Working Your Mental Muscle

I’m always completely astonished by how much doing mental work resembles physically working out. It works exactly the same way. You stop doing your workouts for a while and when you start up again, you feel weak and won’t accomplish much at first. The same applies for any kind of intellectual work; if you take a break from it for too long, your mental muscles diminish.

I know it’s true because I went through the same thing. After graduating from college in literature and philosophy, I was in pretty good shape, so to speak. I was very used to sitting down for extended periods every day and getting a good chunk of complex reading and writing done. It felt normal and natural to me, as I had been doing it for many years up to that point. Then, as the logical extension of my academic training, I decided to start a martial arts academy for Mixed Martial Arts… Long story.

It was not like teaching fighters for a living suddenly turned me into this brutish meathead – it was more that this radical change required me to utilize a completely different skillset. Suddenly, I was not sitting down contemplating Hegel’s “Phenomenology” anymore, but I was trying to get customers. So I learned about the basics of marketing, I acquired some WordPress skills, I worked on my sales toolkit, and so forth. All of these things were not related to fighting at all and required a good bit of sitting down, reading and analyzing. Yet, it was still different.

Again, the best analogy I can come up with comes from working out. I was doing a “low intensity” type of work out – instead of lifting heavy weights every day, I was taking a very long walk. And there is nothing wrong with walking! You can never do enough of that. However, at the same time, you also shouldn’t be skipping your lifting – but I did.

In fact, most of us do. It’s always the same story. You are forced to do high intensity mental work at high school and college (at least at the better institutions). At first it sucks, but then you adapt and then you grow stronger. In terms of working out, you supercompensate. But suddenly, with graduating, you lose your team of coaches (=your professors) and you stop competing in tournaments, i.e. taking exams. Then, quicker than you know, mental atrophy starts to take place, until you become skinny fat. I didn’t realize all this until I started working on my PhD again, at the beginning of this year. Then, suddenly, it hit me, hard. I had lost most of my mental muscle mass.

Well, what’s the solution then? I’ll tell what’s NOT the solution first: Mistaking low intensity mental work for high intensity mental work. Doing crosswords is good and fine, watching the interesting documentary on the history channel is very educational and I obviously love writing this blog. However, none of this is the sweaty stuff. None of this creates the real pain of working out; it doesn’t give you that feeling that makes you question why you are doing this to yourself, but that also makes you feel oh so good and accomplished once you are done for the day.

So, start doing some biceps curls for your brain. I still think philosophical classics are a good starting point; if that’s too heavy, start with the history of philosophy or at least some very dense fiction – Thomas Mann or Dostoevsky come to mind. Then, slowly build it up from there. As always, consistency is key – don’t expect radical change overnight, but give it a few years of daily effort, then we’ll talk. On the subject, it just reminded me of one of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite fitness coaches – Pavel Tsatsouline:

“If it’s important to you, do it every day. If it’s not that important, don’t do it all.” (Imagine a mean Russian accent with this).

True words from the master of pain himself. I have nothing further to add.