Getting Focused 04: Firing My Brain

Getting Focused 04: Firing My Brain

UPDATE 10-19-2007: I originally wrote this in bed as I was winding down to sleep, and I didn’t proof read it. I’ve gone back and made edits to make it a little clearer and to fix typos. I’d fix the grammar too if I knew how.

When you’re part of a great team, there’s a lot of wonderful things that help you work better with your teammates. For one, you all already know what you’re supposed to be doing, because everyone has agreed on what that is. That’s because the need to get “on the same page” has long since past, because you’ve written the book together. Additionally, you know the strengths and capabilities of the other team members, and they know yours. Everyone knows that they can count on each other because experience has shown that reliability is the norm. It’s just awesome.

Most of us, I would guess, are not part of such a team, though we have a certain vision of what it it’s like buried in our subconscious. I got my vision from Tommy Lee Jone’s team in The Fugitive. In the my fantasy, the ideal team is just naturally productive. In such a team, people would say what they mean, and people would actually listen and retain what was said. Everything written in email would be remembered, after just one reading, because there’s not a LOT of email so every message is meaningful. Goals would be clearly stated and blueprinted well in advance of action, and no one would have to stay past 400PM so we could beat the rush hour traffic.

In reality, communication is rather imperfect. The attempt to act is hamstrung by confusion sowed by unstated assumptions and wildly-divergent interpretations of the stated intention. This is often due to the leadership’s ambiguous action statements which are more wishes masquerading as goals than meaningful direction. In such situations, at least things are moving and that makes us all look busy and productive. Though this sounds unproductive, chances are that we’ll pull it off, somehow; there is much to be said about adaptability in even a dysfunctional team if the dedication is there in key players.


When it comes to communication with our peers, we make an assumption that the veterans on our team know what we’re talking about. This is a pretty reliable indicator, as shared experience goes a long way toward creating a common set of expectations. However, with any assumption comes the possibility of misunderstanding; we’re never really sure if the same understanding is shared by everyone on the team. This is particularly the case with broad terms like productivity, effective, creative, and excellence. There is so much wiggle room room for interpretation here that mere verbal agreement is unlikely to mean anything when it comes to actually defining a course of action that everyone understands.

When we’re working with people we generally have learned to trust, we give them the benefit of the doubt. We also assume (there’s that danger) that they have the same understanding of the issues and that they are competent in what they say they can do. There is often supporting evidence: they’ve gotten their work done before, they presumably have been hired because they ahve the skills, etc. So we drop our guard, and we assume that the best is achievable. That is, until we are proven wrong. I am sure everyone out there can think of team situations that have gone horribly awry, after the best of intentions had been established and even nurtured for weeks and weeks.

What does all of this have to do with focus? Well, the same assumptions apply to me as an individual. I harbor a multitude of competing needs, dreams, desires, urges, and beliefs. By analogy, they are like different people working in my office. And since I’ve worked with these “people” for a loooong time, I’ve become used to their habits and foibles. I also assume that we’re all working toward the same interest: me. And you know what? That’s an assumption that might actually be flawed. Sure, we’re all on the same team, and we all want personal happiness and fulfillment…right?

Well, maybe not. There are some hidden agendas and assumptions rolling around in my head that need ferreting out.


I was lying in bed a few days ago, about to begin my daily ritual of heading to the coffee shop and gym before starting the day’s work. I had not gotten quite as much sleep as I would have liked, so my brain started to negotiate with my body to get up, though it was itself rather split on the issue:

Brain: “Get up! Let’s go! We’re in charge! We want to get up! That energy would be there if you just moved!” Body: Zzzz. Brain: “I see your point. It WOULD be nice to snooze a bit. What’s one day at the gym missed? It’s too cold outside, and it’s very warm inside.” Body: Zzzz. Brain: “Right. But we SHOULD get up. Let’s go!”

My internal monologue continued in this vein for several long irritating minutes. True, I was feeling very tired, but I knew that I could just get up if I really wanted to. I thought I wanted to, so I was wondering what the hell was wrong. This happens to me fairly often, when I’m faced with some “good” task that just doesn’t seem enticing enough to warrant immediate action.

So I closed my eyes in exasperation, staring at the darkness behind my eyelids and not negotiating at all with my body to get its lazy ass out of bed.

The next thing I knew, my right arm had moved to lift up the blanket, and there I was standing up. Bizarre. I hadn’t even thought of getting up; the body just took over from the mind and did what it wanted. I guess it was bored of just being still, or was waiting for the brain to make up its darn mind or shut up. It was the strangest thing.

