Exercises in Calibration
Do you know how your eyes adapt to the current brightness levels, so when you enter a house from a sunny day outside, everything will seem incredibly dark, until you adjust? Other perceptions work the same way, including your perceptions of your mood, situation, wellbeing, focus levels, attention.
You might feel like you are sluggish and slow, but your actual reactions are pretty good. You might feel like time moves fast and you can’t possibly keep up, while your actual work output remains the same. It’s counter-intuitive and easy to miss.
These feelings are still important markers about your mental state, of course – if you feel terribly sluggish, the feeling won’t go away just because it doesn’t match your actions directly. But I still find it helpful to approach perceptions with a quick reality-check where possible. This is an exercise in calibration: I’m trying to figure out how my emotions relate to reality, and how I should judge their perceived strength.
Calibration is best done with anything you can easily repeat, something small that you don’t mind doing regularly. I like extremely simple PC games, that require little thought and mostly repetitive simple actions. Minesweeper did the trick for a long time, as did Super Hexagon, Crypt of the Necrodancer, StepMania, and a whole other number of two-button games. (Those are also a useful way to meditate, but that’s a different post.) Additionally, simple exercises also work very well.
To be a good candidate for calibration, an activity has to be
- enjoyable or emotionally neutral
- trivial to start
- short and repeatable
- scorable, that is: you have to have a way to objectively judge performance
With exercise, you can just count repetitions/time held, and most games provide scoring mechanisms of their own, or allow you to use implicit ones like the time/level reached. So when you feel great or like never moving ever again, you can pick one of these calibration exercises, and get some feedback for how they relate to your actions. I also sometimes use calibration exercises like that as ways to notice when my attention is crumbling, or I’m too tired to focus.
I mentioned it before, but I’ll repeat it because it’s really really important: The point of calibration exercises is not to prove or disprove how I’m feeling. Feelings are there, and provide valuable input. Calibration exercises are just one tool to help with the interpretation of this input – they allow me to go from “I’m feeling unfocused, guess I can’t do complex things right now” to “I’m feeling unfocused but I seem to be able to concentrate, hmmm, wonder what’s up with that”. Nuance is good, let’s have more of that.