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Combat Mental Entropy With These 10 Tips

Combat Mental Entropy With These 10 Tips
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    Entropy in physics is a measure of disorder. The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy will tend to increase. It isn’t uncommon to see an egg break, but it is extremely unlikely that a broken egg will spontaneously reform. Entropy increases with time.

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    Along with physical entropy I believe we all have mental entropy. This is the amount of chaos present in our minds. Problems, frustrations, tasks and people stack up to produce mental chaos. If you’ve ever felt like you have solved one problem only to have two more pop up in its place, that is the best example of increasing mental entropy.

    Creating Order From Mental Chaos

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    How do you combat this chaos of the mind? I think the answer is to go through regular sessions to order it back together. These sessions don’t need to be incredibly time-consuming, but even a short investment every few days can keep you mentally sharp. Although physics suggests that entropy will continually increase, with a bit of effort you can keep it from growing in your head.

    The beauty of this approach is that you’re already doing it. Everyone has their own ways to relieve stress and make sense of the disorganization in their thoughts. By realizing that controlling the chaos was your original goal, you can get the benefits without the waste.

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    How many times have you turned on the television only to watch something you don’t really like? What about meeting up with friends when you really need to finish that assignment? Or pressed the Stumble button one more time? While there are other reasons to surf and socialize, controlling mental entropy is a big one.

    Methods for Controlling Disorder

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    Here are some things you might want to consider to keep your mind sharp:

    1. Writing – Journaling is often seen as a recording medium. I have a journal, but I almost never use it to record events. Instead I use it to sort through my thoughts on paper. Even spending ten minutes can clear up a lot of mental chaos. It is amazing how much clarity you can get through a bit of writing.
    2. Meditation – Another popular mental organizing tool is meditation. You might want to pick a specific focus for your meditation, or simply practice breathing. I usually find writing superior to meditation, but this can be more physically relaxing if the entropy is causing you tension.
    3. One on One – Talk out your thoughts with another person. Your friends probably don’t want to just hear you complain, but a bit of dialog can get your thoughts straight. Listening and returning the favor is still far less than $100 an hour.
    4. Walk – No destination or route, just walk. I find the light physical activity to be a good way to tune out mental noise. You can walk while thinking about a specific focus, or let your mind focus on thoughts in general. The extra time spent thinking without new input can help you regain order.
    5. Just Sit – “Just sitting,” is a Zen Buddhist practice. The idea is that you aren’t focusing on anything internal, external, problems or goals. You are just sitting. This may sound painfully boring, but the idea is that you stop focusing on yourself. Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now refers to a similar practice he calls Being. Although sitting is one practice, it can be applied to almost any mentally light activity.
    6. Music – Music can be an emotional amplifier. Listening to angry, exciting or sad music can amplify any latent feelings inside yourself. Some music has the benefit of cancelling out any existing feelings so you can focus on ordering your thoughts. Although I enjoy listening to new music or classical music for this goal, the type of music isn’t as important as how you listen. Focusing on the composition itself and making sense of the notes and pauses.
    7. Reading – Authors don’t usually write in a disorganized fashion. Good writers will present ideas in a logical, smooth and controlled fashion. Reading can be used purely as an organizing activity. Your own thoughts become aligned with the highly structured information in the book.
    8. Rhythm – Your body is filled with rhythms. Heart pumping, breathing in and out, blinking and many more that go unseen or unheard. Spend a few minutes focusing on the internal rhythms of your own body or out in the world.
    9. Run – If you are in good physical shape, try running without listening to music. Better yet, try running without focusing on your thoughts. If you have a train of thoughts just let it flow and focus on the steady placement of your feet. This is a lot harder than it sounds, but every time I’ve done it the results have been worth it.
    10. New Perspective – Find a place you’ve never looked from before and sit there. This could be as simple as a corner of your room, or somewhere outside. Then spend the next five minutes studying the area as it appears around you.

    Some of these may seem like a waste of time. But in reality they don’t take long. Many can be done in less than ten minutes. You were probably going to take breaks anyways, why not fill it with a thought-ordering routine instead of more chaos? After those ten minutes are up you can resume with a clearer mind.

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    Scott H Young

    Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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