The Power of Default Action

I do not use the social media. When the topic turns to this and other people find out about it, there is one comment, that is the most frequent: You must get a lot done, because you have so much time.

I am a bit uncomfortable with this comment. Just because I do not like the effect of the social media on my mind, that does not mean, that I use the time productively. When I am tired, emotionally hot or emotionally spend or sometimes just not in the mode, that just means that I do what has for me be the default action. Which in my case are reading, reviewing and adding cards to ANKI - only Japanese anime cards are the default activity for now, sadly, and waking around and daydreaming.

So when people ask me, I think about how a lot of my time is spend, and the thing that I usually reply with is something in the line of: "Not really, I just read a lot of books." Which is true, since this is one of the two habits, that allow me to read more than 100 books per day. But I don't really go into more detail. Especially since the reality is a quite mundane: whatever your default action in time of low energy is, that is what you will spend a lot, I am mean really a lot of time doing.

But there are some parts of it, that needs to be taken into account with the default action. The one thing is, since this is the activity, that would be done in any situation, this also means, that no stress should be connected to it. Since this activity would be also be done in times, when it would not pass even acceptable levels.

I guess this is why the social media scrolling is frequent - there is no expectation of getting better with it. And I guess this is also why reading and ANKI make sense for me. I don't need my reading to improve or to be productive. It is perfectly alright to read the books, with no other intention than reading books. For example, I borrowed 7 Naruto books from my sister and read them all in less then a month. It was a great stress reliever. This is also the reason, why I no longer take notes from most of my books. This just makes the reading more stressful and makes it less likely for me to do it.

It is also probably the reason, why I have, so far, been unsuccessful with making drawing my default action. When I am starting to draw, for most of my drawings, there is still performance aspect included in it. Which is why I have hard time starting on some of my picture. Though, I have draw at least a couple of different sketches of rosemary bush in the last week, most of the drawing is of limits for moments, when I am not mentally in a good space.

And it does not matter, than even though it is relaxing ever single time I start and get into drawing a picture. One day, I might manage to add this activity to the default activity as well.

But this activity is not the same as habits. Habits are usually something, that happen every time, when the trigger happens. And it can be a bit work to return to them, if for some reason we stop with them. The default action, on the other hand, will be stopped automatically, when there is something better to do, and will only return in times of less energy or no other plans.

When I was thinking about, what makes for the good default activity, I came up with a couple of most likely things to do.

The activity is easy to start

If the activity should be something, that can be started without much preparation, either physical or mental. I always have more books, that I want to read and more anime episodes, that I want to analyze.

There is not much thinking involved. This might be a rare time, when I only have two books borrowed from the library - but this is mostly because I am concentrating on the Japanese books right now, and these are the ones, that I still buy all of the ones that I read. I also sometimes read over 10 books at the same time. I read what I am in the mood for it, and if I don't know, what I would read, then I take the most right book, that I already started reading. So no thinking there.

The same for ANKI. The program tells me what to review. And when analyzing the new anime, again, either what I feel like it, or if I don't know which next, I have them ordered. Which is likely, when I have sentences for episodes for over 20 series, but I only finished two: 魔女の度々 (I think translation was something like the 'Diary of the Wandering Witch Elena') and 異世界かるてっと (Isekai Quartet). And these where not even the among the first episodes, that I have processed.

The activity is stress-free

The activity is something, that should not be inducing any kind of stress. This means both outside stress, as well as self-induced stress. I doubt that anybody would chose activity with the former, but I know I want to pick some activity, that are the later. A lot of work would be easier done, if I could just change a part of it to the default activity.

Since I never had much luck in creating daily habits, this path does not really works for me. And the habits break with no trigger, which the current covid situation showed me quite a lot. I never though I would need to reinstall daily teeth brushing, since it was no longer automatic. On the other hand, I did more reading, more walking and pacing with thinking and more ANKI on the beginning of the pandemic.

I am still learning, how to reduce the self-induced stress. Doing things a lot seems to help. And forcing myself to publish not finished work also helped in some instances. As does lowering expectations. But none of these really worked long term for me. This is one part, that I will still have work to do.

There are no expectation

I remember a talk recently. We were discussing the book reading, and a person said, that his wife will lower the amount of book read, because she wants to get more out of them. If a person reads books with some intention, than this is a good goal to have. If a person reads the books, because it is a better default activity, like me, then putting expectations like that would be foolish.

Depends on what the trade-offs are. I guess most people would see trade-offs as something like read 10 books and implement all or read 50 books and implement none or just one and two.

But I see the trade-offs differently. The cognitive science master program I attended had all online student communication happen through Facebook. I could quickly realize, that if I don't put a stop to it after the classes were over, I would end up being a person, that would end up compulsively scrolling info every day, and how deeply unsatisfied with I would feel with it.

So I took the excuse of Cal Newport doing the research for his book, did the month internet detox and never went back. My was a bit different then the one later written in the book, since I did allow myself streaming anime at the time. But the main activity I replaced this with was reading. This was also a time, when I started to put timestamps in on the list of the books, that I have read, so I do not have info on how many books I read before in a month. But according to my data, I read 21 in that one month.

Reading is at least a more satisfying activity than reading the social media content, or even blogs. Which is a bit ironic, considering, where I am publishing this. But I am writing this for myself, not for other people reading it, so it is fine. I guess? So for me, this means I get to do activity, that does have at least somewhat positive effect, instead of the one, where the effect was negative.

The activity should not require extraordinary energy

What extraordinary means here depends on a person to person. For me running 300m would require extraordinary ability, as would participate in the online meetups - Zoom requires way to much energy and way to much recovery time afterwards. Walking on the other hand, I can do even if I am tired and without energy. Unless I am physically completely spend, I can walk even when mentally and/or emotionally spent. I have walked while crying before, and I think it helped me. I can also read, even if I am spent, and it is one of the better ways for me to change my emotional landscape somehow.

One question to ask is: What I can seem myself doing, even after I would have the worst fight? Or what I can see myself doing, even when I am in a state of crying? Or it is something, that I want to be able to do, when in this state?

That can include a lot for activity, than it looks at the first glance. A lot of time, when people are in the mental pain, the brain areas for the physical pain lit up. And one of the things, that psychologists found, that helps with the psychical pain is solving mathematical problems. The most likely explanation is, that when brain is distracted with something, that requires a lot of focus, then we put no intention on the pain, and this makes it more bearable. Why they found out this effect with mathematical problem probably tells more about which experiments are easier to run and how psychologists think, than about some intrinsic value of the mathematics.

Since I have recently went though a bit of a emotionally rough patch - which I am well on the way of recovery - I have been thinking a lot about, what I have been doing in this time. I had 2 social weeks, I read a lot of books, I analyzed way too many anime episodes, and that was about it. There was not much else, I was doing in that time.

Which made me realize, that I need to take more care of what activities I allow in my life. I think I have made some steps in the right directions, but I am still far away from where I want my life to be. And rethinking this will be one of these things.

Sara Jakša
Slovenia