Friday, June 22, 2012

Concentrate!

Alright, here I am again, trying to keep up appearances. My god I feel embarrassed about the quality of my last post, but that's what I get for keeping out of practice. There's a germ of a thought in an entry I'd like to elaborate on, with a little less flittery-ness this time around, about concentration.

The frustration that has driven me out of most of my old habits, I think, is fundamentally a problem of concentration. A noted yesterday, what intimidated and frustrated me the most were my irrational attempts to try and plan out things meticulously in greater portions there were needed, outweighing the amount of action I was taking, thus leaving me in a state of doing more thinking than acting. Thinking ain't bad, but the way I was trying to go about it surely was. Relating to concentration, I think what was so inherently frustrating is that since I wasn't investing my mind in anything far too many things would clutter my awareness all at once, so I had supreme trouble trying to engage in a particular self-improvement endeavor because at the same time I would keep in my awareness of all the other potential self-improvement endeavors I plan on undertaking or could undertake, which left me immersed in uncertainty. Eventually and unsurprisingly the constant self-doubt made me quit and become idle in my personal life.

The solution is not only to simplify my life and rid it of unnecessary complexities, but also to work to cultivate concentration as a fundamental skill. It's well-known that it's important, but what I've realized is that it's fundamental: It is the root, necessary skill for accomplishing anything worthwhile in your life and making quality changes to your character. It's not only about being able to get yourself totally engaged in what you're doing, but also to mentally tune out anything that's superfluous or disruptive. If you want to become an expert at, say, math, then when you do math you should be thinking about nothing else but math for the time being that it is Math Time. You sacrifice quality and competence otherwise. (Just set alarms if you have appointments.)

The self-doubt that pushed me out was not only due to my error in not simply choosing a pursuit to engage myself in (since I was picking from equivalent values, therefore being unable to justify one as more important than the other), but also my failure to put out of mind everything else when I did act. While acting I was always thinking about other things, which continually cast doubt on the importance of what I was doing, and the doubts were worsened by the fact the distractions would goof up my performance at that pursuit, such as weight-lifting or cooking.

So aside from simplifying my life to the bare essentials, I just need to immerse myself in whatever I'm doing, even if it's doing a Google search. I've observed that doing something so simple as quickly changing between browser tabs while pages load can do horrors to concentration. Slow down and focus.

But most importantly I've realized that concentration, as simple as it is, is also vital for mental health. Yes, I still need to do that magnificently huge writeup of all that I've learned about mental health that I've been promising you, but with my momentary time-restraints I'll elaborate on the tidbit here.

In addition to your ability to be productive and perform well, concentration can also have a huge impact on how well you feel emotionally. Concentration in its most simple form can be described as one's ability and potency in controlling one's mental processes. The oppose is the lack of control or inability to control, so it not only covers whether or not one chooses to control on'es thoughts, but also whether one is even able to do so, and how well one is able to do it.

Think of concentration as taking a dog out on a walk, one stronger than you. Well-trained, he won't tug on your leash, drag you to undesired territories, or prevent you from getting to your destination; despite being strong, it's well-done training has rendered all his strength in your control, so you're able to get from Point A to Point B with little to no trouble at all. However, without the training a lot of misery can result: He can delay you from getting to your destination or keep you from getting there at all, get you to a totally different and undesired place, drag you through thorny plants in pursuit of a bird, or refuse to budge at the base of a tree a squirrel is nested in. Being strong than you with a great sense of disobedience, his lack of or poor training means he won't listen to you and will disobey in all sorts of ways that'll make you miserable.

In concrete terms this can translate to being unable to maintain the trains of thoughts you want to maintain (such as your homework versus an injustice someone committed towards you), being unable to stay with a train for very long without rapidly switching to another, or, predictably, being overwhelmed with painful and uncomfortable thoughts with little competence in being able to shoo them away. This reduces both one's capacity to get stuff done and get it done well, and to be a content and peaceful person.

