Rewire Your Brain

“For too many of us, slowing down to examine things is not entertaining, and that’s too bad because it’s mandatory that we take the time to understand the machinery of our lives if we are to modify that machinery to produce the results we desire.”

That’s a quote from my book, Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less. I stand by those words but there’s an equally simple but purely physiological reason why so many of us can’t slow down enough to properly “examine things.” It has to do with what’s going on in our heads: we’ve become hard-wired to be distracted.

Whatever the cause, distraction means focus is compromised, and an inability to focus properly means desired life-results won’t materialize. That’s bad enough, but there’s more: distraction, the antithesis of concentration, is the mother of anxiousness.

I’m delighted to inform you that regaining the ability to concentrate, and to be able to relax, is a simple matter.

Let’s start with this: The human brain adapts with astounding speed. We know our thinking adjusts quickly in order to deal with new input, but what isn’t widely recognized is the sheer potency of this adaptability: Our brains can quickly adjust the processing protocol itself.

Following are personal experiences that have convinced me of the rapid adaptability of the brain:

  • One summer morning at the age of 23, I quit using recreational drugs. I never went back.
  • Some years ago an accountant friend explained to me that the numeral four should be written with the two upper legs parallel to each other and not the way I was doing it, with the left upper leg keeled over to join the right leg at its top. I remember my friend scoffing at me a bit, casually adding that he was sure I would never be able to change the habit since I had been doing it the incorrect way all my life. He was wrong. In that very moment, in front of him, I wrote it down in the new format and have never done it the old way since.
  • Twenty years ago I read an article in a personal finance magazine in which the author said, “If someone is in the habit of bouncing checks, they will live the rest of their life bouncing checks. The proclivity to write a bad check is a character-issue and that can’t be changed.” I was a check-bouncer extraordinaire until I woke up one day. That was sixteen years ago and, guess what? I haven’t bounced a check since.
  • The topic of my book Work the System describes how I instantly changed my life due to a single late-night revelation. In that moment I made a permanent change in how I process the daily events of my life.
  • Not too long ago I went through some serious personal struggles. In that 18 month period I used my smartphone, tablet and laptop for big chunks of the day. This whole time I didn’t read anything substantial. My world was frenetic. Finally, one day I summoned up the wherewithal to turn things around and get back in the groove. Reading had always been important to me but I had fallen totally out of the groove. But as part of my rejuvenation I sat down to read…and found I couldn’t focus for even three minutes. But after forcing myself, within three days I was able to read for a full hour with perfect concentration. It took another week to get up to two hours.

It’s my bet you could add your own examples….

So, considering our amazing ability to adapt, let’s go back to the distraction problem: In this culture our brains have adjusted themselves in order to contend with the immediacy of everything around us, especially the demands of our electronic aids: smartphones, the internet, TV, etc. Our minds have become multi-tasking marvels…but at the cost of being unable to concentrate…and we must be able to concentrate if we are to get what we want in our lives.

The prosaic problem is that although regaining concentration is quick and easy, most people haven’t consciously realized there is dysfunction, much less how to go about fixing it.

So, do you have trouble focusing? If you do, know that the cure is simple. We’ll get to that soon.

Here’s something more in-depth about the rewiring of our neural pathways, from the book entitled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. (See this excerpt from Wired Magazine. It’s a good synopsis of the book)

Carr makes the point that long hours spent on the Internet will transform our brains into flighty mechanisms that have lost the ability to deep-think. He says, “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate, but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.”  He goes on to say, “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brains.”

He has a particular beef with hyperlinks: “Navigating linked documents…entails a lot of mental calisthenics—evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats that are extraneous to the process of reading. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension.”

In all fairness, and Carr points this out, net-surfing promotes adaptability in our thinking process. Although our ability to deep-think is compromised and memory retention is reduced, we become efficient at processing varied input quickly. We’ve become thinking multi-taskers.

And so, beyond the slightly shocking discovery that we have unwittingly programmed ourselves to be shallow thinkers, here lies the flip-side salvation: Since the modification of our brain-wiring happened with astounding speed, the process of reversing that modification can be equally fast. One might wallow in a bad thinking habit for years, but that doesn’t mean the bad habit took years to develop or will take years to unwind. Indeed, thinking protocol can be changed almost instantly, within days or even hours.

For you NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) practitioners, I know you are nodding your collective heads in agreement.

Discussing what he calls cognitive overload, Carr enlists an analogy to illustrate how our working memory is limited to downloading only tiny incremental doses of information into our long-term memory: Think about filling a bathtub one thimbleful at a time. In order to develop a richer and deeper thinking process, one must enter information into long-term memory in a slow and orderly way.

So how do we reverse shallow thinking without renouncing our web-habit?  Especially by reading physical books. Carr notes that spending time with the non-hyper linked written page encourages deep thinking and critical analysis.  As I see it, there are also other exercises that will stretch our linear-thinking apparatus. An innocuous example is walking down the street without the music plugged in. In general, avoid multitasking. Take up a “flow” endeavor that requires absolute concentration, such as rock climbing, playing a musical instrument or chess. In any case, reading is probably the most potent and always-available antidote to computer-generated flighty thinking.

Ultimately, it’s a trade-off as we leave the computer to pick up a book: To spend less time preoccupying ourselves short-term in order to spend more time satisfying ourselves long-term…while reducing anxiousness real-time. And no small thing: to get ahead in our work.

For quite a while I’ve tried hard to read one hardcover book per week and now realize it hasn’t been just a simple luxury, or that I was on some kind of knowledge-quest. It’s been an inadvertent therapeutic countering of the hours I spend gyrating on the web. In the cognitive sense, reading combined with internet exploration makes thinking both linear and adaptable. It’s much like combining weight-lifting with aerobics in an exercise regimen in order to gain both strength and resiliency. Contrast the body of the professional body builder with the elite long-distance runner. At the risk of offending one or the other, wouldn’t something in between be overall superior?

Congruent with Carr’s work is another terrific book that discusses our society’s general decline in critical thinking. Read The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein. No surprise that Bauerlein also lays the blame on the Internet as it pounds us with an unlimited supply of wasteful entertainment and inane social connection. My internet chief, Marcello, calls it “un-actionable data.”

And it’s true, the Work the System Method requires a linear, critical-thinking mindset. Being able to hone one’s thinking to be more deliberate and less flighty is a distinct advantage in attaining and then maintaining the systems mindset. With so many business competitors unable to focus and think critically – wastefully expending huge gobs of time being entertained or chemically numbing themselves against the incessant scattered input– our task of being the best becomes that much easier.

It’s time. Go ahead and pick up that book.

Photo by Kevin Rawlings via flickr used under a creative Commons License.