Closing mental parentheses

On our drive back from seeing the solar eclipse last year, Clara and I listened to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, a short book in which Timothy Pychyl outlines why we procrastinate, why it’s a problem, and what to do about it. Most of his advice is solid and helpful, but in chapter 6, “The Power of Getting Started,” I felt like he was missing something crucial when he recommends getting started on something ASAP if you sense any reluctance to begin, because working on the thing you’re dreading is almost always better than the dread of starting.

“That’s not it at all!” I wanted to say. Sometimes I procrastinate not because starting is too daunting, but because I know that once I start, there’s a sense in which I won’t be able to stop until it’s done. Crossword puzzlers know that a clue that once stumped you can become obvious if you come back to it later, and in general, your mind keeps on working on your projects in the background as you go about other tasks. I sometimes intentionally employ this strategy by getting started on something difficult shortly before a walk, drive, or mindless chore, and then benefitting from that background mental work when I resume later. (I learned about this “diffuse mode” function of the brain from Barbara Oakley’s course Learning How to Learn.)

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But sometimes that’s the very reason I don’t want to start something early. Even if I take a break to work on something else, I don’t really stop, I just shove it deeper into my unconscious. My reluctance to put off starting something new isn’t always about the pain of starting, it’s often a desire to keep the stack manageable. Here’s what several interlaced projects might look like underneath:

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I think of these interlaced starts and stops as mental parentheses (because when I come across an opening parenthesis, I feel a slight sense of tension (compounded if there are nested parentheses) until I find the matching closing parenthesis). The “just get started” attitude suggests opening all our mental parentheses early, but that can feel as distressing as a nasty mathematical expression like this one:

x^2(y + \sin(xy - (3x^{(2y-}\dots

But sometimes there really are a lot of projects that need to be done, a lot of parentheses that need to be opened. What are my choices then? To me, there are two distinct methods for keeping the mental background work to a minimum:

1. Try to group projects into as few sessions as possible. Whenever you can, wait to start something new until you’ve finished something old.

Here are the same projects as above, with the same amount of time spent on each, but batched so that there isn’t as much mental bandwidth required in the middle:

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“Waiting to start” does sound like procrastination, but on the flip side, sometimes this method would mean finishing something old earlier so it’s not still on your plate when you start something new. Another benefit: batching tasks means less productivity lost from task switching.

2. Close mental parentheses before you’re finished.

If I have to start a new project before an old one is finished, I can still try to close out that mental process as much as possible. We put a lot of effort into memorizing the things we want to remember, but forgetting the things we want to forget can be just as hard. One technique from David Allen’s Getting Things Done is to write down unwanted information in a safe place and review it regularly, so that your brain knows it doesn’t need to store that information itself. If I sense there’s something my mind is trying to figure out about a project, I try to write down whatever my thoughts are on where I want to go with it next before moving on. That makes it much easier not to think about the project until I’m ready to reopen that file.

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Do I always want to do this? No—some projects can’t be rushed and need to be spread out so that the background mental energy can be put to good use. But if I’m sensing that the mental bandwidth required to start projects with enough time to finish them is too large, I can use these tools to lighten the load.


2 thoughts on “Closing mental parentheses

  1. Oh man do I ever feel overwhelmed with mental parentheses at the moment. But what do you do when you feel like you can’t close the parentheses until the big event even if it is actually complete?

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    1. Some parentheses are definitely easier to close than others, even if the project they’re associated with is finished, like you said. Sometimes that means you’ve still got ideas about how to do it better next time—I feel this way after I finish teaching a course, for example. Then I try to write down in a safe place whatever thoughts are still floating around so I can find them when I need them.

      Or you might be feeling like your part of a project is done, but you can’t let go completely because other people might still be needing your input. If you feel like there’s a big parenthesis you aren’t allowed to close, you can still try to cut down on how much mental background energy you’re spending on other things.

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