The contrasts in lifestyles I've lived are telling. I haven't told anyone of this, but, if you know me well, walking has played a huge role in my life for many years now, almost religiously being a part of my morning routine, and these past several weeks I have been working on phasing it out. Phasing it out -- I mean just reducing it in degree, not totality -- has been providing me with lots of benefits. Though a morning walk may have a popular healthy connotation around it, the problem it poses for me is that period is often and always a time of unstructured contemplation. It's just like letting the dog off the leash to run around, only when I get home and call for it to come back, it doesn't. Frequently, if not always, my contemplation centers around intellectually valuable subjects, but because I'm allowing myself to naturally be drawn to and dwell on them the missing ingredient is a conscious and purposeful decision to exert myself in that direction. In the dog metaphor, it's that the beast ran here and sniff around on its own accord after being released, not that I've intentionally led him here.

It wreaks havoc on the rest of my day, as when I get home and determine to begin the productive portions of my day my purposeful concentration won't come back to the leash when I summon it, vastly undermining, if not totally demonlishing the quality of my activities for the rest of the day. Once it's off the leash, it pretty much stays off the leash until the next day.

When I do undergo a lot of mental exertion such as hours or reading or writing at a time without breaks the sense of wandering can be a wonderful momentary relief, but first thing in the day before work has even started it's a big productivity-destroyer. During a reading/writing break it's a mere leg stretcher, but on a morning walk nearly first thing in the morning its an invitation to run away.

Tying into mental health, I not only have a hard time concentrating on anything else, but also feel plenty discontent and unhappy. The lack of exertion leaves me feeling unfulfilled and with an overbuild of energy that can only be released through focus, and it's nearly impossible to shoo away all the negative habits that easily slip back into play when I let my mind wander.

This last point is especially important, as I've noticed my worst thinking habits, the one's that make me feel the worst, are always present when I'm the least potent in controlling my mental processes.

While I'm poised to rise up, I'm still in a predominantly physical-labor dominated portion of the restaurant industry, so the mental misery is most exacerbated if I haven't mentally satisfied myself before work, because then I'll dwell on negativity all throughout my shift or at least fight with it all evening, which is why in previous posts I've identified that I need to try and do a bit of writing and reading before each shift to satiate me accordingly.

The negative thinking habits that make so many unhappy are accurately described as habits, but I've noticed that, even if they are habits, they're their strongest when I don't choose to exercise my faculty for concentration. Our body and mind doesn't like pain, so when constructive action isn't taken to remedy it it's easy to sit and painfully ruminate on it. When I do concentrate, in addition to the other mental health practices I keep up (such as whistling; more later), the mental dog feels well-trained enough in the morning to be on good behavior in the evening when I'm engaging in physical labor and can't do something such as pick up a book or write a journal entry.

This explains why I've felt so uncomfortable these past few weeks when I've allowed myself so much unstructured thinking time: I've given the dog every opportunity to misbehave, and have only myself to blame for my incompetence in being able to call it back to purposefulness.

This analysis is a little sloppy I know, but a worthwhile start I think to understanding mental health. It's obvious how people can become miserable if negative thoughts start bringing up negative emotions, and yet they're unable to make the negative thoughts go away. I know it's more complicated than simply forcing yourself to concentrate in order to be able to establish healthy order in the mind, but I think any methdology involved in healing ultimately boils down to just another method for cultivating concentration, whether it be writing in a diary (which requires concentration), rationally evaluating one's thoughts (which requires concentration to be effective), or distracting oneself (which really isn't allowing the mind to wander, but rather choosing to concentrate on something more positive than the current negativity). I've got plenty of techniques in mind, but I'll save them for that future mental health writeup.

For now, I've got to go to work, and with a little more steadiness in my mind now that I've taken to wrapping myself up in this piece. The power of concentration!

Ah, and as a finishing note, as for writing: I'm still not sure what to do about blogging, but what I'm semi-entertaining is trading in regular posting for more sparse, more thoroughly thought out and constructed pieces that are higher in quality, regardless of how regular. That, I think, might be better for motivation, at least in the present, as trying to publish articles as quickly as I have been in the past has been frustrating me with the decrease of quality in my writing.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Bad Writer Returns; Rethinking Matters

Hi! I'm a bad writer! . . . or at least an irresponsible one who has been terrible in staying on top of his updates. I know, it's been a long time. Things are going well enough, but a slip has been making me rethink my whole life structure, unloading all of its superfluous activities.

