The principles of routine and efficiency are grounded in the science of brain power including decision fatigue, unconscious and subconscious modes of thought. Reading and References: Peak Performance, Essentialism, The Warrior's Meditation, Think Like a Monk.
Welcome back to operate with Zen. In the last episode, we finished our discussion on time, space and routine. And we finished with a question, what do Tibetan monk Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg all have in common? Some of you may have guessed that they all wear the same outfit every single day. Monks in general have two outfits when they're wearing and when they're washing, Steve Jobs wear black and black turtleneck on a daily basis. And Mark Zuckerberg, he's not an important meeting or in a Senate hearing, there's a great t shirt, blue jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt. And the point of that is that all three of these examples, minimize brain power and have developed a routine for dressing everyday, so that they can maximize their brain power for some of the important and potentially impactful decisions they're going to have to make throughout their day. And so really, the importance of routine and flow therefore, is that a small expenditure in energy upfront, can prevent daily expenditures of brain power, so that we don't have to prioritize everything every day, we've already done that we've generated a routine. And it preserves brain power for us to be more effective. So our goal of today's episode is to really talk through brain power to talk through how we use our minds, what some of the science behind time, space and routine. And as a as an example of that, or as a strategy to maximize brain power. We're going to talk about sleep and sleep hygiene. So one of the really important things to understanding routine is that mental work shifts not only to type one learning, like we discussed in the prior episode, but it also shifts to the basal ganglia, and mental space is freed up to work on other things. And if we remember from our neuroscience days, the big is basal ganglia is a subcortical structure that coordinates action selection, it controls and regulates voluntary movements. But it does it in a way that we are not necessarily conscious of. And so by creating routine creating flow, whether this is at work whether this is an athlete prior to prior to competition, or musician prior to performance, what it does is it shifts that mental work into a routine automated fashion, where we have to expend less energy to achieve the same outcome. And this is really important, considering about 40% of our choices are unconscious. That's based on at least one study from Michigan group. But those unconscious choices helped determine our routines throughout the day. This gives us great opportunity because it allows us to develop abilities that can become instinctive, repetitious and beneficial, but it also puts us at risk for developing counterproductive routines. And the contrast here is routine versus habit. And Charles duhigg is a New York Times bestselling author who wrote a book called The Power of Habit. And one of the important points from this book is that habit is made of three components, namely, cue, routine, and reward. And often as opposed to routine, which is conscious and intentional habits just tend to happen. For example, I love to have a sweet after dinner. It's not a terribly bad habit, because I'm not eating a sleeve of Oreos, but I might like a chocolate chip cookie or one Oreo or small piece of chocolate after dinner. So my cue is dinner. My routine is the sweet and the reward is how that makes me feel. We can use this knowledge to two benefits. First, we can use it to help create beneficial routines, we can identify or create cues that are linked to a routine that achieve a favorable outcome or a benefit. But we could also use this to modify poor habits. So if I wanted to get rid of that after dinner, sweet, I recognize that the cue is dinner and instead of falling into the routine of eating a sweet, I could make a fruit or a healthy snack more available to myself to address the queue, improve on the routine behavior and still give myself the same reward. And this analogy holds true for a variety of habit related behaviors. The other another way to avoid kind of the issue with routines and habits is to avoid routine fatigue, right we all worry about. If we do the same thing over and over and over again. It's going to become boring, it's going to become monotonous. It'll be less interesting for us. And one of the ways around generating routine fatigue is to rotate our routines based either on the day of the week, or the week of the month. So we can say on Monday. I do this on Tuesday. I will do this on Friday. This is my day four etc. This video itself really well to academic medicine where, for instance, my weak Mondays my academic day, Tuesday is my procedure day, Wednesday and Friday, I'm in the operating room and Thursdays at clinic day, I can build my weekly routine and expend less energy, energy, brainpower and time in those routines, but you can also generate routines around the weeks of the month. So you can parse out time where this is going to be a strictly academic week, this is going to be a more productive clinical week. And that often worked when we're at meetings, right? We know, for instance, the American urological Association meeting may be coming up and require five to seven days of our life depending on where in the country that is. So we can devote that week of that month to more academic endeavors, rather than clinical endeavors. And the daily and weekly routines do not need to apply just to work or medicine, but can apply to other facets of life. Right, Saturday could be our intense workout day, Sunday could be our church or our family day where we're devoted strictly to that endeavor. So we really can create routines and rotate them to keep them fresh and exciting and to keep ourselves productive