could you acquire the knowledge or skill you need to reduce the chance of failure? Can you desensitize yourself to criticism? (Spoiler alert: You can.)
Once you have reflected on the avoidance behavior and you have your answers in mind, it’s time to start running interference.
You have to learn to recognize the moment your brain deviates from the plan and tries to go do something other than whatever it is you want it to do. Rome wasn’t built in a day: It takes time to get your brain used to identifying its own bad behavior and, you know, telling you about it. If you robbed a liquor store would you call the police and tell them what you did? No you would not.
Lately I have been working on eliminating pejorative references to mental health issues from my vocabulary. I am limiting references to stuff as “crazy” or “insane” with the intention of reducing them to nothing. But that doesn’t happen all at once. The first thing I have to do is be aware of when I say or write the word. The simplest way I have found to get my mind doing this is to first listen and look for this behavior in others.
I’m not going to police others for something I also am doing. I’m not reacting to their use, I’m just listening for it. When I read, when I speak with people, when I watch TV or Twitch. I remind myself periodically (a couple of times a week) that I’m listening for this. When I hear someone say “the situation is insane” or “whew that was crazy,” if I’m on the ball, my mind goes “aha, there it was.” I’m sure I’m not noticing every instance. But I’m noticing some and that’s the start I want.
That “aha” moment is a reward for my brain; I experienced success in something I was trying to do. I give myself a mental pat on the back, like “good job, you were listening actively.” My brain feels good about that and it tries to do it more. Over time, the habit of saying “aha!” whenever I hear one of those words is built—even when I’m the one saying them.
I’ve found this strategy works well for task avoidance, too. I don’t start out by chastising myself when I find I’m avoiding a task. Say I’m trying to focus on coming up with a plot and I click to my browser window to just fact-check something related to the plot but then I open the Twitter tab because I can see I have notifications—as soon as I catch myself doing the wrong thing, I do not mentally shout “No! Bad! Back on task!” Instead I do—“Aha! There it is, I got distracted.” And then I go ahead and look at Twitter for a minute to give my brain a reward for catching the behavior.
It’s not that different from training a dog, really.
The thing is that I don’t want to discourage myself from noticing when I do the behavior I’m trying to stop. I don’t want to leap right to punishing myself. I want to encourage myself to catch these instances quicker and quicker. If catching myself doing this results in verbal flagellation, I’m going to lose interest in correcting the behavior. I’ll be even more inclined to distract myself.
Now we know what we’re looking for and we’re practicing catching it when it happens in real time. The last step is to correct the behavior when you catch it.
In principle this is simple: “I’m supposed to be studying, so when I catch myself looking out the window, I make myself go back to studying.” True, that’s the ultimate goal. But that is simply not going to work for people with uncontrolled or untreated ADHD (me) or others with years of baked-in task-avoidance behavior. Some of us need to take it a little slower. If you’re having a hard time staying focused even when you correct the behavior—if you keep going right back to looking out that window—you may need to take it in steps.
Earlier in the article I mentioned considering whether you can reach a compromise of some kind; a compromise with your brain (or otherwise). First, if you chronically avoid a task, is there a way you can avoid the task and still get it done? Can you trade tasks with someone else—trade your avoided task for a task they have, maybe a task they’re avoiding for their own reason? If you can’t trade the task away, can you trade accountability with someone else? A friend and I both find we don’t always make distraction-free time for writing so she came over to my house the other day and we sat in silence in the same room for an hour and we both wrote. Sometimes having another person there to catch you looking at your cell phone can keep you accountable.
If that’s also not a solution, consider whether you can compromise with your brain. If your brain wants to be distracted, can you let it be distracted for a limited amount of time? Can you try the Pomodoro Technique to focus for a set amount of time and then allow distractions for a set amount of time, and then repeat? Strike a deal with your brain so that it gets some of what it wants (distraction) in exchange for some of what you need (on-task time).
If all those coping mechanisms fail, there are still alternatives but they’re beyond the scope of my expertise. Therapy may be the solution; but you can’t get that in here.
At the end of the day you’ll win some and lose some. Depending on how built-up the task or entrenched the behavior, you may have an easier or more challenging time retraining your brain. I advise (as always) starting with something simpler or less complex and starting with one thing. Don’t make a list of all your bad brain behaviors and try to address all of them at once. Sometimes proofreading a document takes several passes; editors know you can’t catch everything in one read through.
I can’t believe I got through this entire article without making an Inception joke; send my brain a reward. In lieu of sending a reward, get your booster if you’re eligible. I need all you readers alive. Every single one.
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