This reminded me of my recent experience building up my gym habit. I’m about halfway through my 4th month of going to the gym 5-6 times a week now, and one of the things I’ve learned is how to have a conversation with my body. Before I started going to the gym, I didn’t even know it had anything to say. As I mention in part 4 of my gym experience posts, it’s my mind was what was telling me that I was bored, tired, or should stop. The body, however, is perfectly content to keep going if you maintain a sustainable pace; if nothing is hurting and your heart is up to it, your muscles can go for a lot longer than you might otherwise think. At the gym, I’ve learned to let the body set the pacing, not the mind. The mind wants to go home and surf the Internet. The body just wants to sweat and be doing something with all that pent-up energy. When I find my mind or interest wavering at the gym, I know now to quiet my mind and just put my attention on what each individual muscle is doing: How ya doing? Faster or slower? Ok, let’s up the resistance level.


In the previous parts of this exploratory article series on focus, I’ve postulated the following truths about myself:

  • I am easily bored
  • I have a high “activation energy threshold”
  • I don’t really know what being “focused” is actually like. I need a role model.

These are all mental challenges. My “team of myself”, which I’ve thought of primarily as my brain and my sense of self, have been together for a long time. I’ve used my brain to get me through a lot of rough spots, both intellectually and emotionally. And with the success of this long-standing partnership, I’ve learned to trust my own judgment. Me and my brain are good pals, and we’re on the same side, and therefore the trust is implicit.

Because I put such great emphasis on mental ability, my natural inclination has been to assume that my brain is in charge. It serves both as the strategic general and the tactical squad leader, handling both planning and execution phases of my daily activities. The brain also fulfills the analyst function, providing a steady stream of processed observations to the General and Squad Leader; the quality of the analysis and situational assessment helps determines the success of my overall life mission.

But what of the body? I’ve only recently come to recognize that it does more than carry the brain around in less-than-grand style. Now that I’m going to the gym to improve the physical aspects of my life, the Body has shown that it’s capable of doing more than I originally thought. It’s a different kind of awareness. From that recent episode of trying to get out of bed, I’ve had the following thought: maybe my brain shouldn’t be in charge after all.

Let’s do a quick performance review of the Brain, acting in both the strategic and tactical roles. On October 15th, the Brain had clearly failed to get the team (aka: me) out of bed, despite lots and lots of wheedling and ineffective negotiating. And if I look at the performance of my Brain during the gotta get focused campaign—a personal war waged over serveral years—I would have to say that it HAS NOT been a resounding success. While I’ve accomplished quite a bit more than I have in years past, I also know I’ve wasted a lot of time that could otherwise have been spent doing things. I have spent a lot of time being distracted, unmotivated, and unwise in the use of my time. And that’s all occurred on the Brain’s watch.

In any company or military command, such lackluster performance would get the leader fired. And so it is with my brain. I’m putting the body in charge of getting things done.


Practically speaking, the Brain can’t be kicked out of the organization without a literal lobotomy, but I can demote it to a supporting role. I’m not in the mood to put up with the Brain whining and complaining. You wouldn’t want a whiny crybaby on your team, would you? When the Brain is providing legitimately-useful commentary, that’s when it’s working at its best as far as I’m concerned. When the Brain is solving problems, that’s action I can use.

How about the Brain’s leadership qualities? That’s another mixed bag. There have been moments of glory, but overall the Brain’s track record calls to mind WWII movies that have clueless officers getting their men killed until some sergeant fixes the situation. The clueless officers trust theory over the immediate reality, or dither over the “right” course of action while the enemy is out-flanking their position. The Brain genuinely means well, of course; there is no hidden agenda of self-interest at the expense of the rest of the team. However, the Brain’s constant preoccupation with things that don’t really matter RIGHT NOW is causing the team to lose initiative. On top of that, the Brain is kind of flighty; it doesn’t want to be bored, and is constantly looking for meaning and things that “feel right”. In the face of this, the mission is quickly forgotten.

Up to now, I assumed that my Brain knew what it was doing. After all, the Brain and I have been in this “company of one” for almost 40 years, but I’m thinking now that it’s time for new leadership. That’s why I’m promoting the Foot and the Hand. The Brain will retain its Senior Analyst role, which it excels at, but any authority that it had regarding direction and decision making has been revoked; such measures will now be resolved by the new leadership triumvirate. The Board has spoken, and here’s the new directive:

  • The Foot (responsible for transport) and the Hand (responsible for action) have one shared goal: to make things happen in the world through direct physical manipulation. That is all that needs to happen.

  • The Brain’s worrying and whining, in the new organization, is no longer considered as an input requiring immediate response.

  • The Analyst side of the Brain will, however, continue to provide (1) long term strategy, (2) expertise, (3) tactical observation and suggestions for immediate action and most importantly (4) acknowledging and understanding the needs of the team. The latter function is an important Human Resources role. While I’m not letting my Brain worry-wart its way into the chain of command, I still do need to address its desires to make sure everyone on Team Me is mostly happy.


p>I think it will just comes to moving the body so it is grabbing that mouse, opening that file folder, and dialing those phone numbers. The Analyst will automatically step in, as it has for years, and take care of business.


Admittedly, “firing my brain” is just a dramatic device to make a point to myself: there are aspects of my mind that are not productive. The role model I am adopting for myself is, now, that of the ideal team. I know how that team functions, and I can assess my internal functions in much the same way.