and maximize our brainpower. And I think what's really important to realize is that brain power is a limited resource, we have a single reservoir acting for all of our cognition and self control. whether or not these things are related, meaning cognition or thoughtful processes may not be related at all to our impulses, and in impulsive behaviors. But brain power, and brain fatigue can affect our ability to make both cognitive decisions and control our impulses. So to be effective, we want to minimize trivial decisions. And we want to take on only a few challenges at once. Simply stated, you can run out of brainpower, and that's not impossible. Herbert Simon was a American economist, political scientist and cognitive psychologist who did a lot of research in decision making, particularly within organizations. But one of the quotes he's attributed with is that a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. And the more data and the more decisions we are, are placed upon us, the less attention we can give to each of those decisions. And that's something called decision fatigue. Basically, the more choices we are forced to make, the more the quality of our decision deteriorates. And decision fatigue has been demonstrated in a variety of fields. For instance, there's studies that show that judges are much more likely to grant parole at the beginning of a day. And by the end of the day, in fact, it's about 65% earlier in the day, versus nearly 0%. For the last case now there may be some confounding errors there. I don't know how the dockets are made. But if you look in the medical literature, prescribing errors made by physicians are much more likely to happen at the end of the day or the end of a shift and they are early in the morning. And if you look at marketing, and research, marketing, research and communications research, when consumers are prompted with multiple decisions, they actually have decreased physical stamina and problem solving ability in a variety of studies. And interestingly, decision fatigue not only affects your ability to make decisions, but it also affects self control. And some really fascinating sociology studies and behavioral studies. Resistance to tempting foods, for instance, facilitated behaviors that closely simulated infidelity. And so by inundating subjects with choices and decisions and then subjecting them to tempting foods like cookies, they were more likely to engage in behaviors that could be considered unfaithful. And also in functional MRI studies, in in subjects inundated with decisions that showed that the emotional response in the amygdala and the orbital frontal cortex superseded thoughtful, rational thought coming from the prefrontal cortex, once again giving a neurologic scientific basis for why limited brain power can also affect self control. If you want a better understanding of decision fatigue and some of the studies I've described, peak performance once again by Brad Stolberg and Steve Magnus covered this in depth. Many of us have had the experience of having an enlightening thought. Doing a variety of tests that we didn't necessarily think would be enlightening. For instance, taking a shower, sitting on the toilet, going for a walk or hike waking up from a nap or sleep in the morning. Sometimes these are our best moments for thinking Have more creative thoughts. And there's quite a few musicians in particular who are known for carrying around voice recorders or sound recorders, so that when inspiration hits them, they can get that thought process down and capture that moment of genius or creative thought. And this is a beautiful segue into the other part of our brain, that not only the conscious but the unconscious, or the subconscious, and the brainpower behind this part are. There's a wonderful body of literature in the neuro psychological and psychological literature about conscious and unconscious thought. And particularly a group from the Netherlands has put together a really nice summation of this. And the concept here that conscious thought is limited by something called a capacity principle, right? our conscious thoughts can only account for the subset of information that by definition needs to take into account. Our conscious thought is therefore constrained by our expectancies or expectations, and constructed schema, right. And the way we think about that topic has to be accounted for. And by nature, this is convergent thinking, it brings us to a specific thought or outcome. And conscious thought can suffer when in complex circumstances, like stress or stressful thinking. The unconscious, however, slowly integrates information. It's not restricted by capacity expectations or constructs. But it is less precise than conscious thought, right? Because it doesn't follow the rules, you're not going to get a precise answer. And therefore, there's a something called the weighting principle, where the unconscious naturally weighs the importance of data and helps us achieve decisions. By nature, unconscious thought, is divergent, it helps us think broadly, rather than specifically, I like to think of this like Neo in the matrix, right, in the real world, gravity applies. But in the construct of the matrix, the rules don't apply. And so you can kind of move freely and divergently. Similarly, you can think of our conscious and our subconscious, of working within constructs or lack thereof. And within unconscious thought, I think there's also another concept of subconscious thought. And there's a subtle difference here. But the unconscious is things we're not really aware of, or thinking where we can use our subconscious thought processes to expand our brain power, for the easy exit, easiest example to think of the unconscious, our senses, right. So we'll run through all of them briefly. So when we think about sight or vision, the eye is not truly capable of seeing what we actually see, if you look at the spatial resolution of rods and cones, they can't necessarily make