Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

7.12.2011

Thinking About Thinking: A Tip for Success

I've run across a couple of articles this week, one about childhood play and one about adult procrastination, that seem to go together:

Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills

For most of human history what children did when they played was roam in packs large or small, more or less unsupervised, and engage in freewheeling imaginative play. They were pirates and princesses, aristocrats and action heroes. Basically, says Chudacoff, they spent most of their time doing what looked like nothing much at all. . . .

Clearly the way that children spend their time has changed. Here's the issue: A growing number of psychologists believe that these changes in what children do has also changed kids' cognitive and emotional development.

It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.

We know that children's capacity for self-regulation has diminished. . . .

Self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, "Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain." . . .

One reason make-believe is such a powerful tool for building self-discipline is because during make-believe, children engage in what's called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. . . .

And it's not just children who use private speech to control themselves. If we look at adult use of private speech, Berk says, "we're often using it to surmount obstacles, to master cognitive and social skills, and to manage our emotions."


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Why Our Monkey Brains Are Prone to Procrastination (No, It's Not Just Laziness or Lack Of Willpower): Present bias is why you’ve made the same resolution for the tenth year in a row, but this time you mean it.

Procrastination is fueled by weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think about thinking. . . .

Thinking about thinking, this is the key. In the struggle between should versus want, some people have figured out something crucial – want never goes away.

Procrastination is all about choosing want over should because you don’t have a plan for those times when you can expect to be tempted.

You are really bad at predicting your future mental states. In addition, you are terrible at choosing between now or later. Later is murky place where anything could go wrong. . . .

Evolutionarily it makes sense to always go for the sure bet now; your ancestors didn’t have to think about retirement or heart disease. Your brain evolved in a world where you probably wouldn’t live to meet your grandchildren. The stupid monkey part of your brain wants to gobble up candy bars and go deeply into debt. Old you, if there even is one, can deal with those things. . . .

You must be adept at thinking about thinking to defeat yourself at procrastination. You must realize there is the you who sits there now reading this, and there is a you sometime in the future who will be influenced by a different set of ideas and desires, a you in a different setting where an alternate palette of brain functions will be available for painting reality. . . .

The trick is to accept the now you will not be the person facing those choices, it will be the future you – a person who can’t be trusted. Future-you will give in, and then you’ll go back to being now-you and feel weak and ashamed. Now-you must trick future-you into doing what is right for both parties.

This is why food plans like Nutrisystem work for many people. Now-you commits to spending a lot of money on a giant box of food which future-you will have to deal with. People who get this concept use programs like Freedom, which disables Internet access on a computer for up to eight hours, a tool allowing now-you to make it impossible for future-you to sabotage your work.

Capable psychonauts who think about thinking, about states of mind, about set and setting, can get things done not because they have more will power, more drive, but because they know productivity is a game of cat and mouse versus a childish primal human predilection for pleasure and novelty which can never be excised from the soul. Your effort is better spent outsmarting yourself than making empty promises through plugging dates into a calendar or setting deadlines for push ups.


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The second article draws upon some of the same studies as a couple of books I've previously blogged, with similar conclusions. From Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, I quoted:

In this and many similar studies, Mischel followed the children into adulthood. He discovered the ability to delay gratification had a more profound effect than many had originally predicted. Notwithstanding the fact that the researchers had watched the kids for only a few minutes, what they learned from the experiment was enormously telling. Children who had been able to wait for that second marshmallow matured into adults who were seen as more socially competent, self-assertive, dependable, and capable of dealing with frustrations; and the scored an average of 210 points higher on their SATs than people who gulped down the one marshmallow. The predictive power was truly remarkable.

Companion studies conducted over the next decade with people of varying ages (including adults) confirmed that individuals who exercise self-control achieve better outcomes than people who don't. For example, if high schoolers are good at self-control, they experience fewer eating and drinking problems. University students with more self-control earn better grades, and married and working people have more fulfilling relationships and better careers. And as you might suspect, people who demonstrate low levels of self-control show higher levels of aggression, delinquency, health problems, and so forth.


And I concluded the quote with: The rest of the chapter explains that the self-control to delay gratification is not an inborn trait, but something that can be learned, and offers strategies for doing so.

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And while I didn't blog much about it, I remember reading Dan Ariely's chapter in Predictably Irrational about procrastination, which the article even quotes a bit. Here's what I wrote:

The Problem of Procrastination and Self-Control: Why We Can’t Make Ourselves Do What We Want To Do
This chapter basically makes the case for laws and regulations, forced preventative health care and savings and such. We always put things off. If we have self-imposed deadlines we put them off less. If we have externally imposed deadlines we put them off least.


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And the bit in the article about the evolutionary explanation for instant gratification reminds me of some of the things from The Well-Dressed Ape, like this from chapter 6:

First, let's look at my natural defenses against starving. There's a good reason that I yearn for fettuccine Alfredo and chocolate. Every cell in my body is in a near-constant state of hollering for high-calorie food. My body wants to be bigger than it is today. Therefore my cells lobby for more sugar, more fat, more food. . . .

Why fat and sugar? Why don't I crave salad? My body is lagging behind the times. For the first few million years of hominid existence, salad was everywhere. You had to kick it out of the way just to get around. By contrast, energy-rich foods were either too seasonal or too fleet-footed for convenience. . . .

When my senses register the proximity of a Chunky bar, my strongest urge is to snatch it up and get it down the hatch before, A: it gets moldy; B: it's eaten by bears, C: I'm eaten by bears. . . .

One reason cravings are so strong, and that it's so joyful to yield to them, is that they tap into the same brain chemistry that will get a human hooked on cocaine or alcohol. When the sugar from a Chunky bar hits my bloodstream, opioids of my own making flood my brain with chemical happiness. I've eaten enough Chunky bars by now to get my brain addicted to these opioids. I need no heroin, only another Chunky.

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