Last month, I decided to set aside a daily half hour to think every day. Here’s an update: thinking is great. Starting is hard.
Whenever I actually open my “thinking” file and start writing, I feel wonderful. I realize that I needed to take this time.
My mind has been straining in the background to hold onto all these disparate strands of thought before they disintegrate. Now I can weave these strands into permanent memories. That “holding” part of my mind can finally relax.
And as I weave, I create new thoughts. I’m not just taking notes. I’m connecting the new to what I already know, and that fusion means new insights.
Thinking is great. Once I get started.
Why Is It So Hard to Start Thinking?
But before I can open that file and type, I need to stop whatever I’m doing. And I’ve found that, until I stop, doing still seems much more important than thinking.
Any new habit takes effort. But the more different the habit is from your existing thought patterns, the more mental inertia needs to be overcome.
I had expected some resistance to this whole thinking plan. After all, it’s another daily half hour scheduled for something that’s not “work” and yet also isn’t “fun”, like watching TV. (Never mind how great it feels when I’m actually doing it.)
But I’ve discovered more resistance than I anticipated. Why is it so hard to start thinking?
Think After Lunch?
My original plan was to dodge this resistance by hooking it into an existing habit: lunch. Hooking a new habit into a current habit is always a great way to leverage whatever meager organization you’ve managed to cobble into your life. But I also hoped that the post-lunch slot would be particularly helpful, since by then, I’ve already been out of “work mode” for at least a half hour.
Sometimes, this strategy works.
But I forgot that I already have a habit after lunch: a renewed attack on my Mountain of Work, to make up for all the time I “lost” that morning.
Apparently, thinking is first in line for the chopping block. When I feel short on time, taking even a half hour to think seems counter-productive and self-indulgent.
Which should disturb me.
Is Thinking My Lowest Priority?
It’s possible that setting aside Official Thinking Time is simply unnatural. You could argue that my sensible side senses that I’ll do all the thinking I need at those “in between” times like driving, taking a walk, and lying awake with insomnia (partly because I never took time to resolve my thoughts during the day).
But I don’t think so. If this hands-off approach worked so well, then I’d remember much more of what I read, much more easily. Official Thinking Time may not be the solution, but whatever the solution is, it’s going to take time, on a regular basis.
Mysteriously, thinking seems to be my lowest priority. At least, when I feel “busy”.
Time for Reading, But Not Thinking?
And yet, I’m almost always ready to acquire new information. This feels good, whether it’s blogs, books, or videos. I’m on the hunt, tracking those new ideas that will change everything.
Feeling busy does not seem to deter me from hunting new ideas. Instead, reading brings a welcome relief from my endless TODOs.
Which strengthens a sneaking suspicion that much of my reading has more to do with instant gratification than long-term knowledge.
That’s not evil. Instant gratification has its place. But I’d like to achieve greater clarity about when I’m relaxing and when I’m actually reading.
Which, like so many facets of memory work, launches us right out of the comfortable world of tweaking techniques, into the crucible of Life Choices. What do I really want to learn?
Thinking Is Scary
Thinking is a deliberate act. That’s why thinking is scary.
With a book, it’s easy to let the author take over. She’s the expert. She sets the agenda. She takes responsibility for the next couple hours of your life. She knows best.
But many people claim that the first step to remembering what you read is to set that agenda yourself. You need to decide what you want to get out of the book, what questions you want answered.
Obviously, this means thinking about what you read. And I resist this too. I don’t want to slow down and define what I want out of the book, which ultimately means defining what I want out of life. Instead, I want to hurry up and forget myself in a new world.
Reading purely for immersion is fine. But not all the time. Not when I’m trying to learn.
And it’s looking more and more like I can’t learn much unintentionally. My mind needs to know: am I reading for fun? Or do I actually care about this stuff?
Thinking is scary, because it means taking responsibility for what I care about, how I spend my time. Thinking means stopping, taking several steps back so I can get a wide view of the choices I’ve been making.
I strongly suspect that I resist thinking for the same reasons I resist “getting organized”. Thinking isn’t a harmless little habit that you can plug into an otherwise somewhat chaotic life.
Thinking Means Living Deliberately
The decision to think challenges that chaos. Thinking means taking an active stance towards your life. For that half hour, you’re not reactively answering emails or sampling today’s bushel of Facebook links. You’re living deliberately.
The good news is, now that I’ve thought this all out with you, much more determined to do this. What I most resist is often what I most need. I need to think every day.
So thanks for your help. The slight time disjunction between me talking and you listening doesn’t matter. And I hope you leave a comment, so I can listen back.
P. S. If you missed it over the weekend, check out my new slideshow: Learn Luke This Advent. Not only does it launch an awesome, free program to help you start a great Advent habit … it’s also pretty funny.
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