Putting It Off

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They say that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging. Personally, I doubt I would be able to think anything if I knew they were going to put a noose around my neck – but that may just be me.

You would think that after 40 some years of working and having to meet deadlines, I’d be better at getting things started. Sadly, no. If they offered degrees in procrastination I’d almost certainly have a Ph.D – if I ever got around to applying for it. It’s not that I don’t work hard; it’s not even that I don’t want to work hard. I do. I enjoy work – whatever that work is – once I get stuck in.

But starting is always a challenge. Take today. I normally write my ten minutes when I first get up. But now it’s almost 10:30 and I’m just getting started. And I’m only doing it so I don’t have to begin the number one item on my list – which is to re-write the story my critique group commented on. Nearly two weeks ago.

I try every trick in the book – endless lists, arbitrary deadlines, self-loathing – but none of them seem to work. Maybe I should threaten to kill myself at the end of an unproductive day. Good night, Hayden. Good work. Most likely kill you in the morning.

It’s as if I thought that at my age, I really shouldn’t have to work anymore. Nonsense! As everyone on Facebook tells me, if you aren’t being continuously creative and productive, you’re not really living. Which makes me wonder why they spend so much time on Facebook telling me how to live my life.

Oh well, nothing to do but forge ahead. As soon as this is finished, polished and posted with any relevant links I can dream up, I’ll get right to those re-writes. It’s not that it will be so hard – I’ve already re-written the story six times in my head (mostly while lying in bed, urging myself to get up and start the day).

Of course, I’m a little grubby and need a shower – clearly you can’t work effectively if you don’t smell fresh and clean.

Okay, so I’ll admit it, I’m really only writing about procrastination so I can avoid the really tough ten minute diatribe I should be writing. If I was really determined I’d scrap this nonsense and do the really important work of making the world a better place.

Maybe tomorrow.

First I have to have a shower. Then my second cup of coffee (one can’t be brilliant on a single cup) and then maybe I should think about those edits again before I commit myself to electrons. Then, it will be lunch. But after that for sure.

Though I do have a date to go see Logan this afternoon. Oh, hell.

I guess there’s always later. Is it later now?

And that’s ten minutes.

Focus

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The ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others is a great skill. It is far superior to multi-tasking, which gets all the good press. But, really, multi-tasking is simply shifting your focus rapidly from one thing to another. Or it’s a sign you are easily distracted.

But focus is not something that can be achieved in a moment. Deep focus takes effort. You have to learn to push aside all other thoughts, all emotions, even all sensations. Focus is what lets athletes play through pain; it is what allows scientists to concentrate on a single variable at a time as they work to a solution. Focus is the only thing that will allow you to complete a significant work of art.

I’ve always been good at focusing on things – at least for a time. I can immerse myself in a complex effort, like doing the year-end books or writing a short story and lose all track of time. Later, when my back is throbbing or my eyes are itchy and irritated, I sometimes wish I couldn’t.

Focusing on tasks is one thing; focusing on a career is quite another. That is a skill I’ve struggled with. It’s not so much that I am easily distracted but that I am easily bored. I do something for a while but then it ceases to be challenging; it ceases to hold my attention.

For a while now, I’ve been multi-tasking my life. I have a job – one I’ve been doing for fifteen years. Trust me, there isn’t an issue I haven’t seen before. I’ve acquired expertise in a variety of topics only to forget it all when the job required a different emphasis. Well, it’s not really forgotten – just put aside until I need it again. I seldom find myself having to do anything original these days.

Publishing is a complex process, especially when you are pretty much managing or doing all aspects of the job from reading slush to marketing books to doing the books. Still, it has its rhythms, its repetitive tasks and while each book is unique, the work required to get it on bookshelves is not.

