On walkabout in life and technology

Mind Hacks

A lot of people, including myself, talk a lot about organization, productivity and life hacks that make things run better for us, and share it with others. But on a more personal note, some of us also need additional hacks just to function normally in normal situations.

I call these mind-hacks, tricks that enable people like me to function and get through the day. Without them, our minds just spin off in a hundred directions and we get nothing done.

You see, my brain operates in the same way as Dr Who, namely it is all over the place, “a big ball of wibbly wobbly… timey wimey… stuff”. I’m too old to know what ADHD is, means or stands for, and I’m too distracted to get properly diagnosed.

It’s not that I can’t focus my mind, its just that it takes some serious effort for me to do so. And then it takes even more effort to stay focussed.

So in order to get through school, university, work, social situations and other “normal” life activities without drifting off into space or spinning off in a hundred directions, I needed mind-hacks, mind-tricks that would enable me to function “normally” in these situations.

Simple mind-hacks

Mind-hacks can be simple to the big nasty, focus, which I’ll get to next. For example, some that I use:

  • Ensuring I say the name of a person I just met for the first ten or so sentences I utter to them. “Hello, Michael. Nice to meet you, Michael. That’s a nice watch, Michael.” It forces me to engage with people, to focus on the conversation with them and try to remember their names and something about them. I still fail at this if I meet more than three people at the same time.
  • Asking three questions when presented with a problem to be solved instead of spinning out a bunch of solutions. That simple mind-hack happened after training myself to wait until a person actually stopped talking (one I still struggle with). By forcing myself to ask three good questions before continuing the conversation, I focus my mind on the problem and in clarifying it versus racing off to solve my many interpretations thereof.
  • Training myself to ignore distractions in the real world. In past jobs, I was a programmer on a trading floor, one of the noisiest, distraction filled bear-pit environments of all time. Tuning out the phones, TV news, yelling, people jumping up and down was hard work, it even stretched my focus mind-hacks to the limit. These days I can still work with the TV on and people around, but music still distracts me.
  • Forcing myself to stop working or studying at a certain time, to spin down. To “turn off” by watching mindless TV or reading pulp sci-fi novels. If left alone when my mind is spinning, I just keep going. I don’t get hungry and I don’t notice when I get tired. If I don’t spin down, it becomes hard to rest and function the next day. So I forced myself to stop studying at 8PM every night before exams and watch TV, enabling my brain to process short term learning memories into long term knowledge that would be available the next day, and I would be rested and able to function at the test.
  • Creating to-do lists so I do not forget to do that which I promise. With a wobbly mind, it is easy to forget what you need to do, when it needs to be done, so the first mind-hack was to remember to write to-do’s down. The second mind-hack was to go back and actually read the to-do list. The key to this mind-hack is to create good habits that do not rely on fickle memory. I started with a chores list pinned to a cork-board, moving the daily pin each day after doing the chores, and evolved it to a weekly rewritten to-do list in an omnipresent notebook. To this day, I still get surprised to find to-do items magically appearing in these lists even though I know I am the only one who could have added them. But it does mean that I am usually good at coming through when I promise to do things now.

Mind-hacking focus

But the biggest mind-hack of them all was mind-hacking focus. I needed to mind-hack an ability to do one thing at a time and to stay the course to get that one thing done. School classes were too long and boring, conversations took too long to get to the point, games took too much time to play, new toys became old within minutes, it was easier and more fun to look out the window, let the mind spin up and drift away. In contrast, my younger brother could spend hours and hours doing the same thing. For pre-mind-hack me, that was weird.

Luckily for me, I realized early that it was my lack of focus that was hurting me, whether with grades or people. And that it was my brother’s ability to focus and keep doing the thing he was doing that made life easier and better for him. I also, luckily, figured out early that if I did not do anything about it, I would never get through school or have friends or be “normal”.

So I started to find ways to find focus. This was before medication and shrinks. I tried forcing myself to do things I did not like, but that did not last, it was not enjoyable at all. I tried to find better ways to get things done, but that just encouraged the mind to spin, and nothing got done.

Finally I tried to trick (or hack) myself, by inventing goals and rewards, and turning each thing into an adventure. It started by setting small, yet unachievable at the time, goals like “do all the maths homework before doing something else”, or “listen to the whole song to the very end”, or “play to the end of the current level of the game”, or “build a larger component of a model”.

The adventure part was to let the mind spin on what the end would look like versus what it turned out to be. The trick part was that achieving the set goal in a single sitting was the actual goal.

But it was not enough, the goals were boring and the adventures repetitive. So I expanded the trick to seeking reward from the enforced focus, like better grades in the next test, higher scores in the next game, having longer conversations or fewer missing pieces at the end of a model build. Or, most importantly, getting noticed by people that something I should have gotten done and previously ignored, actually did get done. I think it was the external rewards, grades and recognition, that made this mind-hack stick.

The personal goals and rewards mind-hack got focus started, I could finally focus on something long enough to get it done. But it still was not enough. Some things were improving, some not. And then I figured that the how things got done could be just as important as the what got done. So instead of “finish the maths homework”, it became “finish the maths homework correctly”. I added accuracy and correctness to the goals of the focussed task, forcing myself to extend the focus time to do things right, not just quickly. As a result, the external rewards got bigger and better, so this mind-hack got even better.

These days, I’m still as all over the place as ever, but the years of mind-hacking focus have enabled me to achieve professionally and be moderately successful. I got through school and university by hacking focus, and did well enough to get a good job. I kept jobs and got better jobs through achievements by hacking focus. I still design and program by hacking focus. I could even write the first draft of this post in a single sitting by hacking focus.

I have no idea whether other people function “normally” because it is natural to them, or if they are like me and needed conscious continuous mind-hacks to do the same. I just know that without these mind-hacks, there is no way I’d be sitting in my own home office with a wonderful wife and great friends running my own business developing amazing software in New York. I’d be sitting alone in a corner staring blankly out a window, mind spinning.