Practicing executive function

Two months back, my friend Natiea suggested that I check out a meditation app created by Sam Harris. I had tried apps for meditation before. She asserted that this one was unlike the rest, and gave me a promo code so I could try the first month free.

Waking Up with Sam Harris - Discover your mind
Join Sam Harris—neuroscientist, philosopher, and bestselling author—on a course that will teach you to meditate, reason more effectively, and deepen your understanding of yourself and others.

It's called Waking Up, and it's good. It's on the "mindfulness" tip of guided meditation, but Sam also sprinkles in interesting information related to philosophy, history, and science in a separate area called "lessons".

The app contains two sections. "Practice" is the daily guided meditations, and it also contains a 28 day introductory course – about 10 minutes a day. "Theory" contains lessons and conversations with noteworthy guests.

I've introduced this tiny meditation practice into my morning routine. I find that morning is the best time to guarantee I get it done every day. If I put it off until later in the day I just often don't have the willpower by the end of the day.

How does this relate to executive function? I'll explain.

Last summer I had a revelation: the brain is a muscle, and to increase my willpower, I can intentionally practice following through on intentional actions. No matter how small, but consistently throughout the day. Basically, by identifying something that I don't want to do, and then doing it, I'm practicing my "executive function".

I think of executive function as executing on that higher-order thinking: the one that knows what it wants to do, or what it should be doing. It's always quite apparent to me when I don't want to do something. My brain will come up with a million reasons for why I should put it off.

But it's generally quite easy for me to decompose something I don't want to do into something that I can quite easily start doing. And getting started on something is the best way I know to find the motivation to continue.

Sam Harris uses a similar technique. He calls it "begin again" (or, "start again"). In the last minute of every guided meditation he asks the listener to begin the practice again – to reset awareness back to the field of consciousness itself .

When noticing that one is lost in thought, to use this thought, or distraction, to look for the person experiencing the thought. To bring the awareness back to the thinker. All things to be noticed only ever rise within the space of consciousness. And to be aware of the space of consciousness without being distracted by thoughts rushing about seems directly related to the presence that one feels in ones own life.

I'm enamoured with this new tactic, to be able to apply "start again" thinking to any kind of challenge I might encounter throughout the day. To take a quick beat to scan my body and mind, to notice sensations, to let go of tension. Then, to look at a problem, break it down into something I can immediately get started on.

It's certainly useful to "habit stack" this technique with my day-to-day activities. For example, before or after any meeting.