Subconscious

We begin with a story, which is about an experience that I had went through earlier this year, during one of my JV basketball games.

At the end of our team huddle, moments before the game was about to start, I distinctly remember turning to one of my teammates, Aman, and telling him that I wasn’t “in it.”

Now let me actually backup and explain a few things. I was recently out for six weeks due to a nose injury, and this was my third game back. I hadn’t practiced or conditioned myself in four of those six weeks, so I was pretty rusty. In my first game back, when I had played exceptionally worse than usual, I naturally blamed it on my poor endurance and tried my best to shrug it off.

By the time this third game rolled around, I was back practicing with my team, so I knew that my conditioning wasn’t a problem. I was determined to play better this game and not let myself nor my team down.

However, something still felt wrong. I couldn’t quite place a finger on it, but I had begun to notice myself slacking off on both the offensive and defensive ends during practices and games. As I mentioned, I initially blamed it on my conditioning, but now that my stamina was back, I knew it had to be something else. Regardless, here was the ambiguous problem, seemingly coming from nowhere, affecting the small things in my game. Not bending my knees as much as I probably should have on defense. Standing still in the same place on offense a second or two longer than I should. Details like that. Mostly unnoticeable specifics that didn’t really have too much significance on the overall outcome of the basketball game.

Honestly, if I hadn’t been so concerned with getting back into basketball shape and trying to prove my worth as team captain, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that something was wrong with me.

Anyhow, back to the present moment: The ball was tipped, and the game had begun. On the first play down on defense, I was basically standing straight up, allowing my opponent to easily breeze by me. Fortunately he missed the shot. On offense, I was doing what I normally did — handling the ball, making the right passes, cutting to get open at the right times. But I wasn’t really paying attention to my actions.

On one defensive play in particular, my reaction time was so slow that the opposing guard literally jabbed in the direction he was going, waited half a second, drove in that same direction, and scored. For the entire duration of that play, I was rooted in the same spot, only moving back after he had shot the layup.

I felt like one of those helpless anime villains as my opponent sped past me in one motion. You know what I’m talking about — the ones that engage in a battle against the protagonist of the series only to realize that the protagonist was so fast, they were just fighting against afterimages. Or maybe you don’t watch anime and have no idea about what I’m talking about. It’s okay; I don’t watch anime either, so I don’t even know if that’s an accurate description.

I digress. However, right after that play, I became acutely aware of two things:

1) I wasn’t focused.

2) I was aware that I wasn’t focused.

When I had earlier told Aman that I wasn’t “in it,” (the two of us had previously discussed this subject), neither of us really knew what that meant, much less how to fix it. We only knew its implications and how it had affected me during games.

But now, in the heat of the moment, suddenly self aware of the fact that I wasn’t focused, I realized that I now had the chance to figure out what was going on and potentially find a solution to this problem before it spiraled out of control.

As the game dragged on and as our lead kept growing, I got some time to sit on the bench and mull my thoughts over. But as I kept reflecting on what was happening, though, it only led me to more complex thoughts and unanswerable questions.

It wasn’t just as simple as my not being focused, I concluded. It was more than that. In my head, I struggled to find the words to explain what I was feeling. I felt like there was fog inside of my brain, blurring my consciousness and my decision making abilities.

I wasn’t sure about that theory, but I stuck with it, because it was the only semi-logical conclusion I could come up with at the time. I creatively began referring to it as the Fog, and I guess it explained some of the nuances in my game — not getting low enough on defense or brainlessly moving around on offense.

With this in mind, the next step was figuring out a way to get the Fog out of my head. So during half time, I tried various things in hopes that it would somehow help me. Splashing cold water on my face. Repeatedly slapping myself. Doing squats on the sideline. Meditating. None of these techniques worked, much to my chagrin.

And I kind of wished they had because our precious 13 point lead was slowly but surely dwindling away. By the end of the third period, it was cut down to 6. And halfway through the fourth, it got down to a 5 point game.

But then something inexplicable happened. With a four point lead and two minutes remaining in the game, something clicked in my brain. All of a sudden, I really, really, wanted to win this basketball game, for myself and for my team.

The Fog in my head just disappeared, and I guess…I started trying.

Now this is the part where I unleash my true potential and suddenly go around blocking every spot on defense and hitting seven straight threes. Our team would go on to win by 25, and I would be revered for my outstanding performance…right?

No.

When I say that I started trying, what that meant was that I began tightening up on the small things and putting meaning behind my actions. For example, I began touching the floor before a defensive play to ensure that I was playing defense lower than him, which would let me move flexibly and react faster.

Our team barely went on to win the game by four, and afterwards, everyone was buzzing with excitement, since the win had put us tied for second in our league with a record of 2-1.

But for me, the main thing on my mind was the Fog.

