At the risk of sounding recursive, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about thinking. Although it’s difficult to determine the exact number, scientists estimate we have between 12,000 and 70,000 thoughts each day. We experience the present, the here and now, in 3-second chunks. Everything except these three seconds is the past or the future. During these thoughts, our brain forms pathways. What’s more, different pathways will form as we think about different things. The evolving science of neuroplasticity shows that parts of our brain “light up” in response to different stimuli.
But enough of this science! What I’ve concerned myself with lately is how we use our 3-second windows of thought during the day. I noticed, for example, that when I paid attention to election coverage (which I consciously tried not to do, but the flesh is weak), I felt this combination of adrenaline and toxicity that I knew represented something ugly in me. I tried to find the best antidotes I could — friends, good music, and good books — and that helped.
However difficult it may be, we have a choice in the pathways we want to form in our brain. We can try new and difficult things and get our minds in shape. Through this, we’ll continue to grow. Folks have cited a figure of 10,000 hours as being what it takes to master a subject. But just because you don’t want to commit to 10,000 hours doesn’t mean you can’t learn something new today and this month. Like with an addiction, it may not be easy to take yourself away from what is easy and what draws you in.
Start with something small. Learn a new word, or read a challenging article, or listen to a piece of classical music. I have a hunch that as you step out, you will be rewarded. Whatever you do, avoid the negative. Don’t worry, if you avoid it you’ll still get your share. As Kenneth Graebner wrote, “The choices of each moment are the building blocks that form us to be who we are.” Your mind is a fortress; be careful about what you choose to let in.