Retraining My Brain

I’m getting to the point where I’m starting to plan for incrementally increasing the amount of concentration-intensive things I do during the day. In particular, I want to be programming a certain amount of time every day to prepare for doing full time work again this summer.

My issues with concentration are, I think, a problem with two different causes. The first is simply overwork: work too hard for too long and your brain just needs a break. The second is more complicated, and has to do with learned association. I find having tasks to do, even incredibly simple ones, to be overwhelming. I suspect this has a lot to do with having been in school for so long. One of the problems I’ve found in my experiences with school is that the completion of tasks is very rarely a rewarding experience. Often in school, I find that accomplishments don’t feel like accomplishments. Most of my experience of school has involved stressing out about things until they are finished and then feeling accomplished for about two seconds until I realize there’s a ton of other things I need to do. The things never end, there are always more things, and so there’s never even a day to revel in that sense of satisfied completeness that comes from finishing something and being able to take the time to be self-congratulatory about it.

Stretch this out over a long enough period of time, and your brain inevitably learns that accomplishing tasks is stressful and scary and not rewarding. That there’s nothing to be gained by, well, doing the shit you need to do.

I think it’ll be nice to be working on something without that same stress and pressure, but there’s still a certain mental block that’s making it hard to get myself to start the work. It’s also challenging because the work I’m doing–working through a tutorial for Ruby on Rails–is work that I need to finish a large amount of before I’m really going to be able to look at working results. So it’ll be a while before I’ll have results that are satisfyingly tangible to celebrate.

What I’m trying to do now is think of other ways I can reward myself for taking baby steps in the right direction. E.g. if I start out with something really, really small–say, 15 minutes of programming today–how can I reward myself in a way that will help retrain my brain from reflexively thinking “Doing things leads to stress and having to do more things” to reflexively thinking “Doing things makes me feel good”.

If anyone feels like contributing any ideas, feel free. This is harder to think of than I thought.

One comment on “Retraining My Brain

  1. What are things you like to do? Can you, say, earn a unit of time playing a game you enjoy?

    My struggle in this department is to reward myself with something other than food.

    A couple other ideas: put a quarter, or a dollar, or whatever in a jar so that your work = saving up for a trip or event or something you want to buy. For my PhD, I’ve been toying with the idea of putting dry beans in a clear container every time I make incremental research progress, because it’s a concrete way to see movement towards a distant goal.

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