• writeminded

Uninterrupted Focus Heals & Teaches

Updated: Jul 17

with images by Michael Sikkema

Spinning plates trick

Author Johann Hari went through a transformation like mine, but he entered into it more deliberately, with forethought. Beyond that, he interviewed experts from various fields, including neuroscience, to find out how the human mental self operates and what values we should have if we want to live fully amidst systems that may not prioritize self-actualization. I'll also call on Cal Newport.

It's modern to frequently switch mental focus from one direction to another, and to continue doing that for large parts of the day. That switching could be going from something like reading a book, having a conversation, or writing an email . . . over to checking unrelated texts, videos, or other short form media every few seconds or minutes. And media, itself, often entails scrolling through posts on a wide range of topics, one after the other. Minutes or hours spent this way introduce many ideas to us very rapidly, but a person's focus during such behavior is never fixed on any single thing for very long. That limits what they can do with any one of those many things.

A person's brain can effectively go back and forth between a book and a documentary such that focus isn't interrupted. But that's only if they're related and the reader-watcher is synthesizing them. Perhaps both are sources for a student's paper. Various media that are all part of the same mental and topical context, Cal Newport, says, can all live in the brain together under one focal spotlight.

Whereas, both Newport and Johann Hari suggest many people need to cut down on the amount of time they spend shifting focus rapidly from one matter to another, especially if there's little to no attention to how things connect or relate. Many human hours are spent skimming the surface of things, sometimes to the point that a person can't remember what they just saw or what they, themselves, just said, not that such doesn't happen to everyone sometimes.

When a person reads a novel or watches a sitcom, they're doing a spinning plate trick. The nature of each of the show's characters, the various plot lines, precedents set in prior episodes, all those things. They're hanging out in the viewers thoughts. And there could be a lot of "plates" the person has to keep "spinning" in order to follow the story.

In order to switch to responding to an unrelated text, the brain has to take down all the plates from the sitcom and replace them with the plates related to whatever and whoever the text concerns. They get one set of plates spinning to respond to the text. Put them down, and get the sitcom plates spinning again. The sitcom versus the text have very different purposes, characters/people, etc., so the mind has to go through a review to switch between them. When I'm that person, it's a huge dragging force holding me back any time I transition from one set of situational variables to another.

Perhaps some of us imagine we can can keep two sets of plates up at the same time on two different stages. Or three or four? But from what I'm reading, it seems that concept of multi-tasking may not be real. It could just be what we name an excess in lifestyle, by force or by choice, whereby we frantically shift from one thing to another and waste a hunk of our time and energy on re-reviewing contexts around the periphery of what really matters.

That's as opposed to sustained focus on the most vital, central aspects of an issue, going deeper into a point and possibly toward useful discovery.

Life doesn't afford unlimited time and space, so we have to jump around sometimes. By necessity, and probably part of every day we live, each of us juggles a mixture of in-person and online endeavors. Nonetheless, we don't have to be doing that as much as is common, or certainly not constantly.

Rather, if time is limited, all the more reason for folks like me—who got diluted by media or caught up by internet and frequent switching as a lifestyle—to adjust. That's because when frequent redirection of focus isn't truly necessary, it's an ineffective and problematic use of our time and very lifeforce.


Johann Hari and Cal Newport provide hard-fought advice

Upon reading Hari's book, Stolen Focus, it appears folks like me were sacrificing three values behaving this way so regularly, while also potentially developing an aversion from unresolved stressors, regret, and embarrassment that can surface when we slow down the stream of input. I'd describe us as those who rapidly switch contexts throughout more of the day that in optimal. Lots of people at least spend some part of their lives without ever providing themselves or finding a chance to get long enough respites from stimulus and switching of focus. I'm been impulsive in the past, never quite full-on compulsive. Reversing gears on that, having more and longer periods of singular focus. Neither Hari nor Newport said accomplishing that would require total abandonment of tech. In my opinion, sitting where I am right now, I don' think progress even requires fully ascribing to Newport's Digital Minimalism. As a novice as regards the study of human attention, I suggest that, in 2022, it's possible a person could reform without even transforming into a complete weirdo. All that needs to happen to make some headway is to reign in the switching on some regular basis. Yet, asks Hari, what is so great that we're losing if we can't find time for sustained focus on what matters most deeply to us:

