Field Notes

Strategy: Trick (or Treat?)

Despite what it might sound like as you continue to read, today’s post has nothing to do with my history of hearing voices. Well, maybe a wee bit but only in the way that I think most of us hear voices, like the old cartoon with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. I have this manuscript that I’m working on, as well as a few other projects, and the angel encourages me to keep my writing time sacred and dedicated to that work. To spend it, you know, writing. The devil thinks that repeatedly refreshing the five browser tabs I have open is an equally engaging and worthwhile (if not more so) use of that time.

But the rift between commitment/desire and action is really much more complex than what the devil/angel metaphor conjures up. In his book Do It Tomorrow, Mark Forster uses the terms “Rational Brain” and “Reactive Brain” to discuss the ways in which we have an internal conflict between deciding upon things that are important to us and actually acting on those things. He lays out the Rational Brain as “a government agency busy drawing up plans and regulations which it intends to impose on the rest of the body…as with most government agencies, the plans work fine until they come up against reality.”

The Reactive Brain, however, is less complex and works on an axis of threat/treat:

“Imagine the Reactive Brain as a lizard sitting on a rock in the sun. If it sees a threat, such as a predator, it scuttles under the rock and freezes. If it sees a juicy bug which has strayed too close, it will snap it up. It doesn’t have to think about it. It acts as a preprogrammed reaction. It really doesn’t care that much at all about the Rational Brain’s plans. The only thing it cares about is whether they constitute a threat or a nice juicy bug.”

Mark Forster, Do It Tomorrow

Rational Brain says let’s take the day off and go to the park; Reactive Brain says TREAT and offers no resistance. Rational Brain says let’s spend today working on this manuscript that scares the hell out of me; Reactive Brain sounds the alarms, slams on the brakes, and starts refreshing Pinterest as if your life depends on knowing how to clean your toilet with baking soda and vinegar.

Grounded firmly in our survival, the Reactive Brain can be very influential in dictating our actions. We all have those moments that we interpret as having weak will-power1Like knowing that the last piece of pie in the fridge really should be saved for our partner since we already ate 3/4 of the pie but somehow we end up accidentally eating it anyway. when really we just have very strong Reactive Brains.2In case you are wondering, this argument does not hold up in the court of kitchen table law. At least, not in my household.

Being the superpower that it is, why doesn’t the Reactive Brain run our lives 100%? Forster writes “the reason why it doesn’t is that the Rational Brain has one great advantage over the Reactive Brain – it is intelligent and the Reactive Brain isn’t.” And with that intelligence comes the ability to trick the Reactive Brain. Which is proving to be critical to my getting any progress on my writing projects.

Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

Reactive Brain is the master of the two domains that kill creativity (and productivity and probably many other “ivities”): Resistance and Procrastination. “Resistance to doing a task is largely a matter of the Reactive Brain seeing the task as a threat. The Rational Brain can tell the Reactive Brain as much as it likes about how important it is to get the task done. So long as the Reactive Brain regards the task as a threat, it will keep the brakes firmly on.” Forster offers one method of how to deal with this resistance:

“The Rational Brain has to be subtle here and persuade the Reactive Brain that there is no threat. The easiest way to do this is for you to pretend to yourself that you are not going to do the task. Remember that the Reactive Brain is not intelligent, and is therefore not capable of fathoming out the strategies of the Rational Brain. A phrase such as “’I’m not really going to write that report now, but I’ll just get the file out” will cause the Reactive Brain to switch the resistance off. Since getting the file out on its own is not perceived as a threat, the Reactive Brain has no reason to maintain the feelings of resistance. Very often the result is that the entire report gets written.”

Mark Forster, Do It Tomorrow

Or, in my case, I get my word count in for the day.

While I have no qualms about tricking the Reactive Brain to reduce resistance, and employ this often by doing 5 minute focused jams on the hardest tasks I encounter, I also wonder if there isn’t also the opportunity to TREAT the Reactive Brain, to make writing as enticing as the juicy bug?

In the meantime, though, I’m going to sharpen this pencil and just write one sentence on the blank page…


Featured Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

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