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I've started reading The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. I'm only a few pages into Chapter 2. It's a light book containing simple explanations about neuroscience, some research, some anecdotes, and exercises and suggestions. It's meant for a broad audience. I'll be able to give a fairer review when I'm much further, but here are some thoughts off the top of my head. (I'll be typing all this from the top of my head without referring back to the book, so there are facts in there I may not remember.

So far, most of the information is not that new to me--the prefrontal cortex's role in self control. Phineas Gage is in there, as well as another case--hopefully I'm getting this right--who had damage to the amygdala that messed up her ability to feel disgust. I did learn that different hemispheres of the PFC inhibit different types of processes. In the author's characterization, one inhibits "I want to" impulses, while the other inhibits "I don't want to" impulses. That particular brain fact is probably of less practical consequence to me than the author likes to think. But the distinction between the two types of impulses is helpful, though obvious-seeming after the fact.

McGonigal thinks meditation is good training for self-control, that it is quintessentially a willpower/impulse inhibition exercise. The five minute willpower exercise she has in the book is of the samatha type: sit still and focus on the breath for a certain length of time. I'd need to double-check again, but I think she rightfully omitted the word "mindfulness" from her description of the meditation. A lot of people touting the benefits of meditation apply the terms "mindfulness" to any kind of Buddhist-secular inspired type of meditation, when it really only apply to vipassana.

In any case, McGonigal mentions research that showed meditation yielding noticible benefits in a short time. She figures she gives are behavioral improvement after only three cumulative hours. After eleven, the changes were visible in the brain. (I don't remember now if she said this was the amygdala or the prefrontal cortex, or either in particular.)

What have I learned so far, and what do I think I'm going to try?

McGonigal suggests tracking decisions for the behavior you're trying to improve or change for one whole day. She touts it as a window into unconscious default behaviors. That sounds pretty interesting, but I'm not sure how manageable recording every decision (with even just a few words) would be. A past participant who thought he was only making 14 decisions about food a day counted 273 when he actually counted it. But I think making a tick mark or the like, or writing down the most interesting observations. McGonigal says to trying catch the impulse earlier and earlier into order to zero in on the triggering thoughts, sensations, and circumstances. It all makes enough sense, so I figure I'll give it a shot in some form tomorrow--maybe an index card that I write stuff on, or posting to one of my alternate Twitter accounts every once in a while.

Going back to meditation also sounds all right. I have a lot lot lot of trouble getting "access concentration" over the years. The best guided program I've found so far is the Headspace App--I made through their ten-day program (eventually) and part way through their fifteen day program until my subscription expired. (A friend gave me his account, which he wasn't using.) In the old version of the app, you used to be able to set a custom meditation timer in options. A recording of the guide prompting you at the beginning, some chimes (or custom sounds you could choose) rang at intervals, and then the guide prompted you to open your eyes at the end. Sadly, the new version of the app doesn't have this anymore. I don't know if no one except me used it, or if they realized it was undermining their business model of guided meditation recordings. (Now that I think of it, it might actually be in the app, but only visible to logged in subscribers.)

Without a subscription, Headspace only has their ten day, 10-minute guided program available. I don't mind going through that again. It has been updated since I completed it last time. But if I'm going to continue afterwards, it looks like I'll be mostly on my own.

In my mind, the focus of this first chapter of the book also points to challenges I have with meta-regulation. Once I have a timer going, I can usually focus pretty decently--I used the Pomodoro method to read the book and also to type up this post. The much harder part is getting started. Sometimes prioritizing and scheduling activities for the day gets overwhelming. I'm better at it now, and poor plans that I need to constantly revise have shown themselves to be maybe better than no plans at all. I have tools that I'm still figuring out, but seem to be helping so far (if you have iOS, check out the Timeful app--Dan Ariely is one of the cofounders.)

I am not good at assessing the costs of commitments. I'm drastically overoptimistic about the amount I can handle; part of it is the pressure I put on myself to make progress in improving my situation. I have set the sights pretty high and emotionally I can't really come to terms with less.

Besides this, it's also beginning to seem like I just have more possibilities swirling around in my mind than other people. Insofar as ADHD is a manifestation of problems in the PFC, it makes sense to think of trouble focusing as trouble suppressing the less important possibilities.

The major suggestions of The Willpower Instinct so far have to do with becoming aware, and making things explicit to uncover problems with default behaviors. This links it to Kahneman's talk of System 1 and System 2 in Thinking Fast and Slow. (I have read precious little of that book, but he talks about it a lot in his lectures. I have probably watched 20 hours of him talking, because he's such a pleasant, clear, and insightful speaker.) My intuitions about time and organization are part of the problem, so the solution will lie in doing the explicit calculations until my intuitions improve (or I can form a system so I don't have to do things off the top of my head.)

Thinking is another thing I'm sometimes convinced doesn't really take a lot of time--until I see I'm three hours late. Right now I'm coming to terms with spending a lot more time on explicit planning--maybe sometimes more than I think I can afford at the moment, when I'm already running late.
olimay: (Default)
I got reminded today that I'm not taking things seriously enough. Why? I keep pretending that if I just do as the other smart, successful people do, that if I go to sleep every night promising to myself that I will live tomorrow more earnestly than today, that things will sort things out.

I don't like pressing anything resembling the "desperate measures" button because it's like acknowledging I should be left out. Everyone can go out to play, everyone can chase their dreams, and I just have to be content with working out my problems. And I like to hide, even to myself, how much a mess things are.

The denial is a reflection of my anxieties about being open about this to people. People, who, as I've discuss in detail, will have waste my time with bad theories full of useless folk psychology concepts about motivation, willpower.

And it just sucks knowing people look at you with pity. And that's usually a better case. Most of the time I feel that if I were completely candid I'd lose most of my credibility.

"You're not trying. You don't want this bad enough."

Because, sure, "Everyone is a little ADHD, right? Everyone faces these kind of problems."

Here's the reality: I am not everyone. still lack the skills that working society expects an independent adult to have. I am weak in skills that have to do with organization, attention, setting priorities, and estimating things like time and money.

I genuinely believe, with my tendency to make bad decisions, I would have been homeless or worse if you subtracted even one or two parts of my support network. Things have worked when they've worked and have fallen apart when they haven't.

So I have cause to make things more complex, if that means improving these fundamental lack of skills. I have cause to be different and rely on weird methods while I build up missing habits and intuitions. I have cause to spend an inordinate amount of my day on planning and logistics. I want the months and years to follow to be filled with more seeds of regret and frustration.

For now, not much is stopping me except for my own worries of looking terrible.

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