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Thinking Gray

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Thinking Gray

Neurofeedback Connectivity from The Dubin Clinic for Lens Neurofeedback

Since this year started, I’ve completed 496 tasks. At least, that’s what OmniFocus – the software that I use for task management – tells me. I dove into the deep-end of the productivity pool after Alberto Rademaker‘s Second Brain presentation during my trip to Chile for Exosphere. I’ve adopted the “second brain” metaphor quite literally – blindly following the commands of my “second brain.”

Some of the tasks have been simple, recurring dailies like remembering to take my vitamins (I still have to be reminded every day…), but the vast majority of the tasks are research, communication, scheduling, and work-oriented. If I remove duplicates, there are 302 items in my completed list. Many of them are short, 5 to 30-minute tasks – things like “Try out OmniOutliner” and “Buy more face lotion.” But there are also some larger projects like “Learn to speak basic, conversational Spanish”, and “Make sure all important information is backed up on this laptop in triplicate.” At over 30 non-recurring tasks a day, I’ve had a very busy start to 2014.

Information Overload | Credit to Langwitches at http://langwitches.org/

But with all the noise, with all of the absurd amounts of efficiency and dopamine-fueled task binging, I’ve had a less thoughtful January. I’ve been in the “closed mode” far more than I normally am. I have tasks that are set to regularly pull me out of my go-go-go mentality and sit for a while and think – but because I was new to this whole task management and productivity game, I didn’t know how to schedule those items in a way so that I wouldn’t just blissfully ignore them and complete the easy, clearly-defined tasks that were of much lower priority. I’ve been in a battle with myself, in a war that I created. It’s a war that I intend to win – and fortunately for me, there seems little doubt of that being the case as I’m on both sides. But I would prefer that my creative side is the one who comes out on top. “Open mode”-Steve has lost many battles, but I think he finally has the upper hand in the war against “efficiency Czar”-Steve.

Some of my favorite novels, most notably Steppenwolf, are explorations into how our brains are capable of finding themselves on both sides of an argument. Sometimes, the opposing sides of an issue are quite divisive and it can be mind-wrenching to empathize with a contradictory point of view and attempt to understand why others can hold it to be true. Great persuasive speakers know that attacking an issue from the point of reason and logic is futile – a straw man rebuttal is easy to craft and it’s nearly as easy to unwittingly fall into believing one yourself. It’s fairly rare, and increasingly so, that arguments over important issues arise due to information inequalities between the parties. Far more common, and unfortunately much more difficult to resolve, is the situation whereby both parties have the same information and interpret it with different values. Being empathetic – having the ability to understand another’s point of view based on values that are different than your own – is hard. It’s painful. It’s not very fun and so we often avoid it as long and as often as possible.

Several months ago, I was recommended to read a book called the The Kingkiller Chronicle by my friend and coworker, Ryan Paddock. The book is a science fiction/fantasy novel similar to Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. But what’s really interesting about the world the author has created, is the way that magic works. In the book, it’s called “sympathy” and the basic idea is that you can change the state of the world by simply believing a different set of rules. You want the rock you’re holding in your hand to fly up into the sky? Convince yourself that gravity makes objects go up instead of down. Try that for a second – it’s quite difficult! The concept is a fascinating reworking of empathy and the real-world situations that we all face day-to-day of trying to move boulders by changing or understanding the values that those around us hold most dear – people who we know to be rational, who have the same information as us, but who believe different things than we do.

The Far Side - My Brain is Full | http://www.thefarside.com/

I have been trying to practice what I can best describe as “thinking gray.” Trying to disassociate my opinions and thoughts and ideas from my ego – from my self. At times it’s wonderful, feeling as light as a feather, able to switch positions at the drop of a hat – feeling like you have the right to change your mind is incredibly empowering. Especially considering that, according to some research we make decisions and then back those decisions up with facts later. We’re extremely well-equipped to rationalize away the complex nuances of a problem so we can hop on over to the next problem. Another way of saying this is that we, as humans, are built like the Chinese factories of a few years ago – we pump out a lot of mediocre decisions and hope it all works out by playing the numbers game.

Sometimes, it’s rather difficult to “think gray.” Since I (try to) have no preset lamp posts in the form of values or ethics, I have to evaluate things almost entirely from scratch. With complex issues this can be exhausting. Worst of all, I often find out I’m wrong! Very often… in fact. It’s both the reason why I continue to “think gray” and thing I hate most about it. Endless duality.


This is the first post in the style of writing that I will be transitioning this blog to. Less external. More internal. And with a slight educational bent.

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