Friday, 14 August 2015

Just a thought

I’m not great at critical thinking and my boss is.

This is not to say he nit-picks and in what seems to be a departure from most FI’ers he’s a good boss, good at his job and I respect him. It’s recognising this trying to get better on my part. At its extreme it’s like I wait for the answer to pop into my head rather than follow any considered process, whereas he seems has the ability to focus and zero in on what needs to be found and question things appropriately even when the task in question is boring or repetitive. If I read something work related questions or errors will be flagged automatically, other times they won’t and I move serenely on oblivious! I don’t always look for ulterior motives or sub-text, my mind isn’t skipping from place to place drawing parallels or recalling information that could be influential from abstract locations. Well, sometimes, but not always, and not as a rule.

So trying to get better at this I set out seeking some instruction. The problem was where to start. In randomly looking around I went to a book I’d heard of called Thinking, Fast and Slow and with a bit of luck this book provides some great explanations. The main thrust is that we have two thinking and response systems, referred to as 1 and 2. System 1 is the fast and immediate one, it calls on learned experiences and skills to react quickly. It simplifies situations and ignores that which is too hard to deal with – great for knowing to jump out of the way of a bus hurtling towards us, bad for more considered responses to more complex situations. System number 2 is more logical and will consider things more carefully, but is unfortunately easily tired out by excessive analytical processing.

Various examples are included to show how we regularly use system 1 and stop there because using system 2 takes a lot more effort. We humans, like most organisms, seek the easiest route, and coming up with a nice quick answer allows the brain to release a little shot of dopamine (the pleasure hormone) for a job well done.

So for me when it comes to work related tasks I need to realise that I’m using system 1 too much and need to engage system 2 more frequently and be able to identify when I’m slipping back into system 1 and stop it.

At a similar time I learned a little of mindfulness. I’d steadfastly ignored mindfulness because of its popularity and because it is said to be a Western interpretation of Bhuddist teaching involving meditation… I took it to be twisted and tortured beyond the intended purpose having been taken out of context in the first place.

That said, as something that keeps on cropping up with people I respect, I became more curious, so when the opportunity to hear a brief introduction to it came up, I took the plunge. The speaker outlined the main elements of mindfulness as being; in the present, on purpose, paying attention, non-judgmentally and in a particular way (a little woolly, but never mind). In pursuing mindfulness you seek to train to make better use of your Human brain, which has only developed recently (c100,000yrs ago) as opposed to our reptilian or mammalian brains which are much older and deal more with surviving on the savanna and avoiding being someone else’s lunch. The Human brain, being more advanced and social, deals with higher functions such as meaning and emotions, rather than basic fight or flight responses. One example was to apply mindfulness when a work-shy colleague slacks off for the umpteenth time. You may wish to lay hands on him and eject him from the nearest exit, maybe the 4th floor window, but this would be a mammalian response. Mindfulness teaches that such quick, instinctive responses are a bit basic and require more thought and recognition of facts or emotions which may not immediately be obvious – the point is you consider more clearly, without judgement, keeping your cool and responding via the human brain and importantly recognise what thoughts come and go, how and why they form and then react accordingly.

The connection between Thinking Fast and Slow and mindfulness was clear as well as being mutually beneficial, which was nice. The mindfulness added the element of seeking calm and adding context to your reactions and therefore how to train yourself to react in a more Human way!

The other benefit of mindfulness is being in the present. Pursuing FI involves a lot of forward planning. You try and spend less next month than you did this month, you consider XYZ PLC’s ability to perform next year and the year after. These are good things to consider in their place, but when in the early stages of the journey as I am it can also be depressing. You can find yourself wishing months away, looking forward too much to receiving the next payday and making the next investment or paying down a bit more debt, being in the present becomes frustrating – you’re trapped, if only the next 10yrs could slip by I would be so much closer to being free…

You can start to resent the now and yearn for the future. The risk is you become miserable and miss all the good stuff around you now. Mindfulness, or rather my recently and briefly initiated interpretation, isn’t a glossy sales pitch with attractive young things living in the moment in fashionable clothes, drinking fashionable drinks and generally being better than you (unless you buy this reasonably priced product), it’s the opposite. It engages the Human brain, thinks more slowly and deliberately, of knowing yourself better and understanding your thoughts and motivations, of recognising that negative thoughts of jealousy or anger are just thoughts and not to be acted on.

So this brings us to FI; recognising the immediate responses to advertising or seeing your neighbour with a new car, identifying them for what they are and letting them go. This allows you to enjoy today and then, when you hit FI, there’s no real change apart from how you spend your time. You don’t need FI to be able to self-reflect and by seeking FI you’ve probably already done a fair amount of it anyway, it’s then about implementing it in a positive way. In the mean-time it might help me train my brain to use those higher functions, or at least realise why I’m not succeeding!

I am a latecomer to this Mindfulness lark, but Raptitude has done a fair amount in the topic and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is well worth a read too.

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