#Creativity—We can’t scarcely achieve what Hari refers to as a flow state, or what Newport calls deep work without sustained, uninterrupted focus. It's like a brain function with it's own energy supply from some mysterious place. But it won't turn on without some solid warmup, so to speak. When focus is firmly fixed for some time, it flows or goes deep and pulls a person into thought and action. Of course that's when we have our best ideas. Fulfillment requires that we at least achieve this flow sometimes, when life allows or when we take the steps to make it more likely. It's necessary for broad vision, making interesting connections, and rapid growth. It’s a means to problem solving and productivity. When we take a moment to move something in our minds and hearts, we come at life differently the whole day, probably even with more kindness.

#Efficiency—Sometimes switching is worth it, I would think. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking we can fluidly multi-task or jump our attention between separate contexts without the above sacrifice to focus, plus time lost in the switching itself: time and energy expended getting “up to speed” with something only to turn attention right away. It's inefficient and probably not healthy to overdo. I find it stressful, and, yet, when I overdid, I would shove that stress to the back of my mind. If I can, I'd like to avoid returning to that frequency of self-induced interruptions.



Three images above by Michael Sikkema

#Lucidity and #epiphany—We also need time for internal focus through reflection and quietude. Hari uses the word mind wandering, where we're not being inundated by brand new external information, whether on a single context or switching between many. I read that from Hari as the need to relax and take a walk on the beach before returning to attempt creative output or intricate learning. And he literally does that. He literally does everything he discusses in the book in addition to interviewing experts. For me, I think of the moment I give up on finding my keys and that's when I suddenly recall where they are. But it can be more than keys: a memory you suddenly understand in a new way, a connection between two things that resolves or justifies an old pain. Or anything precious or innovative in the self just effortlessly surfacing.

And, so, that's what motivated me to even write this post. To share with others what I learned being in a position to let myself think about one matter or goal at time for extended periods . . . while also reading some really good literature about the attention, brain, mind, and consciousness possessed by any human.

For me, regular periods of reduced or unified stimulus or focus (mostly outwardly, but some inwardly) became distinct compered with how I'd been living and expressing myself with others prior. That's pretty amazing, to me.

But there are both inner and outer challenges that can stop a person from letting their mind wander. Hari simplifies things by merely mentioning mind wandering is easier to achieve when stress is low, and harder to achieve when stress is high. That is a useful, general, awareness. Examining more closely, though, I think, for many, at times, transitioning into being comfortable letting the mind wander requires absence of two trickier situations.


Inner doubts, misapprehensions, and psychological trauma

Hari shares a warning about mind wandering. Indeed, in the past, letting my mind go was difficult. I felt threatened by my own thoughts. So, I clung to a stream of distractions. Currently, I'm merely an example of someone who recovered enough (for the time being) to achieve limited but enjoyable mind wandering. But I had to fall into that by circumstances well out of my control.

There could be all sorts of complexities and doubts lurking, unresolved inside a person. I say that having lived with such in my chest for most of my twenties. I do not say it to judge.

It's a real reason, I've heard, that deep reflection, meditation, and the like of those can initially contribute to stress in some individuals, particularly in the early stages of developing the whatever reflective habit it might be. Maybe a person would like to avoid a painful memory or they've developed a neurotic or even psychotic understanding of some aspect of their past or current life. Or, maybe a true epiphany, a mental breakthrough, leads to stress because of what it means for you. And there's a spectrum, I'm sure, where some unsettled matters and daily stresses are very tiny, but perhaps still have some effect on how a person directs their focus.

A stream of constantly varying information (often curated by corporations) is apparently very good at distract a person from things inside their own selves: unprocessed, partially or fully repressed, moments and ideas that challenge how we think about ourselves or life. A lot of questions can come to a wandering mind, questions that may not have easy answers, and predicated in layers through a person's past, present, and future.

