How to Warm Up Your Mental Circuits on Demand

Image of a woman warming up before exercise

A friend of mine once told me that she hated doing housecleaning. Rather than make herself clean on a schedule, she would clean only when she felt disgusted by something dirty. That would give her the motivation to clean up that area.

This method worked for her for housecleaning, but it doesn’t work as a general approach for getting things done. For example, if you work on a team, sometimes you need to do work even if you simply don’t feel like doing it at the moment. Indeed, one of the challenges of sticking to a plan for the day is that it’s impossible to ensure that you will be revved up at 3:00 p.m. to do the task you scheduled for that 3:00 p.m. time slot.

This can be a problem, even if nothing else interferes, and even if you’re not particularly motivated to do something else. It can be a problem, even if you are, in principle, willing to do the task.

For example, I often feel zero interest in writing a newsletter at the appointed time, even if I have a “great idea” already identified to write about.

This “great idea” probably struck at a time when it was inconvenient to write. When that happens, I make a few notes and schedule the writing for another time. Unfortunately, when it comes to the appointed time, I sometimes have trouble rekindling my interest in the topic.

What you need to know is that it is impossible to write an interesting article when you feel uninterested in the topic. I may have willingly sat down to write. I may want desperately to finish the article on schedule. I may remember that I was previously excited about the topic. But if I have no emotional interest in the topic at the moment, I’ll be paralyzed.

If I want to write the article in that time slot, I need to activate the value context. But since I am completely uninterested, I have no values to grab onto. Fortunately, there is a way out: Warm up the factual context

Warming up the factual context is easy and under your control. Once you have your knowledge activated, you automatically start to see the values at stake, and you will become more interested.

There are many ways to warm up a factual context. If you previously did some thinking on paper on the topic, you can read that. If you did a “Mental Cleanup,” you can read that. Or maybe there is something else you can read. Reading is one of the easiest ways to warm up a context.

But sometimes, you are starting from zero. There is nothing to read, or it doesn’t do the job. Then, I simply brainstorm a list of 10 things I know about the topic. I say “brainstorm,” because it’s important to accept every idea that occurs to you, even if it seems lame or barely relevant.

For example, to warm up my mental circuits to write this article, I listed the following 10 things I know about warming up (edited slightly for clarity):

  1. It has to be easy.
  2. It doesn’t matter what concretes you use.
  3. A list is easy.
  4. Word association can be used.
  5. Anything related will work -- particularly key concepts.
  6. Some key concepts are “context,” “values,” “subconscious.”
  7. The goal is to activate relevant knowledge so it starts occurring to you.
  8. Re-reading notes works.
  9. Telling someone about the issue works.
  10. “Complaining” can work, if you keep it on topic.
  11. Reading your mental cleanup works great.

This is a hodge-podge of suggestions, abstract points, and commentary. That doesn’t matter. Some of my points will be confusing to you. That doesn’t matter. The goal is to activate related information, not to win a clarity contest. Clarity can come later.

What matters is that making the list is easy peasy, I brainstormed this list in less than 5 minutes, which then got me thinking about some of the issues I needed to include in this article.

As a side effect, those ideas also activated my interest in the article. They reminded me that warming up is easy and effective -- it’s an important tool for my readers to have in their mental toolkit. It implicitly raised some interesting content questions. Was I going to discuss values? (Yes) Or the subconscious? (No)

My teaching premises were soon activated, and ta da, I was able to start serious work on the article, with just a few minutes of transition time.

This tactic works because it is easy. It really doesn’t matter what goes on your list, as long as it has something to do with the topic you are warming up.

For example, suppose my friend decided to try to warm up the context to clean the house at a specific time because her sister was coming to stay. Here are some things she might list:

  1. It’s nice to see the house clean.
  2. I hate getting chemicals on my hands.
  3. I wouldn’t be doing this if my sister weren’t coming.
  4. There’s a lot of dog hair that needs vacuuming.
  5. I need to pick up before I can vacuum.
  6. I want to clean up in the easiest way possible.
  7. I want to clean up in the shortest time possible.
  8. I don’t care if there is a little dust around the edges.
  9. The carpet could be beaten. That’s kinda fun.
  10. Maybe my husband would help me clean. Maybe my sister would help me clean.

On the other hand, here are some thoughts she might have that would be irrelevant, and wouldn’t make the list of 10:

  • This feels like an artificial exercise.
  • We need more dog food.
  • Time is an interesting concept.
  • Tonight we have theater tickets.

There is nothing wrong with having these other thoughts. However, they are not related to cleaning, so they will not help you warm up your knowledge and interest in cleaning. Since that is the goal, they don’t go on the list. Only thoughts related to cleaning go on the list.

Warming up your mental circuits often gets you “over the hump” and motivated to do what you need to do. It’s a great technique to have in your back pocket when for some reason you need to start a task, but are not mentally ready for it. By activating what you know about the task, you will also activate why you care about it. That’s the simplest way to transition to action.

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