Kicking Myself in the Hind Brain

Kicking Myself in the Hind Brain

In my last Groundhog Day Resolution Review post, I described how I’ve come to recognize that writing is my engine. There are two interesting corollaries to this:

  • Writing is my engine, but writing is not the product. I write so I can get moving. While words are produced, these are byproducts of my creative process. Symbiosis is possible with people who like the words I make, but that is a secondary effect that arises from my movement from ideas to expression.

  • If I write to get moving, then I shouldn’t worry too much about how the words come out. Which means I should just write…and post.

This post is about two things: writing to get started (which is what I’m doing right now by posting this), and analyzing the blockage that prevents me from revving the engine to its full power potential.

The Difficulty of Starting

There’s a lof of projects that I never started them in the first place, and I can’t entirely pin the blame the “not writing” angle. I find it’s easy to come up with a cool idea, but it’s a lot harder to commit to the dozens of hours of work that it realistically takes to bring them into reality. For example, I’ve put off the following projects:
  • Reviewing all my past blog posts (some 1500 of them) from the past 5 years to make some sense of them.

  • Reviewing the Printable CEO system to write document and build a viable system / set of software tools to further increase their usefulness.

  • Research projects related to game development, interactive design, reviewing important books, software development, mathematics, and other fields of study.

In my mind, these are all large and difficult-to-schedule projects that will take a lot of time. What is maddening is that I know that they’re not as big as I think they are; I’ve tackled larger products before and haven’t blinked. So what’s the difference? Although I could say it’s “perfection” and “higher standards for my own projects” and “fear of failure” that’s behind it, I think the most fundamental block to getting started on anything is this:

I don’t know how it’s going to come out.
This is probably the single greatest block to my productivity and development as an artist. So, when I rev that creative engine and see wide-open strip of road ahead of me, the regulator kicks in and says, “but you really DON’T know what you will do to make that project awesome.” And I know that it will take more than a few iterations to even get a sense of where things are going, and this is a big demoralizer. Applied in the context of the projects I mentioned:
  • Reading 1500 blog posts…I have the notion that there are a couple hundred good ideas in there, but I don’t know what they’ll be. It sounds like a lot of reading for an unguaranteed outcome, and my primitive hindbrain is, like, “meh”.

  • Reviewing the PCEO… I don’t know what to improve first. Therefore I don’t think about it. And the outcome is unknown. PROBABLY better. But I don’t know for sure. The lazy lizard brain is again saying, “meh”.

  • Research projects…meh. Nothing immediately moves me from the metaphorical sunny rock that I am squatting on.


p>The more evolved parts of my brain, of course, know that there are exciting unimagined outcomes from doing anything at all that I can put out there into the world, so two parts of my brain are interpreting the same outcome with different results. The idea occurred to me when reading an article about The Accidental Mind. According to John Hopkins neuroscience professor John Linden, our brains are layered messes of ad-hoc design solutions piled on top of ancient subsystems; you know, kind of like how “Windows 7” can be said to be built upon the bones of 8-bit computing.

Anyway, the thought is that I may have ceded more control than I intended to the primitive centers of my brain, which is the reactive seat of emotion and basic instincts. Over the years I’ve learned to tap into my emotional responses, and have used them to guide my design and my writing; this is one of my strengths. However, unlocking that part of my brain may have also let the unimaginative elements that come with them. The emotional self is caught up in the moment, and the future is a blurry apparition that is perceived heavily in terms of how we feel about it right now (see Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness for more on that). That isn’t exactly a formula for success.

Although I have a strong rational side, I do ultimately make my decisions based on how I feel about the situation. With the unimaginative, lazy lizardy part of my brain demanding to see the reward before starting anything, the feeling to work is undercut for all but the most immediately-gratifying efforts. In the past, I’ve known that the counter to this feeling was external structure to provide motivation in the form of coworkers, deadlines, and the desire to keep my promises to people. I’ve never known WHY that I needed external structure; up until now I’d assumed it was some fault of my personality. And perhaps it is, though not in the way I originally thought: there is a short-circuiting of my motivation by allowing ALL of my emotional processing circuity, vastly deficient in predicting the future, to have control of the helm. Because I allowed feelings to validate reason, even feelings of laziness were given more credit than was due. This system failure is very similar to the feeling I had about going to the gym and doing cardio, when I realized that my body was lying to me about how much it could really do. Dang lizard brain. The rewards can not be imagined until you have arrived in the alternative future you made by fighting the lizard brain.

So…just do it seems to work after all. This advice was just never expressed to me before in language that an emotion-driven rational like myself could really buy into. Now that I know this is in place, it should be much easier to ignore the lizard and get something done. The lizard just doesn’t know how the future will turn out.

There are still other things to get out of the way: healthy eating patterns to maintain mental clarity, good daily rituals, proper allocation of time between the four states of alertness I’ve identified, and suppressing the desire to stay up all night. More about that in the coming weeks.

1 Comment

  1. griftergirl7 14 years ago

    Dave, On “suppressing the desire to stay up all night” – I used to have the same problem until I started exercising regularly. I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of an hour’s Boxercise in making it impossible to keep your eyes open after 9.30pm… As a change from 2am, this is a big one! The other interesting side-effect of 30 mins’ running or an exercise class, is feeling that there is more time in the day, not less… Not sure exactly why – maybe it’s the sense of having done something good by running in the morning, having achieved something before most people are awake; perhaps Boxercise just breaks up the time stretching ahead of me after work; maybe it just clears out my brain. Either way, it’s the kind of time-alchemy I can really use. I find the gym deadening, but the company of fellow-exercisers really great, socially and motivationally. Love your site and really enjoy your thought-provoking posts, keep up the good work! griftergirl7