Perhaps distracting circumstances within and around a person can bring a person to the point where they need mind wandering so badly that it's hard to even get started. Motive, realization of the need. There are lots of factors. Regardless, at certain junctures of life, listening to the quandaries of the subconscious could be stressful or overwhelming, which can drive a person to cling to overused coping mechanisms that provide distraction. That happens in a lot of ways and to the point of addiction, in an attempt to distract from, anesthetize, or cope with stress or the pangs of our hearts.

Nevertheless, getting through or bypassing that stage leads to where I think moments of peace and quiet or or ordinary meditation can lead to reduced stress. By instituting quiet time, as a person can sometimes comes to terms with themselves and what's happened to them in life. A person can often find workable answers and resolve that backlog. But, again, that takes some uninterrupted time and focus, both in the moment and over the course of weeks and months.

Now that I'm relatively comfortable letting my mind wander, one of my favorite things to do is sit in my back yard and hear the sounds of nature getting louder the longer I sit. Remaining still, like that, more birds perch in my proximity, or hunt for food in the grass not far from my feet. Perhaps even squirrels and rabbits surface. Unbeknown to me, I had sent the fauna fleeing, but as I remain still, it slowly creeps back into action around me.


Necessities

Despite the value of these inwardly and outwardly focused times and spaces, there are other values in life. Protecting the integrity and direction of one's focus is not the only need among humanity. Far from it. That's why lovers or friends answer each other even though they're occupied with something else or letting their minds wander. Someone could be in the middle of a literal or figurative war zone or mission that's critical to millions of people. So, humans can't always be either focusing deeply or letting their minds wander.

Nonetheless, externally informed (more subconscious?) and externally informed (more conscious) uninterrupted flow of thought should be its own commodity in the market of our life, but, yes, to the extent we can fend off the pressures of our circumstances and histories.


#Listening, #speaking, #reading, #writing, & #love as #values

It's an honor for a person if the fruit of their focus were of value to others, for sure. I'll get to you in a moment Richard Feynman. But the motive of public approval competes with the motive to be honest or innovative, the only means of doing anything noteworthy.

I want to hear others' inner voices. Those voices well be responses, in some way, to others or situations, naturally. We don't speak or write in a vacuum. But there's not much need for rote, unprocessed reiterations, or the clichés that come from saying what we think someone wants to hear, or choir banter from any brand of partisan news or so called commentary. Hard to undo that behavior. That requires a speaker or writer to believe in their own voice, and it benefits from being fully present.

The caveat is that when what you love changes, you change. And no one is perfect. We have to join the stream of emotional and intellectual achievements of others.

We don't all have to be Feynman. An interviewer asked him what sort of person he can have an intellectual, engaging talk with. At first, he said he couldn't really have a fascinating discussion, where there'd be mutual understanding, with someone whose work is outside the sciences. Then, he reversed himself. He said, no, I can talk with anyone, from any field, so long as they've taken their subject as far as possible. I'm loosely paraphrasing from an interview titled Fun to Imagine on YouTube.

Feynman then runs through his own journey in physics. He describes how he puzzled out the answer to a scientific question only to find out it had been discovered centuries prior. He'd then "discover" (in the Columbus sense) a whole other scientific explanation, only to, again, find it had been discovered prior, though more recently than the earlier discovery. He worked his mind through a series of prior discoveries, and coming to understand each to the level of the original discoverer of historical note, and in the same progression as unfolded historically. One scientist picking up where the other had left off, until . . . drum roll, please . . . Feynman was making discoveries he couldn't find written anywhere, because he was the first: the discoverer.

I'm sure Feynman was cordial with everyone, but for him to really be fascinated by conversation, what he settled on, is that he needed to chat with someone who pushed the edge of their field or endeavor. Whatever it is they pried from where it was stuck, by God, their discovery amounted to scaling the highest mountain and then publicly adding to it's peak.

