Monday, February 18, 2013

So, it's been a little while

I realized a few minutes ago that it's been 14 days, two whole weeks, since my last entry.  I've been pretty busy with (a) the worst cold I've ever had, which put me in bed for five days, (b) getting ready for several trials that were all scheduled for the same week, and (c) taking what might have been the worst vacation I've ever taken.

Oh, and a close friend of mine died suddenly and very unexpectedly.  (The wound is still pretty raw on that right now, so I will save blogging about it for later.)

So this blog hasn't been the first thing, or even the 20th thing, on my list lately.

But I wanted to write a few words about habits, because I am trying to make this particular activity habitual.  Part of my personality is that I tend to form bad habits easily, particularly when they aren't really good for me but when they produce some sort of stimulative reward.  It's much harder to break bad habits, and it's even harder to form good ones.

The recent example that has been on my mind lately is the amount of time I waste with trivial activities on the Internet.  I'm habitually checking Facebook and a handful of other sites that I frequent.  I tell myself it's necessary, or at least helpful, by providing me with periodic distractions that prevent overfocus.  I have been blessed or cursed, take your pick, with the ability to concentrate on a task for a long period of time and produce high quality material in a concentrated burst of perhaps two, three, four, or more hours.  I first noticed this when I was a young lawyer. 

A big part of my first job out of law school involved taking German patent applications that had been roughly translated and transforming them into proper U.S. applications so that they could be filed in the U.S. for our German client.  I was expected to spend perhaps 15 or 20 hours per application, but I found that by shutting my office door and writing continuously, I could produce the necessary quality in maybe 3 or 4 hours.

My bosses complained, perhaps jokingly, that I was too efficient.  "OK, I'll work slower," I said.  But it was a constant struggle to slow down.  In fact, I'm convinced that my work product suffered when I did not apply full focus and finish quickly.  It's a terrible quandary...when you bill for your time, and you don't need to spend much time on things to get them better than they need to be, it's a recipe either for padding the bills or selling your work for less money than it's worth.

My answer was to confine my work to short bursts of perhaps 15 minutes in length.  I developed a habit wherein I would reward myself with 15 minutes of slacking in return.  That's a bad habit, of course.  And it's been very difficult for me to break.  It usually takes something like abject fear of failure to force me to close the browser and keep going with the real work.

I suppose what's got me in this line of thinking is that it is the Christian season of Lent.  I have never observed Lent; I grew up Presbyterian, and while we marked Lent on the liturgical calendar, it was never stressed to me that Lent should be a time of personal sacrifice.

Of course, today, as a Freethinker (more on that in a future post, too), I don't observe Lent, just as I don't celebrate Purim or the Solstice or anything else of a religious nature.  But apart from its religious connotations, I do think that Lent serves--for Christians--a purpose that everyone can benefit from.  At their heart, the sacrifices of Lent, which are meant to prepare Christians in body and mind for the sacrifice that Christ made on the Cross, are really about introspection, self-awareness, and self-improvement.  We all could use some of that.

I have come in recent years to view human behavior in terms of its evolutionary significance.  What separates humans from lesser animals is that we can intellectually understand the benefits and costs of our group social behaviors and modify ourselves accordingly.  Our human society is successful because at times we recognize that subjugating our base desires and instincts to a purpose greater than ourselves can have personal advantages that outweigh the gains of selfish behavior.  (Not to put too fine a point on it, but one of the things that separates us from the other animals is that we're at least capable of recognizing the damage that a philosophy like, for example, Ayn Rand's Objectivism can do to our societal success on an evolutionary level.)  Critical introspection makes us better at recognizing the whole of the advantages of self-sacrifice. 

So, while we don't need Lent as an excuse, it's certainly not a bad excuse, and if my Christian friends want to observe it, I think that's a good thing. But it doesn't need to be a formal thing, and it certainly doesn't need to involve giving something up just in the name of sacrifices.

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