Descartes said we think, therefore we exist. But do we really know what we think?
Note that whatever I am going to describe in this post is based completely on my own experience, and I am not aware of any research in this direction. Hence, make what you will of this experiment.
I was recently listening to the audiobook of How to Change by Katy Milkman. It was unusually good when compared to other self-help books, and offered great advice on how to beat procrastination, etc. The emphasis of the book was on human psychology. One section that particularly struck me as insightful was that giving advice to people (about how to improve their lives, treat their kids, etc) is almost always misguided, because everyone is acutely aware of their flaws. They know that they are lazy, short-tempered, whatever, and can also think of insightful ways to overcome them! Despite knowing all of this, they are unable to change.
This struck me as remarkably true. I know that I procrastinate on work, take on ambitious projects that I don’t complete, devote all my time and energy to something else when I should be focusing on completing my assigned tasks, spend too much time on my phone etc. I also know that I can overcome these by getting accountability partners, paying money to someone when I don’t accomplish them, setting locks on my phone, etc. However, despite knowing both the problem and the solution, I fail to stop these and improve my life. Was it impossible for me to get some control over my own life?
I had recently started writing a couple of pages every morning to clear my head. I would often write about procrastination, getting work done on time, not spend time reading other books when I had my textbooks to read, etc. I would often give myself advice on these pages. “Keep your phone inside your room and don’t use it except at one hour intervals” or something of the sort. This is the sort of thing that the likes of Katy Milkman and Jordan Petersen ask us to do: to advise ourselves as if we were advising a friend. Despite standing on the shoulders of such behavioral therapy giants and writing very useful advice to myself, I would inevitably find myself lying on my couch and scrolling endlessly through my phone within the very hour.
Something had to change.
Experiment and Observation
Instead of giving myself advice, I started using my morning pages to try and write out my exact mental process that leads me to destructive behavior like procrastinating on projects that are important to me, using my phone obsessively, etc. After a couple of days, I was shocked by the results.
It turned out that I wasn’t even (completely) aware of my thought processes that led to such behavior. It sometimes took 5-6 iterations of writing my thoughts out before my “deeper thoughts” could come to the fore and bleed on to the page. Although what I discovered about myself is perhaps too personal to put on a public blogpost, I could trace a very clear line to my past errors in judgement, and how these underlying thought processes led to those. I will try to explain one of those thought processes below, that was completely hidden to me before this.
I discovered that like most other people, I wanted to be someone special (famous, important, etc), instead of doing something special. These are related concepts, but they are slightly different. I have never done homework assignments well, for instance. Whenever I would get a homework assignment, I would, without fail, keep it in my drawer, and look at it only on the day of submission, when I would scribble something half-arsed and get mediocre marks. But it wasn’t that I was lazy and spent all of that time just sleeping instead of working on my assignment. I would instead work hard and try to read up on the latest research and science, hoping against hope that I would land on a project that would make me a famous scientist. Would doing homework make me famous? No. Would doing my shitty school project make me famous? No. Then I’m better off trying to study other things that might give me more of a chance to become the person I envision myself becoming.
This sounds egotistical and misguided. And of course it is! It is grossly stupid, and has led to a lot of self-destructive behavior on my part in the past. I wanted to be someone great instead of doing something great. And the subtle difference between those two made all the difference. Of course this is not the full extent of what I discovered.
What is miraculous is that as soon as I discovered these hidden thought processes, I found it very easy to change my behavior. On thinking about it more, I found a useful analogy for this phenomenon: these thought processes are like missiles that are shot from your unconscious mind. Your conscious mind, on the other hand, is equipped with an anti-missile system that may save you from these destructive missiles. However, you have to be aware of the exact location of the missiles so as to be able to shoot them down and prevent damage to your life. Giving yourself bookish advice is like shooting those anti-missile systems in the dark, hoping that you’ve hit something. You have to know exactly how your subconscious mind works, so that you can prevent it from torpedoing your life.
One great way to figure out these hidden thought processes is writing. I don’t have a clear explanation of why writing helps with this while just sitting on the couch and thinking doesn’t, but it does work. Hence, if you’re looking to change things about yourself, you first have to find out who you really are; in other words, how your subconscious really works. And for that, you will have to write and re-write about yourself, until you’re convinced that you know who you are and what you really think.