Saturday, January 9, 2010

Liking A Lot Of Structure

Somebody said about me the other day "I think Giles is a person who likes a lot of structure" and it just floored me to hear that. I could name countless people whose minds would just boggle at that statement, because at many, many times, it would have been an utterly inaccurate characterization.

But it's actually become true over the last few months. I turned into a hyper-organized person almost overnight and I still can't totally explain it. Here's an attempt.

The missing link: I hypnotized myself to become organized. I actually have pretty great training in hypnosis. It's a long story but for many, many years, hypnosis was my primary interest, and I studied in great detail under great teachers. So I combined hypnosis mp3s with a process of visualization, plus I did a bunch of reading here and there on time management. And then, I just woke up organized one day.

My research indicated that forming habits is essential to becoming organized. So I had started a few systems with the idea of establishing better habits, and pretty much the moment those systems became habits, the habits took over. Not only did my self-organizing efforts go on autopilot, but I began doing other organized things as well.

The funny thing is that I planned this, yet it surprised me. The particular details surprised me, and the speed and intensity with which it happened surprised me more, but I knew about the general principle and so I expected some results of that nature. The hypnotic perspective on human consciousness is that the brain is essentially a giant pattern recognition machine. Actually, this is the perspective of a particular school of hypnosis, filtered through my mind and translated into geek-friendly terms. Anyway, the point is, with your conscious mind you can choose a thought or an action, but most of your thoughts and actions come automatically from your subconscious. But since your brain is basically just a pattern recognition machine, if you choose the same thought or action over and over again, your brain turns that into a habit. This means that "reprogramming" yourself is very easy. All it takes is repetition.

A lot of people might say you have personal characteristics and you have habits, and these are different things. This perspective on hypnosis says that a personal characteristic is nothing more than a very firmly established abstract habit which your subconscious mind generalizes across many different particular behaviors. Since your brain is just a very powerful pattern recognition machine, all you need to do to cultivate a new abstract habit is adopt more than one concrete habit which expresses the characteristic that this abstract habit will become. To put it another way, all you need in order for you brain to generalize an abstract habit across different particular behaviors is create a few concrete habits which it can generalize that abstract habit from. If you do it that way, your brain does all the work for you, and it's easy as π.

To put it another way, a personal characteristic is an adjective describing a person. Establish a few habits which that adjective can also describe, and the powerful, always-on pattern recognition mechanism that is your brain will automatically discover that characteristic as a commonality and apply it to all of your behavior across the board. This is what happened to me, and even though I understood the theory behind it, it still surprised me.

Every morning, now, I get up early and start going through a schedule created the night before and/or a checklist I've been running daily for months now: make music every day, do a hypnosis mp3 every day, work out every day, clean something every day, make some money every day, etc. I blogged this before in more detail; here's an image from that post.

I use a ruler now, so the lines aren't so squiggly, but it's the same basic system. Horizontal lines happen every day. Vertical lines happen every week. This week serves as a pretty good example, actually, because you can see the checklist is incomplete more often than not. That's fine; I still get way more done every day than I used to. I used to have a vague goal of doing the dishes more often; now I have a specific goal of doing one cleaning thing of any kind every day. I don't usually hit that goal. I get to mark that off the checklist about once or twice a week, on average, but I still live in a much cleaner home as a result.

Here's a daily checklist, from my organizer:

There's definitely a lot of structure in there. When I'm going to floss, what I'm going to watch on TV, when I'm going to watch it - it's all planned ahead. An X means it didn't happen, a check mark means it happened as planned, and a time next to it means it happened but at a different time. Things almost always happen at different times from when I planned them, but they also almost always happen, period.

(This day's also a little unusual in that a friend got a screening copy of Sherlock Holmes, so I changed the schedule to go see it at their house, but then they had to change their schedule to mail something to their agent or something.)

The fact that I schedule when I'm going to floss is actually a pretty great example. I used to never even brush my teeth. A dental hygienist told me I had to floss every day, and explained how to do it right. I tried and it really hurt. That plus my bad habit of not even brushing my teeth every day meant flossing just wasn't happening at all. This was when I was a teenager or something like that. More recently I decided it was high time I started flossing every day, but I didn't want to deal with anything that hurt, so I figured I'd just start doing it wrong and have a dental hygienist show me the right way later. It'll be a lot easier to switch from doing it wrong to doing it right than to switch to doing it right from not doing it at all.

This attitude, where I value creating habits over getting results, produces much, much better results than any of my past efforts at getting organized, all of which have emphasized results.

Anyway, the other reasons flossing is a good example are because it's so silly to schedule an appointment in your calendar with yourself about flossing, and because it's so different from the chaotic way I've managed my time in the past. That will probably fade from my calendar at some point, but probably not until long after it's faded into habit - which is the real point of the whole exercise.

Also, it might seem silly to care that you missed your flossing schedule by 10 minutes (or whatever) but it's actually incredibly useful information. If you want to schedule your time, you need to know how long it takes you to do stuff. As obvious as this is, if I recall correctly, no time management system I have ever read has ever addressed it except mine (and one other). I'm not writing down the times to punish myself or because the times themselves matter; the goal is to acquire dependable, concrete data on how much time I actually need for breakfast every morning (for example). The schedules I make these days are much, much easier to follow than the schedules I started with a few months ago. Since they contain self-correction mechanisms, it's easy to make them better.