Another way of thinking of this move is that it’s a deconstruction of Just do it. If you have an overactive brain like me, such advice probably has never worked on you, especially when conveyed by the Just Do It crowd. They don’t have these activation problems at all, so they don’t understand our pain. Not thinking so much is impossible for me, so instead of fighting it, why not use its strength against itself judo-style? Firing my brain is what puts me in the right mental framework to understand just how I need to shape up.

The short version is this: demote those parts that just make you worry (remember, there aren’t many things that will really kill you) or complain about what will be hard or boring. If you were hanging out with a bunch of teammates at work, you wouldn’t put up with that kind of crap, would you? If you want to set an example for yourself and your team, you would roll up your sleeves and start getting your hands dirty. That’s my action philosophy, anyway, when contributing to any metaphorical barn-raising.


  1. Melody 12 years ago

    I’ve been following your blog and the recent posts resonate with me so I hope you don’t mind me sticking my 2 cents in again.

    The 3 most successful mental tricks or mind games, if you will, that have worked for me are..

    If not now, when?  I found myself suffering from paralysis by analysis.  One day, I asked myself (about some particular task, project, or goal) “If not now, when?”  So many things I’d put off in my personal life waiting for the right time or the right set of circumstances.  I let so much of my life slip by.  “Finding” this phrase that day helped so much.

    Cut to the chase… as I have come to know myself better, I have looked at my behaviors and ways of dealing with things and I realized that I would agonize or waffle over things only to eventually do exactly what I wanted to do in the end.  So much time spent waffling and agonizing… so much energy.  When I catch myself doing that, I try to “cut to the chase”.  For instance, I need to buy a shed and I’m currently waffling over which shed to buy. I Know, absolutely, that in the end I’ll buy a shed based on intuition and gut feeling.  So today I’m cutting to the chase and ordering a shed.  My analytical mind wants to weigh all the pros and cons of the different sheds.

    Accepting that I like what I like… Example: I used to bemoan that I never got anything done because I watched so much TV.  It finally occurred to me that I really like watching TV.  So I arranged my life so that I could get stuff done AND watch TV (bought more TVs and invested in a VCR so I could watch at my convenience instead of by the clock).  I arranged my life to suit me instead of berating myself for my “bad” habits.

    Sorry this got so long… just some thoughts and appreciation for your blog.

  2. Scott 12 years ago

    I think this stems from going to the gym. I’ve noticed in my own life that I am most satisfied with things that I can physically change and improve. When you improve a thing (paint a room, run your first mile, finish a load of laundry, etc.) my brain is pleased with the fact that progress is being made, regardless of what it is. When you improve your body, your mental image of yourself and your outlook improves as well. I think you’re setting up a sound self-management policy here.

  3. beth 12 years ago

    Amen brother. I waste too much time over thinking things that should me much more simple.

  4. Jeni 12 years ago

    Some excellent insights, Dave!

    I’m in the middle of a similar shift.  In yoga, I tend to beat myself a bit, saying things like, “I can’t do that pose.”  Well, I can’t do it like B.K.S. Iyengar, that’s for darned sure, but I can go to where my body will take it.  I’m still DOING it.  Same thing with running—for years I’ve said, “I’m not a runner.”  But the ability to put one foot in front of the other at a rapid and sweaty pace would suggest otherwise.  These are just two examples of ways in which my neural chatter is self-defeating.  And, well, just plain wrong.

    There are many benefits to regular exercise—improved health, a leaner physique, better stamina and alertness—but for me, the single biggest attraction is the ability to shut off my brain and let the body take over for awhile.  Of course, I can’t actually indulge that thought for very long, or the brain will figure out that I’m on to something and find new ways to resist.  :-)

  5. Joan 12 years ago

    When I saw the title of this post I wasn’t sure if you were putting your brain on notice, or firing up your brain. For everything there is a season.

  6. I love the idea of firing my brain. (And I was cracking up at your inner conversation—I’ve had many of those myself! “Zzzz.”)

    What works best for me is maintaining a firm list (the GTD way) of what needs to get done, including certain habits (i.e. 45 minutes of cardio, brush teeth, etc.) but NOT defining the order or times they need to get done. I might stay up for 30 hours straight, but I find I get a lot more done by letting my brain ‘think’ it’s in control of the choosing, when it’s really choosing from a pre-defined list.

  7. Melanie 12 years ago

    I have a post-it on my desk that says “Stop blah blah blah blah… just GITFD” (get it the f* done), but I often need more than a reminder, I need a swift kick in the butt.

    I’ve gotten much better about the “stop blah blah blah” part… meaning that I try to be disciplined about making progress instead of talking about all the grand things I could do *if only* this, if only that… I accept that obstacles are a given and plow through it.

    But I still don’t feel like I’m using my time wisely to get. stuff. done.

    It’s something I need to keep working on.

    But I just wanted to say: Dave, you inspire me.