Bootstrapping Your Brain

Sometimes my brain gets in a rut. I’m bored, I can’t focus, I don’t want to do anything, I’m generally pissed off at life, the universe, and everything, including myself. I am, in a word, useless.

(Incidentally, I was in one of these ruts on Monday morning, which is part of the reason I couldn’t get a post together.)

Almost anything can trigger it. More often than not, it’s just little things – offhand comments, minor failures – that pile up over time. The point is, I get down. In fact, I get so down, I don’t even feel like getting back up again. That’s a bad place to be.

I need a way out. And if you’ve ever been in a rut like that, maybe you need a way out, too.

I have a theory about how to do this, a method I’m trying out. And because I am utterly mad a geek, my inspiration for the method comes from computers.

When you talk about rebooting or booting up a computer, you’re really referring to an older term, “bootstrapping,” meaning “to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” This is an absurd idea, of course – that you can literally lift yourself up by your own feet – but it’s actually sort of what computers do when you turn them on.

See, a computer can’t load software unless it has some instructions telling it how to do that, but those instructions would have to be software themselves. It’s a kind of paradox. The solution is to start with a very simple default program (called BIOS) that tells the computer how to get going. Then, once it’s started, it can load its operating system, after which it can run your programs and answer your questions and play your games. In other words, it can be useful.

The key is, at the beginning – when you first hit the power button – the computer isn’t thinking or analyzing or doing anything very complicated. It has a just-do-it attitude: here’s your starting program, now go. We’ll figure out the rest as we get there, but the main thing is to start getting there.

Our brains are a kind of computer, and my own method is a kind of bootstrapping. When I get in a rut, I can’t analyze my way out of it. Rather, the path upward begins with a single decision, an irreducible act of will, which is both the easiest and hardest part of the process. It is a conscious decision to stop suffering and start fighting. It is a mental shift from “this is happening to me” to “I will find a way out.”

Step one is deciding to try.

Only after you’ve made this first decision can you move on to other, more complicated ways of feeling better. And there are tricks you can use. For example:

  • If you’re trying to resist a temptation – for example, the temptation to browse the Internet instead of working – raw willpower is often counterproductive. Instead, take a moment to breathe, and to accept that the temptation exists. Say to yourself, “I realize I have this craving to get on the Internet. But right now, I’m going to work on my novel.” (Or whatever the case may be.)
  • If you’re working on something especially difficult, switch gears for a few minutes and tackle an easier problem. This gives you a sense of accomplishment, and the confidence boost can offer momentum as you return to the hard problem. It’s amazing how fragile my mental ruts are when exposed to self-confidence.
  • Exercise. This doesn’t work for everyone, and it isn’t always feasible. But for me, nothing pulls me out of a rut like ten minutes of practicing karate – or anything else that gets the heart going. When the mental realm goes sour, turn to the physical.
  • Spend some time with other people. This one’s tough, because it’s often the last thing I want to do – and it can backfire if people say the wrong things. But being around others forces me to at least pretend to be normal, and by the time you care enough to pretend, you’re already halfway there.

Of course, none of this is 100% effective. Monday is proof of that. But in my experience, any kind of plan is better than nothing.

What about you? When you get down, how do you get back up again?

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4 responses to “Bootstrapping Your Brain

  1. Unfortuantely and fortunately, all of this is new to me. usually whenever I’m in a rut I just wait for life to lift me out again. Sad, but true. Until then I effectively shut down all of my systems so that I don’t do anything to damage any future decisions I might want to make. Or lose friends. Or just straight up destroy everything.
    However, this list gives me a place to start trying things. The problem is wanting to try them, since if you’re in a rut and don’t weant to continue on . . . You see the problem?
    Anyway, thanks for posting.

    • Yeah…unfortunately I’m very familiar with the problem you’re describing. You can’t lift yourself out of the rut, because being in the rut means you don’t care enough to try. Definitely been there, many many times.

      I don’t know a simple solution to this, but I can tell you that it does get easier with practice. And exercise really does help me a lot. Sometimes I can’t make myself care enough to really change my attitude, but I can make myself care enough to physically start exercising, and from there the endorphins take over. Worth a shot, anyway.

  2. I’m very used to this. In fact I just recovered from an intense rut. I did it by actually reconnecting with spirituality. It’s how I recovered from my worst rut after my mother died.

    Basically I meditate and then read my spirituality books that helped me the best, namely “Conversations with God” and “Communion with God” both by Neal Donald Walsch. And after I reconnect to all that knowledge I just forgot during my rut, I’m back to being positive and motivated to take action.

    I think it depends on the person. Each has to find their own way out of it. But I definitely strongly recommend that you search for a way out instead of passively letting it take over your life.

    • “I think it depends on the person. Each has to find their own way out of it.”

      Very true. As you say, the core message (and what I probably should have emphasized more in my post) is to take an active, rather than passive, approach. Thanks for the insight, Amber!

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