But we're not all going to be that accomplished. We can't hold ourselves against that scale; that's maybe what causes some people not to do do what they need to do in order to be healthy and strong and to pull off amazing things even of very small proportions. But I say a relatively small accomplishment is fantastic. Kurt Vonnegut thought so, and it was not worrying about his legacy, ironically, that helped him to write the books he's famous for. Moreover, during the journey Feynman had been on prior to adding to the peak of quantum mechanics (i.e., before doing anything distinctly new) he was already a light in the world of human thought and psychology.

That's something we can all be, and yet each individual is unique, without any absolute duplication. Each person resides in their own untold flow of time and space, meanwhile influencing everyone around them. The friends and family plan of importance, employing our limited individual resources in fewer missions, and one at a time.

We ought to give ourselves the greatest potential of achieving fulfillment, a sense of purpose, self-esteem. Trying to take on everything that shows up in the churning news cycle is submissive of the consumer in that noteworthiness is a commodity, not a matter more purely of true relevance. Further, it burdens the consumer with streams of problems, absurdities, contradictions, and lies they have little influence over. All the way back in the 80s, Neil Postman made that argument (among others) about TV as a medium of communication. Hari, Newport, and others are telling us the internet must be wielded even more cautiously than TV, as it was known before the two began to merge.

That's not to disparage the internet or global awareness or civic duty. It's just a matter of us not succumbing to streams of information to the point it bleeds us of the energy, motivation, and the ability to be alone with our thoughts.


The books and specifics

I've compiled an informal annotated bibliography of related materials, and I'm adding to it as I continue to read and think about these topics.


Renewal in focal power

For as long as this lasts, my mind feels, relatively, more cohesively powerful. I think my motivation has increased, too, along with better attention to cultivating new and existing human relationships. Perhaps, though, I'm only riding a bubble, like when you've come back from an adventurous trip.

The ride is worth it for what you bring back home for yourself and others. As time passes, there's something kept in storage, but the permeating sense of edification is gone. Pressures of life and my own weaknesses could lead to such regression. I don't know. And I would have said I was happy if you had asked me before the events that provided me the opportunity to reshape myself, at least for this time.

My life has been pretty simple for a number of years. I traverse between work, home, and a community center I visit once or twice a week. If I go out for fun, it's usually a restaurant, park, or beach. And I've never had my nose in mobile tech like I see some people do. I held out on getting a smart phone till 2020, so I lived whole lot more life without one than with. And I had given up television in the 90s. But, then, TV followed me onto the computer, which is the device I overuse if I'm going to overuse one.

I spent tremendous time alternating between flitting through various websites and getting bits of work done. If I had an epiphany or inspired idea, I would jot it down on one of my to-do lists for a vague future that presumably would include the wherewithal to make good on that fleeting bit of insight. I have heaps of such notes and many I've thrown away, mostly because when I write down an insight, the amount of language I imagine will be necessary to remind me is always far less than the reality.

And the work I'd do at home for my employer would take a long time since it was peppered with what I considered anesthetic: cat videos, top ten lists, comedy news, seasons of shows I'd watch five minutes at a time. Or there were channels I'd watch for the way the person talks. I also like quick dives into serious topics with bits of theoretically useful knowledge I forget by the time the video is over.

None of that media is bad and I still look at them. But I had been going in and out of times where I'd let streaming, news, and social media occupy and direct me. Submission to algorithms cannot be the height of humanity.

I don't offer to tell you the events that refreshed my lifestyle and helped me to give important matters the focus they deserve, at least temporarily . . . we'll see how long it lasts. What I can share is my description of the effects and how the change makes me feel.

Instead of work-watching until it's too late not to go to bed, I'm finding more time for other things, like materializing purposeful creativity I had postponed, reading what I really need to be reading, cleaning/organizing/throwing away/repurposing, and, of course, edifying relationships. I can somewhat dubiously imagine certain literary folk finding that rather ordinary. But, my case is just an example. There could be any number of ventures or processes that a person could need to do in order to be whole, and which are being disrupted by too constant a whirring combination of tech and touch contexts. Each person has their own means or terms for what needs their undivided attention.

