I don’t trust my brain. It’s got some good qualities, sure, but it needs constant supervision. It’s like an unruly Boston terrier — left to its own devices, it will scamper off and rummage through the garbage can, spreading rotten guacamole all over the house. In my brain’s case, this means the hours spent wallowing in unrealistic worries, time-wasting regret and revenge fantasies.
My brain needs constant tugs on its leash to redirect it. And I think I’m not alone. Most brains are like that.
So who should supervise my brain? Since I’d rather not have an NSA-implanted chip monitoring my thoughts, I have to monitor my thoughts myself. I have appointed myself my brain’s babysitter.
Which is why I spend a lot of time thinking about the contents of my thoughts. Dozens of times a day, I like to ask myself: “Hey, what are you thinking about? Is that a good use of your brain?”
As you might know, the official term is metacognition. And I believe metacognition is one of the keys to my happiness, right up there with supportive friends and HBOgo.
Unless I’m paying attention to it, here are some of the unpleasant areas my brain likes to wander into…
–Worries about absurdly unlikely scenarios (a catastrophic eruption of the Super Volcano in Wyoming) .
–Jealousy of people about whom I know practically nothing.
–Indulging in absurd regrets (e.g. that I didn’t buy the domain name drugstore.com in 1991).
–Stewing about perceived slights from years ago.
–Stewing about perceived slights that never actually happened except in my dreams (Tony: I’m still annoyed about your obnoxious behavior during that softball game that happened in my REM sleep a couple of weeks ago).
I have to tell my brain: Stay out of those areas. I force my cerebral cortex to get control of my limbic system. To use behavioral economics lingo, I have to make sure my System 2 is in charge of System 1.
Here are the areas that are much better uses of my brain:
–Coming up with realistic solutions to problems in my family or work life.
–Constructive nostalgia, by which I mean reinforcing good memories, such as a trip to see the Brooklyn Cyclones.
–Brainstorming new ideas (An update of the board game Stratego with Navy Seals and drones. Well, maybe not that).
–Thinking about friends going through a hard time – secular prayers, I call them, which help strengthen my empathy.
–Gratitude for small things, like elastic shoelaces.
Now I’m not saying you should never let your mind wander. In fact, there’s some evidence of the positive effects of daydreaming.
But often, when I let it wander too much, it goes into bad and useless mental neighborhoods.
Instead, I’m a fan of directed daydreaming. I like to keep my mind on a medium leash.
Which is all well and good to say. But how do you remind yourself to monitor your own thoughts?
I’ve developed some strategies over the years. Including…
–Try to link metacognition to some behavior you do regularly. So every time you take an elevator, ask yourself: “What am I thinking about?” Or every time you go to the bathroom. Or unpocket your smartphone. Or eat a bite of food.
–I try to be especially aware of my thoughts whenever I start to get angry. Some things deserve righteous wrath. But what about the lady at the front of the pharmacy line who is having trouble swiping her credit card? Does fuming about her help anyone? Is that a good use of my brain’s time?
–Set up external reminders. This is a more radical tactic, and it’s not for everybody, but maybe you’ll find it helpful. I recently tested Google Glass for an Esquire magazine article. I programmed Glass to send me hourly reminders, such as “What are you thinking about?” and “You only live once.” It was an attempt to automate my conscience. And it actually helped snap me out of mental funks. Of course, you don’t need Glass. After my Glass experiment, I tried scheduling smartphone texts to myself throughout the day, which worked just as well.
The good news is, once you start engaging in metacognition, it gets easier and easier. It becomes a habit. And you won’t need the triggers.
Incidentally, I wrote this article on a plane. Before liftoff, the flight attendant told me to shut down my laptop despite ZERO scientific evidence that it causes communications problems and that many airlines have revised their policy.
I felt my heart-rate increase, but I took a step back and self-monitored. Otherwise, I would have spent a fifteen minutes giving an imaginary lecture to the FAA idiot who first came up with the policy, explaining to him the millions of hours he/she wasted. But no. That’s not helpful. Get back here brain. That’s better. Good boy.