Self-Monitoring

We saw earlier how Epictetus advised his students to keep a daily count of how many times they’d been overwhelmed by unhealthy thoughts and feelings.  A slight variation on that strategy is to keep track of how much time you’re spending each day engaged in activities or trains of thought that are unhealthy or undesirable.  For example, how much time do you potentially waste worrying about the future or ruminating unproductively about the past?  How much time, likewise, is spent in unnecessary or unrewarding activities such as watching television or browsing the internet, where this is simply “killing time” or serving as a distraction rather than something you genuinely want to be doing.  We said earlier that this course was partly about saving time and simplifying your life.  Monitoring how much time you spend wastefully is one of the main ways you can potentially change your behaviour to make better use of each day.

Worry and rumination are particularly common time-wasters, which modern psychologists tend to interpret as follows:

  • “Worrying” consists of prolonged chains of catastrophic “What if?” thoughts about the future, which cause excess anxiety, leading to frustrating and unproductive attempts at problem-solving.
  • “Rumination” consists of prolonged chains of unanswerable “Why?” questions about the personal “meaning” of past events, which tend to lead to self-criticism, undermining self-worth, and leading to feelings of low mood.

It’s useful to think about problems if we can arrive at a solution, or learn something, but not if our thoughts just go round interminably in circles, as this often leads to escalating frustration and despair.  People tend to say they “lose track of time” when lost in their thoughts or in distracting activities such as watching television, and that usually means they’ve lost touch with the “here and now” and mindfulness of their own actions.  Bringing our attention back to the present moment and the way we’re using our mind can help us to “snap out” of the mindless, hypnotic trance of worry or distraction.  One way of helping yourself to do this is to learn to track how much time has elapsed while you’ve been dwelling on some thought or engaged in some activity of questionable value.

Throughout the next week, supplement your existing self-awareness and self-monitoring by tracking how much time you spend worrying each day, or engaged in other unhealthy or unproductive activities.  You can choose how you do this.  You might make an estimate at the end of each day, of the percentage of time that you spent poorly.  Alternatively, you might actually keep a closer record by creating a sheet with one section for each hour of the day and noting down, as frequently as possible, how many minutes during each hour were spent badly, on worry or distractions, etc.  As always, don’t blame yourself for lapses, just try to become more aware of them, and notice any patterns to them.  What’s past is past, and “indifferent” from the Stoic perspective.  Your goal is to become more aware of the early-warning signs in the “here and now” and to voluntarily snap out of mindless activities or trains of thought when you choose to do so.

It’s important that you don’t do this by struggling against your thoughts and feelings and trying to forcefully suppress them or block them from your mind, as if they were “bad”.  Rather, practice viewing your own thoughts and actions objectively, taking a step back from them, and simply refraining from going along with them any further.  The leaves on a stream exercise will be a great help in learning to do this.  You should also find that at first it’s difficult to spot how much time you spend lost in thought – precisely because you lose track of time.  However, if you persevere and make the effort to track how you spend your time, you’ll gradually find it becomes easier and you’ll develop greater self-awareness by doing so.

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