If I had to give an honest estimate of how much mental energy I put into that game, it would have been close to none. Truth be told, I had played the game almost entirely off instinct. All my closeouts, defensive slides, and offensive action that I had executed was exclusively thanks to all the drilling and previous experience I had with the movements. There was barely any thought that went into what I was doing, because everything was already based on muscle memory.

All of my teammates, coaches, and a fair number of spectators had all congratulated me on my performance, but it didn’t feel deserved. However, despite all the praise and compliments that I was receiving, there was one person who was able to look past all that and figure out that there was still something wrong with me: my dad.

Of course.

Okay, I’m kidding, but at the time I was honestly so relieved that someone else had recognized that something was off about me, as strange as that sounds. My dad’s acknowledgement confirmed that my instincts weren’t necessarily wrong, and that what I had felt wasn’t just a fluke. And because it happened to be my dad who realized, I was able to talk about it with him on the car ride back. We had a nice conversation, and though we didn’t come to any definitive resolutions, it felt really good to talk about it.

I don’t remember exactly what happened that night when I got home. I presumably finished whatever homework and studying that needed to be done for tomorrow. But my head was buzzing with excitement and slight apprehension in preparation for what was going to happen next: overthinking everything.

Drawing Conclusions

I didn’t sleep well for the next few days; nay, the rest of the week. I went through the days the same way I had before, but now with a vague disconnect between my school and personal life. Don’t get me wrong: schoolwork, basketball, and other extracurriculars continued to keep me busy enough; but they all fizzled away into the background as my primary concern turned to the Fog.

At this point you might be wondering: Why does this even matter? Why do you care so much about this?

The answer to both of those questions are simple: Because not once before in my life had I ever experienced or known about anything like this. What I had felt during that game was surreal, and I had come out of it completely disoriented. I was so encapsulated by the idea of the Fog. Every thought and passing memory pertaining to it required deep internal analysis, looking for any connection, association — anything, really — that could shed some logic or reasoning onto the Fog.

At first, I tried talking to people about it, but almost immediately, I encountered two frustrating problems:

1) It was hard for me to explain my situation.

2) Even if I was able to give an apt description of what had happened, whoever I was talking to didn’t really understand it or how to offer advice.

I couldn’t blame exactly blame any of my confidants for these problems, either. How could I even approach someone with a problem that I myself didn’t even fully understand? How could I provide someone with the necessary background information to even begin explaining a problem if my memory of what happened was fading away with each delaying second? And even if I had managed to get past all of that, what was I looking for? An answer? Advice? Emotional support?

Okay, stop.

If you’re reading this right now with only a vague understanding of what’s happening, then that proves my point. A vague understanding wasn’t enough for my purposes. I absolutely needed whoever was listening to me to completely understand what was going on.

Right now, the words that you’re reading on your screen have been written much, much, later after the incident. As I’m explaining this now, I’ve had a lot of time to collect my thoughts and express them here in what I believe is the most coherent and readable way.

And if I can’t even be sure that whoever is reading this now fully gets what I’m talking about, then how could I possibly expect someone to understand this insanely convoluted issue from a series of incoherent and unclear text messages?

I couldn’t. I was so lost, defeated. I wished that my problem was something like procrastination or depression — yes, I know that sounds pretty morbid — but if nothing else, people were familiar with those issues and there would something that I could do to work towards solving those problems.

And maybe that’s why I was so fascinated with the Fog. Because it was so much more complex and mysterious than any of the run of the mill anxiety or motivation issues I had faced before. It truly felt like something new and unexplored, and I wanted to be the first one to figure it out (in hindsight, I’m fairly certain that this phenomenon is not something new or that I was the first one to figure it out, but that’s certainly what it felt like at the time).

And maybe that’s why I also began isolating myself from my friends, school, and basketball in pursuit of the meaning behind the Fog. Subtly, of course. I doubt anyone had noticed any outward change in my behavior or actions, but inwardly, it was there. I began exerting less effort into my schoolwork and my friendships, as well as my basketball practices. I spent countless nights lying wide awake on my bed, thinking for hours on end until my exhaustion got the best of me.

On one sleepless night in particular, I found myself reflecting on my fairly unproductive day and getting pretty upset about it. Earlier, I had procrastinated on my homework for much longer than I really should have, which meant that I had to finish what I hadn’t done all after basketball practice. Additionally, I had a math test the following day, and though I had done a decent amount of studying in the previous days, I still didn’t feel super well prepared.

So, after a fairly exhausting practice and an especially long internal self-deprecation session, I was promptly back at my desk at 9:30, grinding out math problems and chemical equations seemingly to no end.

Strangely enough, though, I didn’t feel that tired or upset that I had to do all this work. I didn’t feel energy getting sapped from my body; rather, I felt my body giving it off, pushing me to try harder, to do another problem, to think harder rather than give up and search the answer up online.

