Saturday, December 27, 2008

Changing Brain Habits

Slowly, it is becoming clear that my thinking habits of a lifetime are shifting. There is no way of telling whether this is temporary or permanent, but the effects are real enough.

One of my skills has always been to synthesize and organize lots of information and then to communicate it clearly. Through my adult work life, my most productive thinking times of day—the most creative, most useful and most likely to achieve something like flow—have been at the end of the day, from about 4-7 p.m. That’s when, after a day full of interaction, stimulation and events, I could pull everything together, make notes , write things up, organize for the next day, and generate the largest quantities of the most useful work. My best teaching has always been late afternoon, and my classes are all scheduled around knowing that I am sharpest at that time of day.

Now, though, I’m finding that my most productive times are early in the morning. This is disconcerting, because I’ve never been a morning person. I’ve always been slow to wake up and slow to click into gear after up and moving. I’d often find myself coming out of a fog mid-morning without much conscious awareness of what came before. I once took a five-day-a-week 8 a.m. law class in summer school where the professor started each class with a corny joke. Studying for the final, I discovered that all summer, in some form of note-taking auto-pilot in my morning fog, I’d recorded pretty much everything that was said through every class—including the corny joke every morning. It did at least lace the studying for the final with some groaning levity.

Nothing about any part of my self-image or habits is geared to being a morning thinker. That, however, is the least of the challenges this seismic shift presents. The most pressing issue is that, at least for now, morning seems to be the only time that I am getting any real thinking done all day. I’m hopeful that will change as this recovery continues, but I’m coming to realize that I’d better prepare for the eventuality that it might not be. This means rethinking deeply ingrained habits, some of them so set that I was not even fully aware of them. For example, it means rethinking how I schedule all my therapy appointments, as I’ve reflexively put those in the morning foggy times, which means that, at least as scheduled, they disrupt the only thinking time I’m allotted each day. Tasks that I’ve always just tackled in the morning, things that need to get done but don’t take deep thought, just habit, I turn to in the morning, and again, they are consuming what is now a limited and valuable resource. Becoming aware of and then changing these habits is taking more work than I’d anticipated. I am learning interesting things about myself in the process, though I cannot say they are things I’d ever aspired to learn. I’m trying to make the best of it and find something valuable in the process.

On another front, I’m also slowly awakening to the fact that all the rhapsodizing I did about my newfound trust in my body is just so much hooey. As I experience new aches and pains, I’m dismissing them just as easily and quickly as I rationalized, explained and ignored symptoms that were, in retrospect, tumor effects. I’ve already had a brain tumor, however unlikely that might be, and all this new stuff isn’t that, so my thinking goes. Thus, whatever comes along now is likely to be just the creakiness of aging, or my hypochondria, etc. Sigh. Thinking habits of a lifetime are hard to overcome! Somewhere along the way, I read that it takes between six weeks and six months of practice for adults to acquire and then ingrain new habits. Of course, noticing the old ones and deciding to tackle them is the first step, so I take some small consolation that at least, maybe, I’m on the path to real change. I haven’t found a way to get excited about that yet.

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