I’ve just finished reading a great article I stumbled upon while checking out my Facebook feed, something I don’t like to do often, as I can usually feel how this automated action makes me unaware of time as it flies inexorably by. The article, published in an old issue of The Atlantic, and written by Nicholas Carr in 2008. addressed a similar issue, as it tried to answer to one of the most anxious questions of our time: is Google making us stupid?
Same as the author of the article, and as some of the people he quotes, I too have experienced this: being unable to concentrate long enough on a long article or a book the way I used to, simply because my mind refuses to dive deep enough into what I am reading, jumping instead from one idea to another, finding and forming new links to stuff I know and urging me to follow all those mental roads at once instead of allowing myself to contemplate one idea at a time. It creates a sense of urgency that can be productive, depending on what it is you do, but that can also lead to feel as if you’re spinning and losing control over your own mind.
Even more than the symptoms and the problems described in the article, I experience something that I would identify a new kind of procrastination, a frantic procrastination, if you will. If the end goal is to get something done, then does the way you do it really matter? Or the impact it has on your other activities? For example, if I have to remove the paint from my nails, and, in the same day (let’s imagine it’s the day before work), prepare a presentation, or a lesson, if you’re a teacher (my case). Those a two completely different tasks, the importance of which has almost nothing in common, to me, anyway. I know that preparing my lesson is more important than painting my nails, but still, when I take a short break from my work and go to the bathroom, I automatically tell myself: “hey, I’m in the bathroom, let’s remove the paint right now, this way, I won’t have to do it later and it’ll be one thing less to do today”. It’s true: one less thing to do. But in the meantime, I have completely disrupted my work process, the one I had going on before the bathroom break. I can return to it, of course, and I will, but without me even realizing it, it will take me a little more time to readapt to the writing / working state.
You could tell me that those kinds of interruptions are just a way to procrastinate, and you’d be right. As John Perry describes it in his famous book on procrastination, procrastinators are “passionate” people who can spend hours on the Internet following every new link they see pop up in front of them. It is a form of curiosity of course, and it is also a way of avoiding the task that needs to be done, and that needs to be done in quiet and peace.
So, either it is because I am a procrastinator, or because I am getting more and more used, as are millions of people today, to a “google” way of thinking by association (I am in the bathroom, i.e., I can remove the nail polish; I am going out i.e., I can take out the trash) and through pop-up windows, I have a really hard time concentrating. And on the one hand, I get a lot of small things done (like painting my nails, getting our the trash, sewing that button or writing that e-mail), but when it comes to more serious things, that cannot be done without “going under”, “diving in”, if you will, I’m constantly trying to find ways to interrupt myself. So this makes me a quite effective person that has, as a result, some free time, free time that can (and should) be used to get into deeper projects – my dissertation, my book, even my lessons actually, that would benefit a lot from being prepared fully in advance. Instead of this, I ofter lose my free time by surfing on the Internet, unable to switch my google brains off and my writing brains on.
There is some hope, though.
This weekend, for example, I decided to take a break. So I forgot about work and all the things I had to do and watched old episodes of The Good Wife, drank good wine, ate and slept. I completely disconnected with the rest of the world and, although it was the hardest part, didn’t feel guilty. When I finally emerged, I had the feeling of just returning from vacation. For a few hours (some would say they were lost, of course they were. I could have taken this time to dive into a great novel instead of watching TV, but I did what I did. Diving into a good novel is harder than diving into a good tv-show, but essentially it is the same thing) I would be concentrated only on what was in front of me. My world wasn’t bigger than the one depicted in the show, my mind didn’t wander outside of what was on the screen. In other words, I was concentrated really hard on one thing, something that doesn’t happen a lot.
Then, the ultimate question is: how to achieve a similar level of concentration when working on something? When you are active, instead of being passive? When, no matter how interesting what you’re doing is, it is always easier and therefore nicer to watch TV (or read a book or go outside or do whatever you like unconditionally, whatever you are passionate about) than to work on something.
Because as soon as we think of something as work, our brains automatically refuses to give it full attention. Thinking of your work as leisure is one way to do it, but I haven’t really succeeded at it yet. Exercising your willpower is another way to go. Constantly reminding yourself that concentrating on what you’re doing is best for you and will give you better results is, in my experience, the thing that works the best.
What does it mean ? It means actually being aware of your concentration problems and doing everything in your power to create an environment that would make it easier to concentrate. Very often I think of it after the free time is over and I have to work very fast to at least do something before the deadline. But I’ve decided to put the ball in my court and keep it there. I’ve decided to remind myself as often as possible that I can take time to breathe deeply, segregate myself from the world and allow myself to take this time I have to think deeply on a subject, to stop all the haste and to take a short time off from the world around me. I know that if I go to a café for example, to work, instead of staying home, I will achieve this state much faster. I know that if I create a soothing environment for my ideas (like a glass of wine, for example), it will be less hard to allow myself to contemplate and slow down a little bit. And most of all I know that if I write a little bit everyday in my diary (or on the blog), I allow myself to go deep into my own thoughts and reemerge cooler and more relaxed.
So what I want to say in the end is this: living in our fast paced world, where information runs so fast it becomes difficult to just stop and think about one thing without feeling guilty for missing out on all the other stuff that’s going on, the way to stay sane is to cut yourself from the world sometimes, concentrate on one subject at a time, force yourself in the beginning and help yourself by creating a soothing environment. Concentration can only be achieved in silence. It doesn’t have to be outer silence, but inner silence. That’s why I work best in crowded places, because I retract myself from the humming around me. On the contrary, working in total silence can be daunting, because your mind drifts very easily from one thing to another.
What do you like to do to achieve maximum concentration? Do you struggle with your mind going to all kinds of places instead of focusing on just one thing? Do you create a special ritual to stay focused and concentrated?
I’d love to hear your feedback on this!