Regardless what it's called, some of us have forgotten that state of being, or never lived that way to know it exists, or life is too chaotic to find a time to sit still and focus on what our innermost selves would like to create, fix, or accomplish.

Yes, a person has to be selfish, to some extent. Zero selfishness is a waste of generosity because if we don't prioritize some time for quietude and some time for uninterrupted external focus, there's only so much we can do for anyone. I say, if you can manage to have a healthy heart, then honoring your heart's need is to apply your best self to everything you're connected with among humanity. It's something to aspire to, anyway.

Simply and commonly stated, we can't help each other if we don't take care of ourselves. Yet, a person feels inclined to forgo some of their personal needs in order to be generous or merciful with a child, friend, or lover . . . perhaps sacrificing for a total stranger. Sacrifices are made by force and pressure, too, socially, professionally, nationally, and, perhaps most prolific, economically.

But, for many of us, there are alternate ways of getting time for our dreams without taking it from our loved ones. Probably—and I believe definitely—not giving some time to our dreams and not giving some time to our brains just to sort things out, reduces our whole being and what we have to give ourselves and each other. Time to contemplate and act upon your dreams is not categorically selfish. And, perhaps, our dreams turn out to be a service to others, on a level we can effect with time donated between a salad of short-form videos, texts, nearly-impossible to curate effectively infinite-scroll social media, etc.

In my case, writing is one of those things I need to give a nice piece of time and space to in order to be my best. It helps me fix things, like making my thoughts easier to settle into and figure out. In turn, that helps me in all parts of life.

I also write in various manners for pleasure and for work. I consider audience in the rhetorical senses, and I'd like to say that's an important type of generosity if it's of the sort aimed at either peace or necessary justice. Even as I put down these very words, I hope I'm not wasting your time. Vonnegut, a prolific writer, is a champion of doing the art that makes you feel good, i.e., not to impress. And that's how he allowed himself the space to produce so many beloved novels. Humility is freeing, and also sometimes fleeting.

Regardless, there are varied potentials across humanity—ideas and clever deeds, small and large—being held back by lack of uninterrupted time to psychologically move toward their materialization. The good things that take peace and quiet to accomplish are limitless. But to do something well requires concentration we're out of the habit of making room for.

And, yet, it's so much easier to do one thing at a time! Which is why, despite better performance, the effect can induce humility. We find out that we weren't as clever as we thought we were when we were multi-tasking. We can't do what we thought we could. That's simplest way to put it.

We have to face that we cannot weave several things together and maintain unbroken focus. We can't simultaneously divide our focus and we can't achieve peak focus on a task in short intervals.

It's clear to me, now, that, deep down, I had been missing something about myself, lost in a pace of life whereby I did things in swipes. How inelegant. I wasn't maturing as I had prior. I had been stale, occasionally unsure if I was myself or who me is. Put that way, it sounds serious, doesn't it? But I get the sense it's common.

Again, I won't bore you with the details of how I was afforded the luxury of escaping that routine. Those around me know because they had to. I'm just very happy and grateful for that aspect of my journey as of late, and I hope I can carry some good from these moments while they last.


Regaining childhood wonder

Pictured is the last iteration of a series of castles I built long prior to involvement with the internet, and much longer still before owning a smart phone. During my childhood, every six months or so, I'd tear the castle down and build it over a new way. I was engrossed. Lately, I've felt long surges of that same laser-beam focus. It's like going back in time, and yet my purposes are more mature, I hope.


#MichaelSikkema #JohannHari #CalNewport #RichardFeynman #KurtVonnegut #BarbaraOakley #BruceFeiler #focus #productivity #SelfActualization #fulfillment #balance #dreams #hopes #SelfCare #flow #flowstate #deepwork #DigitalMinimalism #addiction #media #stimulus #fomo #smartphone #GenerationZ #UniFocus #sustainedfocus #uninterrupted #interruption #news #media #internet #algorithm #attention #ADHD #tiktok #SocialMedia #childhood #wonder #multitasking

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