Before I left for practice, I estimated that it would take me about a half hour to complete my unfinished work, and that I would then just study for math until I had to sleep (probably until 11:30, maybe midnight).

But to my surprise, I ended up finishing my homework in about 15 minutes, and then, with an intense and focused mindset, got in a quality hour and a half of math studying before my parents started telling me to go to sleep.

Now comfortably settled in bed, the physical and mental fatigue of the day was finally kicking in all at once. My legs felt like noodles, my arms went limp at my sides, and my brain felt like it was about to shut down.

But despite how utterly tired I was, I kept myself awake. I was both satisfied with the quality of work I had done but also very, very confused. How did I suddenly find the energy to just grind through all my work so efficiently? There had to have been something that caused me to change the way I worked. It most certainly was not the first time that I had experienced something like this; I’m no stranger to cramming the night before a test.

And then it all came together. The basketball game. My current situation. There was a fairly obvious connection between them, and I had just made it.

In that basketball game, my brain and body were basically on automatic autopilot; I was doing everything normally, but devoid of feeling, devoid of consciousness — until something important came up, (in that case, winning the game) which prompted me to start focusing and trying my best.

And that was what had just happened today, too. A few hours earlier, I wasn’t concentrating on my work. Instead of desperately studying for, oh, I don’t know, maybe an important MATH TEST, I instead chose to browse Facebook and watch Youtube. But then, when I got home from practice, the thought kicked in that maybe I didn’t want to end math with a failing grade. And that was what prompted me to start studying, and what gave me the stamina and motivation to speed through my work.

And there was one more thing. After practice, when I zoomed through my homework, I wasn’t listening to music. I wasn’t on social media. The thought never even occurred for me to start playing video games. I drew another connection back to that basketball game.

When I began focusing during the game, I was playing on the balls of my feet, ready to be in help defense for my teammates, actively looking for opportunities to contribute on offense other than passing. Nothing was drastically different, but the changes were definitely noticeable.

And with my homework, the only thing that changed was the things I could control: my temptations. I still struggled with the subject material; it’s not like I just suddenly became an expert in matrices and Gauss Jordan elimination. But I was able to manage my impulses and not open Youtube or a video game. These changes were again, nothing especially drastic, but they definitely improved my efficiency while I worked.

At this point, my brain was on fire. Sleep could wait. This realization couldn’t.

I ended up with two theories:

1) We spend most of our lives in a subconscious state, going through our day to day interactions based on what we’re already used to doing.

2) Certain events or obligations trigger our conscious mind to wake up and change our actions and behavior for the better; importantly, those changes are usually not anything drastic, but rather small adjustments.

Let’s talk about them.

Subconscious

This first idea is fairly straightforward. I believe that we tend to go through our daily lives doing what we’re used to doing and what we know well.

For example, I’ve grown accustomed to multitasking when I work by frequently deciding to arbitrarily look at my phone for too long or spontaneously choose to just open social media and look at nothing really important for a while. Terrible, terrible habits. And as much as I like to deny it, both of these things ultimately hinder my productivity. Funny enough, though, I’ve learned to schedule my day around these distractions.

Actually, I take that back. It’s not funny; it’s crippling my time management skills and destroying my mental sanity, consistently placing me into a state of mind where I question the majority of my decision making skills and my inherent value as a human being.

But aside from that, it’s a bit funny.

Here’s the thing, though: even though I know these are bad habits and that I’d be much better off without them, I know that I have the power to stop myself from engaging in them.

But I don’t always stop myself.

It’s hard to admit, but I’ve grown used to slacking off and multitasking. And because of this, it’s relatively easy to just always do that; it’s become a habit at this point. It creates a vicious cycle: I’m so used to doing what I’m used to doing, so I just always do it, and I will continue to always do it.

But there are those few times where I am able to break out of that vicious cycle and actually concentrate on what I’m doing. And when those times were over, I would ask myself why I couldn’t consistently do that.

The simple reason is because I’m not pressured to enter that concentrated state of mind most of the time. I’m not frequently forced into a studying frenzy since I don’t have a math test every week, for example.

To be clear, I’m not saying that there has to be some major test in order to get me to focus — that would suggest that I have little self motivation and personal drive to try at the things I care about; but this post itself contradicts that idea. However when certain conditions are met, such as the urgency to study for an upcoming math test, it makes it a lot easier to focus up and fully prepare myself for the task at hand.

Anyhow, like I was saying, sometimes I’m able to interrupt the cycl —

Hold on, hold on. Stop the post for a second. This needs to be acknowledged right now.

I am currently typing these words on April 8, 2019, and the time is 10:21 PM.

I want to capture this moment in its entirety.

