Body spills into the brain

This quarter I’m TAing for a class called Distributed Cognition, which explores a bunch of ways that cognition might not be something that happens exclusively in the brain. This week we looked at different flavors of embodiment, the idea that the body is crucial for cognition. For example, we talked about one study showing that people who were unknowingly leaning to the left made numerical estimates that were too small (consistent with the location of smaller numbers on our number line), while those leaning to the right made overestimations (Eerland, Guadalupe, & Zwaan, 2011). The overarching theme was that the state of our body can affect thoughts that we typically attribute only to our brain.

One study that I was reminded about when talking to a student is a study that has gotten a good amount of popular press attention. It’s called Extraneous factors in judicial decisions (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011), but the message that is usually taken is that judges have no mercy when they’re hungry. The authors divided judges’ work days into three chunks, divided by their food breaks. They found that at the beginning of each segment, judges made favorable decisions about 65% of the time, and their favorable decision rate declined steadily, reaching nearly 0%, throughout each segment. As someone whose brain and body shut down without a relatively consistent stream of food, this finding is not too shocking, though the magnitude of the change in favorable decisions is dramatic. I think it’s a great example of “body spills into the brain.”

It’s also an example of what many researchers refer to as “ego depletion,” the idea that we have a limited pool of mental resources, and cognition suffers once they’re used up. We get mentally fatigued, and then make poor decisions or have poor performance on some task as a result. Ego depletion underlies claims that working fewer hours increases productivity. I read this sort of advice often, each time thinking to myself, yes! I should do that. I feel this way especially on days like today, a Saturday morning in which ego depletion is fresh on my mind. I’m in recovery mode. Then, inspired to change my work habits, I’ll open my calendar to decide which work hours I’ll shave off the week, and I just stare at it. My trusty, color-coded calendar feels non-negotiable, so I close it and decide that working fewer hours maybe isn’t that crucial. I convince myself of this by reading reminders that some researchers claim that ego depletion is all in our heads. There’s probably some truth to this too – I often don’t start to feel drained until I acknowledge how busy I’ve been.


I do a lot of meta-cognition about work. By that I mean that I think about my work patterns and other people’s, and I try to evaluate what’s good bad about those patterns. My conclusion, for this morning at least, is that there’s probably not a one-size-fits-all solution to this issue. Some people might suffer from major ego depletion, while others might be more Energizer-bunny-like. Some weeks a person might get tons done while putting in many hours, and other weeks might be more efficient with a leaner schedule. For me, my goal is to work deliberately and mindfully, taking each week, day, or project as it comes, and adapting work habits as necessary. I will probably never discover the secret recipe for 100% efficient work, but that’s ok – it’s kind of fun trying to figure it out anyway.

Quitting the 9 to 5 before starting it

I recently stumbled upon a blog post at raptitude titled “The frightening thing you learn when you quit the 9 to 5.” I’m not sure why I was so drawn to it, since I’ve never actually worked a traditional 9 to 5 job. Maybe I was trying to mentally prepare for the day I quit a job I will most likely never have. Regardless, I was curious.

David Cain, the author, is 32 years old and recently left an unfulfilling 9-5 job to pursue writing. Although bizarre curiosity might have led me to click the link in the first place, I was soon captivated by the parallels between his situation and the one I’ve found myself in after beginning work on my PhD, and especially this summer, a time when much of the structure I was used to has temporarily died down.

Cain writes, “before I quit my job at 32, I had never really experienced a self-directed period of my life in which I was actually trying to accomplish something.” Oddly enough, this is probably true for most of us. We might have side projects that are self-directed and goal-oriented, but how rare is it for your everyday life to be this way? It sounds a little fantastical, the sort of thing we might wish for: no boss, doing work we love, when and how we want to do it. Cain’s reflections suggest that it’s not the walk in the park it might seem to be at first. It’s great in a lot of ways, but it’s far from intuitive. Although the post has nothing to do with academia, I recognize that thriving in this situation is what needs to be done to earn a PhD.


A few other quotes that really hit the nail on the head for me:

“If I chose not to work, it was my loss and only mine. When you’re self-employed, every day is Wednesday.”

“Each day is a blank page with no outline indicating where the crayons go. I have to decide what to draw, how ambitious or humble it’s going to be, and what it’s all going to add up to over time.”

Is The Office what 9 to 5 jobs are like?!
Is The Office what 9 to 5 jobs are like?!

Cain came face-to-face with the sudden need to be his own boss and define his own career path at age 32, after an average of 10 post-college years characterized by the having-a-boss experience. I wonder if it’s more jarring at that point in life than at 22 when you’re inexperienced and naive, but haven’t had the 9-5 routine grounded into you yet? In some ways, college seems like an intermediate step between school years when children are micromanaged and this self-directed state that Cain writes about. It seems like the traditional 9-5 path is a step in the opposite direction, though, so maybe the freedom is less dumbfounding for me than it might be if I had become accustomed to a more traditional work scenario.

