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Solving Problems at 4AM in Bed

Published or Updated On: 
November 7, 2022

It's 4AM and you wake up to use the bathroom, get back into bed. While you wait for sleep to come again, your mind starts to churn away...

You think about the day ahead: obstacles you'll face at work, situations you'll need to navigate. You think about what you should do, run through various scenarios in your head, imagine what you'd do or say... Sometimes these thoughts end up keeping you awake!

I spend lots of time thinking about the future, so I'm familiar with this scenario. It needn't be at 4AM though. Perhaps I'd be driving home and simultaneously running through a task list in my head for tomorrow, planning a conversation.

These experiences aren't necessarily characterized by feelings of anxiety. It's not like I'm sweating bullets, stressing while thinking. They're just things I need to do, outcomes I want to achieve etc and it seems natural for my thoughts to gravitate towards them.

Then I read something that, for lack of a better phrase, really fucked my shit up:

"Much of what you think of as 'problem solving' - is actually just worrying."

I can't remember where I read this, but it was a paradigm shift. I realized immediately that it was true for me. Just how many of those problems had I really successfully solved at that odd hour or inappropriate place? Versus how many of them had I solved at my work desk, or with directed, focused attention at a time when my faculties are primed?

If I can see, upon rational examination, that "problem solving" at 4AM generally isn't very productive for me, then what am I actually doing when I am laying in bed "thinking" or "problem solving"? I think the answer is worrying.

The lesson for me was that my life could be better (more present for myself & others, calm, replenished when it is time to produce) with a little more scrutiny of the traffic flowing through my mind.

This isn't to say there isn't a benefit to letting something simmer in the background of your mind, or that you need strict rules about when/where you do things. On the contrary, I think there can be huge benefit to hashing things out while on a walk, or "sleeping on" something.

The idea, rather, is to recognize that there is a spectrum of usefulness.

Two simple questions to ask yourself:

Is this line of thinking productive or am I really just worrying?

Do I really want to be thinking about this right now, or would it be smarter to do it later?

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