Ebb and Flow

Our minds wander.

It's actually hard to hold our attention on one thing. In some contexts this is powerfully useful. You want the operator of the car you're in to be alert to what's in front, and also to the car alongside drifting too close, the animal about to leap from the side of the road, and the cement truck coming up fast from behind. While that's going on, you want them to track they're getting off at Exit 23, it's 12 miles away, at this rate of traffic flow, you'll be there in 15 minutes, then you need to go right, proceed for four traffic lights, then go left, and so on.

And our minds still wander when we think we need our attention on one thing: the contract you're reviewing, the presentation you're preparing, the blogpost you're writing.

But even when we think we're doing just one thing -- like solving a math problem in an exam -- it may require our minds linking to a classroom demonstration of the problem, a homework session on it, and maybe a previous quiz. That search outside the narrow context of our immediate next action can be richly generative to the task at hand.

Our minds are meant to move just as our bodies are. Try to stand on your toes for an indefinite period, and you'll find your feet wandering. We admire the artist's model holding a pose and the guards at attention at Buckingham Palace precisely because it's unusual and difficult.

Harvard researchers, Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found, “stimulus-independent thought” or “mind wandering” appears to be the brain’s default mode of operation.

Notwithstanding wandering is what our minds do, and that doing is powerful and useful; it doesn't feel so when you're thinking about the tax deadline upcoming, the embarrassing mistake you made yesterday, and how much you really want lunch. Killingsworth and Gilbert found us unhappy when we're caught thinking about what we're not doing.

While we won't stop our minds from wandering, we can learn to hold a mental pose.

First, do you know how long you can hold your attention? Next time you want to be single minded, when you begin your task, note the time you start. Then note the time you first catch your mind drifting. Now, focus again on your task. When you catch yourself spending more energy trying to hold your attention than you are doing your primary task, note the time again and quit. You've just captured your baseline for your attention.

Sample a few more tasks to establish an average, but it's usually pretty consistent. Now, like the artist's model, hold the mental pose, take a break to reset; hold the pose, take a break to reset.

You're thinking about what you're not doing because you're trying to impose your will on your own mind. But your mind is what you need to impose that will, and it's tired. Are you seeing the flaw in the system?

Measure your attention and roll with its ebb and flow. You'll spend more productive time thinking about what you're doing.

It will make you happier :)

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