My life as of late has been like that children's game where you put little thin long stick in a plastic tubes and pour marbles on top of them, and then try to pull the sticks out without making all the marbles fall down. I had a day off a few weeks ago and thought to myself, "Eh, I'll skip the to-do lists for today and be relaxingly spontaneous," which caused all the marbles to fall down. It was a very soothing day where I felt pleased at completing a to-do list in my head, and resistance to going back to my old lifestyle has been present ever since.

Such a relief from stress has been making me think that I've been doing a lot of things that are counterproductive towards my goals, so skipping out of them for a day has made me see what unnecessary stress they imposed, hence keeping me from going back. I've kept up with certain habits, but dropped a lot of the others.

My ultimate goal in life, abstractly put, is to realize the absolute fullest potential of my mind, and I haven't been working very well in that direction. There's been too many things that I've been putting in the way of myself. My life was simply overly complex, and that complexity brought to me so many doubts about the worth of any one endeavor that I ended up being idle, spending all the time doubting the value of the direction instead of actually seizing upon a value. Thinking and worrying, not acting.

It can often be hard to cut the excess fat from one's routine because you'll keep in mind that you are forgoing potential values, which remains hard even if you keep in mind you're forsaking them for higher values.

The main problem, I think, is a lack of concentration. When I choose to engage in a particular act such as reading or writing I don't invest myself in it enough, and by not doing that I leave myself open to dwelling on the infinite other potentials I could be acting upon at that moment, so my performance of that activity is severely limited since most of my energy is directed at doubting and rethinking, which later also creates a hesitancy to return to that endeavor because the doubts magnify after I step away from the activity for awhile.

There's so many possibilities in life on how I could be spending my time and so many methods that I could use to maximize myself that it's literally overwhelming. It's like walking into an ice cream shop with too many flavors, almost paralyzing you from being able to decide. That paralysis has kept me stagnant.

I need to rearrange my life. I need to set up the fundamentals of what I want to do, set up a daily routine around it, and decide that chores shall comes secondary to these pursuits, much like how some people giving writing advice will suggest "Write, and then do everything else." Your primary pursuits should have the high considerations in how you spend your time.

So if I want to maximize my mind, what are the fundamentals that I need to be engaging in? Reading, studying, writing, and talking (for rhetoric). These are things I could be doing a little or a lot of each and every day, so everything else should come secondary. It frustrates the hell out of me when I vow to get my chores out of the way first, and they eat so much time that I have little left for the fundamentals before work.

For concentration purposes, I've learned, I think I should just randomly pick some pursuits, dedicate myself to them, and force myself for the time being to forget that there are other options available. My difficulty in being able to choose something, I think, is the result of my trying to pick from values that are equivalent in hierarchical terms, so my uncertainty is resulting from my inability  to state that any one possibility is a higher value than the other, which would make it easier to pick among them; they're all equal, so there's no way I can say one should come first. To alleviate the uncertainty I ought to just choose and stick with it, since, after all, the kind of self-improvement pursuits I speak of would only last a few weeks or fewer to be completed in total, so the consequences of mischoosing are small. You can never really think too much about how you want to spend your entire life, but there can be a lot of overthinking done when you're trying to plan how to self-improve during the week and so on.

Blogging, of course, is in my plans. As irregular and horrendous as I am in my consistency, writing remains a vital part of my life. After abstaining for several days in the past I would witness how emotionally strained I would become and nearly go to pieces, as I depend on it heavily as my most effective means of introspection. How to incorporate it, however, is a subject of experiment. (I dare not say thinking, for fear of getting into the overthinking trap.) Maybe I'd prefer being more elaborate and doing more thorough pieces, rather than trying to write something everyday as I did in the past.

