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March 9, 2017

Designing Life Around Your Weird Brain

I may not be unique in being strange, but my brand of strangeness is unique, as is yours. We are as quirkily different as we are predictably similar.

But we insist on comparing ourselves to others, setting impossible standards based on what we see friends doing and wishing we had the abilities of those we admire.

In the interest of breaking away from this, I am experimenting, incorporating features into my days that jell with the way I’m made instead of some hazy notion of how I “should” organize my life. I aim to use my bizarre mind as the mold into which everything else fits.

Perspective

Some of these activities may not work for some others, but what follows are some of the changes I have been implementing.

1) Time Blocking

I have recently adopted time blocking to plan my days thanks to Dr. Cal Newport’s talk* on “deep work.” You can read his post on time blocking itself (which I highly recommend),** but in a nutshell it consists of vertically listing all the hours in a day and drawing blocks of activity next to them. It’s just a smidge different from a formatted page in a day-planner, but it fits me better. Here are some reasons I’ve found it beneficial:

  • When it comes to to-do lists, my brain acts like a sieve. Useless. Seeing my day laid out keeps me from having to hold it all, and I am free to actually work without the fear of forgetting something.
  • I am also getting the hang of estimating how long certain tasks actually take.
  • My ability to focus is slowly recovering after social media’s fracturing of my attention span.

I thought nothing of time blocking the way that Dr. Newport demonstrates it, with the morning hours at the top of the page, but it hit me a couple of weeks ago that I needed to flip the page. In my mind’s eye, a week appears as a series of tall, three-dimensional, rectangular columns angled away into the distance, with the current day’s column the nearest. Since I envision morning hours beginning at the bottom of a column, I started scheduling my time blocks from the bottom up.

This simple change matches my brain like a Tupperware® lid and is the essence of designing life around one’s quirks. Time blocking now suits my strangeness perfectly.

(Side note: Everything prior to 6am is below the ground level of my visual, so high achievers who wake up crazily early are taking advantage of the “basements” of my columns. It’s hardly a secret that I envy these under-dwelling and efficiently pre-daylight mole people. I’m hoping to get there.)

2) Earlier Bedtime

This one has been hard to make stick, and my wife and I haven’t been as consistent as we’d like, but I find that the time I go to bed matters more than the duration of sleep. I could sleep from 11:30pm to 7:30am, and it will never be as good as sleeping from 10pm to 6am.

It may be a simple matter of psychology. “Look at me, getting to bed at a decent hour” probably sets one up for a more restful night than “I stayed up too late yet again.” If I know my own reactions, why not purposely decrease my stress?

I also recommend limiting your screen time before bed so that your brain stops the steady dopamine hits that come from constant stimuli. I am starting to keep my phone out of the bedroom more often.

Of course, time without images flashing into my brain means that I am able to conceive ideas of my own. I recommend having a notepad and pencil at your bedside. Some of the meat of this post came from a scrap envelope on my nightstand.

My wife and I are also going to start experimenting with “first and second sleeps.” Did you know that before the popularity of artificial lighting and coffee, many of our ancestors slept in two four-hour chunks of nap punctuated by one or two waking hours?***

3) Recording Ideas

This seems obvious, but there are a lot of people who fail to corral their ideas into written (or typed) form. This is not necessarily due to laziness or lack of ambition; I imagine it’s because ideas often arrive in the midst of other important tasks. I try to capture things as they come to me, and if I am driving I make a voice memo or have dictate to Siri.

Of course, for notes to make sense later they need to be organized. I use a combination of iPhone Notes and Evernote, which I organize by modifying Michael Hyatt’s tag system.^

Catching ideas that pop into one’s head is one of the noblest uses of a smartphone, and it’s to my benefit because I believe there’s a million dollars at the least somewhere in my notes. Without access to those ideas in the future, that potential livelihood would be lost to the wind.

4) Writing for Reading

My blog is young, but sticking to a self-imposed writing schedule has been as fulfilling as broom flight first was to Harry Potter. Or when you discover you mixed just enough batter for that last pancake (I’m here for you non-Potterheads).

I don’t know the true percentage of adults that never read another book after college, but I would wager that even less people voluntarily write another paper. It’s one thing to cobble disconnected fragments for a digital note. It’s something more beautifully disciplined to arrange those ideas into presentable form, which demands strenuous mental effort and a sizable time investment.

I love the outcome and don’t know why I took such a long break from writing outside of my job.

(If you’re also a writer, I recommend starting with Jeff Goins’ “bucket system” to keep track of your ideas in Evernote.^^)

5) Reading for Writing

Successful people read.

In neglecting to read, we keep ourselves sheltered from enlightening viewpoints and vicarious experiences, abandoning our thirsty minds to slurp the ever-evaporating puddle of intelligence we strive to retain, and eventually we shrink into addled irrelevance. Reading prevents this unfortunate situation.

It also turns out that reading pairs well with my impatience. I usually bring a book with me whenever I go out – the barber shop, a day in the city, a doctor’s appointment, and wherever else I might experience a wait. The Kindle app is a good friend, and a some months ago I resubscribed to Audible. Add podcasts to the mix, and any trip (and sometimes even traffic) becomes useful.

Without regularly consuming fresh words, I would struggle to come up with ideas for anything, let alone the steady supply needed for a blogging calendar that stretches weeks into the future. We are at our best when we cogitate and refine the ideas of others, contribute our own peculiarities, and help our particular sphere to flourish.

I encourage you to take stock of the way you’re wired and reorganize your life accordingly. Your weird circuitry can be put to use for the good of others, but first make sure you’re putting those quirks to work for you.

How do you process the world? (I am curious since I only get to live in my own head.) How can you make life easier for yourself?

* * *

Links:

* Dr. Cal Newport’s TED talk on “deep work”

** His post about time blocking, “Deep Habits: The Importance of Planning Every Minute of Your Work Day”

*** “Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You” and “The myth of the eight-hour sleep”

^ “How I Organize Evernote”

^^ “How to Get Your Writing Done Every Day: The Three-Bucket System”

Finally, here’s a leadership article by Dave Ramsey on prioritizing daily tasks with a method so simple that I felt dumb learning it this late: “Put a Little Steak Sauce on Your Day”

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