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December 16, 2017

What I learned about focus in 10 days of silence

If you could have one superpower, which one would you pick? For me, it is the ability to keep focused on whatever I do, and I believe that this would make me a better friend, learner, and leader. Yet, the times my mind goes on auto-pilot, wandering around without me even noticing, are countless. I review the grocery list, contemplate about random incidents and mostly overthink my friend’s recent comment regarding something I care about. 
Although the Vipassana meditation retreat that I joined did not change much about this, I became more aware of my drifting mind. In fact, experiencing a restless mind in a silent meditation hall allowed me to identify what triggers distraction and how to find control.[1]

Vipassana meditation 101

Vipassana is an ancient Indian meditation technique that relies on self-observation. The method, as taught by S.N. Goenka, promises to improve personal well-being by practising equanimity (a combination of self-control and indifference) towards any physical, mental and emotional discomfort. To remain aware of the present moment, meditators observe their body sensations and resist the urge to react. When mastered, the technique allows you to observe elusive needs such as cravings for chocolate, alcohol or affection, without reacting and without suffering.
Vipassana is taught in 10-day residential courses that are free of charge. Participants commit to a strict meditation schedule and a moral code that prohibits all interaction with the other participants, as well as any form of reading, writing or physical activity. These rules aim to avoid unnecessary agitation of the mind that would prevent the meditator to progress. 

Physical distraction

My first learning sounds almost too simple to mention: If I feel comfortable, my mind does too. Whenever our nose itches, stomach rumbles or feet fall asleep, our mind gets agitated by the urge to minimise discomfort. Have you ever tried to come up with a brilliant thought when your pants were tight, and feet felt cold? Have you ever wondered why physical exercise becomes much easier while watching TV? There is evidence for a connection between physical comfort and focus showing that our body feels actual pain as a reaction to mental stress. Mind-wandering helps us to distract from that discomfort. 
Hence, we can already improve focus by wearing comfortable clothes, keeping a pleasant room temperature and keeping our surrounding tidy. We can also control our auditory environment to maintain focus, but, to my surprise, total silence is less beneficial than expected: 

“Instead of total silence, the ideal work environment for creative work has a little bit of background noise. That’s why you might focus really well in a noisy coffee shop, but barely be able to concentrate in a noisy office.”

David Burkus, HBR, 10/2017

Research has shown that we can better concentrate on some background noise or sounds as long as our brain considers them either irrelevant or stimulating.[2] 

Mental distraction

Besides physical distraction, we lose focus due to mental distraction, mainly caused by uncertainty. During the retreat, a single incidence drew my attention away over days. Only once, the kitchen had miscalculated the portions and run out of the main dish. Knowing that this would be my last meal until breakfast, I noticed an increased heartbeat and tried not to react with frustration, in vain. The following days, it was uncertainty that kept me distracted: Will there be enough food today? Shall I leave earlier be the first to queue? 
Similar situations of uncertainty distract us from being in the moment on a daily basis. Whenever we fear to miss a flight or await our friend’s reply, our mind starts worrying and wandering. As a result, we feel stressed or upset and lose focus. 
To avoid mental distraction, we can prepare by doing four things: [3] 
  • Remain realistic about the concentration span: plan for short sprints of high-focus and small rewards during regular breaks.[4]
  • Empty the mind onto a list to which we add any unrelated thought that comes up during focus-time. We will review the list at a later moment.
  • Think of actionable “what if”-alternatives or worst-case scenarios before the focus-time: What will I do if I miss that flight? What is the worst thing that can happen if I do miss it?
  • Reduce uncertainty by planning: research exact departure times, meeting points and traffic conditions, set reminders and activate automatic alerts (e.g. announcing flight delays).

Emotional distraction 

To me, it is the emotional distraction that is most difficult to handle as it manifests in over-thinking loops that eventually affect my self-confidence. Someone’s action, a small gesture or comment, can trigger fears of feeling judged or rejected. Moreover, despite Vipassana prohibiting any contact between participants, my mind still found reasons to worry about the reaction of a roommate or the look of a peer. 
In our daily lives, triggers for over-thinking loops are numerous. An uncountable number of times we check our devices, hoping for a message and ending up in doubt, feeling hurt or sad because of unmet expectations. As a reaction, we either over-think or seek distraction. Meditation practice is a useful tool that teaches us to deal with discomfort by accepting it and acknowledging that it will pass. And, it will. 

“Instead of total silence, the ideal work environment for creative work has a little bit of background noise. That’s why you might focus really well in a noisy coffee shop, but barely be able to concentrate in a noisy office.”

David Burkus, HBR, 10/2017

Alternatively, studies have shown that if we verbalise our negative thoughts, we can overcome their distracting power. Alice Walton suggests in her article to keep a journal, talk to a friend or therapist or change the rhetoric of what we are telling ourselves. Following this last strategy, the thought “She dislikes me” would turn into the almost absurd observation “I am having a thought that she dislikes me.” and hence, become easier to observe without grief.
Personally, I deal with emotional distraction by reminding myself of how self-centred I am acting. In his cartoon, Tim Urban describes the inner dialogue of an over-thinker who suffers from feelings of guilt, shame and regret after his friend did not reply to an email within the expected delay. The story ends with the friend responding that he had been out of town. I laughed myself to tears because I could relate so much to that over-thinker. Reflecting on how I deal with incoming messages, I realise that I usually don’t spend much time reading between the lines. So, why would I expect that someone else does? When ‘they’ don’t answer our messages, we feel rejected, but when we do not reply immediately, we expect ‘them’ to understand. Reminding myself of this puzzle helps me observing silly thoughts and laughing at myself. Have you tried?

The nutshell to take home

Although we usually blame our digital devices and social media for diverting our attention, I experienced a restless mind despite the absence of external sources of distraction during a silent meditation retreat. During that experience, I identified three internal triggers of distraction that we can control: physical, mental and emotional sources of distraction.
We can reduce physical distraction by avoiding discomfort in our body and environment. Since mental distraction is triggered by uncertainty, we can increase focus through a keen preparation of high-focus sprints and a reliable todo-list. Finally, we get emotionally distracted when we over-think. With regular meditation practise, we learn how to stop reacting to negative thoughts. Other techniques, such as the verbalisation of our fears or their relativisation will reduce the distractive power and allow our minds to rest.

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[1] Such a silent meditation retreat can be considered as an extreme form of the digital detox I described in the earlier post “If your productivity is down: Save the data and reboot the system!”.

[2] Certain sounds and namely beta-waves support our ability to find flow in what we do. Check MyNoise for free streaming of various soundtracks or explore Spotify for ‘Beta Wave’ playlists.

[3] At this point, let me remind you of the “knowing-doing gap”: knowing what we should be doing does not mean that we will be doing it. Implementing new routines requires effort and planning and could be the topic of another article. In the meantime, you will find inspiration from Michael Bungay-Stanier or James Clear.

[4] Personally, I started working with the Pomodoro method after having practised this during weekly virtual coworking sessions offered by the Amsterdam women entrepreneurs’ club (thank you @Janine Beck and @Marja Godvliet!).