Focus, Humanity, and You

Supposedly, from last time, we filled out my mini-questionnaire and we now have some idea of what we want to do. It’s funny, but a meditation app I am using asked me similar questions though in their case it was in order to find our values. The idea in the app is that to be happy we need to know what we value. I am struck again by how easy it is to be estranged from ourselves. And it might be worth wondering if that estrangement must be overcome to use our time well. Is this a false notion?

Let’s assume it’s not. Let’s assume it is useful to know who we are and what we’re doing. In reaction to the last post, one reader told me that she couldn’t even fill out the list. That she didn’t have goals. Now this person is, in my mind, far from goal-less. She has lots of goals for the day, but maybe part of the issue is the horizon of her goals. Servan-Schreiber discusses the horizon as fairly far away, but this reader’s horizon is near-by. No great vistas of decades for her but instead, something really useful: how to live a day well. Does that invalidate/devalue her in the Servan-Schreiber economy of time and insight? Maybe. But that’s not what we’re after here.

So let’s switch gears and approach time from a different angle. Let’s turn from France in the 1980s to America in 2017. Let’s turn to Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness and see what they have to say about insight and time. Must we have insight in order to use our time, or can the better use of time, the better practice of focus, perhaps lead us to those insights about what we want to do? How we want to spend our life/time? Today, then, we flip the equation and look at some techniques for using time well, for accomplishing things, and for finding focus, hoping that that, in turn, might free us up to consider ourselves again.

In part, when I bought The Art of Time way back when in Ackerman Union, I was hoping that it would reveal some secret of productivity. That’s probably the same impulse that lead me to pick it up again, as well as to pick up Peak Performance. What, of course, The Art of Time asks us to consider is why, how, and what we do. Now, to be fair to Peak Performance, they, too, subscribe to the wisdom of knowing ourselves, of what we want to do. But part of what is so interesting is that for them, they begin with the immediate: the feeling of stress. They discuss how stress itself is far from bad, that, indeed, we do better when we stress ourselves. Athletes run further and faster. Thinkers improve. Musicians improve. It’s not practice as much as a particular kind of practice, one that asks us to push ourselves past what we think we can do. They cite several studies that discover that in fact stress is what helps us learn and grow.

They take down the demon of stress. But if you’re pretty sure there is no way to shove even more work into your life, do not despair. That’s not what they are advocating. They want stress and then rest. It is the rest that allows the alchemy of stress to improve you: improve your focus and improve your performance. Thinking that you can simply work a bit more, scrunch on the unimportant sleep, in fact stops your ability to capitalize on the stress you have experienced.

So, one take away is stress is good? YES. But with the pairing of rest. Note that rest is not only sleep, rest is a break of some sort. Much of the back end of their book deals with figuring out what a good routine might be for you, and it is there that the two books dovetail. Very unfortunately, both books require a certain amount of introspection.

There’s a reasonable chance you might be reading this post on a phone. If so, bad news awaits you. Both books ask us to do less with the promise of achieving more (and, just to harp on this a bit more, this is why we need to know who we are and what we want to do. I’ll return to this point at the end of this post). This do-less-to-achieve-more happens because of focus. The first part of the book discusses people who focus more because they stress themselves. So, peak performance comes from stress, from just barely managing to do something, from rest, and from relentless focus when engaged in the task. Focus, they assert, requires some regularity. The end of the book discusses how to work out one’s optimal routine. Their organization depends on convincing us that stress is not bad, but useful, not only for the individual, but for the species. But what is bad is not being able to focus fully, to be absorbed fully in a task. This kind of deep focus deepens learning and is joyful.

You know what’s coming, don’t you?

The antithesis of focus is the life many of us live. I’m writing this on my laptop. My sleeping dog is providing a comforting soundtrack of deep-sleep breathing, but beside me, turned upside down, is my phone, set on silent, but buzzing away as texts show up. This is exactly not what they advocate. Focus — deep, significant focus — depends on putting the phone away. As in in a drawer and not buzzing. Upside down does not help. By now it is a commonplace that the buzzing of a text has the same effect on the brain as the taking of certain drugs. We are programmed by the phone to want the sound of the phone. Put my way, not theirs, when we put down — and away — our phones, we take back that which makes us human: our ability to focus, and in that focus we might discover breakthroughs of ideas or techniques or creativity. Focus, fellow humans, is very satisfying.

In some sense, then, as they put it, to be a maximalist — to get all we can out of our lives — we must cut out the distraction. We must be a minimalist — or our version of a minimalist.

Now, I’m wondering if the reluctance to put down the phone is the same reluctance we have to deal with significant questions that challenge us. Focus is a push in some ways to the inside, past the membrane of “I don’t really care,” past the web of defenses known as disengagement, or, for the witty among us, a kind of ironic detachment. Being a minimalist to be a maximalist (their useful phrase that doesn’t quite run lightly off the tongue) asks us to engage that which is worth focusing on. What, then, if we’re not quite sure what that is?