Probably my greatest error, however, is trying to immediate aspire to be as prodigious in my activities like those of great men in the past, such as Benjamin Franklin, who were able to balances lots at a time, even becoming proficient at multiple careers, and leave behind an accomplished legacy. In such aspirations I omit the journey it takes to build up to that level of competence, and therefore hold myself to too high of standards and give up because I'm able to do so much as they are able to do.

A good example would be some mistakes I've made in trying out knife skills. When trying to learn a new technique, the first thing I would always try to do is do it fast as I've seen other people do it, in hopes of speedily gaining mastery through that route. But without even a basic level of competence I an unable to do it correctly and fast at the same time, and consequently lose the value of practice by practicing ineffectively. It's frustrating and offputting to think of all the productivity I could be forgoing in moving slow to nurture an ability, but true productivity is in the quality of what is done, not how much is done and how fast. If I truly want to be as competent as those great men that I've admired, then I need to make peace with moving slow and nurturing abilities so that I may gain mastery later and then work on expansion and speed.

So what would be a simple start for me? I've been quite keen on memory after reading Moonwalking with Einstein, so memory would be one, and I've also been desirous of improving my handwriting speed, as I've been doing a lot of handwritten introspection lately and want to increase my ability to get more thoughts down faster. That seems to be a great place to start, on top of enhancing concentration, and hierarchically it may actually be the most rational. Concentration is vital for improving at any task or gaining cognitive benefits from any mental exercise, memory is essential for integrative learning and creativity, and handwriting speed (while retaining/improving legibility) is a huge benefit towards getting one's thoughts down at a faster pace. There's a lot more possibilities out there, but perhaps this is where I should force myself to simplify and stop: Master these until it's like riding a bicycle, and move on.

I'll go brainstorm on paper what I actually concretely plan on doing -- I don't want to, at least yet, return to the stressful days of tracking my improvements on my blog -- but for now my ultimate goal is to settle into a lifestyle that is most conductive for my self-realization, free of wasteful activities and stress that aren't conductive in the long-run.

And hopefully I'll become a better blogger as a result somewhere in there, too.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify?

Ahhh, I just recently got off from my two-day "weekend." The definition of a weekend changes for a restaurant worker, for I work on actual weekends and have mine in the middle of the week. Since resigning from my other job those two days felt like my first actual rest days that I've had in a long time, and is really making me examine my habits once again.

Most notably, I gave myself permission to stray away from my to-do lists and do pretty much whatever I wanted without writing it down. What surprises me is how this seemed to make the tasks more stress-free and boosted my concentration. It's hard to describe the way the stress was alleviated, but it felt like I was enjoying a relaxitive effect by getting away from a lot of burdens that add no value to my life, rather than the relaxitive effect of merely taking a break from productive endeavors.

So the question I have to ask myself is: Were those particular habits and routines actually a benefit to my life?Or am I just inundating myself with a bunch of fluff that distracts me from the most important values?

For example, I have a small to-do lists of routines which I try to accomplish everyday, which includes such thing as engaging in a particular act of activism or writing a journal entry. The qualm I've always had with it is that, upon examination, I've always been disturbed by how much of the day it takes to complete those mere routines. Sure, an hour ain't much, but, given that I'm awake about 15 or 16 hours a day, one hour is close to 10% of my day, probably over that amount if you subtract from my wakeful hours things like driving and only consider hours that I'm actually doing something. I get particularly frustrated when I tackle my routines diligently and with a sense of responsibility and find that my time for the things I really wanted to do is still uncomfortably drained away.

What I enjoyed most about my days off were going to the bookstore in the evening and reading all the way to closing. Just reading and reading and reading, without worrying about any particular plans beyond the reading. My concentration was great, and the enjoyable exercise of my brain made me end the night in a great mood.

In short, I think maybe all these "routines" and productive ventures I write down may be distracting me from the most important values, the ones I really want to pursue. Sure, it's important to be involved in the culture and be an activist, but might I be happier and more effectual if I read and study up, which I would probably enjoy more?

