Saturday, May 10, 2014

Keeping Self-improvement Permanent Through Lifestyle Change

In contemplating all the changes I could make to my mind via autodidact ventures, the one thing that has worried me for years is the prospect of working so hard to develop a skill and to either need to dedicate large periods of practice time each day to keep it fresh, or of accidentally neglecting the skill so as to let it decay, essentially wasting my original effort in having built it up in the first place.

This worry came to my mind some years ago when I was in the habit of training myself to do mathematical calculations online for about a half-hour a day, in an effort to develop a mental calculator. Although I have no intentions of being a mathematician, I consider math a tremendously weak intellectual area of mine which is nonetheless very probably useful, especially in use in culinary math, and I'd be best off developing some mental math skills so that I never forget how to do the functions and would be able to calculate faster than my fingers tapping a calculator.

However, those drills didn't really make me better at, say, walking around the grocery store with precise spending calculations (due to differing context: Standing static at the computer vs. walking around in a different sensory environment), and I fretted about the worth of my cutting out 20-30 minutes each and every day to practice this skill for prospectively the rest of my life when those minutes could perhaps go better elsewhere.

Years later I think I have found the solution: Simply "fuse" the skill you're trying to develop into your very lifestyle, so that the daily motions of living automatically keep the skill practiced and thus totally immune to decline.

Now granted, one may not get better and better at the skill since it takes a challenging mode of practice to bring it to higher levels, but the technique described henceforth should, at least, keep you operating at a baseline level for years to come.

The insight of this whole fusion thing came to me when thinking of my cursive writing. I actually didn't learn cursive at a child. There was brief practice in school, but we were never required to keep up with it, so I fell back on printing and learned cursive later on when I decided to teach it to myself after graduating high school.

Like learning all new skills, the start of it was very frustrating. The practice sessions were tolerable enough since I was willing to meet the frustration, but what was temporarily agonizing was making myself do cursive everywhere else after the practice session was over. During the "off" time I desperately wanted to lapse onto my printing since cursive was so foreign and required such an effort, but I made myself do it regardless.

Now, years later, I'm in the totally reverse position. It takes a conscious effort to decide to print, and otherwise I resort to the speedy default, cursive, and oftentimes goof up by temporarily writing cursive on forms that ask for print. (Oh, you know how it is: Sometimes you print your first name and then accidentally go cursive on the last.) After all the frustration I went through to develop cursive in the first place it's now a totally natural and taken-for-granted skill in my life.

More importantly, my cursive skills always stay fresh since I use them every single day, as I write to-do lists, write in my journal, brainstorm on paper, and so forth, so it never has the opportunity to decline out of disuse. Again, I may not get better and better at it -- any neater or faster, that is -- but my "baseline" always stays the same.

When I look back, there's many habits in my life that have followed that same pattern. There's always the frustration and development period, but once it's fully integrated into my life, it's something that takes no effort to initiate or maintain.

So we have an epiphany: If I want to both develop mental math skills and keep them fresh -- and this applies to any other cognitive skill too, like writing poetry -- I've got to hold steadfast through the frustration of developing the skill, and find a way to fuse it into my lifestyle so that it's practiced on a daily basis, just like my cursive is. We should find ways to master new cognitive skills just like cursive writing.

Now, there's still a lot of creativity and experimentation needing to be done, I grant, for the same type of fusion might require different types of methodology, and aside from what I might offer from my own concrete ventures, a lot of trial and error will need to be conducted before a fusion method can be determined for each skill. Making a permanent habit for mental math requires different actions than writing poetry daily, and still yet for daily mnemonics.

I haven't quite got to my math goals yet since I'm working on some more important habits first, but once I get to it, my first goal will be to study a resource like Culinary Math so that I can get the foundational knowledge that I need, and then figure out all sorts of ways to simply make myself do mental math in real-life on a daily basis so as to turn it into cursive writing, such as making myself hold in my working memory the cost plus tax my next grocery purchase will be before reaching the register. I'll simply have to throw myself into the endeavor to figure out what potential methods there are.

Although there's still work to be done to perfect the fusion method, it brings peace to my mind that it will, at least, when made workable, ensure that any work I do on my mind will never be negated in time. With daily practice existing just as a daily motion, my cognitive accomplishments will always be with me.

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