I just revisited a post from last year on the disciplines of study. It's worth another read.
In my quest for optimum output, I tread the wire between two elements which must both be optimized: time and my mind.
For example, do I go to sleep or keep working? If I go to sleep, I can do more work today. But if I keep working, will my mind continue to output thinking at a reasonable rate? I know the dangers of excessive late night work; I think I'm working hard, but late night work often goes at a slower rate. Drowsiness can be mistaken for flow.
The first great mental challenge of my life was to acknowledge the weirdness of my brain and give it enough time to complete complex tasks. Instead of sitting in front of the math problem, crying until my mind caught up, one early mentor suggested I doodle.
It was my first introduction to a basic mental technique: give yourself time to do the job. Aided by some math videos where I saw the equations performed on a board, I clung to the concept of time for years.
To this day, time management is one of the most important parts of my life. A much more complex inner equation leads to the daily allotment of time. Into it goes a set of tasks I wish to accomplish, the set of possible locations, and a sense of my mental state. Based on these variables, I choose where to go, how to get there, and what to eat.
This is because I have added a study of the mind to the concepts of basic time management. In high school, I would just sit in front of the computer, waiting for the ideas to come. They came much more slowly back then. No doubt my mind is much stronger, but I have also honed my methods.
In this, one must be very specific about the object one wishes to achieve. For example, many of my friends believe that they work best under pressure. Thus, they choose to write papers the night before. In reality, they do not work best under pressure. They work fastest under pressure. Their best work would take much, much more time to complete. This, of course, demonstrates their priorities. Something else must be much more important to them.
Among the last-nighters, there are also people who wish to do quality work, but are stuck. Like the student who writes the first reasonably-logical thesis which comes to mind, they stick with the mental disciplines which they encounter by accident. And last-night pressure is the easiest mental stimulant to discover; even many highly-motivated, highly-intelligent people stop here.
The last-night mindset is deceptive. It seems the quickest and most intense of all mental effort. It may even be highly addictive. Highly social people prefer this method, since it frees their time for other, more important things. Fortunately, when I was young I read some advice against making this a regular pattern: (Samuel Johnson's early letter to Boswell).
So I looked for other paradigms of mental discipline. And I am still looking. For their nature and scope can vary widely. Hypertext, for example, has led to an important paradigm change for me. My thoughts on the unpublished Metaphysical poets have led to further distinct changes in my mental toolbag. There are several others, but I will only give one more example:
The next mental technique which people discover is a sort of self-conditioning.
I recently saw a cartoon in which someone offered herself a cookie if she were able to write 5 more pages. By offering herself a reward, she was trying to behaviorally condition herself to write more. This was a question of motivation.
The conditioning can become much more subtle when it looks like operant conditioning. It starts out by remembering a particular good study session. Any number of factors, such as sleep, nutrition, the topic itself, or any previous work on the topic may have contributed to this outstanding study session. But our imaginary thinker remembers that he was at coffeeshop X or in seat Y when the marvelous thinking occurred. Next time he wishes to study well, he will attempt to recreate that environment. In effect, they are trying to operant condition themselves to produce work; instead of salivating at the sound of the bell, they wish to think upon command. The utmost level of their art is seen in Act I of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. When Lucky's hat is put on, he is told to "think!" And he does, until the hat is taken off.
I know a hundred people who would think themselves fortunate to be Lucky, if only so they could spend the rest of their day partying.
I am eating a cracker as I write this. For me, taste and rote muscle movement also affect my thinking. For example, I often pace.
I have put a lot of thought into how music affects thinking. And this is not only because I spend large amounts of my day around specialists in music and psychology. It's because music is just about the most common conditioner in Western life.
Now that we live in a world were recorded music is readily available, music is often used in the attempt to induce certain thoughts or emotions. Malls, movies, telepones on-hold, nightclubs, bedrooms, and even babies' rooms are all places where we carefully select music to get a particular emotional/psychological reactions from ourselves and others around us.
The principles of conditioning also apply. Satiation, etc... The effects are staggering. Some research suggests that the massive amounts of stimulation available in our developmental stages may contribute to the prevalence of ADHD. Even if this is not the case, we have been affected: One of the most decorated honors students in Elizabethtown College's class of 2005 swore he could only study textbooks while watching TV and listening to the radio. Certain elements of religious tradition, such as the lighting of candles and incense, or the sole ceremonial use of certain colors, could also be seen as a form of self-conditioning.
Few people get beyond this type of discipline toward becoming effective in what they desire (I state this in general terms, because I realize that some may wish to put their mind to other things than mere study. For example, therapists may seek to maximize empathy. Artists and writers may wish to enhance their imagination, etc.). But to stay here is naive. It leads to an ever-narrowing corner, since conditioning creates ruts which become progressively more difficult to escape. Also, one can leave the goal for the stimulus (which is what Johnson wrote about). For example, someone who studies well in coffeeshops may continue going to coffeeshops for the enjoyable experience long after its mental usefulness has passed (because you get to know the people there, because the noise grows, etc.).
Most people think of these things in a superstitious manner. But it is useful to consider out the individual properties of each thinking arrangment. A case study analysis would unnecessarily lengthen this already-long post. So I will leave that to you.
(for example, the advent of recorded music has led to the widescale use of recorded music in the daily life of religious people. If recorded religious music really had the intrinsic effect that its proponents claim, we would have this amazingly-devoud population of religious people. Is this happening? If not, why not? What is the actual, long term effect of recorded religious music in the life of your average, music-listening devotee?)
There are other paradigms of self-awareness that specialize toward the thinking work I do. I have a small trove of carefully-edited methods, as I try to develop what I have and find new ways of doing.
It would be easy to reduce people to stimulous machines, self-conditioning ourself with stimuli and our brain's response to chemical reactions in our body. One could define religion, love, philanthropy, hate, war, and creativity with these terms. But...
Although I carry out my own development in a systematic, thoughtful way that acknowledges the physical and psychological aspects of my being, I know there is a spiritual element to life. I know that the Spirit and grace of God stand large in whatever measure of success my person has achieved.
In all this, let us not forget the spiritual things.
That was all background to this thought I had in the morning: should I play videogames or not?
The answer may surprise you, but it will have to wait for another post.