Archive for July, 2009
For many years – as long as I can remember actually – I’ve looked at sleep as a critical tool in my personal development toolbox. Sleep is so obviously important for overall health and ability to focus and it has always trumped most things for me… I identified at an early age that without sleep, my brain simply doesn’t function well.
There has been a lot of interesting research on sleep over the last couple decades. The majority of it has focused on the importance of sleep, yet through it all 1 in 3 people are chronically sleep deprived, relying on large amounts of caffeine to get them through the day… All the while, dozing off at their desks wondering why they don’t have any energy to exercise (further exacerbating the problem!)
So what do we know about sleep and how it relates to focus?
Mayank Mehta at Brown University found that during sleep, the hippocampus and neocortex actually reconfigure themselves in order to make sense of everything from the day. Your thoughts are being structured and moved from short-term storage in the hippocampus (like RAM on a computer) to long-term storage in the neocortex (like a hard drive) while you’re drooling on your pillow. Research at Harvard Medical School also describes a process called memory consolidation whereby sleep assists us in the absorption of new information. Robert Stickgold, Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center says, "It seems that memories normally wash out of the brain unless some process nails them down. My suspicion is that sleep is one of those things that does the nailing down."
Sleep is widely recognized as a time when memories and new information from the day are cemented for future reference. It’s a critical component of learning a new skill or task, and it appears that without a good night’s sleep, information can’t be retained and likely has to be relearned.
One of the biggest myths in all of productivity and time management is the belief that being organized or having a grip on your life keeps you from having any agility, spontaneity, or ability to act on an impulse to do something last minute. “But if I have everything planned, what happens when I want to disappear to Vegas for the weekend” the purposely disorganized cry! It’s important to realize that, in fact, the opposite happens. Once you have control over your priorities, you also have the freedom to explore without guilt.
Spontaneity is what happens when when you have a grip on everything else.
Spontaneity is defined as behavior that is natural and unconstrained and is the result of impulse, not planning. In this context, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that spontaneity is both “unconstrained” and is only made possible through a lack of planning. But there’s a subtlety here that may not be immediately apparent. Spontaneity (as defined here) implies that the behavior exhibited is the “result of impulse”, but not that the behavior couldn’t be better supported through a lack of planning. And defining spontaneous behavior as unconstrained is, in my opinion, invalid. There isn’t any human behavior that’s truly without constraint – everything we do has constraints, whether avoidable or not.
In truth, spontaneity is inherently constrained and while is the result of impulse, is actually enabled through proper planning around it.
For many people, forming and keeping positive habits is a real challenge. Each habit can sometimes require a different mindset or a slightly different approach in order to make it into a routine, and that can make it awfully difficult to stay consistent. It turns out that our happiness is a direct result of how much control we have over our environment, and control is directly correlated with how well we’re able to form and maintain positive habits. If you’re able to identify changes in your current behavior that align to your values and bring you closer to your goals, and then keep those positive changes going on a regular basis, you’ll find that you’ll have a comfortable level of control over your life.
Think back to a time when you felt everything was in order in your life; you felt great in your relationships and with your family, your job was something you looked forward to each day, your finances were on a positive trajectory, and you were getting regular exercise. Heck, you were even flossing every day, making your bed, and staying on top of the laundry. Every night as you drifted off to sleep the only thing you were thinking about was counting sheep. Minimal stress, maximum smiles.
Compare that to how you feel right now – do you have that same sense of control over things? Do you find one or more areas lacking? How many things would you change if you could? If you’re sitting there thinking that something’s lacking, this post may help get you back on track. Yet thinking about the level of effort involved in getting everything going at once can be pretty overwhelming. Where to start?
The key is to stop beating yourself up about all the small things you’re not doing, and focus on getting just one habit back on track first.
In a series of studies performed by a social psychologist named Roy Baumeister, it’s been suggested that “improving self-regulation operates by increasing a general, core capacity. That is, as the person performs exercises to improve self-regulation in one sphere, he or she becomes better at self-regulating in other spheres.”
Our future and current selves rarely see eye-to-eye. As much as we’d like to indulge in every short-term pleasurable activity as they present themselves, it’s not always the best thing for us when we look at our life in its totality. Our time perspective can go a long way to optimizing for the right focus at the right time, making sure we indulge when we can (being “present hedonist”) but also keep an eye on the long-term prize (being “future goal-oriented”). With the right time perspective we can make sure we’re not foregoing our health, our life goals, or any multi-step, complex accomplishments for today’s six-pack of beer, a McDonald’s Happy Meal, or 10 hours of mindless television. It’s one thing to claim that time perspective can “solve” this for us, but that feels too theoretical. Time perspective is about strategy, but there are also tactics we can use to adapt to a new time perspective. One of the tactics that can help us adapt is precommitment.
The term precommitment was first introduced by a Nobel-prize winning economist named Thomas Schelling as part of a self-management system called Egonomics. Calling Egonomics a “system” may not be entirely accurate since it was originally described as “the art of self-management” in a research paper (available here). At the core of Egonomics is the idea that within each person exists two selves: the future self and the present (or past) self, constantly at odds, leading to a sort of cognitive dissonance between the two. Both selves exist within us and are equally valid, but aren’t always active at the same time. It’s a natural and ongoing conflict between immediate desire and long-term goals.
“Many of us have little tricks we play on ourselves to make us do the things we ought to do or to keep us from the things we out to foreswear. Sometimes we put things out of reach for the moment of temptation, sometimes we promise ourselves small rewards, and sometimes we surrender authority to a trustworthy friend who will police our calories or our cigarettes. We place the alarm clock across the room so we cannot turn it off without getting out of bed. People who are chronically late set their watches a few minutes ahead to deceive themselves.” – Thomas Schelling, “Egonomics, or the Art of Self-Management”