Having trouble concentrating? You don’t feel as productive as you once did? Are small things getting to you? If you answered yes to any of those questions I really wish I had a pill to sell you. Really. I could be like a millionaire by now. Almost everyone I know has these problems. I’m not here to offer any medical advice though. If you have a severe ailment you should really see a doctor. If not, here’s a giant helping of opinion for ya.
I notice many friends and colleagues always suffering from similar battles. Concentration, focus, drive, or even peace of mind. We live in a time where someone can press a few buttons and you’re witnessing graphic images from a disaster happening on the other side of the planet. THERE IS SO MUCH TO WORRY ABOUT! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
That’s pretty much how it feels in this age of information. Yet you still have to wake up, do your job, and deal with all of the craziness that impacts you directly in your life. Heavy times yo. I still remember when I didn’t carry around a device that allows me to directly inject all the worlds problems right into my veins anywhere I have a data signal. It doesn’t have to be bad things. We interrupt moments of our lives all the time to be distracted by notifications from friends or through advertisements as we walk through the street.
When we get used to these patterns of consumption on a daily basis, or the society we live in normalizes those behaviors it becomes really hard to detach. Detaching from streams of information that don’t help us in the current moment allow us to focus and find our flow. We’re just fancy fleshy computers and we can only process so much at one time. If your head is running at 100% all the time you’re going to burn out eventually. You have to find a good flow in life.
I don’t mean flow as some wishy-washy term. Flow is actually a studied term that describes a mental state where you’re at your best doing something. Let’s take a moment to enjoy some of the Wikipedia article:
In any given moment, there is a great deal of information made available to each individual. Psychologists have found that one’s mind can attend to only a certain amount of information at a time. According to Csikszentmihályi’s 2004 TED talk, that number is about “110 bits of information per second”. That may seem like a lot of information, but simple daily tasks take quite a lot of information. Just decoding speech takes about 60 bits of information per second. That is why when having a conversation one cannot focus as much attention on other things.
For the most part (except for basic bodily feelings like hunger and pain, which are innate), people are able to decide what they want to focus their attention on. However, when one is in the flow state, they are completely engrossed with the one task at hand and, without making the conscious decision to do so, lose awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs. This occurs because all of the attention of the person in the flow state is on the task at hand; there is no more attention to be allocated.
The flow state has been described by Csikszentmihályi as the “optimal experience” in that one gets to a level of high gratification from the experience. Achieving this experience is considered to be personal and “depends on the ability” of the individual. One’s capacity and desire to overcome challenges in order to achieve their ultimate goals not only leads to the optimal experience, but also to a sense of life satisfaction overall.
You are processing only what you need to process in order to do the things you need to get done. This is where greatness comes from. That is where you want to be. How do you reach new heights with this imagery focus muscle that allows you to do great things? It’s the same as every other muscle. You have to exercise it.
Now getting into the flow for a basketball player is certainly different from getting into the flow for a programmer. But the common denominator for any type of flow is having the ability to control your thoughts and thus allow your mind to indulge itself in the current moment. If you’re baking a cake while thinking about the cake you messed up last week you’re probably going to mess up this weeks cake as well. The current ticking moment is always the most important time in a state of flow. Don’t waste it on things that you can’t control right now.
I do find myself in this flow state very often with certain activities. When I’m playing videos games. When I’m on the court playing basketball. At work when I’m troubleshooting problems and helping people. I’m able to take everything else and set it aside so that I can really appreciate what is happening in front of me. I feel the primary driver of achieving this for me has been practicing Mindfulness Meditation for several years now.
You’ll have an endless amount of information to read on google about mindfulness meditation, so I’m not going to dig into it much here. I’d rather just share my thoughts on it. I hear a few of these phrases whenever I mention any kind of meditation: “I can’t do it.”, or “I tried and it doesn’t work”.
I consider meditation a practice similar to exercise. Unless you have some confounding medical issue, then eating less and exercising more will get you in better shape. That’s how it works. Your mind really needs the same treatment. Don’t overload it with stuff and train it to keep it in good shape as well. What I find is that “I can’t do it” usually means “I don’t want to do it”. Which is fine. You do you. And “I tried and it doesn’t work” is often more like “I did it for a week and didn’t see any results so I gave up”. Like you’re just going to walk into the gym and come out a week later looking like The Terminator. Focusing your mind is like flexing a muscle. You have to exercise it for results and it takes time to notice big changes. If you don’t find a way to exercise it you will never find your flow.
Mindfulness meditation isn’t the only way to exercise this muscle. But it’s the only one that I’ve found to be free and available anywhere I can sit or lay down. When I practiced this long enough I started to notice many benefits throughout my days. I’m far more patient than I’ve ever been in my life. I don’t let external factors take the wheel of my emotions as often. I don’t have as many “bad days”. I have days that are more challenging than others. As someone who’s had and is still going through a rather tumultuous life, it’s a pretty big statement for me. I really believe it though. As challenging as it has been to develop this muscle I feel mindfulness meditation has taught me to better understand myself. Through that understanding, I’ve been able to make changes that help me operate more efficiently in my daily life. This greater perception of self and strength of focus can maybe help you find your flow too.