Literally seconds ago, I felt my fingers itching over the Ctrl key and the T key, which, for those of you didn’t already know, would open a new browser tab.

And just like how I had described a few paragraphs above this moment, I was feeling the sudden urge to go to a social media site for no particular reason.

This time, though, I stopped myself. And personally, that’s an amazing feat.

Look, reading it back out loud to myself, I understand how such a miniscule adjustment might not seem super amazing or important or whatever, and I get how it may sound like I’m blowing this entire situation out of proportion.

But that’s the entire point. Let’s take a look back at one of the two conclusions I with earlier:

2. Certain events or obligations trigger our conscious mind to wake up and change our actions and behavior for the better; importantly, those changes are usually not anything drastic, but rather small adjustments.

Something as simple as not impulsively opening Reddit to skim worthless memes is a perfect example of a small adjustment for the better.

Change is most definitely not easy, which is why it felt so good to actually stop myself from engaging in this bad habit. Even though this one particular interference didn’t fix the entire problem, I was able to maintain my productivity and keep on working without distraction, which is something equally valued and important.

But if I could do that now, why did I struggle with it other times?

Which conveniently segues into my next point:

Triggers

In the example that I just gave, I was able to change the way I behaved and do something positive about my bad habit. I stopped myself from opening a social media site and inevitably breaking my focus by looking at random posts.

But why? Why was it that this particular time I refrained from going to Facebook, and what was different from other times?

To tell the ugly truth, my mother and I had just ended a very serious argument a few minutes earlier, which left me understandably upset and frustrated, but interestingly, motivated.

Suddenly, I wanted to work. I wanted to put in the effort and continue writing this post. I felt the urgency kick in. Part of that obviously was because I just got yelled at, so I wanted to prove a point. What point I wanted to prove, I have no idea, but that familiar feeling of anger and stubbornness was definitely there.

There is no doubt in my mind that if my mother and I had not just gone through this heated argument, I very well would have been on Reddit looking at stupid memes with no relevance to what I was doing.

The point I’m trying to make here, was that this argument made me feel like doing more work. It was a trigger, if I may. If you recall the second conclusion I brought up before, I mentioned that these triggers often cause us to change our behavior for the better.

So that argument was a trigger. But what else was there?

Deadlines. That was a big one, and one that I think most people, not just students, are extremely familiar with. To bring the same example up once again, cramming the night before a test. Students do that because that threat of having a test the next day is a trigger for them — they suddenly become extremely aware of the consequences if they were to fail.

There are obviously an infinite number of triggers, because it really just depends on the person.

Personally, though, the one that stood out to me was when I recognized that I worked better the more upset I was. Seriously, the angrier I was, whether that was at myself or at someone else, the harder I worked.

Earlier, when I had that argument with my mother, I mentioned that I felt motivated immediately afterwards.

Similarly, basketball was another trigger of mine, because it frequently got me upset. Whenever I dilly dallied my way through a school day, basketball practice was always the thing that brought me back into reality and got me locked into my studying mode. I always got so much work done after practice, and I think it’s because of the combination of a lot of seemingly unconnected things that come together as one and momentarily turn me into a what felt like a machine.

It was the guilt of not having efficiently worked on homework earlier, coupled with the adrenaline and exhilaration coming off intense basketball practice, and recently, this sort of primal awakening of my conscious being, all coming together to momentarily turn me into a sentient, hyper aware, human being.

Everyone has their own triggers, and figuring out what those are is not necessarily a simple task. Some are universal and may stand out to us immediately, like deadlines, for example. But others are perhaps a bit harder to find, and may take a bit of soul searching and honesty with ourselves before we can finally understand what they are.

I’m Mostly Done Talking Now

The last thing I want to say, though, is that by going through this entire experience, my eyes have been opened to this phenomenon; but even more so, the vast possibility of many other interpersonal factors that influence our behavior and decision making skills. Additionally, the thinking process that I went through it has really helped me figure out a lot about myself as a person as well as the world around me.

And I hope that by reading this, it will allow you too to get a better understanding of your own subconscious mind and hopefully experience some of the same thoughts and emotions that I went through. More importantly, figure out some of the problems in your own life, and even if you can’t directly solve them, at least be aware of them.

In the end, the moral of the story is: find what triggers you and how to take advantage of it.

P.S. I just wanted to point out this great article on self interruption/multitasking. Feel free to check it out.

The article mentions that researchers have found that replying to a text will lose you up to 23 minutes of productivity. I know that may sound a bit suspicious, but it makes sense if you think about it. By replying to a text or something like that, our concentration shifts from one task to another. And then, when we try to refocus back to whatever work we were initially doing, it takes more time to achieve the same level of focus that I had before.

I find this very alarming as well and interesting, and it encourages me to avoid multitasking as much as I can — and I hope for you, too.

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