out everything to the fine detail that we actually see. But our brain fills in the blanks between those rods and cones. And the best example of this is optical illusions, right? We've all seen the spinning pinwheels of black and white. We've all seen the variety of magical tricks that make use of this of these optical illusions, or our brain filling in the gaps between what we can actually see. So a lot of our vision is actually biological assumption or connections of prior experience and memory. And this is driven by our central ganglia, the visual cortex, the superior colliculus, all areas that facilitate vision with memory. Sound is very similar. So the electrical signals that are generated by our cochlear and vestibular cochlear nerve are then interpreted with memories in the brain. The best example of this are sound illusions in movies. Even simple sound illusions, a door slamming a window shutting. Cooking in a frying pan, are not necessarily the sounds generated from that actual scene where the movie was shot. But often a sound engineer has recordings of a door shutting, or perhaps it's just two pieces of wood coming together. But our memories and the visual cue of the movie makes it seem like a very real sound at the moment. even further, I love Star Wars. Pretty sure there's no such thing in real life as a lightsaber or an X wing, or a Thai fighter or Darth Vader. But we all know what those sounds are when we hear them. And they are very real in our minds and in our imagination, even though they do not exist in real life. smell and taste are slightly different. So it's actually estimated that the nose can detect up to 1 trillion smells where it only several million Colors and half a million tastes. But in contemporary or modern human life, we really don't use our smell as much as we potentially could have in our evolution. Where, and we know that the olfactory signals are filtered through the limbic system, which is really an emotional system and the neocortex, which provides conscious thought. And this is why we have vivid memories, often with strong smells. And this is potentially one of our most ancient brain structures, right. And so, emotion memory motivation, triggered by smells can and can generate automatic behaviors, it was probably a safety measure, right to avoid dangerous scenarios versus safe scenarios. But it's also postulated, and there's some science to support that we can actually detect fear and disgust through our olfactory senses, which is really interesting and provocative data. Tastes similarly right sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savory spiciness. This was probably similar to smell a nutrient versus toxin kind of mechanism. But our sense of smell activates automatic, ancient pathways that are once again triggered through emotion and memory, to keep us away from things that previously made us sick, could potentially make us sick in the future. And I know I've had this experience, and I'm sure others have where you eat a food that makes you sick, and you have a visceral response to that food later. So for instance, I know a number of years ago, I had muscles and got terrible food poisoning. To this day, I cannot eat mussels, even though I recognize I enjoy the smell, I enjoy the taste. But my brain associates that response that happened after with that experience before and in a way protects me or keeps me safe. The last of the senses is touch right proprioception. proprioception is the sense of where our body is in space. interoception perception, our internal sensations, like warmness and coolness where our muscles are moving, or where we experienced pain, tickles, itch, hunger, thirst, a sense of our heartbeat that we may feel every once in a while fullness of our bladder, stomach, rectum, and other gi organs. These are all interoception senses. And most of this is unconscious, things we're not necessarily thoughtful or aware of, but things that we know are going on within our body. And one of the really interesting asides to this is that a number of body mind approaches like yoga, like the Alexander Technique, like Tai Chi, are all designed to enhance body awareness by creating a hyper focus on physical sensations, and attributing them to mindfulness. And we see these things also in some of our pathologies, right? Particularly as a urologist, we're all aware of chronic or Calico, or scrotal pain. So we all are aware that many of these men have a hyper focus on a physical sensation that leads to anxiety and chronic anxiety and chronic pain. And one of the techniques that works for a lot of men with this issue, or other patients with chronic pain syndromes, is awareness of a physical sensation can actually help reduce anxiety related around that. And one of the benefits of mindfulness, which we'll talk about in later episodes is that it actually can help with certain pain syndromes, and some forms of depression and anxiety by linking physical, emotional and mental sensations for an improved outcome. But separate from the unconscious is the subconscious. And the subconscious is the area of our brain that gives us aha moments, the part of our brain that breaks from our pattern of linear thinking that's associated with conscious thought it's randomly pulling information from parts of our brain that are typically inaccessible from conscious work. Those parts of the brain I talked about before the basal ganglia, some of our emotional and sensory areas. And one of the benefits of this is we can maximize our subconscious when we need to be creative. And we can come up with profound ideas when we generate or create small spaces between our times of deliberate thinking. Once again, peak performance is a great resource if you want to read more about the subconscious, and the theory and the science behind it. Peak Performance also introduces a mathematician named David Goss, he's a PhD and a number theory expert. And one of the quotes that I love attributed to him is that the subconscious