Ditching the List

I turn 48 tomorrow.  And you now have a little bit of an idea as to why the still 47 year old man is partly incapacitated because of all the to do items cluttering his brain.  Is it possible for that habit to change?

The real question might be whether I even need a list at all.  If I had the courage to say no, then I could work consciously to build a whole new set of neural pathways that don’t involve compulsively scribbling down bulleted lists of things to do.  But that might be too much of a thing to ask.  For now it would be enough to just bring the list under control.

What if I still kept a list, but made an incremental shift in how I managed it?  What are the basic requirements given my list keeping pathology:

  1. Infinitely extensible (so bigger than a piece of paper)
  2. Always with me (I start new lists because I don’t have the last one with me)
  3. Enables easy prioritization (Next month’s stuff is separate from today’s)

So against my larger impulses, I’ve reinstalled a copy of Things on my devices and for the last six weeks I’ve been operating off of an electronic to do list. (Just to give you a visual  -Things is running on my laptop and phone and is constantly synching between both)

Why’s that newsworthy? Because (and this is important), it has required me to address a slate of other habits.

  1. I’m training myself to no longer write items down, but instead to add them to the electronic list. The floating sheets of paper have gone away.
  2. It’s forcing me to take a few moments at the beginning of the week to prioritize my activities. And then I can monitor whether the stuff I’m doing is really helping move forward on those New Year’s Evolutions.
  3. I’m not afraid of loss.  The list is endlessly extensible.  And the wild peripheral stuff like Riemann’s Hypothesis?  It can go in the bottomless Someday stack and I need not worry about losing it, nor having it clutter my head.

I hate to say it, but that incremental technological fix is, for the time being, giving me some air cover so that I can get to the real task at hand which is to retrain my underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. I’m training myself to order information, to make decisions, and to follow through.

I am now ready to tend to the next priority:  Dental work.

On Habits: Why you do dat?

One of my favorite stories comes from Jeff Benjamin.

A friend of his had just gotten a new job at a lube place somewhere in New York.  One morning a guy brings his car in, the friend drains the old oil and, for whatever reason, neglects to put new oil in.  (Mind you, that’s essentially his sole responsibility – to put new oil in cars).  Car owner happily pays, drives off, and a few minutes later returns with his car, gears grinding and engine frozen up.  The car has been ruined.

The Korean owner of the lube joint comes out, a look of anguish on his face.  He walks in circles around the car, tears welling up, gesticulating at his new employee.

Why you do dat? he implores.  Why you do dat?

A very good question indeed.  Why do we do dat?


We’re all guilty of doing stupid things.  Some of them we write off as mental lapses (I left the stove on when I left for work.  Or, I snapped at my kid).  But often times those things we write off as temporary lapses also form patterns (I can never find my keys when I need to leave for work and I also leave the lights on.  Or ‘mom – why do you always yell at me?’).

And then there are the chronic things that we do that we consider part of our identity.  I’m a smoker.  Or, I’ve always been fat.  Or hey, that’s too early – I’m not a morning person.  And how often do we berate ourselves for not being smart enough, or punctual, or a good parent, or good at math or science?

Are these attributes really foundational parts of who we are?  And regardless, are they changeable?

In November I picked up a couple of books that cast some cool light on the questions.  The first, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg has been hovering at the top of the pop charts for a while now.  Duhigg explores the idea that our being, this thing that we consider “self” or “personality” is largely a collection of “habits”, patterns of behavior that have become hardwired in our neural pathways.  These habits are actually malleable and subject to change, and that the change isn’t so much about willpower, as about choosing the correct channels by which to exercise that change.

He also goes on to look at the patterns of behavior that are encoded in institutions (to work for Google feels different than working for AT&T, for example) and even culture (racism or patriarchy, lets say). These things, too, are open to change.

The second book, Rewire Your Brain by John Arden, works from some of the same premises, but from the perspective of a clinical psychologist. He’s director of Training in Mental Health for Kaiser Northern California.  Over dinner last year, I was asking him about personality disorders and different sociopathologies and his answers were striking.  A lot of it was about how experiences and trauma can influence our neurochemistry and contribute to the development (or underdevelopment) of different parts of the brain.  We essentially learn, or fail to learn, the control mechanisms, decision making abilities, resilience, and coping skills that allow us to function in perhaps a more healthy and productive manner.  These skills and abilities are, again, encoded in the pathways and transmitters within our brains.  If you approach the challenge in the right way, to an extent the pathways are changeable.

This is big.  It gets to the heart of addictions.  And also our fundamental behaviors.

It helps to explain why we do dat.

Why does my cousin have such a hard time getting off meth?  Why do you stay in an abusive relationship?  Why do my dad and I never get along? Why do some veterans or victims of child abuse have behavioral issues? Why can’t I seem to get my act together?

The answers to why and also to how we can change lead to a lot of diverse fields:  Insight meditation, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, neurochemistry, EMDR among others.  It’s all interesting stuff.

And what would happen if a person, lets say in they year 2013, were to conduct an uncontrolled subjective experiment and consciously apply behavior changing strategies to one’s self?

What would that look like?  And how long would it last?