Brain-clearing on equilibrium

December 1, 2010 – 9:53 am

Getting a few quick things off my head to calm my mind before I start work for the day:

I got back to Raleigh Monday morning and discovered that cars are generally unhappy if you don’t drive them for two months. Tires need air, battery needs a complete recharge… I’ve been very much a nomad this fall, and don’t really have roots down here. Although I do enjoy it in Raleigh, and I’m not unhappy, it’s not home. That will have to wait a while.

I don’t want to get on another plane for a while, but I know I’ll be going to my family’s for the holidays, and looking ahead to that makes me feel tired already. My relatives have started to cede me space to do my work – full-time employment by a Fortune 500 company is something they respect – and it’s still immersion in a culture that loves me but which I do not quite fit into. I want a pause button for the world. I want to hit it this weekend and not unpause until the end of January. My mind’s in one place, my heart’s in another place, and my body is going “for the love of god, give me a consistent bed and a consistent timezone and bedtime, or at least exercise so I can cope with how you’re throwing me around.”

I know I’m tired, so I’m taking it slowly. I think I’d like to try weekends as week-beginnings this weekend. It’s treating Saturday and Sunday as time to set up for the week ahead, rather than time to recover from whatever the week did to you – it’s a decision to happen to life rather than let life happen to you. And that’s the way I want my week to be. Proactive rather than reactive.

Sacha’s post on limiting flow resonated with me. She originally started writing this:

…it’s hard to resist that urge for flow – that immersive, transcendental experience of engagement and success. Flow messes me up. In the flow of programming, I forget the joy and ease of other activities. I feel myself resisting the need to surface from flow in order to take care of household chores or work on other projects… when I reluctantly slip away, the ghost of it hovers there, a background process that takes up memory and processing time, interrupts me with ideas and invitations, and makes it hard for me be mindful and focused on other things… my thinking feelsdisjointed, hyperlinked, broken down into small functions – a little [like] the kind of unraveling I feel when I haven’t had the chance to properly write and reflect…

…and then was interrupted.

Then W- said, “How would you like to help clean up the yard?” So I did. While W- changed his tires and J- raked the leaves, I tidied up what remained of this year’s garden. Then I came back to the kitchen and roasted four turkey drumsticks, helped pack 11 lunch portions, made turkey pot pie filling, and prepared onigiri for next week’s snacks. It was productive, social, and good.

I had to smile. For me, flow is something that’s not limited to programming – it’s how I get into most any task I’m geared up on, since my ADHD brain tends to hyperfocus (or hypofocus – but that’s another story). The steady, calm state of soaring through something is a joy. The danger comes when I get so far into it that the rest of the world melts away, and I lose track… not just of time, but of the need to eat, sleep, think, breathe – and wake up two days later to realize I haven’t slept more than 3 hours, have eaten a banana, am severely dehydrated, my back aches, and I haven’t seen another human being since last Thursday. Not so good. And I jump from hyperfocus on something I should work on into hyperfocus on everything else – small unimportant things, emails, random tasks, distractions – that don’t need or warrant any of my time, let alone that sort of focus.

How do I tap into that flow state – the satisfying rhythm of working into something good – without snapping into something dangerous? How do I let other people get into that state with me, so they can steer me a bit, pull me out? How do I become more conscious and aware of where and how and when I focus, rather than having it as what I do for everything, all the time, by default – working until I fall asleep, waking up and working more?

One of the things that stuck with me from learning martial arts (which I will get back into as soon as I settle down a little more – grad school, perhaps) was something an advanced student told me as I stood in the basement of the studio, dripping with sweat with my face contorted as I threw out yet more punches, trying to get more power behind them by dint of sheer will. Mike watched me a while, then walked up and said:

Don’t think about how hard it is. Think about how easy it can be.

He threw a few loose, fluid punches to demonstrate, and I muttered well yeah, but you’ve been doing this for years. But when I loosened up and tried to find a way for punching to be easy, suddenly my punches were more powerful. I wasn’t fighting my own muscles with tension. It wasn’t anywhere near as good as Mike’s; the muscles that I needed for the punching to be easy weren’t built up, but I could see that they would build up over time if I kept practicing this way.

So maybe it’s something like this:

  1. Figure out what you want to do.
  2. Figure out what doing that thing is like when you’re good at it, and it’s easy – the ease that comes from skill and practice, the ease that comes with awareness and control.
  3. Figure out how you’re going to get yourself in shape so that the thing you want to do is easy.

I’ve consistently done this before in one domain – piano. My (much) younger self felt good being able to fluently glide through a piano piece with full consciousness after months of careful stepping-through it. I knew how I had to practice to be able to glide through the piece like that, I was aware that I had to continue that practice once I did hit that “glide point” in order to maintain it, and I could feel that sense of ease developing as I ran through passages, even at the age of 7 or 8. Now I need to learn how to transfer it.

Think about the equilibrium you want, and how you’re going to reach it.

Is it actually that simple? Maybe. But the figuring-out and the reaching of that equilibrium aren’t necessarily. Probably something to ponder and discuss over the weekend – and I will take the weekend as a breather. I am tired, and I’m becoming more sensitive to and respectful of that now.

Breathing, then working, then coming back to breathe again and again in the midst of the working day – and then letting myself stop for the evening when work is over, and unwind. I also need to learn how to let go of things undone and opportunities untaken, and respect the need for renewal. It’s going to cause a temporary slowing-down of my outward productivity, but so be it. I know that if I don’t learn how to do this, I’m going to continue on a slow but inexorable path towards a giant burnout crash 5-10 years from now, and I don’t want that sort of wake-up call; I want to gather that awareness now, while I am young and can adjust. I’ve had too many wake-up calls of burnout for a 24-year-old.

First I learn how to balance and rest. Then I will relearn how to run, but not in hyperfocused isolation. Not sure what’s going to come out of this, but we’ll see.

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  2. Dec 3, 2010: More thoughts on week beginnings: it’s about being proactive | sacha chua :: living an awesome life

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