And it is here that I return us to the questions from last week and my friend who, delusionally, thinks of herself as goal-less. I have heard from others who share her despair, who can’t answer the question of what they want to focus on, and why. For my friend with the near-by horizon there are activities that push her, that stress her, and then she naturally alternates with “rest” activities. So, I am suggesting that even if we do not quite know what it is we want to “do,” we might know some activities that engage us, that allow the satisfaction of focus. Perhaps the focus will in turn suggest other activities that we might want to perform. The key here, then, is the experience of focus, and then the recognition of what ideas the act of focusing itself might have on us. Peak Performance advocates stress, rest, and focus. I am advocating focus and reflection as a kind of rest: just notice what that focus felt like and be curious about it.

But to even get there, we need to be willing to risk the act of focus and let go of not only of detachment but of the myth of multitasking. Focus requires we show up as we are with only ourselves and our equipment and our idea. Your grammable desk is not the object.

What you do there is the object. Multitasking, then, is another form of disengagement: we think we’re doing a lot, but really not only are we doing nothing well — Peak Performance tells us it makes us “worse at filtering out irrelevant information, slower at identifying patterns, and have worse long-term memories” (59). When we multitask, we are refusing the dive into the clear? murky? terrifying? (insert the adjective of your choice) pool of ourselves. Multitasking and phone distraction indicate our anxiety about what it means to be human in the 21st century.

That’s a rather bold, rather broad claim. What I mean is that who we are is often shown, performed for others, whereas focus asks us to perform for ourselves. Phone away, browser tabs shut down, and the screen placed in some form of Focus view, or, another alternative, shorts on, earbuds in, at the start of your running route — these are the places where we can exceed who we are. This is a place of immense power. It is self-made. And for most of us, it is almost limitless. Even if you decide you’re a dilettante, not really doing anything worthwhile, you can still become curious about the difference between deer and antelope or what, exactly, grapheme really is. The focus on what you want to focus on satisfies us on a deep, deep level.

Now, speaking as a recovering perfectionist, focus does not guarantee perfection, but combined with stress and pushing our limits, it does guarantee you will understand more about yourself and how you work. The experience of focus actually removes us from time — that’s its transformative effect — and that transport? Well, maybe that is how we back into knowledge of ourselves.

And just for the record, in the spirit of being honest. Here are my answers to last week’s questions:

A) What did you want to do? And why? (If you choose old ideas, name the age when you began to have the desire)

· Be a jet fighter pilot — 9 — because it seemed so exciting, and it was challenging, and you get to go very fast, and practice landing on an aircraft carrier.

· Be an author — 5?6?-18?20? — wanted to tell stories. Liked walking home with kids and telling stories, wild stories, in serial form.

· Be an actor — 13? or be a director — 23 — the power of getting people to believe something, plus the social influence side, the power of movies to transform thought.

· Work in Advertising — 11–24?: the scale of influence, very exciting.

· Be a constitutional lawyer arguing in front of the supreme court 11–21(don’t judge me — these are aspirational goals, yes?). Influence plus social change and the need for knowledge and quick thinking.

Editorial comment here: there seems to be clear line of interest.

B) What have you done? Again, note down an age.

School, school, and more school. From about 4, not including nursery school, through graduate school and a Ph.D, and then becoming a professor. B1) I like introducing people to things. I like discussions of ideas and close reading. I like the power of writing. I like the diversity of views in a classroom.

B2) Don’t like — the rigid schedule, the increased rigidity with rubrics and so on. The loss of the essential sprezzatura of life. The overlords and the micro-managing.

Note, within B answer B1) What did you like and why did you like it? and B2) What did you not like, and why did you not like it? Be specific here: not “all school sucked” but course X or Y sucked because of __________.

C) What haven’t you done that you thought you wanted to do? (again, jot down an age)

I wanted to make a change in the world. I wanted to put myself out there and risk. And I haven’t done that. At least not directly. I would like to have some guts and take some risks about exposing myself. I want to learn more languages and challenge myself [end of answers].

So the final sentence is vague and too fluffy. I could be harsh and call it goal-less, but instead I’ll leave it as it is. Maybe the solution lies in the topic of this post. For the rest of the week, when I work, the phone will be . . . off. As in not even on. We’ll see what I decide to focus on and how it feels. Give it a shot yourself. Bread making? Ok! Be fully in. An article to write. Yes. Delve deep. Planning a vacation? Focus. Training . . . for a run, for the joy of it. Engage deeply. And then don’t forget — find some sort of rest, some sort of break.

Push away the mediation and live your life by fully focusing, even if done in 30-minute sessions.

Live the opportunity of your humanity.