I’ve also been writing for years and, again, while each story I tell is different, there is a familiarity to the task of plotting and crafting and writing that makes it all the same. I wrote most of a short story this weekend and, at a certain point – about ¾ of the way through, I thought: I know how this all works out. And only an effort of will, an application of focus, actually made me write down the words necessary to get to the end. It was satisfying but…

Another thing I’ve been doing is experimenting with being a ‘public intellectual.’ It started as an off-hand remark to friends but I got such positive affirmation, I experimented with it, in part right here. Robert J. Sawyer thought enough of the concept that he made me a political pundit in his latest novel, Quantum Night. At the very least, I’ll be able to say: I’m not a public intellectual but I played one in a book.

So now, it has come time to choose: what will I focus on for the next 10 years, perhaps the last decade of my active engagement with the world? That’s an answer I’ll have to focus on before I can tell you. Or myself.

And that’s ten minutes.

Romance

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According to Freud, most, if not all, human behavior can be explained by two things: sex and death. The desire for one and the fear (and embrace) of the other. Eros and Thanatos. Richard Dawkins might not disagree.

Sex and Death or if you prefer romance and mystery. The mystery you will have to wait for because today is Valentine’s Day – the day we celebrate the brutal torture and murder of a Christian saint by sending each other flowers, chocolates and paper hearts. It is not as irrational as it might seem.

For some people this day is torture. They cover it up by celebrating such things as Voluntarily Single Day or Day Before Chocolate Sales Day but we know how they really feel.

It all goes back to grade school when we were encouraged (forced) to send everyone a card for Valentine’s. No one could be left out even if we hated them. And if someone got forgot – someone always was, ripples of shame and hurt would circle our seven year old heads like vultures after rotting meat. Some cupid that was.

If the card sending was voluntary of course, it all became a numbers game. How many cards did you get and is your stack bigger than the next guy’s? Even at nine, size mattered.

And what did the cards mean anyway. If they were those precut ones with places for ‘to’ and ‘from’, you could pretty much dismiss them. But what about a store bought card – or worse yet, a homemade one all filled with hearts and arrows? Was it love or some sort of cruel joke? By twelve it had become a matter of life or death.

Thankfully the teenage years made it all clear. Between raging hormones and undying cynicism, we could decide it was all a shallow popularity contest (unless we were the popular one). Besides, what mattered weren’t cards but kisses in the closet. Now we were getting to the heart of the matter.

Even as we first became aware of the inevitable approach of death, we were in the midst of life and what was more important in life than romance. Everything else – sports, theatre, work, money – were merely preludes: tokens to make the down payment on the big prize.

And then – something happens. The first flush of lust turns into something else: commitment perhaps or a wandering eye – all driven by brain chemistry, but so what? We are rationalizing animals and if it feels like love, surely we know our own minds, right?

I like to think so. It may well be that we are nothing but the product of our chemistry (and of course, we can hardly be less than that) but I cling to mystery as my salvation. The uncertainty principle applies to those brain chemicals and their ever shifting bonds. And if it seems like love, why call it anything less?

So here’s to love – in all its forms. And if you don’t have someone else to love, you can (should) always love yourself. And who knows, there may be something in your future. Well, something that doesn’t carry a scythe.

And that’s ten minutes.

Learning Styles

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When I was in Grade 3, my new teacher, Mrs. Mitchell, was lecturing us in geography or history about the Seminole people of southern Florida. I was staring out the window, contemplating the lives of birds. She noticed my apparent inattention and called on me to discuss what she had been talking about – which I did without hesitation, having read the material the night before and having paid sufficient attention to know where to pick up the lesson.

She never bothered me again. Other kids – less assiduous in reading their homework or less able to focus on two things at one time – were not so lucky. Today they would have been diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder (ADD).

I prefer the old language – not paying attention. ADD implies there is something wrong with the student – something that needs to be fixed, perhaps with medication. The old language is different – it implies a transaction.

Look at the structure. Johnny is not paying attention to me. Or, Johnny is not paying money to me. In this construction, there is a transaction. The teacher is offering something; if Johnny thinks it is worthwhile, he pays for it with his attention. If it is worthless – uninteresting, unengaging, unimportant – he uses the limited currency that he has to pay attention to something else.

Now what needs fixing is not Johnny but the transaction between teacher and student. What needs fixing is the education system.