The perspective these past two days has given me has brought this Ayn Rand quote to mind: "There's nothing of any importance except how well you do your work." The reading, in truth, was not just mere pleasure reading, but something relevant to my career. I was reading an enjoyable book on mnemonics, titled Moonwalking with Einstein, and have been getting really excited at the applications this knowledge could have for my career field. In other terms, getting away from all those "productive" routines has really allowed me to focus on what's most important in the present, my career. How much am I delaying my advancement in my career in worrying more about writing a journal entry than I am in doing some studying or special practice for my job? Could I be tackling my values in the wrong way hierarchically?

I certainly want to spend more of my life reading, studying, writing, and cook than I do reading activism-related articles and writing -- psssh -- Facebook commentary on them. The primary matter here, as mentioned before, is getting over a stubbornness to examine some particular things I've been doing.

Here I think I've been too stubborn to examine how certain activities are benefiting my life, and refusing to let go of some things that I believe are a value to me but aren't. For example, Facebook. As mentioned before, I like using Facebook as a mode to gain psychological visibility, because in my present life I don't really have anyone to relate to on the same level as I. I don't know anyone who likes to talk about philosophy as I do, so mostly I'm alone. However, my stubbornness has prevented me from realizing I'm spending time in excess of what would be sufficient for that purpose, and am not doing enough to pay attention to my people in my life or cultivate my character. So much worry about psychological visibility has gotten in the way of nurturing an authentically lovable and valuable human being.

I need to rethink my value hierarchy. Instead of worrying about darned routines, except for ones that are actually valuable (such as emptying my audio recorder every day, which is valuable for ensuring that I continue to both have thoughts worth recording and am acting upon those thoughts), I need to worry about tackling only that which is most important to me, and everything else only if I have time for them. If not, then screw it: At least my days were spent doing the most valuable thing possible.

The whole discarding values thing is a start. Too often do I overwhelm myself with all the possible values I could pursue and refuse to let go of the ones I just shouldn't make time for. In the example of books, this refusal has once led to me garnering a nearly endless reading list, which didn't help at all in choosing what to read next. Excluding things I might choose to formally study, it's been more helpful and productive to just rent books like crazy and read only that which I'm currently interested in, which, while it may not sound productive, has helped me develop into a more voracious reader, someone who always has a book in progress. For studying, of course, a different approach is needed to be more productive, but I found this more spontaneous reading approach to be the best for my habits. Referencing the article linked in this paragraph, I don't worry much about what I'm not reading because I trust in my sense of knowing my values: Tackling my strongest present interest leads me to my highest values, helping me discard the lesser ones, and if I find I've discarded a value I actually want to include I trust in my memory and ability to know my values to lead me back to it.

Could this approach be beneficially applied to my overall productive lifestyle? Could I make allowances for more spontaneity, and have that, like a dog tracking out a scent, lead me to tackling only the most important things in my life?

Really, there are only a few things important in my life. Broadly: My development for my career, my fair share of activism for a better culture, and self-advancement (which includes things such as general self-improvement and finance management). All else is superfluous. Now then, how can I make a more valuable approach?

For one, I think I'd really benefit by the whole discarding values thing. On my to-do lists, I can better keep them up with my best interests by frequently deleting stale items that I leave sitting there. When I think about it, except for projects, time-sensitive things, and schedules, most everything can be completed in a portion of a day, so if I didn't, why do I keep it documented? If I didn't do it that means I found better, more valuable things to do. Perhaps to start I can set a semi-artificial time-limit on how long I keep certain things on my list, like a day or so, before I delete it. If I got to it promptly, I did value it. If I ignored it and let it linger, then that means I judge there's more important things to do.

Ideally, I'd like to be able to modify my lifestyle so that it's entirely dedicated to study, self-improvement, my career, and a wee bit of activism, but oh how to do it is the difficult question! On one hand, experimentation is key, but on the other I've got to be careful not to over-plan, because that can lead into the fallacy of believing there's some kind of psychological sweet-spot that will allow optimal performance, when really what I need is a good dose of discipline. Just do it, in Nike's words.

For now, I'll try imposing the time-limits on my to-do lists, continue getting out of my apartment to nurture a more productive mindset, and continue thinking about the optimal lifestyle. Trial and error, trial and error.