is a crazily powerful thing. It's almost like the sole reason you do the work is to set the stage For what happens when you step away? So the whole reason you study theorems and derivatives is so that when faced with a difficult question, you can walk away from it, and come up with the solution. And I think we've all experienced this, where we may have trouble in our lives coming up with the solution to a difficult problem, or we're looking at a data set, but can't quite figure out the best way to analyze or to draw conclusions from the data. And it's only when we step away from the work or the conscious thought that the answer comes to us. And it feels almost magical. And part of the point I'm making here is that it's not magical. This is the way our mind works. This is the subconscious helping us draw together experiences and memories and data to give us a solution from a variety of sources, rather than the standard linear thinking, we use with our conscious thought. A great example of this comes from the samurai tradition in Japan. And a very interesting book called The Warriors meditation discusses the sword saints and sword saints were the elite samurai. These were Samurai who transcended the battlefield. They were not only elite physically, but mentally, and they could handle multiple opponents, they could be the difference in a battle or a war. And the concept of the sword saints is and why they were different from other summarize that other Samurai relied on serial processing, right, a single conscious thought where they thought about a single opponent or a single resolution or had a single focus. And these are highly energy intensive moments, particularly in combat, and it made for slow combat responsiveness. And it was much more efficient to have a state of no mind or unconscious or subconscious thought on the battlefield. And the sword saints could almost achieve an active meditative state where their bodies would just take over, they were not exerting mental energy or becoming fatigued by processing each opponent or multiple opponents, they would just let their preparation and their minds natural abilities take over and show them the right way to behave. There is a less well substantiated theory of left versus right brain brain processing. And the concept here is that for right handed people, the left hemisphere is our serial processing hemisphere. Right and high resolution single focus allows us very much to process our conscious thoughts and we move from one, one thought to another thought, where the right hemisphere for right most right handed people opposite for left handed people is our parallel processor. It's much faster, but it's taking in multiple inputs at a lower resolution. It's decoding data in abstract ways rather than concrete ways analogous to dream or sleep states. And this is the mechanism that the sword saints could use to excel on the battlefield. And this is the same way we can tap into our subconscious to excel in our daily life. And the way we can use our routines to maximize our brain power. And in some sense, we can act like sword saints or we can be kind of elite in our processing by using our subconscious in our daily lives. Now, one of the downsides, or potential risks of our subconscious is that it can randomly associate a number of thoughts and those can include fears and angers, and those can control our actions and well being and this is potentially at least theorized to be a source of some of the phobias, right are unnatural fears of certain situations or triggers. Similarly, we could consider this as our habits versus our routines, where our habits tend to be unconscious and our routines can be subconscious, we can help create them or facilitate them. And so how can we engage our subconscious? How can we be more efficient, better thinkers? Well, I think the first part is recognize the duality of our brain power. First, we can make worse decisions by fatiguing our brain and using up our energy stores. And second, we can make use of our subconscious to process in ways that we cannot consciously process so what are the strategies? Well, in its simplest form, when you're experiencing mind blocks, Like writer's block, for instance, don't push through those. Go do something else to find the answer for your subconscious for lack of a better term, right? Go for a walk, clean the dishes, do something physical, break that conscious connection from what you're trying to solve and what you're working on, step away and let your brain do the work for you. The second part of this or the next step would be kind of protecting the asset protecting your brain. And we're going to come to that term, more protecting the asset when we get into sleep and sleep hygiene. But first of all, recognize when brain fatigue and decision fatigue is coming. So when you are having a stressful thinking period, or you're working really hard, follow that with less stressful periods. Allow your subconscious to engage with the conscious thoughts you were just working on. Once again, physical activity, whether that's a workout or a walk, you can it can actively be meditation, or you can do what we all refer to as brainless activities, do your chores, clean your office, clean your house, clean your room, do something that requires less brainpower, and that will often help you draw some of those subconscious connections. And the last part of this the most active way to engage the subconscious is to build in breaks and we talked about this in the time, space and routine section. But building in breaks, particularly every 90 minutes to two hours, gives time for your subconscious to thrive, give you time to recharge and protect against brain fatigue. In the next episode, we're going to talk about sleep and sleep management. And we're going to start integrating some of the concepts of time space routine, as well as brain power into the practicalities of good sleep hygiene and sleep management. Thanks for listening. Talk to you soon.