The notion that there are "competing versions of the self" is a recurring theme in my thinking and writing here at bearing blog.
You know, when you say, "Part of me wants to eat that doughnut, but part of me knows it's bad for me."
Or, "Part of me wants to get up and get started on my day, but part of me wants to sleep in."
I've written about this before:
- Here's an old post looking at an Atlantic article on the topic of the "multiplicity of the self" -- link still active -- and also to Romans 7 ("What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.")
- Here's my review of the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, a book that divides the self into a metaphorical "elephant" and "rider." (The elephant is the emotional, powerful, driven-by-desire part of the self; the rider is the intelligent part of the self that knows where he wants to go but has little power to get there on his own. The challenge is for the rider to intelligently direct the elephant, channeling its strengths to achieve the desired outcome.)
Often, the best advice is to pre-plan: at a time when you are detached from temptations and short-term gratifications (i.e. sometime when your stomach is not growling, when you are not lying in bed dreading the snooze alarm to go off), to consider how to set up your environment to reduce access to "bad" choices and improve access to "good" choices in the moment, how to restructure your incentive system. Putting fruit on your shopping list instead of doughnuts; moving your alarm clock across the room; preparing yourself a little treat to have ready as a reward for doing the right thing.
The concept is to schedule "choice-making" time at the time when you are strong and in control, thereby restricting the choices available to you when you are comparably vulnerable and weak.
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I've internalized this for a long time in some areas of my life; I mastered it with respect to food issues (probably aided by divine intervention) about six years ago.
Just yesterday, I noticed that it's quite similar to something else I do.
One evolutionary biology textbook was on my lap, another one propped open against the wall, and a third book -- this one on general biology -- was spread out between my keyboard and my computer screen. I had a spreadsheet open and I was dividing up chapters among the thirty-two weeks that will be left in our school year after we deduct a month for our family trip.
Most of the readings will be from this introductory college text... a few supplemental readings from this more advanced text that has a truer philosophical attitude toward human evolution... Week one it'll be the chapters about the development of evolutionary theory... week two, Mendelian genetics... somewhere in here I'll assign some readings from The Origin of Species... I think I'll assign some Richard Dawkins stuff, probably from The Ancestor's Tale, and we can discuss it... let's see, that should go later in the course...
My goal at the beginning of every year, for every subject in which there's a set amount of material I want to cover, is to have a week-by-week schedule completely fleshed out.
If the material is such that earlier concepts build on later concepts, so that you can't safely skip chapters, I schedule for fewer weeks than there are in the school year -- it leaves room for illnesses and emergencies and still staying on track. If material is skippable or the order of assignments don't matter, I'll spread it out through the whole school year, and if you're sick we just skip that day, maybe to make it up when we have extra time another day.
I put a ton of work into this organization. It's the primary work of my late-spring and early-summer school year. It helps that I enjoy it: it's solo work that reminds me of computer programming, an activity that I wasn't any damn good at but that I enjoyed immensely back when that was what I did every day. I do it far ahead of time, and why?
So that when I get up in the morning and have to teach my kids, I don't have the excuse of "ummm what was I supposed to do today?" as a reason to pour another cup of coffee and sit down in front of the computer to find "something to do today."
I already have a Thing To Do Today. And I don't actually have an excuse not to do it.
Planning down to the exact day ("on day 122 of the school year I will do this... on day 123 of the school year I will do this...") is too fine-grained. Planning the month is too loose. I plan week by week, and each week I have to figure out how to distribute the schoolwork and teaching, and that's just about right.
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But it strikes me that in an important way, it is very like the elephant-rider metaphor. I set the boundaries of our school weeks in advance, when I can think about them clearly and when I have the overall philosophy of education, the big picture, before my attention. Day to day I try to live by the rules I have set by myself.
This way of organizing the homeschool year and week was obvious to me as "the way that would feel right for me to do it" from the very beginning of homeschooling. I wonder why I never noticed before how similar it is to a certain technique of practicing self-control in general? I wonder why I had to independently discover it in other areas of my life?
Like the Mandelbrot fractal, personality exhibits the same patterns wherever you look and on whatever scale, the deep and the superficial. One of these days I will learn to generalize and to re-apply the lessons, and save myself a whole lot of trouble. Maybe.