I’m going to hack my brain (but I’m not qualified to instruct you as to how to do the same)

Not so long ago, I claimed that I would finish out the semester and then give an update on my plans for the future. I still intend to, but for now, a brief digression.

I graduated last Sunday, with a double major in creative writing and psychology. And here’s the thing about undergrad psychology students: we have a tendency to feel more knowledgable than we actually are. This can be handy—if you want something in your life framed in terms of rats in a behavioral psychology lab, for instance, I am your girl—but also dangerous. It’s not so unlike the pre-med student who decides to diagnose friends or go Charlie Bartlett and open up an amateur psychiatry clinic. There’s a sweet spot between total ignorance and sufficient expertise where you know enough to really mess things up, if you’re not careful (even if you try to be).

This is why I say that, when I discuss how I’m going to use psychology on myself in the coming paragraphs, I am not encouraging anyone else to do the same. This is not I earned $50,000 last year working from home, and you can too! (Although really, you should probably be wary of that, too.) This is also why I call it brain hacking. I’m not a qualified life coach or motivational guru, just someone trying to break into somewhere with security about at the level of password1234.

So, with that disclaimer, here’s my plan to hack my brain.

We all know Pavlov and his dogs: ring a bell before you feed the dog and eventually the dog will start to salivate when the bell rings. (Sadly the set-up was not nearly as pleasant for the dogs as one might hope an experiment centered around food would be.) Classical conditioning is all about stimulus pairing.

Something similar to this is useful in setting up routines. Writers talk about their Writing Place, or their Writing Notebook, or their Writing Sweatpants—whatever it is, it’s something that has become linked in their mind to writing, so that the simple act of going there/opening it/putting them on/etc. kicks their brain into writing mode without any conscious effort on their part.


Photo credit: Maria Brundage

This is why I’m very particular about pens, for instance, and having different pens for different situations. I have my general purpose pen, my writing pen, and my revising pen, which is purple rather than the standard red. It’s also why, whenever I embark on a big project, I make a project-specific playlist. Even now, I think of my tenth grade novel whenever I hear A Perfect Circle’s “The Outsider”—but only the version that was on the Resident Evil: Apocalypse soundtrack. If I’d seen the movie first, perhaps that would be different, but as is, that song comes on, and there I am, perched on a window ledge before class, off-brand Discman tucked next to me, working on that old, terrible novel. I can’t claim it makes me drool with desire to return to the project, but there’s still that instant association.

Without applications or final projects tying up my writerly energy, I find myself with time to write on my own terms … and struggling to really commit to it. There’s time to write, sure, but it’s not Writing Time, and I struggle to get “in the groove” in that sense.

The key, I think, is those associations, those triggers. Those things that make you feel, in your gut or salivary glands or whatever, that it’s time to write.

Now that the term and my undergraduate studies are done, I’m wholly responsible for making my schedule. With that and Pavlov in mind, I aim to maximize it. Find all sorts of ways to trigger the “It’s writing o’clock!” impulse. Maybe I’ll even get a bell. Who knows? The future’s full of surprises.

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