There was a number of articles recently that argued that learning styles are not real – everyone absorbs information and knowledge through the same process of memory formation. While this maybe true – based on current neuroscience evidence or rather lack of such evidence – it is also true that the brain can only attend to so much at one time. It is part of developmental psychology – again supported by neuroscience – that as we age, our ability to attend to multiple things increases, though there is a definite limit. This is one of the reasons we are able to do more complex things (like driving a car on a busy highway) at age 18 that we couldn’t do at age 12.

So, while the way people learn may be identical at the amygdala and hippocampus level, getting people to pay enough attention to learn anything may differ quite a lot. For example, some people need to write things down as the teacher is talking to help them focus on the lesson being taught. For me, I have to put my pencil down and really listen. If I start writing notes, I am apt to start writing fiction. Not very helpful when it comes to recalling the facts.

The real problem is we simply don’t know enough yet to say for sure what aspects of the brain need to engage for effective learning to take place. Those who say all students are the same either have never tried to teach any or are trying to justify their own way of learning things – usually linear-sequential – as the only real way of learning.

Like most things, what we don’t know about the brain and learning is greater than what we do. While there is no evidence that different learning styles exist, there are still dozens of research avenues where the details need to be filled in. We have a lot to learn about learning.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Dark

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The sun is shining this morning – though it won’t last, not with freezing rain forecast for later today. On the first day of December I am eagerly waiting for snow to come and cover the ground. Winter is coming but it hasn’t brought its mantle of white with it. Why would someone wish for snow? Because it provides some relief from the darkness of the next two months.

The dark of winter didn’t always bother me. I lived in the North for nine years and while I hated the cold, the darkness didn’t bring me down. In December, the sun would rise by 10 a.m. and set again by 3 in the afternoon. Farther north, it would go down at the end of the first week of December and not come back until January was well underway.

But I felt no different in December than I did much of the rest of the year. It is true I had more energy in June and July when it essentially never got really dark but the winter blahs? Not for me.

Things have changed. November is dreary. Long grey days and endless damp. The trees shed their leaves and colour leaches from the world, not to be replaced by white but by dismal browns and greys on land and black water in the river. I begin to long for snow simply so I can have the reflected light of sun in the days and streetlights for the 16 hours that don’t qualify.

December provides a bit of a break with Christmas trees and tinsel reflecting candle light. In fact as soon as it grows dim I close all the drapes and turn down the lights, filing the room with candles. Our candle bill gets quite staggering by March.

It seems the dark inside is better than the dark without. But it is the dark inside, really inside, that seems the worst. I know I don’t suffer much compared to some. I feel tired all the time and lack much in the way of ambition. I start later and finish sooner. It could be – it undoubtedly is – age. And it doesn’t take a lot to raise my spirits. For some, it is a heavy burden they carry all through the winter.

They even have a name for it – SAD: seasonally affective disorder – which reflects the way many people feel at this time of year.

Maybe that’s why in winter we fill our days with as much artificial light as we can. To call back the sun and stave off the darkness. It sort of works. But by January, the days are still short and the only relief is to pretend you like winter sports or to flee to the sunshine of Mexico and Cuba.

Or you can bury yourself in work and Christmas (or whatever light bearing holiday you prefer) and keep telling yourself in an ominous voice: Summer is coming.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Surprise

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If you’ve ever tried to throw a surprise party, you know just how tricky it can be. I’ve done it three times – succeeding twice. The first was a bit of cheat since it was only a party of two – me and the person surprised. It involved secretly buying a plane ticket and booking a hotel and on the day of the flight, handing my wife her suitcase and getting in a cab with her to the airport. Surprise!

The other two were tougher. The first was for a co-worker in Halifax. I made every mistake possible. I did the planning at work. I started too far in advance. I invited too many people. I wasn’t sufficiently deceitful. Of course, the person found out – they acted surprised but they weren’t exactly giving an Oscar winning performance.

The other time was for my wife’s fiftieth birthday. I did everything right. I planned it ten days in advance. I planned it at work (not at home). I invited a limited number of people and held the party in a city far away. I had co-conspirators who lied magnificently. She still almost figured it out. Only when her mother suggested that no-one would go to so much trouble for a birthday – her birthday –  was she taken in. And she still figured it out seconds before we yelled surprise. Close though.

