Now it just so happens that the day following the night that I described above was a coursework deadline day. As part of my Machine Learning Master’s Degree, I had been set a coding assignment manipulating convolutional neural networks in various ways.
I had spent several hours while at hospital with my partner trying to complete the assignment, but hadn’t been able to make good headway and now I had one day left and a good amount of sleep deprivation-induced brain fog.
To cut a long story short, with the knowledge of an impending hard deadline, I was able to power through and achieve an end result I was pretty happy with.
I believe this may be a similar experience for many; when faced with something you have to do, despite conditions being far from ideal, we can find a way to do it. If we have to get up extremely early to catch a plane, or get mentally switched on for an exam or a job interview after a sleepless night, we are often able to dig into mental reserves and get things done.
But, in the absence of that external stressor, I so often find myself giving myself a free pass not to do something when the conditions aren’t perfect.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve come to realise what my internal dialogue behind that is, and how I can combat it.
Before, if there was something that I wanted to do (let’s say spend a particular evening working on a coding assignment), but then I really didn’t feel like doing it (let’s say I was very tired from staying up late the previous night), then I would give myself permission to write off the day/evening and do something else.
I would tell myself something along the lines of “I only slept 4 hours last night, and I really need to be functioning well to make headway on this task, so let’s just chill and I’ll do it another night”.
However, my experiences in moments such as this recent coursework deadline have shown me that that’s not actually true. If I really wanted to get it done, then I would be able to – and I would often feel much better for having done so (as then I will have more time later, including to rest properly).
The mindset shift I have now made when approaching these tasks is that I promise never to write myself off. No matter how little sleep I have had, or how non-ideal the conditions are, I will never categorically say that I’m not going to achieve anything that evening/day/weekend.
Sure, sometimes I will try to make some headway, and really not make much progress, or capitulate to tiredness, distractions, or something else. I typically try and start with small tasks, that are less cognitively demanding, and try to build up momentum, but it doesn’t always work.
But by promising not to rule it out, I create the potential for some useful/productive/creative work to take place. And more often than not, I’m surprised with what I’m able to produce.
It sounds pretty simple, and hey, it may not be that revolutionary, but this small mindset shift has enabled me to get a lot more done despite conditions being far from perfect at the moment (with sleep deprivation, constant distractions, crying babies, etc).
I see some parallels of this with my experiences meditating, where one aim is to reduce the ‘associated meanings’ with particular sensations. Here, the practice is to overcome the linkage between “I am very tired” and “I can’t achieve anything substantial today”, so that I can observe the former without the associated judgement of the latter.
This is something I’m hoping to carry forward into future phases of my life too, once this initial sleep-deprived period is over (it does get better, right?). I wish I’d started looking at it this way earlier, too.
No matter how bad the conditions seem, and how improbable it seems that I’ll produce something useful, I will promise myself not to rule it out and see what happens.