“Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing” by Andrew Smart

Another brain book. Books like this help me re-assess how I spend my time. The brain needs downtime allowing it to explore on its own. The concept makes me question today’s ideal where people walk around looking busy because of smartphones and hyper-connectivity. Essentially, these people are just bored.

  1. Interestingly, your brain has an autopilot. When you enter a resting state, relinquishing “manual control” over your life, your brain’s autopilot engages. The autopilot knows where you really want to go, and what you really want to do. But the only way to find out what your autopilot knows is to stop flying the plane, and let your autopilot guide you.
  2. Modern society is characterized by jobs characterized by busyness. Busyness refers to multi-tasking—performing many sequential jobs, and frequently switching between them on an externally imposed schedule.
  3. Many time management approaches such as six sigma similarly induce organizational seizures by suppressing variability where it is most needed. In this way, Six Sigma can be thought of as an organizational pathogen.
  4. A truly enlightened person either spiritually or intellectually goes about life with the minimum expenditure of energy. In military matters, the ancient Chinese held that a good General forces the enemy to exhaust himself and waits for the right opportunity to attack, using the circumstances to his advantage while doing as little as possible. This is in contrast to the Western idea of trying to achieve some predefined objective with overwhelming force and effort.
  5. The “One Minute Manager” who proceeds to enlighten the young man that managerial nirvana can be achieved using three simple techniques: One Minute Goals, One Minute Praisings, and One Minute Reprimands.
  6. One of the great paradoxes of modern life is that technology, for all its advantages, is actually taking away our leisure time. We are now wired 24/7. Idleness has become an anachronism.
  7. The brain is not just sitting there waiting for the next stimulation. Rather, the brain is perpetually and spontaneously active. It is maintaining, interpreting, responding, and predicting. In fact, the brain uses more energy for spontaneous, intrinsic activity than for accomplishing such tasks as multiply 7×8, or filling in the cells of a spreadsheet.
  8. “Attention Deficit Trait” to describe what happens to chronic multi-taskers. The way we run our modern work environments contributes to this problem in which normally high-functioning people have difficulty organizing tasks, get easily distracted, and become absent-minded. Modern information workers are interrupted on average every three minutes by instant messages, email alerts, or phone calls.
  9. Continually stretching our mental capacity beyond its limits lead to worse job performance, fatigue, and eventually chronic psychological and physical disease.
  10. Functional connectivity is used to indicate how well your default mode network is working, and can provide information about your brain health in general, like the measure of how fast and safely air traffic travels between airports.
  11. We categorize adults who sit in contemplative moods as flakey, spacey, or lazy. But for your brain to do its best work, you need to be idle. If you want to have great ideas or if you just want to get to know yourself, you must stop managing your time.
  12. As children become more scheduled, more measured, more managed to achieve, and more hijacked by digital media, they become less and less creative.
  13. Ironically for a culture obsessed with optimizing child development, increasing evidence about the brain shows that not having externally directed goals is crucial for the brain’s development.
  14. Self-organization is a feature of complexity. It sometimes goes by another name: emergence. This means that complex behavior of a system displays macroscopic characteristics that none of the system’s constituent parts display.
  15. A small group of powerful people wish to control systems that are intrinsically uncontrollable so that these systems can be made to do things they would not otherwise do. These short-term solutions are greeted as a revelation. They certainly produce stellar short-term results.
  16. Complex systems exist very close to the edge between order and disorder—this is called “self-organized criticality”, and it allows these systems to adapt to new environments. At this edge of chaos, systems rapidly change their internal structures until they find a stable state.
  17. “The freedom of all is essential to my freedom.” What he meant was that if some of us are enslaved, none of us are truly free.
  18. To attain the lofty heights of our society, one must possess nearly psychotic focus. This focus comes at the cognitive expense of being able to see novel relationships among unrelated concepts. Thoughts that are ostensibly irrelevant to what you are doing when you are focused on weak signals from your unconscious that are trying to say “what you’re doing right now is lame!”
  19. When I interview a potential employee and he or she says “it’s all about the process”, I see that as a bad sign. The problem is, at a lot of big companies, the process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Finally, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.
  20. Capitalist corporations must execute a strange balancing act between two poles on a spectrum that are paradoxical. On the one hand, they must work to the shareholder’s immediate benefit—hence Six Sigma. On the other hand, they need ideas for innovative products. Both these contradictory elements are required for the elusive “competitive advantage.”
  21. The only system we know of in the universe that can be innovative is the human brain. But the brain seems to need things like freedom, long periods of idleness, positive emotions, low stress, randomness, noise, and a group of friends with tea in the garden to be creative.
  22. A well-known phenomenon in psychology called “semantic satiation”: For example, say the word “buffalo” to yourself over and over again until you become uncertain about what it means. As you transiently forget what the word “buffalo” means, you might become a little bit scared and think you are having a stroke.
  23. For people with more formal education, there are mindless corporate jobs where the only skill required is to master the asinine business jargon in a way that makes it seem like you are doing something meaningful.

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

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