The goal of Cain’s post is to urge all people, from those currently employed in a 9-5 job to children still in school, to think about their escape from the resignation to trudge through 5/7 of your life to earn a paycheck. “Much better than resignation is to make a long-term plan to find work that is valuable enough to you that your typical day is a fulfilling one, and valuable enough to others that people will pay you for doing it.” It’s a pretty romantic prospect, but a pretty cool one to aim for nonetheless.

Time management experiment

Time management has  always come naturally to me. I’ve always juggled the various components of my life with relative ease, intuitively knowing how to get everything done in the time I have without stressing (much). This fall, however, something changed. Actually, almost every aspect of my life changed. But the “something” of note was that for the first time, seamlessly and effortlessly managing my time has not been coming naturally. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I reflect back on what I accomplished (or more likely, didn’t) and feel downright bummed. I’ve been “working” most of my waking hours, but it’s distracted work that leaves me feeling like all I’m doing is spinning my wheels. The weekdays are really chopped up with classes and meetings, and I haven’t been maximizing the time that isn’t spent doing an obligation. “Tempus fugit,” I think the ancient Romans would say.

Sprinting without a change in distance gets old really fast. Image:
Sprinting without a change in distance gets old really fast.

My discontent with my time management has led to a borderline obsession with contemplating improvements. Simultaneously, I’m realizing that my habit of constantly “working” is so fatiguing that my work time is watered down. Progress is slow and I find myself checking my Gmail constantly, which I diagnose as an attempt to escape the cognitive overload I’m trying to impose on myself. Bottom line: it’s not working.

A friend recently suggested I check out Cal Newport’s blog, “Study Hacks.” My friend told me the author got his PhD from MIT, did a postdoc there, and now has a job at Georgetown. Concurrently, he wrote a few books about productivity and maintained an incredibly successful blog. Impressive, undoubtedly, but all of these accomplishments become exponentially more impressive with the inclusion of the last detail of Newport’s success: All of this was done between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Newport is a proponent of fixing his work schedule and limiting his work time to that schedule. He has being a scientist down to a science. Instead of allowing surface tasks to weigh him down, Newport focuses on getting in deep work – truly cognitively taxing tasks – everyday. When you can work deeply and avoid getting weighed down by the minutiae that are part of life in academia (and probably most careers), he claims, you don’t need so many hours to work. My friend reports that he pretty much follows this as well. It’s pretty inspiring – for a whole five minutes, I thought maybe I could do this too.

Then I wondered what I’d do the night before a paper is due, if my work cutoff approaches and I haven’t finished the paper. I envisioned myself waiting at a bus stop, about to jump out of my skin because my schedule is rigidly fixed and I can’t bear to wait. The point of Newport’s fixed schedule is to eliminate stress and overwork, but I know that for me, at this point in life, it will only bring more about.

But I don’t think his advice is all-or-nothing, so I decided to adapt it, and I’ve completed Day 1 of a 7 day experiment (n=1, in case you’re wondering about the scientific rigor of this study… there is none). My study question: can I be more productive AND take some time for myself without extending the number of hours in the day (tacking on time to each day was my first idea, but it turns out the Earth’s rotation is non-negotiable)? Components of my experiment

  • Setting limits on checking email. These limits will vary depending on what’s appropriate for the day, time of day, whether I’m expecting a reply, etc.
  • Instead of fixing my schedule, I’ll fix my free time. Big Bang Theory now has a spot on my Google calendar, and once it’s on the calendar, there’s no backing out.
  • Planning the next day’s tasks and when I’ll do them. If I have a plan in place for how to spend those awkward little gaps between meetings, I’ll do it. If I don’t have a plan, I’ll probably find a way to fill up that time by brewing tea and checking Twitter, only realizing what I could have spent it doing after the fact.
  • Setting limits on tasks. When I’m about to start something, I’ll assess how long it should take me, set a timer for that amount of time, and stop when it’s up. This is a flexible rule because I’m not going to hand in a paper that I stopped mid-sentence, but other tasks, sticking to a timer will help me avoid the perfectionistic persistence that results from the feeling that I can still do a little better. I’m hoping that having a ticking clock next to me will help me reach deep work more often, since if I’m not productive in my allotted time, the work won’t get done.

So here are my results from Day 1: I stuck to my timers, produced focused and good work, and found much-needed down time. On that note, I’ll close with an appropriate poem from a new book I found, The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler:

From The Book of Qualities. Image:
From The Book of Qualities.
Pleasure is wild and sweet. She likes purple flowers. She loves the sun and the wind and the night sky. She carries a silver bowl full of liquid moonlight. She has a cat named Midnight with stars on his paws.
Many people mistrust Pleasure and even more misunderstand her. For a long time I could hardly stand to be in the same room with her. I went to sleep early to avoid her. I thought she was a gossip and a flirt and she drank too much. In school we learned that she was dangerous, and I was sure that she would distract me from my work. I didn’t realize she could nurture me.
As I have changed, Pleasure has changed. I have learned to value her friendship.