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Know Thyself 2.0

January 6, 2016

Oxford Street Sunrise by Dom Crossley via

I have learned that there is a difference between knowing yourself and knowing about yourself and that each, in its way, is equally valuable. The first is important because we are our own (and only) true experts. The second is important because of our capacity for ignorance, delusion, and willful self-deception. Let me distinguish the difference from the outset.

Knowing yourself (oneself, thyself, etc.) is about your individual uniqueness, your history, and preferences.

For example, I know it is immeasurably difficult for me to get up when it is still dark. My body simply does not comply. Yet somehow, when the first sunlight cracks the sky, I rise exponentially easier. Of course, I still sleep in, but I tend to set my alarm by the sunrise and push it a little later each winter and earlier each summer. If I try rise before dawn, even by a scant 15 minutes, it is a ridiculously herculean task which I no longer attempt (baring early flights to places I actually want to go). I just know this about myself and have accepted it. This realization also has a particular history or path that is useful to understand when trying to discover other things about myself. It is also interconnected with other traits and behaviors in layers of mutual influence.

Knowing about yourself, in contrast, is understanding those mechanisms, traits, and qualities you share in common with other humans (and animals) both in their general function and their particulars. It is knowing both the shape of the bell curve and where on it you sit. It is also knowing a little bit about what gives that bell curve its shape, as science or philosophy has discovered.

To continue the example, I know sunlight stimulates the release of particular chemicals useful to wakefulness in humans. This has not stopped my mother from rising at o’dark thirty for her entire life, nor prods my partner out of bed before noon on a Saturday. However, knowing this, I also understand that staying in our dark bedroom after my alarm (and the sun is up) won’t help me get a good start to my day. I need to get out into our bright living room and take the dog on his walk as early as possible if I want my mind to function best. I could rise later, and frequently do on weekends, but I tend to be more groggy and less productive when I hit the snooze button too much and linger in darkness.

I reflect on this now after several years of examining the mechanisms for my own productivity. I’ve dived into the science, social science, and Buddhist teachings on Right Effort. As someone who secretly suspects herself of being just plain lazy, Right Effort seemed a good place for me to start on the Noble Eightfold Path. While the buddhadharma was helpful (particularly when it comes to attachment, aversion, and delusion), it’s not exactly designed to provide guidance on sorting an email inbox, holding productive committee meetings, or evaluating competing projects.

Recently others have approached me to help them in a similar respect – to be more productive. Last fall semester I taught a class on willpower to ten students at my university that was very kindly reviewed by the participants, even the ones who forthrightly stated they only took it only to fulfill their wellness elective even thought their willpower was “fine.”* I’ve also incorporated a great deal of what I’ve learned into my freshman seminar to help new college students cope with the strange condition of having both more work and more “free time” (that is: unstructured by exterior authority) than ever before. Friends and coworkers have also asked directly for my advice, which leaves me both proud and apprehensive.

I wondered, if I were to try to teach this, where would I start? I mean, if I were really to try to teach ‘productivity,’ especially in a Buddhist-inspired way, where would I start?

Naturally, it starts with the self, or the non-self. It starts with the vehicle of our own productivity: our body and mind (and heart/soul/spirit, if you prefer). It starts with understand how we work as well as how we don’t work, how we deceive and delude ourselves, how we discover both happy and unhappy things about ourselves and then what we do with that knowledge.

I was rather happy to discover I just don’t do well before dawn. It released a lot of my struggle to get my wake up time ‘right’ and lifelong ridiculous notions that only morning people (like my mother) can be truly productive. I’m not lazy, I just have a different circadian rhythm. In fact, it turns out that I am a morning person, in that I’m most productive for about three hours between breakfast and lunch. Nowadays that’s when I try to work on creative, high energy tasks. I try to avoid meetings, errands, or chores. If I want to analyze that next data set, write that grant, develop that new program, morning is the best time. I can do it later in the day, but it requires more time and mental energy.

However, I also had to get rid of an old habit of rushing my morning. This is one of those interconnected layers. I love to sleep, so I often traded 10, 15, 30 more minutes of sleep in order to sprint out the door at the last minute because I thought sleep was better for me. It is more pleasurable, but not actually better. When I get up on time and have a relaxed morning with space for self-care (meditation, yoga, an actual breakfast), I get more done that day than if I had just spent that time asleep. But that was only after I also discovered what kind of morning activities constituted good self-care through consulting the literature (knowing about yourself) and then some deliberate trial and error (knowing yourself).**

If I were to teach productivity, I would teach this first: know yourself and about yourself, because, the truth is, your ‘self’ is a wonderful liar.

The more I learn about myself, the more I learn that this isn’t necessarily bad. Different tools do different things and its a skill to be able to chose the correct one in a given context. Sometimes we choose the tool that is easy to use, but not right for the job. Knowing about yourself helps understand the tools and knowing yourself helps understand the context. It helps us see through our own deceptions and also accept that those deceptions are perfectly normal. For the most part, they are not pathological or harmful, just human, the consequence of multiple systems running on concert.*** The good news is that humans have been studying humans for a very long time, so we have a lot to go on.

The next question may be: okay, how do I come to know both myself and about myself? Well, I’m giving that some thought. I may write more about what I did, but what you do will be different. You already know a lot; you are already the expect on you. And the only things you need to learn more are time and attention. No problem, right? You’re not busy?


PS – It took four doctors, including two specialists, to diagnose me with poison oak and prescribe the correct medications. (In retrospect, I should have just called my grandmother.) I am on the mend and I’ve learned a lot about the curious properties of poison oak in the meantime. Stay out of the woods.

*True for most, but even a fully functional adult has the oddly intractable foible that they can’t seem to resist or make themselves do. Willpower, like fitness, is an ongoing project.

**I was also inspired by a friend I stayed a few years ago. She’s one of the busiest and most productive people I know, but her mornings did not feel rushed (to me). She took care of many simple tasks around the house each morning before leaving for work and seemed better for it.

***Such as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, that is, the stress/arousal response and the relaxation/planning response.


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