Which is one of the many reasons that I roll my eyes whenever anybody talks about conspiracy theories. There are many reasons to roll your eyes at such people – their selective memory, their willingness to continuously expand the circle of conspirators, the cherry-picking of information, their reliance on experts whose expertise does not fall within the field of interest and so on. But the main cause of eye rolling is that I’m fairly convinced that none of them has ever planned a surprise anything. Honestly, most of them are so trapped in their own heads, they wouldn’t dream of doing something for someone else. They are TOO SERIOUS for that.

Human nature hates a secret the way nature abhors a vacuum. The only way to keep a secret is to keep it to yourself – as soon as another person knows the chances of being revealed goes up. Every person you add increases the risk exponentially.

Robert Snowden is a bit of hero to some but he was also inevitable. If he hadn’t blown the whistle (and probably he wasn’t the first) someone else would have. Too many people knew and the activities of the NSA were clearly moving into the unethical and probably illegal. That story has yet to be fully told.

As for the other stuff – 911 being an inside job (the most recent story relies on evidence from the Russian secret service. Now there’s a reliable source), the moon landing never happening, ISIS being backed by the CIA – they not only fail on a rational basis, that is, the reasons offered for doing it only make sense if you suffer from paranoid delusions (at least a little bit) but also on a basic truth of human behavior.

People blab. And people with ethical concerns will blab frequently no matter how many secrecy oaths you make them swear. Do conspiracies exist? Absolutely – just not successful ones.

And that’s ten minutes.

Paradigms

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Some decades ago I recall reading ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ by Thomas Kuhn. He described how evidence accumulates over time that refutes the old theory but the theory doesn’t change until there is a sudden paradigm shift that reconciles old data with conflicting evidence. Though others have since refuted Kuhn’s work to some extent – one wag suggesting paradigms only shift when the old scientists and professors die and are replaced by a younger generation – I still find the general concept useful.

I have witnessed and experienced many paradigm shifts in my time. Recently, I was trying, with my wife, to figure out where we would live when we retired. We have a nice place in downtown Ottawa but we knew it was too expensive for us in retirement. We had been paying down the mortgage but it suddenly seemed futile with the depressed state of the condo market in Ottawa. One morning I had a brainwave. Why keep trying to pay off the mortgage? What would happen if we extended the term back out to 25 years and reduced our bi-weekly expanded payment to the minimum monthly one? Boom! It reduced our monthly expenses enough that we can actually stay here and still do all the things we want to do in retirement. It was obvious once we thought of it but we had been stuck with an old theory and needed a complete shift in our thinking to understand that the circumstances – the evidence – demanded a different approach.

Similarly, I ran into a guy at work who was struggling with changing circumstances. He told me that he was coming around to a whole new way of thinking about the policy problems he was trying to solve. He even admitted that he was being tempted to adopt a policy position that he had always argued vehemently against. I told him – in the most complimentary (and sincere) way possible – that he should take it as evidence that his mind was still flexible and operating on all cylinders.

Keynes was once asked – in a sneering way – why he had abandoned a certain economic idea. He purportedly replied that he had discovered fresh evidence that showed his thinking was wrong and had therefore changed his mind. “In similar circumstances,” he asked, “what do you do?”

This is always a challenge in life – to admit that you didn’t have all the facts or, more often, that you were deliberately ignoring the evidence because it didn’t fit your dearly held beliefs. It is called confirmation bias and we all suffer from it – unfortunately some suffer from it more than others. It hardly helps that whenever a politician does change his or her mind they are accused of waffling or flip-flopping. We – and the media is particularly pernicious in this respect – seem to admire people who cling ferociously to stupid and discredited ideas while criticising those who – while sticking to their more basic moral ideas – adjust their political stances in light of changing evidence.

Maybe as a general practice we should try to believe several impossible things every day before breakfast. One of them might well be right and our whole day would improve because of it.

But that’s ten minutes.